“Posters hung on building walls
Of missing faces.
Months go by without the cause,
The clues, or traces.”
Tim talked well.
He was good at this smart rich kid thing, Jason noted, particularly because it was more than just an act. Of all of them, Tim was the one who had spent his whole life in the kind of environment that one expected to produce a kid fitted to be Bruce Wayne’s son. No, that’s wrong, he thought. They were all that, but Tim was just good at this particular part.
His brother was presenting the new Park Row Housing Project. From the platform he talked about how it would benefit all the people who lived in the East End, encouraging everyone to get involved. He wanted him up there with him, Jason knew, but he was just not good at these kinds of things. Besides no matter how well meaning Tim was, it would just look like a stereotypical rags-to-riches story, and he didn’t want people looking at him anymore sideways than they already tended to do. Even more than that he didn’t want to be anyone’s personal hero.
So he hung back in the crowd, leather jacket and plain clothes making him blend well. All the attention was on Tim anyway, and it didn’t hurt to keep an eye out. He’d heard about the assassination attempt, the one where M’gann M’orzz had masqueraded as Tim and safely took the bullet for him. But that was one they’d known about in advance. Sometimes life as Bruce Wayne’s children was only marginally safer than Batman’s protégées. One never knew when there was an idiot with a gun around the corner.
He didn’t begin to make his way towards the stage until Tim finished and the crowd applauded. A few heads did turn, but Jason ignored them. His brother was smiling.
“Pretty good, huh?” Tim said when he climbed the steps two at a time.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. “Might even get some of them to listen.”
He was skeptical about the projects. All good intentions aside, people – including the Wayne family and not just of the current generation – had tried to make a difference before, and had barely put a dent in the poverty on the East End. But Tim was nothing of not persistent. It seemed like everyone who lived in the area had come out to see this. It didn’t hurt that the teen had wisely chosen a Saturday morning when even most of those that had work didn’t to do this presentation. Good idea, but the lack of sleep after a night of patrol was making Jason grumpy. His brother just laughed.
“Okay, I get the hint. You’re not a morning person.”
He would have quoted Bruce and pointed out that bats were nocturnal, but with so many people around, Jason just made a face. “I should be sitting on the couch in my boxers, eating cereal, and watching Saturday morning cartoons.”
Tim gave him a dubious look. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you do that, but since you’re so crabby, lets go get some breakfast. Food usually cheers you up.”
That course of action Jason liked. They turned and just made their way down the platform steps when an older woman blocked their way. She was portly with gray hair and light brown eyes. Jason thought she looked familiar, but it wasn’t until she started talking that he really remembered where he knew her from.
“I thought that was you,” the woman waged a finger. “As I live and breath, Jason Todd. Last time I saw you has got to be half a decade ago. How’ve you been?”
Jason smiled. “Hi, Mrs. Walker. This is my brother, Tim.” He turned to the teen. “Tim, this is Mrs. Walker. She’s... was a friend of... my mom’s.”
Even in the split second it took, he could still see the wheels in Tim’s head turning, almost like a puzzle being solved. He must have been thinking, Mom? Wasn’t Jason’s mom... oh... oh! Tim plastered on a grin and stuck out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“That’s right.” The woman snapped her fingers as if she’d only just remembered. “Bruce Wayne took you both in. Is it Jason Wayne now?”
“Yup,” he confirmed, because he really did like that.
The woman smiled. “I guess that answers how you’ve been.”
Not even close, Jason thought, but it definitely helps. Out loud he said, “Tim and I were just about to grab breakfast. Why don’t you join us? Is Manny’s still open?”
“One of the only places that is. Somehow made it through the quake and managed to reopen after the NML. Probably have your old man to thank for that too.”
Probably. “As long as they make the same food, I don’t care. Come on. We can catch up.Our treat, Mrs. Walker.” She looked like she was about to protest, but he shook his head. “How many times did I eat over at your place, huh?”
The diner was only two blocks away, so they started walking with Mrs. Walker leading. Jason hung back a step with Tim. It was a measure of instinct to walk beside him, even in the bright daylight, even in civilian clothing. It was a bad neighborhood, and he was his brother as well as his partner. Inside the diner was different, and Jason felt it was due only in part to the rebuilding. Sometimes his memory played tricks on him, like a corrupted hard drive which the reboot that was his little dip in the Lazarus Pit hadn’t quite fixed. Next to him, Tim eyed the place curiously, and when they say down in a booth table, Mrs. Walker on one side and the two of them on the other, he grinned at the teen.
“The short order cook there used to make the best breakfast platters; fried eggs, bacon, sausage, ketchup, two pancakes, and maple syrupy. All for less than five bucks.” Tim clearly tried to look enthusiastic, but it came off more like pained. Jason gave him a small scowl. “Hey, Mr. Judgmental, that’s pretty damn good when five bucks is all you have.”
“I’m totally non-judgy,” Tim protested. “But I think I’ll just stick to pancakes.”
“Suit yourself,” Jason shrugged. “I’m having the whole thing.”
“You’ll be sick later.” Tim pointed out.
“Oh, hi, Alfred! I didn’t see you there.” His brother rolled his eyes at him. “Yup, I’ll be sick, but that’ll be later. Right now I’m gonna be happy and enjoy it.”
Mrs. Walker was smiling, no doubt thinking something along the lines of, “Aww, isn’t that cute?” They ordered and sat back waiting for the food. Jason took the initiative and answered her earlier question, talking a little about the few mundane parts of his life. Tim filled in some pieces with some colorful white lies. He really was much better at this than him. Mrs. Walker just smiled and listened, until the topic switched to her.
“Actually,” she looked a little uncomfortable, “there was a reason I wanted to get in touch with you, Jason. Do you remember Shana? Girl who lived a few floors below yours, a couple years older. She used to babysit you and a couple other kids when you were real young.”
Jason tried to recall, brought up only a blurry image. “Vaguely.”
“Well, she got into some bad stuff.” Mrs. Walker cast a questioning glance to Tim, who took the hint.
“I’ll be right back,” the teen rose. “Nature’s calling.”
He was gone in less than a second, and the woman turned her attention back to Jason. “Sorry ‘bout that. Figured you didn’t want him hearin’ this stuff. Anyway, Shana’s boyfriend got her into drugs and everything that followed. Real shame.”
“Yeah,” Jason said a little absently.
“But then she had her little girl,” Mrs. Walker went on. “And that did the trick, you know. She got clean, got a job, was a great mom and everything.”
“Good for her.”
He knew he didn’t sound like he meant it, but he really did. Of course he was happy someone managed to turn their life around for their kid, but Jason still found it hard to sympathize with addicts, even former ones. Mrs. Walker pressed her lips together, as if she was considering how to say what she wanted to next.
“About two days ago, her daughter, Leah, went missing.” Jason raised his chin slightly, and the woman held up her hands. “She told the police, and they just said they’ll look into it. You know that means squat ‘round here.”
“I know.” He agreed. Things and people tended to just disappear in the East End. One minute they’d be there, and the next minute gone. “I’m... sorry for her, Mrs. Walker, but what does that have to do with me?”
It might have been an odd statement considering what his and his family’s extracurricular activities, but that was as the Red Hood. As Jason, his job was to feign ignorance, no matter how much he hated it. But Mrs. Walker was a determined woman. She didn’t look like she was about to let him go until she said what she wanted to say.
“Everyone knows you Waynes have connections inside Batman Inc.. Your adopted father sponsors him, doesn’t he? I was wondering if...”
“If I could ask Batman to look into a missing kid?” He asked as if the request was as ludicrous as Mrs. Walker must have thought it was. “He’s Batman, not our personal bodyguard or mercenary or anything like that.”
Mrs. Walker sighed. “I figured as much.” She rose to leave, and then Jason really felt bad.
“Did she try talking to someone like Gordon or Montoya?”
“You know they have bigger things to worry about in Major Crimes.” The woman didn’t turn. “Just like Batman.”
Okay, now he felt like shit. Tim came back with perfect timing, just as the door of the diner closed behind the woman, and took her seat across the table from Jason. He didn’t have to ask how the conversation went; somehow Jason was sure he’d found a way to overhear the entire thing. But Tim was also not in the habit of giving him much space – he really overindulged the kid – so he spoke before his little brother had a chance to start the interrogation.
“I don’t know how he does it,” he commented absently in a low voice, stabbing the remainder of his pancakes with the fork.
“That... clueless billionaire act. The one where he convinces everyone that he’s an idiot who doesn’t care about anything past the next pretty girl. I can’t do that!”
“You don’t have to,” the teen said calmly. “Anyway, Batman and Gordon might not have time, but we know someone who does, don’t we? Two someones, actually.”
Jason grinned. “So, hey, what are you doing tonight?”
“Funny you should ask. I was sort of thinking I’d hang out with my big brother.”
“Awesome. I’m just gonna assume that’s me since Dick is on Damian duty.”
“Ah, the glamorous assignment!”
* * * * * * * * * *
In Tim’s opinion, Jason really didn’t give himself enough credit.
Actually it wasn’t an opinion. Just a fact. Like how in the field, he now – mostly – managed to keep his temper under control, how he didn’t get too close – normally – to the line, how he – usually – thinks things through. Tim knew one of the reasons his brother preferred to patrol with him was that he thought he couldn’t keep things under control without someone there, but in his opinion that wasn’t true at all.
A little selfish part wouldn’t let him tell Jason that, though. It was still nice to be needed.
“You’re here for moral support.” Jason had told him with a healthy amount of sarcasm as if he didn’t really need it and was just saying the words for Tim’s benefit.
So that’s why he was here now as Red Robin, in the apartment of some girl whose daughter had gone missing. A girl who was about to be roused from sleep and interrogated by the Red Hood. He didn’t really need to be here – the day Jason intentionally hurt a civilian, especially a woman, was the day Bruce brought a fire arm into the field – but his brother had asked for his help, so here he was.
The place was composed of little more than a kitchen, living room, and small bedroom, small but not particularly dingy. There were unwashed dishes in the sink and a hamper of dirty laundry but everything else looked fairly in its place. Tim’s keen eyes noted that these were signs of the tenants recent distress, not long term neglect. All the dishes and utensils came in pairs, and there was bread in the pantry, as well as a box of cereal. The fridge was not empty either, though the expiration date on the milk had past yesterday.
When they found her, the girl was on her bed, apparently sleeping. Her hand was fisted in a soft pink blanket, no doubt her daughter’s. He even spotted a coloring book on the living room table and a stuffed animal. The child who had lived here had obviously been cared for. The other things in the room looked like they belonged to a child about five years of age. She must have had her when she was very young, still in her teens. It made him think of Stephanie.
Jason – the Red Hood – unceremoniously reached for the covers and yanked.
It was not quite the Batman voice, but loud scary enough that the girl jolted awake, scrambling to the head of the bed.
His frame might have almost been large enough to impersonate their father when emerged in shadows, but the absence of a cape was a definite tell. The girl’s sleep-blurred eyes began to adjust, and she reached for the light switch on the side table. Jason aloud it, though his face didn’t look any friendlier when the lights were on. To make her feel just a little better, Tim offered a small smile in her direction. She seemed to relax marginally.
“The red team.” She breathed. Tim saw the corner of his brother’s mouth twitch at the somewhat-affectionate term the citizens of Gotham had dubbed them. “What do you two want?”
“Your daughter.” The Red Hood said simply. “Tell us what you know.”
Though the girl must have spent the last few days crying, she still found it in herself to glare at him. “I told the police everything.”
“And now you’re going to tell us.” He crossed his arms.
She wiped her face. “Batman’s birds busy themselves with a missing kid?”
“With whatever we damn well please,” Jason snapped. Tim could see he was getting agitated. “Tell us what you know.”
She took a breath and looked around. “I... I was working late three days ago. When I came home, the window was broken, and Leah was gone.”
Tim glanced at the bedroom window. There was a a fist-sized jagged hole in it covered with clear tape. He turned to the girl. “Was anything else missing? Money?”
Shana snorted. “What money?”
“Do you have any enemies?” The Red Hood asked. “People you owe money too? Dealers?”
Her face turned hard. “I am not a junkie!”
Before Tim even began to step forward to defuse the situation, Jason venomously shot back, “But you were.”
He reached out and grabbed his brother’s bicep, gloved fingers digging into the leather of his jacket. “We’ll look into it, Miss,” he told the girl with extreme politeness, before tugging on Jason’s arm with more force. In the beginning of their partnership, Tim thought that, okay, maybe he’d have to pull him back once or twice from going over that line with some thug. It had never crossed his mind that he’d have to pull him back from... this!
He gave him room all the way back to the cave, but then the masks were off. Jason was walking in long strides, so Tim had to run to catch up with him. He came around, blocking his way up the stairs to the manor.
“What was that?”
“Investigating.” But Jason was looking past him.
“No! That was...” Tim stammered. “Terrorizing the victim! Since when do we do that?!”
“Since I’m not so sure she’s a victim.”
Tim’s brows disappeared into his hair. “What is this? Twilight Zone version Jason! Who are you and what have you done with my brother?”
That must have hurt, because Jason visibly recoiled. Then his face hardened. He purposefully walked around him and headed up the stairs without another word leaving Tim to just stare after him and wonder what had just happened. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen harsh interrogations before. Batman – Bruce-Batman – was not exactly warm and fuzzy and had a tendency to bulldoze his way to the point, but this was Jason! Jason who was always so outraged that so many victims never received justice. Jason didn’t do this!
Luckily for both of them, Tim had a few tricks up his sleeve as well. Being the third in line, he often found himself comparing himself to the first two. He didn’t have Dick’s combat skills or Jason’s physical strength. He’d been told by almost everyone that he was the smartest of all of them, but Tim wasn’t so sure about that. What he was certain about is that he had at least one thing going for him: tenacity.
When he strode into Jason’s room and plopped himself into the circular hammock-like seat, his brother was just finishing changing into civilian clothes – he should have done it down in the cave, but oh, well. He glared at him, but Tim just tucked his feet under him and smiled innocently, as if the last few minutes had not taken place at all.
“I’m going to sit here until you talk to me.”
“Are you kidding?”
Tim laughed. “You know you usually start cursing when you know you’ve been beaten?”
That earned him another glare. “Any other keen observations from the little detective?”
The teen looked up, feigning deep thought. “Mmm... nope. That’s all I got.”
“Good. Get out.”
“No.” Another glare. “Look, I can sit here until Bruce comes home, and you talk to him, or you can tell me. Up to you.”
“I’m serious. What is it about this one that made you go off the handle? You practically implied that she sold her kid for drugs.”
“We don’t know that she didn’t.” Tim stared at him in disbelief, and Jason crossed his arms. “Go on. Tell me I have issues.”
Boy, do you ever. But that wasn’t different from the rest of them. He decided to take the logical approach. “Your friend, Mrs. Walker, said she cleaned up her act when she had her kid, and I didn’t see anything at all drug-related in that apartment.”
“That means jack.” Jason cut him off. “Lots of junkies are real good at hiding their habit.”
“For five years?” He looked at him dubiously. “That’s a long time to pretend to be clean.”
“So?” His brother shot back. “My mother did it for at least twelve.”
Ah, so now we come to it. “And did she do a very good job of it?” Tim tried to be as gentle as he could when he said it.
Jason gritted his teeth, a sound akin to a snarl escaping from him, then sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He sank down on the bed, arms resting on his thighs.
“You have no idea,” he said softly. “You have no idea what it’s like to be a kid in a place like that, around people who only care about their next fix.”
Tim tensed. Words like that didn’t usually bode the start of a nice rational conversation. More often than not it meant Jason was about to explode again and tell him he knew nothing, having grown up fairly privileged, both with his biological parents and later with Bruce. But his brother must have picked up on the tension. When he looked up at him, his eyes were soft.
“I’m not… accusing you of anything, Timmy. I wouldn’t wish that life, anything that happened to me, on any of you. I’m just saying your optimism might be… misplaced.”
He knew that. Jason could rival Alfred in the protective instincts department. That was one of the reasons Tim knew that no matter how dark things got, he would never slip too far. He cared too much. Even having experienced death already, there was not a shred of doubt in his mind that Jason would step in the path of a bullet for any of them.
“I don’t think it’s so much optimism on my part as pessimism on yours,” Tim said mildly. “Look, why don’t I get started on digging stuff up, and you can take a break. I’ll call you if I find something one way or another.” Jason glared at him half-heartedly. “Oh, as if you don’t boss me around.”
“I’m older. Big brother prerogative.”
“Yeah?” Tim smirked. “Little brother prerogative dictates I’m to be a pain whenever you’re being an idiot.”
Jason threw a pillow at him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tim was actually out when Jason finally woke around noon and dragged himself down to the cave. He wondered where he was until it occurred to him to check his cell where he found a text sent around seven.”
Needed in San Fran for a few hours. Be back tonight. Don’t leave without me.
P.S. Left some research on the computer you might wanna look into.”
“Fantastic,” Jason muttered under his breath. Only in their circles was it possible to say ‘gone to the other side of the country, be back in a few hours.’ The kid really was spread way too thin. One of these days he’d have to use that big brother card for real and order him on a break. It had never worked when Bruce or Dick tried to do it, but that didn’t mean it was not possible. They were partners after all, so the guilt trip of “You’ll get both of us killed if you’re too tired to function in the field” was bound to work wonders.
Jason eyed the computer dubiously. He didn’t really want to look at the research, though he knew he was wasting precious time. Still, it would be hours before Tim returned and hours before it was dark enough to come out and play. His brother had bothered to look everything up and leave it for him practically gift-wrapped. Jason owed it to him to at least skim it.
He attacked the research with an outward-in approach. Being already somewhat familiar with the case, Jason began by checking if there were any similar kidnappings in the area, then in Gotham as a whole, to rule out external factors. He almost hoped it would be something like that; Jason had dealt with child slavers before. There was no indication of that though, so he opened Shana’s file.
Nothing he found surprised him. Drugs, dancing, though not prostitution, and considering she wasn’t in prison or on the streets, it was better than a lot of people in the East End. His attention turned on the boyfriend. Again, nothing terribly interesting. Carter Sanderson, a fairly low level dealer who tried to bite off more than he could chew by taking a cut for a few side-sells. He was bound for either jail or dead – traders didn’t tolerate that kind of double-crossing – but fortunately for him, he ended up with the non-lethal outcome.
So where did the daughter come into all this? Jason leaned back in the seat and gazed up at the screen, staring at the fresh kindergarten photo of a little girl with hair done into two tight neat braids. Clean, smiling, apparently the real kind of happy, not the kind of act a lot of kids in the East End put on just to keep from being taken by social services. It wasn’t hard to remember what that felt like, and Jason unconsciously tried on the fake smile again. Corners of the mouth and lips pulled back... He looked at his face reflected in the computer screen. More like a snarl than a smile.
“What are you doing?” In that same reflective surface, Jason saw Damian’s scowling face. He cleared his own expression and turned to his little brother.
“Doesn’t look like ‘nothing’.” The boy pointed to the computer. “Looks like a case.”
“Yeah, and it’s mine, so butt out.” He should have known better, because Damian looked only more curious.
“Is this what you and Red Robin went out last night for?” the youngest Wayne reached for the consul, but Jason was faster. With the click of a button the screen went dark. The boy’s scowl deepened.
“What’s your problem?” Damian demanded.
“There’s no problem,” Jason snapped. “But if you don’t go away, I’m calling Dad and telling him his demonic brat is interfering with my case.”
It was dangerously close to crossing the line from brotherly squabbling to something truly malicious. In the past, Damian would have surely lashed back with full-on violence. But the boy just crossed his arms and smirked.
Now Jason really wanted to punch him, baby of the family or not. Luckily Dick came jogging down the stairs. Noting his older brother’s gym clothes, Jason finally noticed that Damian was dressed the same way. They were probably going to train here, which means he wasn’t likely to get any peace. He glared at both in annoyance. Huge mansion and the cave, and there was still not enough oxygen to go around. His skin felt itchy.
Dick hadn’t caught the start of the conversation, but he’d obviously picked up on the tension. Meeting his questioning gaze, Jason just gave him a dark look. But the eldest had enough years of playing big brother to such a diverse group of individuals, none of them particularly easy-going except maybe Tim, that he could read the situation without Jason having to say a word.
“Bruce is upstairs,” Dick said casually. “Kitchen, I think.”
Jason might have been annoyed at everyone’s presumption that he had to see his father every time he felt on edge. But it was not entirely unfounded, as Bruce was often a point of stability for him. Besides this was just too good of an opportunity to waste. He grinned at Damian wickedly, all teeth.
“How ‘bout that? Just the person I wanted to see.”
Here's the second half. Enjoy and please review! Back to Deluge in the Wasteland for me :)
He took the stairs out of the cave two at a time, thinking that he would be more rational with some coffee and food in his system anyway. His father was in the kitchen, just as Dick had said, laptop open and a plate with a half-eaten sandwich at his right hand. Jason’s brows furrowed for a moment, but he decided not to ask. Instead he headed for the fridge, greeting Bruce with a nod. The older man looked up from the screen.
“Morning.” The term was used very loosely in their house, not so much indicating the time of day as the point when someone woke up or crawled out of the cave.
“Morning.” Jason put on the coffee and grabbed a bowl to pour the cereal.
“How are you?”
He paused, sliding onto the barstool across from his father. Maybe it wasn’t such a great thing to spill his guts out every time. He was a grown man, after all. Wasn’t it time he started dealing with his problems on his own.
“Okay.” His voice was carefully casual.
Bruce nodded. “Anything you... want to talk about?”
So much for dealing with his own problems. Jason rolled his eyes. “Come on, Dad. I thought the world’s greatest detective could be more subtle than this. Timmy ratted me out, didn’t he?”
Bruce held up both hands. “Your brother just left a note saying he’ll be back in a few hours. Since Tim almost never checks in with me unless I ask first, I figured he was trying to tell me to watch out for something in his absence. And since you’re the person in this house he spends the most amount of time with…”
Jason rolled his eyes again. “Everyone in this family is so fuckin’ nosy.”
“You know you usually start cursing when...”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. So come on, out with it. Let’s have the sage advice.”
The corner of Bruce’s mouth twitched, whether in a smile or sign of annoyance, he didn’t know. “I just wanted to say that I know it’s hard to think logically sometimes when something feels so personal.”
Jason almost said something along the lines of “You sure make it look easy” but managed to back. Heaven knew he’d hurt his father enough with poorly placed, thoughtless words that he never really meant. Bruce must have seen something in his expression though, because he sighed and seemed to take a minute to compose himself.
“I skimmed over what Tim left, and I know what you’re probably thinking. But parents are human too, Jason.” He said finally. “We... make mistakes. Sometimes horrible, seemingly unforgivable ones, but when that happens, as humans, we’d like for our children to forgive and give us a second chance if possible. I don’t know the details of your case, but just keep that in mind throughout your investigations. If it turns out the mother is really responsible, fine, you’ll take care of it, but you have to keep other possibilities open as well.”
Jason understood. Really, he did. But it was hard for his emotions to catch up to the logic of it all. At the very least he had to try for the sake of the little girl. If his theories were clouded, a misstep might leave her in a lot of trouble.
“Are you gonna be around?” He asked his father. “I might need someone to bounce theories off of while Tim’s out.”
Bruce nodded. “That, and anything else you want to talk about. Your parents... any of them...”
“...don’t count unless they go by Bruce Wayne,” Jason cut him off. “Don’t start, Dad, unless you want to talk about your parents, too.”
It was cruel, and he instantly regretted the words, but this time Bruce was smiling.
“No, see, the ‘Dad’ title means I’m morally obligated to deal with your issues before mine.”
“And since there are so many of us, you’re guaranteed to be busy pretty much forever,” Jason concluded. “Convenient.”
“Very. Eat something, and then take a break or look at that research again if you want to, and if you see your brother before I do, tell him I don’t want him in the field until he gets some real rest. Caffeine alone is not a substitute.”
Jason smirked. Hadn’t he just been thinking the same thing earlier? “Does anything ever get past you?”
“That’s where the ‘Batman’ title comes in.”
Funny, Jason thought. When he was a kid, if anyone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have easily answered ‘Batman’. Now? Hey, why limit himself? ‘Batman’ was just one aspect of what his father was, and he wanted to be everything.
“Oh,” he suddenly remembers. “If little D asks, I complained about him notoriously and you said he’s indefinitely band from poking his nose in any of my cases. Just confirm it.”
A single brow went up. “Do I want to know?”
“Probably not. He butted in and stomped his foot, so in my infinite maturity, I called him names. We’re square.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Tim returned to the manor earlier than he’d expected, but the combined might of Bruce and Jason forced him in the direction of his bed instead of the cave as he’d initially intended. He fought them half-heartedly, but neither would budge.
“Six hours,” Bruce said firmly. “No less.”
“Four,” Tim tried.
“Six.” His adoptive father’s expression didn’t crack a millimeter.
“Five,” he gave a little and looked pleadingly at his older brother. “Jay, tell him I’m fine.”
“Hey, don’t look at me, kid,” Jason held up both hands. “I was going to bug you about it too, just didn’t expect to have backup. Look, it’s a little past six now, so we can’t go out for a while anyway. You go sleep, and we can talk about where we’re going on the way into the city, say around midnight? I won’t go without you, I promise.”
“Fine, fine,” Tim sighed and trudged off to up the stairs.
In his room he shrugged out of his jacket, kicked off his shoes, and fell forward onto the bed. Nice, soft mattress… Be up in a second. He was in his room, so technically no one had to know he wasn’t sleeping. His laptop was just on his bedside table. He could reach out and take it.
Tim was asleep before even finishing the thought.
He must have been much more tired than he thought, because he didn’t wake up on his own. Jason, sitting on the edge of the bed, was shaking him awake, light enough not to jolt. He pushed himself up and rubbed his eyes.
“Come on, sleeping beauty,” Jason padded the covers. “Time to get up. It’s game time.”
“Time?” Tim tried to unsuccessfully hide a yawn. “You have a plan already?”
“Don’t sound so shocked,” his brother mocked and handed him a nutrition bar. “Eat. Change. I’ll meet you down in the cave.”
Tim unwrapped the bar and took a bite, and Jason rose, apparently satisfied he wouldn’t fall right back down. “Are we swinging or driving?”
“Driving,” Jason told him. “And we’re taking the bikes, not the car. It’s too big for where we’re going.”
“When’d you fix up yours?”
Even if he was more of a software person, Tim had been offering to help Jason customize his bike for months with the older always having something better to do. Judging by Jason’s grin, it was just where he left it.
“No,” his brother confirmed. “I’m taking Damian’s.”
It wasn’t like the cars; most of the motorcycles they had started life as regular – though extremely high-end – bikes. Then came the gadgets, on-board computers, and other customizations, things that Damian was pretty good at. But the thing about their youngest brother was that like many perfectly normal children, especially those with older siblings, Damian fancied himself older and bigger than he really was and thus even his favorite bike did not match his smaller frame. In fact Jason, with all his bulk, fit quite comfortably on it.
“Did he piss you off today or something?” Tim ventured a guess.
“What?” Jason had the gal to look innocent.
“Come on,” he gave him a look. “You two usually get along well enough, considering you’re you, and he’s…”
“…al Ghul spawn?”
“Really? That’s where you’re going now?”
Not that it wasn’t true, but it wasn’t something anyone, especially Damian, liked to be reminded of. Tim was starting to seriously regret encouraging him to take the case instead of handing it over to the police as per usual low-level stuff. Between snapping at the missing girl’s young mother and this, Jason was just not handling it well.
When they arrived in Gotham’s East End, they left the bikes behind a trash bin in an ally. Even if they were discovered they had enough internal defenses to be pretty much theft-proof, even there. Taking the usual rooftop approach, Jason began scaling up the fire escape of one of the buildings. Tim followed.
“The kid,” Jason said almost musingly just as Tim made it across the ledge. He wasn’t looking at him.
“Little D. He wanted to poke around the stuff you left for me. Just curious, nothing bad, but I wouldn’t let him, so he got mad.”
“And,” Tim asked carefully though he was sure he already knew the answer. “Why didn’t you let him see?”
Jason shrugged a shoulder. “He’s seen some pretty fucked up shit. Missing kid case is completely G-rated for him, no matter how it turns out. But these kind of cases get… personal. I didn’t want him to see. Especially if the mom was involved.”
Yup, that’s pretty much exactly what he’d expected. Jason was not only dealing with his own memories of less-than-fantastic maternal figures, but he was also trying to protect Damian. In his own way.
“You’re a good brother,” Tim put a hand on his shoulder, then added. “Even when you’re being an ass.”
“Remember that next time I bug you about something,” the older man grinned.
They only had to make it across a few rooftops, with Jason in the lead, before he stopped Tim with a raised hand. The teen crouched on the ledge next to him, and Jason pointed to the edge of his domino mask. Both switched to night vision.
“So I called up Sanderson’s parole officer,” Jason whispered, all business. “Lady said he showed up for the first few check-ins, but not the last one. Any other place, they’d issue a warrant already, but it’s Gotham. Bigger fish to fry than a small-time crook.”
“Is this where he lives?” Tim asked, his voice just as low.
“It’s where his old crew hangs out,” Jason replied. “I got his address from the parole officer but figure we might get some answers here.”
And you have some targets for your temper, Tim thought, but he supposed it was better than him taking it out on their little brother or the missing girl’s mom. Jason always felt better when he was beating up thugs.
Unfortunately aside from a few bruised knuckles and the discovery of a small cocaine stash, they ended up with virtually nothing. Sanderson wasn’t there. Jason surveyed the secured room while Tim tied up the seven dealers, hands cuffed behind their backs and secured on the ground next to a thick metal pillar.
“Alright, listen up!” The Red Hood turned to the thugs. “I’m looking for someone. A Carter Sanderson. Twenty-seven and freshly out of the pen. Heard he used to run with you looser. Anyone seen ‘im?”
“What do the bats want with Sanderson?” one piped in.
“That’s our business,” the elder turned sharply on him. “You know where he is?”
There was stretch of silence as the men looked to one another, some in confusion, others with clearly questioning looks on their faces. Red Robin figured it was his turn to step in as the good cop of the duo.
“Better tell him if you know anything,” he advised. “My friend’s been in a really bad mood lately. Hate to see any of your faces at the end of it.”
Their weariness visibly grew. Everyone knew that Batman and his people didn’t kill, but the Red Hood had a well-deserved reputation, one that didn’t instantly go away just because he started running with Red Robin. The Arkham lunatics were unlikely to be put off much by it, but for the average street thug, the prospect of pissing him off was more than uncomfortable.
“Okay, okay,” another, a man in a violet bandana covered in white skulls, finally cracked. “He was here a few days ago. Asked if we had any quick sells he could get in on. Sounded like he needed the cash.”
“He say why?” The Red Hood pressed, but the man just shook his head.
Red Robin looked at his partner. “We should check out his place. If he’s still around.”
“Right.” His brother nodded and shot one more look at the tied up thugs. “Cops are on their way. “Be good boys and stay put.”
Sanderson’s apartment was only a few blocks away, minutes via grappling hooks and rooftops. They landed on the one with a clear view of the windows, the larger of the two most likely leading to the living room, the smaller, the bedroom. Red Robin pointed between the two, a silent question. The Red Hood pointed at himself, then the living room window, then to him and the bedroom one.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jason was not expecting opposition when he swung next to Sanderson’s apartment window, landing soundlessly on the side and easily picking the lock on the metal bars that surrounded it. Even if it was the second story, in this part of Gotham, one put up with less-than esthetically pleasing things like that if he ever expected any pretense of safety. Even an ex-con just out of prison who probably never wanted to see bars again. Once they were out of the way, he manually broke the lock on the window and slipped inside.
As Jason expected, there was a huge open suitcase next to the door on the other side of the room from him, clothes thrown haphazardly inside. A man who he assumed was Sanderson walked briskly from the adjacent hallway with another handful, but stopped short when his eyes landed on the Red Hood standing casually at his window. Jason crossed his arms and smirked.
“Where’re you goin’, Carter?” He added an almost sing-song lilt to his voice.
“The hell outta here.” The man tensed, but to his credit, he didn’t run or try to fight him.
“Only if it’s back to Black Gate. You’re out on early parole for good behavior, Carter, and you blow it the second you step food in the free world. Stupid.”
He didn’t say anything, just remained tensed as if he was waiting for something. A second later, when his partner’s voice called from the bedroom, the Red Hood knew it was that. Carter might have thought twice about running, so the vigilante grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him along. He wasn’t at all surprised when he opened the door and saw Red Robin kneeling by the mattress on the floor next to a child he recognized from the pictures as Leah. The whole room might have been dingy, but the little girl appeared perfectly clean and unharmed.
“You should really start talking right about now.”
Even with the cowl and lenses, he knew Red Robin was glaring. Now that they had the real perpetrator, he had no problem letting some anger show. Jason gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and motioned for his brother to rise and take over guarding standing by Carter. They switched places, and Jason crouched by the girl.
“Hi, Leah.” He used the lightest, gentlest voice he could muster.
The little girl looked at him with apprehensive but not outright frightened brown eyes. “Hi.”
“Do you know who I am?” He tried.
To his – and probably everyone else’s – surprise, she nodded. “You’re the Red Hood, and that’s Red Robin.” She pointed to Tim.
Jason smiled. “You’re a very smart, very brave little girl.”
She smiled a little shyly. “Everyone knows you don’t hurt kids. The bad men don’t stand so close to the playground fence anymore either.”
He knew what she meant. Those dealers that were still around from his early days after his return to Gotham remembered his declaration that he would put a bullet in anyone he found dealing around schools or playgrounds or to children in general. Jason wouldn’t kill them now, not because he suddenly thought they didn’t deserve it but because of what that would do to his father, but he was happy to see the threat still held.
“Right again,” he confirmed. “Me and red bird protect people.”
“I don’t need pro...” she stumbled a little over the word then pointed to Carter who looked back and them unmoving. “I’m with my daddy, and he said we’re going to a new place. A better place where there aren’t any bad men.”
Behind the lenses of his domino mask, Jason blinked but kept his face pleasant and neutral for the girl’s benefit. “Aren’t you going to miss your mommy?” He asked gently, as if there was nothing else wrong with what she was saying. “I know she misses you a lot.”
The girl shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed. She looked to her father, but he was giving her no signs that Jason could see. He looked up at Red Robin and nodded his head towards the door.
“Take him to the living room,” he said, “and get his side of the story, whatever it is. He won’t run.” He fixed a hard gaze on the man. “Will you, Carter?”
“No.” The ex-con said simply. “You swear you won’t hurt her?”
“We’re with Batman,” Jason jabbed a thumb at his own chest where the crimson bat symbol stood bright against the black-gray background of his Kevlar.
When His brother and the man were out of ear shot, he focused all his attention on the little girl again. “So it was your dad who took you?”
She nodded. “I was scared at first ‘cause I didn’t really remember him. But I’m not scared anymore. He’s really nice. He gave me this.” She held out a stuffed rabbit for Jason’s inspection.
“That’s pretty cool. What’d you have for dinner last night?” he asked.
“McDonald’s Happy Meal,” she answered promptly. “It had a toy in it too.”
“Awesome. And this morning?”
“Cereal with marshmallows. Daddy let me put chocolate milk in it instead of the regular kind. It was so yummy.”
“I’ll have to remember to try that,” Jason smiled, satisfied at least that she’d been taken care of. Leah smiled back, then suddenly fired off a question of her own.
“Is Batman your daddy?”
The question didn’t surprise him. Even a lot of adults thought that the various Robins, past and present, were somehow related to Batman. The degrees of those speculations varied – Gordon, Jason was certain, must have known the truth – but kids often tended to take things literally. Everyone knew that, which was why Jason had no problem confirming.
“Yeah, he is.”
“Does he scare you sometimes?” Now she was looking at him in awe.
Jason smiled. “No. Only bad guys should be scared of Batman.”
“Oh,” Leah chewed on her lower lip. “You think my daddy is a bad guy?”
The clarity of the question did surprise him. Jason tilted his head slightly, “What makes you say that?”
“‘Cause you’re here.”
“Good point.” She kept waiting for an answer, and he sighed. “Leah, it’s hard to explain… I’m glad he didn’t hurt you, but he shouldn’t have taken you from your mommy. She’s responsible for you. Did he say why he took you?”
She was looking down again, a gesture he now understood to be apprehension. She didn’t want to get either of her parents into trouble. Finally, in a very low voice, she said, “Daddy told me mommy used to be very sick, and he’s afraid that she might become sick again and won’t be able to take care of me.”
The split second it took his brain to process the meaning, Jason just stared at her blankly. Then he felt like slapping his forehead. Wasn’t that the same thing that he himself had… And Carter would think that, wouldn’t he? If he’d gotten Shana into drugs to begin with. He looked back to Leah.
“Can you wait here for a minute? I’m going to get Red Robin to come stay with you while I talk to your dad.”
Tim was already heading his way. They met half way in the tight hallway between the bedroom and living room. He must have gotten a similar story from Carter, but there was no sign of an ‘I told you so’ on his face even though Jason knew he deserved it. Instead his brother asked in a light voice:
“Do you feel like we just got in the middle of a really confused domestic misunderstanding?”
“Something like that,” he replied non-comitially. When it came down to it, misunderstand or not, a little girl still had been taken from her home. “Hang out with the kid. I’m gonna have a talk with him.”
“He sounded desperate,” Tim said quietly. “No one would hire him here, that’s why he went to the dealers again looking to make a quick buck. Enough to get him and Leah out of Gotham.” He paused, as if unsure if Jason would like what he said next. “I told him to try the Park Row Housing Project.”
“Of course you did.” Jason said dryly but he just couldn’t bring himself to be mad.
In the end, Carter had reluctantly promised not to interfere when they returned Leah to her mother. Red Robin had assured him that he saw no signs that Shana was using and that if Carter kept clean and out of trouble himself, there was a good chance of getting visitation. The man seemed resigned to it, but as much as he disliked him for having caused all this trouble, a small part of Jason was mad he didn’t fight harder for his kid. No one said every thought had to make perfect sense.
With Leah safe at home, the two of them returned to their bikes. Red Robin looked at him.
“Are we going to keep patrolling?”
“No,” Jason shook his head. “Dad and Dick are out tonight. They can handle it.”
“Okay,” His brother climbed on the bike but didn’t start it. “Are you mad at me?”
“What?” Jason blinked. “No. Why would I be?”
“Because I told Carter about the housing project.” The teen bit the inside of his cheek. “I can get him work, but if you don’t want him there… It’s our project, Jay, not just mine.”
“No,” Jason cut him off. “You did the right thing. He needs a shot. Maybe it’ll help him stay clean. Leah likes him, and there aren’t many kids here who can say they have half-descent parents. Misguided as those two seem to be.”
Tim looked relieved. “So home?”
* * * * * * * * * *
“What are you doing?”
Jason opened his eyes very slowly. From his side-crow position on the mat, Damian looked funny, slightly sideways. His youngest brother, who shouldn't have been awake at three in the morning but of course was, was scowling as usual. He didn’t come too close, probably still wary after the verbal lashing he received last time.
“Yoga.” Jason replied calmly, his breathing perfectly even as he lowered himself back down on his feet before slowly shifting into one of the Warrior poses. “With a little Thi Chi mixed in.”
“Why?” Damian asked.
“It keeps me from going into a homicidal rage.” The boy stared and frowned. Jason smiled at him. “I’m kidding, Damian. Kind of. It helps improve breathing, flexibility, and yeah, it does help my mood. Gets my mind centered again after a case.”
“Oh.” The boy came closer standing almost directly in front of him. “Did Father teach you?”
For a moment Jason was tempted to lie, but then he shook his head. “No, but I can teach you if you want.”
“Now?” Damian looked cautiously optimistic.
“Sure. Go upstairs and change into something comfortable and come back down. I’ll finish my exercises and we’ll start at the beginning.”
The boy sprinted up the cave steps, and Jason thought he might have caught a grin in the corner of his mouth. He smiled to himself. They might never acknowledge their earlier fight, but this was one way he could make amends to his youngest brother.
It was close to dawn when Jason heard footsteps down the hall from his room then the soft sound of the door to Bruce’s study shift open and then close again. He got up, still dressed in his usual jeans and black t-shirt, and headed down the hall, feeling only a little silly for acting like a little kid waiting for his dad to come home from work.
“Hey.” He opened the door carefully. Bruce looked up in his direction.
“Hey. How’s the search going?”
“Case closed.” Jason shrugged, flopping down on the sofa next to his father’s desk. “Ridiculously ugly misunderstanding, but kid’s not hurt. She’s back with her mom.”
“Good.” His father said, and Jason noticed that he didn’t ask for details, not even who was responsible. He trusted him that much. Still Jason told him the rest of the story. He didn't mention how Carter's assumptions pretty much exactly matched his own, and like Tim, Bruce didn't point it out.
“Her folks,” Jason added in the end. “They’re kinda messed up, but they’re trying. Tim’s going to hook up her old man with a job for this new project of his.”
Bruce nodded. “Carter acted rashly, but on some level, I do understand why. It's hard to be the... other parent.”
Jason frowned at him. “I don't get it.” Jason frowned at him.
His father smiled, a little wearily. “That's because you choose not to get it.”
Jason was quiet for a long moment. He did get it, but for his father's sake, chose not to delve too deeply into it. No matter how hard he tried to hide it, sometimes Jason caught looks of... sadness from him whenever Dick or Tim visited their respective parents' graves on various anniversaries. Bruce would absolutely never discourage it – he'd even made a few attempts to get Jason to see his own deceased... relatives – but Jason knew what their father was thinking; for those few hours, Dick and Tim weren't his sons.
“You don't have to share me,” he said quietly, then looked up at the older man when another thought occurred to him. “Or Damian.”
Bruce's lips pressed together in a thin line. He tried to smile, but in that moment, Jason got it; Damian may have been their fathers only biological child, but he was also the one he had to share most of all.
“Shed the light on all the ones who never thought they would become
A father, mother asking why this world can be so cold.”