Jason woke abruptly. He sprawled in his bed, inhaling the fresh, crisp scent of the clean sheets and tried to figure out what woke him. He listened carefully and heard quiet footsteps in the hallway, muffled by the rug but still audible in the quiet night. Oh, yeah, that was it, Bruce was home from his banquet. Bruce usually looked in on him when he got home from those things. Jason always woke up for it and always pretended to be asleep when the door opened.
He pulled up his blanket to ward off the fall chill and waited for the soft brush of the heavy door over the thick rug. Suddenly his eyes shot open. The footsteps were wrong. Trusting an instinct he couldn't put into words, he slipped out of bed, stuffed a couple of pillows under his blanket and hid himself in the wardrobe across the room. He knelt down and peered out through the ancient brass keyhole.
The door opened and a beam of light from the hallway fell across the bed, over the lump that looked a bit like a teenage boy curled up asleep. Jason held his breath and watched. The door didn’t swing open any further and Jason's pounding heart slowed a bit. Perhaps it was nothing, after all, just the remnants of a bad dream he'd forgotten upon awakening.
Then, something glinted in the moonlight and Jason heard the paf paf of two silenced gunshots. Feathers flew up from the bed. Bruce swore, shoved the door open and flipped on the light. Jason froze, eye still to the keyhole, willing himself not to move. Or make a sound. Or breathe.
"Jason?" Bruce called softly. In the full glare of the bedroom lights, Jason could tell that it was Bruce: hair still sculpted in the perfect playboy wave, still wearing the gray suit with the silver tie pin Jason had given him for his birthday, looking exactly as he had when he’d left earlier this evening. His intense blue eyes swept the room and fixed on the wardrobe as if he could see straight through the door. Jason reeled back in shock.
Bruce stalked to the wardrobe and wrenched open the door. He leveled the gun directly at Jason's face. Bruce didn’t usually show a wide range of emotion, but Jason had never seen that kind of cold disinterest on his adoptive father’s face. Just before Jason hit the lever in the wardrobe, he thought he saw one side of Bruce's mouth twitch up in a smile.
Then the panel at the back of the wardrobe flipped open and Jason fell into the secret passage. He heard the thunk thunk thunk of bullets slamming into the heavy oak wall above him as he rolled down the steep staircase. He hit the landing with a bone-rattling thud and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the bruises he'd gained. He heard the back of the wardrobe slam shut again, but that wouldn't slow Bruce down much.
Jason took the rest of the stairs three at a time. When he reached the bottom, he jammed his shaking hand into the gap between the wall panels and pushed the switch that let him into the kitchen hallway. Too bad it didn’t lead directly down to the Batcave - on the other hand, the Batcave had a lot more places for nasty surprises. Jason didn’t want any more surprises today.
If this really was Bruce. If this wasn't some kind of sadistic test.
No. If Bruce were testing him, it'd be batarangs, not bullets.
Jason spun around, fists up, ready to punch and run - but it was only Alfred, carrying a small pot of coffee on a tray.
"Master Jason, what are you doing up at this hour?" Alfred asked.
"Something's wrong with Bruce," Jason said, hoping his pounding heart wasn't about to explode. "We need to get out of here, now."
"Nonsense," Alfred said. "I'm certain there has been a misunderstanding. Come, I'll make you some warm milk and we'll sort this out."
Jason heard the panel creak open again. "No time," he said. He grabbed the pot of coffee and threw it at Bruce as he emerged from the wall. Bruce batted it aside, but it gave Jason time to grab Alfred's arm and run.
For an old guy, Alfred ran really well. He and Jason ran through the kitchen and the back hallway and out to the garage.
"Keys," Jason panted, leaning against the limo to catch his breath. "You have the keys with you, right?"
"Of course," Alfred said. He drew a bundle of keys from the inside pocket of his jacket and held them up for Jason to see. Then he whipped them across Jason's face.
Jason closed his eyes in time, but the keys cut into his forehead and blood trickled down his face. He opened his blood-smeared eyes in time to see Alfred's fist smash into his face.
"Such a noble little boy," Alfred said as Jason reeled from the blow. Another fist slammed into his stomach and Jason doubled over. It felt like he'd been punched with an iron rod. "Making sure the nice old man gets to safety." A foot connected with the side of his knee and Jason's legs crumpled beneath him. He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t pull breath into his lungs.
Jason swiped his sleeve across his eyes to clear his vision, expecting another blow at any moment. It didn't come. What he heard instead was the soft click of a gun safety being flicked off.
No time to think. Jason swung out his leg in a wide arc, catching Alfred behind the ankles and pulling him down. Jason pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the pain in his knee. He ran towards the open garage door and out into the wet night, half-blind with the blood still dripping into his eyes.
Gravel tore at his bare feet and rain soaked through his pajamas. He veered off the driveway and ran for the trees. The gardening crew had left a pile of leaves and cut greenery at the edge of the grounds. Jason hasd noticed it earlier that day on his way home from school and thought it might have been fun to jump in the pile if he hadn't been too old for that sort of thing.
He dug into the side of the pile, climbed in and pulled down the leaves and branches to cover the hole he'd made. He didn't stand a chance of outrunning them, not injured and barefoot, but if he was lucky, the pounding rain would cover his trail and they wouldn't be able to find him.
If he was lucky.
Jason curled up in his little burrow and wrapped his arms around his knees, shivering. Good thing he hadn't given into the impulse to jump into the pile earlier; it was full of thorns and sticks that jabbed him from all sides. He forced himself to breathe evenly and slowly; both to calm himself and to conserve air. The soggy mess he'd buried himself in didn’t have a lot of air flow. Freaking ironic if he escaped Bruce and Alfred - or whoever they were - just to die from lack of oxygen.
What enemy had taken over Bruce and Alfred? Was this an attack on Batman or playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne? Most importantly, who could he turn to now, without risking Bruce’s secret identity and his own? Who would believe a bruised, filthy Boy Wonder? He went over his short list of options and made a decision. Risky, still, but his best shot.
He heard Bruce and Alfred stamping around in the mud, searching for him. Footsteps neared his hideout and he held his breath, ignoring every nerve in his body that wanted to break free of safety and attack. Something rattled nearby and then a pitchfork jabbed into the pile of leaves, close enough to brush against his pajama legs. He clenched his hands into fists and forced himself to hold still. Wait, Batman would say. Have patience. If you set the terms of the fight, you gain an enormous advantage. Jason would need an advantage to take down Bruce and Alfred without hurting them.
The pitchfork withdrew and a few moments later he heard the footsteps moving away.
Relief flooded his body, but it still wasn't safe to get up. He stayed there, hugging his knees and shivering with cold, not wanting to even twitch for fear it would be another trick. Waiting might be the best plan, but it left him vulnerable in the meantime. He could picture them vividly in his mind, looming over his hideout with the pitchfork raised, just waiting for him to move so they could bring it down and pin him to the ground like a bug in a science fair display.
When the rain finally let up, he'd been hiding for hours. He poked a branch through the wet leaves to peer out and see if he could risk moving.
He didn’t see anyone, but the sky was lightening in the east. He burst out of the leaves, trying to make a run for it, but his legs cramped and his bruised knee buckled beneath him.
Still, no one spotted him. He struggled to his feet and half-ran, half-limped, through the trees and away from the manor. He didn't even care when the rain started pouring again. He was already drenched and the fresh deluge washed away most of the mud and leaves.
Two miles down the road, he found the old stone wall that marked the original east edge of the Wayne estate. As the sun broke over the horizon, Jason found the cache of civilian clothes and money he'd stashed there for emergencies.
It had been a few months ago, though, and it seemed he'd had a growth spurt since then. The shoes pinched his toes and the jeans cleared his ankles. Anything was better than his filthy, torn pajamas, though. He buried those, not bothering to mark the spot.
He crouched behind the wall and crept down the road to the nearest bus stop. When he saw the bus coming, he leapt out and then tried to look as though he'd just been waiting casually. The driver gave him a curious look when he got on, so he didn't think it had quite worked, but she dismissed it after a moment and went back to listening to her morning radio show.
Jason slouched down in a seat near the back and reviewed his plan.
He transferred buses twice to get to the train station, but that was all the better by his thinking. Less chance of being tracked that way. He picked a spot at the station where he could sit with his back to the wall, watching the entrances as best as he could without attracting attention.
But one more scruffy kid blended into the Gotham crowd easily and anyway, he'd had plenty of practice at it. He tensed up every time a cop or security guard passed by him, but no one took a second look his way and no one stopped him from getting on the train to New York.
No one was home, but Jason found it easy to pick the lock to Nightwing's apartment. He really should have better security, Jason thought smugly, just before he flopped down on Dick's couch and passed out from exhaustion.
* * *
Jason woke to a warm, damp cloth being dabbed on his face and lots of bare, beautiful golden skin. "Oh, good, you're awake," Starfire said. She sat beside him with a bowl of water, wearing a cropped halter top that didn't leave much to the imagination - and Jason had a very good imagination. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Um," Jason said. Should he be tough and say he wasn't injured? As his sleep-groggy eyes came into better focus, he spotted Nightwing a few feet behind her, talking to someone on the phone, and decided to go with the truth. "Not too bad. Messed up my knee a little."
"Which one?" she asked. She shifted the chair and put a hand on his thigh.
"L-left one," he managed, hating the way his voice broke. Stupid, stupid teenage hormones. She slid a hand down his leg - oh, jeez, did she have to? With Nightwing in the room?
"Perhaps you'd better take your pants off," she said softly, and it took Jason a moment to process that yes, she really had said that, and then another moment for him to realize that she meant that she wanted to examine the knee. Not… other parts.
Nightwing, finished with his phone call, peered over her shoulder and frowned at Jason's leg. "Is it swollen?"
Jason swallowed a smart response to that - no need to be rude in front of a lady.
"Because we might need to cut off the jeans," Nightwing continued. He looked a lot shorter in his blue polo shirt and slacks than in his costume. Maybe it was the lack of disco collar.
Starfire brushed her fingers lightly over Jason's injured knee. "I think that might be best," she said.
Nightwing produced a pair of heavy-duty scissors and cut open the leg of Jason's jeans. He stopped, thankfully, just above his knee. "Hope you weren't too attached to these," he said, giving Jason a reassuring smile. He examined the knee with a minimum of poking and prodding and pronounced it a mild sprain. "We'll put some ice on it and I'll wrap it for you, but it wouldn't hurt to see a doctor."
"Nah, I'll be fine," Jason said. He pulled himself up to a sitting position while Starfire went to get ice.
"So," Nightwing said. "I just talked to Bruce."
Something twisted in the pit of Jason's stomach. "Yeah?" he said, keeping his voice casual. "How's he doing?"
"He said that you attacked Alfred, stole some money and ran away.”
Jason could hear his heart pounding against his chest. "W-what did you say?"
"Told him I'd bring you back to Gotham so he could deliver you to the cops."
Jason grabbed the bowl of water and flung it at Nightwing’s face. A jolt of adrenaline got him on his feet and over the couch. His injured knee gave out just before he reached the door, though, and Nightwing was on him. The man shoved him against the door and grabbed Jason’s arms, pinning them behind his back. Nightwing leaned against Jason, using the weight of his larger body to hold Jason in place. Jason recognized the hold, but he’d only learned two ways to get out of it and neither would work if one knee couldn’t hold his weight.
He struggled anyway, trying to push himself away from the door to get room to maneuver, but he didn’t have the leverage to move. Nightwing leaned down and spoke softly in his ear.
“Stop struggling. You’re just going to hurt yourself worse,” he said.
“Don’t touch me!” Jason shouted. He stopped moving, defeated, limp in Nightwing’s arms. “Do you want me dead, too?”
Nightwing lowered Jason to the ground and, to Jason’s surprise, let him go. “Bruce does not want you dead.”
“He does!” Jason said. He pulled his uninjured knee to his chest and wrapped his arms around it, sick of defending himself. “You weren’t there. You didn’t see him. He tried to kill me!”
“That wasn’t Bruce,” Nightwing said firmly. He crouched down to Jason’s eye level, balancing easily on his heels.
“How do you know?!” Jason yelled.
“Because he loves you,” Nightwing said. “Because the real Bruce would die before he let you get hurt!”
“You don’t even know me-“
“I know Bruce!” Nightwing repeated.
Jason stared at him for a long moment, too tired of being stalked and beat up and shot at to know what to believe or who to trust. People tried to kill Robin, not Jason Todd. Jason Todd got to go home at the end of the night and relax when he was off duty. That was the whole point of the pain-in-the-ass secret identity shit.
“I swear to you, Jason, I am on your side,” Nightwing said quietly. “Tell me what happened.”
Jason rubbed his arms and stared at Nightwing, suspecting a trick. “You’re not taking me to Bruce?”
"Jason, I might not know you very well, but you don't seem like a stupid kid. If you'd really attacked Alfred, I think you'd know better than to run to me." He said it in a mild tone, but Jason could hear the shadow of a threat behind the words. “Come on, sit down and let us patch you up.” He offered a hand to help Jason up.
Jason let himself be led back to the couch, though he was still suspicious of Nightwing’s intentions. “I didn't attack Alfred,” he said sullenly. “He attacked me.”
"Alfred attacked you?" Heavy skepticism clung to each word. "My Alfred?"
Jason scowled. "My Alfred, too. But he didn't start it. Bruce came into my room in the middle of the night and tried to kill me. Alfred only attacked me when I was getting away."
"Could he have been testing you?" Starfire came over and set an icepack on Jason's knee. "I understand Batman's training methods can be a bit extreme." She exchanged a look with Nightwing that Jason didn't quite understand. He wondered how much he’d told her about Bruce.
"No way," Jason said. "He tried to shoot me! With a gun!"
Nightwing frowned and held up a hand. “Start from the beginning. Include everything, like you're making a report to Bruce."
Jason told him the whole story, from waking up to Bruce's footsteps to hiding in the pile of leaves. He gave a sheepish look over at Starfire when he got to this part - some freaking hero he made, hiding like a scared kid. She only looked concerned, though, and Nightwing nodded in approval. Jason told them about the cache of clothes and money and that he'd decided to come to New York for help.
"Something's wrong with Bruce and Alfred," Jason insisted. "Someone brainwashed them!" He pounded a fist on the couch. "Or took over their bodies. I know they’d never do that to me, but they did. They would've killed me if I hadn't gotten away!"
"I believe you," Nightwing said, and Jason felt some of the tension ease out of his shoulders. "I'll go to Gotham and find out what's happening. Kory can stay here with you." He looked over at Starfire and she nodded.
"No way," Jason said. "I'm coming with you."
""You're hurt," Nightwing pointed out. "It's my duty to take care of this. They're my family."
"Our family," Jason corrected. "Besides," he added, "if you show up without me, it'll tip them off that you're onto them."
Nightwing considered this, then nodded. "All right." He turned to Starfire. "Kory, I'll check in with you when we get to Gotham. If you don't hear from me, go to the Justice League and alert Superman."
"I could go to Gotham with you," Starfire offered.
"No," Jason and Nightwing said at the same time.
Dick gave Jason a small smile and turned to Starfire. "It's family business," he said. “We’ll handle this. Besides, we need someone free to go for help if things go nasty."
"How much nastier can it get?" Jason muttered, fingering the scratches on his face from Alfred’s keys.
"We've got an enemy in control of Bruce and all of Batman's assets," Nightwing said grimly. "I'd say pretty damn nasty."
* * *
Jason took a shower while Nightwing and Starfire ordered Chinese food. Dick and Kory, he reminded himself. At least when they were in civilian clothes. Better not to use their codenames out of costume. Weird to think of them like just regular people, though. Kory Anders - Koriand’r - wasn’t even human and Dick was a legend; he always heard stories from Bruce and Alfred and the Titans about what Nightwing was like at Jason's age. Acrobat, detective, crimefighter and team leader. And everyone expected Jason to be like Dick. Well, he wasn't. He was himself and that would just damn well have to be good enough. Screw 'em if it wasn't.
Jason dressed in a Hudson University sweatshirt and and an old pair of Dick's jeans that were baggy enough on him that his knee wasn't constricted. He had to roll up the cuffs at the bottom and wear a belt. He rewrapped his knee himself. It'd bear his weight, at least. Dick didn't have any shoes small enough to fit Jason, so he put his old ones back on.
There was a knock on the door and Jason opened it to let Starfire in. She smiled down at him. “Those trousers are a bit large on you.”
Jason’s cheeks reddened. “I don’t have anything else.”
Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I didn’t mean to insult you! There is no shame in being small. Besides, you are still growing.”
“I know,” Jason sighed. “If you’ve got any way to speed it up, let me know.”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “But it will happen. I think you may be taller than Dick, one day.” She winked at him.
“Yeah?” Jason said hopefully. “That’d be neat.”
Kory smiled. “He is fortunate to have you.”
Jason blinked, not sure he’d heard right. “What?”
“I have a sister.” Kory’s smile disappeared. “We are… not close. I wish it were otherwise, especially when I hear Dick speak of you. He is glad to have a little brother.” Her smile returned. She had a really beautiful smile.
“I - I didn’t know that,” Jason mumbled. He stuffed his hands in the pocket of his jeans; pleased, but embarrassed.
“Well, he is,” Kory said. “And to think he was angry with Bruce about your adoption! Now come along, dinner is here. You must eat.”
“What?” The smile faded from Jason’s face. But Kory had already left the room and he didn’t want to ask her what she meant in front of Dick.
In the kitchen, Dick dished the food out of take-out cartons and onto plates. They discussed strategy as they ate, and Jason noted wryly that Dick could even handle chopsticks with ease.
Jason picked up his own chopsticks and held them the way Bruce had taught him. He ate a few bites of beef and broccoli with them. But he was too hungry to eat slowly and carefully, so he switched to a fork for a few bites of rice and didn’t pick up the chopsticks again. “You should really have better security on your place,” he commented.
"How about a silent alarm that alerts me to an intruder and hidden video cameras that allow me to view my place from Titans Tower?" Dick grinned. He scooped a bite of rice into his mouth. With chopsticks.
"Oh," Jason said, feeling foolish.
"Anything more obvious might tip off the neighbors that I've got something to hide," Dick explained.
"What if someone broke in and found your costume?" Jason asked. "They'd know your secret identity."
"I keep most of my equipment at Titans Tower," Dick said. "There's a hidden panel in my bedroom for the stuff here and -“
The rest of his sentence was lost when the kitchen window shattered and something landed with a hard thunk on the other side of the kitchen table. Before Jason could even get a look at what it was, Dick threw himself at Jason and pinned him to the ground.
“Get off me,” Jason grunted. He was Robin, not some civilian that needed to be protected. But now he was eye level with the thing that had landed. He stared at the tapered green end of the rocket-propelled grenade and thought that it was very unfair for an explosive device not to have a blinking red light or a countdown clock.
* * *