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Jason Todd - Collector of Strays

Chapter Text

He should get a fucking gold star. Jason Todd would have said it out loud (it's not like anyone would hear him as he grappled between buildings and above the seedy alleyways of Park Row) but figured it already sounded petty in his own head.

'So what? Who the fuck is going to judge you? Fucking Batman and his fucking flock weren’t here to do that for him'. For all the tech on the interior of his helmet, he sometimes wished it could talk back. Like in Knight Rider. That show was seriously under rated although he'd deny having the complete series on DVD in any of his safe-houses.

He wasn't sure what was worse, the fact that he was being given a wide-berth by the group of tightwad vigilantes or the ever mounting tension around it, the pressure building because it had simply been too quiet...no one trying to talk him out of putting bullets in kneecaps; he'd been avoiding heads...the last time he'd miscalculated and well...grey matter apparently left stains that did not come out regardless of how many times you ran your clothes through the wash. That was the reasoning he gave himself at least.

It also didn't help that despite the never-ending sheet of rain that was pouring down on Gotham, the weather was humid and warm, the large rain drops always seeming larger and heavier in this city. It was nearing Fall, which meant that alleyways were bustling more than usual (if you paid close attention and knew where to look); those living on the streets adjusting their living arrangements to adapt to the change in the weather. He doubted this sudden thunderstorm was making that easy for anyone at the moment, namely the children that he knew stayed as out of sight as much as possible. Jason Todd knew exactly what that felt like.

Despite the noise of the pouring rain, the metallic squeaking of a large dumpster - a sound he was all too familiar with since he was a kid - had him dropping down into the alley, where sure enough, two large dumpsters lined the wall next to where a haberdashery had been back in Park Row's glory days. Jason could be eloquent if he chose to, but hey, using ‘fuck’ or variations thereof as noun, verb, adjective, etc. was a choice he proudly made. How many internet articles said that highly intelligent people cursed more than others? Too many to count as it were. It made Jason smirk just a little, a fleeting desire to send a continuous round of spam mail to the Batcave, with links to all those articles. Pity he wouldn't remember to do that.

"Hey kid, you need some help?" Jason asked, trying to sound casual and nonchalant, tucking his grappling gun away and shoving his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket as best he could.

He couldn't see the kid exactly and not getting any response had him slowly taking steps forward, doing his best to not look intimidating regardless of not taking off the helmet (honestly he was grateful for the airlock around his neck, keeping his face and most of his neck dry) which he really didn't want to do.

The movement behind the dumpsters had stopped, but he could hear shuffling and sniffing and he realized belatedly that he was clearly off his game because wedged between the two dumpsters and surrounded by god only knew what fucking biohazard littered the place, was a large and rather dark furry mass of wet dog, whose head immediately looked up when Jason had come into view.

"Jesus" Jason breathed out. Despite the dog huddling and shivering, it was massive, and for a split second Jason honestly thought it was some sort of damn wolf or coyote or just something else. Because this was Gotham, and frankly, stranger fucking things had happened. His hand immediately came out of his pocket, fingers twitching and wanting to grab for one of his guns. He didn't exactly want to shoot the animal, but who knew if the thing would suddenly bolt right at him all fangs and claws and yeah...no thanks.

A small whine made Jason's decision though, as large brown eyes looked right through him, or so he thought. He had his helmet on but still, it was really unnerving. Last thing he needed was to be confronted by some sort of soul-gazing canine.

He couldn't help but analyze the scene, taking in the protruding ribs, the scars marring the dogs’ legs and muzzle. He had no idea what type of dog it was, especially with all the matted fur which he thought was probably painful as well. Just how long had this dog been left neglected? Although by the looks of it, it was safer out here than with whomever had done all the damage. Jason refused to make the comparison to his own life.

"I wish I had some food for you or something" the voice modifier now intentionally turned off. God he really hated this city and the sick and twisted people that lived in it. What had this dog ever done to deserve this life?

Maybe because it was a slow night or maybe because he really couldn't leave anyone or anything out in this weather, but he finds himself spending twenty minutes trying to coax the animal out from its hiding spot, with only his voice (the helmet had needed to come off) and luck. Only a slight wag of a tail ten minutes into the endeavor had Jason determined to carry on.

"You may be skin and bones but you sure do weigh a fucking ton" he grumbled, carrying the damn dog who now seemed content to be a limp noodle and settle in for the ride.

He was only ten minutes away from his nearest safe house, the one above a small Persian restaurant which may have seemed too conspicuous as a safe-house but when you break the legs of a few enforcers trying to extort protection taxes from the restaurant owners, it apparently buys you the eternal gratitude of said folks and a place free of charge.

Which is why his stomach grumbled as he opened the door to his place, the third floor walk-up which felt more like ten floors with the 150 pounds of wet dog he had dragged up. The place always smelled like saffron, butter, and various grilled meats for kabobs, which is why it probably wasn't easy for the owners to get the place rented out (well that and the fact that this was really not the best area even during daylight hours) but perfect for him.

Food was...well food was the difference between life and death for those that lived on the streets or couldn't even afford anything from the dollar store, and having the smells practically permeating from the walls made him feel secure rather than inconvenienced. Plus it also helped that there was occasionally food left in front of his door, in particular fresh noon barbari, which was the best damn bread he’d ever had, save for Alfred’s fresh sourdough. Jason would always try and be in the kitchen at the manor when he knew the older man was-

'Not the damn time'. He could practically hear gritting of his teeth in his mind as he got the door locked behind him while still not putting the animal down.

With the dog now sniffing the air, Jason focused on food, water, towels, whatever he needed to help the animal get as comfortable as possible. He was the wrong person to have stumbled upon the mut, but there was nothing to be done when it was 2:30am and pouring out.

The only things he had in the fridge were a potato that seemed to be growing other things out of it (an image of Poison Ivy flitted across his mind making him shudder and immediately toss the thing in the sink, shoving it in the garbage disposal and turning it on. Better to be safe than sorry), two bottles of beer, a 24 pack of bottled water, and two packets of hot dogs and buns which were a few days past he the 'Best by' date.

"Jackpot" he grinned as he grabbed his prize and went about heating everything up.

A quick look back into the small living room area showed his guest still laying on some towels by the old radiator, seemingly content with resting its head on its front paws, its eyes watching Jason tiredly.

"I feel the same way, bud." Jason hadn't planned on heading to this particular bolt hole for another couple of weeks (serious injury notwithstanding) so he was not only exhausted but without much in terms of sleeping arrangements. It was a small one bedroom place, with a barely there kitchen, a shower head that came up to his chest, and a bedroom that could barely fit a queen size mattress on the floor.

By 3:30am he fell asleep on the sofa; old and sinking, but long enough for his six-foot frame, and the thought of heading back out on patrol forgotten.

He must have been more exhausted than he realized when he woke up to a warmth by his side and an itch near his nose. He normally would have cursed at himself for leaving his guns on the coffee table where they weren't readily accessible but he was glad he did as the shock of a large beast pressed next to him - honestly, how in the hell did it squeeze in next to him?! - had him startling and immediately reaching for firearms that weren't there.

"You scared the fucking shit out of me bud, I could have shot you!" his voice aggravated and upset but still not making any move to get the dog off the couch. The dog looked wholly unimpressed, one thump of a large and heavy tail against Jason's leg.

"Well I could have you know." The grumbling done more to reassure himself than anything else.

A lick to the hand and large puppy dog eyes - which frankly shouldn't have even been a thing because this was definitely not a puppy at all - was the only response he got as he tried to ignore the small squeeze in his chest at the fact that it may not have been a someone, but something cared about him, even if it was just a little bit.

Chapter Text

"You're so lucky I'm such a nice guy" the comment muttered under Jason's breath as he had woken up at the ungodly hour of 9:30am with a loud “oof!” as he was used as a stepping stool by the dog and an unstoppable itch caused by an army of fleas that had seemingly planned a coup against him while he slept.

In the natural light of day, Jason's new companion looked even more miserable, the dog's fur having dried and further caked in the dirt and debris. It had simply been too exhausting of a night to do anything but keep the dog warm and dry.

Despite not wanting to go out during the day, he talked himself into it by choosing to walk towards The Bowery on his way to the nearest pet supply store he could find and grabbing a large cup of coffee. He supposed it was one of things he missed out on when being a night owl – shops actually being open. With a faint metallic 'clink ' of his lighter, he took a drag from his first cigarette of the day and slowly exhaled, leaning his head back against the side of the shop.

A small grumble by his hip had him quirking an eyebrow and looking down at the dog that kept pawing at the makeshift rope leash Jason had tied around its neck in order to take it out. It was not exactly what he had planned when he had left his place; figuring he'd just grab all the supplies he needed from the store, come back, get the dog clean and fed and then figure out if there was a no kill shelter or someplace that the dog could be checked out and looked after. It wasn't exactly like Jason had a life conducive to owning a dog.

Unfortunately for him, as soon as he made to leave, hoping that Bud (because yes, the dogs ears perked up every time Jason had called him that) would stay quiet, he heard the most pitiful whining that forced him to stand ramrod straight behind the now closed door, refusing to cave in to the obvious guilt trip being bestowed upon him.

"You can do this. He'll be fine. You'll be back. Don't be such a fucking sap...he's totally playing you." The self pep-talk appeared to have done the trick, Jason straightening up, ignoring the sounds of a despondent dog, and making his way down the stairs.

He had lasted a solid one minute and thirty-four seconds out the door before he had gritted his teeth, looked up at the sky as if it had all the answers, muttered a loud "for fuck's sake" and went back for the damn dog.

Which is why he was now balancing his coffee, cigarette, his duffel filled with his Red Hood kit (no point in going back to that safe-house now, not with Bud in tow), and a semi-irate dog that grumbled like an old man. Scratch that, old woman.

It hadn't taken much observational skill to realize as soon as Bud went to relieve herself when they had left the apartment. Jason was still calling her Bud though. Simple enough and someone would probably give her a more unique name.

"Hey, I planned on leaving you back at the apartment. You wanted to come out and now you have to deal with the consequences" The smirk on Jason's face widening as Bud paused from her battle with the rope leash to grumble louder and specifically in Jason's direction.

"Don't you take that tone with me. I'm about to get you all prettied up." Jason dropped his cigarette stub on the ground and crushed it underneath his boot. Bud had taken a giant huff and had lowered her head in defeat. The rope had won the battle for now.

The nearest pet supply store was a fifteen minute walk to the south in The Bowery, and was surprisingly large and well stocked. Clearly despite its location it attracted all sorts of folks from across Gotham, from those that couldn't afford the higher end pet stores or were being budget conscious to those who could barely rub two coins together but would use them just to feed their own pets.

During the walk over, Jason paid attention to how his canine companion walked and whether there were any signs of injury. Luckily it seemed that at least outwardly, Bud was in okay shape save for the dirt, fleas, and the old scars.

"Stay close and behave" Jason pointed a finger at the dog, expecting it to take his words to heart as they now stood at the store front. He got a cocked head in response and figured that was as good of an answer as he was going to get.

A few minutes into Jason and Bud's adventure into the pet store, two things became abundantly clear: the first being that he really needed a lot more things than he had believed and was more lost than he realized. It must have shown on his face despite the large sunglasses he had purposely left on because a young woman in her early twenties with a sympathetic smile, name badge, and an empty shopping basket took in the sight of Bud, the matted fur, the rope leash, and Jason's arms filled to capacity with items he had been grabbing off the shelves. Oh and then there was the second thing...Bud (which as a reminder, was more than likely taller than Jason when on its hind legs) was an absolute fucking scaredy cat.

Some little kid had walked by with what appeared in Jason's eyes to be an abnormally small dog, no bigger than a damn rabbit, which had started yapping obnoxiously and fearlessly at Bud, who could have just crushed the thing under a single paw. Before Jason could even react, his arm was almost yanked out of its socket (and he knew damn well how painful that could be), when the great beast of a dog yelped and backpedaled directly into the aisle shelves behind it, knocking stuffed pet toys all over the floor.

"You are probably two hundred times heavier than that little runt and you let it run you off?" The disbelief in Jason's voice coming after the little bastard of a dog was quickly picked up by the kid who hurried along as if it hadn't been the one to cause the entire mess in the first place.

Bud's head hung low as if ashamed of herself, tail drooping slightly although still knocking into things as they walked.

A large sigh, this time from Jason, had him scratching Bud behind the ears. Shit scared him too sometimes, even little stuff. He got it. "It's alright. That thing was a little fucking bitch...pun totally intended."

He grinned down at her, before looking up again and finding Addie, the young woman that had handed him the empty shopping basket and had helped clean up the aisle after that whole small dog vs. big dog showdown, coming round to let Bud sniff her hand before petting her.

Jason briefly explained what was going on, hating to admit he was at a loss, but that the dog had fleas, hadn't had any proper food, and who knew what else. He was so happy he hadn't let pride get in the way this time of asking for help because thirty minutes later (which allowed him to get some much needed smokes in), Bud had been washed, groomed, matted fur combed out or simply cut off, and anti-flea'd.

Jason had no idea they did grooming at pet supplies stores but he was glad they did and that they had offered to squeeze Bud in between appointments. He also now had the business card of the local animal clinic back in Park Row (not far from Doc Thompkins place actually) which would be able to give Bud a thorough checkup for little to no cost. Not that Jason couldn't afford whatever she would need; even if he couldn't keep her, he'd make sure she was all set.

He had his phone out before he could even think about it, taking a photo of Bud, whose black fur was now shiny and clean, a purple bow wrapped around her neck as well as the brand new black leather collar and leash. He couldn't help but smile as the dog practically pranced towards him, tail held high and wagging in swift motions back and forth.

"I knew we'd find a beautiful wolfhound under there" Addie laughed, patting Bud's head affectionately as she passed the leash over, a thick heavy one that Jason had picked out because even without a dog attached to it, could serve another purpose as a weapon. It wouldn't quite be piano wire but it would do in a pinch.

"I'm sorry what? Wolfhound?"

Although Jason supposed that was funny considering he had thought Bud was something entirely different than a dog at first.

"Yup. Irish Wolfhound. Tallest of the dog breeds. Most people picture Great Danes but it's these guys here" she scratched behind Bud's ears "that are the true giants. She still looks quite young despite the state you found her in... she'll probably grow some more-" she bit her lip to stop herself from laughing at Jason's disbelieving look.

"She's going to get bigger than this?!"

Bud clearly was some sort of mutant dog; there was no other explanation. He laughed as said beast leaned against him, her weight shifting suddenly and almost making him lose his balance.

"Are you going to be okay with that?" Addie's question teasing but a valid one. Nothing he needed to worry about though; he wouldn't be keeping her...at least not for very long.

He couldn't help but look down at Bud, Jason's hand already resting on her head.

"Yeah...I'm okay with that."

A few minutes later had Jason really questioning how an Irish Wolfhound, which Addie said looked like a purebreed and would have cost a pretty penny, ended up on the streets. Even the breed itself wasn’t one you’d see out and about in the best of circumstances, especially not in Gotham of all places. Jason almost wished the dog could talk and tell him what had happened, and whose bones he could start breaking.

Back out the door with food and other pet supplies now in his hand, and Bud looking like a million bucks as they walked down the sidewalk, the hairs on Jason's neck stood on end, the feeling of being watched difficult to ignore. Some may have called it paranoia, Jason called it instinct (although frankly, it was his reality more often than not), and he wasn't wrong, certainly not now.

In the light of day, Gotham looked like a completely different city; better or worse depending on whom you asked. It also meant more eyes to stare at him, which is why his hoodie was pulled over his head and sunglasses still on. Nothing he could do about the pony-sized animal next to him though; he was fairly certain it was Bud that eyes were focusing on and not him, which was just fine.

What wasn't fine were all the passersby looking at Bud with unease as they walked by, obviously unsettled by her sheer size. Jason had to ignore the urge to snarl at those assholes. Kids on the other hand, pointed and smiled, tugging on their parents arms and attempting to drag them over to come pet her.

Bud's tail seemed to wag a bit more when she saw kids come forward ('clearly not abused by kids then' Jason thought) but the happiness seemed short-lived as the parents took one look at the large canine and immediately sped up and moved away, ignoring the protests from their kids.

Despite the benefit Bud served at helping put a wide berth between Jason and people in general, there was a small part of him that wanted to yell out at those parents, tell them that Bud was friendly and who were they to judge. She had already been through enough and still apparently trusted others to be kind; hell, she had let Jason carry her back to his place, not knowing whether or not he would be taking her to her death.

"Well apparently they didn't get the memo about you being a giant wuss" he teased her, trying to lift her spirits. "Let's get this stuff dropped off and maybe we'll go to the park."

It had been months since he'd spent more than an hour or two to outside during the day, and the most recent time had been because Franko Cecni, a small-time drug dealer, thought that he was being clever and avoiding the Red Hood by selling his product after school let out and from an ice cream truck no less. Seriously, an ice cream truck. Hopefully Franko had gone on to reconsider his life choices while spending four hours in the ice cream truck’s freezer that really did have ice cream contained inside. He'd only lost a few fingers, while Jason gained a couple of Astro Pops. Win-win.

Jason's favorite safe-house, because yes, he had favorites, was in fact, an actual house. A two-story brownstone, one of several dozens that lined a quiet tree-lined block right off of Solomon Way, bordering on Gotham Heights.

Almost everywhere else he had were very much just bolt holes, places he had picked for convenience (either due to potential exhaustion or injury), but this place...this place was all his, completely renovated and an actual (and more importantly sanitary) proper home that had a small walled-in yard.

He may not have spent a lot of time here, especially when he felt he was being watched by bats and birds, but it had been good...something he had fixed up and made his own, something that had always been wishful thinking as a little kid but had been all but beaten out of him as the years went on. Even Wayne Manor...well, that was a different matter altogether.

"Let's get you set up then."

The duffle bag full of his gear was dropped on the floor in the hall - he refused to call it a foyer - and closed the door behind him. It may have not looked all that secure, but that was the whole point. The security measures in place had taken longer to put together than actually getting the place habitable.

Two large bowls placed down by the kitchen counter with food and kibble, he let Bud go to town while he went through his place, ensuring everything was secure.

He had originally been skeptical about using Sherman Fine, aka The Broker, but surprisingly, the guy was sharper than he had given the man credit for. And what with being the go-to real estate guy for almost the entire criminal underclass, looking for any particular individual's property was almost like looking for a needle in a haystack. 'Plus', Jason mused as he made his way up the stairs to take a long shower in his extremely nice bathroom, 'everyone assumes I choose to live like a derelict out of spite. We all know what happens when you assume...'

One long shower and a fresh pair of sweats and threadbare shirt later, Jason went back downstairs to find Bud queen of the sofa. Clearly he should have thought about setting up boundaries before leaving the dog alone for a bit.

At least nothing looked chewed up or peed on, which was a big positive. With his temporary roommate looking quite at ease, the desire to head out again left him, and it didn't look like Bud was complaining from the way she dozed off and barely moved.

Other than calling to schedule an appointment with the animal clinic he had been given the card for (he wasn't about to wait hours with Bud, who would most likely be scared of every other animal in the place), he made himself a proper meal, which all of a sudden had him being nudged and cursing at the failure to resist the pleading for some of the chicken he had made for himself. "I gave you your food already! You even ate most of it!" he argued rather one-sidely, not doing a very good job of getting her to stop her pleading.

"Spoiled brat…" Jason's grumbling lessened by suddenly being eye to eye with his new companion as she stood on her hind legs, trying to plant sloppy kisses all over his face.

"Yeah yeah...cut it out alright. I love you too, ya big ol’ mutt.”

Chapter Text

Present Day – Late Evening

It had only been a few days since the Irish Wolfhound had insinuated itself into Jason’s life but already his place looked like she had lived there for years.

Dog toys littered the living room floor, dog kibble scattered around the kitchen near the dog bowls, and dog hair…everywhere. Well, everywhere except the very nice dog bed Jason had acquired.

Apparently his princess of a dog didn’t feel the need to use it considering Jason’s bed had been deemed more than adequate.

Not that Jason would have minded if the large dog had slept on the edge of his bed (childhood dreams of being surrounding by animals in a nice warm bed all but forgotten over the cold and cutting steel of time), but the fact of the matter was, Jason Todd barely slept, and when he did it was usually not a pleasant experience.

More often than not he’d wake up with a shout, sheets soaked in sweat, gun already in hand before his eyes had completely opened. It was better than it had been before though; when reaching for a gun hadn’t been enough and he’d squeeze himself into the corner of whatever room he was in, eyes trained on the door, swearing he could hear that heinous laugh getting closer, coming to drag him back to hell. It would take hours to peel himself up from off the floor and stumble into the bathroom, trying to get his head back on straight.

The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Bud, not after making the decision to keep her. Which had obviously not been the plan. He hadn’t expected to be lying in bed now, peacefully asleep, Bud curled up at the edge of the bed, snoring softly as dawn came again to Gotham.

Two Days Prior

“Well she looks to be a little over a year old. Definitely underweight, but I’ll write you some recommendations for some more nutrient dense food to get her weight back up” Dr. Raja’s examination of Bud almost halfway through. “She’s definitely not at her full size yet, not that I have had much experience with her breed, but I’d say about another two years or so of growing.”

Jason almost felt bad for whoever would end up owning Bud. She was going to be a Goliath.

The little bit of research he had already looked up online made it clear she was already several inches taller than she should be even with all the growing the woman at the pet supply store had said the day before.

Upon arriving at the animal clinic that afternoon, which Jason hadn’t realized just how close it was to Doc Thompkins clinic, he was definitely grateful he had scheduled an appointment. The less time he spent around this particular area, the better.

While the pet supply store had been a mishmash of folks, the animal clinic looked like it was consistently on its last legs, the stench of unclean animals and people filling the small waiting area. None of the animals looked particularly threatening, and Bud didn’t seem to tense up, moving to lie down on the floor besides Jason’s feet.

He was seriously questioning whether he should have taken her to one of Upper Gotham’s veterinarians. He certainly didn’t mind doing some rough patchwork on himself, but he wasn’t about to give Bud anything but the best of care.

Some city permits and a diploma hung on the wall, not inconspicuous, but not in-your-face either, which Jason was surprised about considering the vet seemed to be a veterinary graduate of Cornell. Still, if he didn’t like what he saw, he had no problem walking.

The receptionist, a petite woman with long braids wrapped up in a bun at the top of her head, had smiled and made note that he had arrived, and had now spent several minutes comforting a tearful little girl who was holding a tiny kitten in her hands, one that Jason thought looked much too small to survive without it’s mom.

Other than that, there wasn’t much to look at; a guy with a small Jack Russell , a back paw already in a cast. The guy himself, dressed in a raggedy hoodie and mismatched sneakers, sporting a nasty looking shiner and keeping his eyes glued to the floor, absentmindedly petting his dog.

“-member what I said.” The door in the back opened, and out walked a dark-eyed woman, who was striking with her brown skin and black hair that was pulled back in a ponytail, the slight greying at her temples something she wasn’t bothering to hide. Jason surmised that she couldn’t have been more than forty-five years old. At her side was an older man, looking twice the woman’s age, and he seemed accepting of the arm the woman had put around his shoulder.

Her accent appeared to be a mixture of British-Indian and what Jason had always called “Gotham Grit”, which both bewildered and amused him. “I know you keep wanting to feed her tuna and milk in her old age but it’s going to continue to cause problems for Mrs. Whiskers. ”

Her voice was stern but tired, as if she’d had this conversation numerous times with the old man her arm was wrapped around, while the man’s arms held a brown tabby cat to his chest.

The man had mumbled a ‘thank you’ and left without saying another word.

Jason watched both the doctor and receptionist exchange an exasperated but fond look (or as Jason had nicknamed it as a kid – The Alfred) before the woman had smoothed down her white doctor’s coat and went about calling for the next patient. The girl with the kitten went in next and came out ten minutes later looking much happier, a small pet carrier in her hand and left with almost a skip in her step. Now it was just him and the guy with the black eye. Turned out Jason was next.

While the outside waiting area had almost veered into being on this side of sketchy, the actual check-up room was pristine and smelled faintly of disinfectant. It made Jason feel better and Bud certainly didn’t seem to have any problems with the doc at all, considering how fast her tail was wagging as she gratefully accepted some strong ‘behind the ears’ scratching.

Ten minutes into the appointment and Jason had filled Dr. Raja in and made clear he wanted whatever was necessary.

She had nodded along as she performed a physical exam, paying particularly close attention to the scars that marred Bud’s body. After that, it had been a blood draw to check for heartworm, anaemia, and other issues that were common in strays.

At this point, Jason was only focused on a key few things: there was no microchip (not that Jason kind of hoped there was so that he could find the people responsible for Bud’s situation) so now she had one, Jason asking only that his phone number be listed – not an odd thing to hear in these parts since a lot of folks didn’t have roofs over their heads; she was fixed (which Jason was happy they didn’t have to worry about); the scars had healed well if rather roughly but it didn’t look like there was any lasting physical damage; and her fleas seemed to be dying off.

Other than waiting for the test results, Bud seemed to be in pretty decent shape.

“All things considered, I’d recommend you find a way to train her. They’re a highly trainable breed if done at a young age, and you’ve made it clear you have the means and desire to do so” Dr. Raja stood up now from where she had been examining the bottoms of Buds’ paws.

There had been no point on placing her on the examination table considering how large she was.

“Yeah no, sorry doc, I’m not keeping her. Just want to get her checked out and take her to that no-kill shelter on Burney.”

Dr. Raja looked at him skeptically, eyes narrowing at Jason’s hand, which had been pressing Bud towards him. The dog herself seemed more than happy to lean into him.
Jason’s hand stilled as he saw where the doc’s line of sight was, causing the woman to smile knowingly before her expression morphed into one that could only be described as melancholy.

“I’ll be honest with you. The shelter up in Burney isn’t a bad one all things considered, but she’s going to be stuck in a small gated area, most likely with other dogs, and no outlet whatsoever. Considering her size, I really don’t see her getting adopted either, which could mean there’s a very likely chance she’d spend the rest of her life there.”

She was straight and to the point, which Jason appreciated. He just didn’t appreciate how her words made his stomach churn and his heart jump to his throat. Someone would see how amazing Bud was, and he’d keep tabs on her, making sure she went to the right people.

‘The doc is telling you Bud’s going to spend the rest of her life in a cell. There aren’t going to be any people for her’ his mind unhelpfully supplied.

“Look, go check it out.” Dr. Raja moved to take her latex gloves off and toss them in the bin. “ If you’re comfortable leaving her there then that’s fine. They’ll take good care of her and they won’t put her down.”

Normally she wouldn’t have pushed someone to take care of an animal they’ve made clear they couldn’t take care of. But in this case it was clear to her that his heart simply wasn’t in it and he had the means to take care of her, financially at least. Which was usually the reason people gave up their pets in the first place.

One Day Prior

Bud’s tests came back negative, which was definitely a relief for Jason. The problem now was the looming deadline Jason had placed on himself to take Bud to the shelter. He’d spend one last day with her before taking her over there.

They’d gone to the park, secluded and barely used anymore considering the number of homeless that had made their homes on the benches and in the clusters of trees; that was the case in most of the public parks in this area. Jason didn’t find the folks here to be a particular threat, but he made sure not to toss the tennis ball he had brought with him too far.

Turns out Bud had been a natural at catching the ball before it even hit the ground, tail wagging proudly back and forth when she brought it back, daintily dropping it in front of Jason’s feet and waiting patiently for it to be thrown again.

Unfortunately time was never on anyone’s side, and with the sun beginning to set, it was time to go take her over to the shelter. He needed to get back to work. Things happened quickly in the dark here in Gotham, and the time he’d spent out of the loop already made him feel antsy. It was time to get back to reality and say goodbye to Bud.

***

He couldn’t say goodbye to Bud.

Dr. Raja had been absolutely right. The place was soul-sucking. And he'd only been there for five minutes.

The thought of leaving Bud cooped up with other dogs in one of these small cells was making him want to run outside and breathe in the foul Gotham air. It would be a million times better than this.

It hadn’t helped that Bud had seemed absolutely oblivious, not hesitating to walk into the shelter as Jason led her there.

This dog trusted him, and he was just going to dump her there, and she wouldn’t know why, and he’d have to go back to his place and know that he’d have to look at all the stuff he’d already bought her and know that she was probably curled up on herself just like she had been when he had found her.

Jason Todd –The Red Hood – was brazen, bold, and didn’t think anything was impossible. He could do whatever he put his mind to. Except his really didn’t want to do this.

“Yeah, I can’t do this. I can’t fucking do this.”

The guy that had been showing him where they’d be putting Bud seemed to understand and didn’t push or react much to Jason’s almost panicked revelation.

It’s not as if they wanted more animals; the whole point was to get them adopted after all.

Jason hadn’t even waited for a response before he had rushed back to the front room, picking up Bud’s leash from where it had been posted by the receptionist and walked them out the door without looking back.

He’d figure it out. He always figured things out. He was the Red Fucking Hood.

Last Night

The walk back to his brownstone had been rather surreal as Jason came to terms with the fact that he had actually chosen to keep Bud. She may not have noticed the slight internal crisis that her new owner was experiencing, but she was certainly happy to show her appreciation for having dinner bestowed upon her as soon as they got back home.

“Right…okay…make a list…you’re good at that.” Jason had immediately gone to the dining room area that extended out from the living room, sitting down at the large mahogany table (he had a thing for quality pieces…so sue him) as Bud chomped happily on her meal in the kitchen.

All-in-all a list was made, and certainly Google had helped, as well as Amazon Prime. One would be surprised at the amount of ‘non-weaponry’ stuff he ordered that more often than not was used in his line of work.

This time however, he ordered everything he could think of and then some, not too concerned about anyone having this particular address since he had never used this place as a delivery spot for anything. Except for now, when he had just clicked submit on a five-hundred dollar order for dog necessities. Apparently the bigger the dog, the higher the cost, so yeah…Jason was rather glad he had a decent disposable income.

Mission accomplished, he closed his laptop and headed over to the sliding doors of the small yard he had outback. There wasn’t much out there save for a miniature herb garden growing in some pots in the corner, a small table, and two wooden folding chairs. That’s all he needed really. That and the ashtray. He didn’t particularly like the smell of smoke inside this place.

He left the sliding door open, in case his new companion wanted to join him. It hadn’t really hit him yet, the decision he had made, and feeling relatively prepared in terms of food and supplies now, there wasn’t anything he could do except to wait for himself to have a freak-out about it at some other point in time. For now though, he smiled –a wide, genuine one – as Bud sauntered over.

“Let’s go ahead and make an announcement shall we?” he asked her, moving her closer to him as he got out his phone.

It took a few shots to get the right one, a perfect picture of him from his nose on down, grinning into the camera and Bud’s wide grin and lolling tongue right next him. He wondered what type of reaction he’d get.

(16:32): I did something crazy.

(16:32): Hello to you too. Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for asking! You’re so sweet. How crazy are talking on a scale of 1-10? 1 being when you miscalculated the timing of that C4 blast and 10 being you’ve chosen to become a priest…and still use C4 occasionally.

Jason grinned at the message but rolled his eyes. Harper was…well, he was Harper. No one else you could really compare him to.

(16:34): Ha fucking ha. The C4 thing wasn’t even my fault. This isn’t like that though. Meet Bud. Found her during the downpour a couple of nights ago while out patrolling.

(16:34): Picture sent

Jason waited patiently for some sort of response, the seconds dragging by and making him wonder whether or not Harper had been in the middle of something or was just completely floored.

It had been about six months since had seen the guy, who had gone back to Star City, taking a page out of Jason’s book and refusing to be run out of his own town. Jason wasn’t too sure about whether or not he wanted any credit for that choice –and had made that very clear to his friend from the get-go - but so far Roy Harper was still alive. So far so good.

(16:36): What is that glorious creature and why do you have one and I don’t?!

Jason huffed out a laugh, beginning to type out a response but not having a chance to send it as he was bombarded by messages.

(16:36): She’s officially our team mascot.

(16:36): You don’t get a say.

(16:37): It’s been decided.

(16:37): In the meantime, here’s my new best friend…

(16:37): Picture received

It was impossible not to properly laugh as the photo Roy sent popped up on the screen, an eerily similar selfie pose to the one that Jason had just sent over of him and Bud. The only difference was that where Bud would have been next to Roy, it was a large sandwich instead.

(16:38): See? I’m not jealous. This is Pearl. She’s a marvellous tuna melt on wheat that will be my boon companion.

This was one of the reasons Jason really liked Roy Harper; considered him more of a brother than the guy might have realized. The master archer didn’t ask Jason why he had adopted a dog or said he was being ridiculous and couldn’t keep her. He had simply rolled with it, making the tension bleed out of Jason.

If Arsenal had thought it would be a shit idea, he would have said so. Instead, he was jealous and trying to nurture his relationship with his late lunch to compensate.
It was all Jason needed to know to reassure himself things would be alright.

He was building his life back up, one that was his and his alone.

And Bud’s.

Chapter Text

Getting back to nightly business on the streets of Gotham had only taken a minor bit of adjusting. He was now officially a dog owner; the dog tag he had engraved earlier that day still resting solidly in his pocket as he crouched on the northwest corner of the abandoned Gotham Water District 2 plant, listening in through the bug he’d placed down by the makeshift office near the private docks below.

He hadn’t had a chance to attach the tag to Bud’s collar yet, but he planned on doing that as soon as he got back to the brownstone.

There was no point denying that in the past four days that he had lived with his giant softie of a dog, that building had felt truly lived in. Bud had certainly made herself at home and that seemed to come with absolutely no understanding of personal space, considering Jason was still figuring out how to get her to stop following him to the bathroom.

He had worried about leaving her alone for long periods at a time, especially in the evenings, which had him pulling up live feed from the in-home cameras just to make sure she wasn’t barking or whining or ripping things to shreds.

Turns out he needn’t have worried. While the owner’s away, the dog will apparently use the opportunity to take up the entirety of the bed and snooze.

“Any luck with the shipment?” Arsenal’s voice crackled through Jason’s helmet, immediately prompting him to close out the screen where he’d been checking to make sure his hound was behaving. He was beginning to get the feeling that he’d become a parent without realizing it.

“No, they’ve been waiting around for the past hour looking antsy as fuck” Jason responded.

Four hours into his first patrol ‘post-Bud’ had the Red Hood trailing an increasing number of drug-related deaths, which in turn had led to finding the respective dealers that were selling said drugs. Not that drug dealers wanted their clients to drop dead; after all, it was bad for business. However in this particular instance, it wasn’t the drugs that became Jason’s main point of concern but rather the individuals that had died; no one over twenty-five with a majority being sex workers.

Sure there were few other random victims as well, but Jason was smart enough to realize who the real targets had been. He had almost wished it was a serial killer, because then he would have had no qualms about having his way with the bastard.

Unfortunately, all he had been able to learn from talking with those in Crime Alley had been a name, one which people didn’t really seem all that eager to mention: the Angel. A quick search had also shown some similar deaths in other cities, one of which was Roy Harper's own.

Roy had been more than happy to help out, not having anything better to do that evening except watch Game of Thrones for what must have been the millionth time. Jason was honestly curious as to just what the hell Arsenal was doing with his time these days. He'd make sure to ask later on.

”So this Berto Rowe looks to be a fine, upstanding – not to mention extraordinarily rich - guy, who has been using his moolah to help cities in third-world countries rebuild their infrastructures. He's also a big proponent of eliminating volunteerism at orphanages and removing those institutions for good. How anyone hasn’t gotten suspicious of his goodie two-shoe act is beyond me…” Roy prattled on.

Berto Rowe had inherited a small family-run shoe factory in Brazil from his father and had turned it into the largest manufacturer of rubber shoe soles in the world. Not a particularly glamorous product, but one that certainly earned the man a fortune that was larger than the GDP of several countries combined.

He had been given the nickname the “Angel of Brazil”, despite having moved to Portugal sometime after inheriting the family business. The so-called Angel appeared quite eager to open up a manufacturing plant on outskirts of Gotham, promising to give jobs to those in need and to donate funds to help in the clean-up of Gotham’s streets. He also seemed quite keen on helping the poor children of Gotham whom he felt had been ignored by society for too long.

Jason wondered for a split second whether Bruce Wayne’s fucked-up ego would have appreciated the help in Gotham, but it didn’t particularly matter as anger flared bright and hot through Jason at Mr. Rowe’s focus on children.

One thing you learned growing up as a Crime Alley kid was that all adults were to be met with caution and nice adults should make you run. There were several fates worse than death that had befallen children that were too hopeful or trusting of adults. Adults that had taken the time to soften them up before ‘asking for a favor’ in return. The so-called favor never being optional.

“Please give me something I can work with here…” Jason bit out, getting frustrated at the lack of action but knowing he’d unsuspectingly stumbled upon something big.

If Roy was affected by Jason’s tone, he didn’t let on.

”He’s throwing a house warming party next week…at Gotham Palace Hotel. No idea how that’s a house warming party but whatever. Looks like he’s invited a lot of heavy hitters – not just from Gotham, but from neighboring cities as well. He’s probably as corrupt as they come but I’m not seeing anything linking to drug-“

“Hang on a sec. There’s movement.” Jason stood up from his crouched position, moving around the edge of the roof as he saw a small pontoon pulling into the dock.

Six of the guards that had been milling about and talking non-stop about the abysmal season the Gotham Knights were having this year, immediately moved towards the small boat.

Zooming in on the men through his helmet, Jason watched as a small container, no bigger than a shoe box, was handed over, the pontoon already beginning to make its way back out into the water.

It was incredibly difficult not to just reign down upon the thugs with bullets and blades, wanting to know exactly what the hell was going on. The likelihood of their being drugs in that box was extremely low considering it would have only been enough for a few blocks of sales.

Perhaps luck was on the Red Hood’s side tonight though as the thug carrying the box turned, allowing one of his colleagues to remove the lid and take a look inside, beginning to inspect whatever was in there with what looked to be a black light and some sort of electronic scanner attached to small screen.

”They look like cards of some sort.” Jason could practically hear the squinting of Roy’s eyes as the man could see exactly what Jason was looking at via the link between the hood and Roy’s computer.

“Looks like invitations maybe…” Jason’s zoomed in more to saw a piece of card stock, its silver embossed lettering reflecting off the black light and some sort of watermark…

Except it looked less like a watermark and more like a logo.

With the box now being walked over to a waiting suburban, Jason followed via rooftop, while Roy worked his magic on the other end, attempting to get some clean shots of the logo that Jason had seen.

It didn’t take Roy more than a minute or two to get it cleaned up and run it through the various databases, looking for anything similar. He just didn’t realize how many hits he was going to get.

Jason heard the sound of Roy’s low whistle and muttered cursing.

“They’re wings. Some sort of art deco design made with the guys initials.” Roy began a quick rundown, the soft clicking of the laptop keyboard continuing on in the background. “They’ve come up in dozens of cities globally. Trucks, buses, walls, tattoos…this logo shows up pretty frequently in high-crime neighborhoods. I’m going to have to do some digging to see exactly what it’s tied to. I’ll try and have something for you here in a bit.”

Following the suburban and the two trailing cars had been rather anti-climactic, with the box being taken around back of a small stationary store. The men didn't appear to have a key, picking the lock on the metal grating covering the storefront, and making easy work of the lock on the front door. No one could really afford security systems in this part of town anyways.

The men had been in and out of the shop within minutes.

It looked like the Red Hood was going to be able to get his hands on one of those cards though; one of those rare instances where things just all seemed to fall into place. Part of him was actually disappointed; having taken a few days off, he really had been looking forward to shooting somebody or maybe a small explosion. That would have been nice.

By the time he had re-picked the locks a good fifteen minutes later, he had quickly made his way through the store and found what he was looking for. Taking photos of several of the cards, he checked to make sure they weren't marked in any sequential order before grabbing one for himself and closing everything back up.

An hour and a half after that, he was back at the brownstone sitting on the couch, card stock in one hand while the other rested on Bud’s head as she relaxed on the sofa beside him.

At first glance, the invitation looked like just a fancy bit of paper, similar to countless others that high society folks sent out for galas or other major social events. Jason had seen several of them first-hand during his time at the manor. The amount of money people would shell out just to get them made was insane.

This one was a dark navy blue, almost black, silver embossing used to create the script, which was simple and in print, no cursive or calligraphy of any kind.

11700 – 20:00

567494 – G12

Jason had no idea what the numbers meant, but the bottom ones had been printed in a similar font to routing numbers on checks. He had immediately sent Roy a photo of it as well as some of the others he had taken back at the shop. All of the cards had followed the same formatting, with the only numbers identical on each being 20:00.

‘20:00’ was most likely time of some sort…eight pm or twenty minutes…but Jason couldn’t be sure.

Those numbers were all that had been written on it, and even with the portable black light Jason had run over it, the only thing that had popped up was that massive winged logo Roy was still researching. Speaking of…

“Any luck yet?” Jason asked as soon as Roy picked up, holding his phone to his ear and shifting on the sofa as Bud stretched and yawned widely, before flopping back down.

“Yup.” That had been Roy’s only response for a moment as Jason could hear the sound of an engine in the background.

“Are you driving right now?” Jason asked, frowning slightly.

“Heading your way. You at the fancy place?” Roy teased lightly. “There’s too much to go over, and frankly, I want to have a look at what you were able to grab. I played the video footage back and they were using some sort of MICR scanner.

At least Jason had been on the right track with thinking the numbers at the bottom of the card looked like routing numbers of some sort. Which was usually what those scanners were used for identifying. He was just surprised that Roy was making the trip down at almost five in the morning.

Confirming that he was indeed at the ‘fancy place’ as Roy had put it, Jason made sure his friend was not driving up in anything super conspicuous considering he did have neighbors here that actually slept during the evening. He also hoped his friend had made sure he wasn’t followed out of Star City or clocked by any CCTVs upon entering Gotham.

By the time Roy showed up, it was close to sunrise; he had really been pushing his luck.

Hearing the ringing the doorbell, Jason was already ready with coffee and grabbed a few bags of chips which he knew the guy would inhale within minutes.

“Hey there pal!” Roy’s smile bright as he tried to peer past Jason almost immediately once the door had opened. “Nice digs. Where’s our mascot?”

Without so much as a “may I come in?”, Roy pushed Jason out of the way, taking in everything as he walked in and quirking an eyebrow as he looked down at the chessboard style black and white marble floor that led away from the front door. Still, he didn’t do as much ribbing as he wanted to as he walked right into the living room and saw the massive dog completely stretched out on the sofa, taking up the entirety of it.

“Holy shit.” Roy’s eyed widened as Bud moved slowly to get up and walk over to the stranger, sniffing him hesitantly before wagging her giant tail back and forth and trying to jump up to lick his face. Not that that was particularly hard for her as she made herself face to face with Roy.

“She. Is. Awesome.” Roy declared, laughing as he accepted some kisses before slapping Jason on the back in greeting and making his way to grab the coffee he could smell coming from the kitchen.

Jason smirked slightly as he gently pried Bud down and had her move to sit back on the couch. “Yeah, she really is. She’s going to get bigger too.” He couldn’t help but throw in there to see Roy’s reaction. He wasn’t disappointed as his friend looked practically giddy at the thought.

A few minutes of doing a quick catch up and some more pets for Bud, they moved over to the dining room table, Roy opening up the duffel bag he had brought with him and taking out his laptop and other equipment.

Roy’s digging into this ‘Angel of Brazil’ had led him to more photos and random internet posts, most having to do with missing people and dead bodies. Frankly, he hadn't been all that surprised.

For Jason and Roy, the focus was on Gotham and Star City, places where this guy was trying to wrap his nasty little hands around. The goal for right now was to prevent the evil asshole from making a claim in their cities. Then they could focus on taking care of this guy.

“Somehow he’s been quite successful at figuring out just who among the elite are willing to pay for what he can provide. My guess is that the house warming party is a way for him to do some recognizance, and that” Roy pointed to the card that now rested next to him on the table, “is the second invitation or maybe some sort of membership card.” He stated, taking out some sort of scanner that looked somewhat like what the thugs had used down at the docks.

“As smart as this guy thinks he is though, his cyber security is shit” Roy grinned, typing away and pulling up what found on the screen. “I’m not even that great at this stuff and I could crack it.”

What the small numbers on the bottom had linked to was a profile document, allowing space for name, locations, business holdings, any suspected or confirmed criminal ties, total fortune, marital status, family medical history… It was unbelievably thorough.

“It’s blank though” Jason frowned, watching Roy click through to other links, seeing exactly where the other routing numbers took him. Turned out the morons that had set this up hadn’t bothered keeping the files separate from one another.

“Yeah, all of them are. That might be why they haven’t done much to secure anything. Sure it looks odd if someone stumbled upon them, but with nothing listed on them, there’s no real risk yet” Roy’s words muffled as kept shoving chips in his mouth. "That, and the fact this guy's ego probably makes him feel invincible."

Putting the big pieces together hadn’t too difficult at this point. Clearly the cards were planned on being handed out to particular individuals, ensuring only those and those alone who had gained access would show up to whatever it was that was going to happen, the invitees none the wiser that Mr. Rowe would already know everything about him or her.

A look out the window showed the sun had almost fully risen, and Roy seemed to be crashing despite all the cups of coffee he had consumed. They needed some sleep if they were even going to approach this the right way.

Setting Roy up in the guest room had merely involved throwing the red-head a bottle of water and pointing him up the stairs.

“I can’t believe you have a guest room” Roy huffed a laugh. “Although I’d better see a bidet in the bathroom or I’m leaving.” Roy chuckled, running up the stairs as he dodged a dog toy that had been thrown at him.

By the time noon rolled around, both men had managed to catch some sleep and made their way to the kitchen, coffee already percolating. Jason was by the stove, putting together something with eggs and bacon, while Roy was back at the dining room table, sipping his coffee without taking his gaze away from the laptop screen.

Another look at the empty profiles from before showed that some had begun to get filled out (“honestly, it’s like they want to get hacked!” Roy had pointed out), and frankly there wasn’t a single name listed that surprised him so far. Except some interesting facts here and there; he was surprised to see just how many closeted cross-dressers were listed.
‘Whatever floats your boat’ Jason thought. As long as it didn’t hurt anyone else, he didn’t really care what people did.

“What do you want to do?” Roy asked, getting up and heading over to the kitchen, refilling his coffee mug and picking up a chew toy from the floor and trying to persuade Bud into participating in a tug of war match. The dog however, seemed to be preoccupied by the smell of bacon coming from the hot pan.

“Go entertain her would you? Otherwise she’ll eat this all while our backs our turned. Or she might simply hip check me.” Jason said, not looking up from the skillet in front of him.

Roy whistled slightly, getting the dog’s attention and managed to coax her into the living room, taking out a measuring tape he had brought with him as he put down his coffee.

Jason’s voice carried over from the kitchen. “Well considering it doesn’t look like anyone from Wayne Industries is going to this bastard’s party, I figured I’d go. Half the time no one remembers who anyone is, not at such a large event at least, and no one is going to outwardly admit to that considering the amount of dough floating around the place. Shouldn’t be too hard to rub elbows in that crowd and see if I can get some more intel."

Roy hummed in agreement, doing his best to wrap the measuring tape around Bud’s torso.

Securing an invitation or simply crashing the party were both probably options considering the event was taking place at a hotel and not a private residence or large compound of any kind. There was only so much security that the place could have.

Plus the lack of Brucie, Replacement, or even Lucius making an appearance was pretty much guaranteed at this point.

Not that Wayne Industries wouldn’t have scored an invitation, but part of the Bruce Wayne’s squeaky clean and occasionally vapid image was not being seen accepting invitations from unfamiliar folks, lest it been seen as an official backing by Bruce Wayne. Avoiding scandal had always been key.

And there was the fact that Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox were heading to Tokyo that same week for the unveiling of a new Wayne Tech R&D headquarters.

“What the fuck are you doing with my dog?”

Roy immediately tried to stuff the measuring tape in his back pocket, looking up at Jason who was standing there with two plates in his hands and a look of confusion on his face.

“We have costumes. It’s only fair she gets one too!” Roy pointed out. Clearly he felt is reasoning was sound.

Jason rolled his eyes and walked over to the dining room and to place the plates down on the table.

With Jason now out of sight, Roy quickly snatched out the measuring tape again, trying to get a few more measurements down before Bud began to follow the smell of people food.

“Stop measuring her for a costume!” Jason yelled without much heat, not even having to see Roy to know he was making another attempt.

“Listen, we can make her an outfit!” Roy was determined to get his point across no matter what it took. “We both have our get-ups. She needs one too! We’re the Outlaws. She could be the founding member of…wait for it…the Outpaws!”

Roy seemed rather pleased with his play on words while Jason leveled him with a flat expression.

“I don’t even know why I put up with you anymore.”

It had been a statement rather than a question, but Harper was clearly determined, holding up his hand and bringing up a finger for each of his points.

“Because I come up with amazing ideas, I’m incredibly handsome and charismatic, I protect your crazy ass, and I’m going to help you crash a party.” Roy concluded his argument by plopping down on the chair, tucking into his breakfast with gusto while Jason sighed, taking a piece of bacon off his plate and giving it to Bud.

“Says the man that made a sandwich his best friend.”

“Her name was Pearl and you’ll never hold a candle to her.”

“I wasn’t even going to try, Roy.” Jason responded dryly. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He moved to get something out of his pocket, holding up the oval shaped silver tag so that Roy could see it.

Jason had went to one of his more equipment-filled safe-houses, carefully engraving Bud's name and his phone number on the front. The best bit however, was on the other side, one that most folks wouldn’t see. He handed it over to Roy to look at.

“See?! She is an Outpaw! I told you!” Roy pointed out, both men laughing as they looked over the Red Hood symbol that had been etched into the metal.

Chapter Text

As the hours ticked by, Roy and Jason monitored the ever updating profiles they had found linked together earlier that morning. The more profiles were filled, the more it became clear that while information was being gathered on almost every attendee of Berto Rowe’s upcoming high society event, not everyone was passing muster for whatever this secondary bit seemed to be. Of the hundred or so profiles that had now been filled out, less than half had been marked with a green ‘OK’ at the bottom. Maybe it was for those who people confirmed their attendance or maybe it was for the strange cards in he had found, neither one of them knew yet.

Regardless, this whole thing was a major background dig on a lot of people, which the Red Hood was extremely thankful for now that he had unwittingly been able to accumulate information on almost all the heavy hitters in Gotham. You never knew when that shit would come in handy, although he’d assume it’s usefulness would come to light sooner rather than later. Jason was already toying with ideas on how the Red Hood could make a bigger impact in Gotham. Of course, with that came risks of Batman and his brood finding him. He’d have to tread carefully.

“Let’s focus on one thing at a time, yeah?” Roy smirked as he caught sight of the thoughtful frown on Jason’s face which meant he had guessed correctly just where Jason’s line of thought had been going.

The overnight stay of Roy’s wasn’t too unusual, but Jason had been surprised by Roy’s almost too casual request to crash at the brownstone for the next few days until after the party. When Jason had asked him why, Roy had made a joke about needing the time to steal Bud away from him, and Jason had smirked and wished him good luck with that, knowing deflection when he heard it. He wasn’t going to push for the real reason, and Roy was always welcome, considering he had a knack for knowing when Jason needed his space. Still, Jason knew the truth would come out eventually.

For now, he only needed to worry about the risk of finding Bud suddenly dressed in a full costume, which Roy was still adamant she have. The compromise at this point was some obedience and defensive training, since it was evident that despite her intimidating stature, she’d probably scare someone for a good half a second before rolling over for belly rubs.

“I feel like we’re married now.” Roy grinned unabashedly as both he and Jason got ready to head out of house, several things on the agenda for the day.

Jason rolled his eyes as he buttoned the sleeve on his dress shirt, getting ready to head out into the center of Gotham Heights to get some appropriate clothing for party crashing, and choosing to take Bud with him so she could get out and stretch her legs a bit. Roy on the other hand, had been told to do some grocery shopping seeing as how he had eaten almost everything in the fridge. Plus, he also needed to find a decent car for them to use in a few days considering that as ex-wards of billionaires, neither one of them had easy access to a luxury vehicle of any kind.

They couldn’t have looked more different at the moment though, considering Jason was looking to blend in as much as possible. With a dark grey suit and white dress shirt sans-tie, Jason was pretty pleased with the result. The slim suit elongated his frame, making him look even taller and less bulky than he actually was and his hair had been slightly gelled off to the side, a natural wave in it having no chance of being messed up until he went and got it properly cut. At least he had already dyed his white streak a week prior, and didn't have to deal with that for a couple of more weeks.

Roy had whistled teasingly upon seeing his friend come down the stairs. No one could say Jason Todd didn’t know how to adapt. On the other hand, Roy took in his own appearance, which consisted of jeans and a zip-up hoodie with the Superman logo on it. Jason had sneered when he saw it, but Roy had defended his selection by stating it was meant to be ironic.

“You’re supposed to love me regardless of what I wear. That’s what marriage is all about!” Roy had exclaimed, doing a very convincing impression of an upset spouse. It earned him a cuff on the back of his head and roll of the eyes as Jason got Bud’s leash and attached it to her collar. She had been waiting patiently by the door the whole time and Jason took that as yet another sign that she’d probably be pretty easy to train; he just needed to make the time sometime soon.

The last thing he heard as he walked out the door with Bud was Roy yelling at him.

“If we get divorced, I’m filing for custody of the dog!”

Jason continued walking, not looking back as he lifted his hand and gave Roy the finger. He could hear Roy’s laugh even as he rounded the corner.

***

Evenings in Gotham transcended neighborhoods, no area being all that safe but certainly some areas being safer than others. During the day however, without the shadows, the ominous gargoyles ready to pounce overhead, neon lights, and practically deserted streets, there were more contrasts to be found. None so much as between where he was now in Gotham Heights and the rest of the city; save for Bristol, where Jason would never step foot again and hadn’t, since before he had died.

The urban areas of Gotham Heights were a combination of three main high streets that ran parallel to one another, all of them housing various boutiques and interspersed with some of the cities high end dining options. The smaller side streets that connected the three main thoroughfares were packed with older shops and plenty of mom and pop cafes that were particularly busy at the moment as the sun had decided to gift the citizens with a rare appearance. It helped Jason justify the sunglasses today at least.

As he made his way down the sidewalk, the number of people out and about increased, but with Bud prancing next to him, they were given a wide berth. He had to suppress a smirk as he caught glimpses of appraising looks thrown his way, not sure if it was because of how he was dressed or because of Bud. In either case, Jason knew they both looked damn good, and it was rather satisfying in some odd way to know how easily it was to blend in with social classes above your own when you simply acted like you belonged.

In the fifteen minutes he’d been walking, several women and men had commented on his beautiful dog, asking to pet her in an attempt to start conversation with him. His ability to act as a natural flirt allowed Bud to get some affection (Jason had remembered the reactions he and Bud had gotten on that first day together and was determined to ensure Bud knew how amazing she was), while Jason practiced his social graces. A few people tried to offer their numbers, but Jason had politely declined, using the excuse that Bud had spoiled him for any other future relationships. Clearly even in their disappointment of being rejected, they were charmed by Jason’s good manners and light humor.

He would have ignored everyone completely but most of his interactions with people had been as the Red Hood, and he wanted to make sure he hadn’t lost his touch at blending in with Gotham’s upper crust. Which for Jason, was anyone that had a decent roof over their heads, hot water, clean clothes, and food in the fridge.

By the time he made it over to where he knew a cluster of designer menswear stores were, he couldn’t help but stop in front of the one he remembered when he was a kid; the one he could never pronounce but Alfred had attempted to teach him. Jason had purposefully made sure his pronunciation had gotten worse rather than better, trying to get Alfred to laugh. It had almost worked once.

With a bittersweet smile, he sighed, taking one last look at the shop front and moving a couple of doors down to one that he knew by reputation.

The light gray carpet was plush and well cared for as Jason felt the cushioning underneath his feet, taking a few steps in. He admired the mannequins in the center hallway a moment, using the opportunity to do a quick look around with his peripheral vision to make sure it wasn’t too busy. Places like this usually weren’t though. To his left looked to be the way to men’s section; to the right, the women’s, and in the center were handbags and leather goods. Definitely a larger store than Jason thought it would be.

Only a few seconds went by before an older gentleman almost a head shorter than him walked over, a surprisingly friendly smile on his face. Jason had been expecting to be given a once over, especially with Bud along side him (his plan having been to be enough of a snobbish asshole if necessary to refuse to have his dog remain outside the premises) but instead he found himself removing his sunglasses and tucking them into his chest pocket, reaching out a hand to shake the one that had been extended to him.

“Good afternoon. I’m James. Who is this we have here then?” He asked, looking over at Bud, whose tail was wagging without risk of knocking anything over.

“This is Bud. I hope you don’t mind her in here.” Jason’s plan of coming across as a douchebag having now flown completely out the door. He hadn’t really expected a warm greeting of any kind but rather that fake, heavily veneered politeness that came when they knew you had money and had to just suck it up and bite down on their resentment. James seemed to be completely opposite as Jason watched him pat Bud’s head fondly.

“Not at all, Mr...” James looked up from Bud now, catching Jason’s apologetic look at having not properly introduced himself.

“Please, call me Peter.” Jason responded with an easy going smile, going on to explain his need for an evening suit, already having a preference for navy.

James nodded, motioning for Jason to follow him towards the back of the men’s section, where the more formal items of clothing and suits were laid out.

He allowed Jason the opportunity to look at the different styles of suits in assorted colors and materials, while Bud stood beside him. A tug on the leash had Jason turning to see James having come back over from a back room, a dog bowl on a tray along with some dog biscuits, and a water glass with a small ice cold bottle of Pellegrino.

“Looks like you’re living the high life now, Bud” Jason smirked, watching as James set down a small mat, placed the bowl of water down and the biscuits, before coming over and pouring some Pellegrino for Jason. With Bud now happily preoccupied, James turned his attention back to Jason.

“I believe a similar fit to what you have on would look exceptional in navy, but if you’re willing to try a few other options, I believe I may be able to surprise you” he grinned, the confidence in his abilities clear. Who was Jason to disagree?

“I trust you...” Jason said sincerely, his eyes straying to a suit that was in the corner, looking perfectly put together: a combination of modern cuts and traditional design.

James followed Jason’s gaze and smiled. “I’m glad. Although it looks like you may have a favorite.”

A few minutes later and Jason was in the dressing room, trying on the first of four suits, coming out and standing up on the pedestal in front of the triple mirrors, James coming around to inspect and nod.

“You’ve been doing this a long time?” Jason asked, seeing as how the man should have been retired or close to doing so at his age.

“About thirty years give or take.” James responded as he crouched by Jason’s feet and pinned up the pant legs. “I had my own tailoring business in Metropolis until...” the man hesitated for a moment, causing Jason to frown slightly at himself in the mirror. “Superman was battling someone or something...I don’t quite remember as I was not in town at the time. Lucky for me, or I would most likely have been injured. My store did not survive the damage, and the city was taking too long with reparations. I have two daughters in medical school, and I do not wish them to be in financial hardship while they study, so...I chose to move to Gotham and was lucky to find a job continuing to do what I enjoy.”

James told the story with a smile while Jason’s hands clenched into fists at his side. His blood boiled as he listened to James’ story. Fucking Superman flew around like he was God’s gift to the people of Metropolis, not needing to hide in the shadows and out causing disasters during the day with little regard for how his actions affected others. Just because the guy didn’t kill people shouldn’t have allowed him a pass to do whatever he fucking wanted with no concern about the aftermath. Jason couldn’t even begin to count the number of times Superman had appeared on TV, apologetic about the damage and assuring that the city was committed to rebuilding and offering restitution to those impacted.

‘Poor, naive fucker’ Jason sneered. Ignorance was not an excuse, and Superman should have known that the level of bureaucracy involved in rebuilding and reparations didn’t help people put food on the table when their livelihoods were destroyed.

“Alright, what do you think?” James’ question allowing Jason to refocus and relax his posture, staring at himself in the mirror. He blinked several times, taking in the man looking back at him. When the fuck had he grown up? Jason continued to stare at himself. This wasn’t where he ever thought he’d end up. Hell, he remembered right before his death there had even been some brief talk about college and some dreams about maybe majoring in languages. He had always loved school, felt grateful that he’d been able attend a great one, even though it had been short-lived. No high school diploma, no college. Just gritty Gotham nights, occasional explosions, and a lot of blood and death.

“Shall we try on the others?” James asked, a small smile on his face as he watched his client have one of those impactful moments of seeing just how much a great tailored suit could transform you. It’s what he lived for.

Jason nodded dazedly, moving to step off the platform and change into the next suit.

It took forty-five minutes in total, James never rushing and Jason not in any hurry. In the meantime, Bud had become incredibly popular with the rest of the staff, who had all come over to pet her and take photos. She seemed to be loving it.

“So have you decided?” the older gentleman asked as he helped Jason back into his original blazer.

Knowing what he knew now about James and his life, he smiled and shook his head. “They’re all great. I figure I’ll just purchase all four. I’m sure I’ll have a reason to wear them all.” He probably wouldn’t, but James didn’t need to know that.

The man’s eyes widened a fraction, as Jason also indicated that he’d need the corresponding dress shirts that he had tried on with them, along with some belts, shoes, and other accessories.

For the almost twenty-thousand dollars he was spending, he knew James would be able to help his daughters with their schooling even more based on the commission of this single sale.

Everyone seemed sad to see Jason and Bud go, but surprisingly Jason hadn’t found the whole thing as painful as it should have been. With a pickup date for the clothes and accessories in hand, Jason walked out, pausing on the sidewalk in front of the store to pull out his phone to send Roy the photos of Bud that he had taken when she’d been served water and biscuits.

“What a lovely dog. I have not seen this breed since I was quite young.”

The voice had come from Jason’s right, causing his hand to grip the phone in it so tightly that he could hear it creak from the pressure. Blood was roaring in his ears and his heart was pounding at such an alarming rate that black spots filled Jason’s vision.

That voice...he hadn’t heard it in so very long; hadn’t thought he’d ever hear it again. He didn’t deserve to hear it ever again. Yet here he was, standing there in his best clothes with his new dog and this whole new weird life of his, and running into the only one from his old life that he missed desperately.

Alfred Pennyworth stood beside him now, smiling at Bud who was wagging her tail and licking Alfred’s hand before he had even asked to approach her.

He was grayer than Jason remembered...and shorter. Jason wasn’t even sure how that was possible; all his memories of Alfred had him staring up at the only grandparent he had ever had. And now? Now Jason was looking slightly down at the man, doing his best not to turn his head too much, and being so fucking relieved that he had put his sunglasses back on before leaving the store.

Jason had been so fucking stupid. He shouldn’t have risked coming here, not when Alfred was obviously picking up clothing or doing whatever other errands for Bruce or maybe one of the sons. It didn't matter as Jason was now stuck with wanting to make a run for it (which would have drawn more attention to himself considering he’d be running with Bud alongside) and wanting to just stand there and just listen to Alfred talk. It had been so long...

“What is her name?” Jason heard Alfred ask.

He tried answering but no sound came out. His voice was stuck in his throat which was also doing a damn good job of restricting airflow, barely allowing him to breathe. It must have taken too long to respond because it was then that Alfred looked directly at him.

Jason expected shock, horror, something startling and/or heart-wrenching. What he hadn’t expected was for the man to smile at him. Had Alfred truly not recognized him? Something inside him broke a little, wondering whether he had simply changed so much or if he had been forgotten. He never thought that Alfred would forget his face...

“Er, her name’s Bud.” Jason’s voice low and hoarse as if from lack of use. It probably wouldn’t have mattered though; the last time Alfred had heard Jason’s voice, it had been right after it had started to deepen. It had dropped significantly more since then. God he missed the man. Jason hadn’t even been able to bring himself to look into whether or not Bruce had told Alfred he was alive. It was better if Alfred had thought him still dead, but the anger at Bruce flared up all the same. He did his best to keep his face as neutral as possible; none of this was Alfred's fault.

“Well, thank you both for putting up with an old man and his bout of nostalgia.” Alfred patted Bud on the head one last time while Jason screamed on the inside. ‘You’re not an old man! You’re Alfred! You’re invincible! You’re not allowed to get old!’ He raged wildly in his head. This was so fucked up; so fucked up and wrong and painful and he wanted to both hug Alfred and hide from him and fuck, was he tearing up? Jason blinked behind his sunglasses trying to stop the possible breakdown he was very close to having.

“Goodbye, Alfred.” Jason’s voice quiet and soft as he tried to keep calm and immediately moved past the man, tugging slightly on the leash to let Bud know they were leaving.

He continued down the street, trying to keep his pace from speeding up, and hoping that he’d come across a small alleyway or something just so he could stop and just breathe.

Eventually finding a small nook next to a coffee house, he spied the old stubbed out cigarettes on the floor and took that to mean this was as good a place as any to stop. It took him an embarrassingly long time to light his cigarette as his hands wouldn't stop shaking, but he finally did, taking a long drag and exhaling slowly, trying to make sense of what the fuck had just happened and why the universe continued to screw him over.

Closing his eyes, he leaned against the wall, Bud waiting patiently by his side, leaning on him almost reassuringly.

Halfway through his cigarette, the air around him shifted and he didn’t bother opening his eyes. He just couldn't catch a fucking break.

“That is a horrible habit Master Jason and I-I do wish you’d stop.” Alfred’s words without bite as he seemed to have trouble speaking, his voice choked with such emotion in a way Jason never would have expected from him.

Jason huffed out a broken laugh, head hanging low in defeat. He didn’t throw out the cigarette though.

Chapter Text

“That is a horrible habit Master Jason and I-I do wish you’d stop.” Alfred’s words without bite as he seemed to have trouble speaking, his voice choked with such emotion in a way Jason never would have expected from him.

Jason huffed out a broken laugh, head hanging low in defeat. He didn’t throw out the cigarette though.

***

Taking another drag from his cigarette, Jason raised his head and tilted it back to rest it against the wall, his eyes still closed as he exhaled smoke towards the sky. He didn’t do it spite Alfred, and he was certain the man knew it; he had simply needed the moment to try and compose himself as best he could.

Exhaling slowly, he opened his eyes, watching the trail of smoke unfurl until there was no trace of it left. He wondered for a brief moment just how much of Gotham’s air was made up of puffs of cigarette smoke and ashes from people who were lost and dealing with life as best they could. Some might have considered him lucky; to cheat death and have a second chance. Perhaps hell had chucked him out, not wanting to bother with the likes of him. He certainly doubted he would have gone to the other place upstairs. Not that he believed in God but still...upstairs? Fat chance of that.

‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’ he mused, sighing as he brought his head down, inwardly bracing himself as finally looked at the only person whose opinion still mattered.

“It’s true you know.” Alfred stated calmly, sounding vastly more composed than he had moments before.

Jason blinked in surprise, seeing Alfred’s face (‘too many new frown lines and too much gray’ he thought) and that small smile that Jason had always selfishly thought had been just for him. His chest constricted painfully, memories he had tried very hard to bury now crashing over him and barely allowing him to catch his breath. He was both grateful and unhappy that they were still in public, only minimally secluded in the small alcove he had found.

Looking down at his cigarette, Jason dropped it on the floor and crushed it under his shoe, assuming that’s what he had been referring to, only to get a small shake of the head as if Jason had completely missed the moral of some story.

“I don’t-“

“When I was younger,” Alfred interrupted with a quiet intensity, hands now resting behind his back as stood there motionless, seemingly oblivious to the few people that walked by only a few feet away, “my parents would take us every Spring up to northern Scotland. I absolutely despised it, much preferring to be in the city where life happened all around oneself. I didn’t have much a choice of course, seeing as how I was too young to be left alone.”

Jason was completely lost, but stayed silent. Alfred had never been a man of many words, always having chosen quality over quantity which caused everyone to listen when he spoke. So when Alfred Pennyworth had something to say, you’d bet your ass it was important.

Jason said nothing and stood there quietly, entirely focused on just the sound of Alfred’s voice, not wanting to risk ruining the moment he had previously told himself he could never have again.

“On one such trip, I fell ill, which wasn’t at all surprising; my father had insisted on us residing in a large and rather drafty great house for the duration of our visit. Luckily, I was joined by two of the estate manager’s large dogs. Both of which were lovely Irish Wolfhounds, quite similar in appearance to the one you have here.” Alfred smiled softly at Bud, who now sat patiently by Jason’s side. “I spent two weeks sitting in front of a large fire, barely any need for warm blankets as they would rest on my legs or occasionally act as a fine pillow.”

Jason cracked a small smile but still stayed silent, not even risking a look over at Bud at this point. If there was a point to this story, Jason didn’t really care. He had never heard Alfred speak about his childhood before, let alone his past before the Wayne family.

“You can imagine my parents surprise when our trip had come to an end and I was adamant that we extend our stay. I had become very fond of my canine companions and did not wish to part with them. So you see, as pragmatic as I tend to be, I consider it something similar to fate that I happen to see a rare Irish Wolfhound on the streets of Gotham, which happens to be accompanying one of the few people I care most deeply about in all of this world…” Alfred’s voice shook slightly at the end as he looked at Jason, who despite the sunglasses, could not mask the tear tracks on his face.

Jason’s breaths were shaky as he tried hard to keep his composure once more. He should have known that superficially benign story was going to pack a hefty punch. It was such an Alfred move that Jason laughed, the sound of it strangled and tortured as he shook his head. How on earth Alfred could still care about him was beyond him. He must have not known about everything…about who he was now, what he does. Jason Todd the young boy, had died years ago and never came back.

“Alfred I…You don’t understand, I’m not…You don’t want to know what I do-“ Jason tried and failed to find a way to say what he needed to. Alfred needed to see how much everything had changed, how they could never really be in each other’s lives the way it had once been.

“Listen to me, Master Jason” Alfred tone firm and leaving no room for argument as he stepped forward and calmly removed Jason’s sunglasses. He folded them carefully, tucking them in the chest pocket of Jason’s blazer before cupping the young man’s face with his hands.

Jason was wide-eyed and scared, shaking so hard he wasn’t sure how he remained standing even with his back still against the wall. It was impossible for him not to relish the feel of Alfred’s steady hands on his face, his eyes closing shut and causing more tears to fall.

“I was overjoyed when I found out you were alive. I do not care about what you have done or have not done. This is neither the time nor place and frankly, I could care less.” Alfred stated quietly and emphatically, making sure the young man listened to everything he needed to hear. “You always had a habit of comparing yourself to others, one that I should have made more of a point to discuss with you (the ‘and Bruce’ heavily implied) when you were a child as we each have our own paths in life. Neither of us have the luxury of rewinding time and going into the past and saying what needed to be said. So I will tell you right now what I should have told you repeatedly when you were younger, because by some miracle I have been granted this moment.”

Jason could feel Alfred’s hands shaking against his face, and it was impossible for him not to place one his own hands over Alfred’s in reassurance, holding his breath and waiting for the hammer to drop. It didn’t matter what Alfred wanted to say to him because Jason would still have the vivid memory of Alfred’s comforting touch.

“You have grown up to become a fine young man regardless of the opinions you feel others hold towards you. I am grateful you are alive and well, I am grateful that I happened to take note of this dog and find myself looking at a man I had thought I would never see. I have loved you since you were brought to Wayne Manor, Master Jason. That has never changed, and it never bloody will.” Alfred’s words firm and strong now, the curse word causing Jason to let out a startled laugh and open his eyes.

Alfred Pennyworth never cursed. It was unheard of. There was more chance of Batman choosing to patrol with a tutu on than hearing the esteemed Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth use foul language.

“I made an exception just this once Master Jason...” Alfred smirked softly in amusement and removed his hands from Jason’s face and placed them on the young man’s shoulders, “…in order to convey the gravity of my words.”

A sob escaped Jason throat, followed by another, and then another, before he lunged forward and wrapped his arms around the man, letting his head fall onto Alfred’s shoulder as he let himself just fucking feel for the first time in years.

“I love you too, Alfred.” his voice hoarse and muffled against the man’s shoulder as he felt arms wrapping around him. Jason didn’t know what else to say; didn’t think that there was anything he could say in response except how sorry he was for everything and even that wouldn’t have begun to cover it.

Yet here Alfred was, not asking where Jason had been or what had happened, but simply telling him how much he cared for him, how much he loved him. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had said that to him; he had always hoped as a kid that maybe Bruce would one day say it, and then he would really know that he had meant something, but that had never happened because Jason had been wrong about Bruce; it had simply taken him dying and coming back to realize it.

Even before that, with Cathy Willis, Jason had been used to ‘I love you’s’ that had been followed up with alcohol or drug induced rages where she had yelled and roared about wishing that Carmine Falcone had accepted Jason as payment all those years ago so that she didn’t have to live in a shit-box with him. His own father had also made it a point to constantly remind him time and time again that he had been so worthless they couldn’t even give him away.

Jason wasn’t sure how much time went by, and he wasn’t certain how much longer he would have held onto Alfred, even after his sobs had subsided, his body drained and running on fumes now, but he needn’t have worried as a nudge at his side and a soft whine had him taking a step back and looking down at Bud. She had perfect timing in Jason’s eyes, considering he was gathering his wits about him now and remembering they were still in public. It was a testament perhaps to how much seeing Jason affected Alfred considering the man didn’t seemed phased at all by the public displays of affection.

Despite being exhausted, there was of a bit of Jason that secretly felt relieved. Relieved that he had been able to see Alfred, relieved that he hadn’t been disappointed in him, at least not yet. Jason had a feeling that even though he had made it over the first hurdle, Alfred would not let him go easily.

Alfred dropped an arm, leaving one still resting on Jason’s shoulder to steady the young man, even though neither one of them commented on how Alfred’s own eyes were soft with tears.

“Perhaps you might be willing to join me-“

Jason shook his head almost frantically, looking back down at the ground as he took a step back; this had been enough. He wanted to leave now, find a place to lick his wounds in private and process this whole fucked up but still somehow amazing moment.

If Alfred was disappointed, he didn’t show it, removing his other arm from Jason’s shoulder as the young man had taken a step back.

Jason now couldn’t bear to think about whether or not this would be the only time they’d see each other as the thought of leaving Gotham began to cement itself in his mind. He had been lucky it had only been Alfred he had run into, although he wondered if anyone else would have recognized him. Which reminded him…

“When did you know?” Jason asked, clearing the last bits of emotion from his throat as best he could.

Alfred arched an eyebrow, an amused smirk on his face that gave Jason the impression that he had missed something. “Another fond memory I have is attempting to teach you proper pronunciation of Ermenegildo Zegna, Master Jason. I too, sometimes stop at the storefront and reminisce before going in. Plus…” Alfred added almost as an afterthought, “…your hound is almost as large as you are. You’re both rather impossible to miss.”

Jason couldn’t help but laugh now, realizing that Alfred had watched and waited. It had been a well concealed ambush. He shouldn’t have expected anything less from Batman’s Batman.

“I should go now. It’s been…” Jason struggled for a moment, trying to find the right word to describe how this whole thing had felt.

“Wonderful, Master Jason. It has been wonderful.” Alfred supplied with a small smile before looking down at Bud and giving her a gentle pat on the head.

“Wouldyoulikeaphoto?” Jason blurted out, surprising himself. He found himself trying to squash the irrational fears he had that Alfred would want to see him all the time now or would somehow forget about him if they never saw each other again.

He registered the look of pleasant surprise on Alfred’s face, and realized he should have made things clearer. “Of you and Bud, I mean. Because you said you liked them so much.” Jason had rushed to add on, not wanting to see any look of disappointment.

Whether Alfred had already ascertained that Jason’s offer was specific to himself and Bud as opposed to himself and Jason, he didn’t let on. He simply smiled and nodded, taking the offer for what it was. “I would love one, Master Jason. Thank you.”

Holding out his hand, Jason waited for Alfred to pass him his phone –both of them realizing that Jason was consciously choosing to not give away his phone number- and having both man and dog ready themselves for the shot.

Jason really wasn’t sure there was a dog more photogenic than this one, with Bud’s constantly smiling face and wagging tail. She sat proudly next to Alfred, who placed a hand on her head, resting it there as if it was something he had done many times before. It was impossible for Jason not to smile; even if he couldn’t see Alfred anymore, Alfred would always have a bit of him by way of Bud.

“There you are” Jason grinned, handing the phone back to Alfred as he watched him look at the photos and smile in approval.

“These are wonderful. Thank you, my boy.”

Jason shrugged as if it were nothing, taking the leash from Alfred, the silence now turning awkward.

“I need to go. I’ve got some uh…errands and stuff.” Jason jerked a thumb behind him towards the sidewalk. This time he caught the flash of disappointment on Alfred’s face and it hurt more than he expected it to.

“Of course. Should you find yourself in the area again…”

“Yeah, I’ll let you know.” The reassuring smile on Jason’s face felt as insincere as it probably looked. Alfred didn’t call him on it and simply nodded, allowing Jason the opportunity to walk away. He didn't look back once.

By the time Jason made it back to the house twenty minutes later, he scrambled to get the front door open, before barreling past Roy (whose grin had vanished upon taking one look at him) and taking the stairs two at a time until he ran to the bathroom, falling to his knees and retching violently until there was nothing left.

Chapter Text

By the time Jason had peeled himself off the bathroom floor, the sun had set and he could have sworn he’d heard his joints creaking as he made it to the sink, splashing water on his face and forcing himself to expend energy he didn’t have to brush his teeth.

Braving a look in the mirror, he took note of his bloodshot eyes, previously gelled hair now practically plastered to his head, and his wrinkled shirt, somehow managing to have tugged off his blazer in the middle of his praying to the porcelain gods.

A light wrap on the open bathroom door revealed Roy, leaning casually against the door frame, his posture completely at odds with the look of concern on his face.

“Alfred.” Jason’s voice gruff as he dried his face with a towel and walked past Roy, hearing the man following a step behind him as they made their way downstairs.

“I should have known going out regularly in broad daylight in this fucking shit of a city was going to bite me in the ass” Jason’s emotional exhaustion being replaced with frustration and anger; two feelings he was comfortable with and could handle. He stomped into the kitchen but stopped short, seeing a cold plastic bottle of Gatorade sweating on the counter next to a plate that had a very nice looking sandwich on it.

“I thought you might need this.” Roy smiled as Jason had already uncapped the Gatorade and downed half of it, shooting his friend a look of thanks.

“Her name is Trisha.” Roy pointed to the sandwich as Bud came over to the kitchen, immediately gunning for Jason and sniffing him all over as if doing a wellness check to make sure he was okay.

Jason didn’t laugh, but he cracked a smile, which Roy took as a win, moving to sit on one of the stools beside the kitchen counter, letting Jason eat and deal with his sulky contemplation while Roy kept a one-way conversation going, focusing mainly on providing updates on those files they’d been monitoring.

Ten minutes later, half the sandwich and Gatorade devoured, Jason heaved a sigh. Roy took that as a sign and went quiet.

For the next five minutes, he was treated to a rundown of what had happened, how Jason had pressed his luck, how he had been shocked to see Alfred, the irrational disappointment when he thought he hadn’t been recognized, the way Alfred had clearly seen him before he had even entered the store and had waited for the perfect moment. Roy had to admit, Jason really wasn’t exaggerating when he said he had bad luck.

“You think he’s going to tell him?” Roy asked when the story had concluded and the comfortable silence had settled between them.

Jason opened his mouth to reply, closing it a second later and choosing to shrug instead. It’s what he had been worried about the whole walk home. The fact that despite Alfred saying he loved him, there was a matter of loyalty, which rattled something deep in Jason’s gut and that he kept a short leash on. No matter what anyone could have told Jason to the contrary, Alfred’s loyalty had always steadfastly remained with Bruce and Jason had never seen that waiver.

“I don’t fucking care.” The words sharp and biting but a complete and utter lie. Roy didn’t call him out on it which Jason was grateful for.

Other than Bud, he had no ties to Gotham anymore; he could pick up and leave, find another city. Roy would visit him anywhere he went, and so would the others. He had gotten too comfortable, assuming that balancing a normal routine in the daytime with his real life in the evenings would just magically work itself out.

“Queen found out I was back in Star City. Somehow got a hold of my phone number.” Roy started, throwing Jason off a bit. He knew Oliver Queen was pretty up there on Roy’s Asshole-o-Meter. Jason’s too, actually.

“I picked up the call the first time. Didn’t recognize the number obviously, but it’s not like there’s all that many people that have mine, you know?” Roy continued, looking down at the granite counter-top and drawing imaginary shapes on it with an index finger. “As soon as I heard him say my name, I hung up. I mean, what the fuck could he possibly want except to threaten to kick me out of the city or worse?”

Jason sat there quietly, wondering what he would have done if he had been in Roy’s shoes and it had been Bruce that had called. Well at least now the reason for his friend’s extended visit was clear.

“He’s been calling me a few times a week. Leaves voicemails sometimes, long ones. I...I delete them, ‘cause you know, who wants to get reamed out by voicemail?” Roy huffed out a laugh, trying and failing to make light of it. “The night you were by the docks...he sent me a text. First time he’d done that.”

Roy tapped a few times on his phone screen and slid the phone across to Jason, who picked it up and made a quick note of the number just in case it came in handy.

I would like to talk to you. Whenever you’re feeling up to it.

Jason tilted his head to one side, handing the phone back. The message was incredibly vague and without any intonation; there wasn’t any clear way to interpret it. Although considering past actions are the best predictor of future behavior, Jason didn’t think the Green Arrow wanted them to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya.

“You didn’t answer.” Jason’s response more of a statement than a question. He didn’t make mention of the fact that Roy hadn’t deleted the message like he had done the voicemails.

This time Roy really did laugh. “Are you kidding me? I almost chucked the phone seconds afterwards. Instead, I figured I’d get the hell out of dodge for a while. If I’m not there, there’s no reason to call. So far it’s been quiet. I’ll head back after this Berto Rowe case is done. Unless...you’re having second thoughts?”

Leave it to Roy to drag Jason out of his own head by opening up about his own personal hell. He felt like such a shit friend. More than that, a shit brother.

If he needed to stay in Gotham for a few more days, he’d deal. After that, he’d look into other options; too many memories here and frankly, based on what happened that afternoon, a reminder of the risks. There were people in other cities elsewhere that needed help. He had nothing to prove to Batman and it was time he refocused. This masochistic streak of Jason’s had gone on for far too long.

Jason shook his head. “No. We’ve clearly stumbled onto something big. Once it’s done, I’ll reassess and see where I could possibly go.”

With a nod, Roy stood up but felt a hand on his arm, finding Jason with a ‘look’ on his face. Hadn’t they had enough of a heart-to-heart already?

“I just want you to know...Oliver Queen is a giant douche.” Jason’s words spoken with such solemn sincerity that Roy blinked in surprise, both of them starting to laugh before being startled by a bark that resonated through the house.

Bud barked once more, the sound of it deep and certainly intimidating, but in stark contrast to her happy smile and wagging tail.

“Jesus...that could scare the shit out of anybody.” Jason looked down at Bud in surprise, while Roy was now starting his argument again about getting her a costume. It went on for a good while, even as Jason prepared for patrol. He wouldn’t let his meeting with Alfred affect him, plus, it would be a good way to see if he caught wind of Batman or the birds during his patrol and determine whether Alfred had ratted him out. It was better for him to know about it now rather than stick his head in the sand.

Seeing Roy open his duffle bag which Jason knew contained his Arsenal gear, he raised an eyebrow. “Where are you off to?”

“Well, it’s high time Arsenal made a reappearance in Gotham. One night only.” Roy flashed a grin which dampened upon seeing Jason’s still-raised eyebrow.

“Jason, I need this alright? Just...I need this.” Roy finished lamely, trying to get Jason to understand.

“Yeah, I know. I knew before you did, asshole.” Jason rolled his eyes, continuing to get ready as he watched Roy now practically skip around the house.

Jason wasn’t Batman; he didn’t walk around with an ego the size of a mountain and dictate who could and could not help the people of this city. Yet Batman had never really been there for the people, not really; he was there for the enemies that crawled out the woodwork that he could fight and lock up and then rinse and repeat. That asshole knew fuck-all about what the people on the streets of Gotham needed. The Red Hood did; and even if he chose to leave Gotham, he’d always know more about its people than Batman ever would.

***

The Red Hood and Arsenal scaled the rooftops together, the smooth tarring of the well-maintained roofs of Gotham Heights and Gotham Village giving way to the roughshod ones of The Cauldron and The Bowery as they made their way to the docks.

They didn’t say much along the way, the Red Hood taking the lead in navigating them through the city grid of Gotham buildings via rooftop, calling out changes in direction or near-hidden gaps between roofs. There weren’t many people who could understand just how meditative it was, to see the city from up high, to almost believe that Gotham City could be peaceful...

The muffled sounds of a car backfiring brought both of them up short.

“Sounds like gunshots. North of us?” Arsenal turning towards the sound’s direction.

Hood nodded, changing direction and now moving away from the docks and towards the heart of Park Row. Not really a big surprise; it was after all, where he did most of his patrolling these days, skirting through the neighboring areas as quickly as possible to avoid known Bat patrol routes.

The sounds of snickering and laughter became clear the closer they got; Arsenal staying up top, arrow at the ready, while Jason swooped down closer via fire escape to get a clearer view of what was going on. It wasn't that complicated of a scenario to follow once he dropped down to the ground.

“Oh shit, it’s the Red Hood!” one of the four guys screeched, all of them obviously still teenagers that had gotten a hold of a gun and were no doubt shooting at random items for shits and giggles. “Dude, my mom’s gonna kill me if I get shot! I’m not kidding!”

His three other friends had immediately turned and seen the Red Hood standing at full height, one gun already in hand. A gun that happened to be quite a bit larger than the Beretta they had been taking turns with. Clearly they were just a group of reckless teens that were making some extremely stupid choices. With a shake of his head, he took a step forward, which caused three of the boys to make a mad dash.

“Arsenal.” Jason glanced up, his partner responding to the signal and shooting three arrows in quick succession, causing the boys to stop up short.

“Ten bucks says at least one of them pees themselves.” Hood could hear the smirk in Arsenal’s words and smiled. Not that the teenagers could see it.

“What do you guys think you’re doing?” The voice modifier in his helmet once again doing a great job of making him seem even more intimidating.

“We’re j-just having a few laughs man...no big deal...” the teenager with the gun shrugged, doing his best to act all cool and unphased. At least he wasn’t stupid enough to point it in the Red Hood’s direction.

“Yeah, until you accidentally shoot someone, asshole.” He didn’t wait before swiping the gun out of the teenager's hand, removing the cartridge and emptying the chamber. The efficiency with which he did it seemed to rattle the boys even more. “Get out of here. If I see you again doing any of this stupid shit, I’ll be putting some bullets in kneecaps and stapling notes on your fucking foreheads that say ‘This is what I get for playing with guns’. And who knows what he’ll do...” he pointed up to the roof, Arsenal’s silhouette visible from where he was standing steady, bow in hand.

The boys took one look up then one look back down at where the arrows had previously stopped three of them in their tracks.

“Go. Now.” The growl sounding far too deep through the helmet to sound human. The boys ran for it, while Arsenal began to chuckle as he made his way down to ground level to remove the arrows from where they had been planted into the asphalt.

“Kids these days...” Arsenal shook his head as he patted Red Hood on the shoulder, the whole event having been rather anti-climactic.

“Honestly, it’s bad enough that we’ve got horrible people in this town. Add on the stupid, and it’s like the world is ending...” Jason grumbled, putting the confiscated gun in his pocket but freezing as there was movement around the corner.

Arsenal’s bow was back up and Red Hoods’ guns were out a second later, both of them paying attention to the back wall of the alleyway which was covered by old stacks of newspaper and damp cardboard.

The movement continued, and Jason could make out a glowing eye staring back at him as the source of the minor commotion revealed itself.

“It’s just a cat.” Arsenal lowered his bow, watching as it approached. It wasn’t in the best shape, its coloring splotchy and difficult to make out under all the dirt and grime. An ear looked like it had been torn at some point in the past, although what was more striking was its face. The cat’s face had two completely different colorings, one side a pure black while the other took on an orange-ish hue. A bright blue eye seemed to glare at them, while there was a noticeable lack of eye that blended in with the black half of its face.

Arsenal took a few steps forward, leaning down and trying to coax the cat over by using an annoyingly syrupy tone of voice before yelping and retracting his hand as the cat hissed and let out a very angry sounding meow.

“It’s clearly survived this long on its own. He’s probably happy we ran the kids off. Let’s go before you lose a finger.” Jason said, already moving to grapple back up to the roof.

Arsenal didn’t seem that upset to leave the cat now, seeing as how he had almost lost an extremity, and followed suit, making his way back up the fire escape.

A few buildings over, Jason removed his helmet, stopping for a smoke break while Roy removed his domino to scratch his face. It didn’t matter how many times Jason had told him not to do that, Roy didn’t seem to think that taking it off for a few seconds here and there mattered.

Jason froze mid-drag, expelling whatever smoke he had just inhaled, and stared at the small shadow that was moving behind Roy, who was oblivious.

A soft hiss by Roy’s side had him jumping up and (he’d regret it to his dying day) screaming like a child, running to stand behind Jason, who was eyeing the cat with suspicious interest.

It paused and sat down exactly where Roy had been sitting, licking its paw and cleaning behind one of its ears looking perfectly calm.

“It’s trying to kill me. Look at it!” Roy hissed, as he engaged in some sort of glare off with the cat.

“Take it as a compliment. We’ll lose him in a bit anyways.” Jason said, eying the cat once more. It looked strangely familiar, although he couldn’t quite place it. Not that he thought he’d be able to; it’s not like he knew any cats.

Finishing his cigarette and standing up now, the cat was making no move to follow them as they continued their patrol.

They stopped a laundromat robbery, three domestic disputes that had turned violent (they had some fun showing the men just how much a punch could hurt), two out of town drug dealers who had thought the Red Hood had been a made up story (they didn’t think that now), and funnily enough, one seemingly lost German tourist who had gotten turned around at some point, had no battery on his phone, and hadn’t been able to find anyone willing to help. How he hadn’t been robbed or worse, was beyond them.

“Danke schön!” the tourist had smiled, relieved that his nightmare was over as the Red Hood had called a taxi for the guy and waited along with Arsenal for the car to come pick him up. The cabbie hadn’t even looked twice at seeing the Red Hood and some other guy in a costume standing there, waving him down. This was Gotham after all. Plus, it wasn’t the first time he’d been called by one of the costumed freaks for a ride.

With the tourist now safely headed back, Arsenal ribbed the Hood a bit for his surprising proficiency in German.

The night was clearly a slow one, but it had all been enough of a distraction for both men. Unless something happened in the next half an hour, they’d make their way back to the house way before sunrise.

***

Jason had been able to take a long shower, eat a decent dinner, and crash in bed all before the sun came up. Roy had done the same, except he had passed out on the living room sofa, snoring loudly. Jason hadn’t really had the heart to wake him, tossing a throw on his friend before he retired for the evening-slash-morning.

A shout startled Jason from sleep, which in turn made Bud get up from where she’d been asleep on the edge of his bed. Immediately grabbing his guns, he made his way down the stairs silently, trying to call Bud back to him as she chose to just barrel past him and down the stairs.

“It’s here! Oh god, it’s here!” Roy was shouting frantically and not making much sense as Jason peeked into the living room before making his way to where Roy had been shouting. He was standing by the sliding glass doors, frozen in shock, Bud now coming over and staring curiously at what was on the other side of the glass.

“What. The. Fuck.” Jason breathed out, turning the safety back on his guns and standing there dumbfounded. Outside on the opposite side of the bulletproof glass was that damn cat from earlier, staring at them all like they were somehow disrupting him.

“It’s evil. I swear to god. I woke up to get water, saw the motion lights go on and saw him staring at me!” Roy’s overactive imagination not really helping Jason in convincing his friend that it was just a stubborn cat. Bud seemed to eye the other animal with curiosity rather than aggression, and the cat seemed to be doing the same.

“It’ll go away. Besides, it’s outside. It’ll figure out I’m not about to let it in.”

“You say that now. But the next thing you know, it’s found a way inside and is standing on your chest while you sleep and waiting to claw your face off and use your eyes as toys!”

“Just...calm down alright? Besides, you don’t live here. I do.” Jason said wryly, watching Roy finally realize that he wasn’t going to be stalked for the rest of his life. His friend calmed down considerably.

Giving the cat a final look, it was easier to make out a lot more of the cats' features with the motion lights illuminating it. It really was missing an eye, and the dirt that Jason had thought covered it was mostly the cat’s natural coloring. Its face was still the most jarring feature, reminding him of...

“Deathstroke. It looks like fucking Deathstroke!” Jason exclaimed as if he had solved a particularly difficult problem, looking at the cat even more closely now. Hell, the fact that the cat had lost an eye on the black side of its face matched the assassin's costume to a T.

Roy blanched, looking at the cat again, and then back at Jason, opening his mouth to ask an all important question.

“No, it’s not Deathstroke turned into a cat. For fucks sake, Roy” Jason rolled his eyes, ignoring Roy’s mumble of “well it could be”, moving now to the cupboard and finding a dry pack of tuna. He dumped he contents into a plate along with some water, moving to slowly open the sliding glass door. The cat stayed put, watching as Jason came outside and placed the food and water down.

“It’s a one time deal alright, Wilson?” Jason warned, quickly walking back inside and catching Roy’s confused look.

“Wilson?”

“Yeah. Deathstroke. Slade Wilson. Wilson.” Jason shrugged, ignoring what seemed to be Roy having a mini meltdown.

“You named it! You can’t name it! Don’t do that!” Roy whined, but was only offered a pat on the back before Jason turned off the outside motion lights, grabbed his guns, and crawled back up the stairs, Bud following suit, and passing right back out.

By the time he woke up around one in the afternoon and made his way downstairs, the cat was no where to be seen, but neither was the food and water.

Chapter Text

No mention was made that afternoon about the cat by either Roy or Jason as they relaxed at home for a bit, although Roy certainly looked over at the small yard more often than not, as if the cat was secretly planning some sort of attack. Jason thought Roy was flattering himself a bit too much and said so.

“Yeah well, it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant. It is Gotham after all. You’ve got all sorts here.” Roy pointed out while absentmindedly petting Bud who had stretched out along the couch, which meant she was half stretched over Roy.

“You’d protect me, wouldn’t you girl?” Roy searching for reassurance from Bud, who responded with a grumble and a huff.

“Yeah, I think that’s a no.” Jason pointed out, from where he sat adjacent to them on the other couch, laptop perched on his lap as he clicked away on the files they’d been monitoring. He was doing everything and anything at the moment to forget about his sudden reunion with Alfred the day before. Part of him thought that it would bring him closure; being able to lay everything on the line, at least in terms of how much he cared for Alfred. The older man had done the same, not mincing words and being more direct and to the point than Jason had ever recalled him being in the past. He supposed regrets and a second chance would do that to you.

A rumble of thunder seemed to shake the house, causing Jason to huff in annoyance. He’d hoped that the rain would hold off until tomorrow. Patrolling in the rain was not fun; plus it meant a slower night. Most of the city’s criminal deviants didn’t enjoy doing much in the rain either.

“What’s the status on the car, again?” Jason asked, looking over at Roy who was apparently attempting to teach Bud how to grab her leash. He wasn’t doing a good job of it, mainly pointing at the leash in his hand and saying “leash” over and over again. Bud thought it was some sort of game at least, and was hopping from one leg to the other.

Jason probably should have paid attention when Roy had filled him in the day before, but he had had other things on his mind at the time and his friend didn’t seem to mind retelling him.

“Got you an Aston Martin Vanquish. Silver. Didn’t think a Lamborghini or Bugatti would be subtle enough and I know that’s not your thing. I parked in that garage space you had on Peckinpah Street and Saint Ave, by Noonan’s.”

“You couldn’t have picked a seedier place to stash it could you?” Jason sighed, rubbing his face.

Roy shrugged, “I fixed the garage door, added a lock with five layer encryption and moved some dumpsters in front of it. Where else did you want me to put it? It’s not like we have many options and I-“

Jason looked up now, watching as Roy looked at his phone, his face going completely blank before he tucked the phone back in his pocket.

“Alright?” Jason asked slowly, watching Roy trying to smile and failing to do so. They had always promised each other they would never do that; never put a mask on to hide how they felt. They did it enough with everyone else.

“It was Queen.” Roy said, confirming Jason’s suspicions. “He...I thought he’d leave me alone. I’m not in Star City. I don’t understand...”

He shook his hand, looking so lost for a moment that Jason looked away, allowing his friend a moment. It didn’t last long as Roy seemed to debate something before handing over this phone.

I was wrong. I’m sorry.

The text hit Jason like a punch to the gut. If this was some sort of plot that the Green Arrow had concocted then it was really fucked up, even for Queen. If it was genuine, well...Jason thought it that might be even worse. He didn’t bother thinking about what he would do if it had been Bruce that had sent him that message. Bruce would never apologize for a thing in his life. Self-righteous dick.

Roy seemed to be staring off into space now, trying and failing to keep the message from having any sort of effect on him.

“Er, Roy...” Jason looked down at the phone in his hand, feeling it buzz.

I’ll be in Gotham in a couple of days. Will you consider meeting with me?

Jason wasn’t pleased that the Green Arrow was coming to Gotham. Although Oliver Queen did have a branch of Queen Industries here so it was all within the realm of possibility. What he did appreciate however, was the fact that as far as Roy and Queen were concerned, Gotham was neutral ground compared to Star City.

“Roy...you don’t have to-“ Jason was cut off by a shake of Roy’s head, his friend looking a mix of hopeful and sad. He supposed that was the case with both of them; no matter how much they moved on, hope (the little that they had) always dragged them back. Still, he wasn’t about to tell his friend what to do.

“I don’t want him bugging you here. It’s better if I see him, you know...just get it over with. Doubt he’d start something here considering...”

‘Considering this is Batman’s turf’ Jason’s mind finishing the sentence for him. The so-called heroes out there didn’t particularly care about the Red Hood, but they certainly respected Batman’s ‘no outsider’ rule.

Jason nodded and left Roy in the living room as he went and headed down to the basement, opening a large steel door that revealed a decently set up gym, weapons stacked neatly on the walls, and crates of other goodies.

The clicking of paws on the stairwell several minutes into his workout revealed Bud, who was carrying her leash in her mouth. Looked like some of Roy’s training may have stuck.

Workout abandoned in order to rough house with Bud, Jason still worked up a sweat by the time Roy came down the stairs, momentarily taken aback by all that was down there.

“You gonna meet him?” Jason asked casually, continuing to play with Bud.

Roy nodded, looking down at the ground as if he were somehow embarrassed. It brought Jason up short and he immediately walked over to him.

“Hey, you meet with him, see how it goes okay? If you need me there, you let me know. Especially if you need me to punch his face. I’ll be more than happy to do that” Jason grinned.

Roy offered up a half-smile and Jason let the conversation drop.

“I’m off to shower and then patrol. Hopefully the rain holds off.” Jason said, making his way up the stairs. He doubted Roy was in a mood to patrol tonight. Part of him was grateful for that because if Jason was honest with himself, he was just the tiniest bit jealous of Roy at the moment.

***

Jason followed a routine path along the rooftops, choosing to take the long way around Park Row to make sure he maximized his time. Plus, it gave him an opportunity to clear his head (and ream himself out for being jealous of Roy for something Jason absolutely did not want to happen to him) focusing on running and jumping across gaps in buildings, grappling to higher perches and letting himself freefall before shooting the grappling gun off again. 

It took him a solid twenty minutes before he was doing a pass-by across the roof that overlooked the garage door where Roy had stashed the car that Jason would be using for his arrival at Gotham Palace Hotel in two days time.

Well, there had been a garage door. Now, it looked like the high-security electronic lock Roy had placed on it was on the ground, discarded a few feet away.   Interestingly enough though, Jason could still see the trunk of the car from his vantage point.

The sound of shuffling feet from inside the garage had Jason crouching low, turning on the thermal imaging function in his helmet and trying to see who exactly was helping themselves to the car.  Whoever it was had no idea just how unlucky they were about to become.

From what Jason saw through the thermal imaging scanner in his helmet, there was only one individual in there, no weapons, and actually…was that a kid?  Jason cocked his head to the side, making out the heat signature of a small figure by the hood of the car. 

‘What the fuck?’

Jason dropped down easily in front of the opened garage, not making much sound despite his size.  It was much harder to manage these days considering how much he had grown over the years, but he was still pretty adept.

With whomever was still occupied doing who knew what inside, Jason quickly moved to pick up the discarded lock.

It was completely off.  Not fried or hacked, but off. As in, someone had turned it off. 

‘So what exactly happened here then? It couldn’t have been the kid.’ Jason’s thoughts running through possible scenarios in his head, and keeping an eye out for anyone else that was lurking about.  It seemed completely deserted though. Not even the scurrying of rats anywhere.

A metallic clang echoed from inside the garage, which had been followed swiftly by some muttered cursing.

‘Yeah’ Jason thought with a smile. ‘Definitely a kid.’

Not wanting to startle him or her, Jason moved forward, but chose at the last minute to simply lean against the frame of the garage, arms crossed over his chest.

“Nice car. Need any help?” Jason asked, his tone amused but losing much of its intonation through the voice modifier.

“Fuck off! I’ll beat the shit out of you if you come near me!” The kid didn’t miss a beat despite the shaky voice, immediately moving into view, holding a large wrench in his hand. 

Jason had to admire the kid’s bravado, considering he looked to be about six or seven years old, but had the mouth of a fifty-year old sailor.  That was Crime Alley for you.

It was difficult to make out much in the semi-darkness, the kid’s flashlight on but on the floor in the corner, no doubt having been dropped in order to grab something with more heft once recognizing the threat.  Still, he could see the ratty t-shirt and jeans with far too many holes.  The kid’s dark brown hair stuck up wildly in all directions, a haircut not something he’d probably had in long while.

“I believe you would” Jason answered, moving forward a few steps so he was more visible.

The kid seemed to squint, trying to see more than just Jason’s silhouette. Jason saw the moment the kid’s eyes widened as he recognized who it was that was standing before him.

Jason had to hand it to the kid, he may have looked scared now as he registered that it was the Red Hood in front of him, but hadn’t dropped the wrench or moved out of his awful fighting stance.

“You know who I am. Have you ever heard of me going after kids before?”

The boy seemed to have a think about that, his hand lowering slightly but not by much.

“Look kid, this isn’t your car. I know you probably thought you got lucky finding it as you wandered down the alley but it ain’t yours.”

Clearly it had been the wrong thing to say. The kid’s eyes flashed with anger, his small frame trembling slightly.  Jason was a bit concerned the kid was panicking or about to jump him.

“I wasn’t here for the car, alright?!” the boy shouted, not caring now who heard him. “This was my place! And all of a sudden I come here tonight and there’s a lock on the door.  What the else am I supposed to do?!”

Jason was at a bit of a loss.  He doubted Roy had thought that anyone was using the spot as shelter; probably hadn’t even seen any indication someone was living there if the kid was picking up after himself. Jason really should have known better though; the garage really was a perfect spot to stay out of the elements, even without the door.

“Alright, alright…just…calm down okay? I get it.” Jason put his hands up, trying to get the kid to calm down.  It seemed to work a bit as the kid lowered his hand even further. “Look just…what are you trying to get out of the car?”

“The battery. Can use it to power all sorts of stuff.” The kid looked at him like he was idiot for having even asked.

“Not the tires?”

The kid huffed.  “Money’s in the electronics. Besides, like I said, I just want the battery. Who buys stolen tires these days?”

Jason couldn’t help it. He laughed. It lasted a good long while, making the kid look at him like he was deranged.  Clearly the kid was now trying to figure out whether he could make it past the Red Hood if he ran fast enough.

“Sorry kid.  It’s kind of an inside joke I have with the universe.” Jason said as he calmed down, taking a chance and moving forward a bit.

‘It is kind of funny’ his mind supplied with a similar note of amusement. ‘What were the fucking odds, honestly.’

“Look, I can’t let you take the battery, I’m sorry. But,” Jason quickly added, seeing that the kid was getting ready to throw down with him. “I’ll give you some cash alright? You can go buy a battery and food and whatever else you need.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a few hundreds and holding out his hand.  It took a few seconds before the kid shuffled forward, slowly reaching out his hand and swiftly snatching the cash, not bothering to count it before shoving the bills into his pocket.

Maybe it was how the hairs rose on the back of his neck, or maybe it was the random breeze that came through the alley on a windless night, but there was something off about this moment, a strange sort of deja-vu. It made him blink a few times and look behind him before looking back at the kid.

It was the same thing over again:  him and Batman, this kid and the Red Hood.  This moment, so similar and so damn haunting and honestly the universe and him needed to break up.  Back then, Jason should have run when he’d seen Batman; he should have thrown the tire iron at him and made a break for it.  He should have killed Batman and saved Gotham from the shit that came after…

Shaking his head slightly, he saw the kid move to pick up a small backpack, looking ready to bounce.  At least he wasn’t trying his luck and attempting to take the battery again.

He was going to do this kid a favour and send him on his way. Something Batman should have done with him all those years ago.

“Alright kid, you get out of here.  The car will be gone soon so you’ll get your place back.”  Jason walked over the opposite side of the car, allowing the kid to keep the vehicle between them and giving him a clear exit.  The kid took it and ran off, footsteps slowly fading away. It was difficult letting the kid run off considering this had apparently been the boy’s shelter and Jason was rather protective of the children that lived on the streets, but the memories of Batman not letting him go made Jason firmer in his resolve. He made the right call; the kid would come back tomorrow probably and find it car-free.

Sighing, Jason put a hand on the open hood, using it to support some of his weight as he leaned in to look at the potential damage the kid caused.

Nothing too bad considering all the wiring around the thing. Clearly the kid knew what he had been doing which was rather impressive; this car wasn’t exactly a heap of junk. Jason still wasn’t too sure how the kid had popped the hood considering the motion sensors and key recognition were standard on luxury cars these days, which reminded him that he had forgotten to ask about the lock that had been on the garage door.

He spent the next few minutes making sure that everything was where it should be, so engrossed in what he was doing that he jumped up suddenly, hitting his head on the hood of the car when he heard a voice several feet in front of him.

Thankfully his own helmet had protected his head from what would have been a nasty hit.

“Do you have any food?”

Jason slowly stepped back from the car, moving around and finding the kid standing there, thumbs looped through the straps of his backpack. The boy didn’t seem too certain about having come back, but he stood there expectantly, looking for some sort of answer.

“Uhhh…” Jason wasn’t sure exactly what he was supposed to say to that.  He had given the kid plenty of cash.

“Nothing here is open right now, except that creepy convenience store on Midland. Can’t exactly get any real food there now, can I?” The boy must have read his mind, rolling his eyes at the sheer stupidity of the Red Hood.  There were some 24-hour fast food joints around town, but all were about a half-hour away on foot from here and now that Jason took a closer look at the kid, he wasn’t sure he would have felt all that great at letting the kid walk there.

“Right, well…here” Jason reached into his pocket, pulling out a protein bar and handing it over. The kid didn’t hesitate to reach out and take it, and didn’t snatch his hand back as quickly as last time.

“Thanks.” The kid sounding like he genuinely meant it as he tore open the packaging and took two large bites before wrapping the remainder up as best he could and putting it in his pocket.   “You got another? It’s not for me I swear.” He added defensively.

“Sorry kid I’m all out.” That had been the only food item on him.  “You got a family or something?”

“None of your business!” The kid’s response automatic and extremely hostile, causing Jason to raise his hands in surrender.  ‘Definitely has someone then’ Jason concluded.

He was back to those two damn choices again: one, tell the kid to scram and two… well choice number two was hitting a little to close to his memories for the millionth fucking time that night.

‘Fuck it.’ Jason sighed, looking up at the garage ceiling and closing his eyes.  It probably looked really weird to the kid considering Jason’s helmet was still on.

“I know a place that’s still open. We can walk over and I’ll get you some food.”

The kid looked unconvinced, but didn’t move away when the Red Hood came out from the garage and moved to shut the garage door back down.  That reminded him…

“Hey, you didn’t see who got the lock off did you?”

The kid may have been ballsy as hell, but it he had a horrible poker face.

“You?!” It was impossible for Jason not to be impressed. The kid on the other hand, looked rather embarrassed, and…afraid?

“I’m not a geek okay?! That stuff's just easy for me to do!”

Clearly Jason was stepping on every single landmine this kid had.  Which wasn’t surprising really; his ability to be tactful was not one of his strengths.

“I’m just really impressed. That thing isn’t supposed to be able to do that.  You’ve got great skills.”

Not all that familiar with praise, the kid looked at his shoes, shrugging his shoulders as if it weren’t a big deal. When you got kicked down for being smart or good at something, eventually you started to break down, forcing yourself to pretend that you were someone different. Jason vividly remembered the fear in his gut at almost getting caught trying to read an old library copy he’d found of Much Ado About Nothing when he had been on the streets. Kids could be just as cruel as adults sometimes.

“Come on kid…let’s go get that food.”

Jason changed the topic easily, closing the garage door and spending a few minutes reactivating the lock, paying attention to the kids instructions which were spot on. Everything now set, Jason started a slow pace down the alleyway and onto the sidewalk, letting the kid choose how close he wanted to follow.

They didn’t talk much on their walk over – Jason with his hands in his pockets and keeping his eyes open for anything that needed his attention all the while ignoring the furtive glances the kid kept shooting him as if waiting for the Red Hood to pounce on him.

The kid had been so focused on remaining on the defensive, he had almost missed the fact that they had stopped in front of some sort of restaurant.  The only way the kid could tell was from the smell of food. The restaurant’s sign was not in English and was just a bunch of squiggly lines that made no sense whatsoever.

Jason knocked on the front door, knowing that the owner and his family were probably finishing up cleaning the kitchen for the evening.  He had been smart enough to get them to install an outside camera after the issue with the enforcers. That way, no one needed to come near the door when they were closed.

It didn’t take long before Jason could hear the click of the lock on the reinforced door.

“Salam! Haleh shoma? Bebakhasheed-” Jason began speaking another language, the kid staring at him in surprise.  The guy that had come to open the restaurant door hadn’t even batted an eye at seeing the Red Hood standing there.

Jason apologized for the late arrival and explained a bit about the boy beside him, who now seemed more curious than cautious. It had helped that Mr. Hafez had been so pleased to welcome them into the restaurant, he hadn’t hesitated to bestow a kiss to each side of Jason’s helmet before ushering them in to a booth and immediately running back into the kitchen.

The kid snickered softly, immediately covering his mouth his hand.

“What’s so funny?” Jason asked bemusedly. “It’s part of his culture. I probably should have taken off the helmet though.”

It was impossible for the kid not to stare as Jason hit a button behind his ear, the sound of hissing air escaping as he took the helmet off.

He had a red domino in place as usual, but it didn’t hide the fact that he was young, most likely mid-twenties by the looks of it.  The kid had thought he’d be older.

“What’s your name kid?” Jason asked, choosing the moment that the boy shoved the first bit of warm bread in his mouth.  Food had a way of softening most people up.

“Edgar. My mom liked poetry.” Edgar’s explanation sounding automatic, as if he had been defending his name his whole life.  “And don’t call me Eddie.”

“Fair enough. Edgar it is then.” Jason conceded, grabbing a bit of bread as well.

They spent an hour in the restaurant, eating practically their weight in Persian food, although Jason had warned Edgar to pace himself.  Nothing like having an upset stomach when you lacked easy access to a bathroom.

However, Jason was able to get bits of information from him in the meantime. 

Edgar was nine. He had a sister that was ten who had some sort of problem with her leg since she was little, making it hard for her to walk as she had a brace that Edgar was constantly making tweaks to which he seemed rather proud of. Their parents were dead, no relatives, and after one awful time in a foster home where his sister had been “treated real bad” (Jason was going to be damn sure to get names and an address), they had cut and run, choosing to live on the streets instead.  It had only been about six months though and so far they had been alright.

Jason thought Edgar’s waxy looking skin and too-thin face disagreed, but he stayed quiet. 

Mr. Hafez came by again to make sure everything had been enjoyed, handing over two large plastic bags filled with food.  No way Edgar would have been able to carry it, and from the way Mr. Hafez smiled knowingly at Jason, he thought that it had been completely intentional.

“Thanks for the food.” Edgar smiled a bit and even waved at Mr. Hafez.  Jason had told Edgar to drop by here anytime he wanted to from now on, trying to make sure the kid and his sister didn't go hungry. He'd take care of the cost even though he knew it would be a battle with the restaurant owner to accept it.

“Let me help you carry these back to where you’re staying.” Jason had placed his helmet back on, using his free hands to grab the two plastic bags. 

It looked for a moment as if Edgar was going to protest, a battle clearly waging in his mind about leading the Red Hood to where his sister and him were staying. 

“I promise I’m just going to drop these off and go. I’m not about to stalk you or anything.” Jason joked lightly, although he wasn’t exactly telling the whole truth. Of course he would be keeping an eye on the kids.

Edgar eventually nodded, taking Jason on down a route that was probably meant to make him disoriented so that he wouldn’t remember exactly where they were.  ‘Kid logic’ Jason surmised, following Edgar’s lead.

Fifteen minutes later found them in a small back alley that glowed a faint green due to the neon sign that was just around the corner.  It was not a good spot.

Some cardboard boxes had been turned into a makeshift windscreen, not that it was needed tonight, but it looked like it was solidly reinforced with enough cardboard to withstand a decent sized gust.

“Evelyn, I’m back.” Edgar moved around the boxes excitedly, Jason following slowly behind until the boy had put his hand up to stop him. Even from where Jason now stood he could see a little girl with shoulder length brown hair that hadn't been cut all that straight.  She was dressed an oversized black sweatshirt with her legs covered in a moth-eaten blanket, resting on some old couch cushions that were tucked away in the corner. Jason could faintly make out the metal rods of a brace wrapped around the bottom of her leg.

It was one of those moments where Jason was glad he had his helmet on.  There had been a hitch in his breath as he took in the sight of the girl, who despite Edgar's claims was his older sister, looked so tiny where she was resting, large brown eyes looking up at him.

It was probably the only time Jason could remember where someone’s immediate response to his helmet and fully armored self was to smile.

“Hello. I’m Evelyn.” The voice was quiet and serene, carrying itself softly over to where Jason stood.

“Hi. I’m Red.”

“Sit down, Red?” Evelyn’s voice stayed soft as she moved her arm to a free cushion beside her.  Jason noticed that the movement of her arm didn’t look as effortless as it should have been though.  This was more than just the leg, Jason was realizing. 

His heart beat violently in his chest, his anger at the girl's situation exacerbated by the fact that there was no one to take it out on.  She didn’t deserve this. Neither of them deserved this. Fucking Gotham.

The siblings didn’t seem to pay him much attention though as he moved to sit beside her, helping to unpack one of the plastic bags and showing her the food that was inside.  Her eyes had lit up, her hands slowly (why was she having such a hard time moving her arm?) moving to take the container that was being offered.

“She’s always been pretty quiet. She likes to read a lot so I try and find her some books.” Edgar pointed a to a small collection of paperbacks off to the side.

This place was open to the elements despite all the attempts to make it habitable but Jason had to remind himself that Edgar had done a decent job considering he’d been kicked out of the garage the day before. Even though Jason obviously hadn’t had a clue, he still felt like a total asshole. The constant rumble of thunder now meant rain was close, and both the kids would be caught in the downpour.

He sat there quietly, Evelyn saying nothing else to him as she ate her food slowly and carefully. She occasionally glanced over to him and smiled, despite the fact that she couldn’t see him return it with one of his own.  Taking off the helmet would have done no good in this situation, considering all the emotional shit that going on his head. Neither of the kids seemed to care about his choice to leave it on though.

“It was very nice meeting you Evelyn.”  Jason patted her shoulder gently, earning him another soft smile before he stood up and looked over at Edgar, who was also standing. “Do you guys need anything? It looks like rain.”

Jason would have done anything Edgar would have asked for in that moment, just to make sure they were okay. On the hand, all Jason wanted to do was run far away and beat the shit out of every living thing he came across.

“Come visit.” Evelyn’s response making her brother smile.

“Yeah, but we’ll be back at the garage probably, if you don’t lock it down again.”

“You didn’t seem to have a problem with the lock. It was just the car being there you were pissed at.” Jason answered bemusedly, sighing as he rubbed his hands against his thighs.

It was actually pretty cold now that he thought about it. He needed to go before he did something stupid though. One night of rain wouldn’t kill the kids.

With goodbye’s all done, Jason waved as he grappled up to the roof from where he stood, hearing Evelyn’s quiet laughter which seemed never-ending to Jason as he immediately took off into a run, not caring where he went as he pushed himself faster and faster, trying to escape the feeling of his lungs being crushed inside his chest. It didn't stop him though.

He ran at full tilt for half an hour, thanking whatever higher powers above for the abusive pimp he stumbled upon that was beating up on one of his ladies. 

He wasn’t sure how many punches he landed on the asshole’s face or how long he had been there, only stopping when the woman had bravely stepped forward and slowly put a hand on his arm.

“He’s dead, honey. You can stop now.” 

Her voice had made Jason stop, looking down at his gauntlets that were covered in blood and other bits of matter and bone.

He couldn’t get the soft laughter of that little girl out of his head, and in some fucked up way it almost hurt as much as that other laugh he was so used to hearing.

When he had cleaned himself up in the dodgy sink of his tiny studio of a safe house that he kept near Coventry, he made his way back to the kids, finding them both curled together under that awful blanket, completely vulnerable and exposed.  Neither one looked like they had even stirred at the sound of Jason’s approach and he had made sure to make a decent amount of noise.

It only supported Jason’s belief now that the kids were going to get themselves killed.  Sleeping in the evenings out on the street was never a good idea, and considering Evelyn’s inability to run, they were sitting ducks. It was only matter of time before something bad happened to them out here, regardless of whether or not they had the garage for shelter.

Jason wasn’t even sure how exactly they had both made it over here from the garage in the first place. Or how they had even survived for so long. How the hell had he not seen them before tonight?

It took him a minute to figure out the best way to coax the kids up, which meant he started with Evelyn first, who looked at him serenely and smiled, as if he woke her up all the time. He then asked her to wake her brother.

Edgar had rubbed his eyes, his face scrunched up in confusion as he took in the sight of the Red Hood…sans Hood.  “What happened? Why’d you come back?”

‘Isn’t that the million dollar question’ Jason thought.

“I know you guys are going back to the garage tomorrow but I just had to beat up some thugs not too far from here. There’s a bit of drug war going on” he lied easily. "There's a real chance more of them will show up and I've had to get some folks away from the area just in case things go south tonight."

Clearly Edgar's previous bravado only extended so far, as he immediately shot a worrying glance over at his sister, who was staring at Jason intently.  It was making Jason feel like he needed to make sure every word he said now was the right one. 

"I've got a good friend, and he's got a nice house and a dog and it would just be for the night. You could bring all your things with you and I'll come get you guys tomorrow afternoon and get you all squared away back at the garage."

Jason's voice had almost taken on a desperate like quality towards the end but he kept it together, trying to seem nonchalant but matter-of-fact at the same time.

"What do you think Evelyn?" Edgar looked over at his sister for guidance.   Jason was fairly certain at this point that the girl was a ninety-year old zen master trapped in a ten-year old's body.

She nodded slowly, moving to try and get her blanket off.  Jason stopped her, telling them both to hang tight.  He'd get a car.

"You didn't turn off video feed. What do you need?" Roy's response quiet and decisive.  Jason had completely forgotten that he had kept the live feed from his helmet going since Roy was back at the house.  Even if his comm had been off, Jason didn't want to think about how his friend had seen him punch a guy to a bloody pulp.  The wave of relief he felt when Roy hadn't questioned his decision made Jason's eyes burn.  He was more grateful than he ever would have been able to express.

"I need you to bring your car over here.  Take them to Jay's place." He said just loudly enough and with a smile as he could feel both children watching him.

"On my way.  See you in fifteen."

Jason looked around again, taking in the few meager possessions the kids had. Some folded up clothes, the small stack of paperbacks, and interestingly enough, another small backpack with random computer parts in it and a laptop shell.  Looked like Edgar was trying to build his own computer.

When Roy pulled up to the mouth of the alley exactly sixteen minutes later, he got out of the car and waved enthusiastically at the kids, the large grin on his face somehow charming Evelyn, although Edgar didn't look all that impressed.  That is, until Roy offered to show Edgar how to use his bow and arrow.  Jason had almost forgotten that Roy Harper was a giant kid himself. “Hey Edgar, make sure he doesn’t poke an eye out with one of those.”

Roy made sure Edgar was too busy chuckling to see the vulgar gesture he threw Jason’s way.

Jason on the other hand, caught movement in the car out of the corner of his eye, and did a double take when he saw a single blue eye glaring at him.

“He hopped in the the car while I had the window down. We’ve become the best of friends now. Wilson rode shotgun all the way here.” Roy grinned proudly.

With Roy and Edgar finishing their brief archery lesson a few minutes later, they went about collecting items and placing them carefully in the trunk of the car, Roy chatting away nonstop no doubt with the express purpose of keeping the boy from backing out.

Jason took the opportunity to crouch down before Evelyn, mirroring her soft smile.

"I'm going to carry you to the car if that's okay?"

The young girl nodded, putting her hands in his shoulders as he gently scooped her up, blanket still covering her legs.  He'd keep it with her for now until they got back to the house.

With Evelyn's small gasp of pain, Jason tried to walk slowly, talking softly about nothing in particular, while Edgar did one last check for everything as he grabbed the bags of food he had gotten earlier with the Red Hood.

In the meantime, he ignored the concerned look Roy shot him as he took in Evelyn's pinched expression. She remained completely quiet and still, not moving at all once she was placed carefully into the backseat of the car, seat-belt fastened around her. She seemed delighted by the disgruntled looking one-eyed cat that was now sitting on the center console and staring at her. Jason could only cross his fingers and pray the cat wasn’t nuts.

Roy continued his long one-sided conversation the entire ride home, talking about where they were going, how he’d bonded with the magical one-eyed cat named Wilson on the ride over, how the house belonged to their friend Jay who was super cool but sometimes lame because he would cheat at cards but was forgiven for that now because he had a dog that was obviously a mystical being of some sort.

"Don't scare the kids, dickhead" Jason muttered, turning to look in the backseat. 

He needn't have worried as both kids were passed out.

"What’s the plan here?” Roy asked the all important question, stealing a glance at the kids in the rear-view mirror.  He didn't think Jason would be able to put those kids back on the street no matter what he had promised, and giving them to CPS would never be an option.

"The fuck if I know.  She needs medical attention. I'll deal with it in the morning." Jason sighed.

"What am I? Chopped liver?" Roy huffed softly, punching his friend in the shoulder.  "We'll deal with it."

Chapter Text

The rest of the drive back was quiet, and although Jason kept his gaze directed out the car window, he could feel Roy’s eyes occasionally glancing over in his direction. He really didn’t know what to think, his mind on a continuous cycle of ‘shit shit shit shit‘. What on earth had he been thinking? He had a car that contained two kids that he knew weren’t tough enough to survive on the streets and a cat that now seemed to have chosen Evelyn as an appropriate place to rest.

Jason had been half tempted to try and move Wilson but didn’t think angering it was a good idea considering who knew what diseases it was carrying and whether the kids would get injured on accident.

And what the hell was he supposed to do tomorrow? The kids were not going back out the street. He wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten them to agree to come with him. Far too trusting for their own good, which worked in Jason’s favor but certainly not in theirs if they had planned to survive on their own.

“One thing at a time, Jaybird. One thing at a time.” Roy said quietly, as he finally pulled the car over, once again reading his best friend’s mind.

***

Wilson had jumped out of the car as soon as Jason opened the backseat door, but stayed close, observing how both men calmly woke the kids, who were still pliant in the way that came from being too sleepy to care.

He carried Evelyn as carefully as he could into the house, Roy following behind with Edgar who was adamant he not be carried but caving in a few steps later as he seemed unable to walk in a straight line. Roy had scooped him up, Jason directing them up the stairs to the small study he kept filled with books and a large ottoman that overlooked the tree-lined street below. It was heavily tinted, although not noticeable considering it was evening now, but it was nice during the day, being able to read and look outside without the risk of being seen by passersby.

It was his own memories of waking up in a strange bed and expecting the worst from Bruce when he had first arrived at the manor that made him think the study would be neutral ground. The kids didn’t know who this ‘Jay’ was, and having them wake in a panic in someone else’s bedroom (even if it was a guest room) would not have been ideal.

Evelyn didn’t wake up once after being placed on the ottoman, Edgar next to her although he mumbled a bit before feeling a soft blanket being wrapped around them and settling down almost immediately. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there and simply watched them, but eventually made himself move.

Jason left the light on and the door open just in case they woke up disoriented and had taken the opportunity to fold the moth eaten blanket that had covered Evelyn and place it over to the side, clearly visible to them. Roy had already gone back to the car to bring in the kids’ belongings while Bud had come into the room quietly, sniffing at the kids and wagging her tail. Wilson was no where to be found, although Jason now worried briefly if it was running amok through the house. He supposed they’d find out soon enough.

With one last look at the kids, he nudged Bud to follow him back down the stairs, meeting Roy as he was coming up with the last of the items from the trunk of the car.

“Any clean clothes in there?” Jason asked, hoping Roy had spotted some. His friend shook his head, and Jason wasn’t about to go snooping through Edgar’s backpack. The kids were in definite need of a shower, but that would keep until the morning, once they had slept their fill.

“She definitely needs to have her arm and leg checked out. I couldn’t see much but it looks like it may have broken and hadn’t been set right.” Roy kept his voice low. He had paid close attention as Jason was carrying her and while he wasn’t a medical doctor, he had seen his fair share of injuries.

“Yeah, that might be it. I don’t know about the leg to be honest. It’s the arm I’m worried about. I can’t get a look at it but it’s definitely hurting her.”

Roy nodded, opening his mouth but closing it just a quickly, choosing to stay quiet. He’d let Jason deal with this tonight the way he needed to.

***

Jason wasn’t sure when exactly he had fallen asleep, but he did know he’d had the presence of mind to change his clothes and put his Red Hood gear away while Roy had graciously stayed in his Arsenal get-up so that the kids didn’t accidentally wake to two random strangers.

So when he opened his eyes and found Evelyn standing over him on the sofa, he blinked slowly in surprise at the girl’s smile. He didn’t think anyone had ever been that pleased to see him in his life. She was in Arsenal’s arms, the man clearly having taken the lead and letting Jason sleep for way too long. Come to think of it, Jason was realizing that the past several days had been filled with the most uninterrupted sleep he’d had in years. He highly suspected Bud had something to do with that.

Jason smiled back at Evelyn, waving a bit at her. She was still in her old sweatshirt and wrapped in the throw that had been on the end of the ottoman upstairs. In the light of day she looked even paler than before. He needed to figure out what was going on with her and fix it.

“Hi. I’m-“

“Hi Red.” Evelyn’s voice calm and serene just like when he had first met her. She was resting her head against Roy’s chest, as he held her close. Jason blinked in confusion as Roy coughed slightly to clearly cover a laugh. He could either deny that he was Red or admit to it. Neither choice held the best of consequences. There was also the fact that her keen sense of observation wasn’t exactly something he wanted to discourage.

“My name is Jay.” It wasn’t a denial, but it wasn’t confirmation either. It would do for now.

Evelyn smiled a bit more, and Jason watched as Roy carefully deposited her on the couch adjacent. Bud was now doing what she did best and investigating the new person. Evelyn looked even more delighted with Bud than she did with Wilson. Which reminded him...

“Where’s Wilson?” Jason finally stood up, watching Roy point to the yard, Wilson dutifully sitting there staring at them. Staring was better than glaring, he supposed.

The sound of a stampede coming down the stairs revealed Edgar, wide-eyed and clearly scared for a moment before seeing Evelyn, Arsenal, Jason...and Bud.

“Woah...cool dog!” Edgar rushed over, letting Bud sniff him before he began petting her in earnest and earning doggy kisses as a reward.

Jason watched the whole thing with a blank expression on his face. This...this was not how he had pictured the morning going. He had expected mistrust and hesitation and frankly...an escape attempt or two. It’s why he had stayed downstairs in the first place.

“You’re Jay, right?” Edgar asked, not even glancing in Jason’s direction, his full attention on Bud.

Jason nodded back dumbly, attempting to mentally scramble and adjust his plans.

“You’re so lucky. She’s so big!”

Jason looked over at Roy, who shrugged but shot Jason a huge grin. A shouted question of “who wants breakfast?” by Roy, had Jason listing all the breakfast options he had in the house. Cereal seemed to be the choice made by both, and after Jason had turned on the TV, found some cartoons, and placed bowls of cereal in front of the siblings, he grabbed Roy’s arm and all but dragged him back to the kitchen.

Roy would have laughed if Jason hadn’t looked damn near scared to death.

“This is not how I thought things would go...” Jason hissed out, sounding close to panicking. Roy wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about.

“I thought it was going well. I checked in on them earlier and both of them had grabbed a book from the shelf and were reading...”

“That’s just it! I never would have just stayed in that room and read. I never-“

“They’re not you, Jason.” Roy stated simply. “You seem to think that they’d act exactly like you would have. They’re not you. Their story is different than yours. It’s why you had us bring them back here. They-“

“They wouldn’t survive, Roy.” Jason finished with mournful resignation. “They wouldn’t...they’re not going to make out there.” ‘I barely did myself’, Jason thought.

Roy looked over at the living room, the kids still eating their cereal, not seeming to care that the adults were out of sight. He knew Jason at that age would never have allowed adults to leave his sight for a second.

“Well, they trust the Red Hood. And me.” He added the last bit with a proud smug, earning him a smack on the shoulder.

A few more minutes of a pep talk from Roy and Jason was straightening his shoulders and making plans.

“Go feed Wilson.” Jason pointed to the cupboard where the tuna was kept. Roy looked like he was about to protest but he had said that he and the cat were best buds now so...

***

Jason (still expecting the other shoe to drop because things were going far too smoothly), had managed to convince the kids that they could take showers. In fact, it wasn’t even a matter of convincing and more a matter of getting towels for them as Edgar all but ran for the bathroom, expressing his love for hot water. Jason had only had time to yell out that he’d leave a towel in front of the door along with a sweatshirt (it would be huge but it’s all he could do until he put their clothes in the wash) before Edgar had practically slammed the door in his face, the sound of the shower turning on almost immediately.

“Okay then...” Jason huffed with mild disbelief.

Towel and sweatshirt placed outside the door, Jason now focused on Evelyn. He wasn’t actually certain if she was capable of standing for any period of time and he certainly didn’t think it appropriate to bathe her since it wasn’t exactly a medical emergency.

“Edgar is taking a shower upstairs. Did you want to wash up after him?” Jason asked her, her eyes now completely focused on him instead of the cartoons that were continuing to play in the background.

Evelyn nodded with another one of her smiles, Bud resting her head on her lap with her eyes closed.

“Okay, Wilson has been fed, and I’m still alive. All in all I’d say it’s a success.” Roy shot them both two thumbs up before he went back to the dining room table.

“He’s an idiot” Jason shook his head fondly, causing Evelyn to chuckle.

“He’s nice.”

“Yeah well, he’s a nice idiot.”

Evelyn smiled, and as corny as it fucking sounded in his head, Jason’s heart kept goddamn melting. He needed to focus.

When Edgar appeared looking clean and refreshed (albeit a little too red from the hot water), Jason saw that his sweatshirt was pretty much a dress on the boy. Not that Edgar seemed to mind, appearing very happy to hear that his clothes were being washed.

Something on Jason’s face must have given Edgar a clear indication as to what the current struggle was as the boy told him that when he and Evelyn had a chance to shower, they usually kept her sweatshirt on. Jason said nothing in response to that, trying his best to hide his hand that was now clenched into a fist. A light pressure on his arm found Evelyn looking at him in concern, and Jason immediately relaxed his hand.

The solution was a simple one in the end. Jason gave Evelyn a t-shirt to change into that could get wet in the bathroom, and Edgar would stay on guard while Jason remained a few steps away. He’d grabbed a step stool and placed it in the shower, helping Evelyn remove her leg brace and getting a better look at her leg in the process. It definitely looked like a bad break that had healed wrong. Maybe the parents had been abusive (since Edgar had said she’d had a problem with her leg for a while).

“I fell. There was no money for a doctor.” Evelyn’s voice echoing slightly in the bathroom as she had seen where Jason was looking. She didn’t appear to be affected by it, explaining it to him as if he needed comforting rather than the other way around. It threw Jason for a loop. She seemed to have that effect on him.

“And the arm?” Jason risked asking, seeing that it looked bruised from where it peeked out of the shirt sleeve.

Evelyn pulled her injured arm closer to herself and closed her eyes.

“I’d left her alone and some guys came. It’s just the arm...” Edgar added, looking almost as angry as Jason felt. Evelyn’s eyes were immediately back on him though, and she had already proven that she was highly skilled at picking up on his emotions which forced Jason to remain calm.

“Okay...” Jason used the softest voice his could muster without sounding patronizing. “Let’s focus on the shower first.”

Five minutes later and Jason was soaking wet, having to jump in the shower as he had heard her hiss loudly in pain. The T-shirt he had given her now was soaking wet as well, but it went almost down to her ankles and made Jason grateful he had thought to offer it.

Edgar hovered nearby, watching closely which Jason understood. This was his sister and someone they didn’t know was helping them bathe. There was really only so much trust that could be extended and if Jason chose to compare it to his own childhood, he’d never let Bruce or even Alfred near him in such a situation as a kid recently come to live at Wayne Manor.

Jason helped her as quickly and as gently as possible, while Edgar ran to fetch Roy. This was the first time he’d ever washed a little girl’s hair before. The first time for a lot of things it seemed.

Roy helped Evelyn out of the shower and got her situated while Jason took a shower if his own, peeling the clothes off that plastered to him while helping the little girl.

Rather than washing himself though, he ended up spending fifteen minutes with his head leaning against the mosaic wall, just trying to breathe and not break down, and wondering if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. He was in no way qualified to deal with this sort of thing.

Chapter Text

Jason was about eight-five percent certain he was about to be murdered. That statistic wasn’t exactly one that shocked him considering his line of work, and he had figured it was only a matter of time before he met his end in a rather violent fashion.

What he hadn’t expected was to meet that very end in a small medical clinic by a very angry looking Dr. Thompkins. She certainly wasn’t saying anything that gave any sort of indication of said murdering, but Jason could see it in the line of her mouth and brutal stare.  This was in stark contrast to the way she smiled and spoke to Evelyn and Edgar as Jason brought them into the exam room.

Bringing the kids to see Doc Leslie was really not what he wanted to do, but she was the best option.  The older woman wouldn’t call CPS or ask the kids too many questions unless they were health related. Frankly, Jason had always been just plain old afraid of her, and that hadn’t changed. 

What he knew had certainly changed was the fact that his evening activities over the years had taken a more violent turn, which the Doc –ever the pacifist- seemed to be acutely aware of if the look he’d been given was any indication. Oh, and that one time he’d all but collapsed in front of her clinic two years back when he’d been unable to pop his shoulder back in. She didn’t need to know about the few times he’d caught some petty thieves trying to rob the place and strung them up on the lamp posts nearby. Good times...good times...

***

After Jason had forced himself out of the shower earlier, Roy had declared it a good idea to go buy some extra set of clothes for both Edgar and Evelyn, items that would be easy to take on and off.  It only took him about twenty minutes before he was back from whatever children’s store that lined one of the main streets a few blocks away, although it had taken several more minutes to get back into his Arsenal gear before coming back into the house. He didn’t exactly think it would have been all that wise to go during the day in his full Arsenal gear to buy children’s clothes.

Both Edgar and Evelyn appeared to be happy with the new clothes, although Jason had made sure to reassure them both that their old clothes were currently in the dryer and that they would get them back.  Neither one of them seemed to be bothered one way or the other, apparently still too engrossed in cartoons to care, Bud having joined them on the couch. That last bit was driving Jason a bit nuts considering his dog weighed quite a bit and he didn’t want to cause Evelyn any more pain than she had already experienced. 

“They’re fine. Relax.” Roy walked by, punching Jason lightly on the shoulder. Clearly Roy was adapting a lot more easily than he was. Granted, what his friend said earlier was still true; he had braced himself for some sort of emotional fallout based on his own childhood and how he would have reacted. The kids were definitely not like him in that way at all. 

However, the biggest hurdle now was the most immediate one; getting Evelyn’s arm and leg checked out.  Paying a doctor to come to the house was way too risky for a multitude of reasons, and he knew that Evelyn definitely needed x-rays, which was not the type of medical equipment that Jason had downstairs.

After a half hour of dealing with Jason’s silent reflection, Roy heaved a sigh and got up from the sofa where he had been just as engrossed in watching cartoons as the kids, and walked over to the kitchen counter.  If Jason’s sudden jump from where he had been sitting on a bar stool was any indication, Roy needed to get his friend to snap out of it.

“You need to stop this” Roy said quietly. Honestly, the amount of times Jason complained about Bruce being a drama queen when Roy himself had to deal with all these ‘oh woe is me’ silences was astounding. “Just be honest with them. You appreciate honesty; they will too.”
 
Jason rubbed his face, tired despite the decent night of sleep and shower, and wondering how so many things had gone topsy-turvy within less than a week.  Only a few days ago he’d become a dog owner, and that had been enough of a life-changer. Luckily, all he needed to do was focus on getting the kids checked out, seeing what could be done for Evelyn, and then finding them a good home.
  
Apparently Roy was right (one of those rare moments which made the man just as smug as anything), and a conversation about wanting to see if Evelyn’s leg and arm could be looked at was only met by direct questions such as if they would have to go with strangers, could they stay together, what type of doctor, and if the Red Hood OKed it (the last question coming from Edgar, while Evelyn sat there quietly with a small smile on her face).  Roy (still Arsenal to the kids) cleared his throat, giving the kids a look that was meant to remind them that he was still there too. “Doesn’t my opinion count for anything?”

A resounding “no” voiced simultaneously drew a huff from Roy and chuckles from the rest of them.

In all seriousness though, Jason knew that Roy had done more than enough and had truly gone above and beyond like it had been just any other day and no big deal.  It made him hate the fact that he needed more from Roy now in terms of emotional support as he steeled himself for the drive over to the all too familiar clinic. Which was where he was now…pretty sure he was going to get murdered.

***

Apparently tongue depressors were a hit with all kids because both Edgar and Evelyn were now entertaining themselves with a box of them that Doc Leslie had given them to play with while she needed to have a quick talk with Jason; which meant Jason was being dragged off to the side.  He kind of wished he hadn’t made Roy wait in the car…

“I’m not going to ask you where you’ve been because we both already know. “ Dr. Thompkins’ cold stare having not changed a bit.  He hadn’t seen her in a long while and despite the whiter hair and a few more fine lines, she was just as sharp and just as piercing.  He felt like a little kid all over again. 

“Any injuries?”

“Just the arm and the leg from what I could tell-“

“No, I mean you. Any injuries?” she gave him a once over but it wasn’t like she could see much with his shirt, brown leather jacket, and dark colored jeans on.
Jason hadn’t expected that question, and shook his head in response.  Well, no new injuries at least.

He wasn’t sure what on his face made her relax her stance a bit more, but he was grateful for it.

“You were right in your guess. X-ray of that leg shows it was a break that had been set wrong or not at all. It needs to be re-broken and re-set.  I’d say about 6-8 weeks recovery time, maybe less. It’s hard to say with kids sometimes.” Dr. Thompkins’ shrugged. She didn’t look too upset, which Jason thought was a good sign.  “The arm has a nasty bruise that’s hiding a sprain. Nothing broken there which is good.  We can get that wrapped up and in a sling.”

Jason heaved a visible sigh of relief at the news.  Sprains could hurt just as badly as a break but recovery time was a lot quicker. Plus, Evelyn was still a kid and he remembered healing pretty quickly back in the day.  He still did now…but for all-together different reasons.

“As for the young man, he’s in pretty good shape considering their current living situation.” She actually smiled a little which Jason took as a win. Okay, perhaps it hadn’t been a smile exactly and more of a quirk of her lips, but he’d take it.
“Clearly some vitamin deficiency and malnutrition, but easily remedied.”

So Edgar was pretty much given the all clear, and the Doc’s suggestion of a blood draw hadn’t appeared to bother either of the kids earlier, which Jason thought was a huge bonus, and they’d get the results of that pretty quickly.  That really just left Evelyn to focus on again.

“I want to get her leg set.  If I have to, I can try and get some paperwork set up for her but it would take some time.” Jason sighed in frustration at not having resources readily at his disposal.  Although it wasn’t really the resources that were a challenge but more how to use them without drawing suspicion on himself and the kids.

He was actually a very good forger and could do a pretty good setup of background documents, but things were always dicey with kids, and he didn’t want there to be any risk whatsoever of Evelyn’s paperwork getting flagged. Or more than that, somehow catching the ever watchful eyes of Oracle.

Other than one conversation several years ago, when he had recently revealed himself as the Red Hood in Gotham, he hadn’t communicated with her since.  Not that she hadn’t tried snooping on him. It had never gotten her far though; he always had a few tricks up his sleeves. He wasn’t about to give her any information she could run back to the Bat clan or the Commish with.

“I can admit her to Gotham Children’s Hospital. Administration won’t look twice if my name’s on the report as they know I do a lot of charity work” she offered up as a reasonable idea.

Jason wasn’t so convinced. He really didn’t want there to be any risk whatsoever but the fact of the matter was that there was going to be a level of risk involved no matter what. He just needed to make sure he mitigated it as best he could.

“What about the surrounding cities...” Jason began to think out loud, “List her as coming from Bludhaven or Star City or somewhere.   I just want there to be some other additional information that would make anyone here in the city not look twice.”

He’d expected resistance from her but she surprisingly nodded. 

“Shouldn’t be a problem considering I do work with charities and the children’s hospitals in those cities as well. I’ll get it taken care of. I’d say we can even have her ready to go as soon as tomorrow considering she’d be going through as part of a charity organization.”

Jason squinted slightly and studied her closely.  “You’re being way too nice. It’s creeping me out. I expected some sort of argument and lecture and all that.“

“This isn’t about patching a child up because they were out doing things during the night that they should have no business doing” she explained simply, having had multiple arguments with Bruce over the years about bringing children into his own war. This was not the same. “This is about helping these children with their health issues as much as possible considering their circumstances. I don’t doubt that you’re attempting to help them get off the street, and I commend you for that.  I do remember you at that age Jason…or have you forgotten?”

Jason shook his head and grumbled out a “no”. He definitely hadn’t; although he had hoped she had. He hadn’t exactly been all that pleasant as a patient, even after he’d become Robin. The warmth in his chest at actually being praised for trying to help the kids was now dampened by trying to figure out how to tell Evelyn about needing surgery.

“Are you in touch with the others?” She asked, the question such a non sequitur that Jason wasn’t sure what she was talking about at first.   Of course when it finally clicked a second later, he tried and failed to keep his hands relaxed and not ball them into fists.

“No. I’d like to keep it that way. Besides, once I get these two taken care of, I’m out. Time to start again someplace new”, Jason’s tone brokered no room for argument. He knew that had been one of the risks of bringing the kids here…the potential for it getting back to Bruce.  He just hoped she wouldn’t feel the need to.

Dr. Thompkins said nothing in response, but nodded in understanding as she looked down to find that tongue depressors were being placed in the pocket of her doctor’s coat (courtesy of Edgar), giggles from the kids as they attempted to do it as sneakily as possible.   She smiled and acted shocked for their amusement as she took the lead on the conversation that Jason thought she would have forced him to have with Evelyn on his own.

Turns out explaining to a kid that after a quick nap and several weeks of rest, she’d be able to walk and eventually run was enough of an incentive.  Although concerns about where Edgar would be and leaving Evelyn alone were quickly addressed.

“I’ll be there, or if not, then Arsenal, or Red will be there…we’ll make it work. That means you’ll have to stay at the house for a little while though. Until Evelyn is all better. Alright?”  Jason placed a hand on Edgar’s shoulder, trying his best to reassure him. 

He could manage for a few days, and with Evelyn needing several weeks recovery time that meant not being on the streets and time for Jason to figure out how to find them a decent home.

With a polite, “one moment please”, Edgar moved to confer with Evelyn, who had been sitting on the examining chair. 

Jason and Dr. Thompkins exchanged amused looks with one another as they could pretty much hear the secretive conversation in its entirety.  It lasted only a few seconds, but Edgar came back and paused dramatically before nodding his head.

“We’re in agreement.” Edgar put out his hand, and Jason shook it soundly with a firm nod. Evelyn in the meantime giggled as Dr. Thompkins started working on getting her arm supported.

***

“How’d it go?” Roy asked when he had finished driving them all back to the house.

Jason gave him a rundown of the visit, and the expectation that Evelyn would arrive at Gotham Children’s Hospital tomorrow at some point in the morning once Jason received a confirmed time.  He had nodded along, happy to hear that things had gone relatively well. 

“What do you want to do about the case?” Roy asked him as Jason prepared some grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch while Roy kept cutting off bits of cheese to snack on.   He had been relieved of Arsenal duty at this point as Edgar had pointed out it must not have been comfortable to be going around all day in costume. In Roy’s case it had been less about identity and more about the kids trusting them.  Which didn’t seem to be a problem at all at the moment.

Shit.” Jason had forgotten about the party.  It was being held late afternoon, so there may be a chance he could make it.  If not, he’d send Roy.  He could be serious enough in a pinch, and despite the red hair (which, Jason would totally make him dye tomorrow if it came to it), would be good to go.  The case was important, but so was the kid. Divide and conquer would be the best strategy.

“I’ll know in a few hours. Doc is supposed to let me know the scheduled surgery time.  I hope you’ve always wondered what you’d look like with brown hair because that may just happen tomorrow…” Jason grinned, flipping the grilled cheese sandwich over in the pan, and hearing Roy choke on the cheese he was eating.
 

Chapter Text

4PM - (Now)

”That’s not going to work! I’m telling you, the encryption is far too random in its sequencing-”

“It will work!”

“Will not!”

“Will too!”

“Listen, I’m not saying that you don’t know what you’re doing-“

“Yes you are! Just ‘cause I’m a kid you think I-“

Jason rolled his eyes as he pulled the silver Aston Martin up to the main entrance of the Gotham Palace Hotel. Clearly he had forgotten just how much publicity this event had garnered as photographers lined both sides of the entryway into the hotel, the numerous flashes and shouting to get their targets attention loud enough to even be heard through the closed windows of the car.

It wasn’t a huge issue, but certainly was annoying as he didn’t exactly want to be photographed. Of course, luck was still on his side since no one had any idea who he was, so that meant that the paparazzi would take their photos now and research later, no doubt coming up empty and therefore meaning no photos of him in print or online.

It would have helped if he had prepared more, but it had kind of taken a backseat to the rest of his life at the moment…namely a dog, a strange cat that showed up when and where it pleased, and two kids.

‘Scratch that. Three kids.’ He concluded with a sigh as he stepped out of the car and accepted a valet ticket for it, continuing to be bombarded by the sounds of bickering through his near-translucent earpiece, courtesy of Roy, who had somehow de-aged in the span of an hour when left alone with Edgar.

Neither Roy nor Edgar seemed to be shutting up from where they were camped out in Evelyn’s hospital room, keeping her company as she rested and recovered from surgery. He only hoped they didn’t get themselves kicked out. Doc Thompkins had pulled more strings for him and the kids than Jason had expected her to, and he wasn’t about to give her any reason to regret it.

“Children, stop it.” Jason hissed quietly as he took out his phone and pretended to be on a call as he went to the smoking post just to the side of the entrance to give himself a moment to gather his wits and to get the bickering to stop.

”He started it!” the exclamation simultaneously made by Roy and Edgar.

“I don’t care who started it. It just needs to end. Evelyn is trying to rest and you both promised to behave. If you upset her by getting kicked out, you will both be in trouble when I get back. Understood?” Jason’s tone brokered no room for argument.

”Yes.” Edgar mumbled with Roy grumbling his agreement as well.

“Good. I’m muting comms for now. No arguing.” Jason tapped the earpiece with his finger under the pretense of scratching his ear.

‘I’m going to regret this’, he sighed, finishing his cigarette and making his way towards the vultures that had their cameras ready and waiting.

***

Yesterday Afternoon

Jason had almost been surprised by the swiftness and efficiency with which Doc Thompkins moved, both in a medical and administrative capacity. He had received a call from her a couple of hours after lunch, while he was out picking up the suits he had purchased a few days prior. Up until now, he hadn't been too sure whether he'd be the one to end up going or Roy, but the morning surgery time made it unlikely that there would be a conflict between the two priorities.

James -the friendly consultant from Jason's first visit to the store- hadn't been in, and even though Jason hadn't bothered dressing up for his venture into the store this time, he was recognized by other consultants who asked after Bud. He had smiled and engaged in some small talk about his dog, happy that she had made such an impression.

Roy's joke about making her the founding member of the Outpaws (a ridiculous name from a ridiculous man), held a bit of merit now as Jason found himself wondering how much Bud would be of benefit to him for cases as the Red Hood. For surveillance purposes he could definitely see her being useful. No one would really suspect a man and his dog, especially one that was so conspicuous, to be eavesdropping. He chewed on the thought as he tried on the readied suits, making sure everything looked as it should and picking up an off the rack suit for Roy (just in case), before making his way to a barber shop that was on the way back.

Sal had been cutting hair longer than Jason had been alive, and while Jason didn't much care for two-hundred dollar haircuts, he still needed a place that was decent enough to pass muster if he was going to be stared at for a few hours tomorrow. So a passing glance into the traditional barber shop a year back on one of his rare daylight excursions had him entering the man's shop in hopes of having an opening. And so began an infrequent relationship with the man who always seemed to be available for him when he needed to appear more put together than he actually felt.

Today especially, when he was nervous about Evelyn's surgery in the morning, and Edgar, and this case, and the thoughts and feelings of having seen Alfred...yeah, he needed just a few hours to center himself a bit.

He left the barbers an hour later, hair cut (not too short, and with it still long enough in front to be gelled slightly to the side) and a nice close shave (which he white-knuckled through considering he didn't like other people wielding sharp objects near his jugular).

Using Roy's car for his errands, Jason found himself in the grocery store on impulse, calling Roy and asking them what they wanted for dinner. Fast food was all well and good but considering Leslie's assessment about malnourishment and vitamin deficiency, it was best if he tried to get them all some healthy options.

Arguments abounded on the phone, and Jason cut it off quickly by asking to have the phone given to Evelyn, who apparently wanted chicken. That didn't exactly help Jason much, but it had quieted the other two down in the background which meant Jason would decide.

No one complained during dinner though, Jason having bought two roasted chickens and had cooked fresh carrots and creamed spinach. It was the first time his dining room table was actually hosting a dinner. 'It was nice' he thought, smiling to himself as Edgar mildly pleaded with him to allow him to feed Bud chicken (which she was now eyeing having finished her own food). 'Yeah...really nice.'

Bedtime was different that night compared to the kids first night there as Jason showed them the guest room. It only had one bed, a queen, which would fit them both and would do for now. He had moved all their stuff into the room, and it had been a true sign of his and Roy's partnership that they'd both gotten the kids washed up and ready for bed. They had a check-in time of ten in the morning at the hospital, with surgery not supposed to last more than three hours. The kids didn't seem nervous and passed out within a few minutes while Jason went downstairs and fell asleep on the couch to the sound of Roy tinkering with the laptop parts Edgar had in his backpack that he had revealed to them earlier.

Jason's last conscious thought was that he needed to tell Roy about how Edgar had been able to get that lock off the garage door.

***

9 am (7 hours ago)

Telling Roy about Edgar and the lock that morning had been the worst decision he could have made. Roy's disbelief had been evident, but it was Edgar's hesitant explanation of how he did it that made the guy almost fall off the chair.

Which is why Jason was now trying to peel the two of them away from Edgar's laptop project and Roy's harmless (well, mostly harmless) gadgets that he was showing Edgar and discussing with him as seriously as he would have with Jason. Although Jason could tell based on the way Edgar's eyes had lit up and he had talked in a long stream of almost unintelligible words, that this was probably the first time he'd been taken seriously.

Evelyn on the other hand, appeared content to read on the couch, a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone gripped in her only usable hand at the moment, while Bud lay at the end of the couch by her feet. She really didn't seem nervous as at all, and it was like a balm on Jason's poor nerves.

"We have to get ready to go now. You can bring the book with you to read afterwards" Jason offered up, kneeling beside her and smiling. She returned the smile with a small one of her own, which still had the same impact on Jason as it did when he had first seen her in that alleyway. That smile had joined a very small list Jason had of his favorite things.

"Wilson" Evelyn laid the book down on her chest and pointed at the sliding glass door, where sure enough, Wilson was staring at them. The cat's appearance did not adhere to any timetable, and it didn't just show up for food as Jason had seen the tuna that Roy had put outside go untouched. Jason thought that he really should buy some cat food or something. Not that he wanted the cat to keep coming back...it was already ballsy enough as it was; he didn't want to encourage it.

"That cat is crazy."

Evelyn shook her head with a bemused expression. "He likes watching us. Are you going to be there when I wake up?"

Jason froze for a moment, having been caught off guard by her question that came out of the blue. He couldn't fault her for it though.

"Yes. I'll be there. I promise." Jason said seriously. It was something that was already a non-negotiable in his mind.

He was realizing now that even though she was usually quiet, that didn't mean she didn't need reassurance. Jason could have kicked himself. He knew from experience just how much he had wished adults had tried to read his mind as a kid, because he never really knew how to ask for what he needed. Or if he did, he was too afraid to say it. He would have never said anything to Willis, and his mom had never really been a place to help him with anything. Bruce had been horrible at it, and Alfred -while solid and dependable and there to pick him up and dust him off when he needed it- wasn't someone that you had heart-to-hearts with on a regular basis.

"It's okay to be scared. Hospitals aren't fun, but you’ll feel better afterwards. I've had a bunch of surgeries and I'm always happy when I get better. Plus, you get popsicles afterwards, which is pretty awesome." Jason laughed softly at the girls excited expression. Who didn't love popsicles?

"And after...?"

Jason tilted his head to the side in confusion, not understanding.

"After the hospital. Where do we go?"

It was the only time he had heard a slight tremor in her voice as she turned to look at Edgar who was in an excited discussion with Roy about terabytes and data.

As much as Edgar worried about Evelyn, it was certainly mutual. Jason wondered how much more guarded Edgar would have been if his sister wasn't always so calm. Now though, there was real concern in her eyes, and Jason's mouth went dry. He simply didn't know what their future looked like yet. All he did know was that he was going to make sure it was a good one.

“You might be with me for a little bit while I get things settled for you guys. I want you both to be able to go to school and grow up to be whatever you want to be. I promise I'm going to make sure you're both happy and I won’t make any decisions without talking to the both of you." Jason squeezed her hand gently, trying his best not to break down in front of her because he was saying words that he had so wanted to hear as a child.

"We are happy here." She added quietly, looking down at their hands as Jason hadn't let go.

Jason couldn't do this right now. It was too much. He couldn't breathe properly yet he wanted about ten cigarettes and perhaps a decent bar fight to take the edge off. Jesus, she was killing him.

"Jaybird, we're going to be late! I'm going to start loading up the car." Roy called out as if he hadn't been the one dragging his feet. Still, it was just enough of a distraction for Jason to gather himself up and stand, but not before giving Evelyn’s hand another quick squeeze. It was all he could offer her at this point.

***

You would have thought they were camping out in the woods for all that was put into the car and taken to the hospital. What with the large bag with Roy's gear, two garment bags, another duffle with shoes and other clothing accessories, some PJ's for Evelyn and an extra set of clothes (Roy had obviously gone a bit crazy at the clothing store the morning before without Jason having noticed).

Doc Thompkins had met them in pre-op as she gave Jason the results of the kids expedited blood tests (all normal), and got visitor badges for them all which thankfully marked them as family based on the last names Jason had provided her. He had actually been surprised to find her being the one to do the surgery but said nothing of it.

Edgar had been a bit bummed out that Bud couldn't come with them but Jason didn't think trying to sneak a 150-pound dog into the hospital would have been the best way to start the morning. And who knew about Wilson...it was very possible they would find that cat sitting in the waiting room looking at them like they were late.

Evelyn was prepped for surgery, and Jason held her hand the whole time while Edgar's anxiety was dampened by Roy asking the boy for his thoughts and suggestions on random tech stuff that Jason hadn't bothered to pay attention to.

"It's time now. I'll take good care of her."

Jason looked up as the the older woman came in with some of her assisting team. He didn't want to let go of Evelyn's hand but did so as calmly as he could with one last squeeze.

"I'll be right here when you wake up. Just remember...popsicles..." he winked at her, watching her smile as she was wheeled away. Edgar had waved at his sister and made sure that the whole popsicle deal extended to him too. If only Jason could be that calm.

It ended up being some of the longest couple of hours of his life (and he knew just how long an hour could feel like when you just wanted it all to end), but the relief at seeing Leslie come to the waiting room and smile at him - a wide, reassuring one - almost had him dropping to his knees as his legs buckled slightly.

"She did really well. No complications. She's being rolled into post-op now. You'll be able to see her in about twenty minutes. One at a time until she's moved to her own room." She warned him sternly as she eyed Jason's two co-conspirators with their far too innocent expressions.

"Thank you. I mean it. Thank you." Jason's sincerity causing the older woman to pat his shoulder and give it a squeeze.

"You were always a good kid, Jason." And with that, she walked back through the double doors which barred admittance to non-medical staff.

"Alright! Popsicles here we come!" Roy clapped his hands, garnering an enthusiastic "yeah!" from Edgar.

An hour later, Evelyn had been moved to her own room, drowsy from the meds but smiling as she held onto a popsicle surrounded by the three of them as they sat on chairs around her bed, enjoying their own frozen treats.

As he caught the unfinished popsicle that was about to fall from Evelyn’s relaxed hand, sleep having taken hold again quickly, Jason realized just how hard it would be to leave, but he knew he needed to be the one to go and not Roy.

He was already too attached, and it wouldn’t help him or the kids in the long run. This party came at the worst time but also the best one as it forced Jason to separate himself from this. He was the Red Hood, and there were other children out there that had it just as bad if not worse, and if this Berto Rowe was about to make the streets even more dangerous than they already were, then he had to stop him.

***

“How do I look?” Jason asked as he came out of the en-suite bathroom and did a twirl, which got him some applause and a dazed smile from Evelyn who was now awake again after a round of sleep. He was glad he had brought up everything from the car, even the suit and other items he had bought Roy hanging in the small closet off to the side. Roy was adamant that Jason find him a reason to wear it now that he wasn’t going to the party (although happy he didn’t have to dye his “fiery red locks”...his words, not Jason’s).

Jason bowed in response to the praise, blushing slightly as Evelyn told him he looked very handsome. Roy stifled a laugh as Jason shot him a glare, and then set about making sure everyone would be alright for a few hours.

As he ran through some instructions, Roy nodded along as he moved the rolling dining table towards himself on the chair and began to unzip his duffle bag, taking out all sorts of equipment and making what seemed like a mini surveillance headquarters.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jason immediately went to make sure the door was closed as Roy didn’t seem to care. Edgar was immediately interested in the proceedings and came over to watch.

Jason was rendered speechless for a moment before coming to his senses and scrambling over to shut the laptop which Roy had just opened.

“Hey! I’m in the middle of trying to make a control center here. I can’t let you go in without any backup.” Roy pointed out, acting like Jason was the one being unreasonable.

“There are so many things wrong with this scenario right now, Roy. One being that anyone could walk in to check up on her; two, the ids-kay are here; thre-“

“I know pig latin” Edgar rolled his eyes, cutting Jason off. These two guys were clearly morons if they thought he and Evelyn didn’t know that Roy was Arsenal and Jason was clearly some sort of spy that worked with the Red Hood. It was obvious.

“Right...okay.” Jason conceded, but wasn’t deterred. He expected it to be a normal party but you never knew what could go wrong, which is what he told them both.

“That’s exactly why you need me to keep watch. On the rare chance it’s something not good then I’ll cut visual. Besides, I’ll have it set up to look like I’m playing video games should anyone come in.” Roy pointed to the screen where he had a video feed of a game ready to go.

“It’s okay. It’s important to be safe.” Evelyn murmured from the bed.

Jason walked over to her and took her hand in his. “I’ll be safe I promise. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you two to be involved.” They couldn’t fault him for his honesty.

“Too late...” Evelyn grinned sleepily, drifting off again to the sound of Jason laughing.

He ended up conceding defeat, accepting the earpiece Roy had handed him, a translucent little thing that was made with some sort of plastic polymer that Jason had never seen before. It wouldn’t come up on even the most sensitive of scans. However, the contact lens case Roy was now handing him had Jason wincing. He hated these things, but with no helmet to pick up video feed and the possibility of missing something, the ability to replay events may come in handy. ‘Better to have and not need...’ Jason supposed, accepting it with a sigh and going to the bathroom to put it in.

Roy tested the A/V and when everything looked good to go, Jason ruffled Edgar’s hair and told him to listen to Roy and watch over his sister. Evelyn was fast asleep now but Jason carded his fingers through her hair, staring at her for a moment before he walked out of the room, out of the hospital, and got into a cab that would take him near the stashed car.

While it was probably a bad idea, he smoked several cigarettes on his drive over to the hotel, doing his best to ignore the bickering that had started over screen resolution of all things, on the other end of the earpiece. All of which led to where he was now, calming two bickering boys, smoking another cigarette, and taking his first step onto the carpet leading the way to the hotel entrance.

***

4:10PM - (Now)

“Over here!”

“Mr. Mayor, a few more shots!”

“Let’s get some photos of you guys together!”

Jason was glad for his sunglasses or he would have been blinded by the flashing that was going on around him. It was impossible to tell who they were yelling at most of the time (other than Mayor Sharp who had a tall blonde woman on his arm who was very much not his wife) and tried to walk quickly but confidently.

He blended in well enough, although he supposed black-tie would have been better for that since all the men usually looked the same. This time around, considering it was an afternoon function, Jason had wanted to balance blending in and standing out in a non-douchebaggy way.

Styled hair and sunglasses aside, Jason had gone with a suit that James had recommended rather than the one that had originally caught his eye. It was a dark navy silk-wool blend with thin light-gray pinstripes that were about half a centimeter apart and made him look several inches taller. Underneath the blazer he had a light blue shirt that was paired with a dark plum colored tie, a color palette that shouldn’t have worked but did as the tie was the only pop of color, with half of it hidden beneath a navy vest.

Jason had never worn a three-piece suit in his life, and all the buttons had made the vest a bitch to put on, but he had to admit it had been worth it. A sterling silver chain shined against the flashing cameras, an actual pocket watch attached to the end of it which he had purchased because it had reminded him of Alfred when he had seen it.

A flat fold of a crisp white pocket square was tucked into the front pocket of his blazer, as opposed to a triangular fold that he could see many of others had done; he had chosen to focus on practically versus extra flair.

His shoes were simple but elegant, black lace-ups with a slightly narrowed toe, not too much but enough to give the suit a modern edge. A pair of silver square cuff links, a belt, and a lovely brown leather-strapped Patek Phillipe watch (which he had liberated off a drug kingpin’s hand last year when it was obvious he wouldn’t be needing it anymore) completed the look.

Of course, with everyone else in their best formal attire, he wasn’t exactly a diamond in the rough.

Making it through the army of paparazzi, he paid attention to the flow of traffic, hotel staff ushering party goers to two elevators that had been purposely roped off from regular hotel guests. So far no invitations were being asked for so Jason followed along with a group of a few dozen others, taking the elevator up to the penthouse.

With a ding, the doors opened, showing Jason that they directly opened up in front of another set of double doors which had two security details standing in front of it and a line of people waiting to get in.

Definitely not hotel security considering the way they held themselves and the weapons inside their jackets. They opened the doors, and while Jason thought he would be able to make it in without producing an invitation, a woman in a sharp looking skirt suit stood there attempting to look like a pleasant hostess as she asked to see invitations.

Jason had planned for this possibility and had several options lined up. It all depended on on a few factors. Namely, if there was someone there solo or if someone else forgot their invitation. It ended up being the former.

The woman looked pleasant enough, although with a faint look of annoyance like she didn’t want to be there at all. She wore a navy raw silk cocktail dress with no embellishments, the dress looking sharp and severe and no nonsense. She wasn’t slathered in makeup and her brown hair was pulled back in a low chignon which revealed large diamond studs. He noted the black Louboutins were the only thing that stood out with their red soles and gave them a quick double take as they spelled out S-E-X across both shoes in a rather subtle way. He tried not to smirk.

Scooting towards her, he noted that two other security guards behind him had now moved closer. He wasn’t sure if it was coincidence or not.

“This is going to sound really strange but-“

“You smell like cigarettes.”

Jason had definitely not prepared for that response and floundered for second. Turns out he needn’t have bothered.

“What’s going to sound weird? And do you have a cigarette I could bum off you? I haven’t had one all day and I’m dying.” She looked at him hopefully and then with pure relief as he laughed and handed her one and the lighter which she promised to return to him. She looked like a kid on Christmas as opposed to a late twenty-something woman about to enter a formal event.

“I forgot my invitation and I need to be your plus one.” Jason whispered quickly as they got closer to the front of the line. He didn’t have time to be anything but direct. If they turned him away he’d have to sneak in and he really didn’t have the energy to do that today.

”Uh...Jay...” Roy’s voice came through the earpiece now but Jason ignored it. Whatever it was could wait another few seconds.

“That’s the worst fucking excuse I’ve ever heard.” The woman murmured with a smile, catching Jason off guard. It was surprising, but it helped take the edge off Jason's already stressful day. “But, you gave me a cigarette and trusted me with your lighter. So, we’ll call this even. What’s your name?”

They were third in line now.

“Peter Dumas.” Jason replied easily. It was the alias he had used with Roy when they had created a file to go along with that card he had snatched that had started all this.

“Let’s get you in then, Peter” she smiled, moving forward and looking at the frosted face of the hostess (which Jason would have to guess was probably an executive assistant or someone else close to Mr. Rowe). Although Jason noticed that the woman he was standing next to didn’t move to retrieve her invitation from her bag.

“Your Majesty! What an honor!” the hostess’ voice became obnoxiously high, making Jason almost wince if he wasn’t too busy trying to keep his jaw from dropping to the floor.

“Yes yes. This is Peter Dumas, my plus one. We'll see ourselves in.”

Jason felt the woman loop her arm through his and walk them through the double doors. He could feel far too many eyes on him and the flashing of a camera, from a photographer who had obviously been given exclusive access to the party.

Something must have shown on his face because the woman next to him kindly asked the photographer not to take any more pictures, which was good since Jason didn’t know what was going on.

“Right...so...do I want to know?” he asked her with mild trepidation despite the smile on his face. She laughed and shook her head as she withdrew her arm.

“Probably not. But I’ll see you outside on the patio for a smoke later. I have to give you back your lighter!” She grinned at him, a pleasant and fond one that actually wasn’t flirtatious in the least. If he hadn’t gotten that big hint that she was royalty of some kind, he wouldn’t have minded talking to her for little longer. That wasn’t going to happen now.

“Oh, by the way. Nice shoes.” Jason’s eyes flicking to the floor and the back up at her face, catching her grin and wink as she moved along. He watched her walk away, the two security guards following suit, along with hundreds of pairs of eyes. He didn’t need that kind of attention on him right now.

”Of all the women at this thing, Jay...” Roy’s groan a mixture of annoyance and envy. Jason wasn’t really sure what to think as he went to grab a champagne flute from a passing tray and moved towards the corner of the room.

“Is she a princess or something...” Jason mumbled into his champagne flute, doing his best to cover the movement of his lips.

”Nope. She’s a-

Jason could hear Edgar now in the background and the muffling sound of things being moved around. He could make out “let me tell him!” and a pursuing argument which had Jason clearing his throat as a sharp reminder of his warning earlier.

”Okay, first of all, this is super cool and I’m totally jealous because you’re like James Bond right now...” Edgar’s words quick in his excitement. Jason tried not to laugh but he had to admit he was impressed that Edgar even knew who James Bond was. ”She was a queen! A real one!”

Jason couldn’t hear the rest of what Edgar was saying as he choked on his mouthful of champagne and tried not to cough too loudly. In the meantime, Roy came back on the line and confirmed Edgar’s exclamation. Turned out she was the Queen of Umec, which despite obviously being in the Middle East, she had grown up in the States with a European mother, while her father ruled the country.

Recovering from his shock, Jason thought it was kind of cool, but more concerned now as people still seemed to stare at him a bit too frequently after his grander than expected entrance.

“I didn’t realize you were dating royalty.”

The voice came from Jason’s right, one that sounded familiar but one he couldn't immediately place. He turned, his eyes finding a tall, blonde haired man in his early forties, although looking deceptively younger with the lack of the usual facial hair. Jason could hear the sudden intake of breath through his earpiece and then the faint click as it went mute.

“Apparently there’s more than one queen here today” Jason responded smoothly, his tone firm despite the fake smile on his face. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list.”

“I didn’t see yours either” Oliver Queen countered.

Chapter Text

Despite the noise around them, Jason stood there quietly, eyeing Oliver Queen, who was standing there looking at him expectantly. Of the hundreds of people in the room with them, no one seemed to have noticed the head of Queen Industries standing there, let alone two men who were standing there in silent standoff.

To the untrained eye, Oliver Queen looked relaxed and comfortable with his glass of champagne in hand. To Jason, he looked tense, the micro-expressions he was catching glimpses of being enough to relax him a little. Some may have called it paranoia, but he wouldn’t have put it past Star City’s main vigilante to somehow find out he was attending this event and use that in some way to get to Roy. Besides, it was only paranoia when you’re wrong, and most of the time, Jason was right about these things. This time though, Jason was getting the sense that they had both been caught off guard. He treasured the man’s subtle looks of unease; the bastard didn’t deserve to be comfortable, not after everything he had done to Roy.

‘Shit…Roy…’ Jason could hear dead silence on the other end of his earpiece, which meant Roy still had it muted but he could still hear and see what Jason did. He really hoped Edgar was keeping his friend grounded because Jason wasn’t there to do it.

“Why are you here?” Jason didn’t exactly see the need for any small talk.

“I’m in town for a few days. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put in an appearance at this event.” Queen lied smoothly while still looking Jason straight in the eyes. “We do have a large branch of QI here.”

“Save that bit for the reporters. What are you really doing here” Jason’s voice low and sharp. It was becoming more challenging now to keep the small smile he had in place; and he wasn’t about to make a scene. Not because of him. “You could have had any of the Gotham execs from QI come. Making a personal appearance with minimal fanfare?”

Of course Jason knew that the man had said he’d be in Gotham around this time, since Roy had shown him the text he had received, and Jason had seen the one with the request to meet. If Oliver wasn’t here for Jason (and there was no way that the guy would have known that Roy had been an option to attend instead), then why was he there.

Before he could get an answer, the crowd seemed to quiet down as Mr. Berto Rowe himself appeared by the second floor railing that overlooked the main room and out into the patio. Jason had seen photos of the man before as well as video clips, and he had to admit that what unnerved him most was how non-sleezy the guy appeared. With greying temples that blended in nicely with the rest of his dark hair, the man’s olive complexion made his dark eyes seem thoughtful and kind. He commanded the room with minimal fuss, looking genuinely happy to see everyone. Jason hated these types of people, because it made them more dangerous…a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

While the man made his welcoming speech to his Gotham flock, Jason took the opportunity to look around room.

It was a vast space, with white marble floors and high ceilings which allowed for there to be half a second floor, two staircases on either side of it allowing one to go upstairs and mingle while still having a look at the main room below. There were cocktail tables around the room, places to stand and congregate while a string quartet played quietly from a back corner. A few bartenders were stationed at each end of the room. What made the place even larger however, were the floor to ceiling windows that ran along the opposite side of the room in a crescent shape, which gave one not only a view of the large patio outside where there were even more cocktail tables and an outdoor bar, but the entire Gotham city skyline and the ocean beyond.

Jason’s eyes continued to move around, making sure his contact lens recorded as much as possible so he could review later, until his eyes landed back on Oliver. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but the man had gone rigid (again, imperceptible to anyone who wasn’t really looking), his eyes narrowed slightly as he didn’t shift his gaze away from Mr. Rowe.

‘Bingo’ Jason thought, feeling both extremely annoyed and relieved. Relieved that Oliver Queen hadn’t been here for him, and annoyed that clearly their paths were crossing in clear relation to an overlapping target.

“What do you want with him?” Jason’s eyes not leaving Oliver’s profile so he could catch the faint look of surprise… ah yes, there it was…as he turned to look at him. Oliver must have known he’d been caught out, but Jason was wondering if it had been intentional…like Queen wanted him to know. Either that or he was horrible at maintaining his façade.

“He came to Star City before here. Since his arrival into the city, things on the streets are shifting, and I don’t think it’s for the better. I was not in a position to make the Star City version of this event, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I needed to pay him more attention. “

This time Jason was the one that couldn’t hide his surprise, no matter how miniscule it was. He had expected to go round and round for a good long time while attempting not to punch the man in the throat. There was still a possibility that he’d punch him, but at least the round and round part was over for now.

“As soon as I saw you, I knew you must be here for the same reason. Contrary to what your father thought, I’m hardly an idiot.” Queen said seriously.

“Never my father” Jason spit the words out slowly and quietly.

Clearly the man was more adept at social cues because he looked genuinely contrite for a moment and apologized.

Jason wasn’t exactly appeased but it had tempered down his anger to a more manageable level. As much as he didn’t want to talk about ‘Asshole Number One’ with ‘Asshole Number Two’, the only reason that they were both standing there at the moment was because of the former’s absence. Despite Jason’s aversion to both men, it wasn’t as if Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne were best friends.

There was a friendly rivalry between companies, and while there was never any public animosity, they both took different approaches to their lives as city protectors, one which did not allow for much overlap. Neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman would take kindly to them being here. Jason didn’t give two shits about that though seeing as how this was his city…moreso than the Bats.

“Are you going to tell him you were in town?” Jason moved with Oliver towards the corner again as Berto’s speech came to an end. It had been boring and about friendship and giving back to those in need when you were blessed with so much. The usual tripe you heard at these types of the functions.

“Not if I can help it. Are you?”

Jason laughed, a small bitter thing that didn’t sound all that amused. “It’s not like we’re on speaking terms. I expect that to remain unchanged.”

The warning was there for Oliver to hear plainly. Other than the blip with Alfred a few days back, Jason had been extremely careful, even as the Red Hood, to ensure that he was efficient while staying out of sight. It meant a lot more planning, more intentional shots and beatings, and less explosions. It wasn’t as fun that was for sure, but it kept him from being an active case which would have had Batman hunting him down. He hadn’t spoken to Bruce in over two years. Even then it had only been to say “fuck off” and it was said to Batman not Bruce. Although he supposed they were one and the same now. Not his problem though.

Oliver gave a short nod of understanding before catching sight of something and giving Jason a look. Someone was coming over.

Jason adjusted the expression on his face just as Berto Rowe walked up to them, smile on his face.

“Hello gentlemen. Thank you for joining me today” the man’s accent giving his English a rather melodious quality. “Mr. Queen, I must say I am very pleased to meet you in the flesh. I have followed the growth of Queen Industries for years now and I’ll readily admit I’ve implemented many of your sound business strategies and ways of working into my own organization.”

Oliver smiled, the one that was charming and just a little bit self-conscious, making him seem inexperienced with praise. Jason knew how much of a sham it was but others seemed to just fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Another few seconds of exchanging platitudes and Jason found himself thrust into the limelight.

“I must be honest, I do not know your name, young man” Berto admitted freely with one of those ‘but such is life’ shrugs, “but I saw you speaking with her Majesty earlier, and now…here you are, speaking with Mr. Oliver Queen! I said to myself, ‘Berto…there’s a young man who is clearly on the right track, and I must meet him.’ “

Jason chuckled pleasantly, extending his hand in introduction. “Peter Dumas, at your service.”

Peter Dumas, Jason’s alias for this whole thing, came set with a full back history – French background but born in the States; took over a small plastic production company and helped turn it into a major player in the plastic market, namely for computers and other electronics. Considering Jason was talking with Queen, it would definitely lend him some credibility if Mr. Rowe went digging. Not that he would have that far to dig considering they had included Mr. Dumas’ penchant for cocaine, a burgeoning gambling addiction that was on the cusp of impacting his company’s capital with a suspicion of him already dipping into company funds, and a fondness for exotic dancers. All the information nicely arranged as perfect blackmail material for Mr. Rowe to have on Mr. Dumas.

Thankfully Jason was spared from much more conversation after that since that frosty hostess from earlier came over to whisper something in the man’s ear. Taking his leave, both Jason and Oliver watched him go schmooze some other people.

“He’s going to look you up.”

“I’m counting on it.” Jason looked out the window at where he could see people smoking on the patio and realized just how stifling it was in here. Without another word, he walked off to head out onto the patio, finding a free ashtray at the very end of the balcony which seemed to wrap around practically one half of the building. It was a bit more windy here, and cold, which is why no one seemed to be favoring it as a good conversing spot. Heaven forbid someone had a hair blown out of place.

Placing a cigarette in his lips, he cursed inwardly, realizing he had given up his lighter earlier. It had been worth it at the time, but now it meant he’d have to ask someone to borrow theirs. Something he didn’t want to do at the risk of being dragged into conversation.

”Jay, you there? Can you hear me?”

Hearing the voice through his earpiece had turned from relief to worry as it was not Roy’s voice, but Edgar’s.

“Are you alright? Is Roy okay? What happened? I’m coming straight back right no-“

”Everything is fine. He got all weird when he saw that guy you were talking to at the beginning. I asked him if he was okay and he said he was fine, but he didn’t look fine so I told him to go get us some real food from the cafeteria.”

Jason didn’t breathe a sigh of relief, but he didn’t feel the urge to run right back to the hospital anymore. He honestly wouldn’t have faulted Roy for how he was probably feeling, and it made Jason’s anger towards Queen flair up again. Still, as justified as Roy’s feelings were, Jason wanted to be certain that Roy actually came back and didn’t get stuck in his own head. It was something Jason himself knew he would have been at risk of doing. He appreciated Edgar’s pro-active approach to looping him in though.

“Okay…that’s good. Thanks Edgar. If he’s not back in the next ten minutes, you let me know.”

”We’ll be fine. Evelyn says hello. She keeps falling asleep in the middle of talking to me. It’s so annoying.”

Jason could practically picture Edgar’s pout, which made him smile.

“Sorry kid. It’s going to be that way for bit. She doesn’t really have control over it right now.”

”Yeah, yeah…I know. Oh, heads up! Incoming!”

Jason registered the line going mute again as he saw the reason for Edgar’s alert walking towards him.

“I figured you’d need this” Jason’s mystery queen stood in front of him now, lit cigarette already in hand as she held out the lighter, allowing Jason to lean down and shield the flame with his hands as he lit his own before graciously accepting the lighter back.

He closed his eyes and savoured that first inhale, blowing it out slowly and opening his eyes to find her looking at him with an understanding smile. Only smokers understood that feeling.

“So…Peter…our affair was over before it really began…” she grinned, moving to stand next to him and leaning against the balcony edge.

Jason laughed, tapping his cigarette over the ashtray. She was certainly helping him decompress after the unexpected reunion with Queen.

“True” he conceded with a shrug, “but I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.”

That earned him a loud laugh and a shoulder bump. She seemed surprisingly relaxed around him, and the two looming men that made up her security detail seemed to be nowhere in sight.

“Although I admit if I had known you were royalty, which I completely didn’t by the way” he hastened to add, “I would have tried to make it work between us.

“Trust me, at this point in my life I can tell the difference between genuinely not recognizing me and pretending not to recognize me” she explained with wry amusement. “So Peter, what do you do?”

“I’m in conflict resolution.” It wasn’t a lie. He really did resolve conflict. Usually with guns though.

“So am I. Although it’s usually through diplomatic channels. I’m a glorified diplomat most of the time.”

Jason smiled. “What? No tiaras and big gowns and crown jewels?”

“Hardly.”

Jason could see her practically roll her eyes.

“After my father’s reign, things moved towards a more democratic process. Less royal interference and more parliament legislation and general elections. I’m really just an ambassador now. I only try and use my title where it does the most good.”

“And where does it do the most good exactly?” he couldn’t help but ask. It was quite possible she was just as corrupt as Mr. Rowe. It would have disappointed him sure, but it wouldn’t have surprised him.

“All sorts of things…literacy programs, affordable healthcare, animal rescue organizations, medical research funding. If it interests me and I can make a difference, then I do my best.”

“Doesn’t that pretty much sum up what all rich people say?” the question out of Jason’s mouth before he could think. He really needed to work on his filter.

She laughed.

‘Okay’, he thought, ‘you didn’t stick your foot in it.’

“That doesn’t make it any less true in my case, Peter.”

Taking another drag from her cigarette, she blew it out, shivering slightly and cursing under her breath. “If only we could smoke indoors. Like in Vegas. I wouldn’t be freezing all the time” she grumbled a bit before moving to stand on Jason’s other side; her justification being he was tall enough to act as a wind break.

From where she stood now, she had a better view of the people that were out on the patio with them, which looked to be about a hundred or so individuals. Jason followed her finger to where she began to point out random people, knowing their names and telling him embarrassing stories she’d either been there to witness first-hand or had heard from others.

Mrs. Whitney Bowles-Remsworth had drunkenly fallen into a park fountain during a charity event where she had clearly been drinking out of a coffee cup that had contained much more than just coffee. Derek Fenton the Third had gotten so drunk at a silent auction event that he began to cry every time he saw someone wearing fur and accused them of being murderers. Apparently a video of the incident had made it onto YouTube.

Jason tried hard not to laugh too loudly, and part of him hoped that Roy was hearing the stories and laughing along as well. They probably weren’t the greatest stories for Edgar to be listening into (actually, none of this was great for Edgar to be listening into), but Jason felt the benefits outweighed the cost at this point.

Lighting another cigarette each, she continued with her stories, this time a bit warmer as Jason had secretly taken pride in having an opportunity to be chivalrous and place his blazer around her shoulders. She had thanked him for it, but definitely hadn’t read into the gentlemanly gesture as she continued on with stories that seemed to get more and more ridiculous before Jason caught on to the fact she had started making them up somewhere along the way.

Laughing together for a little bit more, Jason was really reluctant to have this conversation come to a close. They were from completely different ends of the spectrum…not the money thing…but the whole being a normal civilian versus violent anti-hero. Still, it had been nice.

“If only you were older…” she grinned, shaking her head in disappointment.

Jason blinked a few times, before pretending to be insulted to divert attention from what he knew was his reddening face.

“Hey! I’m old enough!”

“You’re what? Twenty-four? Twenty-five?” she challenged him.

Okay so clearly she had guessed right, and she knew it based on the smirk she gave him. Still…

“You are not that much older than me. What are you, twenty-six? Twenty-seven?” he dared asked, doubting she was the type to be offended.

“Try thirty-four.”

Jason barked a laugh in disbelief. There was no way…was there? She was giving him a look, one that was just waiting for him to realize she wasn’t joking.

“You’re not joking.”

“You seemed shocked. Are you telling me you think I’m old?”

“Well no, I’m not. Of course not!” Jason scrambled, looking for some sort of solid verbal footing. “I just…I thought…you look younger!”

She gave him one of those grins, the ones that Jason had quickly come to identify as the ‘I’m just fucking with you’ grin.

“My mom says I should be grateful” her tone amused. “That I’m aging gracefully. It doesn’t help me feel any grateful if I still get carded every so often.”

“I still think your mom is right, Lulu.”

Jason’s smile was gone in an instant as Oliver fucking Queen was back, and what was worse, he clearly knew her. He had called her Lulu. ‘Fuck’, Jason thought, ‘I don’t even know her damn name.’ She certainly didn’t look like a Lulu.

“Listen, you heard my mom call me that a total of two times. You can’t just call me that now!” Lulu smiled, accepting a kiss on either cheek in greeting.

“Peter.”

“Oliver.”

“Okay, so you guys know each other. Not friends though...oh it’s fine. I can see it. I'll just ignore the tension.” She waved off their attempts to correct her assumption before they even started.

Oliver Queen’s reputation as a billionaire playboy (honestly, these guys needed a better schtick) was certainly well-known, and while Jason wasn’t exactly a jealous suitor, it didn’t make him feel all that great in thinking there was a chance she had been involved with the guy.

“QI came in to help set up a completely new cellular and data network in Umec” she explains, making Jason wonder if she had read his mind. “He personally came and helped with infrastructure design. I have to admit though, I’m surprised to see you here. And alone…no model anywhere in sight…” she tisked him playfully in disappointment.

Jason was feeling better now that he realized that the chance of them being two ex-lovers was shrinking as the seconds ticked by.

“That’s not my style anymore I’m afraid. There are plenty of other billionaire playboys available, if you’re interested…”

Was Oliver actually teasing her? Jason looked on in surprise, and then noted her look of disgust. There was obviously a story there.

“Peter here has met Bruce. He’s not fond of him very much either” Oliver pointed out.

It was difficult for Jason to figure out how to sort through that one sentence. First, he was pissed that Oliver revealed that Peter had even the slightest connection to Bruce, and second, was she really not fond of Bruce? When had she met him? Oh god, he hoped her and Bruce hadn't...

“Ah, so you’ve met him as well” Lulu’s smile widened. “Sharp business sense and an egotistical moron.”

Jason grinned in relief. He knew he liked her.

“Since I overheard Lulu telling you some stories about our other party-goers here” Oliver smiled, ignoring Lulu’s scoffing, “let me tell you one that she failed to mention. Do you mind?”

She shrugged a bit. “By all means. You were there.”

“Apparently Bruce attempted to ask her out a few times. She’d be at an event, he’d be at the same event. Of course, he’d still be there with a plus one, but it didn’t seem to stop him. Finally though, at a party in…London was it?”

Lulu nodded and looked very much like she was trying not to laugh.

“In London, we’re at one of these parties again and lo and behold he was there. You both actually talked for a few minutes” he checked with her to see if he was getting the story straight and continued. “before he asked you to dance. I have to say, that was the best part of my year.”

“Wait, what happened?” Jason couldn’t help but ask. He needed to know if she had utterly embarrassed him. She’d be his new hero.

“Well he seemed to think all his charm was working and it had been fun to play along before the novelty wore off. Plus, I had to use the bathroom."

Jason stiffled a laugh.

"So I stopped in the middle of the dance floor and said that I don’t really appreciate men who feel that the greater their wealth, the more their dicks are God’s gift to women.”

Oliver actually snorted, and Jason looked at her in shock, wanting to hear the end.

“And…?

“Well he looked like I had hit him with a hammer. I'm not sure if it was what I said or just the rejection. I also told him I wasn’t about to trust anyone who chose to date women named Candy. Honestly…Candy…who the fuck chooses that as a name. In any case, I digress. I basically left him standing there telling him I’d rather my relationships, no matter how serious, last longer than the expiration date of a gallon of milk.”

”I’m in love with her. I’m so in love with her…”

Jason laughed wholeheartedly now, not just because of the story, but because it was Roy’s voice in his ear again.

Apparently story time was over now though as one of the queen’s security detail appeared, whispering in her ear before disappearing again.

“It’s time for me to go. I hate these things and it’ll take me at least another half hour to get to the exit considering how many people will stop me along the way. It was great seeing you, Oliver” she smiled at him, kissing him again on either side of his face before she turned to hand Jason back his blazer.

“And you. You were a fucking delight. I hope I see you again soon. Take care, Peter.”

Jason knew it was coming, and attempted not to blush again as she kissed him on each cheek and waved goodbye.

“Wait. What’s your name?” Jason couldn’t help but ask. It would have been weird to call her what was obviously a nickname.

She seemed to find that hysterical and it took her a moment to give him an answer.

“My name’s Leila.”

Jason smiled. “Arabic for ‘night.’ “

“Yeah…that’s right” she answered, pleased. “It also translates into ‘dark beauty’…which I’m partial to myself.” With another wave, she’s off, and Jason watches her go.

There are several things he actually wants to ask Oliver now, but only one of them makes it out.

“Was he actually interested in her?” Jason hears himself asking. Bruce Wayne may have had a list of women a mile long, but the only real woman in his life was Gotham herself. He supposed he probably liked some of the women he’d been with a bit more than others, but they never were at the manor as far as Jason remembered; they had all just been a part of the ‘Brucie’ mask.

“No…” Oliver smiled slightly, "but he did wish to have some level of involvement with her. It was a few years back and at the time, Umec was going back and forth with the U.S. about visa requirements. They had made it more difficult for Americans to obtain visas but Bruce had needed to get in within a certain time frame. I found out later that he thought she would be the most expeditious route to make that happen.”

Jason squashed his anger. “He thought wrong.”

“Yes” Oliver agreed easily, “he did.”

“When did you meet her?”

“Afterwards” Oliver explained. “I saw the incident and knew I had to meet her personally. The Umec project was already in the initial stages but I personally got involved so I could meet her. She’s a good person to have on your side.”

“I don’t doubt it” Jason agreed easily.

“Listen, Ja-Peter, I know you don’t think very highly of me…”

Jason’s residual smile was immediately wiped off his face. They were not going to go down this route.

“I think? There’s no ‘I think’. You fucked up royally, and you don’t get to talk about that with me.”

Jason took a step forward, close enough to get his point across but not so close as to have anyone watching think it unusual.

“Roy is one of the best people I have ever known. He is not just my friend, he is my brother. He has been there for me through so fucking much and you fucked up by not realizing just how lucky you were to have him looking up to you and admiring you. He has the biggest heart, and you fucking threw him out when he needed you most. You kicked him to the curb when you should have been there to help. I don’t know where this newfound guilt is coming from and why all of a sudden you’re trying to make amends and frankly I don’t give a shit because it’s clearly all about what you want, right?”

Oliver had the common sense enough to remain completely quiet, letting Jason continue on.

“I’d probably be dead a hundred times over if it weren’t for him. I know you want to see him, and yeah, that’s his call, I won’t stop him. But I’m going to remind you of something, just so we’re clear…”

Jason didn’t bother with appearances now as he took another step further. He noted for a split second the slight edge in height that he had, before he moved in and lowered his voice.

“Bullets are quicker than arrows and I’m just as good a shot as Roy.”

***

Walking back inside, Jason let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding, centering himself a bit. He actually had not been at the party that long, not even an hour, and he had yet to do a proper lap around the place. All was silent in his earpiece, but he hoped Roy had bounced back. He also hoped he hadn’t said anything to Oliver that could have upset his friend. Maybe it hadn’t been his place to say anything, but he just couldn’t help himself.

With a sigh, he grabbed another glass of champagne and walked around the room, looking for anything unusual. He didn’t think there’d be much of anything to find, until he found himself on the second floor, looking at a door that had the now familiar logo etched on a sign above a door knob.

It was off in the corner, looking a bit like a door to a pantry room, which it very well could have been. Jason hadn’t noticed the logo on anything else though. The door looked to only be accessible via a keycard touchpad of somekind.

“Roy, I’m going to wait it out a for little while. See if anyone comes in or out.”

Jason wasn’t even sure if he’d get a response, but one came through only a few seconds later than normal.

”Got it. Also…I’m sorry about before…and thanks, for what you said to Queen. I love you too, bro.”

“Anytime, Roy.” Jason would always have Roy’s back, and if that meant Roy found himself reconciling with Oliver Queen, then he wasn’t going to be upset about it, but he’d be there to make sure Roy didn’t get hurt again. No matter what though, he wasn’t about to judge Roy on anything.

“Movement towards the door.” He watched a few moments later as one of the party-goers moved towards the door, taking out a small dark colored card which…yep, was one of the ones Jason had taken that night... and tap it against the touchscreen.

Whatever was going on in there must not have lasted long because the gentleman was out less than thirty seconds later.

“I’m going in.”

”Careful.”

Jason did a brief glance around before sliding the card from his pocket and tapping it against the touchpad. He heard the door lock click and he pressed on it slowly, making sure to take his time and prepare himself for who knew what.

On the other side of the door was a room about twenty-square feet in size, with man sitting there reading a newspaper. He didn’t even look up from it as Jason entered.

“Find your number and I’ll give you your card.”

Jason had no idea what to make of that until he caught sight of the whiteboard on the wall.

It had a list of over a hundred numbers, all listed chronologically in three columns. They looked like code of some sort but Jason had memorized the numbers on the card he had taken and quickly saw that they matched the way the others were written down. He just needed to find his.

He looked down one of the columns until finding the right number.

567494 – G12

Finding the right numbers, he looked to where a dotted line lead from the numbers to another familiar set that were already on the card: 11700.

“What’s the number?”

“11700?” Jason hated the fact that his response sounded like a question but there wasn’t much he could do about it.

He must have guessed correctly as the man retrieved a hotel key packet and handed Jason a hotel key card.

Jason left in a daze, and with Roy asking him what the fuck that was.

“Let’s hope room eleven seven-hundred holds some answers then…” he muttered, walking down the stairs and towards the double doors he had entered earlier.

He waited patiently for the elevator, happy to see it empty as the doors opened and he walked in, quickly pressing the ‘close door’ button before hitting ‘11’.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to find, and the kid has seen enough and heard enough for one day.”

He could hear Roy heave a sigh on the other end of the line

”Yeah, I know. I’ve got him doing some code work for me. He was surprisingly understanding about being cut off from your A/V…”

Jason hummed in response. It wouldn’t have done any good to point out that Roy’s reaction to seeing Oliver had probably been why Edgar was being so agreeable.

In the minute it took to reach the eleventh floor, Jason’s fingers were twitching uncontrollably; the absence of a weapon (other than a non-metallic knife hidden in his shoe) feeling more pronounced now as he walked slowly down the corridor, paying attention to room number placards he passed along the way. There seemed to be no security cameras that he could see, and Roy wasn’t detecting anything either via the live stream.

The room ended up being at the very end of the hall, a set of double doors served as the entrance, marking it as a suite as opposed to a regular room.

He looked around the door frame and examined the door knob before listening for any signs of life on the other side. It was completely quiet.

Touching the room key to the touchpad, Jason tried the door handle, which turned down easily and gave him no trouble as he pushed the door open slowly, feet firmly planted on the ground in case this was an ambush.

The window shades were drawn shut across the whole of the room, blackout curtains included, while most of the room lights were turned on to still fully illuminate the space.

Jason took a cautious look around, eyeing a butter knife that was resting on a plate by a bowl of fresh fruit. He palmed it immediately, looking around before focusing his attention back on the middle of the living room.

There was a laptop sitting on the coffee table, screen on with a large flashing ‘Play’ button.

“Well this isn't ominous at all” Jason muttered, while Roy spoke via earpiece and asked him to get closer to it. Jason wasn’t particularly keen on doing that since it could have been a bomb, but he paid careful attention to the floor, not wanting to risk it being a bomb that was pressure sensitive or had been booby-trapped.

Not seeing anything amiss, Jason examined the laptop closely, attempting to note any changes or adjustments to the piece of electronic that would have indicated it had been tampered with.

“Roy, are you sure the kids…” He didn’t want the kids to see if something were to happen with him.

”All good.

Jason didn’t bother sitting down as he leaned down and moved the mouse over to click Play.

A window popped up, requesting a card number, which Jason seemed to gather was the one he had used to figure out the room number and gain access to his key card.

Typing it in carefully (he didn’t know whether or not there would have been the option of a second attempt), he clicked enter, and was brought back to the play screen.

Clicking on the ‘Play’ icon again, a video screen popped up looking very much like some sort of brand orientation video you were forced to watch the first day on the job, (not that Jason knew of that firsthand). Except instead of talking about the brand and how great it is, Jason was seeing all the information he and Roy had placed on Peter Dumas’ file.

If the other people that been given a card and room key were having to do the same thing that Jason was right now, he could only imagine the reactions at being confronted with your very dirty laundry. Clearly Mr. Rowe was not wasting any time setting the tone. It also explained the files that Jason and Roy had reviewed ahead of time. Weak cyber security aside, this was well organized.

Jason watched as all of Peter Dumas’ information showed up on the screen. A few seconds later and a ‘Continue’ button appeared at the bottom; he clicked on it without hesitating. He was wondering now just how weird and fucked up this was going to get.

The next few screens showed Mr. Rowe’s business profitability, and the percentage of profits his silent partners took home at the end of the day once his factories were up and running. All of this was still within the realm of shady business dealings but not something the Red Hood usually got involved in. He was starting to wonder if this was just a bust as screen after screen was just about profits and expansion. Jason ended up sitting down on the couch, getting rather bored with the whole thing.

The next screen showed the familiar angel wing logo, which had Jason perking up a little as it was the first time it had come up on the screen. It was followed by a question.

‘Are You Interested?’ – Y or N

Obviously Jason was going to say he was, just to see where it would lead him. What he saw made him blanch as he ignored Roy’s shocked surprise.

Numbers and graphs appeared, comparing numbers of homeless youth to drug production and sex trafficking numbers. The cost of labour decreased on the chart as free labor statistics for Gotham, appeared on the screen.

Jason clicked on slowly, realizing that Berto Rowe cleaned up the streets, but only to force children and others to work for him in exchange for housing and food; it was pretty much indentured servitude.

The last few slides showed the required capital and open positions available for silent partners.

Jason took a moment to read the last bit of information that appeared on the laptop before he closed it.

I hope to welcome you into a mutual beneficial partnership.

Should this not be of interest, that is perfectly understandable and I
request you disregard this message or I will be unable to disregard your information on file.

I look forward to working with you.

When Jason walked out of the room, he took a moment to settle himself and process what he had learned. Clearly the man had no fear in what he was doing, practically daring anyone to stand in his way. With all the room numbers Jason had seen listed on that white board, there were going to be a lot of people getting the same message: be a partner or keep your mouth shut and look the other way. No wonder those cards had only been given to those with a whole lot of dirt on them. No one it seemed had risked their reputations or wealth to go against the man. He had clearly chosen his targets well.

”This shit's way above our paygrade, man. Gotham? Yes. Star City? Yes. But a massive global operation like this? I hate to say it but we’re not going to be able to do this ourselves…”

Jason shook his head, pressing ‘20’ and heading back up to the party. With the information he had now, he was fairly certain that Berto or one of his associates was monitoring who was accessing rooms. There had to be some sort of system in place for that, and Jason wasn’t going to act like he’d taken one look at what he had seen and left.

Security had recognized him from twenty minutes prior, and let him back into the party. Now that he had a lot of new information, he paid close attention to the people in this room, noting any nervous glances or other tells. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the opportunity to do that for very long.

“What’s in that room?”

Jason rolled his eyes. He couldn’t shake the guy it seemed.

“A book club meeting. They're reading War and Peace.” Jason deadpanned, taking pleasure in Oliver’s brief look of annoyance.

”Just…it’s fine. I mean, if you’re holding off on my account. We could use the help on this, especially since Star City is involved as well.”

Jason closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was angry on Roy’s behalf, because couldn’t Oliver have seen just how much Roy had cared, had valued the man's opinion? Even now, after having been physically thrown out like a piece of trash, Roy was willing to extend an olive branch. Sure, the Green Arrow did have the resources, almost as good as Batman’s, and it would certainly piss the Gothamite off if he found out Queen had encroached on his territory.

“You sure?” Jason asked, not bothering to be discreet in front of Oliver. He took some pleasure in seeing the dawn of realization on the man’s face. Now the guy looked like he was close to being sick.

With an affirmative from Roy, Jason watched for a moment as Oliver tried to cover up his obvious reaction. He honestly hadn’t known that Roy had been in Jason’s ear the whole time, and he really should have.

“I…can you just tell him I’m glad he’s open to meeting with me…it…I…you were right before. I messed up. It took me a long time to see it but I did. I’ll take whatever he’s willing to give.”

Jason looked at Oliver’s grave expression and hated the fact that Roy was going to get his hopes up. Jason still believed Oliver Queen was up to something; it didn’t seem all that believable that after years of not giving a shit, to suddenly come back and try and beg forgiveness.

“You can tell him yourself when you see him”.

Oliver looked surprised, Jason felt uncomfortable, and Roy offered a small thank you in Jason’s ear. The day just needed to be over at this point, and from the gasps that were now echoing around the room and a shout for a doctor, Jason felt his chance of getting out of there soon were slowly falling. Clearly something was very wrong.

People were talking in alarmed tones, and he could catch bits of conversation here and there.

“He just collapsed.”

“Is there an ambulance on the way?”

“It was so sudden.”

As Jason caught sight of a group of individuals huddled around off in the corner, he was pretty sure he knew who it was that was lying still on the floor.

It seemed rather anti-climactic now but Berto Rowe had apparently been in the middle of a rousing story when he had reached for his chest, keeled over and fallen to the floor. In a room full of wealthy elite, there had been several doctors, and one now seemed to be in the midst of doing CPR.

Jason gave Oliver a look, which he returned. The odds of Berto Rowe going into cardiac arrest due to natural causes at this time seemed rather too coincidental.

“Was he drinking anything?” Jason asked, as Oliver came back over to him having pretended to be a concerned and all-too-curious bystander.

Oliver shook his head. Both of them had clearly thought that poisoning was possible, although most poisons weren’t as fast acting as people thought, and the ones that were left clear signs of their effects which would have been noticed immediately.

Jason now felt stuck. Anyone that left would seem suspicious and security was now fully guarding the doors, not allowing anyone to leave. Which is how he saw the stand-off now between the security guards, the queen, and her own security detail.

She was not being allowed out, and a tense stand-off between her armed people and Mr. Rowe’s armed people looked like it was going to escalate. The frosty hostess from earlier was back now, looking extremely frantic and attempting to make sense of everything and hold herself together as best she could. Leila on the other hand, was standing there calmly but making it clear she was being held against her will.

“Need I remind you that I have diplomatic immunity in this country and you are at risk of causing a diplomatic incident if you do not let me leave this room”, the tone wasn’t threatening in the least, but it was the queen’s calm expression that was making the security guards at the door look uncertain.

“By not allowing me to exit you are implying I’m under suspicion. You will let me out of here or I will ensure you are drowning in legal suits for the rest of your lives and will ensure that should dearest Berto not survive his tragic ordeal, that you will not find another source of employment...should you live beyond your prison sentence.”

Jason tried to hide his smirk as it was obvious that the queen seemed to not be a fan of the guy and didn’t feel the need to hide that fact regardless of the man being unconscious and receiving CPR until paramedics arrive.

“We should go before the police arrive. They’ll want to question all of us.” Oliver moved over, whispering next to Jason. Berto Rowe was probably not going to make it.

Jason didn’t have time to respond as he watched Oliver Queen walk towards Leila, calmly inserting himself into the situation. Whatever the guy was saying to Rowe’s soon-to-be former assistant was clearly working as he attempted to comfort her.

Jason moved forward now, wondering in the back of his mind if Queen was trying to bail and leave him stranded. He wasn’t about to let that happen.

“-ard right now for you,” Jason could hear Oliver talking softly, “but you need to focus right now. The paramedics are already on their way, and you can’t keep everyone here until then. Plus, you know who we are, if you need to reach us, you’re more than welcome to do so afterwards. However, we have another pressing engagement.”

It may been the wrong thing to say to an assistant that had clearly been devoted to Mr. Rowe as her eyes turned cold despite their puffiness. “Oh, and what is just so pressing that it can’t be moved while a man is dying?”

Jason saw Leila open her mouth, no doubt to say something like “I don’t have to tell you anything”, but he headed her off.

“Gotham Children’s Hospital” Jason smoothly replied, attempting to look sheepish and understanding. “If it was some other organization or meeting we would absolutely stay.”

He thought he’d might have to elaborate but the cold look that the assistant had taken with Oliver softened. Perfect, he thought.

“Right. Well, I suppose that-yes…of course.” The assistant looked rather dazed now, as if she were catching on to just how irrational she was being. It also helped that she was called away just as the security guards opened the doors and let them out.

None of them…Leila, her security detail, Oliver, and Jason, said anything until they reached the lobby level. With a dismissal of the security detail to go wait for the car, Leila looked at them both.

“Thank you. Both of you. I wasn’t about to stay in there and be part of some strange Agatha Christie whodunit.”

Jason raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think it was a heart attack?”

“Sure, I do. I just think that there were a lot of people in that room that probably wanted him to have it” she grinned, although rolled her eyes when she caught Oliver Queen’s shocked expression.

“Hey, I’m not the one that did it. In fact, I would have been out of there ten minutes earlier if I hadn’t been stopped and asked about attending some ten year old’s birthday party like I’m for hire as a party entertainer.”

Jason didn’t particularly care whether or not she had been responsible for the man’s death; the guy had been evil. It definitely changed things around in his head though since this had been unexpected, and he didn’t think coming back to the hotel for further recon after the party was an option now. Depending on whether the man ended up dying upstairs, the place could be crawling with cops.

“Listen, I owe both of you a favor, really” the queen truly appearing grateful. “Oliver, you have my number. Please pass it along to Peter. If you ever need anything, and I can help, you just say the word. Glad you guys were able to settle that weird tension between you.”

Jason watched as she walked towards the black Rolls Royce that pulled up and thanked the valet attendant as he opened the car door for her and shut it.

“Are you going to tell me what you found out?” Oliver asked, watching the car pull away.

“I’ll let Roy tell you. It’s his call.” Sure Roy had given the okay earlier but Jason was really tired of Oliver Queen right now and wanted to get the hell away from him as quickly as possible. If Roy wanted to loop in Oliver by the time they met up, then he’d be a good friend and let him make that decision.

Oliver nodded, before moving over to the valet attendant to hand over his ticket. Luckily valet pick-up was around back of the hotel where the paparazzi couldn’t get to, so it made standing there more bearable.

While Jason waited for his own car, he lit a cigarette, exhaling in surprise as Oliver handed him a torn piece of paper with two phone numbers scribbled on it. He must have written them out by the valet stand.

“What’s this?” he asked, although he already recognized the first number.

“First one’s my number. Roy has it, but I thought…just in case. Second one’s Lulu's. It’s her business line. She rarely answers a call but she’s pretty good with texts.”

“Why?” Jason couldn’t help but ask, not about the calls versus texts, but about the phone numbers in general.

“Because I’m trying to make amends” he answered plainly. “If you guys need help, I’ll be there to offer it. Yeah, I know you don’t believe it…I wouldn’t either” he admitted, hearing Jason’s snort of disbelief. “As for the other number, she said she owes you a favor. Keep it in your back pocket, a royal favor could come in handy.”

‘Point taken’, Jason thought.

With the cars brought up, Jason gave a nod to Oliver and got into the car, happy to be heading away from the hotel.

“Jesus Roy, I’m so fucking sorry for that whole thing. I’ll buy you a ton of burritos and whatever else you want…” Jason’s hands gripped the steering wheel hard in aggravation.

”Ten llamas, a hundred feet of pure copper wiring, some fuzzy socks, and a new Wonder Woman t-shirt” Roy replied back smoothly as if he had that list all ready to go.

Jason laughed so hard he almost had to pull over. He didn’t care if Roy was being serious or not, he was just grateful Roy was still talking to him. Not only had he had to deal with listening and seeing Oliver, but Roy had been left in a hospital room with two kids. He couldn’t begin to explain to Roy just how grateful he was.

“Go home, take a shower, change out of your fancy get-up, and I’ll see you back here. Oh, and the kids want ice cream now, so see about grabbing a few pints.”

“Yes, sir. See you guys soon.” Jason’s relief made the car ride go by quickly, even as he stashed the car back in its hiding spot and took a cab back to the brownstone.

One step into the place though and Jason knew something was off: someone had clearly been here while they were gone. He could just feel it in the air. Apparently they were still there though as the sound of someone in the kitchen had Jason slowly reaching for the hidden gun that was in the umbrella stand by the door. He was certainly glad the kids weren't a curious bunch as his place was definitely not the most child friendly.

“You are wasting your time, little one.”

“Red Him home now.”

“Oh you have got to be kidding me.” Jason groaned in defeat.

Chapter Text

Jason took his time, walking slowly down the front hallway and turning left into the living room, pausing there to just stare. Biz was seated on the couch, a big smile on his face at seeing Jason now standing there. It wasn’t that Jason was unhappy to see them...it was just the fact that he really just wanted things to stay the same for one freaking day. He hadn’t thought it was too much to ask.

“Hey Biz...good to see you.” Jason smiled, before catching sight of what Biz was actually doing. “How did Wilson get in here?!”

Bizarro was perfectly content sitting on the couch, Wilson curled up on his lap while accepting scratches under the chin. Even from where Jason was standing he could hear the cat purring.

“Cat look sad by window” Biz said, looking down at Wilson and smiling again. “Am saw Red Him have dog now. Biz and Red Her like dog.”

Jason heard footsteps from the kitchen and watched as Artemis appeared, thankfully in non-armored attire. He was already thinking about how much attention they had drawn to themselves as the sun was still out and had yet to set. At her side, Bud stood there before catching sight of Jason and bounding over to greet him.

“She is a most admirable canine” Artemis said, taking in the sight of Jason in his suit. “The man-child was correct, she’d make a fine battle companion.”

“When did Roy contact you?” Jason groaned. He had thought that the meeting of his companions a couple of years back would have risked everyone killing each other but surprisingly that hadn’t happened. Artemis had drawn the line at Roy’s suggestion about starting a group text message but he had been adamant he’d win her over. As far as Jason knew, he was still working on that.

“He called me several times this afternoon, and when I began to suspect he wasn’t just trying to annoy me, I answered” she explained, crossing her arms in front of her. “He told me you were working on a case and he was watching over children while you did so. I believe he thought you were overwhelmed and would appreciate reinforcements. Of the many stupid things the man-child says and does, this was not one of them.”

Jason sighed, not sure what he was supposed to say to that, so he said nothing except to say he was going to go shower and change. He’d deal with them (and Roy) later on.

***

“Red Him go out?”

Jason had come downstairs, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, shoes already on. Biz was looking at him hopefully now from where he was now leaning over Bud who was belly up on the floor being completely spoiled. He had to admit, he really had missed the two of them; it had only been a few months since he’d seen them but it had been after a huge firefight that had left him a bit singed around the edges. Jason had gone back to Gotham while Artemis’ presence had been immediately requested by some of her sisters in Qurac and Bizarro had gone along with her.

“Yeah, I’ve got two kids staying with me. One of them needed to have surgery on her leg this morning and she’s been recovering at the hospital. I’ve left her brother and Roy there for hours and he deserves a break. So, as you can see, I’m totally fine.”

“Red Him stressed. Am come to see tiny ones?”

Biz looked so excited it actually made Jason feel bad.

“Sorry Biz. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m trying to lay low here and not draw attention to the kids. Some strings had to be pulled to get her admitted to the hospital without anyone looking too closely. I don’t think you guys showing up would help. Plus, her brother thinks I’m Jay, a friend of the Red Hood. He also thinks I’m a spy of some kind now but that’s enough.”

“Man-child-“

“You know it’s bad enough you call me Little One, but calling Roy ‘Man-Child’ is a bit harsh...” Jason pointed out although it still made him grin every time.

“Fine, Roy,” Artemis emphasized with mild annoyance that was pretty much the norm, “stated that the girl knows who you are. Says he believes her to be some sort of wise old woman contained within her childlike form.”

“He was kidding” Jason snorted, looking for his phone and going to grab his jacket. “And they’re both great kids. I’m really glad I found them; they don’t belong in the streets. They deserve to have a good life with some decent folks.”

“Red Him dad now?” Biz asked, looking way too hopeful. It made Jason shift uncomfortably as he shook his head.

“It’s a temporary thing” Jason explained. “Look, I gotta run. I need to grab ice cream for the kids and then I don’t know if I’ll be back here tonight. You’re free to stay here, just don’t cause any trouble.”

“Your sense of humor still makes no sense to me” Artemis dismissed him with a wave of the hand.

Jason chose to ignore that. Although he supposed she did have a rather valid point; he was rarely the responsible one.

“Yeah well, that’s the least of my concerns right now.” Jason said, surprising himself with how irritated he sounded. It wasn’t her fault.

Artemis narrowed her eyes and gave Jason a long, hard stare.

“You are stressed.”

Jason felt something within him crack as he just needed a fucking break. “A week ago I was fine all by myself and then I find Bud, who I didn’t plan on keeping but obviously that plan went out the fucking window. And now, I’ve got two kids that I really didn’t want to get involved with but that needed my help and I’m managing that and trying to figure out how to keep them off the streets. I had the worst luck and ran into Alfred so now I keep looking over my shoulder wondering if Bruce is going to show up. Roy is having his own shit to deal with as Oliver Queen is trying to contact him and I had to spend time with that asshole today. There’s also an evil asshole who has an international empire built on indentured servitude, blackmail, sex, and drugs. Oh, and did I mention, I’m pretty sure someone tried to murder him today at his own party? In fact, I haven’t even checked to see if the bastard died yet! So excuse me!”

Several seconds passed in silence.

“I stand by my statement. You are stressed.”

“Biz and Red Her help” Biz insisted.

Jason’s shoulders sagged in defeat. He had no idea how things had spiraled so out of control in such a short amount of time. He was grateful for his friends, but it just put even more pressure on him to figure out exactly what help he needed from them.

“I know. You guys are the best. I’m sorry.” Neither one of them deserved to be met with his grouchy self. “I’m going to send Roy back here to sleep. You can help by making sure he takes my bed or at the very least, the ottoman in the study. He keeps crashing on the couch. Artemis, I trust you can make that happen with minimal violence.”

“I suppose so but it will be an unfulfilling victory” Artemis’ expression soured.

“Biz, please make sure that Wilson hasn’t dragged a bunch of fleas and who knows what in here. He hasn’t actually been to the vet, so tell you what. If you can get him to the vet and get him checked out and cleaned, then you can keep him inside with you, deal?”

Jason thought it was pretty good deal considering that he doubted Wilson would remain docile and at least Biz wouldn’t get injured should the cat start to protest.

“Red Him have deal.” Biz smiled and gently hugged Wilson, the cat acting like a perfectly well behaved pet for the time being.

“Good. The info for the clinic is on the fridge. Wait until the sun goes down before you take him.”

“Am like ninja.”

Jason laughed. “Okay buddy. I’m counting on you.”

Making his way to the door, he saw Bud following him, standing up on her hind legs to grab her leash. His first thought was to tell her no, but honestly, she had been cooped up all day and deserved to get out. It would be light out for another hour or so; plenty of time to walk over to the hospital and grab ice cream along the way. Roy could drive her back in the car.

“Alright girl, I’ll take you. Let’s go for a walk, hmm?” He bent down a bit to attach the leash before looking up and finding Artemis standing there. He figured he wouldn’t get off the hook that easy.

“You do know how much I hate saying it out loud, but we are your friends. I expect you to tell us how we can assist you. If you do not, I will find ways to do so.”

Leave it to Artemis to make offering help sound like a threat. Jason took it for what it was.

“Thanks. I’ll be back. Watch over Roy. Be a little more patient than usual with him tonight. That’s how you can help.”

Artemis didn’t seem too thrilled, but Jason took her lack of objection for agreement while noticing she kept looking at Bud.

“She’s great isn’t she?”

A small smile graced Artemis’ lips, one that took Jason by surprise. Who knew she had a fondness for dogs? Or at the very least, this one?

“Yes. I will train her like the war dogs of old.”

“Right...we can talk about that later...I guess...” Jason said slowly, grabbing his leather jacket off the coat rack and walking out the door. He wasn’t about to have a discussion about how Bud would not be trained for any battle of any kind.

Chapter Text

The Gotham Gazette

Berto Rowe 'The Angel of Brazil' dead at 55

Berto Rowe, the famed Angel of Brazil and CEO of BR Industries, died suddenly at the age of 55 during a party he was hosting at the Gotham Palace Hotel. Surrounded by many of Gotham's elite as well as those from neighboring cities, the outgoing Brazilian suffered a cardiac arrest during the event. Attempts to revive and stabilize him at the scene until paramedics arrived were unsuccessful.

The self-made billionaire, who made much of his fortune by transforming his small family company into a major manufacturer of rubber shoe soles utilized by many big-name shoe brands, was famous for making large strides in transforming low-income neighborhoods and lowering unemployment rates in his home country. He went on to open manufacturing plants and distribution warehouses in various cities around the world, including Star City here in the United States, and a recent desire to expand into Gotham. Mr. Rowe had made clear his desire to help with this city's rise in poverty and homelessness, especially in relation to children. The event held today was to be a starting point in garnering support from the upper-crust of Gotham.

The Brazilian businessman, an avid runner who was known for running marathons in his spare time and had just participated in the London Marathon, was said to have been in excellent health.

An autopsy will be performed at the request of GCPD and his family to confirm cause of death.

How this will impact BR Industries desired expansion into Gotham is unknown at this time.

The Gotham Enquirer - Online Edition

Party at the Palace

While it's of course sad to hear about the passing of Berto Rowe, who was known to throw parties that drew in the who's who from around the world, I know all you readers are dying to know the juicy details about the event. Sadly, the event photographer has been barred from sharing photos pending police investigation (boo!), but, I have my sources that were willing to give me the inside scoop and some rather telling pictures (yay!) which you can see at the bottom of this article.

While the hunky and still single Bruce Wayne wasn't in attendance, hopefully you're not crying too much as there was still plenty of eye-candy to be had.

Derek Fenton the Third (who let's face it, needs to be forgiven for that meltdown he's become infamous for...after all, fur is so 90s!), was seen spending his time with our current Miss Gotham, who looked amazing in a blood red cocktail dress which is from Gucci's new Fall collection. If you're willing to shell out $4000, then go for it - link is below.

Robert Mercer, Senior Vice President of Operations for Kord Industries also was in attendance. The Gothamite who's now based in Star City was in town visiting his ailing mother and took time out to put in an appearance. Even approaching 50, the man is hot stuff and although based on my sources, is more boring than a stack of bricks, is still a catch. Oh well, you can't always find the total package now can you? Choose wisely ladies (and gents)!

Last but not least, and definitely the juiciest bit of info I got, deals with what might be a bit of a royal love triangle!

A certain middle-eastern queen who's been a resident of Gotham for about a year now (three guesses who), was seen making an entrance with a very dishy young mystery man. While normally not a big deal for anyone else, her royal self is known for keeping an extremely private life and for attending functions alone. So of course it definitely raised a few brows to see a mystery date on her arm when she arrived.

As the photos show below, taken as quickly and discretely as possible by my amazing sources, you can see her Majesty canoodling on the patio, looking rather cozy with her young beau who had offered her his jacket. Even if it hadn't been chilly out I would have gladly accepted it! Good to know chivalry is alive and well. Witnesses say they spent most of their time together laughing and enjoying each others company. I wonder if Bruce Wayne will feel the sting?

If you're wondering where he plays a part in this and have been living under a rock for the past few years, our loveable Brucie had apparently taken an interest in her a few years ago, going so far as to speak of her publicly about his admiration for her philanthropy and dedication to various causes. They were spotted talking together in London two years ago during the annual Sparks Winter Ball, which raises money for children's medical research.

The two ended up dancing together before her royal self apparently got bored with him mid-dance and walked off, leaving our poor Bruce completely rejected! Clearly she wasn't impressed by his fabled charm. Kudos to her for standing strong (I don't think I would have been able to resist)! Of course, Bruce Wayne was spotted a week later with Hilda Ratchky, Polish supermodel that is now the face of Christian Dior's newest makeup line. Way to bounce back, Bruce! As of now though, he's currently unattached, having been attending events solo for the past year and a half. Maybe that means we have a shot!

Now, where's the love triangle you're asking?

Well as the photos below show, our city's adopted member of royalty is certainly familiar with Oliver Queen, whom she greeted warmly while outside on the patio with her date. Her relationship with Oliver Queen - Star City's version of Bruce Wayne - is no secret. The CEO of Queen Industries personally oversaw the roll-out of a key project in her majesty's home country. There's no proof that the head of QI and her Majesty were ever an item, but by the looks of it, her date didn't seem to be all that pleased to see the billionaire.

Sources tell me that "they were practically standing face to face as if about to start a fight. She didn't seem to mind it; in fact, she probably relished the drama. They all ended up talking for a while before she left them standing alone outside. You would not believe the icy glares the guy was giving Queen!"

Oh I believe it. Now the question is, who is this mystery man? Is he her Prince Charming? Part of me hopes not because I wouldn't mind a date with that hot looking arm-candy. Anyone know if he lives in Gotham?

I'll keep you all posted if I find out more!

His tea now cold, Alfred was seated on the sofa, staring at the computer screen in front of him. Normally he wouldn't have bothered looking at all the drivel that Bruce Wayne came up in but with Master Bruce overseas, Alfred always thought it prudent to pay attention to anything out of the ordinary that could possibly impact Bruce or Batman in ways not easily seen.

The whole family was certainly familiar with ending up in the gossip section of newspapers and online celebrity blogs (which Alfred loathed with a passion), although they certainly had a strong legal and PR team that kept watch for anything libellous and made quick work of it. Publishing houses had learned early on to tread carefully when it came to Bruce Wayne and his family.

The death of Berto Rowe was certainly surprising, but not too much so considering Master Timothy had begun keeping an eye on Mr. Rowe and his unsavory business dealings as he ventured into Gotham. The lack of a representative from Wayne Enterprises at the event had been completely intentional.

As for the second article, which was certainly written by someone Alfred could not even call a journalist, it had only popped up as Oliver Queen's name had been mentioned. It was rare to find Mr. Queen in Gotham, and certainly not for such a ridiculous event. It was obvious that something was brewing there and he wouldn't have doubted that the gentleman had taken advantage of Master Bruce being away from the city.

That of course left Master Jason, which Alfred had to admit, he only recognized after seeing the boy himself a few days prior and dressed similarly albeit in a less formal suit. Shock at seeing Jason, standing on a patio, cigarette in hand -which Alfred hadn't even caught at first glance- head leaned in as the Queen of Umec did the same, both of them caught mid-laughter.

Alfred could barely admit it to himself, but he spent several minutes on each slightly blurry photograph, soaking up all the details he could, smiling as he saw the pocket chain in Jason's suit vest and how he had offered his blazer to the young royal to wear. Master Jason had always been a romantic at heart. He had always been the most passionate as well, which is what Alfred believed had led to the young man's occasional outbursts. Jason had so many hopes for the world, even if he never admitted it out loud, and hated when it disappointed him.

When Alfred had seen Master Jason in front of the store this past week, he hadn't thought about how much he had needed to say the things he did, and while it had hurt to have Jason reject an offer to sit down somewhere with him, he had been pleasantly surprised to have an offer made to have his photo taken with Bud, Jason's lovely Irish Wolfhound. It hadn't been a photo of Jason, but it had been enough in the moment, the gesture meaning so much more than Alfred could convey. The photo had since been printed out and placed in a silver frame that had now taken a place among other family photos on his desk in his room.

As he scrolled through the photos, he took in Jason's healthy and happy appearance, even the photos of a stand-off with Queen didn't reveal maddening anger but more of a cool and controlled displeasure. He was glad that Jason was doing well; he only wished that the young man would find his way back home to them. Too much time had passed without anything being done, and Alfred was certainly exhausted with making subtle inferences here and there which Master Bruce purposely ignored.

As Alfred printed out a photo of Jason, the one of him laughing alongside the Queen of Umec, who very well could have been his companion, he began mental preparations on how to start resolving all of this.

First things first however, Alfred knew that the appearance of Oliver Queen at a Gotham-based event where Berto Rowe had suddenly died would certainly make Master Bruce's list of top priorities.

At this point, Alfred had no idea whether Mr. Queen and Master Jason were working together on a case or if their meeting had been coincidental. He certainly hoped the young man had nothing to do with Mr. Rowe's death as it would only add another wrench to the vast mountain of wrenches that lay between Master Bruce and Master Jason. It wasn't something Alfred wanted to assume, but all things considered, he had no way of truly knowing.

There was also Jason's obvious familiarity with Queen Leila, which regardless of what was written in that poor excuse of an article, was certainly another indicator of just how much Jason had continued on with his life. In the privacy of his own room, Alfred allowed himself feel a bit of the melancholy he carried around every single day.

As Alfred placed the newly printed photo into an empty picture frame and positioned it next to the one of himself and Bud, he just needed to focus on a soon-to-be surly Bruce who would no doubt be calling Mr. Queen as soon as he returned to Gotham within the next 24 hours.

Chapter Text

Jason arrived at the hospital with a bag of ice cream and a perfectly happy Bud. The walk had been a good idea; allowing Jason to decompress and process everything that had happened. Not just today, but in general. There were so many moving parts and so many things up in the air, that Jason needed to figure out how to make sure at least the majority of it didn't fall on his head.

Standing in the smoking area off to the side of the hospital, clearly having found the spot that the smokers on the hospital staff had claimed as their own, he waited for Roy to come down in order to hand off Bud. He had given his friend a call, made sure the kids would be alright for a few minutes, and waited. It didn't take long to see the man of the hour walking towards him.

Jason took the opportunity to give his friend a quick onceover. The man was all smiles, but it looked strained and tired. Roy's shoulders were slumped and his hands were tucked into his jean pockets even with his duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Any frustration Jason had at having Artemis and Biz called went out the window. He wasn't about to complain to Roy about it when he had tried doing the right thing even while dealing with babysitting duty, surveillance, and the emotional trauma of seeing Oliver Queen (albeit indirectly) for a lengthy period of time.

"Hey. You look like shit."

Roy laughed, giving Bud a quick pat and taking her leash. "Yeah well...it's been a day."

"Yeah...it was something all right.” Another apology was on the tip of his tongue but he resisted. “Go home, get some rest. You've got company waiting for you. Artemis is under orders to make sure you actually sleep." Jason warned.

"You mean they showed up?" Roy looking rather disbelieving. "I really didn't think they would."

"Yup. And Biz has somehow gotten the damn cat to be all warm and fuzzy. We'll see if it lasts. Anything I should know about the kids?"

Roy shook his head. "Nah. Evelyn's staying up for longer periods of time and doesn't seem to be in any pain. Since they gave her that fiberglass cast, it's been easy for her to adjust on the bed. I tried convincing Edgar to come back with me but he was adamant he stay with his sister. I wasn't really surprised, but I figured I needed to at least try."

Jason completely understood and would have done the same thing. Although considering Biz and Artie's presence back at the house, he had banked on Edgar not wanting to leave the hospital, thus the situation made easier. There was only so much Edgar was going to believe in terms of Jason not being the Red Hood.

Parting ways as Roy went with Bud to get the car, Jason thanked Roy again.

"I can't even begin to thank you enough."

"Yeah you can" Roy replied affably. "I'll be expecting ten llamas soon or at the very least, that Wonder Woman shirt."

With a laugh, Jason shooed him off and made his way into the hospital, checking in at the nurses station and smiling at the kids he could see that were walking around the corridors, either for physical therapy or to help with recovery. Let it not be said that children weren't resilient. Still, he tried not to think about all the reasons for their admittance into the hospital. Evelyn's surgery had been stressful enough, but so many children were here for more serious reasons.

Knocking on the door which had been left ajar, Jason pushed it open and found Edgar fast asleep on a chair; it didn't look particularly comfortable. As he debated whether or not to move him to the window seat which had been made for family to rest on, he saw Evelyn's form shift on the bed.

"Hey there..." Jason smiled, setting the bag in his hand down and moving to sit next to her. He couldn't help taking her hand in his and just holding on to it. She always looked so pleased to see him. Jason didn't really understand how she could be so trusting, but he didn't take it for granted.

"Hi Red. I'm glad you're back" Evelyn's voice quiet as always but sounding much more alert than when Jason had left her several hours ago. With the sun now beginning to set though, he hoped she'd be able to still sleep through the night.

Jason made sure she wasn't in any pain, and was perhaps a little too anxious about whether or not the medical staff was taking proper care of her.

"I'm fine. Everyone has been nice. I promise." She was looking at him in a way that made Jason feel their roles were reversed, with Evelyn being the reassuring adult in this situation. Still, it did the trick, and Jason let his relief show.

As he got settled in for the night, Jason moved Edgar to the window seat and grabbed the blanket that had been folded there, covering the boy and making sure he was comfortable. It had been a long day all around and Edgar didn't wake up or even shift in his sleep at being moved. He found himself staring at the kid for several seconds, thinking about how smart and protective he was of his sister.

Of course the same could be said for Evelyn towards her brother.

"Red?"

Jason blinked quickly, turning to look at Evelyn who had sounded uncertain. Now that he was facing her, he frowned at the hesitation he could see in her expression.

"Hey...what's wrong?" Jason moved backed over to her, taking hold of her hand again. She didn't look scared exactly, but it was the first time in their short acquaintance that Jason had seen her be at a loss for words. He wanted her to know that there was nothing she couldn't tell him. Nothing.

"Thanks for helping with my leg..."

Jason could hear the 'but' coming and waited patiently for her to continue, even though his heart was now pounding. Was there something else wrong? Had Doc Thompkins missed something?

"...but, Edgar...he um..."

Jason stayed motionless. He didn't even breathe. He needed to know what was wrong with Edgar, or if something had happened.

"...he...I think he needs glasses."

The breath Jason had been holding came out in a sharp burst. He felt like laughing in relief but the look on Evelyn's face forced Jason to hold back.

"Alright." Jason responded. "What makes you think that?" It wasn't that he doubted her; he already knew just how observant she was.

"He squints sometimes when he reads, and it's easier when he stands far away..." she explained. Apparently she'd been noticing it for some time and it had gotten worse although they hadn't exactly been in a situation to where getting glasses was an option.

"Okay, that's fine." Jason said, intentionally making it sound like no big deal. "We can go to the eye doctor and get him checked out and fitted for some glasse-" he cut himself off as he saw Evelyn shake her head.

"He doesn't want me to tell you. He says glasses are just going to make things worse when we have to go back..." Evelyn wouldn't look at him now, instead picking at imaginary lint on her hospital blanket.

"You know there is no way I'm going to let that happen right?"

With Evelyn not looking up at him, Jason gently lifted her chin with his finger. She needed to know.

"Hey..." his voice softer than he was used to hearing. "I swear to you, you guys will be taken care of. No more living on the streets. We'll figure it out together."

Evelyn nodded. "I know that. You promised before, and I believe you. He doesn't though. He thinks this is all very cool but eventually we'll have to go back. He's trying to learn as much from you and Roy as he can because he's going to be a successful inventor and make a company and get rich and then we can buy our own place."

Jason had to smile at that.

"What about you? What do you want to do?" He truly believed she would be successful no matter what she chose to do.

"I want to have a home. I want to go to school. I've never been..." she said it so wistfully that Jason removed his leather jacket and tossed it aside, moving to sit next to her on the bed as carefully as he could. He immediately felt her lean into him, and he gently wrapped an arm around her. He remembered how much he had loved school too, how happy he had been when he had been able to go back to it thanks to Bruce. He'd be lying if he said he didn't miss it sometimes; thoughts of graduation had started to float through his head just before...well, before.

He was surprised that she had never attended school though. They hadn't been on the streets more than a year and had parents up until then (save for the stint in a shitty foster home).

"We were home schooled. My parents didn't want people making fun of my leg..."

'More like they didn't want the adults to call CPS because of it...' Jason thought to himself.

"Well, I can promise you this. Edgar will get the glasses he needs. You'll both go to school so you can grow up and do what you love, and most importantly, you will have a home together, okay?"

Clearly it was the right thing to say as Evelyn hugged him back as tightly as she could while Jason chose not to comment on the tear stains that he could feel begin to dampen his shirt.

Jason woke up a couple of hours later, still early for him (and not even close to his usual start time for patrol) but certainly late enough for kids. Evelyn had fallen asleep pressed up against him, which meant Jason took his time in extracting himself from his spot on the bed, careful to make sure she was now comfortable and tucked in.

He stood there, watching her for a few seconds more before looking over at Edgar who was still passed out. Hoping that they’d stay asleep, Jason made his way back outside, going to have a smoke while also checking the news on his phone. He hadn’t been lying earlier when he’d told Artemis he had no idea if Berto Rowe was dead or not.

The first headline that popped up on his phone was from The Gotham Gazette, indicating that Mr. Rowe had indeed died. Jason felt relief at that, not caring about the cause of it and more focused on how this would impact the underbelly of the man’s organization. Would there be a power vacuum? Or was there an organized line of succession and order of operation? The Red Hood would need to know in order to make sure it all stayed out of Gotham. This would have been a very good night to patrol and see if he could catch the reactions on the street and get a sense of the kind of ripple effect it might be having already, but instead, he couldn’t see himself going anywhere. Another sign that he needed to find the kids a good home and soon.

***

It was difficult to sleep now that he was up from his nap, and his belief that Bud was responsible for a lot of the peaceful sleep he had gotten this past week was only getting stronger. The unfamiliar and sterile surroundings of the hospital on top of the lack of decent sleeping arrangements (he drew the line at hospital floors) had him spending all evening on his phone, sitting on a chair with his phone plugged in to the power outlet near the door. What had started as reviewing all the news articles about Berto Rowe and checking to make sure he wasn’t in any photos (at least not in any of the main newspapers) had somehow transformed into reviewing the top schools in Gotham.

Perhaps he was losing his mind, but the thought of boarding school briefly flashed through his head (after all, he had enjoyed it), so that they could stay with him during the summers. It would be a selfish move and he was disgusted with himself for even thinking it. Both Evelyn and Edgar deserved a life which didn’t have him in it at all; he didn’t want there to ever be a risk of connecting them to him. He didn’t even know if the kids wanted to stay in Gotham; maybe they’d want to leave?

In any case, he found himself looking at the websites for Hilltop Elementary (which was the top public elementary school in the city), Anderson Preparatory Academy, Gotham Academy, and Robinson Academy...the last one arguably the best private school in the city and with the highest price tag to match.

Jason had attended Gotham Academy once Bruce had pulled him out of boarding school so he could focus on evening extracurricular activities, and he had enjoyed that too. He remembered being so eager to get good grades, constantly asking Bruce or Alfred about how Dick did in school and wanting to surpass him. There had always been that deep-rooted fear that unless Jason excelled, he’d lose Robin...and his new home. He did of course...lose them both, just not the way he had expected.

It’s not like Edgar or Evelyn would ever know of his past so the choice of school was a non-issue. On second thought, Jason tilted his head as he reviewed the information on Robinson Academy; it was currently ranked in the top three of schools on the east coast.

By the time the sun was up, Jason had made a list of everything all the school websites had indicated would be needed for enrollment. Regardless of where the kids went to school, things like immunization records, vision and dental checkups (‘Edgar was going to have no choice in the matter then’, Jason thought), school transcripts, and forms of identification would be required.

A faint creak of the door opening had Jason startling awake and banging his head against the wall. One of the nurses looked down at him sympathetically, and Jason slowly got up, ignoring the various popping noises from his joints.

“I’m sorry to wake you, Mr. Odot, although that didn’t really look comfortable” the nurse, Margaret, smiled as she watched Jason stretch out his neck and arms before taking a look at the kids that were somehow still asleep.

“It’s fine. Should I wake her?”

The nurses had come by every few ours to replace IV bags, monitor vitals, and check on pain levels. Of course, if she was asleep, then any pain she happened to experience was minimal and Evelyn was left alone.

“No. You actually have someone that’s here as a visitor.”

Jason frowned, noting the nurse’s hesitant expression. It immediately made him on guard.

“He actually showed us a photo of you and said he’s here to see the ‘tiny ones’...his words.”

Jason’s shoulders relaxed but he almost couldn’t believe what he saw when he followed the nurse out to the reception desk; Biz was standing there, smiling at the fascinated children that walked by. In his hand were a giant stuffed animal and a balloon that said ‘Get Well Soon’. It was still early in the morning, with shops just starting to open, and Jason could tell based on the quality of the stuffed toy that it hadn’t been one just snatched from the gift store downstairs. Clearly Bizarro had planned to completely ignore Jason’s reasoning for not having him come visit.

Unfortunately, Biz was now a main attraction with the kids, one in particular who was tugging on Biz’s cape and then giggling when Biz would turn around and catch her doing it.

The nurses and doctors seemed completely uncertain as to what to do, if anything. He noticed their looks of relief upon seeing him.

“Biz, what did I tell you?” Jason sighed, asking for the visitor form so that he could fill it out on Biz’s behalf.

“Biz happen to be in area. Am bring gifts.” Biz lifted his arm as if Jason had not already seen the ballon and huge stuffed animal. The smirk on his friend’s face made Jason raise an eyebrow. Let it never be said that Bizarro was always innocent and above being sneaky. Well, in this case it was more about selective hearing. If Jason really hadn’t wanted Biz to come, he wouldn’t have just sighed in defeat. Biz knew how to play Jason when he wanted.

Bizarro seemed extremely pleased to have his photo taken, the result being a black and white grainy image on a name tag sticker that he now proudly displayed on his chest as Jason led Biz to Evelyn’s room.

“They’re still asleep so we have to be quiet” Jason whispered, slowly opening the door. The kids were not asleep.

Apparently within the few minutes Jason had left, Edgar was now up and watching TV, while Evelyn was rubbing her eyes and yawning, blinking the sleep from her eyes and spotting Jason by the door.

“Hey guys. I leave for five minutes and come back to you both wide-eyed and bushy tailed.”

Edgar smiled and then declared he was hungry, the ice cream having melted last night when it had been neglected. Evelyn simply smiled and said good morning.

“We’ll get breakfast for you guys” Jason reassured. “I also think you may be released today if the doc gives the all clear.”

Edgar cheered and Evelyn looked pleased.

“Who’s that?”

Jason caught Biz trying to peek inside and sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I have a friend of mine who wanted to come visit you.”

Both kids looked undeniably curious, watching as Jason moved out of the way and Biz made his way inside the room.

Jason tried not to laugh as Edgar’s eyes widened as he gazed slowly up at Bizarro, completely in shock.

“Hi. I’m Evelyn. What’s your name?”

Jason immediately looked over at her, a disbelieving smile on his face at how she just went with the flow, trusting that Jason wouldn’t bring anyone over that would harm them. He also got the feeling that she had no idea about her ability to wrap people around her little finger.

Biz grinned, moving forward a few steps, which somehow startled Edgar into action and had the boy scrambling over.

“Am Biz. Am friend of Red Him.” Biz pointed at Jason with his free hand.

Jason froze, thinking Edgar would now immediately make the connection and that would be that. Instead, Edgar was too busy talking at Biz a mile a minute.

“Can you fly? How far can you throw me? Can you pick this whole building up and fly with it? Do you have laser eyes? Do you have a sidekick? Can I be your sidekick? I ca-“

“Whoa there buddy...let’s give him a moment. I’m sure he’ll answer all your questions. He’s not going anywhere just yet.” Jason huffed a laugh, watching Edgar nod reluctantly but with a little pout.

Biz didn’t appear to be overwhelmed by the long string of questions, and patted Edgar’s head.

“Am bring gifts for Evie.” Biz walked over to the bed, placing the large stuffed animal next to her, and the balloon placed next to her to hover off the floor.

“Thank you. I love it. Does it have a name?” Evelyn hugged the animal tightly as she looked at Biz with a curious expression.

Biz shook his head and Jason could have sworn that his friend looked embarrassed that he hadn’t thought to name it ahead of time.

“I’m going to call it Biz, then.” Evelyn said.

Jason was pretty sure Bizarro was blushing, even if you couldn’t actually see it.

A knock at the door revealed Doc Thompkins, who took one look at Bizarro, blinked back her surprise, and carried on with the good news that Evelyn would be released today with a follow up scheduled in a few weeks time. Still, Jason caught the look from the older woman and excused himself to follow her outside into the hallway. Bizarro seemed perfectly content to pull up a chair by Evelyn as he handed her the book she’d brought with her. Edgar looked perfectly happy just to sit next to Bizarro at this point if the continuous fascination in his gaze was any indication.

“So what’s the plan for them?”

“What?” Jason was so caught off guard by the direct question that it took him a moment to catch on. He didn’t want her to think he wasn’t taking their well-being seriously.

“Well, I’ve told them they’re not going back on the streets, that’s for certain” Jason stated. “They can stay with me for a few weeks. I have a nice place contrary to whatever shit-box you’re imagining.” His voice sharp and defensive before he could stop himself. Years of people questioning his life choices were difficult to overcome even in the simplest of conversations.

“I’m on your side, Jason.” Leslie replied calmly, her usual cool tone now slightly warmer. She of all people, understood him way more than she probably even realized.

“Yeah...I know. Sorry. It’s just been a hell of a week” he sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “I want to find them a good home, get them in school. I think they want to stay in Gotham although frankly it would probably be easier for me if they didn’t” he admitted.

Any manipulation of records in Gotham databases had the risk of setting off one of the million alerts Oracle had in place, which he kept reminding himself of, and while he’d gladly take the hit in this case, he couldn’t risk any blow back on the kids. Starting somewhere new, both for him and the kids was extremely appealing and he told the Doc as such.

At this point they’d ended up walking to the vending machines, purchasing cups of shitty coffee and taking a seat in the empty waiting room. He knew he was an adult but frankly, he needed an ‘adultier’ adult right now. His head simply didn’t feel like it was screwed on straight when it came to this.

“Well then I suggest you ask them if they want to leave Gotham or not and work from there. Unless you’re planning on kicking them out suddenly, just focus on one step at a time.”

Jason barked out a laugh and shook his head. “I just...it’s become clear I need to get out of here, Doc. I thought I could stay, you know? Screw Bats and everyone else, this was my city too. But...it’s not worth it...I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

If she was surprised by his admission, she didn’t show it as she placed a hand on his arm.

“Don’t bite my head off here for asking this...”

Jason closed his eyes and fought the urge to snap at the question he knew was coming.

“...but are you sure you don’t want to ask any of your fam-them for help?” she caught herself at the end, watching for any sign of Jason’s willingness to try and work something out with at least one of his family members. She had her own very strong opinions about what was going on between them all (based on what she knew), but this was not the forum to discuss any of that and not what Jason needed right now.

Instead of dismissing her question outright, Jason did his best to think on it for a few seconds, or at least, pretended to.

“The only one I’ve even talked to in years was Alfred, and that’s because he spotted me on the street the other day. Completely ambushed me” he smiled, but there was a sad tinge to it.

“Well, he’s always been the level-headed one, even if I don’t agree with all the things he let Bruce get away with over the years” she couldn’t help adding dryly. “He’d listen, at the very least.”

Jason smiled, doing his best to act convincing. Sure, Alfred would listen, and then Alfred would probably go running to Bruce if he hadn’t already about seeing him. He just could not trust Alfred at this point as much as it hurt him not to.

“Listen, the one thing I do know is that the kids are going to need immunization records for school regardless of where they end up going and based on what I was able to look up in their records, there’s nothing there. No medical records of any kind.” It was true; he and Roy had looked based on the last name Evelyn had given him. Either their parents had been trying to fly under the radar with a fake name or they simply hadn’t invested in proper healthcare for their kids.

“They were apparently home schooled, so I don’t think it’s been an issue before.”

Doc Thompkins nodded. “I did a full panel test on their blood work when you brought them to the clinic. I’ll take care of any outstanding vaccines they need and get some immunization cards for them so that they have them moving forward.”

“Well that’s one thing taken care of then. Any idea where to find them a good home?” he asked jokingly.

“Jason, I know you don’t want to hear this, but have you thought that maybe they have one?”

“Excuse me?” Jason didn’t know how to interpret that question at all.

“Most parents don’t know what they’re doing half the time and learn as they go. They clearly adore you and don’t tell me it’s not mutual. I had the very same conversation with Bruce when he took in Richard-“

“Stop.” Jason jolted up out of the chair, but Leslie just got up and continued on.

“He didn’t know what he was doing either and he was only a few years older than you are now.”

Jason looked at her like she had grown two heads. Sure, he had never really thought about how Bruce must have felt when he had taken Grayson in, but he’d definitely been in a better situation than Jason was. Although Jason would never in a million years recruit his own kids to be soldiers and get themselves killed. Never. Which brought him back to the present.

“You hate the fact that he took us in and made us part of his evening activities” he hissed quietly, looking around to make sure no one was walking by. “You hate what I do now. How the hell would they be safe with me?!”

“You remind me of Bruce in a lot of ways, Jason” she said with her usual blunt honesty, stopping Jason short. That’s the first time he’d ever heard that. He laughed more than he probably should have. “But you are also different in a lot of ways. You learned from his mistakes. I’m not telling you to all of a sudden decide on parenthood. I’m just saying you should have a think about what you really want. It looks like you were already starting to do that anyways.”

Jason still thought Doc Thompkins was on crack as she checked her watch and realized she needed to get back to her rounds before heading to the clinic.

Parenthood? That was a word he didn’t think he’d ever hear associated with him in a million years. He was not suited to be a parent; he was violent, occasionally volatile, and had way too many targets on his back. All it would take would be for one person to realize the Red Hood was attached to two kids and it would be over. Just the thought of it caused his heart to race. No, he’d find them good homes; he just needed to approach this like any other case. He was a very good strategist and tactician, and if he looked at this whole thing objectively, he’d be able to work his magic.

Which speaking of...Jason walked back towards Evelyn’s room only to hear her voice coming from the opposite end of the corridor.

“...There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump.”

Evelyn was reading out loud to a group of about ten kids, some of them sitting on small bean bags in what was clearly a children’s play area. The kids were sitting there, some next to their parents on the floor, while others in chairs with their IV stands next to them. Front and center however, was Evelyn in a wheelchair, her leg propped up comfortably and her new stuffed toy in her lap that was holding the book upright.

Biz was seated cross-legged on the floor, Edgar in his lap, while a few curious children sat as close to him as they could. In fact, Jason watched as Biz mumbled something to a little girl who couldn’t have been more than four, before picking her up gently and placing her on his knee.

Jason watched as Evelyn continued reading, feeling people start to surround him. Some of the hospital staff had come by now to watch, calling over their colleagues to come take a look. He couldn’t help himself as he took a photo, wanting to remember this moment.

He knew Biz had heard him arrive but was choosing to focus on the story instead. A few minutes later and it was time for a break as the kids were starting to disperse (albeit reluctantly) for whatever it was the doctors and nurses needed from them.

“Biz am Gryffindor!”

Jason snorted and moved forward now, helping up the little girl that was on Biz’s knee. He watched the girl wave bye before being led away by one of the nurses.

“I don’t doubt that, buddy.”

“I’m a Ravenclaw!” Edgar replied proudly.

“Evie in what house?” Biz asked, moving to wheel her back to her room.

“They’re all special. I don’t know...I like them all.”

Edgar scoffed while Jason smirked; he wasn’t really surprised by her answer.

“You have to pick one! You should be in Ravenclaw like me!” Edgar insisted.

Evelyn looked like she was actually thinking over it carefully. “I like snakes.”

If Jason had been sitting on a chair, he’d have fallen off it laughing his ass off.

“Put her there, Evelyn! Slytherin for life!” Jason reached out for a high five, and spent the next half hour arguing the merits of each house with the kids without trying to spoil them for the rest of the series.

“What about Roy?” Evelyn asked.

There was a pause before Jason and Edgar both shouted “Hufflepuff” and busted out laughing.

***

Evelyn was cleared for release by noon, and in the span of a few hours, had collected a bunch of signatures and drawings on her cast, including one from Biz, who had taken his time to draw the reverse S emblem with care. Edgar had drawn a raven (well, a stick figure version of one) with ‘Ravenclaw Rules!!!’ written next to it. Jay had drawn his helmet using a red marker, choosing a place amidst the the rest of drawings. She seemed to take great pride in it, even when it became even more surrounded by signatures and hearts from the hospital staff. Even Doc Thompkins signed before they wheeled Evelyn out to the curb.

Roy was standing in front of the car, waving in greeting and immediately commenting on all the cool signatures and drawings and how he should have been the first one to draw something but was upset he hadn’t. Edgar simply pointed at him, laughed, and shouted “Hufflepuff!” as he hopped in the backseat.

“Wait, what?” Roy looked at Jason for an explanation but merely received a pat on the shoulder.

“You’re loyal.” Jason said.

“Damn right I am.” Roy huffed, getting back in the car as Biz had taken it upon himself to maneuver Evelyn into the car while doing an admirable job of ignoring Edgar’s pleas for him to just pick the car up.

“Please! You can just fly us home! We’ll beat traffic!”

“It’s noon. There’s no traffic.” Jason pointed out, making sure the kids were buckled in.

Biz made a show of hovering a few feet off the ground, which distracted Edgar enough who thought it was amazing and was now begging to go flying later.

Jason didn’t care how careful Bizarro could be; that wasn’t going to happen. Still, Jason wasn’t about to crush the kid’s dream just yet.

“He called it ‘home’.”

“What?” Jason felt like he was constantly on the back foot today.

“He said, ‘fly us home’...he’s done that a few times...” Roy pointed out while Edgar was now trying to convince Biz to go bend a lamppost.

“Not you too, Roy.” Jason groaned quietly, as he leaned his head back against the seat. Roy had looked well-rested now but Jason didn’t think that was justification for his friend to start an argument.

“Wait, who else said something about it? The kids?” Roy asked, putting the car in drive and indicating to Biz he should take off and meet them back at the house.

“The Doc. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what?” Edgar leaned forward as much as the seatbelt would allow, trying to figure out what the grownups were talking about.

“How I let the ice cream melt last night without any of us having any.” It was the best lie he could come up with in the moment. He didn’t dare look at Evelyn in the rear view mirror because he knew that she knew he was full of it.

Edgar took the bait though, and lamented the loss of the ice cream even though he had been asleep by the time Jason had gotten to the hospital. Still, that meant an impromptu stop at an ice cream shop (“cups, not cones!” Jason had insisted, not wanting to deal with what would have been an inevitable mess in the car).

By the time they got home, Edgar was stuffed after two scoops of ice cream and Evelyn had barely ate hers, which meant Jason had stolen spoonfuls from her cup which she had found hilarious. Artemis was not at the house; Roy stated that she had thought it best so as not to add to all the changes the children were going through. Jason thought it was so that she’d have an excuse to spend time with Bud, who also appeared to be missing; he tried not to think too much about that right now. What didn’t appear to be missing was Wilson, who was glaring at them from where he was perched on the sofa, except he now sported a small black collar and looked rather clean.

“Did you...how did you do that?” Jason asked, completely in awe. Biz was already back of course, and was now helping Evelyn onto the couch and propping up her leg.

“Am take cat to doc. Cat clean and pretty now. Doc said Red Him call her.”

Jason wasn’t sure what to make of that, but curiosity was getting the best of him, leading him to dial Dr. Raja’s clinic.

“Hello Mr. Otod. Thanks for calling.”

Jason tried to pay attention to Dr. Raja’s tone as soon as she had come on the line. He didn’t hear anything to indicate that something was wrong and instead heard her sounding rather pleased.

“Yeah sure. I heard my friend stopped by with a cat he found. I hope there wasn’t any trouble...”

“That’s just the thing. My assistant and I were wondering if he’d be able to come in and assist us every so often.”

“What?” Jason asked dumbly. It seemed to be his question slash response of the day.

“That cat was definitely not a house cat but he was able to calm it down considerably. He also helped a number of patients with their animals as well and made life much easier for me for about a couple of hours. He expressed an interest in helping out but said I’d need to contact you.”

Jason looked over at Biz, who had turned on the TV and was flipping through channels, listening to the children’s suggestions. He had the greatest friends anyone could ever ask for.

“If he wants to come help out I’m definitely not about to stand in his way. I just wouldn’t hold him to any sort of regular schedule...”

When Jason hung up the phone, it was obvious that Biz had been waiting for the verdict.

“Knock yourself out Biz. It seems as though you did a great job with the animals yesterday.” Jason smiled at him, placing his phone on the kitchen counter before having it scooped up by Roy. It wasn’t uncommon considering the tweaks his friend made to all their electronics on a regular basis.

“Hey Jaybird...can I see you in the kitchen?”

Jason looked over at Roy, who still had Jason’s phone in his hand. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was that his friend had found...security breach maybe?

Immediately walking over, Jason noted that Roy looked thoughtful rather than concerned.

“You looking at schools for them?”

Jason bit back the “what?” that had been half a second from being uttered. He refused to keep saying that.

“Er....sort of?” Jason answered slowly. He did look up schools but it wasn’t as if he was looking looking. “I wanted to see what type of documentation they wanted so that I could make sure we got things ready for them wherever they went.”

“Is that why you were looking up school semester dates and holidays?” Roy asked wryly, arching an eyebrow.

“I know where you’re going with this, and no, I am not keeping the kids!” Jason hissed, really not wanting to get into this. He knew how hard it would be to be a parent, how much impact being a shitty one could have on you. He’d be a shit father and these kids...these kids deserved the best parents.

“I’m talking about school, Jason. They can still be in school even if they don’t have whatever family you want to find them” Roy pointed out seriously. “It would give them stability, so even when they leave here, they’d still have school.”

Jason had to admit, that was a good point. Save for one thing.

“What if they don’t want to be in Gotham?”

Roy shrugged. “Ask them. Either way, we can get them in school. If they want to leave here, I can take them to Star City depending on how it goes with Queen tonight.”

“You’re meeting him tonight?” Jason asked, slightly thrown off.

“Yeah. I want to get it out of the way. Plus, I was watching him when he was with you. He was...different. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I’m going to see. If it doesn’t go to shit, consider it an option for the kids if they want to leave Gotham.”

Jason stood there, completely stunned.

“You don’t have to take on that kind of responsibility.”

“Let me stop you right there, Jaybird.” Roy put his hand out looking far more serious that Jason had seen him in a while. “I don’t ‘have’ to do anything; I want to do it. You’re not the only one that cares about them, and yeah, I may have had my issues in the past but I’d like to think I could take care of them for little while at least.”

Jason shook his head quickly. “I’m not...Of course I know you care about them and I know you’d look out for them. I’d never think otherwise.” He meant it, every word.

Roy looked appeased, and Jason could tell by the way Roy’s shoulders relaxed that he had been braced for an entirely different response, as if he’d have to prove himself a good caretaker. He hated when Roy sold himself short.

“I just know you were here for other reasons and weren’t expecting all of this...not even Queen.”

“Which one? The amazingly charming and funny one that you’re going to marry? I hope you’re talking about that one. You need to try and see her again, like yesterday.”

“I did see her yesterday” Jason deadpanned.

“You know what I mean. You’d be a King! Or a Prince! Or whatever title you get...who cares...”

“Uh huh. Let’s focus on the other Queen.” Jason folded his arms over his chest and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“Buzzkill.” Roy mumbled. “I’m meeting him for coffee a few blocks from here. Figured a public setting would keep both of us in check should it all go to shit.”

“When?”

“Around eight.”

“You need me to run comms?” Jason asked, wanting Roy to know he had his back. If Jason hadn’t run into Oliver Queen already, it wouldn’t have even been a question. The man had still angered Jason considerably, but -and Jason hated admitting this- he had seemed genuinely contrite. Not that Jason gave a shit but hopefully it meant he wasn’t about to go off on his former ward during their meeting.

“Nah, I’m good. Let’s just watch TV and figure out lunch.”

“You just had an ice cream sundae.”

“Ice cream exists in a realm outside normal meals. It never counts.”

“Whatever you say, Hufflepuff.”

Chapter Text

Gotham City was unique in the fact that unlike Los Angeles or Metropolis or New York, you wouldn’t have the two usual camps of people that either loved or hated their cities. Gotham was tolerated at best and loathed at worst. Still, it was home for many, and despite the skeptical worldview that most people held in this town, there was that secretive bit of hope everyone seemed to carry that it could all be a lot worse.

People like Bruce Wayne appeared determined to restore the city through Wayne Regeneration Projects, which at this point seemed to just be large billboards on abandoned and dilapidated buildings that had yet to see any sort of supposed ‘regeneration’. Conversations about ‘The Future of Gotham’ -a key slogan of Wayne Enterprises- simply brought out huffs of annoyance from those who felt Gotham’s Golden Boy talked a big game but ultimately did nothing. Not like Batman, who was out there, protecting the city, or at least tried to.

Adam didn’t particularly hate Gotham, nor did he have much of an opinion on Bruce Wayne. He stayed focused on his studies, being a pre-med major at Gotham University, with no time for much except classes and coffee. Occasionally sleep was a luxury he could afford, but more often than not, he found himself holed up at one of the local coffee shops on campus, drinking coffee after coffee as he poured over schoolwork. Which is where he was now and had been, for the last four hours.

Gotham certainly hadn’t been his first choice of cities, but being from a small mid-west town that literally had more cows than people, he had been determined to move to a big city for college.

Of course, his grades weren’t all that stellar from high school, not with farm work being a priority over school work, but he hadn’t given up. He had some idea of how unattractive Gotham was to people, with very few willing to voluntarily move there, but he had taken advantage of that, leveraging Gotham University’s desire to attract more students in hopes of increasing its reputation in academic circles. Room and board, as well as most of his tuition, had been covered by a few of the many Wayne Foundation grants that Adam had quickly realized were awarded to a vast majority of university students here.

The Wayne name was all over campus, especially in the building he frequented, named after Dr. Thomas Wayne, one of the most gifted surgeons in the world before the shocking murder of him and his wife. Adam had already heard plenty of stories about the Wayne family and especially about Bruce Wayne from some of his classmates who were Gotham natives. Although most of the girls and a few guys spent a lot of time talking about Bruce Wayne with adjectives such as ‘dreamy’, ‘hot’, and ‘built’, as well as some very descriptive ideas of what they wouldn’t mind doing for some of his attention.

Adam wasn’t sure why exactly they thought he was so special; sure Bruce Wayne had a shit-ton of money to throw around, and had a company that had been handed down to him, but what else did he really do? Well, apparently he also posed shirtless for the upcoming Gotham Memorial charity calendar that donates all proceeds each year to cancer research. The entire calendar was filled with photos of Gotham’s most eligible bachelors, including a shirtless Bruce Wayne, and was all anyone was talking about.

He was of course grateful for the grants he’d gotten from the Wayne Foundation, sure, but if he wasn’t able to concentrate on his studies then it wouldn’t do him much good. It was his junior year and even with it only being a couple of weeks into the Fall semester, he was already focused on choosing medical schools and needed to bust his ass even more.

“Look at him. Even his muscles have muscles...” The giggles from the table next to him were the last straw as he realized he wasn’t going to get any work done, not with everyone around him on campus swooning all over the place.

Shoving his books and laptop rather forcefully into his bag, he shot a glare at the people over at the offending table as he marched past them, trying not to feel any more annoyed by their complete focus on analyzing every single bulge of muscle that was on display and lamenting Bruce Wayne’s lack of further nudity in the photo.

Hopping on the bus, he took it a few stops down to Gotham Heights, where he knew there were plenty of coffee shops that would allow him to get a few hours in before closing time. It was already close to eight in the evening, so he’d get maybe about two hours of studying in before he’d head to the campus library. There wouldn’t be any coffee there, but he wouldn’t have to hear any more about Bruce Wayne’s amazing six-pack.

Doing a quick scan of the first coffee shop he found, he immediately deemed it acceptable. There didn’t seem to be any university students about, and most people were taking drinks to go. A few were seated in some comfy chairs in the corner, and Adam found a free small table right next to a power outlet. Perfect.

Getting himself settled, he went and ordered his coffee, a quad shot Americano, and savored the first sip with a thoughtful hum as he mentally fortified himself to deal several hours of biochemistry.

“Hey sorry, can I take this chair?”

Adam looked up, seeing a guy who looked to be in his early to mid-twenties, wearing a black hoodie with the words ‘I Don’t Need You, I have WiFi’ printed across the front. He wouldn’t have paid the guy much attention but the shock of orange hair that was mostly tucked under a black baseball cap had immediately caught his eye.

“Yeah sure. Go for it.”

The guy offered up a quick thanks and took the chair, moving it over to the free table that happened to be next to him and tucked in the corner. As the guy sat down, Adam could tell the guy was clearly nervous, taking a seat and staring at the empty chair he had just asked for as if expecting something to happen. First date, perhaps? Adam could only hazard a guess as he watched the redhead jolt every time the door opened and someone entered.

Realizing he was losing his focus, Adam dragged his attention back to his laptop. He was doing pretty well until about ten minutes later when a man walked past him, looking like he’d just walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad and took the empty seat across from the redhead. The contrast was rather striking, the older guy (who probably wasn’t older than forty) looking put together with perfectly gelled blond hair, a forest green v-neck sweater, and dark denim jeans that all screamed designer without any branding visible whatsoever. The two couldn’t have looked any more different.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Adam grabbed his headphones, putting them on in an attempt not to eavesdrop, and clicked play on his classical playlist.

“I wasn’t...I mean, I’m glad you came.”

“Yeah, I umm...well I figured you’d just keep texting and calling so...”

Adam caught the nervous shrug in his peripheral.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-“

“No, it’s fine. I was surprised, but it’s fine.”

A few seconds of silence passed before both men blurted out a variation of the same question about actually ordering coffee. They cut each other off mid-question, awkward silence descending on them again.

“You wanted to meet. I’m here.”

“Yes...you are” the older gentleman said in a tone that made it seem like he couldn’t quite believe it, but he shook his head and sat up a little straighter before leaning forward a bit.

“Roy, I don’t even know where to start...I thought about what I would say if I saw you again probably over a thousand times and now that I’m sitting here, I don’t-“

“It doesn’t really matter does it? I’m fine, better than fine even! I’m great!” the redhead doing a not so great job of attempting a sort of nonchalant cheeriness. “Work has been good...and there’s been a lot going on, so you know...keeping busy.”

“Roy, I...That’s good. I’m glad to hear it. When I saw Jason yesterday...he looked good. I almost didn’t recognize him...you both grew up” the sadness in his voice difficult to mask.

“Yeah well, that’s what happens as the years go by, people change” the redhead shrugged.

“That they do. Which is why I wanted to apologize to you. It’s probably too little too late, and I know that. You have no idea how many times over the years I wanted to reach out to you but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Eventually it got to the point where I wondered if it even mattered. You seemed to be doing okay without me and I-“

“Wow...I mean...just wow...you’re giving yourself a lot of credit there...”

Adam tried not to shift in his seat as the redhead’s superficially friendly tone was laced with something darker.

“...Afterall, when you go to the person that you looked up to for help, and then get punched and thrown out like fucking garbage, you kind of reassess, you know? You made it clear where you stood-“

The older man flinched as if he’d been dealt a blow and bowed his head.

“I was scared, Roy. I know it’s not an excuse but I was scared. The company was practically in shambles, I was at risk of losing everything, and then I saw you and realized I had lost you too. It felt like betrayal...I never would have thought you’d-“

“Betrayal? Betrayal because I developed a problem and came to you for help? Hell, even if I hadn’t, you should have tried to help. You were like a fath- You were something to me, I needed you, and you’re talking about how you felt betrayed? You punched me in the fucking face and told me you never wanted to see me again. How’s that for betrayal?”

The redhead had kept his voice low but it had picked up steam, the nonchalant attitude having been abandoned as the guy moved to get up.

“Roy please. I’m sorry. I’m not saying I was justified, I’m just trying to explain-“

The older man had reached out to touch the guy’s arm but it was shaken away as if it burned.

“I’m fucking this up now too. I’m sorry. I made a mistake; I panicked and then panicked some more and then by the time I got my head on straight you were doing alright. Even if you never forgive me, you deserved an apology. When I found out you were back in Star City I thought maybe there was a chance I could try to talk to you.”

The redhead no longer looked like he wanted to bolt, but he certainly didn’t look happy either.

“Doing alright? You don’t know shit. I would have died if it weren’t for other people sticking by me. I tried to kill myself numerous times, did you know that? I came pretty close too.”

“I had no idea-“ the man whispered, quietly horrified.

“That’s right. You have no fucking clue. You know nothing about me, nothing about my life. Jason wasn’t lying; I really did look up to you. Your opinion used to mean absolutely everything to me. You were my family, and I thought I was yours too. Through thick and thin, right? What a joke. And yeah, I came back to Star City; if Jay could come back despite everything, I thought I could do the same. We may share a city, but that’s all we share. I want nothing to do with you. I don’t care about you anymore!”

The redhead’s voice broke slightly as it got louder, but still quiet enough to be covered up by the sound of cappuccino makers and general coffee shop chitchat.

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop saying you’re fucking sorry. Sorry doesn’t fix anything. I know I was a giant fuckup to you, I get that. I made my peace with that. I found a family that doesn’t think I’m a fuckup, and that cares about me now.”

“I care about you, Roy. I’ve always cared about you...” the man’s voice sad but quiet as he raised his gaze and met the redheads’ dead on.

“Then why did you leave me? If you cared even a little bit, you would have been there-“

“I loved you, Roy. You were like my son...you were my son...you still are my son. I still love you, and when you showed up all those years ago needing help, I thought I had failed you and it broke me. It broke me and I took it out on you, the one person I was always trying to protect. You never have to forgive me, but I wanted you to know that I never stopped caring about you.”

Adam held his breath, completely forgetting for a moment to keep up the pretense of being thoroughly engrossed in his notes. He needed to know how the redhead was going to respond.

Several seconds passed before anything else was said.

“Why are you doing this, Ollie? I forgive you. Happy now? You can feel all better about yourself now, alright?” the redhead’s voice sounding resigned and tired; he was done with this fight and was pretty much waving a white flag at this point.

“I was wrong. I was wrong and I made some horrible choices that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. That’s on me, Roy. I grew up too though, in those years apart, and I wanted you to know that I’m not the same person now that I was then. We’re both in Star City now, and I thought maybe we could try working together...just once, if you’d give me the chance.”

The redhead’s expression had now gone from resignation to stunned.

“What? You serious? You want us to work together?”

“We’re bound to cross paths there eventually and I know you’re trying to stay off my radar even if you don’t say it. I want you to not have to feel that way...it’s the least I can do.”

“Is this a joke? What’s the catch? Or is this about trying to control me and separate me from Jay? If I say no are you going to threaten to report me? Or do I have to worry about you using Jay against me and threatening to go to Bruce?” the redhead’s stream of questioning clearly sounding like it was only serving to anger himself.

“This has nothing to do with them. I meant what I said to Jason yesterday; I’m here for both of you. He cares about you and was there for you in ways I should have been but wasn’t. If you don’t need my help, then that’s fine, but I want you to know it’s there.”

“Are you dying?”

Adam heard the man laugh at the question.

“No, I’m not dying, Roy. It just took me a while to grow a pair and be honest with you.”

“Can’t argue with you there” the redhead smirked.

Silence fell again but this time it didn’t seem as tense or as awkward as before.

“So...this went well, Ollie.”

“Did it?” the man sounded genuinely surprised.

“We didn’t try to kill each other, so yeah...let’s mark this in the win box.”

Both men chuckled and then seemed to spend a few more minutes talking about tech stuff that went way over Adam’s head. It was impossible to follow the conversation until about five minutes later when the topic changed.

“Did you both see the evening news? He didn’t make it.”

“Yeah. We’re going to try and figure out what the next move is.”

“He said it would be up to you to fill me in on just what exactly was in that room.”

“Yeah...um...when do you leave Gotham?”

“I had planned on leaving tomorrow morning depending on if and when you wanted to meet me. Did you need me to stay?”

“Can you?”

“Yes, absolutely. Although it’s probably not a good idea.”

“Bruce?”

“Bruce.” The man confirmed. “It probably irked him that I was in town but now that things ended yesterday the way that they did, I’m sure I’ll be getting a call or a visit. Has Jason seen some of the newspaper articles?”

“I don’t know, why? Something we should know?”

“His entrance yesterday with...Lulu caused a stir” he said hesitantly, making sure the redhead was following him. “You can ban photography but smart phones are everywhere.”

“Shit. He didn’t know who she was at that point...” the redhead sighed. “How bad are we talking here?”

“Nothing major. Something about a love triangle and a few photos of them together laughing, along with the three of us. I did try and obstruct as many as possible. Unless he appears again at another function in the near future, it should all die down. I’ll send you the links though; I think he’d get a kick out of a few of them.”

“Alright...” the redhead said slowly. “...so why the heads up then?”

“Because I’m not sure exactly who else is paying attention to those articles. Bruce will probably-“

“Shit.” Clearly the redhead had picked up on the underlying message.

“I’m just saying you should be prepared. Hopefully he speaks to me first so I can figure out what he knows. I’ll let you know as soon as I do so we can formulate a plan if need be.”

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Roy, I said I’d help. This is me...offering to help should it be needed. If you don’t want it, then I’ll gladly back off; I’ll still give you a heads up if he gets in touch.”

“I don’t think I’ve made it any easier though. I asked a couple of the others to come to Gotham...” the redhead looked rather sheepish now.

“Why? Something happen?”

“Kind of?” The redhead answered uncertainly, scratching the back of his neck.

“Okay...” the word was drawn out, as if waiting to see if an explanation would be forthcoming.

“It’s not a something exactly...more like a someone. Someones, I should say...”

“I’m not following you here, Roy...” the man admitted although he certainly looked curious albeit a little concerned.

“Ah shit...look...I can’t...it’s Jason’s call here on this one. It’s not case related” the redhead added quickly.

Adam’s luck ran out it seemed as the two men took note that it had gotten quiet in the coffee shop and therefore more likely for their conversations to be overheard.

The two men walked out together, with Adam catching a few words here and there, namely “school”, “documents”, and “admission”.

No longer needing to pretend to be studying, Adam took a moment to process the random conversation he had been privy to. He had no idea what to make of it, and frankly, he didn’t have much time to think about it as his phone buzzed, alerting him to an email about UCLA med school’s application dates and therefore, getting his head back in the game.

While it appeared that other people had a lot of issues, Adam was lucky that he only had one, and that was making sure he stayed caffeinated enough to get through two more chapters of biochem.

Chapter Text

Gotham’s skies tonight were cloudy and foggy, but Jason didn’t mind the chill as he sat there smoking in the small yard. There was no rain at the moment, unless you counted the fine mist that was beginning to dampen the ground which meant they’d probably have a downpour soon enough.

It would be a bitch to patrol in it tonight, but he hadn’t gone out last night and he needed to be back on the streets. It had been a long day, although certainly less tension filled than the last few days as there were no other surprise additions to his life and they weren’t at the hospital now; the kids sound asleep upstairs in the guest room.

Evelyn’s surgery had been more nerve wracking than he thought it would be, surprising Jason as it hadn’t been a life threatening or complex procedure, but now he couldn’t help thinking about all the times he’d been injured as Robin and had required medical treatment.

He’d been just a kid when Robin had been bestowed upon him, the feeling of being invincible surrounding him like some sort of forcefield or armor every time he had donned the red and green colors. Even the times he’d required stitches or the occasional surgery, he’d taken it in stride, usually ending up just angry and fighting with Bruce who would chew him out as soon as he’d been conscious and coherent enough to pay attention.

How much of Bruce’s anger had been fear? Had the old man felt even a fraction of what Jason had felt yesterday when Evelyn had been wheeled into surgery?

Jason found himself replaying supposedly long-forgotten memories in his head, wondering whether how he’d felt yesterday -the almost paralyzing fear and sheer helplessness- had been something Bruce had been capable of feeling. More than just capable, but had actually felt for Jason.

Despite his dislike of Bruce (to put it mildly), Jason hadn’t always held everything against the guy; even as a kid he knew that Bruce had the emotional intelligence of a gnat.

Give Batman a massive threat to the city and he’d have five different plans and a host of contingencies ready within an hour, but give Bruce a kid who had needed more than just being Robin, and he was completely out of his depth, usually defaulting to long chastising lectures, disappointed grunts, silent judgement, grounding Robin, the not-so-uncommon shouting match, or a combination of some or all of the above.

It was why Jason had always felt like he’d been on uneven footing, with the rug always at risk of being pulled out from underneath him; Robin had been a good outlet, but it hadn’t been enough.

Alfred had been the reliable one, the one Jason could go to if things really got bad, since Grayson hadn’t been around back then (something that Jason had long since come to begrudgingly understand), but it had really been Bruce that Jason had wanted to confide in the most. Yet, the fear of showing weakness was only compounded further by the fear that Bruce’s responses to any admission of the kind wouldn’t measure up to what Jason wanted to hear.

It didn’t matter now though, not when that part of his life was over, and he’d been managing just fine and would continue to do so. He didn’t know why he was thinking about it now though; it had been years since he had obsessed over analyzing the shit out of every interaction he could remember from days at the manor and purposely ignoring any good ones.

Stubbing his cigarette out in the ashtray, Jason tried getting himself to believe that...to believe that he had no idea why he was now spending any sort of mental energy comparing his current situation to his past but he knew exactly why. Doc Thompkins had completely thrown him off this morning with her usual sledgehammer style of conversation.

What had Bruce been like when he’d taken Grayson in? Jason had never thought about it since the precedent had been set by the time he’d come to the manor. He supposed he’d always thought that Bruce had taken one look at Grayson, who had just lost his parents, and thought: ‘Of course I’ll take him in. I have all the money in the world, I have a super-butler slash grandfather-figure ready to go, the kids acrobatic skills would be useful, and I’m in need of a side-kick.’

Jason had never thought about how Bruce hadn’t been much older than him now or that Bruce would have confided in others about how he didn’t know what he was doing. He was angry with the Doc as well as himself for now wanting to know just how unsure and out of his element Bruce had been and what had made him decide. Granted, the best thing Bruce could have done would have been to remain on his own for the rest of his life and not involve other people in his lifetime commitment to grief-fueled vigilante cosplay.

‘Take a look in the mirror’ a small voice in the back of Jason’s mind countered, causing Jason to huff in irritation. He didn’t do what he did because of grief; he did it because there was a cycle that needed to be broken, and he was the one who could break it.

Looking down at his hands, he flexed them slowly a few times, willing them to stop shaking. It was something he had gotten used to over the years, never really knowing what specifically would trigger it, but it had become less of an occurrence.

From almost daily, to once or twice a week, Jason disliked it for the simple reason that it was more often than not, indicative of a bad night. Which meant sweat-soaked sheets, panic attacks, and a constant stream of laughter that would fill his head for hours.

This week had been pretty good in terms of his issues though, what with Bud and the kids being here, but it’s why Jason had made sure all his weapons were stashed away in the house and why even entertaining the idea of keeping Edgar and Evelyn had never been an option. Losing control in front of them had the potential to not only terrify, but cause physical harm. His stomach churned just thinking about what could happen.

Lighting another cigarette, he tried to just enjoy the silence and stop his racing thoughts. Other than the kids (and Wilson, who had disappeared somewhere inside), the house was empty.

Artemis had yet to return, which meant Bud was still out. Jason had been extremely concerned as the hours had ticked by, and when calls to Artemis had gone unanswered, he had asked Biz to listen and see if he could track them down. A few seconds later and Biz had smiled, patting Jason’s head, and declared that “Red Her and Bud play.”

He had tried getting more information but Biz had merely smiled again and shrugged, clearly not about to give him anymore details before saying he was going to go shopping. For what? Jason didn’t know, but had made clear that he needed to also buy some food and bowls for Wilson while trying to stay as out of sight as possible.

Bruce did not like having others in his city and while Jason wouldn’t have cared under normal circumstances, he needed to get the kids set up and out his life before he was in any position to rile the man up if he so chose to. At this point he could practically hear the clock counting down.

Right now though, Jason was more focused on thinking about some choice words for Artemis when he saw her; she had kidnapped his fucking dog.

The sound of familiar footsteps inside the house had Jason straightening up in his seat. Roy had been gone a little over two hours, although he had left way before he had needed to just so he could walk around for a while to clear his head. Jason obviously had no way of reassuring Roy that it would all be hunky-dory, but he had been fairly certain Queen would show. He knew his friend was holding onto a scant bit of hope that would have been crushed if Queen had flaked. If that had happened, then Jason would be crushing a few of the Green Arrow’s body parts in return.

Waiting to see if Roy needed his space or not, Jason remained outside, waiting for a few minutes before he heard footsteps headed his way.

“Hey, kids asleep?”

Jason nodded, giving Roy a once-over. There were no visible signs of injury on his face, and Roy’s knuckles weren’t bloodied or swollen, so that was a big plus. Roy did look tired and a bit wrung-out, but he didn’t look dejected or miserable, which made Jason feel like it hadn’t been a shit show.

Roy plopped down on the chair beside Jason with a loud sigh, stretching his arms over his head before slouching in his seat. He didn’t seem to be in a talkative mood, and Jason wasn’t about to push; he was perfectly fine with quiet company.

“Where is everyone?” Roy asked after about a minute, taking his baseball cap off and ruffling his hair.

“Biz went shopping...the hell if I know for what,” Jason shrugged. “And Artemis has Bud hostage somewhere although Biz says not to worry...which is making me worry even more.”

Roy grinned, which Jason took as another good sign.

“I’m going to head out on patrol tonight...if that’s okay with you. The kids probably won’t wake up although I left Evelyn’s pain meds on the counter just in case” Jason told him, watching for any signs from Roy that he should not go out.

“Yeah sure. I know you were chomping at the bit last night” Roy replied.

A few more minutes of silence ticked by, and Jason could feel the damp through his sweatshirt and sweatpants. Roy wasn’t looking like he was going to be heading back inside, so Jason was just about ready to leave his friend be.

“It went okay.”

Jason had just begun to get up when Roy spoke, his friend’s gaze directed at the potted herbs in the corner. He didn’t bother saying anything in response and instead chose to reposition himself on the chair. If Roy wanted to tell him how it went, then Jason would listen and not ask questions.

“He said some of the stuff he told you yesterday” he went on, tapping his fingers nervously against the table. “I...it was weird. I mean, he apologized, and then tried to explain, and then I got pissed and let him have it as much as I could considering we were in a fucking coffee shop...”

Jason stayed quiet, watching Roy take a breath and continue on.

“He said he had fucked up, that he had known he had even before but had been too much of a coward and time just kind of went on and it got harder and harder for him to bring himself to-“

Roy looked at Jason now, the expression on his friend’s face causing Jason’s chest to constrict. He wondered if his own face had ever looked like that before...a mixture of fear, sadness, and hope.

“He said he’s always cared...even if I never forgive him...he still cares. I didn’t think I’d believe him if I heard him say that to me. And then he did and I...” Roy’s voice wavered and Jason could see him struggling. Roy needed time to process.

“Hey. You made it through the meeting. You have all the time in the world to deal with this” Jason reassured him after it was obvious Roy was trying not to breakdown.

“He wants us to try working together.”

Jason sat up a little straighter, not able to really help himself. What the hell had Queen meant by that?

Roy shook his head, having caught Jason stiffen next to him. “He said because he knew I was trying to avoid him back in Star City. He doesn’t want me to have to worry about accidentally crossing paths with him...says maybe we should try partnering up one time.”

“What did you say?” Jason couldn’t stop himself from asking as jealousy unfurled in his belly. He quickly squashed it; this wasn’t about him.

“Well, if you’re concerned that he has some underhanded motive, you wouldn’t be the only one” Roy answered. “I just don’t think that’s the case...at least not right now. I think he’s just trying to offer up what he has. Oh, speaking of...”

This time it was Roy that straightened up, taking out his phone.

“There are a few things he gave me a heads up on. First, there’s these...” Roy tapped a few things on his phone and told Jason to check his phone.

A few links appeared and Jason clicked on the first one, noting that it was a direct link to an article from The Gotham Enquirer entitled ‘Party at the Palace’.

He read it slowly, smirking at the mention of that moron Fenton, but the smirk left his face as he continued reading, noting comments about him entering with Queen Leila, her private life, comments about the jacket on her shoulders, the Bruce Wayne story (okay, so Jason smirked again at that), and ultimately the stand off with Queen.

Scrolling to the bottom, he looked at the photos, surprised for a moment at how ‘not bad’ he looked, and taking note of just how much the photos were taken out of context...except for maybe the ones of him and Queen.

He clicked on the next link, this one an article from The Gotham Herald titled ‘Mystery Man: Gotham’s Newest Eligible Bachelor?’.

The entire thing, along with the other articles he clicked on, were pretty much all variations of each other, with some mentioning her royal majesty and attempting to link her not just with Bruce or Queen, but with other men as well, while a couple of others focused on the photos and tried to figure out what they were all wearing (which Jason wasn’t sure how they would do that since all suits pretty much looked the same). Those articles included photos of him taken by the paparazzi as he had entered the hotel although he was mostly in the background.

“Well it’s not like they’re going to figure out who I am” Jason said finally, putting his phone down.

“Yeah...Ollie wasn’t really concerned about that. Although, he said he tried getting in the way of as many shots as he could. That’s why he joined you on the patio.”

“Well that explains why all the photos are pretty much the same in each article” Jason sighed. So Queen wasn’t trying to just annoy him yesterday; he was almost disappointed by that. Although the man’s ‘help’ had caused a whole ‘Love Triangle’ theory, so it hadn’t really worked out all that great.

“Then what?” Jason asked. “Shit, does this fuck things up for Leila? It said she was usually pretty private about her life...I don’t want to drag her into anything if I can help it.”

He really meant it; while she had been fun to hang out with, he didn’t want that to have fucked up anything up for her. He wasn’t going to see her again, but still...it wasn’t like he wanted to be remembered as the asshole that dragged her into the limelight because he had used her to crash a party.

“No, well...he didn’t mention her. He was thinking more about Bruce” Roy said.

“Bruce? He doesn’t read this trash, none of them do. The PR guys are paid to read over shit like this and make sure it isn’t libelous. I’m fairly certain that they’re probably overjoyed that the Wayne name is being recirculated linked to royalty.” Jason remarked, now upset with himself for inadvertently keeping the Wayne name in the public spotlight.

“Besides, I don’t even think Bruce would recognize me even if he did look at these. Last time he saw me, I had my helmet on, and before then I was still a fucking mess and about thirty pounds thinner.” ‘I barely recognized myself in these photos’ Jason thought.

“Alfred did.” Roy pointed out and Jason had to concede the point. “And Ollie is pretty sure he’s going to get a call or a visit. He had planned on leaving tomorrow morning, but I asked him to meet with us tomorrow.” Roy stated slowly, trying to gauge Jason’s reaction.

“Okay there are two big things packed into that statement and I need to unpack them, Roy.” Jason held up his hand as if to stop Roy from dropping any more news on him. “First, why is he pretty sure he’s going to get a ca- shit...fucking Berto...” Jason sighed, realizing exactly why.

Bruce may or may not have known about Berto Rowe’s business dealings, but the guy died at a major Gotham event, completely unexpected considering he had been in good health. Add that to Queen’s attendance which Jason had even clocked as suspicious, and off Bruce would go. If this even piqued Bruce’s interest, then he’d be pouring over everything. Fuck.

Roy cringed, feeling the same way that Jason was right now.

“Yeah...Ollie’s pretty sure Bruce is going to make contact one way or another but he’s going to run interference and not mention you at all to see what happens. He’ll fill us in afterwards.”

“Really? He seems pretty keen to share.” Jason leaned back in his chair.

“Yeah, I think it’s all the guilt.” Roy grinned, looking rather devious. “I figured I’d leverage it, which is why I asked if we could meet with him tomorrow.”

“Yeah...why exactly?”

“Okay so don’t get mad...” Roy’s grin now gone and he looked rather twitchy. That was never good sign. The last time he saw that look, Roy had admitted to stealing two-hundred pounds of C4 from one of Jason’s weapons caches...which Jason had already had plans for.

Well, Roy had said ‘borrowed’, but considering the fact that the guy had actually detonated all of it really didn’t make ‘borrow’ the right word choice.

“What did you do, Roy?” Jason narrowed his eyes and braced himself for whatever Roy had done.

“So, remember we were talking about the kids earlier today and how regardless of whether or not they left Gotham, they’d need to go to school?”

Jason’s eyes remained narrowed. “Yes...” he answered, drawing out the word slowly and cautiously. He wasn’t liking where this was going even though he didn’t even know where this was going.

“Well I kind of asked Ollie for his thoughts on how to handle setting up documents and records if I hypothetically needed to enroll kids in school...”

“What?” Jason’s voice was quiet now, which Roy took as a huge red flag and quickly explained.

“I didn’t mention the kids at all. But the fact was, he seemed so eager to do anything to make amends, that I thought I should use that. You were already worried about how you were going to insert records in the system without Oracle getting alerted one way or the other. I still don’t think she’d be monitoring that stuff but still, Ollie never had any qualms about those things...”

Jason was very much aware that Oliver Queen had a completely different modus operandi than Bruce Wayne. Which had really sucked for Jason since he disliked Queen but didn’t dislike his methods. In their lives as vigilantes, Batman focused on the criminals to bring down, while the Green Arrow had put the people first, recognizing that the system was broken and not the people. Still, Jason didn’t exactly know why Roy trusted that Queen would help them out.

“I’m not following you here...what exactly did you ask him to do?” Jason asked.

“I talked him through some documents and records we’d need for the kids to establish a credible backstory for school. Asked him if those were things he could help with since we didn’t want anything to be flagged here in Gotham” Roy told him.

“Huh” Jason leaned back in his seat once again and tried to process that. “You mean through Star City records?”

Roy nodded, seeming a little more excited now that Jason didn’t look like he was about to chew him out. “Yeah. If they stay here, then there’s nothing to say they can’t be transfers from out of town, plus, this may not be his home base, but Ollie is well known in Gotham now, especially after opening the QI branch here last year. So we could get the kids into any school at all with minimal fuss if we’ve got him backing us up.”

“Are you telling me that you’re trying to leverage Queen’s guilt and desperation to make amends?” Jason asked, looking slightly taken aback but smiling all the same.

“Hell yes. And don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same” Roy grinned in response.

Jason drummed his fingers on the table, giving this some thought. Did he trust Queen? Not exactly. Did he think Queen was going to attempt to screw them over? Not exactly. Could they use Queen’s resources to help get the kids set up? Probably.

“When are we meeting him exactly?”

Roy looked so damn excited now and Jason tried not to laugh as his friend appeared close to jumping up and down.

“I’m not saying I want to accept his help, Roy. I want to see exactly what he’s offering to do first, and whether or not he can do it.” Jason warned.

Roy waved him off. “Listen, the guy may have been a prick to me, but he was good at this stuff. Batman isn’t the only fish in the sea, you know.”

Jason snorted. Roy had a point, although Jason could have easily countered that Batman was a very big fish...more of a shark really.

Still, Roy was right; Oliver Queen was a billionaire tech mogul who had completely changed the way global communication was done. The creation of the Q-phone and Q-pad had pretty much cemented that.

Jason didn’t really pay attention to how well Wayne Enterprises performed, but he certainly new that Queen Industries made for a very formidable rival. If the Red Hood and Arsenal could have the resources that QI had to offer...that would be huge.

“I know what you’re thinking...” Roy laughed, seeing Jason’s thoughtful expression. Jason highly doubted that he did.

“If we had QI’s support...we’d be able to do a lot of good.” Roy pointed out.

“Well I guess you did know what I was thinking then,” Jason smirked. “But right now, it’s all a matter of trust and the kids. Let’s meet, see what he says. I’ve got a list of stuff we would need and possible schools ready...both here and in Star City.”

If the kids wanted to leave Gotham then going with Roy to Star City would be the best option, especially if Queen didn’t turn out to be playing them all. Plus, nothing said that Jason couldn’t go to Star City as well, just to help get the kids the set up.

“Alright, so then we’ll talk to the kids tomorrow and have our meeting with Ollie. He offered two o’clock and that sounded late enough for us. I recommended QI.”

“What? Roy, no!” Jason groaned. He did not want to have to go into any office setting whatsoever.

“Yeah I know. I’m not a fan either. However it’s the most secure spot to talk openly, and I know you wouldn’t want him here or any of the safe houses. It’s not exactly neutral ground but I do trust his security protocols.”

“For fuck’s sake, Roy. You know I’d do anything for you bro, but you’re pushing your luck here!” Jason rubbed his face, resigned now to meeting with Queen tomorrow. “Why exactly do I have to be there?”

Roy looked at Jason, slightly surprised. “Because this is about leveraging him for the both of us. Don’t you want to have a say? You always had the better BS detector.”

That was....surprisingly thoughtful, Jason mused. He certainly couldn’t hold that against him.

“Besides, look on the bright side” Roy clapped his hands together.

“What bright side?” Jason asked, now standing up and heading towards the sliding glass door.

“I get to wear my new fancy ass suit tomorrow!” Roy beamed, while Jason rolled his eyes.

The sound of the front door closing and the clicking of paws on the floor revealed Bud and Artemis following suit.

“Heya beautiful. You sure you don’t want to make beautiful red-headed babies together?” Roy said, wrapping an arm around Artemis’ shoulder playfully before yelping loudly as his arm was forcibly removed.

“Man-child, you are not as funny as you think you are.”

Jason rolled his eyes at Roy’s ongoing attempts to flirt shamelessly with her, before realizing he was still mad.

“What the hell were you doing with my dog all this time?” Jason challenged, pointing a finger at her while Bud came over and leaned against him.

“I have trained her. She is fully capable of dismounting an armored solider on horseback.” Artemis stood there proudly, while Roy and Jason simply stared at her.

“Soldiers don’t ride on horseback anymore, and besides...that’s not even the point!” Jason exclaimed, looking Bud over now for any signs of injury.

Artemis shrugged like it didn’t particularly matter to her that her ideas of warfare were slightly out of date.

“She’s my dog. I don’t want her to become a weapon of any kind...she’s been through enough.” Jason’s voice firm and sharp, causing Artemis to stand up straighter. She had not thought that the Little One would react so strongly.

“She is unharmed. I have been able to master all basic commands with her. She has a warrior spirit that needs to be nurtured.” Artemis responded calmly, as if Jason was the one being unreasonable.

“What warrior spirit? And what basic commands?!” Jason demanded to know, albeit he seemed rather hesitant to find out.

“Ask her to do or retrieve something.”

“What do you mean? Like her toy?” Jason asked.

“Anything.” Artemis looked rather smug now.

“Hey Bud!” Roy caught Bud’s attention immediately and she moved over to him. “Can you bring your rope toy over to me?”

Bud went back inside and Jason crossed his arms over his chest. “There is no way she’s going to bring-“

Roy laughed in delight as Bud came back quickly with her rope toy and dropped it in front of him. She got a whole bunch of pats and “good girls” as a reward.

Jason wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but wrote it off as a parlor trick.

“Ask her do something.” Artemis challenged. “She will not disappoint you.”

“Fine” Jason grinned, calling Artie’s bluff. “Bud, I want you to walk on three legs.”

Bud looked at Jason and wagged her tail but made no move to go anywhere.

“Ha! Like you really expected me to be...lieve...” Jason’s smug look slowly left his face as Bud picked up her rope toy and brought it over to Jason, all the while holding up one of her back legs.

“That’s not...how is that possible...” Jason stood there stunned, while Roy was already asking Bud to do all sorts of things, which was why Bud was now playing dead on the ground.

“How did you...?” Jason looked up at Artemis, who still had that pleased look on her face.

“I am named for the Goddess of the Hunt, and she is a hunter by blood.”

“So...what exactly does that mean? You’re able to speak through some weird hunter channel?” Jason asked jokingly, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes...something to that effect. I have now made it so that you will better be able to communicate with her as your companion.”

Jason’s mouth seemed unable to form any words at this point, but it didn’t seem to matter as Roy was doing enough talking for the both of them.

“Are you happy? Left paw for no, right paw for yes.” Roy asked, watching as Bud lifted her right paw.

“Dude, this is so fucking awesome. Okay, listen Bud...every time we say Batman, I need you to growl okay... Batman equals growl...” Roy said seriously, fully believing that the dog could understand him.

Jason laughed, shaking his head at Roy’s obvious attempt to get him to go with the flow.

“Okay...Batman!” Roy exclaimed, watching as the tongue-lolling Bud gave way to a sneering beast, muzzle pulled back and revealing some very sharp rows of teeth. Even Roy had taken a step back and laughed shakily as he had quickly had enough. “Umm...yeah...good girl?” Roy offered up cautiously, breathing a sigh of relief when Bud immediately reverted back to her happy-go-lucky self.

“Jesus...she could have torn us to shreds...” Jason breathed out, looking at Bud as if he had never seen her before. She had looked scary as a hell, and he had to admit...it had been kind of awesome. Roy had looked like he’d been about to pee his pants.

“Wow...errr...thanks, I guess?” Jason turned to look at Artemis now, who appeared very proud of her work.

“You are welcome. You need all the protection you can get as you are still a baby.”

“You were doing so well until that last bit.” Jason sighed, trailing behind as everyone made their way back inside. It was time to patrol.

Chapter Text

Founder’s Island in Gotham City had become a major tech hub over the last couple of years. Wayne Enterprises had of course been the one to pioneer the shift in this area, opening Wayne International Plaza which was now officially the tallest building in Gotham (the tallest having been Wayne Tower until the other building’s completion). 

Once notice had gone up about the building’s construction, the property value of the area increased, with companies such as LexCorp, AmerTek, GothCorp, and Kord Industries all following suit. 

Kord industries had been bought out by Wayne Enterprises and was technically a WE subsidiary, but it still helped to create the wave of major firms that were now seeing Gotham as a risk worth taking right now.  It was probably why the executive board of Queen Industries also felt it would be a good time to secure an east coast base of operations. 

Three years ago, the Queen Industries building had been completed, the construction and security firm having done what had been required. Two years ago, the building had been ready for move-in, after Oliver Queen had brought in his own security team to add in additional measures. Considering some of QI’s biggest business rivals were now within blocks of each other, no one really thought it too strange that Oliver Queen had some very specific and secretive criteria that needed to be met.

It had all worked out of course, and Oliver Queen now stood looking out his office windows, enjoying the view as best he could.  Mostly his view was of the Wayne building across the street, his office only a few floors lower than the top of the other building. 

If Bruce had reported into the office today, which Oliver couldn’t be sure of, it was unlikely he’d be across the way considering Bruce’s main office was back at Wayne Tower.  The one thing he did know was that Bruce was definitely back in Gotham as of yesterday evening; the alert of Bruce’s plane touching down at Gotham International right around the time that Oliver had been meeting with Roy.

Of all the things he had faced in his life, even as the Green Arrow, the fear of having his meeting with Roy go horribly wrong (or having Roy not even show up) was now up there. He was half relieved now, with the other half still holding on to some level of anxiety as Roy had planned on meeting with him today, along with Jason.  He knew he was still walking on eggshells at this point, and would do so for as long as it took.  He owed it to Roy.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it), Oliver didn’t really have much time to lose himself in his internal strife as his presence at the Gotham headquarters had been met with a frenzy of meeting requests as everyone tried to take advantage of him being in Gotham.  He had left his schedule open of course, knowing his last minute arrival into Gotham this week would cause a rush; he had only been in this building a handful of times since it’s opening, if his office’s lack of personal touch and almost sterile feel were any indication.

Looking at his watch, which told him it was almost ten in the morning, he had four hours to go before Roy and Jason would arrive, unless they bowed out. He hoped they wouldn’t.

“Mr. Queen?”

Oliver turned around as Min, his executive assistant, poked her head in.  At almost sixty years old she looked at least fifteen years younger, and moved like a damn gazelle or whatever other animal that moved both quickly and gracefully.

Based in Star City, she had spent the past few years at Oliver’s side, pretty much following him all over the world or holding down the fort, making sure he signed what he needed to sign, met whom he needed to meet, and pretty much kept this whole company running. It wasn’t exactly a secret or a surprise that her salary was more than some CEOs.

“Hey Min. Please tell me you’re not here to drag me to another meeting. That seven o’clock meeting this morning with finance went an hour over time” he pointed out.

“I did warn you that Mr. Papp was long-winded.  That’s why I had two extra espresso shots added to your coffee this morning” she responded smoothly, walking over to his desk and placing some files on it.

Oliver laughed; he had wondered why he had been so keyed up for the last couple of hours.

“You might need another one though…or maybe some whisky. Bruce Wayne is on the line hoping you have some time. He was rather insistent.” Min pointed to the phone, the ‘Line 1’ button blinking red.

Oliver groaned, making no attempt to hide his annoyance.  Min thought Oliver didn’t want to talk to the guy because the man was annoyingly chipper and obnoxiously charming. Oliver didn’t want to talk to the guy because the man was annoyingly severe and obnoxiously dramatic.  He knew it had been coming, but it didn’t make him any less annoyed that he had to have this conversation.

“Normally he has Clara put the call through” Min frowned, looking both curious and perplexed. Clara Saberton served double-duty as both the executive assistant to Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne, so the lack of middle-man here was a bit unusual.

“He’s trying to rope me into that charity auction…says he won’t auction himself off unless I do it too”, Oliver sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly for effect. 

Min laughed, not feeling the least bit sorry for him. “I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll block off a half hour.”

“Traitor!” Oliver shouted, watching her retreating form and waiting for the door to shut. His expression didn’t change though; talking to Bruce Wayne was always a chore, regardless of the reason. He was just happy he didn’t have to sit in on any more Justice League meetings with the guy. 

One Bruce Wayne was bad enough, but add in the others who thought themselves the world’s saviors and Oliver had quickly realized that it just wasn’t going to work out.  They had all been focused on fighting the ‘Big Bads’ instead of actually helping people. He’d left it to them to try and solve the world’s problems; he chose to focus on the city streets.

Oliver wasn’t even sure why they were shocked when he had resigned as a member, although perhaps it was more the shock that he dared think that their approach was wrong and verging on fascist or that they were losing his financial backing.  Bruce had picked up the slack there, investing his funds into the organization even though he had been a reluctant member himself. The thought of it made Oliver smile as he picked up the phone and hit the hold button.

“Bruce.” Oliver’s smile easily heard in his greeting.

“Oliver.” Bruce’s tone was serious and abrupt.

There was silence for a few seconds, and Oliver accepted it easily, seeing if he’d need to be the one to hurry this conversation along.

“This is certainly a surprise” Oliver eventually said as he began to mindlessly rearrange items on his desk just to pass time.

“Is it?” Bruce actually sounded faintly amused. Or perhaps Oliver had imagined it.

“No, not really.” Oliver admitted. “Shall we cut to the chase and get to the part where your voice goes all deep and growly as you demand to know what I’m doing in Gotham?”

“What are you doing in Gotham, Oliver.” It was a question, but it came out as more of a demand than anything.

“Well, I have a thousand-foot tall building that I’m standing in right now that I think gives me a pretty good reason for being here.”

“I thought you wanted to cut to the chase.” There it was again, that faint tone of amusement which was now coupled with irritation; Oliver savored it.

“True, but I just can’t resist annoying you.  Why exactly do you think I should explain my presence to you?”

“Is this line secure?” Bruce’s change of topic not throwing Oliver off one bit.

Oliver scoffed. “Now you’re just being insulting.”

“Berto Rowe died at an event you were attending.”

“You trying to accuse me of something Bruce?” Oliver knew Bruce could hear his smile.

The silence he was met with made him smile even more. “Is this your way of asking me what I know? You can just ask nicely.”

More silence this time, which made Oliver want to hang up the phone. Clearly Bruce thought this ‘intimidate through silence’ method was going to work on him.

“The silence shtick isn’t going to work.  Ask for what you want, Bruce.” Oliver’s tone now serious.

“What do you know about him?”

“Other than all the surface bullshit?” Oliver said. “My guess is drugs, possibly sex trafficking.”

“Your guess?” Bruce asked, not buying it.

“Don’t act like you haven’t done your research, Bruce.” Oliver rolled his eyes. “Look, the guy practically swooped into Star City a few months back, threw a similarly lavish party, and all of a sudden construction permits were cleared. Not to mention some shakeups in drug distribution on the streets and a rise in murders amongst sex workers. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I saw he was having the party in Gotham, and figured I’d take advantage.  His death was obviously not how I thought it would end. Happy now?”

“No.” Bruce said sharply. “You’re not telling me everything.”

Oliver wondered if he was referring to Jason, but he thought Bruce would have led with that if he had seen the photos.

“Well it’s the Cliff’s Notes version, Bruce. Did you want a play by play of every single minute at the party?” Oliver asked sarcastically.

Bruce’s silence made clear that of course he wanted a play by play.

Oliver rolled his eyes again.  Bruce had a horrible habit of assuming everyone around him was clueless. Which, yes, was usually the case, but there was a difference between civilians and vigilantes. Bruce had never managed to grasp the distinction.

A second later and Bruce spoke. “Who is the man you were talking to? There are photos.”

“He was Lulu’s date.” Oliver responded smoothly, ignoring the worrying suspicion that Bruce didn’t recognize Jason. Sure the photos had been a bit blurry and not all that clear for facial recognition scans but still...

“Lulu.” Again, another question that came out like a demand.

Oliver grinned.  “Oh, I mean Queen Leila of Umec…you remember her…I think some of the articles made mention of her ditching you on the danceflo-“

“Who is he?” It sounded like Bruce was clenching his teeth at this point. Whether it was because Bruce had to admit he didn’t know or because Oliver was being annoying...it didn’t really matter.

Oliver would have relished the moment but the grin on his face had slowly slipped away as his suspicions were confirmed: Bruce did not recognize his own son, and Oliver was not about to put himself in the position of being the one to break it to him.  There was something horribly sad about the whole thing, and was more serious than just verbal barbs thrown back and forth.

“He was her date. He didn’t like me much, but we managed to struggle through a brief conversation.” Oliver lied...but only kind of.

“She’s not currently involved with anybody.”

Oliver laughed and then realized Bruce was being serious.

“Are you stalking her?” Oliver’s shock evident. “Let it go man; she wasn’t interested then and I doubt she’d be interested now. She has some really strong opinions about you; I’m sure your ego can take it. Besides, you got what you wanted out of Umec already.”

“Everyone in that room is a suspect.” Bruce stated unapologetically.

“Right. Good luck with that then.”

“I will find out what you’re keeping from me.”

“Well then I look forward to that day.” Oliver replied cheerily. “Is that all?”

“For now.”

“How ominous. You certainly know how to keep a guy on his toes.” Oliver answered dryly. “Listen Bruce, when you actually decide to share what you have with me, I’ll consider doing the same. Both our cities are involved in this, remember?”

There was a pause before he heard a curt “Yes”. The response was vague but Oliver took it. 

 “Enjoy yourself next month” Bruce’s said tonelessly.

“Next month?” Oliver frowned, not liking that he wasn’t following the conversation.

“Charity Auction.”

“I’m not signing myself up to be auctioned off to the highest bidder” Oliver warned, not about to fall for whatever it was Bruce had planned.

“You’re already signed up” Bruce responded.

“You motherfu-“ Oliver growled as Bruce hung up on him. What a petty asshole.

Slamming the phone receiver down (something that was so very satisfying to do considering there were so few opportunities to do it these days), he grumbled to himself and called for Min.

As soon as she appeared, Oliver told her what happened in terms of the auction, with Bruce pulling an underhanded move.

“How would you like to respond?” she asked, her gaze kept directed on her Q-pad as she began to tap away.

“Double check to make sure the S-O-B actually signed me up. Last thing I need is for him to think he caused me to panic and contact...wait, what’s the fundraiser for again?”

“Breast cancer research” Min said without missing a beat as she continued tapping all over the screen. “And yes...it looks like you’re on the list of confirmed bachelors to be auctioned off. Keep in mind that patrons will be bidding not only on a date for themselves but on behalf of a breast cancer survivor.”

“Dammit” Oliver grumbled. He couldn’t back out. Fucking Bruce. “Is he on the list?”

Min read over her screen and after a few seconds shook her head. “Want me to reciprocate the gesture?”

Oliver grinned; this was one of the many reasons she was absolutely invaluable.

“I do, but not yet” he advised her, pulling up his own calendar. He needed to time it just right; giving Bruce too much advance notice would make it easier for him to find an excuse to back out. On top of that, Oliver was going to up the ante.

“Wait until it’s a week out. Then we can also release something in the press about how there’s going to be a friendly competition to see which one of us can come up with the best dating experience for the winners” he explained, watching Min smile as she finished up her notes.

“Done. Anything else?” Min asked, looking calm but always at the ready.

“Add Grayson-Wayne too.” he decided, drumming his fingers. Bruce’s eldest had steered as far away from the Wayne legacy as he could, having given up Robin, moved to Blüdhaven, and becoming a police officer. They were going to be pissed. Oliver relished the thought.

“Really? Not, Mr. Drake-Wayne?” Min letting a bit of her surprise show. The former EVP of Operations for Wayne Enterprises had also remained out of the limelight for the last two years or so, choosing a completely different career route in an attempt to be more hands-on in impacting Gotham’s future. It was being looked at as merely a sabbatical, with Drake’s return to WE guaranteed within the next five years.

“I forget how ruthless you are sometimes, Min” Oliver laughed but shook his head in response to her question. One son was enough...especially when Jason -the prodigal son- was already in Oliver Queen’s orbit...even it had been unintentional.

Min grinned. “It’s what you pay me for.”

Chapter Text

Patrol had been uneventful and eerily quiet, with no chatter on the street about what had happened to Rowe’s plans for Gotham or what had been impacted. Jason took it as a positive sign that The Angel hadn’t fully sunk his claws into Gotham before his demise. Additional good news came by way of hacking into police comms for brief intervals to avoid detection.

Turns out, the police had pretty much gone through the entire hotel penthouse as well as all rooms that had been reserved on behalf of Mr. Rowe. Twenty-five rooms total, and twenty-five laptops with their hard drives wiped and circuits fried.

Clearly the GCPD had known something was up, but there wasn’t anything they found by way of evidence that spoke to any foul play; it was all circumstantial at this point.

The Red Hood would have to help rectify that.

He had gone back to the brownstone around 3:30am, tired but still antsy, the feel of things unfinished simmering just beneath the surface. He had a feeling something was coming, and that something came by way of a knock at the door at around noon.

***

Jason had woken up to the pitiful sounds of a dying animal.

Roy had insisted on being back out on the couch, and Jason chose not to argue, dragging himself up the stairs and showering before passing out on his bed. Despite the shaky hands earlier, he slept without nightmares, Bud having settled next to him on the bed as opposed to at the end of it. He didn’t bother questioning how Bud had probably known he was at risk of having a bad night. After all, she could apparently understand a lot more now that Artemis had done some sort of weird mind thingy with her. Jason didn’t want to think about it too much as it would only serve to give him a headache.

Heading downstairs with Bud running past him on her way to breakfast, Jason quickly identified that the dying animal was in fact Roy, who had decided to make Mary Poppins a sing-along.

Biz was sitting there with his hands over his ears, Evelyn and Edgar were laughing hysterically, Bud was now howling, and Artemis had been the smartest one of them all by completely avoiding the house.

“Biz ears bleed” Biz cringed as Roy continued his banshee-level shrieking, now standing on the couch for full effect.

The movie was paused by Jason and everyone stared at him expectantly, waiting for him to take breakfast orders. One cup of coffee for him, and scrambled eggs and fruit for the rest of them (including half a dozen eggs for Biz), Jason tried to figure out the right time to ask what he needed to ask.

Roy kept shooting him confused looks across the dining room table which ended up just getting on Jason’s nerves and made him take the plunge.

“So...you guys both want to go to school right?” Jason asked slowly, starting with a rhetorical (and honestly, a non-negotiable) question.

Both kids grinned and cheered, which did a lot to help him feel little less uneasy.

“Roy and I are going get things set up for you but wanted to see how you felt about staying in Gotham...”

Evelyn looked curious while Edgar looked uneasy. “You want to send us away?”

Edgar’s nervousness had Jason scrambling to fix the mess he had already made in his approach to this conversation.

“No, of course not! I just wanted to make sure you wanted to go to school here in Gotham. If you don’t, then we can get you set up in Star City if you want to go somewhere new...”

Roy thankfully took over the conversation for a moment, reassuring the kids that this wasn’t about getting rid of them, but about focusing on whether they wanted to start somewhere new or stay in a familiar city. They’d be going to an amazing school regardless, which is something Roy pointed out as Edgar left the table, only to return a moment later.

“Where did that come from?” Jason asked, looking at Edgar typing away on what looked to be a brand new and heavy duty laptop. He certainly didn’t recognize it, and it wasn’t the one Edgar had been working on piecing together.

The sound of wood creaking had Jason turning to look at Biz, who seemed to be strangely fascinated with his empty plate.

“Biz...” Jason sighed, wondering what else Biz had gone out and bought for the kids during his evening shopping spree last night. He had seen the cat food and the food bowls, but it was still early morning for Jason, who would no doubt be finding out soon enough just how much Biz had spoiled the children. Not that he really minded...the kids deserved everything and then some. Still, it was fun to watch Biz try and look all innocent.

The kids spent about an hour reviewing school websites. During their conversation, it was hard to remember that they were just kids from the way that they reviewed key information; mainly computer science programs for Edgar and biology and the arts for Evelyn. Both Jason and Roy learned a lot about the kids within that one hour.

“Where did you go to school?” Evelyn asked Jason.

Jason looked up from his own laptop, and found both kids looking far too interested in his schooling. “I went to Gotham Academy, but Robinson Academy is better. See?”

He had them click on a few links on the school’s main page. “They have a brand new library and it looks like there’s a computer club.”

Both kids looked excited at the prospect, although they also reviewed information about Seaview Academy in Star City for comparison. Roy had been asked where he had gone to school, only to be told he’d just gone to a not-so-great public school that really wasn’t worth mentioning. Although Jason had taken that to mean that Roy was trying not think about his own past. Roy and Jason both attempted to not influence their decisions, not that Jason was exactly Gotham’s biggest fan.

“Gotham is our home. We want to stay here.” Edgar said after closing all tabs except for the one for Robinson Academy. Jason didn’t comment on how he had seen Edgar begin to squint after staring at the screen for more than fifteen minutes.

Evelyn nodded her head in agreement. “We don’t have all the records and papers they want though.”

“We’re taking care of that for you,” Roy said breezily, trying to drive home the point that the kids had nothing to worry about.

Evelyn nodded but Jason could sense her hesitation. He had become quite proficient at reading her expressions in the few days he had been with her.

“Will we stay with you?”

Roy faltered, Biz looked curious, and Jason had actually expected the question. In fact, he expected the question to be asked numerous times. There was nothing worse than letting your guard down and thinking that maybe, just maybe, you’d be off the streets for good, only to be thrown back out.

“Until we find you the best family, yes. I want to be honest with you both...I might leave Gotham, but while you guys get set up with school and we find the right family for you, you’ll be with at least one of us.” Jason explained.

“So, you’re not kicking us out?” Edgar asked without even looking up from his laptop. He was like a miniature Roy in terms of attention span.

“Nope, not at all. You guys won’t be going back on the streets. Did you...want to go back?” Jason asked hesitantly as Edgar had frowned and finally looked up from his laptop.

“Uh...no. I just thought cause the Red Hood said it was temporary, that you’d want us to go.”

Jason couldn’t help but meet Evelyn’s eyes...and then Roy’s. Roy was making a jutting motion with his head, and Jason was steadfastly ignoring it.

“The Red Hood and I are pretty close so you don’t have to worry about that.” Jason hoped his answer was good enough, and Edgar shrugged, apparently more focused on school and asking every few minutes if they were absolutely sure that they could both go to school forever.

“I don’t think you’ll want to go to school forever, but yeah...you’ll get to do all the school stuff that everyone else does. You’ll make friends too!” Roy pointed out, causing both kids to quietly ponder that. They’d never had friends before; not until now at least.

***

“So, Robinson Academy?” Roy asked as he got the kids back in front of the TV with Biz and followed Jason into the kitchen.

Jason shrugged. “Seems like it. Looks like some of the Falcone clan attended Gotham Academy so there was no way in hell I was going to leave that school an option now. Plus they sacked some teachers for alleged misconduct.” It was almost sad to hear about how much the school had gone downhill. Not that it still wasn’t ranked highly compared to All the other schools in Gotham.

“We can have Ollie look into trust funds for them...so that school and college are covered” Roy said as he helped place dishes on the drying rack.

Jason nodded. He had thought about that already. Being wealthy was not something Jason was going to be looking for in terms of a good family for the kids. As long as they were loved and cared for and had a proper home, then Jason would focus on making sure they were all set up with money.

“Go back to your movie. The kids are waiting.” Jason pointed towards the living room, where everyone was getting antsy.

The sound of the doorbell ringing about a half hour later served a wonderful purpose of getting Roy to shut up again with his screetching, but it also put Jason on edge. A look at the security camera had Jason freezing on the spot.

As oblivious as Roy had been during his operatic debut, he saw Jason stiffen up within seconds, and went completely quiet, not wanting to distract the kids from the movie.

Jason hadn’t given him any look of warning, so Roy stayed put, but asked Biz to keep an ear on what was happening. The big guy would have Jason’s back within less than a millisecond if need be.

“What are you doing here?” Jason asked dazedly, not quite believing that Alfred Pennyworth was standing in front of his place looking as calm as ever. The small smile he got was met with his disbelieving stare; the shock hadn’t yet abated.

“Hello Master Jason. I apologize for having woken you” he said kindly.

Jason scratched the back of his head. “I was up. Er...How did you find me exactly?”

He hated having to ask but his brain wasn’t yet firing on all cylinders. If only Alfred had come by ten minutes later when he had at least had a third cup of coffee.

“I must admit I took to more clandestine measures and tracked your movement via CCTV from the shops a few days ago.”

Jason blinked in surprise; that was an unusually bold move in Jason’s eyes.

“I decided to take a more assertive approach to communicating with you as I thought it prudent to discuss with you a few possibilities.“

“Regarding what?” Jason wasn’t following but he wasn’t liking this at all. If Alfred heard Jason’s concern, he didn’t show it.

“Your photos have appeared in a few pieces of media.” Alfred stated. “What with a certain gentleman’s untimely death, not to mention Mr. Queen’s and your presence at the very event in which it took place, I wanted to ensure-“

Jason’s hand clenched into a fist as Alfred’s words sunk in; they fucking hurt. Their reunion had included words around how much Alfred cared about Jason’s well-being. Now it was all about assuming he’d killed a guy at a party.

Anger certainly served to wake him up, and everything from this week had now built up into this giant ball of emotions and feelings that Jason was sick of dealing with because when it came down to it, it was all Bruce’s fault. Or maybe not.

Jason wasn’t sure if he’d ever had an epiphany before in this life, but this moment certainly felt like one. He hadn’t felt this amount of anger in a very long time.

“Are you asking me if I killed that man, Alfred?” Jason asked quietly, one hand gripping the door frame. “Or are you here to warn me about Bruce and his soldiers?”

“Master Jason, I only wished to inform you that current events being what they are, Master Bruce may attempt to contact you.”

Jason saw red, but his eyes flashed green. A slight shift of Alfred’s shoulder was all the indication the man gave that he had not expected this reaction. Although to be honest, Jason didn’t feel badly about it.

“You know what, Alfred? I’m not even mad at Bruce anymore. He’s gotten his way ever since he was a kid, and I know that’s not my fault.”

This was why he had hated running into Alfred. It had been cathartic in a lot of ways, but in no way erased the conclusion that he had come to years ago.

“I only wish to caution you as you’ve obviously been able to build a good life for yourself, Master Jason” the older gentleman said quietly.

It only served to anger Jason even more. What right did Alfred have to feel any hurt whatsoever? None.

“How about you actually do something about Bruce?” Jason snapped, the calm fury giving way to a need to say everything he needed to say in this one moment as panic began to set in. Alfred had figured out where he was currently living...which meant the others would too if they didn’t already. It only set him off even more.

“Never mind...it's not like you'll do anything about it,” he scoffed, ignoring the way Alfred’s eyes widened slightly.

“You let him become what he his with your passive-aggressive approach to showing your displeasure. A 'tsk tsk' and a few eyerolls weren’t going to stop him from becoming fucked up. You could have stopped this whole thing long ago. But you didn't, did you?” Jason challenged, leaning forward and sneering.

“Master Jason-“ Alfred attempted to speak but Jason wasn’t going to give him that. He wasn’t going to give anything to any of them.

“You raised an entitled bastard that does what he wants. He’s just a rich spoiled brat that you let get away with everything for years. How may stories did I hear from you about Bruce as a kid, hmm? You raised him since he was just a child and look what happened.” Jason didn’t care how he sounded at this point. None of this was on him.

“You want to stop potential conflict? Then I'm not the one to talk to. Don't contact me again, unless it's to relay the happy news of his death. I hope he goes out with a whimper...just some thug who gets a lucky shot in...wrong place wrong time...like his parents. It's all about coming full circle.”

Jason saw how Alfred sucked in a breath and flinched. He hated himself in that moment, and the way his vision blurred as tears threatened to fall.

"You don't get to be angry or disappointed with me. You don't get to be angry with me for words. Words are nothing compared to what I’ve actually been through.” Jason warned, ignoring how his voice had completely broken. “Pain happens even in silence Alfred.”

“It’s your fault for indulging him. I heard he didn’t even know if he should take Dickie-boy in when his parents bit the dust. I bet you were the one that made him do it, because you thought it would help him, be good for him. What about us?”

Jason asked without expecting an answer.

“You’d think coming back from the dead would have meant something. Instead I was just a case to be solved. Hell, I wasn’t even solved, I was forgotten! And that’s fine Alfred, I’m okay with that. I came back a little crazy, and Bruce simply reacted instead of actually doing detective work, and you all just followed his lead without question. That’s cool. What I’m not okay with is having my life overturned simply because the Big Bad Bruce is supposedly on a rampage.”

Alfred somehow, in the middle of standing there, seemed to find his voice.

“Master Jason, I will readily admit to not being perfect, and it pains me that you find me lacking in ways that truly matter. Your words cut deeply, as I’m sure you intended them to, and I know that Master Bruce-“

All it took was hearing Alfred say that man’s name in a way that made Jason know that the old man was of course going to defend Bruce. Always Bruce.

“What has he ever done for you? He deserves nothing. He deserves no one. I should have known...I should have...” Jason shook his head, more disappointed in himself than anything for allowing himself to fucking hope just tiny bit that maybe something could have come of their brief reunion.

Caught up in his thoughts, he startled when he felt a hand on his arm and immediately shrugged it off.

“Don’t. Touch. Me.” Jason’s voice was like gravel, so similar to Bruce that it would have been almost funny if circumstances hadn’t been what they were.

“You were the only one I-“ Jason swallowed audibly, shaking his head. There was no point. No point in talking anymore.

“Master Jason, please. I-“ Alfred cut himself off as the sound of a child came from somewhere inside the house.

“Jay! You’re missing the best part!”

Both Alfred and Jason stood there frozen, Jason still blocking the older gentleman’s view of the interior. It was impossible for Alfred not to notice the look of fear on the young man’s face even as he dealt with his own surprise at hearing a child’s voice.

Jason saw Alfred’s look of astonishment and Jason lost it as silent fury consumed him again. Alfred had been too nosy, too curious for his own good, and Jason had no idea how to begin to explain how the safety and security of this place had now vanished. No one would be safe here, and the kids...

‘Fuck’, Jason thought, ‘the kids’. They needed to leave here as soon as possible.

“This was my home” Jason emphasized, finally admitting to himself what he had known as soon as he had brought Bud to this place. He couldn’t believe this had happened. He had finally thought of this place as an actual home, had even entertained the idea of maybe being able to stay... That was gone now.

“Master Jason, I did not mean to-“ Alfred spoke calmly despite still looking taken aback. It was rare to see the man on the back foot, but this was certainly one of those moments.

Jason didn’t give a damn what Alfred had meant or not meant by coming here.

“Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?”

He heard Alfred take a breath, obviously using the moment to regain his composure but not having much time as a small boy peeked out from behind Jason.

“Go back to the living room.” Jason demanded, not tearing his gaze away from Alfred. It had taken all his remaining self-control to temper his fear-fueled anger and not snap at the boy. Clearly it didn’t dissuade Edgar from peeking around and looking up at Alfred, who smiled down at the young boy.

Without even thinking about it, Jason immediately moved in front of Edgar, shielding him from Alfred’s gaze and glaring at the butler as if daring him to try and speak to the child.

“Who is that?” Edgar asked, now jumping to try and see around Jason.

“Roy!” Jason shouted, hoping Alfred didn’t hear the panicked undertone. He needed Edgar to do as he was told. “It’s no one. Go with Roy.

“He seems like a curious young boy, similar to others that I’ve known.” Alfred’s smile was brittle and was wiped clean off his face at the look of pure hatred his comment had garnered. He never in a million years thought he could make so many poor decisions in such a short period of time.

“Don’t talk about him. You never saw us, and if I find out you led them to that child, I will kill you.” Jason’s voice had turned cool and indifferent, as if he were merely talking about the weather forecast.

Jason closed the door on Alfred without waiting for a response and locked it behind him, leaning against it and sliding to the floor. He was angry at Alfred, but he was angry at himself even more for putting that heartbreaking look on his face.

Roy had quickly come and gone, scooping Edgar up and talking to him in hushed tones.

Had Jason made Edgar cry? Just the thought of having done that made Jason’s own eyes water again and he shut them tight, refusing to break down in the fucking hallway.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there but the sound of footsteps eventually showed Roy coming up to him and taking a seat on the floor across from him.

“We need to get out of here. This whole place is compromised now. Is Edgar upset with me? I think I scared him.” Jason said tiredly but with a hefty dose of guilt as his head rested against the door.

“Nah, he’s fine. I told him you were pretending to be mean to scare the old guy.” Roy smiled, shrugging his shoulder and causing Jason to bark out a laugh. “We’ll leave the kids with Biz and Artemis. Nothing is going to happen right now. Go shower, get ready, and let’s go meet Ollie.” Roy declared, standing up and holding out his hand.

Jason couldn’t keep the snark out of his voice. “Yeah, I don’t think meeting with him now is a good idea...I’m not exactly in the best frame of mind, Roy.”

Roy let Jason’s tone roll off him without much thought.

“Which is exactly why we should meet with him. He’s objective, and if we need to move quickly then hopefully he’ll help. We can agree to disagree on this, but you’re still coming with me.”

Jason huffed as he opened his eyes and saw Roy looking dead serious. At this point, he’d trust Roy’s judgement over his own.

“Yeah, let’s go see Oliver,” he sighed, quickly wiping the tears from his face as he tried not to think about how he had officially severed any and all chances of staying in Gotham. He ended to leave as soon as possible; which was now hugely complicated by the fact that the kids had made it clear they wanted to stay. Saying his goodbyes to Edgar and Evelyn was going to come sooner than Jason had expected.

Chapter Text

Jason kept watch over Edgar for any sort of sign that the boy was angry with him, and it took a solid half hour for him to feel like Roy’s made-up excuse had done the trick. It didn’t help Jason feel any less guilty, because Edgar and Evelyn should in no way be affected by whatever shit Jason had going on in his life.

He had been that kid who had dealt with the emotional and physical blows that came from parental figures that hadn’t known how to deal with their own lives. Jason wasn’t about to follow their leads, and his opinion on the matter wasn’t impacted by how little or how much time the children would remain in his care.

Mary Poppins had kept both kids entertained, and now the house was actually quiet as Biz had taken Evelyn upstairs for a nap as the pain meds kicked in, and Edgar was typing away on his laptop, working on some coding that Roy had provided him. It served as a reminder to Jason that on top of getting the kids enrolled in regular school, he’d need to make sure Edgar had an opportunity to challenge himself and further develop his skills.

As he stood in the kitchen watching Edgar from where he was sitting in the dining room, Jason heard Roy come up next to him.

“He’s clearly gifted. Even Robinson Academy won’t have the resources to keep him completely engaged.”

Jason nodded. “I know. We’ll have to see what we can do about that. Speaking of, are you ready?”

Roy had gone out to grab lunch for everyone while Jason had gone upstairs to get ready. It would have made him feel better if they all could have stayed out of sight, but with the house being compromised now, it really didn’t matter. Although Roy had looped all CCTV footage within a several block radius of them just to buy them some time.

It had been a risky move if Oracle chose to begin a hunt through Gotham and found the loop, but Roy wasn’t exactly one to be underestimated. Even Edgar had helped, though he hadn’t known specifically what they had been working on.

“Check me out. Good, right?”

Jason turned and looked at Roy, blinking in surprise. His friend was now wearing the suit he had purchased for him, complete with tie and cuff links. Roy hadn’t held back, his hair in a clean comb-over that highlighted his close-cut shave.

Roy smiled and did a turn. “Come on, say it. I’m totally crush-worthy.”

Jason laughed, knowing that Roy was trying to use humor to dispel his nerves. The last time Roy had worn a suit had been years ago, back when things with Queen hadn’t yet gone south. Now here they both were, getting ready to go into the belly of the beast.

If they had been on their way to Wayne Enterprises, Jason would have been a wreck. He had no idea how Roy was going to voluntarily walk into that office building to meet with Oliver Queen. Just a few days ago Roy had been unsure of even responding to text messages from the guy; yesterday they had met in a neutral place and had their first conversation in years; and now, they were going to be walking into very-not-neutral territory.

Jason couldn’t help but make sure Roy was really up for this. The incident with Alfred may have made meeting with Oliver much more appealing (not that Jason would admit it), but nothing was worth putting Roy in a precarious position.

“Are you sure about this? If this is about the kids, you and I have always found a way to get things done.”

Roy smiled. “Do I think things will be smooth sailing between me and Ollie? Hell no. But I do think this could work out for us. Like we said, let’s just see what he has to say. I’m looking at this like a business meeting. You should too. The personal crap will always be there, Jay. I’m embracing it and then I’m going to get shit done.”

“That was surprisingly profound, Roy.”

The redhead shrugged. “It’s the suit. It’s making me sound all smart and wise. Why doesn’t yours do that?”

Jason rolled his eyes and bumped his shoulder into Roy’s. Jason had put on a gray-blue suit and had paired it with brown oxfords which Edgar had supposedly taken a liking to and wanted a pair in his size.

Now that both men stood in front of Edgar for final approval, the kid had taken one look at them and asked if there were suits made for kids and how much it would cost.

Telling Edgar that he didn’t need a suit had resulted in a suddenly withdrawn little boy, who had placed a crumpled hundred on the table (one of the bills that the Red Hood had given him that fateful night) and said that he wanted to get some nice things for him and Evelyn. He’d never had nice clothes, and Evelyn...well Evelyn had admitted to her brother that she’d always wanted to wear a dress.

Roy had been able to recover faster than Jason had. “Keep the money. It’s yours. I think tomorrow we’ll go out and do some fun things okay? That includes buying whatever nice clothes you guys want.”

The suit bit had been surprising (what kid actually wanted to wear a suit?), but Evelyn not having worn a dress? If Jason hadn’t been on his way to see Queen, he would have immediately gone out and bought a hundred dresses for her.

Biz of course, had heard the conversation from the other room and looked all set and ready to go. “Am go shopping again?”

Jason arched an eyebrow. “Biz, how about you take it easy there; you like shopping way too much. We’ll all go tomorrow. For now, just man the fort. If you hear anyone coming to the door that shouldn’t, get everyone out of here.”

Biz hummed and nodded, looking down at his legs as Wilson meowed and rubbed up against him.

Jason still didn’t know what to make of the cat and just rolled his eyes; Wilson was just plain weird.

Still, the kids and the animals had been a decent enough distraction from the hurt and guilt combo that had been swirling in Jason’s gut since he had shut the door in Alfred’s face.

***

“I told him I’d kill him, Roy. How the fuck could I have said that?” Jason groaned as he banged his head against the back of the car headrest as Roy drove towards Gotham’s newest business district.

Roy briefly shot a look over at Jason, who looked like he wanted the ground to just swallow him up. Not that Roy could blame the guy; the morning hadn’t gone well.

“Okay, that wasn’t great, I’ll give you that, but I’m sure he knows you didn’t mean it.”

“Does he?” Jason didn’t think Alfred would. “Because you didn’t see his face...he looked...”

Jason didn’t know how to describe it, but he knew how it had made him feel; like he had carved out a chunk of his heart and then stomped on it for good measure.

“You both were taken off guard. Clearly he pulled a very non-Alfredy move that you weren’t expecting and he wasn’t expecting to find kids in the place.”

“Just one. He didn’t see Evelyn. So that’s an upside at least. You should have seen it, Roy. He saw Edgar and...”

“And what?”

“And I recognized the expression on his face.” Jason turned to look out the window and watched the streets pass by. “He used to look at me that way when I was a kid.”

He wondered what Alfred would have said to Edgar if he’d been given the chance. Would he have listened to Edgar’s long streams of technical jargon? Would he have offered to make Edgar tea and bake cookies together? And then there was Evelyn; quiet, unassuming, ever observant, Evelyn. God, Alfred would have loved them.

Jason closed his eyes and held them tightly shut. He had no idea why after verbally stabbing Alfred over and over again, he was now having these ‘what ifs’ float through his mind. He missed Alfred, and if circumstances hadn’t been what they were, Jason would have run to Alfred for advice and help, but the fact of the matter was, while Jason hated himself for how he had treated Alfred, he didn’t regret a lot of what he had said. Someone had needed to say it, to make clear that even Alfred had not been infallible.

“Hey...don’t go all internally broody on me. I’m not going to spend an hour sitting in the car waiting for you to sort yourself out. Not when that means leaving me alone with Queen.” Roy smiled and laughed as he said it, but Jason knew Roy was counting on him.

So Jason sighed, pushed all the awful shit in his head as far back as he could, and pulled out the list from his pocket of everything both of them thought Oliver could possibly help with. He had transferred all his notes to a piece of paper, having not only written out some of what he’d found when researching schools, but also the very specific list of requirements for Robinson Academy. There were some things on there that would be trickier than others to provide if the school decided to dig, so Jason and Roy had scribbled thoughts and insights in the margins.

After going through the list with Roy one more time, he looked up as they pulled the car into the QI parking structure, ignoring how the green QI building towered over them alongside Wayne International Plaza, and followed the directions he’d been provided with earlier when Oliver had messaged over logistics.

The parking lot was filled with high-end cars of all kinds, making Jason question whether taking Roy’s car had been a bad idea in terms of blending in. The Aston Martin had been taken back to the shipping container it had been pinched from, having served its purpose, but now Jason was mildly regretting that decision.

Chancing a look at Roy, Jason saw his friend’s knuckles were startling white against the black leather of the steering wheel, and only getting worse as they descended another level before pulling up to a gated area with an intercom.

Roy lowered his window and pressed the button, each second that passed in silence only ratcheting up both their nerves.

“Hello, Mr. Harper. Please park in one of the spots marked for Mr. Queen. I’ll be down shortly to escort you.”

Both men looked at each other and then watched as the gate in front of them began to rise. The woman on the intercom had been formal but pleasant, and it surprised Roy that she had known of him. Now the question was, who exactly would be coming to escort them?

It began to occur to them that meeting Oliver in his own building meant that it would have been virtually impossible for others not to know about it, especially as it had been planned at the last minute.

“You sure? We can still back out.” Jason couldn’t help but ask again as they got out of the car and walked towards the elevator that stood in the center.

A faint ‘ding’ indicating the elevator’s arrival revealed a woman in her mid-forties of Asian descent, her dark hair pulled back in a bun with dark rimmed glasses that framed her face. Her expression was warm though, which took Jason slightly off guard as she exited the elevator.

“Mr. Harper, welcome to Queen Industries, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” The hand that wasn’t holding a Q-pad was extended without hesitation, and Roy smiled as he shook it.

She then looked over at Jason, not looking surprised to see him either. “I’m afraid I don’t know your last name, but Mr. Queen kept calling you Peter. I hope that’s alright.” Once again she extended her hand and Jason did the same, smiling as he nodded.

“Peter is fine.”

“So is Roy. Roy is fine” the redhead added quickly, much to her amusement.

“Well it’s nice to meet you both. I am Min, Mr. Queen’s executive assistant. He’s upstairs waiting for you” she stated, motioning for them to follow her back into the elevator. “He had insisted on coming down to welcome you himself but considering he wanted to actually keep this meeting a secret, I advised him against it.”

Roy and Jason exchanged a look. How much exactly did she know?

“Well it can’t be much of a secret if you know about it” Jason politely pointed out as she scanned a keycard across a pad inside the elevator and they watched the doors close.

“It’s my job to know everything” she said easily, making it sound like it was not the first time she’d been asked that question. “I will say that I’ve heard a lot about you, Roy.”

Roy looked startled and Jason tried not to clench his fists in worry.

“Oh yeah?” Roy smiled, although Jason caught the uncertainty and fear in his friend’s voice.

“Oh yes. Mr. Queen has talked a lot about how you’re one of the most brilliant mechanical engineers he’s ever known.”

Roy looked stunned, and Jason was surprised. Not that he disagreed, but he hadn’t thought Queen actually talked about Roy at all. Apparently, neither did Roy, who took a moment to recover.

“What? Really?” he asked, voice slightly shaky.

She smiled and looked down at her Q-pad, tapping on a few times. “You seem nervous. He’s nervous too.”

The elevator came to a stop and dinged open, Min leading the way and giving Jason and Roy the opportunity to shoot each other a look. Only a few minutes of being at QI and things were already throwing both men off their game.

As they followed behind Min, Jason looked around, knowing that they were on the top floor of the building. He wasn’t sure why exactly he had pictured Roy and himself walking into the lobby and having to avoid eye contact with everyone as they walked passed. Clearly Oliver had planned for their entrance and exit of the building to be as seamless as possible.

With its white marbled floors, Jason found the large expansive corridor reminiscent of Bruce’s top floor, although instead of dark paneled wood, Queen had dark green walls that acted as a backdrop to several screens that were currently flashing the Queen Industries logo.

The walk down the hallway seemed never ending, but when they reached the end of it, the double doors electronically slid open, and there Oliver stood, perfectly dressed and visibly nervous.

“You guys made it.” Oliver’s relief was palpable. “Thanks Min. I’ll let you know when we’re done.”

Min smiled and dipped her head in acknowledgement. “I’ll secure the floor.”

Jason watched as Min walked towards her desk that was adjacent to the double doors and typed something on her keyboard which caused a wall of steel to slowly rise from in front of the elevator doors.

“I wanted to make sure you both felt secure.” Oliver said, noting their tension at essentially being locked up here with him. “You’re free to leave at any time.”

“Damn right we are” Jason muttered under his breath as he followed Oliver into his office and heard the hydraulics of the doors sliding closed behind him and locking.

The room was quite large, and Jason couldn’t hold back the faint sneer at seeing the Wayne logo through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Oliver grinned, following Jason’s line of sight and motioned for them to come sit on the sofas that were in the far corner of the room.

“Yeah I know. I’m not a fan of the view either.”

The comment had surprised Jason as he felt himself loosen up just a little, reminding himself that his beef with Queen was different than his beef with Bruce.

Roy followed Oliver over to the sitting area but Jason could see how stilted his friend’s movements were, as if he had drawn a complete blank on how to proceed. It didn’t matter though; that’s why Jason was here. Any dickish move by Queen and Jason would get him to unlock the doors, and then he’d deck him for good measure.

“Anything to drink? Coffee? Tea? Water?”

Oliver was already moving to the bar, opening the fridge and grabbing a water for himself. Jason looked at Roy and saw his friend was now sitting there looking completely lost as to how to answer a simple question. This was going to be a painfully slow and awkward conversation if things kept up like this.

“I’ll take a coffee if you don’t mind. Two sugars.” Jason said, garnering such a grateful look from Oliver that it almost made him laugh.

Jason’s voice snapped Roy out of his daze. “Water, please.”

The minute it took for Oliver to make Jason’s coffee and bring that over with the waters appeared to make little difference in affecting the nervous tension. Had they not met yesterday? Jason wasn’t sure how much Roy would be okay with him taking the lead on this.

“So...how can I help?”

Oliver was the one to break the silent stalemate as he took a sip of his water. Jason supposed that was fair; all of them functioned better when there was intel to be had and something to actually do.

Jason looked at Roy, who gave him a ‘go ahead’ signal.

Taking the folded up piece of paper from his pocket, Jason unfurled it.

“What exactly did you gather from your conversation with Roy last night? In terms of this meeting.” He added quickly, not wanting Queen to think this was going to be a therapy circle.

Oliver took a breath as he put the water back down on the table and looked back at Roy. Jason was realizing that the man looked over at his friend as much as he possibly could, as if trying to put everything to memory.

“He asked for my thoughts on how one would essentially create academic records and documents for enrolling children in school. That’s all I know.”

“Can you do it?” Jason asked.

Oliver didn’t hesitate in his answer. “Yes.”

“Will you do it?”

“I take it there is a child that you want to enroll in school?”

“Wow, some detective work there.” Jason responded, unable to keep the snark from his tone.

Oliver simply quirked an eyebrow and smirked, which did more to emphasize to Jason the fact that Oliver Queen was not Bruce Wayne. Thank fuck for that.

Jason sighed and rubbed his eyes. He felt like he was out of time and options at this point. They needed to take the plunge.

“Look, there’s two kids. Came from a shitty background, were living on the streets. I wasn’t about to throw them back out. One of them needed surgery; she’s recovering now but they both want to go to school and are smart as hell.”

“You should see these kids Ollie!” Roy spoke up suddenly, surprising the two of them. “They’re amazing. And the boy...he unlocked a five-layer rotating encryption, that I made myself.”

Oliver looked suitably impressed. “Sounds like you stumbled onto some smart kids.”

“Yeah, they’re great. Which is why we want to get them enrolled in school as quickly as possible. We’re going to find them a family but as Roy so smartly pointed out, school would offer them a level of stability in the meantime. Problem is, they want to stay in Gotham.”

Oliver nodded, catching on. “You’re worried about doctoring anything that would be flagged in Gotham records.”

Roy looked relieved that Queen was following. “Yeah. We decided on Robinson Academy, but we went through the list of requirements and we’d need some help considering the eyes everywhere here in this town.”

Oliver looked at the paper in Jason’s lap and pointed at it. “May I?”

Jason nodded and handed it over, somehow feeling like a little kid that should have done a better job with his presentation. However, Queen didn’t seem to care, reading over the list slowly.

Neither Jason nor Roy would admit to holding their breath as if waiting for a judge to deliver his verdict.

“We’ve had the kids checked out and they’re getting immunization cards. Legit ones.” Roy added.

Oliver nodded, taking a pen out of his breast pocket.

“Okay, let’s go through these together now.”

Jason had to admit, it felt damn good to sit there with Roy and Oliver, going over each point and deciding together what the best course of action would be.

Queen continued to surprise Jason by not railroading over them or dismissing their thoughts or ideas. Instead, the man listened, agreed when they had a good point, or brought up risks that they hadn’t thought about. During the course of this conversation, Jason had seen Roy get more and more comfortable, smiling and laughing and having a direct impact on Oliver’s demeanor as well. Yet the strange thing was, Jason didn’t feel like a third wheel.

“I’ll get all these records set up with Star City. Even grades shouldn’t be a problem. We can just make things up since the kids will have to take assessments anyways. There’s no getting around that.”

Jason and Roy agreed with him. They wanted the kids to get into school but didn’t particularly care if they started at a lower grade if needed. This was just about getting them in.

“The only other hiccup I see here is that they want you to have teacher references as well as a recommendation by a former or current students’ parents or guardians. I say honesty is the best policy here.” Oliver hummed, looking thoughtful.

“The bad thing about such a high profile school is that they’re picky about who walks through their halls, which is the reason for this requirement. The good thing for us about such a high profile school is the very same thing.”

“What do you mean?” Roy asked.

“I can make some calls, offer up a hefty endowment if need be. I don’t think they’re going to turn away kids that are getting a personal call by me made on their behalf. I highly doubt they’d care about the lack of being recommended by teachers and another family at that point. I mean, I can certainly swing that if we need it. However, with Evelyn’s surgery, we’ll tell them that their parents were killed in a tragic car accident, because they actually were, and that her injuries were caused by that. Sympathy works well too.”

Jason sat there stunned, and Roy was grinning.

“You’d do that? Use your name?”

“Sure. If that doesn’t work, I’ll promise to pay their full tuition for the entirety of their schooling in advance. This is Gotham City after all; things don’t move without a little incentive.” Oliver said simply.

“We want to pay.” Jason said firmly.

“Sure, if you’d like” Oliver smiled. Jason had expected the third degree about where he’d gotten his hands on that much money but it didn’t happen. “Roy’s QI shares are still part of my portfolio. They’re yours if you want them back.”

Jason was well aware that not only had Roy burned through a significant sum of money during his bad years, but Queen had taken away his son’s shares of QI in a rather shocking move at the time.

Roy floundered for a moment and chose to change topics. It clearly was a bit much. “What about parents? We can’t be listed.”

Jason had to hand it to Roy; meeting with Queen had been a good choice and he actually felt that the kids were really going to be better off.

“Well, we can list you both as guardians for now. Just let me know what names you want me to use. Then we can simply change names when the kids get formerly adopted. Oh, what last names did you want me to put down for them?”

Roy and Jason both had blank expressions on their faces. They hadn’t even thought of that.

“We’ll get back to you on that.” Roy finally said.

Oliver nodded. “Anything else I can help you boys with?”

“You’re serious? You didn’t think this was enough?”

“It’s enough when you tell me it’s enough. If there is more, then I’m going to do more” Oliver said with so much conviction that Jason didn’t hesitate in believing him.

So Jason and Roy filled Oliver in on their stakeout of the docks, the card they’d taken, the files they’d found...everything up until the end of the party.

Oliver had listened, only interrupting to ask clarifying questions, but didn’t once look upset or angry to have not been told this earlier.

“The streets are quiet, the GCPD know something fishy was going on but there’s nothing actually going on. I hate having to wait and see but that’s it right now. He clearly didn’t have time to get anything set up here except for having just started construction on that warehouse on the outskirts of town.”

Oliver nodded and stood up, moving to the bar and rotating some liquor bottles around which revealed a secret panel.

As old as Jason was now, the little kid in him was excited at being able to see another vigilantes secret lair.

The lights lowered and a holographic projection of a city grid showed up on the coffee table between them. Jason wasn’t familiar with it, but he hazarded a guess and assumed it was Star City.

“Well, Mr. Rowe definitely set up shop in Star City. I don’t know if his death is going to impact anything there, but I certainly appreciate the intel. I’ll look over that logo once you send it over.”

Jason sat there quietly, listening to Queen and Roy talk about Star City and formulate a plan. Clearly there was a lot more going on in terms of crime out in Star City than Jason had realized. Gotham had once been his home, but there was an entire Bat clan here to help. Other cities were lucky if they even had one decent vigilante out there.

“Jason? Jason?”

Jason shook his head and realized that both Oliver and Roy were staring at him in concern.

“You alright?” Oliver asked, his expression so legitimately worried that Jason fought down the overwhelming urge to cry.

“I just...Roy knows I need to leave here. Alfred found my place this morning and whether he planned it or not, Bruce is going to find out and I just want to be gone.”

“I spoke with Bruce earlier today.”

“What?” Roy and Jason both looked sharply at Oliver.

“I know I said I’d tell you as soon as I heard from him but nothing was an emergency and I didn’t want to risk having him attempt to tap my phones or yours for that matter. Any counter measures I would have taken would have made him even more suspicious.”

“What did he say?” Jason couldn’t help how the question came out like a demand tinged with a hefty dose of anxiety.

“He wanted to know why I was here. Didn’t like the fact that I was at an event where someone he was clearly monitoring had died. He’s counting everyone in that room as a suspect. I’m sure I’m not given any preferential treatment in that whatsoever.” He couldn’t help but add wryly.

Seeing Jason’s expression though, Oliver cleared his throat and continued.

“He didn’t recognize you from those photos. I take it Roy shared the links with you?”

Jason sat there stunned once again. Sure he had made the comment previously that Bruce wouldn’t recognize him even if he saw him, but now he couldn’t help but feel like he’d been kicked in the stomach. He shook his head to rid himself of the feeling. Nodding, he found his voice.

“Yeah, he showed me. He also said you weren’t out on the patio with me to be an asshole, so thanks.”

Oliver smiled again. “No problem. I realized quickly you hadn’t known who Lulu was or you would have chosen a less noteworthy companion. As for Bruce, he demanded I tell him who you were but I told him I had no clue. You were simply Lulu’s date, and that you didn’t like me. It wasn’t a lie.”

Jason found himself laughing. Oliver was right, he hadn’t totally lied.

“He’s going to keep digging, but if he wasn’t able to recognize you from some low quality and obstructive shots, then you should be fine. You did give a fake name upon entry.”

Jason laughed again, feeling relieved and letting that squash the pain he felt. God, he really needed to get out of this city.

“What about Leila? You said Bruce thinks everyone is a suspect. Is he going to zone in on her?”

“There were hundreds of people at that party that are less than scrupulous. He’s going to be looking for a needle in a haystack. Not that he wouldn’t find it, but it would take him a while. As for Lulu, I’m sure she’ll be fine. On the off chance that she actually turned out to be a murderer, she has diplomatic immunity. That criminal case would most likely outlive her. He’s free to take his best shot.”

“A queen and possibly a murderer? Isn’t that like...your dream girl?” Roy asked Jason, giggling as he avoided a punch to the shoulder and pointing out Jason’s reddening cheeks. He still wasn’t entirely sure about Queen and the Queen but the former didn’t look anything but amused.

“When do you leave?” Roy asked as they got up, everyone looking much better than when this meeting had started.

“This afternoon. I have to head to London first and then I’ll be back in Star City, but I’ll start making calls and getting things ready for the kids. Just confirm with me their last names and I’ll help get you guys set up. Ideally you’ll be getting a very eager call from the academy soon. Good thing too that it’s only the second week into the school year.”

Oliver unlocked the doors, which slid open, and Min was already standing there with her always present smile and Q-pad.

Roy moved towards her, frowning as Jason held back for a moment. He felt his heart beating wildly in his chest and he didn’t know why. Plus, that damn feeling of wanting to cry was back.

“Jason?” Oliver’s voice showed his concern again as he placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder. It was all it took to cause a tear to run down his face.

Roy looked stunned, and Min hadn’t noticed, so he did what any good friend would do and flirted shamelessly with her while his friend clearly needed a moment.

“I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. You’ve got your shit with Roy to deal with and I’m just-“ Jason laughed wetly and shook his head, moving to step away. Oliver’s hand didn’t move.

“Don’t be sorry. I admit I don’t know everything that happened with you and Bruce, and you don’t have to share. Bruce and I both made some very bad choices but there isn’t a line of separation here. You were always a good kid, Jason. I wish he had told you that more often.”

“I want to go away. I don’t want to be here anymore” Jason croaked, embarrassed and ashamed that he had used Roy’s time with Oliver to make this about himself. Roy would have every right to be pissed at him.

“Come to Star City.”

“What?”

“Move to Star City. Trust me, we could use the help. Plus, I know how good you are with design. I know a nine to five isn’t your thing but maybe as consultants? You guys are gifted and Q-Core is where all the fun stuff happens.” Oliver winked. The three of them knew Q-Core was pretty much the supporting organization for the Green Arrow.

Jason opened his mouth to decline but stopped himself as he felt Roy come up behind him. Apparently flirting with Min only went so far as she was happily married to her wife of 20 years.

“Fuck, I’m sorry Roy. I’m a fucking mess.”

Roy didn’t look pissed, in fact, he didn’t look anything other than understanding.

“Come with me to Star City. You don’t have to stay forever but it’s a fresh start. We can deal with Ollie’s douchery together. No offense.”

Oliver actually snorted. “None taken. In any case, think on it. In the meantime...” Oliver signaled for Min to come in, and she very respectfully ignored Jason’s attempt to dry his eyes.

“Can you get things set up in the penthouse? Full security access and a code four lock down protocol.”

Min nodded and walked off, her stride slightly quicker and more purposeful. Roy and Jason merely looked perplexed.

“I never use it. It’s impenetrable and frankly, if you think Bruce is going to come looking for you and the kids, he’d probably least expect you there.”

“He’s going to kill you.” Jason said, in a perpetual state of shock.

Oliver didn’t seem particularly bothered. “Well if he did, then he wouldn’t be what we know him to be.”

Jason laughed.

“Look, it’s wheelchair accessible for the young girl, everything is on a single floor plan, there are plenty of bedrooms, and once you’re in there, not even I can get in unless you grant access. There’s a private entrance as well.”

“Thanks Ollie. We’re going to use it.”

“What? We are?” Jason asked, surprised.

“Yeah. I’m not dealing with you freaking out nonstop. I hate to break it to you, but you’re dramatic as fuck.” Roy said with such solemnity that even Oliver had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

***

“Well that went well!” Roy said, being his usual chipper self.

Jason felt horrible. He felt like his own emotional baggage had hijacked Roy’s own issues with Queen. Could he have been any more of a dick to his best friend?

“Hey, stop it. Don’t go all broody again. Maybe if you’re lucky he’ll adopt you too and then we’ll really be brothers! Jason Todd-Queen...has a nice ring to it! Roy exclaimed, secretly relishing the look of shock and horror on his friend’s face. Mission accomplished.

The rest of the drive was done in silence, and even though Jason felt completely out of it, he noticed as soon as entering the brownstone that Artemis was home and had clearly met the children. If the stare-off she was having with Evelyn on the sofa was any indication.

Artemis had her eyes slightly narrowed as if trying to determine whether she’d identified a threat. Evelyn had her head ever so slightly cocked to one side, looking back at the Amazon with a look of curiosity.

Edgar of course, is the one to break the tension.

“She’s so cool! She’s taught us to fight.”

Jason glared at Artemis. He had made it clear he wanted them to be as far removed from violence as possible.

“No. Nope. Uh-uh. No way.”

“Basic self-defense is important” Artemis replied cooly without breaking her gaze away from Evelyn.

“Is it just me, or is this seriously creepy?” Roy whispered.

Jason nodded, watching as Evelyn finally turned her head and smiled at them, waving hello.

“Evie read now?” Biz asked, and Jason immediately spotted the large stack of books on the coffee table, which if wasn’t mistaken, was an illustrated edition of the entire Harry Potter series. Jason wasn’t even surprised at this point.

Leaving Evelyn and Biz to their reading, which was really just her reading out loud while Biz held the book and turned the pages, Jason attempted to drag Artemis to kitchen as she had stood up.

He may not have been able to make her budge, but she rolled her eyes and followed him into the kitchen. It was yet another reminder that she was stronger than he was.

“What were you doing? You were scaring her!” he hissed. Bud had been one thing, but the kids were an entirely other matter.

“When?” Artemis looked genuinely confused.

Jason gritted his teeth. “Just now with the whole staring contest!”

Artemis shrugged, in that annoying way she always did when she felt everyone else was too slow on the uptake. “We were simply assessing one another.”

“She’s just a kid!”

“She is...different.”

Jason hated that word sometimes, and coming from Artemis, he didn’t like it even more.

Roy looked between the two of them and debated calling Biz in to referee.

“What the hell is that suppose to mean?”

“It was not meant as an offense, Little One.” Artemis said gently. “She is an old soul.”

Roy snorted. “Yeah we know. She was probably a guru or something in a past life. She’s like this all-knowing being.”

Artemis shook her head. “You are incorrect. She was a sage and likely a healer.”

Roy laughed, and Jason smirked in surprise as he didn’t know Artemis was capable of sarcasm.

Yet as she stood there, looking serious, and actually annoyed, Roy’s laughter died off.

“Wait, are you being serious?” Roy asked now.

“When am I not?”

Roy shrugged. “Point taken.”

Jason however was not happy at all; he’d been through enough today.

“What do you mean?” Jason asked as calmly as he could, trying very hard not to snap. “Is this some magic thing? Is there magic around her or something?”

He almost dreaded the answer; he hated magic, and his mind was now running through possibilities that Evelyn had some sort of spell on her...or worse, was not really a child. That would have killed him.

“No,” Artemis shook her head, “no magic that I can sense. I would have been able to tell as soon I arrived here. Her past life is merely more in tune with her current one.”

“Wait, are you saying we have past lives? What was I?!” Roy didn’t even question the bombshell that had been dropped.

“The village idiot.” Artemis deadpanned. Jason took back his opinion of Artemis not having a sense of humor.

Roy rolled his eyes. “No, seriously.”

“I do not have the ability to assess everyone. I do not even know if past lives are simply unique to some individuals and not others. This is not the first time I’ve come across someone that had such a vivid previous existence, but it is not common.

“And Edgar?” Jason asked cautiously. He wasn’t exactly believing this crap but he couldn’t help but wonder what she would say.

Did Artemis actually just smile? This was the second time he had seen that upturn of her mouth, and the first had just been with Bud.

“He was difficult. The child would not sit still and asked too many questions.” Strangely though, she didn’t appear annoyed by that.

“His past is deeper than that of his sister. I wish to say Armorer but that would be an assumption. I was only able to ascertain that he was a craftsman of some kind.”

“You’re really being serious.” Jason confirmed quietly, not knowing what to make of that. “How come you never mentioned this past life thing before?”

Artemis crossed her arms. “It has not come up before now. Again, it is not common. And no, man-child, I do not know.”

Jason looked over at Roy who was practically jumping from one foot to the other, clearly determined to know.

“I bet I was amazing. I probably invented the internet.” Roy concluded, ignoring both of their expressions.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, man.” Jason patted his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll just ignore the fact that the guy is still alive.”

Jason still felt there was a level of seriousness to this whole thing that was not being taken into consideration and Artemis saw it in his expression.

“It is nothing to be worried about and has no impact on their current lives.”

“Stop saying current lives. It’s just their normal ones.” Jason snapped.

“As you wish.”

“What about Jason? Can you tell what he was?” Roy pressed.

Jason shook his head. He doubted there was anything to see. Plus, Artemis would have told him? Right?

“I do not know. I have not had the opportunity to confirm.”

“Confirm it now then!” Roy insisted, but then saw Jason’s expression. “Come on! You’ve already died once!”

The stares he was met with had him taking a step back. “Too soon?”

Jason sighed and grumbled a “fine”, bracing himself as he looked directly into Artemis eyes.

It was kind of nice, if not a bit creepy, although he readied himself for news there was nothing to see, or worse...that he had been some poor pauper that died of the plague. Just his luck he had probably been a serial killer.

Artemis pulled back after several seconds, looking puzzled.

“Never mind. This is stupid.” Jason shrugged, leaving the kitchen. He didn’t want to know; his life now was enough to be dealing with.

Roy looked at Artemis. “Is it bad?”

“No. He simply wouldn’t believe me if I told him.” As soon as she said that she regretted it as Roy’s eyes lit up.

“Come on! What is it? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?”

Artemis looked extremely confused by his guesses and Roy realized that the rhyme had gone over her head.

“Well come on! He might not want to know, but I do.”

Artemis shook her head. “He was several things. Should he ever want to know I will tell him.”

Roy pouted. “You sure you can’t see what I was?” Roy asked hopefully.

Artemis refused to admit that she found his annoying persistence admirable on occasion.

“Fine.” She sighed.

Roy actually clapped his hands in delight and squealed.

“Not if you do that” She warned sharply.

“Shutting up now.” Roy promised, standing there.

“Do not make jokes about staring into my eyes.” She had known the man-child for long enough.

Roy pouted again, but kept his mouth shut and surprisingly did what he was told.

Artemis doubted she’d see anything, considering there had been no essence of any kind to indicate...

She frowned as she stared more intensely, and not even realizing she was doing it, moved her palm to cup his cheek. Roy remained silent and motionless, not even breathing at this point.

They stayed that way for another ten seconds or so before Artemis removed her hand looking extremely puzzled. So much so that Roy didn’t even crack a joke about her hand on his cheek.

“It’s bad isn’t it...” Roy said quietly, looking dejected. Artemis refused to admit that she did not like seeing the man-child look unhappy.

“No. It is not bad. Once again, it was surprising.”

“Okay...surprising is good right...?” Roy asked cautiously.

Artemis rolled her eyes. “Yes. But I am not telling you.”

“What?! Why not?” Roy frowned.

“Because your head is already big enough as it is.”

Artemis walked off, trying not smile as Roy now went around listing all sorts of amazing things he could have been in a past life.

“Come on. Just a hint. Was I a wealthy playboy vigilante? Wait no...I don’t want that. It’s so cliché. Was I a president? I’d make a good president. Ooooo...an emperor?”

“Perhaps when you have overcome your hubris I will give you the information you so wish to have.”

Several minutes later and Jason was cornering Artemis.

“Why is Roy going around telling everyone he was ruler of the galaxy?”

Artemis rolled her eyes. This was exactly why she hadn’t wanted to tell the man-child anything.

Chapter Text

The Gotham City Times

Berto Rowe ‘Died of Natural Causes’ Confirms GCPD

The sudden death of Berto Rowe two days ago at the Gotham Palace Hotel does not appear to be the result of foul play, a GCPD spokesperson confirmed this afternoon. Foul play had not been ruled out initially as the head of BR Industries had been in good health.

An autopsy revealed the cause of death had been a pulmonary embolism, a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs become blocked by a blood clot.

Arrangements have been made by Mr. Rowe’s family to have him flown back to Portugal to be laid to rest.

Mr. Francisco Escala, acting CEO of BR Industries, has confirmed that expansion into Gotham City has been placed on hold indefinitely.

“While I know Mr. Rowe had looked forward to expanding operations into Gotham City, I have decided that the company’s focus for our United States expansion is best placed on Star City. This does not rule out expansion into Gotham City in the future, however we do not feel that such a move is in the company’s best interest at this time.”

Mr. Escala could not be reached for comment regarding whether this decision was impacted by GCPD’s supposed seizure of several laptops and other evidence from the Gotham Palace Hotel.

While Mr. Rowe’s cause of death has been confirmed, sources close to the investigation revealed that information collected at the scene was still being examined and is of interest to law enforcement.

Mr. Escala went on to state that “we are working closely with the Gotham City Police Department and will continue to do so. Transparency has always been a key tenet of our organization and we hope that we will be able to move forward in memory of Mr. Rowe’s vision.”

GCPD would not confirm any possible investigation into BR Industries.

Tim sighed and leaned back in the chair, scrolling through any other news articles that may have revealed anything else.

He had all three monitors in the Batcave going, the central screen pulling up articles while the two smaller side screens scanned through BR Industries records and financial reports.

It hadn’t been an active case until recently, when Mr. Rowe had formally declared expansion into Gotham City, which had Bruce requesting any and all pertinent information be gathered and reviewed. Corruption in Gotham was already bad; they didn’t need anyone else coming in and making it worse.

Appeals made by Tim to have him attend the party had been shot down, not only because he was not currently representing Wayne Enterprises in any capacity, but because Bruce hadn’t wanted anyone associated with the company to be in attendance. Tim was pretty sure he had heard the ‘I told you so’ from Bruce all the way in Tokyo, when he had sent over the news that Berto Rowe had died.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to know exactly what to look for, and Tim was trying to balance that with going through all the party attendees.

It was a slow going process considering almost everyone there had something to hide and it was a matter of determining whether or not what they were hiding was of any relevance.

Partnered with the articles that had pinged alerting Tim to Oliver Queen’s attendance at the party, and Tim had known instantly that Bruce was going to be seriously ticked off. Of course that would only be the start of it as Tim had gone through the photos, drawing up short when he had recognized Jason Todd, looking nothing like Tim had imagined he would if one were to drop the guy in such a setting.

The Jason Todd in the photos had been sharply dressed and naturally charming (if the photos of him and the Queen of Umec had been in any indication) - such an odd contrast compared to the red helmet, guns, and derelict safe houses the Red Hood was always associated with. So here Jason was, out in the open, and Tim had been surprised.

He had seen photos of Jason, hell, he had taken a lot of them when he had followed Batman and Robin around when he was younger, and even a few newer photos of the Red Hood.

No one needed to know that Tim had occasionally kept tabs on Jason for nothing other than sheer curiosity.

His years old gunshot wound would twinge on occasion, as if trying to remind him that it was probably not a good idea, but he hadn’t been able to help it. Jason Todd had always been the giant elephant in the room that everyone staunchly refused to acknowledge. Of course, by ‘everyone’ he meant Bruce.

Tim couldn’t help but glance over at the memorial case that still stood in the Batcave.

Jason looked healthy and fit, with Tim venturing to guess that he may have very well outweighed Bruce in sheer muscle mass now. He had probably been that way for a while, but Tim hadn’t seen the guy close up in years, with the last time being when he had a gun pointed at him.

It brought him some satisfaction to see Jason out in the daylight. He didn’t trust Jason Todd, but he didn’t actively worry about whether or not the Red Hood was coming after them anymore.

Tim had sent all the articles about the event to Bruce as soon as he had been alerted to them, secretly relieved that there were thousands of miles that separated them as he really didn’t want to see Bruce’s reaction.

When the Red Hood had appeared years ago, revealing an unstable Jason Todd, everyone had been at a loss, and had ultimately chosen to deal with the shock by falling back on the tried and true method of ‘treat him like a criminal and bring him to justice’.

None of them had known what to make of the former Robin who had chopped off the heads of Gotham’s drug lieutenants, and effectively strong-armed control of the entire drug supply and distribution in Gotham City.

As for the Joker, well, Tim didn’t think about that anymore, not with the Joker locked away in Arkham Asylum, but he did know that his line in the sand about whether the Joker lived or died was not as deep as Batman’s.

Going after the Red Hood hadn’t sat well with Tim, who had wanted to know what had happened, and why.

He had still been new in his role as Robin, and he hadn’t thought it his place to say anything to the contrary, no matter how much he had wanted to. It had been a hard pill to swallow that Jason Todd - his Robin - was not only alive, but being hunted down by them as the man hunted down others in his deadly personal crusade.

Chasing after the Red Hood however, had resulted in mounting anger and tension on both sides, before eventually the Red Hood’s antics became less violent and daring, and more covert.

It eventually dawned on Tim back then that when it came to Jason Todd, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ began to play a huge part in the rest of them simply moving forward.

He knew Dick had tried several times to talk to Jason, although that had meant chasing him across rooftops to no avail except some warning shots for his efforts.

Any attempts Batman had made to reach out remained unknown to the rest of them.

Tim’s near fatal attempt early on had been enough to stop him. He had understood, to some degree, why Jason had reacted the way he did, even though all Tim had wanted to do was tell him how much he had looked up to him, hadn’t sought to replace him, and wanted to simply just understand what had happened.

So, not being able to actually talk to Jason (or anyone else in the family for that matter), Tim chose to do what any typical genius-level detective would do and kept track of Jason Todd here and there throughout the years.

He had to admit he was rarely successful, which wasn’t really a shocker considering Jason had been trained by Bruce and then clearly had some more training after that.

Tim hadn’t exactly stalked Jason, but he had known when Jason had left Gotham, eventually banding together with others and calling themselves ‘The Outlaws’. Despite the chaos that tended to follow them, they still ended up helping people, earning them the begrudging respect of a few other vigilantes.

It hadn’t been Tim’s style really, but it had looked like Jason had been doing alright...had somehow settled down and found a niche for himself. Even the League had begun looking the other way if The Outlaws attempted to mind their p’s and q’s.

For the past few months though, Tim had known that Jason was back in Gotham after having been who knows where with his friends - if the cigarette butts Tim had spotted on a few of the rooftop perches were any indication.

The problem was that mentioning Jason’s name in Bruce, Dick, and even Alfred’s presence, would cause the mood the change instantly.

It would also affect the efficiency of their patrols; and while Nightwing was usually in Blüdhaven, it would leave Robin, Alfred, and Oracle to deal with an angry and frustrated Batman.

Eventually it got to the point that Jason became a taboo subject, with his name never mentioned, no matter how many times they caught Bruce staring at the memorial in the Batcave.

The only one Tim had been able to confide in was Barbara, who wouldn’t tell him whether or not Bruce still had her keeping tabs on Jason. She had admitted that she did occasionally check to see if the Red Hood was out and about in Gotham though, just for her own sake. Tim had tried not to read too much into that; Jason Todd had affected them each in different ways.

Now, he figured everything was going to go to hell with Bruce seeing the photos of Oliver Queen and Jason together at the same event. Tim thought the probability of the two having planned on being there together was extremely low, if Jason’s body language in front of Queen had been any indication.

Tim hadn’t been sure what response to expect from Bruce once he had sent over the articles and photos (except to assume it would be ‘not good’) and had even offered to handle it.

‘Focus on BR Industries finances and party attendees. I’ll deal with Queen.’ had been Bruce’s response.

The fact that Bruce couldn’t even write out Jason’s name in a message made Tim actually feel sorry for the guy, but Bruce had simply responded with a ‘I said I’ll handle it’, when Tim had asked him if he was sure.

It was as if Jason was a non-entity, but Tim was ever the pragmatist, and braced himself for the inevitable fallout from Bruce no doubt confronting Jason, and whatever earful Oliver Queen was about to get.

“Master Tim, while I do know that time moves differently in the Batcave, it is not an excuse to simply live on coffee alone” Alfred stated, setting down a silver tray that had a glass of lemonade and a decent looking sandwich on it.

Tim would have disagreed but Alfred had seemed off ever since he had seen the older man when he’d come back to the manor a few hours ago.

There was nothing he could put his finger on, and Alfred’s schedule today had merely consisted of groceries and picking up dry cleaning...nothing out of the ordinary.
Perhaps, Alfred wasn’t feeling well; Tim knew there was a bug going around. Not that it would have stopped the man.

Alfred had even attempted to be all ‘business as usual’ last year when he’d caught a bad case of the flu and had almost collapsed in the middle of dinner service.

Tim had never seen Bruce look so scared before and had immediately jumped into action, calling Doctor Thompkins and ignoring Alfred’s feeble protests that he was quite well and not an invalid.

So Tim swallowed his comment about the coffee and picked up a half of the sandwich, taking a bite even though he wasn’t hungry.

“Thanks Alfred” he said between chews, ignoring how the man’s lips formed a thin line to indicate his displeasure with Tim talking with his mouth full.

Alfred said nothing as he left the Batcave, no doubt off to prepare dinner, which Tim knew he’d be required to eat in a few hours time.

A few minutes later and Tim could hear stomping footsteps against the metal overhang as they got closer.

It didn’t have quite the dramatic flair that the Batsuit would have caused, but it definitely served to make clear that Bruce was home and agitated.

They were all well-versed in the language of Bruce’s footsteps.

Swivelling in the chair, Tim saw Bruce coming towards him, wearing a sports jacket and jeans. Back from his date then.

“Hey Bruce.” Tim said as he smiled.

The only thing worse than a frustrated Bruce, was a Bruce that became even more frustrated when he knew that everyone could tell he was frustrated. Sometimes, things were just way too damn complicated in this family.

The man grunted in response, his eyes already scanning the screens.

Alfred appeared again with a tray of freshly brewed tea, somehow always managing to time things just right.

“How was your lunch date, Master Bruce?”

“Fine.” Bruce growled a little too harshly, causing Tim and Alfred to exchange looks.

“That bad?” Tim asked, attempting some levity only to see Bruce clench his jaw and steadfastly ignore them both.

***

Earlier that day...

Bruce’s elbow slid off the edge of the table, startling him awake; the adrenaline from nearly face-planting doing a good job of making him alert. His companion, however, hadn’t even noticed, as she kept herself entertained with whatever she was doing on her phone. For the past hour, it had become obvious to Bruce that he was the third wheel on this lunch date.

He had been fully ready to cancel lunch that morning, even though Clara had been the one to set it up for him. He had not been in the mood to put on a mask and make small talk with one of his usual ‘someone he’d never actually be interested in and that made him feel like he was almost robbing the cradle’ dates. He was getting too old for this.

It had been at Lucius’ insistence, of all people, that he keep the date, having pointed out that Bruce Wayne had not been out on more than a handful of dates in the past year, and he had after all, always been the one to talk about the importance of maintaining appearances.

So he now sat, jet-lagged from his flight from Tokyo, unhappy about having not been in Gotham when a key person of interest in an ongoing investigation had died, angry that Oliver Queen had shown up while Bruce had been gone, and wholly aggravated by Queen’s obstinate behavior on the phone, while having to listen to Cassie, his twenty-something year old date, giggle and take dozens of photos of her food.

She was probably at least ten years his junior, a social media influencer (Tim had needed to explain that to him) that had many followers on Instachat or whatever it was called, and was saving him the trouble of needing to make conversation.

Cassie was much more focused on taking photos of her food, eating very little of it, posting her pictures online, and constantly looking around to see if she could recognize any of the other diners in the establishment.

Bruce was grateful that Clara had the foresight to book him a back table; he hadn’t been in the mood to have his photo taken other than upon entry and exit into the place. He almost shuddered thinking about how much worse this date could have been if they’d been at a table by the window. At least he could allow himself to look bored while Cassie kept herself entertained. Thank god for small mercies.

“Brucie, let’s take a selfie!” Cassie giggled, and Bruce plastered on a grin, ready to just placate her and get this date over and done with.

His cheek now next to hers, he watched as she extended her arm out in front of them, tilting her phone in various angles, much to his displeasure. Wasn’t one photo enough? Not that he let that show as he chuckled along with her giggling.

His head clearly wasn’t on straight though as Cassie squealed loudly in his ear, not only making him wince, but causing other diners to turn and stare in their direction.

Bruce had no idea what had happened to garner such a reaction from her, until she bolted out of her seat, effectively blocking the way of another woman, whose back was towards him.

Unlike the five-foot-ten Cassie, who had chosen to dress like she was off to a night club at one o’clock in the afternoon, the other woman was approximately five-foot-five, wearing dark denim, black equestrian boots, and a tan blazer, with a black leather handbag hanging from the crook of her elbow, and a book in her other hand.

Someone who had the means to purchase designer items and did so, but chose not to walk around throwing it in everyone’s face; it was the only deduction he could make from his few seconds of observation as he waited for his date to settle back down so he could ask for the check and end this.

Today just wasn’t his day.

“Brucie, look! It’s Queen Leila!” Cassie exclaimed, and of course, the shorter woman turned, and Bruce saw exactly when the Queen of Umec recognized him.

If he hadn’t been with Cassie, running into Her Majesty would have been perfect; he could have tried to determine who it was that had been with her at Mr. Rowe’s party, whether or not she was above suspicion regarding Berto Rowe’s death, or at the very least, try to start repairing the damage his initial attempts to charm her had caused some years ago.

There were WayneTech contracts in the pipeline for the Middle East that he would need approved in the future and he wanted her on his side, or at the very least, to not be a problem.

Unfortunately, he was now stuck in this awful position, watching as Queen Leila tried to hide her smirk at his discomfort as his date would not let her go and continued to make a fool of herself (and Bruce by association).

“I am like, such a huge fan.” Cassie gushed, not caring that people around them were starting to look either too curious about what was going on, or just really annoyed that their lunches were being interrupted. “If you like, ever want to grab drinks or something, you should totally DM me...”

Bruce kept trying to find an opening in order to say something, anything, to shut Cassie up, but the woman had developed the ability to talk on and on without needing to breathe. He couldn’t even bring himself to look the queen in the eyes at this point. Frankly, he was surprised she hadn’t just ignored his date and kept walking, although it would have meant shoving Cassie out of the way.

“-guy you went to the party with! Who was he?! He was like, so hot...” Cassie continued, Bruce having been forgotten about for the time being.

For a moment though, Bruce had thought Cassie might turn out to be useful, if she somehow managed to get him information on who the young man at the party had been.

“He was an acquaintance.” Queen Leila had managed to get a polite answer in as the younger woman now started talking about Oliver Queen, whom she had also seen in the pictures.

Bruce hadn’t been able to keep from grimacing at the mention of Queen, but he didn’t really fight the urge since ‘Bruce Wayne the Playboy’ didn’t much care for his Star City rival.

This whole situation was becoming more and more embarrassing as his date continued on while Queen Leila smiled and nodded politely but was clearly wanting to go.

“Cassie, I think Her Majesty has places to be” Bruce grinned, trying to appear amused with the antics of his date and winking at Queen Leila before he could stop himself.

He cursed inwardly as soon as he did it, so used to overplaying his charming persona that he hadn’t adapted his approach. It’s what had steered him wrong the first time around. He blamed the damn jet-lag and his awful date.

“Who are you here with?!” Cassie asked excitedly, eyes darting around and ignoring whatever Bruce had said.

He watched as the other woman held up the book that was in her hand, and Cassie looked just plain confused; it took all his strength not to roll his eyes.

“So you were, like, eating alone?” Cassie asked, still looking confused, while Her Majesty looked amused, like the poor girl had been a small child that had asked a ridiculous question.

“Yes, I was eating alone” she admitted, looking like she was trying not to laugh.

Cassie looked like someone had killed her puppy, or worse, stolen her phone. “That’s like, soooo sad! Maybe Bruce can set you up with-“

Bruce laughed out loud, trying to get Cassie to shut up. “I’m sure she doesn’t need our help, Cassie.”

The faint headache he had been dealing with at the beginning of this meal was now a full on throbbing mess of pain.

The blonde pouted, and reached for her phone, causing Bruce to immediately start to rise up and out of his seat. There was only so much he could stand for.

“Let’s take a selfie! All my followers are just going to die when they see us together!” Cassie gushed yet again.

“Maybe some other time” Queen Leila smiled, never once appearing less than gracious. “This is one of my favorite restaurants, and we don’t want everyone to know that you and I dine here, do we?”

It was obvious that Cassie had been about to respond with “Don’t we?” but seemed to rethink her answer and laughed nervously instead, clearly not knowing whether or not that had been some sort of trick question.

The only minuscule upside had been that Bruce had been able to mouth “I’m sorry” when his date had moved to take her seat again.

Queen Leila had smiled, looking amused and annoyed, but also slightly sympathetic. He’d take it.

Bruce had been intentionally planning an accidental run-in with her but that of course, was now off the table.

The only thing going for him right now was that she almost looked sorry for him. Almost.

The entire thing had left him frustrated, annoyed, and horribly embarrassed, even though he’d never admit it to anyone.

He had driven around Gotham for over an hour before returning home in an attempt to clear his head, but it hadn’t worked and only made his aggravation worse.

By the time he had pulled the car into the garage, he knew he was in an awful mood, cranky and snappish, with not much patience for anything as he had slammed the car door shut as he stomped back into the manor.

***

Tim hadn’t realized that his attempt to lighten the mood had led Bruce to replay not only the painfully embarrassing date, but also his call with Queen, and was the key reason for Bruce’s unpleasantness.

The younger man got up off the chair and allowed Bruce to sit and take over at the console.

“Not sure if you saw the latest update. Rowe’s death was caused by pulmonary embolism. GCPD released the body.” Tim offered up, trying a different approach.

He got a grunt in response.

“Gordon sent over copies of the photos that the event photographer took. I uploaded them onto the Batcomputer but there’s nothing that I found that struck me as suspicious. At least not yet.”

Silence this time, although Bruce began clicking through the photos.

Tim looked at Alfred for some guidance, but caught the weary look on the man’s face. He was on his own here.

“Do you really think it’s still foul play?” Tim asked, pushing his luck just a little. “Even if it was, nothing would show up on a toxicology report now unless they’d known what to test for. Plus, the body is already in transit. The family didn’t waste any time.”

“I’ll take it from here.” Bruce’s voice sounded tired.

“Bruce?”

“I said I’ll take it from here, Tim!” Bruce snapped, clenching his fists as he tried to focus on the photos.

Tim tried not to let it bother him, chalking it up to Jason having shown up in this case.

He took one last look at Bruce and then at Alfred, before making his way out of the Batcave and back upstairs.

“Was that really necessary, Master Bruce?” Alfred sighed as he finished pouring the tea and placing the cup and saucer by Bruce’s side.

Unlike Tim, Alfred did not accept silence as an acceptable answer.

“Despite your unpleasant day, I do not believe that is an excuse for poor manners, Master Bruce.”

Bruce sighed and rubbed his eyes, pausing in his review of the photos. He knew he could be difficult to deal with; but Alfred was always right. “Sorry Alfred. Long day, and jet-lag isn’t helping.”

He heard Alfred hum in faint acceptance of his apology and turned back to continue his search of whatever it was he felt was missing.

Oliver Queen’s presence was bothering him more than the death of Berto Rowe, especially after his call had gotten him no where. Any plan he had on approaching the conversation in a more friendly manner to get what he needed had gone right out the window as soon as he had heard the smile in the man’s voice. Smug bastard.

The sound of rattling silverware echoed around the Batcave, causing Bruce to freeze and turn around immediately to face Alfred. The man had such steady hands that such a sound was almost unheard of. In fact, it was a sound that Bruce associated very closely with the days following Jason’s death.

“Alfred?” Bruce’s concern evident.

The butler had placed the tray back down, leaving his hands gripped on it for a few seconds longer than was needed.

“Apologies, Master Bruce.”

Alfred seemed to gather himself up quickly, his hands steady once more as he collected the tray for a second time and left the Batcave, leaving Bruce looking rather perplexed.

He had debated going after Alfred but chose not to, not after the conversation they’d had last year after Alfred’s bout with the flu. If he was feeling unwell, he needed to say something; that had been the agreement.

As he went back to reviewing the photos, his agitation only grew as it was obvious he didn’t know what he was looking for. Attempts to follow Queen around the party via the event photographer’s photos hadn’t really led anywhere except to more shots in the distance of the man with the Queen of Umec and the mystery man. He refused to admit that it was coming down to a matter of pride at this point.

He had switched gears, choosing to see where photos of the mystery man would lead him, only to find that even though the photos were of better quality, they were taken from an even further distance than the cell phone shots in the papers. Still, he’d probably have a better shot running them through the Batcomputer’s facial recognition program.

Hearing footsteps approaching, Bruce realized he had been down here for hours, even having eaten the remainder of Tim’s sandwich. It was already evening.

“Hey, it’s almost dinner time and Alfred isn’t around” Tim said, looking only mildly concerned. “Has he seemed off to you today?”

Bruce didn’t let his concern show, but his heart beat a little quicker in his chest. He knew that Alfred wasn’t as young as he once was, although he refused to let himself think about it. The thought of losing Alfred was unbearable, but it didn’t stop Bruce from imagining the worst everytime something seemed amiss. Not that Tim needed to know any of that.

“Review the photos again until dinner. There’s a reason all those people were there. Those laptops the GCPD collected from twenty-five hotel rooms isn’t exactly coincidence.”

Tim knew that of course, and had even tried reviewing security footage for each of the hotel floors but the footage had been looped at least weeks before the event, and no one had caught on.

***

Bruce stood up, stretching his neck out and heading back upstairs.

Sure the manor was big, but there was only so many places that the man could have been at this time of evening.

The kitchen, side garden, pantry, laundry room, living room, and family room were checked, with no sign of Alfred. There had been something boiling violently on the stove in the kitchen though, and while Bruce was never allowed to touch anything in the kitchen that Alfred was preparing, he turned off the burner.

A search of the second floor with all the bedrooms and study’s had revealed nothing as well, leading Bruce up the stairs to the third floor.

He rarely came up here, namely as it was really ‘Alfred’s floor’, with his master bedroom and study all to himself. He wouldn’t have even ventured down the hall if it weren’t for seeing Alfred’s bedroom door slightly ajar, and a crack of light peeking through it.

In all his years on this earth, Bruce Wayne had only been in Alfred Pennyworth’s room maybe ten times. This was Alfred’s sanctuary and personal space, where no one dared tresspassing.

As a kid, Bruce had always found it a treat and a privilege to be able to go inside.

The reasons had been few and far between, mostly when his parents had died and Bruce would wake up crying and running to Alfred’s room, making sure he hadn’t gotten shot too. He remembered Alfred letting him stay with him one night; too afraid to go back to his own room, and too ashamed to talk to Alfred about it.

The next time Bruce had been in that room, he had been almost thirteen, nose bleeding and lip split, yelling through his tears that he’d never go back to school again.

No matter what the reason that drove him to Alfred’s room as a child, Bruce had always tried to memorize everything, so that he could remember it for later. It only changed with the last time he had been in Alfred’s room, which had been when Jason had died.

He’d never forget how one moment he’d been in the Batcave, and the next he’d been standing in front of the door to Alfred’s room, not having realized he’d knocked until Alfred had opened the door. The man had taken one look at him and ushered him in quietly, watching Bruce standing there staring at his hands, which he had felt had been covered in Jason’s blood all day every day for a whole year after his death.

“He’s gone” Bruce had eventually whispered in that room, a strangled little wisp of a voice. “He’s really gone. My son...my son...he’s gone...”

Bruce had sobbed then, had sunk to his knees and let Alfred console him for hours before he had picked himself up, steely eyed and stern expression back in place, ignoring his sore knees as he had walked out of the room as if nothing had happened.

They never spoke about that night.

Years later and now Bruce was finding himself slowing down as he approached Alfred’s room, bracing himself for the unknown.

Chapter Text

Bruce knew he was stubborn, and even if he didn’t, he’d been told he’s stubborn so many times that he’d certainly take peoples’ words for it. Even now, he refused to acknowledge just how difficult it was for him to take those last few steps that brought him right in front of Alfred’s door. 
 
So he did it at a quick shuffle as if to tell himself ‘screw you, it’s just a few steps’, and found himself raising his hand and knocking softly on the door so as to not open it further.  Stubborn he may be, but he’s not suicidal, and isn’t about to barge in on Alfred.
 
He heard movement on the other side of the door and waited a few seconds longer than he thought would be necessary for Alfred to come to the door. Still, he waited, and was rewarded with Alfred opening the door and looking mildly surprised to find him standing there.
 
Bruce shifted uncomfortably and found it difficult to figure out what to do with his hands at that point so he stuffed them into his jean pockets and offered Alfred a hesitant smile.
 
“Something over-boiled on the stove. I turned it off” he blurted out.
 
That had not been what Bruce had wanted to say but it was first thing out of his mouth.
 
If Alfred thought the statement odd, he said nothing, only widening his eyes as it hit him that he had left things on the stove unattended for longer than he’d meant to.
 
“Apologies, Master Bruce. I had not intended to be gone from the kitchen so long” Alfred stated as he made to move past Bruce.
 
“It’s fine, Alfred. I just- may I come in?”
 
His brave request, while surprising to both of them, was only made because Bruce had felt like an ass for making Alfred think that he had come all the way up here just to tell him about some damn pot.
 
“Of course” Alfred said concernedly, not hesitating to open the door further and allow Bruce entry. 
 
For some reason, Bruce would have rather had Alfred deny him entry and tell him he’d be down shortly. Walking to Alfred’s room had been one thing...entering it was a more challenging hurdle.
 
Still, Bruce smiled, mumbled a “thanks”, and walked inside.
 
The room was on the small side compared to others in the manor, roughly the size of Tim’s room, and while the third floor did have a master bedroom (two of them, in fact), Alfred had never felt the need for more space. Wayne Manor was large enough that one needed to have those more intimate spaces. 
 
With the dark burgundy walls, the space seemed smaller than it was, centered by a Persian carpet (a gift from Thomas and Martha Wayne years ago) that Bruce would always remember as the carpet from when he had last been in here. 
 
A large four-poster bed, made from rich mahogany was against the left-hand wall, with two nightstands on either side of it.  Save for a pair of reading glasses and a novel, there was nothing much there.
 
Across the way was a small desk adjacent to the windows with envelops and letters neatly arranged in a folder – Alfred’s personal communications rather than household-related bills and ledgers which were kept in the study next door.
 
To Bruce, none of these things had ever been of interest to him, not anymore at least, with his eyes briefly glancing over the large dresser that was across from the bed. It was peppered with knick-knacks – items of sentimental value to Alfred – along with dozens of picture frames that held photos of Alfred’s own parents, as well as several of Alfred himself as a child with his brother and sister. 
 
There were of course, many photos of the Wayne family, even one of Alfred holding a small bundle that was a very new-to-the-world Bruce Wayne.  Photos of birthday parties that Bruce could vaguely remember were also there, along with those that showed Dick coming to the manor, as well as Jason, and Tim. 
 
Bruce found himself immediately positioning himself so that he wouldn’t have to look at the photos he knew were there: ones of a bright boy that had died and come back so very angry and full of hatred.
 
“Is there something I may be of assistance with, Master Bruce? Are you unwell?” Alfred’s concern still evident, and it only served to make Bruce even more frustrated with himself for not making his purpose here clear.
 
“Tim was concerned” Bruce started, only to shake his head and straighten out his shoulders. “I was concerned.  In the Batcave, you looked like you were having difficulty, and then with being up here so close to dinner time…” 
 
He had no idea how to finish that statement because it sounded stupid as he said it, but Alfred was a man of steadfast routine and this was out of the ordinary. Still, he expected Alfred to make it clear that he was perfectly fine and that Bruce was worrying about nothing.  Not that he would have believed that, but it would have been familiar; not talking about how they felt was a Bat family trait. It had never been intentional, but it had been the only way Bruce had been able to push through to do what he needed to do…to make sure Batman could do what he needed to do.
 
Now he watched with mounting fear as Alfred appeared to struggle, eyes averted for a moment before looking him in the eyes.
 
Bruce waited for some sort of response, but none came. He could only stand there and turn his head, following Alfred’s movements to the window.  Feet glued to the floor, he only had a view of Alfred’s back now, as the older man kept his gaze firmly on the estate grounds.
 
“Alfred-“ Bruce tried to say something, but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate.  He was glad his hands were still in his pockets because he was fairly certain they were trembling.
 
“We have experienced very eventful lives, Master Bruce…” Alfred said after a moment.
 
Bruce frowned, unsure if he was supposed to confirm or deny it.  Yes, their lives had been eventful…more eventful than he wished they had been.
 
Alfred continued. “I have done my very best to not look back, except perhaps to learn from my mistakes and move forward.  It is all we can do…”
 
Bruce couldn’t hear it, but he was sure Alfred had just sighed, watching the older man’s shoulders sag ever so slightly.
 
“However, there are times when I cannot help but wonder about the decisions I have made or perhaps, should have made…”
 
“What is this about Alfred? What brought this on?” Bruce asked, trying not to sound worried, but not really caring if he couldn’t hide it.  Something was wrong with Alfred.  He hadn’t recalled seeing Alfred schedule any medical check-ups, but it very well could have occurred right under Bruce’s nose.
 
“Old age, perhaps.”
 
Bruce could hear the mournful smile in Alfred’s words, as the man continued to gaze out the window as if lost in thought. Somehow that unglued Bruce’s feet from the floor. 
 
“Do you…are you not happy here anymore?” Bruce heard himself asking as he took a step forward, his tone void of emotion.  It wouldn’t fool Alfred for a second but Bruce’s stomach was in knots and he didn’t know…he just didn’t know anything right now. 
 
He thought the question would be innocuous enough, that Alfred would scoff and turn around and tell him he was being overly dramatic as usual and then Bruce would smile, relieved, and they’d just forget about this.
 
Alfred turned around now, his eyes assessing him ways that reminded Bruce of when he was a kid and would attempt to deny whatever trouble he knew he was guilty of having caused.
 
“Are you?”
 
“What?” Bruce said, his stomach sinking even further. That wasn’t..that was not what he had expected; he thought his question had been a softball but instead received a baseball to the gut in response.
 
“Are you happy, Master Bruce?” Alfred repeated the question, now completely facing Bruce and waiting for an answer.
 
“I…yes of course.”  Bruce smiled nervously, brushing off the question. Perhaps Alfred had been concerned about him. The last few days had been rather frustrating but nothing out of the ordinary.
 
He would never forget this moment and the way Alfred’s gaze pierced through him, eyes blazing for a split second before it was gone.
 
Bruce stood there silently, watching Alfred attempt a smile before mentioning dinner and leaving the room.  He wasn’t exactly sure what had just happened, but Bruce couldn’t shake the feeling that he had failed some sort of test.
 
Unsure of what to do, he sighed, taking one last look around, and braving a brief look at the dresser. 

He frowned as he saw a photo of Alfred and an extremely large dog.  Picking it up, Bruce could tell it was a newer photo just by how silver Alfred’s hair was in the photograph, something that always brought Bruce up short when he compared photos from throughout the years. 
 
Alfred wasn’t allowed to die…he couldn’t.  Bruce knew he would be nothing without Alfred. Batman would be nothing without Alfred.
 
He wasn’t sure whose dog it was or where the photo was taken, but it made Bruce smile a little, seeing how happy not only Alfred looked, but the dog as well.  He placed it back on the dresser, although not as gently as he would have liked, his hand still trembling and causing a few frames to fall around it.
 
“Shit” he hissed, quickly attempting to right all the frames.  Last thing he needed now was Alfred to assume he was snooping. 
 
It wouldn’t matter in the end though, not when Bruce caught a glance of the frame in his hands and brought it closer to his face for inspection.  He knew that photograph, knew it because he had seen it recently. The man Bruce still needed to identify, laughing alongside the Queen of Umec.
 
If the frame broke as it hit the carpet, Bruce wouldn’t have known as he was already halfway down the hall, not caring in the least about Alfred’s rules regarding running through the manor.
 
He was out of breath by the time he made it back down to the Batcave, and he must have looked awful because Tim was immediately out of the chair and rushing over to him.
 
“Jesus, Bruce. What the hell happened?!” Tim moved to Bruce’s side to swing the man’s arm around his shoulder as Bruce looked like he was on the verge of collapsing.
 
Bruce waved him off, and took several breaths. Why was there no air in the Batcave?  
 
“Let me go get-“
 
“Leave Alfred. I’m fine.” Bruce said sharply, somehow managing to move towards the Batcomputer.
 
“Sit down Tim.”
 
Bruce stood behind the chair, watching as Tim hesitantly sat back down.
 
“I need you to pull up that photo from the patio, the corner shot.”
 
Tim was definitely confused, but complied, pulling up the two photos that fit Bruce’s description.
 
“What do you see?” Bruce asked.
 
Considering Bruce never got tired of randomly testing them, Tim shrugged, still unsure what this was about since he had already deemed those photos irrelevant to the case.  Of course, never knowing exactly what Bruce wanted here, Tim did his best to humor the guy.
 
“Northwest side of the patio, close to five pm or so judging by the shadows against the railing” Tim stated objectively, pointing out the only information he could. “Queen Leila of Umec laughing with-“
 
Bruce sucked in a breath, his heart practically beating itself out of his chest.
 
“-Jason Todd. Suit jacket over her shoulders -obviously Jason’s-“ Tim continued, taking Bruce’s silence as his cue to keep going.  “They appear comfortable together, perhaps not their first meeting, but there isn’t enough evidence to say either way. Looks like they’re smoking Marlboro 72s, menthols.  That’s all I’ve got. Have I missed something?” Tim asked.
 
When he received silence in response, he craned his head around and found Bruce standing there looking pale and very close to being sick.
 
“Bruce, what the hell is going on?!”
 
Tim wasn’t exactly sure what he was witnessing right now, except that Bruce looked like he had seen a ghost and was possibly having a panic attack.
 
 
“Go upstairs.”
 
“Bruce?” Tim hadn’t been sure he’d heard correctly, not with Bruce struggling to steady his breathing. Tim knew that technique; it had been drilled into him.
 
“Upstairs, now.”
 
Tim startled at Bruce’s tone, not because it was harsh or firm, but quiet and pained. Now wasn’t the time though, for him to figure out what the hell was going on, and he did as he was told, even though he was definitely going to speak to Alfred.
 
Bruce couldn’t even wait until Tim had left the Batcave before he had bent over, hands catching him as they gripped the console.
 
What was happening?
 
Bruce had no idea what to make of any of this. It couldn’t be Jason; the man in the photos was just that...a man; all grown up and looking happy.
 
Bruce struggled every day to not think about Jason Todd as a young boy, and even harder to push back the agonizing hurt and sense of failure he lived with in what Jason had looked like the last time Bruce had seen him.
 
It had been one year, two months, and twelve days since he’d seen the Red Hood in Gotham. He had been there when the explosion by Sionis Steel Mill had taken place. Batman had run towards the blast zone, the fear of losing Jason again blanketing his mind, causing him to ignore the buzzing in his ears from his comms.
 
He had seen Jason emerge, helmet still on but cracked severely down one side.
 
It hadn’t taken him long to catch up to him then, not with the Red Hood’s movements sluggish and weary. He’d just wanted to know if Jason was alright, and when he’d gotten near enough, he heard Jason’s voice through the modifier.
 
“Fuck off. No one’s dead.”
 
Bruce had frozen, surprised that Jason had noticed him, and even more surprised that Jason had thought that would have been his first concern. He had watched Jason force himself to put as much distance as he could between them across rooftops. Bruce remembered not knowing how long he had stood there, only moving when Robin had landed silently beside him, startling him. If Robin had noticed the slight twitch of Batman’s shoulders, he had kept it to himself.
 
He hadn’t seen Jason’s face then though. No, that had been further back, and with a domino still in place...three years, nine months, and two days.
 
He had seen Jason’s wiry hair, thin face, gaunt skin, and haunting green eyes that time, which did nothing to dim the hatred Bruce had seen his son express towards him. It had been branded onto his mind and seeped into his dreams.
 
Yet the honest truth was that no matter what memory of Jason he could pull up, they all hurt.
 
So now, here was Jason Todd, out in the daylight, smiling -laughing even-, his eyes crinkling at the corners just like Bruce’s used to do, just like his father’s eyes before him used to do.
 
He was taking care of himself; Bruce could see that clearly in the photos, not just with the expensive clothes, but in the way he stood there, easy-going posture coupled with the broad-shoulders and solid build.
 
Of course he had known Jason was okay, had known Jason had been with the other Outlaws for a long period of time. Which meant Jason had spent a lot of his time over the past several years bouncing in and out of Gotham.
 
A wave of shame gripped Bruce and held on tight; every time he had come to find Jason out of Gotham had been such a damn relief. Relief that he didn’t have to worry about the body count rising in Gotham, because every dead body that the Red Hood caused felt like another brick being laid between them. Other than knowing Jason was alive, Bruce had found it easier to mourn the loss of a son than to deal with the aftermath of resurrection.
 
It had been the cowards way out, but he had tried; they all had. Even Tim, who had ended up getting shot for his efforts. That hadn’t been Jason Todd; something had come back looking like Jason Todd but it hadn’t been him.
 
That’s what Bruce had told himself at least, just so he could get the little sleep that he did get these days. That’s why he still had a memorial to his son in the Batcave.
 
He wanted it to hurt; wanted to remember over and over that his son had died and that it had been his fault.
 
Seeing Jason in these photos now as he slowly reviewed each one of them was like having the blinders taken off that he hadn’t known he’d been wearing. Jason Todd was a grown man now and Bruce had missed it. He’d missed everything.
 
Taking a calming breath, Bruce leaned back in his chair, trying to get a handle on his emotions. They wouldn’t help him now and they certainly didn’t change the facts.
 
Everyone had recognized Jason but him. Alfred had one of the newspaper photos on his damn dresser, as if he had been lucky to come across such a gift.  Had they known Bruce hadn’t recognized Jason? 
 
The shooting pain in Bruce’s hand didn’t register until he looked up and saw that he’d attempted to punch straight through the glass case that housed Jason’s old Robin uniform. 
 
Bruce isn’t sure what’s worse, his horrified shock for attempting to break it, or the guilty dissatisfaction of not even causing the glass to crack.

Shame and sadness overwhelmed him and he didn’t care if Tim or Alfred found him on the floor, leaning against the shatterproof glass.
 
‘No’, Bruce thought, ‘I’m not happy, Alfred. But I have to put one foot in front of the other or I’ll drown.  It’s all I can do. I’m sorry it’s not enough…it’s never enough.’
 
Rubbing his eyes viciously, he refused to acknowledge how much they burned, and instead focused on calming his heaving chest as anger began to take hold.
 
He could channel anger, he could manipulate anger, and right now it was directed at one person.
 
“Queen.” He grit out, picking himself off the floor.

Chapter Text

The Red Hood had been on almost every rooftop in Gotham; had seen the city from so many vantage points that he was able to orient himself much faster from above rather than at street level.
 
He never needed street signs to know where he was; he always had Gotham’s architecture and neon signs to help with that. The higher he was, the safer he felt, or perhaps ‘freer’ was the better term.
 
Yet as he stood there, hundreds of feet above the streets below, he felt uneasy and out of place, staring out into the abyss that was Gotham Bay, the only source of light being from the lens rotation coming from the old lighthouse. Across the way he could almost make out Bristol Township, with Wayne Manor resting on the top of the hill.
 
He was glad that Roy had taken up Queen’s offer regarding the penthouse, which is where he now stood, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows. It still felt confining, despite towering over the surrounding buildings, although he didn’t have a view of the Wayne building from this side which was somewhat comforting.
 
Having returned to the brownstone, and even with the support of his friends, his anxiety had only increased as the day wore on. The kids had been oblivious, although Evelyn had certainly looked over at him a few times and frowned; Jason had pretended not to have seen it.
 
He had actually thought he had done a pretty good job of hiding his tension, but by the time the sun had gone down, he had smoked through half a pack of cigarettes and was eventually cornered on the patio by not just Roy, but Artemis and Biz as well.
 
“You do not feel secure here.” Artemis had stated, her arms crossed over her chest as per usual.
 
Biz had looked concerned, although Jason couldn’t blame him considering he had asked his friend over a dozen times to let him know if any of the Bat clan was heading towards their location. He had rarely done that before, not wanting to rely on Biz for such things because it would only make him co-dependent on his friend. It wasn’t like they were always together either, and this was his problem, not theirs.
 
“Look, let’s just go. The kids are still up, and it’s not like Ollie’s place isn’t furnished. Hell, he said he had a wheelchair placed there just for Evelyn” Roy pointed out. He wasn’t about to watch Jason work himself up into a big emotional mess just because his friend was too proud to admit he wanted them to be out of there.
 
Jason had put up some resistance, but ultimately within the hour they had packed up the kids, their belongings, and Bud into Roy’s car and headed back towards the Queen Industries building.
 
Biz was to bring Wilson (if the damn cat was willing to come along) as well as make return trips back and forth with all of Jason’s gear and everything else that they’d need from the house. Even with his speed, it took Biz an hour to get everything over to the penthouse, although he’d had the luxury of flying things over quickly via the balcony.
 
Artemis and Jason had stayed behind to secure the brownstone, reassuring both Edgar and Evelyn that he would be with them soon.
 
He wasn’t exactly fully abandoning the place or clearing it out; but the weapons cache in the basement needed to be vaulted and he made sure to secure the perimeter.
 
Jason hadn’t realized just how much he was going to miss this place until he had stood there with Artemis, taking one last look around.
 
“It is not goodbye, Little One” Artemis had murmured, knowing Jason couldn’t hear her. She knew all was not lost here in Gotham for the young man. He simply needed time, even if he did not realize it quite yet.
 
Jason shut off the lights and locked up, heading towards the roof. “Let’s go before Edgar finds out he missed an opportunity to fly.”
 
Biz was waiting for them both on the rooftop, and gathered them up, taking off and speeding across the sky, making sure to be careful as they landed a minute later on the patio. Only one minute between places and yet it felt like Jason was now a thousand miles away.
 
Edgar had run around the entire penthouse, checking every room and exploring everywhere he could access before he had decided on a bedroom and dragged his stuff over.
 
He had initially attempted to unlock a few of the locked rooms that he had come across when he had spotted their ten-layer encrypted locks and looked like Christmas had come early. Only Roy’s uncharacteristically serious tone had made it clear that those rooms were off limits for a reason and that they were all guests in someone’s house.
 
Roy had actually been proud of himself for his mature handling of the situation, but by the time Jason and Artemis had shown up, Roy had caved and was actively helping Edgar decrypt the lock on a closet door.
 
“Should you be doing that?” Jason had asked upon entering, closing the patio door behind him now that everyone and everything was here.
 
Roy had shrugged, not bothering to look up. Edgar hadn’t even acknowledged Jason’s presence as he was too focused on the task at hand.
 
Evelyn was seated in an electronic wheelchair, looking pleased that she was now mobile, and slowly moving around the expansive living room with Bud by her side.
 
Wilson was perched on top of the coffee table, glaring at them all. Clearly it was just another normal night for the cat.
 
The excitement of the new place, and Edgar’s realization that clearly someone was rich and had all this amazing stuff had taken a while to wear off, but eventually it did, much to the adult’s relief.
 
The kids had showered (which was still a challenge in Evelyn’s case) and were in bed, Evelyn having chosen to have her own room just for the sheer novelty of it. Jason hadn’t exactly been surprised, but as he had watched Bud follow her into her new room and hop up onto the foot of the bed, it reminded him like a slap to the face that these kids trusted him with their futures.
 
“Will you tuck me in?” Evelyn had asked, already beginning to drift off to sleep as Jason had situated her on the bed and pulled up the covers.
 
He had tucked her in as gently as he could, minding her leg and her arm and making sure she was supported by enough pillows. Biz, her stuffed animal, was securely next to her.
 
“There now. All set. If you need anything, just tell Bud to come get me, okay?” Jason smiled, knowing that sounded extremely strange but hell, apparently his dog could understand them now.
 
Evelyn hadn’t seemed phased to learn about the dog’s special talent, and looked over at Bud who at the sound of her name, had lifted her head off her paws and wagged her tail before settling back down.
 
As he turned off the light, he looked back over at her, before making his way out of the room.
 
“Love you...” Evelyn had mumbled quietly, drifting off and leaving Jason feeling like he’d been hit with a sledgehammer.
 
Jason Todd had never heard those words directed at him before, and he certainly hadn’t expected it from the kids. They had only been with him a few days and knew nothing about him. He was still a stranger. And even if he weren’t, he wasn’t deserving of that at all.
 
Walking out of the room, he chalked it up to being an innocent statement that Evelyn had made to show her appreciation and that was it. He was reading way more into it than he needed to.
 
Checking on Edgar next door showed the boy to be sound asleep already, and Jason was grateful for the stillness around him.
 
Now, as he replayed the entirety of the day in his mind while looking out across the bay, he realized his time here had all but run out.
 
It was difficult for him not to think about leaving Gotham in terms of ‘giving up’, and he knew he needed to let that go.
 
Staying in Gotham out of spite or stubbornness was something Jason had done years ago, when he had been younger and thought he’d be able to prove that he was better than Batman...could do more for this city, be more effective at fighting crime. Perhaps a small part of him had even hoped back then too...hoped that somehow, someway, he’d be able to have a connection again with-
 
“Ollie’s plane was grounded. Mechanical issues.” Roy said, pulling Jason out of his thoughts.
 
“He’s still in Gotham then?” Jason asked.
 
Roy nodded, looking out at the black nothingness of Gotham Bay. “He’s staying over at The Peninsula until another jet flies in from Star City. Looks like he got a lot done though.”
 
Jason looked down at Roy’s phone and picked it up, reviewing the email Queen had just recently sent over.
 
Apparently in the hours between their meeting and now, Queen had already reached out to Robinson Academy.
 
They had fallen over themselves as soon as the Dean of Admissions had heard that Mr. Queen was attempting to contact him about enrolling two children and if the attachments Queen had sent them over in this email were any indication, Edgar and Evelyn would be enrolled in school in a very short amount of time.
 
The school calendar, along with the elementary and middle school curriculum for the year was there, as well as a supply list for each grade, book list, and school’s tailor/uniform provider.
 
“Is it me or is the school already counting them among their student body?” Roy had chuckled as he took the phone back.
 
Queen had been right; throwing your name around in Gotham had its advantages, and the man had wasted no time in doing so.  Not only was he keeping his promise to them, but he was making it a priority; Jason gave him a few points for that.
 
“Looks like it.” Jason replied. “They want to know when we’d like the kids to come in for a tour and assessments. No mention of documents of any kind.”
 
Roy shrugged. “Can you blame them? The documents and records will be provided to them one way or another. The sooner the kids are enrolled, the sooner the school gets a fat chunk of money and the ability to say that Oliver Queen had personally recommended their school.”
 
That certainly worked for them considering that both Edgar and Evelyn didn’t need to be held back from going to school just because of any administrative red tape.
 
Roy’s phone vibrated and he looked down at whatever text had appeared and smiled.
 
“He’s working on placing birth certificates in the Star City public health records.”
 
Jason smiled back, not just because he was happy things were moving forward quickly for the kids, but because only a few days ago a text from Oliver Queen would have caused a very different reaction from Roy.  It was early days, but as long as the peace held until Edgar and Evelyn were taken care of, Jason would call it a win.
 
Ultimately as far as birth records and names were concerned, it was easiest to have the kids’ birthdays and last names remain as they were, considering there had never been any information that any of them could find in the system when they’d first taken them off the street.
 
“Well, it looks like Evelyn and Edgar Gibson will be on the road to a happy life soon enough.” Jason sighed, knowing he shouldn’t count all his chickens just yet but he tried staying positive.
 
Roy clapped Jason on the shoulder. “You say that like they’re miserable right now. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re having the time of their lives!”
 
Jason smiled in response, before an unpleasing-sounding meow behind him had him turning to find Artemis in an intense glare-off with Wilson.
 
“I think she’s met her match…” Roy whispered, watching as Biz looked on, unsure of what to do.
 
***
 
Jason didn’t feel as guilty this time in leaving everyone behind and heading out to patrol on his own. It had helped that no one had offered to come along, with Roy carrying on a text message conversation with Queen as both of them seemed to be veering into pulling all-nighters.
 
Biz had taken Wilson after the ‘glare off’ and was watching cartoons in one of the other rooms while Artemis had sat in the dining room, sharpening her axe. He wasn’t exactly sure on why a magical axe would need sharpening, but there were some mysteries, Jason thought, that were best left alone.
 
Starting his patrol from such a high perch had offered him the adrenaline rush he so badly needed as he made his way across Gotham. He didn’t rush through his usual route as he tucked and rolled across rooftops, and eventually found himself trying to remember everything…the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. It felt like goodbye, like this would be his last opportunity to experience Gotham at night as the Red Hood.
 
It was probably for this reason that he chose to deviate from his routine, and take the long way around to Park Row, passing over the new Urbarail Station and the botanical gardens and through Chinatown.
 
He had been out for hours already, keeping one eye open for any capes, while the other was on finding all those spots around Gotham that he had somehow forgotten about over the years.
 
From the top of Lady Gotham’s sword to his favorite crumbling gargoyle on the Southeast side of Gotham Cathedral, the Red Hood went and spent a few minutes in every spot, offering up moments of his time to these special places that had once meant the world to him yet he had been forced to abandon.
 
Jason knew it was probably not a good idea to take these risks now, not when he was trying to start over, to really begin to think about where his life would have the most meaning.  It definitely wasn’t in Gotham that was for sure. 
 
Queen’s words had been replaying in his mind since their meeting earlier.  Would Jason really be able to help in Star City?  The Green Arrow had made it clear he thought so, and it wasn’t like he would need to stay there forever, but there was still Berto Rowe’s presence in that town, and he could at least go with Roy and help out. 
 
He wasn’t naïve enough to think his ‘killing is acceptable’ policy was going to fly with the emerald archer, but Queen seemed willing to talk about it, and Jason found himself willing to discuss.  Perhaps he really had grown up.
 
All these thoughts ran through Jason’s mind as he continued to move across the city, unaware of what roof he had landed on until he spotted the bright blue lights to his side.
 
“Of course” he said dryly, staring at the back of the GCPD sign for a few moments.   Still, he was here, and he wouldn’t have been Jason Todd if didn’t take stupid risks now and then.
 
Climbing the ladder up the next ten feet, he remembered the first time he’d come up here.
 
“Those things’ll kill ya, Commish!”
 
He had only been Robin for a week, and the Batsignal had finally lit up the sky.  God, he had been so fucking excited as he had jumped into the Batmobile and raced into the city towards the GCPD building, startling the still new commissioner as the man took a drag from his cigarette.
 
Jason smiled at the thought, removing his helmet and lighting up a cigarette, taking a deep drag of it as he stood exactly where Gordon had.
 
When he finished his cigarette, Jason tossed it on the ground, watching it roll towards the Batsignal. He could have picked it up, but ultimately left it there. Maybe Gordon would notice, maybe he wouldn’t…either way this was Jason’s farewell.
 
The streets were quiet though as it approached four in the morning and dawn only a couple of hours away.  For a sendoff, Gotham was really letting the Red Hood down. Still, it allowed him time to secure some of his more prominent safe-houses, leaving a note for Mr. Hafez and his family that he’d be out of town for an indefinite amount of time; no point in having them worry as time went on.
 
By the time he checked on his last bolt-hole and made his way back up to the roof, he could see the black night sky giving way to deep blue in the distance.  That made sense seeing as he was now completely exhausted…and he hadn’t even beat up or maimed anybody tonight.
 
A door slamming in the building next door caught his attention considering the time of morning and the obvious lack of concern the person had for that.   It helped Jason out considerably that he was in Burnside, an up and coming neighborhood that meant not all the older buildings had been torn down yet to make room for expensive lofts, artisan coffee shops, and kale smoothie joints.
 
These older buildings also meant that Jason could hear through the windows as he vaulted onto the fire escape across the way, trying to get a sense of where the person was headed.  It wasn’t exactly suspicious, but this had been the most interesting thing to happen to him tonight on patrol.
 
He waited a minute, then another, moving around the building to see if he could hear anything but got nothing for his efforts.
 
“-ou stupid, bitch!”
 
‘Bingo’, Jason thought, hearing the rising voice from the floor below, and jumping down, trying to peer through the window without detection.
 
The man was mid-fifties, and clearly drunk from the way he stumbled across the dirty living room floor.  A woman looking almost twenty years younger was on the couch, a joint in one hand, and looking completely unconcerned by the man’s raving antics.
 
From the amount of smoke that Jason could see swirling around the place, it was obvious that this had been one joint of many.  He grimaced at the thought.  Drugs and alcohol, but especially drugs, were not on his approved list of extracurricular activities.
 
Still, the woman didn’t look like she had taken anything else, and the guy was just shouting without actually getting physical as he stomped around the place.  Other than the yelling, nothing appeared to be escalating, so besides giving them a stern lecture on drug and alcohol use, there wasn’t anything he felt the need to interrupt.
 
All he wanted to do now was head back to where he knew a very expensive bed and high quality thread count sheets were no doubt awaiting him in one of the bedrooms.
 
Grappling to the roof, he almost fell midway up when the unmistakable sound of a child crying reached his ears.
 
Of course it had come from the very same apartment.
 
“Shit” Jason grit his teeth, making his way back down and peering through the window.
 
There was no kid that he could see, but he could hear the crying from somewhere inside.
 
“Shut up, you stupid kid!” the man yelled, stomping down a hallway in the direction of the crying.
 
In the moment it had taken Jason to come in through the window, he had heard the blow, and the child whimpering.
 
The woman hadn’t even appeared to notice the Red Hood bursting in and running past her down the hall, following the sounds and finding the drunken man on his hands and knees, cursing as he attempted to grab the kid from his hiding spot.
 
Luckily he didn’t need to worry about that anymore as the Red Hood broke his arm in a swift move, causing the man to wail in agony and bang his head against the underside of the bedframe.
 
Jason let his anger fuel him, not caring how much the man sobbed and gulped for air, already pleading unintelligibly for the pain to stop. 
 
“You like to hit people smaller than you, huh?” the Red Hood said quietly as he had his hand wrapped around the man’s throat and pinned against the wall, holding the guy several inches off the ground.  “So do I.”
 
He dropped the man to the ground, punching him twice across the face, ignoring the teeth he saw fly out or the blood that gushed out of the man’s nose.  It was only the muffled cries from under the bed that had him stopping.  Fuck, he was probably scaring the kid to death.
 
Jason sneered inside his helmet. “Today’s your lucky day.  You get to live.”

With a headbutt to the face, the man slid unconsciously to the floor, allowing Jason the opportunity to focus on the kid.
 
Taking his helmet off, he crouched down on the floor, peering underneath the bed. 
 
“Hey there, buddy.” Jason did his best to smile and sound friendly, seeing a little boy no older than three or four years old, huddled in the far corner with a blanket in his hand. 
 
Upon seeing Jason, the boy whimpered and looked terrified, attempting to back into the corner even though there was no more corner for him to back into.
 
“I’m not going to hurt you okay? I just want to make sure you were safe” he insisted, not getting anywhere.
 
“Who the fuck are you?”
 
Jason turned around and saw the stoned woman from the living room now standing there. She was looking at him like there was possibly a reason for him being there but she didn’t yet know what it was.
 
Getting up off the floor, Jason was immediately in her face and wished belatedly that he’d put his helmet back on for maximum effect.
 
“I’m the Red Hood, that’s who I fucking am” Jason hissed, trying to keep his voice low as he stood there towering over her.  She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and a hundred pounds and yet she didn’t seem phased in the least.
 
Jason growled. “You let your kid get beat up by that drunk piece of shit while you get high off your ass? Just who the fuck are you?”
 
The woman actually huffed a laugh. “Kid’s not mine.  Mom’s a junkie and dad ran off.  Told her I’d do her a favor and watch the kid for a night.”
 
Before Jason could ask where the kids mom was, the mystery was solved for him.
 
“That was a month ago.  Mom got shot in Bludhaven. Now I’m stuck with the kid.”
 
Jason shook his head in disbelief. “What do you mean you’re stuck with him? No one said you had to keep him!”
 
Sure CPS was shit (and yeah, he was avoiding the same fate for Evelyn and Edgar), but why hadn’t she taken the kid there?
 
“Zack said we could get a lot o’ money from Uncle Sam if we kept the kid.”
 
Jason didn’t need to ask who Zack was, although he was certain the man was missing a few teeth and had a broken arm, possibly even a concussion. 
 
“Take ‘im.”
 
“What?”
 
“Well he’s not worth all this trouble, is he?” she challenged, causing Jason to take a step back so that he wouldn’t punch her in the face.  The poor kid was still under the bed.
 
She didn’t even wait for Jason to respond before she was trying to coax the kid out. Clearly the little boy had some affection for the woman as eventually he came out, looking at Zack’s unmoving body on the floor and then at Jason, who tried his best to smile again.
 
“Hey there” Jason said, kneeling down in front of the kid. “I’m Red. What’s your name?”
 
“His name’s Terry. He don’t talk.”

“What do you mean he doesn’t talk?” Jason asked, still trying to smile as Terry now seemed cautiously curious about him.
 
“Exactly what I just said. He ain’t deaf or nothin’. He just don’t talk.”
 
Jason ignored her now, and while he tried to get Terry to trust him, the woman picked the child up and waited for Jason to stand before handing him over, both boys now stunned by the action.
 
Reaching down to pick up his helmet, Jason smiled at Terry who still appeared to be in shock over the whole thing and allowed himself to be carried by a stranger.
 
***
 
“I thought the point was to get kids out of our lives, not bring them into it!” Roy hissed as he, Jason, Artemis, and Biz all stared down at the little boy who was fast asleep on the sofa.
 
Biz had been the first to see Jason and Terry, hearing Jason’s fervent whispers from outside on the street to give them a lift up. Luckily the little boy had exhausted himself and fallen asleep sometime on the way back.
 
“No Biz, we’re not keeping him” Jason had sighed tiredly, seeing how excited Biz had looked at an even younger and smaller child with them.
 
“Me know.” Biz had grumbled, looking rather sulky about the whole thing.
 
“Uh huh” Jason muttered, watching Biz take a seat nearby to stare at the even tinier ‘tiny one’.
 
Artemis had seen Terry, froze, and then rolled her eyes like these were just typical Red Hood antics.
 
Once Jason had explained to them what had happened, Artemis had looked less exasperated and more murderous.  Jason had somehow been able to get her to promise to not go back to the scene of the crime and tear the whole building down.
 
“He is vulnerable and unable to speak for himself. He deserves justice.” Artemis had declared, and while no one disagreed, it was much more important that they figure out what do with the kid.
 
The sun was up now, and Jason kissed the thought of that wonderful bed goodbye as he flopped onto the adjacent sofa.  He didn’t want the kid freaking out in the morning. So far his luck with Edgar and Evelyn had held in terms of them being so trusting.

He doubted he’d be able to score three for three.
 

Chapter Text

Oliver Queen should have been landing at London Heathrow right about now but instead he was two Old Fashion’s deep at the hotel bar, sitting at a secluded table in the corner and typing away on his laptop.

He didn’t particularly mind considering the mechanical issue with his jet meant he’d miss his meeting in London which was just as well because he was pretty certain that he would have come out of it thinking that an email would have sufficed.

So he and Min had both checked into the hotel, and he had let Min off the hook for the night so that she’d be able to Skype with her wife for more than the usual fifteen minutes at a time.

He’d been restless in his room, coming down to the bar for a change of scenery and continuing to work on helping Roy and Jason with their requests.

It wasn’t exactly hard so much as tedious work; having to create school transcripts to send to Robinson Academy (courtesy of Queen Elementary School in Star City) and other documents that needed to be implanted into the appropriate places in public record.

So far he’d been able to manage quite a lot, especially as he and Roy messaged back and forth. He hadn’t exactly needed Roy for some of this, but it had been a good excuse to continue to communicate with the young man. If someone would have asked him a week ago whether or not he’d been back in regular communication with Roy, he would have laughed, and then most likely punched them in the face, or at least, thrown something at them.

Staying in the bar until last call, he’d managed to get in touch with his contacts back in Star City, those that would be able to ‘expedite’ certain aspects of red tape that he couldn’t necessarily do on his own.

“Compliments of the woman at the bar, sir” a server came and placed another Old Fashioned down on his table, his tone professional.

Oliver thanked the server and then looked towards the bar, seeing a leggy brunette who had to have been almost fifteen years younger than him. She was beautiful, and certainly knew it as she smirked at him and picked up her glass of red wine and sauntered over.

“Thank you for the drink” Oliver flashed a smile, one that looked somewhat apologetic as he tried to decide how best to handle the situation.

The brunette smiled, chuckling softly and shaking her head. “It’s alright. I can tell I’m about to get a ‘thanks but no thanks’. Figured I’d take a shot.”

Oliver laughed. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s just-“

“She’s a lucky girl, whoever she is. I wouldn’t let you out of my sight” she grinned, winking at him.

Oliver fumbled for a moment, which surprised him considering he’d always been quite successful with women, romantically or otherwise, and rarely at a loss for words.

“Allow me to pick up your tab, it’s the least I can do” Oliver offered, motioning for the server and informing him that he’d be taking care of her bill.

She didn’t object, and raised her glass in appreciation. “I suppose that takes the sting out of being rejected. I’ll leave you to it then. Have a good evening.”

Oliver grinned and watched her go. “You as well.”

By the time he finished the drink that had been ordered for him, he noticed that she had left, and wondered if maybe he should have invited her to sit with him. It probably wouldn’t have mattered though; he couldn’t see it going anywhere tonight and she’d find someone else fairly quickly for a good time, he was sure of it.

Signing the bill to his room, Oliver made his way upstairs, and dragged himself into the shower. It was almost two in the morning and while things were going well with Roy and even Jason of all people, it had been an emotional exhausting few days and he just wanted to crawl into bed.

By the time he got out of the shower fifteen minutes later, he felt even more beat down, but checked his phone for any additional messages from Roy.

He’d confirmed earlier that both Jason and Roy could contact the school directly to schedule a tour and assessments, as the Dean of Admissions expected to hear very shortly from Mr. Peter Otod (Oliver had tried not to laugh at Jason’s sheer laziness with that alias) and Jay O’Toole (Oliver had laughed at one...Roy’s sense of humor had clearly not changed over the years).

Other than that, Roy had sent over the video feed from Jason’s time at the party, specifically what had been in the initial room that Oliver had seen Jason access, as well as Jason’s time in one of the other hotel rooms where there was definitely going to be some things for Oliver to review and compare with what was going on in Star City. A high quality image of the small black invitation card with the logo highlighted via black light had also been included.

Oliver had been impressed by the amount of information the boys had been able to gather in what appeared to be a very short amount of time. He’d review it all when he got back to Star City, which had left checking in with Roy to make sure that everyone had settled in okay at the penthouse.

He’d received a photo from Roy in response, one which showed a huge dog, a very creepy looking cat that looked like it was constantly annoyed, a young girl moving around in the wheelchair he had made available, and a young boy who was clearly enjoying attempting to hack one of the locks on the closet.

Roy and Jason were not in the picture, which was for the best considering there was always a risk in their current situation, but Oliver had felt a warmth inside his chest that his son had voluntarily sent him a photo.

He stared at it now with a smile on his face, even though he was still damp from the shower with only a towel wrapped around his waist.

A ripple of goosebumps ran down his spine and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, causing him to put his phone down and head to his nightstand, reaching for his retractable bow and arrows. He kept his movements light and unconcerned, humming to himself as he drew an arrow back in his bow and readied himself.

Quieting down, he positioned himself by the doorframe, taking a moment before turning and looking out into the living room for an intruder.

He wasn’t disappointed.

“I already spoke with Tim. You could have just called if there was anything else.” Oliver said calmly, still holding the arrow back, his eyes trained on his target.

Batman stood there amongst the shadows in the dark living room, quiet and intense, not having even twitched when Oliver had revealed himself, arrow primed and ready.

“We need to talk.”

Oliver raised an eyebrow. He disliked Bruce’s voice in general, but he disliked Batman’s aggressively low voice even more. Especially when it was directed at him; he wasn’t some thug selling drugs on a street corner that would piss himself.

“Again, you could have called.” Oliver replied calmly.

He didn’t care that they were technically on the same side. Bruce had shown up in full Batman mode to what? Intimidate him? Fight it out? He almost smirked at thought. Sure, Batman would be a tough opponent, but so was the Green Arrow. Although he wasn’t exactly prepared for a fight with just a towel around his waist.

Batman may have had an advantage in hand to hand combat (although Oliver knew even then the gap had lessened considering his time away training), but over a distance? The Green Arrow had range on his side; he’d be able to release his arrow before one of those ridiculous Batarangs could be pulled from that utility belt.

So Oliver moved forward a step and to the side, allowing himself room to back into the dining room to put even more space between them. When Batman took a step in his direction, Oliver growled. A surprising feat considering he didn’t have Bruce’s low baritone or a voice modifier.

“I want to talk to you.” Batman said gruffly, although he stayed put.

Oliver had known there was a high possibility of Bruce contacting him again, but he hadn’t thought it would be this soon, or in such a manner.

“I’m half naked and you’re decked out like a tank. What is that? Tri-weave titanium coated armor plating? Nice. A bit much though. I feel horribly underdressed.”

Oliver saw the flash of white from Batman’s teeth as the man clenched his jaw.

“Who the hell do you think you are, Bruce?” Oliver challenged, humor gone now. “No matter how many buildings or projects your name is on, no matter how much money you throw around in this city, it doesn’t give you the right to break into my hotel room.”

They were in this strange sort of stalemate, and Oliver would stand there as long as he had to until he got some answers, or saw Batman stand down; he figured the latter wasn’t going to happen.

He was wrong.

Seeing Batman clench his fists, Oliver expected some sort of ridiculous demand again, only to watch as the Dark Knight reached up and tapped something on the back of his cowl. Oliver heard a pneumatic hiss and watched as Bruce removed his cowl and placed in on the coffee table. That...had been unexpected.

Oliver frowned, unsure of what trick this could have been, but could now see Bruce’s face illuminated by the lights outside; the guy looked like hell.

It was Oliver’s turn to be demanding. “Sit down. Let me put some damn clothes on. Then we’ll talk.”

He noticed Bruce taking a glance at his chest (completely littered with scars), as Oliver lowered his bow and walked back to towards the bedroom.

“Not all of us have bodies made for modelling in charity calendars” he couldn’t help but mutter as he had turned, knowing Bruce would see all the old lash marks on his back.

‘Good’, Oliver thought, ‘Bruce wasn’t the only one who’d been through hell.’

He didn’t want to leave Batman alone for too long, so he scrounged up some sweatpants from his suitcase and threw them on along with an undershirt.

When he came back out, he saw Bruce had remained standing, but was facing the window and looking out at the Gotham buildings around them.

“Did you know?”

Oliver frowned again, unsure of what Bruce meant by that question. There were a lot of things that had happened that Bruce may or not have had knowledge of, and Oliver planned to respond accordingly.

“Is this about Rowe again? Because I-“

“Jason” Bruce cut in sharply, turning to face him. “Did you know it was Jason.”

“Yes.” Oliver answered honestly.

“You lied to me.”

Oliver scoffed. “The hell I did. I didn’t even know it was him initially. It wasn’t like we’d planned a get-together.” That was the truth.

“I asked you who he was.” Bruce snapped.

“And I told you.” Oliver snapped back, exhausted and emotionally wrung out.

He was, however, sympathetic in terms of Bruce and Jason, after all, he had his own ‘estranged son situation’ to deal with too.

“He came in with Leila. It’s the only reason I recognized him since he made such an entrance. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to see me either. You do remember who he’s partners with, right?”

Oliver wasn’t sure if Bruce had even thought about Roy being in Jason’s life. Self-centered asshole.

“When you called me earlier this morning, or yesterday morning...damn it, you know what I mean” Oliver sighed, exasperated, “the more you went on, the more I realized you didn’t recognize him. I thought maybe you were just playing dumb, but it became clear you weren’t, and you bet your ass I didn’t want to be the one to break the news to you.” All true.

Bruce shifted slightly, but said nothing for a moment.

“What were you doing with him?”

Oliver shook his head. “I just told you, we ran into each-“

“Photographs show you together for most of the party” Bruce challenged.

“Are you kidding me? What? You think there’s some sort of conspiracy here? For christ’s sake, Bruce. I was there for Berto Rowe. I saw Jason with Leila and went over to see whether or not he was attempting to take advantage of her as she happens to be a friend of mine. Something that I wouldn’t have put past him at the time considering it was well within your M.O. Even the gossip rags mentioned it.” Oliver countered, pointing a finger at him.

“What else did you speak to him about?”

Oliver looked like he was losing his already barely-there patience. The nerve of this guy.

“I asked about my son!” Oliver all but yelled. “I’m trying to fix things with my son! It’s none of your damn business.”

“Jason is my business” Bruce replied, tone eerily calm.

Oliver knew that was a red flag, but he didn’t particularly care.

“Since when?” Oliver laughed dryly, “I was pretty sure you buried him and then kind of got stuck on that instead of the part about him being alive again.”

Bruce took a step forward, fists clenched so tightly that Oliver could hear the creak of his gauntlets.

“He went on to have a life. Grew up. Doing well. He’s happy and seems to have Roy amongst his closest friends.” Oliver continued. “I missed out on a lot of Roy’s life, and I have to live with my choices but I’m trying to get my son back.”

“What did you talk about?” Bruce’s demanded.

Oliver could not believe this guy.

“We had one conversation. I have nothing else to say to you. You didn’t appear to be making an effort with Jason before now. How long has it been? Either do something about it or move the hell on.”

“He kills people.” Bruce growled.

“At least he’s killing the right people!”

Okay, so Oliver didn’t really support the killing thing, but Jason wasn’t exactly a deranged serial killer. Bruce may not have been on Jason’s side, but Oliver sure as hell was.

“And how the hell would you know what he’s doing now?” Oliver threw out.

“He was your son, and you discarded him. You’re just as guilty as I am. At least my ego and sense of self-righteousness finally gave way. Nothing was worth losing Roy; nothing should have been worth losing Jason, not after the gift he’d been given. Or perhaps you miss dead Jason?”

Batman was fast, unbelievably so, but Oliver’s reflexes, while once just as a good, were better now.

He had expected the punch and blocked it, shoving Bruce off. If Batman came at him again, Oliver knew he’d be in trouble. One punch from Batman he could block, but an onslaught of them would be something else entirely. Not to mention, the room would get trashed. Still, he knew Bruce had pulled the punch.

“Enough!” Oliver shouted, both of them heaving like they’d been fighting for ages.

He wasn’t only angry, he was actually horrified. It was one thing to be out there in the city fighting crime and hitting bad guys, but this?

“For someone that has such a strong moral code, you sure do like to beat up on people. You don’t get to assault me just because you don’t like what I have to say. You’re no better than those you fight. Some member of the Justice League you turned out to be. See yourself out. I won’t be in your lovely town much longer.”

Oliver turned and went back to the bedroom, essentially ending the conversation. He hoped that having gone on the offensive had done its job.

Chapter Text

“What is going on, Alfred?” Tim said, having found the older man back in the kitchen and looking rather absentminded as he stirred something in a sauce pan.

The words ‘absentminded’ and ‘Alfred’ were never two words Tim would have used in the same sentence prior to now.

Yet something was clearly going on as Bruce had come back in a bad mood from his date, kicked him out of the Batcave, and after Tim had asked Bruce to see where Alfred was, Tim had finally gotten control of his case again only to have Bruce running in and practically hyperventilating like there was an army of demon ghosts on his tail.

It’s not like they had normal days per se, but this one had turned into a doozy.

“Is this about Jason?” Tim asked now, as Alfred had only acknowledged his initial question with a tilt of his head to signal that he was listening but not about to take his eyes off his dinner preparation.

Alfred now stopped, turning to face him and looking rather exhausted as he did so.

“What exactly are you referring to, Master Timothy?”

Tim sighed and rubbed his face. “I don’t know. You tell me. The way Bruce just flew into the cave....”

He gave Alfred a brief summary of what had just occurred in the Batcave, watching carefully for any signs on Alfred’s face that the man knew what it could have been about. All he was able to tell was that Alfred looked rather sad.

It hadn’t just been Bruce that had been off today and Tim certainly hadn’t lost sight of that.

“If I were to hazard a guess, Master Timothy” Alfred spoke quietly, going back to stirring his Port reduction sauce, “I believe Master Bruce has come to the realization that Master Jason is the gentleman in the newspaper photographs.”

Tim frowned in confusion.

“But...we all knew that. Didn’t we?”

It had been obvious to him, and apparently even Alfred, but as he quickly rewound the events of the last twenty-four hours and applied Alfred’s assumption, a whole lot of things became much clearer.

“Oh my god. He didn’t recognize him...” Tim muttered quietly, staring at Alfred in shock.

“You knew he didn’t recognize Jason.” Tim pointed out, not trying to sound accusing but rather confirming what he had just made sense of.

That would explain Bruce’s running into the cave, and having him run through the photos. Tim felt his stomach sink at the realization that he’d confirmed that it had been Jason in the photos.

“Wait, so how did he figure it out then? I sent him to find you because I was concerned about you.”

“I am quite alright Master Timothy.” Alfred reassured him. “I will assume again that based on what you have explained to me regarding Master Bruce’s behavior, that he put the pieces together while upstairs.”

Alfred spoke so matter-of-factly, but Tim was still standing there really trying to figure out just how much subtext he was missing.

“Would you mind watching over the stove, Master Timothy?” Alfred asked, removing his apron and placing it on the counter. “The sauce simply requires stirring for another three minutes before you must pour it over the roast in the oven.”

Tim wasn’t sure which part shocked him more, Bruce not recognizing Jason, or that Alfred had voluntarily left him alone in the kitchen...while things were actually cooking.

“Yeah sure.” Tim quickly recovered, taking hold of the wooden spoon and slowly stirring, keeping a close watch on the time.

It dawned on him that Alfred had been unusually candid with him just now, and for some reason Tim didn’t think that was a good sign.

Still, he stood there, diligently stirring away at the sauce and was rather proud of himself for following Alfred’s directions and not accidentally burning anything or setting the kitchen on fire.

“Well this is stupid” Tim grumbled to himself, ignoring the faint warning in the back of his head which said it was probably not a good idea to eavesdrop but he was tired of feeling like he’d been on the back foot all day and quietly made his way down to the Batcave, staying out of sight. It was times like these that the acoustics in the cave came in handy.

Crouching down on the walkway, he inched forward until he was able to pick up the conversation.

“It’s not fractured, Alfred” Tim could hear Bruce sigh.

He had no idea what Bruce could have possibly hit, seeing as how Tim didn’t have line of sight down below, but obviously Bruce had hit something.

Several seconds passed in silence, and Tim thought maybe somehow he’d lost the ability to overhear their conversation even though he hadn’t heard them walk away to any of the more remote recesses of the cave.

“Alfred...” Bruce spoke quietly, “...our conversation upstairs...was that about Jason?”

Tim could practically hear Bruce willing it not to be about Jason.

Silence settled over them again as Tim didn’t hear Alfred respond.

“I would like to believe in my heart of hearts that I have served you and this family to the best of my ability.” Alfred finally stated.

“You have, Alfred. You always have.” Bruce insisted.

Alfred disagreed. “No, Master Bruce. I have not.”

“Something’s happened. What is it?” Bruce stated, doing what Tim knew was his best to not make it sound like a demand.

“A realization, Master Bruce. A realization that in my promise to serve you I have neglected to serve the rest of this family.”

“So this is about Jason.”

“This is about myself, Master Bruce. I have failed this family. Look at what has happened. You did not realize that Master Jason was the gentleman in the photos and upon making the connection, you became overly distraught and acted irrationally. Are you going to tell me that you had no plans to track down Master Jason as soon as you left on patrol?”

Tim and Alfred both took Bruce’s silence as a ‘yes’.

“You will leave Master Jason alone.”

Tim stiffened, hearing the unwavering demand in Alfred’s tone.

“I will do what is necessary, Alfred.”

“What exactly is necessary in tracking him down? Over the past few years, you have made your stance perfectly clear. Master Jason, by some miracle, returned to us, and this family chose to exile him. No one in this house is able to utter his name without risk of affecting you. This is the most his name has been mentioned in this household in years.” Alfred chided, not backing down.

“He’s my son.” Bruce grit out, sounding like he was trying hard not to snap at Alfred.

“No, Master Bruce. He is merely a new case for you to solve.”

Tim sucked in a breath.

“You think I don’t love him?” Bruce challenged, “I died when he died, Alfred. His death killed me!”

Despite Bruce’s raised voice, Alfred remained composed. “I never doubted your love for him, Master Bruce. I, however, will not stand here and satisfy your ego by stating that your unspoken love for him is enough. None of us, myself included, have done anything to attempt to reach out and understand what exactly happened to Master Jason upon his resurrection.”

“He tried to kill us, Alfred. He was beyond reason, and we all tried.”

“No, Master Bruce. You did not try!” Alfred snapped, causing the hairs on the back of Tim’s neck stand on end. He had never heard Alfred sound so angry before.

“Batman tried, Nightwing tried, Robin tried, Oracle tried...that is not his family. When did Bruce Wayne try? It is my own fault for standing aside and hoping you would one day see reason. It is enough now.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You will watch your language with me, Master Bruce!” Alfred raised his voice, the sound of it echoing off the cave walls and causing the tittering of the few bats still down below tonight to increase in volume.

Tim was completely at a loss, and it sounded like Bruce was as well, for Alfred continued on sounding much more like his calm, collected self.

“I apologize if my decision to stand by my convictions alarms you but I will make this perfectly clear: should you attempt to contact Master Jason, you will come back to a manor that will find me absent.”

Tim stood up, his heart now beating rapidly. Had Alfred just threatened to leave Wayne Manor? That was impossible.

“Alfred...” Bruce breathed out, stunned.

“I love you, Master Bruce.” Alfred said. “Perhaps you never considered me a father, but I admit, I always looked upon you like a son. It is for that reason I walked a very fine line while raising you, afraid of overstepping my bounds. I had no intention of replacing your mother and father, and in my fear of doing so, I failed you in other ways.”

“You haven’t, I promise!” Bruce insisted, and Tim could hear the fear creeping into his voice, the worry there that Alfred had already made up his mind to leave.

“That is kind of you to say, Master Bruce, but I must disagree.” Alfred said, though not unkindly.

“I have raised a man who is unable to see past his own desires and opinions. A man who believes two plus two is the only way to achieve four. Life is never black and white, no matter how much you have willed yourself to believe that, Master Bruce.”

“Alfred, I never meant-“

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Alfred cut in quietly. “I had many good intentions myself, Master Bruce. Leave Master Jason be. He is no longer the violent young man you encountered.”

Tim heard Alfred’s footsteps approaching and quickly made his way back upstairs and to the kitchen, making sure the oven timer hadn’t gone off yet before heading to the family room and pretending to be on his phone.

A few minutes later and he saw Alfred appear.

“Dinner ready?”

“Yes. Although next time you choose to eavesdrop, I suggest you turn off the burner. You’ve burnt the bottom of the saucepan, Master Timothy.”

There was no point in denying that he’d listened in, and frankly, trying to lie to Alfred at this point seemed like too great a risk.

“You’re not really going to leave, are you?” Tim asked cautiously, following Alfred to the dining room and taking a seat at the far end of the table. It was set for two, but Tim didn’t think he’d be seeing Bruce anytime soon.

He watched as Alfred placed the roast on the table, waiting for some sort of reassuring response.

Alfred, a man of few words, had no words for Tim at all as he silently served dinner, the food turning to ash in Tim’s mouth.

So engrossed in the quiet upheaval he felt stuck in, he startled when the chair beside him moved.

Bruce took a seat, not looking at Tim as he placed the napkin in front of him in his lap. They both knew that the only reason that they were both sitting there is because Alfred could very well flay them alive. It was just that type of night.

Tim put up with dinner as much as he could, grateful when twenty minutes later Bruce abruptly stood up and left the table. He had taken his plate with him to the kitchen as opposed to letting Alfred clear the plates.

This time Tim didn’t attempt to eavesdrop on whatever conversation may or may not be happening in the kitchen and left the dining room.

He’d head off to patrol in about an hour.

In the meantime, he wasn’t about to drop this case, but he certainly wasn’t above partnering up if it was needed.

“Hey, it’s Tim. I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time.”

“Not at all. Although I hope you’re calling because you’ve reconsidered my offer.”

Tim chuckled. “Sorry Oliver, it’s still a no.”

“Ah well, can’t fault me for trying. You know I’d love to have your brilliant mind on payroll here.”

“Uh-huh. Of course it hasn’t nothing to do with sticking it to Bruce.” Tim noted wryly.

“Of course not. I would never.” Tim could hear Oliver’s smile through the phone. “So, I’m going to take a guess and say this call is about Berto Rowe.”

“Yes actually. I’ve been working the case.”

“I spoke with Bruce earlier. Did he not tell you?”

“No, actually, he didn’t.” Tim sighed. There was no point in lying about it. They both knew Bruce wasn’t exactly a ‘sharer’.

“I’m not surprised” Oliver hummed in amusement. “Well, I can tell you this much, I didn’t get a lot out of the party. I missed the event in Star City, it’s why I didn’t pass up the chance to go to this one.”

“I noticed crime rate surges in your city over the last few months. You think it was Rowe?” Tim asked, taking a walk outside on the estate grounds.

“I do. I haven’t been able to link it yet, but you can see the shifts in drug distribution and sex workers on the street over the last month. I looked at his expansion elsewhere but it’s hard to track shifts there since those cities don’t care about the crime-heavy neighborhoods. I don’t think he counted on how closely we monitor our streets.”

And by ‘we’, Tim knew Oliver meant himself and the other vigilantes of the night.

“I’m starting to look into Mr. Escala, the new CEO. He didn’t waste any time halting progress in Gotham. I’ll pass along anything I find. I’m still digging into BR Industries finances.”

“Same here.” Oliver promised.

“Bruce probably asked, but I’m going to anyways” Tim started. “To the best of your knowledge, do the individuals in those photographs have anything to do with Mr. Rowe’s death?”

Oliver laughed. “You have a nicer way of posing the question than Bruce did.”

“He did ask then.”

“More like demanded. We didn’t see what happened firsthand, and at that point we needed to be gone before the police showed up in case they suspected foul play and kept everyone there.”

Tim intentionally chose not to bring up Jason’s name, seeing if Oliver would mention it. He didn’t, and so Tim let it go.

“You working with someone else on this?” Tim asked.

Having seen the photos, sure there has been cold hostility between Oliver and Jason, but partnering up wouldn’t have been completely off the board.

Still, it was highly probable Jason was there for Berto Rowe. Either that or he was officially declaring his involvement with the Queen of Umec. The former was much more likely.

“No, just trying to get the hell back to Star City so I can dig around” Oliver sighed tiredly.

Tim knew Oliver could be lying but if he was, it was most likely minimal and not worth pushing.

“You’re still in Gotham?” Tim asked, surprised.

“Plane issues. I’m leaving tomorrow. It got me out of a trip to London at least. So, small mercies.”

Tim laughed.

“Drop by anytime you’re in the city, Tim.” Oliver said, and meant it.

“Thanks Oliver. I’d say the same but...” he let the sentence trail off, both of them chuckling a little before they said their goodbyes and Tim hung up.

The familiar rumble underfoot had Robin turning towards the sound, hearing the Batmobile speed off into the distance and towards Gotham.

It was a little too early for Batman to patrol and he wasn’t sure it was best to leave the Big Guy alone tonight.

He found Alfred sitting and eating dinner on the kitchen table, and asked to join him, taking a seat across from him. Several minutes passed before Tim finally worked up the nerve to say something.

“Please don’t leave, Alfred. You know Bruce is just...Bruce...” Tim winced, trying to come up with a better reason.

Alfred smiled, dabbing his lips with his napkin and setting it back down on his lap.

“That is rather the problem, I’m afraid.” Tim watched as Alfred’s smile turned brittle. For a moment Tim thought Alfred looked like he’d been about to cry.

“Should we try talking to Jason?” Tim asked.

Alfred’s gaze intensified and Tim found himself sitting up a little straighter. He hadn’t expected that reaction.

“Master Jason should be left alone. This family has done enough.” Alfred said quietly, leaving Tim sitting there unsure of what to say. “He is a grown man who has had to deal with far too much. Our company is unnecessary and unwelcome.”

“But you miss him.”

“Yes, and as such, I should have disregarded Master Bruce’s wishes long ago. It was my mistake and I am willing to live with the consequences if that means allowing Master Jason a happy life. If you’ll excuse me Master Timothy, I do believe I shall clean the dishes and retire early. I have Oracle monitoring Batman’s patrol.”

Taking the large hint, Tim said goodnight and made his way down to the Batcave to change.

“Barb, you there?” Tim asked out loud, hearing a familiar voice reply in his comms.

”Yeah, I’m here. Bruce is heading towards Chinatown to start patrol. You with him tonight?”

“I’ll be running parallel.”

”I didn’t talk to Bruce much but he seems off.”

“It’s been a bad day all around.”

”What happened?”

“None of us realized that Bruce didn’t recognize Jason in those photos.”

”Oh my god. I don’t believe it.”

“I don’t think he could either. And something’s going on with Alfred and Bruce. Alfred yelled at him.”

Barbara laughed, and Tim shook his head even though she couldn’t see it.

“I’m serious. He actually yelled.”

”About Jason?”

“Yeah. Alfred threatened to leave if Bruce went after Jason for anything.”

Tim could here Barbara breathing softly through the comms.

“Barb?”

”I spotted Bizarro on CCTV.”

“When?” Tim had never met the Superman clone before, but he’d seen the guy in action. He was just glad they had kryptonite stored in the Batcave vault.

”A couple of days ago. He was at a pet clinic near Doc Thompkins’. He had a cat with him.”

Tim laughed. “You’re serious.”

”Yup. I figured Jason was back in town but he’s keeping his head low except for that stuff in the papers.”

“You didn’t tell Bruce.”

”There’s nothing to tell.” Barbara explained. “It’s not the first time he’s been back in Gotham...not that I’ve been able to really catch him; he’s good at hiding, I’ll give him that. It is the first time Bizarro is here though. Until there’s something to tell Bruce, I’m keeping mum.”

“Sounds good to me. Alfred was serious, Barb. I think he really will leave if any of us attempt to contact Jason.”

”Well, I’m keeping an eye on Bruce. He’s currently en route to a gang dispute by Rebels Nite Spot in Chinatown.”

“Alright, I’m heading out myself.” Tim swung a leg over his motorcycle and revved the engine, making sure everything was good to go.

It wasn’t until around two o’clock in the morning that Oracle’s voice crackled through the comms.

”He’s at the The Peninsula Hotel.”

That was in the most affluent part of city center and he couldn’t remember ever needing to head there in his time as Robin.

“Something happen?”

”I’ve checked all news outlets. Nothing. Batman wouldn’t tell me. I’m hacking into their guest reservation system now, scanning it through our databases.”

By the time Robin made his way over to the hotel roof, Oracle had come back online.

”Oliver Queen is staying at the hotel for the night.”

Robin’s stomach dropped.

“That’s not good.”

”No. It’s not.”

Chapter Text

The clinic was just as busy as ever, even moreso considering the chill of Fall was now hovering over Gotham even earlier than usual.

The city always bounced between two extremes, or at least it felt that way to Gothamites; hot humid summers, and bitterly cold winters, with maybe a few days of nice springtime weather somewhere in there if they were lucky.

Both extremes brought their own types of injuries and ailments, which meant that with the cold, it was a lot of flus and coughs from sleeping outdoors in the constant damp as well as burns from trying to start fires to keep warm. None of which phased Doctor Thompkins in the least.

No matter who walked into her clinic and no matter what the ailment, she had always been just as unflappable as her no nonsense demeanor made her appear. People would always need help, and she’d try to be there to offer it.

She’d long ago stopped wondering if she’d seen it all, because the truth was she hadn’t. Decades of running the clinic and it never ceased to amaze her just what she had to deal with sometimes.

Still, she had her routine. She’d sleep in, heading to the clinic by around noon or one o’clock to make sure things were ready for opening hours (unless someone came frantically over and began rattling the security gate since they couldn’t get to the door) before bracing herself for the afternoon and evening.

It was approaching two o’clock in the afternoon now, and of all the things she could have expected to encounter when she went to open the door and raise the gates earlier than usual, Alfred Pennyworth standing on the sidewalk and staring at the ground was not one of them.

“Alfred?” Leslie asked, surprised to see him there.

When she received no response, Leslie took a few steps closer, her concern becoming more pronounced as she noted Alfred’s coloring and look of dazed confusion. She had never seen the man like this before.

“Alfred.” Leslie repeated his name as she placed a hand on his arm. It apparently did the trick as he blinked out of his daze and looked up.

“Leslie...” Alfred smiled a bit in confusion. “Apologies. I was walking and appear to have wandered over to your clinic.”

“All the way in Park Row?”

It was a rather long walk from the other parts of Gotham and through areas Alfred rarely ventured into.

“I...it would appear so.” Alfred stated, shifting on his feet unsteadily.

Everything about the circumstances had Leslie incredibly concerned, and she wasted no time in walking him into the clinic and closing the door behind her.

“How about some tea?” she offered, taking them into the small break room area which had a small kettle on the counter and some tea bags in the cupboard.

She had him take a seat, which he did without resistance, and went about taking two mugs from the cupboard and readying the water. A glance back at Alfred showed him staring at his hands, which were resting on the table. As a medical professional, she couldn’t help but review all the symptoms she’d taken note of and think that Alfred might be suffering from a mild case of shock. Either that or they were early warning signs of brain diseases, such as dementia. She immediately dismissed the thought; she saw Alfred several times a year and would have noticed anything amiss.

Leslie kept quiet as she waited for the water to boil, placing the tea bags in the mugs and trying not to sneak anymore glances at Alfred until she sat down.

“You remembered the milk...” Alfred smiled as he was handed his mug, his tea a perfect caramel brown, just how he liked it.

“What can I say? You converted me all those years ago.” Leslie smiled, taking a seat across from him.

They sat together in silence, softly blowing on their tea before Leslie placed it back down and put her hand over Alfred’s. He looked so very lost.

“I saw Master Jason.” Alfred said quietly, keeping his eyes glued to where Leslie’s hand remained over his.

“He told me you did.” Leslie said, having no desire to lie about it.

Alfred’s head perked up at the comment.

“When?”

“A few days ago.”

Leslie wasn’t sure what about the timeline was relevant, but clearly something was as Alfred nodded and looked back down, shoulders sagging.

“I spoke with Master Jason again today.”

“That’s good.” Leslie’s small smile melting away as she felt the hand underneath hers tremble.

Alfred moved his hands back and placed them on his lap, still gazing at where they had been on the table.

“I made a grave error in judgement.”

“What happened, Alfred?”

The man looked up and after a deep breath, recounted his decision to no longer stand by and pretend that silent suffering and denial were healthy. He explained how he had tracked Jason back to a large brownstone, and how he had been met with surprise, and then anger...so much anger that had poured out of every word.

Leslie listened quietly and without judgement, not even commenting on the small boy Alfred had heard and then seen come to the door behind Jason or the death threat that had been bestowed on him.

“He was quite right.”

“He shouldn’t have said those things.” Leslie eventually said, unable to keep her anger from seeping through. The death threat and comments about wishing Bruce a similar death to his parents had been particularly cruel.

She didn’t care how angry Jason had been. It hadn’t given him the right to spew his vitriol.

“Perhaps.” Alfred stated quietly, taking a sip of his tea.

“He was just surprised and scared. You know he didn’t mean it.”

“The threat to my life? No, probably not.” Alfred admitted. “The rest? I believe he did. Granted, some of what he said was meant to be rather heinous but he was right. So were you.”

“Me?” Leslie asked, surprised as she leaned back in her chair.

“You made it abundantly clear over the years that I allowed Bruce too many liberties, both in his childhood and into parenthood. You cannot deny that it played a large part in keeping us from...”

Alfred cleared his throat and looked away for a moment.

“Alfred, I-“ Leslie tried to formulate a response but received a shake of the head for her efforts.

“It is a choice I made.”

“Don’t give up on Jason. He loves you.”

Alfred stood up and rinsed his mug out in the sink before turning around, looking much more collected.

“Love in the Wayne household is a death sentence.”

Leslie stood up, surprised by the resignation in Alfred’s tone. It wasn’t like him to give up, not on family.

“I shall impose upon you no longer. I am aware that I have disrupted your daily routine.”

“I wish you would just think on this, Alfred. Jason needs you. He misses you.” Leslie insisted. “You don’t have to involve Bruce; Jason is your grandson. Bruce doesn’t need to factor into your relationship with him at all.”

Alfred sighed. “You are right as always. However, I, as Jason stated so clearly, do not wish to be responsible for leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the others to follow. He had a family...a young boy...”

Leslie watched Alfred smile a little at the thought. It wasn’t her place to tell Alfred about the children in any sort of capacity.

“He is so much like Bruce.” Leslie smiled back. Jason may not have believed what she had said to him on the subject, but despite appearances, both father and son cared so much about everything in rather opposite ways...Jason exploded with emotion, and Bruce imploded with it.

“No. He is better. He deserved so much more than we offered him!” Alfred snapped, angry with himself. “We blamed ourselves for his death before blaming him for his resurrection. We forgot about the torture a young boy endured at the hands of a madman before coming back lord knows how!”

“Alfred-“

“Had I known about Master Jason’s demand for the Joker’s death, I would have gladly done it. A young boy who wished to see his murderer put down like the monster he was!” Alfred slammed his hand down on the table.

“I would have gladly done it and allowed Batman to personally escort me to GCPD.”

Leslie had no doubt Alfred would have. Of all of the Wayne family, Alfred had the biggest burden to bear and did so always; quietly and resolutely.

Everyone had their breaking point; Leslie just hoped this wasn’t Alfred’s.

“You are not a violent man, Alfred.” Leslie reminded him quietly.

Alfred chuckled and shook his head. “I assure you that at the very least, my past military experience would indicate otherwise.”

“You may have had to do violent things, but you are not a violent man.”

Alfred smiled sadly, leaving Leslie feeling rather at a loss.

“As unexpected as my visit here was, it was a pleasure seeing you.” Alfred tilted his head to offer his thanks and left the clinic, leaving a slightly bewildered Leslie behind.

Chapter Text

“Bud, get off. I’m up, I’m up…” Jason mumbled and turned over on the couch, rubbing the back of his neck where Bud had stuck her nose and began nudging him.

Staring up at the ceiling, he frowned, forgetting where he was for a moment before it all came back: Queen’s penthouse, found a kid while out of patrol, crashed on the couch...

“Shit, the kid!” Jason heaved himself up with a groan, turning and searching for the scared little boy he had brought back with him.  Had it been the smartest choice? No. Had it been the only option at the time? Yes. At least it was in Jason’s mind.

“Red Him up now. Tiny one hungry.”

Jason stood up, yawning as he did so and found the little boy (‘Terry’, he reminded himself) nestled in Biz’s arms, blanket tucked under his chin.

“Hey Terry, remember me?” Jason smiled and waved, watching as Terry smiled shyly and then turned his head and buried it in Biz’s chest.  Kid was shy, but apparently he’d taken a liking to Biz.  Of course, by the looks of it, the feeling was mutual as Biz smiled down at the child and walked with Jason to the kitchen.

The patter of feet a few seconds later revealed a still sleepy Edgar, whose hair was sticking up in all different directions.

“I take it that’s Edgar I hear gracing us with his presence” Jason greeted the boy, although his back was towards him as he went about grabbing bowls from the cupboard and attempting to find some cereal. Not the healthiest thing really, but he didn’t have the energy to cook.

“Woah! Who’s the kid?” he heard Edgar ask, obviously curious about the sudden morning addition.

“His name is Terry. He’s—Jesus fucking Christ!” Jason jumped, having opened the cupboard by the fridge and coming face to face with Wilson. 

He wouldn’t have put it past the damn cat to have sat there for hours just on the off chance he could scare one of them senseless.

“What the hell are you doing in there? Get out!” Jason made a shooing motion (not about to risk his fingers in trying to move the cat), which did nothing except make Wilson look rather smug.

“Fucking cat.” Jason grumbled.

“Biz! I need you to deal with this. Wilson’s blocking the cereal.” Jason turned, although kept his eyes glued on Wilson. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t bring himself to look away, but he was getting some major ‘cobra’ vibes and didn’t want to risk breaking eye contact lest he get attacked. 

Jason found himself with an armful of Terry, who looked at him curiously, raising a hand to touch his face.  Expecting the little hands to touch his cheek, Jason frowned when he didn’t feel anything other than pressure through his domino.

In his exhaustion, Jason had failed to remove it or any of his Red Hood gear. Which meant he was standing there essentially in full vigilante mode with Edgar now sitting on the bar stool and staring at him with his mouth wide open.

Clearly Edgar was wide awake now.

“I knew it! I knew it! I knew you and Red were the same person!” Edgar bounced up and down excitedly in his seat that Jason worried the boy would tip over.

“Shh! Shh!” Jason hissed pleadingly, not quite sure why he needed Edgar to keep his voice down, but it just seemed like the only thing he could think to say. He also wanted Edgar to calm down enough to sit still and not fall off the stool.

With Terry in his arms, Edgar going nuts, and Biz getting Wilson out of the cupboard, all Jason wanted was to have some coffee and feed the kid.  ‘Kids’ Jason corrected himself, sighing as he heard the clicking of paws on the marble floor and found Bud standing there.

“Evelyn up?” Jason asked, receiving a soft huff and what looked very much like a nod. 

Jason watched her sniff the air before coming over and sniffing the bottom of Terry’s feet, wagging her tail rather violently.  There was just too much excitement for so early in the morning.

“Do you like dogs, Terry?” Jason asked, looking at the little boy in his arms and ignoring the way Edgar was staring at him in awe as if he’d never met him until now.

Terry looked at Jason, then down at Bud, before wiggling his butt to indicate he wanted to be put down.

Clearly from his high perch in Jason’s arms, Bud hadn’t looked as imposing as she did now that the little boy was on ground level.

Jason immediately felt Terry latch onto his leg as he hid behind it, half his face peeking out to stare at the massive dog.

“You’re bigger than he was expecting” Jason smirked, looking down at Bud who huffed and then sank to the floor, doing a strange doggy version of a crawl as she crept forward slowly, her tail still wagging.

“She’s, like, the best dog ever! She does all sorts of tricks and plays games!” Edgar explained as he climbed down off his stool, talking in his usual rapid-fire way when he really liked something.

Terry still kept his blanket-holding hand latched onto Jason’s pant leg, but took a step towards Bud, while looking up at Edgar.

“Edgar, why don’t you properly introduce yourself to Terry and take Bud with you into the living room. I’ll go get Evelyn.”  Jason offered, trying to get the kids to entertain themselves.

It appeared to work, as Edgar held out his hand and Terry let go of Jason and walked over, watching as Bud stood back up and walked with them out of the kitchen.
 
Evelyn was all smiles as Jason walked into her room, although she immediately pointed to her own face when she saw Jason still with a domino on and his Red Hood gear.

“Yeah I know. Your brother just about fell off the kitchen stool.” Jason sighed, smiling as Evelyn laughed and shook her head.

“We won’t tell anyone, you know.”

“I trust you guys.” Jason assured her as he carefully picked her up off the bed and placed her in her wheelchair. 

It was never about trust, but rather their safety. He had wanted the kids to have plausible deniability and thought at least one out of two would be good enough. No such luck.

“Hello, I’m Evelyn. What’s your name?” she asked as soon as she saw Terry in the living room, the little boy sitting on the floor next to Edgar as they watched Bud roll over and play dead.

Terry looked up at her and waved before rolling a small ball away from him and watching Bud go and retrieve it.

“He doesn’t speak…”

“No. He doesn’t.”

Jason wasn’t surprised by Evelyn’s quick observation and smiled down at her while he left her with the boys and made his way back to the kitchen and attempted to peel his domino off very carefully; the damn thing hurt like hell if you carelessly tried to take it off.

“Where’s everyone?” Jason asked, happy to see Biz had Wilson in his arms and was sitting at the kitchen table, looking completely smitten with the feline version of the devil incarnate.

“Orange Him sleeping. Red Her thinking.”

Jason frowned as he grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge. “Thinking?”

“Outside” Biz pointed towards the patio, and Jason could just make out the Amazon’s profile. He’d leave her to whatever it was she was doing.

Three bowls of cereal lined up on the counter, dog food in the dog bowl (seriously, that assistant of Queen’s had really been on point), and a freshly brewed cup of coffee in his hand, Jason went out to the living room to rally the troops.

“Breakfast time. You too, Bud.” Jason patted his dog on the head and watched as Terry picked himself up, one hand on Bud’s shoulder as they both slowly walked towards the kitchen.

“Well that’s cute as hell.”

Jason opened his mouth to respond before he found his hand coffee-less.

Roy took a sip from Jason’s mug and hummed thoughtfully as he swallowed, grimacing.

“There’s sugar in this.” Roy looked down at the mug as if it had personally offended him.

Jason took his coffee back and pointed towards the kitchen.  “Fix your own coffee.”

Feeling his phone buzz in his pocket, Jason pulled it out and saw a message from Doc Thompkins. 

Apparently, she had the kids immunization cards ready but there were still a few shots the kids needed and recommended that they come by later in the afternoon before opening.

Jason grimaced at the thought of more shots, but today was going to be a fun day so hopefully that would help offset that.

He messaged her back, confirming they’d be there, and ignored the knot forming in his stomach and the tightness in his chest when he received her response.

‘I may have a family lined up. We can discuss when I see you.’

Jason sent back a quick ‘Okay. Great.’ but he didn’t feel all that great.

He didn’t want his time with the kids to be over, but at the same time, he was trying to leave Gotham as soon as possible, the thought of really doing something more with his life making Star City pretty much a done deal for him. 

Not only would it be a new city, but he’d be with Roy, could be there as Queen and his best friend worked through their shit. It also mattered to Jason on a more private level that Queen had shown in their time together that he actually felt that Jason had intellectual value that would be an asset to Q-Core.  It had felt good…to be acknowledged for his smarts instead of violence for the first time.

‘You won’t have this though’ his mind supplied as he heard the children laughing, even little Terry, as they sat around the kitchen table. 

This was never his life though; sure Bud would stay, and maybe even the demon cat, but the kids were always going to have to move on. Hell, he’d only had Terry for a few hours and yet he just fit in somehow. 

Maybe one day Jason would be able to see them again. Terry wouldn’t remember him, but Edgar and Evelyn might...

“Spare us your internal struggle. It’s far too early in the day for your ridiculous dramatics.” Artemis rolled her eyes as she walked past him into the kitchen.

“Good morning to you, too” Jason huffed, flipping her the bird when he was positive she couldn’t see it.  It’s not like he wanted to get his hand broken.

“He has a thing for redheads.” Roy laughed, holding Terry out to her as the little boy made grabby hands at Artemis, who looked confused and a little uncomfortable.

Jason was sure Artemis had been about to refuse to hold the little boy until Terry’s chin wobbled and the Amazon looked startled and swiftly took the child from Roy.

Less than twelve hours in and Terry had earned his keep, Jason thought with smirk, watching as Terry sighed and settled comfortably in Artemis’ arms.

“I do not—What do I do?”

“Spare us your internal struggle. It’s far too early in the day for your ridiculous dramatics.” Jason grinned, knowing that he would have been socked in the face had Terry not been in her arms.
 

Chapter Text

Jason wasn’t sure how they ended up getting all three kids ready to go, although they managed rather well.

All of them had become rather used to assisting Evelyn when it came to washing up and getting ready, and Edgar –without any prompting—had taken to watching over Terry as the little kid had over the course of just a few hours, began to follow Edgar around and became more animated.

Terry still wouldn’t talk, not that Jason expected that to miraculously change overnight, but the kid was more expressive than Jason expected him to be, pointing at things and even laughing when Bud would occasionally lick his face.

Unlike Edgar and Evelyn, who had a few sets of new clothes that Roy had purchased when they had first taken in the kids, Terry only had what was on him, which was a ratty pair of PJs and his light blue blanket that looked that it had seen better days. 

Any attempt they made at trying to get Terry to part with the blanket to wash it had been met with such a horrified expression on the boy’s face that Biz had swooped in and distracted the boy until he had calmed down.

Jason knew what it was like to have only the clothes on your back and a few meagre possessions to your name. 

“Suit shopping!” Edgar cried out triumphantly, fist punching the air as they made their way down to the car. 

Roy and Jason had exchanged looks and shrugged. If the kid wanted a suit, then a suit he would have. Both men even dressed up for the occasion, with Jason dawning one of his new suits and Roy putting back on the one he had worn the day before. 

Jason wouldn’t admit it out loud, but he was all about spoiling the kids today, especially Terry.  The excitement on Biz’s face, however, didn’t go unnoticed by Jason, who knew that Biz probably already had some sort of shopping strategy for the boy. 

As long as they didn’t come back with a hundred pound stuffed toy that Biz had chosen to purchase on a whim, Jason would call it a win.

Artemis was staying behind, although Jason would have much rather it be her than Biz that accompanied them, if only because she could blend better than Biz could. Well, Biz couldn’t blend in at all really, and Jason figured since he had one foot out of Gotham already, there was no point in keeping to the shadows during the day. 

He did his best not to think about Alfred, but there was no getting around the ten-pound lead ball of guilt that had settled nicely in Jason’s stomach since yesterday.

Terry had not wanted to leave without Artemis, and there were some tears that were shed as the child had latched onto her leg and cried into it.  Jason had never seen Artemis be as gentle as she had been in that moment, kneeling down to speak quietly to the child who eventually nodded, sniffling softly before taking Edgar’s hand and letting himself be led away.

Artemis had looked on with a strange expression on her face, one Jason couldn’t quite make out, but he hadn’t had much time to decipher it as the Amazon had walked away, heading towards the patio once more.  He really had no idea why she was spending so much time out there, but he figured it wasn’t worth getting punched in the face for asking right now. He was pretty sure she hadn’t forgotten about his comeback earlier when she had first gathered Terry in her arms.

“Umm…don’t we need like a car seat or something?” Roy asked as Biz settled Evelyn into the car.

Roy was right, they probably did need a car seat, but they hadn’t planned for this and as long as Roy drove carefully, it would be fine. Plus, Biz would be flying overhead (someone needed to bring the wheelchair with them after all) and could easily swoop in if he saw an accident coming.

“I’ll make sure he puts on his seatbelt!” Edgar exclaimed, helping Terry into the car and buckling him in before doing so for himself.

“Tally ho!” Roy declared, as they finally set off to do some shopping.

***

“Peter, welcome back. I’m sorry I missed you when you picked up your suits earlier this week. “ James smiled as he held out his hand. 

Jason returned the gesture kindly and caught the man looking the rest of them over.

Biz had gone with Terry, seeing as how the little tot didn’t seem to mind separating from the rest of them, while Jason, Roy, Bud, Edgar, and Evelyn were now  in the center of shop. 

As was no surprise, the store was empty, and several of the other store consultants came over, greeting them all, with Bud already happily supplied with water and dog treats.

“Well I’ve brought some people with me this time.” Jason smiled, introducing them all, much to the delight of two of the women there when Jason informed them that they’d be buying some dresses and other clothes for Evelyn.

“Really?” Evelyn asked, her smile so bright that Jason would forever deny almost getting choked up because of it.

“Anything you want. Shall I leave you with the ladies to pick some things out?”

Evelyn nodded.  “But you’ll come see what I pick?”

“Hey! I’m the one with the fashion sense, you know!” Roy gasped in mock indignation, causing Evelyn to giggle.

“You can come see too” Evelyn said, sounding like Roy was silly for even thinking he wouldn’t be invited to come.

With Evelyn now following the ladies to the girl’s section, that left the boys.

Technically Edgar should have gone that way too, since it the entire children’s area was together, but Jason had seen Edgar puff out his chest at the sight of James, who hadn’t missed a beat in shaking the young man’s hand.

“Edgar was impressed with my suits and would like one of his own.” Jason explained with a knowing smirk.

“James, at your service young sir.” James bowed his head.

Edgar smiled, looking pleased to be treated as an adult, while Jason tried to ignore the lump in his throat; that was something Alfred would have said.

“You alright?” Roy whispered as they walked behind James and Edgar towards the adult suits.

Jason nodded, smiling as reassuringly as he could even though he knew Roy would see through it.

Roy squeezed his shoulder before they caught up with Edgar, who was now standing on the pedestal in front of the three mirrors, while James began taking measurements.

“What color suit do you want, Edgar?” Roy asked, not wasting any time in taking photos of the boy who was rattling away while James nodded along and smiled.

“I want a gray one! Please.” Edgar added at the end, watching as James left for a moment and came back, continuing to take measurements when another consultant arrived holding two small suits…one in dark gray (that Jason could have sworn was the exact same material as the one he was wearing), and one in navy. 

Edgar ran off with the suits in his hand, and Jason made to go after him to help the boy in the dressing room, but one of the women that had gone with Evelyn arrived and indicated that the young lady wanted him to come see what she had picked out.

“You go. I got this.” Roy said, heading towards the dressing room while Jason now followed the woman to the other back end of the store.

He smiled as he saw all the nice dresses and coats along the way (and resolutely ignored what he knew were ridiculous prices for children’s clothing), and eventually spotted Evelyn who had picked out a dress.

“Just one?” Jason asked, wondering why there wasn’t any more that she had chosen.

“I know it costs a lot of money. I don’t really need any dresses.” Evelyn said simply, even though Jason could see her eyes still wandering over the other clothes.

“Hey” Jason said, kneeling down in front of her, the women politely moving away to allow them a moment. “Don’t worry about the money. Today is a special day. You don’t have to worry about that at all, okay?”

Evelyn bit her bottom lip, chewing on it thoughtfully.

“This is only a special day because you’re going to leave us soon” she eventually whispered, looking so disheartened that Jason felt compelled to hug her.  Since that was difficult considering her arm and the wheelchair, he ran his fingers through her hair and tucked a strand of it behind her ear.

“If I don’t get any dresses, can we stay with you?”

Jason tried not to stare directly into her eyes because he was pretty sure he would have caved otherwise. 

He wasn’t oblivious to his own feelings about the children, and if what he felt right now was just a fraction of what he’d feel when they left him for good, Jason knew it was going to fucking hurt in ways he wasn’t going to be prepared for.

“Evelyn…” Jason tried to figure out what to say, but Evelyn shook her head and smiled.

“It’s okay.” Evelyn said, actually sounding like she was trying to reassure him now before moving around again and going to pick out some other dresses.

He did his best to ignore the pressure in his chest and focused on smiling and complimenting Evelyn on the pretty dresses she picked out and tried on (with the assistance of the ladies). Despite her attempt to bargain with him, she appeared lighter and more carefree with each dress she tried on.

“Edgar pretty much has James wrapped around his finger. He’s also trying to hand over his money in hopes of getting a second suit.” Roy said as he came over, causing Jason to laugh.

“Swap?” Jason asked, grateful that Roy agreed and he made his way back to Edgar, who was now standing still as James pinned the pant legs on the suit.

“There is very little altering that needs to be done. I can have it completed within the hour.” James spoke as he stood up and took a step back, watching Edgar twist and turn to check himself out.

Jason insisted there was no rush as he went to help Edgar out of the suit without getting pricked by the pins.

“Can I use my money to get the other one?” Edgar asked hopefully, coming out of the dressing room and running over to the navy suit.

Jason looked over at James and gave the man a slight nod.

“I’ll get you the second suit. You get us all ice cream later. Deal?”

Edgar grinned and stuck out his hand, shaking Jason’s hand as hard as he could.

“Deal!”

***

“Well that was a success!” Roy grinned, eating his ice cream sundae and not caring one bit about how it was all over his mouth rather than in it. The only one that was almost as messy was Bud, who was licking her ice cream with gusto from the large cup on the floor.

Two suits for Edgar, complete with shoes and the whole works, and three dresses for Evelyn, complete with shoes and socks and some pretty bows she had taken a liking too but then attempted to convince them that she shouldn’t get them because they were too ‘girly’.

Roy had been the one to convince her to get them, saying there was nothing wrong with being ‘girly’ if that’s what she wanted.  He had even placed a bow in his hair to prove his point.

So Evelyn had received her bows, and Roy had scored the number of ‘Gwen’ (one of the ladies helping Evelyn) for ‘being utterly charming’.  Win-win for both of them, Jason thought.

He’d also taken the kids to see Sal for haircuts, which –to no ones surprise- Edgar wanted the same haircut Jason had. Jason was thankful that Edgar didn’t know about the white streak in his hair otherwise he was sure the boy would have wanted that too. 

Roy had  attempted to convince Edgar that it was then only fair that they also dye his hair orange.

Edgar had looked horrified, and Evelyn had laughed as she had graciously volunteered to do it instead. Not that they actually did it of course, but she had gotten massive bonus points with Roy for being a good sport.

With Evelyn’s new haircut -a cute little bob that was easy to maintain and still long enough to pull back into a ponytail- and Edgar’s preppy cut with his hair gelled slightly to the side, Jason snapped a few photos of them before he saw Biz come into the ice cream shop with Terry…and about ten bags.

“What in the hell…?” Jason muttered, trying to take a look in all the bags while Roy picked up Terry and handed the kid a spoon.

Jason had never known a kid not to like ice cream, but Terry seemed unsure of what to make of the ice cream sundae before Roy had scooped some with his spoon for Terry to taste.  That was all it took for Terry to light up and attempt a face plant into it.

“I don’t think he’s had ice cream before…” Evelyn whispered to Jason, giggling, as they both watched Terry clap his hands in delight.

Just the thought of it made Jason angry, that all three of these kids had been through all sorts of shit and on top of that, one of them had never even had ice cream.  It was a small thing sure, but it mattered to Jason because it only served to make him wonder about how else Terry had been neglected in his short time on earth.

“Biz, what did you buy exactly?” Jason sighed, looking through the bags as Biz took the opportunity to steal Jason’s cup of mint chip.

Much to Jason’s surprise, everything that Biz had ended up buying was actually a necessity. From soap, children’s medicine (which Jason had stupidly not thought of before), a child’s toothbrush and toothpaste, toddler utensils, and child’s thermometer, to all sorts of clothes and a few small toys. 

“Biz did good?”

Jason looked up and found his friend looking unsure of himself when there was absolutely no reason to.

“You did better than good, Biz. I wouldn’t have even thought of half this stuff!”

Biz looked pleased, except for when Jason took his ice cream back and told Biz to go get his own.

“So what’s next?!” Edgar asked, looking rather stuffed from his fill of ice cream but still making eyes at the remainder of Roy’s.

Jason looked at his watch and realized that time had gone a lot faster than he’d expected it to.

“Well, we have to go back and see the Doc to finish up your check-ups so we can get some special cards for school” Jason explained, not wanting to break the news of more shots just yet. “And, we also have to go get Terry checked out now too.”

“But that’s boring!” Edgar huffed, causing Terry to do the same.

Adorable wasn’t exactly a word Jason used but it definitely would have been a good descriptor for the way Terry imitated the older boy.

“I know it is. But we can have pizza for dinner!” Roy pointed out, which then led to an argument about what toppings would go on said pizza. 

The argument continued all the way back to the car, until they got close enough to see into the driver’s seat.

“Wilson!” Evelyn smiled happily, while Roy and Jason looked on, the cat sitting on the driver’s side dash board and staring at them.

“Did he make a copy of the car key? Look at him! He wants to run us over…” Roy whispered, actually sounding panicked while the kids ignored the adults and went over to the car. 

Jason was now starting to think that Roy was onto something when they first ran into the cat. “How the hell did he even get in the car?!”

He looked at Biz, who shrugged and got the kids settled in the car while Wilson chose to sit in Evelyn’s lap, much to her delight.

“We taking him with us then?” Roy asked as he got into the driver’s seat, watching Biz take off with the wheelchair. 

“I’m going to take that as a ‘yes’” Jason sighed, getting into the car and turning around to face the cat.

“You behave, okay?” Jason warned, pointing a finger at Wilson. The cat yawned and turned over, tucking his face into Evelyn’s lap.

Jason growled; fucking cat had the nerve to turn his back to him. 

“Evelyn, it’s your job to protect us now from Lord Wilson, Destroyer of Worlds!” Roy laughed, putting the car in drive and heading towards Park Row.

***

“I’m sensing a theme here…” Leslie said as she eyed the group in front of her. 

The redhead, Roy, wasn’t unfamiliar, but the young boy Jason was currently holding was. Oh, and the giant dog that was now sitting in the corner.

“This is Terry. Found him last night.”

Leslie knew that meant either the child had been on the streets or Jason had removed him from an unsafe situation. No more needed to be said on the subject, but it was definitely not what she had been expecting. Then again, the past twenty-four hours had seen strange things (even stranger than normal).

Roy, waited with Terry outside while Leslie took Jason, Edgar, and Evelyn into the examination room. 

She asked the usual questions, examined Evelyn’s arm to see if the bruising was going down (it was), checked to make sure she was in no pain from her surgery, and  removed two yellow cards from a drawer.

“Those are so that we can go to school, right?”

The young boy asked, and Leslie handed over his immunization card with a smile.

“Yes.” Leslie nodded. “These are important. I have a copy of them in case they ever get lost, but I’m going to give them to Jason to keep for you.”

Jason took the cards, and eyed the tray with syringes already ready with vials nearby. So did the kids, if their flinches were any indication.

“Okay, I know it sucks.” Jason admitted, kneeling down in front of the children. “But it’s the last ones.  And I think Terry might need some too and we’ll have to show him it’s not a big deal.”

Edgar nodded sagely and stuck out his arm.

“Go on. I can take it!”

Jason tried not to laugh at Edgar’s dramatics, but Leslie took advantage of it and quickly administered the three remaining shots.  If the boy’s lip trembled, no one commented on it, but Leslie had watched Jason hug him after it was over, whispering how brave he’d been.

Leslie tried not to smile at that, and moved on to Evelyn, who was waiting patiently with her arm out and didn’t react at all to the needles, even offering Leslie a soft “thank you” when it as done.

“All done?” Edgar asked, clearly eager to get out of the office.

“Yes, all done.” Leslie smiled at the children as they exited, although Jason hung behind.

“I need an eye doctor recommendation.”

“For school?” Leslie asked.

“Yeah, and Evelyn says Edgar squints a lot of the time and doesn’t want to admit he may need glasses so it was going to have to happen either way.” Jason explained.

Leslie nodded, finding the number and address to an eye doctor she sent patients to and handed it over.

“Thanks. Let me go get Terry.”

It didn’t go unnoticed by Leslie that Jason was having a difficult time maintaining eye-contact with her. It was unlikely he knew about her conversation with Alfred from the day before, but she could see his guilty conscience as soon as he had come into the clinic.

It reminded her vividly of the time when he’d been a little older than Edgar and had stolen medical supplies from her for his mother.

She hadn’t accused him of it, and she supposed that the silence had been worse for Jason than if she had.  It was one of the few times she’d seen Jason cry, looking completely lost and unsure of how he was going to be able to help a woman that was beyond the help a young boy could provide (no matter how many medical supplies he stole).

Jason returned with Terry in his arms, and Edgar alongside him.

Not a bad choice, Leslie thought, considering Edgar would be able to keep Terry distracted when it was necessary.

She began the routine check-up, which started the way it normally did with scared children – with an inspection of the stethoscope.

Terry was fascinated by it, and Leslie played along, allowing the little boy to place it over his heart so he could listen, and then let her do so as well.

It took some time but eventually Terry was given the all clear in terms of overall health. 

Jason mentioned having given him a bath this morning and having just bought the boy clothes, which would explain the worn-out pajamas and dirty security blanket which Terry would not part with.

“Alright, it’s time for the last bit” Leslie said, revealing a new set of syringes which Terry saw but didn’t react to.

Jason hoped that it would be over and done with quickly, and Edgar kept Terry entertained with non-stop chatter as Leslie started the first injection.

Terry immediately looked down at his arm, sitting completely still before the pain registered and he let out a gut-wrenching sob which had Jason looking panicked and apologizing over and over again as he scooped Terry up and held him close.

“Just…keep going…” Jason’s voice sounded strangled as he tried to calm Terry who was distraught.

By the time it was over, even Edgar had run out, causing Roy to immediately stand up and take Terry, who had almost flown out of Jason’s arms in an attempt to get away from him.

“He’s terrified of me…” Jason said, obviously in slight shock himself and standing there looking like a dejected puppy.

Leslie had been about to say that she’d be rich if she had a quarter for every parent she’d heard say the exact same thing or looked the way he did when their child had been in a similar position.

“He’ll be fine…” Leslie reassured, moving to get a few sugar-free lollipops and holding them up in front of Terry, who was still crying but more to show his displeasure than from the pain.

“You were so brave!” Leslie grinned, “As a treat, you can pick whichever one you like!”

Terry looked skeptical, but he stopped crying, instead trying to look like he didn’t really care about a lollipop when he really wanted one.

“See? He’ll get over it.” Leslie pointed out not unkindly as they watched Terry suck on his grape lollipop but refuse to look at Jason.

Leslie was pretty sure that Jason was more traumatized than Terry was by the ordeal.

“I know that this isn’t the best segway here, but now would be a good time to discuss what I messaged you about. If Roy here can watch over everyone for a little while?”

Leslie asked cautiously, watching as Jason took a deep breath and nodded.

“I’ll meet you guys at home. Don’t forget to order pizza.”

“Yeah, pizza!” Edgar declared, trying to get Terry excited with him but to no avail.

“Bye Terry…I’m so sorry…” Jason whispered quietly, trying to rub Terry’s back only to have the boy squirm in Roy’s arms as if trying to get away from him.

Roy shot him an apologetic look before saying goodbye and taking the kids back to the car.

Jason stood there looking so upset with himself that some of Leslie’s anger towards him faded. 

She was well aware of the fact that Jason had gone through far more in his young life than anyone should ever have to go through and the cards he had been dealt had never been good.

“Come on. I’ll make us some tea.” Leslie nodded to the break room, putting on the kettle and doing what she had done the day before as Jason took a seat where Alfred had sat, looking every bit as thoughtful.

The few minutes it took to prepare the tea went some ways in helping Jason feel better, enough so that he could tell her how he took his tea, which – surprise – was exactly how Alfred took it.

“So, you have a family in mind then?” Jason asked, not actually looking too thrilled about it.

Leslie nodded. “I do.  There’s a couple I’ve known for quite some time. They’ve donated money to the clinic over the years-“

Jason scoffed and Leslie knew what he was thinking.

“They’re not wealthy and looking to take on children as a charity case.  They fell on hard times years ago, and have been lucky enough to get their feet back under them. The gentleman, Tom, is in construction, and Linda works as an office manager.”

“So if they’ve just been able to get their feet underneath them, why would you trust that something wouldn’t happen to destabilize them again?”

“It wasn’t drugs or any sort of substance abuse, Jason. You know there’s no way I’d even consider anyone that I didn’t think suitable” Leslie reminded him.    

She understood his distrust, but she had known the Turners a long time. 

“As I said, it was years ago, and unfortunately due to complications with her pregnancy, she had begun to visit my clinic.”

“So they have a kid already, then?”

Leslie shook her head, watching as Jason realized what had happened.

“They are eager to start a family of their own. They’re not too young, early thirties, and good people with a nice apartment near Robinson Park. Not the most affluent area of Gotham but it’s definitely not Park Row.”

Jason grunted, which Leslie understood to mean reluctant agreement; he and Bruce had that in common.

“They’ve been trying through the city to go through the adoption process but it’s been one setback after another or paperwork being misplaced or lost. I think you’d like them.” Leslie replied.

“Going from no kids to three is kind of crazy. Trust me, I know. Are you sure they’re actually prepared for that?” Jason pushed back, although not aggressively.

“Three?” Leslie frowned. “You want them adopted together?”

“Well yeah! Of course!” Jason chuckled before seeing that Leslie was being serious.

She shook her head. “Two children are hard enough to place, Jason.  I didn’t know about Terry, and finding decent people that would take on three children...?”

She let the question trail off. It was going to be virtually impossible for her to find anyone that would take that on.

“Terry is young enough to be adopted rather quickly considering he’s under five-“

“No. He goes with them. I’m not separating them.” Jason said, the steel underneath his words clear.

“Okay…I’ll ask them if that’s something they’re open to. If they are, maybe you could meet them? If you like them then we can just take it from there.”

Jason looked conflicted and like he’d been about to say something but nodded instead.

“Send me everything you know about them. If they’ve so much as been cited for a parking ticket in the last decade, I want to know about it.”

Leslie laughed, which clearly wasn’t what Jason had been expecting. It wasn’t like he’d said something particularly funny.

“You really are your father’s son sometimes.” She couldn’t help but comment, expecting him to try and bolt but instead he sat there glaring at her.

“He’s not my father.”

“Fine then. What about your grandfather?” Leslie asked, taking a sip of her tea and watching the color drain from Jason’s face.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.” Leslie countered, her words holding the same steel undertone that Jason’s had.

“I don’t regret what I said!” Jason blurted out as he stood up, sounding like his childhood self yet again.

“Even the threat to his life?”

If Leslie thought the color had drained from Jason’s face before, then he was practically translucent now as he fell back down onto the chair.

“I didn’t--I’d never-“ Jason shook his head, closing his eyes and taking a few deep breaths.

“He knows that Jason. You shouldn’t have said that, but he knows” Leslie reassured him, placing a hand on his arm. He didn’t shake it off.

“But some of the things you said-“ she chided before Jason snapped.

“It’s his fault Bruce is the asshole he is! Where was Alfred before now? He went along with everything Bruce wanted!”

“I agree.”

“He just sat back and—what?” Jason stopped short, realizing what Leslie had said.  “You…agree?”

“I do.” Leslie confirmed. “What I don’t agree with are some of the cruel things you said.  Whether or not you had valid points, you said things to intentionally hurt Alfred, and you succeeded.”

Jason was quiet for a moment. 

“I thought you said you agreed with me.” He tried joking, only to have it come out sounding tired and sad.

“Regarding how Alfred raised Bruce? Yes. We fought about it for years and eventually I gave up that fight. I regret it considering I too was his guardian. He-“

“What?” Jason’s head shot up as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You didn’t know?” Leslie asked, although she supposed that made sense.

She only ever saw Bruce when it was a medical emergency of some kind. Occasionally there’d be a check in the mail for the clinic but she never cashed them, always insulted by the gesture.

 “It wasn’t just Alfred that was listed as Bruce’s guardian when his parents died.”

“I-He never said…” Jason breathed out, gazing at Leslie now as if he’d never seen her before.

“There are many things that happened before you entered Bruce’s life, Jason. Even before Dick, even before Batman…”

“That still doesn’t excuse Alfred at all.  Where was he when I needed him?! Batman’s Batman right? Where the hell was he when I needed him?!” Jason’s voice cracked as he slammed his mug down on the table, ignoring the tea that sloshed over his hand.

“You’re right, maybe it doesn’t excuse him.  But that’s just it” Leslie explained. “He realized, after seeing you a few days ago, that he was done with the way things were and wanted to protect the life you built for yourself now. He wanted you to know he was there for you even if you never spoke with the others ever again.”

“Well then he’s got shit timing then, doesn’t he?  All of a sudden he grows a pair and then finds my home and now I’ve had to-“ Jason took a breath, realizing that there was only so much information he wanted Leslie to know now.

“He knows he made a mistake seeking you out; he understands that. And from what I can tell, he’s made damn sure Bruce can’t find you. Even if he does, he’s had years to try and see you or catch you or whatever the hell it is that you two were doing.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters.” Leslie countered, looking unphased by Jason standing back up and watching him head for the door.

“I know you plan on leaving Gotham, and I wish you a great life. You were always a good kid and I-“

Jason laughed and shook his head in disbelief. “Why the hell do people keep saying that?! I was a horrible kid!”

“Well then we’ll just have to agree to disagree then, Jason. You’re still wrong though.”

Jason laughed again, although this time there was a little warmth behind it.

“Look, thanks for everything, Doc. With the kids and the family and all of this. Of everyone in this shit town, you’ve always been there for me and you’ve never let this city down.”

“You’re leaving Gotham soon.” Leslie stated before Jason shrugged noncommittally.

‘Definitely soon then’, Leslie thought.

“Will you do something for me before you go?”

“If you ask me to go hug it out with everyone then-“ Jason warned.

Leslie shook her head.  “Write something.”

“What?”

“To Alfred. When you were younger he said you always had such a way with words. I think he’d appreciate a letter. I know you’re sorry…” Leslie cut Jason off as she watched him open his mouth to respond, “…and maybe you’re unable to say it in person, but you could write it. Just a thought.”

“Yeah…I don’t think so, Doc.” Jason said, sounding apologetic.

He said his goodbyes and left the clinic, leaving Leslie wondering if she’d said too much or pushed too hard, too soon.

All the anger she had felt from seeing Alfred yesterday had left her and the conversation had gone differently than expected.

As she watched his retreating form from the window, she wondered if this really was going to be the last time she saw him.
 

Chapter Text

The eventful day of clothes shopping, ice cream, and doctor visits ended back at the penthouse, with Jason coming back an hour after the others had returned.

Based on what Roy relayed to him, Terry had immediately began to search the place before finding Artemis and making a beeline towards her, holding up his arm, pointing to the Mickey Mouse bandages that were on it, and making all sorts of frustrated expressions.

Artemis had knelt down and examined the bandages, nodding with such seriousness that one would think he’d been showing off battle wounds. Although to a three year old, that probably wasn’t much of a stretch.

“Ouch...” Terry had whispered, causing Roy to stop short and Artemis to raise an eyebrow. It was the only word they had heard him utter so far.

So by the time Jason came back and found out about this new development, he could also see Artemis pointing to old scars on her unbandaged arms which Terry appeared fascinated by and was listening rather intently to her describing the ways in which she had received them. Which meant that everything that came out of her mouth was not three-year-old appropriate.

Jason let it be though, considering Terry was still giving him the cold shoulder. Thankfully it didn’t last too long as he’d given Terry some pizza to try. The boy apparently liked it so much that Jason was immediately back in his good books, and the rest of evening was filled with even more pizza, TV, and laughter.

The next day also brought with it confirmation of a tour of Robinson Academy, along with placement testing.

As Roy had mentioned to Jason previously, the school was quite keen on getting the children situated and were being extremely accommodating despite the lack of complete paperwork. Oliver Queen’s name certainly continued to do the trick.

Jason kept the school tour a surprise, not just because it was something he knew the siblings would be excited about, but because he also wanted to make sure they slept.

He wasn’t planning on going on patrol at all, and used that time to tag team some detective work with Roy.

While Jason dug into Tom and Linda Turner’s background, Roy was setting up another scan of parents, students, and faculty to ensure the school really would be a safe environment.

It was always a bad idea to take chances in Gotham when you didn’t need to.

By the time the sun began to rise, Roy was fast asleep, Biz was off with Artemis sparring somewhere, and Jason had spent all night attempting to find anything at all that would dismiss the couple that Doc had suggested.

Nothing had come up. Not even a parking ticket.

Their social media pages had revealed a happy-looking couple who had a close network of friends (some of whom had children around Edgar and Evelyn’s ages), liked old movies, and Mexican food. They even had a dog, a small terrier, that they seemed to dote on.

Jason hadn’t really been sure what he’d envisioned when he thought about what type of family he’d want for the kids, but the Turners...looked pretty good.

Financially, they weren’t in horrible shape, but they certainly weren’t close to being upper-middle class.

Even though Jason had every intention of making sure the children were set for life, it wasn’t something he’d mention outright. Not until he was absolutely certain the children would be loved and cared for because they were amazing and not because of the money attached to them.

Now it was only a matter of seeing whether the couple would be interested in three children instead of two, and more importantly, if they were in fact interested, whether or not the children liked them.

A few hours later, when the kids were up and everyone was clean and dressed (the siblings looking rather formal in their new clothes), Jason had taken a photo of all three kids (a candid shot as they were huddled together on the couch watching Mary Poppins for what felt like the millionth time) and sent it to Doc to pass on.

Then of course, he revealed where they were going, much to Edgar and Evelyn’s delight.

“We’re going to school!”

Edgar had skipped all the way down to the car, with Evelyn easily keeping up in the wheelchair.

Jason and Roy were heading over together, while Biz was currently entertaining Terry with Pup Pup, much to the boy’s delight. Both men chose to keep silent on having watched Artemis feed the little boy breakfast that morning.

“Maybe Artemis should take Terry.” Roy had suggested as they drove towards the school.

“To where exactly? She’s either on missions with us or doing missions with...other people...” Jason actually wasn’t too sure what Artemis got up to when she wasn’t with them, and he didn’t ask.

“Yeah, but she’s got family.” Roy pointed out.

“Her family consists of other Amazon warriors who spend their lives training for battle” Jason said wryly. “Also, no men at all.”

“Well, I can think of worse places to be brought up,” Roy grinned. “Surrounded by strong, powerful women? Sign me the hell up.”

Both men laughed, causing Edgar to ask what they found so hilarious.

“Roy is being silly.” Evelyn said, smiling.

Edgar looked disappointed as he leaned back in his seat. “He’s always silly!”

That caused another bout of laughter from them all and Roy threatening to toss them from the car.

***

“Mr. Otod, Mr. O’Toole, welcome to Robinson Academy. I’m Mr. Hodges, we spoke on the phone earlier.”

Larry Hodges, Headmaster of Robinson Academy, was a short, portly fellow with a thinning hairline and a wide smile.

Whether or not it was genuine was too soon to tell, but Jason didn’t particularly care as long as the school was a good fit for the two visibly excited and anxious children by his side.

Both Jason and Roy shook the gentleman’s offered hand, before the man turned his attention to the kids, making note of how formal the children were dressed and shooting Evelyn a sympathetic look with her slinged-up arm, leg cast, and wheelchair.

With the school having been notified of Edgar and Evelyn’s parents passing in a car accident that had resulted in Evelyn’s injuries, Jason had ensured that no one at the school would ask about the accident or their parents or make any sort of pitying comment. 

It had been duly noted by Mr. Hodges, who immediately cleared his face and extended a hand to both kids.

“And you two must be Mr. Edgar, and Ms. Evelyn. I must say, you both are looking rather dapper.” He declared, still smiling.

Edgar puffed up from the compliment, and Evelyn gave a soft smile in return.

“They wanted to make a good impression.” Roy said, earning him a pleased chuckle from the man as they were escorted inside.

Jason hadn’t been sure what to expect really, even though he had attended a fancy private school himself, but it was a relief to see that despite the usual Gothic architecture of the main building, the interior was bright and warm, the hallways quiet as students were in class, but artwork and posters adorned the walls.

They spent some time walking and stopping occasionally to read over school events on the bulletin boards, Edgar’s eyes widening as he pointed to a poster that had caught his interest.

“I did hear that you had an interest in computer science.” Mr. Hodges said, chuckling. “I have some student ambassadors joining us later that will be more than happy to answer your questions about any and all clubs, including the literature club” he added, seeing as how Evelyn looked extremely interested in their poster.

The entire tour took them through almost every area of the school, with Mr. Hodges speaking about the longstanding traditions of the school, notable alumni, as well as the various languages that were taught (either French, German, or Italian were a requirement, with additional languages optional as an elective), and sports teams.

Along with the usual sports such as swimming, tennis, basketball, and football, Robinson Academy also had fencing, equestrian, and Judo.

The last one had Jason and Roy shooting each other bemused looks, while Evelyn was eager to see the horses which were apparently on site in the school stables, and Edgar was already asking for a sword.

“You’ll have plenty of time to pick what you’d like, in the meantime, we have to get your school schedules figured out.” Mr. Hodges reminded them cheerfully, coming to a stop in front of a classroom door and looking at both Jason and Roy.

“I have taken the liberty of having a sampling from our elementary, middle, and high school placement exams created, so that it will be easier to determine where would be a good fit in terms of grade-level.”

“I’m sure you hear this from probably every single parent but the children are rather advanced in key areas, so we are concerned about opportunities to keep them challenged.” Jason explained, having thought about how he would express the fact that his kids were smart as hell.

Mr. Hodges nodded. “I made note of Mr. Queen’s comments that he sent over. I must say, I was extremely impressed by the personal level of attention Mr. Queen gave this.  It’s very nice to see how well he takes care of his employees.”

Roy tried not to grimace while Jason did his best to smile. 

As far as the school knew, both Mr. Otod and Mr. O’Toole were senior executives working for Queen Industries , having recently transferred to Gotham City in order to handle arrangements for the children as their temporary guardians.

The school appeared to eat up whatever stories they came up with, which certainly worked in their favor now, although being referred to as ‘employees’ of Queen still ruffled the feathers a bit.

“What did he mention, exactly?” Jason asked.

“That there was a possibility that they might have to be placed in more advanced grade levels for certain courses, but overall you wished them to be with those of the same age.  Considering we don’t really have much information on Star City’s public school system, I thought it best to cover all our bases.”

Whether or not that was a dig about public schooling, Jason let it slide.  The guy wasn’t exactly wrong, considering the vast difference between public and private school here in Gotham.

A woman wearing a hideously orange dress appeared from behind the door, and was introduced to them as Mrs. Jared, one of the school administrators (and Ancient Greek teacher) that would be proctoring their placement exams.

“We haven’t studied though!” Edgar bit his lip nervously, this being the first he’d heard the word ‘exams’.

“Nothing to study, buddy. Just do your best. There’s no pass or fail.” Jason reassured him, squeezing his shoulder.

Mrs. Jared, despite her horrible fashion sense, nodded in agreement.  “Exactly. Plus, you can take all the time you need.  If something is too hard or difficult, you can just skip over it.”

“No time limit?” Roy murmured under his breath, which Jason caught.

Due the children’s ‘tragic’ circumstances, they had received an exemption from the time limits, which was probably good considering Jason didn’t think that the kids had ever actually taken a test before.

“Here, let me show you.”

They all went inside, where two large desks were already prepared with everything they would need, including some bottled water. Evelyn’s desk was obviously the one that was wheelchair accessible, which earned the school points for being mindful of her limited mobility right now.

Any concern about whether or not they wouldn’t want to take the tests were squashed as Edgar ran over to sit down, and Evelyn followed close behind.

“We’ll come find you when we’re done.” Mrs. Jared said, closing the door and leaving the three men standing there.

With the children out of earshot, Mr. Hodges went over security protocols at the school considering the vast number of student body that had parents that were high-ranking government officials, diplomats, or senior-executives such as the two of them.

Jason nodded along, relieved to hear that the place was well fortified. Not to a level that would be difficult for him or the Bats, but at the very least, no one could just come up and randomly pick up a student.

Eventually he tuned out Mr. Hodges, letting Roy take the lead as he hung back, smiling as he ran his hands over the lockers, remembering what it was like when he had been assigned one for the very first time.

Locker 112-212. Combination 8-1-2; he’d never forgotten it.

“And here we have my office” Mr. Hodges declared, taking them inside and offering them some coffee.

He reviewed with them all the documents that had originally been emailed over, with Jason stating they were still gathering all the relevant information they’d need.

“Take your time, take your time. I know you’re both temporary guardians, and Mr. Queen had the appropriate documentation sent over.  Normally there’s just tuition to sort out, but again, I must say, having tuition fees taken care of already certainly eliminates a lot of paperwork.”

Jason blinked in surprised. “Right...”

Clearly Oliver had disregarded what Jason had said in terms of payment.

“For the semester or year?” Jason asked, figuring it wasn’t an unusual question.

Hearing Roy clear his throat, Jason looked over. If he didn’t know any better, he would have said Roy looked rather uncomfortable.

“I spoke with Mr. Queen yesterday” Roy explained slowly, more for Jason’s benefit than Mr. Hodges. “He cashed out some of my shares to take care of tuition.”

Jason opened his mouth to say something, but Mr. Hodges beat him to it.

“Well I can honestly say that in all my years at Robinson, I’ve never had four years of tuition paid in full.” The man sounded extremely pleased about it. Jason didn’t blame him.

Four years?! Jason kept his face pleasantly neutral, even as his mind swirled.  He wasn’t sure if Roy was actually serious or just covering for Queen, but regardless, this was the first Jason was hearing about it.

“We’ve waived all administrative, book, supplies, sports, and club fees for the entirety of their schooling here, in appreciation.”

Conversations continued now  going over start dates for school. They weren’t far behind in terms of the year considering it was still early in the semester, and although Jason didn’t find all the administrative crap to be interesting, he paid particularly close attention because any mistake or oversight made on their part could have consequences for Edgar and Evelyn.

An hour and a half later and both brother and sister met up with him and Roy by the school cafeteria, which was now filled with chattering kids in their school uniforms.

“So? How did it go?” Jason asked, trying to catch their attention which was clearly on the hundreds of students eating and laughing away.

“It went well. We can discuss the results while they go to lunch.” Mrs. Jared appeared, still clad in her orange dress with was practically blinding Jason every time he looked at it.

“Lunch?”

At Roy and Jason’s confusion, a young girl and young boy looking perfectly polished in school attire came up and waved.

“Ah, perfect! Just the two I wanted to see!” Mr. Hodges declared.

“This is Lily and James, student ambassadors and part of our student council,” he explained. “We have a table set aside for certain events, particularly when we have new students, as you can see.”

He pointed towards a table whether the only thing unusual about it was that it had a group of eight or so kids, all looking to be of completely different ages, from elementary all the way to high-schoolers.

“Nice to meet you! Please, no Harry Potter jokes though.” The young boy, James, insisted with a grin, while Lily laughed and rolled her eyes.

“You like Harry Potter?” Evelyn asked, looking at the boy with interest.

“Who doesn’t? It’s the best!”

Jason’s smile melted off his face and morphed into a frown as Evelyn’s cheeks reddened. 

He didn’t like this James boy.

There wasn’t much he could do though as he watched the two students make quick friends with Edgar and Evelyn, comments already being made about signing Evelyn’s cast by the time they reached their table.

“Why all the different age groups?” Roy asked, looking on as all the kids exchanged pleasantries with one another.  Although Jason didn’t like how James had sat on the edge of the bench, closest to Evelyn.

“We have a zero tolerance policy here in terms of bullying and harassment. Having students from all three tiers of school helps promotes a better sense of community and friendship. Plus, with us not knowing exactly what grade they’d be placed into, it’s also a good way to ensure they’ve already made friends.” Mr. Hodges explained, following Mrs. Jared back to the office.

While Jason wasn’t too keen on this ‘James’ fellow, there was no denying just how happy the children looked as they chatted away, lunch being brought over to them by Lily as they sat there together as if they’d known each other for ages. 

It hurt, but it was the good kind of hurt, Jason reasoned, pulling himself away from the cafeteria and following the other adults.

“So, what’s the verdict?”

“Impressive, actually,” Mrs. Jared said, handing over the scores which Jason couldn’t make heads or tails of. From the looks of it, Roy wasn’t having much luck with it either.

“Evelyn scored in the upper quartile for sixth-grade mathematics and sciences, however her reading and vocabulary are well above that.”

“How ‘above that’ are we talking here?” Roy asked, leaning forward at the same time as Jason.

“Eleventh-grade level.”

Jason looked over at Roy, and then back at the two school officials, noting that they appeared surprised, but not overly so.

“So, what does that mean exactly?” Jason asked, not wanting her to just be thrown into high school. That was out of the question.

“She’ll be placed in sixth-grade, our advanced group.” Mrs. Jared recommended. “For her english and literature courses, we can have her schedule adjusted to have her attend the high school classes.”

“Which means?” Roy asked, wanting it to be clear.

“She’ll be doing a majority of her classes with peers her own age, except for those in which she obviously needs much more of a challenge.”

“I assure you, despite the age difference, this is not the first time we’ve had students enrolled in classes several years above their own.” Mr. Hodges said.

“And you’re sure she won’t be picked on.” Roy challenged, surprising Jason a little by the hint of warning behind his tone.

“Absolutely. Again, the benefit of having lunch with students from varying grades, emphasizes that.  We usually assign a student liason for the first month, which we can extend if necessary.”

“What grade is James in?” Jason couldn’t help but ask.

“He’s in the sixth grade, which works out splendidly all things considered.” Mr. Hodges said, pleased.

“Great.”

Only Roy caught the sarcasm and bit his lip to keep from laughing. Clearing his throat, he asked the other important question.

“And Edgar? Similar situation?”

Mrs. Jared chuckled. “Actually, yes. Edgar’s reading , vocabulary, and science scores are on par with the sixth-grade level, so about two years above average for a student here his age. However, in mathematics, he came away with near full marks, so my recommendation would be advanced algebra, possibly even pre-calculus.”

That didn’t surprise Jason or Roy at all.

“So sixth-grade overall for Edgar, except for math?” Roy confirmed, getting nods in response.

At least brother and sister would be in the same grade together with just enough differences in schedule to help them make their own set of friends as well.

“I’ll also have one of our life and computer science teachers speak to them about electives, as I know Edgar was excited about the latter subject. Other than that, we have a set course of electives we recommend for new students.

Jason shook his head.  He wanted them to take whatever they were drawn to.

“Considering all that they’ve been through, having them be able to select their own electives seems like the best course of action.” Jason explained in an overly sympathetic tone which he knew would do the trick.

He received sympathetic nods of agreement.

“Of course, of course!” Mr. Hodges exclaimed. “I know you’re both busy trying to sort out permanent guardianship of the children, so I will have my secretary take care of ordering the books and supplies and all that. I’m afraid they’ll still have to go for uniform fittings though.”

Jason and Roy looked at each other and smiled. “Edgar is something of a suit fiend. I doubt he’d mind the uniform.”

Contrary to what people might have thought, Jason had actually liked wearing a uniform to school.  Not only did you not have to use much brain power to get dressed in the morning, but you also didn’t have kids comparing themselves to each other in terms of clothing and accessories. Everyone wearing the same thing was good in Jason’s opinion.

“You have the information about our uniform supplier, yes?” Mr. Hodges confirmed, thanking Mrs. Jared for her time as she left the office.  Jason was grateful; it had been like trying not to look at the sun.

By the time their meeting was over, Jason and Roy had received the finalized school schedules and list of electives before they were led back to the cafeteria just as the bell rung and kids began hurrying through the halls.

Jason really missed this; he missed just being there to learn something.

“Bye Edgar! Bye Evelyn!”

Jason watched as the kids from the student council table smiled and said their goodbyes, trying to finish up conversations that had continued on from the lunch table.

He also noticed that Evelyn’s cast was a lot busier than it had been before. It looked like she’d received at least a dozen more drawings and signatures.

“Bye Edgar! Bye Evelyn…we’ll talk more about Harry Potter next time.”

Jason narrowed his eyes as he watched James offer up a small smile and a wave, with Evelyn responding in kind and shyly ducking her head.

“Someone’s got a bit of a crush…” Roy whispered, nudging Jason with his elbow. 

Jason grunted, standing there looking displeased. 

Roy figured this probably wasn’t a good time to mention how much he looked like Bruce right now.

“She’s too young. And he’s a boy. He’s…a boy.” Jason repeated, not able to come up with anything else.

Luckily the conversation went unheard in the loud halls that eventually quieted down.

“So did we pass?” Edgar asked.

Jason laughed. “I told ya, kid. There was no pass or fail. But we’ve got your schedules, and you can even pick some of your classes.  You each will have some special classes because you’re both so smart, but other than that, you guys will be in the same grade! Sixth!”

Edgar looked at Evelyn with such a joyous expression on his face that it made Jason wish he actually had a brother or sister growing up.  Maybe it would have changed things. Or maybe it wouldn’t have.

“-LGTBQ alliance. We may value tradition, but we’re not stuck in it. My husband, a teacher here, actually oversees the club.” Mr. Hodges said, Jason just catching up to whatever conversation was going on between the man and Roy.

“So how did you two meet?” Mr. Hodges asked.

Jason opened his mouth but Roy grinned and beat him to a response as he looped his arm through Jason’s.

“Office romance. Met years ago. We absolutely hated each other. I’m pretty sure he wanted to punch me a few times.” Roy laughed in delight. “We really could have made a romantic comedy with our story. Isn’t that right, Petey?”

“Sounds about right.” Jason smiled.

He would punch Roy later.

Chapter Text

“We really appreciate you meeting with us. I won’t lie, I almost didn’t believe it when we spoke to Leslie.”

Jason smiled, trying not to appear as anxious as the couple seated across from him were.

They were currently seated outside a small coffee shop in Burnside, surrounded by trendy youths who were carrying drinks that were probably all soy and almond milk and “is this gluten-free?”

The Turners fit right in here, despite their lack of non-dairy beverages.

While Jason had agonized all morning about whether or not to dress sharply, he had decided against it, not wanting to give any sort of indication to the two of them that there was the possibility of money involved. Which was why he was sitting there in jeans and a burgundy polo shirt, a black jacket hanging on the back of his chair.

The Turners had arrived looking very much like they were trying to make a good impression, which Jason appreciated.

Linda Turner, thirty-two, was a strawberry blond woman of average height and weight, with a startling pleasant smile that gave way to two prominent dimples on either side of her face. She was dressed in jeans herself, but with a nice coat and scarf wrapped around her.

Tom Turner, thirty-five, was a lanky man that was over six-foot four, with sandy colored hair, a cowlick that didn’t appear to want to stay down, and black framed glasses that he kept having to push back up his nose. He too, was dressed nicely, in khakis, loafers, and a thick wool sweater that looked like it was hand-made.

They had even brought their dog (the one Jason recognized from photos online), Daisy, a black Scottish terrier, that apparently liked Jason a great deal based on the way she kept trying to jump all over him as soon as they met.

It hadn’t completely eliminated the anxiety level amongst them, but it did help a little in getting conversation started.

“Yeah, I almost didn’t believe it either when she said there was a couple she thought I should meet.” Jason replied, ignoring his rapidly beating heart. It had been that way ever since they had agreed to a time and place to meet.

Despite Terry having been added to the mix, apparently the couple had seen the photo Jason had sent Doc Thompkins and immediately agreed to meet with Jason.

He couldn’t blame them in the least; how could you see them and not immediately fall in love with the kids?

“I don’t really know how to start this conversation.” Tom admitted with a nervous chuckle, pushing his glasses back up his nose.

Jason resisted the urge to grab them off the guy’s face and break them in half.

“Although I suppose, well...is there a reason you’re not considering keeping them yourself?” the man asked carefully, obviously not wanting to pry but the whole situation was personal in nature and it wasn’t as if Jason hadn’t been expecting the question.

“My work requires me to travel frequently, and it’s looking like I’m being relocated elsewhere,” Jason explained, taking a sip of his coffee. “The kids want to stay in Gotham, and with everything in their lives having been hard enough already, I wanted to honor that.”

The Turners had been told about the tragic death of the children’s parents, although the story had been warped a little to add Terry to the mix. As far as the couple knew, all three children were from the same foster family that had been found severely lacking. Jason had agreed to help Doc Thompkins out short-term until a permanent family could be found.

The couple nodded in understanding, and Linda smiled nervously. “I think it takes a lot of strength to realize that sometimes you’re not in a position to make such a commitment and to make hard choices. It may not mean much to you, but we can relate. Life hasn’t always been kind to us, but I think...” she said carefully, squeezing her husbands in support, “...that we grew from it, and are even more ready now. You probably have a million and one questions for us, on top of whatever background check you’ve done or plan on doing, so we’re happy to answer any and all questions.”

Jason was surprised by the remarkable display of maturity and understanding she displayed, mostly because he had rarely come across people in his own life that had such self-awareness.

“I do actually...” Jason chuckled, pulling out a piece of paper which was lined front and back with questions he and Roy had come up with. Several were ones they already had the answers to, so it was about seeing how honest the couple would be; any lies and Jason would call this off.

So Jason asked all the questions he had listed on the paper, although he did his best to keep his tone conversational and avoid sounding like he was interrogating a local drug pusher for information.

The Turners answered openly and honestly, not phased in the least, and even had some of their own, namely about any medical issues (Evelyn’s injury and surgery not withstanding), what the children were like, if they liked animals, etc. Nothing too probing, but enough to try and get a better picture of them.

Jason answered those honestly as well.

“Evelyn and Edgar are both signed up for school now. They start at Robinson Academy next week.” Jason added.

The Turners looked surprised by this and Jason noted Linda’s unsure expression.

“I know that’s a very good school, and of course I’m glad to hear that they’re enrolled there, but that’s not something either of us would ever be able to afford.” Linda admitted, although with a certain sadness.

Jason shook his head. “They’ve been awarded full scholarships, so tuition is a non issue. The only stipulation that the Doc and I have is that they don’t get pulled out of school.”

They both looked surprised by this, but also relieved. “Wow, full scholarships? They must be really smart.” Tom said.

“Yeah, they are.” Jason replied, smiling.

“What about Terry?” Tom asked.

“He’s a great kid too. Curious, expressive, just a happy kid really. He doesn’t talk much at the moment, which I know Do-Leslie told you.” Jason said.

Several days ago, Terry hadn’t uttered a single word, except for the “ouch” that Artemis had garnered after a traumatic time during his check-up. Now, Terry had several words that he had begun to use; namely “Arti”, “Up”, and “No”. The kid really liked saying “no” a lot. Much to everyone’s amusement and annoyance (well, mostly Artemis’ annoyance).

The Turners smiled again, with Linda pulling out her phone. There was no particular order to doing things, especially since both sides had to agree on a lot before the children were even involved, but part of that was seeing their place of residence.

Jason had already looked up their address, pulled blueprints for the building, and may or may not have done some in person recon of their place, but accepted the phone politely. He swiped through the photos as they spoke about their home, which would have been a tight fit, but could make it work if things became official.

Fifteen minutes later and the conversation came to a natural end.

“It was really nice meeting you.” Tom said, shaking Jason’s hand before Linda did the same.

“Likewise.” Jason replied, bending down to pet Daisy.

He watched them all leave, allowing the smile to fall off his face. When he could no longer see them, he turned and walked the other direction, lighting up a cigarette as he did so.

It was harder than expected to be taking steps to separate himself from the kids, no matter how much he had thought about it and known it needed to happen. Yet here was this couple, perfectly normal and nice and everything the kids needed to have good lives. They were willing to consider opening their hearts and homes to children they had never met, and while it may have been too good to be true, there was nothing to indicate otherwise. Looking a gift horse in the mouth would have been stupid; he really needed to consider them.

The first hurdle had been passed and there were several more to go, which gave Jason time and opportunity to make sure this either panned out well or didn’t.

If only he’d remembered just how much the universe hated him sometimes.

***

That evening found Artemis seated with Terry on her lap, regaling the boy with stories of battle (honestly, everything was battle related with her), while he listened intently. His partner-in-crime, ‘the blanket’, had finally been washed a couple of days ago while Terry had been asleep. He had been none the wiser.

Jason had been taken through a complete rundown of Evelyn and Edgar’s day, which had consisted of ‘back to school’ shopping for the first time, Biz having taken the lead with a school list; and uniform orders, which Roy had overseen.

“Isn’t this a cool backpack?! It fits my laptop and Evelyn’s could fit ten Harry Potter books!” Edgar exclaimed, running back and forth to show him everything.

Evelyn looked on in amusement, although she was focused on reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets out loud from the sofa while Biz sat next to her, Wilson perched on the arm of couch, glaring as if to declare his thoughts on the ridiculousness of a children’s fantasy novel.

Bud was sitting in front of Roy, watching intently as Roy showed her various photos of weapons he utilized, and getting her familiar with their names. Jason didn’t even bother pretending to be annoyed as it would admittedly come in handy one day...maybe.

Jason felt hyper-aware of everything the whole evening, as if trying to remember everything because now the potential was really there for the children to have a family, and that meant none of them would be a part of it.

Maybe Evelyn sensed something because unlike the normal nights when Jason tucked her in, she asked for him to stay and tell her a story.

Jason didn’t know any stories off the top of his head, but he threw together a story somehow; mostly centering on a young girl and young boy who had magical powers that they didn’t realize until they met a large wolf one day while walking alone in the forrest.

“All of a sudden, they realized they could understand what the wolf’s growls meant. Turns out, he was upset because his brothers and sisters liked scaring people all the time, but all he wanted to do was play...” Jason continued on, seeing the door crack open to reveal Edgar and Bud.

Neither boy nor dog waited for an invitation to join them on the bed, both avoiding Evelyn’s leg as they settled in and effectively sandwiched Jason in.

He continued on with his story, the children falling asleep with Jason following soon afterwards, perfectly content.

***

Jason bolted upright to a cry, which hadn’t come from him.

His chest was heaving, and he was soaked in sweat, the sound of that god awful laughter and metal hitting flesh still in his ears. He had absolutely no idea where he was or how he had gotten there, but he did know it was warm and soft and was that a child?

Jason winced as a light came on and he blinked rapidly, realizing several things at once. First, that he was in Queen’s penthouse, second, that Biz was hunched over something on the floor, and third, a small hand was on his arm which he yanked away on reflex.

“Red Him, breathe.” Biz said, frowning at him.

“Jason...”

Jason’s head snapped to the right, seeing Evelyn there looking scared. He had never seen that expression on her face, and he prayed to whatever fucked up higher power that might be out there that he never saw it again.

She wasn’t the one crying though, which is when Jason realized that Biz had picked up a small bundle in his arms, a small bundle that was crying softly.

“Edgar?” Jason asked, his heart in his throat and his stomach plummeting to the floor.

“It was an accident, it’s not your fault.” Evelyn said softly, which only made Jason begin to understand what had happened.

“Edgar, I- Oh god, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry...” Jason’s voice broke as he saw Edgar curled up in Biz’s arms, sniffling.

“It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it.” Edgar said valiantly through his tears.

Jason couldn’t breathe. He had scared the children; even worse, he had somehow hurt one of them.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean. I’m so sorry!” Jason choked up, eyes watering as he quickly left the room, ignoring Roy’s sleepy “wuz ‘appened?”

“Where are you going?” Artemis demanded as she watched Jason change his clothes and scramble as quickly as he could. He didn’t think twice that she had just seen him naked, not that she particularly cared as she continued to try and get him to say something.

“I cant stay here. I can’t. I need to go.” Jason said in one quick breath.

“You are being ridicul-“

“I hurt the kids!” Jason roared, silencing Artemis. This wasn’t some stupid Red Hood decision she could chastize him on. He was dangerous to even those he cared about, no matter how much he didn’t want to be.

“Jason...” Artemis said softly, placing a hand in his shoulder only to have it shrugged off. The young man was in a panic that wasn’t about to be calmed by words.

He wasn’t sure how he did it, how he made it out the door and down the block, and then the next, and then the one after that. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Bud was with him until had leaned against an alley wall and cried, feeling her nudge him gently by his side.

When he finally gathered himself up, it felt like he’d been hit by a wrecking ball. He could barely walk, and ignored the constant buzzing of his phone.

Biz found him a few hours later, sitting inside a bar, hunched over a drink, Bud nearby (he had slipped a hundred to the bartender for the exception), and bloodied knuckles which were strongly tied to the several men unconscious on the floor...they shouldn’t have insulted his dog.

“Tiny one, O.K.” Biz said, sitting next to Jason on the bar stool, and smiling at the bartender who was currently three hundred dollars richer as Jason slammed more money down on the counter.

Jason nodded, still numb and dazed and just not wanting to think about how bad it was that he had hurt the children, and how much worse it could have been.

“Tell everyone, I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I just...this isn’t me. I’m a danger to those kids.” Jason eventually said, standing up and swaying a little. He wasn’t even remotely drunk but he felt...broken.

“Red Him go?” Biz asked, not sure what exactly Jason planned on doing.

“Let them hate me, but I have to go. It’s safer if I’m not around. This was...Roy can do it, with the kids. Tell them...please...I’m so sorry.”

***

Jason wasn’t sure when Biz left him, but he was grateful to just be alone. He couldn’t breathe, and even the smells of the city were beginning to suffocate him to the point where he saw black spots in front of his eyes.

Every street he turned down felt like he was trying to shake off a tail, every movement out of the corner of his eye looking like a cape coming after him. They were going to get him if he didn’t leave...if they found out that he had hurt children. He wouldn’t have blamed them in the least, but putting the three kids in the Bat clan’s line of sight would be unforgivable.

***

“Is he mad?” Jason asked, holding the phone to his ear as he stared at the window, watching as the sun began to come up beyond the large expanse of tarmac. The last few hours had been a blur, and without a car, and with Bud by his side, public transportation hadn’t been an option.

”He’s concerned.”

The “we both are” went unsaid.

“I’ll call him when I get there. I just...I needed to go.” Jason said, nodding at the captain who looked to him for the go-ahead.

The little-longer-than-normal silence on the phone didn’t pass unnoticed by Jason.

”Okay, Jason. I’ll meet you when you land, alright?.”

Jason nodded, closing his eyes tightly and willing the burning sensation to go away, refusing to cry again. He felt everything just fall through his fingers. In one small instant everything had just been destroyed, and he knew he was only making it worse but he couldn’t help it.

It was better that the kids hate him and be safe than to like him and be in danger.

“You don’t have to do that.”

”I’ll see you when you land, Jason.”

Jason couldn’t bring himself to argue. He was not in a place to be making any sort of life decision, yet here he was, doing just that and hurting everyone around him along the way.

“Yeah...thanks Oliver.”

Chapter Text

‘The ceiling looks different.’

Jason blinked slowly, trying to make sense of why the ceiling looked so unfamiliar. That, and the fact that the bed he was on smelled and felt different.

It was just plain ‘off’.

It wasn’t a safe-house he recognized; it wasn’t the brownstone; and it wasn’t the penthouse up on QI’s top floor. The only familiar sight was Bud, who had just hopped off the bed to come around and lick his face before pawing at the door.

“Where the fuck am I?” he mumbled, groaning as he got up, realizing that he was in a shirt and sweatpants that were slightly on the small side and definitely not his.

Opening the door, Bud trotted out and made her way down the hallway, Jason following her since she seemed to know where she was going. Her destination turned out to be towards the kitchen, where a large bowl of fresh dog food and a bowl of water had been laid out.

“Did you sleep at all?”

Jason turned and found Oliver Queen standing by the kitchen island, cup of coffee in hand. He was about to ask what the hell the guy was doing there when he realized that his fucking nightmare had actually been real.

Jason Todd, jackass of epic proportions, had hurt Edgar, scared Evelyn, panicked, ignored everyone’s pleas to calm the fuck down, and had done a runner. And not just out of the building, but out of the fucking city and across the country.

And he’d called in a favour from Queen to do it.

While he wasn’t sure exactly where he was or even had the faintest memory of coming with Oliver here, he remembered vividly the jolt of the wheels hitting the tarmac, and the smell of Star City (fresher and cleaner than Gotham) as he had descended the few stairs off the jet.

Oliver Queen had been standing there, a black Range Rover running idle next to him. The man had taken one look at Jason and then at Bud, and had quietly ushered them into the car.

Jason recalled the how the cold felt against his temple as he had leaned against the car window on the drive back from the airport.

As he lost himself for a moment in recapping just what the fuck had happened over the last few hours, Oliver’s hand appeared in front of Jason, holding out a cup of coffee.

“Thanks” Jason murmured, choosing not to make eye contact with the man right now, and instead tilted his head as he watched Bud eat with gusto.

“Where did the dog food come from?” Jason couldn’t help but ask.

He was well aware now that he had not only left Gotham, but he had done so with just the clothes on his back, and nothing else. No weapons, no clothes, no nothing. From that, he concluded that what he was wearing right now belonged to Oliver. He tried not to feel one way or another about how awkward this whole thing was or how much Roy and the others probably hated him.

“Min handled it. I told her to hold off on getting you anything else right now. Figured everything could wait.” Oliver smiled, giving no indication that he was walking on eggshells or treating Jason like he’d lost his damn mind.

“Yeah…thanks…” Jason did his best to crack a smile, taking a sip from his coffee. He had no idea what to say or do or anything.

Just last night he had been telling Edgar and Evelyn a story. A few hours after that, he had ran out, wandered all over Gotham, gotten into a fight (if his knuckles were a reliable enough sign), ignored Biz, and then trashed a safe-house before calling Oliver and sounding practically incoherent.

Now he was in Star City, with Bud as he only lifeline, and dependent on Oliver Queen of all people.

“This place has two bedrooms and a yard, which I knew was a must have for your lady over here,” Oliver said, earning him a pleased tail wag from Bud, who had now finished breakfast.

“What?” Jason frowned, confused as to what Oliver was talking about.

It was difficult to focus on much of anything at the moment when he felt like he’d been beaten the hell up with guilt that was now suffocating him like a fucking snake.

“This townhouse. I thought you’d want something on the small side, but if it doesn’t work for you, we can look at some others. QI has a lot of corporate housing options that are readily available.”

Part of Jason wanted to shout and yell and express how utterly trivial this shit was considering what had just happened, but the other part of him was just so damn grateful that Oliver wasn’t asking him to talk about everything that happened. He also had a strong suspicion that he had already spoken to Roy.

“No it’s fine.” Jason said, not having seen much of it yet. He didn’t really care.

He had been so eager to leave Gotham and come to Star City, but now that he was here, it didn’t feel right.

‘Yeah, ‘cause you just fucking bailed like the coward you are’ his mind supplied oh-so-helpfully.

He ignored it and focused on one breath at a time; he’d fucked up and there was no coming back from that. He needed to just move forward, no matter how awful it would be.

“I know you’ve been studying the layout of the city, and I don’t want to throw a million and one things at you right now, but I thought some clothes might be in order and whatever else you need for Bud or-“ Oliver carried on a rather one-way conversation quite easily, letting Jason’s attention wander in and out for the next ten minutes.

For someone that wanted control all the damn time (because frankly, he had every right to feel that way), Jason was relieved that for the next ten minutes, he didn’t have to think of what to say or how to reply.

No matter how much he wanted to see the kids again, he had severed that tie. There was no point in going back only to have to say goodbye again.

His phone chose that moment to buzz against his thigh and when he pulled it out of his pocket, Jason saw the fifteen calls from Roy and twenty-two text messages, all of which tapered off right around the time he had boarded the plane.

“I spoke to Roy a few times already.” Oliver said, watching the way Jason swallowed thickly.

Jason nodded, but still didn’t tear his eyes away from the phone. He needed to call Roy, no matter the outcome.

”You okay?”

Jason hadn’t been expecting Roy to sound so concerned. In fact, he expected to be ripped into, which he knew he deserved.

“I fucked up.” Jason said, blurting it out before he could stop himself.

A long beat of silence passed before he heard Roy sigh on the other end of the line.

”They cried themselves to sleep, Jay.” Roy said quietly. ”Edgar keeps saying it’s his fault you left. You need to talk to them.”

Jason prided himself on having pretty thick skin, but what Roy had just said made him feel like he was being flayed open.

“I…I can’t hurt them again. I can’t” Jason’s anguish evident.

“Look, just…let Ollie help for a while. Take the day to just settle down and we’ll talk tomorrow, alright?” Roy said, knowing that nothing more would come from this today.

“I shouldn’t have called Queen.” Jason added, knowing it had been a dick move.

“Listen, if you were going to run to Star City, then there are worse people to call. I’m glad you called him.”

It even sounded like Roy meant it, which only made Jason feel worse.

“Tell them I lo-- tell them I’m sorry…” Jason said quietly, the call coming to an end.

Almost as soon as he hung up, Jason threw the phone hard against wall, watching it break into pieces.

The moment of satisfaction was followed by horror, not just at scaring Bud, but because all the photos he had taken had been on that phone.

It didn’t matter to him that they were backed up somewhere, or that Roy could send him copies. All that mattered was that he had destroyed the photos.

“No no no…” Jason’s voice broke as he scrambled over to the broken remains of the phone and dropped to the floor, trying to put the pieces back together through shaky hands.

“Jason…”

Jason was near tears now, hopelessly trying to fix his phone even though he knew it wouldn’t help. Nothing would help.

“Jason…”

Oliver was next to him now, trying to gather the pieces of his phone and helping Jason back to his feet.

Jason must have been muttering about the photos under his breath because Oliver was saying he’d try and fix it and retrieve the photos.

“I never once questioned why things happened to be the way they did.” Jason said, staring at the broken shell of his phone that Oliver was laying out on the table. “I took it and I ran with it and I tried…I tried so fucking hard…”

“Jason, I-“

“You and Bruce, you think you know best, that you’re always right, but you don’t know shit!” Jason yelled, ignoring how badly his eyes stung as he rounded on Oliver, who stood there calmly, which only infuriated him even more and he took a swing.

It was uncoordinated and sloppy and Oliver easily blocked it, holding onto Jason’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry Jason. I’m so sorry…”Oliver said quietly, letting Jason lean his head against him as the young man shook silently.

For a single moment, Jason allowed himself the luxury of pretending that the voice behind those words was an octave lower.

Chapter Text

It should have been a time to explore and rebuild and ultimately begin to figure out what type of life Jason wanted to make for himself in Star City.

Instead, every step he took (both literally and figuratively) required a tremendous amount of effort.

His first official day in Star City had him essentially wallowing in the townhouse Oliver had provided for him. Bud was the only thing that dragged Jason out into the yard, distracting him for moments at a time, only for it to end and bring him back to his guilt-ridden reality. 

On top of what had happened with Alfred (because yes, that guilt hadn’t gone anywhere), the incident from the night before made it a million times worse.

Roy had laid off calling, which was both a relief and a source of anxiety for Jason as he had caught himself wanting desperately to speak to Edgar and Evelyn and even little Terry. But he couldn’t do that, because it would make things worse for everyone.  It was better they be upset now and hate him and ultimately move on with their lives.  Jason had dealt with a lot of fucked up things in his life, and this was just a few more drops in the bucket that he was determined to handle and move through as always.

When he woke up the following morning, he was quiet and sluggish, but was certainly aware of where he was and why he was there.  He knew he needed to leave the townhouse today, if not just for preventing further wallowing in his own self-directed hate, but because this was the second night in a row he had worn Oliver’s t-shirt and sweatpants to sleep in.  There were a lot of things he was willing to do in life, but this was certainly stretching things a bit too far for his liking.

Unlike yesterday, Oliver was not in the house as Jason had urged the guy to go back to his daily routine (although what that may have been was a mystery to him right now).  Min, however, was there, and had helped herself to some coffee and didn’t even lift her gaze away from her Q-pad when Jason walked over to her.

“Mr. Queen indicated to me that you had a desire to go out and purchase some clothing, along with anything else you may need” she said matter-of-factly, gently sliding over a mug of still-hot coffee towards him.  He wasn’t sure how she knew just how he took his coffee, or that he’d choose that moment to make an appearance, but he didn’t question it as the first sip he took helped to perk him up a little.

“Yeah, I thought I would go out and get the lay of the land” Jason said, noticing a dog leash on the counter that looked identical to the one he had purchased for Bud back he’d first decided to keep her. 

In fact, as he picked it up to give it a closer look, he realized it wasn’t just identical, it was the exact leash. 

He knew for certain that he hadn’t brought it with him when he had left Gotham.

“A friend of yours came by earlier this morning” Min said, finally looking up at Jason. 

“He dropped off some of your belongings that have been placed in the study.”

Jason looked around, wondering for a moment who it could have been as he took his coffee and went to the study, finding several large armored trunks (which he knew contained his firearms and Red Hood gear), along with a large duffle bag full of clothing.  Certainly not all his belongings, but enough.

Biz was the only person Jason knew of that could have made the cross-country trek within minutes if he wasn’t carrying anything breathing.

Underneath the duffle bag, Jason caught sight of a piece of paper and went to pick it up.

When he walked back into the kitchen, Min was still there, but with what looked to be a second Q-pad in its box, and watched as the young man didn’t give her a passing glance as he walked over the fridge and placed a piece of paper on it, holding it in place with a magnet.

It was clearly a child’s drawing, and although made with crayon, it was a rather good one which showed several people, including a tall woman with exaggeratedly long red hair, someone with orange hair (Min only knew one particular red-head that would fit the visual), a very large blue gentleman that looked like Superman, a large black dog which one could easily assume was the Wolfhound, and a cat with a split-face.  

From the way Jason placed his hand gently over the drawing, Min observed that he was paying very close attention to three smaller figures who were drawn holding hands with another figure whom Min thought looked eerily like the Red Hood vigilante she knew about from Gotham.

Min had been with Oliver Queen for many years now, and there was a lot of highly confidential information she was privy to.  However, she also knew that there were a number of things she was deliberately kept out of the loop on.  That was fine with her of course; it wasn’t her place to ask questions unless it was relevant to her role or in support of Mr. Queen, but it didn’t stop her from drawing her own conclusions here and there. 

Jason appeared to have forgotten she was even there until she set her mug down on the table just loud enough to help him regain awareness of his surroundings.

Looking caught out for a moment, Jason froze, turning around and finding the second Q-pad being held out to him.  No comments were going to be made about the drawing by either of them.

“On top of what’s been delivered here for you, Mr. Queen instructed that I provide you with all the necessary information you may wish to have about Star City, which includes some current Q-Core projects he thought may be of interest to you.”

“Like what?” Jason asked, not sure how Oliver had gotten his fingerprints but they did the trick in unlocking the screen.

Min smiled and shrugged. “I am not familiar with all current projects at Q-Core. It is not one of my key areas of responsibility.”

Jason hummed thoughtfully at that. He had been uncertain as to how much Min knew about Oliver Queen and his ‘other life’, but it was looking more and more like she didn’t know about it whatsoever.

He didn’t even give the drawing he had put up on the fridge a second thought in terms of Min having seen it.

“There’s also a holographic version of the city-wide map in the main console back in the study should you want a more hands-on version.” Min explained.

Hands-on to Jason would have meant an actual paper map laid out, but it figured that in Queen’s world, a more hands-on version of something merely meant a more interactive one.

“I think I’ll go for a walk first. There’s still…a lot…” Jason said quietly, not exactly all that comfortable with her being there but he appreciated the effort. At least it gave him things to do since he wasn’t exactly in a position to go ahead and patrol streets at—Jason looked at his phone – eleven o’clock in the afternoon. 

Patrolling helped clear his mind a lot of the time, however, he not only had time of day against right now, but all he had was his Red Hood gear (as opposed to ‘no gear’ earlier) and weapons which he didn’t want to use in Star City.  Red Hood’s reputation needed to remain in Gotham. 

There was also the issue of Oliver Queen.

The guy had stepped up in a lot of ways, for both himself and Roy in the last few days, but this was still very much Green Arrow’s city.  Sure, the guy wasn’t completely like Bruce, but Jason knew it would be very ‘not good’ if went out into the city gun’s blazing (literally).

“Of course.” Min said.  “In case you need it, several key areas of interest have been marked on the map for you, along with QI offices. Q-Core’s R&D department has a small office a few blocks away from here which is where I believe Mr. Queen said you may end up spending most of your time.”

Jason smirked. “Did he now? Well that was certainly presumptuous of him.” He muttered the last bit to himself but Min caught it.  She didn’t comment on it though.

“There are currently forty-eight buildings that house QI offices, including the main campus which encloses Lakeview Park.  I’d highly recommend it for a run or if you want to allow Bud to stretch her legs.  The entire campus is dog friendly so that’s an advantage as well.”

As Min spoke, Jason’s curiosity grew and he pulled up the map on his screen, realizing that unlike Gotham, where everything was so concentrated (mainly due to the island-style layout of the city) and grew upwards, Star City sprawled outwards, with many large parks and green spaces.

Still, it looked like Queen had almost half the city littered with his buildings. 

The campus Min spoke of was no joke; it looked like half the size of Central Park.

Jason hadn’t really given much thought to just how much Oliver Queen really was Oliver Queen. He’d always been “Asshole Number Two.”  A rich asshole, sure, but still.

“I didn’t realize how much presence QI had in the city. At least, not to this degree” Jason admitted, looking up at Min who was mildly distracted as she scratched Bud behind the ears.

“That happens a lot.  QI in some way, shape, or form, employs a little over sixty-percent of Star City’s population. We take great pride in providing jobs to all in this town and we’ve seen significant declines in homelessness, the uninsured, and even crime.”

Jason stayed quiet, focused for a few minutes on tapping on all the icons of note on the map – learning more about Queen Industries now than he had ever known.  Of course, he hadn’t had a reason to know until now. 

Did he still consider Oliver a douchebag?  Well, maybe a Class B Douchebag rather than the Class A one he’d been categorized as for years.  The guy was certainly working his way down the levels of douchebaggery. 

Plus, he couldn’t say too much shit about the guy who had helped him with the kids and was trying very hard to mend things with Roy. Oh, and the whole helping Jason out and pretending that he hadn’t fucking sobbed on the guy the day before. That had been fucking embarrassing as shit.

Jason spoke with Min for another ten minutes or so before she informed him that her number, along with Oliver’s personal cell number were already marked on speed-dial for him should he need it.

Leaving the housekeys and the house alarm code on the counter for him, Min took her leave.

It wasn’t long after that when Jason had mustered up enough strength to shower, get dressed, and take Bud out to explore.

They didn’t walk too far, probably just a couple of miles or so, mostly so that Jason could get a sense of where he was located, and so that Bud could stop and smell every damn thing they came across.  He knew this was an adjustment for her as well, since he doubted that Bud had never known anywhere else other than Gotham.

The two of them spent a lot of time in the random parks they came across, eventually stumbling upon one that filtered into what was obviously Lakeview Park which was filled with dogs.

With the QI Lakeview campus being dog friendly, allowing employees to bring their dogs into work as well, Jason was hitting the lunch rush and had several people come up to him to meet Bud. 

It was the last thing he wanted to do, but Bud looked so pleased to be meeting other dogs that he grit his teeth and dealt with the pleasantries, watching Bud take off as soon as he unleashed her.  It was probably the fastest she had ever been able to run before, and he laughed as the other dogs tried to keep up with her. 

Of course, as much as she had speed on her side, stamina was not, and she sauntered back over to Jason about twenty minutes later when she deemed herself finished with her outdoor exploits.

“Have fun, did you?” Jason asked, laughing as Bud hopped up on her hind legs and slobbered all over his face.  He could have sworn they had been of equal height when he’d first found her, but her head was now several inches above his own. 

It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the people around them, whom of course, wanted to take all sorts of selfies, which Jason allowed, but only with Bud and not himself.

“Peter!”

Jason had heard someone calling for Peter a few seconds ago but had dismissed it. Now, the voice had gotten closer, and along with the name, Jason realized it was Oliver who was walking up to him.

“How’d you know I was here?” Jason asked, eyeing those around them now who apparently didn’t care one whit that Mr. Queen himself was standing there.

“Well I didn’t. Not really.” Oliver said smiling as he patted Bud’s head. “Min said you planned on exploring and it just so happened that I kept getting wind of a massive dog people appeared to be taking photos with.  I decided to just make an educated guess.”

Jason cracked a small smile.  Bud was certainly unforgettable, but at least here in Star City, he didn’t have to worry so much about that anymore.

“Yeah, she’s Miss Popular and loves every minute of it, don’t ya?”

Bud barked, the deep sound of it almost capable of rattling Jason’s bones.  A few people nearby turned in their direction, but didn’t look alarmed in the least. Not with Bud’s tail wagging so violently against Jason’s leg that he was certain he’d find a bruise there later.

“Do you have some time?”

It was Oliver that asked, and not Jason, which he found rather funny.

“Me? I’ve got nothing but time. You’re the one that’s busy taking over Star City.  Have you decided which block you want to take over next? I saw one that had two Starbucks on it. I’d aim for that one.” Jason recommended with a smirk.

Oliver chuckled, taking the light jab as it was intended, and began to walk alongside Jason.

“The city may be smaller in terms of population…” Oliver began, waving occasionally as he heard his name being called. It appeared as if the only person that actually called him “Mr. Queen” was Min, while “Oliver!” was shouted from all around them.
Thankfully, they weren’t being interrupted. “…but in terms of sheer size, it’s much more spread out. A lot of the parks and open spaces are left intentionally as such, to balance out progress and our green initiatives.”

“Your favorite color? I’m shocked.” Jason deadpanned.

Oliver smirked, continuing to explain about the layout of the city, which did not run in a grid-like pattern to the extent that Gotham City did, and was criss-crossed by various bridges due to all the water inlets around them. 

There were small lakes in several of the parks, which considering the almost unchanging climate, remained popular even during the rainy season which was coming up soon.

Jason listened, soaking up information as best he could. It was one thing to research on a map, another to go out and explore himself, and an entirely other thing to have Oliver Queen break down the ins and outs of the city.

Even though there were in public, Oliver spoke freely of the areas where poverty and crime were still constant challenges; pockets of the city where derelict buildings and warehouses still remained or areas which were frequently the battleground for rival gang or drug disputes.

As much as Star City was different from Gotham, there were ways in which a lot was the same.  Jason could work with that.

“What about BR Industries? They’ve set up shop here.” Jason asked, still eyeing his surroundings as they made their way onto the sidewalk of the main street and allowed people to pass.

Unlike Gotham, where everyone rushed and looked harried, people in Star City took their time, and Jason had noticed a lot of people actually smiling.  ‘These people would get eaten alive in Gotham,’ Jason thought.

“We may not have all the ‘big bads’ here like in Gotham, but trust me, it’s what’s lurking underneath that’s always the challenge” Oliver said, catching Jason’s surprised look.  It hadn’t been a difficult leap for him to make in assuming the younger man was drawing up comparisons.

“BR Industries has a building under construction in the Hyde Park area along the coast.  There are two warehouses that are also in the works in Blumebury, which is south of here and near the stockyards. Nothing I’ve been able to catch going on, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

“What’s with people conducting shady business dealings in places that are so obviously shady” Jason asked rhetorically.

Oliver laughed. “Who knows? But it certainly helps us out, doesn’t it?”

Jason agreed that yes, more often than not, stupidity worked in their favor.

“Speaking of helping us out…” Jason found himself starting, wanting to word things as tactfully as he could.

He didn’t think ‘I’m going to go out there, catch bad guys, and fuck their shit up whether you like it or not’ was going to be a good way to go.

“I do...want to help out and want to speak to you about what that dynamic might look like. I know I need to still familiarize myself the city still, but thought…”

Oliver raised an eyebrow. Not because he was surprised at the topic of conversation (he did after all, suggest Roy and Jason to come back to Star City together and help), but because of the way it was broached.  He was quietly impressed by the way in which Jason wanted to discuss the obvious point of contention they had.

“Meet me at the Capstone Bridge tonight at midnight.” Oliver requested as took a look at his phone and ignored the buzzing as he put it back in his pocket.  “I know your gear was dropped off this morning. You can bring your…accessories…” he suggested carefully, still mindful of being out in the open.

Unlike in Gotham, where Bruce was photographed left and right (the paparazzi were relentless there), Jason realized that they had not needed to dodge anyone getting in their face.

It was such a difference that he almost missed what Oliver said.

“I’m going to give you the evening tour.” Oliver explained, unsure why Jason looked a little confused.

“What’s wrong?” Oliver asked.

“Nothing…it’s just…I didn’t realize it sooner but you’re not being hounded by anybody.  Usually when Bru-- when one of the others in Gotham would go out, it could get intense.”

Oliver shrugged. “I make it a point to be out in the city as much as possible. Have done so for years now. It’s only when you try and stay away that they hound you more.  Photos of me aren’t worth much to tabloids when everyone else can snap a shot.  We just have different strategies, that’s all.”  There was no need to clarify who he meant by ‘we’.

Jason nodded, letting the subject drop. 

“Midnight, Capstone Bridge. I’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

Jason knew of course, that Oliver would offer to show him around the city ‘after hours’, but the sense of anticipation built up after their meeting at the park earlier that day. It was for that reason alone that he justified buying a carton of cigarettes as he walked back to the townhouse.

The place that had been bestowed upon him was a detached unit in a row of several other identical looking houses on a quiet, tree-lined street similar to the one his brownstone had been located on. Except here he could smell the scent of the ocean on the wind as he caught the occasional breeze. It was nice, and he wished he could have enjoyed it more except he had to deal with the fact that he hadn’t made the best life choices as of recently.

“It’s going to be fine. It’s all fine” he repeated to himself as he sat in front of his laptop in the study, resisting the urge to put this off in lieu of playing around with the computer that was already there beside him on the desk that Min had said was hooked up to some pretty sweet holographic tech in the room.

“It’s going to be okay, right Bud?” he asked, looking down at Bud who was resting on the floor beside him. She lifted her head with a soft huff, which he interpreted as her version of a shrug.

“Way to be encouraging” he said dryly.

Bud groaned softly in response while thumping her tail twice against the floor.

If he was going to do this, he was going to do this right.

Clicking a few buttons on the screen, he didn’t let himself chicken out as the screen beeped a few times before Roy came into view.

Based on the background, Roy was in one of the guest rooms at the penthouse, and while he looked relieved to see Jason (which was a good sign), he also looked tired and just a wee bit ticked off.

“Took you long enough” Roy said quietly with a smirk, although Jason knew it was pretty much Roy’s default expression.

“Yeah, I know…” Jason attempted a smile, not even sure where to begin. He had not only abandoned the kids in one spontaneous move, but he had thrown responsibility for them onto his friends.

“I’m sorry-“

“Nope, let’s not go down that route.” Roy cut him off with a shake of his head. “Do I understand what happened and why you needed to bounce? Yes. Am I pissed as fuck? You betcha. Am I glad you’re okay? Yes. Am I upset that you reached out to Ollie? No.”

Jason blinked in surprise.

“Well I guess that covers everything then…” Jason laughed, trying to lighten the mood.

As much as Roy was the one with the ever-present sense of humor, Jason only received an arched eyebrow in response.

“Right, bad timing. I seem to be good at that.” Jason mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

Roy sighed, going on to give Jason a brief update on what had happened in the last forty-eight hours or so since he had left.

Other than the miserable night the kids had in crying themselves to sleep, the decision was made to keep them as busy as possible, which meant there had been more school shopping excursions, and even a trip to the eye doctor, which Roy said had taken some convincing where Edgar was concerned.

Apparently Evelyn had been correct in her previous comments to Jason back when she had been in the hospital; her brother needed glasses.

“So, he’s got a pair then?” Jason asked, wanting to know every little thing that he had missed, but also not wanting to know anything at all.

He was missing out on their lives, and the urge to run back was ever mounting just in the short time Roy began explaining that he had only been able to convince the boy that glasses could be cool by showing him photos of famous people who were wearing them.

Evelyn, despite not being as outwardly emotional as her brother, had become even quieter over the last two days, but was apparently taking her role as big sister very seriously in terms of keeping both Edgar and Terry distracted.

The youngest of the three had initially looked for Jason in the morning, only for him not to be found. Luckily Artemis and Biz did enough to distract the child, and the boy was becoming more vocal with each passing day.

It may have only been a little less than two days, but it felt like a lifetime to Jason now.

“I’ve been in touch with Ollie. He said he got you a place in Lakeview. It’s a good area. My place is in Oldtown, but I’d much rather be in the ritzy area where you are” Roy teased.
Jason was grateful for the levity, not that he deserved an emotional breather, but it was appreciated.

They spoke for a few minutes on Jason’s opinion of Star City and how he had to concede that upon first impression, it was certainly nicer and cleaner than Gotham. Then again, there were war zones nicer and cleaner than Gotham.

Jason also mentioned having come to realization that Oliver looked like he fucking owned over half the damn city, what with his buildings all over the place, and the mention that had been made to him by Min about the Q-Core R&D building nearby.

Roy perked up considerably at that, apparently having tried to find a way into the building when he’d gone back a few months ago.

“I thought you’d been trying to stay under the radar here?” Jason asked, unable to hide his amusement.

Roy shrugged. “What can I say? The risk was worth the reward. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way in. The type of equipment I would need to break into the place was the type of equipment I was trying to break into the building for!”

Both men laughed at that, and Jason was happy to see that Roy didn’t regret offering up his city as an option for Jason. Even if he had, the fact that they’d essentially been given an open invitation to enter Q-Core’s R&D facility would have been enough to overcome any regrets the guy may have had.

However, the conversation could only stay on Star City for so long, not with the real reason for the call.

He had spent several hours stewing over what to do: not contact the kids at all, write them letters, text messages to them via Roy, or call.

None of those sat right with Jason, not when he knew that it wouldn’t be fair to them. All he had thought about since he’d first spoke to Roy upon arriving here in Star City was the gut-punching fact that Edgar blamed himself for what had happened.

Jason knew what it felt like to carry emotional scars throughout his life, especially those ‘gifted’ to him by those who had once been parental figures. It didn’t matter how old you got or how much other shit happened in your life…some of that emotional crap just never went away. He wasn’t about to continue that cycle, not with those children. They were good kids, really good kids, who deserved more than anything else in this world to be happy.

So he buckled up, messaged Roy, picked a good time, and here they were, with Jason feeling like he was being led to a virtual guillotine.

“I’m going to go get them. Hang on a sec.” Roy said, not waiting for a response as Jason watched his friend get up and open the door.

He couldn’t hear much of anything for a few seconds until rapidly approaching footsteps were heard and the door to the room burst open, revealing Edgar. Evelyn joined a few seconds later in her wheelchair.

Just the sight of them caused Jason’s eyes to burn something fierce, and he gripped his thighs tightly, trying to control his trembling hands.

“Are you guys okay?” Jason asked, his voice kind but subdued, looking them over as best he could.

Evelyn smiled, trying so hard to look happy, when it was obvious to Jason she wasn’t. He wished she wouldn’t do that, and he wished he could find the words to tell her it was okay to be upset with him.

Edgar on the other hand, normally the most talkative one of them all, sat in front of the computer screen quietly, his eyes larger and more pleading than Jason remembered them being.

“Edgar, I-“

“I’m sorry! It was my fault!” Edgar blurted, before bursting into tears.

Jason froze, not having any idea how he could fix this because this was his damn fault. He had experienced some pretty low points in his life, but this? This pain he felt right now was something else.

He knew there was always that frequently used phrase of ‘no parent wants to see their child suffer’, and sure, he understood it in theory. But now?

Jason felt his tongue turn to lead in his mouth, unable to say anything for a few moments, and grateful that Roy immediately came into view again. Apparently his friend had remained close by, even if not in view of the camera.

It gave him just enough time to get his tongue to work again.

“None of this was your fault. None of it.” Jason insisted, repeating himself a few times until he saw Edgar sniffle, wiping his nose on the back of his hand and nodding his head.

“Roy told us you have bad dreams sometimes.” Evelyn said, looking over at Roy who nodded.

Jason breathed a little easier. Roy shouldn’t have been the one that needed to explain things to the kids, but he was glad of it. Another reason why Roy deserved a ‘Friend of the Year’ award and Jason deserved a fat lump of coal.

“Yeah, I…some bad things happened to me, when I was younger,” Jason said quietly. “I have trouble sleeping and…yeah…sometimes I have very bad dreams and I get scared.”

Edgar frowned, his face red and blotchy, but he’d stopped crying, which made Jason feel a little less like he was being crushed from the inside out.

“But…you’re the Red Hood. You make other people scared, you don’t get scared.”

Jason smiled sadly, wishing that were true. He had said the same thing to someone else once upon a time.

“Everyone gets scared, Edgar. No matter how big or scary or tough, everyone is scared at some point. And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay to tell the people you care about that you’re scared.”

Edgar didn’t look like he was buying it, but Jason made sure he didn’t just dismiss the topic outright. The kids needed to know that they should always talk to their friends and family about how they’re feeling; that’s what makes friends and family special.

That’s what Jason had wanted friends and family to be like growing up. Well, maybe less on the friends part (because he hadn’t really had any), but the family part.

Roy had agreed, going down a list of things he was personally afraid of.

“Deep water…like, the kind where you can’t see the bottom, heights, cockroaches, Wilson, the dark, Artemis, spiders, Wilson, camels, ghosts, Wilson…”

“Yeah, we get the idea, Roy. Thanks.” Jason cut him off, causing Edgar and Evelyn to giggle.

In that moment, there was no greater sound in the world to Jason.

He wasn’t sure how the conversation had been going to go, but he spent fifteen minutes talking to them both, with each passing minute making it easier for Jason to breathe as the sadness in the children’s eyes disappeared for the time being and was replaced with a desire to tell him everything he had missed, which had included Roy waking up in the morning and finding Wilson curled up and asleep on his head.

“Which is why I listed him as a fear of mine” Roy nodded astutely.

“Where is Terry?” Jason asked, only to hear that Terry was asleep.

“He has a fever!” Edgar exclaimed, causing Jason to look at Roy in alarm.

Roy shook his head; not in disagreement, but to squash the obvious panic he could see in Jason’s expression.

“He’s fine. Just a slight fever. We took his temperature, it’s not crazy high, and I called Doc Thompkins just to be safe. Biz had already bought that children’s Tylenol at the store so she suggested we give him a few drops of that and then call her again in the evening.”

Jason opened his mouth to say something but closed it. He was the one that had left them, and he had no right to ask Roy a million and one questions right now about Terry. He trusted Roy…and Biz, and Artemis, and that was enough.

“Tell him I said hi, and thanks for the drawing.”

“Did you like it?! I drew you!” Edgar exclaimed proudly.

Jason grinned. “I did! In fact, I loved it so much, I put it on the fridge, so I can look at it all the time.”

Edgar looked very pleased by that, and so did Evelyn for that matter.

Eventually (and with the promise that Jason would talk to them again soon), the kids reluctantly left, allowing Roy and Jason another opportunity to touch base on important matters.

“See? Don’t you feel better?” Roy asked.

“Yes and no.” Jason admitted. “Part of me wants to run right back, but it would only make things worse. That family I talked to you about…they might be the ones for the kids and I don’t want Edgar or Evelyn thinking if I come back that it would be for good.”

Roy nodded, sighing as he leaned back in the chair. “I’m holding off on talking to them about the family just yet, considering what just happened. Once they start school next week-“

“Oh god, I forgot.” Jason deflated, having wanted to be there.

“We’ll chat you that morning, even though it will be super early morning for you.”

Jason thanked him and the conversation dissolved into silence as Roy began to look particularly antsy.

“What is it?” Jason asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.

“It’s just…it’s going to be hard for us too, you know…saying goodbye to the kids eventually,” Roy said, although he kept his gaze off to the side and not looking directly at the camera. “It’s not just you, you know? And with Terry too…he really has taken a liking to Artemis. She won’t say anything of course, but I can tell she’s already bracing herself for the inevitable.”

Jason sighed. “I know. And I made it worse.”

Roy’s silence on that spoke volumes but Jason wasn’t surprised.

“Look, have you given any thought to maybe just—if there was any possible way to…” Roy let the sentence trail off as Jason caught on quickly.

“Are you kidding me, Roy? How could we possibly keep them? Look at our lives. Look at what we do.”

Jason had known that in some way, all of them had thought about it, no matter how briefly; the pipe dream of keeping the kids in some perfect universe with rainbows and unicorns and all that other stuff.

“We could work around it. I mean, money’s not an issue…”

“It was never about the money, Roy, and you know it. If it were thirty –maybe twenty-- years later, when one of us might have thought about no longer living this type of life, then maybe. But we can’t. They’d be in danger, and on top of that, if something happened to us?”

Not to mention the very obvious fact that he had unintentionally harmed one child and scared both of them a few nights ago.

Roy heaved a sigh. “I know, I know…I just…I needed to say it out loud.”

“Even without all of that. Look at us, Roy. We found ourselves embracing this life as kids and thinking it would be exciting, looking up to our fucking heroes and hoping that we’d make others proud of us.”

“God, we have fucking issues.” Roy exclaimed quietly, looking at Jason through the camera lens before both of them burst out laughing.

Eventually the laughter subsided and Jason took a look at the clock. He’d need time to figure out things for tonight. “I don’t want them to have any of our issues. I want their lives to be as normal as possible.”

“I don’t disagree with you there, but you know what they say: you’re always one decision away from a totally different life.”

Jason laughed. “What the fuck was that?”

Roy shrugged. “I saw it on a bumper sticker a while ago. I’ve been dying to use it in conversation.”

“Lucky me then” Jason rolled his eyes, listening to Roy laugh as they wrapped up their call.

“Alright, I’ll talk to you guys later.” Jason said, moving to disconnect the call.

“Sounds good. Give Ollie hell for me. Oh, and don’t contact Artemis for a while, she wants to kill you. Talk to you soon, bye!”

“Wait, what?” Jason asked, only to be looking at a blank screen as Roy disconnected the call.

‘Well shit’ Jason thought, dragging himself up off his seat and towards one of the trunks on the floor.

Artemis had pretty much always had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to Jason’s bullshit, and this had been a very big mound of it. Still, she wasn’t here, and thankfully, she couldn’t fly like Wonder Woman (much to her ire) so she couldn’t just pop over and attack. Plus, he’d like to think one of the others would warn him…if they were feeling particularly kind.

“Alright, let’s see what we can do here…”

While he felt a lot lighter than before the call, it didn’t make what had happened any less hard on him or make the guilt any better. What it did do however, was allow him better clarity right now on how to approach tonight.

He laid all his armor and equipment out on the floor, paying specific attention to two key areas: his helmet, and his chest piece.

Those were the most recognizable parts of his uniform and the ones he needed to change up quickly.

Even if he wasn’t well known in Star City, ‘the Red Hood’ did make global headlines every once in a while and any whisper of the vigilante not being in Gotham would make his hometown’s underbelly start to test the waters to see if that was really true or not. He certainly didn’t want that, not just because it would definitely cause some shake ups, but he also didn’t want any of the Bats hearing about it.

Bruce had already spoken to Oliver, there were photos that Alfred had clearly seen in the tabloids, and any ‘rumor’ that the Red Hood was spotted in Star City would be taken as fact at this point by any of the Bat clan.

‘No fucking thanks’ Jason thought with a huff, trying to figure out what he could do for now.

It may not have been an official patrol of any kind, but things did happen, and if they did, he didn’t want to be in that position.

“Okay, the red’s definitely gotta go” he muttered to himself, not particularly happy about that fact.

Not only was it his favorite color, but it had worked in Gotham, with the neon lighting that constantly reflected off the wet pavement.

In Star City? Yeah…not so much. He hadn’t been out in the evening yet, but he did note that there was definitely no neon (or not much of it at any rate), and most of the city was swathed in blue and green hues.

He wanted to keep his helmet on tonight, not wanting to go out with just a domino, but a blue or green helmet didn’t seem that appealing.

“What do you think, Bud?” he asked, turning to his dog that had fallen asleep in the corner.

She grumbled and turned her head, not finding the topic of particular interest.

“Thanks for your input, lazy bones,” Jason huffed, knowing Bud could hear him.

Hearing a buzz by the desk, Jason saw he had received a message from Roy, which turned out to be not just a message, but a photo of Edgar wearing his new glasses as he sat typing away in front of his laptop.

Jason smiled; Edgar looked good in his new dark-rimmed glasses.

Sending Roy a ‘thanks’ back, Jason caught himself staring at the phone in his hand, turning it over so he could examine the back.

After the fiasco and emotional breakdown over destroying his previous phone, the new one he’d been provided with a few hours later had obviously been brand new in terms of tech.

He hadn’t seen this phone on the market and assumed it was a prototype that was either just meant for private use now or mass market in a couple of years. He was just grateful that Oliver had managed to retrieve not just the photos, but all his data, and transfer it over to this new one.

It was certainly lighter and less bulky, but looked like it was made of carbon fiber or some variation thereof, with the dark metallic grey looking sleek yet durable.

“Hmmm…”

***

Jason made it to Capstone Bridge a little over fifteen minutes ahead of time.

Keeping to the rooftops meant that time between destinations was different than if you were walking or driving, and coupled with Jason not having seen the city from up above except for right now, he figured it would give him an opportunity to orient himself.

He had been right in his earlier assessment that the city had very little in terms of neon lights, at least in the bright oranges, pinks, and reds that you saw all over Gotham. Instead it was a lot of white and light blue, and of course, a lot of green on QI buildings.

Capstone bridge had been clearly visible from all directions once Jason had grappled up to a decently high rooftop, and he made his way the long way around to get a better feel for things. Even then, he had decided to wait on the bridge ahead of schedule, unsure of where the Green Arrow would come from.

He didn’t have long to wait before he heard the familiar sound of a grapple gun, but only because he was listening out for it. The thing barely made any noise at all before Jason found himself face to face with the Green Arrow.

It wasn’t what he had been expecting…at all.

Jason had never seen Oliver Queen’s alter ego in person before, but from photos and video feed he’d stolen back in the day from the Bat computer, as well as Roy’s old files, he had expected the Robin Hood type attire.

Sure it was green (a dark, dullish green which blended in neatly with the city’s nights) and there was even a hood that the Green Arrow had just pushed back to reveal his face, but other than that, everything was high-tech and well armored. The brilliant thing about it was that it you almost couldn’t tell because it looked so thin.

“What the hell is that?” Jason asked, unable to help himself as he poked the Green Arrow’s chest.

It looked like fabric, it gave in like fabric, but it didn’t fucking feel like fabric.

The Green Arrow laughed. “Gotta change with the times, right?”

As Jason inspected it even more closely – the Green Arrow humoring him -- he noted that the suit wasn’t completely anatomically correct, but instead composed of segments that mimicked the basic shape of muscle structures. Lightweight and fluid, it was perfect for an archer that needed to be quick.

Unlike the main suit however the man’s arms were thickly armored, looking much more like the carbon fiber of his phone, or possibly tungsten. Only his fingers were bare, allowing him full dexterity.

“Looking good, man.”

“Thanks. Titanium-weave quad-tip fiber mesh.”

“Quad tip? I thought dual-tip was it?” Jason asked, because now he felt horribly outdated.

He had known his suit and equipment weren’t as up to date, namely because he didn’t exactly have the R&D resources that some people had, but he hadn’t thought he was that behind.

Clearly he had been mistaken.

“Not for a few years now. Tri-tip is still currently used by a certain bat colony, but that’s because there are more pieces they require that make it a better option for them. That, and they haven’t figured out how to blend the quad-tip with MR-fluid tech for their armor yet.” the Green Arrow explained with a Cheshire-cat grin on his face.

“And you have?” Jason questioned, looking impressed. He had always assumed that the best tech was Bat tech…no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

“We’ll talk later” the man reassured, still grinning as he looked Jason’s gear over. “Although I must say, I almost didn’t recognise you without the signature red. Silver is a good choice here.”

Jason had ultimately gone out and found some professional grade spray paint needed to make some changes to his gear.

Sure it had been bittersweet to no longer dawn the familiar red, but it wasn’t as if this was his only set.

So with that in mind, he had taken the hours post-conversation with Roy and kids to paint his red helmet a dark silver-grey, the closest he could find to the color of his phone.

Next was the decision as to what to do with his chest piece. He needed to change the logo, and just painting over the red bat symbol wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t just for show that logos had gotten larger on Batman’s suits, or that Jason’s own one had been particularly broad.

Those logos acted as focal points for gunfire and all manners of attacks; they were designed to draw attention to them, where the armor was the strongest and avoided extremities or weak spots.

Which meant that even for one night, he needed a focal point just to be safe.

“What does that stand for? It looks like an ‘E’…” Green Arrow asked, pointing at the bluish-silver logo on Jason’s chest.

“Something temporary. Just a mash up of R and H. I’ll change it later. Plus apparently I need to get some new gear.” Jason shook his head. “Hell, even your grapple gun is two generations ahead.”

“Four generations.”

Jason groaned. “Seriously? You aren’t by chance selling are you? ‘Cause I’m willing to buy...in cash.”

That garnered a loud guffaw from the Green Arrow, which went unnoticed hundreds of feet above the city. He clapped Jason on the shoulder.

“Like I said, we’ll talk later. For now, let’s go on that tour. See if you can keep up!”

And with that, the Green Arrow was off, leaving Jason in the lurch for just a second as the younger man jumped into action.

“You’re dreamin’, old man!”

Chapter Text

There was some satisfaction to be had from actively stopping criminals in their tracks, but even that was trumped by the swooping sensations he felt when grappling and swinging himself across rooftops.  Gotham City or Star City, it didn’t matter; he loved it all the same. 

Now though, it was a new place, with areas to explore and uncover, and even with the Green Arrow by his side, which he thought he wouldn’t necessarily dislike but didn’t think he’d actively enjoy, he found himself being very much mistaken. 

With their starting point having been Capstone Bridge, which Jason found out was considered to be in city center, they went north, towards Lakeview which he was already somewhat familiar with and worked their way around in a relative circle. 

First up had been Orchid Bay, the downtown section of the city where city hall was located and where crime was minimal (meaning that it was usually nothing SCPD couldn’t handle on their own); then it was on to Oldtown, which Roy had mentioned being his current place of residence, before working their way down through Lombard before skipping over a few suburbs and heading further south towards Hyde Park, Marquette, and eventually the South Shore, which was bordered by Blumebury and the stockyards.

His earlier thoughts about the city being less grimy than Gotham had only been found accurate up until about midway through South Shore (unoriginally dubbed as ‘The South End’), which consisted of an area the Green Arrow explained was known as ‘The Triangle’, a section that was heavily dominated by organized crime activity and low-income housing.

It was here that Jason could tell needed the most work, parts of it reminding him of The Narrows back in Gotham.

It was currently about three hours into his ‘city tour’ with the Emerald Archer, much of which had actually been filled with conversation as the man that stayed beside him provided him with a continuous stream of information about how gentrification was playing apart of shifting the dynamic of the city and where he had faced some particular challenges in the past. 

Jason was surprised to find out that several of the Green Arrow’s battles had been with enemies the Red Hood was all too familiar with whether personally or by reputation, although Deadshot and Deathstroke stood out on both counts.  Killer Croc was one they had run-ins with as well, although Jason wasn’t sure whether or not the Green Arrow knew about Roy’s connection with the still violent and very dangerous nine-foot tall, seven-hundred pound reptilian.

What was more interesting however, was being able to see the construction going on around the stockyards that showed clear signs of BR Industries wasting no time in continuing construction of their warehouses.  Even in the middle of night, activity was evident, and both Jason and the Green Arrow stopped across the way on top of an abandoned fishery. It was a good vantage point, save for the smell, judging by the archer’s expression. Another reason why having a helmet was a benefit.

“How long has this been going on?” Jason asked, nodding his head towards the cranes.

“A little over six months now, give or take.  I’ve had both construction sites under surveillance, but nothing’s going on here.  Everything here continues to look consistently above board.”

Jason hummed thoughtfully, watching the work going on across the way before he was motioned to follow.  The whole BR Industries case was a large nut to crack, and it wasn’t as if Jason was readily prepared for any sort of major take down at the moment.

Following his vigilante tour guide, they made their way back up towards The Triangle, catching sight of a man in a dark suit, clearly in the middle of distributing product to some street-level drug dealers. 

In all the unfamiliarity of the city, this was something Jason was fully prepared to deal with, readying his guns before he felt a hand on his arm.  It wasn’t a sudden grab to stop him, but more of a ‘let’s wait and see.’

The signal left Jason a little twitchy (he certainly wouldn’t have called himself trigger-happy but it was debatable on occasion), but he nodded, a rare time indeed when he followed someone else’s lead.

He began to question that decision twenty-minutes later however, as the Green Arrow had them bouncing from building to building, following the distributor who as far as Jason was concerned, needed to be taken out. So far he had stood by and watched as the man had made multiple stops in his vehicle, covering a several mile radius.

“What the hell are we doing? We could just end this right here.” Jason said quietly, the voice modifier in his helmet dampening his frustrated tone.

He got a look back that pretty much said ‘just wait and see’, but honestly Jason felt that they had done enough waiting and enough seeing.  It was pretty cut and dry what was going on here.

An hour later, sitting on the side of a building with his legs dangling casually off the side, and Jason was taking that statement back.

He was frustrated and a little pissed off at the Green Arrow right now (which surprised him since he thought it would have happened much sooner than it had), not saying anything as the man came and sat beside him, not saying a word for several minutes.

“I wasn’t trying to manipulate you, Jason.”

Jason huffed, removing his helmet and taking a cigarette from his pocket.  If he so much as heard a disappointed sigh escape the man’s lips he’d punch his face. 

Jason grew even more frustrated when that didn’t happen, and in fact, Oliver held out his hand to help shield the flame from the wind so Jason could light it.

“Thanks” Jason grumbled, taking a drag.

The ‘watch and wait’ approach they had taken with that sleeze-ball drug distributor had almost driven Jason up the wall, especially as more and more drugs made its way onto the street in front of his eyes.

It had really taken up all his resolve to not just disregard the Green Arrow’s instructions (because Jason was a grown ass man, thankyouverymuch) but he had done it, eventually trailing the guy back to the Hyde Park area, and onto a quiet residential street.

With the lack of tall buildings, it had been a little more of a challenge to keep a visual of the target, but they stayed on the rooftop across the street, watching as the man had pulled into a driveway of one of the houses, a tire swing attached to a tree in the front yard.

Okay, so the asshole had a family; just another reason why it pissed Jason off that the guy was out there feeding a city’s drug addiction that affected kids as well.  What a fucking scumbag.

”Hey honey, you alright?”

Jason startled at the hushed sounds of a woman’s voice as the Green Arrow had handed him a wireless earpiece.

So the house had already been bugged, which mean the archer knew just who this fucker was.  He had some choice words to say on the matter, but kept quiet as he continued to listen in. 

He could make out the muffled sounds of shoes being taken off and dropped on the floor, and movement into the kitchen where Jason could hear cabinets opening and closing as well as the sounds of ceramic being place on countertops. 

”Tired, Meg. So tired.  I just…I can’t keep doing this.  I don’t want to do this. It’s wrong…”

Jason wasn’t surprised by the gruff voice, but by the forlorn quality it had. It sounded like a man who was at the end of his rope, with no escape in sight.

”I know you won’t tell me exactly what’s going on, but can’t you stop? I don’t want you getting hurt.”

Jason heard the man sigh at his wife’s concern. At least, he assumed it was his wife.

”It’s not me I’m worried about.  It’s you, and the kids. I knew that accounting gig was too good to be true, but we needed the money. Tessie needed her braces, and what with the new insulin pump Brandon needed...I knew it might not be all that legit, but now I don’t know how to get out…”

Both Jason and the Green Arrow listened for another ten minutes as a wife tried to console her husband, and discuss how they could possibly leave town and start over somewhere else, even if money was still tight and they’d be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

With two kids, and Jason’s most recent experience, he knew only a fraction of what it felt like to worry for your children, wondering if some harm would come to them that would be because of your own actions.

A tap on the shoulder had Jason finding the Green Arrow standing up and ready to go.  Handing the earpiece back, Jason put his helmet back on and followed, which is how he now found himself sitting on the side of a building back in Lakeview.

“May I ask you something?”

Jason shrugged, taking another drag from his cigarette. He was still plenty pissed; at himself, at Oliver…he wasn’t exactly sure.

“How ready were you to shoot him back when we were tailing him?”

Jason couldn’t help but huff.  “Look, I know what you’re trying to do. Okay, so he’s got a family, but that doesn’t excuse what he’s doing.”

“I agree, it doesn’t.  Yet he’s just a man, pigeonholed into a situation he didn’t want, and trying to provide for his family and keep them safe. I did not grow up in poverty, you did.”

Jason huffed a laugh. “Wow, way to lay it out there. What’s your point?”

“My point is, Jason, that when you think back on your life, when you were on the streets, trying to help your mom, can you honestly tell me you weren’t doing everything you could to help her and keep you both safe?”

“That’s a low fucking blow, Queen.” Jason said quietly, his anger mounting.

Okay sure, he’d stolen (rather a lot) and done some things he was not proud of, but it wasn’t the same thing.

“I don’t mean it to be.”

The Green Arrow shifted so that he turned towards Jason, a neutral expression on his face. He wasn’t trying to pick a fight or start an argument.

“My point is, what you thought you knew about this man is now compounded by what you now know about him.  If you had killed him, what would have happened to his family?  Maybe they’d find a way to survive, but maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they’d be out on the street, maybe their son would die because he’s diabetic, maybe their daughter would start to steal or worse, just to keep them alive.”

“You don’t actually know that.” Jason pointed out with an arched eyebrow.

“You’re right, I don’t. But you don’t know that it wouldn’t happen either.  Hacking at the branches of the problem still leaves the root. Shoot him? Okay sure, another person gets put in his place and it continues, except you now have a family out on the streets and increasing the likelihood of criminal activity.”

Jason shifted uncomfortably, not wanting to admit that it hit a little too close to home.

“I cannot get you to stop using lethal force. I know that, and you know that this conversation was going to happen. You broached it earlier today.  I wanted to have this discussion within context of what we do.  Self-defence is one thing, but you are highly proficient with firearms and other fighting styles - you do not need to kill.  And if you do…can you really be sure it’s the right thing?”

“You think people don’t deserve to be put down? Some people are evil, they deserve death and worse…” Jason grit his teeth as he spoke, unable to keep the venom out of his words.

“I’m with you on that. I really am.  I know you and I are both of the mind-set that catching criminals and throwing them into the system does nothing but continue a broken cycle.  But killing doesn’t break that cycle, Jason, it strengthens it.”

Jason opened his mouth to respond but the Green Arrow calmly raised a hand. “I’m not talking about the sick twisted psychos, Jason. I’m not talking about vile beings like the Joker,” he said calmly, watching Jason freeze up for a split second at the mention of the monster’s name. 

“I’m talking about people like Dan Frester, the man we watched today.  There is a lot of grey here, and if there is grey, you need to think about whether killing someone like him is just a band-aid on a gaping wound.”

“So what do you suggest, then? Just a slap on the wrist? Write them up with a citation?” Jason barked out, tossing his cigarette down onto the street below.

“Of course not. There is balance to be found. Hell, look at Batman,” he offered up, noting the grimace on Jason’s face at the mention of the Dark Knight, “you and I both seem to be of the mind that just throwing people away only for them to get out and have you repeat the process is completely pointless. You aren’t the type of person that struck me as having a welded line in the sand like he does.  And not just about killing…about a lot of things.”

Jason disliked the fact that the whole conversation was making sense, and he really didn’t want it to. He liked the way he did things, and didn’t want to change it.

‘Sounds like Asshole Number One talking’ his mind countered.  He disliked his mind now, too.

“Look, I’m not all crazed and hopped up on neon green Lazarus juice anymore, so I’ve actually been fairly good, ya know?”

“I know. We all watched your work with the Outlaws. Well, during my time with the League anyways.”

That brought Jason up short.  He hadn’t really thought about the Green Arrow’s former membership with the League or what that had meant the man (and others) had seen.

“I’m just saying that there is a time and place for all things and I want you to be sure, Jason.  Being the Green Arrow for me is about identifying the problems I wouldn’t otherwise find out about and then doing something with it as Oliver Queen.  One day we will be gone, and the fight will continue, but the impact we make will be in how we helped people and fixed a broken system, rather than how many bad guys we take down.  There will always be bad guys, Jason.”

With that, the Green Arrow stood up, pointing a few streets over to their right.

“Your place is over there.  I know this isn’t exactly a one-time only type of conversation and I’m honestly not trying to nag or miraculously get you to change your ways…”

‘Too late on the nagging part’ Jason thought.

“…but I’m going to ask you to do something for me.  Consider what we saw and what we just talked about.  You are your own man, and can make your own choices, but I’m not above sweetening the pot.”

Jason stood up, grabbing his helmet and putting it under his arm. He had to admit, he was intrigued.

“I’m listening.”

“I think the Red Hood did a lot of good. I think you can do even more. We all evolve, and it looks like it’s the Red Hood’s time now as well.”

Jason kind of understood what he was talking about but then again he didn’t know what that had do with sweetening the pot. “I’m not following here.”

Watching as the Green Arrow took out some sort of device, a metallic dark-green object that was triangular in shape, much like an arrowhead, Jason found himself extending his hand to accept it.

“Whenever you’re ready to make a change…” the Green Arrow now pointed north-west. “Two-six-five, Grell Avenue. There’s a service elevator on the roof.”

“What’s this for then?!” Jason called after the guy as he jumped off the side of the building without another word.

Jason looked down at his hand, examining the piece of metal while his other hand still held his newly painted silver helmet.

Chapter Text

Jason really didn’t want to take the bait (even if Oliver had openly admitted to not being above sweetening the pot), and prided himself on his self-control as he was left alone on the rooftop.

He had an address and some sort of device that clearly was related to that address.

Did he want to go over to that address?

There was no doubt about it.

Was he going to go over to that address?

No...at least not yet.

So Jason returned to the townhouse, let Bud out, and eventually made his way to bed.

It gave him some satisfaction in assuming that Oliver would have thought Jason would have immediately high-tailed it over to the mysterious location, although he wasn’t sure just how long he would last.

By eight o’clock the next morning, Jason was seated at the kitchen counter, cup of coffee in hand, and the green metallic arrowhead thingy (that was the technical term for it of course) resting in front of him.

He really wanted to tinker with it and figure out exactly what it was, although he didn’t want to damage it and frankly, it would probably spoil the surprise.

He did take a photo and send it to Roy with about half a dozen question marks typed out in the subject line, only to get an email back with a dozen ‘thumbs up’ emojis.

Jason realized he probably should have been a little more specific when he had sent that photo over.

For the rest of the day, Jason either carried the mysterious object around in his hand and unconsciously fidgeted with it, or it was in his pocket as he went out into the city.

He was determined to not think about the device at all or ask Queen for any further information on it.

In his determination to not give in so easily, Jason had taken full stock of his new townhouse, gone out to buy himself clothes and groceries, and began creating grid lines on the holographic city map in his study. His goal was to go through the city section by section, building on the new knowledge he had based on his own reviews of the maps and his brief experience patrolling the city already with Oliver. It would certainly take some time, but he needed things to focus on other than wondering what the kids and his friends were up to every second of the day.

By eleven o’clock that night, Jason was back in his temporary new look and off to patrol Lakeview.

He doubted he’d see any action and while he really would have liked some, he wasn’t going to rush into anything just for the sake of distraction. Maybe he would have a year or two ago, but not anymore. And certainly not after the conversation he’d had with the Green Arrow last night.

It had been annoying that he’d been cornered into having a discussion that had not started on his terms, but at least it had actually been a discussion.

In the light of day, Jason had replayed the entire conversation over in his mind, and could now admit that upon reflection, the man had been right. Sure he went into a lot of fights guns blazing but he didn’t exactly attempt kill shots consistently anymore; he had become much more thoughtful and intentional as time had gone on. Yet, just thinking about what he had seen last night, and the anger he had felt about the drug distributor had left him wondering what would have happened if he had done something rash and then found out about the family?

Then, of course, was the ultimate question of just how many people had he killed that had been in similar situations back in Gotham that he just hadn’t thought about.

Handling evil metas or other ‘big bads’ was one thing, but if he truly was focused on helping the people of a city, that meant dealing with the larger problems at hand too, just like the Green Arrow had said. Jason agreed: there was no point hacking at the branches if the root wasn’t being dealt with. Unfortunately, the root causes were complicated and difficult to eradicate, and that was if you even knew what the root causes or issues were. For the Green Arrow, Oliver Queen had the funds and public presence to help with those as much as he could.

The Red Hood didn’t have that luxury. Perhaps as Jason Todd-Wayne he might have, but that possibility had sailed long ago, and he didn’t particularly care about leaving any sort of lasting legacy behind.

What he did care about though was making a difference and the fact that there would always be bad guys, as was simply pointed out to him last night, made him really think.

The statement hadn’t exactly been any sort of Eureka! moment for Jason, but it was true. Sometimes it had been impossible not to feel as if he kept scooping up sand and dumping it into a bowl that had holes at the bottom, with the sand falling out and piling up again.

If killing criminals led to them just being replaced and disrupting people’s lives, then what good was he really doing? In fact, he could very well be making it worse.

And then, there was Batman to think of. A creature of the night who collected criminals, put them away, then the criminals would escape and then round and round it went.

Bruce expended too much energy and resources on an ongoing problem of the man’s own making.

Jason didn’t want to be like that. He didn’t want to help perpetuate any cycle. He wanted to do more and be better.

In his thoughts, Jason found himself a block away from Grell Avenue, sitting on a rooftop and flipping the arrowhead-shaped item in his hand over and over again.

If he truly cared about the people of a city, then his pride didn’t matter. He may have started out as the Red Hood in order to serve as a giant ‘Fuck You’ to Batman, but that wasn’t who he was anymore.

Oliver Queen was offering resources, a fresh start, and a way for Jason to just fucking evolve. Figuratively stomping his feet just to be stubborn and express how set he was in his ways would be stupid and immature. Not to mention...something that reminded Jason too much of Bruce.

With that final thought, he was now on the rooftop of 265 Grell Avenue, where sure enough, there was a access to a service elevator.

The building itself looked residential, not too different from his townhouse, although there was clearly a business front at street level. When Jason had looked up the address earlier, he had come to find out that 265 Grell Avenue was registered as a business address under Queen Industries but that was it.

“No button...okay...” Jason looked closely at where the elevator doors should have been for any sign of anything but nothing was there. In fact, he couldn’t see any separation in the metal wall in front of him. There clearly was an elevator shaft, but it was behind the wall of steel in front of him.

His helmet wasn’t able to pick up any lines of electrical current but that didn’t surprise him considering the steel in front of him must have been at least six inches thick. He hadn’t expected Queen to make it that easy.

Okay, maybe he had.

He kept underestimating the guy.

Taking out the device he’d been carrying around all day, Jason looked for a place to put it, moving his hand along the steel slowly, wondering if something would happen.

It was only through persistence and slowing his hand down that he felt a slight magnetic pull as the device skimmed across the bottom left section. He had obviously missed it the first time and since it was the only thing of note, he went over the spot again, realizing that the pull was more and more noticeable as he ran the device over that section numerous times.

It wasn’t just in his head; the more he went over it, the stronger the magnetic pull became.

Holding the device against the section of interest, he felt the magnetic pull strengthen even more now, enough so that his hand was no longer needed to support the device against the metal.

He watched as the tip of the device rotated to the top, and a pneumatic hiss revealed a long metal piece extending out of the bottom with two smaller triangles spreading out on either side of it at the very end.

Ultimately, that arrowhead now looked like an actual arrow, and having completed its transformation, was now being pulled back and sideways to reveal a panel that hadn’t been noticeable even though Jason had inspected the entire wall.

He snorted in amusement at the obvious arrow theme, figuring he should have known it would transform into something like that although his amusement was short-lived as a small light appeared and scanned him upwards and downwards before speaking to him.

”Retinal scan failed. Ten seconds to final attempt. Ten, nine-“

“Shit!”

Jason wasn’t sure what would happen after the final attempt and quickly moved to get his helmet off.

The least serious scenario would be that it would just lock him out and probably notify Queen, who would no doubt be needed to reset the lockdown procedure. A worst case scenario could be the entire roof set to electrocute him through hidden floor panels or maybe arrows would shoot at him from somewhere. Too many possibilities, and not enough time to think of them all.

Within three seconds Jason had his helmet off, eyes unblinking as the scanner reset and did a full scan again.

”Identity Confirmed.”

Jason let out the breath he had been holding and watched as the steel wall descended, revealing the elevator doors which now opened.

He kept his helmet tucked under his arm, just in case he faced another retinal scanner and went inside, noting that it really was a service elevator that didn’t look anything like the Green Arrow’s normally polished locations, tech, or equipment.

Before the elevator door closed, Jason watched the steel wall begin to rise again. He reminded himself to keep breathing and stay calm, trusting that Queen hadn’t thought about how this would have been a great way to torture Jason. He didn’t do well with confined spaces.

It wasn’t dark, but the enclosed space and knowing just how thick that wall in front of him was didn’t help his nerves at all, although he watched as a panel opened and revealed the metallic arrow, now back in its compact form.

Removing it from its spot, Jason watched as the elevator doors now closed, and four buttons lit up on his right.

The top one was marked R, with 2, G, and B following suit. Nothing unusual there except that the ‘1’ was maybe missing, oh, and that the button marked ‘B’ was lit up green as opposed to the others...

“Right then. B it is.”

The building was only three stories high but the speed of the ride down coupled with the fifteen seconds it took for the elevator to stop meant that B was most definitely deep underground.

A pleasant ‘ding’ and the doors opened behind Jason, who until that point hadn’t realized that their had been rear doors as well.

It was dark when he got off the elevator, but a light a couple of steps ahead revealed another scanner, this time for fingerprints.

At least there wasn’t a countdown on this one.

Removing his gauntlet, Jason placed his hand on the pad against the wall, watching as all five fingerprints went green and the door opened in front of him.

The change in brightness had Jason squinting for a few moments before he stood there with a stupidly stunned expression on his face.

“Holy. Fucking. Shit.” Jason breathed out, dropping his helmet onto the nearest workbench.

It was a huge open plan space which clearly ran underneath more than just a few of the buildings above ground.

Jason had no idea how that was possible considering the city was at sea level and didn’t have the benefit of Gotham’s underground caverns. Reinforcing the space alone must have cost a fortune. And that was on top of everything in this place.

The initial hallway that Jason was currently walking through had various gear and supplies running across the walls.

He noted various models of grapple guns, some obviously older models, a few similar to his own, a few that looked identical to what the Green Arrow had been using the night before, and several that looked to be prototypes that weren’t all finished.

Jason found himself staring at them for a few minutes, unable to help giving the place a quick glance around before reaching out and finding that the case opened easily and allowed him to reach out and examine a grapple gun that he had never seen the likes of before.

He probably could have stood there all night examining it and even taking it apart if he so dared, but he continued on.

Various weaponry and gadgets continued to catch his eye as he made his way further inside, even the variety of arrows that were on display on the walls. There actually weren’t too many things that he’d seen so far that looked like they were in the Green Arrow’s arsenal (pun not intended) but they were certainly interesting.

The electronic disruptor he found had him extremely tempted to sneak it out.

As he moved on, lights continued to turn on, tinting everything a faint blue rather than the green Jason would have expected.

Multiple computer screens were off on the side, connected to a main center console that was extremely reminiscent of the Batcomputer. Except for the rotating green arrow screen saver on the main screen.

He grinned, although bypassed the computer to stare at a large white dining table further down. At least, it looked like a dining table until Jason was close enough to see a large circular button on the side and pressed it.

“Nice!” Jason grinned, watching as what he thought had been a dining table turned out to be a holographic projector that was equipped with motion sensors.

He spent a good hour looking like an orchestra conductor as his hands moved through the air, pulling up various blueprints to equipment he’d already come across and some he’d be very eager to find if they’d actually been created. Especially what was in front of him now.

The quad-tip titanium weave that Jason had immediately taken note of on the Green Arrow’s uniform was clearly being experimented with in a lot of ways. The MR-fluid that the man had teased that the Batclan hadn’t been able to combine with the latest armor plating clearly wasn’t a hundred percent accurate as Jason found notes from Lucius Fox.

Apparently while Bruce and Oliver were not buddy-buddy, there was some communication between at least Lucius and Oliver. Although the notes Jason were currently reading were almost a year old. It was a question Jason would keep in his back pocket, although he pretty much forgot about it as he watched uniform cases on the other side of the room begin to light up.

“What the fuck...”

Jason went over, looking at all the cases.

These were not Green Arrow uniforms of any kind but clearly variations of armor.

Some were thin, like the Green Arrow’s current uniform, others were big and bulky, clearly not as agile or as flexible, but certainly able to do plenty of damage.

Jason even noticed some had hoods and capes made of various material, and examined them closely, his mind already working overtime as he thought of ways to incorporate what he was discovering into his own look.

There were probably twenty or so cases, and Jason hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way through so he picked up the pace, unsure of just how much time he had here and whether it was a one time deal.

Yet he’d never backtracked so fast in his life, finding himself reversing and staring at a suit that had so much potential.

It was full body armor, with a heavily protected neckline that led down to similarly protected shoulders, upper arms, and into even thicker gauntlets that already had a grapple gun prototype built into it.

The chest piece looked to be made of several larger pieces, the exterior honeycomb pattern looking to be the quad-tip mesh over heavily armored sections that looked extremely thick and impenetrable.

The thighs were heavily armored as well, although that’s where Jason could tell this design went sideways. Considering the entire suit was armored for close combat or high speed projectiles, it would be impossible to move as quickly as one needed to with the way this area had been designed. The rest though...

“I take it that one caught your fancy.”

Jason whirled around, his mind (thankfully) having recognized the voice before he reached for his guns. It was his own fault for getting caught unawares.

“How long have you been standing there?” Jason asked, feeling like he was a kid who had just been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Which was stupid really since Queen had told him to come.

“Long enough.” Queen smiled, surprisingly not dressed as the Green Arrow but in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. “Was out for a run and saw that you had ended up coming here.”

Again, Jason wasn’t surprised that Queen had some sort of notification system in place. At least he wasn’t looking smug about Jason eventually caving in to his growing curiosity. Still, he had lasted twenty four hours which he didn’t think was too shabby.

“Is this your Green Arrow HQ?” Jason asked, his eyes roaming around the space although ultimately falling back on the suit in front of him.

Queen shook his head. “No. Just a workspace I’d sometimes use when I had time to tinker about with whatever we come up with at Q-Core.”

The way Queen made it sound was as if this was simply a backyard shed when it was anything but. Jason could only imagine what the main space looked like.

“I don’t use it much as of late, but I thought you’d might enjoy it. If you and Roy wanted it.”

“What?” Jason turned sharply, staring at Queen and looking rather dumbfounded.

“I did say I wasn’t above sweetening the pot.” Queen reminded him although Jason certainly didn’t need reminding. “It’s yours if you’ve taken what we discussed to heart last night, or are willing too.”

“It’s...you’re giving this to me and Roy?” Jason asked slowly, receiving a pleasant nod in response as Queen moved around the room now, still smiling.

“Yup. It’s a secure space. You’d have access to the latest R and D, and it looks like you already have some thoughts on some of what’s already in here...” Queen said, moving towards to the holographic projector.

Which reminded Jason.

“You working secretly with Bruce?”

Queen looked surprised and then laughed. “What? No. Why would you think that?”

Jason narrowed his eyes, coming over and pulling up the files he’d found with notes from Lucius.

“Ah, I see.” Queen murmured, shaking his head. “Not Bruce. Just Lucius every once in a while. The merging of MR-fluid with the new quad-tip weave is tricky, and Lucius was working on developing a solution.”

“I thought you said they hadn’t figured it out. That’s why they’re using tri-weave.”

Oliver nodded. “That’s true, but only because they wanted smaller armored plates than the larger ones that I’d been able to work with. Surrounding yourself with people smarter than you is not a weakness if you need to depend on them for certain skill sets. Lucius and I trade information for that reason. WE has an entire division devoted to medical research, which is not in QI’s wheelhouse, nor my personal one. So if getting the formula for the latest compression gel means offering up, I don’t know, let’s say...the latest in holographic technology or my research on MR-fluid...then it’s worth it.”

Jason hummed thoughtfully, unable to disagree, but still a little unsettled by the line of communication the two men had.

“I rarely speak with him. Don’t worry.” Queen reassured, patting Jason on the shoulder. He didn’t shrug it off.

“So...these suits...are you planning on using any of them?” Jason asked, trying to sound nonchalant but failing if Queen’s grin was any indication.

“You’re free to use or redesign any of them. I did say I think you and Roy are extremely talented. I’d love to have you both work-“

“Let’s...take it one step at a time, yeah?” Jason smirked, watching Queen close his mouth with a sharp click.

“Sure. Of course.”

With that, Queen spent the next half hour taking Jason through the rest of the space, pointing out work areas and pulling up the inventory list on the computer should Jason need something or wish to order anything.

It took a lot to overwhelm Jason, and the last thing to do so had been the sudden arrival of a dog, three kids, and a strange cat. Still, it was getting close here as Jason processed everything as quickly as he could, getting distracted here and there especially as the far side of the space revealed two motorcycles that were pretty barebones but had so much potential.

Christmas had come early for Jason although his attempts to appear casual made it even that more telling.

“How exactly are you handling all this on your own?” Jason asked, as he walked Queen back towards to the door.

“I don’t. I’ve got some help.” Queen grinned, relishing the surprised look on Jason’s face.

“Settle in. Spend as much time as you want. I think there’s enough in here to give you a pretty good upgrade. I look forward to seeing the end result.”

Jason figured it was enough to be going on right now and nodded, looking around again before watching Queen head towards the elevator.

“Thank you. For everything.”

Queen stopped and turned around. “You’re welcome, Jason.”

“I still think you’re a douchebag though!”

Queen’s laughter continued even as the elevator doors closed in front of him.

Chapter Text

Dear Alfred,

I’m sure you’re surprised by this letter just as I am surprised that I’m actually writing it. I suppose I needed to man up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a letter and frankly, I don’t know where the hell to even start. Of all the messed up things I have done, there is nothing that I am more sorry for than for what I said to you that day when you came to the house.

I would never hurt the only person that ever truly gave a damn about me and made me feel like I was worth something. That was you, Alfred.

Threatening you was unacceptable and I understand if you can’t forgive me for that.

I’m not sorry for a lot of what I said to you, if I’m honest, but my delivery was shit (pardon my language). I appreciate what you were trying to do but, yeah, it’s too little too late for a lot of things. That’s just the way it is, Al.

Please don’t try finding me again. I’ve left Gotham and don’t plan on returning so dear old Bruce doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. Not that I particularly care about how he feels but it should make your life easier. Or at least, I hope it does.

You’ve done so much for me, and that ungrateful bastard will probably never realize just how much you’ve done for him either. I never understood a lot of the shit you let him get away with over the years but I guess some questions don’t have answers. I’ve learned to live with that.

Take care of yourself and don’t let the man get you down.

Jason

Alfred had read the letter slowly, each word a link in an ever growing chain that could very well suffocate him.

No packages had been expected that day and Alfred was surprised to receive word from the mail delivery service that there had been a package addressed to him awaiting his pick up.

Even more surprising was the looping cursive on the package that had been instantly recognizable. The ride back to the manor with the package resting next to him in the passenger seat had been rather suspenseful.

Luckily, the inhabitants of Wayne Manor were either out or sleeping, which was just as well considering the last several days had been filled with more than the usual dramatics.

After an unexpectedly heated exchange with Master Bruce (mostly from Alfred’s end) and an early retirement to bed upon dealing with the Jason Todd sized elephant in the room, Alfred had awoken the next morning to a tense breakfast table.

Master Tim and Master Bruce had not said much to each other except for the required “Good morning” before the former had been the first one up from the table.

Patrol that previous evening had been particularly short, and based on what Alfred had found out from Miss Gordon, Master Bruce had taken it upon himself to confront Mr. Queen in the most appalling manner.

The end result had been Master Timothy and Master Bruce arguing about how to proceed with regards to the ‘Todd situation’.

Master Timothy had been quite right in his response that based on the facts, there was no ‘Todd situation’. There was however, a growing ‘Queen situation’ that was of Master Bruce’s own making if he wasn’t careful. Thankfully Mr. Queen was not prone to unnecessary escalations but there was only so many times one could poke a sleeping bear before it gave up on sleep and reacted.

Of course, Alfred knew it was Master Bruce’s shock that served to drive this desire to understand how his second son had suddenly appeared in the light of day and in such a public manner alongside Mr. Queen.

Regardless of the reasons behind Master Bruce’s actions however, Alfred did not approve and hoped that his stance on the matter (and what he would do should the man continue down this route) was taken seriously.

Thankfully, it appeared as though it was.

The next week or so had things seemingly back to normal, albeit with the extra tension, but nothing that wouldn’t diminish over time.

Mr. Queen was no longer in Gotham and Master Jason made no other sudden appearances in the media but now it seemed that Master Jason was no longer in Gotham and with no intention of coming back.

‘It’s all my fault.’ That was Alfred’s only thought as he read the letter once more, noting the carefully worded script. Master Jason had been very intentional with his penmanship, taking his time when writing the letter which was clearly meant to be a goodbye.

There was of course, the package itself, which was carefully packed and revealed a smaller box that contained an item covered in fabric.

The fact that it was indeed a book, as Alfred had suspected, made the man smile, gently picking up the very old and very exquisite looking copy of A Christmas Carol.

It wasn’t a first edition (of which the manor libraries contained two copies), not that Alfred gave a damn about that but it was beautifully illustrated.

A tan leather bookmark was between the pages towards the end of the book, and Alfred opened to the particular pages, wondering if its placement was intentional.

It was Stave 4, The Last of the Spirits, and as Alfred began to read the chapter, memories of reading it alongside a young Master Jason came forth, sitting in the study with hot cups of tea and a roaring fireplace.

”Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change...”

Alfred let his fingers run over the words, knowing there were a great many things those two sentences were meant to convey.

“Alfred? You up there?”

“One moment, Master Timothy.” Alfred responded politely, placing the book and letter away in his desk drawer before making his way out of his room and down the hallway.

***

Jason looked at his phone, feeling some type of way now that his package had been signed for and delivered.

The Doc had been right; it may have taken him several rewrites but eventually he felt his letter had been somewhat decent and sealed it up, placing it carefully on top of the old edition of A Christmas Carol that he had found when he had passed by an antique bookshop while taking Bud for a walk.

He had backtracked before he realized he was doing it and ten minutes later had walked out with the book carefully wrapped in a bag and a sense of resolve. Alfred deserved an apology, and Jason wanted a clean slate. Or as clean a slate as he could have.

He had spent the last three evenings in the workspace and control center Queen had offered to him, looking over everything, needing to really think about what he wanted to become and represent in Star City (and beyond). Yet, he couldn’t move forward with anything, not with his guilt over his treatment of Alfred still ever present.

It wasn’t going to go away, and Jason wasn’t expecting it to, but now that he was back at Grell Ave., he felt more settled.

He came to stand in front of the full armor prototype that had caught his eye on the first night and slowly exhaled.

“Here we go.”

***

For the next two weeks, Jason spent all his time at Grell Ave., piecing together parts, reviewing schematics and equipment, and determined to do what Queen said the Bats had been unable to do with small plated armor in terms of MR-fluid and the quad-tip titanium plating.

Queen checked in with him here and there, and even Jason actively reached out as well, usually when it came to updating inventory requests or if he needed a second opinion.

He intentionally avoided asking Roy, feeling like it would have looked too much like showing off resources that his friend currently had no access to. Jason didn’t particularly feel like he deserved any of this, but hoped that the surprise of the space would be fun to see Roy’s reaction to. Well that and the fact that communicating with Roy was very much attached to the kids and Jason was trying very hard not to backtrack.

It was particularly difficult this morning as he’d woken up to a video call from Roy, who revealed Edgar and Evelyn, all dressed up in their school uniforms, their navy blazers with the school crest prominently on display. The kids looked extremely excited, showing off their uniforms for him along with what their classes were for the day.

He had pretended he didn’t know anything about their finalized school schedules, acting genuinely surprised when Edgar exclaimed that he’d chosen a variety of classes including advanced computer science, fencing, graphic design, French as his second language, and German just because he wanted to speak three languages.

Evelyn had signed up for Judo and equestrian (although unable to participate in either until her arm and leg healed), Advanced Shakespeare, French, and German, among other things, and Jason thought the two of them were taking on way too much for their first time at school but said nothing of it, basking in their joy.

“We miss you!” both of them declared before Roy got them ready to head out.

“I miss you too.” Jason smiled, trying to be happy. He was missing their first fucking day of school.

It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. Much more so than it should have.

Terry also made an appearance, in the arms of a steely looking Artemis, and Jason was surprised to find that the once quiet child had shouted “Jay!” with glee, and was babbling away at him, gesticulating wildly and telling some sort of story that he couldn’t make heads or tails of but he didn’t care.

“Bye bye, Jay!” Terry waved his small hand at the screen, and Jason had waved back, trying to catch Artemis’ eye only to be met with a cold stare and a curt nod to signal the call was over. Biz had only just managed to wave cheerily at the camera before the call was ended.

Jason had leaned back in his chair, heaving a deep sigh.

“Fuck.”

It had taken longer than usual that day to get his head in the game, but he had, and continued to do so.

It actually helped that Queen put in an appearance later on in the day.

“I come bearing gifts.” Queen said by way of greeting, placing a ZERO Halliburton case on the workbench.

Jason didn’t hesitate to open the case up, looking at the pieces that he had ordered and running his fingers over them. The tech he could handle himself, but the materials had been a very precise custom order. He wasn’t sure how Queen appeared to deliver on things without the notable support, although the man had said he didn’t work alone. As long as Jason stayed out of whatever inner circle Queen had, then he didn’t care about how he was getting his supplies.

One of the first things Jason had done was to redesign his helmet, knowing it was definitely due for an upgrade. Just because he wouldn’t be the Red Hood didn’t mean he had to give up the one piece of equipment that made him feel safe.

“Want some help?” Queen offered.

Jason paused, before beginning to take the pieces from the molded support foam.

“Sure.”

Whether or not Queen had actually expected to be taken up on his offer was unknown, but the older man took off his suit jacket and laid it over the back of the chair, before taking a seat.

“Ears, huh?” Queen asked, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice.

“The better to hear you with, Queen.” Jason smirked, his eyes glued to the table, already beginning to make use of the tools beside him.

Four hours in and the external structure of the helmet was complete and ready for internal electronics. Queen had underestimated how thorough Jason would be but it was a surprising treat to watch the young man at work. There was no doubt about just how gifted Jason Todd was.

“The blue camo pattern should arrive tomorrow.” Queen said, flexing his back and feeling the pops alongs his spine as he let out a pleased sigh. Time had gone by quickly.

“Great, thanks.” Jason said, moving to the fridge and grabbing a water for himself before tossing another to Queen.

“Any thought on the name?”

“Not yet. It’ll come to me, I’m sure.” Jason murmured, now holding the helmet in his hands and staring at the reflective blue eye panels.

Chapter Text

The Gotham Enquirer - Online Edition

Who Wants to Date a Billionaire?

The hottest ticket in town isn’t in Gotham exactly, but in New York. The charity gala being held at The Surrey next week is shaping up to be a bigger to-do than the annual Wayne Foundation Masquerade Ball! The event is being held to honor breast cancer survivors and raise money for cancer research.

The usual deal, right? Wrong!

The big draw here is the charity auction! And not just any ol’ auction mind you, but one that has some of the country’s most eligible (and wealthiest) bachelors up for sale!

If you were lucky enough to grab (*cough*afford*cough*) a ticket to the party, hopefully you still have enough in your bank account to treat yourself to a date-night with the man of your choosing! Not only will you be snagging yourself some sexy arm-candy, but your winning bid would also secure a date for one of the amazing survivors that will be in attendance. Win-win!

While the guest list is being kept under wraps, I’ve been given the heads up that the list of potential suitors are just about confirmed. Our very own Prince of Gotham, Bruce Wayne, will not be in attendance (dry your eyes, readers!), despite comments made by slightly less sexy bachelor (not that I’m biased or anything), Oliver Queen, that there would be a friendly rivalry the evening of. Can you imagine?! Ugh, he’s such a tease.

So yes, Oliver Queen, business mogul and playboy extraordinaire, is for sale that evening, as well as Ted Kord, Rex Tyler, and Michael Holt! I suggest you do a quick internet search if you’re not sure what they look like. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Go ahead, I’ll wait...

And there are definitely going to be plenty more!

Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson-Wayne was also hinted at being in attendance, the eldest of the Wayne sons and a police officer with the Blüdhaven police department.

Why he chose to do that when he’s got his adopted father’s money at his disposal is beyond me. No matter though, he’s a rather yummy dish himself when we happen to catch photos of him with Daddy Brucie!

Normally he’s not one to bask in the limelight, keeping a much lower profile and only popping up here and there for Wayne Foundation events. The fact that his name is even being mentioned as possibly being on the auction block is a big deal! I’m not getting my hopes up but...what the hell, I totally am!

Did I mention that yours truly has actually scored a ticket? Had to pull some strings and promise some favors (not those type of favors...get your mind out of the gutter)!

I swear I’ll report back on all the juicy details!

“So why did I have to waste my time reading this trash?” Jason asked, flicking his cigarette and watching the ash fall to the ground.

He was sitting outside in the yard, enjoying the weather that certainly was nowhere near as gloomy (or as polluted) as Gotham’s.

Roy was on the phone, having sent him a link to another one of those awful tabloid articles. Whoever wrote them made Jack Ryder seem like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

”Because I’m pretty sure Mr. Escala, the new CEO of BR Industries, is looking to put in an appearance.”

“For fuck’s sake, it’s like deja-vu.” Jason sighed, rubbing his eyes.

It was only a few weeks ago that he’d attended one of these big fancy-ass parties just to gain intel on BR Industries and that had ended up having numerous consequences.

“I’m just saying.”

Jason could practically hear Roy grinning through the phone.

“If Ollie is already set to go, give him the heads up. Unless you want to be his plus one. I doubt he’d say no, considering you somehow managed to get us an entire building filled with all sorts of gadgets!”

Jason had eventually caved one day, making it about another week before he took a few photos, and sent them over. No subject line or any sort of comment.

Roy had blown up his phone, until Jason finally answered to an ear-splitting screech and unintelligible strings of words. At one point he’d thought Roy had passed out on the other end of the line.

The man had recovered quickly enough though, wanting an entire itemized list of everything in the space so he could call dibs. Jason wasn’t about to get in his friend’s way.

“I’ll think about it, alright?” Jason replied. “It’s not exactly a place for any shady business dealings since Escala has nothing to do with setting up the event. At least Bruce isn’t showing up. No idea why they thought Dickie boy was going to be there.”

He couldn’t see it, but he was sure Roy had shrugged.

“Whoever writes this trash isn’t exactly a hundred percent credible.”

They spoke about the case for another half an hour, mostly to determine what they wanted to do with the files they currently had on those who had been invited to the Gotham Palace Hotel. It was so much information, all consolidated in one place and that had so much fucking potential.

They could blow things up (figuratively in this case) and release all the files...either to someone like Vicki Vale so it received a shit-ton of press or they could ‘anonymously’ drop it with Commissioner Gordon. Or, they could hold onto it and simply pick and choose...they weren’t above some blackmailing here and there. The jury was still out.

“I’m stilling keeping an eye out here with all the construction they’re doing. So far everything has been legit.”

After almost spending days at a time in at Grell Ave. working on his new suit, Jason had enough of it done to deem it ‘operational’.

No name yet, but he didn’t particularly mind; probably scarier for those that saw him to not have a name.

If he could stay nameless, then that was fine by him. Still, he had spent the last week taking the suit out for test runs alongside the Green Arrow, making tweaks after each night’s patrol, usually with Queen offering to help.

Jason appreciated the offers but eventually started declining. It had been a mistake on his part to forget that Queen actually had a day job and the bags under the man’s eyes were not doing him any favors. Still, his suit wasn’t too shabby.

He’d adjusted the upper-leg armor to something less bulky; worked on the newest grapple gun prototype and merged it with his arm piece; wired his helmet to hack into SCPD comms; piggy-backed off the Q-Core aerial drone that circled the city ; and ultimately decided on a logo which was the first thing that came to mind.

Well, not exactly consciously, but more of a ‘waking up from the repeating nightmare where he’d been locked up in Arkham with the Joker’. He wasn’t about to let it conquer him, so what better way that to place the logo smack dab on his chest. Or at least, the top half of it.

Perhaps it was his way of holding onto Gotham somehow, but he didn’t question the ear-like protrusions on his helmet (which in his defense, were only there as a necessity due to the dual-helmet configuration) that amplified the relay feed, or the triangle shaped logo (it was symmetrical and worked…so sue him).

The one thing that he had actually had the hardest time wrapping his head around was the switch to blue.

His entire suit was a gray/blue combo, a great color match for the city versus the stark red he was so used to. Still, it was just so...blue.

Queen had said he’d looked intimidating enough, and that with an additional layer added to the voice modifier, he sounded even more so. Jason thought it just looked badass and scary as fuck, color be damned.

He hadn’t gotten rid of his firearms, and Queen hadn’t said anything about them, but Jason did add an additional two that used rubber bullets instead.

Admittedly, he hadn’t been all that convinced about the effectiveness of rubber bullets, but the ones he’d stumbled upon during an inventory check at Grell Ave. were something else.

“Imagine getting hit full force by an angry gorilla.” Queen had offered up as a helpful analogy.

Jason had cracked up laughing, finding that assessment to be accurate a couple of days later when they’d broken up a turf war in the Triangle.

The sound of the bullets hitting flesh had sounded excruciating, and he’d seen several of the thugs pass out from the pain or groaning on the floor. It had actually been kind of funny. Probably not a healthy way to feel but at least no one was at risk of bleeding out.

On top of adjusting to the new suit and new weapons, there was also dealing with law enforcement which was something Jason had completely forgotten about.

The Green Arrow wasn’t chummy with the force, but they didn’t actively go after him, which meant that every so often, the Green Arrow did drop off criminals at the station.

Jason had stayed behind on that rare occasion, not wanting to be seen, and hoping that Queen wouldn’t expect the same from him because that wasn’t going to happen. Like...ever.

All in all though, Jason’s life was on the up and up, and he felt pretty good about it all, except for the part about other people’s lives continuing on without him.

“How’s school going for them?” Jason couldn’t stop himself from asking.

At this point, Evelyn and Edgar had been at Robinson Academy for a few weeks, and from the little information Jason had asked for, the kids were adjusting well, and had a huge group of friends already (no surprise to Jason there).

Edgar was already pegged as a genius by his computer science teacher and was being given some grad school level work for fun. For fun.

Evelyn’s arm was no longer in a sling, and in another week or two, she’d be back at the clinic for another round of x-rays and the possibility of a walking boot shortly after that depending on how quickly she healed. The young girl was naturally quiet, and not overly participative in class, but she didn’t mind being called upon, and was already considered extremely insightful. She was not a girl of many words, but when she did speak, you listened.

Jason tried not to think about how that reminded him of someone else he cared for a great deal.

Of course, there was still the third and youngest member of the group, Terry, who spent a lot of time babbling away at anyone who would listen.

Jason couldn’t really blame the kid. After feeling the need to stay quiet for so long, he’d be talking away too if he knew that he had a willing audience.

“Good. Same as before. They just get more excited each day. You’ve got a bunch of photos coming your way very soon.”

Jason smiled, ignoring the hollow feeling in his gut. It really fucking sucked that he was missing it, and it really fucking sucked that his friends were only further entrenched in the kids’ lives. On top of it all, Artemis still refused to speak to him.

“I mentioned the Turners to them.”

Jason straightened up in his chair, holding his breath. It was too soon to bring them up. He had only just left. It was too soon.

“They asked questions about them, and were very curious about what they looked like and where they lived.” Roy explained a little too casually, which was the only indication he gave that this topic was not one he wanted to even talk about.

“I told them nothing’s for sure, but this was just a ‘maybe’ right now. But they’re willing to meet with them. They asked if you’d be there though.”

Jason swallowed the lump in his throat, thankful that Bud had chosen that moment to come and sit beside him, resting her head on his lap.

“Keep me posted.” Jason said. It wasn’t a no and it wasn’t a yes, but it was all he could offer up right now.

“Well, on to less maudlin topics. How’s the new suit?” Roy replied, abruptly rerouting the conversation.

“It’s good. Still not where I want it to be and it’s blue, but you know...making it work and all. That reminds me...Ollie said to tell you to quit trying to hack the Q-Core mainframe. He says you only needed to ask for the password and he would have given it to you.”

Jason heard Roy scoff.

“Um, that takes away at least...eighty percent of the fun, Blueman!”

“You take that back!” Jason demanded, hearing Roy cackling madly on the other end of the line.

“Never!”

Chapter Text

“The pointy end faces away from you…just FYI.”

The all too familiar sound of fist meeting face reached Jason from his perch up in the warehouse rafters.

It wasn’t an unusual vantage point for him to have taken, but usually he knew the layout ahead of time; which beams were weak, which would groan or creak under his weight, which would displace dust if his movements were too jarring.

All knowledge which (in his current circumstances) he found himself without right now.

‘Maybe this is where Roy gets his sass from’ he thought, rolling his eyes as he watched the scene down below, where the Green Arrow was currently tied to a chair, his arrows being examined by a bunch of thugs…who happened to be extremely well armed.

This hadn’t been the plan at all. In fact, there had been absolutely no plan whatsoever because none of this had been in the cards.

With his new suit now pretty much perfect, Jason’s patrols through Star City over the past few weeks (edging towards a month) of his residency here had been more or less solo. It had been one thing to get the lay of the land from Queen, but the decision had been made (and agreed to on both sides) that disassociating himself from the Green Arrow would work in both their favors.

They still worked in tandem, Jason not having protested against accepting a comms unit from the man so they could stay in touch. It was just a matter of making it appear to those of the criminal class that there was a new vigilante in town.

It was still early days yet as his new unnamed persona, but Jason had caught a few snippets of conversation here and there during the late nights he’d been out; talking about someone new in town, and making the Green Arrow look like direct competition.

”My cousin Joe, who works down at the docks, says his buddy’s brother’s cousin, Carl, was doing a deal and this seven foot tall robot with glowing blue eyes picked him up and threw him through a wall before vanishing into thin air.”

“Don’t you mean against?”

“No man, I really mean ‘through’ the fucking wall! And is that the only thing about what I just said that you’re going to focus on?”

Technically the guy hadn’t gone through the wall…he’d only cracked the drywall. It hadn’t been that difficult – it had been a thin-ass wall from what Jason remembered.

”Those kids Cheesy Franco was using as crawlers ain’t crawlers no more.”

“Dead?”

“No, but he probably wishes he was. He’s going to be eating through a straw for the next six to eight months…”

“Wait, I thought you were talking about the kids.”

“No, man. Franco! He was giving orders to about a dozen of the little runts before they scurried off. Some fucking guy who looked like fucking Robocop from the year three thousand showed up and sat him down on the floor.”

“To what? Have a chat?”

“The guy broke Franco’s legs. Sitting down wasn’t exactly optional. I hear Franco pissed himself and started crying. Whoever this guy is told him that if he needed help squeezing into tight spaces that he’d help him out.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. Franco’s lucky he didn’t get anything hacked off.”

Jason had tried not to laugh too much at that one. Franco had peed himself, which had been pretty fucking funny.

What hadn’t been funny was tracking down most of those kids and trying to convince them that he wasn’t going to hurt them.

As the Red Hood, his reputation had spoken for itself; and he’d all but forgotten how long it had taken to be seen as a protector and someone that could be trusted. That would take time to build up again, although he was certainly off to roaring start.

”Where the fuck is Petra? He owes me a night with one of his pieces.”

“Yeah…I think he’s out of the game now.”

“Ha! Good one.”

“I mean it. His pimpin’ days are over. That fucking blue ghost got him.”

“What ghost? You mean that lame ass story about the guy getting jumped at the dock? Two words for you: Urban. Legend.”

“That ain’t the only story, Tommy.”

“Listen, if someone offed Petra, there are hundreds of guys that could have done it.”

“He ain’t dead.”

“I thought you said-“

“I said his pimpin’ days are over. Not that he's dead, asswipe!”

“So where is he?”

“Last I heard, Star City Memorial. Recovering from reattachment surgery.”

“Reattaching what?”

“Er…it’s better not to ask.”

“Oh. Oh! Fuck. Jesus. I think I’m having sympathy pains…”

“Me too, man. Me too.”

So that one had been a bit of a stretch. Jason hadn’t chopped anything off, just…broke an appendage. It would be fine. Well…maybe not fine, but it could have been worse.

Stories like these had spread like wildfire, with Jason being dubbed the ‘ghost of Star City’. Not everyone believed he existed, and that worked well enough for him. Catching people off guard was something he took great joy in and having those not believe he was even real was just icing on the cake.

“Fucking Queen.” Jason grit out, not as amused now as he had been.

They had both clocked a few too many trucks near the stockyards, something that even as a newbie to the city, Jason had thought suspicious. A quick check in with the Green Arrow had confirmed this, and both of them ended up tailing trucks to this very warehouse.

It was the very definition of derelict, with both men keeping their distance from one another on the roof in order to distribute their weight.

A quick look into the interior below them (thank you upgraded thermal imaging Q-Core tech) showed seven individuals, clearly armed. A look around them picked up truck drivers further away, but another look through his helmet had Jason pulling up short. There were heat spikes from within some of the trucks themselves, and that was never a good sign.

As soon as Jason opened his mouth to say something, a loud screech from somewhere in the sky startled them both. He barely had time to register something knocking into him before shots rang out from beneath them.

If either of them were going to fall through the roof in this instance, Jason would have bet money on himself, considering his suit weighed considerably more than the Green Arrow’s. So it was lucky or unlucky that one misstep on the Green Arrow’s part had the man dropping through a weak spot in the roof.

“I’m fine. Stay out of sight.”

Jason had wanted to ignore the Green Arrow’s hushed message, but at least the guy was alive and kicking. In fact, he must not have been all that injured considering how much he’d been talking back to his assailants. Jason couldn’t blame them for punching the guy in the face.

“Nice tattoo. What is that? Angel wings? Kinda girly though, am I right? I mean, not that I’m judging. I’ve got one too. Unicorn, on my left ass chee-“

Another punch to the face, and Jason (who was taking this whole thing very seriously) was trying not to laugh. He appreciated the heads up about it being clearly some of Rowe’s men, but the method chosen was one that Jason felt he’d practically trademarked himself. It almost ruffled his feathers a bit that Queen talked back almost as well as Jason did; the key word there being ‘almost’.

Two punches to prettyboy’s face was enough though and Jason calculated his approach downwards. He was already positioned near a pane-less window frame, counting off the takedown order.

Two flashbang grenades thrown at opposites sides of the space and Jason had four of the seven men down within seconds, taking out an additional two with some swift roundhouse kicks.

That left just the one.

Jason ignored the shot that rang out, barely feeling it as it hit his chest plate (a novel feeling since bulletproof armor had always hurt like hell). Several more shots, and Jason was still stomping forward, watching as the remaining thug pathetically tossed his emptied firearm at the armored mass that was barrelling down upon him.

Sure he could have maneuvered out of the way, but Jason was going for maximum effect, and he wanted the story to get out about bullets not stopping him and causing rumors to further circulate. There was a risk of injury, sure, but his career wasn't exactly for the risk averse.

“What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you…” The chuckle Jason let out after his own question sounded very disturbing; the deeply robotic and toneless quality of it completely unsettling.

The thug, who was taller and heavier than Jason, was currently suspended in mid-air by a single hand around his throat, struggling in vain to catch his breath. No amount of hitting Jason’s heavily armored forearms was going to help with that.

A quiet cough behind him -subtle enough to appear natural but certainly meant for Jason- ended the party.

“Goodnight.”

Jason’s helmet connected with the man’s skull with a satisfying crack. Not bothering to support the man’s dead weight, he let the thug fall unceremoniously to the floor.

“And I thought I was a wise-ass. That’s like copyright infringement or something.” Jason muttered loudly as he stomped over to the Green Arrow…who had apparently freed himself.

“Are you fucking serious right now?!”

The Green Arrow had the audacity to smile at him…although it faded a few seconds later after some annoyed silence on Jason’s part.

“You didn’t think I actually fell through the roof by accident, did you?”

“Um, yeah, I kind of fucking did!”

“Ha! That’s funny. Come on, let’s see where they end up going” the archer said cheerily, moving around and placing nano-trackers inside their pockets like he was the Easter Bunny hiding eggs for children to find.

“Yeah, we’re going to need to work on your approach here.”

The Green Arrow shrugged, stood up, and then had the audacity to wink cheekily at him.

For a moment Jason wondered which was of them was supposed to be the more mature one.

“You’re like Roy…times two.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s not a-“ Jason cut himself off with a sigh, falling in step next to the man and punching him hard in the shoulder.

Chapter Text

”What. The. Fuck.”

Jason really couldn’t fault Roy for his reaction.  He had just spent an hour recalling what had happened that night at the warehouse, and it definitely hadn’t turned out the way he thought it would.

“Yeah, I know.”

Roy didn’t let up. ”But seriously though...what the fuck?”

“Yup.” There really wasn’t much else Jason could think to say.

”I’m actually at a loss for words right now. Me!” Roy huffed out a laugh, and Jason could easily picture his friend shaking his head in disbelief.

There was a pause for several seconds; not uncomfortable, but contemplative. 

Jason took the opportunity to take a drag from his cigarette and watched the smoke rise up in the air as he exhaled.

He was currently seated in his yard, watching the sun rise. He was exhausted.

”The truth is stranger than fiction, I guess.”

“In our lives? Always.”

***

Five hours earlier…

Despite the quick takedown of the seven thugs in the warehouse, the surrounding area was still an unknown, even if scans revealed nothing.  Well, nothing except for what had been picked up in the trucks, which was where both men were now walking towards.

All joking and barbs aside, the closer they got to the trucks, the more thermal images became clear, and Jason had hoped he’d been wrong but it was looking like he’d be very much right and he picked up his pace.

The back of the truck was padlocked, although not with anything a pair of bolt cutters couldn’t easily get through. Removing a small laser cutter from his utility belt, Jason quickly got the lock off, and both him and the Green Arrow lifted the bolts and opened the doors.

Before Jason could confirm what he knew was inside, the archer began coughing profusely, trying not to gag. It took the man only a few seconds to grab a face mask from his own belt and attach it swiftly to his domino to hold in place. 

Even though the smells couldn’t penetrate Jason’s helmet, he knew all too well the stench of human waste and unwashed bodies crammed together in a tight space.

About two dozen individuals were huddled against the back of the truck, farthest away from the doors.  A quick scan revealed a group of women in their twenties and thirties, several teenagers, and even some smaller kids.

“We’re not going to hurt you. We’re here to get you out,” the Green Arrow spoke up, holding out his hand as a peace offering.

Jason hadn’t bothered saying anything considering the voice modifier didn’t lend itself to making him sound all that friendly. Even with the Green Arrow’s friendly and open tone, no one in the truck moved for several moments.

“I know you.”  A voice from among the group spoke up, taking a step forward. 

It was a young boy, probably around twelve or thirteen, and as he got closer, Jason could actually see the boy’s relief that he’d been right.

“You’re the Green Arrow!” the kid exclaimed with such emotion that Jason was pretty sure the kid was near tears.

“The one and only!” Even if you couldn’t see his smile at the moment, you could definitely hear it. The archer was quick to calm and reassure, a trait that you either had or you didn’t.

With the boy’s relief palpable, the others in the truck began shuffling forward, with Jason jumping into the truck to help get them out.

“He’s a friend” was all the Green Arrow had needed to say when the others stared at Jason with fear and suspicion, and Jason was grateful that no other convincing had been needed.

Twenty-two people now sat huddled together on the ground, shivering without any source of warmth except each other. Luckily, they were far enough away from the warehouse and it was unlikely that the goons in there would wake up anytime soon, although this certainly changed things.

“How many trucks did you clock?” Jason asked, his worry mounting.  He had seen at least eight pull up.  No drivers anywhere in sight, and a picture was beginning to take shape that made clear the thugs in the warehouse were meant to offload the trucks while the drivers left, their roles fulfilled.

“Eight or nine.”

“I’m going up top to get another truck count, you’re less likely to scare them and I don’t want us to miss one.”

“Agreed.”

The next hour had Jason confirming nine trucks total, of which six had contained people stuffed inside like chattel. 

There were now almost eighty people he could see from his vantage point up top, all sitting together. Some were silent, some cried quietly, while others comforted children and tried to reassure them that they were safe now. 

Anger flared through Jason and while he was grateful that Berto Rowe had kicked the bucket, the shit that he had started showed no signs of stopping.

“We’re clear. Heading over.” Jason confirmed through his comm, ignoring the twisting in his guts at the sight of these people and what they had to endure.

He watched as the Green Arrow knelt beside some small children, talking to them quietly and with a smile before the man stood up and came over.

The Green Arrow’s expression was stone cold. 

“Some of them were just plucked off the street, others had been promised housing or jobs…the stories vary” the archer explained as he leaned his head in a little, trying to keep his voice down.  “There were some in the truck that didn’t make it.”

“That sonofabitch.” Jason growled, flexing his hands in anger.  He really really wanted Berto Rowe to be alive right now.

“I have to contact SCPD, there’s no other way around it.  They’ll take statements and then I’ll make sure that everyone is looked over and set up at one of QI’s sponsored shelters.”

“Are they all from Star City?” Jason asked, not disagreeing with the course of action, but wanting to make sure they found out everything they could before leaving things to the authorities.

Well perhaps not everything, but some of it at least.

“Yes, it seems like it, but some of them have been in there for days without food or even water.”

Jason wished he’d been harsher on the thugs in the warehouse now that he’d known what they had been up to. A really big part of him wanted to keep one or two of the men for interrogation but getting the people to safety was a priority.

“The drivers are long gone, but I’m going to have a look before you make the call” he called out, needing a moment anyways to gather himself up and remain calm.

A look through the glove compartments of four of the trucks turned up nothing at all except for car registration and insurance cards that were probably bogus. No other paper or anything of note anywhere else in the cab. 

The remaining trucks had more clutter, but it was by chance that Jason spotted a crumpled up paper that looked like it had been tossed on the passenger side floor.  Maybe the truck driver had been too lazy to discard it but Jason thanked the guy’s lazy ass as he uncrumpled the paper to reveal a hastily written travel log.

With Star City as the point of origin, the log showed that the truck was due to be in Central City by the following evening before continuing on east towards Keystone, Metropolis, and Gotham.

Jason wished he could say it surprised him, but it honestly didn’t. 

Even if BR Industries was not officially expanding into Gotham, it looked like it was using its not-even-completed base in Star City as ground zero to unfurl its reach elsewhere in the country.

Making his way over to the Green Arrow, ready to show the man what he had found, he stopped up short as the archer hurried over to him with a child in his arms.

It was a small girl, probably around two or three, sniffling quietly into the Green Arrow’s chest while holding on to a teddy bear that was pretty much bioharzardous at this point. 

“What’s going on?” Jason asked, his modified voice gaining the little girl’s attention as she turned to look at him.  Jason waved at her before she turned her head again, continuing to sniffle in the archer’s arms.

The odd part about it all was the Green Arrow’s expression.

“I contacted SCPD, but you need to do something for me, no questions asked.”

The statement, coupled with the Green Arrow’s no nonsense tone had Jason more than curious.  He wouldn’t ask questions, but that didn’t mean he’d do whatever it was that being asked of him; he was fairly certain the man knew that.

“You need to take her.  She cannot be here when the police arrive and I need to stay to watch over the others and fill the police in.”

That hadn’t been what Jason was expecting, and he definitely did have several questions right now, but there was kid in the middle of this and Jason could keep his mouth shut for the time being.

“Okay munchkin, I need you to go with my friend, okay? He’s going to look after you for just a little bit and then I’ll come over and see you, hmm?” the Green Arrow smiled at her, bouncing her a little and trying to get her to look at him.

“I want my mommy.”

Jason watched the tears well up in her eyes as she began to cry softly, and looked up to find the Green Arrow give a subtle shake of his head.

“We’re going to find your daddy, okay?”

“Daddy?” the girl perked up a little.

“Uh-huh, you remember your daddy, right?”

With that, Jason was gently handed over the girl, who seemed fascinated now by the flickering lights in Jason’s helmet.

“I’ll come find you,” the archer reassured quickly as sirens could be heard in the distance.

Jason nodded and immediately began to put distance between himself and the Green Arrow, careful to avoid being seen.

There was a story here, and Jason was damn well going to figure out why exactly he was now being introduced to Mr. Fuzby, the girl’s stuffed teddy bear, as he headed back towards Lakeview.

***

Once back at the townhouse, a curious Bud distracted the little girl enough that Jason left her for a moment to quickly change out of his suit (keeping his domino on) and then grabbed her some clean clothes to wear.

Not that he had any children’s clothes with him but an undershirt would do for now, just like it had for Evelyn. It’s like he knew the drill at this point considering this was not the first time he’d taken kids off the street and into his home.

It seemed like the universe’s new running gag against him.

He bathed her, dried her, fed her, and convinced her to part with Mr. Fuzby so that he could have a bath too. In all honesty, he much rather have tossed the thing in the trash, but the way the girl latched onto it reminded him of Terry and his blanket.

“Look, we can watch him get clean” he reassured her, sitting in front of the washing machine with her so she could watch the bear begin to spin round and round with the soapy water.  Satisfied that Jason hadn’t lied, she trailed off with Jason close in hand, coming to sit by Bud on the couch.

She wouldn’t tell him her name, saying she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, which made Jason really wish Queen would hurry up and just fucking contact him already.

It took three hours before Jason jumped at the sound of the doorbell.

There was nothing quite like seeing the Green Arrow standing there waiting to be buzzed through the main gate.

Jason buzzed him in and opened the front door, moving aside to the let him in.  He looked a lot calmer and less serious than he had before, which was a good sign.

“Is she okay?” Queen asked, slowly removing his domino and rubbing his eyes.

Jason nodded, giving him a brief rundown, including Mr. Fuzby’s current whereabouts in the washer.

“Good…good.” Oliver sighed, glancing down at his phone.

“Are you going to tell me who she is now?” Jason asked slowly, not wanting to sound impatient but he was pretty fucking proud of himself for only feeling mildly annoyed at being kept in the dark.

“She lived in Star City with her mom. I helped them get set up.  She’s-“

The phone in Queen’s hand began to vibrate and the man didn’t miss a beat in answering.

“You get my message?” Queen asked the unknown caller.

Jason couldn’t hear what the person on the other end was saying, but at least Queen wasn’t moving out of earshot of him.

“She’s fine. We’re looking after her.” Queen made brief eye contact with Jason as he said it.  “Yeah, I vouch for him, he’s great with kids. Listen, she needs her dad right now and you need to figure things out for her. How soon can you get here?”

Jason was taken aback by Queen’s matter of fact statement. It was a nice feeling to know that regardless of whomever Queen was speaking with, he backed Jason up.  And yeah, he’d always been good with kids...even when he’d been Robin and a kid himself.

“Well that’s good news. I hope it’s not me you were coming into town for…” Queen smirked before the call turned serious again.

As soon as he hung up, he wasn’t surprised to find Jason standing there, arms crossed and waiting for the answers he badly wanted.

“Do you trust me, Jason?”

Jason had not expected that question and didn’t particularly like it since he had a feeling he was going to have put more trust in Queens’ hands right now.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, just tell me what we need to do. You reached her dad, so now what?” he replied, exasperated.

“Now we go meet him.  He was already heading into town.”

“What a coincidence.” Jason muttered under his breath.

“Suit up. I want to get there before he does.” Queen said, helping himself to Jason’s kitchen and grabbing a bottle of water.  He downed it in one go before tossing it into the trash.

“Mr. Fuzby is still in the dryer.”

“What?” Queen blinked in surprise, wondering if he heard correctly.

“The fucking bear.” Jason grumbled, heading to the dryer.

The bear was still damp, but it smelled clean and Jason thought it looked a million times better than it had before.

Leaving Queen to look after the girl, Jason went and put his suit back on, coming out to find Queen with a hairdryer in his hand, manually drying the teddy bear as the little girl looked on.

“She was upset because he was still damp.” He explained with a tone that was meant to warn Jason against making fun of him.

It worked…for now.

Wrapping up the girl in one of Jason’s sweatshirts, she hugged Bud goodbye before Queen carried her out.

“We walking?” Jason asked, falling in step next to him.  Looking around, no one was out and about at this time of night in this area, but it was strange to just be strolling down the lane like they weren’t armed with weapons.

“It’s not far. Maybe ten minutes.  We’ll stick to the alleys.” Queen said as he smiled down at the child, who was dozing against him.

Ten minutes later and through a web of alleys Jason hadn’t even thought to memorize before, he found himself standing in front of a bar, of all places.

“We can’t take her in there! Hell, we can’t even walk in there like this.” Jason pointed out and was then ignored as Queen just waltzed right in.

It was clearly a bar that had seen better days, with stools that were mismatched or with patches of leather that didn’t quite match the original upholstery. 

There was a single TV behind the bar, and other than that, the place didn’t have much except for an old school jukebox and a few tables at the back end.

Besides the bartender, who took one look at them and then carried on filling up a pint for the only patron in the place (and who happened to be snoozing), there was no one here.

Jason had been in much worse bars than this but you know…not with a kid in tow.

Moving to the back where the tables were, Jason put two chairs together against the wall so that Queen could put the girl down, hoping she’d continue to sleep.

“Now what?” Jason asked, looking around. Last thing they needed was an ambush; which is what he felt that they were waiting for considering the lack of information.

“Now we wait. Oh, and don’t try and shoot him.  He won’t recognize you.”

“Wait, what?” The alarm bells in Jason’s head started going off, with Queen not looking like he was taking this seriously enough.

“Here. Let’s play. It’ll be fine.”

Jason looked down at Queen’s hand and then back at Queen’s face and then grabbed the darts.

“You’re trying to distract me right now and that’s really not cool.”

“I bet you can’t hit the bullseye with your eyes closed.” Queen said, ignoring Jason’s comment completely as he closed his eyes and threw the dart.

Jason didn’t even have to look to know that it had hit its mark.

“Yeah yeah, don’t get too cocky.”

They played for another twenty minutes, with Jason knowing that Queen was being purposely evasive and wouldn’t tell him anything.  Sure Jason could have left, but he really wanted to know what exactly was going on. Plus, it was kind of fun, playing darts and all…even if neither of them missed.

“Not bad. I’m actually impressed.”

Jason turned sharply at the voice coming from behind them and immediately dropped the remaining darts from his hands and reached for his guns.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not fucking fine.” Jason growled out, ready at a moment’s notice to grab for his firearms and shoot.

“It really is.  This is who we’re meeting.”

“Daddy!”

If only a child’s voice could be amplified loud enough...it would probably stop a few wars, Jason thought, watching as the girl scrambled over the chairs and launched herself into her father’s arms.

“Zoe! How’s my baby girl? Are you okay? They take good care of you?”

Jason wasn’t even sure what the hell was real anymore, not as he stood there watching a father being reunited with his daughter.

“It’s fucking Deadshot.”  Jason hissed as he grabbed Queen’s arm and moved him a few feet away.  “Her dad is fucking Deadshot and you knew.”

And then there was another revelation that swiftly followed. 

“You have his fucking number.  How the hell do you have Floyd Lawton’s number? Better yet, why do you have it?”

“Oh you the drill” the assassin said, carrying Zoe in his arms. “You take a contract, then something happens, and before you know it, you’re besties.”

“Like Mr. Fuzby and me!” Zoe grinned, hugging her teddy bear.

“Exactly like that, sweetheart.” He replied, kissing her forehead and taking her to lie back down on the chairs.

When he came back over, he picked up the darts Jason had dropped on the floor and began to throw them one at a time.

“She tells me you washed Mr. Fuzby for her” Lawton said, looking at Jason as he continued to throw the darts.  “I don’t know who you are but thank you.”

Getting a ‘thank you’ from Deadshot hadn’t really been something Jason would have considered possible, but the thanks could have been followed with a “I’m still going to try and kill you right now” which didn’t happen.

Luckily, Jason was saved from coming up with some sort of response when Lawton finished with the darts and gave them both his full attention. “So, what the fuck happened exactly.”

Jason exchanged a look with Queen before they all moved to take a seat.

“What do you know about BR Industries?”

Chapter Text

Jason didn’t all too often have the opportunity to be involved in a staredown, considering he was more of a shock and awe type of guy and barely gave his opponents time to blink. This time though, he had no shock and no awe on his side. Plus, his opponent was clearly unfazed and looking rather intimidating in their own right.

It took several ounces of willpower to keep from squirming in his seat and avoiding giving off any tells.

He needed to breathe and stay calm. That was it. He could do that.

“Do you have any threes?”

Fuck.

Jason sighed and bowed his head in defeat as he handed over his last two cards, while his small but all too clever opponent cheered without a care for Jason’s brutal loss.

“I win! I win! I win!” Zoe bounced happily in her seat, laughing merrily as Jason lowered his head into his hands and sighed.

Three-year-old Zoe Lawton was a card shark; that was the only explanation.

Jason should have known better. Really.

“Can I have my dollar now, please?”

Jason lifted his head and looked at the small hand that was stretched out towards him without shame as the winner demanded her spoils.

Four games of Go Fish and Jason was four dollars poorer.

“A deal’s a deal, kid.” Jason grudgingly admitted, handing over another dollar.

The night had gone from strange to Gotham strange in the span of an hour, which was ironic since he wasn’t even in fucking Gotham.

‘Star City strange then,’ he thought, although it didn’t have the same ring to it.

The sit-down with Deadshot hadn’t led to much; the assassin hadn’t heard of BR Industries directly or indirectly. Jason’s patience had begun to wear thin during their conversation as Lawton wouldn’t give straight answers and refused to say exactly why he had conveniently been in Star City.

Jason had of course assumed it was for a contracted hit, but Queen hadn’t been so sure, eventually pressing the guy enough and unapologetically using Zoe’s mother’s death as incentive to get Lawton to finally admit the reason for his presence in town.

While it had been unclear originally how Queen had known about and recognized Zoe, Jason finally got the scoop. He considered it his reward for not having pressed for more information earlier that night but it didn’t exactly leave him feeling all that satisfied.

Apparently a previous (and random) meet-up between the Green Arrow and Deadshot had led to a favor being owed, which Lawton had cashed in by asking Queen to set Zoe and her mother up in Star City.

Zoe may not have known it at the time, but that was meant to have been the last time she would ever see her father...although that didn’t mean he wouldn’t see her.

It was almost unbelievable to think that Jason actually found himself understanding the pull Lawton had towards his daughter; the assassin coming to Star City once or twice a year and observing her from rooftops miles away, just so he could see her.

A few weeks ago and Jason doubted he would have been able to empathize as much. If Lawton wanted his daughter safe, he would have cut ties and that would be as simple as that. Except Jason now knew it never was.

‘Well you tried that too didn’t you and it isn’t going that well either’, he found himself thinking and unable to ignore the truth behind it.

Seeing Zoe and how much a cold-hearted bastard like Deadshot cared for her was hitting Jason right in the fucking feels and it really sucked big time.

While his emotions were all over the place right now, the side that was all business was pretty happy that Deadshot would be keeping an ear to ground for any chatter that might be useful in bringing BR Industries to its knees. Not that it hadn’t taken some heavy persuading on their part to not have the man go put a bullet right between everyone’s eyes that even knew of BR Industries. A short-term loss for long-term gain was how it was justified to the assassin to hold off although Jason could certainly understand the desire to just go in guns blazing.

Conversation eventually turned to the subject of Zoe and her future, so of course that’s when she wandered over after another cat nap and attempted to include herself in the discussion.

Jason was then immediately placed on babysitting duty and thus began his descent into poverty as she robbed him of his cash in some cutthroat games of Go Fish.

Even with the front of his helmet up now, the sides against his ears amplified the sounds around him, allowing him to pick up the conversation the two men were having in the corner.

“...stay with me. She’d be in danger constantly...”

“...foster care...really want that?...you’ll never forgive yourself...”

“...needs normal life...”

“...mother just died...you’re all she has left...”

It would have been easy for Jason to pay attention to every single word the two men were saying to one another but the more he had listened in, the less he had wanted to hear. He didn’t want to know the decision that would be reached because he had a happy (albeit exhausted) little girl who had momentarily forgotten about not having her mom because her dad was here and would magically make everything OK.

When all conversations had drawn to a close with nothing more to be said, Jason had watched a man whom he thought gave zero fucks about anyone and anything gently pick up his daughter, kiss her forehead, and with a nod of thanks back at the two of them, walk out into the night.

“Long night.”

Jason acknowledged the statement with a tired grunt, walking past the barman and placing a hundred on the counter. It was accepted quietly and without ceremony as he and Queen walked out and grappled up to the roof of the building adjacent.

“I’m heading to New York tomorrow for the event at The Surrey. I’ll be gone until day after tomorrow.”

Jason gestured with his head for Queen to continue as he lit a cigarette.

He knew Queen was heading out and he remembered Roy telling him Mr. Escala would be there. Jason wasn’t sure whether Queen’s statement now was just an FYI or an offer to come with.

“Mr. Escala is supposedly making an appearance,” he said, turning to look at the archer.

“So I’ve heard,” Queen replied with equal nonchalance. “I’ve also had confirmed that no one from WE is attending.”

Jason huffed a laugh and dropped his cigarette onto the floor, stubbing it out with his boot. “You think I should go then.”

It was Queen’s turn to laugh. “I think you really want to go and aren’t sure if I’m going to tell you not to.”

“Are you?”

“No...”

Jason arched an eyebrow. “I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“You’ll need to consider the implications” Queen advised. “The whirlwind press you had from your pop up at Rowe’s party in Gotham has died down but there is full press access to this one, not just a lone event photographer and some gossipy attendees with their cell phone cameras at the ready.”

“So you don’t think I should go then,” Jason concluded.

Queen sighed, trying to rub his eyes through his domino. “I think I wish you had more time to decide.”

“Decide what?”

“You’ve just gone through some major changes right now and I don’t think you should have to go through any more but if I’m honest, I think you should really consider my previous offer.”

Jason looked as confused as he felt. “Which offer was that?”

“The job offer. Hear me out.” Queen put up a hand as Jason had opened his mouth in what obviously would have been some kind of protest. “The two are related. If you’re going to put yourself in front of the press again, having a role at QI as a cover really isn’t a bad way to go and I’m offering you more than just a cover. You’ve got your alias and considering it follows along nicely with the story we gave Robinson Academy, why not? Plus, it doesn’t limit you to Star City in the future. You could go out and publicly help people as well. I’m not trying to hold it over you as potential leverage and I know it’s not-“

“I get it.”

Queen closed his mouth with a sharp click; he had always meant to circle back to this particular conversation but not this soon and not by running his mouth off after a long and stressful night.

“Your points are valid, I’ll give you that. I just...”

Queen hadn’t expected Jason to find any of his points justified. “Is it about Bruce and the papers?”

“What?” Jason almost startled at the question but knew it was a fair point. Committing to a long-term cover or not, if he chose to attend and ended up in the media again, there could be more repercussions than just Alfred knocking on his door or Bruce demanding answers from Queen.

Yet New York wasn’t Gotham, and he’d have to be tracked down to Star City for any sort of confrontation; not that he expected it to happen.

“I really don’t care about Bruce,” he admitted truthfully. That ship had sailed long ago, and with the distance he’d put between himself and Gotham, the feeling had further cemented itself.

“Okay,” Queen said, believing him without question. “But there are clearly some concerns.”

“Roy.”

It was Queen’s turn to be startled. “What?”

“I don’t—Look, everything you’ve done for me...I appreciate. I do. I’m now about seventy-five percent certain you’re not trying to manipulate me to get to Roy.”

“I—Thank you, I guess?”

“Don’t mention it. The fact is, you still have a lot of shit you need to do to make things up to Roy and I’m not about to commit myself to a permanent cover that is based on being your employee. I doubt Roy would either.”

“Okay...that’s...fair,” Queen said slowly, mentally chewing on Jason’s points.

“Good. I’m going talk to Roy, sleep on this because dear god I need a few hours, and then get back to you about New York.”

Jason watched as a smile slowly crept across Queen’s face. Strangely enough, the urge to punch the man didn’t follow suit.

“I’m heading to the airport at two. If you let me know by one-“

“Done. Now fuck off. I’ve spent way too much time with you today.”

Jason meant to sound annoyed but yawning in the middle of the demand kind of ruined it.

***

”So, just so we’re clear here...in the span of one evening you’ve sort of confirmed that Deadshot is not planning on actively trying to kill you in the near future, you lost four dollars to a three-year-old, and you’re seriously considering actually adopting a public persona,” Roy ran down the list like he was confirming what to grab from the store.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Roy laughed. ”So...what’s the verdict? You want to go to New York -don’t even try denying it- and the only thing you’re claiming that’s holding you back from public reincarnation is me.”

“I didn’t realize it was so funny.”

”Are you kidding me? It’s fucking hilarious! Dude, I know I’ve got my shit to work out with Ollie and you want to see him make amends for how he screwed me over. But you don’t seem to get that one of the best ways he can start to do that is by genuinely wanting to help my best friend.”

Jason didn’t really know what to say to that and tried to ignore the lump in this throat. It was probably just fatigue.

”Go to New York, Jason.”

Roy sounded so sure but Jason wasn’t.

“You really sure that’s a good idea?”

”Peter Otod is about to be established as an executive with Queen Industries. Go figure. You’ve been so against going the Q.W.K route so this makes this even more ironic!”

“Q.W.K.?”

”Queen, Wayne, Kord. I swear...not one ounce of creativity or imagination between them.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “I’m hardly stepping out as a billionaire business mogul. I won’t have my name plastered everywhere.”

”Well maybe not all the time, but when you go to New York, and considering who you’re going to be associated with?”

“You’re right.”

Jason heard Roy gasp. ”Who are you and what have you done with Jason Todd?”

“Still Jason. Peter Otod will be a decent enough cover. Not even a cover, just a mask. And...I don’t know...it doesn’t feel wrong...if that makes any sense.”

”Well I do know.”

“Oh really, Obi-Wan?”

”Jason Todd is all grown up.”

“Shut up.”

”I’m so proud of you.”

“Seriously.”

”It seems like only yesterday that you were riding your bike with the training wheels still on.”

“I’m hanging up now Roy.”

”I’m going to pull out the family albums when I see yo-“

“Roy.”

”You really need to make sure you’re 100% okay with this,” Roy said, swerving the conversation back onto Serious Road. He did that sometimes, even if it made Jason’s head spin a little.

“I know. I think I am. All of us make such a huge fucking difference even if no one knows and that’s fine. I never wanted a fucking ticker tape parade or anything, but I want to do more. I can do more. I’m not some angry, revenge-fueled kid anymore who needs to stay in the shadows during the day.”

”I’m really proud of you, Jason.”

“Shut up, Roy.”

”I’m serious. You’re not perfect, far from it-“

“Gee, thanks a fucking lot.”

”But you’re the best person I’ve ever met and I’m grateful that you’re my friend.”

Every once in a while...well, almost all the time really, Jason was reminded that he had received the better end of the friendship deal with Roy.

“I—thanks. Ditto.”

”I gotta run. I promised Evelyn I’d braid her hair before school and I’ve got about twenty minutes to watch as many online tutorials as I possibly can.”

If it had been anyone other than Roy, Jason would have thought that had been a joke. He knew it wasn’t though, and he found himself wanting to say so many things to not only Roy, but the kids, and to Artemis, and Biz...

“I...Okay. I’m going to go crash. Didn’t realize it was so close to sunrise.”

‘Fucking coward,’ his mind countered, leaving Jason replaying the memory of Zoe’s affection for her father and her uncertain future.

Chapter Text

“I’ve just moved here, ya know?” Jason reasoned, pacing around his living room. 
Surprisingly, he had been able to catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep and was now relatively rested and alert considering the time…which was noon.

“Do I really need to fly back east? Plus, I’m not QI employee material and he’d be crazy to think I ever would be. Still, it’s a good set up, and there’s this case, and you heard about what happened last night, right?” Jason stopped his pacing and looked over at Bud, who was lounging on the couch, watching him walk back and forth.

Bud grumbled something and Jason could have sworn he had seen a shrug as well. 

“You are absolutely no help whatsoever,” Jason said, rubbing the nape of his neck. 

His dog reluctantly got off the couch, stretched, yawned, and then sauntered over to him to paw at his leg.  Jason had been with her long enough to know what that meant and knelt down, allowing Bud to lick his face.

“Too lazy to stand up and give me a kiss, eh? Such a princess…” he grumbled, trying not to smile. There was no reason to have Bud think that he was even more of a sucker than he already was.

Once Bud had felt she had sufficiently showered Jason with affection, she led him back towards the bedroom and towards the overnight bag that Jason had already packed.

The message was clear: why are you debating this when you know you’re already going to go?

“Yeah yeah, I get it. I’m not leaving you alone here though. That isn’t going to happen. Who knows what type of parties you’d throw while I’m gone.”

Bud barked and then sunk to the floor, trying to cover her eyes with her paws.

“Uh huh. I’m onto you, missy,” he pointed at her with one hand while dialing Queen with the other.

He didn’t even wait for Queen to say hello when the phone was picked up. “You got room in that plane for a hundred and fifty pound dog?”

Queen didn’t miss a beat. “Uh, sure. Does she need an invitation to the party as well…?”

“Ha ha, funny.”

Queen really did laugh. “Well how am I supposed to know? I have no idea what goes on in that brain of yours most of the time.”

Jason could think of quite a few comebacks for that but chose not to voice any of them. ‘See? Progress.’ he thought to himself.

Queen continued speaking.

“I’ll be in front of your place at one.  Feel free to dress casually.”

“Sounds good. I’ll talk logistics with you later.”

“Looking forward to it.  Anything we need to get Bud?”

Jason looked down at the dog in question and debated.  “Dog food? I’ll text you the brand. Other than that, she’s probably just going to lounge on the bed the entire time because she’s spoiled” he emphasized, looking Bud directly in the eyes.

She showed him just how much she cared about his opinion by rolling over on the floor for belly rubs.

“Case in point,” Jason muttered into the phone. “Her highness demands my attention right now.”

“I leave you to it then,” Queen chuckled. “See you in an hour.”

Hanging up the phone, Jason did give in and spend a few minutes giving Bud some quality belly rubs before letting her out into the yard to run around. They’d be on a cross-country flight that wouldn’t allow her much space for at least five hours so he was glad to see her take advantage of some outdoor time as she entertained herself with one of her toys.

He wouldn’t be gone for more than forty-eight hours, but preparation was key here as he had all the necessities, including his suits (both the civilian and vigilante variety) ready to go.

By the time Queen texted him to let him know he was right outside, Jason looked like he had packed for much longer than the two days he’d be gone. He put part of the blame on Bud to make himself feel better; reasoning that she required a lot of supplies and toys. All of which was horribly untrue, but it was the excuse he gave Queen who ended up coming inside to help him bring the luggage to the car.

When Queen had said he’d pick Jason up, he had thought that meant with driver and all, but seeing the black Range Rover parked in his driveway and still running, Jason was surprised.

“No driver?” he asked, tossing some of his bags into the trunk on top of Queen’s suitcases.

Queen opened up the backseat door to allow Bud to hop in. “Figured we could use the privacy.”

Jason shrugged, closing the trunk, making sure Bud was good to go, and then hopping into the passenger seat.

“I don’t have a tux,” Jason pointed out a few minutes into their drive.

So far their conversation had been spent going over their arrival time into New York, their lodging (which would not be at The Surrey itself), and a rundown of the agenda that Jason was now reading over on the Q-Pad that Queen had Jason take out of the glove compartment.

He had a tux back in Gotham, but his ‘sudden departure’ from the city had meant it had been left behind. Thinking about that made him think about other things too, which he was steadfastly trying not to do. In fact, he was actively trying to not think about how close New York was to Gotham as if his hometown had some strange gravitational pull that would suck him back in if he got within range.

“Do you have a designer preference?” Queen asked, briefly glancing to his right. “I can make a call and have them come over to the hotel first thing in the morning for a fitting.”

Jason shrugged, initially not really caring one way or another but being out on the streets of New York would remind him too much of Gotham, so maybe it was for the best that he just stay put somewhere.

“Actually yeah, I do. Ferragamo. Make the call, but I’m buying.” Jason stated, leaving no room for argument.

“I wasn’t going to offer,” Queen grinned, taking one hand off the steering wheel to open the arm rest and pull out some files.

“What are these?” Jason asked, taking them from him and beginning to glance through. Based on what he was reading, it became pretty clear what it was. “Job titles?”

“And the history of QI, specifically Q-Core. I thought maybe Senior Consultant, Cyber Security would be a good title? There’s obviously more to choose from or you could just come up with your own.”

“I see that VP of Q-Core’s R&D isn’t on here,” Jason chuckled, continuing to read down the list.

“It just so happens that there isn’t a VP in that division. I think you and Roy would be a good fit for it” Queen replied breezily, not seeing the expression on Jason’s face.

“Wait, what?” Jason sat up straighter, narrowing his eyes as he looked at Queen.

“Wait, what?” Queen responded, quickly looking over at him again. “Were you joking or being serious?”

“I think the question is whether or not you were being serious just now,” Jason countered.

“I—shit, hang on. Yes, hello. Oliver Queen...” Queen said, having rolled down his window to show his ID at the security entrance to Star City’s regional airport.

The thirty or so seconds it took to make it past security had Jason wondering if Queen possibly had a few screws loose. Willingly handing over such large roles in such a company was ridiculous, regardless of who he was.

Even Roy would think it crazy...and Roy liked crazy.

“You probably think I’m crazy but it makes sense. Q-Core is consistently on the cutting edge and pioneering not just what goes out to market but what we use when we defend those that need defending. Practically everything you’ve seen under Grell Ave. comes from Q-Core R&D.”

“Then why the hell would you want me to have any control over it?” Jason asked, frowning.

“I wouldn’t have even mentioned that building to you if I didn’t trust you a hundred percent. Plus, I’ve seen firsthand your design and engineering skills. You’ve pushed the envelope in areas I simply couldn’t see. I still very much control what Q-Core does, so being a VP doesn’t mean what it would mean elsewhere-“

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Jason asked with a raised eyebrow while Bud also voiced the same question by way of grumbling.

Jason appreciated Bud’s solidarity.

“Kind of?” Queen shrugged and chuckled, sounding not too sure himself. “It gives you enough sway to have an impact on projects being focused on including items for your own arsenal; pun not intended.” Jason rolled his eyes as Queen continued on. “That would include some of my newer initiatives that I’m trying to get off the ground like having a S.T.E.M. program for girls, outreach to high-poverty schools...in fact, those are things totally up your alley!”

Jason didn’t say it out loud, but Queen was reminding him of Edgar at the moment; the way that his words picked up steam as excitement started to build like puzzle pieces finally clicking together to reveal a full mental picture.

“In any case, think about it. You don’t need to decide on a title just yet. As far as any press will know, you’re just an exec from QI if it comes down to it.”

Jason opened his mouth to automatically protest and say that while he had agreed to take on some sort of daytime persona, this whole thing was like going from zero to a hundred in the span of a second. It was just way too much for even Jason to handle.

And he could handle a lot.

“Yeah yeah, I’ll think about it. Jesus...” Jason muttered the last bit under his breath, grateful that they were now pulling up to Queen’s private parking spot.

Min was instantly recognizable as she stood by an even larger black SUV and directed three very large men to handle their baggage.

“Hello Peter,” Min smiled, offering her hand which Jason took. “Just here to see you both off.” She was dressed in similar fashion as before, while both Queen and himself looked like they were slumming it in hoodies, jeans, and sneakers.

Jason could easily picture Alfred’s thin-lipped and disapproving expression but blinked the thought away as he let Bud out of the car to follow him towards the larger SUV.

His phone vibrating in his pocket distracted him during the short drive to the tarmac and to their waiting jet.

“You okay?” Queen asked as they got situated inside the plane, taking their seats next to each other while Bud was actually led to a large dog bed off to the side that had a seat belt of all things ready for her.

“Hmmm?” Jason eyes didn’t stray from his phone as he looked over the various photos Roy had sent over of Evelyn’s hair.

The girl’s hair looked very impressive with dual french-braid pigtails.

Roy must have thought so as well because he sent photos of his masterpiece from all angles and included video of his initial struggles. It was obvious based on the giggles heard behind the camera that Edgar had been tasked with documenting the adventure.

Terry somehow managed to find his way into the video as well, laughing simply because Edgar was laughing, and all three children finding Roy’s struggle hilarious.

Even Artemis appeared on camera, insisting that she do it since Roy was obviously incompetent and would cause the children to be late for school.

“Great kids there. Roy included.”

Jason was pulled out his thoughts as he looked over at Queen, who had apparently been watching the video over Jason’s shoulder.

“Yeah...they are something alright,” Jason replied softly, putting his phone away and closing his eyes as the jets’ engines revved and they began to move.

He could feel Queen’s eyes on him but remained quiet until takeoff, only opening his eyes once their flight attendant (a woman in her forties by the name of Stevie, who had been a flight attendant on Queen’s payroll for years now) had provided them their drinks and some snacks before getting some water and treats for Bud who could be heard snoring even over the sound of the plane engines.

“So what’s going to happen to Zoe?” Jason asked, watching Queen take a sip of water and mull over the question.

“Well, I tried to convince him that she’ll be worse off without him, no matter what he thinks he’d be protecting her from...”

“But considering his line of work, he does have a point,” Jason couldn’t help but point out.

“He does, yes,” Queen nodded, “and age is on her side considering how young she is and will hopefully not remember most of this nightmare.”

The image of Zoe laughing across the table at Jason during their game of cards sprung to mind and he didn’t like the feeling it gave him when he thought about the possibility of her not remembering him.

“But the fact of the matter is, he’s been coming to Star City regularly to check on her. No other reason than that. So if he kept doing that, which I expect him to, then there’s a risk that one day someone would catch on and use her to get him.”

“Well what’s the alternative then? It sounds like he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t...” Jason concluded as he stood up and went to sit in the chair facing across from Queen.

“He loves her, she loves him. He can protect her if he chooses to change his ways a little. It’s his choice to make, but no matter what, I told him to tell me what he decides because placing that girl in foster care is something that doesn’t have to happen.”

Jason nodded firmly. “Agreed. She deserves the best life possible.”

He watched Queen drum his fingers a few times on the table and open his mouth to say something but was unfortunately cut off by the sound of a phone.

“Ugh. I forgot about my Oslo call. Apologies in advance as this may take a while...” Queen sighed, getting up and moving towards the back of the jet where he had a desk and computer already on and ready to go.

Jason had nodded in understanding, closing his eyes once Bud had come over and plopped herself down on the seat beside him.

Unbeknownst to him, he clearly slept the hours away as the next thing he knew Queen was calling his name and letting him know they were beginning their descent into New York.

The bright afternoon sun was gone and the time on the clock now showed it to be close to 10pm now.

By the time they were all in the car (this time with a driver included), it was close to 11pm and Jason was surprisingly exhausted; he didn’t care where they were staying as long as there was a shower and a bed.

“Is no one staying at The Surrey?” Jason asked, his eyes trained on the buildings outside while Bud had half her head sticking out of the small space Jason had allowed her when he’d lowered the window.

“Some of the events’ honorees and a few people that actually want to be photographed nonstop leading up to the party tomorrow. Paparazzi has already started camping out across the street,” Queen explained.

Jason grunted in response, happy when half an hour later they finally pulled up to their hotel, The Pierre.

He definitely felt underdressed as he followed the doormen towards the entrance, although with Queen similarly dressed and not caring one bit, Jason figured he probably looked too rich to give a shit about what he was wearing, and that was totally fine with him right now.

An excited number of hotel staff were immediately on hand to assist them, key cards handed out without any sort of check-in process and just like that he was in an elevator with Queen and Bud, heading to the top floor.

“Wait, are we sharing the penthouse?” Jason asked, realizing that in his exhausted haze, he was missing key plot points from the day.

Queen smirked. “Sort of. You’ll see. It just so happens that this hotel is dog friendly when you’ve got the entire top floor bought out. Although I did call in a favor.”

“What you bought out the whole floor?” Jason asked, surprised that he found himself feeling bad if that were the case. Plus, it would have been a ridiculous waste of money.

“Nope.”

The answer was not helpful at all but Jason was too tired to care at this point, getting off the elevator and noting that the double doors in front of them were already open, courtesy of two black-suited security guards which had Jason squinting as he walked by them, something not sitting quite right with him.

“Did you hire security?” Jason asked, walking down the hallway and coming up to another large set of double doors. This time closed and without any security in sight.

Between the two sets of doors there were at least four rooms Jason recalled passing, so he wasn’t exactly sure why they were pressing on the doorbell next to these particular ones.

“Coming, coming!”

Jason’s ears perked up at the muffled sound of a woman’s voice coming from the other side of the doors.

“What the fu-“ Jason choked on his words as one of the doors flew open.

Wearing a lumpy knitted navy sweater, jeans, no shoes, and a wide smile revealed a familiar face.

“Well if it isn’t my ex-lover! Please tell me you have a cigarette on you.”

Jason, finding himself momentarily speechless, huffed out a laugh.

Chapter Text

“Hello your Majesty.” Queen smiled, taking her hand and bending down to kiss it.

She let him but snatched her hand back right afterwards and rubbed it against her jeans in dramatic fashion while muttering about “cooties”.

“Fuck off and come inside!” she said, moving aside so that they could enter.

Jason was still trying to figure out why they were here.

Greetings and curse words out of the way, she officially welcomed both of them with kisses to each cheek.

“It’s good to see you both! You’ve magically become friends...and adopted a dog together! How domestic!” she gushed, her attention solely on Bud now, who was wagging her tail fiercely and was happy to be garnering attention from a new person.

When she finally straightened back up, Jason realized his face must have still appeared dazed as Queen Leila’s smile fell a little.

Placing a hand on his arm, she motioned for him to follow. “Are you alright?”

Jason mentally shook himself out of his momentary stupor and smiled widely. He hadn’t been expecting to see her again (ever), but now that she was in front of him looking completely at ease and genuinely happy to see them, he found himself actually glad she was there. She was a welcome distraction from all the changes that had happened since their initial meeting.

“It’s good to see you again,” Jason admitted honestly, which earned him a pleased smile. He’d have to ask Queen what exactly was going on once they were alone.

“Likewise! But I wasn’t joking about that cigarette!” she warned, walking them into the living room.

The suite was enormous and looked like it took up the entirety of the top floor.

Queen let out a low whistle. “You really need this and an entire floor for just a couple of days, Lulu?”

“First, it’s Leila. For like the millionth fucking time, you ass,” she called out over her shoulder as she left them for a moment. Jason hadn’t forgotten how much he had liked her, but he appreciated the current reaffirmation of that fact. “And please, don’t start with me again!,” Leila called out now.

Jason took the opportunity now that she was out of his line of sight to switch his attention to Queen, who was already looking directly at him.

“I called in my favor and asked her if we could have some rooms. No paparazzi is allowed close enough to the exits and entry ways of this property for photos which is why she usually chooses this place. Our names aren’t attached to any room reservations anywhere,” he stated quietly.

“So you’re using her,” Jason paraphrased.

“As I said,” Queen explained, “I called in my favor. And all I wanted were two of the extra rooms. She insisted we come up here and see her and—oh my god you’re a saint!”

Jason followed Queen’s gaze now as Leila came back with a tray table that had several covered plates on it.

She shrugged. “I figured you guys would be hungry and wouldn’t want to wait half an hour for room service. I wasn’t kidding when I texted you earlier.”

Queen looked back at Jason. “I messaged her when we landed and she asked if we’d want anything for dinner. I didn’t think she’d actually order.”

Leila laughed as she began to remove the silver plate covers and Jason caught sight of an amazing looking sandwich and fries that were just waiting to be eaten. He didn’t want to impose upon her at all but his stomach took that moment to growl loudly.

“Hopefully I chose well? It came up five minutes ago...turkey and club sandwiches, some fries if you want them, and there’s water and soda or beers in the fridge if you’d like. In fact, they fully stocked the thing,” Leila sighed, shaking her head as it were ridiculous that the hotel would cater to her every whim. “And to your earlier point Queenie, I only asked for a regular suite and when I got here they had insisted on this whole floor and all that jazz. So you’re fucking welcome, ya dick.”

Queen laughed, Jason laughed, and Bud huffed her amusement as Leila plopped back down on the couch and tried to coax Bud to join her.

“She might not—okay, I guess she will” Jason corrected himself as Bud jumped onto the couch.

“What’s her name?”

“Her name’s Bud.”

Jason saw her smile as she turned her head to look over at him. “What?” he asked, taking in her arched eyebrow. She was completely stretched out on the couch with Bud half on top of her and a tv remote in her hand.

“Well I’m not going to serve you guys. I’m a queen remember?”

“And so polite as well, your Majesty” Queen said, standing up to grab the plates off the tray table and smirking as he saw her give him the finger.

Jason, still wondering if he’d walked into some weird reality show slash sitcom, stood up and followed Queen’s lead, grabbing a plate and shoving fries into his mouth even before he had moved to sit back down.

While Leila (and a very interested Bud) ended up watching some Netflix special about wolf conservation, Jason and Queen dug into their food.

It was a good ten minutes later when Jason (who was feeling extremely uncomfortable about how comfortable everyone else was) felt the need to say something.

“Thanks for the rooms. We really appreciate it.”

“Don’t even worry about it,” she said, twisting her head towards him, “I was really happy to hear you two were actually friends and that you’d be coming tomorrow. It should be a good time and you bet your ass I’ll be pushing the bid up for Queenie’s hot bod here.”

Queen groaned in frustration. “Really? Do you think that’s necessary?”

“Nope. But it’s fun, so there ya go. Gotta get my kicks somehow” she grinned, turning off the TV. Bud grumbled in what sounded like disappointment, which led Leila to turn the TV back on.

Leaving Bud to her entertainment, Leila reluctantly scooted Bud off her so that she could sit up. She looked over the two of them and grimaced just a little.

“You guys look beat. The rooms down the hall are yours. The double doors to this suite open with your key cards as well, so if you want to grab anything from the kitchen in the middle of the night or whatever, then you can.”

“I know you’ve known Queen for sometime and all,” Jason’s tone was measured as he spoke, “but you barely know me and I don’t think you’d want me or even him, traipsing through here while you’re asleep.”

“God, I forgot how fucking adorable you are!” Leila grinned, standing up and patting him fondly on the head. “Isn’t he adorable?”

Her question was directed at Queen who, with a completely deadpan expression, replied.

“I tell him that every single day.”

Jason rolled his eyes while the other two laughed. He wasn’t an idiot and blamed the long flight and ever changing facets of his life for being a step behind.

“You take one of the regular rooms then.”

Leila grabbed the lone fry from Jason’s plate and bit off a piece. “Got it in one.”

“You didn’t used to do that, though...” Queen pointed out with a slight frown.

Leila shrugged. “Times change. My parents are constantly concerned for my safety and my dad watches far too much GCN in the middle of the night these days.”

It was Jason’s turn to frown. “I thought your parents lived in Umec.”

“They do. My dad has trouble sleeping sometimes and for whatever reason thinks watching the news from Gotham will help him with that,” Leila explained with a barely concealed eye roll.

Jason could understand the paranoia and concern that would set in if you were to watch the news from Gotham and see all the shit that went down. Her parents had every right to be concerned no matter how old she was. Plus, she was royalty, and that could easily make her a target. In fact, he had no idea why on earth she had chosen to make Gotham her home.

“And then there was the Batman thing...”

Jason stiffened up on reflex and tried to relax his posture just as quickly. “What about Batman?”

“Honestly, who the fuck knows,” she sighed, sounding like she’d had this argument before, “they just liked to point out that Batman is in Gotham.”

“What about the Red Hood?”

Jason shot Queen a glare which didn’t need to be explained.

“You know, it’s funny. He was the first one I heard about in person from a Gothamite and one of the reasons I moved to Gotham.”

Jason wasn’t sure if he’d heard correctly or not and refused to look anything but mildly curious despite the overwhelming urge to know more. He stayed silent but nodded at her to continue, refusing to meet Queen’s eyes.

“I visited a women’s shelter in Park Row after a month of being in town. I was feeling the city out a little more, not yet sure if I wanted to stay. I’m fairly certain at that time they thought I was just visiting so it would look good to personally hand them a check that would count as my tax write-off for the year...”

Jason would have absolutely believed that as well.

“There was a woman there...Sheryl. She had been beaten and assaulted and told me it could have been a lot worse...”

“How so?” Queen asked.

Leila smiled. “She said, and I’ll never forget it...she said ‘an angel in red came and got him before he could kill me. He gave me some money and escorted me to a clinic and made sure I was okay.’ “

One would think that with all the people...victims and targets alike, Jason wouldn’t be able to remember all of them. That was true for the most part, and probably for the best, but he remembered Sheryl.

She had kept calling him her ‘red angel’ that had saved her when all was lost. It had unsettled him in the moment that she had kept referring to him as an angel, but she had persisted even when he had left her at Doc Thompkins’ clinic.

“Honestly how could I resist a city where a guy wears a red helmet and hacks dicks off of rapists? I was sold. People are out there doing something and I saw first hand the impact it had. So...that was that.”

Jason wasn’t sure what expression he had on his face at the moment, and he hadn’t bothered to look at Queen, but Leila’s smile dampened slightly and she shrugged.

“I know people like the Red Hood are polarizing topics. Probably shouldn’t have told that story...”

Jason shook his head. “Nope. It’s fine. I get it. I’m with you on this one.”

More of her smile returned. “Thanks. Now I know you probably just wanted to eat and run so you can shower and sleep. I’ll see you guys at the Surrey in the evening, unless you want to head over together.”

“I wasn’t about to presume anything,” Queen remarked, slowly getting off the couch and unable to contain a yawn. “Although considering the near scandal we all caused last time...”

The photos and trashy articles Jason had seen and read right after the party in Gotham sprung to mind and he found himself feeling genuinely contrite.

“I am so very sorry about what happened in Gotham. It was not my intention to land you in the tabloids.”

Leila walked over to him and cupped his face with her hands.

“You are so fucking precious. Ugh! I could just eat you up with a spoon!” was her response.

Noting Jason’s stunned blinking, she set the teasing aside.

“It’s fine, truly. I always end up in those papers somehow and I don’t read them. I appreciate the apology even though it’s absolutely unnecessary.”

Turning towards Queen, Leila shrugged. “If you want to head over together, I’m game. We’ll cause a stir though and you’d both have to be okay with the consequences.”

It was Queen’s turn to look at Jason and he knew that his answer would mean more than just whether or not they went with her; it would also determine whether or not Jason would choose to commit to a permanent cover courtesy of Oliver Queen.

Jason shrugged; he’d made his decision.

“I should probably tell you that my last name isn’t Dumas...it’s Otod.”

Leila laughed. “Well I figured as much, Mr. Party Crasher, but thank you for your honesty.”

Feeling a little more settled, Jason clapped his hands together. “Well then fuck it...let’s do this thing.”

“Sounds good. Now get out so I can go sleep, you sexy men you.”

“Goodnight, your Majesty.”

“Goodnight, your Majesty.”

“Piss off!”

Chapter Text

“Alright fuckers, you ready?”

Jason raised an eyebrow at Leila as their car finally pulled up to the red carpet that had been laid out directly in front of The Surrey. Already the flashing lights from all the cameras were making him squint and that was with the tinted window between him and the pack of vultures outside.

Preparing for the day had been fairly easy and low-key, with the gentlemen from Ferragamo arriving in the morning just as Queen had promised, and decked Jason out from head to toe. He wasn’t a fan of penguin suits but he knew he was rocking it out, even if it felt like his bow-tie was trying to suffocate him.

The rest of the afternoon had been uneventful, for himself and Queen at least, while he could hear the constant hurried footsteps outside his hotel room door that had begun around one o’clock and hadn’t stopped until about six hours later.

“It takes a village” was all Leila had said once she had appeared at his door an hour before their departure time to the overly dramatic “finally!” from him. Other than having seen her for half an hour the previous evening, Jason hadn’t thought to intrude upon her anymore than he (and Queen) had already done.

While he had first seen her in a cocktail dress that had bordered on business attire, and then in jeans the second time, this time around he gave her a look from head to toe and laughed.

“What happened to ‘no tiaras’?”

He could tell that it took her a moment to remember one of their first conversations and when she did, her grin said it all.

“Okay, so I may have lied...a little bit. And technically we call this one a diadem, so...two completely different things...”

The Queen of Umec was certainly dressed as royalty, with a navy floor length gown that needed no embellishments as the diamonds in her ears and on the crown of her head (in a fucking tiara) served the same purpose.

Seeing Jason not buying what she was selling, Leila shrugged.

“I want people to open their checkbooks tonight and if that means I have to make some pretentious rich folks feel like they deserve to be in the presence of royalty and snap a few photos with me to do so, then I’m going to do it. I’m used to it, really,” she explained, not looking pleased about it but Jason certainly understood the importance of keeping up appearances.

“I’m still going to tease you about it.”

Leila laughed, bending down to pet Bud who had practically shoved Jason over to get to her. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”

Queen, along with half a dozen of Leila’s armed guards, had been waiting down the hallway for them. It turned out that the overkill that were the number of security were more for show than due to an actual threat. Jason didn’t particularly mind, not when none of the guards had so much as looked at him funny the entire time he’d been there.

The only challenge he was facing now was from Leila herself, who really didn’t want to leave Bud.

Not that the dog would be alone as Jason had realized Leila had made quick work of finding a dog lover among her security detail named Ronald, who had been more than happy to have a canine companion as he stayed behind to keep the hotel floor secure.

Jason hadn’t been too sure about that arrangement until he’d found his dog and Ronald in a fierce game of tug of war a few hours earlier. Fresh from two tours in Qurac with the special forces and the man had been bested by the Wolfhound.

The man had been laughing the entire time.

Nerves that Jason had expected to have in anticipation of attending the party didn’t set in at all as he had left the hotel and hopped into one of the three SUVs that were waiting for them.

Now though, as Leila checked in with him and Queen before the car doors opened, Jason felt nothing but a mild sense of excitement. He’d be under scrutiny, sure, but he was with people he didn’t actively hate and no one was trying to kill him.

“Got it out of your system yet? You’ll have to make it at least four hours without profanity.”

The question had come from Queen, who was arching an eyebrow but unable to hide his smirk.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...”

Leila closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, exhaling after several seconds had passed.

“All good.”

Jason watched as Leila actually rolled back her shoulders and reset her expression; it was rather fascinating to see how she readied herself. It wasn’t quite a mask, but he could tell how much more formal she appeared now compared to how she’d been up until then.

As soon as the car doors opened, Queen exited on the opposite side while Leila was the first one to step onto the red carpet. The non-stop flashing now looked like an explosion, as Leila -the Queen of Umec- smiled and thanked the attendant that had helped her out of the car. Jason could hear hundreds of “over here, your Majesty!” being shouted in their direction and he hadn’t even stepped out of the car yet.

Queen walked around the back of the SUV, joining Leila first, as was the plan. The hope was that the press would be so focused on them arriving together, that there would be a little less focus on him once it was his turn.

Boy was he wrong.

Sure the press was now throwing out questions to Queen and Leila about their relationship and why they were attending together, but as soon as they all realized there was a third person, the shouting had paused for a single second before it came back with a vengeance.

Jason smiled pleasantly, knowing that there could be no mad dash down the carpet as Leila and Queen both needed to stop and answer (pre-approved) questions from specific members of press while ignoring the incinuating ones.

It took ten grueling minutes but none of the questions went sideways, and even the few that had been asked directly of him in those moments had been expected and prepared for. His name and semi-ambiguous role as a QI exec had already been passed over through Leila’s PR folks which had made the whole thing slightly less intense.

“Why do you think this event is important?” and “any hints as to who’s on the auction block tonight?” were just some of the harmless questions asked; Jason had expected some potentially crude ones and he could hear a few shouted out over the noise but nothing direct.

His previous appearance in the press appeared to have been limited to Gotham as he heard no mention of this being the second time photographed with Leila although he certainly had hundreds of photos with her now as everyone was clamoring for some shots of the three of them together and Jason had to oblige.

In the end, by the time he had reached the doors, Leila and Queen were still on the red carpet, having bumped into some of the evening’s honorees, who all had delightedly stunned expressions on their faces as they soaked in their fifteen minutes of fame.

Jason had smirked at that, knowing that those women had been through some shit and deserved a good night out. From where he was standing, he could tell Leila was genuinely happy to pose with them on the red carpet as her laugh rang out over the wave of shutter clicks.

Even Queen had stopped as well, pausing to shamelessly flirt with the women -both young and old- which made for a field day for the press who were overjoyed to have photos now of Oliver Queen kissing hands and cheeks and talking about how he’d hit the jackpot tonight.

From the women’s red faces, the feeling was very mutual.

Five minutes later and he was joined by his companions, who apologized for the wait.

Jason shook his head, not minding at all and bracing himself for the next part; if the press were vultures, then the attendees were wolves.

Leila had not cared one whit as she allowed him and Queen to escort her down the stairs and into the massive ballroom, much to the obvious surprise of onlookers. It certainly didn’t help that they were followed by Leila’s security detail, who made the whole thing seem much more dramatic than it should have been. Of course, that meant that all the rich fuckers here lapped that shit up, as Jason could feel eyes on him, no doubt raking over each of them and judging them based on a variety of ridiculous criteria. It probably drove them all nuts that the three of them didn’t appear to give a crap.

Unlike the event back in Gotham, this party was much larger, with over a thousand people in attendance and the darkly-lit space littered with bars, a large dance floor, a stage, and dinner tables with seating already pre-determined.

At least Jason knew he’d be able to eat at this thing.

“I’m going to sit down. My feet already hurt,” he heard Leila mutter next to him. “Fucking heels. I want some damn flip flops.”

“Language,” Jason replied, trying very hard to sound stern but failing if his smirk was any indication.

He wasn’t sure what Leila had been about to say back but he could tell it would have been a doozy if they hadn’t been interrupted by the main host for the evening, who came to thank them individually for their patronage and donation.

Jason had followed along well enough, but looked over at Leila once they had taken their seats at one of the front tables closest to the stage and dance floor.

“Don’t worry about it.”

It was something Leila had said a few times before, but Jason was beginning to think that he should start to worry now. Still, he kept his mouth shut, happy that he was able to sit and look around while people were continuing to arrive.

Finding Mr. Escala, who they double checked to make sure was going to be here, would be a little more challenging than Jason anticipated; the room wasn’t at capacity yet even with the hundreds already inside and there were still many empty tables some of which he couldn’t even make out in the distance. The dark pink mood lighting in honor of the event they were all here for didn’t help him make out people either. It worked to keep him out of the limelight a little but that was the only benefit.

“Ambassador of Netherlands...”

Jason had only just enough time to glance over at Leila as she stood up, smile plastered on her face, as a tall, middle-aged woman who was clearly showing her firm stance on ‘there’s no such thing as too much bling’ all but ran up to their table.

“Your Majesty! So lovely to see you here!” the woman grinned widely, her unnaturally white teeth looking almost glow-in-the-dark as she leaned in to give two air kisses on either side of Leila’s face.

It didn’t take Jason’s expert-level ability to read people to know that the two were not friends, especially as the woman was introduced to them and gave him a rather indecent once-over before turning her attention back to her target and attempting to rope Leila into some women’s-only luncheon.

He caught Queen’s eye behind the two women and watched the man subtly roll his eyes.

Apparently being seated at one of the head tables meant there was practically a line of people wanting to come over to greet Leila and/or scope out her two dates but that also meant that the ambassador had very limited time before graciously being excused from conversation.

The time did go by quickly though, and when Jason excused himself from the table in order to go get some drinks from the bar for them, he immediately noticed that all the tables were full and could see the host for the evening being mic’d up off to the side.

The bar lines weren’t very long, not with most of the guests sticking with champagne that was constantly being refilled table-side, but there were still ten or so people in the line he came across which gave him time to stand and look around as best he could.

He wanted to find Mr. Escala, and it was honestly looking like it would be a needle in a haystack situation unless he was able to figure out what table the man was seated at.

“Sir?”

Jason found himself looking up at a giant of a man, at least six-foot-seven and over three-hundred pounds. The man’s stature immediately put Jason on edge, and he resisted the urge to ready himself in a fighting stance. He wondered if he was about to be thrown out of here for whatever reason.

“You don’t have to stand in line, sir. Please follow me.”

Jason kept his face neutral, walking past the ten other people in line who were clearly giving him side-eye and no doubt wondering what made him so special.

Jason was wondering the same thing.

“For her Majesty’s table,” the man’s firm tone was directed at the bartender who immediately stood up straighter and ignored the annoyed looks that the actual next person in line was shooting at him.

“Er, thanks.” Jason could see in his peripheral that the statement about what table he’d come from was quickly making its way down the line like a game of telephone. “That wasn’t necessary, though.”

The larger man that had led him to the front simply nodded, moving off to the side as Jason placed his orders.

With nothing to do now except wait for the drinks, he turned around as he heard some clapping off in the distance, and realized some of the event’s honorees were getting ready to head up on stage.

“Your drinks, Sir.”

Jason turned to thank the bartender, and blinked in surprise as he caught a familiar sight standing in line. Apparently the needle had come to him.

“Thank you. Would you mind attending to Mr. Escala as well?”

At the sound of his name, the man of the hour turned and looked over at Jason with surprise, but smiled and nodded in appreciation as he stepped out of his place in line and came up to the front. If it would have been polite to groan, Jason was sure that all the other folks would have done so.

“Macallan, neat. Thank you, Mr...?”

Jason offered up a polite smile, reaching out a hand which was readily accepted.

“Mr. Dumas. Please, call me Peter.”

“Well, thank you for saving me time. It is greatly appreciated.”

Unlike Berto Rowe, whose voice had been warm and inviting, Mr. Escala did not have the same natural charm that his predecessor had, and it was obvious to Jason that this greasy-haired slime ball wasn’t all that warm and fuzzy.

“Did I hear correctly that you are seated with the Queen of Umec?”

‘You know damn well you did, asshole’ Jason thought with a frown, not happy that she was being brought into this conversation at all but it worked to his advantage considering the scenario.

“I am, indeed.”

Mr. Escala’s approval was written all over the man’s face; Jason had no idea whether or he and Leila knew one another personally, but clearly Jason’s current status was working well.

He kept his response short, not offering any additional information about why he was seated with royalty or what his role was, hoping that the man would start to dig during the evening.

Jason picked up the two drinks and turned away from the man. “Hopefully we’ll have a moment to speak later on in the evening.”

Mr. Escala raised his glass of Scotch in acknowledgement. “Till then. Have a good evening, Mr. Dumas.”

Walking back to his table was more challenging than Jason had anticipated, having to navigate around other tables and people swapping seats or shoving their chairs back as he practically had to dance around them. By the time he finally made it back to his seat, the lights were dimming as the host was welcoming them all.

“Thanks!” Leila yelled out over the applause as she accepted her Old Fashioned.

Apparently she had a two drink maximum at these functions, which Jason thought wasn’t a bad move, although apparently champagne didn’t count. Not his place to say anything, Jason took a moment now to reach for the bread basket and slid it in her direction.

She patted him on the knee and mouthed ‘adorable’ at him before focusing back on the stage.

Jason knew that the awards ceremony and dinner were being held simultaneously before post-dinner cocktails and dancing followed by the grand finale that was the charity auction. He knew he could head out early if he wanted to, considering Leila was staying until the end, but the thought of seeing Oliver Queen up on stage being auctioned off needed to be recorded and sent to Roy.

It was pretty much his duty.

The ceremony wasn’t bad, and in fact, there were several videos shown of families and friends affected by the vicious disease which made Jason proud of the women standing up on stage; when he applauded along with the rest of the crowd, it wasn’t because he had to.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome to the stage one of our foundation’s ambassador’s and biggest advocates. This person has donated their time and resources to help us find a cure and as you know, spends large amounts of time listening to survivors, their family, their friends, and those in the field of cancer research, to truly understand what is needed.

This does not just apply to breast cancer, or cancer research in general, but to a variety of causes, including support for victims of domestic abuse, combating childhood poverty, awarding grants to low-income students for college, and the list goes on. I’m sure she’d probably appreciate me stopping now as well.”

A polite chuckle ran across the room and Jason smiled, not particularly caring about a long drawn out speech that was singing praises for some rich asshole that was a Bruce Wayne wannabe...woman or not.

“I have no idea how she finds the time, but even in her adopted city of Gotham, she has been making strides to work with city officials to better the lives of its citizens, which includes a one-hundred-and-fifty-million dollar donation specific to the city’s impoverished East End...”

Jason shot Leila a look that had his face looking all sorts of funny.

She had mentioned she tried to help where she could but he hadn’t realized she tried to do a whole fucking lot, not to mention had way more money than he had assumed, and for some reason had donated a shit-ton of that money to be used to help Park Row of all places.

If his face looked funny however, then Leila’s looked like she was ready to sink under the table, if the way she was holding her smile in place was any indication. He made a logical assumption that she had not known about this at all, which became even clearer as suddenly a glass award was in the host’s hand and he was inviting her on stage.

He watched Leila take a long sip from her glass before standing up amid all the applause and walked towards the stage, the host there to help her up the few stairs.

The applause grew and as was proper, everyone stood up, politely clapping for an acceptable amount of time before sitting back down.

“I wasn’t expecting to be on stage, but thank you for your kind words...”

Leila clearly didn’t fear public speaking, her tone breezy and light, naturally cracking a few jokes which seemed to draw genuine laughter from many in the room.

“I want to remind everyone that tonight is not about me or you or how much money we have,” she emphasized. “This disease affects everyone, rich or poor, and the only ones that truly deserve applause here are the women and their families seated at those tables over there.”

Applause went up again, with another standing ovation.

“Thank you very much for this award, and I promise to pay it forward. Namely by making sure I get all you ladies hot dates during the auction tonight.”

Her closing statement drew laughs and a few hollers and whistles which allowed Leila a natural end to her speech as she left the stage and sat back down to lingering applause, glass award now on the table.

Jason wasn’t sure what the right thing to say was but settled on “nice speech”.

Leila laughed. “Thanks. That was brutal, and slightly embarrassing.”

“Um, hello...I’m on the chopping block tonight, remember?” Queen butted in, pointing out the obvious.

Jason said nothing, but waited until Leila’s attention was momentarily elsewhere and shot Queen a toothy grin and two thumbs up. He was practically counting down the minutes.

Speeches and awards now done, dinner continued smoothly with people focused on their own meals and table-side conversations. For the most part, he allowed Leila and Queen their own time to chat, giving him a chance to be as alone with his thoughts as he could. Keeping busy was helping him a lot, but it hadn’t helped him shake the guilt that was still there ever since he’d left Gotham.

“You okay? You look miles away...” Leila leaned over and waved a hand in front of his eyes.

“Yeah, sorry. Just a big crowd.”

“Maybe in a little bit we can go cut out for a smoke?” she offered up, looking so eager that Jason laughed and found himself reassuring her instead.

“Sounds good.”

Seeming pleased with herself, they allowed the servers to clear plates just as a band began to set up on stage.

“I need to mingle. If you get lost, meet back here” she winked and was then off.

That left Queen and Jason alone, which was perfect.

“I ran into Escala in the bar line...” Jason said quietly, filling Queen in on his short interaction with their target.

Queen nodded, looking around them as they tried to exchange information as quickly as possible. Having an earpiece would have useful here but had been deemed unnecessary since there was nothing to really tag-team on.

“If he’s smart, he’ll look up your name and match it to the list from the Gotham party. If not, you should still be able to spot him. I accessed the records and he’s seated at table twenty two. He’s also a smoker so if he heads outside into the courtyard, you’d best follow suit.”

“Nice, I’ll keep an eye open...” Jason’s eyes quickly flicked to the side, the subtle gesture enough for Queen to pick up on as he smiled and turned to his side, finding a small group of women who were giggling.

“Hello, I’m so sorry to bother you, Mr. Queen...” the eldest of the women spoke, looking sincerely apologetic.

Jason recognized her as one of the honorees that had been recognized on stage earlier and immediately felt less on guard.

“No bother at all! How could it be when I have you lovely women in front of me...?” Queen said, oozing all that magical charisma that women couldn’t get enough of.

It was a mystery that Jason didn’t think he’d ever solve.

Jason tried not to laugh at the giggles that erupted from the group and left Queen to put on the charm. Unbeknownst to him, several pairs of eyes from that group followed him as he walked away, lamenting the loss of the surprisingly hot guy that had been talking with Queen.

People were now moving around, gathering in clusters around bars, tables, or a few seating areas that Jason now saw were in corners around the room. The dinner tables were numbered in sequential order, which made his life easier as he made his way past table twenty-two and saw Escala still seated and enjoying another glass of Scotch with an insistent woman who looked like she was trying to get him to stand up and dance.

‘Good, he’s not about to bail’ Jason thought to himself as he moved on, catching sight of Ted Kord in a rather intense discussion with Michael Holt.

Neither of the two men would recognize him, but Jason certainly knew them. Any respect he had for their know-how and abilities was dampened by the simple fact that they had sold to Wayne Enterprises.

“Fucking sell-outs...” he muttered under his breath, paying more attention now that he’d spotted some heavy-hitters.

The band was now starting to play, and surprisingly several couples went on to the dance floor. Included in that group was Oliver Queen, who Jason could see dancing with a teenage girl who looked like she had died and gone to heaven as she was slowly turned around and tilted backwards.

The move drew laughter from the pair, but also served to make the press more visible as they took photos.

Only a dozen or so members of press had been invited to attend the party, of which all had impeccable reputations. Yet, he was still on the lookout for whomever was responsible for the crappy articles in the Gotham Enquirer; she (or he), could have been full of shit about having a ticket to tonight, but Jason was going to stay vigilant.

A familiar laugh from somewhere in front of him revealed Leila surrounded by several young girls, all of whom were taking turns with Leila’s diadem or tiara or whatever on their heads, while photographers took photos and Leila gladly took selfies.

Jason must have stood there for too long because he was all of a sudden waved over to the group, and he wondered why some of the girls looked rather pink as he was introduced to them.

“Everyone, this is Peter. Peter, this is everyone.”

“Hi Peter...”

“Hi Peter!”

“You’re hot! Ouch! What?” one of the girls rubbed her arm as her far-too-innocent looking friend smiled.

Jason laughed and blushed a little himself, rubbing the back of his neck while he said hello.

“Isn’t he adorable?” Leila gushed, making obnoxiously large googley eyes at him and getting the girls to burst into giggles once more. “Alright ladies, it’s been fun, but I have to go now.”

This drew a chorus of complaints from the group, but with the promise that she’d be sure to chat with them again later, she plopped her jewels back on her head and joined Jason as they made their way back through the crowd. Not that it was as difficult now with the Queen being given a clear path.

“Didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

Jason barked out a laugh. “Yes you did.”

“Yes I did.” Leila grinned, her chin slightly tucked in. “And I’d do it again too!”

They stopped to allow her an opportunity to grab another glass of champagne before they continued on; Jason keeping an eye out for Mr. Escala as they walked the long length of the dance floor.

Queen was still out there dancing his heart out with a woman who looked to be in her seventies.

“I hope you like dancing...”

Jason tilted his head, wondering if she was asking before he felt a small tug on his pant leg and found himself looking at young girl who must have been around Evelyn’s age.

She smiled up at him, pleased to have gotten his attention.

What caught Jason’s attention was the top of her head, which without any hair, was completely rhinestoned out. It looked fucking awesome.

“Hello! My name is Caley. I’m ten years old and my mom said it’s okay to ask you to dance. Would you like to dance with me?”

Jason grinned, looking up and finding the girl’s mom watching from her seat at a nearby table.

He had absolutely no desire to dance whatsoever, but she didn’t need to know that.

Bending down, he extended his hand.

“Hi Caley. My name is Peter. I’m not much of a dancer and may step on your feet, but if you want to risk it...”

Caley nodded excitedly as she took his hand and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. Couples smiled as they saw the two get settled and Jason allowed her to set the pace, watching out of the corner of his eye as her mom was taking photos along with several press photographers.

He didn’t let the smile leave his face and kept up conversation, asking her about her favorite things (she liked space and wanted to be an astronaut), and what she liked most about the party (getting to stay up way past her bedtime).

When the song eventually ended, he bowed and kissed her hand, escorting her off the dance floor and into the arms of her mom, who thanked him for making her daughter’s wish come true.

“I know I said it before, but that really was adorable...”

Jason saw Leila standing there, this time with an Old Fashioned in her hand.

“Did you ditch my dancing performance to go to the bar?”

“Yup” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “I’m back now though. You’re far better company than what I was dealing with back there. Although there was a mighty fine looking member of the press that I may go back for later.”

Jason narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to pretend to be flattered when I’m really just insulted...”

“That’s the spirit!” Leila patted him on the shoulder before setting her drink down and turning to greet whoever else had come over to say hello.

Jason was introduced as well, although his eyes locked onto Escala, who had finally caved and was on the dance floor with his date, who still would not stop talking.

“I believe Mr. Otod wishes to dance with you. I’ll take my leave.”

The statement came out of nowhere although he quickly realized that his lingering gaze on Escala made it appear as if he was longing for a spin on the dance floor.

Leila nodded with a smile. “Thank you, Governor. Have a good evening.”

Jason watched the apparent Governor of New York walk away.

“Did you really want to dance?” Leila asked him, brow furrowing.

His immediate reaction was to say “hell no”, but he caught sight of Escala having an argument on the dance floor and nodded instead.

“Fuck it, right?”

Leila grinned and extended her hand for him to take.

The sounds of camera shutters going off were impossible to miss as they walked towards the center of the dance floor, close enough to where Jason could make out some of the words of the discussion his target was having behind him.

It helped that the song being played was lower in sound compared to some of the previous ones although he certainly knew he needed to multitask.

Dancing hadn’t been part of his blueblood education during his time at Wayne Manor although he had seen it done plenty of times.

‘Right arm under hers or on waist for support, left hand extended out...’ he told himself.

“Relax, it’s not a ballroom competition...” Leila murmured, putting some pressure on his right arm so that he’d lower it to her waist.

It took him a few steps to realize they didn’t have to really move much, and Leila helped him lead without actually leading.

“...and she’s calling a cab, while he’s having a smoke, and she’s taking a drag...” Leila began to sing softly, obviously recognizing the song whereas Jason had no clue.

With his dance partner enjoying herself, Jason focused on his feet and following Escala and his date around the room.

The two were speaking rapid fire Spanish, which took Jason a few seconds to adjust to before he could pick up tidbits here and there.

“...Rowe’s dead. You’re in charge now...”

“...it’s not that simple...trucks...police...”

“Star City...”

All definitely key words Jason liked hearing but it would have helped if he could catch full sentences as opposed to pieces of conversation that consisted of information he already knew about. At least it confirmed that whatever Rowe’s initial setup had been, the trucks that were trafficking people were now falling under Escala.

“...your alibi, but it’s just the price I pay, destiny is calling me...”

Jason bit his lip, listening to Leila continue to sing until the song ended. Before leading them off the dance floor, Jason couldn’t help himself and leaned in closer to whisper.

“Your Majesty...”

“Hmmm?”

“I need to tell you something...”

He felt rather than saw Leila’s curiosity as she kept uncharacteristically silent and he took in a deep breath.

“You are absolutely horrible at singing. That was awful.”

Leila’s head snapped up and she blinked back her shock as she stared him, both of them looking rather serious before Leila burst into laughter and Jason followed suit. Neither one could stop laughing long enough to get a word in and Jason had to let her lean against him so she wouldn’t double over.

By the time they had calmed down enough to leave the dance floor like grown ups, it was obvious Leila had laughed so hard she had started crying and was immediately in search of a napkin to dry her eyes.

Escala and his wife/not-wife had left the floor midway through the song to sit back down, but it had been for the best as he had seen Queen in the distance keeping himself close enough to the couple’s table.

“I spotted a dessert station in the back, I’m going to go indulge. Want anything?” Leila waved a hand somewhere behind her while her other dabbed a Kleenex under each eye.

“I’m good. Go for it.”

“We’ve got about thirty minutes until the auction so we can sneak out before then for a smoke!”

Jason laughed at Leila’s excitement as she left him and walked off, leaving him the opportunity to walk towards Queen who was meeting him halfway.

“Escala’s on the phone and his date is near tears by the bathroom. Which do you want?”

Jason didn’t have to think twice. “Escala.”

Queen nodded. “We have to be back at the table in twenty minutes for the auction.”

“Got it. See you later.”

They both went in separate directions, with Jason finding Escala near the courtyard doors by main doors, pacing back and forth on the phone. Unfortunately Jason couldn’t get within earshot without being noticed and pretended to be on his phone as well until he watched the man pull a cigarette from its case and finally head outside.

The courtyard was large and had plenty of seating underneath the heat lamps and portable heaters the event organizers had been smart enough to bring out. That, along with all the smoking posts. There were at least twenty people outside, unable to make it through the evening without a break. Jason appreciated the break from the noise inside, especially as Escala was speaking loudly on the phone in Portuguese, assuming no one could understand him.

“...it’s an absolute mess. Investors are pulling out and the fiasco back on the West Coast didn’t make anything better. Who the hell authorized those trucks? No one seems to know.”

Jason listened in while he smoked his cigarette on the bench and played a game on his phone.

By the time Escala ended his call, Jason had learned that the truck incident had been caused by an over zealous employee who had forgone discretion for volume in terms of the number of trucks used in transport; and the involvement of the Green Arrow in Star City was making ‘investors’ antsy and several had backed out regardless of the threat of blackmail.

All good information to have, but Jason was attempting to stay within range of Escala now in order to remotely hack into the man’s phone. If the call had lasted just two minutes more and Jason would have had it. Now, he was weaving through people as best he could while keeping one eye on Escala and one eye on his phone.

“Come on...come on...” Jason watched as the loading bar on his phone screen inched towards the finish line, and felt a wave of satisfaction as it hit a hundred percent.

Unfortunately that wave of satisfaction was swiftly followed by a heavy hit to the shoulder, his body twisting with the impact of the blow. It stunned him more than it hurt him and he reached out to grab whatever poor soul he had accidentally run into while said soul did the same.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”

“My fault. I should have been look-“ Jason’s sentence trailed off as his lungs stopped working.

In all the ways it could have happened, in every single possible way Jason could have predicted this, he had not expected this scenario.

‘Doesn’t look like he expected it either,’ his mind helpfully supplied before it reminded him that they were still holding onto each other.

Jason pulled his hand away as if burned, still unable to say anything as blue eyes blinked stupidly back at him.

This shouldn’t have ever been possible.

“I—Have a good evening.” Jason’s legs moved of their own accord, calmly walking him away from a still stunned Bruce Wayne.

Chapter Text

“Master Bruce, need I remind you that your previous interactions with Her Majesty were not...fruitful...”

Bruce ignored the way Alfred said “Her Majesty” with a tone that held an elevated respect that he supposed made sense since the gentleman was British. Not to mention, Alfred had done a brief stint as butler to members of the royal family back in England before coming to work for the Wayne Family.

No one was above reproach where Alfred was concerned, but the man was a stickler for tradition and Bruce knew he had already messed up the first time around...and the unofficial second time when he’d been with that annoying young woman at the restaurant who had practically squealed when Queen Leila had been walking by.

Alfred’s reminder now was less of a warning and more of a “I did tell you, but you didn’t listen”. He received a lot of similarly veiled comments from the man although there was still an undercurrent of something fragile there now after what had happened last month.

Bruce had indeed kept to his word, although he had determined that Jason had again left Gotham, which hadn’t been difficult to do since there had been no confirmed sightings of the Red Hood in Gotham in recent weeks.

He still wasn’t sure how to feel about that and whether or not he was frustrated or relieved or maybe a combination of the two. Instead, he threw himself into busy work at the office, focusing on WE proposals that would help the company to further expand into other regions, namely the Middle East. It was not going smoothly and as of two days ago, he had flat out been denied even a meeting. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been denied a meeting; usually people were close to pleading with his office for just a few minutes of his time.

He didn’t want to go to this fundraiser in New York, even if it was indeed for a good cause, mostly because Oliver Queen had tried to use Bruce’s underhanded move against not only himself, but on Dick.

His eldest son had laughed as soon as he had gotten a call from the event organizers and had bowed out considering that he was working evenings at the precinct that month and couldn’t commit. He would have come up with any excuse to get out of going, and Bruce had immediately received a call from him making it clear that whatever Bruce and Oliver’s spat was about, he didn’t want anything to do with it.

Bruce hadn’t been surprised by the reaction (and he’d certainly been furious with Queen for trying to involve his son), but it had still hurt that Dick wouldn’t even entertain the idea of coming. He had said nothing about his feelings of course (when did he ever?), but if Dick would have said he’d go, Bruce would have gladly gone as well, just so that they could spend some amount of time together.

Still, he was in his car now, driving himself to New York City from Gotham, heading to the very event he had been determined not to attend.

“I am aware of that, Alfred.”

Bruce gripped the steering wheel tighter, hearing Alfred’s quiet sigh through the cars’ speakers.

“Mr. Fox did offer to attend in your stead.”

“It needs to be me. Mr. Escala is also going to be there.”

“So you stated earlier this evening when you donned your tuxedo and retrieved the keys to the Ferrari,” Alfred remarked dryly.

“Wayne Foundation is a sponsor; someone needed to be there. And yes, I know that Lucius would have gone in my stead,” Bruce added before Alfred could counter, “but Queen thinks I’m not coming, and I believe Her Royal Highness is responsible for the difficulties I’m facing in the Middle East. Plus, she donated a very large sum of money to Gotham City.”

“Heaven forbid someone else wishes to assist the people of this city” Alfred murmured, although he had certainly wanted Bruce to hear it. “ I take it I should be somewhat relieved that your reasons for suddenly attending this event are due to your unwavering pride and ego as opposed to considering them suspects in Mr. Rowe’s unexpected death.”

“I don’t need the sarcasm.”

“Forgive me, Master Bruce. You are right, as always.”

“Alfred...”

“Oh dear me, is that the time? I do believe that I must attend to dinner.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. Tim was the only one in the manor besides Alfred and ‘dinner’ would consist of a Hot Pocket thrown in the microwave regardless of how the butler felt about it.

“Do you have so little faith in me?” Bruce couldn’t stop himself from asking, his tone sharp in way that only Alfred would understand was meant to cover up how the comment had actually hurt.

“I always have faith in you, Master Bruce. Always.” Alfred replied softly.

What was once a rare tone of voice from the older gentleman was now becoming more commonplace. Bruce wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

“Thank you.”

“Have a good evening, Master Bruce. Master Timothy will be available via your comms unit within the hour should you need him.”

Bruce grunted and hung up the phone, just as he pulled his car up to the front of the hotel.

The party had been underway for at least a couple of hours now, which meant that the number of press and paparazzi out front was down to a handful that were holding out hope that someone might come out the front entrance before the night was over.

Those few were in luck as Bruce exited the car, a cheerful look on his face as he patted the valet attendant on the back, jokingly warned the young man not to go on a joy ride with it, and happily stood there on the red carpet having his photo taken and answering a few questions before hurrying inside.

While he normally attracted attention when he entered the room, the actual ceremony portion as well as dinner, appeared to be over, with most people gathered around in clusters or mingling. The band was playing, and Bruce could just barely see couples on the dance floor from where he was standing.

“Mr. Wayne!”

Bruce grinned and turned, finding Mr. West, the host for the evening, looking surprised and somewhat alarmed.

“I...We didn’t...”

Bruce held up a hand, not wanting the poor man to have a panic attack and put on his best charming slash hopeful expression.

“It’s alright. I should be the one apologizing! I was able to to make it, even it is somewhat late. Do you think you can squeeze me in for the auction?”

Mr. West blinked rapidly a few times before nodding so vigorously, Bruce was concerned the man would sprain his neck.

With the host off to make he necessary changes, Bruce stayed towards the back of the room, leveraging the low lighting near the bars and dessert tables.

It didn’t stop him from being recognized right after collecting his club soda from the bar.

“Bruce.”

Considering the extremely limited number of press allowed within the actual venue this evening, Bruce wouldn’t have been surprised even if he hadn’t known who was on the press list.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here. What changed your—Hello, your Majesty!”

‘One thousand people in this space and I run into her within two minutes’ Bruce grimaced internally while trying to dim his smile. His usual charming mega-watt grin would have the opposite effect here. Despite his smile, it was obvious that Queen Leila was much more interested in the man next to him.

“Hello” Leila smiled, one that Bruce certainly found genuine considering that hadn’t been the expression he’d ever been on the receiving end of. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

Bruce really wanted to roll his eyes so very badly but succeeded in squashing the urge to do so as the man beside him nervously laughed and pushed his black rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“Clark Kent. Reporter for the Daily Planet.”

Clark nervously shot his hand out to shake hers before realizing it may not be the proper protocol. Bruce had to watch for an agonizingly long three seconds as Clark moved his arm back and forth unsure whether it had been insulting to just offer to shake a queen’s hand. The man then chose to bow, causing her to laugh.

“Hello Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. I’ll give you a seven out of ten for the bow. Next time a handshake will do just fine.”

Clark chuckled, before acting like he remembered that he was an actual reporter and grabbed his notepad and pen from his jacket.

“Pen and paper, eh? Thank you!” Her Majesty appeared impressed by Clark’s one dollar notebook and five-cent pen. “I still use an actual weekly agenda myself. Nothing beats manually writing things out.”

Bruce was better than this, he knew, but he cleared his throat loudly, causing both Clark and Leila to turn.

“Hello, your Majesty.”

He watched her face carefully to note her expressions although she was trying not to smile at him. She had clearly noticed him standing there but had ignored his presence. He had expected her to at least be surprised that he was here.

“You two friends?” was her only response.

Bruce exchanged a look with Clark, which was as good a confirmation as any for the woman.

“Allow me to get you a drink!” he insisted, even though the bar was almost behind him. He had no doubt that’s where she had been heading.

“I can get my own thank you. I just need you to step aside. You’re blocking the bar.”

Clark looked like he was trying not to laugh and Bruce did his best to ignore him.

“Please, it’s the least I can do considering how rude my lunch date was to you last month.”

He watched her cut herself off mid-refusal, and hoped he’d said the right thing.

“Ah yes...how could I forget...”

Bruce ignored the embarrassment stirring in his gut; that had been a horrific date and just an overall shitty day.

“Alright then. Would you mind grabbing me a donut from the dessert station as well?”

Bruce smiled and nodded, almost about to rush off before realizing he needed her drink order.

“Old Fashioned with Rye.”

“I’ll be back!” Bruce nodded and then left her with Clark, hoping he’d help him out. He had never needed a wingman in his life but he was hoping Superman would be just as good for salvaging his reputation as he was for helping the world.

As soon as Bruce was out of earshot, Leila turned back towards Clark, giving the man her full attention.

Clark tried not to squirm. It wasn’t as if the queen was eyeballing him, but her gaze was intense despite her friendly smile.

“Um...would you like...I mean...can I ask you some questions?” he asked hopefully, watching her chuckle now.

“You seem quite friendly with him. That’s not working in your favor. Feel free to get in touch with my office.”

Her tone isn’t mean or rude in the least, but Clark takes the statement to heart and doesn’t push. It was just as well because Bruce all but ran back.

“Here’s your old fashioned...with rye...” he emphasized with a smirk as he handed it to her, “...and here’s your donut, technically donuts because I didn’t know which one you wanted. So I got you three.”

Bruce heard the laugh that Clark couldn’t hold back although it had been masked as a cough halfway through.

Either she ignored it or hadn’t noticed because she thanked him sincerely for her drink and selection of donuts before her attention was immediately elsewhere and she placed her drink and plate on a cocktail table next to Clark.

“Mr. Wayne, would you mind doing me a favor?”

Bruce blinked rapidly in obvious surprise, not sure what had prompted her to ask but he nodded, assuming it couldn’t be too bad.

“There’s a woman standing over there with her daughter. Dressed in that silver gown with the ribbon?”

Bruce looked without making it obvious and indeed spotted a woman in her early forties who was standing with a girl of about sixteen or seventeen years old who had on the gown Queen Leila had just described.

“I see them” Bruce confirmed.

“The mother’s name is Sarah Easton. The daughter is Ella Easton. Both are cancer survivors and were honored here this evening.”

Bruce nodded along, encouraging her to continue.

“They were very much hoping, the daughter in particular, that you would be here and were disappointed when you weren’t. If I introduce you, will you offer to dance with Ella?”

“Of course. Absolutely.”

Nodding at him, she excused herself for a moment and walked towards the pair, speaking with them a few moments before she made her way back over.

“They’re in shock so give them a moment...”

Bruce chuckled, looking over at the mother and daughter and waving at them. He could tell they were both blushing already.

As if remembering that there was a reporter still standing there, Bruce watched as Leila leaned in close to him, keeping her voice low. Still, it didn’t keep the firm stance of her words from being any less effective.

“She’s had a rough go. Be nice to her.”

Bruce kept his voice low as well, although he made sure to appear slightly taken aback by the comment.

“You don’t think I’m nice?”

“I think you’re a lot of things, Mr. Wayne.”

Bruce leaned back slowly, assessing her. She kept a smile her on face but her eyes told another story.

“All I can do is try and redo the first impression I made upon you...which includes our dance.” Bruce admitted in a rare show of honesty.

“Why? Last I checked the visa problem resolved itself.”

Leila missed the micro expression of surprise that flitted across Bruce’s face. Even if she had been looking at him dead on, she most likely wouldn’t have caught it.

“Tell you what. You dance with her, make her night. And then I’ll think on it.”

He was saved from responding to her as Sarah and Ella came over and Queen Leila formally introduced to him. Clark was also introduced as well considering it would have been extremely rude to ignore him but the two newcomers only had eyes for Bruce.

Offering up his arms, he led both of them away towards the dance floor, leaving Clark and Leila alone yet again.

Considering how much funding he provided the Justice League, Bruce certainly wanted some return on investment here.

Watching Mr. Wayne leave, Leila grabbed her drink and took a sip at the exact moment she caught Clark’s surprised expression.

“I didn’t realize this was a men only drink. Sorry to burst to your bubble.” Leila shrugged and took another sip while Clark turned pink and put his hands out.

“No, that’s not it!” Clark rushed to explain. “It’s just...you really don’t like him.”

He watched as she straightened herself up, looking up at him with what felt like defiance of a sort. “And you do? You seem pretty decent. Don’t know why you’re hanging with him.”

“He’s not so bad.”

Leila practically snorted into her glass. “I didn’t realize he needed anyone to go to bat for him. I was sure he didn’t have a problem finding dates or bedfellows.”

Clark shifted uncomfortably where he stood but tried to look unruffled.

“He tried to take advantage of me.”

That had not been what Clark was expecting to hear and his look of pure alarm must have really been something as she backtracked a little, waving her hand in dismissal.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean like that. He was just an idiot for thinking the timing of his subtle advances would go over my head a few years back. It may not have made the news then, but he apparently needed to be in Umec for whatever reason and eventually made it in.”

Clark said nothing, not wanting to say or do anything to get her to shut down the conversation.

“He could have just explained and I would have listened...seen whether it was something I could have helped with. He’s a moron that thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. So no....I don’t like him. I don’t trust anyone that’s charming. How can I?”

He conceded the point with a helpless shrug but he was a reporter after all and felt some superficial digging was okay.

“And Mr. Queen?” Clark asked. “You have to admit, they have very similar reputations.”

Leila grinned. “You looking for a scoop here, Mr. Kent?”

“Off the record,” Clark reassured, putting his pen and notepad back in his pocket.

It was good enough for her.

“I worked with him for an extended period of time. Charming he may be, but I saw him roll up his sleeves and get in the trenches. He was more than just his playboy reputation. He earned my respect and I’d like to think we’ve become friends because of it. It’s been nice seeing him again. We don’t cross paths all that often.”

“Just friends?”

“You don’t quit do you?”

“It’s the journalist in me.”

Leila laughed. “Fair enough.”

A beat went by before Leila gestured towards the dance floor.

“Do you dance, Mr. Kent?”

Just the question alone had him warming up and turning pink.

“Clark, please. And no...I-I have two left feet.”

“Shame.”

“What? Why?”

Leila shrugged, not seeing what the big deal was. “Because you’re interesting.”

Clark turned bright red. “I haven’t said anything.”

“You didn’t have to. You’re also very handsome.”

Clark opened his mouth to say something, anything, although he was hoping he wasn’t neon red at this point. Whether or not Bruce’s reappearance was a good thing or a bad thing, he wasn’t too sure.

“You guys still talking?” Bruce said smiling, slightly out of breath. “What did I miss?”

Leila bowed her head politely.

“Enjoy your evening gentlemen”

Both men watched her leave and Bruce immediately narrowed his eyes at Clark’s flushed face. Not that it meant anything considering he knew the queen had a penchant for profanity and Clark had probably floundered.

“She really doesn’t like you.”

Bruce grunted, not particularly happy with Clark’s assessment as he watched her head towards Oliver Queen, who was holding court fifty feet away and taking photos with some very excited guests. “The WayneTech proposal for the Quirian Emirates was denied.”

“So?”

“She influenced the decision.”

“Tough luck.”

“I need it approved”

“Then maybe try talking to her about it? Ever think of that?” Clark threw out there, rolling his eyes.

Bruce grumbled into his glass.

“Is this really about a contract? Or because she didn’t swoon at your feet and your initial plan backfired?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Am I being ridiculous?” Clark challenged. “We both know you don’t like to lose. I just don’t think the risk is worth the reward. Keep in mind she’s not only a heavy hitter in her own right, but she’s apparently a friend of Queen’s. Maybe even more...”

Bruce clenched his jaw tightly, aware that it didn’t take superhuman hearing to notice.

“Wait, Bruce...are you upset about the proposal failing or because she’s chummy with Queen?” Clark huffed an amused laugh. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were jeal-.”

Bruce cleared his throat and walked away. “I need to mingle. I’ll see you later. Make yourself useful and trying listening for Escala.”

“Gird your loins, Bruce!” Clark called out after him, just loud enough for Bruce to have heard.

All he needed to do was avoid Oliver Queen until the auction and try to slowly but surely improve his standing with the more important queen.

“Mr. Wayne!”

Someone from across the room called out, and Bruce steeled himself as those closest to him began to take notice.

‘And so it begins’ he thought with a sigh, knowing that by the end of the night he’d want nothing more than to rip his smile off his face. At least he had come late, not having to be here for more than hour and a half tops.

Twenty minutes to auction time and Bruce needed a breather, walking out the main doors and down a side corridor, seeking out what he knew he’d find.

Except there was a surprising addition in front of the portrait of his parents.

He kept quiet as he approached, watching as Leila stood in front of the painting with a pensive look on her face.

When he was close enough, he made himself known.

“That’s one of my favorites of them.”

As much as she may not be fond of him, she looked embarrassed...as if she had been caught trespassing. She recovered quickly enough and smiled.

She had smiled at him many times, but this one was the warmest.

“It is a lovely painting of them” she agreed, her eyes back on the painting. “I wasn’t aware though that their impact extended into New York City.”

Bruce moved to stand beside her, both of them admiring the painting.

“It didn’t...not really...” he replied, surprised when she turned to him looking extremely curious. He wasn’t about the let the opportunity go to waste.

“They were attending a function here years ago...before I was born, and the General Manager of the hotel went into cardiac arrest. My father resuscitated him and kept him stable until paramedics arrived...before following along and performing open heart surgery on him.”

He didn’t mind smiling now as he watched her grin and look back at the painting, as if the story made it look so much more different.

“He really—“

Leila was cut off by the sound of a screech.

“Brucie? Brucie! I heard you were here!”

Both Bruce and Leila watched as the source of the abrupt exclamation sauntered over. At almost six-feet tall, long brown hair and a slinky red dress that was barely on this side of appropriate, the famous twenty-five-year supermodel was waving a little frantically, practically stumbling in her heels.

It was a disaster and Bruce knew it too before he even turned to look at Leila.

“Rick? Bobby?”

Bruce looked over at where “Rick” had been standing; just out of sight at the shadows. Of course he had noticed him as well as “Bobby” a few yards away.

Both men moved without question, politely escorting the slightly intoxicated model away.

He almost didn’t want to look at Leila now but forced himself to.

She was looking back at the painting again.

“Your Majesty—“ Bruce attempted to do damage control but Leila interrupted him.

“I have heard so many stories about Martha and Thomas Wayne. So so many. How they helped, how they genuinely cared, how much Gotham City had faith in their son. I chose Gotham because of them...well, one of the reasons was them. And then there was you...”

Bruce tried to smile, but it slipped from his face as she turned to him, the annoyance with him clear.

“The son that throws money around the city for various causes. Or at various causes I should say. You give speeches here and there about the future of Gotham, the potential it has before being photographed hours later on some yacht with bikini-clad girls practically half your age. So it should come as no shock to you that I find you grossly lacking in ways your parents were supposedly not...and that is truly a shame...”

Bruce was rooted on the spot, unable to say or do anything other than just stand there as his heart hammered inside his chest.

“You are an ostentatious man who is used to getting his way and I would never trust a man like you...not even if my life depended on it. So please, for both our sakes, drop the act, stop wasting your time trying to charm me for the sake of your Middle East contracts -because I’m quite sure that’s what this has always been about- and go find some twenty-something-year olds’ legs to get between. From the looks of it, you already have one waiting.” She took a step back from the portrait and looked directly at him now. “I hope at the very least, you appreciate the fact that I didn’t just tell you to go fuck yourself. Have a good evening, Mr. Wayne.”

As always, Leila bowed her head politely before walking away, leaving Bruce standing there alone with his parents portrait for company.

It took him over a minute to unglue his feet from the floor, and when he did, he walked briskly down the hallway, not caring about who he saw or where he ended up.

All he could focus on was the video replaying inside his head of his father’s voice; played for him during one of the worst times in his life. It was always playing it seemed; he had learned to live with it.

In the event of my death, I hereby declare that all my worldly possessions
pass to my son, Bruce Wayne.

Bruce, I ask that you honor the Wayne Family legacy, and commit yourself to
to the improvement of Gotham City, its institutions, and its citizens.

“Sorry” Bruce muttered, almost barreling into someone in the kitchen as he went out the back, determined to get some fresh air.

Please, be strong. You are young, but destined for great things. Make the most of your opportunities. Use them to give back to a city that has given us so much; to change the lives of millions of people.

Bruce gulped in air as he felt the cold evening air hit his face, trying to maintain his composure. He had done everything his parents had wanted from him. Everything.

Do not be frivolous with this wealth. Please, do not waste it all on fast cars,
and outrageous clothes, and the pursuit of a destructive lifestyle.

Invest in Gotham; treat it’s people like family. Watch over them and use this
money to safeguard them from forces beyond their control.

My deepest regret, is that I will not see you grow into the good man I know
you will become.

And finally my son, I ask that you never abandon this city to fate.

We have lived through dark days, and no doubt there are more to come. But it is the good and great men and women who stand up for Gotham when others turn and run.

His father’s words always grounded him and he steeled himself to go back inside, cutting back through the kitchen. He refused to have his feathers ruffled just because his public persona was thrown back in his face and his parents had been mentioned.

In death, I will love you forever.

“Oooof!”

Bruce felt the wind almost knock out of him as he collided with someone who was obviously built like a stack of bricks. The force of the impact had both men moving with the momentum their collision had caused while trying to steady the other.

Last thing he needed was to have accidentally bowled over someone and have it cause a scene.

His apology was already out of his mouth before he looked up at the sound of the other man’s voice, cool green eyes staring back at him.

Your Father,
Thomas

Chapter Text

‘Stay calm, keep your pace slow and steady, breathe in, breathe out, and just stay fucking calm!’

Jason did his best to ignore how even his mind was showing the panic it felt.

The urge to run was incredibly strong, but he had never run from Batman (‘it’s Brucie tonight...not even Bruce...and especially not Batman’ he reminded himself) and he wouldn’t run now. Still, he braced himself as he slowly weaved his way through the crowd of people; braced himself for what, he wasn’t exactly sure...but he half expected the man to come after him, maybe call his name, or if Bruce had the nerve...to actually grab him and stop him in his tracks.

By the time he had put half the ballroom between them, Jason still couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes on him now, but he was alone and that was good.

He hadn’t had a particular destination in mind but his feet had made the decision for him, taking him back to his table and affording him the opportunity to turn back towards the direction from where he came. He breathed a small sigh of relief that he was lost amongst the sea of people around him; it gave him the chance to regain his bearings.

As much as he was still in shock, Jason still had the presence of mind and the keen observational skills to note that Bruce had obviously been just as surprised to see him as Jason was.

Whatever the reason was for the man’s sudden appearance tonight, it didn’t appear at first glance to be because of him. The question now, was what the hell he was going to do. If he was honest with himself, he was too stunned to even think about how to feel, let alone what to do.

“There you are! T minus ten minutes until you’ll have some blackmail material!”

Jason turned at the sound of Queen’s voice, and damn, he really must have been a sight because the smile on the man’s face slipped off as his eyes narrowed onto Jason’s hand which would not stop fucking trembling. He slid his hand back and placed it onto his lap even though it was too late.

Opening his mouth to say he was fine, he stopped himself before barely uttering a sound and didn’t react at all when Queen plopped down in his seat without ceremony and leaned forward.

“What’s happened?”

Jason huffed a laugh. Queen’s question wasn’t even “did something happen?”; clearly they were going to move past any feeble attempts Jason had thought to make.

“I’m going to ask you this one time and if you fucking lie to me, I’ll empty a clip into your head before you can even reach for anything...”

Okay, so threatening Queen wasn’t what he had wanted to do, but anger and frustration were easier for him to work with and granted, he knew he was fucking projecting right now but he didn’t care.

Queen on the other hand, sat up a little straighter, adjusting his cuffs.

“Okay...”

“Did you know he was going to be here? I swear to fucking god, if you knew and-“

“Who was going to be here?”

“Bruce.”

“What?!” Queen’s startled response was louder than was wise, causing a few people to glance in their direction.

The break in the man’s facade did help reassure Jason that apparently it was just as much a surprise to him as well.

“Are you sure? I checked every hour leading up to tonight. If he was coming, I’d have known...” Queen practically growled.

Jason mumbled as he took a sip of whatever drink Leila had left at the table, trying not to grimace as he did so; hard alcohol was not something he routinely drank for pleasure. “Oh yeah, I’m sure. And he knows I’m here.”

With Queen’s eyebrows practically above his hairline, Jason gave Queen the rundown of what had happened when he’d followed Escala outside and then back into the ballroom, everything culminating with literally running smack dab into the one person he never wanted to see.

“I’ll get one of Leila’s security detail to get the car, take you back to the hotel.”

“I’m not leaving.”

Jason’s response was news to even himself since he had no idea what the hell he had planned to do until the words were out of his mouth. He had no reason to leave and he’d be damned if he let Bruce bully him around.

“Are you sure? You got a link to the cell phone; we can look into it later,” Queen insisted, his eyes continuously scanning the crowd now. “Don’t force yourself to stay here just because-“

Queen cut himself off as they were joined by another; thankfully, not Bruce.

It was now Jason’s turn to frown.

“You okay?”

Leila smiled and nodded, doing a fairly convincing job Jason thought, except he knew a sham when he saw one. He didn’t push, but he exchanged a brief glance with Queen as Leila downed what looked to be a vodka or gin and tonic as she took her seat next to Jason.

“Leila-“ Queen’s voice showed genuine concern, but she waved him off.

“It’s fine. I’m fine.”

Neither man believed that to be entirely the case; clearly something had frustrated her. Jason watched her pick up the glass he had taken a drink from and start to sip on it.

“Bruce Wayne is here,” she added as if it were an afterthought, “much to the surprise of everyone. Mr. West is pretty much in hysterics and asked me if he could sit at our table.”

“Oh hell no.” Jason cringed as what had been meant to be a thought had somehow spewed out of his mouth.

Leila snorted softly into her glass as she took another sip.

“I hope you said no,” Queen groaned.

‘Thank you, Oliver’ Jason nodded in agreement with the man.

“I told him that considering the press here, adding Bruce Wayne to my table would not be the best idea as it would take away focus from the event and potentially start rumors.”

Jason laughed a little, relief coming in minute form as Leila grinned at them, looking more like her usual self.

“I’ve been politely declining things since I was pretty much in the womb. Don’t worry, I got this shit on lock. Now if you’ll excuse me a moment, I need another drink. I think I deserve it.”

The last bit she had mumbled to herself, but Jason and Oliver both caught it, giving each other a quick look as she got up and went to the bar.

“Bruce.”

Jason rarely heard Oliver sound anything other than breezily happy (geez, who did that remind him of?), but the name was uttered with such annoyance that he couldn’t help but grunt in agreement.

Seeing how Leila was drinking a more than her self-imposed two drink maximum, Jason’s decision to stay was solidified. Maybe her demeanor was completely unrelated to Bruce, but...if Bruce had said or done something (like attempt to sit at their fucking table), or if it was just his presence alone that had bothered her, then Jason was staying. Fuck Bruce. Again, it could have had nothing to do with Bruce at all, but still...fuck Bruce.

”Ladies and gentlemen...”

The MC for the auction, a man in a sequined tuxedo jacket who looked vaguely familiar to Jason and was probably someone from some TV show or whatever, was now on stage, grinning like a loon.

“Fucking auction.” Jason heard Oliver mutter under his breath.

“You’ll be fine,” Jason said, patting him on the shoulder, although his smile was too wolfish to be comforting. They had no idea where Bruce was at the moment, but the likelihood of there being some sort of scene right now was almost non-existent. That meant Jason could focus on this part of the night, which was recording Oliver making a fool of himself. “Just flex those arms of yours. I’ll get my phone ready.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to leave?” Oliver insisted, sounding almost desperate. “What if Bruce attacks me on stage? We should go right now.”

Jason laughed. It felt good knowing that even though Oliver was joking (mostly), the man had his back, and that’s not something he would have thought a month or so ago. The Bruce-shaped elephant roaming the ballroom wouldn’t be ignored per se, but they weren’t going to let the man’s sudden appearance affect their night. There would certainly be some kind of aftermath, but Jason found himself not caring.

Gotham wasn’t home anymore.

“Nah, I’m good. I owe it to Roy.”

“I hate you.”

“Love you too, man.”

Hearing Oliver grumble a long string of curses under his breath, Jason was mid-chuckle when Leila reappeared and quickly took her seat.

He chose to not comment on how he could smell cigarette smoke as she sat down beside him; after all, they hadn’t yet gone for that smoke break together and he had been able to have one already. There was no drink in her hand either, except for the champagne that was currently being refilled for them at the table just as the lights dimmed and the noise of the crowd quieted to a low murmur.

The auction list had been kept under wraps, although the men on the auction block knew who their peers would be this evening. They weren’t in competition with each other exactly, but each gentlemen had apparently planned a luxury experience for the winning bidder.

Jason tried not to think about the large sums of money that would be thrown around like nothing. Sure it was going to a good cause, but just the fact that people had so much money when others struggled to find their next meal...it wasn’t fair.

”Our first gentleman on the chopping block -I mean, auction block- is...”

Jason rolled his eyes at the horribly delivered joke and the chuckles it caused. A quick look around him revealed several women incrementally leaning forward in their seats. He nudged Leila’s shoulder and nodded his head in the direction of the table on their right-hand side.

“Governor’s daughters...” she whispered in his ear. “They’re fiercely competitive with one another.”

Gasps and delighted applause had them trying to find the source, which turned out to be Michael Holt, who was making his way to the stage while waving at the crowd.

Jason didn’t even have to look at the people around him to know everyone was waiting to see how the bidding would go. Only the fifteen tables surrounding the dance floor and stage would be bidding but that was still over a hundred people, if you included the men as well.

As much as Jason believed Holt to be a sellout, there was no denying the man was smart as hell. In fact, he was considered one of the smartest men alive, and his intellectual prowess was matched by his athletic abilities.

A gold medal Olympian, genius, and self-made multi-millionaire, Holt was well known for his accomplishments, but not for being seen out in public much.

”Mr. Holt, what should the winning bidder expect?”

The man in question smiled and took the mic from the MC, waving again at the crowd.

“Hello there. Well, I thought maybe a private tour and dinner at The Met? Or any museum really. I didn’t think it through a whole lot; thought we could play it by ear...for both winners.”

The last part reminded Jason that it wasn’t just dates for the winning bidder that were on the line, but there was some system in place for the honorees of the evening to also win dates as well.

He leaned to his side to ask Leila but she looked to be reviewing a piece of paper. She must have felt his eyes on her because she looked at him and caught where he’d been looking. Sliding the paper over so they could both see, Jason read the names of several men up for auction, some honorees, and their interests.

The auction wasn’t exactly ‘rigged’, but the goal was to ensure that everyone came away happy, and Jason couldn’t imagine whose time had been spent trying to figure it all out.

Holt’s offer for a date wasn’t exactly outlandish, but the first bid out of the gate was fifty-thousand, with offers continuing to come in. There was no shouting, but hands were being raised and spotters spread out around clusters of tables were ensuring all bids were accounted for.

”One hundred and twenty-five thousand! Do I hear one hundred and thirty? Anybody?”