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Let The Bullets Fly, Oh Let Them Rain

Chapter Text

“Any sign?”

Bruce glanced over at Dick, his face as unreadable as always, his gaze clearly saying what Bruce himself would never say. That it was a stupid question, with an obvious answer, a breath that shouldn’t have been wasted on something so pointless.

Dick ignored the look, fixing the older man with a stubborn stare. In the years since his time as Robin -a time when he would have followed Bruce to Hell itself if he’d asked -Dick had learned the hard way that his one-time hero wasn’t perfect. That he wasn’t unstoppable, that he wasn’t all-knowing, and that he certainly wasn’t all-capable. The glares that would have once sent him scrambling to find something else to do, somewhere else to be, no longer had any real effect on him, having long since lost their bite.

Bruce held his gaze for exactly thirty-three seconds, before turning back to the wall-sized computer screen, biting out a clipped, “No.”

Dick felt his shoulders droop a bit, despite the slight pierce of pride filling his chest at the knowledge that he’d stared down the Bat and won. It was a small, petty victory; worthless in the larger scheme of things. Stupid, really, that he felt the need to force the point, now of all times.

But he didn’t let himself focus on that; if there was one thing Richard Grayson was good at, it was distracting himself.

“How the hell can we not find him, Bruce?” He demanded angrily, focusing his rage on a less meaningful target. “We’ve got CCTV cameras in every corner of the city, minus the Bowery, and Babs has facial recognition running against every picture and video, every second of whatever security footage she can get her hands coming out of there… Jesus, he could barely stand when he bolted, and somehow, with the best gadgets and surveillance equipment that money can research, and create, we still can’t find him!”

Bruce glanced at him out of the corner of the cowl. “Are you finished?”

This time, Dick was unable to hold that gaze, acknowledging the childishness of his actions, as he plopped down into Robin’s chair.

The chair that now belonged to Tim Drake, currently at Gotham U wrapping up a history quiz. The chair that had once belonged to him, what seemed like a lifetime ago.

The chair that had once belonged to his younger brother. Jason.

Jason.

For almost three months, Bruce, Dick, Tim, and Barbara had been working around the clock trying to locate their missing bird again, this time after his flight from Wayne Manor. No sign of Jason had been seen since then, despite their efforts.

And the search was taking its toll on the fractured, broken little family of misfits.

Tim, a magna cum laude student at Gotham U, a bit more than a year away from his bachelor’s in Business Management and Finance, was starting to slip, his GPA falling from a 3.9 to a 3.6, putting him dangerously close to losing his cum laude status. And only a fool could miss the perpetually exhausted look that shadowed the latest incarnation of Robin -despite the fact that he was rarely, if ever, spotted without his large travel mug of coffee, or a can of Red Bull in hand. Nobody in the family would have argued that, out of the three Robins, Tim had always been the most patient, the most level-headed and logical of the bunch. But lately, Tim had become snippy and his normal good-natured humor replaced by a devastating caustic wit.

Honorary ‘Bat Sibling’ (and sister-in-law of almost a year) Barbara Gordon-Drake wasn’t much better; too many times in the past few months, Dick had found her asleep in her wheelchair, head lolled to the side, still in front of her precious screens that she used to live up to her moniker. Her constant -and consistent –‘grace under pressure’ persona on the comms, feeding and relaying pinpoint accurate information had started slowing down; a second or two delay there, a word slip here, with an inverted number thrown in the mix… none of which had done nothing to improve her already sharp temper.

Of course, Bruce had held onto the ‘appearance’ of normality -or at least, what passed for ‘normal’ in their little family – the longest. Too many years of too little sleep, too much disappointment, and with an unhealthy dose of solitude had taught the Wayne Patriarch how to hide the exhaustion, hide the emotions, hide the loneliness, better than the rest of them, but even he had begun to show signs of slowing down in the last month. The bags under his eyes -eyes beginning to develop crows feet -were no longer hidden by the infamous cowl, and he’d finally begun to show every second of his age, written around the corners of his mouth, in the slight stoop of his shoulders when he thought no one was watching.

And Dick… Well, he’d finally resigned his position in Blüdhaven PD two months ago, after having used up every second of vacation and sick time he’d had coming, and then begging and borrowing more from his brother cops. But eventually, the powers that be had thrown down the gauntlet, and given him the ultimatum: be at your desk Monday morning, or don’t bother coming back.

He hadn’t had to put much thought into it. He’d walked away from his life in Blüdhaven without a second glance, leaving behind a steady -if somewhat ‘flighty’ -girlfriend, his new friends, his partner, his job, his apartment… Some part of him knew he was going to look back on it at some point in his life, and feel a pang of regret and ‘what-if’, but for the past two months, he hadn’t regretted a damn thing.

And of course, Gotham herself had noticed their mission. Criminals had grown far more bold, taking notice of the decreased patrols of the Bat Family; predictably, crime rates had spiked across the city, even in the areas of the city that had been considered ‘safe’.

It had been about three months ago, when he and Tim had caught the ‘special report’ on GCN, by one Vicki Vale. As she detailed the ever-rising tidal wave of robbery, assault, rape and murder that had decended on the city like a plague, she’d ended with a demand to know where Batman was. Where had he disappeared to? Why had he left the city in this, their hour of need?

Of course, she’d added, Batman was still in the city; he’d been spotted numerous times, by numerous people in the past five months, but apparently, he was too busy to help the city that counted on him for its very survival. Apparently, he had more pressing concerns than his fellow citizens being raped and beaten and murdered. Apparently, he just had better things to do than help Gotham anymore.

Dick -who had dealt with Vale’s bullshit stories for almost a decade -had been about two seconds away from chucking the nearest lamp through the large screen TV, when -to his eternal surprise -Tim had beaten him to the punch, launching a ten thousand-dollar, one-of-a-kind Ming Dynasty vase right through the center of Vale’s perfectly done up face.

And Alfred, their one solid rock in any storm, hadn’t even given them his classic (and, Dick would swear patented) looks of disappointment. As Tim had silently stalked out of the house, Alfred had went to work cleaning up the mess, stopping just long enough to pat Dick on the shoulder, before he began picking up the mixture of black television shards, and white and blue vase pieces.

 “Quit brooding. It’s not helpful.”

Dick rolled his eyes, only barely resisting the urge to scoff at Bruce’s words. ‘Not helpful’ was the understatement of the century; nothing any of them had done in the last three months had been ‘helpful’ in any way, shape or form. No amount of missed sleep, work, classes, or meals had been ‘helpful’ in the slightest, and they were still no closer to finding him than they had been when he’d ran three months ago.

It had been on year, nine months, and seven days since Jason Todd, aka Robin 2.0, -Little Wing, his little brother – had been ‘killed’ in Ethiopia, beaten to death while trying to save his scumbag of a mother, and then blown to bits, all ‘courtesy’ of one of Batman’s oldest enemies: the Joker.

It’d been one year, nine months, two weeks and a day since the Joker had sent them the recorded footage of said-incident. Since the fateful day when Dick, Barbara, Bruce and Alfred had crowded around the screen in the Cave, and watched as the crowbar fell again, and again, and again, listening to the pained grunts, and wheezing breaths as the Joker worked himself into a frenzy. Since they watched Jason pull himself to the door, only to realize he couldn’t escape. Since Jason’s eyes had locked onto the source of the beeping, watching as the bomb slowly ticked down, second by second. Since they’d watched a look of acceptance cross his too-young face, moments before a massive explosion -the same one that had caused Bruce’s burns -shorted out the screen.

It’d been ten months, three weeks, and two days since they’d first started to hear the whispers. That Joker had taken over Arkham Asylum, and was busily occupying himself with a new toy, some unfortunate bastard he’d found in Arkham.

Six months, one week, and six days since they’d confirmed that the Joker had indeed taken over a portion of the Asylum, the old abandoned East Wing, and turned it into his own twisted little kingdom.

It’d been five months, one week, and two days since Batman, Nightwing, and Robin had snuck their way into the deepest recesses of the building, intent on rescuing whatever poor soul the Joker was keeping imprisoned.

Five months, one week, and two days since Bruce had pulled the tarp off the figure hanging by a meat hook. Five months, one week, and two days since Jason had sobbed at their touch, his eyes swollen shut, shaking and panting as they’d gotten him down, screaming in pain and fear at their touch.

Five months, one week, and two days since Dick had puked in the corner of some dingy, one-time basement operating room at the sight of his little brother, beaten, broken, and bloodied. Since he’d seen the ‘J’ branded onto his baby brother’s cheek. Since tears had rolled down his face, watching as Jason -cocky, loudmouthed, afraid-of-nothing Jason -whimpered, trying to pull himself away from them on his shattered bones and bleeding skin.

It’d been four months, two weeks, and one day since the doctors had told Bruce Wayne that his long-lost son was stabilized. That he was no longer physically in critical condition, although they wouldn’t speak to his mental condition, and recommended psychiatric treatment. He was, essentially, in a full body cast, but they’d re-broken, set, and reset all sixty-four fractures. Cleaned and stitched any still-open wounds. Cleansed his system of any traces of infection, and they were beginning the process of carefully weaning him off of the fear toxin that was running roughshod through his fragile system. He’d weighed ninety-three pounds -fifty pounds short of what he should have been for his height of five foot five.

Four months, one week, and six days since he’d first spoken. Since the seventeen year old had looked Bruce in the eye, and said pleadingly, “You should have just killed me. Why didn’t you just kill me?” He hadn’t spoken again.

Four months, and two days since they’d brought him home to Wayne Manor. Since the nightly bouts of screaming, night terrors, and nightmares had started.

Three months, three weeks, and two days since Dick had found the scrawled, barely-legible note on Jason’s bed.

Leave me alone. Please.

Chapter Text

Patrick Fitzgerald sighed as he looked out the glass of his shopfront, a wave of pity shooting through his chest as he spotted the boy again. For almost a week, the kid had sat against the wall of the abandoned furniture factory, on the opposite side of the street from his deli, hood pulled tight around his face, in a pose Pat would almost call casual, if not for the tenseness of the kid’s body anytime someone walked too close.

He’d seen kids like the boy before; hell, it was an all too common sight in the Bowery where he ran his deli, the one that had belonged to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, back in the days when the Bowery had been just another part of Gotham, instead of a place for the rest of the city to throw its criminals and rejects, its broken and damned.

And the kid definitely fit the type; Pat had seen the scars on his hands whenever he went to lit a cigarette, and one morning, while the kid was sleeping, the hoodie had slipped to the side just enough to let Pat see the scars on his face. And the kid seemed passive enough most times, unless someone got too close -not the type who was looking for a fight, or a hardened thug marking his territory.

And he was too small -Pat would have put his age around fifteen, maybe sixteen if he judged solely by the kid’s face and body, and not his eyes that carried far too much weight. He couldn’t have been much taller than five and a half foot, and he looked like a strong enough breeze might blow him away.

“Katie, grab me one a those sandwiches, will ya?” He called back, giving his daughter a smile as she rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

“You know, you keep this up, dad, and we won’t have anything to give actual customers,” She joked, tossing a pastrami melt to him as he moved towards the door. Despite her words, there was a proud tone to her voice, and her smile was bright.

“Eh, not like we get too many a those these days,” He retorted, giving her a wink as he exited the small building, and walking across the street, careful to keep his movements slow, but steady.

He knew the kid saw him coming; he pulled one leg in, one hand fisting by his side, the other gripping his cigarette tighter as his whole body tensed.

He stopped a few yards away, his hands outstretched with the sandwich in view. Closer now than he’d gotten before, he could see that -on top of the scars -the boy’s fingers were crooked and mutilated, and the scars disappeared up underneath his sleeves. And Pat decided to revise his opinion on age; up close, he realized that he wasn’t really a ‘kid’ in the traditional sense -he looked to be closer to seventeen or eighteen. Not technically an adult in most places, but more than enough to disqualify him as a ‘child’ in the Bowery.

“S’alright, boyo, I ain’t gonna hurt ya none. Jus’ figured ya might be hungry s’all. Pastrami with a swiss melt,” He said, his voice gentle as he set the sandwich down, sliding it a foot or two closer to the boy, keeping his hands visible at all times.

There was a split second of hesitation, before the boy grabbed it, striking at the sandwich faster than a snake, so quick that Pat wouldn’t have been sure he’d moved at all if the kid didn’t have the sandwich in hand, the wrapper crinkling from the pressure the boy was putting on it.

There were a hundred things that Pat wanted to say in that moment. Things to prove that humanity wasn’t made up of the awful bastards who’d carved up his hands like a Christmas turkey, or branded his damn face like cattle. That there were people out there who would care for him; who would help him get back on his feet.

But Pat didn’t say any of that. Years of experience had taught him that the boy wouldn’t believe him, wouldn’t trust him, no matter what he said; that the kid would probably just bolt, never to be seen again, if Pat said anything like that, the knowledge that someone might actually care spooking him into hiding.

So keeping in all the things he wanted to say, Pat gave him a tired smile, as he pushed himself back to his feet.

“If you want a drink, jus’ come in and ask, yeah?” Without waiting for a response, he started back towards the deli.

“Th… Thanks.”

The voice sounded harsh from disuse, low and rough in a way that didn’t match the kid at all, but it was still enough to make Pat smile.

“Don’t mention it.”

 


 

 Alfred couldn’t hold back his sigh as he stepped into the Cave, a feeling of hopelessness nearly overwhelming him as took in the scene before him, the sleeping Batman and Robins resting at a decent hour for the first time in far too long.

Master Grayson was flopped rather unceremoniously over the old brown arm chair he’d so often slept in as a child, curled up like a cat, although he’d long since outgrown that particular pose. Now, he balanced haphazardly, one foot unbooted, dangling over the arm, the other stretched out in front of him, still retaining its footwear. His head draped at an odd angle, somewhere between the back of the chair and the side, kept in position only by the arm tucked up underneath it, the other flung tucked up on his side.

Master Drake was rather unsightly, something that the boy would never have allowed if he was awake, a large pile of drool pooling to one side of his face, where it lay on his desk on what was probably a school assignment of some sort. His Robin mask was off-kilter, as if he’d started to take it off and then forgotten, a can of those awful energy drinks still firmly held in one hand, snoring lightly, and shifting in his sleep.

And Master Bruce… The man was finally asleep, his chin propped up on one fist, in front of the monumental computer screens that held a picture of Master Todd on one side, and a multitude of security camera photographs being compared against it on the other.

Feeling the weight of his years, Alfred moved about the cave, grabbing two blankets, and carefully covering each of the boys as best he could against the Cave’s cool chill, knowing that attempting the same thing with Master Bruce would disturb whatever slumber the poor man was getting. This was the first time he’d seen his family sleep at the same time since Master Jason had disappeared, and he wasn’t about to ruin whatever peace that sleep might bring them.

To lose Master Jason -who steadfastly refused to answer to that moniker, chastising Alfred in rather loud terms whenever he used it -in Ethiopia had been hard enough; Masters Bruce and Grayson, and himself, had nearly succumbed to their grief at various points over the following year, Master Timothy’s presence doing little more than throwing a plaster over a gunshot wound. But to find out that he’d survived… That he’d survived, and been held captive all that time, by the Joker… Less than fifty miles from the home where they’d grieved him -where they’d buried him -had been like a knife in Alfred’s soul.

To lose him again, less than a week after his homecoming…

He sighed again, shifting his shoulders about as he shook off his dark thoughts. There was little enough holding the family together right then. Too little hope, and far too much darkness. The family needed him to keep it together, to hold down the home front, to not surrender to his despair, so that they could do what they needed to do.

And he’d be bloody damned if he didn’t do his part.

Chapter Text

If anyone asked, Bruce would have denied falling asleep watching the monitors run facial recognition on all the CCTV cameras in Gotham.

He also would have denied the slight ache in his back, feeling the weight of his years catching up to him, the years full of broken bones and assorted injuries screaming in protest at having fell asleep in such an awful position, sitting in a chair of all things, as he slowly woke up, stretching out tense muscles as he stood, glancing around the Cave.

Obviously Alfred had come down to check on them at some point; the warm blankets wrapped around his sons, the fact that Dick now had both boots removed, and the eleven cups and cans on Tim’s desk had been removed, spoke to the old man’s silent vigil. The vigil he kept up when they could no longer do it on their own.

Bruce was never what anyone would accuse of being maudlin; it simply wasn’t in his nature, public or private. But as he looked at two of his three sons, he could feel something shifting in his heart, a piece of him -a piece he’d deny existed -warming as he took in the sight.

How many times had he and Dick come back from patrols, only for Bruce to watch and chuckle as the boy fell asleep in the chair, half-in, half-out of his famed Robin costume? Dick had a penchant for being able to fall asleep anywhere, at any time; out of the family, he’d also had the easiest time sleeping out of all of them. The nightmares of the day never seemed to follow him into slumber, giving him a peaceful, almost serene look in his slumber, taking years off of his features while he slept.

And Tim… While Tim was the most solid, level-headed of his ever-growing brood, the boy was as hard on himself as Bruce had been at that age. Anything less than perfection was simply unacceptable, and Bruce had lost count of the mornings when he would wake the boy up, homework and essay assignments matted to his face, exhaustion overrunning him after a long night of patrol. But despite that, Tim had never missed a day of classes, and was rarely -if ever -late, even taking additional courses to try and graduate early. Not like his brothers, who had tried wheedling and cajoling their way into skipping high school, college a laughable, outrageous thought.

But that was probably because out of all of them, only Tim could see a way out. That this life of vigilantism wasn’t forever, and that he would eventually move on from being Robin.

While Dick’s parents were good, kind-hearted people, their lives had been a chaotic assortment of hodgepodge, with Dick having little to no formal schooling of any kind; homeschooled from his toddler years, it had simply been assumed that Dick would follow in his parents footsteps, continuing on the tradition of the ‘Flying Graysons’ with the Haly circus, as his parents had spent their entire adult lives doing.

And Jason… Well, it was amazing that his middle son had gotten even small bit of education he had. With a childhood more common with villains than heroes, Jason, more so than the others, knew what it was to truly live in Gotham; what the people unfortunate enough to be born into the Bowery lived with. A place where education was a luxury, eight hours that could be spent trying to get money for food or rent, or simply searching out a safe place to stay for a day or two.

Which is why, out of the three Robins, Jason alone had donned the costume for the reason of saving Gotham. Dick had created the mantle to avenge his parents, and later, to assist Batman -Gotham, to Dick, was simply the place where his parents had died, and he’d been adopted by Bruce -a twist of chance that lead to that particular city, no different than any other.

Tim, of course, had heeded the call because of what it was: a chance to be a hero. His obsession with Batman -and subsequently, Robin -had started when he was barely out of diapers -an obsession born from loneliness, as his parents were rarely home, and didn’t pay much attention to him when they were. To him, becoming Robin was something of a dream come true: becoming the hero, and gaining a family.

But only Jason had taken up the mantle for Gotham herself. He alone viewed Robin as a way to help people like he’d been helped; to give them a chance, to give them hope, that things could get better. That they would get better. Only Jason had taken the time to talk, and interact with those of the Bowery, those whose lives were adversely affected by crime. He’d learned the prostitutes nameds, where the homeless kids slept, who was stealing for profit, and who was stealing to feed their families. His tenure as Robin was still spoken of in almost reverential whispers amongst the unfortunates of Gotham, tales of the ‘Robin Who Cared’ still bandied about.

Of course, that caring nature was what caused the biggest clashes between mentor and trainee. Bruce couldn’t count the number of times he’d tried explaining to Jason that, caring simply made you too vulnerable. That to do the job as it had to be done, Jason had to leave his emotions -his feelings -at the door of the Batcave, and do what needed to be done, regardless of his feelings on any given matter.

The boy never could; his so-called ‘violent streak’ as the newspapers had called it at the time, wasn’t violence for violence’s sake; it was Jason stepping in as a protector, of the weak and defenseless. His anger, out of all of them, was perhaps the most righteous, if also the most misguided.

If anyone had asked, Bruce would insist he didn’t have ‘favorites’ -that he loved all of his children -Dick, Jason, Tim, and even Barbara -equally, for different reasons and in different ways. But he would admit that Jason was the only one that he was able to be a father to. Tim and Dick had had families, despite losing them later. Barbara still had her father, and a good relationship with the man. Only Jason had had the ‘father void’ -a void left by an angry, abusive alcoholic who’d beaten Jason and his mother with frightening regularity. And Bruce had done his damnedest to fill that void as best he could.

He hadn’t been Dick’s father; he hadn’t even tried. He’d simply taken the boy’s anger and directed it, given it an outlet. The two of them had -over the years -developed something similar to a father/son relationship, but it’d required time, work, and a lot of distance to achieve and maintain.

Tim… Well, Bruce would admit that poor Tim got the short end of the proverbial stick. After losing Jason -which was as hard as losing his parents -Bruce had taken Tim on as Robin -nothing more. Tim was Robin to his Batman, and it’d taken the better part of eight months for the young man to become anything more than that. Losing Jason had ripped a hole through his chest, an injury that Bruce wasn’t willing to risk again, keeping the latest Robin at arm’s length emotionally to stave off the possibility.

“Everything alright, sir?”

Bruce startled a bit, pulling out of his reverie, and giving Alfred a tight smile. “Not really. Still no sign.”

Alfred sighed, setting the tray with coffee and toast on the desk. “You’ll find him, Master Bruce. You found him before, and you’ll do it again,” He said with determination.

“Will I? I didn’t ‘find’ him, before. I went looking to see who Joker had been torturing, and simply lucked into finding my son -the son I didn’t even know was alive.”

“That wasn’t your fault, sir. There’s nothing you could have done.”

Bruce scoffed lightly, grabbing a cup of coffee, and holding it in both hands. “That’s not true, and we both know it. I just… I was too emotional. I should have known that the Joker wouldn’t have been satisfied with just a few hours. That the timing was far too convenient. Hell, the damn thing blew as soon as I got within fifty feet of it. If I’d just… If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have known that the building was remotely detonated. Which meant the video we saw -the video of Jason watching the timer count down -was a fake.

“It would have been too good of an opportunity to pass up; Joker knew he could drag the fun out. I imagine his plan was always to torture and twist Jason as much as possible, before dropping him on my doorstep, too far gone to ever recover, leaving me to live with the knowledge of how badly I’d failed him. I simply cut the process short by stumbling onto him earlier than intended.”

Alfred pursed his lips together for a few seconds, before folding his arms across his chest, and moving in front of Bruce.

“All due respect, sir, but you’re making this about you. It is one of your greatest flaws, and -I say this in the most loving way -you do have many to chose from. I understand that you feel guilt over not realizing sooner. I understand that you hate the Joker for what he’s done to you. But stop thinking about you, and how this has affected you. Stop thinking about how Joker used this to get to you, and start thinking about your son and how this is affecting him. Stop thinking about your guilt, and start thinking about Jason.”

Chapter Text

When Pat returned to the store the next morning, at seven o’clock sharp, he was a bit surprised to see the boy still sitting on the sidewalk, pushed up in the corner between the wall and window of the abandoned building across from Pat’s deli. Even from a distance, Pat could see that the kid’s hoodie was damp with the morning dew, meaning he’d most likely been out there all night. Not exactly a wise choice anywhere in Gotham, but especially not in the Bowery, where ‘robbery’ and ‘mugging’ were considered to be hobbies rather than crimes.

Pat paused, key halfway to the door, hanging his head for a moment, before he turned, ducking the light morning traffic to make his way across the road. As yesterday, he made sure to keep his distance, slowing his pace, and holding his hands up as he came to a stop a few yards back.

“Hey, why don’t ya come inside, grab a bite ta eat? Gotta be cold, sittin’ in those wet clothes. C’mon inside, get warmed up, I’ll make ya some coffee.”

The kid glared for a second, before pulling his legs closer, and closing his eyes, muttering something to himself, his voice only just too quiet for Pat to make out the words.

Taking a deep breath, and bracing himself, Pat took a few steps closer, waiting for the explosion as those piercing blue eyes locked onto him, hands clenching into fists, entire body tensing -whether from fear, or prepping for a fight, he wasn’t sure.

So he came to a stop, perhaps a yard closer than he had been, and knelt down, balancing on the balls of his feet, hands still open and held in front of him.

“I ain’t gonna hurt ya, boyo. Jus’ offerin’ a warm drink, an’ a few minutes to warm up. Ya can stand right by the door if it’d make ya feel safer.”

“Nothin’ for nothin’. Somethin’ for everything.”

Pat sighed, lowering his head for a moment. The saying was an old one, a motto of sorts that the older street kids drilled into their younger counterparts, a way of keeping them safe, to teach them  that not all monsters appeared as monsters, but as friends. Between that, the heavy Bowery accent bleeding through, Pat would bet money that the kid had grown up somewhere close by, although it was safe to assume that he was only recently returned. The state of his shoes, and clothes -while threadbare and worn -were still higher quality than what you’d see on anyone who didn’t want to be jumped, and had probably been from a high end retailer at one point.

“Alright. The offer’s a standin’ one though, alright? Ya hear me boyo? Ya change your mind, ya jus’ c’mon in, an’ we’ll get you some coffee or somethin’, yeah?”

The boy’s head tilted to the side, as if he was listening to something that wasn’t there, his face tightening, before his eyes focused on Pat’s again.

“Nothing for nothing. Something for everything. Everything for something. Something for nothing?” The boy’s voice, while still low and rough, was soft, confused, all traces of his accent gone as he dug into the front of his hoodie, pulling out a beat-up pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and the pastrami melt. He stared at the sandwich for a few moments, before closing his eyes again, his entire body tensing. Pat counted to seventeen, before the kid’s eyes opened again, shaking his head as if shaking something off. With a shuddering breath, he dropped his head again, setting the sandwich on the ground with exaggerated care.

“Thank you. For the sandwich.”

Pat sighed again, biting his lip, as he stood, jamming his hands back in his pockets.

“Don’t worry about it, kid. On the house.”

 


 

“Sir, the phone.”

Bruce didn’t look away from the monitor, his eyes locked on the picture the hospital had taken of Jason during his recovery, pictures from security footage and social media videos flashing on the opposite side of the screen before disappearing.

“I’m not interested.”

“It’s your other phone, sir.”

Bruce barely bit back his groan of irritation. Commissioner Gordon had been relatively understanding -relativley being the keyword -of Batman and Robin devoting less time to their patrols, after being told the two were dealing with personal, family matters. The Bat Signal had only shone during actual emergencies, and he’d only contacted Batman a handful of times by phone in the past four months, respecting his desire to be left alone as much as possible.

So he couldn’t really refuse the call in good conscious. Slipping the cowl on, the voice modulator activated on its own, as he grabbed the phone, trying to keep the bite out of his voice.

“What can I do for you, Commissoner?

 “Well, it’s actually what I can do for you. I got a call from a guy, runs a deli down in the Bowery. Says he has to talk to you ASAP. When we ignored him, he showed up at the station. Says he won’t leave till he talks to you.”

Batman rolled his eyes, struggling to reign in his temper, wishing the man -who had the ‘gift’ of working around a point -would come out and say whatever it was he needed to say. The GCPD fielded hundreds, sometimes thousands, of calls a month from people crying that they needed Batman to save them. From abused wives, to stealing employees, children wanting kittens pulled out of trees, teachers wanting him to speak at their schools, and the occasional nutjob. Usually, the dispatchers would take down the information, and occasionally -if they deemed it relevant enough -they’d pass it on to Jim, who would even more rarely pass it on to Batman himself.

“I’m a bit busy, Commissioner.” He didn’t even try to keep the sharpness from his voice, not in the mood for placating the man.

“Well, he says he found one of your Robins. He said, and I quote, ‘the one who gave a good damn ‘bout us in the Bowery’.”

Immediately, Batman sat up straighter, quickly shrinking down the facial recognition programs, and pulling up his background search engine. “What’s his name? Did he say why he thought it was Robin? What happened?”

At the torrent of questions, Jim whistled into the phone, drawing a slight grimace from Bruce at the loud noise in his ear.

“So it’s true then? The last Robin didn’t just go set up shop in another city. Huh.”

“It’s a long story, Jim, one I really don’t have time for right now. What’s the man’s name?”

Jim harrumphed. “Touchy.  Guy’s name is Patrick Fitzgerald. Like I said, he runs a deli down in the Bowery, the other side of Crime Alley. Wouldn’t say anymore than that; said he didn’t want to say anything that might get the kid hurt.”

“Take him up to the roof. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”


 

Batman landed on the roof unceremoniously, striding towards Jim and the man next to him, his heavy boots crunching loudly against the gravel as he moved.

“Batman.”

“Jim,” He said shortly, turning his attention to the man next to him. In his mid-fifties, with a good amount of grey speckled through his dark hair, the man was still in relatively good shape for his age, and his hands and clothes spoke of a life of labor, from the thick callouses and sturdy work boots, to the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. That part of his story had checked out at least; Alfred had fed all the information he could find to Batman, verifying as much of the little they had as possible. “Mr. Fitzgerald, I presume?”

“That I am. Shit, ya taller than I thought ya’d be,” The man said with a thick accent, holding his hand out. When Bruce merely stared at it, the man pulled it back slowly, shoving it in his pockets. “I don’t know how much a what I had ta say ya wanted anybody else ta no,” He said, giving Jim a pointed glance.

“I can take it from here, Commissioner. Thank you,” Batman said tightly, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. Jim held his hands up in surrender, retreating back into the station with only a few muttered words under his breath. “There. Now tell me what you know.”

The man snorted. “You first, Mr. Bat. What the hell happened ta him?” At Batman’s no-nonsense glare, he folded his arms across his chest, and fixed Batman with a hard stare. “Ya might be big an’ bad ta the criminals around here, but I ain’t scared a you. An’ if it was you what done it to him, I’ll be damned twice by God and my mum if I had him back ta ya. Now, tell me straight: what happened ta him?”

Batman held his gaze for a heartbeat, before dropping it. “It was the Joker. He captured him. We found him a few months ago, and brought him home. We helped him recover as best we could, but one day he ran away. We’ve been looking for him ever since.”

The man nodded, equal parts pity and horror on his face. “S’why he’s so scarred up, then.”

Batman dipped his head slightly.  “Yes. And we want to take him home, where he’s safe. Where he can get the help he needs.”

The man blew a heavy breathe, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Jesus, Mary, an’ Joseph if the boy don’t need it. Ya know, at first, I thought he was jus’ another poor bastard the gangs or pimps got their hands on. Maybe his folks. I ain’t seen as bad as him ‘fore now, but I’ve seen damn close, Mr. Bat, an’ that’s the sad truth a things in the Bowery. He’s been campin’ across the street from my deli for near on a week now. Tried givin’ him some food, gettin’ him inside ta warm up a bit, but he weren’t havin’ none a that. Reminded me of a pit bull that been kicked a few too many times, ya know?

“But then, last night… Me an’ my daughter, Katie, was closin’ up the shop when some punks came bargin’ in, carryin’ chains and bats like they do down there. I gave ‘em everythin’ in the register, but… well, it weren’t much. Times bein’ what they are an’ all. So they… They said they’d take the rest from Katie. I tried… Ya might not believe it, or think much of it now, but I used ta be middle weight boxin’ champ back in the Corps in ‘Nam. Fought like hell, but… Well, Vietnam was a while ago, an’ there were seven a them, an’ one a me. They clobbered me but good, an’ I thought… Thought I was gonna have to watch as they…”

The man coughed, a look of pain flitting across his face. “Katie weren’t givin’ ‘em nothin’ though; she was fightin’ an’ clawin’ at ‘em the whole damn time, for all the good it were doin’ her. But then, he was jus’… there. Didn’t even see him come in, ta tell ya the truth of it. He told ‘em to let her go.

“They laughed at him. Told him ta get lost, ‘fore they gave him the same they gave Katie. An’ he jus’… he got the weirdest look on his face. Like he was excited ‘bout it.

“ ‘Is that so?’ He asked ‘em, his voice lower than any kid his age should have. Dangerous soundin’. ‘S’that what you’re gonna do to me?’ I won’t lie, I still weren’t seein’ how much good he was gonna be -one homeless kid versus seven armed thugs? But when they rushed him… I’d seen the two a ya fightin’, years ago. ‘Bout a year after the older one left, and this one started showin’ up with ya. Two of ya stopped a robbery the next buildin’ down from mine, an’ I saw the two a ya fight. An’ I swear by all that’s Holy, that’s what I saw tonight

Chapter Text

“Master Bruce, please –“

“Tim, tell Oracle to keep multiple dedicated lines open -she’s going to be coordinating this from the Tower, and I don’t want any communications issues.”

“Sir, please –“

“Already did. She’s hacked into any surveillance in a three block radius of the deli too.”

“Master Drake, I’m trying to –“

“I wish we knew if he’s going roofs or alleys; with Jason you never know. It’d make planning this a lot easier.”

“There’s a lot of things I wish we knew, Dick. We’ll have to deal with what we have, and –“

Quiet!”

Three sets of eyes, in various degrees of surprise and shock, locked onto Alfred, standing in the middle of the Cave, his face hard, and tray of coffee and tea splattered on the floor, the ruins of three porcelain cups at his feet.

“Something you want to say, Alfred?” Bruce asked, his voice containing a hint of caution, even with the modulator. He could count on one hands the amount of times in his lifetime that Alfred had raised his voice; he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen him throw something -or drop, in this case -in anger.

“Yes. You’re all going about this in the most terrible way imaginable. You’re thinking like vigilantes, and police officers, as if he’s a suspect in a raid or some such! And all you’re going to do is scare him!” The elderly man took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment, gathering his composure before speaking again. “He’s scared. He’s a scared boy, trying to hide from the world. We can only guess at the horrors he’s been through, the living nightmare that his mind is putting him through, what he’s trying to run from, and you think the best plan of action is to chase him through the Bowery, trying to corner him, and force him to return? Are you all absolutely mad?”

“Alfred, we’re not gonna force him to –“ Dick cut off sharply as those piercing blue eyes locked on to him.

“You’re not going to force him to return? Really? Then please, tell me, Master Grayson, exactly what is your brilliant plan for bringing him home? If he refuses to come willingly? And, believe me, if he sees the three of you, in full costume, chasing him through darkened alleys, cornering him like a caged beast, he will refuse -and that’s presuming that you don’t scare the boy half-witless!”

“So, what, you want us to just leave him out there?” Tim demanded angrily. “Leave him living on the streets, with no protection?”

“Of course not, Master Drake, don’t be daft. All I’m saying… You can’t go at him like this. This isn’t the way to handle the situation”

“What do you suggest then, Alfred?” Bruce asked, seeing the logic in Alfred’s reasoning. If Bruce hadn’t been so… emotional… about the whole mess, he probably would have seen it himself.

One person. One person approaches him, to ascertain his mental state. To try and convince him to come home. But if he doesn’t want to return, we can make alternate arrangements. I believe Master Richard still has some safehouses near Crime Alley; while not ideal, having Master Jason stay there would be, at the very least, preferable to him sleeping on the streets. We could keep watch over him, keep him safe, while still allowing him his space. But… after more than a year of captivity and torture, we can’t force our will upon him. Doing so will only make him deteriorate further, and quite honestly makes us no better than the Joker.”

“So who goes, then?” Dick asked quietly, filling the uncomfortable silence that fell over the room at Alfred’s words. “Who’s got the best chance of convincing him?”

Tim leaned against the edge of his desk, folding his arms across his chest -probably still smarting from Alfred calling him ‘daft’. “Maybe Oracle,” He said with a shrug. “He doesn’t know me other than the guy that replaced him, and -from what you’ve all said -he views Dick as competition. Bruce… well, no offense, Bruce, but you’re not exactly warm and cuddly; you’ll start barking orders at him, and then he’ll definitely bolt. He’s never had a problem with Barbara as far as I can tell.”

Dick scoffed, perching on the back of the chair as he balanced it on its front legs -a sure sign of his agitation. “Yeah, that’s brilliant, Timmy -send the girl in the wheelchair into the worst area of Gotham. Even if she could get her damn chair down there without ripping the wheels off, she can’t coordinate anything if she’s not in the Clock Tower.”

“I don’t hear you coming up with anything, boy wonder,” Tim spat back, coming up from his leaning position, hands clenched into fists. “And you really think I’m gonna send my wife down there alone? Get real.”

“Stop it. Both of you,” Bruce interjected, glaring at both his sons. “This isn’t helping. I know we’re all tired; I know we’re closer than we have been, and sitting here, trying to plan it out, is putting us all on edge. But Alfred’s right -none of us are in the right mindset to try and talk to him. But I know who is.” He turned, staring at Alfred. “What do you say, Alfred? There’s nobody Jason trusted like you.”

A small, grateful smile graced the older man’s face. “I would be honored, Master Bruce. Just let me change into more appropriate clothing.”

 


 

Katie waited patiently, sitting cross legged a few feet away from the boy, the dim light of the streetlight just enough to do her crossword, occasionally glancing up to watch him watching her. Her father had returned about twenty minutes ago, telling her that the boy’s family was coming to pick him up, and he’d wait in the shop for them. Telling her that she should go home, and get some sleep, rest up for her history midterm in the morning.

She’d rolled her eyes, before giving him a look that she’d learned from him, the look that said he was being silly, and she wasn’t going anywhere. He’d tried protesting as she’d grabbed her crossword book and jacket, telling her it wasn’t safe for her to sit out there, not this late at night, probably not even during the day. Especially after what had just happened.

To which she’d retorted that, given what had just happened, she was pretty sure nothing was going to hurt her if she stayed close to the boy. That she was probably safer by him than she was in the shop.

“You… you shouldn’t…”

She glanced up from her crossword, looking at the boy, his mouth opening and snapping closed again, only the outline of his face visible beneath his hood in what little light there was from the streetlamps, the scars from earlier having faded into the darkness.

“I think I’m perfectly safe as long as I stay by you,” She said, giving him a smile, her voice full of gratitude. When he shook his head, she continued, “You saved me, you know. Me and my dad.”

He actually growled at that. “Not supposed to do that. Not safe. It’s not safe, but… Something for something,” He muttered, his voice dropping. “Not in control.” He looked up at her, blue eyes seeming to search her soul for a moment, before he dropped his gaze,

 “What’s your name?”

His head jerked up at her question, staring at her face, searching for something. She waited, holding his gaze, before he finally dropped his head again.

“Jason.”

The word was nearly a shamed whisper, like it was something he shouldn’t be sharing, barely audible against the sirens and other nightlife noises typical of the Bowery.

“Jason? Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jason, I’m Kate. My dad calls me Katie, though. Where’re you from, Jason?”

“From…?”

“Where’d you grow up? Where’d you live before you moved into this corner? Where’d you go to school?”

She was surprised when he scoffed, a small, wry smile on his face as he raised his head again.

“Dropped out. Fourth grade. Grew up in… in a box about two blocks over. Sometimes… In the winter, the old shoe factory… on Matherson.”

Katie nodded, as if it were a normal thing to talk about growing up in boxes and shoe factories, the reminder of what her dad had done, and sacrificed for their little house a stark one. In fact…

“The one on Matherson, huh? My dad and me live right behind it, on Brewerton.”

“I know where you live. I… stole the tires off your dad’s Jeep Liberty… when I was ten.” His voice was starting to lose its harsh, almost guttural tone as he spoke, as if he was remembering how to sound human the more he spoke.

She quirked one eyebrow at him, laughing a bit, the sound obviously startling him as he jumped a bit.

“That was you, huh? Did you recognize my dad when you came back?”

He chewed on the side of his thumb for a few seconds as he nodded. “This isn’t the first time your dad’s… You know, he used to leave sandwiches on the dumpsters out back. For kids like me.” He paused for a moment, before he glanced up, a guilty look on his face. “I didn’t wanna steal from your dad, but… It was Jenni’s first winter out here, and… She didn’t have a jacket or boots. I’d gotten most of the money I needed the usual way, but… I was still short, and it was only getting colder.” He stopped again, moving from chewing on his thumb, to chewing on his lip. “I tried to… to pay him back when I could. I’d leave whatever I could spare on your porch. It was usually just… five or six dollars, but… I did what I could.”

Katie opened her mouth to speak, when she spotted an old man moving towards them, his pace steady, but she couldn’t miss the uncontainable energy in his steps as he came closer.

“Jason? I think… There’s somebody here to see you,” She said softly, praying he wouldn’t bolt.

A mixture of anger and panic splashed across his face as he turned his head, eyes searching for an unknown threat as he pulled himself to his feet. She didn’t miss the way he’d firmly placed himself between her and the approaching stranger, his bent fingers maneuvering their way into loose fists as he glanced down the dim street.

“Master Jason? Is that you?”

Jason peered at the figure, his face confused for a moment, before turning to disbelief. “Alfred? Is… Is that you?”

The old man walked right up to him, his pace slow but constant, stopping a few feet away, his body language unsure.

“Indeed, sir.”

“Don’t ‘sir’ me; got more respect for myself than that.”

The quip, and corresponding smile, seemed to surprise Jason as much as it did Katie and the older man, although the old man pulled himself together faster than Katie did, smiling back at the boy as he chuckled.

“I’m far too old to change my habits now, my boy, and we both know it,” He said with a chuckle. “I’m afraid in your absence, I’ve fallen into what you deem my ‘bad habits’.”

“Stupid habits, more like. Never understood callin’ family ‘master’ or ‘sir’.”

“A different era, Ma -Jason.”

“A stupid era.”

Even Katie chuckled at that, and the old man inched forward a bit more.

“We could argue the differences -and merits- of our generations all day, and I’m afraid we’d never agree. But I’d love the opportunity to discuss it with you. Somewhere warmer, and less public, perhaps?”

The smile vanished instantly, as Jason took a step backwards, frustration evident on his face. “I can’t, Alfred,” He said, his voice harsh with desperation. “I don’t… I don’t belong there anymore.”

 “Nonsense. It’s your home, Jason. And we’re your family. It’s exactly where you belong. Please, come home with me. I can’t… I can’t bear the thought of losing you again. Of not knowing if you’re safe, if you’re warm. If you’re eating well, or sleeping well.” The older man wiped at his eyes, and Katie could see the effort it took him to smile. “Nobody else appreciates my cooking quite like you do. To be quite frank, I don’t think any of them even appreciate the differences between poached and boiled eggs.”

“Heathens, all of them. Your poached eggs are a gift to mankind, Alfred.” The boy had a small, almost wistful smile on his face as he licked his lips, the memory of poached eggs a pleasant one, apparently.

“Exactly. Why, it hardly seems worth the effort or bother to make them anything,” ‘Alfred’ said with a smile. The silence hung over them for a full minute, before he spoke again. “Please, Jason. Come back with me.”

“I… You don’t understand, Alfred. I can’t… I… I just can’t.”

For his part, the older man didn’t react at all to the sudden anger in Jason’s voice, simply nodding patiently. “Then don’t. I’ll send your brother, and Master Drake somewhere else for a few weeks, and relegate Master Bruce to his study. It will be just you and I, I swear it.”

Jason looked off into the distance, a sad, tight smile on his face. “That’s… you can’t do that, Alfred. And we both know it wouldn’t be fair.”

“All due respect, Jason, but I could give a damn about fair. And your family will do whatever it takes. We all just want you to come home.”

Chapter Text

 

Jason was considering his offer; Alfred could see it in the stoop of his shoulders, the set of his face. And he could see the moment when he decided against it.

“I… I can’t, Alfred. It’s just… it’s too much. I can’t be there,” Jason said, a plaintive plea to his voice, as if he needed Alfred to understand. “I just can’t.”

Alfred sighed, glancing over the red headed girl who’d quietly observed the whole interaction. “My dear, would you mind, perhaps, giving me a moment with my grandson? I appreciate everything you and your father have done for him, but I believe a little privacy would expediate Jason and I’s conversation.”

The girl nodded, slowly pulling herself to her feet as she tucked her little book into her jacket. “Of course. It was nice to meet you… Alfred,” She said, giving him a smile, before turning her attention back to Jason. “For what it’s worth, Jason… I really hope I don’t see you out in this corner tomorrow.”

Alfred waited until she was gone, before moving over into a sitting position next to Jason, careful to avoid touching him, as much as the effort killed him, the desire to hug him nearly overwhelming.

“If… if you can’t come home, Jason, perhaps… A safehouse? I believe Master Richard has a few scattered around the area -one not too far from here, if I recall correctly. Would that be an acceptable compromise?” He could see Jason’s hesitance, as he opened his mouth to shoot down the idea, so he quickly added, “I haven’t slept a wink since you disappeared. Knowing you’re safe, and warm, and eating properly would ease my mind tremendously. We wouldn’t bother you except to drop off food and clothes when necessary. Or unless you asked, of course. A place for you to convalesce at your own pace, without anyone looking over your shoulder. We all would rest a bit easier, dear boy; we’ve simply been out of our mind with worry.”

Alfred reined in the sigh threatening to escape as Jason began chewing on the side of his thumbnail, a nervous tic he’d had when he arrived at the mansion, a sure sign of his agitation.

“Has… Has he… was he worried too?”

“Of course he has!” Alfred exclaimed quickly, knowing what ‘he’ Jason was referring too. “If I may say, he’s been even grouchier than normal, and I think we both know that that’s saying something. I’m not even sure how Masters Timothy and Richard have put up with him these past few months. Although, less patrolling has them all on edge as just a natural state.” At Jason’s questioning, sideways glance, Alfred gave him a small smile. “They’ve been too busy looking for you, dear boy. One of the three goes on a patrol -usually Master Timothy -while the other two scour the city trying to find you. He misses you terribly, Jason. As does your brother. I… I understand if you truly feel you can’t return to the manor. But please, for our sake, stay in the safehouse at least. Let us do that much for you. If you feel you can’t be around your family, at least let us make sure you’re taken care of. Don’t leave us to… to wonder if you’re unharmed. If you’re warm, or if you’re eating enough.”

“I… I guess… the safehouse wouldn’t be… so bad,” Jason said slowly, his voice sounding almost pained. “As long as… I’m gonna smoke there, you know,” He added softly, a small, almost imperceptible smile on his face, a shadow of the old Jason lurking around the edges.

Alfred wrinkled his nose. “My dear boy, don’t push your luck. I never approved of the habit, and I’ll thank you not to do it in my presence. But…” He softened his voice. “I suppose if I’m not there… well, you’re nearly an adult now, and you’ve earned that right.”

 


 

Batman watched from the rooftop two buildings over, his feet practically burning the pavement in the almost overwhelming urge to go to Jason, to yell that of course he’d been worried about him. To accept Alfred’s request, and come home.

Of course, he knew deep down that, even if he ran over, he’d never actually tell Jason how much he’d missed him. How much he wanted him home, how worried he was. How guilty he felt, that Jason’s current state could be laid directly at his feet. That he knew it was his own stupidity, his fault, that he hadn’t seen through the Joker’s obvious ruse. That he was sorry he hadn’t realized, that he hadn’t saved him sooner. That he would have gladly taken Jason’s place, that he would have done anything to spare his son the horror that he’d went through.

As he watched Alfred help Jason to his feet, he couldn’t help the scowl -or more scowl than usual -that came to his face unbidden, the limp in Jason’s right leg almost imperceptible if one wasn’t paying attention. The scowl deepened even more as he watched Jason’s twisted, scarred hands tug the hood further over his face, trying to hide the goddamned brand on his cheek.

He didn’t know what all had happened in those seventeen months, when Jason had been at the whims of a madman; Jason had had a full blown panic attack at the mention of ‘therapist’, and he’d simply shut down completely when his father or brother questioned him about it, no matter how gently they phrased their questions.

But deducing what had caused some of the scars and injuries hadn’t required too much thought -in fact, it was far too easy. The electrical burns. The acid scars. The whipping scars.

The brand permanently etched onto his face.

Others, of course, left far too much to the imagination. And while no one would ever accuse him of having an out-of-control imagination, the images his mind conjured up, of how the wounds occurred, were enough to give him nightmares some nights.

Like the holes in the center of his hands, and feet. Perfectly round, but irregular in the damage they’d done, and the scars left behind.

He growled under his breath, moving away from the edge of the building as Alfred and Jason got into the car. He’d spent too much time brooding, and not enough time accomplishing.

“Oracle, you copy?”

“Loud and clear.”

“He’s going to Nightwing’s safehouse; ETA ten minutes. Have they left yet?”

“Affirmative. Robin and Nightwing left clothes, food, and basic necessities, and cleared out twenty minutes ago.”

“Security?”

“Nightwing had a pretty good system in place already, but I had Robin install some extra features. I wrote a list of what they are, how to activate them, and what they do, and had Nightwing leave it out for him.”

“Surveillance?”

“Three hundred and sixty degrees around the building, visual and audio, one in each elevator, and each landing on the stairs, two in the hallway, three on the door. Each of the windows is being hit by at least two cameras.”

“Internal?”

He could hear Oracle’s hesitation. “One visual/audio in the front room. Audio in the bedroom and kitchen. Nobody was happy about that, just so you know. And he won’t be happy about it either if he finds out.”

Bruce snorted. “He can be as unhappy as he wants about it. I’m not leaving him in the worst part of Gotham, unprotected. And we both know he’s in no condition to protect himself. It’s a necessary evil.”

Chapter Text

Jason couldn’t stop himself from fidgeting, taping each finger against his thumb, as Alfred unlocked the door at the end of the hall, fifth story, of the no-name apartment building four blocks from Fitz’s Fresh Food, the silence simultaneously soothing and maddening at the same time. The only noise was the key in the knob, the sound of the lock clicking, and the door opening.

Despite himself, he couldn’t help but slide past Alfred, careful not to touch him, but desperate to get out of the hallway, no matter what waited for him inside.

He glanced around, a part of his mind -the part that had been Robin, the part that was nothing more than an empty husk, the ghost in the machine -approving of the defensibility of the place. Limping through the place as quickly as his stiff right leg would allow, he checked the locks on the four windows -two in the living room, two in the kitchen -before moving onto the old, cloudy sliding glass door. Despite its age, it was solid at the very least -Dick probably reinforced it, there’s no way it was that solid given the state of everything else in the apartment -and the lock looked new.

As he turned away from the door, he spotted the pizza box, and the piece of notebook paper laying on top, and froze.

“The letter is from Miss Gordon, detailing how the security system works, how to reset the system with your own codes, how to activate and deactivate it, and how to modify the sensitivity. The pizza… Well, I assume that would be Master Richard’s handiwork,” Alfred said with a small smile.

“Brooklyn’s,” Jason said, his voice rough, as he traced his fingers over the cardboard. “We… He used to grab us a pizza there after patrols. Or when you’d go on vacation.” Part of him wanted to rip open the box. To inhale the scent of ‘the best pizza in Gotham’, loaded with sausage, onions, and mushrooms. To scarf down piece after piece, until he felt his stomach would burst.

But a much larger part fought back the urge to gag, feeling the bile rising in his throat, and that feeling sending another wave of despair crashing over him. Unable to deal with the torrent of feelings crashing over him, he gimped his way into the bedroom, looking in the closets and dresser just for something to occupy his mind.

“I was going to buy the clothes for you, but Miss Gordan insisted on doing it herself. Said I wouldn’t know young people’s fashion if it bit me in the posterior.”

Jason gave him the closest thing he could muster to a smile, hoping the old man recognized it as one at least. “To be fair, Alfred, I’m not exactly… suit-worthy right now. If I ever was. We both know jeans and hoodies were always… more my style.”

Alfred scoffed as he moved further into the bedroom, straightening out a non-existent rumple on the blanket -which Jason could tell Alfred had most likely picked out, the large, dark colored wool comforter a mirror match for the ones on the beds at the mansion. “Nonsense, dear boy. You were rather a dashing figure, especially in that charcoal grey suit you wore for Master Bruce’s birthday gala. Until you ripped the tie off of course.”

Jason wracked his brain, trying to remember the suit, or the party in question, drawing a blank on both -detailed memories of his time at the manor were sparse, coming in little pieces here and there. So he gave up, and moved out of the bedroom, back into the living room, Alfred following behind him, but keeping enough of a distance that Jason tolerated having someone at his back; it probably helped his paranoia that it was Alfred.

“So, how much surveillance does he have on the place?”

Alfred sighed, and Jason could see him bracing himself for a confrontation. “Outside? Quite a bit. Including the hallway, elevators and stairs. Nothing inside. I convinced him that it was unnecessary, with the four dozen he has outside. There’s a panic button in each room as well. Miss Gordon provided their locations in her letter. We’re not here to spy on you, Jason; we all just want to make sure that you’re safe.”

Dead-Robin would have scoffed at that. As it was, Jason managed an eyeroll. While he knew Alfred wouldn’t lie to him, he also knew that he had most definitely put cameras inside the tiny apartment. He was the master of spying and gadgetry, and while injuring criminals violated his vaulted moral codes, invasion of privacy -a physically unharmful act -didn’t.

He knew that that should piss him off; in fact, he normally would have run through the apartment, ripping the whole place apart until he found however many devices he’d left, smashing them all to kingdom come.

But he was too emotionally drained. His fight at the deli, talking with Alfred, the safe house, the food, the clothes, the bed… It was all just too much at that moment. He just didn’t have the energy to care. Tomorrow, he’d be pissed. Tomorrow, he’d find the devices, and smash them to little bits.

 “I… I know you’re not feeling up to meeting with anyone just yet. But Master Richard asked me to give you this phone –“ He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small smart phone “-already preprogrammed with his, and Miss Gordon’s numbers. I took the liberty of adding my own. If you need anything -be it material, or simply a friendly ear -we’re all here for you.”

Jason nodded again, a sudden exhaustion setting in, combined with the pain in his leg, and shoulders, and a nearly unbearable itch from the scar on his face. The warmth from the apartment -the first time he’d been some place with heat in at least a month -wasn’t helping, the thought of the blanket, and a real bed to sleep in suddenly seeming like the most valuable thing in the world.

“I… I will, Alfred. Thank you,” He forced out, trying to covertly shift his weight off of his bad leg, which was fast approaching ‘throbbing’ mode.

“I… Of course, Ma -Jason. I just…” Alfred paused halfway to the door, a sigh escaping. “Can I do anything for you before I leave? I could make you something light to eat, if the pizza doesn’t appeal to you. I specifically told Master Richard to ensure eggs, bread, and the like were among the cheap, sugary food he keeps stocked here. It’d only take a few minutes, and –“

“No, it’s… it’s fine. I’m okay,” Jason said quickly, trying to soften his words with another not-smile smile.

“Then…” For once, Alfred seemed at a loss for words, for the first time that Jason had ever seen. “I don’t mean to push, Jason, but… Before I go, could I… would you mind terribly if… If I gave you a hug?”

Jason’s heart skipped a beat or three, panic welling up in his chest, a loud roaring in his ears, as he struggled to rein himself back under control.

Which, apparently, he failed at, since Alfred simply graced him with a small smile.

“It’s alright, dear boy. It was only a request. You won’t hurt my feelings by saying no. I won’t do anything you’re not comfortable with, I promise. You’ll call if you need anything, yes? Otherwise, I’ll be by later in the week with some more groceries. I’ll call a few hours before hand. Sleep well, Jason. Good night.”

 


 

Perched on a rooftop two buildings over, Batman watched on the tablet as Alfred left, leaving Jason alone in the apartment. As soon as the door had closed, Jason released a shuddering breath, closing his eyes, a tremor running through him for a few seconds, before he limped his way into the kitchen -and it was clearly obvious how hard he’d been trying to hide that same limp in front of Alfred.

The doctors had told him, before he even brought Jason home from the hospital, that he’d have to bring him to physical therapy. That his ankle had been shattered, numerous times, to the point where they’d replaced most of his lower leg bones with metal, as well as reinforcing parts of his foot. They’d told him that, without therapy to help strengthen the bones, that leg would probably never fully recover.

Of course, Bruce had found the best physical therapist in the city, and arranged for her to come to the manor every other day, installing any exercise equipment she might need in a repurposed room, as well as looking into other possible surgical options. Not that any of it had mattered in the long run; for the week Jason had been in the manor before leaving, he hadn’t gotten out of bed; he hadn’t verbally refused, he’d simply ignored any attempts at talking, or moving any more than absolutely necessary. And Bruce couldn’t bring himself to force the issue, not given Jason’s obviously fragile mental state.

As he watched Jason slowly lower himself into a chair at the kitchen table, he wondered if there would be any fixing that leg now, so long after his initial surgery. He made a mental note to have Oracle check into any possibilities as soon as he turned his coms back on.

He knew he shouldn’t have shut them off -after Jason’s disappearance, he’d insisted that nobody go radio silent, for any reason, for any amount of time. They were to be in constant contact, and he’d exploded on Nightwing and Robin more than once for not immediately answering when he reached out. Given what had happened the last time one of his sons had been out of radio contact, he didn’t think it was an overreaction at all -Nightwing and Robin could privately complain as much as they wanted to, as long as the comms were on.

But he needed this. Just a few minutes to observe his middle son, without Alfred and Oracle harping about spying, without Nightwing looking over his shoulder for a glimpse. Just a few minutes of quiet, to see what, exactly, he had to work with. What he had to fix.

His expression turned quizzical, as Jason reached towards the pizza with a trembling hand, pulling back, and reaching out again several times, before finally setting his hand on top of the box, still shaking, his face conflicted as he opened it, staring inside for a full two minutes.

“It’s just pizza. Brooklyn’s pizza. Eaten it… a hundred times,” Jason muttered, although the sound was crystal clear with the audio enhancers Batman had had Robin install. Each sentence was followed by a pause, as if he was unsure of his words, like he had to think of them before forcing them out.

But he eventually pulled a piece out, holding it in one hand, staring at it again, moving it towards, and then away from his mouth a few times, before he finally took a bite.

The effect was instantaneous. Jason started gagging, the small piece flying out of his mouth as he dropped the slice, going to his knees as he vomited on the floor, agony written on every inch of his face as tears flowed freely down his cheeks.

The next two minutes, and thirty-seven seconds were the hardest of Bruce’s life, as Jason finished puking, arms wrapping around his still-bent torso, head on the floor a few inches away from the bile, shudders wracking his too-thin frame as he sobbed.

He watched as the sobbing shuddered to a halt, although Jason held the position for a few more minutes, before he crawled away from the mess, making it halfway to the bedroom before he pulled himself to his feet, stumbling the rest of the way to the bedroom.

With exaggerated care, Batman shut the tablet off, sliding it into the carrying case, and turning his communicator back on as he headed for the fire escape down to the street where he’d parked the car.

“Oracle?”

“I’m here.” Her voice was clipped, and he knew she was struggling to keep the lecture in -a wise move, given his current mood.

“Next time Jason leaves the apartment, I want full video in the whole apartment.”

“I don’t th –“

“That wasn’t a request, and I didn’t ask for second-guessing. Get it done.”

Chapter Text

Jason dragged himself to the bedroom, his mind trying to desperately catalogue what had been in the bedroom before he ate the pizza, struggling to recall the small details as he mentally forced himself to list what had been how before the food.

The dark green carpet was still green. The walls were still an off-cream shade. The blue comforter, and matching pillow cases were still blue. The lamp -a silver/chrome color -still had its cream-colored shade. He was still wearing his beat up black sneakers, ratty dark blue jeans, and red hoodie.

He ran over his list three times. Then a fourth. By the time he started on the sixth repetition, his heart rate was slowing down, and his stomach was beginning to settle, although he could still taste the acrid remains of puke in his throat. A part of him debated hauling himself into the bathroom, and seeing if Dick had an extra toothbrush, but a much larger part of him simply didn’t care enough to make the effort; his teeth were a mess already, and he’d gotten used to the taste of vomit lingering in his mouth.

He kicked his shoes and socks off, and -still wearing everything else -crawled into the bed, the warmth, and the softness feeling like a miracle as he tugged the blanket up around his head, burrowing himself in-between the pillows and blanket, his mind screaming in exhaustion as he closed his eyes, trying to drift off.

But after five minutes, he could feel the wave of frustration building. While his mind was definitely ready for full shut-down mode, his body was having nothing to do with it, every muscle he had tense as a bowstring, an angry howl sounding off in the back of his mind. The bed was -in typical Dick style -layered with those stupid foam things people used to make their beds softer, and while he logically recognized the difference between feeling weightless on the bed, and not having his feet solidly on the ground, the un-logical part of his brain was having none of it. Sliding his left leg out from under the covers, and setting it firmly on the ground helped ground him a bit, but not nearly enough to ease the pressure building in his spine.

With an angry grunt, he rolled out of the bed, barely able to stand in exhaustion, yanking a pillow with one hand, and curling the other around the comforter, dragging it down onto the ground with him, quickly building himself a little nest, ignoring the maniacal laughter in the back of his mind that the comparison brought as he settled in.

He sighed in relief as the panic slowly resided, pulling the blanket tighter around him as he settled in. Screw it, he didn’t need the damn bed. Three years of having one didn’t compare to the other fourteen years of sleeping on the ground, or the floor -if he slept at all, his brain uselessly supplied -and at least the carpet had decent padding underneath.

It was his last conscious thought as his brain mercifully quieted, and sleep took over.

 

 “He’s… ngh… coming for me. And he’s gonna… fuck! Fuck, he’s gonna fucking kill you, you psychotic fucking clown!” Jason swore, trying to breath through the pain -and the broken fucking ribs -as Joker backed away a few steps, that stupid, perpetual grin on his stupid, ugly face, twirling that stupid, fucking crowbar like it was a baton.

“Who? The man dressed up like a giant human bat? Tch, tch, tch, I’m not sure that’s who I’d place my faith in, little birdy,” Joker said with a chuckle. “I mean… Talk about issues. Most people want to go incognito, they put on a mask. They don’t dress as a human bat.”

“Yeah, well… At least he isn’t dressed like a fucking clown,” Jason panted heavily. Between the broken ribs, and the fact that he’d been hanging by his wrists for at least an hour, breathing was near impossible, each effort sending waves of agony through his chest.

He had braced himself for the coming blow -only an idiot taunted the Joker while he was mid-screed, and didn’t expect payback. But there was only so much help bracing could do, in the face of four foot of solid steel landing just below his armpit, driving a pained grunt -the only noise he could manage -from his throat.

“Manners, Robin, manners. That wasn’t very polite. Didn’t the giant bat teach you anything about proper etiquette? Ah, well, I suppose I’ll have to step in and help. This is what happens when there’s no mommy bat in the picture. Manners go right out the window.”

Jason couldn’t keep back his screams of agony as the Joker punctuated each sentence with a blow that sent him swinging.

Where the fuck are you, Bruce?

 

Jason shot straight up, panic overriding rational thought as he struggled to free himself, hands and feet desperately kicking and clawing at the blankets, the half a minute it took to escape feeling like hours, leaving him panting and covered in sweat as he half-crawled, half-scrambled away from the disastrous pile of pillows and blankets.

Taking a few deep breathes, willing his heartbeat to slow down, he glanced about the room, brain struggling to place this new environment, before remembering that he was in one of Dick’s safehouses. That knowledge helped erase the last bits of overriding panic from his system -leaving wary paranoia, and a bone-deep weariness in its wake -as he pulled himself to his feet, gimping his way into the small attached bathroom.

Forcing himself to look around, it quickly became obvious that Dick had done some serious remodeling. Unlike most people, Dick had always insisted on a modicum of comfort and luxury in all of his cubby-holes and hideouts, even if it was a place he’d only go to one or twice a year in a true emergency.

But maybe Dick had a point, Jason thought, staring at the deluxe standup shower, with more buttons and knobs than Jason could decipher in a quick glance. With a shower-head half the size of Canada, nozzles and jets placed at even intervals in the walls, all neatly hidden away behind a weird, almost lace-patterned glass, it was something that wouldn’t have been out of place at the manor.

It took him a few minutes of fiddling to figure out which buttons did what; eventually though, he found the one to turn the shower on -separate from the jets for now -then turned the knob for the temperature up as hot as possible, and adjusting the pressure setting as high as it would go. After a few minutes, the condensation fogged over the large mirror over the sink, making his job of getting undressed far easier. Throwing the clothes out into the bedroom, he slowly slid into the now-steaming water with a groan.

Between the heat and the pressure, it felt like the water was flaying the skin off his bones; exactly what he was hoping for. He quickly scrubbed himself down with a bottle of body wash that probably cost more than the rent on the apartment, and the stupid little circular spongey looking thing, the combination of things washing away a lot of the tension, leaving him feeling more relaxed than he had in weeks. After a while, he lowered himself to the floor of the shower, closing his eyes, and losing himself in the feeling of being clean.

With a jolt, he snapped too, realizing as he did that the water had gone ice-cold, leaving his skin covered in goose bumps as he reluctantly shut the water off, and climbed out, wrapping himself in a towel the size of a throw blanket, and moving over to the sink. After a few minutes of rooting through cupboards and drawers, he found a six pack of ‘extra soft’ toothbrushes, and gingerly brushed his teeth, hissing as the whitening toothpaste sent a wave of pain through his jaw.

Making as quick work of it as he could, he spat into the sink, regretting using all the hot water as the cold he rinsed with aggravated his already aching teeth. Bracing himself on the table, he waited a few minutes for the pain to pass, before dragging himself back into the bedroom, and over to the dresser.

As he started pulling clothes out, he had to admit: as much as he loved Alfred, he was glad that it’d been Babs who’d gotten him clothes; rather than the dress slacks and polo shirts he’d expected, the drawers were stuffed with dark blue jeans, black workout pants, and plain long sleeve shirts, with one whole drawer dedicated to thick fleece hoodies, in red, greens, and blues. He quickly snagged a pair of the workout pants, one of the grey shirts, and a dark green zip hoodie, pulling each piece on as quickly as possible, and avoiding looking at himself while he did.

Moving into the living room, he glanced at the clock on the wall, a bit surprised to see that -depending on how long he’d been in the shower -he’d slept anywhere from three to four hours, the most sleep he’d gotten in one go in almost two years.

Which was more than a little pathetic, he thought as he glanced around the room, rolling his shoulders, trying to get out the kinks and cramps, debating where he would have left the bugs.

The real question was, had he personally put the bugs in the apartment, or had he recruited Dick or the Replacement to do it? Dick would have put them in obvious areas, assuming that they were so obvious everyone would immediately dismiss it as a possibility. He didn’t know much about the Replacement, but from what he did know, he assumed Drake was the type of person to put them in well-hidden, but easily accessible locations.

Him, on the other hand… He was the type to hide them in places like deep in the material of the couch cushions, or in the internal mechanisms of a clock. Places they’d never be found unless you destroyed everything in sight, and maybe not even then.

With an aggravated sigh, he grabbed the smart phone off the counter, hitting the little envelope button, and grabbing Bab’s number, listed as ‘BG’.

212-555-2638 : Who did he have put the bugs inside?

212-555-2638 : Don’t tell me he didn’t, we both know he did.

He didn’t have to wait long, before the little dots appeared at the bottom of the message.

BG : Tim.

Jason snorted, blanking the screen on the phone, as he began moving around the apartment.

Within an hour, he’d found one micro camera, pointed to get a clear view of the entire living room, and the kitchen table. Two audio bugs, one in the cupboard above the fridge, and one on the underside of the nightstand in the bedroom.

He frowned, the motion causing a tugging from the scar on his cheek, thinking for a moment as he bounced the three bugs in his hand. A few minutes later, he dropped them on the coffee table, and crushed them with a book form the shelf. After ensuring that the bugs were, in fact, mutilated beyond any and all recognition, he opened the sliding glass door enough to throw the pieces over the railing of the balcony, then grabbing the phone as he moved back towards the living room. He hesitated, his wrecked and shattered fingers ghosting over the keys before he finally settled on what he wanted to say.

212-555-2638: Tell the Replacement I said thank you.

BG: ???

212-555-2638: He’ll understand.

He didn’t train fools -for all the faults he had, Jason couldn’t ever accuse him of that. There was no way the Replacement had left the bugs where he had if he hadn’t meant for Jason to find them.

Chapter Text

He wasn’t sure if it was the shower, the few hours of sleep, the clean clothes, or simply the warmth of the apartment, but within a few hours of destroying the bugs, he felt more like himself than he had in weeks, even if his deep-rooted paranoia was itching at the back of his mind, uncomfortable in the new, unknown environment. But eventually, boredom crept in, and he found himself moving about the apartment, studying.

Television had never really been his things, and looking at the movies Dick kept on the shelf honestly made him glad. If he ever needed blackmail material, a simple picture of even a handful of the movies would have been enough to ruin whatever ‘macho man’ reputation the guy had. The Fault in Our Stars? Titanic? The Notebook? Pretty Woman? Ever After? The only one he recognized was Titanic, but a quick glimpse at the cases was enough to ensure the chick flick quality of Dick’s cinematic collection.

Blackmail? How positively wonderful, little birdy! I’m so proud!

He gritted his teeth, ignoring the chuckling voice echoing through his head as he moved his way over to the bookshelf, finding a somewhat better selection. Still not really Jason’s style, but there were at least a few he recognized. It was heavy on the fantasy aspect, with some sci-fi thrown in, but he spotted a well-worn copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Chocolate Wars. Lord of the Flies tucked in-between something called Cirque Du Freak -and he couldn’t help the snort, and nobody would be able to blame him for that -and Harry Potter of all damn things. Ender’s Game and a few Star Wars books, next to an eleven part series called The Wheel of Time.

Well, it wasn’t like it was his apartment. Really, he shouldn’t even be snooping around; Dick had allowed him -a relative stranger -to stay in a place that was clearly more than ‘just’ another safe house to him. There were too many personal items here for that, the selection to precise to have just been window dressing; even if he didn’t come here often, this was clearly a home to Dick.

Good little birdies don’t snoop where they aren’t wanted. I’m so disappointed in you, little birdie. Now go sit like a good boy and quit making a mess of things.

With a grunt, he slowly and deliberately grabbed Lord of the Flies off the shelf, tucking it into the pocket of the gray hoodie as he hobbled into the kitchen, moving to inspect the pantry. Despite Alfred’s earlier assurances of his orders to Dick, the oldest Robin had clearly only marginally listened -yes, there was bread, but he was almost positive cinnamon swirl raisin bread, blueberry lemon bread, and pumpkin pumpernickel bread weren’t quite what Alfred had in mind when he’d sent Dick to do the shopping. The drawer full of Honey Buns, Cosmic Brownies, and Marshmallow Pies was peppered with Dum-Dum suckers, of all varieties, and every single brand of cereal made him feel the onset of diabetes -Oreo-O’s, Lucky Charms, Fruity Pebbles… It was like a ten-year old’s sugar-coma dream.

The fridge was different though -there, he could definitely see Alfred’s hand at work, fresh vegetables, an assortment of fruits, enough eggs for a small army (although that might have been Dick too -if he remembered right, Dick would eat a dozen scrambled eggs for breakfast every day of the week if he’d been allowed), with a few packages of chicken and thin-cut sirloin.

The growl in his stomach had absolutely nothing to do with hunger, though. He gently closed the door, and moved back towards the table, sitting down in one of the chairs on the opposite side of what he was trying to avoid.

C’mon, birdie; clean up your mess. You know what you have to do. Get down there and clean up your mess! Now! Clean it!

Jason closed his eyes tight, willing the loud, raving voice to shut up as he balanced the chair on two legs, before bringing it down with a sharp snap, the noise startling him in the stillness of the apartment.

Jesus, Jason, just get a goddamn towel and clean it up, moron.

The thought, as obvious as it was, still startled him. A towel. Duh. He didn’t have to clean it.

Pulling himself up out of the chair, a small smile appeared on his face as he moved towards the bathroom, looking for the towel he’d used to dry off earlier.

Kneeling down in front of the vomit, a piece of him felt victorious as he sopped up the majority of it with a towel, grabbing a wet rag from the sink to get the last remnants.

Screw you, asshole, he thought, a feeling of pride welling up in his chest.

Really, Jason? How pathetic is that? Dude, seriously, pick better moments. Seriously, that’s just sad, man.

He growled, the elated feeling vanishing like a puff of smoke as he threw the rag and towel into the sink, moving back towards the bedroom, grabbing his pack of cigarettes off the night stand.

He grimaced a bit as he took in the crushed, mutilated pack, an actual groan escaping as he opened the pack. There was one lonely, bent cigarette left in the pack

Pulling it out, he inspected the pathetic excuse for any actual tears in the paper, and -thank whatever deity was listening -found none. Lighting it, and taking a deep drag, he sighed. Yeah, in a few hours he’d have to ‘venture forth’ and find a corner store to resupply, but for the moment at least, he was content.

 

Barbara didn’t have to turn, feeling the eyes on the back of her head, as she cycled through the latest open GCPD case files; after three months with no Bats, the number of open case files had tripled, leaving the police scrambling to try and close cases as the new ones piled up.

But as terrible as it sounded, she was glad for the work; it gave her something to focus on, something to do, other than worry about Jason.

“Anything?” Batman asked, coming to a rest just inside of her peripheral vision.

“He found the bugs.”

“How?” Batman’s voice carried more than a hint of irritation. “Who hid them?”

“It doesn’t matter,” She said, putting steel into her own voice, even as her eyes searched through case files. “We both knew he’d find them sooner or later. Your whole ‘bug the place to kingdom come’ plan is stupid -even presuming he leaves the apartment any time soon, he’s going to know if we’ve been there, and if he knows that, he’s going to know we put the bugs back. How far do you really want to push him?”

“I’m not pushing him -I’m trying to keep him safe.”

“Yeah, well, regardless of what you think you’re doing? You’re pushing. And if we keep pushing, he’s going to bolt again. Alfred called in, and said he seemed okay with the outside surveillance. We’ve got each camera set on an individual system, so somebody would have to hack over two dozen systems to set a repeating loop, we’ve got the window and door sensors, and he’s got panic buttons in every room. There’s absolutely no reason for internal audio/visual, other than your damn curiosity.”

She could feel him draw back, and -in the reflection of the screen -she could see the shocked look on his face, a slight widening of the eyes, his mouth opening the merest hint of a fraction.

“It’s not… I’m not ‘curious’,” He spat out, moving around into her line of sight. “I just want him safe. I want him to be…”

“You want to ‘fix’ him, Bruce,” She said, softening her tone a bit. “But… Bruce, he was held captive by the Joker. For seventeen months. Tortured in ways you and I can’t even start to imagine. And as much as it’s going to kill you, you can’t fix him. We can be there when he needs us, we can help him along the path, but this is something Jason has to do on his own.”

“He need help, Barbara,” He growled. “You didn’t see him.”

“You’re right,” She said simply. “I didn’t. Because after being at the mercy of a madman, his every moment controlled by someone else, all privacy and dignity ripped away from him… I wasn’t about to do the same thing. And you can say what you want… I won’t be a part of helping you do it either. You want internal surveillance? You do it. You monitor it. Because I won’t.”

Chapter Text

Dusk was starting to fall, and Jason was starting to get twitchy.

He’d spent his day searching out Dick’s cubby holes, finding his stash of escrima sticks, batarangs, and flash bangs, as well as a personal cubby -one look inside had been enough to have him quickly shutting the lid, and putting it back in the crawl space behind the bed.

But he’d moved the weapons throughout the apartment, and now, wherever he happened to be in the apartment, he had easy access to something -including a few steak knives he’d commandeered from the kitchen -on the off chance that someone broke in.

After that, he’d hit up the small corner store at the end of the block. Afterwards, he’d read Lord of the Flies for a few hours, before sleeping again, getting in a solid hour before he woke again, and then another shower. Rinse and repeat, until the sun had started to set.

Now, he sat on the railing of the balcony, one leg dangling over the edge, other curled up against his chest, flicking his cigarette in impatience.

He knew, despite Alfred’s assurances, that at least one of the Bat Family would be crashing in before the night was over -hell, he’d be lucky if it was only one.

Sure enough, movement from the building across the street caught his eye, a flash of black and blue landing on the roof, before disappearing behind the electrical shed.

Rolling his eyes, he pulled the phone out of his pocket.

212-555-2638: If that’s your idea of stealth, you’ve got problems.

DG: i just wanted 2 c if u were ok. didn’t think ud b outside.

He watched, stubbing out his cigarette, as the little dots at the bottom appeared, then disappeared, four times, before the next message came through.

DG: could i come over?

DG: alfred said not 2 pry but i just want to talk with my little brother.

DG: just a few minutes?

DG: pls?

Jason rolled his eyes, absently reaching for, and lighting another cigarette as he stared at the phone for a few minutes. Finally, he began typing.

212-555-2638: It’s your house, dude.

DG: is that a yes?

212-555-2638: It’s not a ‘no’.

He barely had time to hit the ‘send’ button, before he watched Dick jump over, losing sight of him as he hit the roof of the apartment building. A few seconds later, he rappelled down, perching on the edge of the railing for a minute, simply staring.

Rolling his shoulders uncomfortably, Jason tugged the hood of his jacket forward, scowling.

“Get off the fuckin’ railing before somebody sees you, and wonders why Nightwing’s chillin’ on the balcony of a shitty apartment in the Bowery,” He snapped, a brief flash of guilt following at the hurt look on Dick’s face as the older boy -no, not a boy, Dick was definitely a man now -dropped down off the railing.

“Sorry, I just… caught up in the moment, you know? Last time I saw you, I –“ He caught off sharply, folding his arms across his chest uncomfortably. “It’s just good to see you up and moving. And back to your usual self,” He added with a small smile.

Jason scoffed, sliding off the balcony himself, and entering the apartment.

Which felt incredibly awkward and weird; it was Dick’s apartment, yet as Jason hopped up and sat on the island, Dick stood by the sliding door, shifting from foot to foot, and Jason knew if the suit had pockets, his hands would’ve been jammed in them.

“So… How’re you doing?”

“Not dead, so I could definitely be worse,” Jason said with a shrug, not meeting Dick’s eyes.

Dick chuckled nervously. “Not dead is always preferable over dead.” He took a deep breath, and stepped forward. “I just –“

“Don’t,” Jason cut him off, unable to keep the harshness out of his voice. “I’m not dead, I’m not gonna talk about it, I’m not gonna cry and boohoo about it, and I definitely don’t want your pity.”

He watched as Dick opened his mouth to speak, once, twice, then a third time, before swallowing with a nod. “Fair enough, I guess. So you settling in okay?”

“Yeah. Although your idea of ‘food’ leaves something to be desired,” He said with a snort. “Seriously, how do you not weigh a ton?”

“I got everything on Alfred’s list -if you need something, I can go and grab it, I just wasn’t sure what –“

“Jesus, Dick, stop!” Jason kept his voice a decibel below ‘yelling’, unable to do much more than that. “It was a fuckin’ joke, okay? If all you’re gonna do is walk on eggshells, like I’m some kind of scared puppy, you can take your pity and get the fuck out!”

“Jason… It’s not like that, okay? No worries. Just relax, alright? Nobody’s upset, we’re just hanging out, right?”

Jason wasn’t sure why Dick had taken a step back, hands held up passively, a worried tone in his voice as he moved closer.

Until he looked down, and saw the steak knife held tightly in one hand, other curled into a fist.

“Let’s just put that down, yeah? You don’t need it, nobody’s gonna hurt you here. It’s just me, alright? Just… put the knife down, Jason. Please.”

Jason tried nodding past the lump in his throat, gently setting the knife down, and backing away towards the bedroom.

“I think you should go,” He said softly, putting his hands in his pockets with forced care. “This was a bad idea.”

“Jason, please, I –“

“No. Just… Go. Please.”

 


 

Barbara watched as Dick slunk into the Clock Tower, back in civvies, hands jammed in his pockets, the mopey ‘somebody just kicked my puppy’ look plastered all over his face.

“So how’d it go?”

He jumped a bit. “What? How’d what go?”

Barbara snorted as she turned back towards her computer. “Dick, you know we all love you, but you have absolutely no poker face, and you wear your heart plastered all over your face. Not to mention…” She waved a hand at her computer screens. “I’m monitoring the whole building. Through over twenty different angles. So what happened?”

Dick groaned, throwing himself down on the couch. “I was just gonna do a perimeter check, you know? Then I figured, what the hell, maybe get a little closer, see if I could get a glimpse of him. Before you say anything, I know it was stupid,” He interrupted what she’d been about to say. “But I just wanted to see him. But I didn’t realize he’d be outside, and he spotted me, and then… he actually text me, Babs. And when I got to the apartment… He seemed so much like the old Jason. I mean… He actually yelled at me. Totally justified, and it was just… It was great. He just seemed like the old Jason, you know? Like nothing had happened. But he… he commented on the food in the apartment, and I apologized. I was just trying to… to be gentle, you know? And he got pissed.”

Barbara rolled her eyes as she backed away from her computer station, wheeling herself over next to the couch. “Do you even listen to yourself? You just said, he seemed like himself. When has Jason ever been okay with people trying to be gentle? Hell, he hates it when people are nice.”

Dick ran his hands through his hair. “I know, alright! I fucked up, but he just… Babs, he pulled a knife on me. Not on me,” He added quickly, clearly seeing the worried look on her face at his words. “He didn’t come after me or anything, but… I don’t think he even realized he’d done it. Hell, I don’t know who was more surprised, me or him.” He looked at her, eyes so damn desperate that it nearly broke her heart. “I just wanted… I just wanted to see him, Barbara. Make sure he was okay, you know?”

Barbara sighed as he laid his head on her lap. “I know, Dick. We’ll figure it out, alright? We’ll get this all figured out.”

Chapter Text

Jim stared down at the body for a moment, lips twisting in disgust as he tapped the ashes off the edge of his cigarette. Behind him, he could hear Hower -the newest officer -puking into the trash can; at least the rookie had enough common sense to avoid contaminating the crime scene, not that it’d matter in the long run. This was gonna be one of those cases that him and his men stayed out of, leaving it up to forces far bigger than them to deal with.

Marjorie Blake leaned in closer to the body, running a cotton swab along the woman’s lower lip, sticking the swab in a jar, and getting a fresh one for the woman’s upper lip. Bomb squad had already checked, and said there were no explosives, no trip wires, or booby traps to trigger, so CSU had started their basic evidence gathering.

Although only Blake, current head of the CSU, acted like it was a normal, every day case. Like the grotesque looking woman in front of her was nothing more than your average Gothamite victim of random violence.

He knew the feeling though. Staring down at the broken, mutilated corpse, part of him wished he was disgusted. Wished that he could muster up some of that righteous indignation that had once come so easily to him, back in his early days on the force, before Penguin and Riddler, Two Face and Ivy, Harley and Joker… Back before, when criminals were just low-life thugs who robbed banks, and stole cars. When murders outside of Crime Alley and the Bowery were rare occurrences, and gangs stayed in their own turfs.

When criminals weren’t criminal masterminds.

“I’m done, Jim,” Blake said, interrupting his thoughts. “I’ve gathered everything remotely useful -not sure how good any of it’s gonna be though; from the smell, I’d say all we’re going to get from our tests are ‘bleach’, ‘ammonia’ and ‘chlorine’ as far as anything beyond the makeup itself.

Jim grunted, pulling himself to his feet, still staring.

The woman had probably been pretty once -her curly dark hair was just a few shades darker than your typical red, with green eyes that he liked to imagine had been kind, before they’d been locked in their eternal, horrified death-stare. A stocky build, not overweight, but not petite either, with a full, almost angelic face.

Or at least… it would have been angelic if her mouth hadn’t been sliced halfway up her cheeks, and painted bright red. If her legs and arms hadn’t been broken and smashed, then left in a way that reminded him of a puppet with the strings cut.

If not for the garish, gaudy white package with a large red bow set in the carved hole where her chest was supposed to be.

He reached for the package, brushing off the dark look Blake shot his way with a laugh. “Really, Marj? You and I both know this isn’t ever going to see a courthouse; that even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. You and me… We’re both just playing at a game here. One where we aren’t even on the damn board, much less valuable pieces,” He said, his voice scornful. “Package is meant for him, we might as well give it to him. This isn’t our fight.”

“And what about her isn’t our fight, Jim?” Blake demanded, pointing towards the body. “I don’t know about you, but I signed up for this job to help people. People like her. People who spent their last living moment in complete and utter agony. What about them, Jim? We supposed to just sit back and ignore her?”

“Of course not, Blake, don’t be an idiot. But you know as well as I do, that Joker isn’t human -he isn’t the local gangbanger from Crime Alley. He’s not the guy robbing the bank. He’s the thing that lives under your bed, the boogieman and Freddie and Jason all come to life. He’s the monster that other monsters are afraid of. You gonna take him on? You gonna be his next victim?” Without giving her a chance to speak, he grabbed the package, turning on his heel and heading back inside. “I didn’t think so. I’ll be on the roof if anyone needs me.”

He pulled out his ‘special’ phone, the one Batman had given him shortly after he’d gotten the new Robin, and hit ‘call’.

“What?”

“Got a package here for ya,” He said, maneuvering his way towards the staircase. “From the Joker.”

“What?! Commissioner, wha –“

“Oh, lay off it. Bomb squad went over it with a fine tooth comb; it’s not armed. Meet me on the roof ASAP.”

“Where to from there?”

Jim chuckled, still staring at the blood stained package, the word ‘Batsy written in a large, almost comical font typically seen on circus signs, smiley faces in the ‘B’, and curled into the ‘Y’. “He dropped it with a damn body on my front door, Bat. Get your ass to the station. Pronto.”

 


 

Batman landed on the roof, giving Jim a blank stare as he viewed the cigarette hanging from his lip.

“Don’t look at me like that; Jesus, you’re worse than my daughter,” Jim said, waving a hand at him in irritation. “I’m the oldest officer on the force, at fifty-six; trust me, the cigarettes are the least of my concerns. Especially now that Joker’s back in town.” With that, he hooked a thumb to his left. “It’s over there. I kept my guys from looking inside it, but when Bomb Squad x-rayed it, they said it looked like some sort of CD or DVD; something that size.”

“How do you know it’s the Joker?” Batman asked, activating his scanners, and giving the package a good once over.

Jim scoffed. “Aside from the smiley faces, and ‘Batsy’? The girl below us, with a smile carved into her face. Figured those were pretty good calling cards. Hey!”

Batman paused, halfway to the edge of the roof. “What?”

“So he is back, right? How many bodies gonna pile up this time? How many innocents are going to drop in this little game of his?”

Batman sighed, turning to look at Jim. For the first time, he saw every minute of those fifty-six years written onto his face, from the wrinkles at the edge of his lips, to the crows feet, to the droop in his back. He was a long way from the young detective Batman had first met over twenty years ago.

 “I don’t know, Jim. All I can tell you is, I’ll stop him. I’ll try to save as many as I can.”

He’d learned better than to promise to save them all; after all… He wasn’t the same Batman he’d been twenty years ago either.

 

He didn’t bother returning to the Cave; instead, he rappelled and jumped his way to his destination, the route from GCPD to the Clock Tower familiar enough that sometimes, he thought he could probably do it in his sleep.

Oracle was in, and monitoring her cameras, as evidenced by the fact that the hatchway in was open before he’d even fully landed next to it. Sliding down the ladder into the base itself, he wasn’t surprised to find her waiting at the bottom, fingers steepled together, eyes already searching out the package. She’d probably heard about it over the scanner, or from one of her many contacts inside GCPD -contacts she wouldn’t confirm or deny if pressed.

“So that’s it, huh? They said it wasn’t booby-trapped; you scan it yet?”

He didn’t dignify that with a response, merely giving her his infamous ‘are you serious’ look -a look that had never worked as well on her as it did the boys, interestingly enough. She simply rolled her eyes, and scooched the wheelchair closer.

“No magnets, no trip wires, no electronics… From what I can tell, it looks like some sort of CD or DVD. GCPD came to the same conclusion,” He said, setting it down on the floor, and carefully undoing the bow, and unwrapping the paper from the seams.

He frowned as he pulled out the disc -complete with a pair of Joker Lips printed on its front -and looked to the handwritten note.

Dear Batsy,

Naughty, naughty, Bat! Stealing Boy Wonder right out from underneath me, in the safety of my own home, no less! Bad manners, but I suppose I’ll have to forgive you this time. After all… The look on your face when you pulled that butcher’s tarp off, and seen your broken, demolished little bird, was simply beautiful. Stunning. Worthy of an Emmy. Or is it Oscar? Either way, it was priceless. Stupid Wing’s puking was almost as good, but not quite up to snuff. And the newest little bird, why he must have a heart of steel -no tears at all from that one. Probably wondering about job security! Ha ha ha! Anyways, I have a gift for you, Batsy Boo. This package is the first of seventeen you’re going to find -one for each month Jason was a guest here. I’m going to leave them with my messengers, all across the city, in places that you love, places that you care about, places that matter. Inside, you’ll find the lovely home movies I made of Jason’s time here with me, and the fun and enjoyment we both had here. I figure by now, you’ve realized the lights might not all be on upstairs with the kid. Admit it, Batsy: you’re curious. You appreciate this chance. You want to know. And, always the gracious dance partner, I have provided. Make sure you find them all, Batman: you don’t want to miss a minute. Oh… and hidden on each video is the hint to the next location. No skipping!

Barbara, who’d picked up the note when he dropped it, looked at him in horror. “You’re not actually going to watch that, are you?” She demanded, trying to maneuver her chair around closer to the box. “Bruce, you can’t watch that!”

“Actually, Oracle, I can. And I mean to,” He said sternly, grabbing the disc from the box before she could get to it. “If this is actually… if he actually filmed what he did… Oracle, I can’t… He’s my son. I have to know. I understand that it’s hard for you to understand that; maybe, it’s something you don’t fully understand until you’re a parent. But… If he had to suffer through the real thing, I can suffer through watching it; it’s my fault Joker got him, and it’s my fault that he had him for seventeen months. If I can’t… I have to watch this, Oracle. If you don’t want me to do it here, that’s fine. I’ll take it back to the Cave and do it,” He said softly, turning back towards the ladder out.

“So what? Invading Jason’s privacy is some sort of sick masochism thing for you?” She called after him, the soft, dangerous edge in her voice similar to her father’s the few times he’d threatened Batman. “You have to punish yourself for something you had no control over, because it’ll make you feel bad, and that’ll make you feel good?”

He paused, one foot already on the ladder.

“Maybe. Or maybe I just want to know what that animal did to my son.”

Chapter Text

“You don’t have to do this, Alfred,” Bruce said, his voice soft in a way that sounded almost foreign in his voice. “You don’t have to be here.”

Alfred steeled himself, giving Bruce a tight smile. “All due respect, Master Bruce: I won’t let you torture yourself alone. If you insist on watching this video -or the ones to follow -then I’ll be here as well. I won’t let you go through this alone.”

Bruce didn’t push the issue, a part of him respecting the older man’s position, as he leaned forward, putting the disc into the drive. Almost instantly, Joker’s face filled the screen.

“Why, hello, Batsy and family. I’m so excited to have you all here with me tonight, as I showcase my masterpiece for you. What you’re about to see is a collection -a highlights reel, if you will -of the best moments young Jason and I had together. After a brief introduction, I’ll show a few minutes’ clip of what you’ll be seeing over the next few weeks. And please, don’t try skipping ahead for find out the location of the next packages; I’ve inserted randomly cut scenes, each only a few seconds long, that you’ll have to piece together and decode before you can figure it out.

“But enough about you and me, Bat! Let’s talk about Jason. Young, arrogant, brash, can’t-shut-his-mouth-to-save-his-life Jason. He wouldn’t tell me who you were, Batsy, but he told me about himself. Oh, sure, it took a while -it took almost three month’s of my warm hospitality before he even told me his name! But then, oh the damn spilled, and he told me anything I asked. About growing up a poor, abandoned orphan on the streets. Mother a crack whore who O.D.’ed. Father shot in a gang retaliation, but not before he’d inflicted years of abuse on poor wee widdle Jason and mummy dearest.

“Let’s start with after the ‘bomb’ went off, shall we? To be honest, Batsy Boo, I’m still surprised you actually fell for that. I thought it was too obvious a ruse for someone like you, but hey… We all make mistakes right?”

The video cut to a large, obviously disused operating theater in Arkham Asylum. A bloody and bruised Jason lay in the center of the room, still clad in his Robin costume, missing only the eye mask. After a few minutes of silence, Joker entered the screen, twirling a crowbar like a walking stick as he danced closer to Jason.

“I’ve caught myself a little, lost birdie,” He said in a sing-song. “A broken, scared little birdie. Wake up, little birdie. Wake up… Hey! I said get up!” He yelled, swinging the crowbar at Jason’s ribs.

With a startled groan, Jason’s eyes -or eye, anyways, the left was swollen completely shut -opened, taking a few seconds to loosely focus on the Joker. Instantly, he began trying to back away, yelping a bit as his injuries from the first beating made themselves known.

“There’s a good boy, Robin! Our main attraction! The hero of our tale! The brave, noble Robin! Protector of the down-trodden! Shield to the weak! Bat Boy’s butt buddy!”

“Fuck you,” Jason spat, his body going still as he apparently realized he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Oh, did we strike a nerve there? You know, I’ve always wondered why the big bad Bat keeps finding little dark haired boys to dress in spandex short shorts for him. Tell me, Boy Wonder: does he keep the hood on in the bedroom? Does he use his ‘disappointed’ voice with you?”

“Shut up!” Jason tried throwing a punch at the only target he could reach, the Joker’s knee, but the Joker lightly danced out of the way, laughing hysterically as Jason moaned, pulling his arm tight to his chest in pain, tears in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, little birdie. Did I hurt your little feelings? I know, I know, I shouldn’t imply such… wicked, sinful things. I’m sure Batman has an entirely altruistic reason for dressing young boys up in skin-tight uniforms and parading them around the city.”

“The fuck do you want?” Jason bit out, his voice a half-growl-half-whimper as the Joker knelt down, a few feet away, but still well within striking range with the crowbar.

“What do I want? What do I want? What a silly question, little birdie! I want you, of course. To see what you’re made of! To test your mettle! Your prowess! To see exactly what you can take before you break,” He said, his voice turning from maniacal to sinister in the blink of an eye. “To see how much damage I can do to you before your beloved ‘Batman’ comes to save you. And here, little birdie… I have everything I could possibly need on hand to ensure that you don’t… accidentally leave us before our games are finished. Doctors, operating rooms… No anesthesia, of course, but I’m sure you’ll be just fine, right? I’ll just leave you here to settle in. See you in the morning!”

With that, the Joker started walking out of frame, as Jason started pulling himself closer to the camera.

“Hey! Hey, you stupid fuckin’ clown, get your ass back here! I’m not fuckin’ finished with you, you hear me! Yeah, that’s right, you better run! Fuckin’ pussy!”

The tough guy act lasted a few seconds after the sound of a heavy door slamming was heard. Then Jason stopped moving, rolling over onto his back with a pained grunt.

“Jesus. Shit. Fuck, Batman, you better find me fast,” He said quietly, almost too quietly to be picked up by the cameras.

But just loud enough to send a dagger straight through Bruce’s heart.

 


 

Jason was washing up the bowl from his eight PM ‘breakfast’ -rice with fried eggs, easy on the stomach and easy to make -when the phone buzzed from the kitchen table, the sudden noise in the stillness startling him enough that he nearly ducked behind the counter, before getting ahold of himself.

“Jesus, Todd, get a grip,” He muttered to himself, drying his hands on his shirt, and grabbing the phone.

Alfred: I was going to stop by with some groceries, and Ms. Gordon wondered if she might come with me? If you would rather she didn’t, that’s perfectly acceptable, and w

Alfred: e will of course respect your decision. As I said, we won’t pressure you either way, but please remember that your family cares deeply for you and simply wishes to e

Alfred: nsure your well-being.

Jason couldn’t help the smile that came to his face. While he had never picked up on the ‘text lingo’ like Dick had, he always kept it brief and to the point; that was the whole point of a text. Alfred, however, was never the type to skimp out on words if he thought they were necessary or useful.

But as to his actual question… Jason only realized he’d started chewing on his thumb nail when he tasted the tangy, iron flavor of blood, having ripped the nail down the side, a trickle of blood appearing.

Babs was easily the ‘Bat’ he was closest to during his tenure. Sure, he and Dick had eventually developed a sort of ‘brothers-in-arms’ type of relationship, forged mostly in nights griping about him, and sneaking cheap takeout past Alfred, but it had taken time, and a lot of effort on both their parts; with Barbara, though, it’d always just been easy. She hadn’t pressured him, or assumed anything about his upbringing, asking questions without judgment… She’d been the one he ran to when the pressure got too much, when he needed a few hours just to unwind and decompress without Alfred’s hovering, or his disapproval.

She’d filled a weird void of older sister/maternal figure, without acting like a ‘mommy’. Or what he assumed mothers did, anyways; it wasn’t like his crack-whore mother had given him a good representation.

She’d never cried over his ‘boo-boos’, or coddled him. Babs would simply listen to him, ask him what he thought, and offer her opinion, in a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Barbara had been the second best thing about being a part of the family, right below Alfred himself.

But she hadn’t seen him since… since before. He’d been in critical at the hospital, with no one but Bruce allowed in -even during his recovery, doctors had refused the three younger Bat kids entrance, citing his erratic heart rate, and near-panic attacks whenever he spotted them. At the mansion, he’d put his foot down, not wanting to see anyone other than Alfred.

So she didn’t know how fucked up he looked. And he didn’t know how she felt about him refusing to see her. Did she feel betrayed? Angry? Was she mad about him taking off? Both times?

If she isn’t, she’s gonna be pissed for dodging her now, asshole. Don’t be an idiot.

With a sigh, he began texting.

Chapter Text

Alfred watched as the three little dots appeared at the bottom of the phone, before the text came through.

Jason: Just Babs, right?

He sighed, having already heard about the disastrous attempt of Master Richard, understanding Jason’s hesitation. Which had been why Barbara and he had decided she would be the logical choice for first contact with the family; Master Timothy’s observations in the Cave had been accurate, about Jason having no competition with Barbara, no pressure or anger behind the relationship. He’d taken to Barbara as quickly as Jason took to anybody, looking up to her like an older sister, and a willing ear.

But Alfred wasn’t going to push. If Jason said no, Alfred had been clear: he wouldn’t allow anyone to risk Jason running again, and he’d already had stern words with Master Richard.

Alfred: Just Ms. Gordon, and myself of course. No one else. I promise.

Jason: Yeah. That’s fine. Just her though.

“What’d he say?”

Alfred turned, smiling as he saw Barbara grabbing the two bags off of the counter, and sliding them into her lap, then maneuvering over towards him with dexterous ease. She’d made amazing -if not miraculous -strides in her recovery efforts, both physically and emotionally.

And Timothy had played a role in that. Despite their ‘efforts’ at keeping their relationship hush-hush, Alfred had been around long enough to recognize the telltale signs of blossoming young love. The way Timothy’s mood would improve simply at hearing Barbara’s voice, or how Barbara would perk up when Timothy walked into a room. These last few months had taken a strain on the fledgling relationship -as would be expected -but they had stuck with it.

“With the stipulation that it’s only you and I, he agreed. Just let me get the box from the sitting room, and we’ll be off.”

“So what’s in the box?” Barbara asked curiously, as she slid herself into the seat, Alfred loading her wheelchair into the back of the car, before getting into the driver’s seat.

“A few of his personal items, from when he lived at the manor. Mostly books and art supplies. A few trinkets -odds and ends, really -that he collected. What about you, Miss Gordon?” He asked, briefly cutting his eyes over towards her with a smile as he saw the surprised look on her face. “My dear, I saw you furtively putting something in your bag when I entered the foyer.”

She covered the look, settling back into the seat. “Just some… some options. When he was in the hospital, the doctors there replaced most of his lower leg, and pieces of his foot with metal, because of all the damage to his right ankle.”

“I remember,” Alfred said tightly, his eyes glued to the road. He remembered all too well the list of injuries the doctors had told Bruce about, and after watching the clips contained on the Joker’s video, he was well aware of how much ‘damage’ had been done. One of the clips, merely thirty seconds long, had showcased the vice that had caused so much of the damage.

“Well… They said he’d need physical therapy, and we both know he didn’t get it. Without it, his leg will never heal right, and it’s always gonna hurt. I mean, it’s probably going to hurt anyway, but there’s a difference between ‘hurting’ and ‘agonizing’. So I… I looked up some different options for him.” At the somewhat dubious look Alfred threw her way, she hastily added, “I’m not saying we’re gonna throw him in the hospital, or invite therapists to his apartment, but… I just want him to know that the options are there, you know?”

 


 

Barbara held the bags of groceries on her lap as she rolled herself out of the elevator, feeling the anticipation growing in her gut as they neared the apartment door.

It was weird enough just being back there. When she and Dick had dated in high school, the apartment had been the first safe house he’d established free of Bruce, and they’d spent a lot of time there. Discussing their lives, the meaning of ‘vigilante’, where it stopped, and if it was actually doing any good. Watching movies, giggling at the burnt remains of whatever monstrosity he’d tried cooking.

She hadn’t been back since they’d broken up, four and a half years ago.

And now it was Jason’s apartment. Jason, who was supposed to be dead, but was actually just tortured by a homicidal psychopath for almost seventeen months. Jason, who she’d only seen unconscious, in a coma, for the past year and a half.

Steeling herself as Alfred knocked on the door, she mentally kicked herself; it was still Jason -brash, comical, and caring. Whatever had happened, nothing could change that.

The door opened within a few seconds of Alfred knocking, Jason’s face peering around the corner, before swinging wide.

“That was fast,” He said with a small smile, stepping back to let them through.

“Well, I was already prepared and heading towards the door when Ms. Gordon asked if she could accompany me. How are you feeling, Ma -Jason?”

He shrugged as he closed the door behind them, then moving towards the kitchen, and Barbara felt a small bit of relief: while there was a small limp, it was nowhere near as serious as she’d assumed it would be, given his lack of physio. In fact, it was barely noticeable unless she was actively looking for it.

“Better,” He said simply, hoisting himself up onto the bar.

“Good. I see you’ve already eaten dinner,” Alfred stated, obviously seeing the pan and dish drying on the dish rack. “I’ll just put these away then.”

“It’s fine, I can get it,” Jason said quickly, sliding down, and grabbing the bags off Barbara’s lap. Whether it was because of him, or her, she couldn’t tell, but she saw the slight twitch in his hand as he did so, before he moved over to the pantry.

Barbara snorted as he opened it, catching sight of the multitude of cereal boxes, and Pop-Tarts, Ramen and popcorn inside. “I see Dick’s still eating as well as ever,” She said with a chuckle.

He gave her a smile in return, turning his head towards her as he almost mindlessly set the new food alongside the old, as if it was muscle memory. “I remember some of the fast food you took me to get after tutoring; and don’t forget, I’ve seen your secret stash of chocolate in your room. Not sure you’re one to be talking.”

She shrugged as she maneuvered her way around the table, placing herself by the sliding door. Trying to be inconspicuous, she glanced out, checking for dark moving shadows on the rooftops, before turning her attention back to Jason.

“Had to give up the chocolate. Most of the fast food too; not like I can exercise in this thing,” She added with a rueful shrug. “Although I still make Tim go get me Taco Bueno once in a while. Can’t take all the fun out of life.”

He flinched as he turned. “Yeah, I… What happened?” He asked thickly, staring at the chair.

She hesitated for a moment; she’d thought about that on the car trip over.

Jason didn’t know what had happened; it’d been six months after his ‘death’ when she caught a stray bullet during the Joker’s attack on Gotham City Central Park, wound up paralyzed from her T12 vertebrae down, and effectively ending her time as ‘Batgirl’ forever. And maybe she should have just told him the truth, but part of her argued that that would simply be selfish; hearing that the monster who nearly destroyed him also nearly destroyed her -a few inches higher, and she would have been dead – wouldn’t do him any good, and could potentially do a lot of harm. Jason had always been the ‘avenging knight in red spandex’, and had always taken any injuries from her or Bruce as personal failures of his own -even if he hadn’t been anywhere even remotely close. So she’d already decided on a half-truth, leaving out the big details.

“Shooting at the park. I was jogging. Wrong place, wrong time,” She said with a shrug. “It took a while to learn how to maneuver this sucker around, but… I’m doing pretty good now.”

“Jesus. I’m sorry, Babs, that’s… I can’t even –“

“So don’t,” She cut him off lightly. “It happened, I dealt, and gave Alfred a few heart attacks when I discovered I can get to Mach speeds on the hardwood floors at the manor.”

“Indeed you did, Ms. Gordon,” Alfred said, his voice disapproving, his head in the refrigerator rearranging things. “Given that you also discovered your chair does not have the braking capabilities for ‘Mach Speed’.”

Jason chuckled as he hopped back up on the counter, before growing serious again. “Is there any chance they can fix it? Or that it’ll get better on its own?”

She shook her head as she moved over towards the table, sliding a chair out of the way with practiced ease, and parking her chair so that she was essentially ‘sitting’ at the table. “Nope. Hey, Alfred brought something for you. In the box,” She said, pointing towards the box Alfred had left by the front door.

Jason stared for a moment, and she didn’t miss the way his body tensed. “What is it?” He asked, a forced casualness in his tone.

“A surprise, Ma -Jason,” Alfred said, a warm smile coming to his face as he retrieved the box, setting it on the table. “A few things I thought you’d like to have.”

Jason’s whole body had went bow-string taut at the older man’s words, and he almost seemed to draw in on himself as he spoke in a low voice. “I… Not a big fan of surprises, Alfred.”

Barbara reached her hand out, setting it on his knee.

Almost immediately, she grunted in pain as Jason reacted quicker than she could see, grabbing her wrist and twisting it back, his other hand coming around in a fist. She instinctively closed her eyes, waiting for the blow to fall…

But it didn’t. After a moment, she opened her eyes to see his scarred knuckles a mere inch from her eyes.

Chapter Text

Tim leaped from rooftop to rooftop, feeling slightly out of breath at the harsh pace Batman had set, keeping it for almost two hours.

The older man been on edge ever since they’d left the Cave, seemingly on the hunt for something he wasn’t sure of, pushing faster and faster as Tim struggled to keep up, ignoring every attempt Robin made at trying to elicit an answer, or reason.

But even with the man’s perpetual silence, Tim knew it was something to do with his predecessor; it didn’t take a ‘master detective’ to see how on edge Bruce had been since Jason had been found, and how much his mood had taken a turn for the worse, especially since he’d found the package with the DVD.

Tim knew how much both Bruce and Batman had depended on Jason; how much he had meant to both sides of the man. He knew that no matter what he did, he would never be anything other than the ‘replacement Robin’; while Bruce cared for him in his own way, Tim wasn’t stupid enough to think that he would ever have the sort of relationship Dick or Jason had had with the man. And if anyone would know, it was Tim, who’d been there at the beginning, seeing how Batman had changed when he gained his first Robin. How he’d smiled for Dick, and chuckled for Jason, how he’d taken them in as sons.

Tim was merely Bruce’s attempt at a Band-Aid.

Not that Tim was bitter, or that he thought Bruce meant for it to be that way. But it was what it was, and there was nothing for it. No changing it, or wishing for things to be different. So Tim had done what he could -being the best water-proof, non-irritating, fabric Band-Aid he could be.

“Batman, you read me?”

Batman pulled up short, with Tim only barely avoiding running into him.

“I read you, Nightwing.”

“Robin with you?”

“I’m here, Nightwing,” Tim said, trying to keep his panting to a minimum.

“GCPD found another body from the Joker. Got a package set in what’s left of her stomach. Commissioner’s on the scene.”

“What’s your location?” Batman demanded, moving towards the end of the roof they were on, grapple at the ready, as Tim struggled not to groan at the lack of a break.

“The Boardwalk, off of 10th Street.”

“We’ll be there in ten.”

Tim stared at Bruce for a second. “You do realize that’s a fifteen minute car ride, right? There’s no way we make it in ten.”

“I can. If you can’t keep up, go back to the Cave, and I’ll radio you information on the victim.”

 


 

It’s Barbara, you idiot.

Yessss… Break her face in, Jason. Make daddy proud. Knock her teeth down her throat.

Drop your fist, you fuckin’ jackass!

Jason gritted his teeth, the pressure in his arm feeling like an actual physical fight as he tried to force the limb back to his side, the silence in the small kitchen absolutely devastating, the trusting look in Babs eyes nearly killing him as she met his gaze.

“Jason, it’s okay,” She said softly, not blinking. “It’s alright. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, that’s on me, okay? Nobody’s angry. Right, Alfred?”

He knew she’d added the last bit, the extra inflection on the man’s name, hoping the reminder of someone he’d always trusted would be enough to tip the balance in her favor. And he could feel the rage building up at her attempts to manipulate him. Like he would’ve just knocked her teeth out, but since Alfred was there, he’d politely refrain?

No, dipshit, she’s trying to relax you. Quit taking everything so fuckin’ personal. Jesus, you're fuckin' losin' it. Let go of her damn arm, and get your hand out of her damn face!

He took a few deep breathes through clenched teeth, slowly lowering his arm, forcing his fist to unclench, as a pounding in his head started right behind his eyes, maniacal laughter ringing in his ears. Pounding his fist on the counter, he hissed, the pain lashing from his fingers up his arm enough to make him grit his teeth… but the voice receeded, the laughter slowly going quiet -as quiet as the room around him.

He looked up, to see both Barbara and Alfred looking at him patiently, no sign of anger or fear from either one of them, as he opened his mouth to speak. To say that this had been a stupid fuckin’ idea, that he wasn’t safe to be around; that he was going to end up hurting somebody, that he was fuckin’ broken, and all their ‘help’ wasn’t helping.

But as soon as his lips parted, Babs plastered a big smile on her face, opening the box and spilling the contents onto the table before he could react, much less speak, and despite himself, Jason couldn’t help but lean closer to see what, exactly, had started this whole mess.

“Is that…” His voice trailed off as he slid off of the island, running his fingers over the cover of the hardcover book.

“Indeed, Jason,” Alfred said, a pleased tone in his voice. “Along with some other odds and ends from your room at the manor. Your sketch pads, charcoals, and pencils, as well as the books from your nightstand. Master Bruce specifically picked that one out though. He said it was your favorite.”

Jason couldn’t stop the flinch at his name, hoping only that the other two hadn’t seen it, as unlikely a possibility as it was, grabbing the book, and flipping open the first few pages.

“I practically destroyed it,” He said softly, seeing the comments he’d written in the margins, the words he’d underlined (all the ones he hadn’t understood, to make them easier to find when he would go through with a dictionary), arrows pointing to the examples of whatever literature term he was learning at a particular time. “Scribbled all over the damn thing.”

Alfred gave him a soft smile. “That’s why we bought you the one with the wide margins, dear boy. Do you like it, then?”

Jason nodded past the lump in his throat, tucking the well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice into the hoodie pocket.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks, Alfred.”

 


 

 

Dick watched the investigation from a steel beam across the street from the Boardwalk -part of the skeletal structure that advertised itself as the ‘Future Home of Boardwalk Beach Condominiums -when Batman landed next to him.

“Where’s Robin?” He asked curiously, glancing over at the man.

“At the Cave. Oracle is busy, so we’ll relay information to him, have him start breaking it down. What’d I miss?”

Dick shrugged, shifting to sit more comfortably on the cold steel. “Not much. I followed the sirens, Gordon flagged me down, told me to get a hold of you. Said it was another package for you from the Joker.” He hesitated for a moment, before turning to look at the older man. “This has something to do with Jason, right? I mean, we break him loose, and all of the sudden bodies start dropping with packages for you? That’s not a coincidence. What was in the first one?”

Bruce shot him a sideways glance, before turning back towards the crime scene. “Did Gordon say when we could have the package?”

Dick rolled his eyes. “What, you think because you ignore my question, I’m just gonna let it go? Do you even know me?” He asked sarcastically. “I’m not your Robin anymore, Batman. You don’t get to ignore me when it’s convenient and then expect me to jump on your say-so. What’s in the damn package? What the hell is going on?”

Bruce turned, looking at him for a few seconds, before sighing.

“It’s a video. Of Jason,” He said, his voice tight as he turned back towards the crime scene. “While Joker had him.”

Dick stared at him stupidly for a moment, waiting for more, before realizing that was -apparently -as much as Bruce wanted to say about it.

“What the hell does that mean? A video? A video of what? What the hell’s going on?” He asked, jumping to his feet.

“Joker’s trying to rub salt in the wounds; he wants me to know exactly what I failed to save Jason from. What he got away with for seventeen months. What he did to him for every second of those months.”

“Wait… Are you saying that… that these videos are of him… torturing… Jason?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Nightwing.”

“And you watched it?! Are you… Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?” He demanded angrily, grabbing Bruce by the shoulder, and spinning him around to face him. “Why would you watch it?!”

“It doesn’t matter. This is Joker’s game, and I mean to win it. There’s going to be fifteen more bodies after this one, each one with a video. One for every month.”

The reality of that slammed into Dick like a semi, the weight rushing from his chest. Seventeen videos. Seventeen months.

It suddenly felt like the small pouch on his belt was on fire; burning a hole through his uniform, branding itself onto his skin as the sick realization of what, exactly, he had there fully sinking home.

 “We have to get that package before one of the officers gets curious, and grabs the disc,” Bruce said, his voice strangely distant to Dick’s ears.

“I… Yeah. Yeah, you should… You should do that.”

“Nightwing? You alright?”

“What? Yeah, I’m… I’m fine. You can handle this, right? I’m gonna… Gonna head back to the Cave, tell Robin what we found,” He said quickly, turning away from Bruce, and back towards his motorcycle.

“Why? We can radio the information to him, and –“

“Because I’m tired of this shit, and I’m gonna go back, and get a good night’s sleep for once! I’m tired of these goddamn games! I’m tired of the rest of us being pawns on a board while you and Joker push us around,” Dick snapped, guilt rolling over him as he seen it roll over Bruce, praying that God wouldn’t zap him with a bolt of lightning for his lie as he began leaping and balancing his way across the steel structure towards his bike.

The entire time, the disc in his pocket seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.

Chapter Text

I

“Hello, Batsy! So here we are: the second act -getting into the meat of things now. Hahaha! Meat! You don’t appreciate that joke yet, but you will!”

Dick cringed as the Joker nearly doubled over in a burst of laughing, tickled pink by his own joke apparently. Finally though, the clown wiped at his eyes, and straightened back up.

“Ah, Batsy Boo… Sometimes, I think you don’t appreciate the effort I go through for you. You will when I’m done though… I promise you that.”

With the ominous words, the screen went dark for a moment, before lighting up again.

“You’ll have to eat at some point, little birdie. Wouldn’t want to starve to death, would we? Oh no, no, no, can’t have that. The big bad bat is coming to save you, remember?”

“Fuck you.”

Jason’s voice was rough, like somebody had poured gravel over his vocal cords, but the hatred burning in those blue eyes was obvious even through the camera, sitting in the corner of what looked like a patient cell in Arkham, if Dick had to guess. His leg was wrapped up in what looked like a half-assed splint, two 2x4s on either side, starting at the bottom of his foot, going up just past his knee, with something he was pretty sure was duct tape holding them in place. A plate of… something… was sitting a few feet in front of him. The date in the corner read about two months after Jason had ‘died’.

“You’ll have to eat at some point, little birdie,” Joker’s voice repeated over speaks into the room.

Jason scoffed, loudly, pulling himself to his feet with a grunt of pain. “You don’t know me too well then, jackass. I’ve gone weeks on nothing but a few scraps. You think I’m gonna eat that shit again, just ‘cause my stomach gets a little sore? Fuck off.”

The video sped up, showing random beatings, Jason sitting by himself for hours, as the same dish of food began to mold, as a week went by, according to the time stamp.

When the video slowed down again, Dick found himself cursing silently, watching as a bloody and bruised Jason pulled himself towards the dish, tears streaming down his agonized face as he crawled at a snail’s pace the few feet to the dish. Jason dug through it, clearly trying to get past the mold, as he ate half of whatever had been on the plate, then dragging himself back to his little corner.

Dick watched, waiting, for five minutes, waiting, before a panicked look came to Jason’s face, his skin paling, eyes widening, as his breathing grew faster.

Suddenly, light filled the cell as the door swung open, and a familiar looking figure appeared in the door, pointed ears and all.

Of course, it wasn’t actually Batman, a fact that became painfully obvious as the imitator stepped into the cell; even if the suit hadn’t been a cheap Halloween costume, the man was a good three or four inches taller than Bruce, with thinner shoulders, nowhere near as muscular. And if Dick could see that through the screen of his computer, he couldn’t figure out why Jason’s face looked so confused.

 

“Br -Batman? Is… No. No, this isn’t real.”

“It is real, Robin,” The man said, his low voice similar to Bruce’s, but not similar enough that Jason shouldn’t be able to tell the difference. “Come on, let’s get you out of here before somebody spots us.”

The man helped Jason up, looping one of Jason’s arms around his shoulder, and the two started walking out of the cell. The view on the cameras switched, monitoring their progress through the deserted hallways, past broken medical equipment, until they got to a foyer-looking room.

At least a dozen armed goons were waiting in a semi-circle, with Joker at their head.

“Oh, bravo. Bravo, Batman. Wonderful. But you know I can’t let you leave here with my little toy. So I’ll tell you what: I’ll make a deal. I’ll let you leave, unharmed, and you leave Robin here with me.”

Even through the pain, confusion was clear on Jason’s face, as he glanced up at the imitator again, blinking a few times as if he was starting to realize it wasn’t actually Bruce. But his realization was too late, as the man unceremoniously dropped him to the ground, an agonized scream ripping through the room as Jason hit the tile floor hard enough that Dick could hear the snap of the arm he’d used to try and break his fall.

“Fine. You win this time, Joker. I’ll be back though,” The imitator said, quickly walking past the guards, and up the stairs.

The Joker tsk’ed a few times as he moved towards Jason’s shaking form, ever present grin growing larger as Jason tried dragging himself away from his approach.

“That… that wasn’t fuckin’ real,” Jason spat, apparently giving up on escape as he stopped moving. “That… that wasn’t… Batman.”

“What?! Of course it was, Robin! I’m insulted, really. What a horrible thing to say!”

“The food. Whatever… whatever you put in that… that shit… it wasn’t real.”

Joker shrugged as he knelt down. “Eh. Maybe not. The man was a horrible actor. Simply horrible. I mean, only a complete and utter idiot would have fallen for that at all. But… You did try to escape, Jason. And you know what that means.” He snapped his fingers, and one of the men came forward, handing him a crowbar.

Immediately, horror came over Jason’s face, and his attempts to escape began again, trying to scramble on his left side, foot scrambling madly to try and find a grip as he pulled himself by his non-broken arm, as the Joker leisurely trailed after him, spinning the crowbar around in his hand, chuckling the whole time.

“Oh, come on, little birdie! We both know that you’ve earned this; I told you what would happen if you tried to escape. Take your punishment like a good bird, and maybe I’ll stop with your leg.” When Jason showed no sign of slowing down, Joker sighed, shrugging his shoulders as he took a few quick steps, catching up with no effort at all. “Fine. Since you refuse to take your medicine, we’ll just have to up the dose then.”

The scream that tore from Jason’s lips as the crowbar smashed onto his splinted leg would haunt Dick until the day he died; the broken, wheezing sobs that followed as the crowbar fell again and again seemed to echo through his room, even after he shut the video off.

He should’ve just broken the damn thing and chucked it in the trash.

Dick stared at the now-black computer screen, one hand still perched on the mousepad, the other nervously tapping against his thigh.

He shouldn’t have watched the video; hell, he’d yelled at Bruce for the exact same thing. He’d been pissed to find out that Bruce had done it, then he’d turned around, and watched it, watching Jason’s nightmare unfolding on the screen like it was just another Saw movie at the theater.

And for what? It wasn’t like it had made him feel any better; like it had given him any closure, or made him feel closer to his brother, or absolved him of his guilt. At best, he’d fulfilled some selfish curiosity, and at worst, he’d grossly invaded on the worst moments of Jason’s life. The moments that he knew Jason wouldn’t want to ever see the light of day, much less to have his family watch them around the TV.

He would never trust his family if they had done the same to him. If they watched a video of him and Tarantula on the roof, or the moment his parents had been murdered.

But the simple fact was, other than Bruce, the others wouldn’t. They wouldn’t watch those moments, even if they had the opportunity. They wouldn’t betray him like that -like he’d just done to Jason. Like Bruce had done.

For all he might deny it, Dick knew he was the most like Bruce, at the end of the day. Like Bruce, he’d started on this path out of simple revenge: revenge against the person who’d killed his parents, revenge against the attitude of Gotham, where a few murders were simply another night. He was constantly justifying his actions, using an ‘ends’ and ‘means’ logic that often left him wrestling with his conscious.

If he was perfectly honest, that was part of the reason he’d left. He’d seen what he was turning into; what he was becoming. A horrifying glimpse at his future if he’d stayed. A lonely, bitter man living his life trying to right a single moment of history, sending children out to help in his mad vendetta. Creating another generation of vigilantes. A vicious, unending cycle of violence.

So he’d walked away. Moved two hundred miles away to Blüdhaven, leaving Bruce to draft another kid into his war. Leaving Jason to navigate the landmines and grenades that were life as Robin.

Oh sure, he’d went back almost six months later. He’d tried his damndest to be there for Jason, trying to be a buffer between him and Bruce. But it’d been too little too late. Jason had already dived head first into the shit show that would lead to his torture. Torture that most adults would have cracked under. That most adults would have given up, rolled over, and died long before they were found.

He rubbed his eyes, feeling like gravity itself was tugging him down, dragging him into the abyss as he dragged himself out of the chair and towards his bed.

It all just seemed so goddamned pointless.

Chapter Text

 

  

“Well, it seems that’s everything. Unless there’s anything else you need?” Alfred asked, quirking an eyebrow at Jason.

He shook his head, as he sat down on the couch, setting his bad leg up on the coffee table, barely resisting the urge to reach down and rub the aching muscles. “Nah. I’m all good, Alfred. Thanks, though.”

“Very well then. Miss Gordon, if you’re ready?”

Babs hesitated for a second, before sliding over into the living room across from Jason. “If it’s alright with Jason, I’d like to stay for a while longer. Catch up a bit? I can have Tim pick me up later. If that’s okay,” She said, looking to Jason.

Jason chewed his lip for a few moments, before catching himself, and stopping. “I… yeah, I guess if that’s… what you wanna do. Not like there’s a lot goin’ on, and we both now I ain’t great company,” He said, trying to put a humorous tone to soften the words.

She gave him a big smile. “I don’t expect you to ‘entertain’ me, Jason. I just thought we could just… visit. Hang out. Maybe put on one of Dick’s crappy rom-com movies in or something.”

“Uh… sure. Yeah, that’s fine,” He said thickly, swallowing past the worry lodging itself in his throat.

“Alright then, I’ll be off. If you need anything, you know how to reach me,” Alfred said quietly, leaving the small apartment.

“So… which one of these shitty movies we watchin’?” Jason asked as soon as the door was closed.

Babs simply stared at him, long enough that Jason could feel an itch settle between his shoulders, the desire to fidget -or lash out -growing by the second, until she finally sighed.

“I don’t want to watch a movie, Jason,” She said softly. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Jesus fuck, Babs, if this is some sort of goddamn therapy session, you should just catch a ride with Alfred,” He barked, standing up angrily, and walking around her into the kitchen. “I’m not in the mood right now, and even if I was, you in that chair ain’t gonna be the one doin’ it,” He added, grabbing a water bottle from the pantry.

“What the hell does that mean?” She demanded, spinning her chair around and following him.

“It means I ain’t all that stable right now,” He snapped, throwing the cap to the bottle away, and draining the contents in one go, before looking back at her. “In case the sprained wrist, and fist to the face wasn’t a big enough sign for you.”

Her face was incredulous as she stopped a few feet in front of him, and folding her arms across her chest. “Jason, I told you, that wasn’t you, that was –“

“Oh, the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech? We both know that’s shit, Barbara, don’t try and sugarcoat it.”

“I shouldn’t have grabbed y –“

“You didn’t fuckin’ grab me, you set your hand on my goddamn knee. Quit tryin’ to make it like I ain’t broken; like I’m still the fuckin’ kid you dragged onto the roller coaster! I’m not him anymore. I’m…” His voice cracked, and he took a breath, trying to get himself back under control. “He broke me, Babs. It took him six months to do it, but he fuckin’ broke me.”

“Jason, you’re not broken! You’re just trying to readjust to –“

“To what?! To being touched?! To fuckin’ eating?! To sleeping?! To being in a room with people, and not wanting to kill all of them?! That’s not ‘readjusting’, that’s learning how to be a goddamn human again!”

He knew he was yelling. Knew he was scaring Babs as he moved forward, reaching out like a snake as he grabbed the arms of her wheelchair, dragging her closer, leaning in until he was mere inches from her face.

“I could hear him, Babs,” He hissed, hating himself for the worried look in her eye, but unable to stop himself. “The whole time, he was in my head, tellin’ me to punch your teeth in. To break your face, and not stop until you stopped breathing.”

“But you didn’t,” She said strongly, although she remained still. “You didn’t hurt me. And I think we both know you could’ve easily done just what you said: you could’ve killed me, and there wouldn’t have been much Alfred or I could’ve done. But you didn’t, did you?”

Scoffing, he shoved on the arms of the chair, pushing her backwards a few inches as he stalked over to the sliding glass door, and grabbing his cigarettes off the balcony. “Just because the cobra doesn’t bite you the first time you pick it up, doesn’t mean you should keep playin’ with it,” He said bitterly, lighting a cigarette.

“Oh, Christ, Jason, enough,” She snapped, her voice exasperated. “We’re all doing our goddamn best to help you here; you think Bruce doesn’t want to be here? Why do you think he hasn’t swung in yet, huh? You think Tim wanted to get a lecture about hiding the bugs better? Why do you think he put them in such obvious places? Why do you think Alfred wandered out into the middle of the Bowery at night to bring you back? Hell, do you know the argument that caused?! They were all ready to come and get you, Jason; even Tim, and he doesn’t even know you! Why do you think we're doing all this? Because we enjoy it?!

“You’re not a fucking cobra, Jason, you’re our family, and we love you, you jackass! We’re trying to give you some space, but you’ve gotta meet us halfway! Believe me, I know how easy it is to just hide away, ignoring everybody who cares about you, thinking that you’re useless! I spent three months doing the exact same thing! But we’re not gonna let you run away from us again, Jason! We’re not gonna let you hide because it’s ‘easier’!”

He spun towards her, throwing the cigarette over the balcony behind him as he did. “You’re in a fuckin’ wheelchair, Babs,” He growled, feeling a black rage settling in, red clouding his vision. “And I get it, that fuckin’ sucks. But you got shot. I was fuckin’ tortured by a homicidal clown for kicks. Because he thought it was funny to drug me until I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. To break every goddamn bone in my body and leave me laying in my own piss and shit. To make me eat my own fuckin’ puke, to lick it off his goddamn shoes! You’ve got no fuckin’ idea what he did to me, so don’t you fuckin’ dare compare what you went through to what I went through!”

Chapter Text

Barbara caught Jason’s eye, and held his glare. Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. A minute.

Finally, he broke her gaze, breathing heavily through his nose as he closed his eyes, small, almost imperceptible shudders running through his body as he seemed to be trying to get his temper under control.

Barbara just waited.

While the reason for the temper might be new, the method of dealing with it wasn’t; she would have put solid money on Jason listing off words in his head, matching the amount of letters to specific numbers, something he’d made a practice of long before he’d found his way to Bruce. For reasons he’d never been able to fully explain to her, whenever he was stressed, or angry, he’d spell out a word with five letters. Then nine letters. Then thirteen, thirteen again, back to nine, and end with five. Rinse and repeat until he felt calm. Which could sometimes take a while.

Because she could admit: Jason had always been a hot-head. He’d always rode the thin line between vengeance and revenge, justice and retribution. Being Robin, being tortured by a madman hadn’t helped, but the rage had always been there, bubbling below the surface, waiting for the right target to erupt -usually pimps, pedophiles, and rapists, although he could certainly work up a good amount of fury towards child abusers if the situation arose.

Bruce would never admit it; never admit that he’d made a mistake, that Jason hadn’t been emotionally right in the head long before becoming Robin, and should have never been Robin -not because she didn’t think Jason could handle it, but because the boy needed stability, and love, not vigilantism and a training regiment. She’d suggested a few times that Jason should be put into counselling, to help him deal with his spectacularly shitty childhood.

But Bruce being Bruce, he’d refused to see it. Insisted that Jason was just fine; that if the boy had an issue with the field work, he’d let Batman know immediately. The stubborn, blind idiot. Oh, sure, he’d told Jason if he needed to talk he was always available, and would be more than willing to listen. That being Robin was helping more than any therapist would.

He’d never stopped to consider that Jason would’ve shot himself in the leg before admitting any sort of weakness to the man he considered his father.

Jason opening his eyes -purposefully avoiding her gaze -pulled her from her thoughts, and she gave him a small smile.

“Any new words?”

He chewed on his lip for a second, before moving towards the couch in the living room, his face looking exhausted. “No,” He said simply, sitting down, and putting his feet on the coffee table. “I can’t anymore.”

She wheeled her chair in-between the chair and the couch, and levied herself onto the couch, keeping her distance as she settled in as best she could.

“Why?” When he didn’t answer, she softly pressed, “Does it not work anymore?”

He scoffed, pulling one leg up, and tucking it underneath him. “Nothing works anymore. That just works less than most things. I can’t ever pull a word with the right amount of letters,” He admitted slowly. After a few seconds, he glanced up at her, before quickly locking his gaze onto the TV. “I’m sorry. I just…”

“It’s fine,” She said, curbing her desire to hold his hand, or squeeze his leg, or give him a hug. “You don’t have to apologize, Jason. You’re dealing with this the best you can, and none of us are going to criticize you for that.”

“He will.”

The tone, the inflection, on ‘he’ let Barbara know exactly which ‘he’ Jason meant, and she shook her head. “No, he won’t, Jason. Bruce might be a perfectionist; he might be able to give a stone wall lessons on being emotionless. But he knows -we all know -that you’re doing the best you can. That none of this is your fault. Bruce just wants you to be okay -like any of us. He… doesn’t always show it in the best ways, but he’s always been like that, Jason, you know that.”

“It was my fault,” Jason muttered, a flash of confusion crossing his face, then disappearing as quickly as it came. “I fucked up, and it was my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t. I –“She was interrupted by her phone ringing, and while a large part of her was tempted to ignore it, she also knew that Bruce wouldn’t have called her -not tonight, anyways -without a damn good reason.

“Oracle,” She answered, holding up a finger to forestall Jason’s question.

“Are you with Jason?”

“Yeah, we’re at the apar –“

“I hate to do this, but we need to know. Ask him… Ask him if he knew Elizabeth Kingston, or Diamond Jones. I’m sending their ID photos to you know.”

Barbara hesitated for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of going to the balcony, and deciding that risking Jason’s trust was definitely the worst of her two options, she said, “There better be a damn good reason for this.”

“It’s the names of the victims Joker’s leaving us. I need to know if it’s a personal connection, or he’s just grabbing random people. He said he would be leaving the packages in places that meant something; I’m trying to find out if the people mean something too.”

“I’ll call you back. Give me five.”

“I’ll sta –“

“No, you won’t,” She said firmly, in her best ‘Alfred’ voice. “I’ll call you back in five.” She didn’t wait for a response, pressing the ‘end call’, and looking over at Jason. Taking a deep breath, she tried to think of a way to phrase her question that wouldn’t make any of this seem like Jason’s fault, cursing Bruce for having her delete every mention of his life before becoming ‘Jason Todd Wayne’. Otherwise, they could’ve just looked it up on the computers at the Clock Tower.

You could’ve kept a copy. You chose to delete it, to make sure what was in there never seen the light of day. You kept a copy for everyone else -but not Jason. This is on you as much as it is Bruce.

Ignoring her conscience, she sighed, and just came out with it.

“Did you know Elizabeth Kingston, or Diamond Jones?” She asked, spinning her phone around to show him the pictures that had come through.

He glanced at the first one, and squinted his eyes for a second, before turning his attention to the second. This time, his eyes tightened, before he looked up at her.

“Not the white lady. She seems… kinda familiar, but I couldn’t place her. But that’s DeeDee J. She was in the apartment below my mom and me. She… She used to make me cakes. On my birthday. Why? What’s going on?” He demanded, his voice going from soft to sharp in an instant. “Did something happen?”

“I… I’m sorry, Jason, but she’s dead,” She said as gently as she could, while keeping her eye on him for a reaction.

The air seemed to rush out of him, and he hung his head on his chest, not looking at her, as he spoke. “How?”

“We’re… not sure yet,” She said, trying to skirt around the truth. Technically, she wasn’t sure what had killed the two women yet.

“But you think it was the Joker. Otherwise he wouldn’t have called you, and told you to ask me.” Jason shook his head, a sad chuckle escaping. “He said he would find me if I got out. Guess he’s puttin’ in the hours.”

“He’s not going to get you, Jason, do you hear me?!” Barbara said sharply, wheeling her chair in front of him, and lowering her head until she could catch his eye. “He is never going to hurt you again. I won’t let him. Dick won’t let him. Tim won’t let him. Alfred won’t let him. And Bruce sure as shit won’t let him. Do you understand? That piece of shit is never, ever, going to lay hands on you again.”

Chapter Text

“How is he?”

Barbara looked over at Tim, giving him a small smile as his eyes glancing right, then left, then right, and left again as he he pulled his BMW Gran Turismo out onto the road. For being Robin, Tim’s sense of safety -particularly with her in the car -was incredible -and, on occasions, cutely irritating.

“As well as can be expected. Better than we thought he would be. You could’ve come up and said hello, you know. He doesn’t bite… Usually,” She added with a small smile.

He didn’t return the gesture, keeping his eyes locked on the road, a small shrug gracing his shoulders.

“He doesn’t need that kind of pressure right now,” He said, an odd tone to his voice that she couldn’t quite place.

“What the hell does that mean? And we’re going the wrong way.”

Tim rolled his eyes as he pulled onto the highway, sliding over to the far left lane. “We’re heading to the Cave. Bruce wants to talk to all of us, try and figure out what we’re dealing with, see if we can get a step ahead, instead of trying to play catch-up.” With a sigh, he finally glanced over at her, a sad smile on his face. “And it means that the last thing Jason needs right now is the guy who took his spot, rubbing it in his face.”

“Tim, nobody thinks –“

“He will, Barbara,” Tim cut her off, his voice quiet, but insistent. “That’s nothing against Jason; most guys would feel that way. He’s going to look at me, and see all the things he was, and how he can’t do that anymore. Like it or not, Jason’s going to hate me out of principle for a while. And that’s fine -he needs someone to focus that anger on.”

“He could always focus it on the Joker,” She said bitterly, folding her arms across her chest.

Tim rolled his eyes, sliding over a lane. “How about he focuses it on somebody who’s not going to traumatize him again? I can take being the bad guy for a while, Barbara. I’m the only one here who doesn’t actually know him; I’ve got nothing else I can do for him. But letting him focus that anger on me? It doesn’t hurt me, and it might actually help him. So for now… I’ll keep my distance until something changes.”

Barbara reached her hand over, setting it on his thigh -she would’ve grabbed his hand, but of course he had both hands on the wheel in the ten and two position -and gave him a smile. “You’re a good guy, Timothy Jackson Drake. No matter what Vicki Vale might say,” She added, her voice teasing.

Tim scoffed loudly as he got off the highway. “According to the esteemed Miss Vale, I’m a sexual deviant in love with my adopted brother. ‘Pining’ is the word I believe she used.”

Barbara ‘mmhmm’ed as they pulled onto the two lane road that would lead them to Wayne Manor, a few miles outside the city. “ ‘Pining after the estranged, older, more handsome son of successful billionaire Bruce Wayne’, is how she put it, if I recall correctly.”

He glanced at her, squinting his eyes in mock anger. “That’s a verbatim quote. Do you know the day she aired the piece, too?”

She nodded solemnly. “Of course… Dick made me record it for him.”

 


 

“So far, we’ve been able to confirm that the two women were chosen for their connections to Jason,” Dick said, his voice exhausted, looking a decade older than he had last time Barbara had seen him. “Elizabeth Kingston, 23 years old, stayed at Gotham’s Home For Wayward Children at the same time Jason did. We’re trying to track down anybody who might have known either of them, but after Bruce and Jason shut the place down, the kids there were all fostered out, and a lot of them are untraceable. I’ve got a program running it down though. She was adopted by the family who took her in, graduated high school a year early, went to Gotham Community College, got a bachelor’s in Social Work, with an associate’s in child psych. She graduated two years ago, and has been working for GCDSS since. No known connections to anything criminal, other than through the kids she worked with.

“Second victim was Diamond Jones, aka DeeDee J. Unlike Miss Kingston, DeeDee has an extensive record. Fourteen counts of prostitution, six misdemeanor possession charges, five counts of battery, and four petty theft. From what Jason told Barbara, I was able to figure out that she lived in an apartment rented to her older sister, Shauna Tayler, right below the Todds. Nothing on record connecting her to Jason.”

There was a minute of silence, the four Bats and Alfred staring at the pictures on the screen -Elizabeth Kingston’s college graduation photo, taken with her mother, and Diamond Jones’ mugshot -as they thought.

Tim leaned back in his chair, breaking the silence. “There’s nothing on record about Jason,” He pointed out, looping his fingers behind his head. “Oracle deleted all records of Dick and Jason and their lives before they were adopted. There won’t be any record of them -or the other victims who’ll be popping up -because Barbara destroyed those records.”

Dick opened his mouth angrily -probably to defend her, Barbara thought with a smile -but Bruce held up a hand, stopping what he as about to say.

“What’s your point, Tim?”

“That Joker didn’t go digging through public records for his information on Jason. And even if he did… Jason told Barbara that Jones used to make him birthday cakes.” When Dick and Barbara still looked at him in confusion, he sat up again, folding his arms on the table. “Even if Jason’s old address was somewhere on file, do you think Joker just picked neighbors at random, hoping he’d get one that admitted to knowing a kid who lived there ten years ago? And when he ran out of neighbors on one floor, he just moved to the next?”

Barbara could see from the look on Dick’s face that the same thought hit them simultaneously.

“Jason told the Joker,” Dick said, his voice horrified, skin turning paler than usual.

Tim nodded. “Yeah. Whether the Joker specifically asked him for anyone who’d ever meant anything to him, or if Jason was so desperate to make it stop that he started telling the Joker anything he could, anything to make the pain stop. My money’s on the latter; Joker didn’t know we would find Jason before he’d turned his brain to mush, so I doubt he planned far enough ahead for that eventuality.”

“But then why didn’t he…” Barbara stopped mid-sentence, feeling her brow furrowing in agitation.

“Spit it out, Babs,” Dick said after a minute, rolling his eyes. “We’re kinda on a time crunch here.”

“If Jason told the Joker about a woman who made him birthday cakes nearly a decade ago… That wasn’t information he would’ve wanted; oh sure, he’s using it now, but we all know the Joker. If Jason was willing to tell him anything and everything, there’s only thing he would’ve asked.”

Bruce looked up from the table, his face darker than usual. “Me. He would’ve asked him who I was.”

“Right. And since he obviously didn’t -otherwise this whole place would’ve been flooded with whatever he could’ve found -grenades, guns, soldiers, thugs, poison gas -that means Jason didn’t tell him who you were.”

“If I may interject for a moment?”

All eyes turned to Alfred.

“I noticed in my visits with Master Jason that he has only referred to Master Bruce as ‘he’ or ‘him’ or ‘his’. Master Richard, Miss Gordon… Has he done otherwise with you during your visits?” When both Dick and Barbara shook their head, he nodded in satisfaction. “I’d rather thought not. I imagine that the Joker did indeed torture Master Jason, trying to extract the true identity of Batman from him; while I’m sure that Master Jason resisted as best he could, eventually, the pain, the solitude, the drugs, they all would’ve broken him down, and he would’ve had to start talking. So rather than talking about the one thing he knew he couldn’t… He went back to his childhood, telling the Joker about anything he could think of, to avoid revealing Batman’s true identity. And, after a time, he was so desperate to not reveal that identity, that it’s quite possible he’s blocked it out from his own mind.”

In the silence that followed, it was Barbara who finally spoke.

“No, he knows who Bruce is, Alfred. When he found the bugs in the apartment, he text me, asking me if ‘he’ had put them there. He knows that Bruce is Batman, and Batman is Bruce, even if he won’t say his name,” She pointed out.

Alfred nodded at her. “Indeed he does, Miss Gordon. But the mind has… funny ways of protecting itself. Obviously Master Jason couldn’t block out his family. But he could block out his name. Force himself to forget it, so that by the time the pain became worse, and he became more desperate to give the Joker whatever he wanted to make it stop… He no longer could.”

Chapter Text

Three sets of eyes -one green, and two blue -turned towards Bruce, each trying to catch his reaction, without him catching them catching it.

But Bruce had dealt with this sort of thing too often -far too often, his brain supplied uselessly -to let his children see him fall apart. So he simply met each gaze in turn, before shutting down the monitors.

“It’s almost six; you should all try and get some sleep.” When three mouths opened, all to give him some variant on ‘like hell we should’, he held up his hand. “I’m not asking. That’s an order. Joker’s been dropping a body a night, which means we’ll have our third tonight. Which means I want everybody at the top of their game, ready to go all night chasing down leads, and running interference with Jason. Barbara, you’re more than welcome to catch some sleep here if you like; it’d probably expedite things if you worked out of the Cave for now, running point here.”

As the three kids -God, they were all so damn young, even Dick, despite his insistence he was an adult now -stood, he stopped them one last time.

“I trust I don’t have to tell any of you not to tell Jason any of this. The bodies, the videos, how Joker’s finding his victims… There’s no good that can come of telling him, and a whole lot of bad.”

Again, he met each one of their eyes, nodding in satisfaction at what he saw. “Good. Dick, if I could have a word?” He waited until Tim and Barbara had made their way out, with Alfred following behind, chatting with Barbara about which room she could stay in.

He waited until he heard the elevator doors close, before turning his best disappointed father glare on Dick.

“Where is it?”

Bruce watched, a little surprised, as Dick went through a rapid shift of emotions, with guilt appearing first, followed by denial, only to be chased off by anger as the first Robin folded his arms across his chest, meeting Bruce’s gaze as he leaned back until he was half sitting on the table.

“Why?”

Well, at least he wasn’t going to try and deny it.

“There’s clues to the location of the next body on each video,” Bruce said tightly.

Dick scoffed, rolling his eyes. “And? He hasn’t been hiding them real hard. Not like we need them.”

“The first one was the opening act; a gift. He had to leave it where he was sure we’d get his message. The second one is just that: the second. Joker’s ramping up to something big. And we can’t trust that they’ll all be that easy to find.”

“And you don’t trust that I got the information we needed?” Dick’s tone was flippant, mixed with forced casualness, like the answer didn’t really matter.

Bruce pondered that for a minute, trying to put his finger on what his first Robin was hiding. His relaxed pose a bit too relaxed, his answers too dismissive; something else was at play.

“And if I say no?” He asked, watching for Dick’s telltale signs of anger. The shrug though… That cinched it. “What are you hiding, Nightwing?”

The casual posture disappeared almost instantly, like a popped balloon, and Dick seemed to shrink in on himself as he moved from the table into one of the chairs.

“You don’t want to watch it, Bruce,” He said quietly, a pleading edge to his voice. “What I got through… The Joker used you to try and break him.”

Compartmentalizing, Bruce ignored that last half of his statement, focusing on the first. “What you got through? You didn’t watch the whole thing?”

Dick shook his head, as his foot started tapping against the ground. “No. But I got through enough of it. Enough to know you shouldn’t watch it. Please, Bruce.” When he looked at Bruce, whatever he saw in his face had him shaking his head. “I know we’ve had some issues, lately, Bruce; and it’s not a one-sided issue. But if you ever trusted me… I know you think you can just take all this shit, and shove it down, and move on. Trust me when I tell you that you won’t be able to just shove this into a little box, and move on.” Pushing himself to his feet, Dick began pacing back and forth, occasionally running a hand through his hair, or scrubbing it down his face. “I’m not Tim, Bruce. I’m not Barbara. I might not have been here since the beginning, but I was the first Robin, and in eleven years, I’ve gotten to know you better than anyone but Alfred. I know this affects you, you just try to keep it all buried.

“But this whole thing, it was never about Jason. Maybe he got some kick out of seeing what it took to break him, but it was always about you. He stole Batman’s sidekick; he tortured Batman’s Robin. This has always been about you, and he’s made this game to hurt you. And right now, he’s got the upper hand. Either we shut him down, or he’s going to break you.”

Bruce moved forward, setting his hand on Dick’s shoulder, waiting until the young man turned to look at him.

“It affects me, Dick; I won’t deny that. But it won’t break me. I already watched the first one; and yes, it hurt. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I did it, and I’ll do it twelve more times; I’ll watch every one of those damn videos, and I’ll remember that Jason survived it all. That he’ll be there waiting when this is all said and done. We’ve already won; we got Jason back. And that’s all that matters.”

Or at least… That’s what he meant to say.

“I need that disc.”

 


 

Four Years Ago

There wasn’t too much that stunned Batman into stupidity, but staring at the scrawny, dirty kid humming ‘Dirty Deeds’ as he removed the lug nuts from The Car definitely shocked him into silence for a moment. One tire was already missing, and he was happily working on the front passenger side when Batman came up behind him.

“What’re you doing?” He asked before the kid could finish.

The boy jumped, bringing the tire iron around in a blow that went wide, jumping back at the same time, panic written all over his face as he took in the cowl.

“Well, hi there, Mr. Batman. Nice night, huh?” He said, holding the tire iron like a baseball bat at his side. Despite his friendly words, Batman could see the boy sizing him up, trying to decide if he could get away with the tire he’d already made off with, or if he should try and slow him down with his impromptu weapon before bolting.

“Where's my tire?”

“What tire?”

Batman quirked one eyebrow, amazed at the boy’s audacity. “The tire you took. Off of my car.”

“Man, who’d be stupid enough to steal a tire off your car? Maybe it just fell off somewhere. Rolled away.”

“… Rolled. Away.”

“Hey, all sorts of weird shit happens in the Bowery, Mr. Batman. Tires rollin' off on their own all the time down here.”

“And you just happen to have a tire iron, because…?”

“Ain’t safe ‘round here at night. Kid’s gotta protect himself, right? Can’t depend on you to be everywhere.”

“What’s your name?”

“My name? I’m Billy. Billy Bob, actually.” At Batman’s incredulous look, the boy shrugged with a thousand-watt grin. “I know, man; parents these days. What’re they thinkin’, right? I mean, my folks name me Billy Bob, yours name you after some weird, cave-dwellin' rat with scaly wings. What’re ya gonna do?”

“Where are your parents… Billy Bob?” Batman asked, unable to keep the quirk of a smile from his face at the name.

If he’d blinked, he would’ve missed the mix of grief and anger that flashed across the boy’s face faster than lightning, before his too-big-to-be-real smile came back.

“Sleepin’, safe and sound at home. I better get back to ‘em, though; they wake up and find out I’m not home, they’ll tan my ass black and blue for sure. Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Batm- Hey!”

Batman had just barely managed to grab the kid before he darted, holding the far-too skinny child at arm’s length as he grabbed and threw the tire iron into the alley.

“No fair, man! I need that! Tools of the trade, and all! You don’t see me tryin’ to grab your fancy belt, do ya? C'mon, man, put me down!”

Despite his size, the kid was putting up a decent fight, and Batman decided to simply wait him out. After a minute, the boy finally stopped trying to escape, and huffed angrily as Bruce set him back on the ground -still careful to keep a tight grip on his arm though.

“I’m going to make you a deal, Billy Bob,” He said slowly, catching the boy’s eye. “You put my tire back on, and I’ll take you for a ride to my favorite diner. Get you a something to eat. How's that sound?”

Instantly, the kid’s whole demeanor changed, going from jovial clown, to hardened thug, as his face tightened, drawing his fists up at his side, entire body bracing for a fight.

“Like hell I’m gettin’ in a car with you, asshole. You think I’m stupid or somethin’? No way. You want me, you’re gonna have to drag me kickin’ and screamin’ the whole damn way. Trust me, ain’t worth your time; lots a boys out there would love to ‘go for a ride’ with you; hell, lot of ‘em would do it for free, jus’ ta say they sucked Batman’s dick. But I ain’t into that shit, an’ no amount of ‘big bad bat’ is gonna change that. You’ll have to beat me bloody first, ya hear me?”

Immediately, Batman released the kid’s arm, his words sending a wave of disgust and horror through him as he took a step back, holding up his hands in surrender.

“That’s not what I was implying. I mean what I said: I’ll take you and get you a meal. I’ll even bring you back here after you finish eating. I promise.”

“Yeah? For what?” At Batman’s confused look, the kid scoffed loudly, folding his arms across his chest. “Whaddya need me to do?”

“Nothing. I just want to buy you a meal.”

“Nothin’ for nothin’, and somethin’ for everything. The hell do you want?”

Realization dawned on Batman, and he thought for a moment, before nodding at the missing tire from the car.

“I buy you a meal, you give me back my tire. Sound fair?”

Eyes still wary, the boy rubbed at his chin for a second. “Blackmail. Or ransom, I guess. Not too many people can say they managed to blackmail Batman. Alright, Mr. Batman, you’ve got a deal.”

Chapter Text

It was early, barely three o’clock in the afternoon -far earlier than Bruce would normally be out. Dick and Barbara were still sleeping, and Tim had only just dragged himself out of bed, mumbling something about a psych final as he’d plodded through the kitchen, stopping only to fill his oversized coffee thermos before shuffling out the front door.

Bruce hadn’t been able to sleep; he’d tossed and turned for a few hours in his room, watching as the clock moved -oh so slowly -from seven. To eight. To nine. So he’d finally gotten up, and went over the information for Joker. Searched for anyone Jason might have told Joker about.

But after Tim had left, he’d gotten dressed in his ‘human clothes’ as Jason called them, a pair of blue jeans and a black sweater, telling Alfred he had to meet with the head of the R&D program -and no, there was no reason for Alfred to take him, Bruce was perfectly capable of driving himself to Wayne Towers and back.

But instead of heading uptown, to the upscale commercial district, he’d stayed on the side roads, weaving his way in and out of traffic, until he’d parked on the opposite side of the road from the apartment. As he got out, he could see Jason sitting on the balcony; knew that Jason could see him too, and watched as the boy ground his cigarette out, throwing it over the railing with a slight raise of his chin, the defiance of the gesture turning Bruce’s mouth up at the corners, a half smile coming unbidden.

That was his Jason. And that reminder, that Jason was still himself, that he wasn’t broken, that he’d survived with his soul intact, settled a part of him that he hadn’t known was worried.

He climbed the stairs to the fifth floor at a steady pace, nodding politely at the few residents he met on his way, until he was in the hallway. As he raised his hand to knock, Jason’s voice -deeper than he remembered, not that of a boy at the tail end of puberty any longer – carried through the door.

“It’s open.”

The scene that greeted him inside was too staged -Jason sat on the coach, arms folded across his chest, feet on the coffee table, crossed at the ankle, an air of casualness filling his relaxed pose.

He could only stare for a moment. It had all seemed so easy when he’d decided to go and see Jason that morning; while he hadn’t been expecting a tearful, heartfelt reunion -he wasn’t Dick, to show his emotions so easily -he’d expected… something. A sign from Jason that he was happy to see him.

Or even angry to see him, he thought, closing the door behind him, and moving in to sit in the chair farthest from his middle child. That hint of defiance from the balcony was gone, replaced by a polite coolness, as Jason waited for him to make the first move.

“How are you?” Even as the words came out, he cursed himself for being an idiot, watching as a wave of unease ran through Jason, before he settled again, giving a rough shrug of his shoulders.

“Not dead. Mostly sane. Been worse.”

“Did Barbara give you –“

“Yeah, she gave me the papers.”

“Did any of it look like something you’d be willing to try?”

Jason chuckled roughly, unfolding his arms, and stretching them out before digging in his pockets, and coming out with his cigarettes. Despite Bruce’s glare, he lit one, blowing the smoke in a small ring.

“That really what you want to talk about?” He asked, his eyes following the ring as it moved towards the ceiling.

Bruce slowly shook his head as he leaned forward. “Not really.”

“Didn’t think so. So why are you here?” In an instant, Jason’s whole demeanor changed, all pretense of ease erased, his voice tight, and body tense as he sat up, dropping his feet to the floor. “Here to tell me how bad I fucked up? How I let emotions get in the way? Give me shit for not gettin’ myself out ‘fore you and my goddamn replacement had to rescue me?”

His voice dropped even lower, as he looked up, meeting Bruce’s eyes for the first time since he’d entered. “Or maybe you’re here to tell me why you didn’t find me sooner. Why you replaced me after only a few months. Why you left me with an insane fuckin’ clown for over a year. Why you let him torture me for thirteen months.”

Bruce kept himself still, the rage-filled gaze sending every instinct he had -as a parent, and as a vigilante -into overdrive, but he kept his voice level and even.

“I don’t blame you, Jason. There was nothing you could’ve done to stop what happened. And I’m sorry I didn’t find you sooner. I’m sorry that you feel like I replaced you. But we -I -thought you were dead. The Joker sent me a video of you dying.”

“And you bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. The World’s Greatest Detective.” The scorn in Jason’s words rang through the apartment, and Bruce had to suppress a wince as Jason stood, pacing around the small room.

“Yes, Jason: I made a mistake. And you paid the price for it. Is that what you want to hear?”

“What I… Jesus, you just don’t get it, do you?” The anger deflated, leaving as quickly as it had come, leaving Jason looking like the lost, weary teenager he was. “You just… Jesus. Fuck.”

“Jason, just tell me what you want from me. Tell me what you want me to say,” Bruce said, trying to keep the plea from his voice. “Tell me what you want me to do here.”

I shouldn’t have to fuckin’ tell you!”

Almost before the screamed words finished, the door to the apartment opened, Tim in his civvies stepping in, hands raised as he moved, careful to keep a good distance from Jason, who looked like he was ready to lash out at anything that moved.

“Hey, Jason,” Tim said easily, not taking his eyes off of him as he moved behind the couch. “We haven’t met yet. I’m Timothy Drake.”

“The Replacement,” Jason hissed, his fists clenching.

“Yup. But most people call me Tim. I’m just here to collect the Big Guy, and we’ll get out of your hair. Alfred sent me over.”

 


 

Tim kept his voice even, careful to not take his eyes off of Jason, while purposefully not meeting his furious gaze either as he moved closer to Bruce. Hopefully, Jason wouldn’t take it as Robin helping Batman; hopefully he’d see it for what it was, that Tim was trying to deescalate a situation that was about to turn very, very nasty.

Alfred had called him in the middle of his psych final, his voice as close to panicked sounding as Tim had ever heard him -a slight tilt at the end of his sentences, a certain tenseness that was usually absent -as he explained that Bruce had left the house, and the tracking on the car showed him moving to Jason’s apartment. Dick and Babs were still asleep, leaving only him to avert the crisis -no matter how much worse his presence might make the situation, leaving Jason alone with emotionally-constipated Bruce was something that needed avoiding.

He’d barely taken the time to toss the half-finished leaflet of papers on the professor’s desk before darting out, making it to his car, and then to the Bowery, in record time -although obviously not fast enough. He’d heard Jason’s angry voice as he came out of the stairwell, and by the time he’d gotten to the door, Bruce’s wonderful personality had apparently won through, and he’d entered as soon as he’d heard Jason’s yelling.

“Ro -Tim, what’re you doing here?” Bruce asked, catching himself in time. And thank Christ for that, because Jason already looked nine kinds of murderous.

“Like I said: Alfred sent me here. Needs you home. Now. Emergency.”

Chapter Text

Hello peeps. I just wanted to give you two heads up:

1. I'm going to be taking a two week break; no new chapters will be posted in that time.

2. I'm going to be pulling down the last 2-5 chapters, depending on how I can actually work them in to what I want. As per usual when I write, I started in one place, and ended up somewhere completely different, that makes it impossible to end where I wanted to. I'm also going to be editing the rest of the chapters for continuity errors, spelling errors, plot holes, and so on. So when I do start posting it up again, yall might want to start back at the beginning if you've got time.

 

Thank you so much to all of you who've stuck by me while I meandered my way from the original point of this fic; your comments make my day.

Chapter Text

Watching Jason for any sign that the oncoming explosion was imminent, Tim grabbed Bruce by the arm, hauling him out of the chair, and around the back of the couch.

“So it was nice to meet you, Jason,” He said, keeping his voice as level as he could, while trying to drag Bruce to the door. “Hopefully I’ll see you around.”

Bruce tried setting his heels in, but -whether it was adrenaline, anger, or some other thing that Tim couldn’t be bothered to think of at the moment -Tim muscled him out the door, taking just long enough to close it behind him gently, before moving the two of them to the stairwell. Only once they were inside, and another door was between them and Jason, did he release a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, turning to look at Bruce darkly.

Seriously?”

“What?” Bruce asked, moving down the stairs, as if nothing was wrong.

Tim followed behind him, growling under his breath. “Are you serious right now, Bruce? Did you not just hear what I heard? See what I saw?”

Bruce turned fast enough that Tim nearly ran into him, but despite the glare, Tim held his ground.

“Of course, I saw. He was angry, but Jason’s always had a temper. I don’t need you to protect me from him.”

Tim stared for a moment, dumbfounded. “Are… Jesus, Bruce, I wasn’t protecting you from him. I was protecting him from you. And that right there is why. You realize that every time one of the family gets too close, he loses it, right? Do you even understand what he’s been through?”

“Of course I understand,” Bruce said disdainfully, as they exited the building. “I've gotten an up close and personal look at what happened to him. But Jason’s tough; he’ll survive this. I’m not going to just tiptoe around him, and pretend he’s ruined, or broken beyond repair. All of us have gone through things, and we all overcome them. Just like Jason will.”

Tim opened his mouth, ready to let loose, before reigning his temper in, taking a deep breath. Bruce was pig-headed at the best of times, and arguing with him only made it worse. So he thought for a moment, planning out his words.

“Bruce… I get it, okay? We’ve all had some… traumatic things happen. No denying that. And nobody’s saying that Jason is ‘ruined’ or whatever. But the sad truth is that none of us have been through something like this. A severe, prolonged traumatic event, almost a year and a half of captivity, tortured by a madman.”

He held up his hands to stop Bruce, as the older man began to speak. “I know we’ve all had our traumas. You with your parents, and then again with Jason. Dick’s parents, and then the thing with Tarantula. Oracle being paralyzed. My parents death… They were all traumatic moments. Not prolonged. There’s a big difference there.”

“He’s still Jason,” Bruce insisted stubbornly, folding his arms across his chest.

“Yes, he is. But he’s not the Jason you lost, Bruce. There may still be traces of him in there, but he’s not that kid anymore. And he never will be,” Tim said as gently as he could. “Things like that, they change you. I’m not saying that he can’t recover from it -he can. But he’s never going to be who he was.”

 


 

Dusk was beginning to set on Gotham.

Although, it was always hard to tell when the dingy darkness of the city ended, and nighttime began, Dick thought idly, slipping into his blue and black suit with practiced ease, watching as Bruce and Tim did the same, although Tim was nowhere near as graceful or adept at sliding his red suit on.

So Dick slid into a chair around the table, stretching his arms out, keeping his grin in check as Bruce tapped his foot impatiently, staring at Tim as the newest Robin struggled to pull the suit over his shoulders. But finally, all three of them were as ready as they were going to get, sitting down and settling in as Barb wheeled her chair to the head of the table.

“Unfortunately, as of right now, we don’t have enough information to come up with an accurate victim, or location profile,” She began, her ‘professor’ voice firmly in place as she slid a tablet across the table to each of them. “GCPD processed both crime scenes, and Batman was able to collect data on the second scene; the first one was cleaned up, and washed away by GCPD before we could gather any information on it. The autopsy reports on both victims came in a few hours ago; while neither woman was infected with Joker venom, they were both given a cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs. While there’s no way of ascertaining the direct cause, as near as the coroner could tell, both women were literally scared to death.”

“Wait, is that actually possible?” Dick interjected, leaning forward. “I thought that only happened to old people with bad hearts.”

“In theory, it can happen to anyone,” Barbara answered with a shrug. “Essentially, fear triggers the body’s ‘flight-or-fight’ response, which is basically pure adrenaline; in large enough amounts, the liver can’t filter enough of it, and it runs rampant through the body. I read a few studies on it earlier, and apparently in a prolonged ‘flight-or-fight’ response, the adrenaline will destroy the liver first, followed by the kidneys and lungs, and eventually, it shuts down your heart. Under normal circumstances, Nightwing would be right: you couldn’t induce a strong enough response in a healthy adult without the body accepting the changes, and shutting down to protect itself. But when you add in hallucinogens, the brain’s functioning processes are impaired, which means it doesn’t recognize the signals telling it to adapt to the new threat.”

“How long would something like that take?” Bruce asked, staring at the tablet, and from what Dick could see he was looking at the chemical compound from the bloodwork.

“Precise numbers? Impossible to say. But the simulations I ran, figuring in the drugs used, said a mentally competent and healthy adult could take anywhere from three to six days. Based off of the coroner’s report, and Batman’s crime scene readings, Diamond Jones was held captive anywhere from twenty-four to thirty-six hours. But she had a history of cocaine use, and she didn’t exactly live a healthy lifestyle. Elizabeth Kingston on the other hand… The coroner estimated she was kept for at least four days, no more than seven, based off of weight loss, the condition of the body, and the missing person’s report.”

“Which means Joker planned this out,” Tim said, his gaze locked on the autopsy photos of the first victim. “It wasn’t spur of the moment; he had to have somewhere to keep them for at least a week, and he had to have the drugs.”

“Exactly, Robin,” Barbara said with a nod. “I’ve got simulations running, trying to at least narrow down the next victims, but I can’t promise any degree of accuracy; we all know the Joker defies profiling at the best of times, and I don’t have much to go on other than ‘connected to Jason’.”

“What parameters are you using?”

“Right now? I’m running missing person’s reports against anyone who lived in the three apartments Jason grew up in, any social workers active in the area while Jason was going through the system, kids who stayed at foster homes or orphanages at the same time Jason did, and any adults who were picked up for vagrancy near Crime Alley specifically, and the Bowery in general as kids. Also, as an FYI? There’s way too many of the last ones,” She added darkly.

“What’re we looking at for accuracy numbers?” Bruce asked, a frown on his face.

“Honestly? I’ve already got well over a hundred possibilities, and I just started running the program three hours ago. Without asking Jason if he knew any of the hits, there’s no way of telling which ones are actually at risk.”

“Now hold on,” Dick interrupted, playing around with the parameters on the tablet. “How soon after death were the bodies dumped?”

“First victim died between eighteen to twenty-four hours before her body was dumped at GCPD; second one was between eight and twelve hours,” Babs answered promptly, and -not for the first time -Dick envied her eidetic memory. But he pushed that aside, and focused on the list of possible victims again.

“Alright, so if we presume it takes a maximum of seven days to scare someone to death, and the Joker’s dumping them between twelve and twenty-four hours, we can eliminate anyone who’s been missing more than two weeks.”

Barbara nodded, fiddling around with her tablet, and Dick could see the list of names shrink on his tablet. “That’s good. What else you got for me?”

“I think we can eliminate the social workers,” Tim said thoughtfully. “The fact that Kingston was a social worker was a coincidence; you said Jason didn’t recognize her picture, which means he knew her when he was a kid. Whatever connection they had, it was when they were younger, not because she was a social worker.”

“And Jason was never attached to any social worker he had,” Bruce added, a small, tight smile on his face. “He hated all of them.”

Barbara changed the parameters again, but it only knocked three names off of the list this time, and she shook her head. “Need something better, guys. We’ve still got seventy-nine names here, and the computer is still scanning and adding more.” When nobody said anything, she sighed. “Alright, let’s look at locations. GCPD -the significance is pretty obvious, although I’ve got to say, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t tie the body to the Bat Signal. But what about the Boardwalk?”

“Boardwalk is new,” Dick cut in. “He’s either using it as a substitute for somewhere else, or he’s after something that was there before. The Boardwalk has only been there a few years.”

“But Amusement Mile isn’t,” Tim pointed out. “The Boardwalk is just one of six sections on the outskirts of the old park that they’re revamping.”

Dick rolled his eyes. “Joker practically lived there before we threw him in Arkham last time. Even when I was Robin, it was one of his favorite hangouts; I can’t count the amount of times B and I chased him through there. If he’d wanted the body in the park, it’d be in the park.”

“True. But in the past three years, it’s been taken over by squatters, and gangs. Nobody would report a body there, if they even noticed it. But since they’re ‘gentrifying’ the outskirts, the developers have a pretty heavy security presence there. Might be the closest he could get, while still ensuring the body was actually found.”

“The problem isn’t finding areas that are significant to both the Joker and I,” Bruce interrupted. “I can think of two dozen off the top of my head, the most obvious one being the factory where he became the Joker.”

Barbara shook her head. “If he uses that, it’ll be for the finale. It’s too big a marker for the opening act.”

“Master Bruce.”

All four of them turned towards Alfred, who was standing in front of the elevator.

“They’ve found another body.”

Chapter Text

“Oracle here. Comm check. Batman.”

“Copy, Oracle. Scanning the area in a three-block radius around the crime scene.”

“Nightwing?”

“Loud and clear, O. Loose patrol pattern, starting in the Diamond district, working around.”

“Robin?”

“I read you, Oracle,” Tim responded absently, watching down from the top of the hardware store, the scanners in his domino mask logging details. “Logging and analyzing the crime scene.”

“Alright, Robin, I’m going to hijack the feed, so me and Penny-One can start analyzing it. Get ready for the link-up.”

Tim hesitated for only a moment. “I… wouldn’t recommend it, Oracle,” He said softly, gazing down at the victim. The CSU was still gathering samples, and photographing the scene, so they hadn’t covered the body yet, the tiny form laying on the cold ground looking for all the world like a broken doll an irate child had discarded. “It’s… Not like the others.”

“Negative, Robin.” Batman’s voice was all business as usual. “Prepare the link and feed Oracle the data.”

Snarling under his breath, Tim switched over to the private channel Bruce typically used for communication with Alfred when he didn’t want the others to know; Tim had hacked it almost six months ago, although he hadn’t had reason to use it yet. Now seemed like an opportune time.

“I don’t want her seeing this, B,” He growled, unable to take his eyes off of the body. “This isn’t the sort of thing we normally deal with, even from the Joker.”

To his credit, Bruce didn’t bother asking how or why Tim had access to the channel. “She’s not a wallflower, Robin; Oracle isn’t going to faint over a brutalized body.”

"It's just a kid," Tim seethed. "We can handle this."

"Quit treating her like porcelain, and get the job done, Robin.  Prepare the uplink, and get off this channel."

Wordlessly, Tim shut off his communicator as he prepared to link his cowl with the computers in the Cave. A series of pings rang in his ear -Barbara -but he ignored it; his tracker, and vital signs were still communicating strong, and she’d know he was okay. Or as okay as he could get at the moment. But he wasn't going to listen and have a conversation with his damn wife as they recorded the crime scene of the Joker's latest victim.

He moved silently, sliding down a water pipe to the fire escape, trying to compartmentalize. Normally, it came easy to him; he was able to look at a body and see only that: a body. Bruce had taught him early on that you couldn’t view them as the people they were; you had to view them as evidence, as another piece of the crime scene puzzle. And normally, Tim was very good at that.

But the girl laying on the ground below him couldn’t have been much older than thirteen or fourteen, her face still retaining some of its baby-chub, even if her clothes spoke to a profession no kid her age should be in.

And she hadn’t died like the others; the whole crime scene was completely different this time around, from the body to the package sitting between her too-short miniskirt. While it was obviously still the Joker’s handy-work -his writing scrawled on the package, and the wall next to the girl’s body left no doubt about that -this was far more… brutal… than the previous victims. While Kingston and Jones had died in fear, there had been no marks on the bodies; whatever torture had been inflicted on them was psychological, leaving behind no traces of the torment they’d lived through in their last moments.

But this girl had died in agony; Tim didn’t need an autopsy report to know that. All of her limbs were bent at odd angles, and she was covered head to toe in bruises and slashes. Her porcelain skin was splashed with blood, contrasting sharply with the black and blue marks covering everything including her face. Her face…

Tim had heard of death contortions before; hell, he’d seen a few himself. Faces moving after death, locking into odd positions as rigor mortis set in. But this was different. The girl’s face spoke of the terror and pain she’d felt before she’d died, eyes wide, with small rivulets where tears had smudged the blood as she lay dying.

Even without the cowl’s analysis, Tim could tell she’d been alive when she’d been left there. Somehow, she’d managed to drag herself a few feet closer to the street, trying to crawl out of the alley she’d been left in, leaving behind a blood trail from the dumpster where somebody had left her. How she’d managed to move, much less pull herself across the glass, rocks, and debris of the alley, Tim wasn’t sure; he’d logged at least sixteen different fractures in her arms and legs, and even breathing must have been agony, even if she hadn’t been drowning in her own blood -which she had been.

The cowl had filled him in on that piece of information that he hadn’t wanted to know; she’d had severe internal bleeding, filling her heart and lungs with blood, which was most likely what had killed her. ‘Most likely’ because Tim was pretty sure no human being was meant to survive the kind of pain the girl had been in; her little heart might have given out even if it hadn’t been clogged with her own blood.

Part of him admired the girl's tenacity; most grown men would've given up, laying where they were dropped, and dying like they were supposed. She hadn't though; whoever this girl had been, she was a fighter right up until the bitter end. But the fact that it had ended crushed the feeling of admiration, leaving behind a hollowness in his chest; for all of her spirit, for all of her fight... she'd still died. Alone in an alley, a few yards from the street. Even if someone had bothered to call for help, there wouldn't have been much anyone could've done other than to be there in her final moments.

What had she been thinking as she dragged herself, inch by agonizing inch? Had she known how pointless her struggle was? Had she known that no matter what she did, she was going to die?

Had she been afraid in those last moments? Angry? Sad? Was there anybody she was leaving behind, anyone who would remember her? Or would she be just another dead homeless kid from the Bowery, her face relegated to a case file somewhere as all traces of her slowly vanished?

In his current state of mind, he almost missed it; the incessant pinging in his ear buzzing away like an annoying fly. But his training kicked in, his subconscious picking up the Morse coded message of dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dot dot before he was aware of it, and he glanced down to seen Jim staring up at him. Once his father-in-law realized he had his attention, he jerked his head towards the roof, and started towards the building.

Any other day, Tim would’ve groaned. While he loved Jim -the man was as much, if not more, of a father than Bruce was -he hated their interactions as Commissioner and Robin, and he’d tried to limit their face-to-face interactions as much as possible; while Bruce insisted that the modulator, and domino mask were enough to fool even people who knew him if he kept the light at his back, Tim was always afraid of giving himself away.

But he couldn’t exactly ignore the man either; for Jim to want to speak to one of the Family at a crime scene, whatever information he had was important, especially seeing as how he hadn’t bothered bringing the package with him.

So he climbed back up the pipe, angling himself by the little shed so the dim light from the street left him cloaked in shadows, and waited for Jim to climb the stairs inside, and make his way to the roof.

“Robin.”

“Commissioner.”

“He around?”

Tim nodded. “Sweeping the perimeter. He left me to analyze the scene,” He said shortly, his modulated voice sounding too much like his own to his ears.

“This isn’t like the other two,” Jim said after a moment, patting down his pockets almost absently, and Tim resisted the urge to give the man a gentle chiding as he pulled his cigarettes out, lighting one almost as if on autopilot. “Don’t tell the big guy, eh? He’ll give me no end of grief for it.”

“He’s not wrong.”

Jim snorted. “Yeah, well.”

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, watching Jim puff away, Tim leaned against the building, folding his arms over his chest.

“This is your show, Commissioner.”

“I know. I was hoping the big guy would be up here. Not real comfortable giving the information to you.”

Tim bristled at the comment. “I’m his Robin, Commissioner Gordon,” He said, trying to keep the sting from his voice. “He tells me everything anyways. I’ve never betrayed that trust.”

Jim scoffed loudly, throwing his cigarette on the ground, and tamping it out with the toe of his boot. “That’s not it, kid. I’ve seen enough of you come and go to know that he tells you things he shouldn’t; things kids your age shouldn’t be dealing with. That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable doing the same thing.”

“I’m an adult, Commissioner. Over the legal drinking age.” Not exactly true, but close enough; his birthday was only a few months away.

Jim sighed. “And he’ll tell you anyways, I suppose. We got an I.D. on the body; Jennifer Harding, thirteen. She’s been picked up six times for prostitution, four for petty theft and pickpocketing, and one for assault. Her old man had a long sheet for domestic violence, and drunk and disorderly. She was in and out of foster homes for a while, but she dropped off the grid when she was eight. She was first picked up for prostitution a year later.”

Tim did his best to ignore the flash of anger that coursed through him at that. Nine years old. Somebody had been paying her for sex when she was only nine. Sometimes -more often than he’d care to admit -he absolutely loathed Gotham, and its residents.

“Is there any signs that she was sexually assaulted prior to her death?”

Another cigarette was dug out of the pack as Jim shook his head. “Dunno, kid. Too much blood and damage to tell yet. My CSU says she wasn’t wearing underwear, but for prostitutes, that isn’t exactly uncommon. We’ll know for sure after the autopsy report.”

“Do you think she was?”

To his credit, Jim only hesitated for a moment, before nodding. “I think it’s pretty damn likely. And if this is the Joker… He’s never actually done something like this before. Not to a kid, not like this.”

“He did it to my predecessor,” Tim said, the response blurting out before he could stop it.

Jim grimaced at that. “The big guy told me the kid was alive. He doing okay?”

“As okay as he can be.”

“Good. I liked him. Ballsy little snot, but man, some of the crap that came out of his mouth. He could make a sailor blush.”

“You’ll get me the package?”

“All business. You’re the most like the big guy out of the three of you. Call him, kid. I’ve got an inkling of what’s on that tape, and it’s nothing you need to see. Tell him I’ll wait for him.”

Chapter Text

Bruce watched as three very miserable faces trudged past him towards the elevator, all of them looking completely exhausted -as if they’d reached the end of the wellspring of energy they’d been running off of the last few months.

He knew the feeling, even if he was better able to hide it than them. He’d been Batman for a little more than twenty years, and that crime scene had still managed to disturb him; while murders weren’t uncommon in Gotham, that had easily been one of the worst crime scenes he’d seen in a long time. Even Jim, a hardened veteran of almost thirty-five years had been shaken up when he’d handed him the package.

“Master Bruce?”

Despite the heavy weight sitting in his chest, despite the image of the little girl’s broken body burned into his vision, he managed to give Alfred a tired smile.

“I’m fine, Alfred. You can go.”

The elderly man straightened his shoulders, fixing him with ‘the look’, as the kids had called it. The look said what Alfred rarely did; that the recipient was being pig-headed and foolish, and he wouldn’t put up with it.

“I should say not, sir. I’m well aware you received another video. Shall we be watching it here, or in your office?”

“Alfred, I –“

“Here it is then. I’m ready whenever you are, sir.”

 


 

There was no ‘opening speech’ to the video this time; as soon as Bruce clicked the ‘Play’ button, the dirty operating theater of Arkham appeared on the screen. The room itself was devoid of people, but after a few seconds, four figures appeared on the screen. Bruce could feel Alfred recoil beside him, felt a wave of anger and nausea deep in the pit of his stomach.

While the costumes weren’t perfect, they were damn close; to those who didn’t spend a lot of time around Batman and Robin, it would have been easy to mistake the two men dragging Jason’s bloody and bruised body as the real thing.

“Here. We don’t want him,” The Batman imposter said scornfully, pulling his hands away and letting Jason tumble to the ground with a pained groan. There was fresh blood dripping down his face from somewhere up in his hairline, and his left arm was bent at an odd angle. “I have a better Robin now, and you need to quit letting this embarrassment try to escape.”

The Robin imposter nodded imperiously, using a booted foot to roll Jason onto his back. “You hear that, fuck-up? He doesn’t want you back. I’m Robin now, and a hundred times better at it than you ever were. You were just the disappointment that held the suit for until a real Robin came along.”

Joker waltzed over, slapping the fake Batman on the shoulder. “Thanks for bringing him back, Batsy; I’m sorry he escaped again. I know I told you I’d keep him out of sight, out of mind, but well, he is a persistent one.” The Joker’s voice was that of a father apologizing to the neighbors for the family dog jumping the fence again.

“Please… Please, don’t…” Jason’s words came with gasping, shuddering breathes, his entire body trembling, tears running down his face as he reached out with an obviously broken hand, fingers mangled almost unrecognizably. “Don’t leave…”

Fake-Batman rolled his eyes, folding his arms across his chest. “Do me a favor, Joker, and just kill him. This is getting old, and I don’t like having my failures running around the city. Finish it.”

With that, the two imposters left the room, leaving a sobbing Jason and the Joker alone.

“Ah, there, there, Jason. It’s alright,” The Joker said soothingly, reaching down to pet Jason’s hair -a gesture that had Jason tensing up, his body shaking like a leaf, clearly waiting for the blows to start. “I won’t kill you! Don’t listen to Batsy, he doesn’t know what he’s giving up! As long as you stay here, he won’t mind if I don’t kill you. I’m going to take care of you now.”

The screen went dark for a few moments, before the sound of screaming -Jason, screaming, agonized screaming -was heard, the camera still dark, the Joker's gleeful chuckles ringing out, before they cut off abruptly.

“You didn’t take off the cap, you idiot!”

There was the unmistakable sound of a gun firing, and a second later, the cap was removed from the camera, although a large part of Bruce wished it hadn’t.

A sort of stage had been set up in the operating theater, the bottom made of wood planks, the back what looked to be thick plywood. At first glance, Bruce wasn’t sure why Jason was standing so still, his legs splayed at a wide angle, his arms as far out to the side as they would go, a few inches above his head, which was hanging forward. But with dawning horror, he noticed the cordless drill in the Joker’s hands, and as the camera was picked up, and moved closer, he could see the thick, silver Philips head screws in the center of both of Jason’s palms. The camera panned down quickly to show the same thing had been done to his feet, before moving back to its original position, and the Joker entered the view, carefully tucking his clown pistol back into his jacket.

“We’re going to try something new, Jason. I think you’re really going to enjoy this one,” He said, pushing a covered medical cart up to the wooden platform. “You see, I’ve been thinking… I haven’t really shown you my full repertoire. I mean, sure! I’m an artist with a crowbar, and I don’t even have to tell you the things I can do with a cattle prod, but I’m so much more than that, Jason! And I’ve been holding back, afraid to show you the true me! But I’m feeling much braver today, and I’m ready to flourish! So… Let’s begin, shall we!”

With a dramatic flourish, he pulled the covering off the cart, and Bruce’s blood ran cold at the objects laying there. A welding torch, a set of pliers, exacto-knives, a trepanation punch, an industrial sander… The camera angle pulled away from the cart too quickly for him to log everything that was on the cart.

Jason, however, barely reacted, other than a few faint twitches as he looked up at the cart. He looked to be mere moments from passing out, pain and exhaustion etched on his face, clearly not focusing on anything the Joker was saying, but the clown continued on anyways.

“Now, be a good boy, and keep still, Jason; otherwise those new accessories are going to make mincemeat out of your hands! Let’s see, what shall we start with…”

 


 

 Jason jerked awake, biting back the scream that tore at his lips, trying to break free, struggling to breath as his shudders wracked his body.

Just a dream, he thought desperately, glancing around at Dick’s bedroom. It’s not real. It’s not real, I’m not there.

But it was real, wasn’t it? Not a dream, Bird Brain.

He scrambled to his feet, desperately dragging himself towards the bathroom, feeling his stomach heaving as his head pounded, phantom pain coursing through his feet and hands as he dropped in front of the toilet just in time for the remains of his meager dinner to reappear.

That particular incident had been towards the end -he wasn’t sure how much time passed between the Joker fucking screwing him to a goddamn piece of plywood, and the Bat family finally rescuing him, but it had been on the tail end of things, he was pretty sure. The open wounds in the center of his palms had only ached more when the Joker tied him to that stupid fucking meat hook, his main method of keeping Jason from running in the final weeks (months?), after over a year of breaking his ankle hadn’t deterred him.

His stomach still churning, Jason forced himself to his feet, lurching unsteadily out of the bathroom, and starting for the living room, when the blinking red screen on the phone on the table next to the bed caught his attention.

Oh. Oh shit. Fuck.

He grabbed the phone, and the two steak knives laying on the nightstand, body moving on autopilot as he moved back into the bathroom, silently closing the door and locking it behind him as he struggled to keep his breathing even as he dialed the number with unsteady fingers.

It only rang once, and then his deep voice answered.

“Jason?”

“Somebody’s here, they’re trying to get into the apartment.” The effort of keeping his voice low meant he couldn’t hide the panic. “Somebody triggered the alarm.”

“Alfred, cameras up, now! Jason, hold on; I’m coming, okay? Are you somewhere defensible?”

“I’m in the bathroom. Oh fuck, he’s here, he’s gonna take me back, don’t make me go back, ple –“

 


 

“Nobody’s going to touch you!” Bruce cut him off sharply, diving into the Car at full speed. The meticulous side of his brain screamed that he wasn’t in his suit, he should’ve gone to the garage and gotten one of his civilian cars, or even Dick’s motorcycle. The father side of his brain snarled that he needed to drive faster. “Jason, I’m coming, okay? I’m on my way.”

“Don’t leave me, please.” The plea was interrupted by a quiet hiccup.

“I won’t, Jason, I’m not going to hang up. I’m on my way, I’ll be there in five minutes, okay?” He yanked the Car onto the main road, feeling the tires skid across the dew-slicked pavement, but he didn’t slow down, pushing back up to top speeds.

The dash flashed for a moment, before Alfred’s voice rang through the car; Bruce was forever grateful that the man hadn’t called his phone, that he hadn’t had to debate between hanging up on Jason, or gathering relevant information.

“Sir, there seems to be no one on the premise. Ms. Gordon-Drake is on her way down to ascertain where the breach occurred, and what happened, but the cameras show no one outside the apartment.”

Jason’s voice dropped so quiet that Bruce could barely hear him.

“He’s in the apartment. I took out the bugs inside the apartment. He’s inside, he’s fuckin’ inside the apartment, he’s here, he’s –“

“Jason, listen to me: I’m less than a minute out. I’m coming, okay? Just stay on the line no matter what happens, just stay on the line.”

Deciding to hell with any officer stupid enough to give him a ticket this morning, Bruce yanked the car into the fire lane in front of the apartment building, thankful that it was early enough that there were only a few people out and around. He reached into the glove box and pulled out one of Tim’s spare domino masks as he jumped out of the car, and bolted through the double doors, and straight up the staircase to the fifth floor.

“Jason, I’m coming up the stairs. I’m still on the line, but I’m going silent, okay?”

A muffled, quiet sob was the only answer he got.

Bruce checked the door, twisting the knob slightly, finding that it was still locked. He quickly picked the lock, taking a deep breath before pushing the door open…

The apartment was as it should be, but for the white and green package sitting on the kitchen table.

It might be a bomb. But it might also be something else. Look inside before you panic Jason.

He switched on the mask’s scanners, squinting at the different set-up Tim used, but the package contained nothing other than a disk. A problem, to be sure, but not an immediate threat.

He searched the rest of the tiny apartment quickly but efficiently, before moving to the bathroom door.

“Jason? It’s me,” He said over the phone. “I’m going to knock on the door three times, okay?” When he got no response, a feeling of terror washed over him, and he nearly burst through the door, only barely taking the time to knock, three times in rapid succession before opening it slowly.

Almost immediately, Jason threw himself at him, clinging to the front of his shirt, silent sobs wracking his far too-thin frame as Bruce dropped the phone, and grabbed his son, wrapping him in a hug as tight as he dared.

“Shh… It’s okay, Jason. No one’s here. You’re safe now.”

Jason’s words were muffled, pressed against his chest as he was, so it took Bruce a moment to make out what he was saying.

“You came for me. You came. You didn’t leave me.”

Bruce tightened his grip.

Chapter Text

Bruce sank to the floor, holding the still sobbing Jason with one arm, grabbing the phone off the floor with the other, dialing the number that would ring straight through to the Cave.

As soon as he heard the ‘click’, the chorus of voices in the background came over the line, the voices nearly overwhelming, before a sharp ‘Quiet!’ rang through the room, and Alfred came on the line.

“Is Master Jason alright, sir?”

Bruce glanced down at Jason, who pushed further against his chest, his small body still shaking. “He’s… unharmed. But somebody was here.”

“I know,” Barbara’s voice rang out. “I checked the camera; two guys in clo -in masks. They were carrying a package.”

“I found it.” He took a deep breath, his arm tightening around Jason. “Nightwing, I need you to get to Fitz’s Fresh Food; get Mr. Fitzgerald and his daughter some place safe, preferably out of the city. If they knew Jason was here, it’s safe to assume they’ve been watching him for a while. Ro –“He caught himself just in time, struggling with what to do for a split-second, before deciding to hell with protocol. “Tim, I want you to come to the apartment; do a sweep of the scene, and get the package back to the Cave. Oracle… I want those two men.”

“And you, sir?”

“I’m bringing Jason home.” He hung up the phone, tucking it into his jacket pocket as he looked down at the mop of unruly black hair. “Jason? Jason, we’ve got to go, alright? I know you didn’t want to go back to the manor, but until we can make other arrangements, I –“

“It’s… I want to go home,” Came the whispered response, as blue eyes, wet with tears, looked up at him. “Please, I just… I just want to go home.”

Bruce scooped Jason up in his arms as he stood, his heart breaking at the ease of the gesture -Jason was still far to thin, he must have weighed less than a hundred pounds, even five months after freeing him from the Joker.

“It’s alright, Jay,” He soothed, moving towards the door of the apartment. “It’s going to be alright. I’ve got you.”

Jason burrowed in closer to his chest in response.


 

It had been a bit of a struggle, driving home when Jason refused to let go of him, even to sit in the passenger seat. Thank God the Car had dark-tinted windows; Bruce shuddered to think what people would have assumed had they seen him driving home with a young man draped across his lap, arms around his neck as he drove.

But they’d made it back to the manor, and now Jason was curled up in Dick’s arm chair, his small body tucked in on itself, one arm wrapped around his knees, the other reaching across the small gap to set on Bruce’s leg.

Thank God for Dick, Bruce thought, glancing down at Jason, who was sleeping, even if somewhat fitfully. As soon as his oldest son had seen them get out of the car, he’d dragged the battered old chair over so it was next to, and facing Bruce’s computer chair, and had helped Bruce get him situated. Jason had struggled, at first, until Bruce had sat down in the chair next to him. Then he’d gradually settled down after making sure Bruce was still within touching distance, his eyes unfocused, small hiccups escaping every few minutes. Alfred had gotten one of the comforters from upstairs to drape over him, and Jason had burrowed inside it as best he could. The others had made themselves scarce, and eventually, Jason had fallen into a restless slumber.

Bruce wasn’t sure what was going to happen when Jason woke up; while part of him wanted to believe that Jason had truly just wanted Bruce in that moment -that he’d trusted Bruce, and only Bruce to save him -he’d seen enough -and experienced enough -PTSD episodes to know that Jason’s behavior was a classic symptom -intense neediness, or clinginess, after a severe trigger event. How much of it was Jason truly just wanting the only father he’d ever known, and how much was just a chemical aftereffect of someone shattering his new-found safety remained to be seen.

But then again… Jason had always craved physical affection, even as much as it terrified him. Like a mistreated animal, he wanted nothing more than to be loved, but subconsciously associated ‘touch’ with pain -something Willis Todd had taught him young, and his formative years on the street had only reinforced.

His hand tightened into a fist at the thought. Jason had told him once, shortly after he’d first donned the Robin costume, that he was cursed; that he wasn’t allowed to have good things for very long. That even if he didn’t screw it up himself, something would always go wrong, and usually ended up worse than when he’d started. He’d been so matter of fact about the whole thing, that even back then, Bruce had felt a twinge of guilt over letting him don the red and green costume.

Because Barbara had been right; she usually was, but this time, she’d been right in a way that drove shards through Bruce’s heart. Jason hadn’t been ready to be Robin; forget his temper, his casual dismissal of orders he disagreed with, the boy hadn’t been emotionally ready for the job Bruce had so readily let him take.

Never mind that he thought being Robin would help Jason in ways a therapist couldn’t; that had been his own projection, putting his experiences with psychiatrists onto Jason, when their situations couldn’t have been more different.

Jason had a deep-seated need to please, second only to his savior complex, the need to take care others even to his own expense. The two, in combination, had made for a horrible situation for him as Robin.

Because Bruce was honest enough to admit, he’d fed both of those issues; their relationship had been horribly co-dependent, looking back on it. No one would ever accuse him of taking care of himself, and he’d lost track of the number of times that he’d woken up in his chair, a blanket draped over his shoulders, a bowl of lukewarm, microwave heated, canned chicken soup set on the desk next to him, and Jason a few feet away with a pleased smile on his face even as he slept.

And while he wouldn’t say that he demanded ‘perfection’, he knew he was a difficult taskmaster; he demanded effort, the best of Jason’s ability, and for him to push those abilities past what he was comfortable with. He had been scant with praise, trying to push the boy to be better; never mind that he’d wanted Jason to be better at protecting himself, that he’d wanted the best grades so that Jason could achieve his dreams of going to college.

With the benefit of hindsight, he could admit that it hadn’t been a healthy situation for a physically and emotionally traumatized child to live in. While it was infinitely better than what Jason had had living on the streets of Gotham, it wasn’t what he’d needed -or deserved.

“B.”

Bruce turned, not towards Tim’s voice, but towards Jason, to see if the noise had woken him. But apparently the boy was firmly out, not even stirring at Tim’s voice. So, he turned his attention back to his other son.

“I scanned the apartment; they didn’t even bother trying to bypass the security system. They pried open one of the windows in the living room, dropped the package, and left. Didn’t leave any prints, so it’s a safe bet they were wearing gloves.”

“The package?”

Tim sighed, pulling a CD out of his pouch, and setting it on the desk in front of Bruce. “This was all that was in it.”

“Did you watch it?”

“No, I…” He hesitated for a second, before shaking his head. “No. It’s not mine.” He waited another moment, before hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m gonna go grab something to eat, and then me and Barbara are gonna go home.”

“Alright. Be safe,” Bruce said, giving him a tired smile.

“Always. And Bruce?”

“Hmm?”

“Get some sleep.”

 


 

Four years ago

Bruce was, to put it mildly, exhausted. He rubbed at his temple, trying to alleviate the on-coming headache as he glanced down at the myriad of paperwork before him.

Most of it was concerning Jason; the adoption was still in-process, with social workers coming to check on Jason regularly -Jason laughed at that, a scornful laugh a boy his age shouldn’t be capable of -doctors reports, school reports…

The difference five years could make, he thought with a grimace. When he’d adopted Dick, the process had been relatively simple. Signs some paperwork, submit it to the court, have Dick testify that he wanted to live with Bruce, that he was happy and well-taken care of, and that had been that. Paperwork stamped, and he was Dick’s guardian.

He leaned back in the chair, fingers intertwined behind his head. He’d forgone patrol for the night, knowing that the paperwork, and all the forms that went with it, had to be signed and submitted on time, or there was definitely a risk Jason would have to be put in a home while the system slowly trudged along processing it all.

But he’d finished it; he’d already told Alfred that it was ready to go, and the older man had assured him he’d deliver it to the courthouse when he went to do the grocery shopping in the morning, first thing.

As he clicked the light off on his way out of his study, he briefly debated on stopping by Jason’s room, to see if the boy was actually sleeping as he was supposed to be. But he decided against it; every time he opened the door while Jason was in there, the boy looked at him in a way that made Bruce sick to his stomach. It was worse when Jason was actually in bed, with the boy turning into a shaking mess. And the boy had sensitive hearing; no matter how quietly Bruce opened the door, Jason was always awake whenever he looked in.

At least, he liked to imagine that Jason was sleeping, and woke up when he peeked in; he didn’t want to entertain the thought that Jason was simply laying there, waiting for him to actually come inside.

Because daytime Jason had a sharp sense of humor, quick-witted, and quick to anger; a world-weary alley cat ready to throw down at a moment’s notice.

And nighttime Jason was a lost boy, afraid that he’d have to pay a price for all the luxury he’d been given.

No; far better to go to his own room, and get a good night’s sleep himself.

He knew the second he stepped into his room; as he closed the door behind him, he could feel another’s presence, and he’d snapped the lights on, preparing for a fight…

Only to see Jason, clad in his pajama bottoms, and an oversized hoodie, sitting on the edge of his bed, chewing on the side of his thumb.

“Jason? What’re you doing?” Bruce asked, trying to keep the sharpness from his tone, not moving from his position by the door. The boy was lucky he’d decided to turn the light on before attacking; otherwise he might’ve seriously hurt him before realizing who was in his room.

“I… ‘M sorry, I…” Jason hesitated, a panicked look in his eyes as he stood. “I just…” He closed his eyes for a few seconds, shifting from foot to foot, before he looked at Bruce, and he was shocked to see tears in the corners of those bright blue eyes. “I just really wanna… I wanna stay, and I… somethin’ for somethin’, an’ all that, ya know?” He took a deep breath, and Bruce could feel his face tightening as the boy’s hands started tugging at the bottom of his hoodie.

He managed to get it halfway off before Bruce could cross the room, firmly tugging it back down, trying desperately to keep the anger from his face, knowing that Jason wasn’t in a position to understand that the fury building in Bruce’s chest wasn’t directed at him.

“Jason, I… No. No, you don’t have to –“

“I want to!” Jason cried, his voice pleading as he fought against Bruce’s hands, still desperately trying to pull the shirt off. “Please, I know I… ‘M not good at it, but please, Bruce, I wanna stay! I’ll do whatever ya want, please, just let me stay!”

“Jason, stop it!” A part of Bruce hated himself at the sharp anger he let slip into his words, but he didn’t know what else to do. And as much as he hated it, it worked -Jason quit fighting him, only to scramble back onto the bed, huddling up against the headboard fearfully, staring at Bruce through tear-filled eyes.

Bruce took a deep breath, his mind racing as he tried to figure out what he was supposed to do. How the hell was someone supposed to handle a situation like this?

He moved over to his reading chair, mindful of Jason’s gaze following his every movement as he sat down.

“Jason… You don’t have to do anything, you understand? I invited you here because I genuinely want you here. Not because of what you can do, but because I enjoy your company. Because I want what’s best for you. And I most definitely don’t want to sleep with you, do you understand me? The only thing I want from you tonight is for you to go to your room, and get a decent night’s sleep, alright?”

Jason slowly uncurled from himself, still eyeing Bruce warily as he cautiously slid off the bed, never looking away as he inched his way to the door. As his hand went to the handle, he straightened up, swiping at his face with his sleeves.

“I wasn't gonna, anyways. Wouldda stabbed ya if ya’d actually tried anythin’," He said sharply, although the tremor in his voice belied the strong front he was trying to put on.

Bruce nodded, struggling to keep his face carefully neutral. “I’m sure you would have, Jason. Good night.”

 


 

“Bruce?”

Oracle’s soft voice yanked Bruce awake, his arm instinctively tightening on Jason’s as he glanced around, before finally settling enough to give Barbara a tight nod.

“I just finished the video,” She said softly.

“The video? Dammit, what time is it?” He demanded, glancing at the computer screen, his blurry vision refusing to focus.

“Almost midnight. Dick and Tim are out on patrol, but we didn’t want to disturb Jason, so we let you both sleep.”

What she didn’t say, but her eyes clearly did, was that they hadn’t wanted to disturb his sleep either. But when he glanced down at Jason, still curled up in the chair, hand still set on his leg, he couldn’t complain.

“What was it?”

“It wasn’t him,” She said, biting her lip for a moment as she looked away. “It’s the girl -Jennifer Harding.”

“Why the hell would he –“

“Because apparently, her and Jason were close before he came here to live with you. You’d have to ask Jason for exact details, but… Well, the Joker provided enough for me to make the connection.”

For the first time, he noticed just how pale her face was, the slight tremble of her hands on the edge of her chair, and he sighed.

“How bad?”

“Bad enough. The Joker made it intentionally to show Jason.”

“I don’t want him watching it,” Bruce said quickly, glancing down at the sleeping form next to him. “He doesn’t need to see it.”

“I agree. Nobody needs to see it. But I’m sure you’ll want to at some point anyways. I saved it onto the server here; do the world a favor and delete it when you’re done.”

Chapter Text

Alfred was sitting with Jason; Bruce had reluctantly dislodged Jason’s arm, while Alfred had replaced him in the chair, a grateful look on the older man’s face as he allowed himself a rare show of affection, laying his hand on Jason’s head. Bruce had waited long enough to ensure that Jason wasn’t going to wake, before taking the elevator back up to the manor, and making his way to his study, locking the door behind him.

He sat down at his desk, exhausted despite the almost twelve hours of sleep he’d gotten, opening his laptop reluctantly, and pulling open the file Oracle had saved.

 

“Well, hello, hello, dearie.”

The girl jerked awake with a start, blood dripping from a cut on her forehead, as she flew to her feet, hands balling into tight fists as she took stock of her situation.

Bruce could feel his blood boiling as he watched; the girl was -like most homeless children -seriously malnourished; according to Jim, she was thirteen, almost fourteen, but she’d only been four foot tall, and the  autopsy report put her weight at 64.7 pounds.. She almost looked like a toddler, if it wasn't for the crop-top and miniskirt.

She didn’t have a chance in hell against the Joker and four well-muscled men with baseball bats and crowbars.

“The hell do you want?” She demanded, eyes darting around the room.

“Why, I want you!” The Joker said grandly, waving his arms wide. “You see, we have a mutual friend. He actually gave me your name.”

“Screw you, you psychotic clown,” The girl spat, and Bruce watched as she started taking small, calculated steps back, her eyes still looking for an exit. “We ain’t got nothin’ in common.”

“Au contraire! Do you remember a doofy looking boy, got himself caught stealing the tires off the Batmobile, oh, about… what, four years ago?”

The girl froze, eyes widening in surprise for a split second, before narrowing again. “Fuck you, asshole. Jason didn’t tell you shit.”

“Oh, but he did. After more than a year as my… guest… he told me everything. Everything about you, and him, and how tough life was living on the streets, growing up with no mommy and daddy; how much better it was than growing up with mommy and daddy. Tell me though… Jeni, right? Tell me, Jeni, how do you think dear Jason would feel, knowing you started turning tricks the moment he disappeared to become Batman’s butt buddy?”

The girl stuck her chin out, and -to her credit -there was only a slight twitch as she met the Joker’s eyes. “Lemme repeat myself: fuck you. Don’t understand English? Que te jodan.”

The Joker grinned, chuckling. “Oh my, I see why you two got along so well. Brave little girl, aren’t you? Another day, another time, I would’ve enjoyed breaking you, like I did Jason. But… well, you see, I’m a bit strapped for time. Jason ran away, and the Big Bad Bat won’t return my favorite toy. I keep leaving him messages, but he just ignores me. And we can’t have that. So a bit more… personal… message is required. And you’re going to deliver that message for me.”

Deliver your message, or be your message?” The girl countered, her voice still strong despite the fact that she had to know what was coming, despite the fearful look in her eye.

“Tch, smart girl! It’s a real shame. Harley’s getting a bit old, and you would’ve been an excellent replacement. But… Ce la vie and blah blah blah.” For a split second, the Joker actually looked like he regretted it, but then he shrugged. “My friends here are going to help you deliver the message. And then you’re going to do exactly what I tell you. Maybe I’ll ever let you live if you do it right.”

“Ain’t happenin’, ass-munch. You might as well just kill me, you hear me?”

The Joker ignored her, snapping his fingers at the four men.

Bruce wanted to look away; watching four fully grown men beat a young girl with crowbars and bats, fists and feet, was nearly as bad as watching what had happened to Jason.

The beating went on for what seemed like hours; the clock on the computer told him it’d been about fifty-three minutes. The Joker had watched, giggling occasionally, but finally, he stepped forward, snapping his fingers again. The camera shut off -for how long, Bruce couldn’t tell -and then snapped back on, the broken and bruised little girl propped up in a chair during the cut, looking the worse for wear, but still conscious.

“Go on, dear. Tell Jason and the Bat what you want to say.”

The girl took a deep breath, and even over the camera, Bruce could hear the wheezing sound her lungs made as she did. But she gritted her teeth, closing her eyes for a few seconds, before staring straight at the camera.

“It ain’t your fault, Jason. I forgive you.”

All hell broke loose, as the Joker started cursing, screaming at his men to finish the job as he shoved the girl out of the chair.

“Fuck him up, Jason! You kill this fuckface for me!” She shrieked before the men fell on her like an angry wolfpack.

Bruce turned the video off, closing the laptop with exaggerated care.

Then, with a snarl, he threw it across the room.

 


 

“What was he like, before?”

Dick nearly missed his jump, Tim’s voice catching him off-guard as he was running from rooftop to rooftop.

“Uh… is this really the time, Robin?” He asked as he paused, glancing off into the distance at the Clock Tower.

He could practically hear the shrug in Tim’s voice when he spoke. “Batman and Penny-One won’t talk about him at all -especially since those videos started. Oracle, she… She gets this really sad look, and tells me that he was a ‘good kid’. I mean… Hold on a second, Nightwing, I’ll get back to you.” There was about a minute of silence, before Tim spoke again. “Sorry. Muggers.”

“Easy take down?”

“Don’t change the subject. I know you all said… That I wasn’t his replacement, that I was just the next guy to wear the suit, but… I did replace him, you know?”

“What, feeling a little guilty there, Robin?” Dick jived, trying to keep his voice casual.

“A bit. It could’ve just as easily been you or me that the Joker took. I get that we’re not all actually ‘brothers’, but we’ve kinda become a family. But I don’t know anything about him other than that he was a street-kid, who tried stealing Batman’s tires after you moved to Blüdhaven.”

Dick sighed as he climbed up on his favorite perch, settling in. “He… He was a handful. Angry, paranoid, snarky, sarcastic… But he really was a decent kid, you know? He wanted to go to M.I.T. Didn’t matter that he’d dropped out in the fifth grade, after his mom died; he was hellbent on going, and he wouldn’t let Bruce put him in remedial classes. He gave himself four months to get caught up to kids his own age. Four months to catch up on three years worth of schooling. And damned if the kid didn’t do it, too.”

“So he was smart,” Tim said, his voice quiet.

“Well… yeah. He was smart, but… He was just seriously driven. Kinda reminded me of Batman. He’d set a goal, and nothing could move him. If he said he was going to hack the C.I.A. in twenty-four hours, he was either going to hack them, or die trying. There was no in-between with him.” Dick sighed, chewing on his lip for a moment. “I gotta go, Robin. Criminals to catch. Nightwing out.”

Chapter Text

Jason had spent the morning, and most the afternoon wandering the manor. Alfred had told him he was free to explore -with an added, ‘Jason, this will always be your home; explore as you please’ -and he wasn’t sure if he was angry or glad that nothing had changed, other than what had once been one of the ‘spare rooms’, was now clearly the room of the new Robin. He’d glanced in briefly, long enough to confirm what it was, and then moved on, before the others came back from patrol.

Part of him was glad of the normalcy; his stash of canned foods were still scattered throughout the manor, the front living room still the formal ‘show’ room, with the ‘family’ room towards the back of the house. The kitchen hadn’t changed a bit, down to the dented fridge, where he and Dick had been wrestling, and he’d smacked his head, or the molding in the kitchen wall where Alfred had marked his height gains as the food, and peaceful environment started erasing the years of malnourishment.

But another part of him -a darker part -was pissed as hell. He’d wanted some sign that things hadn’t continued on as normal after his disappearance and supposed death. Wanted some visible sign that the loss of him had detrimentally affected those left behind. That he’d been important enough that his loss had hurt them, at least in some way. A physical marker of the destruction his loss had caused.

Eventually, feeling overwhelmed by the warring emotions, and pain in his leg starting to throb from the walking, he’d made his way out to the rose gardens, and the small bench where he’d spent most his time studying, or drawing when he’d lived in the manor. It was still there, in front of the duck pond, and he found himself idly wondering if the ducks swimming around were any of the ones he’d fed so often as a kid.

He’d had names for all of them, over two dozen at the time. Both springs he’d been at the manor, he’d watched the eggs hatch, assigning new names to the ducklings as they’d hatch. It’d been the one day he’d miss school, with Alfred coming to pick him up, and getting him back home in time to see them hatch.

“Hey, uh… mind if I sit?”

Jason had heard the Replacement coming, which meant either he sucked ass at being quiet, or he’d intentionally let Jason know he was coming; as much as he wanted to think it was the former, he knew it was the latter, which pissed him off almost as much as the Replacement bugging him there of all places.

“The fuck do you want?”

The Replacement knelt down by the pond, staring at the water for a moment, before he began speaking, not looking at Jason.

“I uh… I get it. Why you hate me. I’m not going to sit here and try and… justify it, I guess. But…” He paused, and sighed, finally looking over. “If it were me, sitting where you’re sitting, I’d want somebody to be honest with me. I get why the others think you shouldn’t, but I just keep thinking… it could’ve been me, you know? And if it had happened to me, I couldn’t… It’d drive me nuts, not knowing what was going on. Everybody keeping me in the dark.”

Jason scoffed, loudly, throwing a rock into the gardens. “So what, you’re here to make yourself feel better? Guilt ‘cause you’re glad it was me, and not you?”

The Replacement grimaced. “You’re not an easy person to like, Jason, anybody ever tell you that?”

Jason couldn’t help the sharp, biting laugh. “Yeah, well, I’m told my pleasant personality took a hit after being tortured.”

To his surprise, the Replacement chuckled. “Might not have helped, but according to Dick, you’ve always been a bit… abrasive.” He hesitated for a second, before actually sitting down, stretching his legs out in front of him. “You know… I was obsessed with you and Dick. Well, with the two of you as Robin, anyways. I’d seen Dick, way back when I was a kid. I was at the circus, the night his folks died, and I recognized some of the acrobatics he did as Robin, and I…” He laughed a bit, shaking his head. “I sort of stalked him, if I’m being honest. My parents weren’t ever home, and I’d sneak out at night. Took me about eight months, but I figured out the best locations to get pictures. Then, a few years later, Dick left, and then, about two years after that, you showed up, and… well, I stalked you too.”

“Gee, Replacement, that’s so incredibly creepy. Especially since I’m pretty sure you’re at least a few years older than me.”

 


 

Tim chuckled, scratching at the back of his neck. “Yeah. Yeah, I was uh… Not the most social kid on the block. My parents weren’t ever home, didn’t have anyone other than a parade of servants, so I sort of… Well, when I was a kid, I used to picture myself going off on awesome adventures with ‘Batman and Robin’, helping them save the world… Like the family I didn’t have, I suppose. And it just sort of… grew… from there.”

Jason rolled his eyes, throwing a rock into the pond. “Yeah, poor pitiful Timmy. Mommy and Daddy didn’t pay enough attention to him, but man, he always had the latest and greatest money could buy. Cars, clothes, books, electronics -you had everything.” At Tim’s surprised look, Jason shrugged. “I remember you, from when I went to Gotham Academy. You were a few grades ahead of me. Timothy Jackson Drake, teacher’s pet, with more money than God, and more than happy to throw that money around to make friends.”

His initial reaction was to lash out; despite himself, his first instinct when people talked about his… less than ideal upbringing… was to go on the verbal offensive.

But one look at Jason stopped any reaction he might have had; the kid looked absolutely miserable, huge black bags under his eyes making him look like a racoon, shoulders hunched in, looking far older than his years.

“Look, Jason, I’m not… I’m not trying to say I had it like you; obviously we both know that’s not true. I’m just… I just wanted to tell you what’s going on. The others are too close; they don’t want to see that you’re not a scared, broken little kid. Yeah, you have some rough moments, and they’re probably going to get worse before they get better. But at the end of the day, you’re still a Bat; still Robin. And you’re going to find out what’s going on, one way or another. At least this way, you don’t have to sneak around to find out. Or worse, wait until the Joker drops another package on your doorstep, and Bruce isn’t there to grab it before you get to it.”

He took a deep breath, and began.

“It all started with a body dropped at GCPD…”

 


 

“Where is it?”

Bruce looked up from his breakfast -which was actually dinner, at six o’clock at night, to see Jason standing at the other end of the table, fists clenched as he leaned against it, eyes preaching hellfire and brimstone, almost shaking in his anger.

“Where’s what?” Bruce asked cautiously, setting down his spoon, although he remained sitting.

“The video,” Jason seethed. “The video of that fuckin’ bastard killin’ the only friend I had as a kid. Where is it?”

“How’d you find out?” Bruce asked quietly, leaning back in his chair.

“Does it fuckin’ matter? I shouldn’t a had to ‘find out’, you shouldda just fuckin’ told me.”

“Why?” Bruce asked, finally coming to his feet, and walking around the table. “Why in God’s name would I tell you, Jason? What good was going to come from you knowing what the Joker was doing?” Jason flinched as Bruce got closer, and it was enough to pull Bruce back from his seething anger, and he stopped, a few feet away, holding his hands up. “If there was anything you could’ve done to stop it, Jason, I would’ve told you. About the video of the girl, the videos about you… But there was nothing you could do about it. Knowing what was going on had no upside for you. I… I was trying to protect you.”

“That’s not your fuckin’ job anymore! You couldn’t protect me from the Joker; you couldn’t protect me from any of it! You don’t get to decide what I do and don’t get to know anymore! Now, you’re going to give me that fuckin’ video, and I’m gonna fuckin’ watch it, and when I’m done, I’m going to hunt down the Joker, and I’m gonna put a dozen bullets right between his fuckin’ eyes!”

“Jason, I can’t –“

“What, you can’t ‘allow’ it? Guess what, you don’t have the right to ‘allow’ me to do anything! You gave up that right when you left me with the insane fuckin’ clown for a year and a half!”

Bruce waited a few minutes, for Jason to calm down, for his heavy breathing to lighten, before speaking again.

“I… Jason, I’m going to be honest with you, alright? That’s what you want, right? Honesty?” At Jason’s curt nod, Bruce took a deep breath, setting his shoulders. “Then here’s your honesty, Jason: when someone broke into your apartment, you had a severe panic attack, one that left you a huddled mess on the floor, because you thought the Joker was there to take you back. You’re barely functional, and it was only a week ago that we found you, homeless, living on the streets, still trying to recover from your injuries. You want to watch the video? Fine, watch it. It’s going to destroy you, but you go ahead and watch it. But you’re nowhere near ready, physically or mentally, to go toe-to-toe with the Joker. All that will happen is he will catch you, and I don’t know if there will be enough of you left to save if that happens.

“You wanted the truth, Jason. There it is. The video is on the computers; watch it if you want.”

Chapter Text

The chilly wind blowing off the coast was enough to chill Jason to the bone, memories of winters spent homeless running through his mind as he pulled the fleece hood tighter around his face. While it was still a few months away from a proper winter, it was late enough in the year that the nights had started getting cold, and the wind chill didn’t help.

He glanced up at the sky, the stars hidden by the dark clouds rolling across the sky; there was a storm coming in. If not tonight, tomorrow night. He could feel it, smell it, in the air; when it hit, it was going to be torrential.

But it wasn’t raining then, and that was the important thing, at the end of the day. He hiked his backpack up, hooked on one shoulder, as he slowly, but steadily made his way through the Bowery. It was dark enough that he felt confident even Bat vision couldn’t make out his scars, so he’d let the hood down -that was the first thing they’d look for, if they noticed he was gone.

He’d arranged his bed to look like he was curled up, facing the doors, after he’d pulled the bed to the center wall of the room; he’d done it enough times when he first came to the mansion, he knew Alfred would buy it when he glanced in before the old man went to bed. Dick and Barbara wouldn’t want to wake him.

Bruce hadn’t entered his room without his express verbal permission since his third month at the mansion.

So even if they got back early from patrol, there was no reason to assume he was missing. And without the hood that’d become like a second skin to him, combined with the dark, cloudy night, none of the ones on patrol should notice him.

It wasn’t great, but it’d have to work.

He felt a bit easier as he made his way down to the docks of Dixon Docks, knowing that the Bats didn’t come this way as often as they did in the Bowery, and Crime Alley. But a small part of him felt a different agitation growing, almost a nervousness at what he’d set in motion. The feeling only grew as he came to a stop in-between a row of shipping containers, as he glanced around, absently lighting a cigarette as he did.

“Those are terrible for your health.”

Jason nearly jumped out of his skin, one hand snaking into his pocket for the knife he’d stolen on his way out of the manor, as a cloaked figure approached him. Trying to recover, he casually slid the knife back into his pocket, flicking his cigarette.

“Yeah, well, livin’ is pretty terrible for it too.”

The cloaked figure waited, brown eyes peering sharply from underneath the hood, before speaking again.

You called me, Jason Todd. I assume you wanted something other than to meet.”

Jason hesitated for a moment, before nodding. “Yeah, I uh… I did.”

“And I also assume that your father told you who am I, and what I do.”

“You train super-secret ninja assassins who aren’t afraid of anything -including death. You walk into impossible odds, against things that scare the shit out of most people, and walk away unscathed,” Jason said, unable to keep the slight hitch out of his voice as he leaned against the building, still trying for forced casualness.

The figure dropped the hood, and Talia Al’Ghul moved closer, a small smile on her lips.

“I wasn’t aware he thought so highly of my father and I,” She said softly, stopping inches away from Jason.

“Yeah, well, I don’t think he meant it as a compliment,” Jason snorted, barely resisting the urge to take a step back.

“But you took it as one. Interesting.” She peered into his eyes for what felt like hours, before turning, and walking away, motioning for him to follow her as she moved towards the docks proper. “So what can I do for the Broken Bird? I assume your father doesn’t know about this little… tryst.”

Jason shook his head, not sure if he was overwhelmed by the situation, or underwhelmed by Talia -who he had painted as a nigh-unstoppable killing machine. “No. He doesn’t. He thinks… It doesn’t matter what he thinks,” Jason corrected himself quickly. “I want to kill the Joker.”

Talia nodded sagely. “And you wish me to do it for you then?”

“No!” Jason said quickly, moving in front of her, and meeting her gaze. “If I did, I would’ve said I wanted you to kill him. But he’s mine. I’m going to kill him. I’m going to slice that stupid fucking grin right off his face, right before I carve out his goddamn lungs.”

She ‘tch’ed at him. “Rather violent for one of your father’s brood, aren’t you? Very well then: so you desire our protection from your father after you kill the Joker. I understand; he can be very… odd about killing. Unusual for a man in his profession.”

“No! I don’t need your protection! I can take care of myself!”

She was unfazed by his angry outburst, as she cracked her neck, rolling it from side to side. “Then what do you wish of me, Broken Bird? You don’t want me to kill the Joker, you don’t want my protection after you kill the Joker… I fail to see what it is you desire of me. And I would hate to think that you’ve wasted my time.”

Jason hesitated, chewing on the corner of his thumb as he shifted his weight to his good leg. “I… I want you to train me.”

“What, in the ways of assassination? Your father has taught you how to fight well, but I suppose we could improve on it, if you wish to become a killer.”

“No! That’s not… Dammit, that’s not what I’m saying!”

Almost quicker than he could follow, her hand reached out, and grabbed his face in an iron grip, nails digging into his cheeks as she studied his face for a moment.

“Then what are you trying to say, Broken Bird? What is it that you truly want from me?”

Jason tried looking away, but she simply forced his head back to look at her, her size belying her strength, forcing him to stare into those ageless brown eyes. Unbidden, tears came to his eyes, and he dropped his gaze.

“I’m afraid, okay? Or angry, sometimes. But mostly I’m just…  fucking afraid. ‘Cause you’re right, okay? I’m broken. I can hear his voice in my head constantly, belittling me, telling me that I’m nothing; that he’ll get me back, and he’ll do it all over again. I’m jumping at shadows that aren’t even there, I wake up screaming every single time I sleep, I have panic attacks for no reason. And… I want you to teach me to not be afraid.”

Talia released his face, and leaned back. “There are easier ways to learn how to cope, Jason Todd. There are therapists who would be more than happy to accept your father’s money in return for fixing you. You would find it far easier, and much more pleasant, I can assure you.”

“I don’t want to learn how to cope! I don’t want to talk about my ‘feelings’, or relive what he did to me so some fuckin’ therapist can get her rocks off!”

Talia was quiet for a few minutes, staring at him, before turning her gaze up to the moon, only barely visible through the clouds. “You won’t like how we teach our initiates to overcome their fear, Jason Todd. And we do not accept failure. We don’t permit anyone to leave our teachings until we feel they are ready to do so. There are some among us who have spent years mastering our arts, only to be told they are not yet ready to leave. We will hurt you; beat you. We will take what the Joker did to you, and force you to relive it, again and again, until it no longer affects you. We will turn you into an assassin, unafraid of anything that walks the earth, or what awaits you in the afterlife.

“And our training is difficult; far more difficult than anything your father ever expected of you. Many initiates do not survive the process. Many more survive in body only, their minds little more than broken husks by the time we're through with them. But we are what we are because of our methods. Is that truly what you wish? Is that truly how you want to overcome what happened to you?”

“What I want? No. Only an idiot would want that,” He said quietly, following her gaze up to stare at the waning moon. “But… It's what I need. And right now, that’s good enough for me.”

They stood in silence for a few more minutes, before she sighed. “Very well then, Jason Todd. I will take you on as my apprentice. Meet me at the airport in two hours. Bring your medical records with you. From the hospital when you were first rescued, and any subsequent records taken since then.”

“I… my medical records?”

She held up one finger, giving him a stern look. “Here is your first rule, as my apprentice. Do not question me. Ever. Two hours, Jason Todd. I’d hurry if I were you.”