Gotham was singing, it's baseless tune loud and strong, rejoicing her son's homecoming; crime and screams fill the air, the tang of coppery blood suffocating him. It felt, strangely, like a mother's embrace. Nightwing knows that what he's thinking is fundamentally wrong, but he can't seem to shake off the feeling of comfort and mild disgust as he swings from the rooftops, feet pattering silently after Robin's boisterous laughs.
The little fox was more than ecstatic to be out tonight - finally, finally, he could be in on the action! Excitement bubbles up from within his core as Nightwing reminisces the first time he actively participated during patrol. It wasn't much, but it was more than enough to keep him awake for a whole 24 hours, he wonders what it might do to Robin. Perhaps I should stay over to make sure he doesn't crash, he hums, eyes tracking the colourful child with unease. Was I like this as Robin? It looks tiring.
'Nightwing,' Bruce's voice fills his left ear, rendering him off kilter for a fraction of time, 'make sure Robin isn't pushing himself too hard.' Translation: Jason is injured but he's hiding it from me. He grunts a reply, irritation seeping layering over his bones and smarting his bruises; again, he's the babysitter. He shouldn't resent Bruce for pushing some responsibilities onto him; they're related as ward and guardian, so Jason would be his pseudo-brother (of sorts?), it should be natural for him to look after the scruffy little thing.
He wouldn't have had a problem if Batman didn't just replace him without as much as a nod.
'Why don't you tell him that yourself?' They're nearing downtown, and he could see the fox play with the edges of his cape, the yellow material far too long and big on his scrawny form. Was I ever this... small? Bruce is silent for a long while, causing him to roll his eyes. 'B, Robin doesn't know you on a personal level yet; you need to be more obvious in your words and actions.' Besides... a Crime Alley kid would definitely take Bruce Wayne's formalities and pleasantries with a bathtub full of salt; the man isn't as nice and dazzling as he is on the cameras.
Robin whistles loudly, signalling a small gang broke out. I'm gonna go after it, 'kay? He signs, green gloves letting go of the grappling line, the bird swoops down into the fray, lost in the red and gunshots. Panic roars in Nightwing's ears as he, too, takes after Robin; he switches the channels on his communicator, almost yelling out the words: 'don't go jumping into battle like that!' Robin doesn't reply him, strangely silent and brutal in his swift actions, breaking wrists and kicking jaws, forcing the mob to draw back as the graceful bird turns into a shrieking phoenix, rage and anger rolling off its wings and spreading fear through the crowd.
Nightwing is stunned, frozen in the middle of chaos, watching grown men with assault rifles scurry away with their tails between their legs. His breathing is laboured, sweat gathering uncomfortably in the crannies of his mask. 'Where did he learn this... ' he gasps, his insides twisting up in shock. None of the files mentioned Jason fighting in an unrecognisable style, fluid and firm, tearing through people with raw strength.
Bruce is silent, the rushing waters of the Cave fueling his confusion.
This isn't Robin fighting, there is no gentle grace and sunny laughs in his younger brother. It's Jason Todd fighting, a viper sneaking attack after attack, silent, brutal and fast. He renders all his opponents useless by scaring them. It's a primal way of defending oneself.
It strikes fear in Nightwing's heart.
This isn't the Jason he knows, this isn't Robin. This was someone else entirely, dripping venom in the shape of his brother. 'That's enough,' he croaks, wading his way through crippled men, fingers brushing wisps of Robin's uniform, feeling the phoenix's flames burn through his uniform and melting his flesh and bones. 'Stand down, Robin!' He shouts, arms curling around Robin's midsection; he fires a grappling hook, disappearing into Gotham's smog. There is no doubt the GCPD has been informed of this, they can't know about Ro- Jason.
Bruce still doesn't give an order that he can follow. Nightwing isn't sure he has the capabilities to put down his brother in such a situation. He was never trained for this.
He gasps, feeling Robin kick and yell, exclaiming that he wasn't done yet; that the fighting will never be over. 'It will be over if you strike them enough!' Robin shouts, voice booming across the foggy skies, 'they won't stop fighting, they won't stop hurting. You can't run from them, there's no way you could hide! Defeat is the only path!' A vine of horror creeps up Nightwing's foot, slowly becoming a venomous snake, why is he saying these words?
Robin thrashes and struggles, his cape flapping ridiculously in the wind, 'Wing, please.' his small voice breaks, leaving a raw, vulnerable child in its wake, 'you need to dominate them or they won't stop causing harm.' Conflict stirs in his guts, melding with confusion. He wants to protect, to shelter a lost and beaten pup, treat its wounds and heal its soul. He wants to lead Jason away from crime-fighting, away from the horrors of Gotham and into the light of somewhere safe -- he wonders if there's a place where he can whisk Jason away, where Jason would be happy and innocent.
He doesn't think a place like that exists.
'It's okay, everything will be fine,' he automatically answers, using his Soothing Cop voice he deploys when talking to kids in need of help, 'I've got this covered, little wing; just you watch.' Robin gives a tiny gasp, folding up to take up as little space as possible in Nightwing's arms, murmuring fears that make his heart ache. He wonders if this is where he hits the limit, where Jason Todd-Wayne vanishes and Jason Todd takes his place.
Batgirl takes over Gotham tonight as Nightwing and Robin recede into the shadows. She frets a little, frown in her voice when she speaks over the comms, 'is he going to be alright?'
Nightwing shrugs, trying not to shift the sleeping boy in his arms. 'Dunno, Batgirl; this is the second time I've... every time we meet, this happens... I feel terrible, some part of me still hates this kid; thinks that he's a huge burden and mockery for what I was before. The other part just wants to whisk him somewhere Gotham can't find, wash away what Gotham did to him.'
He swings into a grove, clearing away shrubbery to reveal a beaten path leading to an ancient door - a more dramatic entrance to the Cave. 'Jason loves this place the most,' Bruce laughed, 'he said it was fit for a theatre kid like him.' Dick had been surprised to learn how interested his brother was in Literature and theatre (two things he could never sit still for) and found that it was a good match for the scrawny boy. A way to get lost and become someone else, a coping mechanism?
Shaking away his thoughts, he heaves, pushing the heavy stone door to reveal a well-lit glass stairwell. Dick's tempted to jump down, but with the weight in his arms, he slowly makes his way down the winding flight of stairs, heading straight for the medbay. Alfred greets him warmly, he always does, brows pinched together; 'Master Richard, welcome back. Is Master Jason injured....?'
Even Alf can't tell... He shakes his head, 'just a little roughed up. Some bad experiences caught up with him. I think he should be alright soon...' He was assuming a lot of things, as he always does with Jason, but something nags at him to continue chasing the train of thought. Strange. Alfred sends him a withering look, as if scolding him for not being certain, before ordering him to do a cooldown and patch himself up.
Dick does as he's told, listening to the hum of the Batcomputer and Bruce's methodical typing, 'hey, B?' He's in the middle of unwinding his shoulders, rotating them anti-clockwise, 'does he ever tell you about what happened in the streets?'
The typing stops abruptly, causing him to flinch at the sudden stillness in the air. Bruce rises from his seat, light draping across his face in a way that makes him look godly, 'no. He's tight-lipped about what goes on in the alleys.' There's a familiar lilt in Bruce's a and e, signalling that he's received some information he doesn't like. 'I heard Jason's outburst,' his mentor reports, 'and I don't like it.'
'I don't think anyone does, B,' Dick sighs.
Jason wakes up at nine sharp on weekends.
It's as if his brain is hardwired to kick start at such an ungodly hour, causing him to make a ruckus by running through the corridors of the Manor, yelling for "rich White men named Bruce Wayne to wake up and eat ass!", and Alfred's sharp tongue would cut in at exactly nine twelve, reprimanding Jason for using foul language under his roof. A sheepish smile and false apology are always given in return, followed by Bruce slamming his door open and dragging Jason to the dining room - if only to get some more peace and quiet.
Dick, who was not yet part of the weekend ritual, gets shorted awake when a stinging cold hand imprints itself onto his bare chest, causing him to scramble off his bed and onto the floor in an inelegant heap. Jason grins at him, devious and rude, 'wakey wakey, eggs and bakey!' A mutilated Halloween prop swings around in his hands, slime dripping off the fingers grossly.
'Eugh,' he complains, flopping into the side of the bed. Jason makes a tsk sound, shrilly asking him to vacate the room or else there won't be any breakfast. 'I don't wanna, go 'way!' He burrows deeper into bed, hoping that the heavy blanket could drown out Jason's incessant shouting. Unfortunately for him, Jason doesn't follow the laws of the universe.
Dick muffles a groan, stretching a hand out to grasp at Jason's shins. Instantly, Jason ceases to exist. For a brief moment, he thinks he's holding onto the bedpost, causing him to peek out from under the blanket.
Jason was by no means a pale child, so to see him turn a milky grey in the sun's rays jolted Dick into action. 'Jason?' He lets go of his shin, crowding close to check the boy's temperature. 'Are you okay?' He's about to place their foreheads when the squeamish fox jerks back, delivering a kick to Dick's... erm, dick.
He yowls, crumpling in half, grasping the short hairs of the rug, tears springing in his eyes. Jason seemed to snap out of his reverie, firing apologises left and right, fretting but never coming close. After a while, when they'd both calmed down, he tries to make sense of what happened roughly three minutes earlier. Tilting his head up, spotting a trembling fowl under the eyes of a hunting wolf.
Wait. Wrong. This wasn't- Jason was never meant to be prey. Why was he using such metaphors?
'Little Wing?' The name sends a nasty shiver through his brother, who collapses in on himself more.
'Please, no,' he whimpers, spiralling into a train of thought Dick can't follow. 'No, no. Don't touch me, please don't touch me.'
Don't touch me? Dick mouths, confused, what does that- Oh. Something like fury wrapped up in disgust boils in his stomach. Somebody had attempted to touch (rape?) his brother. Someone had dared to lay a hand on a child. And Jason thought that... he thought that Dick was the same. He gasps, horrified at what his innocent action had implied, 'I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to- no, I mean, I wasn't going to...' he trails off, unsure of how to phrase his intentions.
Jason glances at him, blue eyes humourless, 'it's okay.' He replies automatically. Automatically? 'I'm okay, sorry for causing trouble.' Causing trouble? He stands up stiffly, straightening his clothes before walking towards the door, the ice in his voice melting slightly, 'hurry up, Dickface! I wanna eat warm food!' He dashes out, never turning back.
Dick stares at the open door, head spinning. I've opened a can of worms that Bruce should've dealt with.
'Does he ever tell you what happened to him before he stole your tires?' Nightwing's comm crackles in his ear, causing him to wince. Maybe I asked the wrong question. He can't be blamed, especially not after...
No matter, the issue with Robin has to be solved soon. It's not the matter of Robin's reputation as much as it is Robin's mental health. All of them had some sort of mental trauma, but he doubts anyone could understand what Robin went through. How do I confront him about it without sounding too forceful... There has to be some way for him to crack the stone walls the fox has built for himself.
Batman doesn't reply, typical, ignoring him in favour of shouting at Robin to go a little slower. Benching Robin for two nights only made him antsy. While it would've worked for Nightwing when he was young, Robin was a whole other entity that Batman needed to pick apart to understand. Not that he has much success in figuring Jason out, he sighs.
'You do realise that he's not me, right?' This time, Batman graces him a sigh, tired and agitated. Nightwing takes this as his cue to continue, 'I know that we both have black hair and blue eyes, and we both talk funny, and we both had some sort of family issue, and we both took the same mantle, and the costume's the same; but we're do not equate to each other, B. He's too... guarded. Too... wise for his years.'
'You sure? Because it seems to me that you're seeing him as Dick 2.0; you're even punishing him the same way you punished me. That's not cool, man. He's flighty by nature, every little thing has to be assessed before he takes action. Benching him caused him to overthink, he's scared of you.' Nightwing swings a corner, nearly colliding into a wall as he spots Ivy chasing after him.
He curses, climbing higher to turn around. Robin was a few streets in front, and he can't be pressured into fighting right now. It'll only cause harm. Besides, Gotham's Rogue Gallery had made it clear that he was nothing like Nightwing, and has been made fun of every time they meet. Maybe it was too early for someone like Jason to enter the vigilante life, which was hypocritical for him to say, but he wasn't as... volatile (?) as Jason at this age; mainly because his sense of attachment to Haly's was still strong.
But was Jason attached to anything?
One of Ivy's bushes hit him square in the face, causing him to lose his grip on the line and take a dive into the cement. Luckily for him, Ivy was being nice tonight, saving him with a bed of mosses. She looked rather... concerned. He hides a groan, what does she want? She approaches, fiery red hair tied up in a bun, showing the creases of her forehead.
'Nightwing,' she greets cordially, not moving any closer, staying a few metres away from the moss. He inclines his head, 'what can I do for you tonight, Ivy?' She snorts, rolling her eyes, 'nothing much, not really. I was just... worried. About little Robin.'
Immediately, he stiffens. Eyes narrowing, he takes a few steps back, Wingdings between his fingers. 'What do you want with him?' He almost growls, keeping his voice neutral. She wasn't causing harm, he should not be offensive.
She raises her arms up in peace, alarmed. 'No, no. Not going to hurt him, none of that. Calm down, Nightwing.' He cocks his head to a side, choosing to relax fractionally, 'it's just... the other night, at the Harbour; before he jumped into the waters...' Her brows furrow, as if trying to find a way to fit her memories into her narrative, 'he said something quite troubling. I couldn't shake it off...'
The Harbour? Oh, it was the first time I started accepting him. Jason didn't mention anything about what he said that night. 'What did he say?'
Ivy gives him an odd look, 'the Bat didn't tell you?' She sounded genuinely shocked, was it so earth-shattering that he had to be involved as well? He shakes his head, 'what Robin does is none of my business. Unless it's something... important?' She gnashes her teeth together, plants curling up in frustration. 'Whoa! Hey! Don't go destroying buildings, let's just talk!' Nightwing placates, panicking, this is important.
'He said that nobody would miss him if he were to disappear into the waters.'
Nightwing starts to shift the pieces of the puzzles into their proper spots. This is how it went down, huh?
What happened after patrol was, simply put, terrifying.
Dick cut his patrol after Ivy had finished explaining the situation, fleeing the scene before she could be sent to Arkham again. Robin was sent home for defying orders and chasing some goons carrying drugs. Batman and Batgirl were rounding up criminals tonight.
Robin's cape falls to the floor, its owner angry and disgruntled. He doesn't even bother greeting Alfred, who'd prepared some tea to help Jason calm down. Slamming the shower doors loudly, he locked himself in there for a good half an hour before the sound of running water was heard.
Dick frowned, sharing a worried look with Alfred, 'little wing? What's wrong?' The water pressure was turned up, drowning any other sound in the Cave. Bruce, I swear to God, Dick swears under his breath, reviewing the tape from Batman's cowl, only to find Robin being told off for being too reckless and violent.
'At least I'm trying!' Robin whispers, 'all you ever do is look menacing and tell them off.' The Riddler, who was standing a little off to the side, flits to and from Bruce's vision, visibly uncomfortable. Bruce orders him to stand down, stating that there were weird, unidentified substances at risk - his way of pleading for Jason to get to safety - but Robin wasn't having it, standing his ground, shoulders raised in distrust.
The Riddler says something the cameras can't catch, sparking Bruce's vitals - his heartbeat - to increase slightly, body temperature rising. Bruce retaliates, forcing the suit-clad man to surrender. The Riddler laughs, 'what your bird said was right,' his speech patterns showed signs of worry and discomfort, 'you won't do anything drastic!'
Bruce growls, an arm holding Robin back from lashing out. 'Jaylad, don't,' he pleads, facade cracking to reveal an exasperated parent. Robin's defiance dies out, leaving a confused child in its wake. 'Okay,' he whispers again, turning sharply and walking off the scene. Not once does he look back. The Riddler, again, disappears from view, though his voice is loud and clear: 'is your kid alright?'
'Don't talk about him as if you know him, Riddler.'
'I was just worried, man! Ivy said some really concerning stuff 'bout him!'
That's when the recording cuts off, turning fuzzy and disconnected. Dick guesses that Bruce was probably hit by something that caused the cameras to give out (Riddler's cane?) but he had a sneaking suspicion that Bruce had cut the connection himself. After all, Bruce Wayne lies as much as the next person, if not more. His hands tighten into fists - Bruce had lied again. About sending a reckless Robin home.
He was being selfish, keeping Jason's problems to himself.
Because that's what parents do, right? They keep things to themselves, take on burdens that aren't meant to be theirs. They let problems snowball into giant issues that take a toll on others.
He breathes in heavily through his nose, trying to keep himself from smashing the Batcomputer into smithereens. 'Fuck!' He shouts, slamming his fists into the rock wall, flinching at the sting. 'Why am I so useless?' He hisses, 'fuck, fuck, fuck.'
Just then, the shower doors open to reveal a buck-naked Jason. Jason, who wasn't shivering in the cold. Jason, whose face looked blank and terrifying.
Jason, who didn't look like Jason.
'I'm going to do my homework, sorry,' his brother states, trudging towards the stairs, making absolutely no sound. 'I won't be on patrol, so I can help you with some behind-the-scenes stuff if you need.' And then he's gone.
Dick doesn't understand what he's seeing. Sometimes it was weird, seeing Jason in this light, marble-like and strict. Then, other times, it would be a bubbly child, the Jason that Gotham loves. His head spins with the puzzle pieces he has, where is the real Jason?
Maybe, just maybe, the real Jason was the one that ran to his apartment that night; confused and upset. Trying to figure out the world with broken eyes.
Bruce knocks on the door of his apartment, a soft but firm thump-thump against the oak door. Dick stumbles out of his room, pulling a pair of pants on, cursing when the denim chafes against his thighs, leaving a red, angry mark in its wake.
'Just give me a minute!' He yells, almost knocking into the coffee maker Kori had given him when he first moved in. Speaking of the Titans, he'd bet that they'll like Jason. He opens the door to see a dishevelled billionaire, looking as if he's lost the purpose to live.
Blinking, he resists the urge to slam the door and go back to sleep. His day-off should include not visits from troubled, rich fathers.
'What happened to Jason,' he doesn' bother with any small talk, a scowl etched on his face. Upon closer inspection, he can see scratches under Bruce's eyes, no doubt a work of Jason. A nasty bruise adorns Bruce's collar, the bone definitely broken. 'Please tell me you took care of those wounds before you drove here.'
'He doesn't tell me anything about his life before me,' Bruce speaks hoarsely.
Dick steps aside to allow Bruce in, feeling the storm tickle the nape of his neck. His mentor looked out of place in his small apartment, too well dressed and immaculate to be in the semi-tidy space - it's jarring to know that this is the first time Bruce's here. As if on autopilot, he walks to the kitchen, taking out the first-aid kit and preparing a hot mug of water. On the way to the living area, he picks up his painkillers, knowing how badly a broken collarbone feels.
Bruce starts babbling the moment Dick is in his field of vision, about the conclusions he's made - 'Jason was abused, either by his parents or someone else. He doesn't think he's worth all that much and expects me to throw him out soon. Jason thinks.... ' The discomfort grows from a seedling into a full-fetched tree, thriving in the wretched sun.
'I noticed,' Dick cuts the rambling off, offering the steaming mug to Bruce, 'he... he might've been touched too.' Scalding water splashes everywhere as Bruce's hand trembles, ah, he didn't piece that together? 'You heard him on the first day of his solo patrol without you? He said... something about gang members never stopping until someone with higher power tramples on them. When he remembers something, he goes blank and starts acting subconsciously. When you sent him back home, he apologised for not being able to participate in patrol and decided to punish himself by taking a hot shower and walking back to his room naked.'
They share the space in silence, sharing one thought in mind: Jason isn't what he portrays himself to be.