One of the first things Jason learnt on the streets was where to sleep and where to find food. The safer alleyways with steady supplies of dry cardboard and newspapers, the good overhanging architecture, the broader doorways no one used. He learnt which buildings weren’t used by the drug dealers and crackheads and prostitutes, the ones that weren’t sweatshops, and the ones with the roofs that leaked the least. He learnt the locations of the dumpsters behind restaurants where drunks pissed the least and the rats were easier to scrap with, and he learnt the times the convenience stores threw out their unsold bread and stuff past its sell-by-date (when they didn’t take it home, of course). He learnt the geography of survival first and foremost, until it was a map etched on the inside of his skull and he could find his way to the dumpster behind Giovanni’s Pizza with his eyes closed.
One of the second things he learnt was what exactly to do all fucking day. It wasn’t a thing they ever cared to show on TV, what homeless people did with their lives when they weren’t begging or scavenging. Jason learnt it early on, though.
He was surprised the Bowery Branch of the Gotham City Public Library even still existed. It wasn’t as if this side of the Sprang saw much tax money, so he was surprised it was still open. He slouched down into his hoodie, curling in on himself, making himself as small and unnoticeable as possible, and avoided the librarian at the front desk as best he could.
The place reeked of dust and mildew. The lights were dim, the lofty shelves made of a dark wood that sucked in the light and never spat it out again. The books looked old too – not that Jason had much experience with those, but he’d seen a few paperbacks in the garbage and none of these books looked like that. He peered at the titles, squinting, scrunching his nose up as he tried to make out the gold writing on the spine. It was illegible.
Slowly, he drew his hands from his pockets. He looked around, eyes wide, ears sharpened, just in case he was caught, and with tentative hands, legs ready to run, he slid the volume from the shelf and opened the cover.
The first thing he noticed when he opened it was the smell. It reeked, and when he put his nose closer to get a better idea he gagged. It smelt of rotten wood and dust and sheer age and he almost dropped it, it was so bad. He shook his head and gathered himself.
The front page had a slip of paper glued to it, with a bunch of dates. The next had the title: Origins of the American Revolution. That explained that. He frowned at it for a moment. It sounded dumb.
“Can I help you?”
Jason started, dropping the book to the dark wood floor with a sound halfway between a thud and a crack, and whirled around. A woman stood at the entrance to the aisle between the shelves, holding a small pile of books. She was portly, and young, but that was all Jason saw before he turned and ran.
The next day – and he hated himself for it – he found himself back at the library, staring up at its imposing façade, decaying and exhaust-blackened like every building in the Bowery. He briefly wondered what the architecture was, with its columns and weird triangle on top of them.
He remembered that it had been warm inside. It had been quiet, and still, and… safe. Safe from stray dogs and stray children and stray adults with a beef that they couldn’t take out on the world but could definitely take out on him. And, well… it wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
Hood up and hands in his pockets, he wandered in, wincing at the creak of the door. The rows of books padded his footsteps, stopping any echo, and he slipped past the librarian again, back into the shelter of the quiet towers. He went to a different section this time, and stumbled upon a wider space, lined with tables and old-fashioned green glass-shaded lamps. A few tables were occupied – he recognised a few people from the street.
He swallowed and retreated back into the shadows, back into the quieter, less trafficked corners of the library. He looked at the spines again, studying them, and when he cautiously pulled one from the shelf, he realised this was on… anthro…pology? He had no idea what that was. He put it back, frowning.
He turned around to find something else, and jumped. There was the woman from yesterday, with her two chins and plump calves. He felt caught, trapped, like when a cat – that hadn’t been eaten yet – found itself in front of a car. She held up her hands.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you leave,” she said. “You can stay until closing time as long as you’re reading. Or not, you can just hang out, we still have a few clubs and meetings you can join. There’s Scrabble on Thursdays…”
He blinked. “I don’t… have to pay?” he asked suspiciously. She chuckled.
“It’s a library, it’s all free.” She raised her eyebrows. “Are you interested in anthropology?”
He couldn’t lie fast enough. “Uh…”
“There are dictionaries in the reference section,” she said, gesturing somewhere to the right. “And fiction and children’s books upstairs. Unless you need help something else?”
He shook his head, keeping his eyes low to the ground, and skirted around her. He headed towards the stairs, following the clouded brass sign on the wall and found himself in yet another forest of books.
Feeling more courageous now, he wandered into the maze and picked a book at random. Pride and Prejudice. It seemed hard, so he put it back and searched some more. He felt sort of lost: there were so many books, almost too many, and he found it hard to choose. He wandered the aisles, poking at spines when he didn’t pull any out. He reached S, and then stopped. He’d heard of this one, half-remembered from a late-night movie, in black and white, from back when he’d still been able to see a TV screen. Frankenstein.
He shrugged, and pulled it off the shelf.
He didn’t go to the library every day, because not every day was the same for him. Sometimes he wasn’t anywhere near the Bowery, and getting there would have taken forever, so he didn’t. Other times he could sense something, whispers in the rancid air of some growing danger that made him sleep during the day and stay awake at night, hiding from ugly men paid to snatch whatever they could off the streets for whatever reason. He didn’t care whether it was organs or sex or slavery or whatever other sick shit – he just knew to keep out of their way. And other times still he had jobs to do, errands to run for occasional employers, things to steal and pawn and other ways to scrape by, because even a pit like Crime Alley needed to keep the economy rolling somehow.
But when he went there, when he stepped into the silence and the dust motes, he felt at ease for a while. He felt relieved, and he could feel the tension slip from his shoulders. Here was a place he didn’t have to keep an eye open in. He could just bury his head in a book and forget the world outside, with its smoke and its sickness, even existed.
He had a spot he liked, that one table closest the wall. He’d pick the same book every day, until he finished it – he never forgot his page. And he could see it, it was so weird, it was like a movie in his mind: the characters were acting in front of him, in fancy dresses and uniforms and wigs and whatever the fuck people wore in the past, living out their adventures even as he read about them. It felt weird, but also… fulfilling.
It took him two weeks to finish Frankenstein. There were a lot of words he didn’t know, and some things he didn’t get, but he kind of liked it. A bit complicated, and Victor was a total fucking moron, but still ok. He searched for something else, something random, and picked out one called Oliver Twist.
This one took him less time to finish. And the next one after that took even less. The more he read, the better he got. And he started wanting to know what the fuck the words he didn’t know actually meant. He found a half-finished notebook in a dumpster and ripped out the used pages, he picked up dropped pens, and whenever he found a word he didn’t know, he wrote it down. There were lots of them.
He then went to the reference section, and found the dictionaries the lady had mentioned. And he learnt the words like ‘fell’, and ‘swarthy’, and ‘acquiescence’, and ‘ameliorate’, and ‘serendipitous’. He finally figured out what anthropology meant (‘the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space and in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations, and culture’).
He wasn’t surprised he was the only street kid he ever saw in the library. Occasionally he’d see some kid with a parent, picking up a book and leaving with it, but that was rare. Nah, he knew the children of Gotham’s underbelly wouldn’t set foot in this place, this hall of knowledge, without a specific reason that wasn’t just sit and read a book.
Jason realised then that he hadn’t been to school in forever. He hadn’t exactly been fond of it when he’d been going, but it had been a vaguely healthy place to be in a sea of fuckery he didn’t even want to consider. He was dimly aware that someone his age should be learning stuff: math and history and English and things. He didn’t give much of a shit about math anymore than was necessary for counting money, and he was good enough at that when he got his hands on the stuff. So he hovered, and settled for history, first of all.
He’d go from there.
He’d stopped going to the library at some point, but it wasn’t because he didn’t want to go there anymore.
No, something else had happened. Something momentous, something huge and life-changing, and it came to him on stolen wheels in the shape of a freaking bat. And that bat, it turned out, was none other than Bruce fucking Wayne, billionaire, playboy and crime-fighter. It was cooler than anything Jason had ever dared to imagine. He’d learnt this word already: it was providence.
Wayne Manor was immense, even bigger than the library. Fancier, too, and well-kept. There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere, and though the halls were gloomy and quiet, and the wood was dark, it still felt more loved than anywhere he’d ever been. There were portraits, like a huge one above the fireplace in the den of a man who looked just like Bruce and a woman with his ice-chip eyes, and others of, Jason supposed, snobby ancestors. There was Alfred, who woke Jason up in the morning and always had clean clothes and breakfast ready, and didn’t seem to resent his very presence. Alfred didn’t talk much but what he did say was sharp as a knife and Jason found it hilarious, plus his accent was funny – it made Jason think of the stuffy people in the novels he’d read.
And of course, there was Bruce. He was quiet, mostly, but he’d sometimes smile, or he’d ask Jason what his day was like. He’d be gone at night for obvious reasons, and then gone in the day, but he’d come back for dinner, and when he was there, even though he was quiet, Jason knew it, felt his presence. It was… nice, to have people that actually liked seeing him around.
It was kind of hard to adjust, at first. Life inside a house, no matter how big, felt weird. It was weird having access to food whenever he wanted (at first he’d only eaten at meal times and made sure to keep his portions small, until Alfred had insisted he take as many helpings as he wanted, and always made sure to bring him a snack), or steady access to a television and an internet connection. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the internet yet, he’d never actually touched a computer, so he ignored it for now, despite being curious, but watching TV with Bruce was interesting, even if it was mostly the news.
Bruce was sitting on the edge of the couch, remote dangling from one hand as he stroked his chin with the other. Jason looked at the screen with a frown.
“Wait… since when does Estonia have elections?” he said. Bruce turned to him.
“Why wouldn’t they have elections?”
“Aren’t they part of the USSR?” he asked. Bruce blinked for a moment, then frowned.
“Jason… the USSR hasn’t existed since 1991,” he replied.
Jason felt heat flood his cheeks. None of the books he’d read up ‘til now had ever mentioned that. He’d never exactly checked the publication dates. How was he to know things had changed?
He hated the way Bruce was looking at him, with that puzzled look. It was embarrassing enough not knowing something apparently really fucking obvious, something that would be common knowledge… but it was even worse that it was Bruce. He knew Bruce was beyond just smart, and he didn’t want Bruce to think he was dumb. He wasn’t. He wasn’t stupid. But… he’d just come out with a bunch of bullshit. It was humiliating beyond belief.
Rather than suffer that look Bruce was giving him, he stood up and quickly retreated to his room, ego severely dented. He sat on his bed and looked around his room, biting his lip. If Bruce thought he was stupid, he might not want Jason to be here anymore. He already had no idea why exactly he’d been taken in (not that he wasn’t grateful, he was, more than anything in the world), and the last thing he wanted to do was look bad in front of Bruce. He cared about his opinion.
Luckily, nothing seemed to have changed. Dinner was much the same as it usually was, with Alfred’s amazing food and the frugal conversation. Jason kept mostly quiet, though. It was best not to say anything right now, in case he opened his mouth and shoved his stupid foot in it again.
He still had free rein of the Manor, which had been something so incredible it almost scared him, but he was relieved. The place was huge, anyone could get lost, and sometimes he even did despite being generally good at finding his way around.
That was when he stumbled across an incredible sight.
He liked sneaking into rooms to explore them, and usually they didn’t offer much, but this… this was different.
It wasn’t so much a room as a hall, with half of a second floor Jason seemed to remember was called a mezzanine. And ceiling to floor, wall to wall, with comfortable armchairs and lamps in the middle on a rich, plush carpet, were shelves packed with books.
He drew in a breath, his eyes widening. This was incredible. It was amazing. There were so many books, enough to last a lifetime even for Jason who literally devoured them and… and…
His enthusiasm wavered. He wondered, with a slight sense of betrayal, why Bruce or Alfred hadn’t told him about it, but then maybe this was the one place he wasn’t allowed. The other rooms of the manor were generic, nothing special, guest bedrooms and drawing rooms and smoking rooms, but this… this seemed forbidden, in some way, because stepping inside it made him feel exactly the same way as stepping inside the Bowery Branch had. It always felt that, no matter how much he loved the contents, places filled with books weren’t exactly meant for him.
Which meant he wasn’t allowed to read anything, despite the desperation in his fingertips to search for something new, something fresh, something that didn’t stink of dust and mildew… He bit his lip. He needed new books. Books with recent knowledge, books about the world as it was now as opposed to how it was then. He needed to prove he was smart, he didn’t want Bruce to be disappointed in him. Bruce’s disappointment would be the worst feeling in the world, he was sure of it.
Surely they wouldn’t miss one, right?
Checking outside the door for any sign of Alfred, just in case, he began to quickly scan the nearest shelf. They were all science books, which weren’t Jason’s favourite, so he moved along, skimming the titles, scowling when he found medicine, or mathematics. It took him a long time to find the novels and the history books, longer than he would have liked, so he grabbed one at random, and ran right back to his room, stuffing it under his pillow with a sigh of relief.
It took him a while to find a flashlight in a cabinet near the back door, but he took that back to his room too. And with the covers pulled over his head to hide the light, he read.
Jason prided himself on being pretty sneaky. Being sneaky kept you alive, kept you sort-of fed and mostly out of trouble. It was an important skill, as important as confidence and observation. And Jason was pretty certain he was being the sneakiest in the world, whenever he snuck to the library and replaced the book he’d just finished with one he had yet to discover.
He was learning so many things. He learnt about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War and how the face of the world had changed. He’d found a ton of new novels, fresh and exciting worlds he’d never encountered before. And the books… they weren’t dusty, and most of them were crisp and the pages were creamy instead of tea-coloured. There was no smell of mildew and age except for a certain corner full of first editions, and Jason didn’t bother looking at those yet, they seemed too precious.
He devoured the books, one after the other… and maybe that led to an excess of confidence. Maybe that led to him being sloppy. He hadn’t been caught yet, so he doubted he ever would be.
There was a knock on Jason’s door, startling him from his reading. He shoved The Book Thief under his pillow and sat up, trying to get his ‘yeah?’ to sound innocent.
Bruce opened the door, one hand behind his back. “I think we need to talk, Jason,” he said, pulling out the book Jason had finished reading just the day before.
Jason’s heart stopped, his entire stomach turning to ice. He couldn’t stop his eyes from widening, his hands from clenching into fists in the bedcover. This was it. He was going to be sent back to the streets because he’d been too stupid to cover his tracks better, too stupid to know anything more than what he already did, just too stupid…
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, head bowed, blinking furiously. He daren’t raise a hand to wipe at his eyes, even he could feel the tears slipping out, beginning to slide down his cheeks.
It took Jason a moment to figure out what Bruce had said. He dared to look up, just a peek, from under his hair. Bruce was leaning against the doorframe, casual in a way he usually wasn’t. He sighed, pushed away with his shoulder.
“May I?” he asked, gesturing to the space beside Jason. Jason nodded, shifting with the mattress as it took Bruce’s weight. “You know… if you wanted to read, you didn’t need to be secretive about it.”
Jason tugged his sleeves over his hands, drawing his knees up to his chest. “I… I didn’t think I was allowed in the library,” he mumbled. Bruce seemed genuinely surprised at that.
“Jason, you can go anywhere you like,” he said. “This is your house as well.”
“I… I thought you were gonna send me away,” Jason said. “If you thought I was… I was stupid. I was scared because I didn’t know stuff.”
Bruce shook his head. “Jason… wanting to read books, to know more, is the opposite of stupid. Learning is never a bad thing.”
Jason perked up at that, his chest daring to swell with hope again.
“Come on, come with me.”
Jason hesitated, but slipped off the bed, following Bruce out of his room and all the way to…
To the library. Jason held his breath, eyes wide as he looked at Bruce.
“It’s all yours. Read everything you want. Take anything you want. Every single book in this room, in this house, is yours.”
Jason couldn’t help it. A grin spread across his face, wide and bright as his heart soared with excitement. “Really?!” he asked, louder than he wanted, but not being able to care. “Every single one?!”
Bruce nodded, and before Jason could stop himself, he’d thrown his arms around Bruce’s chest. It was far too broad for his scrawny arms, but it didn’t matter. He felt Bruce’s chest jerk strangely, like an intake of breath, and there was a moment’s hesitation before his arms went around Jason in return.
He cleared his throat, sounding nervous. “Well, it’s like Thomas Aquinas said: ‘hominem unius libri timeo’.”
Jason frowned after pulling away. His Latin wasn’t that great, despite picking up a couple of things. “Man… united… something?”
Bruce shook his head. “No. ‘I fear a man of a single book’.”
“I recall that phrase being only attributed, Sir,” Alfred said, passing behind them with a feather duster. Bruce rolled his eyes.
“Still… take what you want from what I said.”
He held the book out, and Jason took it. He looked at the library, swallowing, and opened the door.
Bruce watched him go, smiling. “You really need to meet Barbara,” Jason heard him say.
Kim was used to seeing people come and go. She’d lost track of plenty of familiar faces over the years, and while she didn’t know what had happened to them, she remembered all the books they’d liked. She hadn’t seen the boy, who had said his name was Jason, for a long time now. It had been months, even, and it made her feel a little sad to see his favourite seat, but the wall, empty, no rapid pages being turned, no new novel waiting beside him because he was nearly done with the current one. She hoped he’d gone to greener pastures.
She finished replacing the last of the returns she’d been organising and headed back downstairs. It was, she noticed as she glanced at her watch, time for a break anyway.
She wasn’t expecting the small office (that also doubled as a break room) to be full. Well, full: there were only three of them, Kim included, but that meant Gladys and Daniel were also there. Gladys was sitting at the small desk, phone held to her ear, and she looked to be in a state of profound shock.
“What’s wrong?” Kim asked quietly. Daniel shook his head, and waited until Gladys had put the phone down after a very tremulous “th-th-thank you”. He then picked up a letter from the table and handed it to Kim.
“We just got the confirmation from the directors,” he said. Gladys looked as if she would never be capable of speech again. Kim scanned the letter, blinked for a moment, and then read it again. And a third time, just to be safe.
It took her a moment to comprehend what she was actually reading.
“Is… is this…” Her voice cracked. Daniel nodded.
“Four million dollars,” he murmured. “All for the library.”
She needed to sit down. So she did. Her head was spinning. They could update the entire inventory with this money. They could fix the leaking pipes and buy new couches for the children’s section. They could do so much with it.
She burst into tears.
“Who?” she asked, through the sobbing.
“It’s a personal donation,” Daniel said, his voice still trembling from incredulity. “From Bruce Wayne.”
Kim dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She had no idea why he’d done it, but there was no way Kim, and the Bowery Branch, wouldn’t be eternally grateful.
“We need to name a wing after him. Or a reading room. Or… something!”
“He asked us to name something after…” Daniel pulled the letter towards him – Gladys was still staring ahead, wide-eyed, completely gobsmacked, in no fit state to say anything yet. “Jason Todd?”
Kim blinked. No. No, it probably wasn’t. But… she’d like to think it was.