The Lamborghini looked absurd in Crime Alley. Jason figured he was doing the owner a favor by just taking the tires. The Wayne Foundation gala had provided their security guards, but those guys were busy keeping the local kids from throwing rocks at the limos and didn’t notice one kid in dark clothes sneaking up to the other cars.
Jason had two of the tires off and stowed and was working on the third one when he heard voices coming his way. He dove under the Lamborghini to hide - that was one car he was sure wasn’t going anywhere.
“It wasn’t that bad,” a boy’s voice said.
“You were bored silly,” a man responded. Jason couldn’t see their faces, but he was sure the man was smiling. “It’s okay. Nobody expects me to stay past the ribbon cutting and the first round of speeches.”
“Hey! Our tires are gone!” the boy said. Shit. This was their car. Okay, he just needed to stay hidden until they went for security and then he could make a run for it.
“Two missing, one loose,” the man said, circling the car. Jason held very still. The bright spotlights brought in for security also left deep shadows, good for hiding. “Looks like the thief got interrupted.” On the word ‘interrupted’, the man’s hand locked around Jason’s ankle.
Jason bit down on his lip to stifle a shriek. The man tugged on his leg and Jason scrambled out from under the car. The man grabbed the back of Jason’s threadbare jeans jacket. “Uh, hi! Sorry, is this your car? Some kids were throwing rocks and I just took cover here.”
“Hnn.” The man took Jason’s tire iron from his hand and Jay winced. Probably should’ve left that under the car, but he hadn’t been thinking.
“That’s just for self-defense,” Jason said.
The man patted the front pocket of Jason’s jacket, where the lug nuts he’d removed rattled together.
“Okay, fine, you caught me!’ Jason burst out. “What’d you expect, a car like this down here? You’re lucky I was just taking the tires!”
“Do you know what we’re doing here?” the boy exclaimed. He looked close to Jason’s age, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and he was all done up in a tux, black hair slicked back with gel. “We’re here because Bruce donated a whole bunch of money to help this neighborhood! What we get from you people is rocks and dirty looks and now you’re stealing from us?”
“Well, who asked you?” Jason demanded. “Not me. And I ain’t gettin’ any of that money, so what do I care? You come down here to look fancy and feel good ‘cause you threw a few dollars to the folks in Crime Alley and now you expect them to bow and bless your name. Fuck you!”
“What’s your name?” the man - Bruce - asked. Jason thought he’d be pissed, but he looked more amused than anything.
“Jason,” Jason said.
“You live with your parents, Jason?” Bruce asked.
Jason ran a hand through his hair, trying to look less like the street kid he was. “What’s it to you?”
“I’d like to have a word with them,” Bruce said. “Maybe we can avoid sending you to jail.”
“4365 Olive,” Jason said. He didn’t react to the word ‘jail’. He was caught, wasn’t he? Had to be where he was going.
Bruce entered the address into his PDA. He’d let go of Jason’s jacket, but Jason had a feeling from the man’s stance that attempting to run wasn’t a good idea. “That’s a psychic’s shop.”
“Yeah. My folks are dead. Clarissa’s your best shot at talking to them,” Jason said defiantly.
“Where have you been staying?” Bruce asked.
Jason shrugged. “Wherever.”
Bruce looked over Jason’s body and clothes with a critical eye. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Hey, I got breakfast at Manny’s Diner this morning. You can ask him,” Jason said. He pulled his jacket tight around himself. Bruce wasn’t looking at him like the johns on Third Street looked at him, but it still felt way too personal. Like Bruce could tell his whole life story just by looking at his clothes.
Bruce appeared to make a decision and he pressed a speed dial button on his phone. “Alfred, I’m afraid we’ll need your services tonight after all.... Yes, that’ll be fine.” He hung up the phone.
“Well, Jason, it seems we have a couple of options. I can deliver you into the hands of the police, if that’s what you prefer,” he said.
“What’s my other choice?” Jason asked warily.
“You can return home with us,” Bruce said. He gestured at the other boy. “This is Dick, my adopted son.”
“‘Dick’?” Jason snickered. “Really?”
“It’s my name,” Dick said. He folded his arms and met Jason’s eyes as if silently daring the other boy to make an issue of it.
“You return with us, where you will get a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. The bed will be for you alone and you may lock the door if it makes you feel secure.”
“What do I have to do?” Jason asked.
“Bathe,” Bruce said. “Put on clean clothing and allow Alfred to wash what you’re currently wearing. Eat, and get a good night’s sleep.”
Jason frowned. “What’s the catch?”
“If you decide to stay with us, you will have to follow house rules. This includes attending school on a regular basis and refraining from any felonious activities.”
Jason lifted his chin. “What about misdemeanors?”
“We’ll address those on a case-by-case basis,” Bruce said smoothly. Another limo joined the ones at the end of the parking lot and sounded a distinctive horn. “Ah, Alfred’s here. Dick, will you show Jason to the car? I’ll stay here and take care of this.” He patted the Lamborghini.
Maybe they were serial killers or frontmen for a child slavery ring, but maybe Bruce was for real. Jason figured it was worth the risk to get some food and sleep somewhere warm tonight. If it went bad, maybe he could steal some of their shit before he broke out of their house.
A tall, thin man with a moustache and a suit stood at the limo and opened the door when he saw them approaching. “Good evening, Master Dick. I’m sorry your evening did not go as planned. Who is your companion?”
“Alfred, this is Jason. Jason, this is Alfred. Officially he’s the butler, but really he takes care of everything.” Dick slid into the limo and motioned for Jason to follow.
“Welcome, Master Jason. Please let me know if there’s anything you require,” Alfred said, still holding the door.
“Thanks, uh, Alfred,” Jason said. He climbed awkwardly into the limo.
“Are you going to stay with us?” Dick asked.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Dick said. “I’ve never had a real brother before. My friend Tim’s kind of like a little brother, but it’s not the same.”
“What’s Bruce’s deal?” Jason asked. “Is he for real?”
“Yeah, totally,” Dick said. “His parents died when he was eight, so he looks out for other orphans. He’s got several charities just for kids without parents.”
“So I’m his new charity case?” Jason frowned and kicked the seat in front of him.
“Not exactly,” Dick said. “He’s talked to me a little bit about adopting another kid. I think he’d like to have a big family. Jason, I promise no one’s going to hurt you here. Why don’t you give us a shot and see how you like it?”
“I’ll think about it,” Jason said gruffly.
They arrived at the biggest house Jason had ever seen. “Wayne Manor,” Dick said, proudly, as if introducing a friend. “I know, it’s gigantic. You get used to it, though. I think I might still have the map I drew up when I first moved in.”
Alfred led them up to the kitchen and insisted on preparing dinner, despite Jason’s protests that he wasn’t hungry at all. (The loud grumbling of his stomach undercut those protests.) Then he led Jason upstairs to a room larger than any apartment he’d ever been in. The bed seemed large enough to swim in. The closet was a slightly smaller room attached to the main one. He even had his own bathroom with a shower and full bath.
Alfred brought in an armful of clothing. “Here are a few of Master Dick’s things that should fit you. He’s a bit taller, but you have broader shoulders. Tomorrow we’ll have you fitted for your own wardrobe.” Dick himself had changed into monogrammed pajamas while Jason ate.
“Fitted?” Jason’s eyebrows went up.
“That just means they’ll measure you all over and then bring clothes to you. So you don’t have to run around to a bunch of stores trying things on,” Dick said. He perched himself on the edge of a heavy oak desk and let his heels bounce off the drawers.
Jason was so out of his league here. They weren’t even playing the same sport.
Alfred showed Jason the laundry bag and the closet where he kept fresh towels and Jason understood the message - he was to clean the street off himself and change into better clothes before touching the fancy-ass sheets on the giant fancy-ass bed.
Jason relaxed a little when Alfred left the boys alone. “Alfie’s okay,” Dick said. “I know he’s got that British Stiff Upper Lip attitude, but he’s a good guy. I got the flu last spring and I was puking up a bunch and he just kept bringing clean buckets and fresh towels and mixing these ginger drinks that helped my stomach settle down.”
Jason sat carefully on the bed - his bed - and touched the carved pole at one corner. The poles held up a heavy canopy of velvet. The drapes were tied up right now, but he could untie them if he wanted and have a tent over the bed big enough for an indoor campout.
“I’m not fancy,” Jason said. “I don’t know manners and things and what forks to eat from. And I don’t care! Stupid stuff anyway.”
“My parents were circus folks,” Dick said. “All we had was a trailer. You could’ve fit that whole trailer on top of that bed you’re sitting on, but that was our home.”
“What happened to your parents?” Jason asked.
Dick hesitated for a long moment, and then said, “They were acrobats. The Flying Graysons. I was part of the act, too. We were in Gotham, doing one of our biggest shows, pulling out all the stops - quadruple somersaults, no nets.” He paused again. “Someone tampered with the swing. My parents, they.... they fell.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Jason said.
“Bruce was there, in the audience. There were families in the circus that would’ve taken me in, but I wanted somewhere else, a place to get away from the memories. And also, Bruce understood what I was going through.”
“My mom,” Jason said, choosing his words carefully. Dick seemed nice, but he wasn’t ready to share everything with this stranger just yet. “My mom got really sick. My dad got a job - a dangerous job - to try and support her. It got him killed.”
“I’m sorry,” Dick said.
“I took care of her as best as I could, but the doctors said they couldn’t do any more, and then,” Jason discovered to his horror that he couldn't hold back the tears. He turned away, but Dick had already noticed. The other boy sat down on the bed with him and put an arm around Jason's shoulders. "they couldn't do anything, so they just let her die."
"No painkillers?" Dick asked softly.
"They wrote prescriptions," Jason said. "I had to find money to pay for them. I had to go and get them filled because she was too sick to get up. Sometimes they called me a liar and wouldn't give me the pills or they'd take away the prescriptions and she was just wasting away…" Reluctantly, he rested his head against Dick's shoulder.
The older boy stroked Jason's hair lightly. "You did everything you could," he said.
After a moment, Jason pulled away and wiped his eyes. "Whatever. I gotta get a shower before Alfred complains about me getting grease or something on his sheets."
Dick nodded. "Okay. My room's right across the hall, if you need me tonight, or anytime."
"Thanks," Jason said. He looked through the pile of clothes he’d been offered, skipped the fancy pajamas, and picked out a t-shirt and sweats. "I haven't decided to stay yet, you know," he warned.
Dick smiled. "I know. I'll see you around."
* * * * * * *
Jason came down for breakfast and found Dick sitting at the table with another boy, a scrawny younger boy with floppy black hair and wide blue eyes.
“Hey, Jason,” Dick said. “This is Tim. Tim, this is Jason. He doesn’t know if he’s staying yet.”
“Hey, Jason,” Tim said.
“Hey, Tim,” Jason said. “Uh - who are you?”
“I live next door,” Tim said.
Jason looked skeptically out the kitchen window. “There’s nothing next door.”
Dick smiled. “About a mile that way,” he said, pointing east. “Tim’s parents are out of town a lot on business so he comes over here to visit when they’re gone.”
“Or if Alfred’s making scones,” Tim said. He picked up a triangular-shaped pastry, which Jason assumed was a scone.
“Sometimes he doesn’t even bother with an excuse and just shows up,” Dick grinned and ruffled Tim’s hair.
Tim squawked an objection and attempted to smooth down his hair.
“Whose is this?” Jason asked, picking up the camera sitting on the table next to the morning paper. He didn’t know much about cameras, but he was pretty sure a fence would give him a lot of cash for that piece.
“Mine,” Tim said. He took it from Jason and wrapped a protective arm around it, as if he knew what Jason was thinking.
“Tim’s going to be a photojournalist,” Dick explained proudly. “You never know when news will happen.”
“Don’t point it at me,” Jason said. “I’m not news.” And I’m not going to take your stupid camera, he thought.
“You are around here,” Tim pointed out. “But we can plan a photo session for a later time.”
The kid said it deadpan, so Jason wasn’t sure if that was a joke or not. “What’re you guys up to today?”
“Gonna teach Tim a few new tricks,” Dick said. “I told you I was in the circus - well, Bruce got me a full set of equipment so I could keep up on my moves. I’ve been teaching Tim a few things. If you want to come hang out, I could show you some stuff.”
“Nah, I think I’d rather get the feel of this place,” Jason said. “You serious when you said you made a map?”
Dick produced it from the pocket of his bathrobe. “Not to scale, but it should give you a sense of where you are. If you get lost, just stay in one spot and holler for Alfred. He’ll help you get back to where you need to be.”
Jason studied the map and shook his head. “Man. How is this all one house?”
“You get used to it, oddly enough,” Dick smiled. “Tim and I’ll be in the second ballroom, downstairs from here.” He pointed out the location on the map.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jason said.
* * *
It took him over an hour to get really lost. But rather than call for help, he explored for a bit longer, then found a room with walls of books and big comfy leather chairs. He considered napping in one of the leather chairs (and then denying getting lost when someone found him) but he picked up a book that had a picture of guys with swords on the cover and started reading it and found it was a really good story. Some of the language was weird and old, but the story itself was about warriors and honor and loyalty and had lots of fun battle scenes.
After a bit, he closed the book and did doze off.
He woke abruptly at the sound of a chuckle and jumped up, knocking the book to the floor. “No one said I couldn’t be here,” he said in his own defense.
Bruce chuckled again. He wore a tailored, dark blue suit with the tie loose around his neck and the top button open. “Relax, Jason, I’m glad you found the library.” He picked up the book and smoothed a few bent pages. “This was one of my favorites when I was your age.”
“It ain’t so bad,” Jason admitted.
“‘Isn’t’,” Bruce corrected. He put the book carefully back in its place on the shelf. “Alfred’s got lunch ready and I thought I’d join you boys, since I have some time before my afternoon meeting. Are you hungry?”
He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been hungry. “I could eat,” Jason said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and trying to look casual.
“Come on, then,” Bruce smiled, and led the way to the kitchen.
* * *
Jason never officially said he was going to stay. He stuck around for a few days and Bruce signed him up for school without discussing it. Jay didn’t object because then they would’ve had to talk about it and Jason would’ve had to make a decision about things.
A few weeks later, Bruce said, “Jason, I need you to come to court with me today so we can get your foster arrangement legally approved.”
And Jason said, “Yeah, all right,” and he got to skip school for an afternoon and go tell a judge that yes, he wanted to stay with Bruce. And so it was official.
Alfred made chilidogs for dinner that night. They were both the best and the worst chilidogs that Jason had ever had. Best, because everything Alfred made was incredible and worst, because chili dogs weren’t supposed to be made well.
Bruce noticed that Jason wasn’t exactly happy with his special meal and got him to confess why.
“It’s too good,” Jason admitted.
Tim frowned. “That’s not logical,” he said.
Jason scowled at the other boy. It wasn’t even his house! “Well, it’s true. Chilidogs aren’t supposed to be good, just taste good.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!” Tim objected.
But Dick nodded. “Yeah, some things just need to be cooked on a greasy grill that’s got drips from all the other stuff cooked on it that day.” He grinned at Jason while Tim just looked disgusted.
Bruce raised an eyebrow at that and didn’t comment, but that weekend he took Jason alone down to Manny’s Diner for all the chili dogs he could eat. Jason’s stomach rebelled that evening but he didn’t regret a single dog.
* * *
Jason hadn’t been to school for a while, but most of his classes were pretty easy to fake ‘til he could get caught up. Except math. He’d been good at math before his mom got sick, but he’d missed a bunch of stuff and now he was struggling. He didn’t tell anyone because he hated feeling stupid, but then he started failing tests.
The second time he got an “F” on a test, he crumpled it up and stuffed it in the outside pocket of his backpack. He was supposed to get his guardian to sign off on it, but he figured he could forge Bruce’s signature well enough to fool a teacher.
Except he forgot it was back there when he was sitting in the limo with Tim (who Alfred usually picked up with Jason at the junior high, since “there was no point in Tim’s driver making the trip” and at the time, Jason had been too stuck on all the drivers and limos to point out that taking the bus would likely be good for Tim’s character) and when Jason pulled out his PSP (a gift from Bruce) as they waited outside the high school for Dick, the test flew out as well, landed at Tim’s feet and the glaring red “F” pointed straight at the other boy.
Tim picked up the test, politely folded it and handed it back to Jason without saying a word. Jason thought maybe that was the end of that embarrassing incident, until a moment later when Tim said, “I’m pretty good at math. I could help you if you’re having trouble.”
“No,” Jason scowled, because failing math was bad enough, but being tutored by a younger kid was even worse.
Dick joined them in the car and Jason hoped Tim would drop it, but no, the little geek had to say, “I did that stuff in a unit last semester and it’s not that bad, honest. It looks tricky, but I know a few shortcuts -”
“No!” Jason exclaimed. “I don’t need your help!”
“With what?” Dick asked.
“Jason got an ‘F’ in math,” Tim told him.
Jason pulled back his fist as if to hit Tim and Dick leaned forward to put himself between the boys. “I failed a test! One test!” Dick didn’t need to know about the other one. “I was having a shitty day, that’s all!”
“It’s okay, Jason, it happens,” Dick said in a soothing tone, which only made Jason more annoyed at him. “Bruce could get you a tutor-”
“NO! I don’t need a tutor! I don’t need anyone’s help!” Jason was yelling now. “I can handle it myself!”
Alfred rolled down the divider between the front seat and the back seats. “I believe your argument would be just as convincing, Master Jason, were you to present it in a lower tone.”
Jason folded his arms across his chest and scowled at Alfred’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Alfred matched his gaze with a piercing calm expression.
“I’m sure you’re right, Jason,” Dick said, and Jason was nearly ready to punch his smug face until he said, “Though Donna could probably use the spending money if you change your mind.”
Dick’s group of friends from school hung out at the Manor sometimes and Jason’s favorite was Donna, a long-legged, dark-haired demi-goddess with a brilliant smile and gentle heart. Jason was pretty sure he was falling in love with her, but that was an absolute secret, since she only saw him as Dick’s little brother. But he was sure if he only had more time with her, she’d get to know him as his own man and return his feelings.
“Hnn,” Jason said, keeping his arms crossed. “Maybe. As a favor to Donna.”
“Of course,” Dick said.
* * *
“... and then you just have to solve for X,” Donna explained. “Does that make sense?”
“It always does when you explain it,” Jason said. He worked the problem quickly and she leaned over to check his work. He breathed in the scent of her shampoo; something sweet and floral with a hint of spice.
“Very good!” she said, drawing a quick star by his solution. She’d been tutoring him for two months now and he was caught up with his class, but he hadn’t told anyone he didn’t need the help any more. Math was way more fun when Donna explained it.
Jason heard the door of the library open and he and Donna both turned to see Bruce enter the room. “Ah, I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your lesson. Jason, I’d like to speak to you when you’re done.”
Something in Bruce’s voice made Jason tense up. Was he in trouble?
Donna looked at Jason, then back at Bruce. “I think we’re done for today,” she said cheerfully. She gathered her things and slid them into a blue messenger bag embroidered with gold stars. “See you later, Jay.” She slung the bag over her shoulder and headed out the door. Bruce stepped aside to let her pass. “Bye, Mr. Wayne!”
“Goodbye, Donna.” Bruce closed the door behind her and sat down across the table from Jason.
“What’s up?” Jason asked. He closed his notebook and math book and lined up his pencils neatly so Bruce wouldn’t notice his hands were shaking. Bruce was way too serious for this to be anything good. Of course, Bruce was often serious, but right now it was like every word and movement had invisible weights tied to them.
“Jason,” Bruce said. “I’ve been considering this matter for quite some time and if you agree, I’d like to adopt you. It’s entirely up to you and -”
“Yes,” Jason blurted out. Of course he’d say yes! Bruce was a great parent and Dick was pretty good for a brother and of course Alfred was a great... Alfred. Why wouldn’t he want to make that permanent? Oh, crap, was Bruce going to think he didn’t mean it if it looked like he hadn’t thought about it enough? “I mean, yes, I’ll think about it. And probably say yes. After I’ve thought about it.”
Bruce smiled. “All right. While you’re thinking it over, I’ll have my lawyers start the legal process.” He reached over the table to ruffle Jason’s hair. “If you decide you don’t want to, nothing has to change. You have a home here for as long as you like.”
Jason smiled back and didn’t bother to smooth his hair. “Yeah, I’ll have to talk to my lawyers, but I think this might work out.”
* * *
[Next: Death in the Family]