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Building Interest

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Tim leans against the table of hors d’oeuvres and surveys the ballroom of the Grand. The floor is crowded with tables draped in red and black with austere white china settings. There are no other decorations – an unusual choice for an event like this, but Tim approves. It allows the ballroom’s original Art Deco design to shine.

It’s also different from most of the benefit dinners he has attended by way of the attendees. All of the main staples of Gotham’s charity circuit are present, but the rest of the patrons are younger and more diverse than he is used to seeing. Apparently invitations for this event hadn’t discerned between new and old money.

He had been surprised at the invitation in his mail, his name embossed in bright red on the black cardstock: Mr. Timothy J. Drake. When his parents were alive everything had been addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jackson Drake. It was odd to see his name in their place. After they died and the operations of Drake Industries had been transferred to a board of directors until he reached his majority, invitations had ceased all together. Not that he minded. The events he had been forced to attend as a child were invariably long, boring, and lonely with few other children to commiserate with as their parents socialized.

He’s only attending this one because Bruce had declared it a good opportunity to gather intel on the Sionis family. They know business magnate Roman Sionis also operates a number of illegal enterprises under the alias Black Mask, they’re less sure of his adopted son Jason’s level of involvement. Is he completely innocent and clueless to his father’s criminal dealings, a well-groomed heir to figurehead the legal side of Sionis’ holdings, or Black Mask’s favorite new enforcer ominously dubbed The Red Death?

Tim hates the pretentious name. But after witnessing The Red Death quickly and clinically take down five men with headshots and a sixth with a well-placed stiletto three weeks ago; he can’t argue against its appropriateness.

So here he is, lounging by the appetizer buffet pretending to pick at a plate of mini corndogs and fried macaroni bites while subtly eyeing the crowd. Bruce, away on League business, had sent Dick in his stead and tasked the two of them with getting close to, and ingratiating themselves with the younger Sionis if possible. Honestly, his presence here is redundant. If anyone is going to succeed in making friends it will be Dick with his Adonis looks and guileless charm. People are drawn to Dick, like satellites into orbit by his congenial gravity.

Less so with Tim.

He has friends. He isn’t a total loser. It just takes people longer to warm up to him. Knowing this, he figures he’ll leave the brown-nosing to Dick and in favor of keeping careful track of everyone else Jason Sionis interacts with tonight. Later, he’ll go back to the cave and cross-reference those individuals for any connections to Black Mask’s racketeering.

He gets shoulder-checked as Dick bounds up to him from behind, waving a colorful treat in his face.

“Oh my god, did you see these? They’re like rice crispy treats but made from Crocky Crunch. They're awesome!” Dick enthuses around a mouthful of cereal and marshmallow.

Even with his cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk Dick Grayson is obnoxiously good-looking in a deep blue velvet dinner jacket.

“Dick slow down with the snacks. You do know there’s an actual dinner that’s going to be served later, right?” Barbara huffs as she catches up to him and slides her hand into the corner of his elbow. She rolls her eyes indulgently at his antics then greets Tim with a one-armed hug. “Hi Tim, it’s good to see you. You look nice. Well, nice as possible. How’s the face?”

Tim groans, fingers flitting up to his swollen nose. He’d taken a pipe to the face as Red Robin two nights ago and not even Alfred’s old theater make-up skills could magic away the deep purple bloom.

“I’ve been telling everyone I slipped on the uneven bars,” he confesses.

Barbara hums in sympathy and digs around in her clutch then passes him a couple of pain relief tablets.

“Thought you might need some of those. And that you’d probably forget to bring any yourself. You boys need to take better care of yourselves, I swear. Anything exciting happen before we arrived?” she asks as her eyes skate over the crowd.

She wears a sleek crimson gown, blowing apart the style myth that redheads shouldn’t wear red. Tim looks at the attractive pair they make. He adores them. Really. But damn, do they make it hard for anyone around them sometimes. Stephanie had told him he looked very handsome over video-chat before he left the house, but now it’s taking conscious effort not to compare himself against his friends and mentors.

Still, he’s glad they are here and that he has someone to talk to. He had asked Stephanie to be his plus-one, but apparently morning sickness isn’t restricted to only the morning. He fiddles with his silver cufflinks, tiny versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

“No. I talked with Lucius for a bit. He’s over there chatting with Ted Kord now. Uh, ran into one of my old classmates from high school, Bernard Dowd. Got my cheek pinched by Mrs. Crowne. That’s about it really. I didn’t get here too much before you.”

“So you haven’t laid eyes on our host yet?”

“Nope, not yet,” he admits, slightly disappointed.

He can’t deny the invitation had piqued his curiosity even before Bruce made it a mission. The Sionises are a bit of a mystery. Their name, like the Drakes, is old enough to garner some respect and local B-list celebrity status, but it doesn’t stir up the same obsessive frenzy as ‘Wayne.’ He remembers it popping up in the news and tabloids every once in a while when he was younger, but after the accident that disfigured Roman Sionis’ face and the crash of Janus Cosmetics, its presence in the media had faded until the only time he sees it now is in the business section of the newspaper when stocks for Sionis Investments rise or fall.

This is the first time in a decade that it’s been tied to any kind of public event. To receive an invitation from the elusive Jason Sionis for a benefit dinner of all things had been intriguing.

Sure they had some grainy green-cast images of him snatched off security feeds and one or two from online gossip zines stolen by pioneering paparazzi. Yet the man had an uncanny ability to avoid good camera shots – head always tilted away just so, face obstructed by a raised middle finger or a baseball cap brim pulled low.

Dick swears he’d caught a glimpse of him once way back when he was dating Zatanna. According to Dick, they’d gone to a performance of Carmen at the Metropolis Opera House and there was a stir in one of the balconies as an  unhappy usher tried to confront the young Sionis heir for sneaking a dog into his private box, only to be bribed off with a few Franklins and a glib, ‘Oh, hes one of those therapy dogs, yanno?” Tim isn’t sure how many grains of salt to take with that story, considering Dick also admitted that it’d been too dark and distant for him to get a good look.

Regardless, Tim is a tiny bit excited to meet him in person.

A low whuff cuts through the ambient buzz of conversation around them and brings it to a halt. Heads swivel to locate the source of the distinctly not-human sound. He sees the dogs first, a massive square headed pitbull with a blue coat and white markings, next to the stage. Its dopey drooly grin isn’t quite enough to detract from its intimidatingly muscled shoulders and haunches. Maybe that’s why it’s also been dressed in a lobster costume? It’s harder to be scared of a dog dressed as a lobster. A few of the children attending the event have already left their protesting parents to pet the ridiculous thing.

He wonders if this is the dog that he took to the Opera.

He follows the leash to the man of the hour, crouched down and waving the kids closer with an encouraging grin until they work up the courage to pat the canine on her blocky head and dart away again giggling.  He inhales sharply.

Jason Sionis is striking in a way Tim is wholly unprepared for. Shorter than he was expecting, Jason is perhaps only an inch or two taller than himself. In a couple years, and another growth spurt, they may be of equal height. His build is in a word: sharp. He fills out his suit nicely. The way it clings reveals that despite his smaller stature he’s made up entirely of wiry corded muscle. Glossy black curls that Stephanie would cry over fall across his forehead and into blazing ultramarine eyes.

Tim chokes on the mini-corndog he’d been munching on and desperately hopes it goes unnoticed by the young man. His hope withers as Jason’s gaze zeroes in on him and full lips curl up in a smug smile. Overwhelmed by everything else, it takes that smile for Tim to finally notice the scar that cleaves the skin of his cheek apart in a rift from just below his eye down to his mouth, tugging his top lip into a permanent smirk.

Wow.

So that’s why he’s always hiding his face from the cameras.

The life of super-villains really is not kind to facial health. Deathstroke, Two-Face, Black Mask Tim shakes his head. It’s unfair to lump Jason in with them based on appearances only. His relation to Black Mask doesn’t exactly lean in his favor, but if GCPD records are to be believed he doesn’t have so much as a sealed juvie record. If he has committed any crimes, he hasn’t been caught doing so.

Tim grabs a champagne flute off the tray of a passing server to try and wash down the last of the corndog clinging to his esophagus. Dick snatches it deftly from his hands and quickly finishes it off.

“No drinking until you’re twenty-one,” he admonishes.

Tim glares at him.

“You know I’ve been drinking champagne at these things since I was like ten, right Dick?”

“Incoming at your three o’clock,” Barbara grinds out a hushed warning from behind a tight smile.

His eyes slide to the side, catching sight of their host shaking hands and exchanging a few words in passing with Lucius and Ted before striding their way, leash in hand. A large man with a weather-beaten (emphasis on the beaten ) face drifts a handful of steps behind him. The size of his shoulders screams bodyguard even if the scuffed leather jacket worn haphazardly over his suit is somewhat less than professional.

Tim feels the new presence breach their circle even before he hears the hushed, “Lizzie, sit,” at his right.

The dog issues a polite sounding whuff and follows the command.

Good girl.

Seated, she licks her nose and blinks up at everyone.

“Good evening! Miss. Gordon, Mr. Grayson, Mr. Drake—Ouch! What does the other guy look like?” Sionis greets them warmly in a voice deeper than Tim expects for his size.

Tim’s hand floats self-consciously to his nose again, because of course his face is going to be a bloated swollen mess the night he’s supposed to network with an important lead.

“Oh uh. Yeah. Gymnastics accident. Slipped on the uneven bars.”

“Well, thank you so much for coming tonight. I’ve broken my nose twice, so I know how much it sucks. I’m Jason by the way and this is Lizzie,” his voice lilts up an octave as he pats her on the head, making the lobster antennae bob.

“Lovely to meet you, Lizzie!” Barbara coos, automatically dropping to a crouch and holding out her hand.

Lizzie obligingly lifts a paw for her to shake. Meanwhile Jason extends his hand to Dick first, then Tim. His grip is firm, confident but not competitive. His hands are warm and calloused, knuckles crosshatched with old scars. They’re big and a little disproportionate like he never quite grew into them. Tim can’t quite account for his vague disappointment when Jason pulls his hand away. It doesn’t last long, dissipating as soon as Tim’s attention drags up to his face. And holy shiiiit. He thought Jason was striking from across the ballroom, but this close he can see Jason’s eyes aren’t just blue. No, a bright ring of sea foam green swirls out from his pupils into the darker hue at the edge of his irises.

Fingers jab into his ribs.

“What?” he grunts and glowers at Dick.

“I think it’s customary to say hi back,” Dick reminds him with a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh. Uh. Hi. Great… party.”

“Yah, great job on the snacks,” Dick praises, stealing a macaroni bite off Tim’s plate. “Way better than the usual raw beef and fish eggs.”

Jason laughs, “Well thanks, I’ll pass that along to the team. I didn’t want this to just be another stuffy shindig, you know?”

Something presses against his leg. Tim looks down. Now that Barbara has stood back up to join in conversation, Lizzie has zoned in on him. She leans her weight into him and licks her lips hopefully at the plate in his hands. Wow, her head is big.

“Guh. Lizzie,” Jason groans and tugs her away by her leash, “Sorry, don’t mind her. She’s a fat-ass, I promise I don’t starve her.” He jokes, slapping her chest, which resonates heavily in proof. He opens his mouth to continue speaking when Tim cuts him off.

“Is this the dog you brought to the opera?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The Metropolis Opera. Didn’t you bring a dog with you in your box? Dick said you bribed the usher to let it stay.”

“Uh. No she’s not. That was Homer. And I didn’t have to bribe anyone because he was a therapy dog.”

“Oh. Is Lizzie a therapy dog too?”

His brain registers the embarrassed flush spreading over Dick’s face and even Barbara’s hand making a harsh chopping motion at her neck behind Jason’s back, but he can’t stop the flow of inquiry.

“Yes, she is,” Jason answers shortly.

“Why isn’t she wearing a vest then?”

Jason’s eyes narrow.

“Because she doesn’t like it.”

“But she's wearing a cost—”

Jason turns purposefully back to Dick and Barbara with forced levity and asks, “Uh, so what was I saying?”

“Extracurriculars,” Dick supplies helpfully.

“Yes! Studies have proven that being involved in activities outside of the core curriculum actually correlate to higher graduation rates. So, while donations are always welcome what I’m really hoping for tonight is to make connections with people willing to invest their time and interests as well.”

“Well, if you want to offer computer classes… I could help with that,” Barbara volunteers.

“I’d love to help. I was a mathlete and an acrobat, but I live in Bludhaven and work for the BPD, between the commute and the odd hours… Don’t think I’ll be able to promise much,” Dick shrugs apologetically.

“No worries, I completely understand,” Jason reassures him, “I hear Bludhaven is almost worse than Gotham, thank you for your service. And thank you Miss Gordon for your offer. That’d be much appreciated; I’ll be in touch to set something up. What about you, Mr. Drake? Do you have anything you like to do outside of school?”

“Huh? Oh. Well, gymnastics obviously,” he grimaces, and waves at his nose. “Contrary to the evidence, I’m not terrible. But I’m not actually in school anymore.”

He fastidiously ignores the sharp look that earns from Dick.

“Oh, you’ve graduated already?”

“Um, no.”

Jason’s face crinkles in confusion.

“Private tutors?” he guesses.

“Uh…” Tim shifts uncomfortably. “No. I just… School was never all that challenging for me I guess. Always seemed like there were better ways to spend my time.”

You know, like fighting criminals like your dad .

“Huh. Interesting.”

The tight knit of those expressive dark brows inexplicably pricks at his pride.

“Wha—what’s interesting?” he asks defensively.

Their host aims that crooked grin his way.

“It’s just, well, you know this is a fundraiser for an organization committed to enriching children’s education in Gotham. Encouraging them to stay in school and graduate, right?”

Heat flashes from his sternum to neck at the other’s infuriatingly placid yet mocking tone. And this, this right here is why they should just leave any mission requiring social skills to Dick. Why couldn’t the earth have swallowed him whole before he decided to open his dumb mouth?

Wellll,” Jason drawls out, doing his best to smooth over the uncomfortable moment, “It was very nice speaking with you Mr. Grayson, Ms. Gordon… Mr. Drake. Unfortunately, it’s time for me to go up and bore everyone with a speech. Thank you once again for coming.”

Jason turns smartly and makes his way back across the room, weaving between tables and well-wishers with Lizzie in tow and his bodyguard trailing behind them.

“Wowww. You know at first, you were eye-fucking him so hard I thought I was going to have to shove you in a taxi home early so there wouldn’t be any conflict of interests tonight, but then you crashed and burned so spectacularly I don’t think I need to worry about that anymore,” Dick whistles lowly. “Oh, and by the way, we’re talking about the part where you dropped out of school once we get back to the manor, okay?”

“I wasn’t—I didn’t—!”

“Ouch,” Barbara adds sympathetically, patting his shoulder.

He wants to spit a cutting witticism back, absolutely deny that there had been any eye-fucking going on at all, but the lights subtly dim signaling to the crowd that it’s time to settle down for the evening. Barbara’s guiding hand steers him towards their table and pushes him down into his seat. He plops down miserably, barely managing to scrounge up a smile for Lucius and his wife Tanya who end up at their table as well.

On stage, Jason takes the podium and smiles benevolently out at the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for braving our iconic Gotham weather and traffic to make it here tonight. There are a lot of great causes out there to devote your time, your money, and your energy to, so I’m elated to see that so many agree that education is one of the most worthy causes to champion.”

Jason’s eyes glitter and is it him, or is he looking straight at Tim when he says that? Tim sinks further into his chair as the room around him applauds. Jason clears his throat and takes a small sip of water from a glass that’s been left on the podium for him.

“Sorry, little bit nervous. It’s my first time throwing one of these. So, please let me know if I make any mistakes,” he smiles disarmingly. Anyone not trained to dissect human behavior might think he was joking, fooled by their host’s charming facade, but Tim can hear the slightest waver in his words. “Now, before I get into things like goal statements, objectives, projected costs, and capital campaigns… I’d like to take a few minutes to share why this endeavor is so important to me personally.”

Tim listens as Jason delivers a passionate retelling of his life. He knows some of it already: son of small-time drug dealers, orphaned at thirteen when the GCPD pulled his parents’ bodies out of Gotham Bay, his adoption by Roman Sionis a few years later. But knowing is different than hearing it directly from the source and the longer Jason speaks the more Tim really, really hopes Bruce’s suspicions are wrong.

“I had always loved school, loved learning. But after my parents died and my meal plan expired, survival took priority over education. I dropped out of school when I was thirteen years old. At the time, it seemed like the smart move. I needed food to survive, I needed money for food, I needed a job for money, and I couldn’t work if I was stuck in a school building all day, right? What I didn’t realize was that by giving up my education, I was also giving up my best chance to actually get off the streets.

As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s not many employment opportunities for middle-school drop outs from Crime Alley. Definitely not any legal ones. No big surprise, I ended up as an errand boy for a drug dealer just to be able to fill my stomach. I was squatting in a condemned building without running water or heat, and was trapped in a culture of violence. If I hadn’t been adopted by my father, well…” Tim can feel the crowd lean forward in curious anticipation as one of Jason’s hands starts to float up towards his marred face, “It’s highly likely I would already be dead.

But I was adopted. And my father made sure I was given the best education money could buy. And thanks to those tutors and teachers who were willing to work with a scrawny kid out of the slums who didn’t know a dangling participle from a preposition, I was able to graduate valedictorian at my high school and was accepted into every university I applied to. I went from having nothing, to having the world at my fingertips. I could be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, a—a linguistic anthropologist!—whatever the hell that is…”

The room erupts in genteel laughter.

“Now, not going to lie, my dad wasn’t quite sure how to take it when I decided to get a degree in sociology… But the point is, that thanks to my education I had the choice and opportunity; something that a lot of kids right now, right here in this city we call home, don’t. And not all of them are going to have the good luck of being taken in by a wealthy benefactor.”

Dick cringes in his seat next to Tim.

“That’s something I’d like to change, so if you’ll put up with me for another fifteen minutes…”

From there, Jason continues on with the bullet points of his charity program. The details blur as Tim’s mind churns with an unsettling shame for his behavior earlier in the evening, guilt growing in direct proportion with a new respect for the young philanthropist. Eventually, the lights rise again and food is brought out to the tables. It must be good considering how enthusiastically Dick digs into his meal beside him, but Tim pokes at his food more than he eats it.

He sets his fork down with resolve in the gap between entrée and dessert. Jason is sitting at a table close to the stage with whom Tim assumes to be the most promising contributors. He waits until their host excuses himself and rises from his seat, and Tim does the same.

Jason moves towards the back of the room, to a door set in the wall behind and left of the stage, his bodyguard hands him Lizzie’s leash and follows. If Tim remembers correctly, the door opens onto a narrow hallway with bathrooms and kitchen access. He accelerates his pace to catch up, but not so fast as to look unnatural. He passes through the doorway and looks both ways, surprised to see Jason and his small entourage heading not to the bathrooms but the kitchen.

Tim ducks through the swinging kitchen door and stalks the trio as they weave between the catering crew busily wrapping up and wiping down the industrial space.  As he walks, Jason shouts out compliments and thanks for their hard work, tossing a thumbs up as he disappears outside. Tim pauses at the final threshold, ignoring the odd looks the staff are shooting at him. He takes a preparatory breath and pushes into the night beyond.

The door empties out into a dingy alleyway at odds with the Grand’s name. Jason jumps up from where he’d been crouched by a dumpster, forehead pressed to his dog’s, hands scratching he’s pushed her costume down off her ears. Tim hears a click and doesn’t need to look to know the bodyguard has a piece leveled at him.

“Shit! You scared the fucking begeezus out of me,” Jason swears, all of his carefully cultivated charm falling away.

The voice he uses now is different; rougher, less enunciated – his accent betraying Crime Alley origins. It’s such a startling difference Tim’s mind bluescreens for a second. Jason frowns at him and leans back against the brick wall behind him. His hand pats at his chest, dipping inside his jacket to retrieve a slim silver cigarette case. He busies himself with selecting a cigarette and lighting it, taking a long pull before addressing him.

“Timothy Drake, right?”

Tim nods.

“Okay… So you uh, you follow me out here a reason? Or you just want to watch my dog take a piss?”

“Oh! No! Sorry, I didn’t mean to—I wanted to catch you privately so I could apologize?”

“For wha’?” Jason mumbles around the cigarette in his mouth.

“For what I said—or what it sounded like I said, earlier. I didn’t mean to belittle or condescend. I especially didn’t mean to insinuate that education is… plebian. I love learning. Always have. I am actually a massive nerd. If you couldn’t guess. I mean, you could probably guess, because I’m wearing Star Trek cufflinks but I probably shouldn’t have just admitted that,” oh god he’s rambling now, just get to the point! “I just didn’t love school—But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s an integral foundation for a successful society. I think the youth center and the programs you want to implement… Well, I think they’re a great idea. And Gotham is lucky to have someone who cares as much as you.”

Jason’s eyebrows arc towards his hairline and he motions to his bodyguard to lower his gun. The man obeys but doesn’t re-holster, he notices. Jason removes the cigarette from his mouth and the upwards crook of his lips paired with a soft snort of laughter feels like benediction.

“Dr. King said: the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education,” he recites. “No apology was necessary, but I appreciate it. Shows me that you’ve already got both intelligence and character Mr. Drake.”

“Call me Tim,” the words tumble out in a rush.

“Tim, then.”

The smile Jason levels at him wrinkles up the scarred side of his face and he finds himself responding in kind with a dumber goofier version. The hulking Neanderthal of a guard coughs into his hand and Jason rolls his eyes. Tim’s not quite sure how to interpret the exchange but feels his face grow hot.

“Well… Uh. Sorry to have scared you. And interrupted you. I’ll uh, I’ll head back inside now.”

“ ‘s fine,” Jason shrugs, “Just needed a few minutes alone. All of that,” he gestures at the hotel and takes another drag on his cigarette, “gets draining, yanno?”

“I know,” Tim empathizes, his fingers hovering on the door handle, “But if it’s any consolation, you’ve been doing a great job. I promise not to tell anyone you’re smoking and swearing in the alley out back.”

Jason barks out a laugh and grins at him, “Thanks, I’ll see you inside in a few.”

Tim nods and is about to wend his way back through the kitchen to the dining hall when a round of gunfire echoes deafeningly in the narrow channel of the alley. He instinctively crouches to make himself smaller even as he pivots back around. A black van blocks the mouth of the alley. Men spill from its open side door. Jason is falling to his knees beside his bodyguard who is stretched out on the ground.

“Fuck, Box! C’mon!” Jason yells, his hands scramble across the man’s chest.

At first Tim thinks he’s going to try and administer first aid but Jason’s hands reach past the red stain blooming across his bodyguard’s shirt towards his dropped gun instead. Jason’s fingers light on the backstrap but a thug’s booted foot sends him sprawling backwards before he can grasp it. Tim moves to intercept when the thug aims another kick, this time at Jason’s head, but he’s beaten to the punch. Lizzie launches herself at her owner’s attacker, teeth sinking deep into flesh of his raised leg.

The man’s howl is cut off by another round of gunfire. The speed of the shots is concerning, reminding him more of a well-organized bank robbery than typical Gotham street violence. Tim’s eyes dart back and forth, scanning and assessing the scene. There are four men in the alley with them. One is crumpled on the ground on, clutching a bloody leg. Another sweeps up the gun Jason had been trying to reach for and a third has finally taken notice of Tim and angles aggressively his way. If it was just the three of them, he’d feel confident in his ability to take them down and play it off as self-defense training later.

But the exaggerated magazine of the machine pistol in the hands of the fourth man planted in front of the van’s open door would make even Red Robin nervous in these close confines. And he’s not Red Robin tonight. No grappling hook, no body armor, no wings. He has a few smoke pellets, an audio recorder, an emergency tracker disguised as a cufflink and that’s about it.  Jason’s bodyguard is down. Lizzie is down. Jason is still on his hands and knees. Conditions are not optimal.

At least Jason doesn’t appear to be wounded. His face is twisted and ugly with a different sort of pain as he leans over his dog. As the ringing in Tim’s ears fades, it’s replaced with a ragged scream.

Bastard! I’m gonna fucking kill you!”

Jason lunges up from the ground, rage wiping out rational thought, and makes to charge the gunman. Not good. Tim bursts into action, ducking around the thug advancing on him, ready to throw himself between Jason and the coming onslaught of bullets. There’s no blast of gunfire but Jason stumbles and falls to the ground. Tim slams on the brakes and windmills, trying not to trip over the body he’d been ready to collide with and cover. It’s a split-second but it’s long enough for the thug he’d ducked around to catch up and pull his arms behind his back. He’s wrenched around to face the man who’d managed to bring Jason down, sidling up alongside him and pistol-whipping him with his own bodyguard’s gun. He must be the leader.

“Aw damnit,” the man tucks the borrowed gun into the back of his pants and frowns mightily.

He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair as he looks back and forth between Tim and Jason’s unconscious figure.

The passenger side window of the van rolls down and the driver leans across the console to yell at them.

“What the hell is taking so long? Someone’s definitely called the cops by now, we’ve got to fucking go!”

“There’s fucking two of them!”

“Two of what?!”

The leader’s face contorts in frustration and he gestures wildly with his hands, “Boss said, ‘black hair, blue eyes, busted up face.' Well there’s two of em! Black hair! Blue eyes! Busted up face!”

“Did Boss say what kind of busted up? Like… past or present busted up? Bruised or cut up? Call and ask!”

“I’m not going to call! You fucking call!”

Huh.

It’s a kidnapping not a hit.

Oh.

Oh no.

“Why don’t we just ask him?” the man holding Tim asks, jostling his captive for emphasis. “Hey kid, Jason Sionis; that you or him?”

“What? Wait—no, uh. Guys, sorry but—”

Tim’s protests are drowned out by a derisive snort.

“Christ, Louie. You can’t ask him that! He’s just going to lie!”

“So what do we do?”

“I don’t care! But we have got to go! Just grab both of them. We’ll figure it out later and dump the extra then, but I swear to god if you don’t get your asses in this van in the next thirty seconds I am leaving you all here!”

The other men exchanged harried glances and an unspoken decision seems to be made when the man who clocked Jason approaches him, hefting the pistol in his hand with purpose. Tim rolls his eyes and does his best to hunch his shoulders in a placating gesture since his arms are restrained.

“Absolutely not necessary. You want me in the van—I’ll get in the van. Just don’t hit me in the face, my nose is already broken, please?”

The thugs’ mouths drop, unprepared for easy acquiescence. But the way Tim sees it, he doesn’t really have a choice. If he claims to be Jason, they might just shoot the real one. If he reveals himself as not-Jason, they might shoot him. At least this way it will be easier for Dick to track them down by his emergency tracer. He sighs and lets himself be prodded into the back of the vehicle. Well, here’s another point closer towards tying Dick for kidnapping attempts.


Chapter Text

They don’t hit him in the face, which is nice. But they’re not gentle either. They shove him into the back of the van, and with his arms cuffed behind his back he isn’t able to catch himself. He flops gracelessly into the dirty caged-off compartment meant for equipment storage. Great, another suit completely ruined. He wonders if Alfred’s mustache is twitching; his sixth sense alerted by the sartorial tragedy.

His abductors are even less careful with Jason Sionis, practically tossing his limp body in. His skull hits the floorboard with a metallic clang that makes Tim wince. He shifts closer to see if he can slide Jason’s head onto his lap to cushion it from any further trauma when the van peels out of the alley, tires squealing. The centrifugal force topples him onto his side and it becomes a struggle not just to keep himself from sliding around at every turn, but to keep the mob heir from ping-ponging around as well. He ends up slouched down with his shoulders braced against the van’s side, one knee bent, foot planted firmly on the floor, and the other stretched out to pin Jason’s chest to the opposite wall.

Jason stirs exactly once in their mad-cap ride. His teal eyes slit open for one hazy second, then he vomits all over the decorative brogues of Tim's shoe. Fantastic.

He sighs. He activated his emergency tracer as soon as the van doors slammed shut. That was around fifteen minutes ago. It would take Dick and Barbara about as long to make their exit from the gala, get to the nearest supply cache, gear up and head out after him. This hunk of junk is no match for Nightwing and Batgirl’s custom bikes; it shouldn’t take them long to catch up.

The back and side windows of the van are painted over so he can’t see much except for the upper half of the front windshield if he cranes his head just right. It’s not comfortable, but he holds the position, watching and waiting for Nightwing to drop onto the hood with a cheery grin any moment now. He counts the seconds in his head, and with every minute that passes without the van suddenly swerving up onto the curb amongst a flurry of shrieked curses, worry sinks it’s claws a little deeper in. The carriage of the van sways over a bump and starts to descend. The interior is bathed with the sickly green of fluorescent lighting found in underground parking garages. They must be nearing the end of the journey.

He forces a calming breath. Okay. Everything is going to be okay. The emergency tracer will still work. They aren’t deep enough underground to mask it’s signal. He’s sure Nightwing and Batgirl are on the way, they’re just running a bit later than he would prefer. All he needs to do is stall long enough to keep Jason and himself alive until they arrive.

Easy.

The van pulls into a space on the bottom-most level of the garage and their abductors heave a shared sigh of relief at making it back to base without complications. They spill out of the front cab and out of sight. He hears them moving around the outside of the van and towards the rear doors. The doors swing open and—Jason launches past him.

Tim watches in bewilderment as he goes straight for the man who shot Lizzie, taking him to the ground. When the hell had he slipped his cuffs? Had he been playing possum the whole ride? Tim would be impressed, except for the fact that attacking their kidnappers is the exact opposite of his stall-and-wait plan. It’s also painfully obvious that Jason is suffering from a concussion, because when he twists back up to take on the next thug, he overbalances, trips over his own feet, and face plants onto the cement.

The remaining men dogpile him. When they haul him upright Jason sags in their grip, new bruises forming on his face and blood leaking down his chin from a split lip. They put the cuffs back on him, but this time they add a layer of duct tape under where the metal sits as well, just in case.

Then they turn to him.

“Ha, I don’t even know how to do something like that,” he laughs nervously.

They drag him out by his ankles and herd him towards an elevator with a firm grip around his arm and the unforgiving dig of a gun barrel in his back. The vomit in his shoe squelches with each step. They ride all the way to the top of the building in awkward sour-smelling silence while questionable jazz plays gently in the background. An electronic chime signals their arrival and the doors roll back to reveal a Graeco-Roman inspired courtyard. Ah. He has the sinking feeling he’s been plunged right into Gotham's latest burgeoning gang war. A few weeks ago a handful of Maroni soldiers and a couple of Falcone guards were killed in a shoot out at Cucinotta. Tensions between the two families have been rising ever since. So what does kidnapping Jason Sionis accomplish in a conflict unfolding between the Maronis and Falcones?

They’re marched past a gaudy fountain in the form of three dancing naiads and over an exquisite floor mosaic into a waiting room. The walls are faux-painted to resemble black marble seamed with gold and klismos chairs are grouped around matching marble-topped tables. He has to admit the effect is stunning, if over the top. What he likes most about the parlor though, is that it’s far too nice to be a murder room.

Until the men holding them march them to the far wall and a hidden panel slides open, because what lies on the other side is a striking contrast. Tim digs his heels in on automatic, heels squeaking in protest against the polished floor as he’s forced inside a windowless cement block square. There’s a mattress on the floor with suspicious stains on the left, a chair bolted to the floor on the right, and ominously between the two: a drain. D efinitely a murder room.

Shitsnacks.

Something plows into his back. He’s sent to the floor, knees knocking painfully on the concrete. There’s a groan above him and he realizes the thing that plowed into him is in fact Jason. Tim’s breath rushes out of him. The whole situation would be a lot sexier if not for the life or death scenario and the knee in his kidney. He squirms until the other man wriggles off.

“S’ry.” Jason slurs from the floor next to him, “Push’d me.”

Tim hisses when he leverages up into a sitting position, new aches and bruises making themselves known.

“It’s okay. How are you?” he asks, angling himself around to see better.

Jason stays flat on his back. His eyes are dilated, their pretty blue-green color compressed into a thin line despite staring directly at the bare lightbulb strung from the ceiling.

“Think’ve got a concuss—con—concussion.”

“Yeah. I’d say there’s a pretty good chance of that,” Tim agrees, “Might help if you stop trying to attack these guys. Seems to piss them off.”

Jason laughs, rough and raw-edged. “Was trying to escape. Chances of surviv’l drop quick after gettin’ to the final location. Figured tha’d be our best chance. My best chance at least. What th’fuck did they take you too for?”

Tim snorts, “Apparently they got a little confused with their orders. Black hair, blue eyes, busted up face.” 

Jason’s shoulders twitch in amusement. “Oh god. Kidnapped by idjits,” he groans.

“Well, in their defense. They did get three for three.” He waves at the purpling skin radiating out from his broken nose. 

Jason huffs quietly and the moment of humor evaporates as he rights himself with a shaky groan and takes in their bleak surroundings. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry you got pulled into this. You seem like a good kid," he offers, sounding genuinely remorseful. 

"I don't suppose you have any idea what this all about?" Tim asks hopefully.

Jason shakes his head then aborts the move as his face screws up in pain. "No idea. As far as I know, my dad's always been on good terms with the Falcones. Hell, Carmine came to my birthday parties when he wasn’t in the cooler.” 

Tim blinks. His brain blue screens as he tries to picture Carmine Falcone in a party hat. 

"Hey, Tim? You okay?" Jason asks, leaning forwards in concern.

"Hm?" He shakes his head sharply to dispel the image. "Oh yeah, fine. Sorry. Just... Trying to imagine what it was like having one of Gotham's most notorious mobsters at a birthday."

Jason's face cracks into a crooked little grin that makes Tim's heart do funny things. "You do know who my dad is, right?"

Tim grimaces. "Good point. Yeah, Black Mask isn't exactly a... subtle nom de guerre."

"No, not at all," Jason admits easily and Tim wonders how much of his openness is the result of his concussed state.

"What was it like? Growing up like that?" he prods gently to see how much further he can take this.

After all the whole point of attending the gala was to try and gather more information on the younger Sionis. Just because Jason knows about his father's criminal enterprise doesn't mean he's a part of it, a seductive voice in the back of his head reminds him. Aside from some decent combat training, he hasn't seen anything tonight that indicates Jason is anything other than the empathetic philanthropist he styles himself as. Certainly nothing that proves he's the Red Death. 

Jason shrugs. "Look. Roman's not... He's not a good guy. But he took me in when nobody else would, and... Well, I can think of a lot of worse ways to live. I don't know. I know things don't look good right now, and I'm not sure if tonight's where it's gonna end. But if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't even have made it this far, you know?"

Tim frowns and ducks his head a little until he can force eye contact.  

"Hey, we're going to be fine. It's not going to end here tonight." He injects as much confidence as he can into the words.

Jason smiles at him, a small sad thing. "You're right. It's not." He bumps his knee against Tim's. "I'm gonna do my best to make sure you get out of this mess, okay?"

"We," Tim emphasizes the word, "are going to make it out of this mess. The both of us. Okay? Just... Let me know what the plan is next time before leaping into action. I could've helped."

"Well, didn't wanna give myself away!" Jason protests. " 'Sides, you even know how to fight?" He side-eyes Tim.

"I've taken self-defense!" Tim bristles. "Aikido and Kung Fu.”

Jason’s eyebrows arc. “Well, next time I’ll just let you do all the work then, Bruce Lee.”

Tim chews his lip as he contemplates their tenuous future. “Actually, I think our best bet at this point is to play for time until help arrives. Conserve our energy.”

"Help?" Jason repeats doubtfully. "And who do you think is going to help us? The GCPD? Ain't gonna be nothing left of us but a pile of bones in the bottom of the bay by the time they'd work up the courage to get a warrant to come knockin' on the Falcone's door."

"I don't know... What about the Bats?"

“For the jumped-up gutter-punk son of a mobster?” Jason scoffs. “Doubt it. But… Maybe for you they will. Heir to Drake Industries, right?”

"Yeah," Tim nods.

"So you're worth a lot. You must have people who care about you. Who will be working hard to find you."

He inches forward and leans some of his weight against Tim's shoulder. Tim isn't sure if it's meant to be comforting, or if he’s just trying to keep from slumping over, but it feels comforting. He doesn't shrug it off.

"And you too," Tim adds, "I mean, in your speech it sounded like you and your dad are pretty close. He's going to be worried about you too."

"Oh yeah, Roman's gonna blow a fucking gasket when he finds out. Blow this place to kingdom come probably. At the very least I know he'll avenge the fuck out of me," Jason chuckles but Tim doesn't return the sentiment and he sighs, "Sorry, I'm not trying to be all doom 'n gloom on ya, just... Learned a long time ago that you can't count on other people. Sometimes the only person who can save you is yourself."

Tim nods. He doesn't really know what that's like. Sure, he was left alone most of the time when his parents were on one or another of their trips. But he was always provided for. And since then he's always been able to count on Bruce or Dick or the team to have his back. It's logic Bruce would approve of, and the reason Batman has contingency plans for every member of the Justice League. Still, it makes him sad to hear Jason vocalize it.

He's cut off from thinking further on it when the doors to their cell are thrown open and possibly the largest woman he’s ever seen in his life (and he’s met Big Barda) walks in. He recognizes her instantly from Bruce’s files; the bushy red-brown hair, thinly penciled eyebrows, and beauty mark dotting her upper lip. Sofia Gigante Falcone.

“Sofia?” Jason’s voice cracks in disbelief, right before he’s sent sprawling across the hard concrete floor from the swing of one her long gorilla-like arms.

Tim yelps as she swoops down next to him and grabs Jason effortlessly by the collar, throwing him into the chair bolted to the floor. The careless force almost sends him right back out of it, slithering to the floor when his legs collapse from under him. The fist still curled into his shirt is the only thing keeping him upright.

“What the fuck?” Jason wheezes. His peers around her, eyes narrowing. “And what are you—what are you doing with that piece of shit?” He juts his chin towards the rather unremarkable man who slipped into the cell with them behind Gigante’s monumental bulk.

Sofia hoists him up and shakes him like a naughty puppy. “Watch your tongue, whelp!” She bellows before dropping him.

Jason lolls over the arm of the chair. His eyes slip in and out of focus and he looks like he’s trying not to throw up again. The man saunters up to him, smile like an oil slick.

“Well, well. Long time, no see, kiddo. Yeah, I remember you. You used to be one of my runners back in the day. Fat Tony’s territory, right? Course you didn’t have that then,” Maroni drags a finger down Jason’s scarred cheek.

Jason snaps at it with his teeth. Gigante retaliates for Maroni, snapping Jason’s head to the side with a brutal backhand. Maroni rubs his knuckles on the front of his suit unconcernedly, like he hadn't almost just lost a finger.

“Shame. You were a good lookin’ kid. Still, that hasn’t kept you from doing too badly. Managed to snag yourself a pretty good sugar daddy, didn’t ya.”

A thin line of saliva stretching from Jason’s chin towards the floor snaps. He swallows. “It was… my fuckin’ sparkling personality.”

“Clearly,” Maroni rolls his eyes. They fall on Tim. “Who the hell is this?”

Tim shifts uncomfortably under the combined gaze of Maroni and Gigante. 

“Uh. I’m Tim Drake.”

“Drake… Drake,” Maroni muses, “Why do I know that name?”

“Drake Industries?” he supplies helpfully.

“Holy hell. Drake of Drake Industries? What the hell are you doing here?” Maroni squawks.

“Well, um. You see, there was a bit of a mix-up at the gala, and well… I think some of your uh, employees confused me with Mr. Sionis.”

“God damn those idiots. Ask them to do one goddamn thing.” Maroni rubs the heels of his palms into his eyes and then pushes his hair back from its widow’s peak. “Mr. Drake, I’m so sorry you had to see all of this.”

“No worries," Tim chuckles nervously, the resigned tone of Maroni's apology inspiring a strikingly vivid image of himself wearing a new pair of concrete shoes. "I uh, I promise I won’t say anything. Not to the cops or anyone else. No one needs to know, right?”

“You’re right, they don’t,” Maroni agrees pleasantly. “And they won’t. Sofia, if you wouldn’t mind?”

The behemoth at this side steps closer to him. It’s impossible not to read the threat in her stolid tread.

“Whoa! Whoa! No!” Tim yaps, scooting backwards as fast as his ass will take him.

“Again, my sincerest apologies, Mr. Drake. But I’m sure you can agree loose ends are bad for business. I promise it will be quick and painless. Sofia has surprisingly gentle hands.”

Tim eyes her meaty fists skeptically. Bad for business indeed...

“Wait! I am rich! Like, so rich! We’re both businessmen, right? I’m sure we can come to a deal. Something that benefits us both. I will pay you to let me go. Just name your price.”

It’s not his boardroom best, but it is enough to catch Maroni’s interest.

“However much I want?”

“However much,” Tim assures him. 

“Ten million.”

Excuse me? ” he screeches.

Maroni remains unmoved. “You said however much I wanted.”

“But—Ten? I don’t have that much liquid! I’d have to—” he gulps as Gigante takes another step in his direction. “Okay, wait! I have a better idea! One hundred thousand now, I can get you three mill by the end of the week. But the rest, how do you feel about company shares? They’re the gift that keeps on giving, right? And, investing in Drake Industries would be a perfect way to launder the money coming in from your, uh… other incomes. It’ll help give you a legitimate front.”

Sal raises his hand and Gigante stops.

“One hundred fifty thousand, and fifteen percent of the company.”

Fifteen percent, are you fracking—” Tim’s voice jumps an octave when Sofia leans close, “Fifteen is fine. I can do that. I’ll have to call a board meeting to go over the details though. Uh, when are you free?”

Sal smiles beatifically. He claps his palms together and points at Tim. “Haha, I like you, kid. I’ll have my people call your people tomorrow.”

“Good. I uh, look forward to doing business with you,” Tim replies, trying not to visibly sag to the floor in his relief. Jason stares at him. His face is tight with something that’s not quite betrayal; it’s too jaded for that. Then he turns away so Tim can’t see his face at all, and that hurts even more. “So is it cool if I go home now? It’s been a long day,” he pants, forcing his focus back to Maroni.

Sal sighs dramatically, fingers drumming his thigh, “Not yet. See, while I like you… I don’t know you. Are you the kind of person who lies through their teeth to save their own skin?" Maroni's voice pitches up pointedly. "Or the kind who honors their deal? I don’t know. So you are going to stick around for a little bit longer. I want you to see what happens when you cross us. Consider it… educational.”

“You know, I’ve got a pretty good imagination," Tim affirms. "Let me guess: break my knee caps, beat me to a pulp, put a bag over my head and then toss me in the bay?”

Sal laughs, “Oh, we wouldn’t do that to you. Just to someone you love.” He turns to Jason and creeps close to taunt in his ear, “And your megalomaniac crank of a father loves you, doesn’t he? In fact, I’ve heard rumors that you and daddy are a little closer than what family should be. Is that true?”

“Fuck you," Jason hisses.

This time the force of the blow is actually enough that some of Jason’s blood splatters warm across Tim’s cheek. Sal pulls a phone out of his pocket and takes a picture of Jason like that; head hanging, dribbling blood into his own lap. Not five seconds later the phone starts ringing. Maroni answers and Tim can hear the cursing from the other side without it even being on speaker.

“Well, that’s a rude way to greet an old buddy, Roman… Jason? Yeah, he’s right here with me." Maroni glances at Tim and winks, with that slimy smile still plastered on his face. "I sent you a picture, did you not get it? Alright, alright.” He tosses the phone to Gigante. “Here, hon. Take this for me.”

Jason’s face screws up disgust, “Hon? Hon? Oh my god, Sofie are you shacking up with this ass— hck

Maroni grabs a handful of hair and jerks, forcing his head back at a steep angle, chin pointed towards the ceiling. Gigante ignores the comment altogether as she plants herself in front of the two, holding the phone in front of her as if filming. Maroni settles one hand on Jason’s shoulder, while the one in his hair relaxes, carding through the dark strands and brushing it back from his face to show off the bruising there.

“Don’t be shy, boy. Your daddy wants to talk to you. Say hi.”

“Hi, Daddy,” Jason snarls, glaring at the camera. 

Tim can’t see the screen, but he doesn’t need to. The ‘pissed the fuck off’ undercurrent is clear in Roman Sionis’ growl.

“Hi there baby boy. You’re looking a little rough. Have they hurt you bad?”

Jason sniffs haughtily. “Oh, just some bumps and bruises. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Good boy. You know what this is about?” Roman asks.

“No fucking clue.” 

“You know what this is about!” Maroni and Gigante shout simultaneously.

“Is that Gigante I hear?” Roman questions, “Sofia, what are you doing with this—”

“Bitch has us in Carmine’s—” Jason spits out.

“Enough!” Maroni screeches. The hand on Jason’s shoulder slips up to his neck and squeezes until he chokes.  “Shut up! Everyone shut up or else I’ll squeeze the life out of this little fucker right now!”

The room goes silent except for Jason’s struggled breathing.

“...Alright.” Roman acquiesces frostily. “Please do enlighten me as to why you’ve decided it’s a good idea to abduct and threaten my son.”

“Don’t play stupid!" Maroni seethes. "We know it’s you! You’re the one who’s been picking off our men! Trying to turn us against each other! Sofia and I know what you’re up to! You’re trying to turn the families on each other, so you can sweep up what’s left!”

There’s another long uncomfortable silence before Roman speaks again.

“Well. I have to admit. It’s not a bad plan… Unfortunately, if you’re referring to the incident at Cucinotta, you two dumb cunts put two and two together and got five. It’s not me.”

“You’re lying! You’re the one who stands with the most to gain! You’ve always been a greedy psychopath, taking what isn’t yours! Well, we’ve had fucking enough. So here’s what’s gonna happen: you’re going to call off any hits you still have out, you’re going to give restitution for—”

“Or what?” Roman interrupts, unimpressed.

Sal jerks hard on Jason’s scalp, exposing his throat. Tim hears the distinct snikt of a switchblade disengaging. Maroni presses the edge of the blade against the smooth skin of Jason’s unscarred cheek. “Or I’m gonna carve up your precious fucking son like a goddamn spiral cut Christmas ham. And I’m gonna start by ruining what pretty’s left on him. What do you think about that, you prick!”

“You know, symmetry is often considered beautiful,” Roman intones dryly, “And my boy has always looked good in red. Don’t you, baby?”

Jason snorts and grins. Blood stains his teeth. “Aw, thanks, Daddy.”

Tim flinches at Jason’s blatant disregard for his own well-being. It doesn’t sit well with him and this whole conversation is giving him the creepy-crawlies. Are the rumors Maroni referred to true? Are Roman and Jason… Tim shuts off that trail of through. He doesn’t want to know. That would be like if he and Bruce—Nope! Not going there. He can’t wait for Nightwing and Barbara to come crashing in and put an end to it. Where are they?

“You should be taking this more seriously!” Maroni shouts, shaking with rage.

He digs in a little with the knife and red drops slowly glide down it’s edge.

“Oh. I’m taking this exactly seriously as it deserves,” Roman replies, “You’ve made a huge mistake. I’m not the one who’s been killing your men. But I’ll be the one who kills you. I’d say better start running now, but that won’t save you,” Sionis tuts and turns his attention back to his son, “Jason. Don’t you worry. Daddy’s going to take care of this. Your Uncle D happens to be in town. He’s on his way to pick you up. Love you, baby. See you soon.”

The line clicks off. Maroni stares at the phone in disbelief then charges forward to snatch it angrily out of Gigante’s hands. His fingers prod at the screen, redialing, but no one answers. He throws it across the room, an explosion of plastic and glass against the concrete wall. And Jason he—he laughs. Maroni whirls around and grabs him by the collar. 

“What the hell are you laughing about you perverted little freak? Huh! What’s so funny?” 

“You’re fucked. You’re so fucked,” he wheezes merrily. 

“Whoever the hell ‘Uncle D’ is, whatever rescue your dad thinks he can throw together isn’t going to be enough! They’re never gonna make it up here. We got fifteen men between the garage and lobby and ten more here in the penthouse.”

Jason shakes his head, still smiling and licks his lips. He rasps one word, "Deathstroke."

Maroni lets go, his face turning a sickly white. Next to him, even the ever-stoic Sofia shifts her weight uncertainly. Tim startles. Black Mask has Deathstroke on retainer? Is he even in Gotham right now? Holy shiznola, this is something Bruce needs to know. That is, if Tim can ever get over the fact that Jason apparently calls the world’s most dangerous mercenary ‘Uncle D,’ enough to tell him. 

“Shit! Fuck! Shit! Sofia, get this place on lockdown!" Maroni raves, "I want everyone, and I mean everyone , here! Call Caesar, tell him to get the car!”

Sofia nods and walks over to the access panel by the door. It slides open and she hesitates in the threshold.

“And get me another goddamn phone!” he yells out.

She grunts eloquently. The door slides shut again behind her and as soon as she’s out of sight Jason starts snickering.

“Doesn’t matter how many men you call, Sal. You’re a deadman!” he crows.

Maroni answers by ripping Jason out of the chair and throwing him bodily onto the stained sagging mattress at the other end of the room. He climbs over him, pinning his lower body, and wraps his hands around Jason’s neck.

“God, will you just shut up!”

“Hey!” Tim rises up onto his knees. 

His heart pounds. He has sat back and watched as Jason has taken punches and slaps all night, weighing each bruise and contusion against the benefits of maintaining his civilian identity. But, this is escalating past the point of acceptable harm. Maroni ignores him, and Tim wonders if the man even hears him above the furious vitriol he’s spitting.

“You think you’re such a smart little shit, don’t you! Always with the attitude, the lip! God, Tony was right, wasn’t he? Only time you’re not sassing is when you’re putting out. I’m no faggot, give me a nice wet cunt any day, but I can see the appeal in shutting up a mouthy little brat like you!”

Jason finally breaks Maroni’s grip by bucking up his hips, throwing the man off just enough to bring a knee up between them and kicking him back.

“Fucking try it you pervy old ball sac,” he croaks, “And I’ll rip you goddamn testicles off and shove them down your throat! I’ll cut off your cock and feed it to my dogs!”

Maroni roars and lunges forward. He grabs a fistful of hair with one hand and reaches for Jason’s belt buckle with the other. “You know what, I wish I could be there when they take your corpse back to dear old dad! With my cum leaking out your ass and your throat slit! What do you think he’d do after that, huh?!”

Jason makes it as difficult for Maroni as he can, writhing and lashing out with his legs, but that’s about as much as he can do with his his arms restrained behind his back. Tim can see the panic in his eyes. This has gone too far. 

Tim bends back. He’s not quite as flexible as Dick, but he is still a gymnast. He grits his teeth at the scrape of metal over skin and the burn of joints stretched too far. With a little work he’s able to get one foot through the loop of his linked arms. The second follows more easily and as soon as his hands are in front of him he rocks up onto his toes and bowls into the older man, catching him off guard and knocking him away from Jason.

“Get off him! Get off!”  

Maroni turns to him in wide-eyed surprise as if he’d forgotten Tim was even there. Tim takes advantage of the moment to slam his cuffed wrists into Maroni’s temple. It stuns him enough to allow Tim to ram his head against the concrete wall for a more effective take-down. Maroni’s crumples, the skin of his face pulling up where it drags down the rough surface of the wall. Jason frantically kicks out until he slithers out from under the unconscious body. His eyes are unfocused, the whites showing all the way around the bright teal of his irises. He’s breathing in shallow rapid-fire pants and there’s a tremor in his jaw. 

“Jason?” Tim intones gently and raises his bound hands in front of himself, palms open.

It’s meant to be a calming gesture, but Jason flinches at the movement and Tim is afraid he’s going to spiral deeper into the panic attack. Jason squeezes his eyes tightly shut and swallows. His head nods in tiny increments and Tim recognizes a breathing exercise when he sees one. After a couple of minutes the movement of his chest steadies and the tremor fades. When his eyes snap back open, they zone in on Tim with startling clarity.

“Get the knife,” he urges. 

“What?”

“The knife in his pocket! We gotta get free before Sofia comes back. Get the knife!”

Tim had lost track of time in the adrenaline rush of the scuffle with Maroni, but now that it’s been brought to his attention, he’s surprised that Gigante hasn’t rejoined them already. Hopefully that means complications have delayed her. He hopes even more that those complications come wearing kevlar and dominoes.

“Uh, yeah… yeah.”

Tim rifles through the unconscious man’s pockets discarding the odds and ends he comes across, eventually pulling out the knife he’d threatened Jason with earlier. Jason shimmies around until his back is to Tim and wiggles his fingers meaningfully. Tim inches forward and carefully drags the blade down between the layers of tape, then he sets the knife aside and pulls the tape away from Jason’s wrists, exposing the chafed pink skin underneath. 

“Good, now give me the knife,” Jason orders.

He hesitates.

He’s no closer to knowing if Jason is the Red Death than at the beginning of the night. What is Jason going to do if Tim hands him the knife? He’s not afraid for his own life. Jason wouldn't hurt him, but Maroni… 

“What… What do you want the knife for?”

“To stab you with.” Jason rolls his eyes. “There’s a spring inside the release I can use to pick the cuffs. I dropped the nail I found in the van."

Escape training is mandatory Bat-curriculum, but Tim has to admit he doesn’t have Jason’s demonstrated proficiency in getting out of handcuffs (he flatly does not want to know how Jason got so good at it), and the sooner they get out of these—the better. He presses the knife into Jason’s palm, and Jason immediately sets to work. He springs the blade and then sets it down on the ground and stomps on it, cracking the casing until he can fish out the ejector spring. 

Tim watches in fascination as Jason bends the wire into a serviceable pick and blindly finagles it around in the first of the double locks of the right bracelet. It’s less than two minutes before it clicks free, and once Jason can finally bring his hands around in front of him, the left bracelet follows in less than thirty seconds and the cuffs clatter to the floor. Jason catches his impressed expression and winks.

“Here, hold out your hands and let me get you too.”

Tim obeys and Jason leans over them to take a better look. He holds Tim’s wrists gently, turning them over to expose the locks, brushing his thumbs over the irritated skin there as he does so. Tim bites his lip and hopes he’s not blushing. 

“Easy peasy,” the older man murmurs and inserts the spring into the first lock when a muffled explosion shakes the floor.

Gunshots sound on the other side of the door. Finally. At this point he isn't sure if he cares if it’s Dick or Deathstroke out there, he's just ready for this night to be over. Jason jimmies the final lock open and barks a short relieved laugh as Tim’s cuffs come off. He twirls the bracelets once around his finger.

“Here, let’s get these on our friend over there. I’ll feel better about being locked in the same room with him if all he can do is roll around like a worm.”

“Wrists and ankles,” Tim agrees, since they do have two pairs. 

His eyes drift over Jason’s shoulder to the man in question and he stiffens. The sounds and vibrations of the battle taking place outside the walls have roused Maroni from his enforced nap. He staggers towards them with a snarl, blood leaking from his temple.

“Jason! Behind you!” 

The next few seconds etch themselves into his memory. He will never be able to think of Jason Sionis again without thinking of this moment. Despite the beatings, the concussion, and assault, Jason still rises to meet the fight. A stubborn, indomitable, mess of a man. A lot like Bruce. 

Jason throws himself at Maroni. Tim's heartbeat spikes and he steps forward to help, but the mob boss has left the fighting to his lackeys for too long and though injured, Jason is a skilled fighter. He uses the handcuffs still clenched in his fist  as a pair of improvised brass knuckles, smashing them into the underside of Maroni’s jaw. It is brutal and efficient and sends Maroni to the floor right as the cell floods with light.

“Oh, good. You’re still alive,” a deep voice drawls from the doorway, “Your dad will be pleased."

Tim squints at the looming figure.

“Uncle D?” Jason pants.

One of his legs goes out, and he sinks towards the floor. Deathstroke unfolds his arms from over his chest and struts into the room, casually catching Jason around the waist before he falls. He kicks Maroni. 

“So, this asshole. You want to do the honors or should I?” 

Jason responds with a sneer. His scar pulls his face into something savage, something Tim hasn’t seen before now. He holds out his hand and Deathstroke places a pistol in it. A distinctive red skull-like inlay flashes on the grip. 

“No!” Tim shouts, but he’s drowned out by the deafening retort of a gun firing in the small enclosed cell.

He turns wide-eyed to Jason, whose callous expression is already slipping away as he leans exhaustedly into Deathstroke. Weary eyes track to Tim.

“You know what he what he tried to do. Don’t tell me he didn’t deserve it."

Maroni with his hands around Jason's throat, ripping at his pants, threatening him with crude and cruel promises flash through his mind. Tim closes his mouth. He tries not to look at the tiny specks of brain on his shoes. 

“Who’s your friend?” Deathstroke grumbles suspiciously.

Tim cringes under the mercenary's baleful glare. 

“Tim Drake,” Jason answers, “They grabbed him by accident when they took me. I promised to get him out, D. We can't leave him here.”

Deathstroke raises one eyebrow, the one above his patch, skeptically. 

“Hn. Well, Tim. You can stick around here if you want, but we’re leaving. Now." He leaves no room for argument, immediately moving into the black marble parlor, practically dragging Jason with him.

Tim speeds up to match their pace, tiptoe-ing around corpses and slick puddles of red spreading over the mosaic floor. It's eerily still; no movement in the penthouse, but he can hear gunshots nearby.

He gathers up his courage to ask, "What's going on?"

“Bats on the roof. If we’re lucky, Gigante and them will be distracted with each other and we can exit out the basement before anyone notices.”

Bats! He desperately wants to join them on the roof, but can’t think of a way to excuse himself. 

“Think you can handle some stairs, kid?” Deathstroke asks when they reach the entry hall.

He has to jiggle Jason to prompt a reply. Deathstroke’s arrival seems to have finally released Jason from the survival-fueled wave of adrenaline he’d been riding. His bright eyes droop and flutter. 

“A flight maybe, not thirty,” Jason chuckles, swaying.

“Alright,” Deathstroke sighs and lifts his charge, “Hold on. You can keep hold of your gun, just don’t shoot me with it on accident, okay?”

He shifts Jason onto his hip and holds him there with one arm, while gripping his katana in the other. He bumps the button for the elevator with its hilt. The whole thing is surreally familial and he can’t decide which is weirder: Deathstroke carrying around Jason like a toddler or Carmine in a party hat.

There’s a ding and the doors open. Deathstroke completely ignores the body sprawled on the floor as he steps over it into the elevator. Tim isn’t quite as careless. He looks down as he steps in and recognizes one of the men who originally brought them in. He shuffles back into a corner, doing his best not to step on the outflung arm of the dead man while the same muzak track from before plays. 

“Press two please.”

He jumps. “I’m sorry?”

“Floor two,” Deathstroke grunts.

“Oh, yeah.”

Tim reaches out and presses the button for him.

“We’re going to get out at two," the mercenary explains, "You can walk down one more flight to the lobby and call the cops, ambulance, an Uber. Whatever, I don’t care.”

“But… But, what about—”

After all they’ve been through, panic spikes briefly through Tim at being separated. He looks to where Jason’s head rests on Deathstroke’s shoulder, eyes closed, passed out.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get him home safe.”

Tim's face flushes with heat. What was he thinking? That he’d walk Jason all the way back home to Roman’s penthouse and tuck him in for the night? 

“He uh. He’s got a pretty bad concussion. And probably some bruised ribs.”

Both of Deathstroke's eyebrows go up. “It will be taken care of.”

“Oh, okay,” Tim assents quietly and directs his gaze to the control panel for the rest of the trip. 

The elevator slows and stops at floor two, and Tim readies to edge around the corpse once more. The doors open. Several things happen at once.

"Damnit."

Deathstroke raises his katana into a defensive posture and angles Jason out of the line of fire. Meanwhile in the hallway beyond Nightwing lifts his escrima sticks. Behind him, Batgirl has two batarangs fanned between her gloved fingers.

“Let go of the hostages, Deathstroke!” Nightwing shouts in warning.

The mercenary groans. “Relax, Nightwing. This is a rescue. I’m a good guy tonight,” he adds with a rugged grin.

“You don’t do good,” Nightwing snaps.

“I do whatever I’m paid to do,” Deathstroke replies, voice rich in amusement, “And in this case, I’ve been paid to retrieve this one and bring him back home. You can take the other one, make sure he gets home safe, tuck him in, give him a cup of hot cocoa so you can go to sleep feeling all warm and cozy for playing hero.”

Nightwing’s eyes are hidden behind the white-out lenses of his mask, but his head tics minutely between Tim and Deathstroke, mouth turned down at one corner, unconvinced.

Tim clears his throat, “I uh, think it's true. Jason recognized him. Called him 'Uncle D.'”

The other corner of Dick’s mouth turns down. Convinced, but not happy about it at all. Tim exits the elevator, Deathstroke encouraging him with a slap to his rear from his katana that nearly has Tim tripping over the dead thug. Nightwing tenses and growls. Batgirl reaches out and wraps a hand around Tim's arm, steadying him, then pulls him behind her. Deathstroke rolls his eye at their protective antics and stabs the 'close door' button with the tip of his sword. No one moves. They stay in a strained stand-off until the doors slide shut and the prickly mercenary disappears from view.

Dick manages to hold it together until they make it all the way to the Batmobile. As soon as they’re inside Dick crawls into the backseat with Tim, leaving Barbara to drive. He rips off his mask and gloves and takes Tim’s head in his hands, checking him over for injuries.

“Are you okay? Are you alright?”

Tim pulls Dick’s hands away from his face. “I’m fine. I’m fine. A couple bruises. Really. Jason pretty much took the brunt of everything. They grabbed me on accident. Wrong place, wrong time,” he tries to reassure him, but Dick’s hands fly right back up, wrap behind his neck and pull him down until their foreheads touch.

“I’m sorry we’re so late! They staged a robbery back at the gala. Must have been a distraction while they snatched you. It took us a while to be able to slip away and come after you. I was so scared… I thought…”

“I’m fine. I promise. Honestly, my nose hurts the most and I got that before this whole thing happened.”

Dick huffs quietly and eases his grip enough to pet at Tim’s hair.

“Is he really going to be okay?” Dick murmurs, “Or are we going to need to go after them? We brought one of your suits along just in case.”

Tim ponders that for a moment before answering, “I think… I think he’ll be fine. Maroni and Gigante called Black Mask to threaten him with Jason as collateral. Mask said he was sending someone. And Jason called him Uncle D. Oh god, it was so weird.”

"Uncle D? What the hell?" Dick mouths in stark disbelief.

“I know. It’s been… a really strange night. Is it okay if I write up my report in the morning? I just really want to go to bed.”

“If Bruce were here, he’d probably go on a tangent on how that’s not good procedure… But Bruce isn’t here right now. So yeah. I think that’ll be fine,” Dick says and tucks Tim against his side with an arm around his shoulder.

He sinks into the warm embrace and allows himself to indulge in the simple comfort. All the ride home he thinks about the red mask engraved into the pistol Deathstroke pushed into Jason’s hands and how naturally it sat in his grasp.