Some people have parents that tell them all kinds of faerie tales and ghost stories that ultimately teach them how to be good people some day or at least scare them into not sucking their thumbs and ruining the thousands of dollars sunk into orthodontic care. Jason’s mom hasn’t had enough money in her life for the dentist, let alone to consider getting him braces, and Willis— well Willis is sometimes on the nod when the semi-monthly Nightmare on Elm Street marathon comes on Spike so that probably counts if you’re being generous in your counting. But Jason isn’t generous and what it boils down to is that Jason’s had to figure more or less his entire life out on the fly. Good thing for him he’s a quick study.
The first time it happens— the first time he notices, the first time he remembers, the first time he touches something Other— he can only think about two things: that he’s hungry. His ribs should be caving in to kiss his spine he’s so hungry .
And hot on the heels of that reality is the sickening dread of knowing that puberty is coming for him.
See, he’s got it pretty good right now. He’s scrawny and quick and has developed some pretty good techniques for creeping into homes without displacing their air conditioning units or making a sound. Just slipping the cardboard— or plexiglass in nice neighborhoods— out of the way and relying on the strength of his hands and back to pull himself in without fucking anything up. The cardboard goes back into place and its like he was never there. Even while he’s still inside, squinting in the dark to lift jewelry and phones and RAM cards, car keys.
It’s a system. A delicate one reliant on his being small, underweight, and not a dripping ball of hormonal grease.His shoulders are starting to find Gotham’s sub-code windows a bit too narrow. Bulk is the last thing he needs.
The next step up from breaking and entering is probably going to be bloodier. He suspects it is, anyway. Paolo’s got expectations of him, thinks he can do great things, believes in Jason’s innate self-preservation instinct. After all the kid’s got a reputation for nastiness. That doesn’t mean anything— Jason’s got a reputation for that one time he bit some guy’s fingers clean off and accidentally swallowed one of them for fuck’s sake that doesn’t make him a cannibal — but he doesn’t really get a say in what Paolo wants him to do if he wants to continue 1) living, 2) eating, and 3) not getting shot by some enemy he didn’t know he’d made.
But god he wants something to eat.
And right there, between the stitches of the pavement, a single moment suspends itself in the open air and everything on Lind Street is achingly beautiful. It hits Jason so hard he stops and can’t remember how to breathe.
A few floors up someone is cooking fresh tortillas and the smell, instead of being painful, is as thick and delicious as a full meal. The bodega cat on the corner emerges to sit by the front door, grooming himself fastidiously— and pauses with his ginger paw lifted to look directly at Jason, wide yellow eyes full of knowing and satisfaction. Sirens in the distance recall a feeling of warmth because there are a few good cops who care about the city, still. Sure, most of GCPD is dirty, but once there was a cop ( Call me Jim) who bought Jason hot chocolate and French toast and eggs and let him eat all of it instead of arresting him for shoplifting. There are people-- librarians, ER nurses, his grade school counselor, a handful of janitors he’s met, even a couple cops-- out there who love Gotham and want to do right by it.
He stands transfixed by the oil glistening iridescent in a puddle in a pothole— then startles, hand dropping into his pocket for the knife there when someone sidles up beside him.
The kid’s younger than him or as old as him or twice his age, he’s not really sure, but they look hungry, too. They’re taller than he is, which isn’t hard to achieve. The dingy twilight of the streetlight sparkles on their teeth. Their copper-bright hair looks like it was cut with a dull pocket knife in the reflection of a polished piece of metal hung in a convenience store bathroom. It’s clear that they tried, really hard, to cut it evenly— to hard so that it’s all choppy and a little sad.
Jason can relate. He’s got the same haircut.
“Hey, pay attention,” they tell him, full of fondness and not at all sharp.
Sheepish, he says, “Sorry, what?”
“I asked if you wanted to make some money.”
“Doing what?” Money pulls him out of whatever spell he’s in, grounds him back in his hunger and voluntary homelessness.
“I gotta uncle wants some tires but the ones he wants, I’m not quick enough to get. I heard you’re fast, though, the fastest. It’s kind of high-end and the security’s a bitch but I’ll give you a thousand bucks for ‘em though.”
It’s an absurd offer. Not the kind of thing that usually walks up on street corners except to snare the exceptionally gullible to be spirited away too somewhere awful. The lucky ones, he’s heard, get to be hookers; the unlucky ones get used for parts. A modern faerie tale, if the Grimm brothers had kept with the times.
“I want half up front.”
They pass over a handful of folded bills like this isn’t a public street corner and like they think he’s not going to take the money and run.
He rolls his eyes. Ducks into an alley. Meticulously checks every bill over with the iodine pen he stole from the gas station on fifty-second. He’d thought Paolo might want it.
Every bill is genuine. So either this kid really, really needs to collect bodies like burning, like their own life depends on it. Or the offer’s legit.
“Yeah, okay, you gotta tire iron? What’s the address?”
They smile and Jason’s stuck staring again because it looks just like seeing the city from above after a snowfall feels: clean, bright, full of boundless potential. Sure, you know the snow’s gonna melt to slush and it’ll look like shit’s piled in the streets for the next month and you’re going to be terrified of getting frostbite on your toes because your shoes are falling to tatters-- but for just a second, from that rooftop, everything is worth looking seeing, worth believing in.
As they lead him to whatever potential disaster awaits him they let him carry the tire iron they pulled from behind a dumpster. This was too well-planned but the heavy weight of metal in his hand makes him feel better about it. He can defend himself. After the first ten minutes he almost asks their name but thinks better of it. Instinct tells him it’d be bad luck and he’s got enough of that.
“Okay, so, this shouldn’t like. Be a big deal or anything since I’m pretty sure the security system’s a little wonky this week. I’ve been watching. This is gonna be worth it,” and instead of nervous they’re reassuring and somehow that’s all it takes to put Jason at ease. For a minute, anyway.
The third option, the one that he didn’t entertain, was that the money was legit but this whole setup is still a set up. It sinks over him now instead as he stands at the mouth of another alley-- Gotham is full of them, callbacks to a time when cars weren’t a Thing, just another facet of the city’s long memory-- looking at the Batmobile.
He turns and finds himself alone with $500.00 burning a hole in his pocket. He considers the other $500.00 promised. The weird aura of veracity and trustworthiness the nameless kid projected that even in their absence he couldn’t find fault with. A thousand bucks might get him pretty far. It could get him a motel for a few weeks. Or groceries. He does the math-- a grand is a few years’ worth of microwave noodles all at once; less if supplemented with Actual Vegetables and even chicken but he would kill for chicken and fresh vegetables.
The odds are high that he’s going to be electrocuted to death, probably, and if he survives that it’s off to some detention center, definitely, because Batman’s kind of a stickler for things like law and order. But if he pulls it off -- he’s heard about collectors. Giant fucking nerds obsessed with vigilante news and conspiracy. Just the rims-- screw the tires, they’re bigger than he is, he can’t carry those-- the rims he figures he could carry and those he could sell for a lot more than a thousand bucks.
Jason hefts the tire iron and gets to work.
(Later, when he finds his pocket stuffed with receipts and parking tickets instead of cash he’s too well-fed to care.)