There was a boy on a rooftop yelling for Nightwing.
Well, he was also yelling for Batman. But it was more surprising that he was calling on Nightwing. Nightwing had only existed for a little under a year. And he hadn't spent a whole lot of time in Gotham. He'd spent more time in New York, with the Titans.
But he happened to be here tonight. He even had an apartment in the city now, sparsely used but definitely in existence. Alfred had furnished it when Dick wasn't looking, so now it was full of all the necessities, with that particular Alfred touch that was both stylish and homey. There was even food in the cupboards and the fridge.
Batman was on patrol somewhere in the city, but Nightwing hadn't spoken to him. They were friendly enough when they crossed paths, these days, but it wasn't something they generally did on purpose. Bruce was still too annoyed at Dick for leaving, and Dick was still annoyed at Bruce for trying to make him stay.
Nightwing didn't approach the yelling kid right away. There was every possibility that it was a trap set by one of Batman's enemies. Not a lot of people knew about Nightwing's existence yet, or even that he was from Gotham originally, but certainly most of the rogues were aware that Batman's partner had changed or left or both. It would be less unexpected for a random civilian to be yelling for Batman and Robin, not Batman and Nightwing. Still unexpected, though.
Why wasn't the kid calling for the police? As corrupt and untrustworthy as the Gotham police could be, they were certainly more reliable than standing on a rooftop and calling for entities that might or might not be urban myths. Yelling for Batman from a roof was literally a shot in the dark.
The kid was either a stooge, or he was truly, completely, breathtakingly desperate.
The more Nightwing listened, the more he became convinced that the latter was the truth. The kid's voice was cracking, losing power, yet he kept yelling. Nightwing heard the sharp edges of terror, of despair held just at bay. If the kid was a stooge, he was also an absolutely terrific actor.
"Batman! Nightwing! Please! Please, I need your help!"
Finally, Nightwing couldn't stand it anymore. He swung down from the neighboring rooftop and landed a few yards away from the kid, his feet crunching on the dilapidated tiles. The kid cut off with a gasp and spun to face him, reeling on his feet. Now that he was this close, Nightwing could see just how shaky the kid was. And holy cow, he was thin as a rail, skinny arms clutched around his middle in a shivering self-embrace.
"Are...are you Batman?" the kid's voice held only the slightest touch of hope. "Or Nightwing?"
"I'm Nightwing." He took a few steps closer, his hands outstretched. Frick, the kid had been calling for him without even knowing what he looked like? Dick had thought his new costume was pretty distinctive, but it wasn't like he was a fashion designer.
"Oh, thank God." The kid's breath left him in a rush, and he went down to his knees, his head bowing. "Thank fuck. I can't believe that worked."
Nightwing took a few steps closer. "Who are you? Why were you calling for me?"
The kid drew in a shaky breath and raised his head. Nightwing could see his face pretty clearly with the night vision lenses, and the sight hit him like a punch. The boy couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, and he looked utterly wrecked. Homeless, maybe. Definitely abused. Far too thin, far too many bruises.
He reached the boy and went down to one knee next to him, though he didn't reach out to touch him yet. The boy looked back at him, blinking and shivering. Now that he'd found help, reached his goal, he seemed to have run out of energy. This close, he looked like a famine victim, far worse than the usual scrawniness Nightwing saw in the street kids of Gotham. He was little more than skin and bones.
And the marks around his wrists... They were in the shape of fingers. A hand.
Nightwing clenched his jaw, but he kept his voice gentle. "What's your name? What are you escaping from?"
"I'm... I'm Jason." The word was little more than a wisp. Jason blinked, his head wavering. He seemed about two seconds away from passing out. "I got away. I did it. I escaped."
The last part was said with wonder, as if Jason had just realized it was true.
Dick nodded, his throat aching. He reached out and put his hands on Jason's shoulders, and the boy didn't flinch away. It might have been because he was too tired, though. Holy hell, he really was far, far too thin. It was dangerous. Dick felt like he was holding onto a boy-shaped skeleton.
"You did, Jason," he said softly. "You escaped. Good job. I'm gonna get you to safety now, okay? We're gonna get you to the police, and no one will hurt you again."
Now Jason did try to jerk away, utter terror flooding his features. Dick firmed his grip on his shoulders, and Jason grimaced at the pressure, gasping. "No, no cops. Please, no cops. No hospital, either. They'll call the cops, too."
"You don't have to be afraid of the cops, Jason. You're not in trouble. Whoever did this is in trouble, not you. The police will protect you."
Jason's breath came faster, verging on panic. "Please don't call the cops. He's a cop."
A heavy pit opened up in Dick's stomach. "The guy who hurt you. He's a cop?"
Jason nodded, a jerky movement that seemed to take far too much of his remaining strength. "That's why Tim said I should call for Batman and Nightwing. He said...he said Batman and Nightwing are better than the cops for this."
"Okay. All right. I get it. Who's Tim?" Obviously someone Jason trusted, someone who knew about Jason's situation and gave him advice. Hopefully he was a relative that Dick could get Jason back to, somewhere he'd be safe.
Jason was losing the plot now, drooping in Dick's hands. Still, at the mention of Tim's name, he mustered up a smile. That name had power for him, warmth and comfort. "Tim is... Tim is so smart. He taught me...taught me how to get away, what to do. He's really smart, Dick. You would like him."
Dick's mouth went dry in a rush. "My name is Nightwing."
"Oh, right." Jason lifted one shaky finger and pressed it to his lips. "That's a secret. Sorry. Tim told me not to tell. I won't tell anyone, swear."
And then he passed out and slumped into Dick’s chest, completely done.
Dick scooped him up in his arms. His heart was pounding. The boy was far too light. He couldn't have weighed more than seventy-five pounds.
The only thing he could think to do was take him back to his apartment and keep him safe and feed him. And then call Bruce. And maybe Alfred and Dr. Leslie.
So that was what he did.
Jason was bundled up in Dick's bed in his apartment, wrapped in a creamy, off-white comforter, just a tuft of dark hair sticking out. The line from an IV sneaked in through the folds. He had woken up a few times since collapsing on the roof, enough for Dick to get some Gatorade and part of a protein bar into him. He hadn't talked much, only answering a few of the many questions Dick had asked him before passing out again. He had made it clear that he didn't have parents, didn't have a family, nowhere to go.
He seemed to trust Dick, though, looking at him like he was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It filled Dick with a complicated mixture of emotions. The kid was so weak, so vulnerable. Dick wanted to protect him forever.
Bruce moved to stand next to him where Dick leaned in the doorway, watching Jason with his arms folded over his chest. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Dick was aware of Alfred in the kitchen, bustling around and cooking, soup for the boy and a more substantial meal for the rest of them. Leslie Thompkins had been called and was coming as soon as she finished dealing with a GSW at the clinic. Dick idly wondered when that woman ever slept.
Bruce was holding a printout in his hand. Dick hadn't even heard his printer running, he'd been so deep in thought watching Jason sleep. "His name is Jason Todd."
Dick looked at the printout, then grabbed it and held it closer to his face. Jason's small face looked back at him, younger and much more filled out than it was now. It was a mugshot. He scanned over the words beneath the picture. Jason had been caught shoplifting at a convenience store two years ago. The judge had let him go because it was a first offense, and his mother had picked him up.
The mother was dead now. Cancer. Father had been a thug in Two-Face's gang, murdered by Two-Face himself in a fit of rage. There was no report of Jason being taken in by CPS. He must have been supporting himself, somehow. Five months ago, at the end of the June, he was reported missing by a concerned neighbor. After that, nothing. Until now.
He had been twelve when he vanished. He had turned thirteen a month after he disappeared. He was thirteen years old, and he was alone and orphaned, and someone had been starving him and hurting him for... How long? The whole five months he was gone?
There was no mention anywhere of anyone named Tim. Another neighbor? A friend?
Bruce anticipated the question. "I couldn't find anything about a Tim. Not a relative. I checked out to the third cousins. No neighbors or associates by that name that I could find. Not even a classmate. I'm not even sure Jason was attending school, not since his mother died last February."
He sounded frustrated. Of course he was more focused on that aspect. Tim, whoever he was, had cracked their identities. If he knew that Dick was Nightwing, it stood to reason that he also knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman.
Dick didn't much care. Bruce could deal with his paranoia on his own. He had higher priorities.
Dick looked back at Jason. The paper crumpled in his fist. "I'm gonna adopt him."
Bruce cut him a sharp look. "You can't."
Dick turned to face him. "I'm nineteen. I'm an adult. He needs someone, and I'm it. He's obviously been through something horrible in the last few months, and he came to me. He's mine, now. My responsibility. I'm not gonna pass him off, not when he's so scared and fragile."
Bruce frowned, his forehead wrinkling. Dick blinked, recognizing that expression. It was the look Bruce got when he felt thwarted. When something he wanted was snatched out from under his nose.
Dick blinked. "Hold the phone... Were you planning on adopting him?"
The flesh around Bruce's eyes wrinkled. "The thought crossed my mind. At least fostering. I have the room."
Dick gaped at him. "You can't take in a kid like a stray dog just because he catches your attention, Bruce."
"Isn't that what you're contemplating doing?"
Dick growled and struck his own chest with the fist holding the crumpled paper. "He was calling for me. He trusts me. He's been through something horrible, but he called for me, and I found him. He's mine now. Back off."
Bruce had the audacity to look amused. "The way you told it, he was calling for me, too."
"Whatever!" Dick threw his hands up in the air. "You think I can't do it? You think I can't take care of him?"
"I never said that. But since you brought it up, you're barely an adult yourself. I don't think you realize how much you would have to give up if you suddenly decided to devote yourself to fatherhood. You should be in college, enjoying your youth, hanging out with that group of teenage heroes you put together."
Dick ground his teeth. "Oh, and you sacrificed so much when you took me in? You kept up the exact same lifestyle you had before I showed up. You didn't give up Batman. There's no reason I can't be Nightwing and adopt a kid at the same time."
Bruce's eyes flickered. "It's true that I was only a few years older than you are now when you started living with me. But I had already had my time of exploration, and I had already decided that Gotham was my future. I was...settled. Enough. You're still...figuring things out. You don't need the burden of a child. Not right now. Especially one as traumatized and troubled as Jason is going to be."
Dick latched onto one sentence out of that, unwilling to acknowledge that Bruce was making a lot of good points and was probably right about everything. "He's not a burden! He's a kid, and he needs me, so I'm gonna be there for him!" Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Jason was stirring on the bed, but he couldn't seem to lower his voice.
"Dick, chum, I'm not saying you can't be there for him." Bruce reached out and took his shoulders in his hands, looking earnestly into his face. "I can see that he trusts you, and I can see how much that means to you. But maybe it would be better for you to be his big brother instead of his dad."
On the bed, Jason groaned, then suddenly sat bolt upright with a gasp. His face was paper white. "Tim! Where's Timmy?"
Dick ducked out from under Bruce's hands and beelined to the bed. He sat on the edge and took Jason's shoulders in his hands to hold him up. "Shh, buddy, it's okay. You're safe here."
Jason looked at him wildly, white showing all the way around the iris. "We have to go back for Tim!"
Dick and Bruce exchanged glances, then Dick looked back to Jason. "Okay," he said as calmly as he could. "Can you tell me now who Tim is? Where can I find him?"
"Where...where?" Jason raised his shaking hands and buried them in his hair. Strands of rough, brittle hair broke off between his fingers. He was so malnourished that his hair was lank and weak, just like the rest of him. Hysteria pushed at his voice. "He's back in...back in that apartment, with that bastard, the one who, the one who..."
Dick held his shoulders tighter. His heart was in his throat. "He's with the man who hurt you?"
Jason nodded frantically, looking at Dick with wide, pleading eyes. "Please, you have to save him." His voice broke on a sob. "He's...he's my little brother."