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It’s three AM. The desperate hour. That’s the time when Maria leaves work, cornered in a no-light alley by a mugger. Or a rapist. Or who knows. All that matters is he is on her, trying to take something. She is fighting back, she thinks. Her right elbow hits something hard, like chin. But then his fist catches her mouth. And her temple. Maria feels cotton candy brain puffing up in a flavored cloud of red hot, cinnamon pain. She kicks with the last of her sense, because smart girls kick. She is thrown into a wall for being smart.

 

But then the man is thrown into the wall just next to her. Face first into sooty brick.

 

Maria remembers pulling apart a wishbone with her hermanita at one of their small, lonely Christmases in the apartment with the failing heater. She thinks of the satisfying snap of delicate bone. Not unlike a nose folding in when forced against Crime Alley brownstone. The joy of closing her eyes for the wish cued up, fulfilled.

 

If it were a hero, she thinks they would put on handcuffs. Start singing the “You’re safe now, Ma’am” mantra. Her rescuer doesn’t do that. Instead, the goliath in the brown leather jacket takes his time high-kicking a steel-toe boot into the other man’s back. The mugger still has his face against the wall, the kicks throwing his torso again and again into the brick until he falls, almost unconscious, against a dumpster. A rat skitters out from under it. The man with the candy-red blister of a helmet stomps on its back, too. A screech. More crunching in the wet. The helmet pops out against the moonlight. Like it’s angry.

 

Red Hood turns to her. For some reason, she doesn’t run.

 

His shoulders are bunched up, coiled pythons writhing underneath the leather. Both she and the Hood ignore the groaning goon on the ground. She can’t see the Hood’s face. But she knows he is staring at her. Like she’s the frustrating part of his night.

 

A robotic, stilted voice says to her, “Watch. Watch.”

 

Red Hood picks up the mugger, who staggers, stunned. The goon is spun to face the Hood. Released. He fights gravity, shoes slipping in slick melting trash, his own blood. She notices his eyes are glassy with pain. Good.

 

Red Hood raises his fists like a boxer squaring off against the swaying goon. The robot goes on. “Keep your hands in front of your face. Protect it. Your face isn’t just your good looks. It’s your eyes, your brain. Don’t fucking let ‘em get you there. You make it too easy.”

 

Maria licks blood away from her mouth. Teeth loosened, but none falling out from what she can feel. Her lip is split, probably. She won’t be able to work for days. The gasping goon still stands. Hopefully not for long.

 

Red Hood pantomimes an unhurried punch though the air in front of him, narrating as his body moves. “Dominant hand and leg back, like you’re going to bat or something. Twist your hips as you throw—power comes from your whole body in a good punch.” His costume under the brown leather jacket is gray and black with just a bit more angry red. She can see the flexible chest plate roll as he pulls himself back to starting position. Slow for newbie eyes. “Jab out. Snap back and protect that fucking face.”

 

Without warning, Hood throws that textbook punch loud and clear and viper-fast on the stunned attacker’s chin. Follows with his other fist in the kidneys once, twice, ‘til the attacker’s back hits the wall. Head butts him—not fair with the helmet, but only fools care—and when the attacker slumps, kicks him in the ribs. Four times. Maria’s attacker sobs around his attempts to get his wind back. She enjoys the sounds. Smiles tiny around the blood still pooling from her gums.

 

“You watch?” Hood turns back to her.

 

Maria nods, then says “Yeah” anyway. She reaches down. Tears at the seam on the miniskirt that she knows is weak, has been wanting to fix if she ever had time or fucking money. She is probably flashing Hood her flimsy work thong. He doesn’t seem to care. Even nods when he sees her test her mobility, stretch her legs out and shake like a bull about to charge.

 

“Good. Time for your practical exam!”

 

Red Hood picks up the attacker one more time, locks him in a hold from behind since it seems like the guy might pass out at any moment if not propped up.

 

She shakes, nervous, fucking mean with rage. “Ay—yes!”

 

Maria gets into stance. Red Hood tosses the attacker in her direction, which Maria does not expect. Maybe she thought he would hold him up—like tee-ball for her first.

 

No matter. She punches him good. Then remembers too late for any serious fight to bring her hand back to her face. Clumsy. But that pendejo is out cold on his belly.

 

Red Hood whistles. The helmet adds electric feedback. He makes to step over the body but jumps on its back anyway. Maria almost doesn’t flinch when she hears a final crunch.

 

Red Hood notices and looks down at the attacker. “He’ll live. Probably.” He looks up at Maria. “Good job.”

 

Maria grins, shakes with adrenalin. Her knuckles hurt with happiness. “Yeah—got him!” She knows she is like a child, pantomiming the throw, the strike, the snap back, twisting her hips like he said. Power. She has it. She wants more so she can live her fucking life. Exit a sleazy club and make sure the mess stays inside the walls as long as possible, not follows her the whole way home. She kicks the shit out of the air, ‘cause she means it.

 

“Yeah, cool down, hot shit,” the robot cuts in. “You learned how to throw one punch. Still don’t know how to fight.”

 

Maria straightens. Examines her counterpart in the dim.

 

Red Hood is so tall. Broad. Like a warhorse in those civil war pictures grandpap had framed back in Ros Dios. Maria, in heels and dressed for stupid smut, feels small.

 

Mami warned about big men—said they were worthless even before she was smitten and subsequently snuffed out by one going on several years now. Said they had big appetites. Muscles for two, brains for only a lizard. Tempers like toddlers, because they knew no one would ever stop them.

 

But Maria has met slime in every shape, age, and color. A protector—she hadn’t seen one of those in a very long time. “So then teach me,” she says to him.

 

Red Hood scratches his helmet like he could actually feel it. “Like. Fucking why?”

 

“Don’t be a prick. Why not?”

 

#

  

Always go for the headbutt.

 

#

 

On orders from the man in the mask, Maria has run through Juliet Park every morning straight for seven weeks. At least four miles a day. Even in fucking downpour. The running has put the north wind in Maria’s sails. She feels, dare she think it, powerful in her tightening skin. Red Hood is more than teaching her how to take and give a punch. He is bellowing her lungs. Brick and mortaring her biceps, quads, and gluts. Shaping her body for what feels, sometimes, like war.

 

Except for times like these. When she has tremors from just leaning back against a warehouse wall, sliding, falling down to her ass for breath after their laughably one-sided spar. A gloved hand holds the strap of a dangling canteen. Maria gasps for air, not reaching for it yet. He swings it back and forth. A teasing pendulum. Her arms are still weak. That robot voice says, “You have three seconds ‘til I dump this whole thing on the fucking ground.”

 

Maria slaps at it, grabbing the water with winter-numb fingers. Doesn’t matter the warehouse is hot as Satan’s asshole. She’s got the full-body shivers. It’s not an unusual feeling anymore. Whole body fatigue like some medic should be squeezing a bag of air over her face. Stretcher tossing in a high-speed ambulance aiming for heaven. This is not exercise. This is what Judas goes through in hell, in between having his skull gnawed on by the devil himself.

 

Red Hood is panting like a mildly warm dog under the helmet. Lazy, calm, and low-lidded, she imagines. Tongue lolling in boredom while watching her collapse.

 

Fucker. The helmet’s filtration whirs with ease.

 

He has unscrewed the canteen cap for her. She gulps down what water doesn’t spill over her chin.

 

A minute passes. Maria continues sitting. Waits for him to demand her up. Already decides that she will ignore him at least the first two times he asks. He must see her reaching her limit—actually, he must see her limit limping in the dust way behind her body, which now convulses with each breath. He sits down next to her instead. So casually, it almost feels normal when his knee brushes hers and he takes off the hood.

 

Mami had said you can’t actually swallow your tongue. “You’d bite it off first, mija,” she had said to a young Maria. “Keep those fingers away!” Then they both had watched Maria’s alley-found puppy writhe in its first seizure, flail its legs and slop out the tongue that alternated between curled and stiff, then turned to sloughed, pink worm. The no-named pup lived for five years between its seismic episodes. And Maria thinks of the dog now as her body continues shivering from overwork. Mouth wanting to gape. Tongue surely too big to fit without choking. Red Hood, unmasked before her.

 

Oddly—maybe thankfully—he wears another eye-mask beneath. It looks like those on the other faces Gotham knows. Maria eyes the Bat symbol on his chest. The fabric of his fatigues, hairsbreadth from brushing her naked knee. But only for a moment. Because Red Hood is barefaced right next to her. And she must look upon him.

 

Is he still a boy? Wait. Is she older than him? Impossible.

 

The moment feels like something close to too much. Why did he take his mask off? Why did he place his body so close to hers? She sees, in a column of light peeking through the rafters, his breath displace floating specs of dust, push them in a hot puff toward her chin.

 

Had they touched differently during the spar today? Maria does not recall, but this moment is unprecedented. Triggered by nothing but time? But trust? What trust?

 

Maria wonders if she does trust him. She thinks she does trust the stone-faced Hood, trusts his emphatic blankness, his un-nuanced instruction, his near robotic head tilts and shrugs. He has helped her because of his programming. Slaughters the violators and protects the wounded, no exchange required, simply because it is coded as right.

 

But this is a boy next to her, pale and chap-lipped and pretty, sharing body heat without warning so close to her side. He has been revealed for a purpose, she guesses. He wants?...

 

The boy doesn’t say anything. He takes a few slow gulps of water himself. Straightens his legs and stretches his toes. Keeps the base of his skull against the wall while he arches his back and breathes deep like a monk searching for answers. Holds his pose, arms pitched skyward so fingers can brush the brick behind him. Groans a little and smirks at something in his head.

 

He is asking for her attention, she thinks, and her spit is acid, swallowed with double-effort down her throat. A pose like his is invitation—she knows, since she is paid to pose herself, for old men and rich men and men just like this boy next to her, cocky and strong and putting on a show. He already took off his helmet to start things up. Like revealing the handsome face and taught body will somehow make the exchange slicker. Even if he keeps his eyes closed and face forward, even if there is no demand in some hot, ugly stare pointed at her body, Maria knows what he means.

 

Maria turns her face away. She feels so much more exhausted. Betrayed. Her heart beats like tumbling stone even more than before, heavier than it had been leaping roughly up her throat throughout the spar, heaving with lungs for air like she could somehow vomit herself inside-out. Her eyes burn, but only for a second. Because she tells herself she’s done this before, can do it again, that it’ll be over so much faster than she thinks. She gets her breath back enough to steady the hand that reaches for his lap.

 

The strongest fingers she’s ever felt snap around her wrist as good as handcuffs. He’s not squeezing. But his hand has formed the perfect tight circle to keep her arm trapped along his thigh, just above the gun holster, palm hovering over crotch. Maria doesn’t react—too much practice.

 

He’s finally breathing heavily. Maria doesn’t look at his face. When he keeps still like some armored gargoyle, she knows he’s waiting for her to finish the game for him.

 

She can’t move her hand, doesn’t try to. Merely uses pinky to stroke along the zipper of his black fatigues.

 

Hood jerks her hand up and off. Still doesn’t let go.

 

Maria finally looks right at him. She knows what he wants, but she needs to know what he wants.

 

Except—Maria flinches, finally gives a jagged, hopeless tug at his grip on her wrist—Hood’s face is static, haunted hate. Even behind his mask, she can see the wound.

 

Unlike most kicked dogs, though, Hood doesn’t cower in his pain. He does squeeze her wrist now. She wonders if her bones can actually rub together. Forgets the thought, wide-eyed, when he leans in to snarl.

 

“Don’t. Fucking touch me.”

 

Red Hood releases her, and she tips away to the other side. Her feet kick against the ground for leverage, pushing her body along to give her torso more distance. She cradles her hand, numb from the wrist down. “I’m sorry!” she gasps. “I’m sorry!”

 

Silence.

 

Twenty seconds later, when she’s steeled herself to re-meet his gaze—

 

He’s gone.

 

#

 

Maria doesn’t see the Red Hood again for weeks. Not until one night where she climbs out of the backseat of a fancy, low-slung sedan and waits by the fogged up window as she hears her customer swap for the driver’s side door. The usual work tips have been low lately. One club regular had even said that muscles like the ones she’s putting on aren’t sexy, that fucker. But she needs money to fix her broken P.O.S. Toyota, and it’s all the same, no? She wipes the back of her neck from the summer heat. It hurts, too, from a bite mark. She wonders if she feels blood or sweat. This guy wasn’t messing around.

 

“One-hundred,” she reminds him. She tugs her skirt down. Thinks of the last of the transmission bill, now paid. In her head, she moves down to the next item on the list—fix the stovetop so she can start cooking again. Maybe give a little to Gabbi three apartments down, so she doesn’t end up evicted.

 

Her john chuckles. He’s slicker than her club regulars, had looked a little richer and ready to splurge in the early evening. She was probably stupid to let him pay after, but he looked good for it and held out strong.

 

“Here,” he says, tossing a few bills over the hood. She circles around to collect them up. Frowns over only forty dollars.

 

“You’re short,” she tells him.

 

“I paid for what I got,” he responds.

 

Maria feels the familiar hate thrum through her body. She dashes around the rest of the car, and he’s surprised enough, for a moment, to let himself be trapped against the chrome-trim door.

 

She tells him to hand over the rest. He has more cute responses. And when she isn’t cute back at him, he lays a paw on her shoulder to push her back.

 

Almost without thinking, Maria breaks the hold with one of the first moves Red Hood taught her. Throws up her hands, then launches down her elbows to catch his extended arm. Ends the move by grabbing his wrist at a pressure point, twists his grip away. The john is more surprised now. And then he’s just angry.

 

His other hand comes out somewhat clumsily to brain her from the side. She didn’t think this far ahead. She takes an open palm to the ear, which rattles the gummy bears in her skull around enough to lose focus on the situation. The john moves to strike her head again. Except the ghost of the Hood, puppeteering her body from weeks in the past, urges her to square up for a kick to the balls.

 

He grunts, folds over, and has to brace himself against the car to keep from crumbling to his knees. She’s a little shocked it worked and doesn’t know, for a second, what to do. Straightens up in curiosity, then hesitation.

 

Back away, she thinks. You’re proven your point. Go home short but proud.

 

So she turns to run. Except it’s a rookie move to freeze like that, and this guy has to be deep in some Gotham underground shit that she couldn’t have guessed 'til now. She hears him growl out words so ugly, and then something heavy hits her in the back of the head.

 

Now she stumbles. She hears his loafers slap the pavement behind her, closing the distance. She’s not fast enough to leap out of the way of his hold.

 

An Armani arm coils around her throat. His other hand holds a slim pocket knife. Polished. Pearl inlay. Beautiful, expensive, tip cutting lightly through her shirt and prodding against her gut. Its end is marked with an insignia she recognizes. One of the local crime families all the girls at her club had warned about.

 

She is stiff in his arms, mind turning in panic. Her john chuckles. Growls. “Oh yeah. This might be the worst decision you’ve made all year, slut.” Maria shudders a breath.

 

Then she hisses with tight pain. Feels a drop of blood begin to run down her belly from where he’s put pressure on the knife.

 

“You’re coming back to the car,” he explains, straightening to pull her taught on her tip-toes. He begins walking backward, and she can only stumble along. “We’re having a long night together. Let’s place bets on if you’re good enough to come out of it without any new holes.”

 

Maria tears up, the start of hyperventilation and black anger jerking her chest under this grip. Her john seems to like that. He noses the side of her head in appreciation.

 

They make it to the car. Her john has two hands, of course. And then, in a stroke of Gotham City miracle, he takes away his dominant hand, the one holding the knife, to pop open the trunk.

 

Maria stills with realization. Time slows down, then seems to freeze. Her mind is suddenly clear, her next movements storyboarding themselves in her mind’s eye. Is this what it feels like to be powerful? It’s beautiful. Because she knows, for what feels like the first time in her short but miserable years in this city, exactly what she needs to do to get out from under the hands pushing her down.

 

Maria darts her hands up. One grips the forearm still around her throat, tugs it to center around her upper chest. The other does more reaching to grip the sport coat at the back of his neck. She hops and pulls her knees up, her weight pulling the top of his body into a bend. She uses the momentum on the way back down to toss him, ass over teakettle, over her shoulder. She hears the knife fall away. Keeps the grip on his arm to twist it back on the border of dislocation. Tightens her hold on his scruff to guide him to the ground. Her skirt bunches around her waist as she puts a knee into his lower back.

 

He says “Fuck!” from his place on the Crime Alley cement. Scrabbles for the knife, starts to buck up and get away. Maria’s hand on his scruff migrates to dig fingers into his hair. She slams his head face first into the ground, once, twice, thrice.

 

Her john isn’t moving. She doesn’t release the hold for another ten seconds. And then she pulls back altogether, stumbling to give herself a distance of at least ten feet ‘til she stops, looks on and waits for him to get up. He doesn’t move. She waits another ten seconds.

 

On jelly legs, shaky lamb legs, legs scuffed up and over-tensed from too many hours on these fucking stilettos, Maria begins to jog in place. Knees too high, a little topsy-turvy. It’s not a dance, but it kind of is. Victory.

 

She screws up the courage to frisk his body. Pulls out his wallet. Takes all the cash. And then takes his cellphone and keys. Not to steal them, but to destroy them and toss away. He’ll find himself having a little difficulty in getting home. Bastard.

 

She spits on his back. Turns away, panting, to make her escape.

 

Comes face to helmet with her long-lost sensei, or whatever the hell it is people call their once martial arts masters.

 

“’Sup,” Hood says.

 

Maria shrugs. Looks over her shoulder at her triumph, drooling on the ground. Faces Hood again.

 

“Turns out you weren’t full of shit,” she says, still shaky.

 

Hood barks laughter, which she returns. Maybe it’s stupid, but she wants him to hug her. Wants a safe friend to see her fear, her joy, tell her she did good and hold her through the shakes from what could have been the end. She’s got power, and she wants him to give her more. To make it so that a close call is never this close again.

 

She’s not going to be the first to touch him, though. Not after last time.

 

Hood steps closer. Telegraphs putting a hand on her shoulder so she can dart out of reach if she needs to. She doesn’t, just holds her breath while he initiates contact. He gives an awkward pat, and a dumb girl would cry. She can’t help but reach up one hand to cover his, ground herself.

 

“So you’re still sloppy as fuck,” his robot voice says. “Almost thought I’d need to jump in and kill him.”

 

Maria suddenly realizes what it means that he was right there.

 

“You’ve been checking up on me?” she asks without thinking.

 

Red Hood shrugs now, turns his helmet toward the slumped body in the alley. “I was in the neighborhood, yeah.” Robot voice or no, she almost thinks he sounds shy.

 

She wonders why he let it get so far. A little mad he didn’t help. A little happy to know he would have, if she needed it.

 

She hesitates, but then telegraphs her next reach now. He lets her squeeze his bicep through the leather and armor.

 

“Thank you,” she says to him. “I mean it. Thank you.”

 

The helmet cocks to the side in consideration. “I suppose this means you need more training, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” she agrees.

 

#

 

They don’t talk about that night, that first and only time he pulled off his helmet. A thin layer of friendship, fractured before it could fully set up and turn solid. They’re pouring the next layer of pleasant concrete directly over it, she guesses. As if that’s the fix.

 

He hasn’t taken off the helmet again. When he sits next to her during sparring breaks, he leaves space. She thinks she gets him a little more now. She was stupid before, little scabbed mind painting the picture for her, years of ugly experience fogging the lens and making her almost push away forever the most promising new friend she’s had in awhile.

 

Things are still tense. But he still shows. That’s what matters.

 

She lets things between them firm back up. Treats him like a shitty, snot-nosed little brother. And he is shitty and snot-nosed. In fact, he won’t shut up when he gets the energy to spew sarcasm and puns. He teases her form during each bout. Flicks her between the eyes when he inevitably gets her pinned. And when she first manages to surprise him with a hail-Mary slap against his chin, a move that would have been ineffective in a real fight but still allows her to crow and strut around for an hour after the fray, he pouts. Even while he also seems genuinely proud. She’s decided she likes him. She thinks he likes her, too.

 

Maria doesn’t have a reason to push for more from him than this. Until she suddenly does.

 

Maria thinks of saying nothing. Decides that she will handle it herself and keep from rocking the boat. But after days of things at home getting worse, after a night in the ER holding a neighbor’s shaking hand, she knows he could be her only chance to save someone else for a change.

 

It’s another hot day in the warehouse, the one she still hasn’t figured out who owns. People in the area have just shrugged. Abandoned industrial properties on this side of town aren’t unusual. The day is one of the last real steamers before the end of summer, and it feels like the air inside the warehouse should shimmer with the heat. Hood has just flipped her onto a crash pad for the tenth time in as many minutes. Clearly, she’s not getting this kick right. From her place sprawled out on her back, a gummy, sore blubber pile on the ground, Maria asks, “Can I bring a friend next week?”

 

Without even thinking, it seems, Hood says no. He scoffs a little. Retightens his sparring gloves without even looking her way.

 

“She needs help,” Maria says, leaning up on her elbows.

 

“Sounds like it,” Hood says, stepping away. He’s in a snotty mood today, it seems. He makes some good distance to his little, neat pile of gear, stashed on top of the folded leather jacket. Keeps his back to her as he slips off his helmet enough to swig a quick drink of water.

 

“Her pimp is trash,” Maria explains. “He hit her bad, she had to go to the hospital.”

 

Hood puts down the canteen. Refastens his helmet. “Tell me the pimp’s name,” he says.

 

“No, she needs help,” Maria says.

 

“Tell me his name. I’ll help. Gladly.”

 

She sits up fully now, crosses her legs like a pretzel. Feels her brow heavy and thunderous at his attitude. “Hood, she needs you. Needs you to teach her.”

 

Hood straightens up. Walks back over. Crosses his arms in front of his chest plate like a brat. Maria can’t see that Bat symbol anymore.

 

“What do you think this is?” he asks. It’s a fair question. He continues, “What do you think I’m planning to do? You think I’m going to put up a flyer? Start filling up spots in judo? Tai-chi? Kick-boxing?”

 

Maria crosses her own arms. Glares up at him, unrelenting.

 

That’s one thing they’ve both learned over the months—if someone would dare the two of them to a staring contest and then strike a match, the warehouse would probably burn down around them before one of them breaks.

 

He fills the agitated silence. “I’m not running a gym. I’m not accepting students. This is a fucking favor, you know.”

 

A favor. Her gut roils in contempt. She keeps quiet, lets him keep digging.

 

“I’m not about to lead every Tom, Dick, and Harry through a workout regimen. I belong on the streets. That’s how I keep this place fucking safe.”

 

“Great job,” she says all nasty. “Feels safer every day, asshole.”

 

Red Hood gasps a little, rears his helmet back. It would be funny, under other circumstances.

 

“Listen up, Maria,” he says. “’Cause I’m only gonna say this once.” He crouches, balancing in a ball on his toes to bring them to the same height. His arms remain crossed. She has to look him straight in the shiny red helmet. “I’m not a goddamn teacher. You want my help in your neighborhood? Give me names and a week. I’ll clean up your block just fine.”

 

#

 

She keeps her cards to the chest for a week. Follows his instructions even though, she guesses, he’s not a fucking teacher or whatever. She plots some. Because she thinks she’s figured him out a little more, now.

 

She doesn’t think of herself as boundary-pusher. But maybe that’s all she’s been with him since day one. After all, he’s never initiated their connection. She’s always asked for a little more from him. Learning the punch. Learning the kicks. Learning more and more, goading him into showing up and helping her. Violated him in the process, which stings, and she hates herself in a few little moments sometimes. But he’s bounced back so far, even from the moves that could have broken everything. Seems to get that she’s not circling him like a predator, hound-dogging for more. She wants to respect his boundaries. It’s just, this all feels too important. Too much opportunity to spread around. He doesn’t seem to get how big this feels.

 

She shows up with cargo, without warning, without permission. “You’re late,” he says, back turned to her like the showy piece of work he can be. But then he seems to freeze as Maria gets closer.

 

She bets he can hear the second set of footsteps, even as light and timid as they are on the concrete.

 

“Fucking Christ,” that robot voice shouts. “What did I fucking say—”

 

He whips around. Maria’s cargo full-body flinches. The cargo’s name is Tonya who lives down the hall from Maria, supposedly with a woman she calls her foster mom even though Maria’s never seen hide or hair of said guardian. Maria could call the cops—but to what end? Tonya would be gone by morning, maybe on the wind of homelessness for escape. Or, if foster mom was real, kicked somewhere else in the system that had already delivered her here, to Maria’s crumbling apartment block, to a job where her body is priced so low, to this moment where Tonya has to cower under the glare of the Red Hood untethered because there are no other options.

 

Maria says nothing, again. Watches Hood freeze in place, sees the helmet tilt subtly as he looks Tonya over. The girl is shaking, and Maria feels that ugly hate for herself inside rearing up. She doesn’t want to put these people through pain or fear or anything else ugly again. And she feels like she keeps doing it. But Red Hood needs to learn. Needs to know. She hopes Tonya can stand it out long enough for Hood to come to the right decision.

 

Maria knows what he sees. Can guess what turmoil and hate and rage thunders around in his belly, because she feels it, too.

 

Tonya has one eyeball red like a full sclera lens, blooming with burst blood vessels. Nose broken, lip torn under curbside clown makeup. Fingers taped together with too-old bandages, once fresh and tight to protect the fracture now unraveling and brown at the edges. Two long nails broken off in a fight lost. Cigarette burns on her forearm, her jawbone, behind her ear. A bite mark on the back of her neck. Knees scabbed and rough with carpet burn.

 

Tonya is fifteen.

 

Hood looks at Maria. Gives one head shake, and Maria feels like she can hear the doors of their friendship slamming closed for the last time. It feels like the earth should open up now, swallow her down in one gulp to top off this feeling of mortification, despair, anger. The girl needs help, she needs help, and he could... He can’t be turning them away. No. No!

 

But then Hood turns to Tonya. Softens his stance. Takes one step forward, but leaves plenty of distance to make them feel safe.

 

“His name,” Hood says to Tonya, electric feedback whistling slightly at the low timbre. Then Hood takes off his helmet.

 

Tonya’s eyes widen, and her shaking stops, just for a moment. She sees the fiery effigy of what Maria witnessed not long ago—a young man, too young, with power and skills beyond his years. Furious and teeth gritted and glaring like a god of wrath, deeming their pain worthy of vengeance. But the two women also see him gentling in their presence, too, with a deep breath, with a crinkling brow and crooked turn of lip.

 

Red Hood’s reputation is as a rigid, wind-up toy of brutality that will, once wound, push forward through mess and gore and screams for mercy without stop until his momentum dries up. That’s what everyone in Crime Alley knows and fears. But Maria knows something else, something that she hopes the young girl next to her might glimpse as Hood takes another step forward, stops and cradles his helmet at his side, dips his head to make himself smaller.

 

Maria believes that Red Hood’s swathe of rage can be redirected. And that the people he holds at his back, he won’t stop ‘til he clears the path for them first. She wants him in their corner. But she wants him to teach them how to clear the path for themselves, too.

 

Red Hood drops to a knee in front of them, so that he can look up at the smaller Tonya. Both women hold their breath. Maria tries to keep from smiling or tearing up with joy. He scrapes for that girl in pain like he was a knight.

 

“Give me his name. I’ll show you how to throw a punch after. Swear it.”

 

Tonya gasps through some tears and tells him everything.

 

Twenty-four hours later, reporters are asking around the block for details on a high profile criminal obit, and Hood is correcting Tonya’s stance, praising the strength in her left hook.

 

#

 

If in doubt, use your elbow.

 

#

 

“Dominant leg starts back. Step into the swing.”

 

Six fists cut through the air. Some are wobbly. Angled poorly, if enthusiastic. One or two are sure, but too slow. A few fists bear painted nails, chipped glitter, or a lonely finger tat that probably meant something special. But they’re all tight with determination. No one shows up to a self-defense class taught by the Red Hood and half-asses it.

 

Maria slices her own clenched hand into the mix. Red Hood comes by in time to catch it, tuts like an asshole at her. “It’s like you’re getting slower, swear to god.” Maria jumps ahead a few lessons to slam her heel on his instep. Or tries to—he jumps away ages before she can connect, snickering.

 

Maria fights a smirk herself. She notices six stares. Some of disbelief. And all of her classmates relax when they see the giant vigilante shrug off the attempted strike.

 

When Hood’s first students trickle out the door, in twos, they murmur. Look back a little wary, then rush out. It was a good first night, all things considered. They’re allowed to still be nervous.

 

Tonya rubs her shoulder, rolls it. Hood tells her to ice it when she gets home. Tonya’s traveling partner, Missy, considers the Bat emblem on the Hood’s chest before she grabs Tonya’s gym jittery hand and pulls her through the way out.

 

Eventually, it’s just Hood and Maria again. She sits down to change out of her shoes, put on sweatpants and hoodie over her athletic clothes. Hood scratches at the chin of his helmet before he sighs. Takes it off to reveal the second mask underneath, tosses the helmet onto his folded jacket. Begins gathering up the athletic tape and mitts he brought for the small crowd.

 

“How’d it go?” Maria asks.

 

Hood grunts. “Felt just as pointless as I thought.”

 

Maria throws a stinky old running shoe at his head, which misses. “Fucker.”

 

Hood whips a roll of athletic tape back. It doesn’t miss. “What’s the point, really?” he asks. Doesn’t wait for her to answer. “I show them how to throw a punch? And then they walk out of here, middle of the night in fucking nowhere-Gotham, like that means a damn thing?” He sniffs in the way men do, all nasty and deep and phlegmy, like he’s about to spit. Tucks the supplies away neatly into a light canvas bag. “Betcha they’re still gonna wake up tomorrow in the same old shithole. Betcha they’re gonna make not enough money, gonna walk two miles and still miss the bus to work, gonna find out something’s broke at home and costs too much to fix. But, hey, that right hook!”

 

“Shut up,” Maria says. She tucks her chin into the worn cotton on her knees, hooks her arms around her shins. “Unless you got billions of dollars, there’s not much else to do, y’know?”

 

Hood actually honks, punches out a single, mean, delighted laugh. “Yeah, sure. Billions,” he says. He snickers again, then calms. “Keep your hair on. I didn’t say it’s quitting time just yet.”

 

He zips everything up. Turns to observe her in her little ball on the ground. “Home’s nearby?”

 

“Mm. Nearish.”

 

“You don’t need a chaperone, yeah?”

 

“Nah. M’good.”

 

Hood stares, seemingly troubled. He crosses his arms. Uncrosses them. Scratches his ear, turns away, grumbles. “If it’s... I never... You’re safe with me, you know? I’m not... angry at you. Anymore.” He looks down at the steel toes of his boots.

 

Fuck. They’re talking this now? Maria tucks half her face away into her knees. Her eyes still observe him, quiet.

 

“It’s obvious to you,” he says. “I know. But I should say it. Right?”

 

They each wait for the other to put them out of their collective misery. Change the topic to the weather. Stand, dust off their knees, head to the door with a pat on the back or whatever to pretend things were normal. Mami’s big man used to do this. Stare at her like the two of them were both stupid. Wait for her to get the message and say she’d be back before dinner, then leave Mami’s tiny apartment, walk down the street to the library and coast around on the free Internet so he and Mami could dope up in her childhood home in peace.

 

She and the Hood keep waiting, for a minute. Waiting for someone to do something normal and keep them from having to confront the sordid details. To Maria’s surprise, he breaks first.

 

“That’s not the first time I’ve felt comfortable with someone before they started touching,” he says in a breath.

 

Maria shakes her head fast, imagining the ghost of a freshly dead brain that rattles chains between her ears, slinks out her eyeballs in a tiny spectral fog so she won’t have to answer him. “You don’t have to say—I mean, you don’t gotta worry ‘bout me like that. I’m not. I shouldn’t have—”

 

“I’m not fucking helpless,” he cuts her off.

 

“No,” she agrees. “You’re strong, like—like the Bat. Or Superman. Or Wonder Woman!”

 

He scoffs. “You’re delusional.” A pause. “But you’re strong as shit, you know? And not, like, just here,” he gestures at his own biceps, “but, like... here.” And then he gestures at all of her, ending with fingers pointed right at her eyes.

 

Again, Maria does not find words. She hums in neutral appreciation, maybe blushing, maybe ten times louder on the inside as the praise echoes through her tissue, muscle, organs, to her soul. Dios.

 

He comes close, like he had that night not too long ago. Sits in front of her, but doesn’t really look her way. Starts adjusting the laces of his perfectly tied and tucked boots.

 

“I wasn’t always like this,” he says. Big, she thinks he means. Trained. “I grew up about a half mile from here, actually, except those apartments were condemned a few years back. And then I grew up wherever there was food. A roof. That’s ‘bout all I wanted, then, just a place to eat and put my back against the wall, wait for whatever next bullshit would come my way.”

 

He shrugs. Maria changes the angle of her chin, stares at a neutral point on his shoulder as he goes on. “Then someone... came and got me. Gave me a real house and clothes and shit. But what was most important, his biggest gift... He taught me how to stick up for myself. Defend myself and others who needed it.”

 

The Bat. Maria shrugs her shoulders up closer to her ears. She knows this story has to end badly.

 

Hood is distant. Years away behind his face mask, speaking slowly like from memory. “He made me feel powerful. Like I could actually take on life. Win for once, win all the time, enough that I could start to make a difference, you know? And I did. I made my old home safe, and I cleaned up the streets, and I made it out of the Bowery to come back and make it better.”

 

“What happened?” Maria asks, heart beating so fast like they were kids around a campfire. Swapping ghost stories and pretending neither of them was scared of the dark.

 

“Died. Me, I mean.” Hood still speaks like he’s broadcasting from a dream—matter of fact, but hazy with some kind of unreality of removal from that bombshell.

 

“D-died?” She crosses her arms to hug her knees up. Buries her mouth in her forearm as she stares past him.

 

“Yeah,” he says. Sniffs all gross again, then spits to the side. She could wrinkle her nose, but she doesn’t. Waits for him to continue, and he does. “Worst one out there snatched me up and wiped me off the face of the earth. Countdown to an instant. Kablooey. So much for all the training, huh...”

 

Silence.

 

He stops fussing at his shoes. Sits up, goes still like subtle water, and almost whispers. “You really think this will make a difference?”

 

Maria wipes at her suddenly runny nose. Scratches an eyebrow. Says, with conviction, to his shoulder, “It made a difference to me.” And then she finds his gaze.

 

Hood examines her. Maria, still feeling alive and on fire, stands her ground. She even arches a brow.

 

Hood laughs again, but now all quiet and short. “Well. That’s gotta be enough to do it, then.”

 

#

 

“Imbecile,” Robin whispers into the tight bite of wind hissing through the alley. He isn’t happy to be there, tucked away, dirty, behind the lip of a long burnt-out neon light that once sold liquor to tasteless heathens with no control, inhibition, or purpose. It’s raining. Almost cold enough for sleet. He swears he can feel the precipitation getting firmer, plopping larger and harder in buckshot at his back. Damian’s crouch centers his body heat. Even that cannot hold up against the chill wick of water sluicing down his hood.

 

Damian has been given a fool’s mission. Something to distract him, he’s sure, while the others get to fight Scarecrow and other Halloween-flavored goons. Damian hasn’t been allowed on a real case in months. No, he is stuck with pure idiocy instead.

 

Find the Red Hood. Bring him in for questioning regarding the disappearance of several known Crime Alley pimps and gang members. Robin has drifted between scout’s posts all night trying to catch Hood, but the man’s boorish presence has been missing as yet, even deep within Todd’s so-called territory.

 

The winds snarl, lash against Damian’s scowl. He sneezes. Rubs his red little nose. Sneers. “Tt.”

 

An unexpected group of women catches Robin’s eye. The alley is otherwise deserted. Silent, save for their shoes shuffling along the slickening cement. They hunch shoulder to shoulder for warmth, all four crossing their arms, gripping each other’s hands tight to their collective chests as they hurry across the pavement. Richard would suggest he escort them home to safety, given the weather and time of night. They don’t appear to be dressed well. Not warm enough for this worsening weather that signals the premature death of a gloomy Gotham fall. They carry small bags, though. Floppy with what Damian assumes are more clothes. Like a pack of slinky gym goers, except there are no exercise facilities in this area. Robin’s eyes narrow behind the mask.

 

Richard would tell him that, if he was uncertain about a situation, he should just be safe and call it in. Pennyworth would say that innocents are more numerous than the guilty and that “a feeling” isn’t enough to attack and pin someone down for answers. Drake would probably scoff, say Damian was too distrustful, too suspicious, was probably making up stories because he was childish and bored on the slow job or, worse, that he was just plain silly and easily riled. Ugh, Drake. Both he and Richard got to assist Father tonight...

 

Damian eyes the group again, wavering in indecision. What would Father do? Like Damian, he’d surely notice the discrepancy of these women, here, shivering and carrying and clearly headed somewhere, even though the streets are abandoned.

 

But Batman is busy tonight. Busy with his other sons, fighting actual crime with a stoic, closed fist. This group of suspicious women is just the kind of unremarkable, nowhere lead he’d pass off to his least-favored sidekick while he engrosses himself in heroing halfway across the city with his eldest instead. Why, father has probably already forgotten that Damian is out tonight at all.

 

Fine. Let Father cast him off. Let him dole out softball cases and order Damian to waste time following the other supposed black sheep of this stilted family. If the Bat has no trust in his Robin to handle real crime, then... well, then Damian will prove him wrong to have ever doubted him.

 

Robin moves from his perch, tracking the group of women silently down nine blocks. Getting further and further away from the lit, cracked windows on the edge of Crime Alley. Curious. They lead him to the abandoned industrial complexes, nearing Gotham’s forgotten commercial district adjacent to the docks. Do they retreat to a squatters’ camp? Or, indeed, are they setting up shop for nefarious purpose? Those bags, though loose, could contain all matter of illegal substance. Drugs. Explosives. Hmm...

 

Robin has almost forgotten Hood until the buffoon himself suddenly appears. Damian almost flails as he stops, hides from view. He sees that Hood’s shoulders, coiled at the wind, block out much of the light from the entrance of a seemingly crumbling, empty warehouse. Hood silently holds the door open. The women, who look not at all surprised nor alarmed at the massive anti-hero’s spontaneous presence, hurry through the opening. Robin squints. Stares as Hood performs a quick headcount. Once they’ve slipped inside, Hood tilts his head to sweep the area again.

 

He doesn’t notice Damian. No one but a true deity could spot the heir of both Demon’s Head and Bat when he does not wish to be seen. Hood retreats, shuts the door behind him. Damian’s nose twitches. A huffed sneeze.

 

“Imbecile,” Damian mutters again.

 

Richard would certainly be calling something in by now. Even Pennyworth and awful Drake would have to lean forward in suspicion.

 

Perhaps there is something to report back to Father. Hmm. Damian decides that he will, of course, quell the Hood’s uprising quite easily before Father even finds out. Robin is worth Batman’s time, after all.

 

Like child’s play, Robin runs the perimeter. Scales the building when an alternate entrance is elusive. He finds a ventilation grate, greasy enough that it doesn’t squeal when he pries it open. There’s no direct sightline down from this vantage point, though. The Red Hood’s voice rises up in low, robotic twangs. “Stretch now. Hurt less later.”

 

Damian slips inside and dashes silently along the rafters to get a better view. Todd walks through three small, uneven aisles of women. Thirteen women in all, ages and color and fitness from across the spectrum. They wear shabby athletic gear or just frayed t-shirts and shorts. They hold each other’s pointed toes as they lurch into unsteady stretches, knees struggling to stay unbent. They pull back straight arms, slowly, until hands can almost clasp behind, arms perpendicular to the body. He hears their laborious breath at what should be a simple stretching warm-up.

 

A platoon of amateurs in mega-mart gear? Who can’t even sit a proper butterfly stretch?

 

“It figures,” Robin announces. He sweeps down to the floor, yellow-lined cape out, amidst a cacophony of shrieks. He lands and plants his hands on his hips. Tosses back his head, his own cape’s hood just barely staying up. “It figures, Hood, that I find you here amongst mediocrity.”

 

The women surrounding him mutter, stare. Todd, who had disappointingly not startled at Damian’s entrance, crosses his arms. Damian’s lip curls ugly as his attention is called to the undeserving Bat symbol emblazoned across the man’s chest.

 

“Well,” Robin continues, “what say you? Does the Red Hood train an army? If so, you’ve made poor pickings, I’m afraid. It will take less than a minute to defeat you all in combat.”

 

“Demon shrimp,” Hood greets. There’s a few snickers from the small crowd of onlookers. Robin almost hisses, and he swears he hears someone coo. Hood crosses his arms, cocks his head in askance. “You’ve strayed far from home. What’s Big Daddy B got you running errands for?”

 

“Fiend!” Robin shouts, suddenly hot with fury at Hood’s too-accurate jab. He draws a hidden Batarang. One of the big ones both he and Todd know Damian’s not supposed to have. “My paltry mission is you, the ever-present thorn.” He jabs with his contraband weapon at Hood’s throat. “You are to come with me at once. Batman has questions for you—and likely the proper cage you deserve after all these years!”

 

Their audience stares. One woman with large dark hair and terra cotta skin covers her grinning mouth with a too-small hand for the job. She's the only one who looks like she knows how to fight. Robin keeps her in his periphery, just in case. He begins to menacingly circle Hood, emulating Father for maximum intimidation.

 

“Can’t,” Hood says. “Busy.”

 

And then he turns his back on Robin. Dismisses him like Father had earlier that night, for the seventeenth patrol night in a row. Like a specter, Damian even sees the imagined outline of a cape at Todd’s back, swishing so familiarly across broad shoulders as the man walks away. Sentencing Damian to patrol on the sidelines, following some nothing lead to keep him away from the main show. Alone, like always. Except now he is forgotten in front of a crowd of civilians. Who stare at him as he is brushed aside. The Batarang trembles in Damian’s grip, white-knuckled under the gloves.

 

Under Red Hood’s direction, the women abandon their stretches to form a few lines, pair up to practice form in slow, pulled punches thrown at their partners’ open palms.

 

“Red Hood,” Robin calls, “I demand that you treat this request with the seriousness it deserves!” Todd continues to ignore him, and his students are beginning to follow suit. They switch partners with ease as Damian continues, saying, “I will drag you back to base, even if I have to lay waste this room, I swear it!”

 

“Robin,” says the strange woman fighter. “Chill.”

 

“Ch-chill—how dare—”

 

“R-Robin?” one of the youngest women asks. “Do you... know how to tape up your hands?”

 

Damian, intrigued but haughty, stills enough to glance over at her fingers. “Yes. And not like that. It’s terrible, redo it or you’ll hurt yourself further.”

 

The girl stares. Then offers him the tape. “Hood did it for me last time. He’s busy, though.”

 

Damian turns to look. Todd, in seconds, has gone full white male savior and is demonstrating an elementary blocking maneuver for a portion of his small crowd. Is he trying to gather disciples, à la a discount Demon’s Head? “Indeed,” Robin sneers.

 

He stows the Batarang and snatches up the tape. Feels a pang of quickly dissolved regret when he catches the girl’s flinch at the quick move. Slowly, efficiently, with only the barest of skin touches does he wrap her fingers, then wrist. “Better than Hood could have done, I’m sure,” he says. The girl snorts, flexes her hands.

 

“Thanks,” she says. Then turns to practice with her partner.

 

“Robin,” he hears Hood say. No—Damian turns in mostly hidden surprise—it’s Todd speaking. The helmet has been discarded for the moment. Jason approaches, smirking at Damian behind a redundant red domino. “I think I could use your help.”

 

Damian starts. Those words. Would they come from Father, just once... “Yes—yes, of course you do.” A pause. “I can see that the ranks lack discipline.”

 

Robin hears more guffaws around him. He draws his shoulders tight, not unsure, just...

 

Todd actually reaches out, pats his back. Mostly because he knows Robin would hate it. Damian wriggles but stays put out of curiosity, breath held for Todd to finish.

 

“They’ve learned the basics of fending off a larger attacker,” Todd explains, “but they haven’t had to consider fighting off a smaller attacker. What moves should they expect, and what can they do to counter?”

 

Hmm. Of course he could teach them such an easy thing. Probably better than Hood could even imagine.

 

Robin shrugs off the childish pats. Squares his shoulders. “Well, shall we show them, Hood?”

 

Without warning, he proceeds to climb the big vigilante like a tree, rips him off balance and pulls him into a chokehold on the ground in less than three seconds. Most of the class cheers as Hood briefly coughs, including the woman warrior who kept grinning before. The other girl, who he later learns is Tonya, whistles hoarsely around her taped fingers in appreciation. Even Todd laughs. Until he gets tired of wriggling in a chokehold and launches Robin into a tumble over his head.

 

The lessons continue through the next hour. Hood even allows Damian to land several bruising punches—not pulled, because of course not—into his torso during their demonstrations. All for the sake of education. Damian wishes he could have discovered these classes sooner.

 

“I am coming back next week,” Damian announces to Todd, once the women have seen themselves out.

 

“Sure,” Todd says, before Damian even has to threaten him. He packs up the class’s meager supplies. Damian takes note of all the materials missing, what equipment’s running low.

 

“We’ve been doing Tuesdays.” Todd continues. He looks up to make direct eye contact. “Quiet. You know?”

 

Damian can read between the lines. He nods. “I shall... see you then.”

 

Damian hardly feels the cold on his way back home, not until he slips into the still-empty cave at three-o’clock in the morning. The next afternoon, Father trudges through the manor kitchen for the coffee Pennyworth had stopped offering at his bedside once the Bat hit forty. He doesn’t ask Damian about Jason. Damian offers no report. Though he does snag from the cave several medical kits, athletic wraps, and perhaps a few small, concealable weapons to distribute at the next class.

 

#

 

Time passes. Winter becomes fully realized, and some women drop out due to the cold and the increasing difficulty in getting around the city’s blackened snow and ice. But, overall, the group continues to grow in number. And Damian sees them also progress in skill—mind you, improving at a pace just as glacial as the winter that looms around them. But the group does get better. More confident. More safe.

 

Damian’s curiosity becomes fully piqued each time he observes Hood glow with pleasure when he hears a story of one of these women fighting back. Winning against those who thought them easy prey. The fighting leader he now knows as Maria makes eyes at Hood every time it happens. Not of romantic interest, Damian doesn’t think. But something closer to the secret pride Richard sometimes douses him with, before he reaches to “noogie” Damian’s hair.

 

Hood cannot take all the credit—although, out of earshot, Damian’s positive he would. Damian assists. Patronages the classes in secret. First with the small weapons and gym kits. Then with twenty sets of boxing gloves and accompanying tape. Boxes of brand new athletic shoes in a variety of women’s sizes, because theirs are just pathetic. He tells them so when some of the older women say, “Aww!” They, of course, demonstrate their irritating habit of laughing him off in response. That is Hood’s fault, he’s sure.

 

When he came with shoes, he had also given Tonya high-end sparring gloves, to protect her previous wounds. She had wrapped a quick arm around him in thanks, then let go and scurried to show them off to Missy and the others around her age. Maria had sidled over with eyebrow raised. Smirking like Todd. Ugh, they were too similar. “Say nothing,” he had told her, “and I will inform you of Hood’s combat weaknesses.”

 

“I might be interested,” she had said back, arms crossed in sly delight.

 

“Then you will surely defeat him in battle before the year is out,” Damian had promised. They had shaken on it.

 

The night that Hood enters the warehouse to see a row of rubber training dummies, he pulls Damian aside for a talking-to.

 

“You’re blowing our cover, dude,” Todd gruffs out.

 

Damian lifts his chin. “Tt. No, I am preparing our forces with the tools they need to learn—”

 

“You are blowing so much of Daddy’s money on this, he’s gonna find out soon if he hasn’t already.” Todd’s hands are on his hips. He looks rather like Richard, scolding him for some menial sin or other.

 

Damian curls his hands into his cape in irritation. Flourishes into an about-face and says without thinking, “You underestimate my skills of discretion, I see!” Just like everyone else. “And yet you overestimate Father’s attention for me.”

 

Silence he can feel. Damian stops walking in sudden embarrassment, sure Todd will take his words the wrong way. He turns to look back over his shoulder to quickly shut the elder up.

 

But. “...Kid,” Todd says, arms uncrossed. Now he definitely looks like Richard, concern all over his posture, flexing for an answer meant to soothe like Damian were a mere babe.

 

“Stay your tongue, brute!” Damian snaps. “I... spoke in haste. I meant to say that Father would not notice such expenditures, as I am allowed my own modest accounts. There is no need to fear discovery. At least, not from my end.”

 

Todd raises a brow. “Hmph. Well, slow your roll for the next few weeks. You can pass off these purchases as holiday presents or something, but he’s gonna notice eventually if your accounts continue to drain come January.”

 

“Acknowledged,” Damian says. “Now spar with me, fiend!” And then he launches into a series of kicks fast enough that Jason swears before grinning into his blocks. They spar well past the arrival of their early usuals. Damian trips Jason up enough for Maria to send the Hood belly-down with a knee in his back. Jason wails, “Oh, the humanity!” It is a good night.

 

#

  

If all fails, go for the balls.

 

#

 

The status quo of slow, calm progress ends with the door to the warehouse crashing open. Missy falls into the makeshift gym on her knees. All at once, tens of people mobilize. Most rush for the door. Others check the windows, grab what few small weapons they have and take post. Hood brushes past them all to join Maria, kneeling at Missy’s side.

 

Robin darts forward as well, stops near Tonya with her hand over her mouth. He reaches to softly place his gloved hand on her shoulder. “Observe, Tonya. She has no apparent wounds. Your friend is safe.” Tonya turns into his shoulder, tearing up. Damian, who has learned in these months, willing or no, how to hold and be held, pats her back. He watches Todd check over the girl, who has been pulled into the warehouse with the door firmly shut behind her.

 

“You’re safe,” Hood murmurs. As Missy grabs at Maria for stability, Hood grunts “Report!” at those manning the door. They claim they see nothing in the dark winter night that has followed Missy here.

 

“No,” she gasps, “he knows!

 

Hood stills. Damian stills. Maria’s back straightens, face taught with worry. Tonya moves out of Damian's arms with wide eyes, hands back over her mouth.

 

“He knows,” Missy says again. “Batman saved me outside of the club on the way here.” Maria and Hood make solemn eye contact. The club where many of these women work. Where many of them have had to subdue attackers in and around the area. It could be coincidence. But Father had taught him that coincidence was almost always inconvenient fact.

 

“I fought off one,” Missy goes on, still panting, “but there were three others. It’s like they were waiting for me!” Maria grits her teeth, fury. Damian can see Todd’s shape tightening in anger. Vengeance. “Like, they were armed and shit, and... He stopped them! But when it was over, Batman said he knew there were others like me, training... and that we weren’t safe!”

 

Damian flinches, watching Todd’s entire body clench like a fist. Maria starts swearing. She up to pace the entrance area, check for herself that no one is outside. Many others in the room murmur in confusion, fear.

 

“I... he let me go, but...”

 

“Did you run straight here?” Hood asks, seemingly calm.

 

Missy’s eyes widen in horror. “I—I’m sorry, I—”

 

A noise. Heavy, shifting cloth that Robin and Hood know all-too-well. At least thirty feet above. The same ventilation grate that Damian had stormed through months ago. Both jerk into action, shift into ready stances for serious combat. Damian notes in his periphery that Todd has loosed his firearms.

 

They don’t have to wait long. Most in the room have barely started reacting to Hood and Robin’s stand to attention when black wings, eleven feet in wingspan, go suddenly taught in the air as Batman leaps from his hiding place in the ceiling.

 

“No!” Hood shouts. He barely waits for Batman to land on the concrete before he throws the first punch.

 

Damian watches from the sidelines, eyeing his students and making sure none try to interfere. He observes, in his spare seconds, their fear, their awe. While they had spent months under the tutelage of Gotham’s finest, they had not seen brutal, efficient combat on such a stage before. Difficult to track who was winning. Impossible to look away from.

 

“Enough, Red Hood,” Batman bellows. “This ends now!”

 

And, in a moment of weakness—the same secret Damian had whispered to Maria weeks ago, about Hood’s slow left side following a missed hook—Batman lands a firm kick to Hood’s chest, knocking him back. Todd, of course, ducks into a tumble to distribute the force from the fall. He launches to his knees, fury incarnate to go again, and Damian knows he must intervene.

 

“Stop!” he shouts, jumping between the two goliaths. He holds a hand to either man, swapping his gaze between them to make sure they will cease their foolish fight. Hood pants, more from rage than exertion. Father is angry, too, Damian can see. Except in that horrible, detached way. The kind that makes his opponent even more skin-tingling furious at his apparent dismissal of passion. Damian has had this subdued disgust aimed at him before. He retreats closer to Todd in shame.

 

“Enough,” Batman says again. “You are putting these people in danger.” He looks around the room, gloomy mask seemingly catching the eyes of every person in the warehouse with them. He turns back to Jason, who is shifting like a bull about to charge yet again. “As exhibited by my entrance,” Father continues, “you can’t secure this building. And as I found out the time and location of these classes within a single evening—without Robin’s report—” Damian flinches back as the Bat’s burning gaze takes a moment to sear his reddening face. “—you can’t keep this a secret on the streets.”

 

“Bullshit I can’t!” Hood shouts, desperate. His students shift in discomfort. He seems suddenly so young. “They’re learning to protect themselves.”

 

“They’re drawing attention to themselves and to this class. Not just tonight, but every time they put a man in the ER,” Father tosses back. The cowl hides most of his expression but for his strong, straining jaw, lips curled in disapproval. “You think you’re helping, but you’re making them bigger targets—both to criminals and to their own pimps, fathers, spouses. Need I go on?”

 

Damian feels the walls of simple comfort, of good work crumbling around him. Father would think him stupid and selfish. Unable to be trusted with even the simplest of tasks. Dishonest. Unreliable. A traitor to the mission, and for the sake of what? Small rebellion at what Father will say are minor dismissals. Damian touches the R on his chest, sure it won’t remain there much longer.

 

Damian barely notices Maria’s approach. Sees just milliseconds before it happens that she lays a hand on his shoulder. Squeezes in silent support. He turns to glance up at her. Just enough to watch her boiling, roiling expression. Growing surer and surer as the two men continue to fight.

 

“I’m helping them stick up for themselves!”

 

“This isn’t about you, Hood! They don’t have anything to prove.”

 

Damian cries, “Batman!” And when his Father does not remove his attention from the near vibrating Red Hood, he rushes to continue. “These classes are... a satisfactory method of mitigating violent crime in this area. Especially among vulnerable—traditionally vulnerable populations.”

 

Batman shakes his head, barely glancing Robin’s way. “That may be in theory, but it’s getting out of hand. None of you know how to control it.”

 

Damian draws into himself for a moment, looks back up to his father without a response. Hood lets out a big, obvious breath of frustration.

 

“Look around you,” Batman says. “There are forty people here tonight. Can you vouch for each of them?” He begins to pace in a circle, the same move for intimidation that Damian had tried to replicate so many nights ago. But it’s effective now. Many of the women look at each other in dismay, likely wondering if they should dart out the doors for freedom. Batman asks, “Can you trust that they made it here without someone noticing? Can you keep them safe when they go home tonight? No, you can’t do any of that.” He finishes his pace by squaring up to Jason, less than a few feet away. Speaks like he’s suddenly softer, like this terrible public rebuke is a private plea from father to son. Damian can practically smell Todd’s hatred wafting from his collar like devilish cologne. Damian almost wouldn’t blame him if he broke and took a swing. “You think you’re training them,” Father says so delicately, “but you’re only signing them up for more suffering in the future.”

 

Jason explodes, arms gesturing violently in the space between them. “It’s not about me? It’s not about you! I’m not putting them in vigilante colors and letting them loose on the streets. I’m not you. I’m helping them, not making an army of good soldiers.”

 

Damian inhales. Maria’s hand stays clenched and strong on his shoulder. He can see, for the barest instant, her confusion at the words. None of the others will know it, but that—that was a hit harder than any delivered by Jason’s hand.

 

Father flinches back in pain accordingly. Becomes nasty in his retort. “You think others won’t see it that way? That their pimps and dealers and other scum won’t see it that way?”

 

Avalanches can happen in seconds. Without warning. Tons of freezing destruction barreling down a mountainside, leveling the landscape clear. That is Maria, stepping into the fight.

 

“Shut. Up,” she hisses. Batman straightens, makes just enough room for her to step up, get right in his face. “Shut up. You try to help, Batman. You’ve been trying for years. And we’ve learned over those years that no one can really help us but ourselves. That’s not your fault, no, but you damn sure don’t get to tell us what we can and can’t do to make ourselves feel safe. You don’t make us safe. None of you do.”

 

She shoulders past him, toward the center of the room. Tosses her curly ponytail over her shoulder like a cape, hands on her hips. Looks around at the rest of the women there, many of whom she recruited herself. For the moment, it feels like she’s the only hero inside these walls.

 

Looking her classmates over, she says, “We’re no army. But we’ll stick together, because no one else is gonna stick up for us. And I, for one, am done with being written off.”

 

She takes a step back towards Batman. Spits, lowly but clearly, “So take a moment. Realize that you don’t get to end this.”

 

Father stares at her wordlessly. Damian cannot tell if he is moved. But he does not act. For the moment.

 

Weeks ago, Hood had taught a lesson on how the last jab of a fight is the most important in shutting down an enemy. So of course Maria finishes by saying, “Now get the fuck out of our way. Class was supposed to start ten minutes ago.”

 

When she whips around and shouts across the warehouse, not many in the crowd know what to do. “Stretches! Now! ¡Hasta pronto!”

 

Tonya, taking Missy by the hand, walks past Damian with a nod. They give Batman a wide birth, but they do make it to Maria. They pair up, Tonya holding Missy’s legs straight as Missy reaches past her toes.

 

Others move to join them. Some leave altogether, of course, but Damian is surprised at how few that number is.

 

As the women feign normalcy around them, glancing from time to time at the Bat in their midst, Damian approaches the other two men in the room. He hears Father murmur, “Hood. Keep this up, and they will die out there.”

 

Jason, watching his flock stand and jog around the perimeter, says something back. Just as softly. “I stop, they’re dying anyway.”

 

Batman considers. Damian and Jason turn to watch him observe Maria, leading the class in some light interval training. He is silent still. Contemplative, like he sometimes gets at his gloomiest.

 

Then Father looks at Damian. Really looks at him. Feels like it's been weeks.

 

Damian straightens up. Widens his eyes like Richard had showed him how to do. Pleading like a boogery child. If Father allows the classes, it shall be worth it.

 

Then Father turns to Jason. “Cave. Tonight, and we discuss how to move forward with this... project.”

 

Damian, hopefully. “You mean to continue the classes?”

 

Father grunts, heading abruptly for the door. “To make sure no one gets hurt.”

 

Jason scoffs, a little less hotly than before. “I don’t need your interference, old man!”

 

The Batclan heading for the exit door are stopped when it dramatically swings open on its own. A flash of black and blue twirls through three cartwheels on the way inside. Nightwing stops, says, “Whoa, whole gang’s here, huh? And I wasn’t invited. So, what’d I miss?” Jason and Father immediately ignore him to continue arguing. Richard darts over to dig his knuckles into Damian’s hair. Damian ducks out of the way, blushing and scowling, looking over toward Tonya and Maria and the others. Richard notices and grins. Waggles his eyebrows beneath his mask.

 

“Tt," Damian says. "Have you known this whole time?”

 

Nightwing shrugs. “Well. Not the whole time. Eighteen sparring dummies, though? How were you gonna explain that?”

 

Damian balks. “You!—my private expenses are just that. Private! How dare you review my purchasing history, fiend!”

 

“Lighten up, Robin,” Nightwing shrugs him off. He turns his attention to Batman and Hood, who seem to be getting fired up with each other again. “Guys, you’ve, like, decided you’re on the same team. Chill.”

 

Damian swears he sees Father roll his eyes. Jason hisses at Richard, “Shut up, you dick! He’s trying to butt in, just like always!”

 

Richard cocks his head, suddenly serious in that surprising way that only he can achieve. “Hood. He protects the classes, you protect them.”

 

A crackle. All four of them reach for the comms unit in their ears. Red Robin laughs sardonically on the line. Ugh, Drake. Says, “Well, at least now everyone knows. I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll be there tonight. I’m putting together a revised patrol schedule to accommodate for the classes. Think we can split up the group over two weeknights instead of one? And a few early morning classes could be a safer alternative, even if not everyone can attend.”

 

Jason looks surprised. And touched. Richard just looks smug. And Father looks ready for the night to be over.

 

“Replacement,” Todd says, “shut up. And thanks.”

 

“I’m putting you down for Mondays, Hood. Early, early Mondays.”

 

#

 

Jason almost preferred it when Bruce wasn’t onboard for the trainings. His need to give his two cents on every planned lesson for the next year is no longer cute and rewarding. Jason almost manages to tune him out, Bruce going on and on and on. “...They should be learning how to spot potential perpetrators. Part of the courses should be in identifying indicators of violence or malicious intent. We can discuss microfacial movements...”

 

Jason allows himself to be distracted when he glimpses movement in the darkness. Damian, who is supposed to be finishing his homework under Alfred’s severe watch upstairs, is scuttling like a katana-wielding crab along the narrows of the cave. The youngster keeps his back against the rock for supposed stealth as he tries to listen in. Jason is sure Bruce knows and is ignoring him, for the moment.

 

“De-escalation is another tactic they need,” Bruce, who is still talking, tells Jason. “We could—”

 

“Jesus Christ, Bruce,” Jason finally interrupts him. “They’re not training to become detectives. And a lot of them won’t be given the option to refuse to get alone with these guys. Pimps and cops and scumbag bosses, remember?”

 

“But your classes are made up of sixty percent local women who do not engage in prostitution.” Bruce points out. “And all of these people can still use these skills in their daily lives—working with corrupt officials, police officers, taxi drivers, and more, learning how to avoid being alone with such potential attackers who are better than most at isolating their victims.”

 

“Okay, Jesus, fine! But you’re teaching it.”

 

“...I can’t teach it. They fear me.”

 

“They’ll listen to you. And who better to talk this detective bullshit?”

 

“...Perhaps Dick could—”

 

“No, no, it’s on you or nobody, old man.”

 

They pause. Stare at each other. Bats shuffle and chirp above them.

 

“Fine,” Bruce says. “But you will be accompanying me.”

 

Jason scoffs. “That’s a given, ‘cause there’s no way those girls wouldn’t turn tail seeing only your ugly mug show up in these classes.”

 

“Fair. And you now have young men in attendance, too, you know.”

 

“I know. Hard to believe it’s gotten so... big.”

 

Bruce considers. Claps his hand all awkward against Jason’s back. “The group has gotten large. We will, of course, continue to make sure they evade notice despite it.” And then he walks away, pulling up the computer in what looks like could be the start of an all-nighter investigation, at least judging by the number of open windows.

 

“Alfred,” Jason says, turning toward the butler who had been standing, silently, in the wings. Jason can’t help but smile as he hears Damian attempt to scurry away.

 

“Master Jason. It is always good to see you in the cave again.” Alfred drops a cookie into his hand. Gestures at a nearby table. Tim sits at it with his computer and papers strewn everywhere. Looks like the walking dead, mainlining a giant cup of the darkest coffee Jason's ever seen. Brewed with the actual espresso machine Tim bought for this very desk.

 

“Earl grey and milk,” Alfred says, gesturing at an unobtrusive tea set prepared on the only clean segment of table surface available. "You know the rules, though. The coffee you boys will need to make yourself." He sighs at Tim, who probably won't see or hear anything until the caffeine fully kicks in.

 

“Thanks, Alfred,” Jason says. He pours. Stirs. Takes a steaming sip. Asks Alfred, without looking up from the cup, “So, how much of that did you hear?”

 

“A butler hears everything, sir,” Alfred quips, mustache twitching.

 

Jason smiles, kind of small. Moves out of the way as Dick somersaults over. Past the tea, of course. Situates himself like a hunched, mitts-out goalie in front of the remaining plate of cookies. “...Think this is him giving me approval?” Jason asks them. “You know, instead of crusty, reluctant tolerance?”

 

Dicks takes a humongous bite of cookie and shrugs. Tim's head lolls to the side confusedly. He takes a sip of his liquid tar instead of answering. Alfred, though. Alfred makes a small noise. As close as he would ever get to a proper snort. “Well, now you must attend his detectiving class, Master Jason. If it took you this long to figure out he approved, you need a refresher.”

 

Dick starts laughing, barely managing to hold his hand in front of his mouth and keep crumbs from flying everywhere.

 

“Thanks, Alfie. And shut up, Dick.”

 

#

 

YEET.

 

#

 

Jason’s knows it’s all his fault that Maria can throw him, now. He still smiles face-first in the Batcave's dirt anyway. She pats his shoulder. All sardonically. Then slaps the back of his head. Uncalled for, Jason thinks.

 

“Again,” she says. “It’s not quitting time yet.”

 

He takes his time getting up. Looks her over, dressed in what might be a uniform in a few months time. Sits for a moment and only thinks about lurching to his feet. To piss her off, you know?

 

“How much longer until I become the teacher?” she teases. He swipes a leg to knock her off her feet, but she dances away just in time. They both grin. They go for a couple more bouts, and she manages to beat him once more before the night is over. He says he lets her win. She just rolls her eyes.