Jason woke abruptly. He sprawled in his bed, inhaling the fresh, crisp scent of the clean sheets and tried to figure out what woke him. He listened carefully and heard quiet footsteps in the hallway, muffled by the rug but still audible in the quiet night. Oh, yeah, that was it, Bruce was home from his banquet. Bruce usually looked in on him when he got home from those things. Jason always woke up for it and always pretended to be asleep when the door opened.
He pulled up his blanket to ward off the fall chill and waited for the soft brush of the heavy door over the thick rug. Suddenly his eyes shot open. The footsteps were wrong. Trusting an instinct he couldn't put into words, he slipped out of bed, stuffed a couple of pillows under his blanket and hid himself in the wardrobe across the room. He knelt down and peered out through the ancient brass keyhole.
The door opened and a beam of light from the hallway fell across the bed, over the lump that looked a bit like a teenage boy curled up asleep. Jason held his breath and watched. The door didn’t swing open any further and Jason's pounding heart slowed a bit. Perhaps it was nothing, after all, just the remnants of a bad dream he'd forgotten upon awakening.
Then, something glinted in the moonlight and Jason heard the paf paf of two silenced gunshots. Feathers flew up from the bed. Bruce swore, shoved the door open and flipped on the light. Jason froze, eye still to the keyhole, willing himself not to move. Or make a sound. Or breathe.
"Jason?" Bruce called softly. In the full glare of the bedroom lights, Jason could tell that it was Bruce: hair still sculpted in the perfect playboy wave, still wearing the gray suit with the silver tie pin Jason had given him for his birthday, looking exactly as he had when he’d left earlier this evening. His intense blue eyes swept the room and fixed on the wardrobe as if he could see straight through the door. Jason reeled back in shock.
Bruce stalked to the wardrobe and wrenched open the door. He leveled the gun directly at Jason's face. Bruce didn’t usually show a wide range of emotion, but Jason had never seen that kind of cold disinterest on his adoptive father’s face. Just before Jason hit the lever in the wardrobe, he thought he saw one side of Bruce's mouth twitch up in a smile.
Then the panel at the back of the wardrobe flipped open and Jason fell into the secret passage. He heard the thunk thunk thunk of bullets slamming into the heavy oak wall above him as he rolled down the steep staircase. He hit the landing with a bone-rattling thud and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the bruises he'd gained. He heard the back of the wardrobe slam shut again, but that wouldn't slow Bruce down much.
Jason took the rest of the stairs three at a time. When he reached the bottom, he jammed his shaking hand into the gap between the wall panels and pushed the switch that let him into the kitchen hallway. Too bad it didn’t lead directly down to the Batcave - on the other hand, the Batcave had a lot more places for nasty surprises. Jason didn’t want any more surprises today.
If this really was Bruce. If this wasn't some kind of sadistic test.
No. If Bruce were testing him, it'd be batarangs, not bullets.
Jason spun around, fists up, ready to punch and run - but it was only Alfred, carrying a small pot of coffee on a tray.
"Master Jason, what are you doing up at this hour?" Alfred asked.
"Something's wrong with Bruce," Jason said, hoping his pounding heart wasn't about to explode. "We need to get out of here, now."
"Nonsense," Alfred said. "I'm certain there has been a misunderstanding. Come, I'll make you some warm milk and we'll sort this out."
Jason heard the panel creak open again. "No time," he said. He grabbed the pot of coffee and threw it at Bruce as he emerged from the wall. Bruce batted it aside, but it gave Jason time to grab Alfred's arm and run.
For an old guy, Alfred ran really well. He and Jason ran through the kitchen and the back hallway and out to the garage.
"Keys," Jason panted, leaning against the limo to catch his breath. "You have the keys with you, right?"
"Of course," Alfred said. He drew a bundle of keys from the inside pocket of his jacket and held them up for Jason to see. Then he whipped them across Jason's face.
Jason closed his eyes in time, but the keys cut into his forehead and blood trickled down his face. He opened his blood-smeared eyes in time to see Alfred's fist smash into his face.
"Such a noble little boy," Alfred said as Jason reeled from the blow. Another fist slammed into his stomach and Jason doubled over. It felt like he'd been punched with an iron rod. "Making sure the nice old man gets to safety." A foot connected with the side of his knee and Jason's legs crumpled beneath him. He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t pull breath into his lungs.
Jason swiped his sleeve across his eyes to clear his vision, expecting another blow at any moment. It didn't come. What he heard instead was the soft click of a gun safety being flicked off.
No time to think. Jason swung out his leg in a wide arc, catching Alfred behind the ankles and pulling him down. Jason pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the pain in his knee. He ran towards the open garage door and out into the wet night, half-blind with the blood still dripping into his eyes.
Gravel tore at his bare feet and rain soaked through his pajamas. He veered off the driveway and ran for the trees. The gardening crew had left a pile of leaves and cut greenery at the edge of the grounds. Jason hasd noticed it earlier that day on his way home from school and thought it might have been fun to jump in the pile if he hadn't been too old for that sort of thing.
He dug into the side of the pile, climbed in and pulled down the leaves and branches to cover the hole he'd made. He didn't stand a chance of outrunning them, not injured and barefoot, but if he was lucky, the pounding rain would cover his trail and they wouldn't be able to find him.
If he was lucky.
Jason curled up in his little burrow and wrapped his arms around his knees, shivering. Good thing he hadn't given into the impulse to jump into the pile earlier; it was full of thorns and sticks that jabbed him from all sides. He forced himself to breathe evenly and slowly; both to calm himself and to conserve air. The soggy mess he'd buried himself in didn’t have a lot of air flow. Freaking ironic if he escaped Bruce and Alfred - or whoever they were - just to die from lack of oxygen.
What enemy had taken over Bruce and Alfred? Was this an attack on Batman or playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne? Most importantly, who could he turn to now, without risking Bruce’s secret identity and his own? Who would believe a bruised, filthy Boy Wonder? He went over his short list of options and made a decision. Risky, still, but his best shot.
He heard Bruce and Alfred stamping around in the mud, searching for him. Footsteps neared his hideout and he held his breath, ignoring every nerve in his body that wanted to break free of safety and attack. Something rattled nearby and then a pitchfork jabbed into the pile of leaves, close enough to brush against his pajama legs. He clenched his hands into fists and forced himself to hold still. Wait, Batman would say. Have patience. If you set the terms of the fight, you gain an enormous advantage. Jason would need an advantage to take down Bruce and Alfred without hurting them.
The pitchfork withdrew and a few moments later he heard the footsteps moving away.
Relief flooded his body, but it still wasn't safe to get up. He stayed there, hugging his knees and shivering with cold, not wanting to even twitch for fear it would be another trick. Waiting might be the best plan, but it left him vulnerable in the meantime. He could picture them vividly in his mind, looming over his hideout with the pitchfork raised, just waiting for him to move so they could bring it down and pin him to the ground like a bug in a science fair display.
When the rain finally let up, he'd been hiding for hours. He poked a branch through the wet leaves to peer out and see if he could risk moving.
He didn’t see anyone, but the sky was lightening in the east. He burst out of the leaves, trying to make a run for it, but his legs cramped and his bruised knee buckled beneath him.
Still, no one spotted him. He struggled to his feet and half-ran, half-limped, through the trees and away from the manor. He didn't even care when the rain started pouring again. He was already drenched and the fresh deluge washed away most of the mud and leaves.
Two miles down the road, he found the old stone wall that marked the original east edge of the Wayne estate. As the sun broke over the horizon, Jason found the cache of civilian clothes and money he'd stashed there for emergencies.
It had been a few months ago, though, and it seemed he'd had a growth spurt since then. The shoes pinched his toes and the jeans cleared his ankles. Anything was better than his filthy, torn pajamas, though. He buried those, not bothering to mark the spot.
He crouched behind the wall and crept down the road to the nearest bus stop. When he saw the bus coming, he leapt out and then tried to look as though he'd just been waiting casually. The driver gave him a curious look when he got on, so he didn't think it had quite worked, but she dismissed it after a moment and went back to listening to her morning radio show.
Jason slouched down in a seat near the back and reviewed his plan.
He transferred buses twice to get to the train station, but that was all the better by his thinking. Less chance of being tracked that way. He picked a spot at the station where he could sit with his back to the wall, watching the entrances as best as he could without attracting attention.
But one more scruffy kid blended into the Gotham crowd easily and anyway, he'd had plenty of practice at it. He tensed up every time a cop or security guard passed by him, but no one took a second look his way and no one stopped him from getting on the train to New York.
No one was home, but Jason found it easy to pick the lock to Nightwing's apartment. He really should have better security, Jason thought smugly, just before he flopped down on Dick's couch and passed out from exhaustion.
* * *
Jason woke to a warm, damp cloth being dabbed on his face and lots of bare, beautiful golden skin. "Oh, good, you're awake," Starfire said. She sat beside him with a bowl of water, wearing a cropped halter top that didn't leave much to the imagination - and Jason had a very good imagination. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Um," Jason said. Should he be tough and say he wasn't injured? As his sleep-groggy eyes came into better focus, he spotted Nightwing a few feet behind her, talking to someone on the phone, and decided to go with the truth. "Not too bad. Messed up my knee a little."
"Which one?" she asked. She shifted the chair and put a hand on his thigh.
"L-left one," he managed, hating the way his voice broke. Stupid, stupid teenage hormones. She slid a hand down his leg - oh, jeez, did she have to? With Nightwing in the room?
"Perhaps you'd better take your pants off," she said softly, and it took Jason a moment to process that yes, she really had said that, and then another moment for him to realize that she meant that she wanted to examine the knee. Not… other parts.
Nightwing, finished with his phone call, peered over her shoulder and frowned at Jason's leg. "Is it swollen?"
Jason swallowed a smart response to that - no need to be rude in front of a lady.
"Because we might need to cut off the jeans," Nightwing continued. He looked a lot shorter in his blue polo shirt and slacks than in his costume. Maybe it was the lack of disco collar.
Starfire brushed her fingers lightly over Jason's injured knee. "I think that might be best," she said.
Nightwing produced a pair of heavy-duty scissors and cut open the leg of Jason's jeans. He stopped, thankfully, just above his knee. "Hope you weren't too attached to these," he said, giving Jason a reassuring smile. He examined the knee with a minimum of poking and prodding and pronounced it a mild sprain. "We'll put some ice on it and I'll wrap it for you, but it wouldn't hurt to see a doctor."
"Nah, I'll be fine," Jason said. He pulled himself up to a sitting position while Starfire went to get ice.
"So," Nightwing said. "I just talked to Bruce."
Something twisted in the pit of Jason's stomach. "Yeah?" he said, keeping his voice casual. "How's he doing?"
"He said that you attacked Alfred, stole some money and ran away.”
Jason could hear his heart pounding against his chest. "W-what did you say?"
"Told him I'd bring you back to Gotham so he could deliver you to the cops."
Jason grabbed the bowl of water and flung it at Nightwing’s face. A jolt of adrenaline got him on his feet and over the couch. His injured knee gave out just before he reached the door, though, and Nightwing was on him. The man shoved him against the door and grabbed Jason’s arms, pinning them behind his back. Nightwing leaned against Jason, using the weight of his larger body to hold Jason in place. Jason recognized the hold, but he’d only learned two ways to get out of it and neither would work if one knee couldn’t hold his weight.
He struggled anyway, trying to push himself away from the door to get room to maneuver, but he didn’t have the leverage to move. Nightwing leaned down and spoke softly in his ear.
“Stop struggling. You’re just going to hurt yourself worse,” he said.
“Don’t touch me!” Jason shouted. He stopped moving, defeated, limp in Nightwing’s arms. “Do you want me dead, too?”
Nightwing lowered Jason to the ground and, to Jason’s surprise, let him go. “Bruce does not want you dead.”
“He does!” Jason said. He pulled his uninjured knee to his chest and wrapped his arms around it, sick of defending himself. “You weren’t there. You didn’t see him. He tried to kill me!”
“That wasn’t Bruce,” Nightwing said firmly. He crouched down to Jason’s eye level, balancing easily on his heels.
“How do you know?!” Jason yelled.
“Because he loves you,” Nightwing said. “Because the real Bruce would die before he let you get hurt!”
“You don’t even know me-“
“I know Bruce!” Nightwing repeated.
Jason stared at him for a long moment, too tired of being stalked and beat up and shot at to know what to believe or who to trust. People tried to kill Robin, not Jason Todd. Jason Todd got to go home at the end of the night and relax when he was off duty. That was the whole point of the pain-in-the-ass secret identity shit.
“I swear to you, Jason, I am on your side,” Nightwing said quietly. “Tell me what happened.”
Jason rubbed his arms and stared at Nightwing, suspecting a trick. “You’re not taking me to Bruce?”
"Jason, I might not know you very well, but you don't seem like a stupid kid. If you'd really attacked Alfred, I think you'd know better than to run to me." He said it in a mild tone, but Jason could hear the shadow of a threat behind the words. “Come on, sit down and let us patch you up.” He offered a hand to help Jason up.
Jason let himself be led back to the couch, though he was still suspicious of Nightwing’s intentions. “I didn't attack Alfred,” he said sullenly. “He attacked me.”
"Alfred attacked you?" Heavy skepticism clung to each word. "My Alfred?"
Jason scowled. "My Alfred, too. But he didn't start it. Bruce came into my room in the middle of the night and tried to kill me. Alfred only attacked me when I was getting away."
"Could he have been testing you?" Starfire came over and set an icepack on Jason's knee. "I understand Batman's training methods can be a bit extreme." She exchanged a look with Nightwing that Jason didn't quite understand. He wondered how much he’d told her about Bruce.
"No way," Jason said. "He tried to shoot me! With a gun!"
Nightwing frowned and held up a hand. “Start from the beginning. Include everything, like you're making a report to Bruce."
Jason told him the whole story, from waking up to Bruce's footsteps to hiding in the pile of leaves. He gave a sheepish look over at Starfire when he got to this part - some freaking hero he made, hiding like a scared kid. She only looked concerned, though, and Nightwing nodded in approval. Jason told them about the cache of clothes and money and that he'd decided to come to New York for help.
"Something's wrong with Bruce and Alfred," Jason insisted. "Someone brainwashed them!" He pounded a fist on the couch. "Or took over their bodies. I know they’d never do that to me, but they did. They would've killed me if I hadn't gotten away!"
"I believe you," Nightwing said, and Jason felt some of the tension ease out of his shoulders. "I'll go to Gotham and find out what's happening. Kory can stay here with you." He looked over at Starfire and she nodded.
"No way," Jason said. "I'm coming with you."
""You're hurt," Nightwing pointed out. "It's my duty to take care of this. They're my family."
"Our family," Jason corrected. "Besides," he added, "if you show up without me, it'll tip them off that you're onto them."
Nightwing considered this, then nodded. "All right." He turned to Starfire. "Kory, I'll check in with you when we get to Gotham. If you don't hear from me, go to the Justice League and alert Superman."
"I could go to Gotham with you," Starfire offered.
"No," Jason and Nightwing said at the same time.
Dick gave Jason a small smile and turned to Starfire. "It's family business," he said. “We’ll handle this. Besides, we need someone free to go for help if things go nasty."
"How much nastier can it get?" Jason muttered, fingering the scratches on his face from Alfred’s keys.
"We've got an enemy in control of Bruce and all of Batman's assets," Nightwing said grimly. "I'd say pretty damn nasty."
* * *
Jason took a shower while Nightwing and Starfire ordered Chinese food. Dick and Kory, he reminded himself. At least when they were in civilian clothes. Better not to use their codenames out of costume. Weird to think of them like just regular people, though. Kory Anders - Koriand’r - wasn’t even human and Dick was a legend; he always heard stories from Bruce and Alfred and the Titans about what Nightwing was like at Jason's age. Acrobat, detective, crimefighter and team leader. And everyone expected Jason to be like Dick. Well, he wasn't. He was himself and that would just damn well have to be good enough. Screw 'em if it wasn't.
Jason dressed in a Hudson University sweatshirt and and an old pair of Dick's jeans that were baggy enough on him that his knee wasn't constricted. He had to roll up the cuffs at the bottom and wear a belt. He rewrapped his knee himself. It'd bear his weight, at least. Dick didn't have any shoes small enough to fit Jason, so he put his old ones back on.
There was a knock on the door and Jason opened it to let Starfire in. She smiled down at him. “Those trousers are a bit large on you.”
Jason’s cheeks reddened. “I don’t have anything else.”
Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I didn’t mean to insult you! There is no shame in being small. Besides, you are still growing.”
“I know,” Jason sighed. “If you’ve got any way to speed it up, let me know.”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “But it will happen. I think you may be taller than Dick, one day.” She winked at him.
“Yeah?” Jason said hopefully. “That’d be neat.”
Kory smiled. “He is fortunate to have you.”
Jason blinked, not sure he’d heard right. “What?”
“I have a sister.” Kory’s smile disappeared. “We are… not close. I wish it were otherwise, especially when I hear Dick speak of you. He is glad to have a little brother.” Her smile returned. She had a really beautiful smile.
“I - I didn’t know that,” Jason mumbled. He stuffed his hands in the pocket of his jeans; pleased, but embarrassed.
“Well, he is,” Kory said. “And to think he was angry with Bruce about your adoption! Now come along, dinner is here. You must eat.”
“What?” The smile faded from Jason’s face. But Kory had already left the room and he didn’t want to ask her what she meant in front of Dick.
In the kitchen, Dick dished the food out of take-out cartons and onto plates. They discussed strategy as they ate, and Jason noted wryly that Dick could even handle chopsticks with ease.
Jason picked up his own chopsticks and held them the way Bruce had taught him. He ate a few bites of beef and broccoli with them. But he was too hungry to eat slowly and carefully, so he switched to a fork for a few bites of rice and didn’t pick up the chopsticks again. “You should really have better security on your place,” he commented.
"How about a silent alarm that alerts me to an intruder and hidden video cameras that allow me to view my place from Titans Tower?" Dick grinned. He scooped a bite of rice into his mouth. With chopsticks.
"Oh," Jason said, feeling foolish.
"Anything more obvious might tip off the neighbors that I've got something to hide," Dick explained.
"What if someone broke in and found your costume?" Jason asked. "They'd know your secret identity."
"I keep most of my equipment at Titans Tower," Dick said. "There's a hidden panel in my bedroom for the stuff here and -“
The rest of his sentence was lost when the kitchen window shattered and something landed with a hard thunk on the other side of the kitchen table. Before Jason could even get a look at what it was, Dick threw himself at Jason and pinned him to the ground.
“Get off me,” Jason grunted. He was Robin, not some civilian that needed to be protected. But now he was eye level with the thing that had landed. He stared at the tapered green end of the rocket-propelled grenade and thought that it was very unfair for an explosive device not to have a blinking red light or a countdown clock.
* * *
Jason was certain he was going to die right there, blown to bits in Nightwing’s kitchen, with Dick flopped on top of him as a useless human shield. Suddenly the weight of Dick’s body was gone. Someone grabbed Jason by the back of his belt and he was flying, out the shattered kitchen window, and dangling ten stories over a New York street, held only by a flimsy bit of leather as the air vibrated with the force of the explosion. Out of the frying pan and into the falling to your doom and going splat fire.
Except he wasn’t falling, he was rising. Only a moment later, Kory set Dick and him down on the roof of a nearby building. Jason laid there for a moment, gravel poking his cheek, trying to catch his breath and regain his bearings. Flying between buildings was a lot less fun without a jumpline.
“Jason? Are you harmed?”
Kory and Dick knelt on either side of him, examining him with concern. Jason got up and brushed away the gravel. “I’m cool,” he said.
Dick nodded and Jason could see him shift into Leader Mode, even without the mask and costume. It was kind of fascinating. “Kory, I need you to find out if anyone in the building was hurt and take care of the fire. Jason and I will follow the trail before it goes cold.”
“I’m on it,” Starfire said. She gave Nightwing a quick kiss and gave Jason a small wave, then flew back to Dick’s apartment, now a smoking hole in the side of the building. A few flames licked out of the opening.
“C’mon, Little Wing, time to get to work.” Dick ran along the edge of the roof, watching the ground in front of him.
“Yes, sir, Big Bird,” Jason limped after him. Dick turned to look at Jason and opened his mouth to speak.
Jason cut him off with a hand gesture. “I can keep up,” he said.
“Jason, you don’t have to-“ Dick tried.
“I can keep up,” Jason said firmly.
Dick closed his mouth, nodded, and went back to his tracking. Jason quickly spotted what he was looking for.
“There,” he said, pointing to a spot in the gravel near the edge of the roof. “Footprints in the gravel and there’s scorch marks where he rested the grenade launcher.”
“Good eye, Robin,” Dick said, and Jason grinned with pride. “Our assailant attacked from here and then ran-” Dick’s eyes followed the trail of scuffed gravel. “- into the building. C’mon.”
A door on the roof led into a stairwell. The attacker hadn’t had time or hadn’t cared enough to cover his tracks - and it was a man they were following, or else a woman with very large feet. He’d left filthy size thirteen boot tracks on the stairs. The tracks had faded by the ninth floor, though.
Jason frowned and knelt on the stairs, trying to get a hint of whether the assailant had kept going down the stairs or fled for a room on the ninth floor. But Dick was looking up. Jason followed Dick’s gaze to the the security camera mounted on the wall.
The security office was on the first floor. A thirtysomething woman in a blue uniform slouched in a chair, working on a crossword puzzle and occasionally glancing at the video screens.
“I’ll make a distraction and you go check the tapes,” Jason said. He looked at the apartment doors nearby. “Which one do you think’s empty?”
“Number 104,” Dick said instantly. “Mrs. Henderson’s always gone on business and her husband works weekends.” Jason looked over at him and Dick shrugged. “Sometimes I look after their cats.”
“Of course you do,” Jason muttered.
Dick ruffled Jason’s hair and jogged over to an alcove across from the security office, out of the guard’s direct line of sight.
Jason scowled and ran a hand through his hair in a failed attempt to smooth it down. His hair had enough curl to twist up and stick out in odd places even on days when he hadn’t been almost blown up and gone flying with superheroes. Today it was probably a lost cause. Well, looking scruffy and disheveled would help for this.
Jason ran over to the door of apartment 104 and pounded on it with his fist. “Yo!” he called out. “Open up! I forgot my key!” He rattled the doorknob. “Max, c’mon, lemme in!”
The security guard dropped her crossword on the table and came out to see what the noise was. Jason couldn’t get a good look with his peripheral vision, but saw a figure move behind her. “What’s all this about?” the guard demanded.
“My brother locked me out,” Jason scowled.
“What’s your name, kid?” she asked.
“Haven’t seen you around before.” It was a challenge, not a question.
“We just moved in with my aunt and her stupid husband,” Jason said. He kicked the door. “MAX! LEMME IN!”
“Hey!” the guard snapped. “Lay off the door. Come back to my office and we’ll call them.”
“They ain’t home. It’s just my brother,” Jason said.
She grunted, unimpressed. “I’ll call them at work. Come with me.” She put a hand on his shoulder.
Jason shrugged away from her, twisting away so he could see the security office behind her. “Don’t touch me, lady. I’ll sue!”
She rolled her eyes. “Me or the cops. You pick.” Behind her, Dick slipped quietly out of the security office and disappeared down the hall.
“Forget it,” Jason grumbled. “I’ll go stay at my buddy’s place. But I am telling on you when my aunt and uncle get home.”
“I’m shaking in my boots.” She folded her arms across her chest and watched him closely as he trudged across the lobby and out the front door.
Dick was waiting for him outside. “Get anything?” Jason asked.
“He went down into the parking lot and drove off,” Dick said. “Face covered and wearing gloves, but one sleeve was pushed up. He had a tattoo.” He handed Jason a scrap of paper where he’d written some numbers.
Jason examined it. “Looks like a date. Kid’s birthday, maybe, or a memorial to someone who died?” He handed the paper back to Dick.
Dick nodded. “That’d be my guess.”
“Cool, the Batcomputer will -“ Jason said, then stopped, remembering who was in the mansion.
Dick gave him a wry smile. “Let’s go find out if our intruders have found the Cave.”
* * *
Jason had only made the trip between Gotham and New York a few times and he couldn’t ever remember it taking so long. “Can’t you drive any faster?” he asked.
Dick glanced at the dashboard. “I’m actually going five miles per hour faster than the last time you asked,” he said.
Jason scowled and slouched in his seat. “You know what I mean.”
“I know that getting pulled over by the cops will really slow us down,” Dick said.
“We should’ve taken the T-Jet,” Jason said.
“Yeah, Bruce would’ve never noticed that landing on the lawn,” Dick said dryly.
Bored, Jason popped open the glove compartment and poked around. He found car documents, a star chart, a map of Florida, a pair of sunglasses, two beat-up Batarangs and several condoms. He snuck one of those into his pocket when Dick was making a lane change.
“Those are pretty old and I don’t know if they’re still good. You want some condoms, I’ll buy you some,” Dick said casually.
Jason blushed. “No, I… uh…”
“Or Alfred can get them for you,” Dick added, giving Jason an amused look.
“No-o!” Jason squawked, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat. “Uh, I mean, I wouldn’t want to bother him.”
“You don’t have to ask him,” Dick said. The bastard was grinning, now. “If you mention in passing that you might be getting close to someone, some will appear in your dresser drawer by the next day.”
“Oh, my God,” Jason said. “Did he do that for you?”
“Yes,” Dick said. His cheeks were slightly pink. “I wasn’t ready to use them, but there they were. He’ll restock them when you run out, too.”
“Oh, my God,” Jason said. He really, really didn’t want Alfred keeping tabs on his sex life.
“Has Bruce given you The Talk yet?” Dick asked.
“He gave me a folder of information and told me to read it,” Jason said, cheeks reddening. “I thought it was for a mission at first.”
“Oh, right, the folder! With the statistical charts and medical diagrams,” Dick said. “Did he give you a kit, too?”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “But wouldn’t the Bat on the package give away my secret identity?”
“I think those are only to be used with your Robin costume,” Dick said.
Jason considered this. “That’s kinda hot.”
“Designed it myself,” Dick said, proudly.
“No, I mean, with the mask on,” Jason said. “Little unfair not to tell her my name, though.”
“Bruce’s approach to romance may not be the way you want to go,” Dick said. “You know, if you have any questions that you don’t want to ask him, you can always call me.”
“I know about sex, okay, so don’t treat me like some kid,” Jason said.
“There’s nothing wrong with having questions,” Dick said. “I thought I knew everything when I started dating Kory. Found out there was still plenty to learn.”
“That’s -” Jason licked his lips. “Uh, really?”
Dick elbowed him. “‘Think clean thoughts, chum.’” he said in a perfect Batman voice, then continued in his own, “That’s my girlfriend.”
Jason blushed so hard he was sure his ears were glowing. “Sorry.”
“Oh, relax. I was thirteen once. I remember what it was like,” Dick smiled. “Just don’t forget there’s a person inside that body.”
“I know,” Jason said. “I like her.” He picked at a stray thread on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Dick?”
“We’re going to fix Bruce and Alfred, right?” Jason asked.
Dick didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely.”
* * *
They could see the signs for Goodwin International Airport when the cop signaled them. Dick looked up at the flashing lights in the mirror, down at the dashboard and sighed. He pulled over to the side of the road, rolled down the window and waited for the cop to walk over to the car. “What’s the problem, officer?”
“Do you know how fast you were driving?”
From his seat, Jason could only see the cop’s chest and arms. He watched him flip open a ticket pad and start writing. The cop’s sleeve shifted with the movement and for just a moment, Jason saw that the man had a date tattooed on his wrist.
“License and registration, please,” the cop said, tapping his pen against his ticket pad.
Dick leaned across Jason to open the glove compartment. Jason spoke as quietly as he could. “Tattoo on his wrist.” Dick didn’t give any sign that he’d heard and Jason hoped he’d said it loud enough.
Dick held out the small folder with the registration information. The cop took it, flipped it open and studied it. He signaled to his partner, who approached Jason’s side of the car and stood a few feet from the door, hooking his thumbs in his belt. Jason could see the name “Johnson” on his badge. Tattoo Guy examined the registration and said, “Mr. Grayson, I’m gonna have to ask both of you to step out of the car.”
“No problem,” Dick said brightly. He looked over at Jason and said in a very, very quiet voice, barely moving his lips, “Delta three-oh.”
Jason didn’t respond or give any indication that Dick had spoken. He just started counting in his head. One-mississippi, two-mississippi… as he opened the car door and got out, keeping his hands out and visible. Five-mississippi … Jason pushed the car door closed behind him and held his hands up in air.
“Both of you turn around, spread your legs and and put your hands on the roof of the car,” Tattoo Guy said. Johnson, a beefy, pink-faced blond guy, frisked Jason efficiently and pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt. Nineteen-mississippi, twenty-mississippi…Jason turned his back on the blond cop and placed his palms flat on Dick’s car. Johnson grabbed Jason’s arm and snapped a cuff on his wrist. He was close enough that Jay could smell him; a stink of sweat mixed with sulfur. Thirty-mississippi.
Jason kicked back with his left leg, keeping his weight on his uninjured knee. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of movement from Dick. Johnson grunted and let go of Jason’s arm. Jason pivoted around and swung a fist at the guy’s face. Johnson stumbled back, reeling from the blow and Jason had a moment of triumph before he realized he hadn’t hit the guy that hard. It was a feint. Johnson had his gun in hand and Jason rushed him. He knocked Johnson’s gun arm aside with his left forearm just as the gun went off.
Someone yelled his name.
Something stung his shoulder but Jason ignored it. He grabbed Johnson’s wrist with his left hand and twisted, forcing the man to drop the gun. Jason hung onto the man’s wrist and punched him, hard and fast, one, two, three times in the face. Yeah, maybe he was small but he was fast. Asshole.
Jason stuck a foot between Johnson’s ankles and knocked his feet out from under him. Jason was on the guy’s back, gun in hand. He pressed the barrel of the still-hot gun into the back of the man’s neck and smelled the acrid scent of burning hair. A second set of handcuffs was clipped to the man’s belt (the first set still dangled from Jason’s wrist) and Jay cuffed Johnson’s wrists together, keeping the gun cocked and against the man’s neck.
“Jay! You okay?” Dick called out.
“Just fine,” Jason shouted back and smiled grimly down at his prisoner.
On the other side of the car, Dick had taken down Tattoo Guy without trouble.
They cuffed the cops together and threw them in the back of their own squad car. Dick tossed their guns in the trunk of the car.
“Who are you?” Dick asked.
Jason studied the men. Johnson’s collar was too tight and his pants just a bit too short. Tattoo Guy’s shirt hung loose on him and his badge was missing.
“They’re not real cops,” Jason said scornfully. He put on his best intimidating stare. “Who do you work for?”
Tattoo Guy laughed. “Seriously, kid? Should I be scared here?”
So… maybe that didn’t work as well without the power of Robin to back it up. Jason looked over at Dick, who shook his head slightly. No, their civilian identities wouldn’t get them any answers here.
“Well, we’ve got plans tonight,” Dick said. He locked the men in the car. “I’m sure you boys will be fine here.”
“Will that hold them?” Jason whispered.
“Maybe,” Dick said. “We can’t stick around and wait until real cops show up, though. We’ll be stuck at the station all night answering questions.” Dick turned to inspect Jason and inhaled sharply. “Your shoulder - “ He stepped forward and touched Jason’s arm. Jason realized that his left sleeve was soaked with blood. He peeled off his sweatshirt and Dick gave the wound a quick inspection. “Just a graze,” he said, exhaling heavily. “Man, Jay, when I heard that gun go off…” He gave Jason a quick, gentle hug, letting go before Jason had time to realize what happened. “Come on, I have gauze in the car.”
Jason followed Dick back to the car and Dick got a first aid kit from the trunk. Jason leaned against the side of the car and let his eyes close for a moment.
“How much sleep did you get last night?” Dick asked. He cleaned the wound and taped a bandage over it.
Jason thought back. He’d done a quick solo patrol and been back at the mansion by midnight, but he’d woken up when Bruce got home around one. He hadn’t had much of a nap at Dick’s place. “Not a lot,” he admitted.
“There’s a safe house off the next exit,” Dick decided. “I’ll check in with Kory and you can get some rest while I run out-“
“No,” Jason said. “You can’t go out without me. What if they brainwash you, too?”
“Okay,” Dick said. “We’ll both get some rest and tackle this in the morning.”
“We can’t wait,” Jason said. “Something’s wrong with Bruce and Alfred and we don’t know what it’s doing to them. We can’t leave them like this.”
“Jay, you need rest.”
“How much sleep did you get when you were Robin?” Jason asked defiantly.
Dick let out a sigh of resignation. “Not enough,” he admitted.
“I’ll be fine,” Jason said firmly. “I’ll sleep when Bruce and Alfred are safe.”
* * *
No lights were on at the mansion. Jason hadn’t realized before how comforting it was to see the single light on in the front window, the one Alfred never turned off until he and Bruce were both safely home. Such a small thing. Without it, the mansion loomed in the dark, big and empty and treacherous.
They didn’t bother with stealth. Bruce probably knew they were coming; after all, someone had sent Tattoo Guy after them. Dick pulled the car up the driveway and they marched in the front door.
Bruce, in slacks and a black turtleneck, descended the main staircase to greet them when they arrived, one hand resting lightly on the railing. Jason suspected he’d been waiting at the top just to walk down at the right moment. It was one of the first things he’d learned from Batman. “Get the higher ground. Make your opponent look up to you. It makes you look stronger, more powerful. Scarier.”
“Dick,” Bruce said, by way of greeting. He didn’t look at Jason. “Thank you for returning the boy to us.” Jason’s hands clenched into fists. “Do you mind restraining him while I call the cops?”
“Who are you?” Dick asked.
“Excuse me?” Bruce asked. He had reached the bottom of the stairs and he stepped up to Dick. They stood toe to toe. Jason saw Alfred come around the back of the staircase towards them.
“You’re not Bruce Wayne,” Dick said. “Who are you?”
Bruce took half a step back, swept a look over Dick; he chuckled and looked down at the ground. Then he swung his fist out at Dick.
Dick saw the punch coming a mile away. He stepped neatly aside and grabbed Bruce’s arm, yanking him off balance. A quick kick to the side of the knee and the fake Bruce hit the ground.
“It’s really not him,” Jason said, a wave of relief sweeping over him.
“Hey!” Dick protested. He knelt down to pull the fake Bruce’s hands behind his back and handcuff him in place. “I’m good.”
“Not that good,” Jason said.
Dick glanced down at the man he’d taken down with hardly any effort. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed with a shrug, looking back at Jason. “Watch out!”
Jason turned to see Alfred swinging a heavy silver candlestick at his head. He slipped a taser out of his pocket, ducked the candlestick and thrust the taser against the butler’s chest. Jason caught Alfred as he collapsed. He lowered the older man gently to the floor.
Dick winced. “Sorry, Alfred.”
“It’s not really him!” Jason protested, trying to convince himself as much as Dick.
“Yeah, I know,” Dick said, guilt flashing across his face. Jason understood. They’d decided that a taser would be best, since neither of them could imagine punching even a lookalike Alfred, but Jason wasn’t prepared to see the butler collapse like that. He touched the scratches on his face to remind himself: this “Alfred” had tried to kill him.
“Release me this instant!” fake Bruce cried. “I will press charges against you, Richard, don’t think that I won’t.”
“So will I,” Dick said. “Tell us who you are. Who are you working for?”
Alfred’s eyes opened. He looked up at Jason and blinked a few times. “Young master?”
“Oh, shut up,” Jason told him. He could be rude if he wanted; it wasn’t the real Alfred.
“Young ma- ah- ah- ah-,” fake Alfred said. “Very good, young si- er- er- er. System corrupted. Reboot required.”
Dick’s head jerked around to look at Alfred. “They’re robots?”
“System corrupted. Reboot required,” the Alfred-bot said.
“This is outrageous!” the Bruce-bot said.
“System corrupted. Reboot required,” the Alfred-bot said.
Dick stared at the Alfred-bot and then looked down at the figure pinned beneath him and yanked up the back of the Bruce-bot’s shirt.
“Young man! You will cease taking liberties at once!” the Bruce-bot said.
“There’s a panel,” Dick said, sliding his hands over the robot’s back. “If I can get it open…”
“System corrupted. Reboot required,” the Alfred-bot said.
Jason followed Dick’s exampled and turned Alfred over to get at his back. Faint, straight lines formed a rectangle beneath the robot’s shoulder blades. Jason could have mistaken them for scars if he hadn’t been looking for something else.
“UNHAND MY PERSON!” Bruce yelled. “UNHAND MY PERSON, YOU FILTHY-“ He abruptly went silent and limp.
“Found it,” Dick said grimly. He left the Bruce-bot’s body lying sprawled, handcuffed on the floor and came over to disable the Alfred-bot.
The deactivated bodies looked eerily like corpses now that their systems no longer made their chests rise and fall in the imitation of life. They gave Jason the creeps. He and Dick retreated quickly to the Batcave.
Dick used the Batcomputer to run a scan of the cave and mansion. He checked for signs of heat and movement. Then Jason studied the live feeds for every room in the manor while Dick went upstairs to physically check the blind spots.
“Nothing on the feeds. You find anything?” Jason asked when Dick returned.
“They’re not here,” Dick said grimly. “We need to find out where the real Bruce and Alfred have been taken.”
* * *
“Are you sure they’re alive?” Jason wanted Dick to say yes, he was certain, no doubt about it.
Instead, Dick frowned in concern. “Probably. Anyone wanting to keep up a Bruce Wayne simulation for any length of time would need access to the source material.”
“But Alfred -“
“Also has a lot of useful information.” Dick hesitated, then added, “And could be used as leverage against Bruce. He’s very valuable alive.”
Jason might have been reassured if Dick wasn’t trying so hard to convince himself. “But I’m not.”
“Not in their eyes,” Dick admitted. He gave Jason a grim smile. “They underestimated you, Jay, and they’ll pay for that mistake. Now let’s find out where these things came from.”
Robotics were way above Jason’s pay grade. He struggled with the assembly language Bruce attempted to drill into his head. Dick admitted he didn’t know where to start, either. He called Cyborg, but Vic wasn’t available.
“Who’s gonna help us, then?” Jason asked. He lounged back in one of the Batcave’s giant desk chairs and flipped through a textbook on artificial intelligence. He had his leg propped up on a foot rest and a bag of ice on his bum knee.
He smiled. “A librarian,” he said.
Jason scoffed at that. “More books won’t help.”
Dick’s smile widened into a grin, but he didn’t say anything at all.
* * *
Dick called her Barbara. She showed up wearing a long, patchwork skirt, a cotton blouse and glasses; her red hair was tied back in a bun. She carried a bag of reference books from Gotham Library’s cybernetic collection. Jason remembered seeing her on a couple of his visits to the library.
She also walked into the Batcave on her own, without setting off any alarms.
“You’re Batgirl!” Jason accused, when she joined them by the Batcomputer.
“I retired,” Barbara said. “Not that you Bat-guys ever remember that.” She grinned at Dick.
“We’d be lost without you,” Dick said.
Barbara rolled her eyes and bumped his shoulder with her own. “C’mon, show me the tech. I have to get up for my real job in the morning.”
“It’s upstairs,” Dick said.
Jason started to get up, but Dick put a hand on his shoulder. “Stay here and rest up your knee, Jay. We’ll be back in the field soon and we need you in good shape.”
“I’m good,” Jason objected.
“Walk around while you’re watching the monitors, and rechecking all the perimeter alarms, then,” Dick said. “I don’t want someone sneaking up on us.”
Which was a dirty trick, because Jason couldn’t say no to that. He grumbled but stayed seated, foot propped up and waited, wondering what was going on upstairs. Wondering how much Kory knew about Dick’s “friend” Barbara.
None of the alarms had been damaged, but several had been manually disabled from the garage computer. Jason ran the checks twice, to be sure. Bruce and Alfred must have been compromised while at the party last night and the bots had come home in the limo. Jason tried to run a simulation to guess where the captives had been taken, but there were just too many variables.
Dick and Barbara came back about forty minutes later. Barbara plugged a small black box into the Batcomputer’s control panel and sat down in front of a terminal.
“No calling card, no overt identifiers,” she said, typing rapidly on the keyboard as data streamed across the screen. “Not a surprise; wouldn’t expect them to sign it. Let me cross-reference the main AI algorithm with some of the ones we have archived and see if any patterns match.”
“You do your thing,” Dick said cheerfully. “I’m going to make sandwiches.” He went upstairs.
“Um,” Jason felt he owed Kory this much, at least. “You know that Nightwing has a girlfriend, right?”
Barbara gave him a sideways look and smiled. “I’ve met Kory. I like her quite a bit.”
“Nothing’s happening with you and him, then?”
“Nothing more than friendship,” Barbara assured him.
“Good,” Jason said, and then considered this. “So you’re available?”
She grinned at him. “How about we revisit this subject once you’re out of puberty?”
Jason grinned back. “I’ll put it on my calendar.”
Jason watched Barbara for a bit, asking a few questions and he was surprised to find he understood a little of what she was doing. Computers, even sophisticated humanoid robot ones, ran on an explicit set of instructions. Creating these instructions was hard work and so it made sense to reuse the code wherever possible. It also made sense to keep your code secret, especially if you were a paranoid, evil supervillain. If they could match the code used here with code used for similar androids, they might be able to trace it back to the original creator.
After a while, Jason ran out of questions. He relaxed in his chair and watched waves of text flow across the computer’s screens. It was a simple, soothing sight.
He woke up to find a blanket covering him and a plate of sandwiches and bottle of Zesti soda on a tray nearby.
“Have a good nap?” Dick asked.
“How long did I sleep?” Jason asked, sitting up sharply.
“You didn’t miss anything,” Barbara cut in. “It’s taken a while to analyze all the algorithms, but we’ll hopefully have an answer soon.”
Jason picked up a sandwich and bit into it - peanut butter and honey. The scrolling text dwindled to a few lines, spat out one last sentence and stopped.
“Well,” Barbara said, after a moment. “That explains a lot.”
“It does,” Dick said, with grim satisfaction. “Head up to bed when you finish eating, Jason,” he added. “Tomorrow we’re going to pay Lex Luthor a visit.”
* * *
Jason didn’t want to go back to his room to sleep. He’d already been attacked there once and it didn’t feel very safe. “I don’t know if my room’s the best place for me to stay tonight. Strategically speaking.”
“Yeah, it’s better if we stay close to each other,” Dick said. “My suite has plenty of space. Babs, are you staying over?”
“I’ll be down in the cave for a bit longer. Want to run some scenarios; see if I can figure out what his plan is,” Barbara said.
“Jay, I can take the couch and you’re welcome to the bed,” Dick said.
Jason felt like he ought to object to the special treatment, whether it was because of his age or his injury, but sleeping in a full bed sounded really appealing at the moment. “Babs, if you finish up quick, you can come join our slumber party in time for the pillow fight.”
Dick shook his head. “No, we don’t want that.” He leaned close to Jason’s ear and lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “She’ll kick our butts.”
“And you better remember that, Wonder Wing,” Babs said.
* * *
Wayne Manor had plenty of spare rooms, so Dick’s old bedroom hadn’t been touched since he’d moved out. Alfred had been in to clean, of course, but all the posters were the ones Dick had left on the walls. Jason knew about the Flying Graysons and the Superman poster needed no explanation. “Who’s Great Frog?” Jason asked, as they made up the couch with spare bedsheets.
“Band Speedy was in for a bit,” Dick said. “He was their drummer.”
“Awesome,” Jason said, studying the poster. “You ever do anything cool like that?”
“Nah, I’m not musical,” Dick said. “I’m pretty busy fighting injustice in multiple star systems and having a relationship with my beautiful girlfriend, the supermodel.”
“Being in a band’s cooler,” Jason teased.
“Nope,” Dick said. “It’s not. I’m your big brother; would I lie to you?” He grinned. “Did you know that Tamerarians are descended from cats? How cool is that?”
“But Kory’s only got two breasts,” he said without thinking.
“And you don’t throw feces, monkey boy,” Dick said. “Or if you do, I think you’d better stay in your own room tonight.”
Jason blushed. “I guess cats are pretty far back in the family tree.” He gave Dick a sly look. “Is that why your costume has all those feathers? To attract a cat-lady?”
“My costume attracts all the ladies,” Dick grinned. He tossed a pillow at Jason. “Way past your bedtime, chum.”
Jason caught the pillow and flopped backwards onto the bed. “Past yours, too.”
“Yeah, it is.” Dick switched out the lights and sat down on the couch.
Jason sprawled out comfortably, but before closing his eyes, he noticed that Dick wasn’t lying down and he had his escrima sticks across his lap. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Just keeping an eye on things,” Dick said. “Sleep tight, Jay. You won’t have any surprises tonight.”
* * *
Lex Luthor stepped into his office in LexCorp’s Gotham building and his hand went automatically to the lightswitch. A batarang flew across the room and pinned his jacket to the wall, keeping his hand just out of reach of the switch.
“The lights are automatic, Luthor,” Nightwing said, stepping from the corner of the office as the ceiling panels brightened and cut through the pre-dawn gloom. “And we don’t need any company.”
Luthor grimaced. He shrugged his white linen jacket off and left it hanging from the batarang. He held his hands in front of his body and turned them palms up. “I don’t appreciate you damaging my wardrobe, Boy Wonder. What do you want?”
“I’ve passed that title on, actually,” Nightwing said. He stepped aside to reveal the boy perched on top of the mahogany file cabinet. Robin sat cross-legged, a stack of manila folders balanced on one bare thigh as he studied the contents of a particularly thick file.
“Sidekicks get sidekicks now?” Luthor asked. “Will you be putting toddlers in tights next?”
Nightwing leaned back against the large oak desk and folded his arms across his chest. “We’ve got questions.”
“I didn’t think you’d break into my penthouse office just to update me on your apprenticeship program,” Luthor said. He took a few cautious steps forward, keeping his hands out in the open.
“We disabled the floor panels,” Robin said, not looking up from his reading.
“Yes, you’re very clever,” Luthor said dryly. “Where’s the big boss? Off cutting all my phone lines?”
“He’s busy,” Robin said. “Dealing with some villains who are actually scary.”
“If I don’t scare you, boy,” Luthor said, “it’s because I’m not trying.” He took three strides across the room, enough time for a knife to drop from his sleeve into his hand. He had the knife to Robin’s throat before Nightwing could step between them.
Robin let the file drop. He pointed a Colt .44 Magnum in his right hand directly at Luthor’s chest. “Yes,” he said coldly. “You’ve got lots of hidden weapons. Useful.” Jason lifted his chin and looked Luthor in the eyes. He cocked the gun. “Kinda embarrassing if you got shot with your own gun, huh?”
Luthor didn’t move. “If I cut your throat, how long until they’ve got another boy running around in those green shorts?”
“Nobody needs to get hurt today,” Nightwing said, his voice calm and steady. “We just want some answers.”
“I may have answers,” Luthor said, his blade still at Jason’s throat. “You haven’t asked any questions yet.”
“Put the weapons down and we’ll talk,” Nightwing said. He shot Robin a meaningful look. Jason lowered the gun.
Luthor shrugged and took a step back, keeping his knife ready.
Nightwing picked up a file from the desk. “Where’s the lab for Project Golem?”
“There’s no lab,” Luthor scoffed. “It’s purely theoretical.”
Robin hopped off the file cabinet, scattering manila folders all over the floor; all but one. He opened the folder to show a technical sketch of an android on one side with several photos of Bruce Wayne on the other.
Luthor snatched the folder from Robin. “LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises have been working together on a few top-secret projects. And yes, one does include a potential android replica of Bruce Wayne. The man would like to have a stand-in at certain meetings and events that bore him.”
“Bruce Wayne didn’t sign off on the android project,” Robin said.
Luthor waved a hand. “He has people for that.”
“Of course he does,” Nightwing said. “But, I understand it, the Wayne Enterprises board of directors is planning to end those programs soon.” He looked over at Robin, who checked the file.
“They’re meeting this afternoon, actually,” Robin said.
Nightwing nodded his thanks. “Wayne Enterprises is pursuing several very lucrative military contracts that they don’t seem to want to share with LexCorp.”
“That’s still in negotiation,” Luthor snapped.
Nightwing gave Luthor a lazy smile. “I’m sure Bruce Wayne - or a highly believable stand-in - could still influence the Board’s decision.”
“Nightwing,” Robin said urgently. He nodded towards the door. From the sound of the footsteps outside, they’d have company soon.
“Well, I’m afraid we must be going,” Nightwing said. He walked over to the door and yanked out his batarang, letting Luthor’s jacket fall to the floor. “Sorry about the tear. I’m sure it can be mended. Robin, give him his gun back.”
Robin scowled. He emptied the bullets into his hand and stuffed them into a belt pouch. He tossed the gun onto Luthor’s desk.
“Break in again and I’ll see that you serve time,” Luthor growled.
Nightwing popped open a panel on the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Have a nice day, Luthor.”
Robin flipped Luthor the bird, slipped out through the panel and was gone. Nightwing followed directly after.
When the security team finally arrived, Lex gave them a blistering lecture on the need to secure and patrol the exterior of the building, even at fifty stories. Then he made a few phone calls to check on Project Golem, just in case.
On the roof of Gotham’s Luthor Towers, Nightwing and Robin listened in on the calls through a short-range bug they’d placed before Luthor’s arrival.
* * *
Down at the Dixon Docks, Jason rewrapped his knee while Dick studied the warehouse through his binoculars. “What’ve we got?” Jason asked. They were perched on the rooftop of a crumbling brick apartment building across the street.
“Guards,” Dick said. “Lots of them, and they’re on a tight patrol. I don’t see any holes we can exploit.” He flipped open his pocket computer and studied the blueprints for the warehouse.
“What about a distraction?” Jason suggested. “I’ll swing in, attack a couple of them and lead them on a chase; you sneak in and get Bruce and Alfred out.”
Dick shook his head. “No, there’s too many of them and we can’t risk setting off the alarms.”
Jason pinned down the knee wrap and got out his own binoculars. “The roof,” he suggested.
Dick closed the computer and slipped it into his boot. “It’s guarded.”
“Yeah, but look,” Jason pointed. “The door on the east side - it’s only visible through direct line-of-sight. They’re patrolling clockwise in a five-point pattern. When they reach one and three, we set off a quick distraction to make them look to the northwest and we can drop in and crack the door.”
Dick studied him thoughtfully. “What kind of distraction?”
“A bang,” Jason said, offering up a noisepopper from his utility belt. “Small one, could sound like a gun, but they’ll assume it’s a car backfire, when there’s nothing else. There’ll be nothing but a bit of burnt flashpaper, if they investigate.”
Dick nodded in approval, but said, “The door’s alarmed.”
Jason knew Dick had seen the wires. Like Bruce, he was making sure Jason had thought the plan all the way through. “External wires. We can cut them,” Jason said, proud that he had an answer ready.
Dick took another look through his binoculars. “We’ll only have about thirty seconds to get in,” he said, watching the guards.
“And we don’t know what - or who - is on the other side of the door,” Dick added.
Jason grinned. “What’s life without a little risk?”
Dick grinned back. “It’s our best shot. Good plan, Robin.”
* * *
Jason tossed the noisepopper and they swung in the moment they heard the bang. Dick cut the alarm wire while Jason picked the lock.
They spotted a guard stationed at the end of the hallway when they were inside. The guard held his hand to his radio earpiece. “Check again. I don’t care if it’s a car, we need to know for sure.” He was distracted. That was a bit of luck, at least. Jason strode over to the guard and took him down with a quick nerve strike. Nightwing nodded in approval.
Nightwing lifted the radio off the guard. He listened to the guard’s chatter for a moment, studying the hallway, then motioned to Jason and they headed through the southwest door to a stairwell. Two floors down, they crept up on another guard. This time Nightwing took him down.
Nightwing paused to listen to the radio again; he then led Jason through two more doors, down another stairwell to a heavily bolted door. Nightwing waved a hand and Jason stepped up to crack these locks while Nightwing monitored the radio feed and kept watch.
Jason had them open in less than forty-five seconds and he grinned a little. All that time with Bruce standing over him, watching a stopwatch while he’d fumbled with fifty zillion different tumblers had paid off. If he ever had to go undercover for a case, he could set himself up as a pretty passable cat burgler.
He pushed open the door and let out a sigh of relief to see Alfred and Bruce inside the room, tied up and gagged. Probably drugged, but he could see the rise and fall of their chests, so they were still breathing.
“Guard outside,” Nightwing said in a low voice. Jason slipped into the room and Nightwing followed, quietly closing the door behind them.
Jason heard Nightwing use a word he didn’t think Dick even knew and turned around to see a third figure tied up. Jason’s own face looked back at him, with bright blue eyes and messy black hair, looking small and frightened. Jason froze. Nightwing grabbed his arm, but before they could move, they heard a series of soft pops and bluish-grey gas poured out of the eyes and ears of all the captives.
Jason didn’t remember anything after that.
* * *
Jason opened his eyes and found his own dead face staring back at him. He shuddered. The androids were now stacked carelessly against the wall, all life-simulations deactivated.
“Robin,” Nightwing said. "Report."
Jason lifted his head off the filthy, beige carpet and took inventory. His hands and legs were cuffed back-to-back to another warm body. Jay couldn't get a good look at Nightwing, but he could feel the high collar brushing against his own ears. They were in a disused office; an empty desk was pushed against the wall at the end of the room and a couple of dusty chairs were stacked on top of it. A cheap, impressionist painting of Gotham Harbor hung on the wall.
His knee still ached, his muscles were stiff from the bindings and his head pounded from the knockout gas. But he still wore his costume and mask. "I'm fine," Jason said. "You?"
"All in one piece," Nightwing assured him. "Want to get out of here? Luthor's on his way."
"You heard something?"
"Our masks are still on," Nightwing said grimly. "Mine is, at least." Jason got it. The only reason the minions hadn't unmasked them was because the big boss wanted to do it himself.
"Mine, too," Jason said. “My belt’s gone, though.”
“So are my boots. I should have something in my gauntlet.” Nightwing twisted his wrist and Jason grunted as their connected cuffs pulled his shoulders further back. Nightwing froze. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jason said. “Do what you gotta do.”
Nightwing pulled at the cuffs again and this time Jason didn’t make a sound. “Got it,” Dick said, and Jason could hear the sound of a pick pushing the tumblers of the lock.
“How do you keep so much stuff in your gauntlets?” Jason wondered.
“Careful planning,” Nightwing said. “Plus Cyborg helped me miniaturize a few things.”
“How come you didn’t give Batman the miniature versions?” Jason asked.
“I offered,” Nightwing said. “He didn’t trust - ah, there we go!” The cuffs popped open. “Come up to Titans Tower sometime when this is over and I’ll get you outfitted with whatever you like.”
Jason stretched out his arms, relieved to have his shoulders back in a natural position. “Has he miniaturized Bruce’s shark repellant?” he grinned, remembering an old case file.
Nightwing chuckled as he bent down to pick the ankle cuffs. “You mock, but it worked. We’ve developed more generalized repellants since then, but the big guy wouldn’t have all his limbs today if it weren’t for that stuff.”
“Yeah, but how did you know you’d be facing sharks? Not a lot of literal big fish in Crime Alley,” Jason said.
“There used to be regular sightings in the harbor,” Nightwing said. “Don’t tell me you’ve never ended up out there.”
“The place is a pit,” Jason said. “Nothing could live in those waters.”
“Some people say that about Gotham,” Nightwing said. He clicked the last tumbler into place and the cuffs fell free of their ankles. He bounced to his feet and offered Jason a hand up. “Shall we get out of here?”
“Absolutely,” Jason said. He scrambled to his feet and leaned over to close the eyes on the Jason-bot. It didn’t look as much like an bad omen that way. He scanned the room. Acting on a hunch, he shoved the wall painting aside to reveal a safe. “What do you think the chances are that Luthor’s stuck all his secrets in that safe?”
“Maybe it’s our lucky day,” Nightwing said. He studied the safe, then pulled something from his gauntlet. He shook it sharply and it expanded into a cone. Dick pressed the wide end of the cone against the safe and had the thing open in just a few minutes. “No secrets,” he said, peering into it. “But our stuff is here.”
Jason buckled on his utility belt while Nightwing retrieved his boots and their comms.
“Why don’t you just wear a belt?” Jason asked.
Nightwing winked at Jason. “Ruins the line of the costume.”
“And it’s too much like Batman?” Jason guessed.
Nightwing shrugged. “We all have to go our own way eventually,” he said. “Even you, Little Wing, will someday fly on your own.” He ruffled Jason’s hair.
Jay batted Nightwing’s hand away. “I do. All the time. I did before I met any of you.”
“Hey,” Nightwing held up his hands in surrender. “It’s not all bad. Sometimes I miss having a partner.” He studied the room and the locked door and signaled to Jason with his hands. Guards coming.
Jason pressed an ear against the door and sure enough, he could hear footsteps. He nodded and signaled back, Options?
Nightwing spotted an air vent just below the ceiling, about ten feet up, and pointed it out to Jason.
Jason nodded, Boost me. He backed up to get some space between Nightwing and himself and dug into his utility belt.
Nightwing linked his hands together, braced himself, and nodded.
Jason took a couple of running steps, jumped off Dick’s hands, and caught the edge of the vent with his fingers. Before he could slip, he jammed an anchor into the wall. He hung from the small metal bar as he pried the cover off the vent. He dropped the cover into Nightwing’s outstretched hands and swung himself up into the vent.
Clear? Nightwing signaled.
Jason shone a flashlight into the dark vent, then signaled back. Clear. Rope?
No. Nightwing took a couple of running steps and bounced into the air. He grabbed the anchor Jason had left and pulled himself into the vent. Jason led the way through the vent, both of them on hands and knees.
“Robin, HOLD.” Nightwing’s voice brooked no argument. Jason froze. “Tripwire,” Nightwing said in a low voice.
Jason drew a flashlight from his utility belt and shone it down the vent. Not just one tripwire, but a series of them. He swore.
Nightwing whistled. “Damn. Okay, guess we’ll have to go down.”
Jason stared at the metal vent underneath his hands and knees, then twisted around carefully to look at Nightwing. “Down?”
“Down,” Nightwing repeated. He produced a tiny metal tube from his gauntlet and waved it at Jason.
“Laser cutter?” Jason guessed.
“Got it in one,” Nightwing said.
A voice cut through the ambient noise of the warehouse. “Where are they?”
Nightwing and Jason both froze in place. Luthor. He'd see the open grate in a second and they’d be trapped. Nightwing scooted back a few feet and started cutting out the bottom of the grate with the laser.
“I… I don’t know,” a guard said. Jason strained a bit to listen.
“We could’ve found out who they are by now,” said a second guard. “If you’d let us look-“
“Information is valuable when it’s scarce,” Luthor said. “I didn’t expect you’d let them go.”
“We had them cuffed hand and feet and locked in a room.” The second guard was Tattooed Guy. Jason recognized the voice. “It’s not our fault-“
“Idiot,” Luthor said. BANG. Splat. The gunshot, and sound of the blood splatter, startled Jason so badly he knocked his head on the top of the vent.
“Robin-“ Nightwing began. He paused in his cutting.
“I’m fine,” Jason whispered. He tried to squeeze past Nightwing, to get back in the room, but there wasn’t room in the tiny vent. “We have to help them, we have to do something-“
“The vent! They’re in the vent!” the other guard said.
“Yes, I deduced that,” Luthor said dryly.
Nightwing grabbed Jason’s arm. “At that range, he’s beyond help. Let’s get out and protect who we can still save.”
Jason jerked out of Nightwing’s grip, but he didn’t try to go any further. “Fine, get us out of here.” He bit down on his lower lip, drew a smoke pellet from his belt and watched the open end of the vent over Nightwing’s while Dick cut away. He waited, dreading the moment when he’d hear another gunshot.
But he didn’t. Nightwing dropped down through the hole he’d cut just as a guard’s face peered into the vent. Jason tossed the pellet and dropped down after Nightwing, a few wisps of smoke following him through the hole.
They dropped down into a storage room, full of large, wooden boxes and a light dusting of sawdust on the floor. Klaxons blared; Luthor had set off the alarms. Jason bolted for the only visible door and tore it open. Fortunately, it wasn’t locked. The surviving guard - who Jason recognized as Tattoo Guy’s fake cop partner, “Johnson”, slipped out of the vent, hot on their heels despite the smoke pellet. No need for stealth, now.
Jason smaller and lighter than Nightwing, pulled ahead and caught one of Luthor’s lackeys by surprise. Jason plowed straight into him and finished him off with a punch to the jaw. He took the next one down by tossing a set of bolas around the guy’s ankles.
“Left!” Nightwing called out. Jason saw a shadow approaching before he reached the next corner and he dove at the shadow’s legs. The thug turned the corner in time for Robin to slam into his knees. Jason heard a gunshot. He pulled himself on top of the man and jabbed frantically for a nerve strike. He hit the collarbone, bruising his fingers. The thug punched him in the ribs and Jason gasped for breath. The gun came up, pointed at Jason’s face-
-then it flew from the thug’s hand with a blur of black and blue Kevlar and the crunch of broken fingers. Another blur hit the thug in the jaw. Nightwing offered Jason a hand and pulled him to his feet.
“Bullet went wide,” Nightwing said, before Jason could ask. “No one’s hit.”
Jason nodded and they didn’t have time for more. Without a word, they fell into place back-to-back as three more guards rushed them. Jason swept the knees of one and punched him in the head when he fell down. Nightwing twirled his escrima sticks and slammed them outward, hitting the thugs on opposing cheeks and stunning them long enough for Jason to whip out another set of bolas and tangle them up. It wouldn’t take long for them to unwrap themselves from the weighted cords, but they didn’t need a lot of time.
Nightwing and Robin bounded down the corridor. A startled woman in a pantsuit tried to block their way, but Jason just leapt forward, grabbed her shoulders and somersaulted over her head. She stumbled under his weight and Nightwing pushed her aside.
They ran up a stairwell and burst through another door and then they were out on the street. “Right!” Nightwing yelled, and Jason swerved. A block more and then left down an alley and they were safe in the Batmobile. Nightwing took the driver’s seat and they roared out of the alley. A couple of thugs grabbed their motorcycles and chased after them, but once Jason was in the car, he knew they were safe. No vehicles could keep up with the Batmobile for long.
The bikers were good, Jason would give them that. It took several miles of city streets and two false dead ends before Nightwing could shake their tails. Dick drove to an outpost north of Bristol to switch cars and scan their outfits, to make sure there were no trackers which could lead Luthor back to the Batcave.
Nightwing used a sonic wand to scan himself and Jason for bugs or trackers. “Any injuries?” he asked.
“None,” Jason said. A few bruises hardly counted.
“You doing okay?” They weren’t the same question.
Jason shrugged. “Some loser got himself offed. What did he expect, working for a creep like that?”
“Pretty sure he didn’t expect to die,” Nightwing said in a soft voice.
Jason glared at him. “Bruce told you about my dad.”
“No!” Nightwing said. “Well, not exactly. I keep up on the case files, that’s all.”
“You think, because my dad got killed working for Two-Face, that I’m gonna cry over every crackhead who gets whacked on the job?”
Nightwing lifted his shoulders and dropped them. “Sometimes the stuff we deal with feels personal.”
“Not this,” Jason said. He jabbed a finger at Dick. “I don’t need you pulling a head shrinker game on me. I’m fine.”
”Nightwing. Robin.” Their comms cracked with Batgirl’s voice. “Please respond.”
Nightwing gave Jason a long look before answering. “Nightwing here.”
“Finally! I hope you rescued the targets,” Batgirl said.
Nightwing responded. “We ran into… some complications.”
“Are they the same complications I’m looking at? Because Bruce Wayne just walked into Wayne Tower.”
* * *
Jason carefully shaved the last few hairs off his chin and came out of the bathroom. His tie and suit jacket hung from the door of Dick’s wardrobe. Jason shrugged into the jacket, wrapped the tie around his neck and tried to knot it the way Alfred had taught him.
“You’ve got to button the top of your shirt, or the tie won’t lie right,” Dick said. He wore a dark pink tie with his grey suit and somehow made the color work for him.
Jason wore a dark blue suit with a yellow tie. He pulled the tie’s knot out, scowled at his reflection in the mirror, buttoned his top button, then tried again. “Why can’t we just go as Robin and Nightwing?”
“Because it’s midday, because Bruce Wayne’s sons have all-access passes to the tower and because Bruce might drop through every skylight in town himself, but he’ll get cranky if we bust up the one in his office,” Dick said.
“Won’t he just be grateful that we took care of everything while he was missing?” Jason held up a hand before Dick could answer. “Never mind.” Bruce would forgive any necessary messes once they’d rescued him, but any unnecessary ones and they’d never hear the end of it. “Show me how to tie this stupid thing?” he asked.
Dick, who apparently scored low on his personal space aptitude test, came up behind Jason and put his arms around his shoulders to reach the tie. “I only know how to do it on myself,” he explained.
Jason could feel Dick’s breath on his ear and tried not to squirm. He watched Dick’s hands in the mirror.
“Over, under, through, and down.” Dick demonstrated, then untied the tie and stepped back. “You try.”
Jason imitated what Dick had done. It wasn’t quite right, so he pulled out the knot and tried again. “I thought Wayne Enterprises didn’t make weapons,” he said. “Why do they want a military contract?”
“For body armor, radio tech, infrared - pretty much anything we use in the field can be put to use by the military,” Dick said. Jason tugged his tie out of its knot, again, and attempted it once more. “Bruce weeds out the stuff that needs to stay top secret and turns the rest over to the WayneTech R and D division. They sell some stuff to government agencies directly - think Secret Service - and figure out ways to mass-produce the other tech so the military can afford to buy it for all the troops.”
“Can’t Lucius Fox just veto all this stuff, if he’s the CEO?” Jason asked.
“No, he’s just one vote on the board,” Dick said. “And there’s several members of the board of directors that would vote in favor of the deal, even if Bruce didn’t endorse it. It’s likely to make some big profits for the company.”
“If LexCorp is in on these deals, would Luthor get access to all the top secret stuff?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” Dick said. “He would.”
Jason jerked the tie into place again and this time it looked right. “Guess we’d better stop him.”
* * *
Bruce Wayne’s sons got to ride the express elevator up to the penthouse. Jason had been to Wayne Tower with Bruce a few times. The guard looked familiar, but he didn’t recognize Jason and Dick had to vouch for him.
“Just wait,” Dick teased. “In a couple of years, the gossip columns will print photos of you every time you’re out with a new girl, or show up at a party.”
Jason grimaced. “Can I opt out of that?”
“Unfortunately not,” Dick said. “You’ll get a lot of attention from the ladies, though.”
Jason snorted. “I don’t need Bruce’s name or money to get girls.”
The elevator dinged. “You ready?” Dick asked.
Jason sighed. “They’re going to think I’m a spoiled brat.”
“Better than what they think of Bruce,” Dick pointed out. “He once told the ambassador of Sweden how much he admires the little folding knives they give their army.”
Fine then. If Bruce could protect his identity by acting like an ass in public, so could Jason.
The penthouse conference room had a wall of windows against one side so the board of directors could look out over the city. The view did not include Luthor Tower, Jason noted with petty amusement. It was a few blocks to the west and the conference room windows faced northeast.
The entire board, several people from LexCorp, including Luthor, and a fake Bruce Wayne all stared right at them when Dick and Jason shoved open the mahogany double doors and barged into the meeting.
“Bruce, I’ve had enough,” Dick said.
“This is stupid. You don’t have to go crying to him,” Jason said.
“Be quiet! Oh, my God, can you please just shut up for five minutes?” Dick asked.
“Boys,” Lucius Fox said. “This is not a good time.” The CEO of Wayne Enterprises had a grim look. He’d apparently been taking extensive notes since his legal pad had half the pages used and folded over the top and he had a spare pad ready to go.
“Five minutes,” Dick said, holding up a hand with five fingers splayed out. “Bruce, I’m not babysitting this kid anymore.”
“All I wanted was to drive the car!” Jason protested.
“You don’t even have a license! You’re thirteen!” Dick said.
“I know how to drive!”
“ENOUGH!” Lex Luthor’s voice bellowed through the room. Jason and Dick both took a step back and even the suits at the conference table looked shaken. “Wayne, tame your brats.”
“Dick, take your brother home,” the Bruce-bot said. “We’ll discuss this later.”
“He’s not my brother,” Jason said, the words slipping out. “He’s not adopted.” Dick shot him an odd, startled look. Jason shifted guiltily. “It’s true,” he mumbled. “That’s why he hates me.”
“I don’t hate you!” Dick said. He looked right at Jason, no longer performing for an audience. “I was jealous, at first, but Jason, you are my brother, if you want me to be.”
“I-“ Jason began.
“Wayne!” Luthor interrupted.
The Bruce-bot walked over to Jason and Dick and draped one arm over each of their shoulders. Dick lifted his chin to signal Jason. They both pressed the trigger in their rings at the same time. A micro electromagnetic pulse shot between them and the Bruce-bot slumped over.
Dick caught it. “Bruce, are you okay?” He lowered the robot to the floor. “Bruce?” He looked up at at the board. “Call a doctor!”
Luthor narrowed his eyes and with the swift, deadly grace of a panther he leapt from his chair and grabbed Jason by the throat. “What game are you playing, boy?” he growled. He slammed Jason against the floor-to-ceiling window; nothing but a bit of glass between Jason and the Gotham streets fifty stories below.
Jason couldn’t answer Luthor, not with the man’s fingers wrapped around his neck so tightly he couldn’t draw breath and his feet dangling a foot off the ground.
Behind Luthor the members of the board stared. Dick rushed forward, but Luthor threw out another hand to warn him away. Dick paused and Jason knew he was evaluating the situation, running through the options that would save Jason without blowing their secret identities.
Luthor had death in his eyes. He’d pay later for murdering Bruce Wayne’s son in full view of a dozen witnesses, but that wouldn’t stop him now. His fury had surpassed reason.
Jason fought down the instinctive panic at his lack of air and forced himself to think. Bruce had taught him plenty of ways to get out of a hold. At least a dozen of these techniques could look like an untrained boy flailing in desperation. But with his vision growing dark, Jason drew on an old self-defense move he’d learned before ever meeting Bruce. He slammed his foot into Lex Luthor’s balls as hard as he could.
Luthor made an odd noise, something between a groan and a squawk. He dropped Jason and doubled over. Dick and Lucius Fox ran forward and grabbed Luthor before the man could recover.
Emergency crew and security guards poured in. Wayne Tower kept a doctor in house and she went straight for “Bruce”, ignoring the chaos as the security guards took over restraining Lex Luthor.
The doctor, clearly in the top of her field, took less than a minute to go from “He’s not breathing” to “He’s not human”. Jason noted, with a touch of bitterness, that one call from the penthouse of Wayne Tower brought the cops a hell of a lot faster than a scream in Crime Alley would have.
Gordon sent in a crew of rookies to get statements from the witnesses and put out an APB for the real Bruce Wayne. Gordon himself took Luthor into custody for assault, though Luthor refused to be handcuffed and Jason suspected he’d have his people post bail before Gordon even got Luthor back to the station.
The rookie questioning Jason, some woman named Montoya, noticed Jason watching Luthor and gave the billionaire a side-eyed look herself. “He’s a slippery one,” she said. “It’s not about catching him, it’s making it stick. But our priority is finding Bruce Wayne.”
Yeah. Jason slumped down in the boardroom chair and tried to think. Where were Bruce and Alfred? Where could Luthor have hidden them? He had all his own resources, plus his own puppet “Bruce Wayne” to give orders around Gotham. Luthor was brilliant, dangerous… Jason rubbed his throat, where bruises were starting to form. Arrogant. Luthor was arrogant enough to try and strangle Bruce Wayne’s son in Wayne’s own boardroom. Under everyone’s noses…
“He’s here,” Jason said. He sat up abruptly. “He’s in Wayne Tower.”
Montoya gave him a skeptical look. “Kid, that’s a robot.”
Luthor wasn’t just arrogant, he was a control freak. A hands-on kind of guy. Minions were untrustworthy, disposable - Jason veered sharply away from that thought. Point was, Luthor would keep Bruce nearby. And with the Bruce-bot, he had access to any part of Wayne Tower. “No, the real Bruce is here. He’s downstairs.”
The guard at the front desk downstairs hadn’t looked familiar because of Jason’s previous trips to Wayne Tower. He’d looked familiar because Robin had taken him down with a set of bolas around the ankles a few hours earlier. The cop stared at him, and Jason tried to translate what Robin knew to what Jason Todd would know. “I heard weird noises when we came in earlier,” Jason lied. “Like some kind of pounding, or knocking. I didn’t think about it at the time because, you know, no one was missing or anything.” He did his best to play a normal, stupid kid. “Figured someone was messing around on their break. But it could be Bruce!” Luthor had shuffled in his own people around Wayne Tower. Boy, Bruce was going to have a good time getting them all weeded out when he got back.
The cop looked at him for a long moment, then shrugged, and reached for her radio. None of the cops she talked to thought it was likely, but in absence of any leads, it was worth checking out.
The probability of Jason being right jumped up quite a bit when the cops asked to be let into the office and the guard tried to run.
Alfred was unconscious, but Bruce roused when the cops entered. They let Jason in once they’d swept the room and while the doctor examined Alfred, Jason knelt next to the groggy, limp Bruce and touched his hand. Bruce’s long fingers curled around Jason’s small hand and Bruce said quietly, “You should have been here hours ago.”
Jason smiled. Finally, the real Bruce.
* * *
Nightwing swung through the air with the greatest of ease. His grace and speed were neither slowed nor hindered by the large pizza box that he balanced under one arm.
He dropped down on the roof next to Robin’s stakeout location and presented the pizza with a flourish. “Hey, Little Wing. Keeping busy?”
Jason flipped open the lid of the pizza box. One large pie with the works from Dino’s, Jason’s favorite pizza. “Hey, Big Bird. Didn’t know you were in town.”
Dick dropped easily into a sitting position and unslung a backpack. He offered Jason a Zesti Cola. “Bruce wanted me immunized against Luthor’s new knockout drug as soon as possible,” he explained.
“Got any beer in there?” Jason asked, peering in the backpack hopefully.
“Yeah, but I’m saving it for when you’re twenty-one,” Dick took out another cola for himself and handed Jason a sealed envelope. "The guy with the tattoo; his info's there if you want it."
Jason flipped the envelope over and stared at it for a moment, and then tore it open. "He had a kid," he said in dismay. “That was her birthday on his wrist.”
Dick nodded. "Eight years old. Bright, but autistic. She'd never have a chance in Gotham’s public schools, so her mom found a private school. Costs a fortune, though."
"He did that stuff for his daughter." A wave of guilt swept over Jason. Yeah, Luthor had pulled the trigger, but he and Dick had been responsible for the circumstances.
Dick put a hand on Jason's shoulder. "He made his choice, and so did Luthor. It's not your fault."
“Luthor might not even get jail time,” Jason grumbled. “He’s trying to bargain the attack on me down to a misdemeanor. Bruce doesn’t want to challenge it because he thinks the media will put me in the spotlight.”
“He’s right; it’d be a feeding frenzy for the tabloids,” Dick said.
“But they don’t have evidence he was involved with the kidnapping and the guards they caught aren’t talking. Probably scared.” Jason picked at the veggies on his slice of pizza. “Do you think we could’ve saved that guy, if we'd known this earlier? Kept him from even working for Luthor?” Jason asked.
"Maybe," Dick said. "People who do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, well, you can't do much but lock them up. But people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, sometimes you give them options and they can change. If they want to. We don't know if he'd want to.”
"It's too late, anyway," Jason said, bitterly.
"For him," Dick agreed. "Maybe not for the next guy."
"Too late for his daughter," Jason said.
Dick was silent for a long moment, then said, "Yeah. You can't get back the ones you've lost. But she's got her mother and she'll have other people in her life. Family isn't always about blood."
"Duh," Jason cracked a small smile.
Dick smiled back. "Take that info to Bruce. Wayne Enterprises has scholarship funds set aside for kids who need specialized schooling. I have a feeling she'll fly through the application process."
"Thanks," Jason said quietly. He tucked the envelope away in his utility belt. “You ever wonder if there’s a better way to deal with guys like Luthor?”
Dick let out a long sigh. “Yeah, all the time. But we can’t force the world to change, Jay. We’ve got more power than the average person, but if we don’t use it the right way, we’re as bad as him.”
“How do I know what the right way is?” Jason asked.
“Trust your instincts,” Dick said. “You’re a good kid; you’ll know what’s right most of the time. If you hit a rough question, talk to Bruce or Alfred. Or come to me, if you can’t talk to them.”
“How’s Alfred doing?” Dick asked.
“He was fine once the drugs were out of his system,” Jason said. “He’s been going overboard on baking cookies. I think he’s got some weird guilt thing about his double attacking me.”
“Are you sure you guys cleared out all the robots?” Dick asked.
“Yeah, Babs found a network connection in the bots we took down. She traced it back and identified all the others on the network. Me and Bruce blew them up.” Jason grinned around a mouthful of chewed pizza.
“How’s Bruce holding up?” Dick asked.
“Still cranky that Luthor got the drop on him,” Jason said. “He’s been running simulations. A lot,” the boy added wearily. “Surveillance duty’s the first time I’ve had a chance to relax since he recovered. He’s really pissed that he couldn’t take advantage of the move from Luthor’s warehouse to Wayne Tower to escape.”
“But Luthor doubled up on the drugs, probably as soon as he realized we’d planted bugs. Maybe even before he found us in his office,” Dick said. “Bruce didn’t have an opening.”
“Like that ever stopped him from blaming himself?” Jason took another slice of pizza. “He’s working on a drug detecting serum that he can put in his drinks at parties. Supposed to turn them blue if they find something. ‘Cept right now it considers the chemicals in Zesti to be hostile and turns all the sodas blue, too.”
“Blue’s a good color,” Dick said with a grin.
“I prefer red,” Jason grinned back.
“Bruce’ll work it out,” Dick said. “And he’ll relax a bit when he’s got new failsafes in place.”
Jason snorted. “Bruce? Relax?”
Dick shrugged. “For Bruce. He’ll go back to his level of normal soon. He tends to stay revved up in direct proportion to how badly things went, and things turned out pretty okay this time.”
“Thanks to us,” Jason reminded him.
“Yeah, thanks to us,” Dick said. He held up a hand for a high five, and Jason slapped it. Dick added, “You know you’re welcome at the Tower anytime, Robin.”
“Cool,” Jason grinned.
“And you’re welcome at my place anytime, too.” Dick pulled something from his gauntlet and offered it to Jason.
Jason took it. “Key to your apartment? Is there anything left?”
“Few weeks of rebuilding and it’ll be fine,” Dick said. “No major structural damage.”
“You sure?” Jason asked, holding out the key in case Dick wanted to take it back.
“Yeah. You’re my little brother. You ever need to escape from Bruce, you come on up to New York. Just, you know, knock first.” Dick winked at him. “Just in case.”
Jason closed his fingers around the key. “Listen, what I said at Wayne Tower-“ he began.
Dick shook his head. “It was a cover. It’s okay.”
“No, but I sorta meant it,” Jason admitted. “Kory said you didn’t want Bruce to adopt me.”
“She did?” Dick asked, surprised.
Jason tried to remember the exact words. “She said you weren’t happy about it.”
“Oh,” Dick said.
“So it’s true?” Jason asked, heart sinking.
“Yes and no,” Dick said.
“Thanks for clearing that up,” Jason said dryly.
“It wasn’t about you,” Dick said. “Your adoption just hit home for me, because Bruce never adopted me and never asked if I wanted to be adopted. I was always just his ward.”
“That’s not my fault,” Jason said defensively.
“No, it’s not,” Dick said. “I wasn’t angry at you. Just upset that you got something I didn’t.”
“That sounds like being angry at me,” Jason said.
“I…,” Dick paused. “Okay, a little. Not you, personally. The idea of you.”
“But I’m over it,” Dick said. “I talked to Bruce and he said he didn’t think I ever wanted to be adopted. And I don’t know, he might be right. I love Bruce, but my dad was still my dad. I think I would have felt like I was replacing him.”
“That’s not how it works,” Jason said.
“I know,” Dick said. “At least, I know now. Here’s the thing, Jay, I love this life. I have the best job in the world - multiple worlds, even. I have friends and family that I never would have met if my parents hadn’t died. I feel like the worst son some days, because I love my parents, but I can’t imagine the life I would have if they had lived.”
“I can imagine mine,” Jason said bitterly.
Dick looked at Jason for a long moment. “Try to forgive your dad,” he said softly. “I think he’d be incredibly proud if he could see you today.”
“What, hunting down people like him?” Jason asked, lifting his chin in defiance.
“Helping people,” Dick reminded him. “Do you think he wanted you to grow up to be a criminal?”
Jason actually thought about this, then shook his head, his body relaxing. “No, probably not.”
“And your mom?” Dick asked.
“She’d be proud,” Jason said softly.
“So am I,” Dick said. He put his arm around Jason’s shoulders. Jason let himself lean against Nightwing for a moment. “Oh,” Dick added, innocent as a cat, “there’s one other thing that goes with being my brother.” Before Jason could ask, Dick had his fist on top of Jason’s head. “Noogies!”
Jason yelped and a quick scuffle ensued. The pizza got knocked to the edge of the roof and took a fatal cheesy dive to the Gotham streets below.
* * * THE END * * *