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Jason Todd: The Not-So-Outlaw

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Living on an incredibly advanced alien space ship had its advantages. Rapid travel to pretty much anywhere and giant TVs with all the channels in the galaxy included. Jason's favorite thing about Starfire's spaceship (aside from its incredible weapons arsenal) was its computer. He wasn’t much of a tech geek, he left that to Replacement Robin, but the computer sensors could pick up strange readings from anywhere on the planet. A lot of those readings indicated JLA or Teen Titans fights. And then the ship was able to take over satellite images which was how Jason had discovered his favorite past time: watching other heroes fight their ridiculous fights and turning it into a game with Roy and Koriand'r. Which was why, when the computer started beeping, Jason bolted over to it as quickly as he could, grinning maniacally.

"Come on, baby, give me something good. Roy, make us some popcorn!" he called, tapping away at the computer so he could get control of a satellite. "Oh, North Pole," he grinned, intrigued.

"Please be Powergirl, please be Powergirl," Roy declared, hopping up and down.

Kori rolled her eyes, "She's impervious to the cold. You're not going to see pointy nipples, Roy."

The red head's face fell, instantly crushed. "You always destroy my dreams, Kori. Why?"

"Because I enjoy it," she replied easily.

Jason snorted and then grinned when he finally got control of the satellite camera and directed it at the North Pole. But when the image came up, there was nothing there. "Huh," he said, looking at the large screen feeling rather disappointed. "There's nothing there."

Koriand'r moved to the computer and looked over the information, "The magnetic pull of the North Pole could be giving us false readings," she suggested.

"Maybe," Jason agreed, "But wouldn't it have happened at least once before? Why suddenly happen now?"

Kori conceded the point. "What do you think?"

A thought struck Jason and he turned to his teammates. "Penguins."

Roy blinked at him, "Horseshoes. What's your point?"

Jason rolled his eyes at his dumbass best friend, "No, you idiot. Let's go check out the readings ourselves. And we can also go see the penguins."

"What are penguins?" Kori asked, but Roy anticipated her question and pulled up a Wikipedia article on his phone. They'd discovered over time that it was the most efficient way to brief Kori on Earth things she wasn't familiar with, as the articles usually answered all the obscure questions she always asked that Jason and Roy never knew the answers to. He passed the phone to Kori and turned his attention back to Jason.

"There aren't penguins at the North Pole, you moron."

"What?" Jason protested. "Of course there are."

"No, they're at the South Pole. Come on, man. This is grade school stuff."

Jason rolled his eyes, "Elementary school dropout, remember? And Batman's education regiment did not include Arctic birds."

"Antarctic," Roy corrected again. "I know you got some middle school in too. And you can't tell me Batman's education regime didn't include penguins. You literally have a villain called The Penguin."

"Yeah, and he's a tool. Penguins are cute fluffy birds that slide through the snow on their stomachs," Jason argued.

"Roy is correct. Penguins are only found on the continent of Antarctica. There are none at the North Pole," Koriand'r broke in. "But they find mates and bond for life," she noted. "Adorable. I approve of penguins as a species."

"Irrelevant," Roy decided. "The readings are at the North Pole, not over Antarctica."

"Fine, then let's go check out the readings and find some polar bears. Then we can go to Antarctica and see the penguins. They have polar bears in the North Pole, right?"

"Polar bears?" Kori asked, and Roy took the phone back to switch to an article about polar bears. "Ah. Fluffy. Also adorable," she noted, looking at the picture.

Jason smirked victoriously and Roy shrugged, "Sure, let's go to the North Pole and check out the mystery readings, but if this turns into a clusterfuck, I blame you," he declared, pointing a finger at Jason.

Jason basked in his victory, but knew way better than to say something as stupid as "What's the worst that could happen?" He'd died and come back to life. He knew the answer to that question already. 

*****
Two hours later they were royally, unbelievably fucked and Jason was cursing up a storm, because honestly, what the fuck even? Only they would stumble across three telepathic aliens that subsisted off the pain and fear of others while simultaneously destroying entire planets in one go.

"Aliens," Roy cursed, running a hand through his wild, red hair. "Fucking aliens. I hate fucking aliens."

"Hey!" Koriand'r snapped, offended.

"Obviously you're an exception, Kori," Jason spoke, quick to placate his fellow Outlaw because she could easily kill him and Roy with her pinky. "But can you really blame him at the moment?" Jason certainly couldn't.

Koriand'r considered their current position of being far outclassed and currently the only thing standing between three planet eaters and the whole of the Earth. "Okay, fine," she retorted, sounding remarkably human. Prolonged exposure to Jason and Roy had helped her blend culturally far more efficiently than all those years with the Teen Titans. Jason wasn't quite sure what that said about him and Roy, but he doubted it was good. Then again, there was little good to say about them in general.

"It wasn't my intention to save the world today," Jason declared suddenly. "I did not wake up thinking I wanted to save the planet. How the fuck did this happen?" he was pretty sure it was Roy's fault. Things usually were, so blaming Roy was generally a good policy.

"I want the record to show that I was against this from the beginning," Roy declared, as if he could hear Jason's thoughts, and if it didn't look like Roy was slowly bleeding out, Jason would have punched him for being contrary. As it was, he was barely standing himself. Even Koriand'r was beat to hell.

"Shut up, Roy," Kori snipped, understandably grumpy. "Not the time."

And it wasn't. They had to figure out a plan. The Planet Eaters, aware of the vast divide of powers between them, had granted them a short window of time to decide whether they would flee the planet or stay and defend it. The fact that they were even giving them the option to run and leave their planet for dead was rather charitable, as the planet eaters had them dead to rights. Still, Jason didn't really like the idea of leaving his planet to die.

"Okay, let's count it down," Jason said because he was a cynical, masochistic bastard. "Arsenal: possibly bleeding out, second degree burns, broken wrist, broken brain."

"Rude," Roy declared, because Jason was the one with the potential head injury, not Roy.

Jason continued, undeterred. "Starfire: broken leg. Which is terrifying."

Roy shuddered beside him because it was completely true. Koriand'r's alien physiology made her incredibly durable by Earth standards. If she was injured, then the two humans without powers were generally fucked.

"And Red Hood," Jason continued. "Three broken ribs, broken ankle, head wound, and significant laceration beneath lowest ribs on the left side."

"Shit, Hood, why didn't you say anything?" Roy immediately demanded.

Jason kept going. "On top of which, we are the only things standing between these Planet Eaters and the planet we all currently call home. And not all of us are even technically standing."

"Geez, Jay. Thanks for summing that up for us," Roy said bitterly.

Again, Jason ignored him. "So the real question here is, what are we going to do about it?" Because fleeing had never really been an option in any of their minds. It was silent for a moment and Jason sighed, wondering, not for the first time, if Batman was the only one who taught his protégés critical thinking skills. He might hate Bruce, but he wouldn't deny that the members of the Bat Family were generally more competent than anyone else he'd worked with. Dick had basically led the Teen Titans and Tim had done the same after him. Although it could have been that Koriand'r and Roy had been members of the Teen Titans and were used to the status quo of bats being in charge, because they just stared at him expectantly. Jason sighed and rubbed a hand over the face of his helmet.

"Okay, so our resident expert on intergalactic history, we have three Planet Eaters on our hands. Who would it take to stop them?" he asked, turning to Starfire.

"Superman and Martian Manhunter," she replied immediately. "But even they would struggle."

Jason nodded. Made sense. They were primarily telepathic creatures. The Martian Manhunter would be able to deal with them that way, and Superman would be able to stop them physically.

"Alright, this is what we're going to do," Jason said, and he dialed into the emergency line on the comm—a line that put him straight through to the Watchtower.

"Who is this?" Martian Manhunter's voice demanded on the line.

"Yeah, this is the Red Hood," he began darkly. "I know I'm not a member of the JLA, and how did I even get this line, all that. Not important. We have much, much bigger problems right now. You can track my coordinates, correct?"

J'onn J'onzz replied, "I'm putting a trace on it now." Then, "What are you doing in the Arctic Circle?"

"Freezing my balls off," he replied shortly. "But also, three Planet Eaters have landed here, and obviously Starfire, Arsenal and I are a little out of our league. So here's what's going to happen, J'onzz. We're gonna hold 'em off, keep 'em here. But you and Superman need to get here fast, because there's only so long we're going to be able to keep 'em occupied."

"Hood, they're telepathic feeders of pain and fear… you know what that will mean."

"Yeah, it's gonna suck balls," Jason declared grumpily. "But do you have any better ideas? Yeah, I didn't think so. Just hurry it up," he snapped, and cut the transmission.

"Uh, Hood, you know you're wanted by the League, right?" Roy reminded him.

"No, Arsenal, I forgot," Jason shot off, sarcastically. "But if the options are free with a destroyed planet, or imprisoned by the Justice League, I think imprisoned by the League wins."

Kori put a hand on his shoulder in silent solidarity.

Jason sighed and looked at his two teammates seriously, "You know what this means, don't you? How we're going to have to stall them?"

"Fuck, Jason," Roy hissed as he realized it for the first time. Koriand'r, true to her nature, had already caught on.

"It's temporary," she said. "For the Earth. For our home."

"God, you're so fucking noble. I hate you both," Roy spoke grumpily.

"Man up, Roy. We'll live," Jason said as Kori pushed herself up gently into the air. "You ready?"

"Fuck," Roy swore darkly. "I fucking want a drink after this, okay?"

"No way. You've been clean way too long. We're not going to let you ruin that," Koriand'r declared firmly.

"You're the worst. Both of you," he said darkly.

"We love you too, Roy," Jason said, patting him on the shoulder as they moved to the door of the ship. "Now try to be enticing, okay?"

"Fuck you," he retorted darkly.

The door opened letting in the bitter wind and deadly cold. The three Planet Eaters were waiting. You will not take the opportunity we offered you? The one in the middle, the largest spoke.

"We talked it over and decided not to," Jason declared firmly, and then he took the red helmet off and dropped it into the snow beside him. "But if you're hungry, we offer ourselves up as a snack."

You, pathetic human? Perhaps the Tamaranean, but your pathetic lives are so short. What do you know of pain and sorrow? You couldn't possibly be enough to even taste.

Jason's eyes narrowed, "Fucking try me," he snarled in response, bringing childhood beatings to mind. His father, his mother's dealers, his father's murder, his mother's overdose, nights scared for his life, freezing out on the street, beaten by thugs again and again every time he got the slightest bit ambitious—every time he tried to survive.

The Planet Eaters stirred.

He turned his mind to the League of Assassins, being tortured, strung up, beaten and left to die, being thrown into the pit, being injected with toxins that attacked the pain sensors and turned his mind to fire. Being beaten over and over and over again until he couldn't remember why—until he could barely remember his own name.

The Planet Eaters hissed and moved forward.

Jason figured it was time for the hook, and he turned his mind to the Joker and the crowbar, being betrayed by his birth mother and brutally beaten to death. Waking up in his coffin, alone, terrified, in agony and clawing his way out.

I want him! The Eater on the left demanded, gliding forward.

No! He's mine! The leader in the middle snarled, making the other two flinch back. Jason's mouth warped into a twisted grin. It was a bitter victory.

You will be delicious, it spoke in his mind, long fingers moving to wrap around his head. Jason let him. And then, suddenly, he was plunged into the earliest memories of his father, feeling and experiencing it all like it was the very first time—trapped in his four-year-old body, unable to control his actions as the belt came down again and again and again, buckle catching on his shoulder and back and thigh as he cried, but resolutely did not move so he could continue to shield his unconscious mother.

It got worse.

The Planet Eater wanted to feed on all of it. Every single awful memory Jason had, and he had a lot. It went in order, taking Jason back through his childhood and the violence and death, pausing to take an extra-long time on his death and resurrection, then through the horrors of the League of Assassins. Jason was strapped to a table, seizing through the effects of the serum they used as the highest form of punishment (barring death) yet again. He was busy screaming his voice away when it all suddenly went black.

 

Chapter Text

Jason jerked, coming back to his body with a gasp. He staggered, but managed to keep his feet. His body hadn't quite caught up to the fact it was no longer suffering the effects of the serum, and it continued to shake against his will.

Fuck, he felt flattened. Jason was sure he'd never felt more wrung dry in his entire life.

"Jason?" A voice spoke from his right, jolting him back to himself. He turned to Koriand'r quickly, alarmed to see her laid out on the ground.

"Kori? Shit! Kori, are you okay?" Jason asked, hurrying over, ignoring the sharp pain from his broken ankle. A quick glance told him that Martian Manhunter and Superman were handling the planet eaters. They'd get no help from the Outlaws. They were fucking done.

Jason hurried to Koriand'r and tried to kneel beside her, but just sort of collapsed instead. He quickly cast about, looking for Roy. He was laid out in the snow as well, but he was whole and clearly still breathing despite being unconscious. Roy would keep for now, so he turned his attention back to Kori. "Are you alright?" he asked urgently, though it came out sounding like gravel.

"Jason," she said roughly, grabbing at his hand. He took hers quickly, alarmed to see tears in her eyes. "Jason."

"Hey, shh, Kori, it's okay," he said, running a hand through her thick, orange hair. "You're okay. It's over. You're okay."

The tears spilled over as she shook her head and moved her hand to his face. "I'm okay. Just drained," she said, voice thick. "It finished with me a while ago."

Jason nodded and continued brushing gently through her hair. They'd been through a lot, the three of them. They'd been drawn together, feeling a kinship to each other that only the rejected could truly feel. He knew she'd been held and tortured for years after she was sold into slavery. He knew Roy had also had his share of pain and torture in the Middle Eastern prison Jason had broken him out of almost a year ago. He knew what he'd asked them to do was hell on Earth.

"I'm sorry,” he told her sincerely. "You're okay. You're going to be okay."

She shook her head again, tears continuing to fall. "No, Jason. It's not me. You—you've been screaming for hours," she said, sorrow lacing her words.

Understanding sunk into his bones. Kori wasn’t crying because of her own torture. Of course she wasn't. She was the strongest of them all. She was crying for him. Jason didn't know what to do with that.

"It's been hours, Jason. And it just kept going. There was so much pain to feed it," she said, voice thick.

He gripped her hand tighter. "It's okay," he said, pulling her up into his arms. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. "It's okay. I'm okay. You're okay. Roy's okay," he assured her softly, running his hand down her hair in soothing strokes. His voice was shot. "We're all going to be okay."

"Jason," she said, seemingly unable to say anything else.

His body felt shredded and drained of everything that'd been inside. He was tired and he was empty, and he wouldn't really mind falling asleep and never waking up again. But that wasn't in the cards. "We're going to be okay," he promised again. "We're going to be just fine."

She quieted after a moment. Kori wasn't the type to succumb to prolonged bouts of emotion. It took her less than a minute to settle, but she didn't let go of him and he didn't let go of her. He held her in his arms and watched Superman and the Martian Manhunter secure the three Planet Eaters. Neither were speaking out loud, but he had no doubt they were conversing telepathically.

"What will they do with you?" Kori asked him quietly.

"Hell if I know," he answered just as quietly, but rather pointlessly. One of the aliens could read minds and the other had super hearing.

Superman turned and moved toward them and Jason hated the way his body was still trembling minutely, knowing the alien could see it. Jason didn't like the solemn expression on his face as he remembered he was about to be arrested.

"Alright, before you arrest me, I'd like to make two requests on account of the whole helping to save the planet deal," he declared boldly as Koriand'r sat up to bravely face off against Superman beside him. Jason knew Roy would be pissed later about missing this. Roy never missed a chance to mouth off to a primary member of the Justice League if he could help it. He was particularly good at getting Green Lantern boiling, and Jason always enjoyed it.

"What requests?" Superman asked solemnly.

"First, don't stick me in a cell next to those," he said, pointing at the pods holding the Planet Eaters.

"They're intergalactic criminals. They'll be handed over to the Lantern Core," Superman replied.

"Glad to hear it. Second, whatever you guys decide to do with me, don't tell Batman."

"What do you mean?" Superman questioned sharply. "You don't want him involved?"

"Absolutely not," Jason declared immediately. "Look, I'll come willingly, cooperate, whatever, but don't bring him in on it and don't tell him until after you decide what to do with me, and then please grant me the right to refuse to see him if that's what I choose. I don't really think that's an unfair request given the fact that we just helped keep the planet from being swallowed whole when the League didn't even know there were Planet Eaters in the quadrant," he said, not afraid to play hardball.

"You're sure that's what you want?" Superman questioned, still looking horribly solemn. That didn't bode well for Jason. They were probably gonna lock him in metal box for life and throw away the key.

"Abso-fucking-lutely," he declared. Superman didn't even twitch at the language. Jason was so fucking done for.

"Alright, that's fair," Superman agreed.

Jason sagged in relief, and Koriand'r spoke up next to him. "Arsenal and I are not criminals. We request the right to be with our teammate through the hearing or whatever you're planning on doing to decide the Red Hood's fate. Additionally, we request that the Red Hood be allowed to heal before his sentence is carried out. And finally, Arsenal will not want to see the Green Arrow. We request that he is informed thusly and kept away from the infirmary during our stay there."

Superman did not stop frowning solemnly, and Jason felt his stomach drop with a mixture of dread and resignation. If Superman didn't acquiesce… Jason couldn't bear the thought of the short trip to the Watchtower being the last he saw of his two teammates. That wouldn't be long enough for him to make sure they recovered mentally from what he'd just asked them to experience.

"Your requests will be granted," Superman told her seriously and Jason sighed in relief, relaxing his death grip on Kori's hand. "Now, we've brought a ship. Will your ship be fine here for a while, Starfire?"

"I can call it to the Watch Tower," she replied.

"Would you like to head to our ship, then?" Superman asked.

Jason nodded and stood up, holding his hand out to Kori who used it as leverage to pull herself into the air so she wasn't resting any weight on her broken leg. Jason moved gingerly to Roy.

"Let me get him, Hood," Kori spoke softly. "Your ribs are broken and so is your ankle."

"Not to mention you're way stronger," Jason snarked, amused that she would lead with his injuries instead of the disparity in their physical strength.

"I was just trying to soothe your delicate ego," she replied, but with too much affection for the words, and she was hovering awfully close to him. He got it. He was feeling protective of them at the moment as well. "Let me check him real quick," he said quietly, crouching down by Roy.

"He's okay," she assured him softly. "They finished with him before they finished with me and he was awake for a while. The drain was too much though and he eventually lost consciousness. He's just resting."

Jason nodded, satisfied that Roy hadn't sustained any new injuries. Kori carefully lifted him up and they moved onto the ship and straight to the back where the medical supplies were kept. Jason sat down on the table gratefully, his ankle hurt like a son of a bitch.

"Hey there, slacker," Jason remarked, tossing Roy a smirk as he came to.

"What the hell happened?" he grumbled.

"We won," Kori replied, already treating his second degree burns. "Superman and MM are handling things and we're about to go to the Watchtower."

Roy looked around with a frown, "Don't suppose we can make an escape, huh?"

Jason rolled his eyes, "Yeah, we're in great shape to make a run for it, Harper. You don't even need to make a run for it."

"Yeah, but you do," Roy said frowning, pointedly ignoring Superman and the Martian Manhunter in the front of the ship.

"It's fine, Roy. We knew this would happen eventually."

Roy frowned, not happy about any of it, but he pulled himself together enough to grab one of the adjusting, temporary casts and wrap it carefully around Kori's broken leg while Jason did the same for his own ankle. He then grabbed another one for Roy's wrist and Kori asked, "Do you want me to stitch your side?"

Jason snorted. "Please. Roy can do better stitches even with a cast."

Roy gave her an apologetic look, "It's true, Kori."

She shrugged, unbothered.

Jason grabbed more stitching supplies because the gash on Roy's upper arm would need stitches as well.

"Jason, you fucker!" Roy snapped suddenly.

Jason startled, "What? What'd I do?"

"You said laceration! This is a fucking stab wound!"

Koriand'r swore in Tameranean and brought her hand to her face, "Jason, we talked about this."

"What?" Jason protested. "A stab wound is a type of laceration."

"It's an incised wound and you know it," Roy retort grumpily before snapping at the front of the ship. "Superman, you're needed."

"What? What is it?" the Man of Steel asked as he moved towards the back of the ship.

"Would you x-ray this fucker and make sure none of his organs got hit by the fucking stab wound he fucking didn't tell us he fucking had?" Roy snapped, waving his hands around in exasperation.

"Watch your language," Superman frowned while Kori huffed in frustration and Jason rolled his eyes.

"Would you stop moving?" Jason snapped at Roy. "I'm not done binding your wrist."

"And I'm not done with your burns," Kori agreed.

Superman fixed his gaze on Jason for a moment before relaxing minutely, "Nothing was hit. The wound is clean."

"You're fucking lucky," Roy hissed angrily.

"I'll let you stitch it up, just hold still," Jason shot back. "And then you need to let me stitch your arm."

Roy continued to grumble under his breath, and Jason rolled his eyes, but finally got the cast bound properly on his wrist. He was unprepared for when Roy shoved him backwards on the table he was sitting on, but Kori's hands quickly cushioned his head.

"He has a head wound, Roy," she admonished. "And he can't afford to lose anymore brain cells."

"You guys are the worst," Jason sighed, defeated.

Superman returned to the front of the ship, giving them the illusion of privacy. It didn't matter though. Both men could hear every word spoken by the Outlaws.

Jason let his eyes close, hissing slightly when Roy poured disinfectant into his wound. Kori started working on Roy's arm as Roy started stitching up Jason. Jason pulled out a cigarette and started smoking slowly, ignoring the pull of the needle through his skin. He was going to chain smoke the entire pack and he didn't care what Boy Scout Superman had to say about it. He'd earned the right to chain smoke, so by golly he was going to chain smoke. And if he felt the need to chain smoke, then he could only imagine how Roy felt.

"Give me a number, Roy," he said quietly, not opening his eyes. It was a system the three of them had; Roy would give them a number from one to ten depending on how bad his cravings were. It was easier for him than going into detail about how he felt and what he felt like he needed. Roy was always honest with them, so it was a system that worked. If the number was high, he and Kori knew to look out for him and get him through it until the number was low again.

"Seven," Roy replied. "Maybe eight."

Jason opened his eyes, frowning at his best friend. "Are you going to make it?"

Kori was watching him carefully.

Roy grimaced. "Yeah. There's nothing at the Watchtower. I can't relapse there. And hopefully by the time we leave, I'll be leveled out enough that I won’t need to relapse."

"We won't leave until you're ready," Kori told him softly.

Jason nodded and Roy visibly settled a little at the knowledge that Jason and Kori would look after him and that the danger was now slight. Jason frowned, guilty that the chance was even there. "Roy, I'm sorry you had to do that. I'm sorry I asked you to. I—"

"Shut up, Jason!" Roy said, surprisingly fierce.

Jason blinked, a little stunned. "I—what?"

"The thing had me for maybe two hours," he snapped furiously. "You started screaming before it even got me and you were screaming for hours after mine was done," he hissed darkly.

"Five hours and seven minutes," Kori said quietly. "And it hadn't finished. J'onzz interrupted it."

Roy swore furiously. "That's just… I mean we knew. Of course we did. We've all talked about it, and you've shared with us. But Jason… Jaybird…"

The look on Roy's face sent a jolt of agitation through Jason's gut. There was too much emotion there. Jason was ill equipped to deal with emotion, both his and other peoples. The only emotion he was good at was anger. He was entirely comfortable dealing with his anger and with all the anger other people directed at him. Anything else and he didn't know what to do with it, so he opened his mouth to derail Roy before it got any further.

Roy shut him down before he even got a word out of his mouth. "No. We're going to have this conversation, Jaybird. Just shut up and deal with it."

Jason frowned and turned to Kori, but she was wearing an expression similar to Roy's.

"Don't you dare apologize for asking me to go through something that you willingly went through several times over. And don't you dare lie to me when I ask you this next question," he said, looking fiercer than Jason had ever seen him. "We're a team. The three of us, we're all we got. We're friends, we're family, and we pull each other out of the shit when everyone else turns their backs on us," he said firmly.

Jason's throat was still raw and when he spoke, it hurt, but he had to speak because he wasn't Bruce. He couldn't let Roy wonder like Jason had wondered. Roy had to know it was mutual. "Of course we're all that," he spoke, sounding worse than gravel. "You two, you're all I've got."

Kori took his hand and Jason squeezed it tightly.

Roy wasn't really any better at the emotions thing, and for a moment he just nodded, unable to say anything more in response to Jason's admission. Jason knew that if anyone had ever said I love you to Roy, if Roy even knew how to say it, then he'd be saying it right now. Jason understood though, and the unspoken was more than enough. He nodded, letting Roy know the sentiments were shared.

Roy took Kori's other hand and they sat there for a moment, silent but understanding. It was a rare peace for Jason. One he'd never quite managed to find in Gotham.

"Okay," Roy finally said, nodding again. "Okay, so we're honest with each other. So honestly, Jason, are you okay?"

Jason's first instinct was to be blasé—to dismiss the question. But Roy had made a hell of a point of asking him to be honest, so Jason took a moment to think it through. He took a long drag on the cigarette he'd temporarily forgotten and took stock of himself. But really, he didn't feel much different than he had when he'd woken up that morning. Life sucked. Life continued to suck. No big shock there. Just a normal Tuesday.

"It's a Tuesday, Roy," he found himself speaking. "Just an average Tuesday."

Roy's expression went flat. "Great. You're telling me you've been so traumatized by life that you can't even recognize fresh trauma?"

Jason rolled his eyes, "Don't be dramatic. And it's not really fresh trauma, is it? All those things? They already happened. Yeah, they sucked and my throat feels like I swallowed glass, but the things we saw and felt, they weren't new. At the moment, I'm more concerned by my impending incarceration, though I'm sure I'll have a freak out about this later, if that makes you feel better."

"It does, actually," Roy replied.

Jason rolled his eyes, and took out his next cigarette. "You'll bring me cigarettes in prison, right?" he asked, looking at both of them.

"Of course, Jason," Kori replied immediately.

"You'll be the richest man in the joint, Jaybird," Roy agreed.

Jason gave a twisted grin; well, at least it was something.

Kori plucked the cigarette out of his hand and stubbed it out. "Rest, Jason. You need to recover from the Planet Eater."

Jason was feeling exhausted and drained still, so he didn't argue. "Yeah, alright. Wake me up when we get there."

Chapter Text


Jason woke up in the infirmary in the middle of the night. Roy was sleeping in a bed beside him and Kori was asleep in a reclining chair between them. J’onn J’onzz was sitting on his other side, watching him carefully. It was rather creepy actually.

Jason didn’t want to wake Roy or Kori so he asked in his mind, Are you here to make sure I don’t run?

Was there any danger you would? J’onzz reply sounded inside his brain, sliding easily through the dark corners.

Jason looked at Roy and Kori who were sleeping peacefully. That peace wouldn’t last, Jason knew. The three of them had been battered and they needed time off to rest and recover. Much longer than it would take for the physical wounds. Roy needed to be somewhere he knew he was safe from relapse. He needed time to stabilize in a safe place, and while he might not want anything to do with Oliver Queen, Dinah Lance was an entirely different story, and she was on the Watchtower. He needed Dinah right now, and if Jason decided to cut and run, there wasn’t a chance Roy and Kori would let him do it alone. Jason didn’t need to go anywhere.

I didn’t think so, J’onzz sounded in his mind, even though Jason hadn’t replied.

Jason narrowed his eyes at the Martian a little. If you don’t think I’m a flight risk, then why are you here?

J’onzz head tilted to the side. It was strange to see the mannerisms of speech without the actual talking part. I felt like the three of you deserved some peaceful rest—free from the complication of dreams.

Oh. Jason said, surprised and suddenly grateful. He felt remarkably well rested, sleeping free of nightmares almost for the first time since he’d been resurrected. Thanks.

It was the least I could do after seeing, the Martian spoke in his mind rather pointedly, and Jason stiffened at the implication, willing the Martian to continue. Sensing this, J’onzz did. I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped. I needed to catch the Eater off guard so I entered into the feeding. Unfortunately, it rebounded and as Superman was linked to my mind, it rebounded onto him as well.

How much? Jason asked, feeling numb.

All of it.

Jason swore out loud, but Kori and Roy didn’t stir, no doubt sleeping deeply for the first time in ages. That certainly put Superman’s weird behavior in a new light. Perhaps he wasn’t planning on sticking Jason in a metal box forever. Perhaps it’d only be for a while.

About that, J’onzz began, and Jason turned to look at him. A tribunal is being convened for the morning and Superman would like your permission to speak on your behalf.

Why on earth would he want to do that? Jason asked, unable to keep the shock from his thoughts or his expression. He was pretty sure he was completely the opposite of everything the boy scout stood for. Not to mention Superman and Batman were friends and Bruce wanted his head on a pike. If Bruce were here, he had no doubt he’d be gunning for the maximum punishment. Jason would be sentenced to a life in Arkham, probably just a few cells down from the Joker. The only upside was that it was Arkham and if the Joker could break out every other week, then Jason would manage to get out too.

Your situation is not as black and white as you seem to believe, J’onzz replied. Most would agree that you are not responsible for your actions while under the influence of the Lazarus Pit. Not to mention, both Superman and I saw that you were exposed to it against your will.

Jason was a cynical son of a bitch and to him it changed very little. Jason had done those things, Pit influence or not. And he still wasn’t even sure if he regretted the killing, and he couldn’t tell if that was lingering effects of the last dregs of the Pit or if that was how he truly felt. Jason didn’t know, and it was a frustrating to not know whether or not his thoughts and feelings were his own. It made him feel trapped in his own skin.

One thing he did regret though, was trying to kill Tim. Tim was a bystander and a fairly innocent one at that. None of it had really been Tim’s fault, and he should have kept his anger on Bruce. Attacking him, Jason didn’t regret. That’d been incredibly cathartic. He had half a mind to do it again.

What do you think? he found himself asking, knowing the Martian was privy to all his thoughts. You can see in my brain. You know I’m not sure about the killing. You know that I’d kill the Joker at the first opportunity. Do you think I should be allowed out in the world?

The Martian did not answer for quite some time. Finally, he replied. I am not human. It is not my right to judge which human life does or doesn’t deserve to be taken. However, on my planet, if the Joker had been Martian, I believe any of my people would have been right to kill him.

It loosened something within Jason. It wasn’t approval, but it wasn’t condemnation. It made Jason feel a little less alone. A little less crazy.

He nodded towards the Martian, thankful for that and thankful for the kindness of a night of dreamless sleep. Would you like to sleep more? The Martian asked softly.

Jason didn’t have to voice his confirmation before he was drifting away once more.

*****


Seven League members had been chosen for the tribunal, none of whom had any previous relationship with Jason Todd. J’onn was present because he’d been there for the incident that brought Todd and his teammates to the Watchtower. Superman was there because he chose to be the one to speak on Todd’s behalf. An additional league member was there to present Jason Todd’s crimes, but that was all. He was not acting as prosecution. His only purpose was to give the bare facts and then he would depart, not even lingering for the discussion.

It was a rather lengthy list. J’onn wasn’t surprised. He’d visited Todd the night before because he’d wanted the chance to see for himself before the tribunal. He’d wanted the opportunity to make up his own mind based on the boy in question alone. His mind hadn’t painted the black and white picture Superman and Batman were so prone to seeing. Jason himself was unable to tell whether or not the Lazarus Pit had been the deciding factor on the lives he took. He freely admitted he’d take the life of the Joker if given the chance. After seeing what Jason had seen, after experiencing the death Jason had experienced, J’onn could not condemn him for this. He rather thought the world would be much better off if someone did kill the Joker. However, this was not his world and he did not have the right to make that decision. He did find himself hoping that the tribunal showed Jason some leniency. So much suffering in only twenty Earth years. The world owed Jason Todd a respite.

After the listing of the crimes was finished, and the reader had left, Superman stepped forward.

“I’m here to plead on behalf of Jason Peter Todd,” he said, surprising every member of the tribunal, all of whom had been ready to declare a sentence fitting of the list of crimes.

“His list of crimes is rather extensive, Superman,” one of the members spoke doubtfully. “The people he killed were criminals, yes, but no one gave him the right to play judge, jury, and executioner. He has killed over seventy men.”

“Yes,” Superman agreed, not denying anything. “But things aren’t what they seem. Who in here is familiar with the Lazarus Pit?”

A few members shifted. A few more blinked at Superman, uncomprehending.

Superman then shifted into the tale of the Planet Eaters, of what the Outlaws sacrificed, how they saved the Earth by stalling them for long enough for Superman and J’onn to get there. He spoke of what he’d seen and felt of Jason’s experiences. He couldn’t detail them all. It’d take far too long, but he chose key moments in Jason’s life, hitting heavily on his death, resurrection, and slavery with the League of Assassins. It was easy to see the shift in the members of the tribunal, even without listening to their thoughts. J’onn listened to Superman explain the effects of the Lazarus Pit and felt confident that Jason would be granted leniency.

No one asked him his analysis. No one asked him what he’d gleaned from the boy. J’onn would keep it to himself.

“Many of us have taken lives in times of war,” Superman spoke solemnly. “The very foundation of the Justice League was built on the slaying of alien invaders. Killing occurs in times of war, and Jason Todd’s entire life has been a war. I think he deserves to figure out what kind of man he can be in times of peace,” Superman finished poetically, and as always, inspirationally.

It did the trick, J’onn could tell even as the tribunal left the room to confer. “What do you think?” Superman asked J’onn as they waited.

“I think Jason Todd deserves the chance to decide the course of his life,” J’onn replied honestly. He’d gotten very little chance thus far. “Also, I would not be sorry to see him kill the Joker,” he replied, candid in a way he only was with the original members of the League.

Superman’s gaze darkened, “Yeah. I’m not sure I’d be sorry either,” he admitted quietly.

Jason’ death via beating by crowbar had been completely brutal. The fact that he’d woken alive in his coffin complete with all those same injuries and had to claw his way out had been horrific. He’d been only fifteen when he was killed. It’d be a while before Superman or J’onn could get the boy’s death out of their minds. Each had had to experience it during the link with the Planet Eater. J’onn found himself feeling slightly claustrophobic at the memory of the coffin. He turned his gaze to the windows, taking in the vastness of space. It helped a little.

The tribunal returned quickly.

“Jason Peter Todd is granted amnesty of the seventy-four murders that occurred during the time he was affected by the Lazarus Pit. He shall be put on a probationary status with the Justice League. In the event he kills again, another tribunal will be held to debate the validity of his actions and whether or not he should face incarceration.

Superman stood. “Thank you. I’ll go inform him and his team.”

J’onn left as well, feeling satisfied with the way things had turned out. Jason would have the chance to live a life for himself for the first time in his short life.

Chapter Text

Jason woke up feeling more rested than he’d felt in ages, and by the looks of Roy and Kori, they were feeling the same.

“Man, I feel great!” Roy declared cheerfully. “How is that even possible? I didn’t think any of us would be sleeping for a week!”

“Don’t get used to it,” Jason told him. “We had a visitor last night. J’onzz sat in on us and gave us a reprieve, but I think we’re on our own from here on out.”

“That was nice of him,” Kori said, stretching cheerfully. “I feel magnificent.”

Jason snorted, amused. Another League member was manning the infirmary today. Jason didn’t know her, nor did he particularly care to. She’d given them the rundown of their conditions and let them know both he and Roy would be free to leave the infirmary tomorrow. Which just meant free to be shunted off to a prison somewhere in Jason’s mind. Free to leave did not mean fully healed, so it’s not like he’d be able to mount a proper escape.

Dinah joined them quickly after they woke up. She was a mom, older sister and sponsor all rolled into one for Roy, and therefore Jason was grateful to her, despite her ties to the Bats. Jason never had a problem with her, though he was less sure of her stance on him. He doubted she viewed him too highly, given the fact she was best friends with Barbara. Especially after the conflicts between Jason and the family following his return to Gotham.

She went straight to Roy when she came in, hugging his shoulders and kissing his forehead and cheeks over and over again while he fussed and waved his arms about, but never once pushed her away. Then she turned to Kori, telling her she was glad to see her alright, and then she turned her gaze on Jason, who met it head on. Never let it be said Jason Todd didn’t rise to a challenge.

“Hood,” she greeted. Jason wasn’t sure whether or not she knew his real name, but given the fact that she knew Bruce Wayne was Batman, there was a good chance she’d picked up a paper and realized Bruce’s new ward was running around playing as Robin. “I’m glad to see you’re no longer crazy.”

Jason cast her a smirk, “Don’t sell me short, Canary. I’m always crazy. Now it’s just my own crazy and not the Pit’s.”

She rewarded him with a small twitch of her lips, “Guess you were always kind of crazy, huh? It takes one hell of a crazy twelve-year-old to see the Batmobile and decide to jack the tires.”

Roy choked and spluttered while Kori laughed delightedly. Jason grinned wide, still absolutely unrepentant after all this time.

“Oh my god, are you serious?” Roy asked when he could speak again.

Dinah nodded, still smirking. “Yep. And from what I heard, he got three of them before he got caught.”

Roy and Kori laughed more while Jason outright grinned. “Yep. Got caught coming back for the fourth one. He was so surprised. Couldn’t believe anyone would dare, I think. Tied me up, threw me in the trunk, and carted me back to the Cave.”

“Oh my god, that’s great,” Roy said, still laughing.

Of course Bruce regretted it later, Jason thought, but didn’t say. His grin dimmed a little bit thinking about it. Even the good memories were tainted by everything that happened, he thought, frustrated.

“A year ago, I think I would have decked you,” Dinah spoke, distracting him from the bitter turn of his thoughts.

“A year ago I would have shot you for it,” he retorted.

“You saying you wouldn’t take a shot at me now if I punched you in the face?” Dinah challenged.

Jason shrugged, “Okay, you caught me. But I’d aim just to clip you, and you’d probably dodge.”

She smirked again before speaking, “Well, I know about the Pit now, and even if I didn’t, you saved Roy and he’s talked about you a lot over the past year. I know how much you’ve helped him with everything. So thank you. I owe you one.”

“I’ll be calling that in now then, thanks,” Jason said, sitting up straight, suddenly all business. “Don’t tell the Bats,” he said firmly. “Not Batman, not even Oracle. And you,” he said, pointing at his teammates. “No one tells Nightwing or Red Robin either. Under no circumstances are they or anyone involved with them allowed to know my business.”

Kori and Roy nodded and Canary checked, “You sure?”

“Absolutely. That part of my life is over. Whatever connection I had to them is cut. They don’t have the right and I don’t have the right to know about their business,” he spoke firmly.

“Okay,” Dinah said, surprisingly accepting. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” he replied, surprising himself by his own sincerity.

She nodded and said, “You know, I get it. The whole Red Hood thing. I know people think you’re crazy for it—that they think it’s some sort of deranged trauma. But it’s not. You took control of it, made it your own instead of letting him control you.”

He was surprised by the acknowledgement. “I doubt Batman sees it that way.”

Canary snorted, “Yeah, because he’s a picture of mental and emotional health.”

That startled a chuckle out of Jason, “Ain’t that the truth.”

Dinah smiled and was about to add more but was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Superman.

“Good morning. How are you all feeling?” he asked, full of sympathy, and Jason hated the idea that Superman now knew almost every awful moment in all of Jason’s life simply for the fact that Superman was looking at him like that.

“Peachy,” Jason replied. “Thanks to J’onzz.”

“Dreamless sleep,” Roy added. “We could use him around all the time.”

Superman nodded understandingly. “It’s a coveted talent.”

“So what’s the verdict, Supes?” Jason asked, almost pure bravado. He felt rather sick at the prospect of hearing his sentence. He hoped it wasn’t Arkham. Put him in Blackgate. It’d still be hell, but he wasn’t crazy. Anymore. He didn’t belong in the ranks of the Joker, the Scarecrow, and the Riddler.

“You’re cleared of charges, but are on a probationary status. Don’t kill anyone and you’ll be fine,” Superman told him easily.

Jason blinked, completely uncomprehending. “What the fuck?” he finally managed.

“Are you serious?” Roy said, looking like he was about to jump out of his bed. Black Canary shoved him back down.

Superman gave Jason a look that was full of far too much emotion for Jason to feel remotely comfortable with. “Son, I know it’s hard for you to imagine, but not everyone in the world is against you. The things that happened to you were unspeakable. You deserve this chance. Your entire life may have been a war, but not anymore. This is where your life finally turns around so take this opportunity to make something for yourself. Build the life you want to have, and don’t kill anyone. Not because you don’t believe in it, it’s okay if you don’t right now, but to give yourself the chance to build a life for you and no one else.”

“I’m not a boy scout, Superman. I’m going to screw up. That’s what I do,” Jason told him seriously.

Superman shook his head. “You don’t have to be perfect. Just don’t kill anyone. For you. Not to spare the lives of criminals. Do this for you. You deserve this chance. You deserve a life.”

It was the first time the killing thing had ever been presented to him in this way. With Bruce, with Dick, with everyone, it was don’t kill because it’s not right. Jason could never really buy that even when he’d been a twelve-year-old brat trying to be the best Robin ever. That’s not what Superman was saying. Don’t kill so that he could live a life. A real life without fear of the police, or Batman, or the Justice League hunting him down. A life un-hunted. A life.

Jason felt his throat thicken and he blinked quickly, forcing the moisture gathering in his eyes back. “Yeah. Okay.”

Superman nodded, still looking solemn, but also looking pleased. “I know how stubborn Batman can be,” Superman said, and Jason knew that if they were the only two people in the room, they’d be calling him Bruce and discussing him as Jason’s father. Jason suddenly felt grateful for the audience and the chance to pretend it wasn’t any deeper than a hero/sidekick relationship. Jason couldn’t handle any of the father/son stuff. “I know you’re furious with him. I understand why. But I don’t want you to think that just because you and Batman are at odds, you don’t have anyone on your side. Anything you need, you can come to me, okay? You’re not alone, alright?”

It was too emotional—too touchy feely. Jason desperately needed to deflect or make a joke or something.

“Didn’t take the dying thing well, huh?” he said, attempting humor. It fell kind of flat.

Besides, Superman wasn’t the joking type. Not when he thought there was someone who needed saving. Boy scout. “I didn’t take any of it well, Hood,” he said softly.

Jason let his shoulders sag, defeated. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for the sympathy and help and whatever and I’ll call you if I’m dying again or something,” he grumbled, vastly uncomfortable.

For whatever reason, this did cause Superman to crack an amused smile. “Glad to hear it. I know you’ll hate hearing this, but I can see him in you. You share similarities. All of you do really, but you share different ones than Nightwing or Red Robin or Robin.

Jason made a vastly displeased face and Superman outright laughed. “That expression right there. You could be Batman right now.”

Jason lost patience. “Okay, stop it. You’re being awful. I accepted your kindness now show some mercy and leave me alone.”

Superman laughed merrily and squeezed Jason’s shoulder. “I’ll come to see you before you go.”

Jason just grunted in response and sulked as Superman left the infirmary.

“Okay,” Roy said, not missing a beat. “Explain.”

Jason took both hands and dragged them down his face, taking care not to dislodge the domino mask he wore when not wearing the red hood. “When the Martian Manhunter severed the connection to the Planet Eater, it caused a rebound effect, showing MM everything I relived while connected to the Planet Eater. MM and Superman had a mind link going on when it happened, so everything rebounded onto Superman too.”

“And now Superman is treating you like a cold, wet puppy who needs to be taken home and cuddled until warm and properly fed,” Roy realized, grinning wide. “Oh that’s fantastic, Jaybird. That’s going to come in super hella handy, you do realize that, right?”

“Shut up, Harper,” Jason grumbled unhappily.

“He called you son,” Kori added unhelpfully.

“He wants to be your new daddy,” Roy fairly crowed. “You’re going to be adopted into the Super Family!”

“You’re awful. Both of you,” Jason snapped.

Black Canary looked immensely amused. “Congratulations, Hood. In all honesty I’m very happy for you. What will you do?”

Jason frowned a little, looking at Koriand’r and Roy. They were rested, but it was a temporary thing. He could see the shadows lurking behind their eyes. They had broken bones that needed to heal, but more importantly, they’d need time to overcome the trauma. Kori was handling it well so far, but she tended to have delayed reactions to emotional things. Now that they were safe and there was no worry about Jason going to prison, it’d slowly sink in until she realized she’d had to relive all the torture and experimentation she’d gone through as a kid. She would need to go somewhere she felt untouchable. Perhaps she could stay at the Watchtower. And Roy needed to be close to his sponsors. He needed to be in a positive, stable environment until he was steady. Dinah would take him in. Dinah would be there for him, whether or not Queen continued to be a jackass. Dinah would take care of him.

“I think we need a sabbatical,” he decided, looking at his teammates. “Four months. Probably more.”

Koriand’r nodded, “I agree.”

But Roy was frowning. “A sabbatical?”

“It’s going to take at least two months for the broken bones that all three of us have,” Jason pointed out sensibly. “And the other part will be worse. I don’t think we need to be focused on work while we deal with it. It’s not going to help. I speak from experience here. You just end up worse. So yeah. I think we need a sabbatical. Four months, six months, something like that.”

Dinah nodded, “I completely agree.” Roy looked at her startled and she said, “I’m an acting counselor now, and I think Hood is right. You all need to take time and heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. And I think you’d be best off doing that somewhere you feel safe. Somewhere familiar. Starfire, where would you like to go?”

“I think I’d like to stay here for a while,” she said. “Several members of the Titans are here and I still have a room from when I was living here. I’ll take trips to Earth, but I feel safe here.”

Dinah nodded and turned to Roy, “Roy, you can choose where you go, but if you’d like, I’d love it if you came to stay with me. I’ve missed you and I think it’ll be good for you to be back in Star City on your own terms for a bit. It was your home, and I think you need to take that back. You shouldn’t let Oliver run you out of a city that’s just as much yours as it is his.”

“You really think so?” Roy asked cautiously, but Jason knew him and could see the cautious excitement. Roy loved Dinah and he’d been separated from her for too long. He could do with some mothering.

“Yeah, I do. I know we talk pretty frequently, but it’s not the same. I’ve got plenty of room at my place and it’ll be nice to be a family again.”

“She’s right,” Jason found himself saying. “It’s your home. You shouldn’t let that asshole keep you out of it.”

“Funny you should say that,” Dinah remarked, setting Jason immediately on edge.

“What?” he asked, turning to Dinah suspiciously. Kori and Roy watched curiously.

“You know how I said I’d have decked you a year ago? Yeah well, that conversation you just had with Superman was a goldmine of information. So not only was it all the Lazarus Pit, but whatever Superman saw has gotten him to the point where he feels so protective of you that he’s willing to take your side against Batman. So I’m thinking you have every right to be in Gotham. It’s your home as much as it was mine. As much as Star City is Roy’s. And you shouldn’t let him keep you out of your home.”

Roy was looking at him with a wide grin, and Jason looked from his gleeful expression to Dinah’s challenging one and immediately swore. “Fuck.”

“Where would you go if you don’t go to Gotham?” Black Canary asked.

Jason shrugged, immensely uncomfortable. “I thought I’d travel some.”

“That means a week or two here, a week or two there, Hood,” Kori scolded him, very obviously displeased. “That is not at all stabilizing.”

Dinah nodded her agreement as Roy said, “She’s right.”

“So your idea is that I go back to Gotham?” Jason protested. “Batman and Nightwing and Red Robin and Bat-Brat? Back to that Gotham? That’s supposed to be stabilizing for me? That’s your brilliant idea?”

Black Canary was undaunted. “From what I can tell, that’s where you found yourself again, Hood. And it’s your home. Those of us from Gotham? It doesn’t leave us. And yeah, maybe you’ll leave for good one day, but you haven’t made your peace with it yet. So either go back and claim your home and rebuild your life, or go back, make peace with it, and go find your new home. Either way you need to go back.”

Jason dragged his hands down his face again, “What the actual fuck? I can’t believe this shit. This is fucking ridiculous. How the fuck did we end up here?”

“I’ll tell you exactly how, Jaybird,” Roy shot back before putting on his “Jason face” and speaking in a low voice, “Hey Roy, Kori, there’s some weirdass readings coming from the Arctic Circle. Sounds fun, huh? Maybe we’ll see some penguins. What do you mean there’s not penguins at the Arctic Circle? Okay, well maybe there’s polar bears. Come on, it’ll be fun. Hey Roy, Kori, I think we’re going to have to save the planet. Hey Roy, Kori we’re going to stall the Planet Eaters. Try to be enticing.” Roy said, finishing his impression. Kori was nodding along sagely and Dinah was snickering and not even bothering to disguise the fact.

“I fucking hate you,” Jason growled at his best friend.

Roy was unapologetic as usual. “All because you wanted to see some fucking penguins. You think you would have gotten sick of them in your Robin days.”

“Shut up, Harper,” Jason grumbled, crossing his arms like an actual child.

“Just saying,” Roy replied. “You asked, I answered. Now, I’ll make you a deal.”

“What?” Jason asked, instantly suspicious.

“I’ll go back to Star City with Dinah if you go back to Gotham.”

Jason stiffened immediately, “That’s fucking unfair, Harper.”

“When did we ever fight fair?” Roy challenged.

“That was kind of the whole point of the Outlaws, was it not?” Kori agreed.

“You’re both awful and I hate you.”

“Do we have a deal?”

“God. Fine. I hate you.”

“Yes!” Roy declared, throwing his hands up in victory.

Jason scowled.

“It’ll be good for you, Hood. Trust me,” Canary said. “You want me to give Babs a heads up?”

“Fuck no. The earlier request still stands.”

She shrugged. “Alright, if that’s how you want it.”

Jason groaned and leaned back on his bed. “This is going to be a goddamned shit show. Fuck.”

Chapter Text

A week later, Jason drove into Gotham on his motorcycle wearing civvies. He still had to have his ribs taped, and the motorcycle had been hell on them, but Jason hadn’t been willing to leave it behind.

He didn’t trust any of his safe houses he’d used as the Red Hood to have not been compromised by the Bats, but he’d bought the top floor of a crappy old building in Crime Alley using a different alias and a different stream of funds. He slept there when he wasn’t being the Red Hood—when he couldn’t handle the vigilante shit anymore, when he needed to pretend everything from deciding to jack Batman’s tires to the present never happened.

He meticulously checked all his booby traps, but none of them were disturbed, and with the level of dust settled over everything, he seriously doubted anyone had been there since he cleared out ten months ago. It was a pretty pitiful place. Exposed, crumbling brick, mostly open except the crumbling brick pillars and a few walls sectioning areas off, but not closing anything in. Dirty wooden floors, dirty windows, broken kitchen sink, ancient fridge. But he owned the whole top floor and he had private roof access. The place had potential, especially with the amount of ill-gotten gains Jason had at his disposal. He could see himself living there fully renovated had things gone differently. For now though, it was barely livable.

Jason walked through the loft and dropped his duffel bag on the dingy mattress he’d been sleeping on before he left, frowning when a cloud of dust puffed into the air.

“What the hell am I doing here?” he sighed lowly. And that was the real question, wasn’t it? Not what was he doing in Gotham—what was he doing alive? Why the hell had he woken up in a coffin, over a year after he’d died, body not decayed and wounds as fresh as they’d been the day he died? How on earth had it happened? Why had it happened? And what did that mean to Jason now? Could he even die anymore? Was his body changed forever? His genes? He was still growing older, but what if he stopped?

Jason moved towards the door, impulsively deciding on a course of action. He wasn’t much of a scientist, but he knew someone who could help him, and he was at least fifty percent sure she would.

Again, the motorcycle was hell on his broken ribs, and it wasn’t really doing any favors for his healing stab wound either, but it was a quick and convenient way to get around Gotham. Besides, he was quite fond of his motorcycle. Thankfully, Dr. Thompkins’ place wasn’t far. She’d been set up inside Crime Alley for as long as he could remember.

The clinic was busy as usual. Jason didn’t think it ever had a slow day. But even so, it was nearing closing time so things were winding down a little. He walked straight up to the counter. “Could you tell Dr. Thompkins that there’s a Peter Jasons here to see her if she’s got the time.”

The girl frowned at him and his broad shoulders and leather jacket, sensing all the trouble Jason could cause if so inclined. “That’s not really our policy.”

“I know, and I’m sorry, but she’s an old friend. Just check please. And tell her I’m willing to wait,” he added, trying to be friendly, hoping it’d win him points.

She relented and headed to the back. Jason had no idea what Dr. Thompkins would do, but it was probably equal parts kick him out, hear him out, or call Batman on him. Jason really hoped it wasn’t that last one.

“Mr. Jasons,” the girl said, appearing at the door instead of the window. “You can wait back here. Follow me please.”

He smiled at her gratefully and followed the girl deeper into the clinic, carefully disguising the slight limp from his broken ankle. That was one option off the list of possibilities, which still left one hell of an option open. Jason had no idea what he would do if he had to face Bruce Wayne right now. Especially because didn’t stand a chance of fighting him toe to toe in his current condition.

The girl left him in an exam room and Jason felt mildly amused at Dr. Thompkins assuming his presence at her clinic meant fresh bullet wounds or that he was potentially dying. He’d only been waiting a minute or so before she showed up and gave him an unimpressed once over.

“Well, you don’t appear to be bleeding out, which makes me wonder why you’re here, Jason,” she remarked coolly.

“Would you save my ass if I was bleeding out?” Jason questioned, feeling genuinely curious.

“I help anyone who comes into my clinic. Those have always been the rules,” she told him solemnly.

“Well, I do need your help, but probably not the kind you’re thinking,” he said quietly.

“What kind of help?” she asked, understandably suspicious. The Red Hood had made quite the splash in Gotham when he’d been there last. Forget that he single handedly crippled eight major crime families and several drug-running operations, kill seventy-four criminals to do it, and apparently it’s not helping anyone. Jason thought that was a little unfair.

“Well,” he spoke, feeling a little wary because his life wasn’t in danger and she had every right to turn him down. Yes, she’d save his life, but that didn’t mean she’d help him in any way beyond that.

“I was dead,” he spoke plainly, looking her in the eye. “And then I wasn’t. And I don’t know how.”

Dr. Thompkins eyes widened and she sat down on the stool in front of him. “You don’t know how you’re alive?” she asked. Jason wondered why that surprised her. Did most people who came back from the dead know how they came back? Or why?

“No, do you?” he retorted.

She shook her head. “No, I just thought that was something you would have figured out when you, well, came back,” she spoke, still looking stunned.

Jason gave her a look. “Yeah, Doc, I woke up in my coffin. Buried under ground.”

Dr. Thompkins stiffened. “What?”

Jason frowned. “Yep. One moment, you know, I was dying. And the next, my eyes open and I’m alive and buried and running out of oxygen. I thought maybe it was just the Joker. That I’d just passed out and it was still part of his game, that it wasn’t over yet. I mean, I still had all those broken bones. I was still bleeding from all the same places. I was still in agony. But I had to get out,” he said, voice dark and hollow. “Broke all my nails and half my fingers getting out.”

Dr. Thompkins was tough as nails—everything she’d seen in life, she had to be. But she still brought her hand to her mouth in alarm. “You had to dig your way out of your grave?”

“Yeah, and Bruce didn’t scrimp. That was a full fucking six feet,” he muttered darkly, remembering his bleeding and broken fingers and the suffocating feel of earth pushing in on him from all around. The memory was incredibly fresh now thanks to the Planet Eater forcing him back through it. It felt like it’d been less than a week ago.

“Good God,” Dr. Thompkins breathed, horrified.

Jason looked down for a moment before forcefully shoving past it, for both their sakes. “Anyway, I get out, but I still had all the same injuries I’d gotten from the Joker so I didn’t make it far. Some people found me. Not good people. Really fucking awful people. And I find out it’s been over a year since I died. I’d been in that coffin over a year.”

“How is that possible?” she asked. “Your body should have decayed.”

“I should have stayed dead in the first place,” Jason retorted. “It doesn’t make any sense. The League of Assassins couldn’t figure it out either. At first at least. If they did end up figuring it out, they sure as hell didn’t tell me, then again they don’t tell their slaves much,” he remarked a little bitterly, because hey, he’d endured a hell of a lot at their hands. The least they could do was tell him how on earth he came back from the dead if they knew.

Dr. Thompkins startled again, “The League of Assassins had you?”

“Two years,” Jason said darkly. Dr. Thompkins swore, surprising Jason. “Hey, I thought you didn’t do that,” he accused, smirking like a smartass.

She glared at him, “I have worked with Bruce for long enough to know what two years as a slave of the League of Assassins meant for you, Jason. Does he know?”

Jason scoffed, “Yeah, the last time I was in Gotham I was trying to kill his sons so we didn’t have time to catch up much.”

Her eyes narrowed, “The Lazarus Pit. You were exposed to it, weren’t you?”

“Forcibly drowned in it, practically,” he retorted. “Why?”

“I’ve studied its effects for him. I know exactly what it did to you, Jason.”

Jason shrugged, “It doesn’t really matter.”

“How can you say that?” she snapped at him. “All those people you killed, almost killing Tim, that wasn’t you.”

Jason shrugged, unconvinced. “Sure felt like me at the time, Doc. I didn’t feel bad for what I was doing. I still don’t, really. Do feel kinda bad about Drake though. All that was between me and Bruce. It wasn’t fair to drag him into the middle of it. But what Bruce is doing, it doesn’t fucking work. How many people has the Joker killed since he killed me? I mean, how much has Batman really helped? All Batman did was draw out more crazy. We didn’t have Mr. Freeze, or the Joker or the Scarecrow until he came along. At least I managed to get Crime Alley under control for a while. Of course then I handed it off to the police and the Bats and now who knows,” he said, shrugging. “I didn’t follow Gotham news while I was away.”

Dr. Thompkins sighed. “I’ve never supported Bruce’s vigilante complex. Yes, Batman’s given Gotham hope when there was none, but you’re not wrong. The Joker, the Scarecrow, whoever else. They were a direct response to the Batman. And I’ve absolutely never supported his penchant for bringing children into war. But what you did didn’t fix things any more than Bruce has. It might have looked that way at the start, but it was at the cost of dozens of lives. And there have been more murders in response. Violence breeds violence. Every time, Jason.”

“So what? We just sit back and do nothing?” Jason protested.

Dr. Thompkins looked weary and Jason realized it’d been years since he’d last seen her. She looked older, more tired. “Well that doesn’t seem to work either, does it?”

Jason didn’t say anything in response. What was there to say?

“How long since you’ve killed someone, Jason?” she asked next, looking at him solemnly.

“Huh,” he said, tilting his head in thought. “I don’t know. Maybe eight months?”

“You left Gotham ten months ago,” she replied. “When the Pit began to wear off, I’m betting.”

“All speculation. I still believe in killing,” Jason retorted.

“Are you going to though?” she challenged.

Jason thought about it for a moment, once again thinking through the words Superman said before finally settling on, “I don’t… I don’t think so. I—Superman said that I shouldn’t. Not because it’s wrong, but because I’ve given enough to this city, to the whole damn world really, and that I deserve to live my own life in peace. Killing would make me a target again when I don’t have to be. And I guess that made more sense than anything else. This city, it doesn’t have to be my fight.”

“You can stop?” Dr. Thompkins asked, understandably skeptical. She’d seen what the masks did to all of them. She’d seen what they turned them into.

“Maybe not forever,” Jason replied honestly. “But, I’ve been given a free pass by the Justice League and I’m not sure I want the whole damn planet after my ass again any time soon,” he retorted. “Kind of just want to sleep, you know?”

“I can imagine.”

“Anyway,” Jason declared, because he was tired of the solemnity and the serious conversation. “I don’t know how I’m alive or if I’ve changed somehow or whatever, and I was hoping you could run some tests or something? Help me figure out the mystery?”

She nodded briskly. “Yes, I can do that. We’ll start with some blood tests and a simple physical. More extensive tests will be a bit more complicated and will take me time to set up. I’m assuming the reason you didn’t go to your father is because you don’t want him involved?” she remarked, giving him a shrewd look. “Because he could get every test available arranged for tomorrow if that’s what you wanted.”

“Yeah, Dad and I are kinda on the outs right now,” Jason said, putting a dash of scorn into the word “Dad”. “I want to shoot him in the face, he wants to put me in Arkham—it’s better for all if we just avoid each other instead.”

“You did become the supreme Crime Lord of Crime Alley,” she remarked dryly. “I’d shiver to think of what you could accomplish in Arkham. You’d probably take it over and turn it into your own fortress within a week.”

Jason grinned, vastly amused by the idea and pleased by the recognition.

Dr. Thompkins donned her stethoscope and gestured brusquely to his leather jacket and t-shirt. “Alright, off. Let’s get this started.”

Jason’s movements were a bit stiff as he shrugged the jacket from his shoulders and her eyes narrowed immediately. “Oh, so you are hurt then.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m not here for treatment,” Jason replied as he gingerly pulled off his shirt. “I got it on the Watchtower.”

She tutted at him and immediately began removing the bandage over his massively bruised ribs. “Oh, so you got yourself stabbed,” she glared, and Jason suddenly felt like the cowed seven-year-old she’d found bleeding in an alleyway. “How’d this happen?”

“Saving the planet actually, so you’re welcome,” he replied testily.

“Which is how you ended up with Superman?”

“And was then sent back here,” he retorted. “Apparently people are supposed to deal with their past traumas. Something about emotional health.”

She snorted, swiping an alcohol swab over the stitches that still weren’t ready to come out. “Foreign concept to you lot, I’m sure. Was that your motorcycle out front, by the way? Because I’m having a hard time believing you’d be stupid enough to drive around on a motorcycle with broken ribs and a stab wound.”

“Well that’s just hurtful.”

She shook her head, but the tiny twist of her lips almost looked fond. Jason felt his stomach jolt, unable to remember anyone looking at him fondly. But then again, he’d met Dr. Thompkins far before he ever met Bats. She’d seen him when he’d been trying to support his mother, given him stitches when a much older thug decided that he didn’t like Jason picking his pocket. She’d encouraged him to come around whenever he or any of the other street kids were hurt, and after a while, Jason had taken her up on her offer. Then she’d seen his transition into Robin, and though she hadn’t approved, he was still welcome to drop by if he needed it. It was nice to know he still could.

She took his blood pressure and temperature and checked his heart and lungs before she gathered the supplies to draw blood. Looking at the needle in her hand, Jason had a sudden thought and spoke it before he even realized.

“I had an autopsy scar when I woke up. The Pit got rid of it though along with all my other scars. Did you do it?” he asked her curiously.

Dr. Thompkins lips thinned and her knuckles whitened a little, and Jason regretted the question. “Yes. He wanted to know if it had been the Joker or the blast that killed you. He wanted to know if there was any way it could have ended with him saving you. He was punishing himself, as he often does.”

“And you too with him,” Jason said with a frown, because as hardened as Dr. Thompkins appeared to be, Jason knew deep down she had the softest heart of them all, which was why she ran this two-dollar clinic in the middle of the Alley when she could have been the most celebrated doctor in the city. She had a soft heart and she’d had a soft spot on that soft heart for Jason, and Bruce had made her cut him open. “I’m sorry. That must have sucked.”

“You were too young, Jason,” she said quietly, voice far away and mourning. “It never should have happened.”

Jason shook his head at the naiveté of the statement. “I was a child of Crime Alley living on the streets, Doc. I was always going to die young. Problem is, I came back.”

She looked at him for a moment before saying, “Yes, you did. Now let’s find out how, shall we?”

Jason smiled a little and presented his arm for her to draw blood. She took a few vials before allowing him to put his shirt back on then gave him careful instructions about how to treat his ribs, a date to come see him about getting his stitches removed and follow up regarding the blood tests, and a set of crutches because, “Goddamn it, Jason Todd, is that a cast on your ankle? Use crutches for heaven’s sake! Idiots the lot of you.”

Jason left using the crutches, but snickering at all the ways Dr. Thompkins was exactly the same. It made him feel lighter, somehow. Like he could breathe a little easier in Gotham knowing that not every person who’d really known him before hated his guts now. It was enough to get him back to his own apartment without feeling the crushing need to leave the city as quickly as possible.

Chapter Text

It surprised exactly no one that they all had a horrible time sleeping once they were away from the Martian Manhunter’s influence. After a week of truly horrendous insomnia, Jason was considering getting a new proper bed and mattress for his place. If he was going to spend all this time in bed, not sleeping, he might as well be comfortable. Problem was, that would be investing in a place he had no idea if he would keep. It was still too early for him to know what his time in Gotham would mean—if he’d reconcile with the city, or if he’d leave and never come back. But perhaps he could use a proper bed regardless.

His phone rang and he snatched it up, knowing it was Roy, because literally no one else called him. Ever.

“Okay, who also looks like a walking zombie panda bear?” Roy demanded immediately. “Because let me tell you, it is not a good look for me.”

“Tamaraneans don’t bruise under the eyes like humans, but I do understand your plight and am facing similar sufferings with my own physiology,” Kori remarked. Apparently it was a three way call.

“MM not around?” Jason asked. He’d thought that that at least Kori would be getting some decent sleep.

“Unfortunately he is across the galaxy with Green Lantern and Superman.”

“Well then, sucks to be all of us,” Jason declared. The other two affirmed and Jason spent the morning chatting with them as he got dressed and headed out to gather some real food for his meager kitchen. As much as some culturally human things would never sink in for Kori, she’d very quickly adapted to talking on the phone, and they spent a good few hours chatting and listening to Kori give them all the latest League gossip. Jason enjoyed it almost as much as he enjoyed eating popcorn while jeering at the JLA fights.

It wasn’t just the memories that ruined his sleep, Jason reflected that night, hours after he’d gotten off the phone with Roy and Kori. It was November in Gotham so he was freezing his ass off. The only times he’d stayed in the loft before had been during the warmer months. He’d had no idea how fucking cold it got. So cold he was flashing back to nights spent sleeping in alleyways, trying to find cover from the snow. Needless to say, it wasn’t a connection he liked making, particularly after the Planet Eaters. It made Jason particularly motivated to figure out a way to make his apartment warm. Space heaters only did so much and they were hell on the electric bill. And yeah, the radiator units were old, but the loft should still have some warmth. After the sixth time he woke up gasping in less than four hours, Jason gave up on the notion of sleep and set about figuring out exactly why his loft was so unbearably cold.

It was the windows, he decided after a short inspection. They were probably original to the building, and old as shit. Classic wooden windows where he could shift the individual panes of glass in the wooden frames. And there were many of them and they took up all of the western wall, offering absolutely no insulation whatsoever.

Jason frowned and grabbed his phone.

“What the fuck, Jaybird,” Roy demanded, grumbling. “It’s four in the goddam morning.”

“Were you asleep?” Jason challenged.

“No, but it’s the fucking principle of the thing. We’ve got to at least try not to be so fucked up, right? If we stop pretending, then we’re just giving in to how fucked we are and then we’re really, really fucked.”

“Are you still pretending?” Jason asked, surprised. “I haven’t pretended since I was in the tights.”

“You’re depressing,” Roy decided. “You depress me.”

“Shut up. Windows. The really old ass wooden ones that let in a bunch of cold ass air in the middle of fucking November. What do I do?”

“Find a new place?” Roy offered.

“Yeah, helpful,” Jason snapped. “Come on, cold drafty windows. What do I do?”

“Look, Jaybird. I don’t know what you expect me to say here. I mean, we were both basically brought up by obsessive billionaire vigilantes. I don’t know about you, but construction was not part of my education outside of constructing weapons from a myriad of seemingly useless objects.”

Jason sighed, “Yeah, yeah. Queen didn’t have an Alfred though. I thought it was worth a shot.”

“This is what the internet is for, Jay. Google it. Now go away and let me pretend to sleep like a semi stable person.”

“Have fun with that,” Jason retorted before hanging up and taking Roy’s advice. The internet was pretty helpful after all. He’d missed it for the two years he’d been a captive. Jason spent the morning watching at least a dozen videos on window glazing, and then as soon as it was open, he popped over to the hardware shop for all the supplies. And then he was out on the balcony in the freezing cold scraping the dried glaze off of his windows. It was so old it just sort of crumbled. It was a good sign to Jason. If the previous glaze was in such bad shape, then there was a good chance his loft would be a whole lot warmer by the time he was done. Only it was incredibly time consuming and the glaze worked best when it was warm. He had to spend time rolling it around his hands and breathing on it before he applied it to each seam. It was tedious and time consuming, and Jason was pretty cold out on his ledge in the middle of winter, but it was better than freezing his balls off every night.

In the end, it took him four days to finish his windows and it was notably warmer inside when he was finally done. He sent a picture of the fresh glazing to Roy who responded with, What the hell are you doing? I don’t even know you right now. Jason responded with a picture of himself flipping off the camera.

Over all, Jason was feeling vastly accomplished by the time he headed out to see Dr. Thompkins about getting his stitches out. Then she’d probably want to take more blood and talk about his initial bloodwork. This time, Jason got there as the clinic was closing and he was waved straight through to the back.

“Heya, Doc,” he greeted cheerfully.

Dr. Thompkins looked at him suspiciously, “You didn’t kill someone on the way over here, did you?”

“Nope, I re-glazed my windows.”

She blinked, clearly not expecting that response. “What?”

“My place was freezing and I didn’t know what to do, so I got on the internet and figured out how to re-glaze my windows.”

Her lips twisted in the slightest the tiniest bit, but that was an amused smile for Dr. Thompkins. She as far too much like Bruce in that way. “Did it work?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s still cold, but it’s better than it was.”

“Are you on the top floor?” He nodded and she continued, “Check the insulation in your ceiling. A lot of old buildings in the area were built under code, without a proper barrier between the top floor and roof. Seal any cracks on your roof with sealant and replace the insulation in your ceiling, and you won’t believe the difference. Also, clear finger nail polish seals any cracks in the window panes.”

“No shit?” Jason asked, intrigued.

She nodded. “Ninety-nine cents at the drug store.”

“Thanks, Doc,” he replied, shrugging off his jacket and t-shirt. Then he had to strip off the top part of his suit.

Dr. Thompkins frowned at him and spoke in a warning tone, “You better not be working with broken ribs and a broken ankle, Jason Todd.”

“I’m not,” he assured her. “But I haven’t been in a proper winter in like five years, and this is way warmer than anything I could buy.”

“Okay,” she said accepting that, then she set about removing his stitches. “The bruising looks better,” she noted.

Jason hummed in acknowledgement, but then Dr. Thompkins leaned forward and sniffed. Jason stiffened minutely. “Nicotine?” she asked, eyes glaring daggers at him. “You smoke?”

“Yes,” he declared firmly, because he was a fucking adult who killed people and refused to cower like a child. Besides, he deserved to smoke. Smoking was okay for people who’d been killed and majorly fucked up in the head because of it. It was his right, damn it.

“Jason Peter Todd, do you know how bad that is for your lungs?” she snapped.

“Any worse than a crowbar?” he shot back.

She visibly startled at his words, and Jason felt a bit bad, knowing she’d seen all the damage the crowbar had done. “I do that,” he warned her, not apologizing for it. “And I make jokes about it too. Poor taste, I know, but most of what I say has always been in poor taste anyway.”

“Well that’s true,” Dr. Thompkins allowed, expression relaxing enough that Jason knew they were okay. “Alright,” she said, pulling out more supplies to take blood. “Your initial blood work didn’t reveal anything worrying. In fact, I’d say it’s remarkably healthy for someone who smokes regularly.”

Jason grinned, pleased with himself, and Dr. Thompkins rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I’m going to just keep running blood tests for now and if nothing eventually shows up, we’ll move onto a full body MRI.”

“Sounds good,” Jason said.

“You have a phone number?”

“Yeah,” Jason answered, jotting it down for her on her notepad before slipping his clothes back on.

Dr. Thompkins handed him hers in return, seeming satisfied with everything. “Let me know how the insulation goes.”

Jason nodded. “Call me when you want more blood.”

And that was that. Jason headed back out, aiming for the drug store. He was going to buy some fingernail polish.

*****

Jason didn’t make any more repairs for a week. Re-glazing his windows had been one thing, but he didn’t feel like he was up to the task of replacing insulation. And he still wasn’t sure he wanted to put that much effort into a place that he might not keep. The Outlaws ended up agreeing on a minimum sabbatical of six months and it hadn’t even been three weeks. Jason had a ways to go. But, while Roy demanded Jason go back to Gotham, Jason had said nothing about staying there. It’d be impractical to leave while Dr. Thompkins was still helping him though, and he didn’t really know how long that would take. Plus, it wasn’t like he was doing anything with his days. So, after a week of procrastinating, Jason dragged his ass to the hardware store and bought some sealant for his roof. The fact that there were cracks in the cement had him a little concerned about how structurally sound the building was, but that was of lesser importance than Jason finally having a warm place to sleep. It wasn’t quite as big of a project as the windows, only taking him the afternoon. And then he spent the rest of the afternoon reading articles and watching YouTube videos on installing installation. That, unfortunately, was going to be a much larger project.

“Hey, do you know anything about drywall?” Jason asked as soon as Roy answered his phone.

“Oh my god, no. Why would I know anything about drywall?”

“I don’t know. Surely someone knows something about drywall,” Jason protested. “And it’s not like I have a huge repertoire of people to ask, you know?”

“Should I even ask why you need to know about drywall?” Roy asked, sounding tired and exasperated.

“I’m replacing the insulation in my ceiling,” Jason replied easily. “There’re wooden planks up there now, but a lot of it rotted because my roof leaked. I sealed those up, but now I need to replace the old insulation and then put up a new ceiling. Only I don’t know what kind of ceiling to put up once I get rid of the planks. I can put up drywall, coat it and paint it, but that’s kinda plain you know?”

“Holy shit, Jaybird,” Roy said, and something in his tone told Jason he was about to be insulted or teased or both. “You’re nesting. You’re a robin and you’re building yourself a goddamn nest!”

Jason stiffened immediately. “What the fuck, Harper? I am not! I’m just trying to make this place warm enough to fucking sleep in!”

“Yeah, when it’d be much easier to just find a warmer place to sleep,” Roy retorted.

“Well what the hell are you doing with your days?” Jason snapped, annoyed.

“Hanging out with big sis,” Roy remarked pleasantly. “And sleeping a lot. It’s easier to sleep during the day for whatever reason. Also, Dinah’s teaching me how to cook.”

“You cooking? No shit,” Jason remarked, amused.

“Yeah, we’re starting off pretty simple. Just macaroni and cheese and stuff to start out with, but I’ll tell you what—it’s a damn good macaroni and cheese.”

“You’ll have to make it for me later,” Jason decided.

“Sure thing, Jaybird. And I’ll see if Dinah’s got any cool ceiling ideas. I’ll text you.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Jason replied.

*****

It wasn’t always easy. Some days were so bad he couldn’t manage to leave the loft for fear of what he’d do to the first person he ran into outside. Those tended to follow the nights where he didn’t sleep at all and the only thing running through his brain was the Joker’s laugh and the suffocating feel of damp earth pressing all around him. The feel of it in his nose and mouth, the feeling of being absolutely helpless in a cold, wet cell deep underground, Ra’s Al Ghul’s sharp, demanding voice, his utter lack of mercy.

Those days Jason didn’t bother leaving the loft. Sometimes didn’t bother eating.

Then, other days, there was a frantic feeling underneath his skin, memories of freezing, starving nights, never knowing when he was going to eat again, fear that someone would come after him, fear that they would find him. Those days, Jason went and restocked the non-perishables in his bunkers, checked and rechecked his cash stores and bolt bags obsessively, planned every possible route out of the city, multiple contingencies for each. Those nights Jason didn’t sleep at all, for the frantic feeling in his brain. He didn’t even try. He just did whatever it took to make himself feel safe. Sometimes he called Roy and Kori. That usually helped.

Those nights were few though. The majority of the time Jason spent researching renovation projects, calculating the amount of insulation and drywall he’d need for his ceiling, and reading for the hell of it, instead of reading for a specific purpose. He’d never had the luxury of reading for fun as a child. Not until he was living at the Manor and Alfred strictly regimented how much Robin training and schoolwork he was allowed to do in one day. Jason hadn’t understood it at the time. He’d always expected Bruce to overrule Alfred, allow him to train more, or move even faster in his schooling to help catch him up to where he was supposed to be in his school-work. Bruce always backed Alfred though, and had even taken him into the library to help him pick out some books when Jason hadn’t known what to do with his free time. Bruce also spent what had been a confounding amount of time to Jason in playing different games with him, helping Jason figure out what he liked and didn’t like. Jason thought it had been strategy training at the time—they had played some chess after all. It wasn’t until later that Jason realized he and Alfred had been trying to give him his childhood back. Jason still snorted when he thought about it now, about how useless an effort it had been. They couldn’t return something he’d never had in the first place.

Still, in the three years he’d lived with Bruce and Alfred and occasionally Dick, Jason had become much more civilized, discovering a love for stories and music and movies he hadn’t had the luxury for before. It was something he’d picked back up after he left Gotham the second time, and Roy had taken it upon himself to educate Kori on the ways of Earth and educate Jason on all the things he’d missed out on. He was always dragging them to the TV room to watch another movie or marathon a show and he was always sending Jason music suggestions. Jason, in turn, gave him the books he read and particularly liked, even though Roy would likely never read them, as he didn’t have the patience to read much. Instead, Roy tried out all the movie adaptations (if there were any) and picked the best for Jason to watch with him. It was a system that worked, and it allowed Jason to explore popular media.

So that’s what Jason did with his first few weeks in Gotham—taught himself how to do construction via YouTube, watched the movies Roy told him to while texting him a running commentary on his reactions, chatted about the JLA gossip with Kori, and read novel upon novel because he could and he wanted to.

It wasn’t so bad and, after a while, Jason began to get comfortable in Gotham again.

Chapter Text

Three weeks and none of the Bats seemed to know Jason was back in Gotham. If Jason were honest, it was three weeks longer than he’d expected to be able to go without running into them. He was definitely counting it as a victory. Overall, it was going as well as he could have expected, which was why he was surprised when he got a message from Superman telling him to meet at the top of the Gotham Bank building and to come as the Red Hood.

Jason approached with a healthy level of suspicion, but standing next to Superman was Commissioner Gordon. Batman was nowhere in sight. Still, Supreme Boy Scout Superman and wants to march him straight into Arkham wearing a collar and a leash Gordon made him incredibly nervous. And of course, his go to response to feeling threatened was to act like an asshole.

He dropped down on the roof in front of them, but close enough to the ledge that he could make a quick bolt if necessary. Not that he’d ever be able to outrun Superman, but the pretense helped calm his nerves.

“Hiya, Supe-scout, Commish. Am I getting arrested? Cause I’m pretty sure I haven’t killed anyone in about ten months. I could double check though.”

Superman shook his head, looking actually fond, and honestly, what the hell? Jason was an Outlaw for heaven’s sake. He had a reputation to maintain and Superman was killing that reputation with his weird fondness and inappropriate amusement. “You’re not being arrested, Hood.”

Commissioner Gordon grumbled under his breath, clearly not pleased about the fact.

“I explained the Lazarus Pit, right?” Superman checked with the man.

“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Jason said, dropping his hooded head into his palms in slight mortification, because it was suddenly so clear what Superman was doing there. He was getting Jason out of trouble with his principle. It was horribly patronizing and Jason felt like an absolute child. “This is the worst day of my life,” he grumbled into his hood and hands.

“Yeah, yeah,” Commissioner Gordon sighed, ignoring Jason. “Batman’s mentioned it too. It’s no secret that al Ghul is completely off his rocker.” He then turned a skeptical look towards Jason. “Are you really the second Robin?”

Jason turned an annoyed look towards Superman. “Really, Superman? Really?”

Superman was unapologetic. “I meant to come by weeks ago, but there was an incident with the Lantern Core.”

Gordon frowned. “You mean he’s been here for weeks?”

“Surprise?” Jason remarked, holding his hands out jokingly.

The Commissioner gave him a long look. “Okay, I’m seeing it now. How the hell did this happen?”

“Well,” Jason began, continuing to be a complete asshole and apparently amusing Superman, which was just weird, because Jason was pretty sure he should be frowning at him disapprovingly. The order of the Earth had been damaged and someone clearly needed to do something about it. “I was killed by the Joker, and then suddenly I wasn’t dead anymore, and then I was captive of the League of Assassins for a little while, and then I hung out in Gotham and killed bad guys, you’re welcome, and then I hung out with Starfire and Arsenal and killed more bad guys, and then we saved the planet from getting consumed, you’re welcome again, and then I was granted clemency by a tribunal of super people. And now we’re here.”

“I’m having flashbacks to when you were a lot shorter,” Commissioner Gordon complained. “Nightwing talked a hell of a lot, but he was never the smartass you were. None of them were.”

“It’s my super power,” Jason retorted flatly.

“So you’re back in Gotham then,” the Commissioner frowned. “How long?” Jason shrugged. “You doing the Hood thing, because I won’t tolerate the crime boss act, Hood.”

Jason tilted his head. “Be fair. I was never, like, a real crime boss.”

Gordon’s eyes narrowed. “I know a duffel bag with eight heads in it that would disagree.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Jason remarked, trying not to seem too pleased with himself. That would send the wrong message he was sure, but he’d been back in Crime Alley long enough to know that the criminal underworld was still suffering from the mark he’d made. Eleven months later, he thought that was something to be proud of.

“Hood,” Superman sighed.

“Clemency, no take backs,” Jason said, pointing at him.

“You have amnesty for your past actions. Anything after the fact, you will be judged for. So keep it nonlethal. Speaking of, are those guns?” Superman asked, frowning at the various firearms Jason was sporting.

“Rubber bullets,” Jason said, pulling a gun and expelling the clip. He tossed the clip to Commissioner Gordon for his inspection. Commissioner Gordon just sighed and tossed it back. Superman was still frowning at him.

“Hood, rubber bullets are still really dangerous,” Superman spoke.

Jason gave him a look, “Are you shitting me, Supe-scout? Green Arrow shoots actual razor sharp arrows at people. Criminals get impaled by arrows. They can hit an organ. Someone could bleed out before some poor EMT is able to staunch the flow of blood. And you’re criticizing my rubber bullets that might break a bone?”

Superman paused for a moment, allowing it. “Fair enough.”

Jason nodded. “Damn straight.”

Superman sighed, slightly more exasperated this time. “Language, Hood.”

“Don’t bother. His language was that bad when he was Robin, too,” Commissioner Gordon sighed, rubbing his head again. Jason wondered if everyone was so exasperated by him, then why they demanded his presence when they could have just let him stay at home and saved everyone the trouble.

“What can I say? It’s one of my many charms,” Jason gave his snappy retort. “Now are we done? Because I happen to have a very busy life of not killing people to get back to.”

Superman shook his head, but he was looking fond again. “Alright, Hood. Call me if you need anything. And get some sleep.”

“And keep your nose clean,” Gordon said. “You kill anyone and I will arrest you.

“Fair enough. Just keep the Joker in Arkham and we shouldn’t have any problems,” Jason declared. And then he jumped off the building and headed back to Crime Alley because he was over the both of them.

*****

There was something about being in the Hood—or maybe it was something about being an ex-Bat—in any case, it was hard not to pay attention to the streets of Gotham as he was heading back to his loft. It was ingrained in him the way a lot of Bruce’s training continued to be ingrained in him. The assassins taught him a lot, made him the fighter he is now, capable of holding his own against Tim, Dick, and even Bruce. He’s beaten all of them in a fight at least once. But it was all built on foundations and instincts Bruce drilled into him, and those were things he couldn’t shake, even if he tried. And the assassins certainly tried. So, if Jason had seen a mugging, he would have done something about it, because Bruce had taught him to, and Dick certainly would have, and Jason still hadn’t shaken the instincts to live up to Dick, despite the fact that he clearly never would. But, Jason didn’t witness a mugging or an attempted murder. What he did witness was some homeless kids being shoved out of a warehouse. And that was something Jason would have stopped all on his own, without anyone else’s influence.

“Hey,” he snapped, dropping into the alley behind the warehouse, momentarily forgetting about his still healing ankle and hissing when it hurt like hell. He ignored it. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Holy shit!” a kid exclaimed, startled. He was a scruffy, gangly thing. No older than thirteen.

Everyone froze and six sets of giant eyes on tiny faces stared at him in shock and fear. And then there were the two thugs staring at him as well, frozen in definite terror. Jason was greatly satisfied to know he hadn’t been forgotten in his time off the streets.

“It’s the Red Hood! He’s gonna kill us,” one of the kids hissed, pulling at the kid who’d cursed earlier. “We gotta go!”

“Don’t be stupid,” the older one retorted harshly. “The Red Hood only kills bad guys.”

“Damn straight,” Jason said. “So tell me, kids, are those cowards sniveling by the door bad guys?”

All of the younger ones kept silent, but the one who’d already spoken showed no such inclination.

“Yeah. We’ve been sleeping here for weeks and these guys came and tried to kick us out.”

“Is that right?” Jason asked dangerously, moving towards the two scumbags in question. The warehouse was probably not much warmer than the street, but it was shelter and the illusion of some degree of safety, and Jason knew how important that was. “So you’re telling me that you kicked these homeless kids out of a warehouse and onto the street in the freezing cold?”

“N-n-no, we, we wouldn’t do that, right kids? Uh, we were—we were, um, uh…” the man trailed off, and Jason almost felt bad for him with how much he was shaking. He looked ready to piss himself.

“Well that was very, very stupid,” Jason spoke, moving closer, further backing him and his partner into the alley. “Do you know why?” Both men shook their heads fearfully so Jason decided to illuminate them. “Because when I was a kid I slept in that alley right over there,” he said, pointing to the alley across the street. “So, as you can imagine, I don’t take well to people bullying homeless kids.”

“Oh god,” the second man said, shaking even more than the first. “We’re gonna die.”

Jason grinned under his hood, amused and delighted by his apparent reputation on the streets. “Actually, you’re not. I’m going to make an example of you instead,” he declared menacingly. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you and then you’re going to go back to your employer to give them a message.”

“What message?” the first one asked, voice shaking.

“That this warehouse,” Jason spoke, pointing at the building behind him. “Is under the protection of the Red Hood. And anyone who messes with it or any of the kids around here will get a war with me.”

They nodded frantically and Jason made quick work of brutally beating the hell out of them both. “Get out of here,” he snarled at the both of them and they hurried off as quickly as their broken limbs would let them.

Then he turned back to the kids. None of them looked overly terrified anymore, but the youngest were still wary.

“That was so cool,” the talkative one said fervently.

“Did you really live on the street?” another asked.

“Three years,” Jason replied honestly.

They seemed very interested by this and Jason sighed a little, looking at the warehouse. “Okay, let’s check out what you punks have here, huh?” he said, heading into the warehouse. The six kids scurried after him and Jason surveyed the place with a critical, but knowledgeable eye. It was clear where the kids slept as there was a pile of dirty blankets laid out on the floor. “Not bad. Could be better though,” he said, then pointed behind the blankets. “Move those behind that wall there, that way you’re not in view of anyone walking through the doors. Then you want to put something noisy on the ground in front of the door. It’ll move when the door pushes it open and you’ll hear it. Then you can bolt out the back. Do the same to the back door and if anyone comes in that way you can bolt out the front,” Jason finished.

The kids nodded and scampered about, grabbing bits of scrap metal and dragging them towards the doors while the two smallest children grabbed the blankets and carried them off to the wall Jason had indicated.

Jason nodded, satisfied. “Okay, you stay here. I’ll be back. Sit tight.” And with that, Red Hood vanished into the night to break into the hardware store he frequented. He took a space heater and an extension cord, left cash and a note, then stopped by another store for blankets, doing the same. Both stores he locked again behind him. Next he stopped at a 24-hour burger joint, got six burgers and a hell of a lot of fries and a 2-liter coke. Then he was back at the warehouse.

“Alright, punks. Eat up,” he told them, dropping the food on the blankets and the new blankets on top of the old as the kids scrambled towards them. He then set about unpacking the space heater and unrolling the extension cord.

“Fuck yes,” the eldest exclaimed, scrambling closer to it as Jason placed it on the other side of the blankets, opposite the wall. Jason watched as he scooted a bit to make room for the others.

“It’s going to get cold as fuck this winter,” Jason said with a frown. “You’re going to need the heater.”

“Thanks,” one of the children said, and Jason nodded. “Eat and sleep. I’ll keep watch on the roof and make sure those assholes don’t come back. No one needs to worry about anything else tonight.”

He could see the tension leave several of the kids, and Jason hurried away, frowning. He could remember what that was like—being so alert all the time that sleeping was its own form of stress. In the three years he lived on the streets, he could count on one hand the nights he felt safe. He could give these kids that at least.

Suddenly, he knew what he was doing in Gotham, where he fit into the vigilante hierarchy that made up Gotham City. It was a nice thing to realize where he was needed and how he could help. Now, he just needed to buy the building. Legally. He needed to buy the building legally.

That was going to be tricky.

Chapter Text

It’d been a hell of a year for Tim Drake. A hell of a few years, actually, each terrible in their own way. His father dying, Jason’s return to Gotham and the torment it wreaked on the family, Damian, Bruce disappearing, and Tim being pushed out of the role of Robin so that Dick could play Batman with the little gremlin…. Even with Bruce back and everything relatively back to normal, Tim still felt disconnected from the family and Gotham. The feeling of being replaced, of being kicked out of a role that had been his and watching it be handed off to Damian had caused him to feel a sudden surge of sympathy for Jason, who’d come back from the dead to find a stranger in his suit, in his home. It’d been months, and it was something he still couldn’t manage to shake—the disconnect, the feeling that there was no place for him anymore. He found himself wondering if that’s how Jason had felt when he left Gotham.

The last time Tim saw Jason Todd was by sheer accident. He’d been skulking around Crime Alley during the day, following up on a lead for a case, and he spotted Jason across the street, duffel bag on his shoulder, looking weary and defeated.

“Jason?” he’d asked, because his demeanor was so off from all the times the man fought with them before. He wasn’t actually sure he was looking at the second Robin.

Jason turned around and there hadn’t been any hostility in his expression. Just exhaustion and resignation. It made Tim frown. “What are you doing?”

“Getting the hell out of here,” Jason had declared.

“Why?” Tim asked, confused. Sure Jason hadn’t been quite as provocative around the family in the last few months, but he certainly hadn’t been slowing down in his war on Crime Alley. It was a source of constant turmoil for Bruce and Dick. Not to say that it didn’t bother Tim as well, but he could understand it a little better than the others, or so he thought. He was logical enough that he could see the effect Jason was having on the Alley, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad one. Still, Tim couldn’t condone it. And not just because of Bruce.

“Why not?” Jason retorted. “Gotham fucking sucks, Replacement. I’ve always hated this city. Anywhere I go will be better than this.” Then, he’d turned and mumbled under his breath, “Hell, the League of Assassins was better than this.” And Tim knew he hadn’t been meant to hear it, but it stuck in his brain like a fungus. Then, louder as he mounted his bike, Jason said, “Goodbye, Replacement. Don’t let the Joker kill you or Bat-brat.” And that was it. The Red Hood was gone.

In the months that’d passed, Tim found himself thinking about that conversation a lot. Not just because he identified with whatever he thought Jason had been feeling at the time, but because he couldn’t stop thinking about the information the man inadvertently revealed. The fact that he spent time with the League of Assassins came as a shock. No one knew what happened to Jason after he died. One day he was dead, and another day, years later, he was attacking Tim and trying to kill him. Everything else was a mystery, and Tim had never been able to just let mysteries lie. So Jason had been on his mind a lot.

As the Outlaws started doing good (if slightly questionable) work together, a theory began forming in his mind. In the beginning when Jason first came back to Gotham, he’d seemed positively unhinged. A madness that niggled at Tim’s mind in its familiarity. And then as the months went on, Jason seemed to grow more and more stable. Not exactly sane, but not as crazy. It wasn’t until he mentioned the League of Assassins that Tim realized who the madness reminded him of.

Ra’s al Ghul.

And as the Red Hood continued to stabilize outside of Gotham, Tim became convinced.

Jason Todd had been exposed to the Lazarus Pit.

This put an entirely different spin on his actions as the Red Hood. The substance of the Lazarus Pit was still largely a mystery, but its effects had been studied as extensively as possible for one as determined as Batman. Tim had read the files and then reread them once his theory on Jason took hold in his mind. It hadn’t been Jason’s fault, really. He’d never stood a chance. The Pit made people murderous and crazy, and it wasn’t until repeated exposure that the victim was able to gain any semblance of control over it.

Tim didn’t blame Jason. Not now that he knew what it felt like to have your home taken from you, how it felt to be replaced. Yeah, he wasn’t thrilled at the beating he’d received from the older Robin or the hell he’d caused, but he understood and he didn’t blame him. In fact, he felt that he might even get along with the other former Robin. If anyone understood how Tim felt these days, it was Jason.

It came as a complete shock when one day Tim answered his phone and it was Jason on the other line with his usual greeting. “Replacement.”

“Jason?” Tim asked, almost dropping his cup of coffee in surprise.

“The one and only,” Jason replied, but it sounded strained, though he was clearly shooting for bravado. “Um, look. I sort of need a favor. I know, I know—” he hurried gruffly before Tim had the chance to say anything. “I don’t really have any right to be asking you for favors, but it’s for a good cause, and if I had another option I’d be talking to them.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” Tim replied.

Jason paused for a moment. “Huh?”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” Tim said again, because he felt it was necessary to clarify. “You can ask for a favor. I don’t mind.”

There was bewildered silence for a moment before Jason replied. “What even are you?”

Tim wasn’t sure how he was supposed to answer that. He replied wearily, “Uh, a person? A Robin? A detective? I don’t know what you’re looking for here, Jason.”

“Are you trying to lure me into a false sense of security right now?” Jason asked, sounding immensely suspicious. “Are you trying to keep me talking so you can trace my call or something?”

“You called me, Jason,” Tim pointed out with a tinge of exasperation. Then he decided to go for it, because he wanted his theory confirmed. “And sure, you tried to kill me, but I’m pretty sure that was mostly the Lazarus Pit.”

“Did Doc Thompkins tell you that?” Jason snapped, offended. “What the fucking shit. When I told her I didn’t want bats involved, I meant bats plural, not just Big-Bat.”

Tim perked up immediately, because yes! Jason was exposed to the Lazarus Pit and that changed everything. Jason might have tried to kill them, but it wasn’t 100% him. And the fact that he was apparently working on something with Dr. Thompkins was equally promising, because she was a hard ass woman and wouldn’t be working with him if she didn’t think he was redeemable. That meant there was a chance, even if it was a small chance, that things between the second Robin and the rest of the family were salvageable. And if things were salvageable, well then….

His brain started spinning, quickly considering the possibilities. But first he needed to figure out why Jason was calling.

“No, but you’re working with Dr. Thompkins? That’s some interesting information,” he said, both fishing and making fun. Jason had given him hell when he came back to Gotham. Tim didn’t feel bad about getting a little payback.

“Fuck,” Jason huffed out a curse and then a few more. “Okay, that was just pathetic,” he muttered. “I’m ashamed of myself.”

Tim smirked then decided to throw him a bone. “To be fair, you’ve mostly been hanging out with Roy Harper. I doubt you’ve needed to be on your toes much with him.”

“Well that’s true. He’s fucking contagious,” Jason muttered grumpily.

“And a moron,” Tim replied amiably. “A genius, yeah, but a moron too.”

“Seeing as how he’s my best friend, I feel like I should try to defend him, but you’re completely right,” Jason remarked wryly over the phone.

Tim chuckled a little. It was surreal, but he was pleased with how things were going thus far. It was his first ever cordial conversation with his predecessor and so far nothing bad had happened. “Well, as established, Lazarus Pit, no hard feelings so I’m open to a favor. I mean, you’re not going to try to kill me or Bat-Brat, right?”

Jason snorted. “The name stuck? Fuck yes! And no, I’m not killing anyone.”

“Alright. So what do you need?”

There was a heavy sigh on the other line, and Jason spoke. “Funds. Clean ones. I have… other funds, but I’m pretty sure the League of Assassins can track it. I need this to be clean, and I didn’t think you’d be up to using Wayne Enterprises to launder money. I had an account—a trust fund—after the adoption, but I have no idea if it’s even still there after I died, and even if it is I can’t imagine I’d have access to it after everything. And, well, you’re doing all this work with WE and I thought maybe you could find out for me without me having to ask Bruce since I’m sure that wouldn’t work out well for anyone involved.”

Tim was surprised. “Uh, yeah. Sure. I can get you whatever you need. How much?”

Jason gave an exasperated huff. “No, that’s not what I meant. I have the money.”

“I get that,” Tim replied. “But it might be the only feasible way. Look, you said what you’re doing isn’t illegal, and I believe you on that. But you also said you didn’t want Bruce in on this. But you’re legally dead and it’d take two hours just to explain all the red tape involved in accessing your trust fund. Even me getting you money is going to be tricky with banking rules and everything, but I can manage it. And it’s not like you won’t pay me back later when all this is sorted, right?”

“You might be waiting a long time for things to get sorted, Timmy,” Jason remarked, putting emphasis on the more British word. It was no doubt a jab at Tim’s prim and proper upbringing, but Tim was more focused on the nickname. Jason had never called him anything other than the “Replacement” before.

“We’ll work it out,” Tim replied. “How much do you need?”

“Hundred thousand at most,” Jason replied, sounding like he was frowning. “Look. I know it’s a lot, but I’ve got the money.”

“I know, Jason,” he assured the older boy. He knew exactly how much was in Jason’s trust fund. He knew exactly how much was in all of their trust funds. “One hundred thousand is fine, but it’s going to take a few days for me to gather it up without raising any red flags.”

“That’s fine. I need time to set up a new bank account with a fresh alias anyway. I’ll text you the details, okay?”

“Alright,” Tim said easily, not wanting to push or spook Jason on the money, lest he decide not to take it from him and risk whatever it was he wasn’t willing to risk by using League or former crime boss money. But he didn’t want to leave the conversation just yet either. “So, are you in Gotham then?” he asked casually.

The huff this time sounded more amused than exasperated, “Goodbye, Replacement.” Jason hung up and Tim stared thoughtfully out his window. For a moment, he was lost in thought. He’d had time to get used to the idea that the Jason they’d seen wasn’t really Jason. The Outlaws’ movements cemented it in his mind. It was a different thing altogether to have a civil conversation with him though, and for the first time in months, Tim felt himself focus.

He’d been in a slump ever since Bruce was lost in time and everyone thought he was crazy for thinking he was still alive. Even with Bruce back, that empty, purposeless feeling hadn’t left him. But this… this changed things. Jason contacted him, not anyone else, and if Tim played his cards right, this was a problem he might be able to solve. This gave him a goal. Even if it was a hell of a long shot, it was still a goal and Tim felt much better having a goal. He was going to try to reconcile Jason with the family.

Jason had been Tim’s Robin, if he was being completely honest. Jason was the Robin he grew up watching and had looked up to. There’d been some hero worship there, for sure, and hearing about the person he used to be made Tim want to bring that back out in him. And he was cautiously optimistic it could be done. If Jason could spend months with Roy Harper and actually become good friends with him without murdering him, then there was definite hope for the former Robin. Jason’s death had broken the family, and his violent return to Gotham had thrown salt on those wounds. If there was any way to bring him home… well, Tim’s position in the family was only ever supposed to be temporary.

With that in mind, he set out for Dr. Thompkins’ clinic.

“Timothy,” the sharp-edged woman greeted him when he arrived.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Thompkins,” he replied respectfully. The imposing woman had always effortlessly intimidated Tim, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. She was a scary woman and always openly disapproved of his position as a vigilante.

“Well you’re not bleeding, so why are you here?” she asked briskly.

“Jason called me this morning,” Tim spoke honestly. “And he mentioned he’d been working with you, so I just wanted to ask about him, I guess. He hung up on me when I asked him.”

“Huh,” Dr. Thompkins remarked. “Didn’t expect that. He seemed pretty adamant about remaining apart from all of you these past few weeks.”

“So he is in Gotham?” Tim checked.

“He is,” she replied plainly.

“Does he seem okay? I know he was exposed to the Pit. I put two and two together months ago.” At her glare, he tried to explain a little more. “I’m not here on vigilante business. I’m here because I’m concerned. Not about him, but for him.”

She gave him a long piercing look before she sighed and took a seat across from him. “He’s doing alright. I think the Lazarus effects have mostly faded. He still doesn’t mind killing, but he was like that as a child too. Didn’t have a problem with a person being killed if he felt like they deserved it. Bruce worked on that the most with him, but it only stuck enough to keep him from killing. It was all too easy for the Lazarus substance to twist that into Jason killing others. I can’t tell if it’s the last lingering influence of the Pit that keeps him from feeling guilty about it, or if it’s just Jason’s questionable morals, same as always. He did admit he regretted trying to kill you though,” she revealed, looking at him shrewdly. “Which leads me to believe it might just be Jason’s skewed moral compass. In his mind, the people he killed deserved it, therefore it’s fine. You were a different story.”

Tim huffed in half amusement and half disbelief. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in his mind.”

Dr. Thompkins made a noise of assent.

Tim was silent for a moment, studying Dr. Thompkins. She could help him or she could stonewall him, depending on what she thought of his intentions. She seemed almost protective of Jason at the moment, despite the information she’d given him. But if she sided with him, then she’d be a good ally to have against Jason’s infamous stubbornness.

“I’m trying to bring Jason home,” he said honestly.

Her eyebrows rose. “Really? I thought out of everyone, you’d be the most resistant.”

Tim shook his head. “It was never about me, and I know that. It was always about Bruce. And it wasn’t really his fault either. If he regrets it now, that’s good enough for me. It’s not good for him to be on his own like this. If he’s not with the Outlaws, then he should be home.”

“It’ll be quite the trick convincing him of that,” she replied calmly.

He shrugged. “I was thinking more of trick him into it rather than convincing,” he admitted. “Just make it so that it happens before he realizes it’s happening, and by the time he does, it’s too late.”

“And how do you plan on doing that?” the doctor asked curiously, but showing amusement now.

“Well, he asked me for a favor so that gives me a little bit of an in,” Tim replied. “I figured I’d just insinuate myself into whatever he’s doing until he just accepts it, and then I’ll bring Dick in and do the same. Then get Alfred and the girls in on it, and by the time it’s only Bruce and Damian he hasn’t reconciled with, we all might have a better idea on how to make it happen.”

“Well, it’s a good enough plan, I suppose,” Dr. Thompkins remarked. “I approve, so I’m going to do something I do not do lightly. I only break doctor-patient confidentiality when someone is in danger. That’s not quite the case at the moment, but until we know more about his situation, it could be, and you might actually be in a position to help.

“Jason came to me to help him figure out how he came back from the dead. I’ve been running blood tests on him, and I’ve found bits and pieces of things out of the ordinary, but it’s hard to tell what’s been caused by the Lazarus Pit, what’s been caused by other substances he was exposed to during his stay with the League of Assassins, and what might be behind his sudden resurrection.”

Tim frowned, confused. “He doesn’t know how he came back from the dead?”

“I’m afraid not,” she replied calmly.

“Oh,” Tim said thoughtfully. “Huh. I guess I just sort of thought he’d know.”

“So did I. I was quite surprised when he asked me to help him. But in any case, he’s returning next Thursday at six for some more blood to be taken. I’m telling you, because maybe you should be there. I need information on the substances he was exposed to that Jason just doesn’t have. Bruce might have come across some of these substances before and have information on them that you can get. Or Damian might even know some of the formulas. He was heir to the kingdom, so to speak.”

Tim nodded, glad to have her on his side and glad to be involved. “Yeah, I can do that. The brat is going to be difficult but we’ll figure it out.”

“Good,” she nodded, satisfied. “I’ll see you next week then.”

Tim nodded again. “Next week.”

Chapter Text

Jason decided to go with an alias he’d made while with the Outlaws instead of building an entirely new one. For one, he had none of the resources he’d had while with Talia or the Outlaws, and nothing close to what he’d had at his disposal when he’d been Robin. He wasn’t Red Robin or Oracle, and this part of the job had never been particularly appealing to him. Jason would never choose to research on a computer when he could be outside physically gaining intel. Of course he knew how helpful the internet and the research found there could be, but it had always been his least favorite part of a case. Dick’s too, really. Which was probably why Tim was the best detective of the three of them. Jason didn’t mind though. He had other areas of strength. It was much easier for him to recognize the inner workings of the Gotham criminal population than it was for any of the others, and he could make the connections much faster than them as well. Not to mention he was a brutally efficient fighter while Dick tended to use flashy and oftentimes unnecessary acrobatics and Tim relied on lithe movements and speed to use his opponents’ strength against them. Jason had pure power on his side, and he knew how to fight quick and dirty.

His methods of research were much the same, preferring to terrorize his information out of the criminal population as opposed to tediously seeking out the information through various online sources. As such, he really didn’t feel like going through all the effort to create a brand new alias when he hadn’t even used the one he’d created while with the Outlaws yet: Todd Harper.

Jason had always amused himself by choosing criminally obvious aliases. Bruce allowed it back in his early Robin days, because it was important that Jason was able to keep up with and respond to his alias. Thus, Peter Jasons. He wasn’t supposed to continue with the habit, but he rarely did what he was supposed to. Todd Harper had been so amusing to the other Outlaws, that they’d in turn created matching aliases; Corey Todd for Roy and Harper Jasons for Koriand’r. They’d probably had a little too much fun with it, but Jason only needed to think of the harassed expression Bruce would have worn had he known and been on decent terms with Jason, and it had him snickering for hours. So, Todd Harper stayed.

It was fairly easy for Jason to open a new account at Gotham Central Bank, and over the next few days he got a series of deposits from Tim. Once Jason had the $100,000 needed, he immediately sought out the owner of the warehouse and had a surprisingly easy time convincing the man to sell to him. Apparently, it’d been on the market for a while, but with the economic recession, no one had been willing to pay the asking price, and the owner literally couldn’t afford to accept any less. His eagerness, combined with the fact that Jason could pay the amount in full, no loan required, meant the man’s real estate agent was able to push everything forward. They signed the paperwork within forty-eight hours.

So by the time Jason was heading towards Dr. Thompkins clinic, he was the proud owner of a large, beat to hell warehouse in the middle of Crime Alley. Unfortunately, his good mood was immediately dashed, because sitting in Dr. Thompkins’ office was the Replacement.

Jason scowled immediately. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Hey, Jason,” Tim greeted him, oddly chipper seeing as how Jason almost killed him that one time. And all the other little times that followed. Then again, he’d seemed all too happy to do Jason a solid, so clearly he wasn’t a rational, reasonable human being.

“Replacement,” he replied grudgingly. Then he turned to Dr. Thompkins. “What the hell is this?” he asked, gesturing to the teenager grumpily.

Dr. Thompkins shrugged. “You’re the one who told him I was helping you. I can’t control where Tim decides to show up.”

Tim seemed completely unbothered by Jason’s mood. Jason turned his glare back on him. “Why are you here?”

The teenager shrugged. “I love a mystery, and Dr. Thompkins said I might be able to help.”

Jason turned his eyes back to Dr. Thompkins, who wasn’t denying it. “There’re some strange results on your last two blood tests, Jason. You’re healthy, but some levels are incredibly high when they shouldn’t be, given your health. The problem is I can’t deduce if this has something to do with whatever caused your resurrection, if it’s something caused by the Lazarus Pit, or if it’s caused by something else you were exposed to while with the League of Assassins.”

Jason sighed in slight frustration, because that was downright logical. “Okay, so what does that have to do with the Replacement?”

Tim wasn’t at all bothered by the nickname and Jason frowned, mildly annoyed.

“Tim has access to Damian who might know the chemical makeup of some of the things you were exposed to,” Dr. Thompkins replied. “The Lazarus substance is still largely a mystery, but if it turns out these abnormalities are caused by one of the other substances you were exposed to then I can move on with my research.”

“Are you going to tell him about it?” Jason asked Tim with a frown.

Tim shook his head. “Damian likes me about as much as you did when you first came back to Gotham. I like him even less,” he said, with a slightly bitter look, which reminded Jason that Tim had also been replaced now. It made him dislike him a little less. “He won’t help me out willingly, especially if he knows it’s also helping you. I’ll have to con it out of him.”

“And why would you do that? Why help me?” Jason challenged, because that was the part that was still making zero sense to him. Tim had every reason in the world to hate him, and absolutely no reason to help. Yet here he was.

Tim shrugged. “I told you. I like a mystery.”

Yeah, because that was enlightening, Jason thought grumpily. But maybe it really was as simple as that. Tim was a detective; Jason had come back from the dead and no one knew how. He supposed that could be pretty compelling. “Okay, fine; you’re in. Help me figure out how I came back from the dead.”

Tim nodded, satisfied.

“Alright,” Dr. Thompkins said, taking control. “Were you injected with anything while you were with the Assassins? Large or frequent doses of anything that you know of?”

Jason thought back to the years he’d spent with the League of Assassins. Thanks to the recent experience with the Planet Eaters, a lot of it was still fresh in his memory. “The first two months I was there is a total wash,” Jason replied honestly. “I was practically comatose while they tried to get my body healed.”

“Healed?” Tim questioned, looking confused, and Jason realized Dr. Thompkins hadn’t told him much. On the one hand, that was nice, because she was letting him choose what he wanted to share with Tim. On the other hand, that meant Jason had to tell him and it would likely eventually get back to Batman. Which, no.

“If you want in, Replacement, then you have to agree that this is none of the others’ business. Just you, me, and Doc, got it?”

Tim gave a wry, cynical smile. “What’s a few more secrets among family?”

Jason snorted, amused despite himself. “Alright then. Short version; I woke up in my coffin with all the same injuries I died with plus the autopsy wound, but for some reason I was alive. I managed to dig my way out of my grave before I suffocated, but with all the wounds, I didn’t make it far. Assassins picked me up. I didn’t know who they were at first, and they didn’t know who I was, but I asked them to call Bruce Wayne, told them he was my dad, not knowing I was signing myself into slavery. They recognized the name, obviously, and took me straight to Ra’s, who put two and two together. Anyway, I was out of it most of those first couple of months, and when they decided I wasn’t going to heal right on my own, they threw me in the Lazarus Pit.”

Tim’s expression was completely blank and Jason didn’t have time to analyze that fact because Dr. Thompkins was already speaking again. “My guess is that the Lazarus Pit would have nullified anything they might have injected you with at the beginning, just like it healed your wounds and erased your scars. I think anything done before the Lazarus Pit is irrelevant.”

Jason nodded. “Makes sense enough. Okay, they did inject me with something they called Prometheus,” he rolled his eyes at Tim’s unimpressed expression. “I know. Ra’s is the biggest drama queen ever, I swear. Seven hundred years of dramatic flair on his side. Anyway, I was injected with that quite a lot, so definitely try to get the formula from Bat-Brat. As far as I can remember, that was the only one I was injected with though.”

“Alright, well that gives a good enough place to start,” Dr. Thompkins nodded. “Come see me when you get it, Tim, and then we’ll figure out where to go from there,” she told them both.

Jason shrugged, “Sounds good enough to me.”

“Good,” Dr. Thompkins said, standing up. “Now let’s track the progress of your ribs and ankle. Have you even been using the crutches, Jason?” she asked with a frown, leading Jason around to the x-ray machine Bruce had bought the clinic. Tim followed curiously and Jason sighed shortly.

“Would you believe me if I said yes?” he asked carelessly. She turned around and swatted him on the back of the head before entering the x-ray room. “I’ll take that as a no,” Jason muttered.

“How long has it been?” she asked as he stripped off his jacket and jeans and slowly worked his way out of his suit. They were much better than they had been, but getting out of the suit was still a tiny bit painful.

“Four or five weeks,” he replied, taking the scrubs she offered him for the x-ray. He had absolutely no qualms about stripping to his Wonder Woman boxers in front of Dr. Thompkins, and he couldn’t care less about Tim being there. Shame wasn’t something Jason had had much time for in his life. He genuinely didn’t remember what it was like to have shame.

“There’s fresh bruising around your ribs,” she frowned, eyes narrowed in supreme judgement.

“I pulled something replacing the insulation,” he threw out.

“Mhm,” she remarked, all disbelief.

Jason hadn’t in fact even begun ripping out his old insulation. The new insulation and wood had been delivered to his place the day before, but given the warehouse debacle, Jason hadn’t actually started yet, and he wasn’t likely to start in the next two days either, as he hadn’t gotten more than three hours of sleep a night over the last few days.

Jason let the doctor run her fingers run over the bindings wrapped around his broken ribs, then he slipped the pants she’d given him on before moving over to the wall as soon as she was done. She and Tim moved over behind the protective barrier and Dr. Thompkins instructed him to take a breath and hold it before she took the x-ray.

“Alright, on the table then and we’ll get the ankle,” she told him.

Jason did as instructed then began putting his clothes back on, being careful to keep his back to the wall lest they see the whip scars on his back and get curious. Jason didn’t care if they knew he was basically a slave or whatever, but the details of his imprisonment with the League of Assassins were his and his alone, like the scars across his back.

Honestly, how Ra’s al Ghul ever thought he’d be an obedient subordinate was completely beyond him. He hadn’t even been an obedient Robin, and he’d been Robin by choice.

“Alright, I’ll get these developed. You both can wait in my office,” she replied easily, leaving before Jason even finished getting his suit back on.

“Your suit has a bat on it,” Tim pointed out, gesturing to the red bat across his chest.

Jason shrugged, “It was an old one of Dick’s that Kori had lying around from back when they were a thing and engaged. I needed a base. I added more armor, but I decided to keep the bat. Does it annoy the hell out of Bruce?” he asked hopefully. “That’s why I kept it.”

Tim snorted. “Of course that’s the reason. I’m not even surprised.”

Jason grinned, unrepentant as he slipped on his pants, shirt and jacket on over the suit.

“How’d you get all banged up?” Tim asked as they moved back towards Dr. Thompkins’ office.

“Why are you still here?” Jason retorted, because he felt it was a far more relevant question.

Tim shrugged casually. “Nowhere better to be.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jason retorted, skeptically.

“So? How’d you get all the broken bones? And why aren’t you with the other Outlaws? You guys didn’t disband, did you?”

Jason rolled his eyes at all the question. “Got them saving the planet, you’re welcome. And we decided to take a sabbatical after we were done. Roy’s with Black Canary and Kori is up on the Watchtower. I came back here.”

Tim looked incredibly interested. “How’d you guys save the planet?”

“Planet Eaters,” Jason retorted. “It was very heroic. Ask Superman.”

“Really?” Tim says, eyes widening He was obviously impressed.

Jason had always been a little of a showoff. He just couldn’t help it, and it was something he hadn’t managed to shake. So, he drew his shoulders back just a little and smirked proudly. “Yep. Saved all of the human race, which was why the JLA was nice enough to grant me amnesty, because they, unlike some people, appreciate it when I help them out.”

Tim rolled his eyes, but looked faintly amused. “Yeah, and I’m sure the Lazarus Syndrome thing had nothing to do with it.”

Jason was momentarily startled. “Lazarus Syndrome? It has a name?”

“You’re not the only one besides Ra’s who’s been subjected to it, you know,” Tim retorted. “The length of time varies based on the amount of times a person is exposed, but you’re well within the normal range for exposure.”

“Studied this at length, have you?” Jason retorted.

Tim shrugged. “I’ve thought it was likely for almost as long as you’ve been out of Gotham,” Tim admitted. “Plus Bruce already had files on its effects.”

“Huh,” Jason remarked. “I didn’t even know it was a thing until later,” he admitted. “One of Talia’s people told me shortly before I was finally released. Told me a myth about the Pit—how it gives life when yours should be taken away. Death feels cheated because your death was robbed from it and so it put a curse on the Pit. That anyone who goes into it will be cursed by murderous madness. All the lives you take then become payment for the life Death was robbed of. Course the myth is ridiculous, but it’s a way for them to explain the effects. At the time, it didn’t matter,” he spoke honestly. “I didn’t give a damn whether or not the murderous intent was mine or not, I was going to act on it. Honestly, I still don’t think it really matters.”

“I do,” Tim replied, looking him straight in the eyes.

Jason rolled his eyes at the sheer naiveté this kid had. Outside influence or not, Jason had still tried to kill him. “You would,” he replied derisively.

Tim shrugged, unapologetic. “I’m usually right, just so you know.”

Jason slouched back in his seat. “Are all Bats just automatically insufferable?”

“Yes.” Again, no apologies.

Jason was beginning to suspect Tim was one smug son of a bitch whenever he was supposedly right. Or always. Whatever. He tossed his hands up and gave up any further conversation. He hadn’t come here today to get all friendly with the Replacement anyway.

They sat in silence for the remaining minutes it took for Dr. Thompkins to return.

“Well,” she said, moving briskly to the room and the lighted panel she had on her wall to inspect x-ray images. “Your ribs are healing nicely, maybe two more weeks of the bindings, and then another easy week or two before you return to full activity. But your ankle,” she said, tone hardening, “is healing slower than it should because you won’t keep off it.”

Jason was not easily cowed by anyone anymore. Years as a disobedient and rebellious slave to Ra’s al Ghul had that effect. Not that he was easily managed before then, but if anyone was able to do it, it’d been Dr. Thompkins and Alfred. Now, Jason didn’t even flinch.

“The JLA has these nice new casts,” he said, gesturing to his ankle. “Thin enough to still wear my boots, and short enough so it doesn’t hinder mobility that much.”

Dr. Thompkins glared at him. “That’s not so that you can do whatever you want on it, Todd. If you don’t keep off of it, it’ll take even longer to heal. As it is, I’m thinking another month with the cast on!” she snapped grumpily.

Jason made a face. “A month?”

“Yes, and you only have yourself to blame. I’m going to x-ray it again in two weeks, and if I don’t see significant improvement by then, I’m going to put a big bulky plaster cast on you, and then you’ll have to use crutches, are we clear?”

Jason sighed impatiently. “Alright, alright, I’ll use the damn crutches.”

Dr. Thompkins swatted the back of his head again, making him glare. “Watch your mouth.”

“Watch the hitting,” he retorted.

She huffed. “Alright, get out. New x-ray in two weeks. I’ll call you as soon as I figure out the information Timothy is able to get me.”

“I’ll drop by before then,” he told her. “In the meantime, would you gather whatever info you can get on the community outreach stuff currently going on in Crime Alley. I’m a little out of date.”

“No killing, Jason,” she reminded him.

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, thanks, Doc. I’d forgotten about that.”

“Oh, just get out,” she sighed in exasperation. “Come see me Friday and I’ll give you everything I’ve got.”

“Thanks, Doc,” he said standing. “Bye, Replacement. It was great. We should do it again sometime. How’s a year from today sound?”

Tim, the little bastard, just looked amused. “Later, Jason.”

Jason grumbled and stalked out of the clinic feeling distinctly harassed.

Chapter Text

“Do you have popcorn?” Roy asked as soon as Jason answered his phone.

“Uh, sure. Why?”

“Go make some. Now. Turn on your computer and make sure you have an internet connection,” Roy ordered.

Jason quirked a brow but he’d learned the hard way that with some things, it was easier to just do what Roy said than to question it. “Okay, I’m going to my kitchen and making popcorn.”

“Is it a nice kitchen?” Roy asked curiously.

“Fuck no.”

“Are you going to make it a nice kitchen?”

“Well, I need to replace the sink. And probably the counter tops. And maybe the cabinets. Could do with new appliances,” Jason said, surveying the kitchen area of his loft thoughtfully.

Nesting!” Roy said, pretending to cough.

Jason just rolled his eyes and stuck the popcorn in microwave. “Shut up, Roy.”

“So, how are things?” Roy asked cheerfully.

“Okay,” Jason replied, then made a face. “Replacement nosed his way into the whole How am I alive investigation. So there’s that.”

“You’re talking to the Bat kids?” Roy said, sounding stunned. “I did not see that coming.”

Jason grumbled, “Yeah, neither did I. But he might actually be able to help, so I’m going to let it be for now. And he’s the only Bat I’ve bumped into, so don’t get ahead of yourself,” he ordered, taking his popcorn out of the microwave. He then headed over to his dilapidated couch and opened his laptop. “Okay, why do I need an internet connection?” he asked, but his mouse was already moving without his consent. “What the hell?”

“Just wait,” Roy said sounding gleeful.

A video popped up onto his computer and Jason leaned forward eagerly as Hawkgirl streaked across the screen followed by Green Lantern and Supergirl. They were fighting some sort of flying alien creatures over what looked like Chicago. An alien punched Lantern in the face, sending him straight into the side of a building.

“Oh, fuck yes!” Jason declared, settling into his couch and shoving a fistful of popcorn in his mouth.

Kori’s voice cut in on the line, sounding pleased with herself. “Good afternoon, Jason. I got a direct feed from the Watchtower cameras.”

“Kori, you’re the best and I love you,” Jason declared fervently, cackling again when Supergirl was thrown right into Green Lantern who’d just started to pry himself from the building wall.

“You’re welcome,” Kori said, still sounding pleased. Roy was choking on his amusement as Green Lantern and Supergirl tried to disentangle themselves while Hawkgirl was bashing aliens around with her mace and yelling at them to get their asses moving.

“Five bucks says he accidentally touches her boob,” Jason declared, watching Lantern and Supergirl continue to fumble.

“Ten says he blushes like a school girl,” Roy retorted gleefully.

“I have missed this,” Kori declared decisively.

“Yeah, us too, Stargirl,” Jason said fondly.

“Aw, guys,” Roy cooed. “The feels.”

Jason choked on a piece of his popcorn in his amusement, but then Green Lantern used his ring to create a shield around his body to force Supergirl off him and she used the momentum to punch straight through a flying alien, and then they were too focused on the fight to say anything more. Still, Jason thought, as he enjoyed the brawl, he had the greatest friends ever.

*****

Over the next few days, the pile of wooden planks and insulation sat untouched in the middle of his loft. After extensive research, internal debate, unhelpful advice from Roy, and helpful advice from the owner of the hardware store down the street, Jason decided on a shiplap ceiling. For one, the ceiling was planked wood already, therefore only minimum preparation was required. Secondly, it was more interesting looking than just painted drywall. Jason would be lying though, if he said he didn’t feel completely in over his head. Installing the installation would actually be the easy part. Installing the shiplap and replacing the light fixtures would be the hellish part, and Jason didn’t know that much about electrical wiring. But, the owner of the hardware store assured him that if he installed new fixtures in the same location as the old fixtures, it wouldn’t actually be that difficult. Jason had his doubts, and as such, he was possibly procrastinating the installation process just a bit. He found some neat modern light fixtures though—black monorail fixtures that stretched long ways down his loft. Jason liked them. Roy thought they were cool too. Kori didn’t really think much of them, but she rarely got into Earth decor.

Jason’s hesitance to start the project wasn’t just about his doubts on whether or not he could pull it off though. In reality, most of his focus had been dedicated to the ever-increasing number of children spending the night in his warehouse. The amount of homeless children sleeping there had more than doubled in the last week alone. Word was getting around that there was a safe place to sleep for all the kids in Crime Alley, and Jason was seeing an increase of at least two kids a night. He’d bought some more sleeping bags and some more space heaters, and had collected all the information on community outreach centers from Dr. Thompkins. He was trying to figure out the best way make sure all these kids got enough food, but it wasn’t easy. Jason bringing dinner for fourteen plus kids every night wasn’t a sustainable solution, but he knew first hand all the difficulties involved in homeless kids getting charity. For one, kids weren’t really supposed to be homeless. A lot of organizations felt pressured to alert the police when homeless children came to them so that they could get the kids off the street—that usually meant sending the kids straight back into whatever abusive situation they fled from in the first place, which was why homeless kids hardly ever took advantage of the help that was out there. Jason had been the same way after he’d run away from his foster home. The free food wasn’t worth the risk of being shunted right back into the hell house he’d barely spent twenty-four hours in.

So Jason was left with the problem of discovering a sustainable solution for the hungry, homeless children.

His first step was to approach a woman he’d saved from being raped and murdered about a year ago. She owned a Chinese restaurant a block away from the warehouse, and she’d promised him free Chinese whenever he wanted. He hadn’t taken her up on the offer, though it was one of his favorite places to get take out as a civilian and not as the Red Hood. There’d been a Chinese place back when he was a kid in Crime Alley, and the older Chinese woman used to dump the leftover food in fresh boxes each night instead of just tossing it straight into the dumpster. The homeless kids of the area were encouraged to come and take a box whenever they needed. Unfortunately, the restaurant had closed when the old woman died a few years back. Jason was hoping to encourage a similar deal with the woman he’d saved.

Jason knocked on the window of the apartment she lived in above her restaurant.

She startled and hurried to the window, opening it for him. “Red Hood! Come in,” she said, moving aside.

It was rather chilly so Jason moved inside quickly. “Thanks.”

“It’s been a while. I thought you’d left Gotham,” she spoke, no trace of any accent. She’d been born and raised in Gotham, as far as Jason knew.

“I’m back for a bit,” Jason replied. “So, I never actually caught your name last time.”

“Jamie,” she replied quickly. “Jamie Li. I guess we didn’t really introduce ourselves properly last time. You never took me up on my offer though. Do you not like Chinese food or something?”

Jason smirked under his hood. “Oh, I eat here all the time. I just pay for it.”

Her eyes widened. “What? Really?”

Jason chuckled, “Yeah. Best egg rolls around.”

Jamie smiled, pleased. “Good. Glad to hear it. So what can I do for you, Hood? This isn’t just a social call, is it?”

“Yeah, not really. Sorry. I sort of have a problem,” he admitted.

“It’s not the police, is it?” Jamie asked, eyes narrowed. “I told those bastards that you saved my life and they still wanted to arrest you. Murderers walk around free every day and they want to arrest the only person doing something about it,” she said, tone full of scorn. “It’s ridiculous.”

Jason whole-heartedly agreed. “No arguments there. But no, it’s not the police. We’re actually good right now. I’m not a wanted man anymore. No, my problem is that I’ve got a warehouse full of homeless children that are currently under my protection, and I’m trying to figure out a way to feed them.”

“Huh,” Jamie remarked, sitting down. “Yeah, I could see how that would be a problem. Because they can’t exactly go to the charities, can they?”

Jason was pleased that she got the core issue so quickly. “Exactly. Unfortunately for a lot of these kids, the warehouse is a safer environment than the ones they ran away from.”

“Especially if you’re watching over them,” she remarked easily, and Jason felt himself warming a little at the appreciation. When he was here before, once he’d stopped trying to take out the Replacement and focused himself on Crime Alley, Jason had done a lot of good here. Yet all he ever got for his efforts was condemnation. But he’d saved lives. He’d protected people. It was nice to have other people recognize that.

“Thanks,” he replied, honestly grateful. “Anyway, back when I was a homeless kid around here, there was a Chinese restaurant owned by Madame S. I don’t know what her real name was, but that’s what she called herself. Instead of throwing away what other people didn’t eat, she boxed up the leftovers in takeout boxes and left them in the alleyway for all of us homeless kids. I was wondering if that’d be something you’d be willing to do? If you keep a record of the amount of boxes you use, you can mark them as a donation on your taxes. I’ll get you the receipt you need from a charity organization, and you’ll get a full tax refund for the price of the boxes. What do you say?”

“Yeah,” Jamie answered immediately. “Sure. That’d be incredibly easy to do, actually. We’ll start tonight. I’ll put out whatever we’ve got by ten-thirty?”

Jason smiled, pleased. “Great. Thanks, Jamie. Just keep track of the amount of boxes and I’ll get you the tax receipt you need by January.”

She smiled, very obviously happy to be helping. “Sounds good. Let me know if you need anything else and you are still absolutely welcome to come get free food whenever.”

Jason chuckled and headed back to the window. “We’ll see. I’ll drop by next week and see how it’s working out for you.” With that, he slipped out and started making his way a few blocks south to one of the local food pantries that Dr. Thompkins was particularly familiar with. She’d called ahead, letting the owner know Jason would be dropping by, as Jason didn’t want to scare the hell out of the woman.

He shouldn’t have been worried. Tamara Wilkes seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Leslie Thompkins and didn’t even flinch when Jason dropped down on the roof of her food pantry.

“Hood. Leslie told me you’d be dropping by,” she spoke, voice hard. Jason instantly knew that Tamara, like Bruce and the Gotham PD, did not approve of his escapades as the Red Hood.

“I hope she also told you I’m no longer a crime boss and am not in the game anymore,” Jason ventured, because the woman was glaring at him pretty harshly.

“She mentioned it, yet here you are, wearing the red hood,” she said, stony.

“True, but I currently wear it in defense of homeless children across Crime Alley,” Jason retorted easily. “Which is why I’m here now.”

This piqued Wilkes’ interest. “How so?”

“Surely you’ve noticed there’s a disparity between the number of homeless children throughout the Alley and the number of homeless children that come by to get free food,” Jason started. “And as an intelligent woman, I’m sure you’re aware of why.”

Wilkes frowned. “It’s state law. Volunteers have to alert the authorities if they suspect a child is homeless. It’s meant to protect the kids.”

“But it doesn’t really,” Jason pointed out. “Ideally it would, but there are a lot of shitty people out there who take advantage of the foster care system to get easy money and then abuse the hell out of the kids. They don’t feel safe enough to come to you for food out of fear of ending back up in abusive situations. And I know. I was one of them,” he revealed. It was a calculated reveal, because the way she was looking at him made Jason think that she wouldn’t help him out of spite alone. But if he could at least some understanding sympathy, they might get somewhere.

Wilkes pursed her lips before she conceded. “You’re right. It’s a real problem.”

Jason nodded. “There’s a large number of homeless kids who’ve taken refuge in a building I protect. It’s just a safe place for them to sleep,” he continued quickly, already knowing the direction the woman’s thoughts had turned. “They don’t owe me anything for it, I don’t ask them anything as payment. But they need to sleep somewhere warm where they know no one’s going to come for them in the middle of the night. The problem is, not all of them are getting enough food, and they can’t come to you for it, as much as I know you’d like to help them.”

“What are you suggesting?” Wilkes asked after a moment.

“That you drop boxes of food by the warehouse whenever you can,” he replied. “If that’s something you want to do, as the need is there. But, I protect those kids, and I protect them from being put back into abusive situations, too. I know it’s not perfect and I know it’s not feasible long term. These kids need more stability and need to get back in school, but I don’t know how to do that in a way that doesn’t put them in danger. I’m definitely open to suggestions if you got them, but for now, if you want to help them, then this is how you can do that.”

Wilkes was silent for a moment and Jason honestly had no idea what she was going to say. “Okay,” she finally spoke. “For now, you can have boxes of food. But we do need to come up with a long-term solution to get these kids off the streets and back in school, Hood.”

“No arguments there,” Jason replied honestly. “I’m brain storming, Dr. Thompkins is brain storming, we welcome you into the brain storming club. I’m sure there’s something we can do, we just need to find the trust worthy social workers. We need proper background checks and inspections on the foster program volunteers, and honestly, we need a system that actually works. So if you figure it out, let me know.”

“I want to meet the kids,” she declared suddenly.

Jason frowned under his hood, considering it. “I’m not opposed to bringing you to the warehouse, but you’ll have to assure the kids that you’re not going to threaten the safety they’ve found there or they won’t come back and then they’ll have no one to help them.”

Wilkes nodded.

“The warehouse is located across the bulk fabric place on 14th street. Bring food. I’ll go on ahead and prep them. Knock on the front door.”

Wilkes nodded again and Jason leapt from the building, hoping he hadn’t just made a huge mistake. If the police came instead of Wilkes, he might never be able to help those kids, and Jason just couldn’t accept that. If the police did come, Jason would fight them. But, he’d leave them all alive, so hopefully Commissioner Gordon wouldn’t be too mad. Jason could only hope.

Chapter Text

There were eleven kids already in the warehouse by the time Jason got there, and it was just past nine. No doubt there’d be many more before too long. He sighed, keenly feeling the responsibility he’d taken on. Jason did in fact know that this wasn’t a long-term solution, but he also knew how bad the kids must have had it before resorting to living on the streets of Crime Alley. He couldn’t send them back to that, not after his own experiences. For now, they’d at least have better access to food once Tamara Wilkes decided things were on the level. If Tamara Wilkes decided things were on the level.

“Hood!” Alex, the fourteen-year-old who’d been there the first night, greeted as soon as Jason slipped in through one of the upper windows.

“Hey, Alex,” Jason replied as he moved down the rafters, enough so that he was in earshot, but still high enough that he had a good view of the place. “Things okay? Anything I should know about?”

This seemed to be a negative so Jason continued. “Alright, we’re going to have a visitor tonight.”

Many of the kids visibly withdrew and all of them immediately looked wary. Jason sighed internally and tried his best to do damage control. “It’s not a bad visitor. It’s a food bearing visitor. Food is good. We like food. Her name is Tamara Wilkes and she runs the food pantry on 12th.” There was an immediate string of protests and Jason held up his hands, cutting them off. “Hold it. She’s a friend and I’m vouching for her.” It was sort of a lie, and Jason was taking a gamble, but he was betting on Dr. Thompkins’ relationship with Wilkes. There was no doubt in his mind that Wilkes immediately called the Doc after their little chat; he was fairly sure Dr. Thompkins would have talked her into trusting Jason.

“No one is getting ratted out to the police,” he promised them solemnly. “That’s why she’s coming here instead of you going there. If you guys choose to be here, then you are under my protection. If the police come for you, I will make sure you have the time you need to run. I promise. So can we all just settle down and not panic?” he asked the gathered children below him.

Most of them looked rather surly, but Alex, who’d quickly turned into the Red Hood’s biggest fan and the de facto speaker of the army of homeless children spoke up. “Alright. We’ll let her come.”

No one outright disagreed so Jason figured that was that. He understood the trust being placed in him after a very short time and he nodded solemnly. “Thank you. Also, I have more food news,” he began, but the motion sensors he’d hidden on the roof suddenly went off in his ear and Jason stiffened before quickly bolting up the rafters back to the top window. “Behind the wall,” he ordered to the children below him, and they immediately scampered to their protected position as Jason slipped silently through the top window to peek up at the roof.

To his utter surprise, he saw Red Robin wandering about the roof curiously.

Jason sighed loudly even as his coiled muscles relaxed.

Tim jerked around at the noise. “Hood!” he said, sounding pleased to see him.

Jason resisted the sudden urge to bang his head onto the roof ledge he was currently looking over. What the fuck was wrong with this kid? He wasn’t even tense. There was no defensive stance. Tim just stood on Jason’s rooftop easy as anything, like he didn’t think Jason was a threat to him at all, despite all the times Jason had almost succeeded in killing him. The kid was lucky to be living if this was how he treated all dangerous situations.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jason demanded, irritated. “I know for a fact this isn’t your usual patrol route. Or any of the Bats’ patrol routes. Which is why I’m here—so I don’t have to be around any of you,” he declared pointedly.

He might as well have not even spoken for all the affect it had on Tim. “I heard Red Hood had claimed this area, and then I thought about what Dr. Thompkins would say if she knew you were running around on your broken ankle, so I figured I’d come and save you from her wrath.”

Jason’s eyes narrowed beneath his hood. “Oh, so you’re on baby-sitting duty. You assign it to yourself or did someone assign it to you?”

Tim shook his head. “Not baby-sitting duty and no one assigned it to me. As far as I know, none of the others even know you’re in Gotham. I’m here because you re-bruised your ribs fighting someone. You’ll break them again if you’re working. Not to mention your ankle. So I thought I’d come around and offer my services. Think of me as the brawn to your brain. Just tell me what you need done,” Tim said cheerfully.

Jason was absolutely going to let him have it, because he didn’t need anyone—especially not a bloody goody-two-shoes Bat—to do his job. “Look, Replacement,” Jason began, really gearing up for a good throw-down, but then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Wilkes closing in on the warehouse with two cardboard boxes in her hands. “Fuck,” he swore in supreme irritation. “I don’t have time for this. You can come in but keep your trap shut, got it? This doesn’t concern you. Also, try not to spook the kids.”

Tim jolted, very clearly startled. “Kids?”

Jason ignored him and hurried back through the window, aware of Tim scrambling after him. The kids were behind the wall still and Jason called out to them as he moved swiftly down the rafters, “False alarm. Just a pesky bird coming to bother me. Nothing to do with you guys. But Wilkes is here. I’m going to let her in, nobody bolt,” he told them firmly.

Only a few of the kids ventured out from behind the wall, Alex among them. Jason moved to the door and swung it open. “Tread carefully. The kids are spooked,” he told her quietly.

Wilkes nodded solemnly. Jason appreciated the fact that she didn’t even bat an eye at the state of the warehouse and kept her stance completely non-threatening.

“Who’s hungry?” she smiled, looking softer than she had during the whole conversation she’d had with Jason.

Alex moved forward warily. “What you got?” he asked challengingly.

“Why don’t you come see?” she invited, setting the boxes on the ground.

“I’m gonna leave this to you,” he told Wilkes quietly. She nodded and Jason turned his attention to the kids. “I’m keeping watch,” he told them seriously and several of the kids visibly relaxed as they moved out from behind the wall. He leapt up into the rafters, but stayed closer than he usually would have to give the kids an extra sense of security. They cautiously moved towards Wilkes, who had started a steady stream of conversation with Alex.

“This is why you needed the money, isn’t it?” Tim said, moving down to crouch on the same rafter as Jason.

Jason momentarily considered deflecting, but there was no point. Tim had already seen everything he needed to put it together. He gave up all pretense and heaved a sigh. “Yeah. I saw some thugs kicking a few of them out of the warehouse so I kicked their asses and then I bought the warehouse and now there’s over a dozen.”

He could practically feel Tim’s surprise rolling off of him. “You didn’t kill them.”

Jason’s expression turned savage under his hood. “No. I made an example of them. This place and these kids are off limits.”

“Who’s she?” Tim asked, nodding to Wilkes.

“Tamara Wilkes. Friends with Doc Thompkins. She runs a food pantry on 12th and we’ve struck a deal.”

“What kind of deal?” Tim asked curiously.

“Food for the kids once a day. They can’t go to the pantry themselves. The workers are obligated to call the police, put them back where they were.”

“But shouldn’t they be in the foster system or something?” Tim questioned. “I mean it’s gotta be better than living on the street, right?”

Jason turned a flat look on Tim who was apparently able to read it under his hood because he immediately faltered. “Or not?”

“Tim, you’re smart. I respect your skills, and hell, I even think you’re a halfway decent Robin. But you have no idea what life is like in Crime Alley. None of you do. None of you ever have, especially not Bruce with his posh Bristol upbringing and Ivy League education. Yeah, sure, maybe his parents got murdered here, but that is one night. One horrible, hellish experience in a sea of glitz and glamor and safety. But that one night that changed him so completely? That happens every damn day here, and as much as he thinks he might, he just can’t understand what it’s like to be a child of the Alley. And, no offense, but neither can you or Dick or Damian. You just don’t know. Some situations are worse than sleeping on the streets, little bird,” Jason remarked darkly. “If these kids are here, then that’s why. They physically won’t go and get free food even if they’re starving because they’re afraid they’ll be put right back where they were,” he spoke lowly, but fervently.

“Is that what happened to you?” Tim asked.

Jason twitched. “That’s not your business,” he retorted shortly. “And Wilkes and Doc Thompkins get it, which is why we’re doing this,” he said, gesturing down to Wilkes. “It’s temporary, but it’ll work for now.”

Tim was silent and looking thoughtful under his cowl. Jason narrowed his eyes at him. “Don’t you dare do anything about this without talking to me first, Drake,” he warned lowly. “I know you like to get in the middle of things, but I’m the expert here. These kids trust me, okay? If anything makes them think they can’t trust me, then they’re going to bolt and then they’ll be out there without anyone to keep an eye on them, okay? We have to tread carefully,” he said for what felt like the tenth time that night.

Tim nodded and spoke softly, “Yeah, I get it. You get final say.”

For whatever reason, Jason felt like he meant it. He relaxed a little on the rafter and turned his attention back to the proceedings on the ground. Things were progressing well. A few more kids had turned up from the Alley and the other kids were explaining to them what was going on, pointing up at Jason in the rafters and then whispering about Red Robin beside him. Whatever else, Jason’s presence was putting the kids at ease. Wilkes could see it too, based on the slightly impressed look she cast up at him.

“So what do you say?” Wilkes spoke to the kids. “It’s up to you. If you want, I won’t come back and I won’t say a word to the police. Or, I could drop by once a day with food and still not say a word to the police.”

The kids whispered amongst themselves for a moment before Alex spoke up. “You can bring food.”

Wilkes nodded. “Alright. I’ll drop by again tomorrow then.” She then looked up at Jason and jerked her head to the door. He leapt down and followed, aware of Tim’s gaze on him as he went down to talk to her.

“Okay, I see your point,” Wilkes admitted as soon as he was before her. “These kids trust you and that’s important. This might be the best we can do until we figure out something more permanent,” she acknowledged. Jason felt a little relief to have her on his side. “But I’m willing to bet more and more kids will keep coming. I don’t know that I’ll be able to supply enough food, Hood,” she said regrettably.

“We’ll work it out,” he said determinedly. He’d donate money to the food pantry if that’s what it took. “I’ve already lined up another source of food, which reminds me, I’m gonna need your help on that as well. You remember Madame S and her Chinese restaurant on Perkins Street? How she used to leave the leftovers in boxes in the alley for us to come get when we needed to?”

“I remember. Madame S was a good woman.”

Jason nodded, “Well a woman named Jamie Li owns the Chinese restaurant right down the street, and she’s agreed to set up the same deal. I’m about to send a couple of the kids to fetch the boxes. Madame S got tax rebates on the boxes because she said she donated them to you, right? You gave her the receipt for the taxes? Think you could do the same thing for Jamie?”

“Yes, I’d be happy to. What about the building? How long can they stay here?”

“Indefinitely. I made a deal with the owner.”

“Not bad, Hood,” Wilkes allowed. “It’ll be good for winter. We’ll figure out the rest. I’ll drop some more food by tomorrow. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“No promises,” Jason retorted. Wilkes wasn’t amused. She left after a quick glare, leaving Jason to the army of homeless children who immediately demanded, “Hood, what the hell is Red Robin doing here?”

“Yeah, what if he calls the police?”

“He’s a Bat!” another protested.

“He’s here for me, not for you,” Jason retorted easily. “Ain’t that right, little bird?”

Red Robin let out a huff at the nickname as he dropped down next to Jason. Tim clarified, “I’m here because my older brother here has a broken ankle and ribs, so I’m going to make sure he doesn’t make them worse.”

Several children turned accusing eyes on Jason, but he was staring at Tim, offended. “Brother?”

Tim gave him a challenging look in return. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Tim meant they were technically brothers because they’d both officially been adopted by Bruce Wayne, but that was in title only. Jason and Tim had never been brothers. Hell, Jason had barely been brothers with Dick. Dick hadn’t wanted Jason around in the beginning. And if they ever had been brothers, they certainly weren’t now, and he certainly wasn’t with Tim.

“I doubt Daddy Bats sees it that way, Replacement.”

“You’re with Batman?” One of the kids demanded, seeming surprised.

“No,” Jason immediately snapped. “I’m definitely not.”

“He’s one of us,” Tim spoke to the boy, ignoring the fact that Jason had said anything. Again. Jason threw up his hands in exasperation, but Tim just kept talking. “He’s just the red sheep of the family.”

“I’m the smart sheep of the family,” Jason retorted, annoyed.

Tim patted him on the shoulder in a way that Jason found incredibly patronizing. “Weren’t you about to tell them about the other source of food you found them?” he asked innocently.

Jason glared and pointed up at the rafters. “Go away.”

Tim shrugged and moved back up into the rafters, but didn’t actually leave. Jason grumbled under his breath but turned his attention back to the kids. He quickly outlined Jamie Li’s restaurant, and several of the kids brightened at this. “Ten thirty,” he told them. “Four of you go and bring it back here. Red Robin and I will be keeping an eye on everyone.” The kids nodded and Jason moved up to the rafters.

“Hood,” one of the younger kids from the first night called, making him pause. “Don’t be stupid; stay off your ankle,” she ordered firmly and Jason could just hear Tim’s snort of laughter up above him.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason grumbled grumpily, but he did make an extra effort to use his arms more and his injured ankle less as he moved up through the window and back out onto the roof. Tim followed him.

Jason decided to ignore him in the hopes that he’d just go away. Of course, Tim wasn’t at all cooperative. Instead, he just sat down and made himself comfortable on the roof and pulled a laptop out of a bag that Jason didn’t even know he’d brought. He glared pointedly, but Tim didn’t seem to notice, which just irritated him more. After a few moments of fruitless glaring, Jason resorted to demanding, “Seriously? You’re just going to stay here?”

“Unless your ankle magically heals, yes,” Tim retorted, not even looking up from his laptop.

Jason rolled his eyes, but gave up and just made himself comfortable on the roof as well. He then pulled out his phone and started looking up tutorials on changing out light fixtures. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Jason still wasn’t sleeping well and he was having nightmares almost every night. Sometimes they weren’t too bad. It was only after the nights he dreamed about the Joker that he struggled to do anything the next day, holing up in his apartment with a gun in arm’s reach. That night, thankfully, he didn’t dream about the Joker, but he did dream about the Lazarus Pit, about his body, broken despite the weeks that had passed since he clawed himself free of his coffin, about the moment he realized the people who’d found him wouldn’t be taking him back to Bruce, about Ra’s and his cruelty, how the man himself had dragged Jason to the Pit and shoved him beneath the liquid, about rising from it screaming, every cell in his body on fire.

Ra’s had immediately proceeded to educate Jason on his new position and role within the League of Assassins, and, with Jason being the strong willed, loud mouth he was, that led straight to his first of many beatings as Ra’s tried to force Jason into obedience. He’d been strung up and whipped, because Ra’s was a 700-year-old psychopath and therefore a fan of the classics. Jason had outlasted the old man’s patience by the end of those two years. It hadn’t been as traumatizing as being murdered by the Joker, but it’d been no picnic, and Jason was still affected by it. He always kept a weapon nearby when he was sleeping and he often woke abruptly in the middle of the night with said weapon in his hand.

Or in the middle of the morning.

“Geez, Jason. It’s freezing in here,” a voice declared, jerking Jason back to consciousness. He was breathing rather heavily and he had a very large knife in his hand. It only took Jason a moment to realize that voice belonged to Tim and he was now standing in the sleeping section of Jason’s loft. He dropped the knife beside him and pulled his pillow over his head. “Go the fuck away.”

It’d been two and a half` weeks since Tim found the warehouse, and almost every single night since he’d popped by and “helped” Jason keep an eye on things for a while. He’d even gone so far as to alter his previous patrol route to now include Jason’s part of town, apparently just until Jason was fully healed. Not that he let that stop him. The Red Hood had already brutally beaten the crap out of a myriad of criminals who’d been using some of the kids to commit crimes in exchange for rather paltry protection. These guys didn’t take it too well when the kids suddenly ran off. He took great pleasure in beating them bloody and sending them to the hospital as warning to all the other criminals of Crime Alley to stay the hell away. Jason still had enough of a reputation that the general population was plenty happy to leave the kids alone as long as that meant the Red Hood wouldn’t come and slaughter them whole.

Tim was satisfied with the nonlethal, if still brutal, methods, and things were quickly stabilizing enough that Jason was gearing up to offer up his protection to the prostitutes of Crime Alley as well. All in all, things were going pretty well, and Jason would be feeling better about things if he could somehow figure out how the hell to get rid of Tim. It didn’t matter how mean he was to the kid, he just didn’t go away. Jason had been pretty close to giving up and just accepting Tim’s presence on his turf, but now Tim was in his home, and that was just a step too far.

“Seriously, Jason, it’s almost as cold as it is outside. How are you even sleeping?”

“I’m not sleeping because you won’t go the fuck away,” Jason hissed grumpily. And as always, Tim was absolutely unbothered by Jason’s irritation. If Tim had a superpower, then ignoring Jason’s less than stellar mood was it. “And that’s what the new insulation is for.”

“Well you need to go ahead and have it installed, because it is way too cold in here,” Tim declared. “Now get up. I brought breakfast.”

Jason was about to snap again, but the smell of bacon made him pause. He was pretty hungry, now that he was awake. He sat up and glared at Tim who was in full civvies. His expression looked casual, but there was a hint of concern lingering in his gaze, no doubt due to witnessing Jason’s fitful sleep. That just made Jason even more annoyed. “What are you doing here?”

“Pancakes, bacon and eggs are on what passes as your table,” Tim said, nodding his head to the wall that separated Jason’s sleeping area from his living area.

Jason grumbled under his breath and got out of bed, following Tim to the couch. Breakfast was laid out on his fourth-hand coffee table. Jason was already clothed in a sweater, hoodie, sweatpants, and thick socks, so all he had to do was go over and flop down on the couch. He immediately grabbed the coffee and a strip of bacon. “Seriously, Replacement, didn’t I just see you like six hours ago? Why are you in my house?”

Tim gave the place a skeptical look. “This is your house?”

Jason glared, because some people hadn’t spent their lives living in fancy, warm houses. Some people had grown up in slums or on the streets, or spent years as a slave and slept in a cell. Three years spent in Wayne Manor and a year on a spaceship didn’t just nullify all of that. To Jason, the place was plenty nice, and he was feeling a little defensive. “It’s a work in progress, okay? Lay off. And answer the question.”

“I come bearing news,” Tim replied, sitting down and grabbing his own breakfast. “I got that formula from Damian and gave it to Dr. Thompkins a few days ago. She has officially decided that it’s solely responsible for all the irregularities she found in your blood, which means she’s ready to move on to further tests. She’s got a full body MRI scheduled for the day after tomorrow at Gotham General.”

“Either one of you could have called and told me that,” Jason pointed out.

Tim shrugged. “Yeah, but I decided to drop by instead.”

Jason gave him a quick once over and realized something. “Holy shit, Replacement, you haven’t even slept yet, have you?”

“I had WE meetings this morning,” Tim replied, unconcerned. “I’ll get to it eventually.”

Jason stuffed half a pancake in his mouth and swallowed it down before he replied, “You’ll get to it now. Go the fuck home and go to sleep. And don’t you come anywhere near the warehouse tonight. None of this even concerns you. Sleep does though.”

Tim shrugged lightly and continued eating his pancakes in an easy sort of silence. Jason heaved a sigh and decided it was best to just ignore him. A few minutes later, Tim finished eating and stood up. “See you tomorrow,” he waved, and that was that.

Jason stared after him with a frown on his face. He had no idea what Tim’s greater goal was in spending all this time with Jason, but it was still making him wary. So far, Tim had made no indication that he wanted anything from Jason at all, but his continued presence told him otherwise. He didn’t know what to do about it though. For now, it just seemed he’d have to wait, even if the waiting drove him crazy.

Tim was right though. His place was freezing and getting colder every night. It was early December now, and Jason had gone as far as acquiring a ladder and the power tools he needed, but other than that, he’d made no progress on the insulation. He supposed it was time he did something about that.

Jason sighed and stood from his couch. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a complete disaster.

*****

Dick Grayson was concerned about his younger brother. Not the youngest brother, though Dick was pretty much always concerned about Damian, because, well, Damian was still slightly murderous and still rather… intense. There wasn’t much not to be concerned about where the youngest bird was involved, but Damian wasn’t his main concern right now. No, his main concern was Tim. Timothy Drake-Wayne was a bit of a strange one, if he was being perfectly honest, but Tim was a wonderful little brother and Dick was extremely thankful for the stabilizing influence he had been on the family. He didn’t have Dick’s upbeat or optimistic nature, but he was extremely intelligent and always steady. He kept them calm and on track. Of course, Damian threw a slight wrench into that since he and Tim were constantly at each other’s throats. And things had been rough with Tim since Damian became Robin. But he thought things were getting back to normal again. At least, they had been. Lately though, he was barely even around and no one seemed to know what he was up to. So Dick was lying in wait at his apartment, ready to find out.

Only, it was eleven in the morning and Tim hadn’t even gotten back yet. Dick made himself comfortable on Tim’s couch and settled into wait.

It wasn’t a long wait. Fifteen minutes after Dick had made himself comfortable in Tim’s living room, Tim was walking through the door.

“Where on earth have you been?” Dick demanded immediately.

“Patrol and then I had meetings this morning,” Tim replied, yawning.

Dick faltered. Tim didn’t ever get enough sleep and he was clearly exhausted. Maybe it would be better if he just left Tim to sleep. He could bring up Tim’s weird behavior later.

But, then again, maybe this would be the best time to bring it up. Tim would be too tired to deflect effectively and they could get it over with more quickly. That decided, he got straight to the point, “You’ve been up to something.”

Tim looked marginally startled. “What?”

“Up to something,” Dick repeated. “You’ve been weird. You’re hardly around the Manor or the Cave, and I talked to Babs, Cass, and Steph and none of them seem to know what you’ve been up to lately. Neither does Damian or Alfred. So come on, Tim. Spill. Where have you been and what have you been doing?”

“I have so been around,” Tim protested. “I saw you yesterday.”

“Yeah, for like two seconds. We passed each other on the way out of the Cave.”

Tim looked like he was going to protest more, before he abruptly changed his mind. He went quiet for a moment, obviously thinking through what information to impart to his oldest brother. Dick was patient, letting Tim choose his words.

He was surprised when he heard them though. “I’ve been planning on bringing you in on this since the beginning. You think I would have thought about what I’m going to say,” he remarked, self-deprecating.

“Huh?” Dick blinked.

Tim looked at him. “I’m not hiding anything. Well, I am, sort of, but I had no intention of hiding it forever. You need to be in on it too, but it’s complicated,” he said, looking tired and a little frustrated.

Dick ushered him over to the couch and sat him down. “It’s okay, Tim. Just tell me what it is and we’ll work it out. It’s all going to be fine,” he assured him.

Tim rolled his eyes at Dick’s light smothering, “It’s not bad. It’s just complicated and requires careful steps.”

“Well, tell me,” Dick pushed.

Tim heaved a sigh before dropping one hell of a bombshell. “Jason is back in Gotham.”

Dick’s brain temporarily short-circuited and he felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

Jason.

Dick had very complicated feelings about Jason Todd. On the one hand, there was the boy who’d been his first little brother; brash, loud, fun-loving, nothing but sharp edges, but loving and protective and fiercely loyal. It’d been rough between them in the beginning. Dick had been furious at Bruce for his own reasons, then even more furious at Bruce when he found out he’d been replaced by some street punk, and he’d taken that out on Jason just a bit. Then Jason had felt the pressure to live up to Dick and that, combined with Dick’s treatment, had made him resentful. But, after a while, they’d warmed up to each other. Dick had taken Jason out on patrol with him, given him advice on how to deal with Bruce when he was acting like an asshole, and endured Jason’s teasing about Starfire and Barbara with marginal grace.

Dick had liked being an older brother, and he’d liked being an older brother to Jason. He’d been devastated when Jason was killed, had been much more cautious about becoming close with Tim, and struggled to even walk by Jason’s room in the Manor.

When Jason came back to life, he came back to life wrong, and any joy Dick could feel about seeing his brother again was completely tainted by Jason’s hatred and rage. Dick was so glad his brother was alive, but heartbroken because he wanted them dead. He hadn’t been able to reconcile all the warring emotions in his head, so it’d been a relief when Jason suddenly vanished from Gotham. Less so when he realized Jason teamed up with his ex-fiancé and Roy Harper to form some sort of morally ambivalent outlaw team, but still better than Jason in Gotham, killing criminals and plotting his brother’s death. So to hear that he was back in Gotham immediately sent Dick into emergency panic mode.

“Dick. Dick!” Tim snapped, bringing him back to the present. Tim apparently had been trying to get his attention for a while. “Would you listen to me? It’s not bad. I swear.”

Dick glared at his little brother. “How can you say that? Jason tried to kill you. Do you know how many criminals he killed while he was here? There were heads in duffel bags! He killed completely without remorse, and it sucked, and now he’s back. How is that not bad?”

“It wasn’t as simple as that,” Tim replied, looking at him seriously.

Dick glared. “It was exactly as simple as that. Murder is murder, no matter who is committing it and for what reasons. That’s our only line, Tim, and Jason obliterated it.”

“It was the Lazarus Syndrome,” Tim declared, making Dick’s brain short-circuit a second time. “It wasn’t Jason. Well, not completely Jason. But it’s been almost a year since he killed anyone. I’ve been around him every day for the past two weeks and I think the Lazarus Syndrome has completely worn off.”

Dick didn’t speak for a moment, struggling to take in what Tim was saying. He’d been with Jason. On the one hand, that made Dick feel panicky, because Tim was his little brother too and Jason almost killed him. But on the other hand, he was still struggling to grasp the fact that Jason had been exposed to the Lazarus Pit, which just explained so much.

“Oh my god,” Dick finally whispered faintly, trying desperately not to hope, but failing completely.

Tim cracked a small smile, aware of the struggle Dick was going through. “It’s really okay, Dick. He’s been here for weeks and he’s doing good work. There’re still some issues, but I’ve been around him constantly, and he hasn’t tried to kill me or anything. He’s not going to either. That wasn’t him.”

Dick had no idea how he’d missed Jason’s presence in Gotham for weeks. Well, actually he did know. He’d been pulling Batman duty for Bruce who’d been busy with League stuff. First something involving the Green Lantern Corp, and then something involving an intergalactic tyrant who was getting a little too close to Earth for comfort. There’d been a string of murders up on the north end of the city, and Dick and Damian had had their hands full with the investigation with no attention to spare for Jason’s old sector in Crime Alley. But Jason had been taking care of things there, according to Tim.

“What happened to the Outlaws?” Dick found himself asking. “Are they okay? Is Jason okay?”

Tim frowned a little and Dick felt another little flare of panic in his chest. “They’re taking a sabbatical. They had to recover from an incident with some telepathic Planet Eaters. I asked Superman about it and apparently they saved the planet, but it was really rough. The aliens fed on pain and fear and made them relive all the pain and fear they’d ever experienced, so Jason had to go through his death all over again.”

Dick swore, horrified because Jason’s death had been horrific and had already traumatized him enough. “Is he okay?”

Tim frowned a little, looking a bit disgruntled. “Jason is stubborn as fuck,” he swore, which was a rare enough occurrence that Dick was startled into laughter. “He made it out like it was nothing and told me to ask Superman about it as a joke. I don’t think he thought I really would. I had no idea how bad it was until Superman told me. Jason acts like it was nothing, but he doesn’t sleep much and when he does, he has nightmares, and he’s suspicious as hell and tenses up if anyone is within arm’s length of him.”

Dick felt his heart sink. “He did that before,” he spoke softly. “When he first came to the Manor. It took about a year for him to stop, and he only stopped completely for me, Bruce, Babs, and Alfred.”

Tim frowned. “I read Bruce’s file on him. It’s one thing to know that Jason had a rough childhood, but it’s completely different actually seeing the effects of the abuse.”

Dick rubbed his head and sighed. “He never talked about it. Only mentioned it in the briefest terms, whenever he could explain something about Crime Alley before Bruce or I could figure it out.”

“Well he’s stubborn,” Tim replied, frustrated. “I mean, he knows about Lazarus Syndrome, but he doesn’t think it changes anything about what he did. He doesn’t seem to get at all that we’d want him back in the family. And not only will he not ask for help, but he openly resists it! I mean, he’s a Robin. He’s one of us. You want him back, don’t you?”

“Course I do,” Dick declared fervently. “I wanted him back before I knew about the Lazarus Syndrome.” He abruptly paused as a thought struck him, “How was he exposed to the Lazarus Pit? Is that where he was before he came back to Gotham? With the League of Assassins?” Dick asked alarmed, though it would explain how brutally efficient Jason’s fighting style had become since he wore the Robin suit.

Tim’s expression darkened. “I don’t have all the details, because Jason won’t really talk to me about it. What I do know is that Jason woke up in his coffin a year after he’d died with all the same wounds from his death, but not the slightest bit decayed. He had to dig his way out and was found stumbling a couple of miles away from the cemetery. It was Ra’s’ people who found him, and they took him to Ra’s when he asked for Bruce. He forced Jason into the Pit and kept him as a slave.”

Dick’s horror steadily increased throughout Tim’s speech. He couldn’t even imagine the horror of waking up in a coffin.

Tim continued. “He’s mentioned Talia a couple of times, and though he hasn’t really said, I think Talia got him from Ra’s and used the Lazarus Syndrome to wind him up and set him loose on me so that Damian could kill you and take his “rightful” place as Bruce’s true son and successor,” he remarked, tone full of scorn.

Dick swore furiously. “I hate that woman,” he snarled viciously. “She kept Damian and Jason from us. He should have been home, he should have recovered with us, but instead she used him and twisted him like she did Damian, and I hate her.”

“You and me both,” Tim replied honestly. “Not to mention she still wants both of us dead. Anyway, I’ve just sort of been forcing my presence on Jason for the last few weeks and getting him used to it. Next step was to get you doing it too and then I figured we could just steadily pull him back into the family.”

“Yes,” Dick declared fervently, shooting up from the couch, determination and purpose flooding him. “Yes. Where is he?”

Tim smirked, amused as he rattled off an address in Crime Alley. “Go on, Dick. Fix him with hugs.”

Dick nodded firmly, practically bolting out of Tim’s apartment. That was exactly what he was going to do.

Chapter Text

Jason was making pretty good progress ripping the boards off his ceiling with a crowbar. There wasn’t much in the way of existing insulation. He found that promising, as it hopefully meant his place would be much warmer once he got the new insulation in. He pulled out some of the old stuff before he placed in the new, stapling it to the joists so it wouldn’t fall down. It was surprisingly easy. Jason figured he’d have the real issues when he went to install the new boards over the insulation. The most immediate problem was what to do with the old boards and insulation now littering his loft. With no better idea, he dragged it out onto his balcony. He’d figure out how to dump it later.

He was about halfway through ripping off the old boards when he heard his door open. He was on a ladder, facing away from the door, but there was only one person it could be since only one other person had ever been in Jason’s loft.

“Oh my god, Tim, go home and go to sleep or I swear I will tranq you and drop you off on top of some random building to nest, and you’ll have only yourself to blame,” Jason called loudly as he continued to pry old planks of wood from his ceiling.

“Jay?” a voice asked, decidedly not Tim’s.

Jason whirled around quickly, falling off the ladder, but landing easily on his feet. It made his almost healed ankle twinge slightly, but Jason wasn’t paying it any attention. Dick was standing in the middle of his loft, staring at Jason with those big earnest puppy dog eyes.

He felt like the wind was knocked out of him and for a moment they just stared at each other, neither daring to speak. It lasted a solid minute before Jason couldn’t take it anymore. “You look like someone just killed your dog,” he remarked, and suddenly, Dick was right in front of Jason, wrapping his big arms around him in a painfully tight hug.

Jason flailed his trapped arms helplessly. “Dick! What the hell, let me go!”

“No,” Dick declared, voice thick as he buried his face in Jason’s shoulder and tightened his iron grip. “Why didn’t you tell me you were back in Gotham?”

Jason was still tense and trying to extricate himself from Dick’s hold, but he wouldn’t budge and he wasn’t sure he was willing to break one of Dick’s limbs to get out of the hug. “I don’t know, maybe because the last time I was here, you all were trying to put me in Arkham?” he challenged, with words meant to hurt.

Dick just hugged him tighter. “No one’s putting you in Arkham. You’re not going anywhere, little wing.” Despite Jason’s best efforts, his heart still stuttered at the old, affectionate nickname. “You’re our brother.”

He sagged in defeat and muttered, “Goddammit, Drake.” Still, Dick didn’t let go, and Jason resigned himself to being treated like a teddy bear until Dick got his emotions under control. “He spill the beans?”

“I wanted to know what he’s been up to the last couple of weeks,” Dick spoke into his shoulder.

“Not leaving me alone, that’s what,” Jason snapped in reply. “Seriously, it’s like I picked up a stray and now I can’t get rid of him.”

“Well you’re not getting rid of me either,” Dick said. “Why didn’t you tell us Jay? When it started wearing off. You should have told us.”

And that, for whatever reason, made Jason angry. “Let go,” he snapped, and Dick must have heard the fury in his tone, because he did and looked at Jason with another pleading expression. Jason ignored it this time. “I don’t know what you think is going on, Dick, but things aren’t just suddenly okay now that I’m not actively trying to kill any of you. We’re not just suddenly family again.”

Dick frowned at him. “We never stopped being family, Jason.”

Jason scoffed coldly. “We stopped being family the moment I died, Dick. Yeah, the Lazarus Pit did some stuff to me, but it didn’t manufacture the way I feel about things. The Joker beat me to death and Batman put him in Arkham. He didn’t avenge me, he didn’t do something to stop it from happening to someone else. He just stuck him in Arkham like he always does, and the Joker broke out and killed more people, and he’ll do it again, and again and again, and every person who’s died has died because of Bruce! Don’t you get it? It’s all Bruce’s fault! He knows every time he puts the Joker back in Arkham that it’s just a matter of time before he breaks out again! Just because I’m not killing people anymore doesn’t mean my feelings about that have changed. They haven’t. And if Bruce were here, we both know he’d be trying to cart me off to Arkham to put me in a cell next to the psycho who killed me.”

“Bruce would never put you anywhere near him,” Dick swore fervently. “Never. And yeah, Bruce felt like you needed to be in Arkham, but you were slaughtering criminals by the dozens, Jason. What choice did you leave him? Do you think he wanted to? Do you think he would have gotten any kind of satisfaction from it? You’re his son, Jay. It would have killed him. He doesn’t know about the Pit or any of it. And when he does, he sure as hell isn’t going to put you in Arkham. He’s going to want to bring you home.”

“That place is not my home.”

“Yes it is. It always has been,” Dick declared.

“God, you’re so infuriating,” Jason snapped, furious. “You don’t get it! You don’t get anything!”

“I get that you’re being an idiot,” Dick retorted, and Jason came so, so close to punching him right in the face. If he had a gun in arms’ length, he might just have shot him. “You’ve been through some serious shit, Jason. No one will ever deny that. Your life has sucked for a really long time. We’ve all made some mistakes here, and yeah, I’ll admit that quite a few of those mistakes have been made by Bruce. But that doesn’t just mean that we’re suddenly not family, that we’re not brothers. We will always be brothers, and we’re here for you whether you like it or not. So we’re not just going to let you hole up and go through all of this alone. You’re just going to have to accept it.”

Jason stared at Dick grumpily, but Dick’s righteous and determined expression didn’t falter. Tim was one thing. He’d been cautious with Jason so far, very purposefully forcing himself into his world, but just as purposefully easing back when it got to be too much. Dick wouldn’t be that way. Dick was the antithesis of Bruce when it came to things like emotional distance. Not with everyone, but definitely with the people he called family. He was a big, feeling, hugging machine, and Dick would never accept anything less than a warm, cuddly family.

He couldn’t put up with this right now. He could not have this argument with Dick again and again, knowing Dick wasn’t listening to a damn thing he said. “You’re like a damn Hallmark card,” Jason snapped, annoyed.

Dick grinned happily, taking Jason’s reply as him laying down arms. It wasn’t. It was taking a break. “And proud of it,” he stated proudly, relaxing a little before he really looked at Jason’s loft for the first time. He frowned, concern in his gaze. “Is this where you’ve been living, Jay?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “I’ve already gotten this from the Replacement. You’ve been living the life of adopted son of a billionaire too long, Dick. You grew up in a traveling circus. There is nothing wrong with my place.”

Dick looked about skeptically. “Other than the fact you’re missing part of your ceiling and it’s freezing cold?”

“I’m replacing my insulation,” Jason retorted. “And then I’ll have a brand new ceiling and it’ll be warm. You’re the one who came and interrupted me.”

“I didn’t know you knew how to do this kind of stuff,” Dick said, looking around at his tools with a slightly impressed expression.

“I’m learning,” Jason corrected. “But I did reglaze my windows already. And I sealed all the cracks on my roof. You should have felt how cold it was before.”

“Yeah, no thanks,” Dick declared. He then looked again at the supplies and asked, “Can I help?”

Jason gave him a skeptical look. “Don’t you have stuff to do or something?”

“Nothing more important than hanging out with you,” Dick replied firmly.

Jason rolled his eyes again. “Hallmark card. It’s revolting.”

Dick grinned and said, “I’m going to take that as a yes. What do you want me to do?”

Jason closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. How the hell was this happening to him? Why the hell was Dick even here? More importantly, how could Jason get rid of him? A bullet to the head and a quick trip to the docks to dump the body, that was how. Only he was still in the middle of fixing his insulation, and he didn’t like the idea of an interruption. He groaned loudly. “Fucking fine! You can come behind me and put in the insulation, but I swear to God, if you keep talking I’ll shoot you in the face and dump you in the river, you got it?”

Dick nodded cheerfully. “Sure thing, Jay. So how do I help?”

Jason sighed loudly, regretting every decision he’d ever made. “Just put a roll of the insulation in between the boards like this, and staple the paper to the joists just like I did.”

“Okay, yeah, I can do that,” Dick replied with a grin, and he commandeered Jason’s ancient armchair and balanced on the back of it, easy as breathing. Jason shook his head and continued to pry off the old boards with the crowbar.

Jason got the sense that Dick wanted to talk more, but in a rare display of forbearance, he apparently decided to heed the warning and let them work in peace. Jason appreciated it, because he honestly didn’t think he could handle Dick talking anymore. It was just… too much. But, with Dick silent, Jason could pretend they were just two normal people who didn’t have the crushing weight of death, murder, and family between them. It worked for the most part, and within a couple of hours, they had all the old boards removed and had completed securing the new insulation throughout the loft. Jason could already feel his loft retaining heat.

“That makes a huge difference,” Dick said, seeming surprised.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jason declared, pleased as punch.

“When are you going to put in the new boards?” Dick asked curiously.

“Probably tomorrow. And I’ll have to figure out the new light fixtures too,” Jason said thoughtfully. “I’m gonna have to do with lamps until I get that done. Guy at the hardware store gave me some wood putty to cover up the nail heads once I get the boards in. I can sand it down and then paint or stain the wood without the nails showing. But I can’t decide if I am going to paint or stain it.” Jason frowned.

Dick looked around the loft thoughtfully. “I think you should. Paint it white. The floor is dark wood and with all the brick, it’s pretty dark in here. I think it’ll be nice.”

That was a good point. And the white would be a good contrast against his black iron light fixtures. “Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. Thanks. Roy is completely useless at this stuff,” he admitted.

“I don’t doubt it,” Dick remarked wryly. He then looked a little uncomfortable, and Jason shifted into a defensive stance, worried that Dick was going to talk again. He did, damn him. “Please don’t run off, Jay. Really, I’d really like it if you stuck around. And I’ll talk to Bruce about things. You don’t have to see him until you’re ready, but don’t force me or Tim out, okay?”

Jason narrowed his eyes. “There’s no need to see Bruce till I’m ready because he doesn’t even know I’m here. I see absolutely no reason why that should change.”

“Jay—” Dick protested, but Jason cut him off.

“Nope. My life, my choice. No telling Bruce anything. Besides, he’s off-world right now, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Dick replied. “But I still think he deserves to know.”

“Well I don’t,” Jason replied succinctly. “But as for you and Little Baby Bird, I’ve been trying to force him out for two weeks and it hasn’t been working, so I can’t imagine it’ll work any better with you.”

“Definitely won’t,” Dick declared, before wrapping Jason up in another sudden bear hug. “I’m so glad you’re back, Jay. I—” he seemed to struggle for words. “I really missed you.”

Jason was too weary to be any meaner to him than he already had been so he just sighed and gave Dick an awkward pat on the back. “Yeah, okay. Good to see you too, Big Bird.”

Dick squeezed him tighter. “Call if you need anything, okay? Anything, Jay, I mean it. And take care of yourself. And get some sleep, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Get out of here before you hurt yourself,” he muttered, a little uncomfortable with all the open affection. Dick gave him one last squeeze before he released him and beat a hasty retreat out of Jason’s apartment. Jason went and crashed on his bed, feeling suddenly very overwhelmed. Tim had been one thing. They didn’t have a history, other than Jason trying to kill Tim for a while. And Tim, the moron, was content enough to view that as water under the bridge. Jason didn’t feel the weight of who he’d been before the Joker. Tim was content to hang around with whoever he was now. He’d been a constant, steady, if unwanted, presence over the last two weeks, and Jason hadn’t realized how nice that was until faced with Dick’s jarring, and frankly overwhelming presence. It hadn’t been anywhere as bad as he would have expected, but he still felt drained in the aftermath. So much so, that he just let himself crash on his bed and didn’t bother moving for several hours, counting his breaths and purposefully thinking of nothing.

Jason felt a little less drained by the time he dragged himself from his bed. It helped that his loft was now pretty warm, even if he didn’t have any overhead lighting at the moment. But he had lamps. It was enough for the few days it would take him to finish up. And then he’d get new cabinets and a new sink. And he sort of wanted to completely gut his bathroom.

But he could worry about that later. Tonight, he was going to widen his patrol. He’d been sort of patrolling with Red Robin, but it was time to set up his own patrol route. If he was going to stay in Gotham for a while, which he was ready to admit he’d gotten invested, then there was really no reason to hold back anymore. His ribs were healed up, and his ankle was fine enough. Dr. Thompkins was right; once they wore the masks, they couldn’t just quit.

Jason stopped by the warehouse first. There were now twenty-eight children staying regularly with some other kids coming in and out when it suited them. They were always gone during the day, doing whatever it was they did to survive. He didn’t ask questions and he didn’t judge. He remembered what it had been like and all the things he’d had to do that he hadn’t wanted to.

“Hood,” several of the kids greeted, smiling as he appeared. Many of the kids had really warmed up to him, though many of them still remained distant. Jason definitely understood that, but even the distant ones had relaxed quite a lot in the last couple of weeks. All were looking a bit healthier. It made him smile under the hood. Christmas was just around the corner, and while Jason wasn’t Santa Claus and wouldn’t be delivering thirty presents on Christmas Eve, he had talked to a couple of catering companies, and Christmas dinner enough for forty was being delivered to the warehouse on Christmas Day. He was pretty excited about it. The kids were going to go nuts.

Wilkes arrived at her usual time and Jason went down to meet her. She hadn’t warmed up to Jason all that much in the past couple of weeks. She agreed with what they were doing, and she was always friendly with the kids, but she still judged Jason by the lives he’d taken as the Red Hood. Jason didn’t really care though. She brought food for the kids and that was good enough for him. That was really the only common ground they needed.

Tonight, she made two trips to her car to get the boxes of food inside.

“Well this is more than usual,” Jason declared once the kids were sorting through the food and passing things out.

“We had quite the hefty donation at the pantry,” she said, side-eyeing Jason. “Would you know anything about that?”

Jason could take a guess. “No, I don’t actually. Who was it?”

“The Wayne Foundation. Wayne’s third son, Timothy Drake-Wayne, is showing an interest in revitalizing Crime Alley, and he’s made quite a few donations around town, including the pantry and Leslie’s clinic.”

Jason shook his head. “The Waynes and their god complexes. Every last one of them thinks they can fix the world,” he snarked, but then considered. “But I don’t really see the harm in letting them try.”

“You actually make a good point, Hood,” she remarked condescendingly. Jason rolled his eyes, annoyed. “I’ll keep you updated on things.”

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” Jason replied dryly as she left.

Jason stuck around for another hour, making sure all the regular kids made it in alright and that no one had any problems. He then headed off to talk to some prostitutes.

One thing Jason really liked about not being with Batman anymore was not having to follow Batman’s rules. The killing thing was Bruce’s number one rule, but he had dozens more and Jason broke pretty much all of them. Some out of spite, some out of necessity. But one of the things Jason had always done was talk to people. Batman never really did that outside of interrogating criminals. People didn’t talk to Batman when he was skulking around in the cape. One, he was hella intimidating. Two, he wasn’t exactly chatty. Bruce didn’t know how to appeal to the people of Gotham’s slums and Batman certainly didn’t either. Jason had grown up with the poor and oppressed; things Bruce had to teach himself and the other Robins were as natural as breathing to Jason. It was easy for him to stop and talk to some prostitutes or the owner of a pawn shop and learn twice the amount of information Bruce would have learned after several days of surveillance. As such, when he’d decided to do the whole “crime boss” thing, prostitutes were the first people he talked to. They tended to hold a wealth of information.

“Hood,” a voice called happily as Jason hit the pavement and moved towards the corner where most of the Alley prostitutes lingered.

Jason smiled under his hood. “Sasha. You’re looking lovely tonight.”

She grinned wide. “Why thank you. I heard rumors you were back in Gotham. I was wondering when you’d come see me.” She stood on her toes and kissed the side of his helmet.

“Sorry, I’ve had my hands full,” he replied.

“Yeah, with all the homeless children of Gotham, it sounds like it,” she grinned, amused. “I told you you were nothing but a giant softie under that helmet of yours.”

“Vicious lies,” Jason declared immediately. “I am infinite badassery wrapped around a heart of stone.”

Sasha grinned indulgently and patted his shoulder. “Of course you are, sweetie.”

Jason rolled his eyes at the patronizing, but decided he’d take it.

“Yo, Hood!” Lacy, another prostitute standing a little further down the street, called.

“Evening, Lace,” he called back.

“Welcome back. Good to see you. Get lost.”

“Hey!” Jason protested, offended.

“Nothing personal, but you scare off all the johns.”

Sasha hummed. “That’s true. You do do that.”

“Well glad to know that you’re all so happy to see me,” Jason remarked dryly.

“Oh we are,” Sasha hurried. “Believe me. But you couldn’t have come by at the end of the work night?”

He tilted his head. “I mean, yeah, I guess. Didn’t really think of it that way.”

Sasha smiled. “It’s okay. We’ll forgive you this time. If you needed something, feel free to ask, but if you were just dropping by to chat, come back around four.”

“I was just dropping by to say that I was around,” Jason replied. “And that if anyone needs help, you know how to reach me. I’m trying the nonlethal thing for now, but there’s a dozen or so assholes who will be breathing and eating out of tubes for weeks, and the way I see it, they got the shorter end of the stick there.”

The sheer relief on Sasha’s face concerned him. “Thank fuck.” She then grabbed Jason’s wrist and pulled him over to the alley before explaining. “Things have been getting a little rough. Everything was great for a while—you got rid of all the worst pimps, and we were all getting to take home our fees and it felt safe, but the police couldn’t keep it up, and new people moved in. Nothing too awful, but not as great, you know? Things have been getting worse over the last few months though. But if you’re back, they’ll start to get better again.”

Jason frowned. “How bad are we talking here?”

“Not as bad as before you started as the Hood, but bad enough to make a lot of the girls scared.”

“Give me names and I’ll take care of it,” Jason told her solemnly.

“I’ve managed to stay a free agent, but I’ll talk to some of the girls who’ve been picked up by the new pimps and see who wants out. Give me a little time though. Come back tomorrow—end of the night.”

“Sure thing, Sasha.” He was pleased to find out that not all of the girls had been strong armed back into business with an abusive pimp. He could see the difference in Sasha. She looked healthier and there wasn’t a bruise in sight. “You look like you’re doing well for yourself. You look good,” he told her sincerely.

She smiled, pleased. “I’m doing pretty okay, Hood. Thanks to you.”

He nodded and then looked back towards the street and the other girls. “Hey, where’s Honey? She with a customer?” Honey and Sasha had been Jason’s main contacts with the prostitutes of Crime Alley. They were both sharp as hell, and had been invaluable to him with the information they picked up.

Sasha’s expression dropped instantly. “She died. Murdered. Found her in her apartment. She’d been stabbed.”

“Fuck,” Jason swore furiously, hand going for his gun automatically. He stopped the motion and turned it into a fist instead, pounding it into the brick wall of the alley. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” Sasha said, sad and bitter.

“When?”

“About four months ago.”

Jason hadn’t been in Gotham. He’d been hunting undead ninjas who’d been trying to destroy the Earth at the time, and while he’d been gone, someone had stabbed Honey in her own home.

“I’ll find them,” he told her solemnly, because Honey and Sasha had been about as close as you could be for Alley survivors. “And when I’m finished with them, they’ll wish I just went ahead and killed them,” he promised.

“Thank you, Hood.”

“Talk to the girls, make a list of anyone who’s giving you problems, and I’ll make sure they never dare again.”

She nodded. “I will. See you tomorrow.”

He nodded and grappled his way to the roof of the nearest building. He stopped there, giving himself a minute.

Jason had never been good at friends. There’d been Allie Garcia and Mike Holden in grade school, but Jason had lost touch with them when he ran away from his foster home, and by the time he had any stability back in his life, it’d been years since they last spoke. He never bothered to get back in touch with them. Then there was G, back when he was living on the streets. Jason didn’t know G’s actual name, but he’d saved G from the police once, and G saved him from a local dealer in return. After that, if they ever came at the same mark, they always did the job together and split the profits evenly, and that was about as close as two people got when sleeping on wet cardboard behind a dumpster, praying no one stumbled across you in the middle of the night. Jason never saw G again after Batman picked him off the streets, and he had no idea what became of him. Then, once he was at Wayne Manor, there’d been Alfred, and Dick, and Babs. Then Jason came back from the dead and there were no friends for a long time. But, when he decided to do Bruce’s job for him, there had been Sasha and Honey, AKA Lydia Merchant and Maria Olsen. Jason didn’t know that much about them, but he respected them and helped them out and they did the same for him in return, and that was about as friendly as he got with people. And now Maria was dead. Jason had Roy and Kori now, who he was closer with than he’d ever imagined being with anyone, but that didn’t make Maria’s death burn any less.

He would catch whoever had killed her and he wouldn’t show them mercy. Now he just had to figure out how he was going to do that.

Jason was smart. He’d learned all the criminology stuff with Batman. He knew how to run and read DNA tests, test for unknown chemical substances, and all sorts of things. Oftentimes, to be a Robin was to be a scientist first and a fighter second. And Jason, who’d left school when he’d left his foster home, had been subjected to an even more intense scientific training. In theory, he could solve calculated pre-meditated murders with the best of them. Unfortunately, Jason didn’t have access to the lab in the Bat Cave. Nor did he have an in to the GCPD files, not that they would have tried too hard for a prostitute in Crime Alley anyway. In all honesty, he just didn’t have the resources for a four-month old murder investigation and the odds were strongly against him, but fuck if that meant Maria’s murderer would get away from it.

Jason could spend some time and hack into the GCPD and get the case file, but he doubted what they had was worth the trouble. Instead, he thought he’d just ask.

“Who is this?” Commissioner Gordon asked as he answered his phone.

Jason had no idea why people always asked that when he dialed their personal lines. It wasn’t like personal numbers were that hard to get a hold of, especially for him. There was no reason to sound so startled. “Evening, Commish,” he greeted cheerfully. “Red Hood speaking. Having a pleasant night thus far?”

There was a pause before Gordon spoke. “Hood. Why the hell are you calling me?”

Jason decided to dive right into it. “Because I was hoping you’d do me a solid. We could even make it a trade if you want. I can owe you one. Oh, and you should know I haven’t killed anyone lately, if that helps you make a decision.”

Gordon made a frustrated sound. “Why on earth would I do you a favor, Hood?”

“Old times sake?” Jason tried. “Also you helping me would mean me helping you. I want to solve the murder of Maria Olsen and I could use a look at the PD’s case file. I’m coming in a bit late, after all.”

There was a heavy sigh and a pause as he looked up the file, Jason assumed. “There’s not much there, Hood.”

“Better than nothing though.”

“I don’t know how I feel about giving you this file,” Gordon said, never one to beat around the bush. “Given your history, I’m concerned that if I give you this file, any of the murder suspects will turn up dead.”

“Made a deal with Supes,” Jason said honestly. “I won’t kill them. I’ll string them up and deliver them to your doorstep. Cross my heart.”

“Yeah, half dead, maybe. I’m aware of the increasing number of beat to hell thugs that have turned up in hospitals from Crime Alley, Hood.”

“Given what those asshats were trying to pull with some of the Alley kids, they’re lucky they’re alive at all,” Jason retorted grouchily. “But hey, they are still in the land of the living, so this is me holding up my end of the deal.”

“About that. I’ve heard some rumors about a safe haven for Alley children,” Gordon began.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Jason replied immediately, cutting him off.

“Sure you don’t,” Gordon replied skeptically, but it didn’t sound like he was going to push it. “Alright, Hood. Drop by headquarters and I’ll get you a copy of the file. But if anyone turns up dead, I’m coming for you.”

“Sounds like a date. Meet me on the roof in twenty,” Jason said, cutting the line. He turned towards the GCPD and started to move.

Chapter Text

Commissioner Gordon was waiting on the roof when Jason arrived.

“Commish,” Jason greeted, landing lightly on his feet.

“Hood,” Gordon replied, grim faced. The way he was looking at Jason made him feel like he was looking for hints of the Robin he’d been in the man he was now. He very nearly shifted in discomfort, but caught himself before he could.

Finally, Gordon said something. “So why Olsen, Hood? Solving murders isn’t your usual MO based on the last time you were in Gotham.”

“But it was my MO back when I was in the tights,” Jason retorted. “Besides, I thought I’d shake things up since everyone seemed to frown on my crime boss gig, even though I did manage to get Crime Alley under control when no one else could.”

“Doesn’t count,” Gordon retorted immediately. “And why Olsen?”

Jason frowned before admitting. “I knew her. She deserves justice. What she did for a living doesn’t matter.”

Gordon nodded. “No killing, Hood,” he warned.

“How many times are people going to keep reminding me?” Jason grumbled under his breath.

“Until we feel confident that you won’t,” Gordon glared. “I’ve seen footage of some of your fights, Hood. You mowed men down without a thought.”

“Most of them were murderers,” Jason pointed out.

“And what does that make you?”

“A better murderer,” Jason retorted crossly.

“Batman once said that if you kill a killer, the number of killers in the world stays the same,” Gordon said, watching him.

Jason rolled his eyes at the typical high-minded Bruce-ness and seriously hoped Gordon picked up on it under the hood. “If you only kill one killer, maybe. If you kill a whole bunch, that number goes way down. Why don’t you tell that to Batman. Also, tell him I said he’s a tool.”

The commissioner glared harder. “Superman is vouching for you and that’s the only reason I’m not arresting you right now. He assured me the second you slip up he’d come and take you in himself. Do you understand me?”

Jason shifted angrily. “Yeah, I get you, Gordon, but I’m here to do your job, because your people are letting Maria’s murderer get away with it because she was a prostitute. So instead of attacking me, maybe you should get your people to serve and protect people outside of Central Gotham for once,” he accused furiously.

Instead of getting angrier, Gordon looked at him curiously. “How old were you when you died?” he asked, completely out of nowhere.

Jason snorted bitterly. “You really don’t want to know.”

“I do,” he replied, firm.

It was a rather sudden shift in conversation that Jason didn’t really understand. He found himself wondering how much the police commissioner knew about Batman and Bruce Wayne. He refused to believe the man didn’t know his own daughter had been Batgirl and was now playing Mission Control for every vigilante in Gotham. He’d been a damn good detective before he became Commissioner, and he was familiar with both Bruce and Batman. How could he not know? And if he knew Bruce was Batman, it would stand to reason he knew Bruce’s many wards were the various members of the Bat-family. It was possible Commissioner Gordon already knew it was Jason Todd under the Red Hood. After all, Bruce Wayne’s second son had died around the same time as the second Robin. Gordon probably already knew, but was only seeking confirmation. Jason didn’t really care if he got it. It wasn’t like he was living a civilian life as Jason Todd anymore. Hell, he was legally dead. It wasn’t like they could try him for the murders he’d committed anyway.

He snorted in amusement at the thought. “Fifteen.”

Gordon’s reply was unhappy. “That means you’re what? Twenty-one? What are you even doing out here, Hood? You’re just a kid.”

“Actually I think technically I’m twenty. Didn’t age any when I was dead, after all. And I don’t remember you saying anything when I was twelve and running around in a cape,” Jason pointed out dryly.

“Oh I said things,” he retorted grumpily. “Batman isn’t the best listener.”

“Now that, we can agree on.”

Gordon sighed and handed over the file. “For the record I still have reservations about this.”

“Noted,” Jason replied, moving towards the edge of the roof. He paused and looked back at Gordon, deciding he respected the man enough to give him a little bit of a head’s up. “You should know, Commissioner, that if the Joker gets out of Arkham again, I will do everything in my power to hunt him down and kill him. I agreed to no killing, but that agreement ends at the Joker. I don’t care what happens to me, if that monster is never able to take another life, or ruin another life again, it will be worth it.”

Gordon glared. “Well that’s just great, Hood, thanks,” he snapped sarcastically. “You know what position you just put me in? You just admitted to conspiracy to murder.”

Jason shrugged. “Just thought you should know.”

And then he was gone, heading back to the East End and Crime Alley, careful not to pass any patrolling Bats on the way.

Jason spent the rest of the night on the roof of his warehouse, meticulously reading through the file. As expected, the investigation didn’t get very far, though he wasn’t sure it was actually the police’s fault in this case. They’d canvassed the neighborhood, gotten numerous statements, combed Maria’s apartment over for all the forensics, and yet they got nowhere. Mainly because the interviews were so unhelpful. It was very clear the people had been unwilling to talk to the police. It wasn’t surprising either. Residents of Crime Alley didn’t trust the police any more than they trusted their dealers. Jason would get much further. He was incredibly skilled at terrifying people into talking. It helped that he already had a reputation. Before he started though, he’d have his meeting with Sasha and some of the others. They might already have a pretty good idea of who’d done it, and they’d share with him willingly.

Jason reviewed the file until he knew every name, lead, and address by heart, and when he returned to his loft at sunrise, he didn’t bother trying to sleep. Instead he went straight to work on the shiplap, mulling everything about the murder over in his mind as he worked.

Several hours passed with Jason working steadily. It was going pretty well, if a bit slow. The nail gun was pretty handy, and he’d only botched one cut with the circular saw so far. Jason was pretty satisfied with the way things were going, so even though his shoulder muscles were starting to burn, he was determined to finish before the day was over. Then, tomorrow, he’d use the putty and sand it down, and then he could paint.

It occurred to Jason, as he worked, that renovations could be a pretty decent way to launder money. Once he got his bathroom and sink redone, he could sell the place and make a fairly decent profit, despite the loft’s location. His dirty money went into the renovation, and clean money plus a profit would come out the other side with a sale. Not a bad deal. And really, the only reason Jason saw to continue the renovation. He could sell the loft when he was done in Gotham and use the money to help payback Tim.

He was stretched up on the ladder, clad in sweatpants and a Superman t-shirt. He had a board pressed to the joists with one hand, the nail gun in the other, and a cigarette between his teeth, when he heard someone messing with the lock on his door.

Jason swore furiously. “Goddammit! Go the fuck away!” he shouted at the door. “Dick, Tim, I don’t care who you are. I am not in the mood. I will shoot a nail in the foot of whoever walks through that door!”

The door opened anyway. Jason growled, ready to make good on his threat, but it was Alfred who walked through the door, Dick and Tim hiding behind him. “Oh, you dirty rotten cheating assholes!” Jason glared at them furiously.

Tim shrugged unapologetically and Dick grinned wide. Alfred was as calm as ever, “Master Jason, I would suggest you put out that cigarette immediately.”

“My home, Alfie. I can smoke if I want to,” Jason retorted, immediately combative.

“Your home is Wayne Manor, Master Jason,” Alfred replied in a tone that brooked no argument. “And I am an old man. Are you really going to subject my delicate lungs to second-hand smoke?”

Jason glared and pointed his cigarette at Alfred. “That is cheating.” But he stubbed out his cigarette on the ladder. He’d purposefully avoided Alfred the last time he was in Gotham and this was exactly why. He had no beef with Alfred. The old butler had been nothing but incredible to Jason during the few years he’d spent at Wayne Manor. As a result, he’d never been able to hold out against the man.

“Okay, you were totally right,” Jason heard Tim whisper to Dick. “I should have brought Alfred in immediately.”

“Yep!” Dick replied, sounding too cheerfully smug for Jason to handle.

He pointed his nail gun at him. “Watch it, Big Bird. I might still shoot you.”

“Shall I just put away the groceries in your kitchen then, Master Jason?” Alfred asked, and Jason startled, noticing the bags in everyone’s hands for the first time.

“What the hell? Hey, you take those back, Alfie!” Jason protested, setting the board and nail gun aside so he could hurry after Alfred, because he was so not accepting Bat-food. He was intercepted by a guerrilla hug from Dick, who once more managed to trap Jason’s arms by his sides. He was a little more willing to break Dick’s arms to break the hug this time, but he’d have to face the disapproval of Alfred to do it.

“Dick, let me go!” he snapped furiously.

Dick didn’t. Of course. Because he was a fucking asshole. “I missed you, Jay,” he said instead, holding Jason close. “I’m glad you’re back.”

Jason hissed. “Let me the fuck go.”

Dick shushed him. Jason snarled.

“Wow, you’ve really gotten a lot done, Jay,” Tim remarked, looking about his ceiling. He then turned and gave Jason a disapproving look. “You didn’t sleep at all, did you?”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Jason snapped back. “And let me go, Dick, or I will break your fucking arms!”

Dick gave him one last squeeze before letting him go with a satisfied smile. But then he studied Jason’s face and frowned, a concerned big-brother look on his face. “Why haven’t you slept, Little Wing? What’s wrong?”

Jason scowled, both at the look of concern and at the nickname. “I haven’t slept because I was busy doing this,” he said, jerking his arm to indicate his ceiling.

“It looks nice,” Dick complimented.

“Fuck you,” Jason said in reply, because he was grumpy and tired and he’d wanted to be alone, thank you very much, and now his loft was being overrun by Bats.

Alfred cut in smoothly, though it hadn’t looked like Dick was going to retaliate. “Master Jason, it appears your sink is broken.”

“That’s because it is broken,” Jason retorted.

“How might I acquire some running water?”

There was absolutely no way Jason would ever be able to tell Alfred to fuck off, or anything even remotely of that nature. So, he heaved a sigh, grabbed the jug off his kitchen counter and then carried it to his bathroom to fill up. Once he was done, he put it back on the counter for Alfred and then gaped at the amount of food laid out. “What the hell, Alfie? Are you stocking up for the Apocalypse?”

“I assumed your refrigerator would be rather bare. I see I was correct,” he said, shooting Jason a disapproving look.

Jason shifted and replied defensively, “I’ve been busy.”

“Well you are welcome to be busy at the Manor. That way I can be sure you are eating properly.”

Jason scowled. “Yeah, somehow I don’t think Bruce would go for that, Alf.”

“He certainly would if he were privy to all of the circumstances, Master Jason.”

Jason scoffed derisively. “The circumstances don’t matter, Alfred. I killed people. I did it on purpose and without remorse. That’s what matters to Bruce. And he left the crazy, murderous psychopath who killed me free to kill more innocent people. And that’s what matters to me. So no, Alfie. I won’t be going back to the Manor.”

Alfred just sighed. “You share the same stubbornness. Always have, I’m afraid. Go on, Master Jason. Don’t let me keep you from your activities. The shiplap looks lovely by the way. It adds a nice balance to the brick. You’re doing a fine job.”

Jason stood there, unsure of how he was supposed to reply, unsure of what Alfred was even doing at the loft or why he was looking through all his cabinets. He wondered if there was anything he could do to make them all leave. Abruptly, he gave up and stalked back over to where he’d been working. Only Tim was on the ladder measuring for the board that would need to be cut in order to meet the wall. Dick was looking up, inspecting Jason’s work thus far.

“Looking good, Jay,” he said, giving him a thumbs up. Then his eyes fixed on Jason’s chest and he grinned wide.

“What?” Jason asked, looking down at his shirt suspiciously. He didn’t see anything there though, and when he looked up, Dick snapped a picture of him.

“You’re wearing a Superman shirt,” Dick said. “Oh man, Clark is going to love this. I’m sending it to him right now. Bruce will so hate it. I can’t wait until you guys are on speaking terms so I can show him.”

“Fuck Bruce,” Jason retorted grumpily. He’d forgotten that Dick was on friendly, first-name terms with Superman. Which sucked, because now Superman would know he and Dick were in contact, which would lead to them gossiping about him like fucking mother hens. And Superman knew everything about him.

This sucked. A whole fucking ton.

Jason turned abruptly and stalked to his couch, dropping down onto it without a word. He was feeling distinctly harassed. Hunching his shoulders, he dropped his head into his hands and tried very hard to pretend they weren’t there. Dick and Tim chatted easily about how he had been positioning the boards against the joists, and then they just picked up a stack of boards and carried them out onto the balcony where Jason put the circular saw, apparently deciding to make all the cuts in one go.

Jason felt overwhelmed as the saw began buzzing outside. It was too much too fast.

“Here, Master Jason,” Alfred spoke softly.

Jason looked up to see Alfred holding out a cup of tea with some shortbread on the side. He took it automatically and Alfred sat down next to him, placing his own cup on the coffee table. It was earl gray with milk and sugar—his favorite from before he died.

Jason took a sip, and for one insane, strange moment, he felt like crying.

Alfred placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “It is so good to see you, Master Jason,” he spoke earnestly, eyes boring into Jason’s. “Things haven’t been right since you’ve been gone.”

“I’m not back, Alfred,” Jason spoke, just loud enough to be heard over the saw outside. “It won’t ever be the same as it was. I’m not one of Bruce’s sons anymore.”

Alfred’s expression was firm, but gentle. “You will always be his son, Jason. Never doubt that.”

Jason scowled. “Are you serious, Alfie? After everything, you still believe that?”

Alfred’s expression remained firm. “Yes. And more importantly, so does he.”

He didn’t believe that for a second, but he was tired and didn’t want to argue with Alfred. He didn’t reply, instead taking another sip of tea. Alfred put his hand back on Jason’s shoulder. “Things are going to work out, Master Jason,” Alfred told him gently. “And if you don’t feel like you can come home, then we will come to you.”

“You always thought too much of me, Alfie,” Jason retorted.

“That is untrue, Master Jason,” Alfred said firmly. “But, unfortunately, I’m afraid it’ll take some time before you believe that.”

Jason didn’t have anything to say to that and Alfred changed the subject. “I’m pleased to see you taking an interest in something other than firearms and explosives. You did well with the insulation. No trace of the December air. Did you seal the windows as well?”

Jason nodded. “It was fucking freezing in here.”

“Language, Master Jason,” Alfred chastised.

Jason huffed, mildly exasperated. “Can’t smoke, can’t curse. Do I get to do anything in my own home?”

“Nothing that you wouldn’t do in my house under my rules,” Alfred replied.

“Well that’s just not fair,” Jason remarked, but he was feeling a little more solid. Enough to give Alfred a small smirk as he said the words.

Alfred looked pleased, but continued the interrogation. “Are you eating well, Master Jason?”

“Well enough,” Jason replied.

“You’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical based on the contents of your refrigerator. Also, might I suggest you look into the purchase of a new one? I do believe your current refrigerator is older than me.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Great. Now you’re doing it too.”

“Doing what, Master Jason?”

“Judging my house,” Jason retorted. “My house and the things in it are perfectly fine. Just because you’ve all been thoroughly conditioned by Wayne fucking Manor—”

“Language.”

“—doesn’t mean that I live in a dump. This is the nicest place I’ve ever lived minus the Manor and Kori’s spaceship. I happen to like it.”

“It has great potential, Master Jason. I’m just helping you to realize it,” Alfred replied. Jason rolled his eyes at the old butler and set down his tea. Alfred stood up. “You should probably go and assist your brothers, lest they make a mess of your ceiling.”

Jason stood, knowing he was being dismissed. He headed out onto the balcony. “Hey, morons,” he barked, watching as Dick and Tim tried to figure out how to best make the curved cuts for where his light fixtures would fit. “Stand back before you hurt yourselves and let the professionals work.”

“Do you know how to do it?” Tim challenged. “You can’t cut curves with a circular saw, Jay.”

“Nope. Not a clue,” Jason remarked glibly. “But, we’re three ex-robins so if we can’t figure it out, we’re a shame to the mantle. Well, technically I already am, but you two will be too.”

They both rolled their eyes at his sense of humor, but Tim immediately turned his attention to the small collection of power tools. “Alright. Dick, you finished making all the cuts we need with the saw, right?”

“Yep!” Dick remarked cheerfully. “For the bathroom too.” He then turned his attention to Jason. “I separated the boards out for the bathroom. That’s this pile here.”

“Well you two have been very busy bees,” Jason remarked, mildly impressed.

“Did you buy or rent these?” Tim asked, indicating the power tools, completely ignoring Jason’s comment.

“Bought. Why?”

He got his answer when Tim immediately began dismantling his circular saw. “Oh, great. Thanks. You know, I was actually joking. The hardware store is literally a block away. I could go buy a router in like ten minutes. Bill would even give me a discount for it.”

“That would be taking the easy way,” Dick declared, inspecting his power drill.

“And like you said, we wouldn’t be very good Robins if we can’t figure even this out,” Tim added, absolutely focused on the now in-pieces circular saw.

“I was joking, that wasn’t meant as a challenge,” Jason protested, but he could see it was a lost cause. They’d taken it as a challenge and it wasn’t in a Robin’s nature to ignore challenges.

“Think we could rig this into a handheld router?” Dick asked, indicating the power drill.

“We’d need some welding materials,” Jason found himself contributing.

Tim looked up in interest at this. “Do you have some welding tools?”

Jason hesitated, aware he was standing on a precipice—the defining moment that would either allow him to keep his sanity, or would send him careening down the mad path of crazy his brothers were already hurtling down. Then, for whatever reason, he dove in after them. “Yeah,” he sighed. “In a covered shed on the roof. Mind the traps. Bring whatever you think will be useful.”

Tim looked positively gleeful as he jumped onto the railing then leapt onto the roof, not bothering to go inside and use the stairs like a normal person. Jason turned his attention to Dick, who’d already taken the casing off of the hand-held power drill. “You do realize that now I’ll need to buy a new drill and a new circular saw instead of just buying a router?”

Dick grinned. “Yeah, but this way is more fun. And we’ve made all the cuts so you won’t need the circular saw anymore, and drills are less expensive than routers anyway.”

Jason sighed again, and turned his attention to his windows. Inside, Alfred had donned an apron and was now thoroughly cleaning the loft with cleaning supplies he was positive hadn’t been there before. “What is happening to my life?” he asked aloud. It was a rhetorical question he didn’t want answered.

Dick answered anyway. “Good things,” he smiled. “All the good things.”

Jason huffed, but turned his full attention to the matter at hand as Tim hopped down, carrying a bundle on his back and looking a bit like Santa Claus. “Goldmine,” he reported, obviously pleased.

“Okay,” Jason spoke. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. I don’t want a sloppy job, you got it? I like these new fixtures.”

“We’ll do a great job,” Dick declared confidently.

“The best,” Tim agreed.

Jason rolled his eyes but felt a small, inexplicable burst of fondness in his gut. “Already, Timmy. What’d you bring us?”

Tim grinned and laid out the haul.

It only took them an hour and a half to rig up a functioning hand-held router, but his circular saw would never be the same. Between the three of them, it only took a few more hours to fully finish the shiplap, and by the time they were done, it was looking pretty damn good. Jason knew it would look even better once it was painted.

They finished just in time for Alfred to put dinner on the table. A Sunday roast (even though it was Tuesday), complete with roast potatoes and vegetables. And Jason was pretty sure his loft had never been so clean. The four of them sat down and ate together, Alfred doing an excellent job of keeping the conversation running smoothly each time one of the brothers fumbled over another. And by the end of it, as Alfred was washing the dishes and refusing to let any of the others help, Jason was feeling warm and full and sleepy.

“Hey,” Tim said, speaking to Jason quietly as Dick puttered about Jason’s kitchen, chatting with Alfred. “You should stay in tonight—sleep. I know you haven’t slept since I last saw you. Stay and sleep and I’ll watch over the flock tonight.”

Jason considered Tim. “Why?”

Tim rolled his eyes, “Because you won’t be very useful if something does happen. And I’ve been around them enough that they’ll trust me, and seeing as how I have slept, I’ll be able to handle any trouble that might occur. Come on, Jay. You haven’t taken a night off since you found the place. Just sleep tonight and you can come back tomorrow.”

It was tempting, Jason admitted. He was tired and his muscles were sore, but in a pleasant way that Jason thought might help him sleep better. He was going to meet up with Sasha, but that wasn’t until four in the morning. He could get a hell of a lot of sleep in before then. “Alright, fine,” he replied. “But just tonight.”

Tim smiled, looking relieved. “Good.”

Jason just rolled his eyes. “Alright, all of you get out already. I’ve suffered your presence enough today.”

Dick came flying out of nowhere for another guerrilla hug. “Today was fun,” he said as Jason ineffectively tried to shove him off.

“Thanks for the slave labor, asshole,” Jason retorted, just to be an ass.

Dick wasn’t bothered. “See you later, little wing.”

“Get lost, big bird,” Jason retorted.

Dick released him and headed to the door with Tim. Alfred lingered, placing a hand on Jason’s shoulder again. “You know where to find me if you need me, Master Jason.”

“Yeah, Alfred,” Jason replied, much nicer. “I do. Thanks for dinner. It was amazing, as usual.”

Alfred smiled. “You always showed the most appreciation for my food.”

“That’s why I’m your favorite, right?” Jason joked.

Alfred shook his head. “I don’t have favorites, Master Jason. But I do enjoy cooking for you best.”

“Well it’s not in my nature to turn down food.”

“Noted, Master Jason,” Alfred replied.

And Jason knew that if Alfred was any less British, he would have hugged him, so he decided to cut him some slack and take the initiative himself. “Thanks, Alfie,” Jason said quietly. “For everything you did for me back then. And for today, even if it was completely unnecessary.”

Alfred returned the hug. “It was always my pleasure, Master Jason. I’ll see you soon,” he said firmly, like it was a warning.

Jason didn’t protest. He just nodded, throat feeling thick again.

Alfred patted his shoulder again and left. Jason surveyed his rapidly darkening apartment, feeling a tiny bit adrift from the surprisingly emotional day. But mostly, he was just tired so he turned off his lamps and moved straight to his mattress, only to find it had additional pillows and a soft, worn blanket that had been a fixture at the Manor back when he lived there. He had no idea how Alfred had managed to smuggle them in there, and he stood there for a moment, staring at the new items. Shrugging, Jason collapsed on the mattress. He slipped his hand under his pillow, checking that his gun and knife were still there. Hand gripping the gun lightly, he fell almost immediately to sleep.

Chapter Text

Jason met Sasha and a few of the other prostitutes behind a local strip club—a place they all tended to use as an unofficial headquarters. Several of the girls had visible bruises, and Jason felt his blood begin to rush a little—an ingrained response to the knowledge that there’d be faces to put his bullets in soon. Only he wouldn’t be shooting anyone in the face, because he wasn’t supposed to kill anymore. That was incredibly disappointing, he realized, hand twitching towards his gun. Terribly, horribly disappointing.

“Run it through for me,” he said without preamble.

One of the bruised girls who called herself Holly spoke up. “There’s a man named Max Kennedy. He’s working for the Maroni family—they’ve been stretching their reach into the Alley since you’ve been gone. Anyway, he’s been forcing us into business with him, but it’s an awful deal. We’re supposed to bring him a thousand a month, which is virtually impossible while we’re just trying to make a living. So we have to take on more clients, ease up on our limits a little. And if we don’t make the thousand a month, he takes over pretty much everything. We have to see the clients he chooses and he takes sixty percent and we’re not allowed to say no.”

Jason seethed. “Is there anyone who wants to stay in business with him?”

“No one,” another girl Jason didn’t know replied immediately.

Jason wanted to shoot something so bad. “Okay,” he replied, brain working quickly through the general outline of a plan. A year ago, this would be so simple. A year ago he’d put three bullets in the motherfucker’s face and a bullet in the head of everyone who’d worked for him. Then he’d sever his mutilated head and drop it on Maroni’s desk as a warning to stay the fuck out of Crime Alley. Now, he had to figure out how to make this asshole pay without killing him.

God, not killing people was so overrated.

“Give me a week. I’ll take care of it. For now, just keep your heads down, okay?” he told them, then turned his attention to Sasha. “You too, Sash. Everyone. Just because he hasn’t gotten to you yet, doesn’t mean he won’t be trying. You do what it takes to stay alive for a week, whatever that means. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Okay,” Sasha said as a few of the other girls nodded.

“Talk to me about Honey,” he said. “Who killed her?”

“We think Max,” another one, Darcy, spoke. “He’s never outright said it—too smart for that. But he’s heavily implied it.”

Sasha looked surprised by this and Jason supposed that bit of gossip hadn’t gotten around to her yet, but Holly nodded. “He had a thing for her. She was one of the first girls he tried to force into business, but she resisted. Refused to do what he wanted, even when they roughed her up a bit. Two nights before she died, he came by to see her, tried to force himself on her in the alley behind Roscoe’s. She kneed him in the balls and ran and he was so mad. Just kept shouting about how she was going to regret it. Two days later she was dead and the rest of us were too scared to say no when he came for us.”

Shit,” Sasha said with feeling. “That—that bastard.”

Jason nodded, jaw tight and fists clenched. “I’ll make him pay, Sasha,” Jason promised. “I swear. One week,” he told the others. “Give me one week.”

“Thank you Hood,” Sasha told him.

Jason nodded and took off.

*****

The problem, Jason pondered as he sanded down the wood putty later that morning, was still his lack of access to, well, anything. Oracle would hunt him down and castrate him if he tried to hack her network. God knew she’d catch him if he tried. The only ones who might stand the chance of getting in unnoticed were Tim and Bruce. He could just ask Tim, but he didn’t believe for a second that Tim would let it go once he knew Jason was working something. He was incredibly pushy and nosy that way. And though Jason didn’t much mind the younger Robin anymore, he didn’t want any of the Bats involved in this. It was personal to Jason and it wasn’t any of their business. For the same reason, he couldn’t ask Dick. And since Kennedy was with the Maroni family, Jason couldn’t go to the GCPD to get what they had on Kennedy, as the Maroni’s had more than one informant in the GCPD, and it would tip them off.

Which meant that Jason needed an alternate information stream and he suddenly knew what that alternate stream would be.

Jason waited for a Roy approved socially acceptable time to call, which meant late afternoon after he’d met with Dr. Thompkins for his MRI. It meant Roy had had plenty of time to sleep during the day if he hadn’t slept that night due to nightmares or crime fighting activities with Black Canary.

Yet, when Roy answered, he still sounded pissed. “Jaybird!”

“What’s wrong?” Jason asked immediately, because he knew Roy well enough by now to know something was definitely wrong.

“Ollie is an asshole.”

Jason nodded and sat down on the couch, because clearly this was going to be a long conversation. “Yep.”

“No, Jaybird, you don’t understand. He’s an asshole.”

Jay blinked. “Uh, yeah, Roy, I do understand. I understand more than anyone else. That’s why we’re best friends, remember? Because no one else gets the ‘asshole billionaire ex-mentor who thinks you’re nothing but an irredeemable fuckup’ shit like we do. Remember? We bonded over it that one time and then I could never get rid of you?”

Roy made a frustrated noise. “No, but he still thinks I’m an irredeemable fuckup! Still.”

Jason frowned as he realized the problem. While he never even entertained the possibility that Brue would ever see him as anything more than a scumbag criminal, Roy had apparently been holding out hope that he and Ollie would reconcile. “Shit,” he said quietly, settling back into the couch, rubbing briefly at his forehead. “What happened?”

“What fucking didn’t happen?” Roy bit angrily. “Dinah and I have been hanging out, you know? At first she was just helping me get back on my feet and what not, then she was teaching me how to cook, and Ollie stayed the fuck out of things, and it was fine. Great even. But Ollie hasn’t been in Star City much lately, and there was time for a new drug ring to move in, and they were pushing this new drug that was killing people, so Dinah and I decided to do something about it, right?”

“Right, because you and Dinah kick ass together, and I’m betting you took down the drug ring in a fantastic display of blood and explosives,” Jason replied, trying to calm Roy down a bit.

“Fuck yeah, we did. It was great. We worked really well together, and Dinah listened to me and took me seriously and let me design the bomb that took out their warehouse, and we did a real damn good job.”

“So then what did Ollie do?” Jason asked.

“The asshole! He shows up at Dinah’s place and then he just chews us out! Calls us irresponsible and all this crap—goes on and on about how Dinah should have never let me blow the place, how people could have died, how we’re a bad team because we’re both too hotheaded and neither of us really strategize, and how we need to stay out of his business, and Star City is his responsibility, and we have no part in it, and all this other shit.”

“Fucking asshole,” Jason declared fervently.

Right?!”

“What did Dinah do?”

“Kneed him in the junk and made him leave,” Roy replied, and Jason let out a startled laugh.

“Nice.”

Roy let out a reluctant chuckle. “Yeah, that was pretty great. She’s furious. So mad I think Ollie took right back off for the Watchtower.”

“Too scared to be in the same city?” Jason asked amused.

“Too scared to be on the same planet. Dinah’s got a temper,” Roy replied.

“Good for her. You okay, man?”

Roy let out a gusty sigh. “Yeah. I just… yeah.”

“I know man,” Jason said sympathetically.

“We did good work as the Outlaws,” Roy spoke firmly. “Real fucking good work. Yeah, it was messy, but it was necessary, you know? And no one else was doing it, so we got our hands dirty and took care of it. A lot of people are alive because of what we did.”

“I know,” Jason replied.

“But Ollie fucking disapproves. He told me he was fucking disappointed in me. Disappointed in all the Outlaws, like he has some fucking right to be—like he had any sort of moral authority over us. It’s a fucking load of shit.”

“Yes it is,” Jason agreed, thinking of Bruce’s perpetual disappointment. Forget the fact the Outlaws had hunted down a secret organization of super-powered, intelligent zombies and kept them from destroying the world, they’d shot said zombies and blown shit up on a regular basis to do it, so they were volatile cowboys who couldn’t be trusted. Talk about gratitude.

“We did good,” Roy said, sounding almost desperate. Jason could hear how much Roy had wanted Ollie to be proud of him—for getting his life back together, for overcoming his addiction, for using the things he’d had taught him to protect people.

Jason felt the sudden, overwhelming urge to break both of Ollie’s hands. He’d like to see him try and draw his bow with two giant casts in the way. “Want me to break his hands?” he offered, hoping Roy would say yes.

Roy let out a chuckle. “Nah. He’s not worth it earning Superman’s disapproval. We need at least one JLA person on our side.”

“We got more than one,” Jason remarked. “We got Supes, MM, and Canary.”

“Well look at us,” Roy said, mustering up a little bit of good humor. “Before long we’ll have to change our name to the In-Laws.”

“Why? You and Kori getting married or something?” Jason joked.

“I see your point. Maybe just the Laws.”

Jason snorted. “Worst hero team name ever.”

“Worse than the Justice League?” Roy countered.

“You’re right. Sounds like a middle school student council.”

Roy laughed. “Sure does, Jaybird.”

Jason gave him a moment to collect himself before asking. “Number?”

Roy sighed, “Five. I promised Dinah I wouldn’t leave the apartment until it’s a three.”

Jason relaxed a little, confident that Dinah would look out for him. “Yeah, good.” He then took a breath. “Look, Roy. Ollie isn’t worth shit. He’s an asshole and he’s let you down again and again. Yeah, we’ve fucked up. More than once. But unlike him, we’ve taken responsibility for our fuck ups, and we’re doing shit about it. His opinion? It means nothing. Don’t listen to a word he says. Listen to me, and listen to Dinah. We know you and we know what you’re worth.”

“Yeah,” Roy spoke, a little bit emotional. “Yeah. You too. With Batman. He’s an asshole who doesn’t know shit. Take your cues from Superscout. He knows all your shit and he knows you’re worth it.”

“Yeah,” Jason said because he couldn’t manage anything else. Roy was his best friend and they really had bonded over their billionaire ex-mentors, but because of all the shit, things got somewhat uncomfortably emotional sometimes.

Until Roy opened his big fat mouth. “Phone hug?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “What the hell is a phone hug?”

“We hug ourselves and pretend it’s from each other.”

“Fuck off, Harper.”

Roy laughed and the air settled around them, making Jason smile a little, despite himself. “So Roy, I was hoping you could get Dinah to do me a solid.”

“Yeah, sure, Jaybird. She likes you now. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Weird. Jason wasn’t used to people liking or helping him. And now he had Superman treating him like a freaking lost lamb, checking in on him regularly through phone calls and text messages, the last of which read, “Nice shirt.” Fucking Dick Grayson. And then there was Dinah offering unsolicited big sisterly advice through phone calls with Roy, and Tim showing up whenever he damn well pleased to eat fucking meals with him and chat, and Dick popping in to give him hugs. Jason didn’t hug. And now there was Alfred too, bringing him groceries and cooking him warm meals, acting as if nothing had changed between them, as if the things Jason had done made no difference in their relationship at all.

Jason shoved all of those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings aside. He couldn’t handle them at the moment, and he had actual business to attend to. “You think you could get her to get some info from Oracle for me? Without Oracle knowing it’s for me? I need everything she’s got on Max Kennedy. He’s with the Maroni family in Gotham.”

“You working again, Jaybird?”

“Kind of,” Jason admitted. “He killed a sort of friend of mine, and since I’m currently trying to play nice, I have to be able to prove it for the court case instead of just killing him,” he added, a little grumpily.

“Killing is so much easier,” Roy said with a little wistful sigh.

“You’re telling me. Anyway, think she’ll do it? If not, I can get Kori to get into the Watchtower computers, but Oracle’s system and database are infinitely superior.”

He could practically hear Roy rolling his eyes. “Bats. You’re all the same. All of you think that your stuff is the best there is.”

Jason narrowed his eyes at Roy calling him a Bat. “That’s because it is. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the system or any of the fun toys, so I’m having to make do. But if you could get Dinah to help, that’d let me skip a lot of the stalking portion of the case.”

Roy chuckled. “Yeah sure. I’ll get her to send it to you once she’s got it.”

“Thanks Roy. Call if you need to.”

“Yeah. And you be careful, Jaybird. You take dumb risks and I won’t be there watching your back.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Bye Roy.”

*****

Painting didn’t take as long as Jason expected, and he was able to get the whole thing done and the lights working before he took off for the warehouse that night. Dick’s assessment had been right—the place looked a lot brighter with the ceiling painted white and it looked good with the light fixtures. Now, with the place so clean, it was starting to feel like an actual living space. So much so, that Jason found himself contemplating his furniture. Although, he supposed a working sink took priority. And there was no point in putting in a new sink and faucet until he got new cabinets and new counter tops. He supposed he’d need to go see Bill at the hardware store and figure out how to go about getting those. Then he’d have to figure out how to put them in. The lower cabinets wouldn’t be too hard, he imagined, but he had absolutely no idea how the upper cabinets were secured to the exposed brick. Maybe he should take pictures of his kitchen so Bill could have a better idea on how to help him. Maybe he should also take pictures of his ceiling to show him the finished product. He was feeling a little proud, after all.

“Hey punks,” Jason greeted as he slipped into the warehouse through his customary window.

“Where were you,” Lisa, a young girl from the very first night who Jason had recently discovered was very bossy, demanded.

“Sleeping,” he replied, unapologetically. “It’d been a while.”

Her big eyes narrowed and she stood there with her little hands on her little hips, glaring him down. It was sort of adorable, if Jason was the type of person who considered things adorable. “That’s dumb,” she declared firmly.

“What?” he protested, offended by the six-year-old, ginger-haired girl.

“You need to sleep every day. And you need to come here at night to keep us safe,” she told him firmly.

“Lisa, leave him alone,” an older kid called from the left. He was sitting at a makeshift table the kids had set up and playing some game with a worn deck of cards. “He sent Red Robin to keep us safe.”

“He’s busy with other things too, you know,” another kid piped in.

“Exactly,” Jason declared, not liking the disapproval he was facing from Lisa.

“I missed you,” she said, still frowning at him, hands still on her hips.

“Awww,” Tim cooed from up in the rafters. He’d long since figured out how to avoid all of Jason’s motion sensors, and Jason had grown used to him just showing up when he felt like it. “I told you he’d be back tonight, Lisa.”

“Yeah,” Lisa allowed, letting her posture relax a little. “Okay,” she abruptly declared to Jason. “I forgive you.” And then she stalked over, and without a word, climbed up Jason until she was on his back with her arms around his neck and her legs wrapped around his waist.

Jason heaved a sigh as Tim snickered above him. His reply was pure sarcasm. “Thanks for your generosity, Lisa. You are entirely too good for me.”

“Humph,” she declared.

Jason just stood there for a moment, helmeted head in his hands. He had no idea how his life had come to this, but these children were steadily destroying all his street cred. Yeah, most of the criminals were still terrified of him, but before he’d been a murderous monster. Now, he was some sort of murderous teddy bear. Still terrifying, but also soft and fluffy if you were on the right side of him.

He didn’t like it.

“Come on, Hood,” Lisa said, nudging his shoulders. “Time to do checkups.”

Jason sighed and did as he was told, making his rounds with the kids, checking who was there and who wasn’t, seeing if anyone needed help or medical attention as Tim cackled above him, taking far too much pleasure in him being ordered around by a bossy six-year-old. And then, suddenly, there were two birds up there laughing instead of one. He glared at Dick, but Lisa tensed up as soon as she noticed him.

Jason could read all the hallmarks of abuse on her. The fact that she’d apparently decided he was trustworthy enough to be close to was frankly astounding.

“Easy there, carrot-top,” Jason told her calmly. “Just another unwanted brother. He won’t hurt you, right Nightwing?” he said, pointedly drawing the older hero’s attention to the way many of the kids had stiffened at his sudden presence. Red Robin had earned a wary sort of trust with all of them over the weeks, but Nightwing was completely new and an unknown variable.

“Course not,” Dick declared easily. “I only hurt bad guys.”

“He’s safe,” Jason told the room at large. “Maybe a little stupid, but safe.”

Several of the kids snickered at Dick’s offended expression. “Well that wasn’t nice, Little Wing,” Dick protested.

“I’m not nice,” Jason retorted.

“Well no arguments there,” Tim remarked.

“Shut up, baby bird.”

“Make me, Red,” Tim retorted.

“Now, now,” Dick broke in. “No fighting in front of the children. You’ll set a bad example.”

“Too late for that,” Tim and Jason replied together.

Dick shook his head. “Honestly. As your big brother, I am ashamed of both of you. Setting a bad example for these young, impressionable children.”

There were snickers all around. “Lay off, big bird. Why are you even here?” Jason demanded.

“Because I missed you.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “I literally could not get rid of you yesterday.”

“What can I say? I’m emotionally needy. Now are you going to introduce me or what?”

Jason sighed and looked at the kids, who were either watching with mild interest, or doing their own thing with complete disinterest. “Everyone, this is Nightwing. He’s a Dick,” he said, snorting at his own joke.

Tim face palmed at the pun and Dick shook his head. “I’m also Red Hood and Red Robin’s older brother,” he added, because apparently that was a salient point to him.

“Whatever,” Jason grumbled.

Dick abruptly twisted his body and performed a series of twists and flips that had all of the kids suddenly watching before he landed on the ground with ease. There was an outbreak of excited babbling and Jason and Tim spoke in tandem. “Show off.”

“Jealous,” Dick retorted. And there was a small amount of truth in that, because no matter how great at fighting crime and general ass-kickery Tim and Jason were, they would never be the acrobat Dick was. The same way Jason and Dick would never be the detective and strategist Tim was, and the way Tim and Dick would never fit as seamlessly into the streets of Gotham as Jason did. Though he wasn’t sure that was actually an enviable trait.

“Now,” Dick said, addressing the twenty plus children who were suddenly gathered around Nightwing. “Who wants to learn how to do the perfect handstand?” Lisa immediately scrambled off Jason’s back and ran towards Dick. He tried not to feel a little betrayed.

The noise level in the warehouse ratcheted up and Tim and Jason watched bemusedly, as Dick, in less than ten minutes, was suddenly running a surprisingly organized gymnastics camp. Not all the kids were participating, but even the ones who weren’t were watching in interest, and most of the kids had borderline adoring expressions as they listened to Nightwing speak. It was mildly sickening and Jason escaped to the rafters to watch with Tim.

“Everyone loves him,” Tim said, shaking his head. “Always.”

Jason shook his head. “Heaven help us if Dick ever decides to go power mad dictator on us. He’d have the whole of the world eating out of the palm of his hand in an instant. We’d have no hope of stopping him.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to stop him,” Tim considered. “There’d be worse things than Dick taking over the world. Plus, at least it’d keep him busy.”

“Eh. I’d fight him on it. He’d be too insufferable otherwise.”

“I can see it now. Jason Todd, leader of the Grayson Rebellion.”

“Yeah, with only Roy Harper, Talia al Ghul, and Slade Wilson on my side. Everyone else would bow down willingly.”

Tim snorted. “What an awful team.”

“The Rebellion would fall within days, murdering each other before even making a first attack,” Jason agreed. They moved back into the rafters and let Dick do his thing with the kids.

Tim spoke as they watched. “So I might have an idea about how to get the kids off the street.”

“Yeah?” Jason asked, turning his full attention to Tim.

“I’ve been talking to Wilkes and Dr. Thompkins. I want to reopen the East End Orphanage using WE funds. I’ve set up an East End revitalization program through the Wayne Foundation and the money is ready. Construction has already started on the old orphanage. Wilkes is working with some social workers both she and Dr. Thompkins trust, and they’re working on getting the case files for all the missing kids in Crime Alley put under them. We’ve found a judge who’s clean—a judge who we can trust who will approve having the kids placed in the orphanage rather than sending them back into the foster program. And I’ve already got a huge stack of resumes to go through for employees plus Oracle is compiling everything she can find on them as well. You would have final say over whoever’s hired.”

“Huh,” Jason remarked thoughtfully.

“It won’t be state run,” Tim said hurriedly. “It will be a private orphanage funded by us, so the state will have no say in who works there. It’ll have to pass inspections to get licensed, but it will be WE backed, so we know that won’t be an issue.”

“How long have you been working on this?” Jason asked curiously, because it must have been quite a while if Tim had found a judge, got construction moving, and vetted social workers already.

“Since the first time I followed you here,” Tim admitted.

“Well it’s not bad, baby bird,” Jason allowed. “It could work. I have a condition though.”

Besides you having final say about who gets hired?” Tim asked wryly.

“It’s voluntary for them,” Jason said, pointing down at the kids. “They get to choose whether they go or whether they stay here.”

Tim frowned. “They need to be off the street, Jason.”

“I know. And I agree,” Jason replied, because as things stood, they were probably looking at the future criminal world of Crime Alley. Didn’t matter how stable their environment at the warehouse was, the kids weren’t in school and they were still committing crimes for food and basic necessities. Not near as much, it wasn’t as life or death as an issue for them anymore, but they were still refining criminal skills. Jason had picked pockets, stolen tires, stolen drugs from one dealer to sell to his competition, run scams, and all sorts of other things. If Bruce hadn’t caught him jacking his tires, if Bruce hadn’t decided he was too skinny and needed a hot meal and a warm place to sleep, Jason either would have died or became a real force of crime in Crime Alley.

Although, in retrospect, he’d done both of those things anyway. Just, without the moral compass, he supposed.

So yeah, he knew Tim was right, but he also knew better than Tim how to make it happen. “Trust me on this, Tim. We’ll have better results if it is voluntary. Some of them will volunteer. Some will stay here. But after a little while, if the orphanage proves itself, they’ll eventually drift there. If you come in making this mandatory—to the orphanage or to a foster home deal—most of these kids will bolt and we’ll be lucky if we ever see them again. They have no reason to trust anyone outside of this warehouse, and if it’s a matter of force, they’re not going to.”

“Sounds familiar,” Tim remarked, looking at him wryly.

Jason glared at him at the insinuation. “So clearly I know what I’m talking about then.”

Tim cracked a smirk. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. Alright, I can work with that. It’ll take a few more weeks to finish the renovation on the old building and get new facilities in and everything. In the meantime, you can talk to the kids and see who’s going to volunteer, so we can start pushing their cases through with the judge. Also, you should come to the Manor and help me go through the resumes.”

“Nice try, baby bird. We can do it at your apartment.”

Tim smirked again and shrugged, unapologetic. “Worth a shot.”

“Speaking of the Manor, Bruce is going to get curious if you keep showing up here without patrolling. And now Dick’s here too. You should probably scram.”

Tim stood. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll see you later, Jay.”

Jason watched Dick continue to work with the kids, but after a while, several of them returned with the boxes of food from Jamie, and everyone spread out to eat and sleep. Dick retreated to the rafters with Jay to chat. “Tim told me you had a flock of homeless kids. I kind of thought he was joking.”

Jason shrugged, but didn’t say anything. He’d gotten used to Tim, but he hadn’t had the same level of history with him. With Dick it was different, and he found himself a little wary of the older ex-Robin and what he’d have to say.

“This is… it’s really great, Jason,” Dick said, but Jason was still wary. “Really. You know I’ve seen my fair share of homeless kids, but these are the healthiest and most relaxed homeless kids I’ve ever seen.”

“They were ready to bolt when you showed,” Jason pointed out, mildly accusing. “You should have let me give them some warning.”

Dick shrugged. “They had you there to protect them. They trust you.”

“Shared life experiences,” Jason replied with a shrug.

“We never talked about your time before Bruce back before everything happened,” Dick remarked and Jason sighed, realizing he was going to get all after school special on him. “I was a pretty sucky brother to you in the beginning, and then after, I think it was still a sore subject. I don’t think you would have talked with me even if I had brought it up. I am sorry about being such a sucky brother at the beginning. My problem was with Bruce, but I took it out on you.”

Jason gave him a wry look. “Yeah, I wonder what that’s like?”

Dick snorted. “Okay, point.”

“Besides, it’s not like I knew enough about family to know you were being a shitty brother, Dick. And I was too busy trying to get a handle on things to worry about it anyway. The Manor was the biggest culture shock I’d ever experienced.”

“No hard feelings then?” Dick asked, hopefully.

Jason rolled his eyes at Dick’s attempt to be all buddy-buddy, to bury whatever stuff was between them. Jason wanted to know why he was even trying. “What are you after, Dick? What is the end game in this for you?”

“I want to be brothers, Jay,” Dick said, earnestly. “We are brothers, but I want it to feel that way for you too.”

Jason huffed. “We’re not actively trying to kill or imprison the other. Can’t you just settle for that?”

“No.”

“Damn it, Dick. Just leave well enough alone.”

“I have never, in my life, been able to do that.”

“Well you can start now.”

“Not gonna happen, Little Wing. You’re just going to have to accept me randomly showing up and spending time with you.”

“Or you can show up and I can kick your ass,” Jason retorted.

“Oh! Sparring sessions. That sounds fun. We can trade moves we’ve learned in the last few years. You’ve certainly picked up a few things.”

Jason was exasperated, because that wasn’t what Jason had meant, and Dick knew that. “You’re the worst.”

“It’s going to be fun,” Dick said cheerfully as he stood. Apparently he decided to leave Jason some dignity. Nightwing and Red Hood didn’t need to hug. “I’ll see you later, Jay.”

“I hate you,” Jason replied sullenly.

Dick just grinned and vaulted out the window. Jason stayed, contemplating the most efficient methods of ridding oneself of troubling siblings until his phone vibrated. Jason pulled it out to see several files of information from Roy—everything Oracle had on Max Kennedy.

He stood and headed to the roof. It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Max Kennedy was one nasty son of a bitch, and Jason found himself seriously lamenting the fact that he wouldn’t be able to shoot the fucker in the face.

For one, he had multiple charges of sexual assault, only none of the charges ever stuck because Maroni’s lawyers were too good, or the girls in question never showed up to testify—probably too scared for their lives.

Two, he had a history of violence against children, having been accused of beating on a thirteen-year-old who’d apparently been trying to defend his older sister—one of the girls involved in one of the aforementioned assault charges. Again, Kennedy got away clean because of Maroni’s lawyers, even though the kid’s wrist, ulna, and tibia had all been broken.

Jason really, really wanted to shoot the motherfucker. And then maybe Maroni. And then Maroni’s lawyers. The world would be a better place. Gotham would be a better place. People would throw him a parade.

Three, the man was just an ass. Jason spent forty-eight hours immersed in Max Kennedy’s life. He planted bugs all over his office above a local illegal gambling den and his apartment. He’d cloned Kennedy’s phone, and he carefully went through every item in both his office and his apartment with a fine-toothed comb. He wasn’t impressed with Max Kennedy in the slightest. He was a two-bit thug. Moving in on Crime Alley’s sex business hadn’t even been Kennedy’s idea. Kennedy had stolen it off another one of Maroni’s men before he’d had time to pitch it to the boss. Kennedy killed him, made it look like an accident, and then took his shit, pitching his idea to Maroni, and suddenly became the mob boss’s number one man in Crime Alley.

When Maria Olsen, AKA Honey, had resisted his takeover, he’d raped her then killed her as a warning to the others. And the one original, smart thing the man had done was successfully utilize Maroni’s metal work facility to melt down the murder weapon. Which meant that, while Jason was positive Kennedy was the murderer, he had no smoking gun to tie back to Kennedy.

Life was so much easier when he was murdering the bad guys.

It wasn’t just the smoking gun he had to worry about either. He also had to worry about the corrupt system. Smoking gun or not, if Maroni wanted to, he could get the charges against Kennedy cleared just like he had every other time Kennedy was taken to court. Which meant not only did Jason need to get a smoking gun, he also had to convince the mob boss to hang Kennedy out to dry.

Not killing people made things needlessly complicated, Jason thought grumpily. And he was out of practice thinking like a Bat. His last few years hadn’t involved that much detective work and committing crimes was less complicated than solving them. He kind of wanted to consult Tim, but he had an inkling of what it would take to get Maroni to cut Kennedy loose, and there was no way Timmy would be on board. Tim would come up with a brilliant plan that would take care of everything, but it would be delicate and intricate, and most importantly, it would take time. The longer this was allowed to go on, the longer the women were brutalized. Jason could end this in a week, he was sure of it. He just wasn’t sure of the best way to end it quickly. He just needed a little more time to figure that out.

Jason sighed and listened in on the conversation going on in the gambling den. It was the middle of the day, but you’d never know it with the amount of booze flowing, the cigarette smoke, and the fact that there were absolutely no windows to let in any light; the lighting in the room was rather dim. Jason was currently at the bar, counting his winnings from the quick bout of poker he’d taken part in while listening to Kennedy at the table behind him. He’d been able to successfully bug the vent above Kennedy’s office, but he’d been less confident about bugging the gambling floor, as there were cameras everywhere. He was fairly sure it was swept consistently. As a result, Jason was pretty confident Kennedy actually did most of his business at the poker table that seemed to be reserved for Maroni’s men rather than in his office. Which was why Jason had decided to push his luck and get closer.

It was almost amusing how no one batted an eye at Jason in the dim room. He was in jeans and a leather jacket, nice enough to have a little money to blow, but not so nice that he stood out as a mark. His expression was hard enough no one challenged him, yet not so hostile anyone took it as a challenge. He blended into the room seamlessly, as he always did in Gotham’s seedy underworld. It was a useful talent that made gathering information much easier.

“I think we could use the girls to push the cocaine here in the Alley,” one of Maroni’s men was speaking to Kennedy. “They’re in the right market for it already. We keep track of what we distribute to them and count the money they give us back. It’d be a good way to start off while we’re still working on bringing the dealers under our control and getting rid of the uncooperative ones.”

“Yeah, not bad,” Kennedy agreed. “I’ve got nine girls working for me now, but I’m bringing in more all the time. Should have every hooker in the Alley under us by the end of the month.”

“You having any trouble with them?”

“Not since the first one.”

“Good. I’ll talk to Maroni. We get a new shipment next week. In the meantime, we’ll be working on the local dealers. Be in touch,” the man said, throwing back his drink. Jason expertly snapped a picture of his face as he passed by. He continued to sip at his own drink as Kennedy headed up to his office.

It seemed that Maroni wanted to slip his fingers into all the pies in Crime Alley. That was not okay. Crime Alley was his and he wouldn’t let it become a territory battle for organized crime again. No one was getting back control of his town.

He really missed being a crime boss. No one had dared mess with the Alley once it was under his control.

“Hi, handsome,” a sultry voice spoke as a body slid against him to press into the bar.

Jason turned to see Holly, and he smiled, amused. Of course, she didn’t know who he was, but it was still nice to see her. “Hello.”

“You look like you could use a good time,” she said, running a hand up the arm of his leather jacket. His smile widened, amused and mildly flattered because there was real attraction in her gaze despite it being how she made her living. “And you look like you’d be a pretty good time on top of it. Handsome too. Definitely a win-win for me,” her hand slipped into his jacket to rub across his chest. He outright grinned when he realized she was checking for his wallet while her other hand was trying to distract him by running up dangerously high on his thigh.

He slipped his hand into his jacket, slipping his wallet out of her fingers and tucking it back into his pocket. She shrugged unapologetically.

“Maybe some other time,” Jason told her, but slid a couple of his poker chips her way. “So you won’t miss me too much,” he said giving her a smirk. Mostly though, he just wanted to help her out while she put up with Kennedy for a few days longer.

“For that, I promise not to steal your wallet next time,” she smiled seductively.

Jason chuckled, cashed out his chips, and headed back towards his loft, a more solid plan to get rid of Kennedy and Maroni forming in his mind. It wasn’t going to be pretty and it wouldn’t be strictly Bat approved, but, hopefully, it would be effective.

There was someone in his apartment when Jason returned. He knew this because the electricity he’d routed to the doorknob was already disconnected when he went to disconnect it. He sighed heavily, but didn’t bother drawing a weapon, because it was most likely either Tim or Dick.

“Why are you here?” Jason demanded, opening his door.

It wasn’t Tim or Dick.

It was Alfred.

“Master Jason, there you are,” he greeted, glancing up from where he was using the jug of water to wash Jason’s sparse dishes.

“I usually just wash them in the bathroom,” Jason remarked. He then noticed the Christmas tree set up in the corner against the wall that separated his sleeping area and the windows overlooking the balcony. It was already decorated and proudly lit up with three presents resting under it. “You have got to be kidding me,” he exclaimed, despairing slightly.

“Christmas is less than a month away, Master Jason. You really shouldn’t wait so long to decorate,” Alfred admonished him, not bothering to cease the dishwashing. Jason dropped his backpack, full of guns and surveillance equipment, on his couch and stalked towards the Christmas tree. The presents were from Tim, Dick, and Alfred.

“I believe Master Timothy has contacted your current teammates about their presents as well. They shall be delivered soon.”

Jason rubbed his hand over his face. “I am not getting big bird and baby bird Christmas presents, Alfie. I’m not falling into this… this family trap you guys are setting. It’s not happening. I’m not playing party to this shit.”

“Does that mean I will get a Christmas present, Master Jason?” Alfred inquired easily.

Jason had no idea how they all played him so effortlessly. Because it’s not like he could tell Alfred he refused to buy him a Christmas present. No one could do that.

“Why are you doing this?” Jason asked instead, practically begging. “We had a really good thing going, Alfie. The family pretended I didn’t exist, I pretended you all didn’t exist, and we all cohabitated Gotham peacefully. It was the best system we could possibly hope for. Why ruin that now?”

Alfred looked at him sternly. “We were not pretending you did not exist, Master Jason. We simply did not know you were back home. There is a very large difference. And as for why we’re doing this, you are well aware of why. We are your family, whether you’re fully on board with the idea or not. Now go shower and change. You smell like a brothel. Honestly, Master Jason—it is only two in the afternoon.”

“Underground gambling ring, actually,” Jason retorted snidely, just to be petty. But he did smell like cheap booze, cheaper perfume and stale cigar smoke, so he headed off to shower anyway.

It was only when he’d gotten out of the shower that he realized that his ratty towel had been replaced by new freshly laundered ones—infinitely nicer than the holey ones he’d had before. And there were more than two of them. Then, when he went to his room to change, he found his mattress was freshly made with new, high thread-count sheets. He ran a hand over his face at the signs of Alfred everywhere. It didn’t escape Jason’s notice that he hadn’t brought in any furniture or gotten his sink fixed. He’d only done little things to make the place more comfortable and homey, respecting the fact that Jason would get to the furniture eventually, and when he did, it’d be better to let him choose his own. Alfred was thoughtful and perceptive like that.

And then Jason found the brand new washer and dryer, which were currently running.

“Really, Alfred?” he heaved a sigh as he headed back towards the kitchen. “A washer and dryer? They’re huge. I don’t even have enough clothes for that thing!”

“I’d noticed. Speaking of, Master Jason, what size are you wearing now?”

Jason narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, no. And I’m sure you already checked the sizes on the clothes that you’re already washing, but no. You do not have permission to do anything with that information. I don’t want an entire store of clothes turning up in my loft, okay? I’m a grown ass man. I can buy my own clothes.”

“Then why don’t you?” Alfred challenged wryly. “I’d be very surprised to find out you’d actually bought any of the clothes you currently own.”

“Thrift stores,” Jason retorted.

Alfred was unimpressed. “Thrift stores. How frugal.” Jason just narrowed his eyes as the old butler slipped a casserole dish into the oven then pulled out sandwich materials. “Have you eaten yet, Master Jason?”

“Are you making me a casserole? You do realize I can cook.”

“And yet, you never seem to,” Alfred replied. “I’m just trying to ensure that the groceries I brought you don’t go to waste. Sandwiches?”

“Yeah, alright.” Jason heaved a sigh, because there was no arguing with Alfred. “I’ll go… clear off the table, I guess.”

“Wonderful, Master Jason. That’d be very helpful.”

Jason could see into his future as he cleared firearms and explosives from the table, and this was it; Alfred popping up to parent and coddle him whenever he damn well pleased. There would be no dissuading him from doing exactly what he wanted. Sure, there were things he could do to get rid of Alfred, but they were extreme things. Lines he didn’t actually want to cross just to get rid of the old man. Which left him with two options. He could continue to tear his hair out over Alfred randomly showing up and mothering the hell out of him, or he could accept it as inevitable and just learn to roll with it.

Abruptly, Jason chose the second option.

He cleared off the table and settled down with the product brochures for cabinets and counter tops that Bill had given him. If Alfred was going to be sticking around Jason might as well get his help on things.

After a few minutes Alfred brought over a stack of sandwiches and a pot of tea.

“Planning your kitchen remodel?” he asked, sitting down across from him. He poured them both tea as Jason grabbed a sandwich.

“Yeah, I’m trying to figure out the picking cabinets and countertops thing. There are way too many kinds, Alfie. Like, what is this?” he asked, pointing to one of the pictures. “Cement countertops. That’s a thing? How do you even do that? Why would you do that? Is that even sanitary? Can you clean cement? What if I got raw chicken on my cement counter tops? What the hell would I do?”

Alfred looked mildly amused and Jason decided to overlook it for the simple fact that he’d made his favorite sandwich.

“I believe there is a sealing process, Master Jason. Cement, like wood or granite, is a porous material. Regular sealing is required for the maintenance of the countertops, but when sealed properly, they are quite sanitary.”

“Huh,” Jason said, looking at the picture again. “No kidding.”

“I imagine more work must go into the cement countertops, however, as they must be poured and allowed to set in your kitchen before they are sealed. If regular sealing is not something you wish, slate and soap stone are not porous. However soap stone is fragile as are the edges of slate.”

“Do people actually have wooden countertops?” Jason asked as he flipped through the brochure looking for them. It didn’t take too long to find, and he went through the pictures curiously.

“They’re called butcher’s block. They’re quite popular.”

“Huh,” Jason remarked, looking at the pictures then back at his kitchen speculatively.

The loft was mostly open concept with only a few exposed brick pillars throughout the large open space. The kitchen was to the immediate left of the door, and existed in an “L” shape with cabinets against the brick wall and coming off of a short plaster wall to form the bottom of the “L” which extended past the door like a miniature hallway. In between the kitchen area and the windows was Jason’s joke of kitchen table, which had previously operated as his arsenal. The large space south of his kitchen and dining area was open and held an ancient couch, chair, and coffee table, and an even more ancient TV. Jason would be replacing it all eventually, possibly with Alfred’s help. On the other side of the space was the wall that separated Jason’s bedroom, with the bathroom beside it and a utility space behind the bathroom, which was where Alfred had the washer and dryer installed. He would gut the bathroom too and get new furniture throughout, but for now, he was focused on his kitchen.

“It would probably be easiest to select your countertops first,” Alfred suggested. “Then you can coordinate your cabinets accordingly.”

Jason nodded. “Yeah.” He thought about what Dick had said about the ceiling and painting it white. It looked pretty good against the brick and the dark, wooden floors. It added light to the loft, making it seem even bigger. He liked the lighter butcher’s block countertops, he decided, looking at the picture. The natural wood was nice. His loft was fairly industrial, and he was a fan of that, but he thought some natural wood pieces would be a nice addition.

“Light butcher’s block,” he decided. “White cabinets. Industrial stove and hood, double oven, and a giant, deep sink. And I think I want to put a big island there,” he said, gesturing at the open space in front of his kitchen. “With a bar and stools.”

“That is an excellent idea, Master Jason,” Alfred declared, sipping at his tea. “I think it will come out very nicely.”

Jason smiled, pleased with the plans. “Yeah, thanks, Alfie. I’ll take measurements this afternoon and make the orders for everything. Probably go ahead and pick out the appliances as well.”

“Perhaps with such a nice kitchen, you’ll actually cook some,” Alfred remarked.

Jason rolled his eyes, but grinned fondly. “Yeah, yeah.”

Alfred stayed and helped Jason take measurements, and once he left Jason caught a few hours of sleep between his nice, cozy sheets.

Chapter Text

Dick received a text message from Tim before he finished with patrol.

Tim: Batbrat suspicious. Avoid Manor at all costs. It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourself.

Dick heaved a sigh as he read the words. To say that Damian was a handful was understating things quite a bit. It didn’t matter that Bruce already had experience with Dick, Jason, and Tim; he’d been in way over his head over his head with Damian. Funnily enough, Damian was the most like Jason in bad attitude and level of difficulty, and Bruce was seriously lucky that Jason hadn’t been ten and already capable of assassinating people when he found him, or he might not have lived long enough to add Tim and Damian to the family.

It’d been over a year and Dick was still wary of Tim and Damian being alone together, because while Dick was pretty sure Damian wouldn’t take a cheap shot and try to kill Tim when he’d let his guard down, there was still that little bit of doubt. Which turned into full blown worry at the idea of them alone at the Manor while Damian had an obvious bone to pick. Especially because he was always extra prickly on the nights he was forced to take a break from patrolling.

Besides, it wasn’t like Damian was wrong to be suspicious. He and Tim (and now Alfred) were hiding something from Damian. Dick didn’t really like it. Secrets were not good for a partnership, and they weren’t good for family. Of course, he understood Tim’s reasoning completely; handling Jason required finesse. Jason was skittish and volatile. He was a bit like an abused stray cat wary of all people. He needed to be brought into the family without him realizing he was being brought into the family, and Tim had been bringing him in carefully. Damian would not fit in with Tim’s careful plans, but the boy was their brother too, and Dick thought it was important to involve him in this as well. As for Bruce… well, Bruce was off-planet for another week or so. That gave them plenty of time to decide how to bring him in.

Dick: Nah. I’m on my way. We’ll tell him together.

Tim: Are you sure that’s a good idea?

He could read the extreme skepticism.

Dick: Jason is his brother too.

Tim didn’t reply, which was a sure sign of protest. But he didn’t outright argue, so Dick figured he was willing to go along with him, even if he wasn’t particularly crazy about the idea.

When he arrived at the Cave, Damian was sitting in the large chair in front of the computer, arms crossed and watching Dick disapprovingly. Behind him, Tim was leaning against the table, fingers kneading his forehead, clearly regretting every single life choice that brought him to this moment. Dick looked at Damian again, looking exactly like a miniature, disapproving Bruce, and sympathized a little.

“Grayson. Good of you to show your face,” Damian greeted coldly.

“Hey, Damian,” Dick greeted cheerfully, knowing it would piss him off. “How was school today?”

Damian bristled at the reminder that he was in fact an eleven-year-old child and was forced to do demeaning things like attend school and not patrol every single night. “You’ve been hiding something. Both of you. I demand to know.”

Dick was regularly distracted by how similar Damian was to Bruce. It was easy to see Bruce in his expressions and mannerisms, and it was difficult to get used to at times, a tiny little Bruce trying to give him orders. Dick was trying to train him out of the orders part though. It was slow going though. He wasn’t a miracle worker.

“Okay, first off, it’s not that we’ve been hiding something. More that we were waiting on timing.”

“Timing? Explain,” Damian ordered.

Tim sighed in annoyance and suggested tightly. “Maybe if you tried asking instead of just bossing everyone around…”

“Drake, the day I take a suggestion from you is the day you actually manage to contribute something to this family,” Damian retorted disdainfully.

Tim’s lips curled in a silent snarl that immediately made Dick wary. Tim was on the slighter side, sure, and it would probably only be a few years before Damian surpassed him in height and bulk, but Tim was plenty dangerous. Physically and not, Damian frequently underestimated Red Robin, and Dick knew that if the two ever really went at it, the collateral damage would be inconceivable. Which was why he devoted a lot of time and energy into ensuring that never happened. Because he was the responsible one, apparently. And when the hell did that even happen?

Although, to be fair, Bruce had shown extreme concern on the few occasions Tim had gotten mad enough to possibly act on his intense rage. Watching Batman usher Tim through the manor in a determined quest for pizza, Doritos, and piping hot coffee had been a somewhat amusing experience for Dick. It would have been downright hilarious if Dick hadn’t been tensely waiting for the danger to pass.

Damian still didn’t get it. He didn’t understand that with all of Tim’s varying skills, he could bring the worldwide economy crashing down around them on a complete whim. Tim could send the planet into absolute chaos with an all-nighter, a pot of coffee, and a six-pack of energy drinks. Dick felt they were lucky Tim hadn’t felt like it yet. As Batman’s sons, they were all dangerous, but Dick knew without a doubt that Tim could cause the largest scale disaster out of the four of them. Although, Jason had become a powerful crime lord pretty much overnight. He probably would have taken over the entire Gotham underworld if he felt like it. Luckily for everyone, he’d gotten sick of Gotham and started traversing the globe and hunting down magical zombies instead.

Anyway, the point was that Tim was dangerous and Damian still did not respect that fact. Dick was honestly a little worried about what would happen for Damian to finally learn that lesson.

“Alright, let’s just calm down,” Dick said, moving to stand in between his two youngest brothers. “Damian, this situation is delicate, but it’s not right to keep you out of the loop anymore. You’re going to need to follow our lead on this though, okay?”

“Perhaps, I could decide that for myself if you would just tell me what it is you’re hiding?” Damian declared pointedly and impatiently, arms still crossed over his chest. They’d been working on some of his entitlement issues with the whole kind-of-a-prince thing, but they still had a long way to go. Clearly.

Dick sighed and decided to just get it out there. “Jason is back in Gotham.”

Damian stiffened in his chair as his narrowed eyes switched from Dick to Tim and back again. “Todd is in the city.”

“That is what Dick just said, yes. You’re parroting powers are as impressive as ever,” Tim remarked dryly.

“Shut up, Drake,” Damian snapped, giving Tim a furious glare. He then shot his narrowed eyes back to Dick. “Todd is in the city and you’ve been keeping it from father,” he said, eyes accusing. “He will be most displeased. Why have you kept it from him?”

“It’s a delicate situation,” Dick repeated. “Things aren’t exactly what they seemed. We will tell Bruce, but we don’t think that now is the right time. He’s busy with League stuff anyway, and won’t be back planet-side for another week.”

“He should still be informed,” Damian said crossly. “Father would want to know that Todd’s back to murdering people in his city instead of outside of it. It is his right to know.”

“Jason isn’t murdering anyone,” Tim said, a touch defensive. It was easy for Dick to see how attached he had gotten in the month or so he’d been hanging out with Jason. He didn’t find it particularly surprising though. Jason had been Tim’s Robin, and Tim had hero-worshipped him as a child. Tim was very invested in bringing Jason back into the fold.

“Are you defending that monster, Drake?” Damian spoke, incredulous. “Is your brain so diminutive that you’ve actually forgotten the numerous times he tried to kill you?”

Tim clenched his fists and opened his mouth, but Dick smoothly stepped in. “It’s not as simple as that, Damian. We didn’t have all the information.”

“What possible information could make any difference in the crimes Jason has committed against this family?” Damian demanded, and for a moment, Dick just basked in triumph, because despite the situation, that right there was a major victory. The fact that Damian was recognizing their unit as a family, recognizing Tim as a member of that family, was more progress than Dick had ever thought they’d make.

He opened his mouth to explain about the Lazarus Pit, but Tim cut him off. “I got this, Dick.”

Dick abruptly frowned, looking at Tim warily. This probably wouldn’t be easy for Damian, what with Jason’s history with the League of Shadows and his own mother. Talia’s renouncement of Damian was still a sore subject for the boy, and Dick wasn’t sure how Damian would take the inevitable discussion of his mother and her motives. “I don’t know if that’s the best idea,” he admitted.

Tim ignored him and spoke to Damian. “In between being resurrected and returning to Gotham to try and kill us, Jason was with the League of Shadows.”

Damian stiffened. “What?”

Tim continued. “You were with them at the same time. Think about it, Damian. Did you ever meet him?”

“No!” he snapped furiously. “I would have known if I met Todd, Drake. He wasn’t—” he stopped abruptly, eyes widening and expression growing slightly disturbed. “There was…” he trailed off, and Dick found himself intensely interested.

“What, Damian?” he pressed gently.

“There was a slave,” he admitted, glancing away in mild guilt. And that was another sign of progress because Damian now understood that people should never be allowed to own other people, despite what had been normal in the League of Shadows. “I never saw his face. They called him ‘the American’. My grandfather intended him to be his head servant, an envied position in the League. But he was reckless, crude, disrespectful, and completely uncooperative when he should have obeyed for his own sake. It could have been Todd… It was probably Todd… It was definitely Todd,” he realized, the slightest touch of revulsion seeping into his expression—only visible to those who knew him well.

“You’re sure?” Tim checked.

Damian made a face. “I think it would have greatly appealed to my grandfather to have one of you as his slave and protégé.”

“Because of Bruce?” Dick said, understanding Ra’s newfound interest in Red Robin much better now. “Because we’re Bruce’s sons.”

Damian nodded stiffly. “Having one of Father’s sons as his head servant/assassin would have greatly pleased him. But the American—Todd—was defiant. He refused all orders unless they involved his training and would facilitate his own goals. I never met him or saw his face—they kept him hooded when they moved him about the various compounds—but they made him into a cautionary tale. They made an example of him for his defiance so that others would know the cost of disobedience. The punishments didn’t deter him though, and Todd continued to defy my grandfather. Eventually, my grandfather gave up on the notion and decided to have him executed instead. That’s when my mother negotiated for his ownership. She kept us separated. I thought he was just a side project for her. Perhaps a method of proving she could succeed where my grandfather had failed, but now I think she intended Todd to seek out Drake and kill him so there’d be no one standing in my way once I ended Grayson,” Damian spoke, a little distant. A method of protecting himself from the current topic of conversation, no doubt. “She would have known exactly how to twist Todd for her purposes. It worked, clearly,” he added dryly.

“She knew exactly how to twist Jason because of her vast experience in dealing with Lazarus Syndrome,” Tim said pointedly.

Damian briefly looked startled before it all clicked in place in his mind. “So that’s it. Todd was immersed in the Lazarus Pit.”

“He was,” Dick confirmed. “And it’s worn off. Which is why he hasn’t killed anyone in a year, and why Tim and I are in contact with him.”

Damian nodded, looking like he partially understood. “But why hide it from Father? He would be very interested.”

Dick sighed heavily. “Just because we understand things now, doesn’t mean they’re suddenly simple. Yeah, the Lazarus Pit changes everything, but Bruce is still one of Jason’s least favorite people right. Not to mention he has PTSD on top of everything. He didn’t come back to Gotham to reconcile with the family, and if it were up to him, he wouldn’t get involved with any of us ever again. So we’re subtly trying to convince him otherwise. I’m sure you understand how suddenly bringing Bruce into this would be like throwing a match on a powder keg. We really want this to work. For all of us, including Bruce. So, for now, it’s better to keep him in the dark.”

Damian frowned. “I disagree. He will overreact when he realizes you’ve been hiding this from him. That will be the match on the powder keg.”

It wasn’t a bad point, Dick realized. But, it was kind of too late now.

Tim apparently agreed. “Well that part is done, so there’s no going back now.”

“Don’t tell Bruce,” Dick told his youngest brother. Damian looked like he was about to protest, so Dick continued quickly. “You can come with us tomorrow to see him. Then you can judge for yourself whether or not you still think he might kill one of us and make your decision then. But, until then, don’t tell Bruce.”

Damian tilted his head, considering. “Alright,” he finally agreed, and Dick let out a large, relieved breath. This was good. This was going to work. They were going to get Damian on their side and then, once they got the girls, that would be everyone teaming up on Bruce. He wouldn’t stand a chance. Not that Dick was even sure Bruce would try to keep them from bringing Jason back into the family… he honestly didn’t know what Bruce would want, but he did know how strongly Bruce felt about the ‘no killing’ thing, and they all knew that Bruce could be irrational at times. “Okay. Tomorrow night we’ll go visit Jason’s warehouse and you can see what he’s been up to. Sound good to everyone?”

“Whatever,” Damian rolled his eyes and looked like he was going to turn his attention back to his homework—and really, he was doing his homework on the Bat computer—but Tim stopped him.

“Damian. He was a slave for Ra’s for two years. How bad was it?” Tim asked solemnly.

Damian’s expression turned grim as he admitted, “Bad.”

Tim twitched slightly and quickly stalked out of the cave, because coming from Damian, the word meant “really horribly awful and even I don’t want to know the details.” Dick clenched up, imagining what Jason would have endured—imagining him trying to escape again and again, trying to come home. Jason had needed rescuing, and they hadn’t been there for him. Again. They hadn’t even known he was alive.

Dick truly hated Talia more than he ever thought possible in that moment. The way she’d just thrown away Damian the second he decided he wanted to be his own person and not kill his adopted brothers was awful. He’d only been ten and she’d told him she could never love him. And then she’d kept Jason from them, taken advantage of his pain and twisted him with the madness of the Pit. He despised her for it.

“I’m sorry Grayson,” Damian spoke, breaking him out of his thoughts.

Dick blinked at him in confusion. “For what?”

“I should have realized about Todd. It’s incredibly obvious now, and the signs were all there. I recognized the hallmarks of assassin training. I should have realized Todd trying to kill Drake had my mother behind it. I should have recognized the signs of the Lazarus Pit.”

Dick shook his head. “That’s not your fault, Damian. All of us have had experience with Talia and experience fighting assassins. None of us put it together. Not even Bruce. Don’t worry about it. We know now, and we’re going to set everything right.”

Damian didn’t say anything, but he nodded firmly before turning his attention back to his homework.

Dick sighed again and tried very hard not to think about Jason and what creative and ever more painful methods Ra’s would have used for punishment.

It wasn’t easy.

Chapter Text

Damian was skeptical about this sudden truce his brothers had with Todd. He understood the Lazarus Pits and the affects they had on people, but that was not enough to clear Todd of guilt in Damian’s mind. Yes, the Lazarus Pit had made him unstable, but his mother had focused Todd’s instability onto Drake fairly easily, which meant the negative feelings must have been there naturally. He did not believe his mother had intended Todd to kill his father too, but, well, Todd was difficult and couldn’t be trusted to follow plans.

He wouldn’t be surprised if Todd still wanted them dead, Pit influence or not. It was not logical to suddenly trust him now, but no matter how many times he tried to reason with Grayson, he just wouldn’t hear it. Drake could usually be counted on to be the more reasonable one with things like this, but Drake had formed some strange sort of attachment to Todd, and when Damian brought it up, he’d been irrational and standoffish. He was concerned Drake was suffering from some variation of Harley Quinn’s psychosis. There was absolutely no reasoning behind this attachment to someone who’d tried to kill him multiple times, and for whatever reason Damian seemed to be the only one that remembered Todd had tried to kill all of them at least once. Damian considered going to Oracle, Black Bat, and Batgirl, but he wasn’t sure whether or not they’d be any more reasonable than Grayson and Drake.

Not for the first time, Damian found himself questioning his father’s judgment regarding the people he brought into their family.

In any case, Damian had made a deal with Grayson, and there was nothing he could do but ready himself for any scenario as they moved to meet up with Todd. Afterwards, he would be free to contact his father if that’s what he felt was necessary. At least his father wouldn’t succumb to this mental instability.

He hoped.

“Alright, Damian. Play nice,” Grayson said as they arrived on the roof of a warehouse in Crime Alley. Damian looked around his surroundings in slight distaste, not at all surprised that this was the kind of place a street rat like Todd chose to spend his time. The man was a product of his surroundings. He’d been destined for life in a gutter, after all; it wasn’t surprising that that’s exactly where Todd ended up.

“I am perfectly capable of behaving myself,” Damian declared, annoyed that Grayson was still questioning him. “The question is whether he can.”

“He’ll be fine,” Dick said, though Damian wasn’t particularly reassured. He subtly checked his weapons, making sure they were ready.

“I’m going to go give him a head’s up,” Tim said, quickly moving to the edge of the roof.

Damian was even more wary. “He needs a warning? Is he that unstable?”

“It’s not him that needs the warning, Little D,” Grayson replied. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Damian followed Dick through an upper warehouse window, and then immediately froze on a rafter. Inside, the warehouse was loud and crawling with children. There must have been at least thirty, and they were all over the place playing various games and eating and making all sorts of racket.

It hadn’t been what Damian expected at all.

“Todd is raising an army of miniature soldiers,” he frowned at Grayson accusingly. “What is the meaning of this? Should we expect an incursion?”

Grayson snorted and Damian bristled. “It’s not an army, Damian. They’re just kids.”

“I am a young,” Damian pointed out. “I am also lethal.”

“Well these guys aren’t. I don’t think so, anyway.”

“Then what is the purpose of gathering them here?”

“They’re homeless kids, Damian. They had nowhere to go so Jason took them in, helps them get food and keeps them safe and warm,” Grayson spoke, and Damian could hear the pride and approval in his voice. The same approval Damian heard whenever Damian managed to do something human and compassionate. "Jason was a homeless kid too, so this stuff really bothers him.”

“How did this come about?”

“Bruce’s tendency to pick up strays rubs off on people. Like how you picked up your cat and Bat Cow.”

Damian didn’t see the comparison. “They are innocent animals, not an army of small ruffians.”

Grayson was amused. “Same general idea. Anyway, Tim is working with Jason to open an orphanage and get them all off the street. For now, they’re safe here.”

Damian had more questions, but Todd suddenly called from the floor of the warehouse. “Are you guys coming down or not? You’re being total creeps.”

“Tch. No manners,” Damian scoffed.

Grayson laughed. “Yeah, that’s Jason.” And then he was bounding towards the warehouse floor, causing several children to perk up at his arrival. Damian followed a little more warily.

“Hey everyone,” Grayson greeted cheerfully. “I brought someone else for you guys to meet. This is Robin—our youngest brother.”

Damian stood tensely as the army of children studied him curiously.

“So you work with Batman?” one asked.

“Yes,” Damian replied shortly.

“Do you kill people?” another asked.

“I can, but I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Batman doesn’t approve.”

“Well that’s lame,” another said. Damian shook his head—they were definitely Todd’s.

“I respect him so I follow his rules,” Damian replied.

“Eh,” Grayson hedged, and Damian shot him a glare. “Only some of his rules. Robin kind of picks and chooses.”

“Well some of them are stupid,” Damian retorted.

Several of the children nodded in understanding and Damian found himself warming to them. Slightly.

“Can you stand on one hand like Nightwing?” a voice came from his left, and Damian turned and jolted in slight surprise because the voice had come from a small, red-headed child who was currently clinging to Todd’s shoulders like a baby koala. And Todd was just standing there as if nothing was amiss—like a tiny, red-headed child using him as a tree was a normal, everyday occurrence.

“Of course I can,” Damian retorted, offended. “I am the best Robin.”

“Oh please,” Todd grumbled under his breath.

Damian glared at him, but was kept from replying when the tiny child asked, “Can you flip off of there like Nightwing?” she asked, pointing to the lowest rafter.

“Of course I can,” he declared again. “I can do anything they can do, and I can do it better.”

Todd scoffed, but it was Drake who prodded. “Even a quadruple somersault?” because the fool just had to go and pick the one thing only a Grayson could do.

“Shut up, Red Robin, or else I’ll slit your throat while you sleep,” Damian snarled at him.

Drake looked entirely too pleased with himself.

The tiny child broke in again. “I’m six. How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Who let’s an eleven-year-old fight crime?” an older kid asked incredulously.

“An irresponsible adult Bat with major paranoia issues,” Todd broke in dryly and Damian gave him a hard look. His father was many things, but he was not irresponsible.

The small child pulled herself up higher and twisted around Todd’s shoulder so her face was directly in front of his red helmet. Todd, again, behaved as if this was completely normal. “What’s paranoia?”

“When you think everyone is out to get you,” he replied easily.

“Oh, so you have paranoia issues too?”

Drake and Grayson snorted in amusement but Todd just declared, “Hey! I earned my paranoia issues, carrot-top!”

She patted his helmet and hummed, and faced no retribution from Todd for the patronizing actions. She then pointed over to the other side of the warehouse. “Take me to the food, Hood.”

To his surprise, Todd merely sighed before following the child’s orders. Damian thought about the slave he’d been and the many, many times he’d defied any and all orders given to him by Damian’s grandfather, despite the numerous painful punishments. Yet here he was doing the bidding of a six-year-old child while offering very little resistance. “I wonder if my grandfather would have had better luck if he’d gotten a small child to give Hood his orders instead,” he mused thoughtfully. “Although, I’m not sure how well he would have taken being bested by a child.”

Grayson burst into surprised laughter and Drake immediately began snickering.

“Oh man,” Drake choked. “Can you imagine Ra’s’s face?”

Grayson countered. “Can you imagine B’s?”

They both doubled over in laughter and Damian considered their words. His father had tried long and hard to get Jason to cooperate and follow orders, and Jason had responded with explosions and gunfire. He imagined the look of consternation on his father’s face as he witnessed this miniscule child order the same man around effortlessly. The thought was indeed amusing.

“I want to see it,” Damian declared to his brothers.

“Oh definitely,” Drake agreed. “We’re so gonna make that happen. I swear. Best thing ever.”

“And Alfred needs to see it too,” Grayson added, before straightening up and turning towards the child army. “Okay, who’s ready for gymnastics camp?”

There were many excited responses and suddenly they were being surrounded by the children. Damian moved to retreat, but Grayson grabbed his shoulder. “I’m gonna need your help, Robin. You’re still small so you can help me demonstrate moves better. Think you can handle it?”

Damian scoffed. “Of course I can.”

Grayson grinned at him. “Alright. Let’s start with a hand spring demonstration.”

“Careful, Nightwing,” Drake declared. “Dr. Thompkins will skin you if we drag her out of bed to fix any broken bones.”

“It’ll be fine,” Grayson assured. “Now Robin, why don’t you demonstrate?”

*****

Dick’s impromptu gymnastics lessons occupied most of the kids, including Lisa, so Jason and Tim retreated to the rafters to watch from a safe distance. Jason pulled his helmet off and set it next to him. It offered protection and he had infrared and other handy things, but it did limit his peripheral vision a bit, and there was no need for it at the moment. Plus, he always wore a domino underneath it anyway.

“So whose idea was it to bring Bat brat?” Jason asked once they were settled.

“Definitely Dick’s,” Tim replied immediately and without looking up from his phone. He was always on his phone, it seemed. Tim was a multi-tasker of epic proportions and a workaholic to rival even Bruce. Jason worried about the amount of sleep he got, between classes, WE, patrol and cases. Whoever thought it was a good idea to introduce the kid to caffeine needed to be held accountable for the horror they’d unleashed upon the world.

“Hey, you know a drug runner named Joey Long? He used to work out of Crime Alley,” Tim asked, not looking up from his phone.

“Yeah, I kicked him out,” Jason retorted. “He ran most of the heroin through the Alley. Took up somewhere in Tricorner, right?”

“I’m kind of surprised you let him live,” Tim said, giving him a side-long look. “He’s just your type.”

Jason shrugged. “He gave me some information I needed so I thought it was only fair. I did promise to chop him up into little pieces if he ever stepped foot back in Crime Alley again.”

“Right, well now he’s running the heroin in Tricorner.”

“Guess I should have just killed him,” Jason remarked.

Tim glared. “No. You should have turned him over to the police.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever. What do you need to know about him?”

“I’m trying to find out where his shipments come in,” he admitted. “It must have gotten back to him that I’m after him though because he’s gone to ground. I can’t find him or his shipments, but I think he’s getting cheap with his product—started cutting it with more dangerous stuff. There’ve been some hospitalizations.”

Jason scowled. “Definitely should have killed him.”

“No killing,” Tim replied firmly.

Jason scowled, because this no killing thing was already grating on him with Max Kennedy. “Yeah, because our system works so well. Would have been back on the streets in a heartbeat.”

“Not the point, Jay. You don’t get to decide who lives and dies. None of us do.”

“Well maybe we should.”

“We shouldn’t,” Tim retorted firmly. “But anyway, I was wondering if you remembered anything about him that might help me find him.”

“As a matter of fact, I do know someone who can help you,” Jason declared. “Let’s wait until Dick and the Demon Spawn head off, and then I’ll introduce you,” he decided. After all, Long was now Tim’s problem because of the way Jason had dealt with him. It was only fair that he help clean up the mess.

“Oh,” Tim said, seeming surprised but also pleased. “Yeah, great.” Then he went back to sifting through research on his phone. Jason grabbed his phone, scrolling through his own files he’d gotten through Roy as an idea slowly started forming in his brain. Just because he was now following the “no kill” rule, didn’t mean he had to follow all the rules. Who said he had to do things legally anyway? Who said he couldn’t cheat? What did it matter if the right man went to prison? So what if Kennedy melted down the murder weapon. Jason could just forge one.

He quickly texted Roy.

Jason: How do you feel about forging a murder weapon?

Roy’s reply was immediate.

Roy: I feel awesome about forging a murder weapon. What kind of murder weapon am I forging?

Jason: Knife. I’ll send you the coroner’s report. This is time sensitive. I need it pronto.

Roy: You got it, Jaybird. One murder weapon coming up. Give me 24 hours.

Jason grinned widely. There was his smoking gun. He’d plant the knife on Kennedy, some drugs and dirty money too, and lead the police straight to him. Then he’d convince Maroni to cut him loose and keep his paws off of Crime Alley, and, if he played his cards right, him not killing Kennedy might not be an issue. Then it’d be case closed with minimum fuss.

Following the rules was for chumps.

“What’s that look on your face? I don’t like it,” Tim said, looking at him warily.

“Nothing to concern yourself with, little bird,” Jason declared, pocketing his phone.

“No one is dying, right?”

“Course not. I’m on the straight and narrow now, Timbo.”

“Yeah, that’s comforting,” Dick declared as he pulled himself up onto the rafter beside Jason. The gymnastic lesson was apparently over, but Dick had left Damian in the middle of the crowd of children. He was apparently telling them about an encounter he’d had with Killer Croc, which just reminded Jason that the kid was here in the first place.

Jason glared at Dick. “What gives, Grayson? You brought Demon Spawn to my warehouse?”

“He needs socialization with kids his own age. He doesn’t get along with the kids at school. Besides, he found out about you,” Dick replied. “I brought him here to convince him he didn’t need to call Bruce and tell him you’re back in Gotham.

Jason scowled immediately. “Nosy brat.”

“Be fair. The last time you were in Gotham you kind of started a gang war, killed off multiple crime bosses, and became the most powerful crime lord in Gotham.”

“And everyone was better off for it,” Jason shrugged.

Dick frowned. “Except for all the people who were dead.”

“I’m not having this argument again tonight,” Jason declared. “We can all agree to disagree on the killing thing, and you both can rest your pretty little heads easy with the knowledge that I’m not currently killing anyone. Super-deal, remember?”

“Yeah, but what happens when you change your mind?” Dick frowned.

“The only one who would change my mind is currently in Arkham. If, by some bloody miracle they actually manage to keep him there, we won’t have a problem. The second he gets out, though, all bets are off.”

Dick frowned harder. “Yeah, that doesn’t exactly make me rest easy, Jay.”

Jason turned a glare on him, immediately furious. “Yeah, so imagine how I feel, Dick,” he hissed fiercely. “You’re uneasy at the possibility that I’ll kill him if he gets out, because him getting out is basically inevitable, right? How about being uneasy about all the people who will end up dead when he does get out again? Or being uneasy about the fact that he’s just as likely to come after me as I am to go after him, huh? His business with me is unfinished because I didn’t fucking stay dead. So yeah, Dick. If he gets out, I’ll be gunning for him. Better me getting him first before he decides to go after me. I am not letting that clown kill me again.”

Dick was frowning and Tim had gone still by the time Jason finished his angry tirade. “I didn’t realize the obsession was mutual,” Dick finally said.

Jason scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well you don’t know him like I do. Trust me. I’m second only to Daddy-Bats in his books, and even more of a target because of what I was supposed to mean to Batman.”

“What you do mean to Batman,” Dick countered. “What you always meant.”

“Fuck off, Dick,” Jason snarled, because that was not a conversation he felt like having with Bruce’s golden child who could do no wrong.

“He’s right,” Tim broke in. “You weren’t there for the fallout, Jason. You didn’t see him spiral out of control.”

“He changed when you died, Jay,” Dick continued. “And it wasn’t for the better.”

“You’re right,” Jason retorted. “Changing for the better would have been making sure the Joker could never do that to anyone again. Not slapping him on the wrist and sending two more kids out to be put in the same fucking position!” he snarled quietly, not wanting the kids below to hear them.

“Jason—”

No, Dick!” he snapped. “You don’t fucking get it. None of you have ever fucking gotten it! You don’t fucking understand! You don’t fucking get the Joker. He will do this over and over and over again. He’s obsessed with Batman. Every fucking thing he does, he does to play games with Batman. The Joker killed me because of what Robin is to Batman. And what the fuck did Bruce do? He stuck another kid in the suit to be a fucking brightly colored target, and he did it without even making sure the Joker could never do it again. Don’t you get it? If Bruce was going to take on another Robin, he needed to make sure it could never happen again. But he fucking didn’t! My death meant nothing if he’s just going to let the same thing happen to one of you. And it fucking will, Dick. It fucking will. Right now, I’m a whim away from being target number one in the Joker’s mind. Just a damn whim is all it would take. If the Joker ever manages to kill me and I stay dead, his target’s not gonna switch to Batman, it’s going to be one of you until every one of us is gone. Dead at his hands. Bruce hasn’t done anything about it, but I fucking will. Someone has to keep us safe.”

They were silent for a moment—the only sound being the kids chattering excitedly down below. Unsurprisingly, Dick was the one to break the silence. “You’re right, Jay—I didn’t get it, but I do now. But I still don’t think you killing him is the answer.”

“Dick—” Jason protested immediately, because how could Dick get it and still not get it, but Tim cut him off.

“No, he’s right. I get it too, Jason. I understand. But we still can’t cross that line.”

“I’ve already crossed that line, Tim. A whole hell of a lot. What does one more time matter?” Jason challenged.

“You did that under the influence of the Pit. This one would be all you, and he’s not worth turning yourself into a murderer,” Tim said firmly. Jason made a frustrated noise, but Tim kept going. “I get where you’re coming from. I get why you feel like it has to be this way. But it doesn’t. You’re seeing it as a you against him deal. But it isn’t just you. You’re not on your own and you’re not facing him on your own. You have with behind you. We will keep him in Arkham, Jay. And if he does get out, then all of us will hunt him down like a dog and put him back in. Every time. When you died, it was just you and Bruce. But now it’s you, me, Dick, Damian, Bruce, Barbara, Cass, and Stephanie. All of us against him; he doesn’t stand a chance, Jay. It is never going to be just you against him again. We won’t let that happen.”

Jason squeezed his eyes shut tightly. “He’s too dangerous. Tim.”

“Not for all of us,” Dick replied. “Tim’s right. We’re smarter and stronger than him. We can handle him.”

Jason wanted to argue, but his outburst left him feeling absolutely drained. He didn’t talk about the Joker. He didn’t talk about what happened and how he felt about it. He was not emotionally sound enough for this shit. He just shook his head and sighed. “I wish you were right. But you’re wrong. You’re so wrong.”

“We’re not. Trust us,” Dick said, squeezing Jason’s shoulder.

Jason shook his head, but didn’t argue anymore and they sat in silence for a few moments until Tim asked curiously. “Can I ask a question?”

“Shoot.”

“How on earth did you get from what you just said to deciding to kill me?”

It startled a laugh out of Jason, and beside him, Dick snorted. “Fuck if I know,” he admitted. “I think it was sort of a ‘he didn’t learn his lesson the first time, so now I’m going to make him’ type of deal.”

“What? Seriously?” Tim stiffened, looking offended. “That was your reasoning for trying to kill me?”

“What do you want me to say?” Jason protested. “I was batshit insane, Timbo.”

“Still,” he protested.

“It wasn’t personal against you,” Jason replied. “Shouldn’t that make you feel better?”

“No. If someone is going to kill me, I’d rather them have a legitimate reason to want me dead,” Tim retorted.

Jason felt like maybe that was fair. “Yeah, well, what do you want me to do about it now? Look, I promise, the next time I try to kill you, it’ll be personal.”

“Thank you,” Tim replied, mollified.

“You need help,” Jason retorted.

Dick grinned, amused.

And then Damian was there. “Failure,” he greeted loftily, addressing Jason.

Hey!” Jason protested, hand twitching towards his gun automatically.

Damian continued. “The children are acceptable. I have decided to help you train them.”

“Train them?” Jason questioned, his indignation being swiftly replaced by bemusement.

“He thinks you’re building a child army,” Dick replied with a grin.

“So the natural response is to help train the child army,” Jason remarked, bewildered.

“Assassin,” Tim reminded him.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?”

“You get along okay with everyone?” Dick asked Damian.

“They are acceptable,” Damian repeated. “I will return.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure, bat brat, just invite yourself right on over.”

“I just did,” Damian replied, scowling at him a little.

Jason heaved a sigh and stood up, putting his helmet back on. “Alright. Baby bird and I have places to be. You two scram, and for the love of Wonder Woman, someone please make Alfred stop buying me shit. It’s getting out of hand.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Dick declared, standing as well. “Come on, Robin. Patrol time,” he said, moving to the window.

Damian lit up in some sort of unholy glee, and Jason repressed a shudder. “That kid is seriously disturbed,” he remarked to Tim as they moved out of the window and took off across the rooftops of Crime Alley, heading in the opposite direction of Dick and the demon spawn.

Tim snorted. “You have no idea.”

Jason suspected Tim was right, but he had the awful feeling that he’d have a much better idea very soon. Now that Dick had brought bat brat into his life, Jason worried he’d have just as difficult a time getting rid of him. “How the hell did this happen,” he muttered to himself, forlorn.

Tim grinned beside him.

Chapter Text

Jason tried unsuccessfully to shrug off the confrontation with his “brothers”. And wasn’t that just hell to say, even in his mind. This whole Batfamily reunion was really screwing him over. There was a reason he’d stayed the hell away from Gotham once he got his head on straight. There was a reason he hadn’t wanted to come back to Gotham after the Planet Eaters. There was a large part of Jason that was still incredibly angry, and a lot of that anger was directed at the Bats. Hence his attacking Tim and the others. Yes, he’d realized that attacking them wasn’t going to fix things, and he knew now that most of his anger was at Bruce, but that didn’t suddenly make the rest of them okay.

And now they just kept showing up in his space, and Jason was getting real damn sick of it. They didn’t get it, and he didn’t appreciate them pushing in on him and telling him how to live his life. They didn’t get that right. No one got that right. Not anymore.

Yet here he was, allowing them into his warehouse and doing favors for Tim. He felt spread thin and wrung dry by the argument about the Joker. He always felt wrung out and shaken to his core by talking about the Joker. He didn’t want to discuss things like the Joker with the Bats. He was done with them, and done with trying to make them understand. They never would and his life wasn’t their business anymore.

Jason wanted nothing more than to ditch Tim and go and collapse in his apartment to nurse his metaphorical wounds. He couldn’t though. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t still feel a little guilty about the various times he beat the crap out of Tim. It had absolutely been part of why he’s been putting up with Tim nosing his way into his life. Nothing about what had happened to Jason was Tim’s fault, and he’d had no right to go after the third Robin. He owed him. It also helped that, since being subjected to Tim’s almost constant presence, he decided he might actually like the little bastard. Sure he could be infuriating, but he had nothing on Dick or the demon child.

He didn’t actually know why he was putting up with Dick. Tim was okay. Jason still wasn’t thrilled with him encroaching on his life, but whatever. He was a big boy, he could deal. Dick though… well, there was still plenty of resentment there. Jason had never been able to live up to Dick Grayson in Bruce’s mind. He’d been the ideal son, the ideal Robin, and Jason was a rough around the edges street rat with a language and violence problem. Even when Bruce and Dick had been fighting, Dick was still the best son, and Jason had never stopped feeling the pressure to live up to him. So it really pissed him off when Dick lectured him. He didn’t want to hear it. And now, Dick was shoving the demon brat into his life as well. He did not ask for this, and he definitely wasn’t okay with it.

“You okay?” Tim asked, as Jason led him towards their destination.

“Fine,” Jason replied shortly. He took a breath, and studiously buckled down his emotions. He couldn’t afford to be unsteady when he was still dealing with Tim. “We’re here,” he replied.

“I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it,” Tim said as Jason dropped down onto the street near the Crime Alley prostitutes. “Although, in retrospect, I suppose this should have been exactly what I expected.”

“Was that an insult? I feel like that was supposed to be insulting,” Jason remarked. “If you are trying to insult me, it’s not working. Hookers hold a wealth of information in their brightly manicured fingertips, Red, and they’re pretty friendly to boot. My next-door neighbor growing up was a hooker. Her name was Lena. She looked out for me when I was little. We all looked after each other, really. She called the cops on one of my mom’s dealers once. I called the cops on one of her ex-clients when he came looking for a fight. She helped me look after my mom until she overdosed. She was really great; made awesome cupcakes. I missed her when I was shunted off to the group home. Then she was murdered when I was living on the streets. Three shots to the chest in an alleyway a couple blocks down from here,” Jason said, and almost stumbled in shock at how the words had just spilled out of his mouth. He never talked about his life before Batman in any detail. It was always vague information, maybe one or two scant details if necessary, but never with any sort of emotional connection. Definitely never like this.

Fuck, what the hell was wrong with him? He knew he sounded downright wistful thinking about Lena and her cupcakes, and how after Jason finally got his mother to eat food and had put her to bed, she’d come ferry him away to her couch, wrap him in a blanket and let him watch cartoons on her TV, because Jason and his mom had never had one. Lena had been pretty and sharp even if she’d never made it all the way through high school. She’d been like an older sister to him, and he’d never thought twice about what she did for a living because in Crime Alley, you did whatever you had to do to survive. The rules of the game were different here, because if you played by the same rules as the rest of the world, there was no way you’d last.

But fuck, there was no reason he should be telling Tim this. It wasn’t his business. It was no one’s business, so why the hell was he opening his damned mouth? He gritted his teeth beneath his helmet, annoyed at the words and annoyed about what he said at the warehouse. They’d been pulled out of him in his anger and frustration, and now he felt shaken and unmoored, like he wasn’t fully in control of himself. But the flood-gates were opened and now shit was just spilling out, whether he wanted it to or not.

And because everything in his life always went his way, the words just kept coming. “I found out later, once I was with Batman, that he caught the guy that did it. He solved the case and sent him off to prison. Only, they let him out two years ago—some political bullshit. He worked for Falcone, so he pulled some strings, and suddenly the guy’s walking around free, ready to do it again. So I hunted him down and put a bullet in his head.”

Tim turned and looked at him with a strange expression.

Jason gritted his teeth again. “What?” he demanded, annoyed with himself, annoyed with Tim, annoyed with everything on the whole damn planet.

“Your entire life is like an episode of 60 Minutes,” Tim replied. “Seriously.”

Jason hunched his shoulders a little and stalked out of the alley with a very mature and slightly sulky, “Shut up.”

Tim trailed after him.

“Yo, Hood. I thought you were gonna stop scaring off the johns,” Lacy called as soon as she spotted him from down the street.

Jason turned towards her, shoving all thoughts of the Joker, his family, and his childhood to the back of his mind. He couldn’t focus on that when he had a job to do, so he took a breath and drew himself up. “I missed your beautiful face too much to stay away, Lace,” he called back flirtatiously. She rolled her eyes, but her lips twisted up in a smirk.

“Mhm,” she said, looking him up and down appraisingly even though he was covered head to do in armor and leather and a big, red helmet. “Fair enough.”

Jason grinned under his hood, but turned towards Sasha. “Sasha, love of my life!”

“Hood,” she said, smiling wide as she moved towards him. She immediately grabbed him by the shoulders and kissed his hood. She then turned to look at Tim in interest. “Who’d you bring to see us?”

“Sasha, Red Robin. Red Robin, Sasha,” Jason introduced.

Sasha looked Tim up and down before giving him a wide, amused grin. “Oh honey, how on earth do you scare criminals? You are way too adorable to scare anyone.”

Tim sighed with his entire body, drooping in defeat. “Why do people always say that?”

Jason cackled, delighted. “Oh man, really? That’s great!” It was easier to pretend his insides weren’t all screwed up when he got to laugh at Tim’s expense.

“Shut up, Red,” Tim said, hilariously close to a whine. “It’s not a bad thing to be underestimated, you know. I have strategic advantage.”

“You sure do, Red,” Jason replied, still grinning.

“Seriously, adorable,” Sasha grinned, prodding at the suit’s wings, and then ruffling his hair. Tim looked pained, and Jason was having the time of his life.

“You know, Red Robin, if you’re interested, I’m betting we could have some serious fun together. I’d give you the safe streets discount,” Sasha purred, sidling up closer to Tim and rubbing at his chest.

Jason was slightly disappointed when Tim didn’t look the least bit uncomfortable by her words or her fondling. Instead he just asked. “Safe streets discount?”

“Mhm,” she said, rubbing her hand down over the armor covering Tim’s abdominals. “I give it to anyone who tries to make this city a safer place to live. Firemen, EMTs, some cops, vigilantes. You interested?”

“Flattered, yes. But I’m not interested, sorry,” Tim answered, still not uncomfortable. Jason couldn’t help but pout a little. It’d be much more fun to watch Tim blush and fumble, but he supposed that was asking too much.

“What about me? Would I get the safe streets discount?” Jason asked instead, curious.

Sasha released Tim and turned a look on him. “Hood, honey, if you ever said yes, I’d do you for free.”

Jason might have preened a little. “Oh really.”

“Don’t even act like you don’t know you’re my favorite,” she retorted. “And I’ve seen you with just the little mask, remember? I know you’re good looking.”

“Then I hope that means you’ll do me a favor,” he said easily, making his move.

“Anything for you, Hood. You know that,” she replied.

“Joey Long. You know where he is these days?”

She frowned and straightened abruptly, immediately complaining. “Come on, you’re not about to take out one of my regulars, are you?”

“Well, I can pretty safely say he won’t end up dead if that helps,” Jason offered.

“Yeah, well, johns can’t pay you when they’re in prison, Hood,” she complained.

“I know, Sasha, but we both know the guy is a complete jackass. Don’t lie to me; I know you’d like to see him beat to hell and behind bars. I’ve had one conversation with him and I wanted to knock all his teeth out.”

“If I recall correctly, you managed a few,” she remarked wryly, but she wasn’t glaring and her posture had relaxed a little, so Jason knew she wasn’t completely set against the idea. “Look, I don’t care for the guy, but business is business and a regular is a regular. I gotta make rent, you know?”

“I know, and I’m fully prepared to pay the difference until you can arrange another regular,” Jason replied. “Or, more accurately, Red Robin is prepared to pay the difference as he’s the one actually after the fucker,” he said, patting Tim on the shoulder.

Sasha tilted her head at Tim in interest. “That so, Red?”

Tim gave a small sigh as he fiddled with his belt, already readying cash. “I guess that’s only fair. How much?”

“Five hundred,” Sasha replied immediately. “And another five next week if I haven’t filled his slot.” Tim handed over the cash with no complaint and she smiled. “He’s got a couple of bolt holes that I know of. I can also give you names of most of the guys he works with, and I know the warehouse where they store their drugs.”

Tim looked pleasantly surprised. “All of that would be great, thanks.”

She smiled, running a finger seductively down his chest. “Anything for you, honey.”

Tim made rapid notes on his phone as Sasha listed off names and addresses, and Jason frowned as he considered the intel. Getting out of Crime Alley had been a good move for Long, it seemed; the number of guys working with him had grown exponentially. His warehouse was located at the docks and he was willing to bet it would be pretty well fortified. All these assholes would have guns and Tim fought primarily with a staff. He was an excellent fighter, an excellent planner, and not at all reckless in the ways Jason was. But, he was reckless in his own Tim-like way. He worked too much and slept too little and when combined, his judgment became skewed. Case in point; befriending and trusting Jason. Tim had a habit of diving into situations without troubling anyone for backup, and he wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of the little bird doing that tonight when all of this was Jason’s fault in the first place.

And, again, he owed the kid.

“Thanks, Sasha. This is extremely thorough,” Tim said, sounding delighted by the fact. Jason supposed that’s just what happened when one detail oriented person found another detail oriented person.

“Sure thing, honey. You know where to find me if you need anything else. A friend of Hood’s is a friend of all of us,” she said, nodding her head towards the other girls loitering about. She then turned back to Jason. “How’s that other thing?” she asked vaguely.

Tim, of course, watched in interest, but Jason felt fairly certain that he wouldn’t figure out anything until it was all over. Especially if he was busy tying up loose ends with Long. “Looking good. Almost done,” he promised.

She smiled, relieved. “Glad to hear it. See you around?”

“Count on it,” he promised. And then, with one last peck on the hood from Sasha, he and Tim returned to the rooftops, the latter already gathering data on all the names.

“Thanks, Jason, that was perfect,” he said, eagerness in his tone. “I’ll have this wrapped up by sunrise.”

Jason sort of wished he hadn’t worn the helmet, because he really wanted to pull his hair in frustration. He was still feeling like he was on a razor’s edge of emotion, and the only thing he really wanted to do was go bury himself beneath the blankets on his mattress, but Long was his fault and he owed Tim. He hesitated for only a moment before he spoke. “You know, I have some C4. If you want to blow the warehouse.” It was a good way to insert himself into the case without explicitly inviting himself along. Plus, with the mood he was in, explosive property damage would probably do him some good.

Tim looked amused. “It doesn’t surprise me that you want to blow the warehouse.”

“Well, what else do you suggest we do with the product, Timmy?” he challenged. “If we don’t destroy it, it’ll be out on the streets in two days. Crooked cops, you know.”

“Fair point. But really, you just like to blow things up.”

“Also true,” Jason allowed, because he absolutely did like to blow things up. It had been a form of coping for him, once he was finally allowed freedom and the chance to address some of the almost crippling issues being killed by the Joker had left him with. He’d died in the explosion, had watched the timer on the bomb tick down to zero. It had absolutely sucked. Any sane person might develop an aversion to both timers and explosives, but he didn’t want that, so he’d created a sort of therapy for himself by blowing up things that pissed him off. He needed some positive associations, and it might have worked a little too well. Jason was now rather bomb happy, always finding ways to incorporate them when Roy and Kori found them unnecessary.

“So how do you want to do this?” Tim asked curiously. “Warehouse first? I’m betting a lot of Long’s guys will be around, and if Long isn’t there himself, then we’ll know where to find him.”

“Sounds good. I suppose you’re going to want to get all the henchmen out before we blow the place?” Jason said, sounding resigned.

“Do you even need to ask?” Tim said, shaking his head. “So do we need to stop by a safehouse for the C4?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Please, Timmy; I carry that shit on me.”

Tim looked at him, clearly expecting him to be joking, but when Jason just stared at him in challenge, his eyes widened slightly. “You’re not kidding.”

“I never joke about C4, baby bird.”

“That’s insane. You’re going to get yourself killed,” Tim snapped, disapproving.

“Already did that. Or did you not hear?” Jason retorted, eyes narrowed but tone chipper. Tim stiffened, looking both a little scandalized and a little disturbed. Jason bet it was the first time he’d heard his death referred to in a joking manner. Hell, knowing how repressed Bruce was, they had probably not talked about it at all until he came back. The whole topic probably had been taboo unless he was lecturing them on how to be proper Robins (and not failure Robins as the demon spawn had so helpfully pointed out). Which just made it that much more darkly amusing to Jason. He gave a shark’s grin under his hood and snickered. “Oh, man, the look on your face. That’s not going to get old.”

“Your sense of humor is atrocious,” Tim snipped, seeming personally offended by Jason’s joke.

“My sense of humor died in a fiery explosion. Along with me.”

“Oh my god, you’re awful,” Tim groaned.

“If you can’t joke about your own tragic, too early death, what else can you joke about, Timmy?” Jason asked. Tim had been forcing his presence on him for weeks now, with Jason able to do virtually nothing about it. He’d take payback in whatever way he could get it.

“Anything. Anything else,” Tim retorted.

“Not as fun,” Jason said.

Tim grumbled as he grabbed a comm link out of his belt and handed it to Jason. “Just in case. Try not to use it to tell the worst jokes on the planet.”

“I make no promises.” Jason had to take off his helmet to slip it in his ear. Once finished, he pulled out his grapple and gestured chivalrously to Tim. “After you.”

They got side tracked by a couple of routine muggings on the way, but eventually they made it to the warehouse. “I take north, you take south?” Jason asked, gesturing to the skylights. “We go in fast and hard and take ‘em by surprise. Don’t want to give them time to get their weapons ready.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tim said, moving into position. “I’ll count it off. Three… two…”

They both leap at “one” dropping down in a twin shattering of glass. The gunfire started before Jason even hit the ground, but it was chaotic and disjointed, and they’d both been moving too quickly for the gunmen to properly aim. He came up from his roll shooting, rubber bullets shattering hands and kneecaps without anyone being put in danger of bleeding out. It wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as a bullet to the face, but the loud shouts of agony were something he didn’t get when he killed people instantly, so Jason tried to look on the bright side and enjoy those. He holstered his guns once he ran out of bullets, and pulled long, twin knives out from their sheaths at his thighs. He was fully prepared to get up close and personal with the men still standing.

Only Tim’s voice called out, halting his progress. “No lethal force, Hood!”

Jason protested immediately. “They’re just knives!”

“No. Lethal. Force.”

Jason shoved them back in their sheaths, grumbling curses under his breath. “Fucking Batscout. Ridiculous. Batarangs have fucking sharp edges. How’re they any fucking different? What the actual fuck, I can’t believe this shit,” he grumbled as he stalked forward, hands curled into angry fists. At least he had people to take his frustration out on.

Across the warehouse, Tim was making quick work of beating the hell out of his thugs with his staff. Jason slammed his fist into some asshole’s face and kneed another in the balls. And that was satisfying. He saw a gun taking aim out of the corner of his eye and he swung around quickly, knocking the gun from the man’s hand and dislocating his knee with a well-aimed kick. He howled in agony and Jason grinned, giving him one last punch in the face before snatching another gun from a different asshole. Over all, he wasn’t very impressed. These were small time thugs, trying to become big time ones. Jason was honestly amazed a more professional drug runner hadn’t offed Joey Long and taken over his business. Hell, he was amazed the man had been able to move in to Tricorner period. It must have been someone else’s turf before him, and Long wouldn’t have had the manpower to take over on his own. He must have gotten someone else’s blessing—had someone more powerful for protection. Whoever it was though, didn’t seem to care if the man was taken down, based on the less than impressive crew he had working for him. Baby bird could have probably taken them all on his own after all.

It wasn’t long before they were all more or less unconscious, and Tim quickly and efficiently began binding them up while Jason inspected the drugs that had yet to be unloaded from the truck.

He sighed grumpily.

“What is it?” Tim asked him, still securing Long’s guys.

“It’ll take too much effort to move these guys. It’d be way easier and more efficient to dump the truck off the pier than it would be to blow it,” Jason admitted reluctantly.

Tim looked a little amused. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sound so forlorn.”

“Couldn’t properly shoot anyone, couldn’t use my knives, can’t blow shit up. This entire night has been completely unsatisfying,” Jason retorted grumpily. “Not to mention demon spawn.”

Tim’s reply was a bit amused and more than a touch sarcastic. “Downright tragic.”

“Shut up, baby bird,” Jason retorted as he started checking faces. “Let’s just find Long so we can find out where he was getting his supply.”

“Doesn’t look like Long is here. Must be in one of his bolt holes,” Tim replied.

Jason perked up a little. “Maybe there’s hope yet.”

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to blow his safehouse, Hood. Too much collateral damage.”

“You are no fun.”

“I might let you break a few of his bones if he’s not talkative,” Tim offered.

“And you are forgiven,” Jason retorted. “Call it in. I’ll dump the truck,” he replied with a little more cheer. Watching the truck plummet over the end of the pier and slowly sink into the water was at least a little satisfying. Someone had spent a lot of money on those drugs and they would be getting no payout. That was nice.

When he was done, Tim was waiting for him. “Feel better?”

“A little. Let me break a few of Long’s fingers and I’ll be just peachy,” Jason replied.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Tim replied.

Unfortunately, it only took breaking one of Long’s fingers for the cowardly bastard to sing like a canary. He’d made a deal with the head of the Lombardi family that allowed him to be in charge of the heroin trade on Tricorner. He was the one with the drug contact, so the shipments would stop with him. It wouldn’t be long before Lombardi found an alternate stream, but Tim could deal with that when it came up. For now, it was okay.

“Thanks for your help. It’d have taken me a week to find Long without Sasha. I owe you one,” Tim spoke, sounding horribly chipper.

Jason shrugged. “My fault he was your problem anyway, Red. We’ll call it even. I’m gonna head back to my neck of the woods. Call me if you need something blown up.”

“I’ll be on the lookout. See you tomorrow,” Tim replied, and then grappled away. Jason scowled after him. It seemed he was as stuck with Tim the same way he was with Alfred. Things were getting out of hand, and he really needed to do something about it. But first, he needed to take care of Kennedy.

Chapter Text

Jason absolutely should have known that with the discussion of the Joker earlier that night, he’d end up dreaming about him. They weren’t nightmares in the traditional sense of the word; wild imaginings conjured up by his subconscious. No, these were just straight up memories of his death. The crowbar, his stupid fucking laugh that he could still hear in perfect clarity, the ticking down of the bomb, the explosion itself. Sudden heat, a bright flash of agony before his world blinked into nothing.

He jerked awake with flails and gasps, kicking and clawing violently at his comforter like he was trying to dig his way out of his damp, suffocating grave. It took him a minute to recognize the fact that he wasn’t actually buried under ground, but was on his mattress in his loft.

Fuck,” he hissed, voice wrecked and hands shaking. He snatched the gun out from under his pillow and leapt out of bed, stalking around his loft quickly to make sure it was safe and no one had broken in. It was empty, but he’d left the electricity disconnected from his doorknob and windows. Jason hurriedly reconnected it and set the trip wires in his various traps before he hurried back to his room, gun still clenched tightly in his hand. The crappy mattress with the expensive sheets felt too soft to Jason. Like a cloud. Like it wasn’t real.

Jason dropped his gun just long enough to throw on his armor, then he snatched it back up, and settled into the corner of the room, letting the solid press of walls against his shoulders ground him to reality. It didn’t work as well as he wanted it to. His entire body was hyper-sensitized and the loft was too quiet, making his ears ring in the silence. He gripped the gun tightly and went through a couple of breathing exercises that Bruce had taught him for meditation. It was supposed to be done with closed eyes, but Jason kept his eyes focused on flicking from the balcony to the doorway. His hands continued to shake, even as he gripped the gun tightly, his knuckles white.

This had happened a few times since the Planet Eaters. It had happened a ton back when he was stuck with the League of Assassins, but it had died down quite a bit over time. Those alien bastards had just dragged it all back out, and even though Jason knew it’d been six years since he died—five years he’d lived since that day in Ethiopia—it felt like it’d only been a few months. The memory was so vivid in his brain. Every cut, every broken bone, every stupid, awful joke from that fucking clown, the exact moment he realized they wouldn’t make it out of the warehouse, all of that was splattered in technicolor across his brain.

He knew things were different now. He wasn’t fifteen. He wasn’t weak. He wasn’t a child. When he came face to face with the Joker again, he’d be able to give back as good as he got, and that clown would never ever have him that helpless again. He knew those things in his head, but they weren’t making a dent in the fear and panic currently twisting up his insides.

Jason snatched up his phone. Kori was on a reunion mission with a few of the old Teen Titans, but Roy should be around.

“Jaybird!” Roy chirped cheerfully, after just one ring. “I was just about to call you. I’ve got the—”

Jason cut him off, voice wrecked. “Not important at the moment.”

Roy’s tone did a one-eighty. “What’s wrong, Jaybird?”

“Talk to me,” Jason said, barely able to get the words out for the tension in his throat and jaw.

“Yeah, okay,” Roy replied, understanding his best friend easily. “Right, I can do that. I’m good at talking. The best really. Talk all the time. Olympic gold medalist talker. They should totally make talking an Olympic event, don’t you think? It’d be cool as shit. I’d totally win.”

“Get on with it,” Jason ground out.

“Right. Talking. So talking… oh! I know! Dinah and Ollie are still fighting, right?” He didn’t wait for Jason to reply, and he was thankful because he didn’t know if he’d be able to get words out again. “Well, Dinah is basically the last person on Earth you want pissed at you, and I really mean that. Also, she’s a pretty kickass mechanic. I mean, I’m the genius and engineer of the bunch, but Dinah builds motorcycles and cars. She also takes them apart,” he said, in an obvious lead-in.

Jason grunted and Roy continued with somewhat forced cheer—forced because of his obvious concern. “Exactly. So as a sort of therapy thing, I guess, Dinah has been going over to Ollie’s and taking apart every single car in his garage, piece by piece. Now his garage is a complete mess of car parts, and everything’s all mixed up. Dinah’s the only one who knows what goes to what car. There’s absolutely no way he’s going to get them back together himself, and the only way Dinah will do it is if he comes groveling. Also, I put in a camera so that we can see his reaction. It’s gonna be great. I’ll send you the video once I got it. I’m thinking we should send it ‘round to the whole League. What do you think?”

“Yes,” Jason bit out. “Keep going.”

“Right, so, I may or may not be working on a teleportation device,” Roy remarked, and Jason wasn’t the least bit surprised, because Roy, while frequently dumb as hell, was also a little bit of genius in weird ways, and technology was one of those ways. He could hack and stuff like Oracle, but he had limited interest in that kind of thing. He preferred to work with his hands, and he was definitely more into the ray-gun and teleportation device stuff.

“How are you going to manage that?” Jason asked, and though his voice still sounded like gravel, he’d at least managed to get the words out.

“Well, I’ve got access to Kori’s computer and I may have copied a bunch of files off of the Watchtower computer when we were up there. Pretty much everything to do with Kryptonian and Martian technology. I’m seeing if I can create something similar to a boom-tube,” Roy admitted.

Jason blinked. “Yeah, but boom-tube technology is dependent on resources from Apokolips and New Genesis, right? It’s powered by that weird X-element they have, which is why we haven’t duplicated Darkseid’s technology yet, cause we don’t have it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Jaybird. We could duplicate it. We just haven’t. Because Superman keeps whatever shit he confiscates from Darkseid in the Fortress of Solitude, and doesn’t let us ingenious inventors touch it.”

“I feel like this just took a turn from building a teleportation device to robbing Superman and then building a teleportation device,” Jason choked out. At some point between calling Roy and the present, the shaking had spread from his hands to his entire body. He was cold and clammy and sweat was gathering at his temples and the palms of his hands. He felt absolutely awful, but Roy was safe and distracting, and that helped.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve come to,” Roy admitted. “I mean, I’ve done all the theoretic stuff, all the science, the math checks out, blah blah blah. Now, what I need is some X-element, some kryptonite and possibly brief access to a lantern core, and I should be in business.”

“I’m not breaking into the Fortress of Solitude,” Jason complained, aware that his voice was now shaking too.

“Aw, come on, it’ll be fun, Jaybird. And Superman would probably forgive you for it too, since he’s adopted you into the Superfamily and all.”

“Still not happening,” Jason replied.

“Well let me just explain to you how the device will work, and then you can decide,” Roy said, before launching into an extremely scientific explanation as to exactly why Kryptonite would actually be a very good conductor for the Apokolips and New Genesis X-element, and why he felt like a lantern core would be the perfect thing to jumpstart the teleportation device. Two hours later, Jason was still huddled in his corner, still gripping his gun, and Roy had gone from comparing the properties of the radioactive kryptonite and the Kryptonian crystals that were the cornerstone in all Kryptonian technology, to speculating on the admittedly creepy romance going on between the Question and Huntress, to enumerating the many things he’d do with a time traveling device. Which was mostly to use it to follow Cheap Trick around on tour during their heyday. Why he wouldn’t use it to punch his younger self in the dick the first time he was about to try drugs was beyond Jason, but whatever. He didn’t judge. Much.

“Hey, Jaybird,” Roy said after he finished deciding the perfect Cheap Trick set and where and when he’d want to see it in concert. “Where are you right now?”

“Why?” Jason croaked, throat dry even though it was Roy who’d been talking steadily for two hours.

“Because when I was about to call you earlier, it was to tell you I was on my way to Gotham. I’ve finished your murder knife and I figured bringing it myself would be fastest way to get it to you if you’re on a timeline. Just got into the city.”

Jason was both relieved and a little annoyed. Relieved because just the thought Roy showing up had him relaxing a little, annoyed because of the codependency that suggested. He gave Roy his address and shoved himself up from the floor. The man might be his best friend, but no one got to see Jason huddled in a corner on the floor. He forced himself over to the couch and dropped down stiffly, fighting the urge to pull his feet up onto the couch with him. Again, no one got to see him huddle.

“Here. Anything I need to know about before I pick your lock?”

“Insulating gloves. Watch the trip wires,” Jason managed.

“Sure thing, Jaybird. Give me a second.”

Jason hung up his phone as the door clicked open. Roy moved inside easily, and to his credit, didn’t comment on his stiff posture or hunched shoulders. He didn’t act like anything was wrong at all. He just strolled in easily, reset Jason’s traps, and looked around.

“Man, this is nice, Jaybird,” he greeted happily. “Ceiling looks great. I take back all the shit I gave you about nesting. It’s a pretty nice nest.”

Jason’s lips managed to twitch up, because he knew Roy was being completely genuine and could see all the potential the place had. Unlike Dick and Tim who’d been a little quick to judge the shithole. But both him and Roy had lived in a lot worse places, and he enjoyed that Roy could appreciate the place. “Looks really fucking nice,” he said, moving around and inspecting the place. “You said you were doing the kitchen next?”

“Yeah,” Jason said, and his voice was still shot, but that was okay. “White cabinets, light wood countertops. Big island.”

“Gonna look homey as shit, Jaybird,” Roy grinned. “Good for you, man. So, you got any food in this kitchen of yours?”

“Help yourself,” Jason remarked. He hadn’t loosened his grip on the gun since Roy came in, but Roy didn’t seem to mind. He dropped his bag near the couch and moved to the kitchen, taking out a Tupperware of soup from the freezer. Alfred must have brought it by at some point. He was sure it hadn’t been there a couple of days ago. Roy got the soup going on the stove and pulled two bottles of water from the fridge. He stopped by Jason’s table/arsenal and grabbed a knife before moving over to the couch. He dropped the water bottles on the coffee table before handing Jason the knife. It was his favorite one, and Roy knew that. He was bringing Jason his favorite knife to help him feel secure. Jason nodded his thanks and slipped it into his calf holster. Roy then handed the water to Jason, and he knew he was being told to drink. He got the top off without releasing the gun and drained half the bottle in one go.

“Hey man, that drive was no fun. People don’t know how to drive anymore, I swear. I need to unwind a bit after that. You mind if I put on a movie?”

“Go for it,” Jason spoke, voice sounding a little less raw after the water. Roy got a movie started, dished out two bowls of steaming soup, and snatched the comforter off of Jason’s bed. Roy sat beside him on the couch, close enough for their shoulders to touch, and tossed the comforter over the both of them like it was nothing, stretching his feet to rest on the coffee table. Jason had to rest the gun in his lap to cradle the bowl of soup in his hands, but it was warm and Roy was right beside him, so he thought it was probably okay. It wasn’t until Roy hit play and Jason realized that he had grabbed his favorite movie, that it fully sunk in that the man was doing all of this for him. Favorite movie, comforting soup, fuzzy blanket. Roy was an absolute sap and Jason would be lost without him.

He couldn’t say thank you. That would ruin the illusion. Instead, Jason forced his muscles to uncoil enough to rest his feet on the coffee table beside Roy’s, and very deliberately ate a spoonful of soup, doing his best to keep his hands from shaking.

Beside him, Roy ate his own soup and immediately started commenting on the cinematic gold that was Die Hard, then started singing along to Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis. Jason relaxed a little more and settled in to watch John McClane kick some Hanz Gruber ass.

By the time the movie was over, he had loosened up enough to settle his gun on the armrest of the couch.

“You okay, Jaybird?” Roy asked as Jason stood and grabbed the bowls, heading towards the bathroom to wash them.

“Yeah, thanks man,” Jason replied.

“Cool,” Roy replied sounding a little relieved. “So I got your knife. You want to take a look?”

“Sure,” Jason said, bringing the bowls back into the kitchen. “It’ll match the coroner’s report, right?”

Roy scoffed. “Don’t insult me.”

“Never mind then.”

“So I’m assuming this is part of the no killing deal you made with Superman?” Roy asked as he handed over the knife.

“Yeah, the fucker destroyed the murder weapon, but I’m going to make sure he goes away for this.”

“Well that will convince a judge and jury,” Roy replied. “You gonna plant it at his place?”

“And plant some fingerprints on it. Leave behind some drugs, make sure a couple of his unregistered firearms are out in the open, just to be sure.”

“You knew the victim?” Roy guessed.

“Yeah.”

“Sucks. Sorry man. You want me to put some arrows through his hands?”

“Not necessary,” Jason replied. And it wasn’t. He was going to make sure Maroni cut the guy loose and there was no way Maroni was going to let someone who could potentially testify against him live for long. Kennedy would be shanked in prison within a week or two, he was sure of it. But this way Jason wouldn’t be the one taking his life, so no rules were being broken. He wondered if Superman would see it that way. Probably not, but what Supescout didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

“You need my help?” Roy offered. “I got my suit and shit in the car.”

Jason briefly considered it. He was going to break into Maroni’s place, beat the shit out of his people, and have a one-on-one with the crime boss. Having someone there to have his back would definitely be handy. Only, it might work against him in regards to Maroni. He needed to make himself into someone the man wasn’t willing to cross. If it looked like he needed help to take him down, that would undermine the point, and Maroni might not pull out of the Alley. Better not risk it.

“Sorry, but it wouldn’t work.”

Roy shrugged easily. “As long as you’re not getting yourself in over your head, it’s cool.”

“I’m not. It’s gonna be fun,” Jason assured him.

Roy grinned. “Fun. I like fun.”

“Well you’ll have to find your own.”

“Oh, I got my own. Dinah’s found us a gun smuggling ring. We’re taking ‘em out tomorrow.”

“Nice,” Jason replied.

“You got time before you make your move?”

“Yeah, I got a while.”

“Die Hard 2?” Roy asked hopefully.

Jason smirked. “Sure, but we’re stopping at two.”

“Well, duh. The rest suck.”

He made a noise of assent and flopped back onto the couch as Roy stuck the second one in. Jason relaxed, knowing that by the time he went out to plant the knife, he’d have his head on straight enough to get shit done without going out being a huge risk.

He grabbed his phone and texted Tim.

Jason: Hey, I need you to cover me at the warehouse tonight.

Tim’s reply was instant. Tim: Okay. You’re not going to be out doing anything stupid are you?

Jason: Timothy, stupid things are just about the only things I do.

Tim: Yeah. Great. Thanks. Just try to keep it minimally stupid.

Jason: I make no promises.

Tim: If I don’t hear from you by the end of patrol, I’m sending Dick after you.

Jason rolled his eyes in annoyance at the thought of Dick lecturing him again.

Jason: Fine, mom.

He shoved his phone in his pocket.

“Who do you think would win in a fight?” Roy began in a contemplative tone, “John McClane or Chuck Norris.”

“Huh,” Jason said, stretching his legs on the coffee table and pressing himself back into the couch cushions. “Norris has the skills, but McClane’s got the tenacity, and he fights dirty.”

“True. I think it’d be Norris though. Here’s why,” and Roy immediately started on a long spiraling tale about what would bring John McClane and Chuck Norris into contact and how they’d end up on opposite sides, how and why they’d fight, and who would ultimately win. Jason just nodded along through the entire twenty-minute lecture, and when Roy wrapped it up, he asked, “Okay, but what about McClane vs. the Terminator? Schwarzenegger Terminator from T1 not T2.”

Roy grinned wide. “Nice. Okay, here’s how it would go.”

Jason relaxed and watched John McClane get his ass handed to him by mercenaries at an airport. All in all, his day could have been worse.

Chapter Text

Planting the knife and the drugs at Kennedy’s place was painfully easy, and Jason waited until the man was back before sending the tipoff to Gordon. The knife was found, the connection was made, and Kennedy was hauled off in a squad car, protesting vehemently all the while. The wild look in his eyes when he was shown the knife he’d so carefully destroyed made Jason snort from his view behind his rifle scope, but it didn’t feel all that satisfying. He would much rather break every bone in Kennedy’s body before shooting him in the face, but he was playing by the rules now and this would have to be enough for the time being. Which left only Maroni to deal with.

Maroni operated out of large mansion down in the Upper East Side. No matter how hard the city tried, it couldn’t be a complete shithole. There had to be a place for the corrupt assholes with money to bask in their riches, and that’s where Maroni lived—a few mansions down from Carmine Falcone on one side, a few down from the mayor on the other. It was wealth, it was corruption, and it was greed. But most importantly, it was a place the police wouldn’t come unless specifically called for—out of respect for the more morally ambiguous business owners and maybe just a little bit out of fear. They’d give the mob bosses and corrupt business tycoons time to sort out their own affairs before they inserted themselves into the middle of it, no matter the amount of gunshots heard. Gotham had an upstanding tradition of courtesy like that. And that courtesy was what was going to allow Jason to get the job done before he was swarmed by the righteous boys in blue.

Jason collected most of his weapons, but very consciously left the rubber bullets at home. They wouldn’t help him at the moment. They’d suggest he was a nice guy, that he wasn’t completely willing to kill each and every one of them, and would void the entire point of the exercise. Rubber bullets were for children playing nice. He wasn’t a child and in this instance, he definitely wasn’t playing nice. He took as many guns as he could comfortably carry while still maintaining easy maneuverability along with a large cache of distinctly not rubber bullets. Then he headed down into southern Gotham.

Maroni’s mansion was a veritable fortress, and one Jason had been keeping an eye on for a few days in preparation for this little showdown. There was a small army of men guarding it at any given time, all of whom were equipped with very nice automatic weapons.

Jason was taking probably the stupidest approach to confronting Maroni possible—one that would put him at great risk all for the sake of making a point. But, if he didn’t get to kill, it was absolutely vital he make his point clearly or else Maroni would just hit the Alley harder in response. He needed to cause the maximum amount of fear and chaos to make his point, so there would be no slinking around, taking out Maroni’s men one by one until he got to the big man himself. He wouldn’t be using the shadows to fight like Batman. He didn’t want them to think he needed to hide and sneak to beat them. He needed to blow through like a tornado, cause maximum damage and shake Maroni and his men enough for them to believe Crime Alley wasn’t worth the risk, wasn’t worth the trouble.

He thought about it long and hard and Jason knew this was the right call, but damn was it going to be a challenge. The first real challenge he’d faced in months, and he was appropriately decked out in layers of enhanced Kevlar and one of his more reinforced helmets for the occasion. He’d be immensely surprised if he came out of this without being shot at least seven times. His approach was stupid for sure, but he wasn’t being a complete moron about it. Jason liked to think that helped balance the scales a little bit. And it wasn’t like the task was impossible. Yes, he had to go through a small army to get to Maroni himself, but it was a somewhat lax army.

Maroni’s men were moving about, and they were certainly packing, but not a single one of them believed anyone would be dumb enough to make any sort of attempt on the place. They’d gotten overly confident in their boss’s reputation, and they’d gotten complacent because of it. If anything, they should thank Jason when he was finished with them. He was just going to whip them back into shape. And maybe cause a hell of a lot of doctors’ bills while he was at it. So the doctors in the area should really thank Jason too. It was practically a public service.

He felt his blood begin to rush as he readied himself to move in; a combination of adrenaline and excitement he always got whenever he was about to do something colossally stupid. Things were going to be loud and messy and while Jason had gotten very little satisfaction from Kennedy’s arrest, this would more than make up for it.

Jason drew his two favorite pistols, took a steady breath and spoke. “Yippee ki yay, motherfuckers.” He leapt directly into sight, shooting the first two of Maroni’s men in the kneecaps. He was moving before they fell, screaming in agony as they went down.

He grinned viciously, shooting as he kept moving through the throng.

“Hello, gentlemen. Red Hood here if you can’t tell by the giant red helmet. Don’t suppose I could trouble you for an interview with your boss?” he spoke cheerfully over the din of gunfire.

Bullets were his answer as more of Maroni’s men appeared in droves.

“I’m gonna take that as a no,” he replied, continuing moving quickly and erratically as he shot at the gunmen. Specially enhanced Kevlar or not, a bullet would still hurt like hell, very likely bruising bone—outright breaking them if the shooter was at a close enough range. Getting shot was inevitable given the situation, but he wanted to minimize it as much as possible. So he moved like an acrobat, channeling his inner Dick Grayson as he tore through the men, shooting hands and kneecaps alike.

Five men were down, but more were coming from the front door and around the sides of the mansion. Those coming through the front made easy targets, and Jason had no problem knee-capping several of them before they got smart and pulled their injured comrades back through the door, using it for cover. The men coming from the back attempted to flank him on both sides, serving as a distraction while the men behind the door took potshots at him. Jason solved the issue by lunging at the men on the ground, drawing them into close quarters combat. It made it harder for them to get a shot off at him, and the men behind the door couldn’t hit him without risking hitting one of their comrades.

It was probably more fun than it should have been. He had not gotten enough action in the months since the disaster in the Arctic, and this was the perfect opportunity to take out his many, many frustrations. When he head-butted one of the men in the face, he imagined it was Max Kennedy he was striking. When he kneed another in the groin, he imagined it was Bruce. When he slammed his elbow into another one’s gut, he imagined it was Dick.

It was better than therapy.

“Ouch, that’s gotta smart,” Jason winced in sympathy as a thug’s kneecap exploded from the force of a close-range bullet. He pistol-whipped another that was coming up on him from behind, and shot through the foot of a third. “See, this is where reinforced kneepads come in. See these babies?” he asked, tapping the armor covering his knees with one gun, as he shot another’s knee with the other. “Protection. Not just for preventing pregnancies, you know.”

Apparently the men behind the door got sick of waiting, and suddenly there was another mess of gunfire, three bullets managing to hit Jason directly in the chest. He grunted as the air was forced from his lungs, but he made himself keep moving despite it, diving to the side even as he gasped like a damn fish.

“Fuck, that was dumb,” Jason breathed grumpily as soon as he got air back in his lungs. Then there were more bullets and people closing in on him from the rear. Jason dove again, aiming shots at the men who’d been coming up from behind and the men behind the door at the same time. They’d taken advantage of his momentary distraction, several of them making it out of the door as they attempted to pin him in between them. There were a lot of them, and they weren’t bad shots either. Under no circumstances could Jason afford to be put on the defensive.

“Alright, fuckers,” he said, snarling a little as he leapt, twisted and fired then leapt and fired again. His chest fucking hurt, damn it. “That’s it.” He got the bastard who shot him in both kneecaps before taking out three more guys. He took cover just long enough to reload and then he was out shooting again, making every single bullet count.

The thing about non-lethal force, Jason reflected grumpily as he leapt and dodged and shot and stabbed his way through Maroni’s army, was that it was really fucking inefficient. It made absolutely no sense from a logical standpoint. A dead man couldn’t pick a gun back up and shoot you. However, a man who’d been shot in the kneecap could fight through the shock, pick his gun back up, and shoot you in the shoulder, just hitting the seam in your armor, the lucky bastard. It was a bit of an issue, Jason thought as he grunted from the bullet’s impact. An issue he didn’t particularly like having. He swung about, getting the man’s other knee cap out of spite before using his back as a springboard as the man crumpled in agony. His shoulder throbbed and oozed where the bullet sat, but Jason couldn’t afford to let it slow him down. The faster he moved, the more difficult a target he made himself, and as there were men he’d already shot picking guns back up he needed to be one hell of a difficult target. Honestly, the handicaps Bruce and the others willingly put on themselves were ridiculous, and possibly bordering on the suicidal. Talia would flay him alive if she ever caught him fighting in such a needlessly hazardous way.

Another of Maroni’s men lined up a shot, and Jason lunged towards him instead of away, taking out the two men on either side of the shooter as he twisted his torso just enough to make the bullet a glancing blow instead of a direct hit. It still hurt like a bitch, but Jason ignored it as he jumped and flipped in the air, taking out two more knee caps before he hit the ground again.

By the time Jason actually made it through the doors, he was seriously beginning to reconsider the wisdom of his plan. It’d been solid in theory, but he’d already been shot in the chest five times, and in the back three times. The armor had taken the brunt of it, but he’d be heavily bruised and there was a chance at least one rib was cracked, if not several. Then there was the bullet in his shoulder. The body armor did a lot to slow it so it hadn’t gone very deep, but it was still there hanging out in his shoulder and that would get dangerous the longer things went on. He’d also been hit in the kneecap, which for all the shit he’d given Maroni’s men, still hurt like hell, even with the reinforced steel kneepads he wore. His knee would be swollen and bruised by the time he was done, and it would be a bitch to walk on for at least a week.

Jason growled in irritation, and his next shot was aimed right at the next asshole’s face. He caught himself just in time, shooting him in the hand instead. He pistol-whipped him into dreamland and turned his attention to the fuckers rushing in from the back. He was done playing around. Anger had always been a familiar emotion in Jason’s life. He’d been angry his whole damn life really, and slipping into that anger was as easy as slipping into a warm bath. Some people got stupid when angry. They got wild, reckless, and illogical. Jason used to be that way before he died. The Pit had changed things in his brain though, and now he got focused, calculating and vicious. Anger made him infinitely more dangerous. Anger was a weapon in his arsenal, not a liability. Jason welcomed it like an old friend, and began to butcher Maroni’s men the best he could without outright murdering them as he forced his way up the large staircase. He was brutal and he was efficient, but his aim strayed to vital targets more than once so he had to be extra careful.

It was immensely satisfying when he finally shot his way into Maroni’s office and held him at gunpoint.

“Salvador Maroni,” Jason greeted, one gun trained on Maroni’s head the other on the open doorway. “I was hoping to have a word.”

Maroni was a large man, tall and thick with a full head of silver black hair and dark shrewd eyes. He was dangerous because he was intelligent, and Jason kept himself ready for anything even though he was the one with the gun in his hand.

“You could have called, Mr. Hood,” Maroni replied calmly, looking more displeased by the Red Hood’s presence than anything else. “There are better ways to have conversations.”

“You know, I considered it, but I wasn’t sure you’d answer. Besides, I’m much more charismatic face to face. Phones don’t really do me justice,” Jason said, moving his gun closer to Maroni’s head as a few stragglers hesitated at the door with guns drawn. They were unwilling to charge in with a gun pointed at their boss and another at them. “Send them away,” Jason ordered calmly. “You and I are going to have a conversation. That’s it. Then I’ll get out of your hair and let you call a few surgeons.”

Maroni scowled, but nodded to his men. They backed up out of sight, but Jason knew they weren’t far. He didn’t lower his guns.

“What do you want?” Maroni demanded.

“I want you out of Crime Alley,” Jason said coldly, getting straight down to business.

“What makes you think you can tell me where to conduct my business?” Maroni retorted.

“Well, Sal, let’s do a quick recap. A year ago, I claimed Crime Alley and the Bowery and I took out everyone who stood in my way. I went away for a little while, furthering my own interests overseas, and I come back to find you infringing on my territory.”

“You weren’t here,” Maroni spoke calmly. “There was a need. I stepped in to fill it.”

“Noble,” Jason replied dryly. “Well, good news, Sal; I’m back. Your services are no longer needed in my town, so I want your tentacles out of my territory. Every last one of them.”

“And you think I’ll just back out willingly?”

“I feel like you’re failing to comprehend the situation at hand. First off, I’ve pretty much already decimated your troops, pal. They’re alive because I think you and I can end this amicably. Dozens of armed men on your own turf and you couldn’t stop me. Every last person in this fortress would already be dead, if that’s what I wanted. Two, I have a gun to your head. I could kill you right now, and you’d be just another head in my duffel bag. Or did you forget what I did to the other crime bosses who refused to get off of my turf? You’re alive because I’m allowing it, and as a favor, to return my kindness, you’re going to stay the hell out of Crime Alley. And you’re going to do something else for me.”

“What?” Maroni bit.

“I bet you got a call before I got here. Max Kennedy begging for help, right?” Jason asked. “You’re not going to come to his aid. You’re going to let him hang. You do that, you stay out of Crime Alley, and I won’t add your head to my collection. I won’t interfere with your business outside of Crime Alley at all and we can both be on our way like this never happened. But, if you do help Kennedy, if I catch your men on my territory, the next time I come back here the bullets will be going in heads, starting with yours. We clear, Sal?”

Maroni gave him a calculating look. “You broke into my house. I could always return the favor, Hood. And from what I hear there aren’t men with guns in your house—just a bunch of helpless kids.”

Jason saw red and his finger was tightening on the trigger before he had any sort of conscious thought. At the very last second, he was able to jerk his gun to the left so that the bullet grazed him, taking out a junk of Maroni’s ear instead of blowing off his face. To his credit, Maroni just hissed at the sudden pain.

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, jackass. If any of your men so much as show their face within twenty blocks of there, you and I will have a war on our hands. I will come at you with everything I have. I will raze your world to the ground and every shot I make will be a kill shot,” Jason promised darkly. “I will make you my sole focus and the second I’ve finished destroying everything you’ve built, I will slaughter you like an animal. Is a little business in Crime Alley really worth that to you when we can agree to stay out of each other’s way with no lives lost instead?”

Maroni did not look particularly thrilled, but he was also a logical, practical man. A successful mob boss knew when it was best to avoid a war. “Fine. You can have Crime Alley, and consider Kennedy burned. But if you ever step foot on my property again, I will butcher you.”

Jason grinned under his hood. “Come now, Sal; if you could, you would have already.”

Maroni sneered in return and Jason chuckled as he made an easy escape through the window.

Chapter Text

Jason quickly sped down the streets of Gotham. The adrenaline was already beginning to fade, bringing the pain he felt to the forefront. He wanted to be firmly back in his own territory before it got too bad. He really shouldn’t have been hit eleven separate times, body armor or not. Jason was a goddamned professional, and that was just sloppy. Of course, he had been vastly outnumbered and he still came out on top in the end, so he wasn’t going to be too tough on himself. It’d been a risky stunt; one Batman never would have approved of. Nothing Jason did these days could remotely be considered Batman-approved, and he preferred it that way. He imagined all the different ways Batman would criticize his plan, all the ways he’d pick it apart, all the ways he’d tell Jason it could go wrong and took an unreasonable amount of pleasure in it. Now, in the aftermath with possibly cracked ribs, aching bones and screaming muscles, it wasn’t all that enjoyable.

He’d emerged victorious though and that was all that really mattered in the end.

Once he was back in Crime Alley, Jason ditched his bike in one of his safe stashes and shot off a text to Roy. The red head had left earlier that evening so he could get back to Star City in time to work a job with Black Canary, but he’d never let Jason hear the end of it if he didn’t at least check in. After that was taken care of, he moved to update the girls. They deserved to hear the news as soon as possible.

“Hood, are you alright?” Sasha exclaimed as soon as Jason moved from the shadows of the alley. She rushed towards him, quickly inspecting the blood on his jacket and the bullets still wedged in his armor.

He smiled though she couldn’t see it. “Don’t worry, only a little of it’s mine. I’m good.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, obviously concerned.

Jason felt warmed at the very real concern. “Excuse you, I’m a professional. More importantly, Kennedy is in police custody and Maroni has decided he’s no longer interested in Crime Alley. They won’t be a problem anymore.”

Sasha jumped on Jason, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing tightly. “Oh my god, Hood, thank you!” she gushed, holding on.

“You’re getting blood on your clothes,” Jason grunted, pained from the hug and weight of her wrapped around his aching shoulder.

“Who cares?” she said, laughing happily. “You’re wonderful. The best. I love you.” Jason gasped a little when she squeezed again, but she didn’t let go. “Oh, don’t give me that. You’re supposed to be a badass. Don’t tell me you’re going to be brought down by a hug.”

“I totally am a badass, but you’re killing my image here,” Jason grunted in complaint.

She laughed, but let go of him, calling to the others. “Holly, Sugar! Get your asses over here!” Jason watched as Holly and a hooker he didn’t know moved their way, looking cautiously hopeful at Sasha’s excited expression.

She didn’t keep them in suspense long. “Kennedy’s in jail and Maroni’s turning tail and running!”

“No way,” Sugar spoke, eyes wide.

Holly leapt at Jason, pulling him into a hug much fiercer than Sasha’s. She squeezed him tight and roughly kissed the cheek of his helmet. Jason grunted in real pain because Holly’s grip was twice as strong as Sasha’s had been. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! I owe you big time. Anything you want, anything you need, you just say the word!”

“I need you to stop crushing my cracked ribs,” Jason gasped out.

She laughed giddily and did as he asked, but only after giving him anther forceful kiss. “You’re amazing, Hood. Thank you. Seriously.”

She had tears in her eyes and Jason felt for her. Being under Kennedy must have been hell. “Hey, now that Maroni’s cut him loose, you know he’s never going to let him make it to trial in case he tries to trade information. Kennedy is going to die for what he did to Honey and what he did to you.”

Holly nodded, blinking rapidly. “Yeah, I know. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied solemnly. “I’m sticking around Gotham for a little while longer so if anything else happens, if anyone needs me, you know how to get in touch.”

“Yeah, we do,” Sasha said, smiling warmly at him. “Thanks, Hood. Now get out of here. Go sleep. Maybe take a few days off, huh? You look like shit.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll drop back by in a few days to check up on everyone,” he promised before making his way back to the rooftops.

He waited until he was out of sight to let the stiffness settle back into his limbs. Most of the adrenaline was well and truly gone by now and Jason found himself flagging in its absence. Blood loss wasn’t much of a concern; the wound on his thigh was a graze and had already stopped bleeding. The bullet in his shoulder was lodged shallowly, helping to plug the wound. Other than those, there were no open wounds and therefore very little to worry about. But he was tired, and more than that, he was hungry. There was nothing like a good fight to work up an appetite, and as Jason moved across rooftops, he suddenly remembered that he’d only eaten a single bowl of soup all day. That was nowhere near enough for the energy he’d spent in the fight and now he wanted a goddamn feast. A hot, greasy feast that would make Alfred cry from the unhealthiness alone.

Jason turned in the direction of Jamie’s restaurant. He bet she was still down in the kitchen, maybe cleaning up. It wasn’t too late. She’d cook something up for him if she was still awake. He really hoped she was awake.

He was only a block away when he was waylaid by a very irate Red Robin. “What’s with you?” Jason asked, tensing slightly. For a moment he was worried that something had happened at the warehouse and he very briefly panicked. But there was no way Maroni would have had time to make a move on the warehouse yet, and Tim was looking livid, not upset. Besides, he felt pretty confident that Maroni wouldn’t want to start an all-out war. He might try to quietly assassinate the Red Hood, but he wouldn’t provoke him by attacking the warehouse. The mob boss was smarter than that.

“Nightwing called me,” Tim said, glaring crossly at Jason. “Said somebody went and shot up Maroni’s place. One guy against thirty without a single lethal shot. He asked me, ‘Who do we know that’s stupid and reckless enough to go to Maroni’s house on their own and piss him the hell off?’ You know what I said?”

“You’re dashing and brilliant predecessor?” Jason responded, just to annoy Tim. It was clear he was pissed as hell already, but Jason hadn’t broken any of their rules and he’d never been the type to take things lying down.

Red Robin scowled. “I said my dumbass, moronic, asshole big brother. What the hell were you doing, Hood? What the hell were you thinking? Maroni is a sociopath who holds grudges! And you just went over there and handed him one!”

“And I also just proved he can’t touch me,” Jason pointed out, reasonably. “If he can’t kill me in his house, there’s no way he can kill me in mine.”

Tim looked furious. “You can be so goddamned stupid sometimes!”

“Not arguing,” Jason cut in. “But you look like you’re gearing up for a long, tedious lecture and I’m fucking starving. You mind if we move this somewhere else?”

Tim looked like he was going to yell some more, but he just barely restrained himself and bit out. “Fine.”

Jason nodded and moved down towards Jamie’s restaurant. The lights were on, but the door was locked. He knocked on the kitchen door in the alley and called out. “Jamie, you there? It’s Hood.”

The door opened, revealing Jamie who went from happy to see him to intensely worried in the span of a second. “Hood! Wait, are you bleeding? Are you okay?”

“It’s fine, no big deal,” he waved her off tiredly. “Look, I know you’re closed, but I’ve had a pretty busy night and I’m starving. Would you mind—”

“Oh! Yes, of course! Come in!” she said, cutting him off and pulling him inside. She dragged him through the kitchen and onto the restaurant floor, Tim following behind. She very quickly and efficiently shuffled Jason into a booth. “Just sit right there and I’ll get you anything you want. Your friend eating too?” she asked, looking from Tim back to Jason.

“Jamie, meet Red Robin. Red Robin, Jamie.”

She gave him a brief smile. “You hungry?”

Tim was still furious, but not at Jamie so he nodded politely and kept the bite out of his tone. “Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Course not,” she replied easily. “Whaddya wanna eat?” she asked them both, Gotham street accent strong.

“Whatever’s quick and easy,” Jason replied. “I haven’t had anything on the menu that I didn’t like.”

“Anything is good with me too,” Tim agreed.

“Sure,” she replied. “I’ll bring you both something to drink. You want the first aid kit while you wait?” she directed at Jason.

“Nah. It’s nothing urgent. I’ll take care of it later.” He’d have to partially strip out of his uniform to deal with his shoulder, and he didn’t really want to do that when Red Robin was so pissed off. Jason was already at a disadvantage, no need to make it worse. Not that he expected the little bird to attack him or anything, but he still felt more comfortable completely suited up.

Jamie nodded and headed back to the kitchen. Tim waited until she was gone before turning the full force of his glare back on Jason. “Are you going to tell me what the hell you were doing now?” he growled angrily.

Jason pulled his helmet off and set it on the booth beside him. “I don’t answer to you, Replacement.”

“Humor me,” Tim retorted coldly.

He contemplated him for a moment before shrugging. “Maroni got busy in Crime Alley while I was away. I was just explaining to him that it would be in his best interests if he directed his attention elsewhere. We came to an agreement; he’s letting go of the alley and I’m letting him live. Win-win for everyone involved.”

Across from him, Red Robin seethed. “So this was just a cheap intimidation tactic to move Maroni off of your turf? That’s what you risked everything for?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Risked everything? The hell is that supposed to mean? What exactly am I risking here, Red? Look, I needed to have a word with Maroni. It would have been way too risky to try and secure a prearranged meet. This way I could show him exactly why he needed to listen to me. And I severely weakened a lot of his operations all over Gotham while I was at it. You should be thanking me.”

That was the wrong thing to say, Jason realized, because Tim’s expression turned fairly murderous. “It was fucking stupid, Hood. Maroni has a hell of a lot of resources—”

He cut him off, annoyed now. “So what? I just let him continue to get away with it because he has resources?”

“No, you use your head! You plan. And you use all the resources in your arsenal. Damn it, Hood, you have all of us to help you. If you’d brought us in on it, we would have figured out a way to dismantle his business that didn’t involve a suicide run through his place and a lasting target on your back. For fuck’s sake, you’ve got a bullet in your shoulder right now.”

Jason rolled his eyes, unsurprised that Tim had caught that little fact. The bullet hardly even counted though. If there was one thing they were all good at, it was handling their pain. Batman had drilled that into them early. They weren’t super humans; they didn’t have powers. They would get hurt in the field and if they allowed pain to be a distraction they would get themselves killed. It was pretty much the one thing Jason had been good at from the start—he’d been facing pain long before Batman, after all. So yeah, his shoulder hurt. Hell, everything hurt. But nothing was life threatening and it wasn’t the big deal Tim was making it out to be.

“One, don’t be dramatic, Red; you’re not Big Bird and it doesn’t suit you. Two, I don’t know what you’re trying to get at here, but in case you don’t remember I am not a Bat. Haven’t been for a long time. I don’t have the cave, or the lab, or Oracle and her network. I don’t have you or Nightwing or Robin. I am not one of you, and your resources are not my resources. I used my head, I planned, and I used the resources that are actually in my arsenal, and you know what, Replacement? Mission fucking accomplished. So get off your high horse. I wanna eat my meal in peace.”

Tim still looked furious, but it was a controlled anger now and that made it feel all the more dangerous to Jason. “You do have all of us, Hood. You just won’t let yourself accept it, and can’t acknowledge the fact that you want to accept it. You are a member of this family.”

Jason scoffed. “Somehow I think Daddy-Bats would disagree with you.”

“Oh yeah?” Tim asked, pulling a cell phone out of his utility belt. “Well why don’t we call him and ask?”

He stiffened. “What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s been weeks, Hood. How long do you plan on keeping him out of the loop?”

“Forever. I plan on forever keeping him out of the loop. Why the hell are you bringing this up now?”

“Because you’re doing stupid ass shit and if you’re not going to listen to me maybe you’ll listen to him,” Tim retorted angrily.

Jason gave a derisive snort. “I’m pretty sure my death would suggest otherwise. You ask him, it’s evidence I never listened to him in the first place.” Which was just a bunch of bullshit. No matter what Bruce told the other little birds, Jason’s death was not because he didn’t listen to him. It wasn’t his fault.

He shoved those thoughts away before they could dig in and start a real fight with the Replacement. In his condition, he would lose.

Tim jerked. “Goddammit, Jason, would you stop doing that?”

“No. I died. I get to make tasteless comments and/or jokes about it. Also you just broke Daddy-Bats number one rule; no real names in the field.”

“No, his number one rule is no killing, and you’re the only one here who’s broken it,” Tim shot back.

“Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me; so what do you think he’sis going to say when you call him again?” Jason challenged.

Tim growled in exasperation. “You’re absolutely infuriating.”

“You’re just figuring that out now?” Jason asked, brow raised.

The younger man looked ready to tear into him again, but mercifully Jamie appeared with a tray and he held his tongue.

“Your favorite,” Jamie declared as she set a plate of eggrolls before Jason.

Jason eyed the plate hungrily. “Jamie Li, you’re fantastic.”

“Thank you,” she smiled as she placed a pot of tea and a couple of bottles of water on the table as well. “This is stinging nettle tea. It’s got raw honey to help with your energy levels and a little bit of sea salt which will help replenish your electrolytes. Drink two cups of it and both bottles of water. I’ll be back in a few minutes with more food.”

“You are hands down my favorite human being.”

Jamie looked pleased. “Lots of food then.”

Tim shook his head as Jamie headed back to the kitchen. Jason dove straight into the eggrolls, consuming one in two quick bites. “More of your friends?” he prompted.

“Killed the asshole who was violently raping her in an alley. She prefers my brand of justice to Batman’s,” Jason retorted shortly.

Tim didn’t rise to the bait and only took one of Jason’s eggrolls. He didn’t speak to him at all for the rest of the meal.

By the time they left Jamie’s, Jason’s body was one giant throb of pain and he couldn’t move without limping. He was a mess of stiff limbs and exhaustion, and though Tim was still fuming, he jerked Jason’s arm over his shoulder and helped him the short blocks back to his loft.

Unfortunately, he didn’t just dump Jason in his bathroom and leave. Oh no, that would be too convenient. Tim stayed and sat there looking all judgmental while Jason threw back a few pain pills before he arduously stripped himself out of his suit. It took quite a bit of effort, but finally he was left with only the tank and boxer briefs he wore under his armor. Most of the skin that was visible was already mottled with bruises, and his knee had swollen impressively. Thankfully the graze on his thigh only needed a couple of butterfly bandages, and he had no problem stitching up his shoulder using the mirror, despite the fact it hurt like hell. It was nowhere close to being the worst off anyone had been after a bad night of patrol, yet Tim continued to scowl as Jason pulled on a pair of sweats and a hoodie, shuffled stiffly to his kitchen for an ice pack and then to his ancient couch to lie down. He moved a pillow under his knee and settled the ice pack on top of it before he let his head sag into the other faded throw pillow.

Tim dropped into the armchair and continued to scowl.

“Is there a reason you’re still here?” Jason asked tiredly. His shoulder was on fire and his body throbbed in time with his heartbeat in a way that wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, despite the pills he’d taken. They didn’t do much for him these days. Not since Ra’s and the Lazarus Pit. At best they took the edge off, but even with the four pills Jason swallowed, everything still ached.

“I’m waiting for Dick so we can chew you out together,” he replied shortly.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Jason snarled up at his ceiling. “What the hell, Tim, I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Tim didn’t reply, his scowl still firmly in place expressing his displeasure.

Jason growled furiously but didn’t say anything more. If Tim wasn’t going to discuss it like a rational adult, well then neither was he. He shifted a little bit, trying to get a little more comfortable as he draped his uninjured arm over his eyes.

He must have dozed off because the next thing he knew Dick was snapping. “What the ever loving hell, Jason?”

Moving his arm, he blinked blearily up at Dick who was glowering down at him with his arms crossed over his chest like some sort of disapproving mother hen. Tim was still in the arm chair and Damian was standing stiffly looking around at Jason’s loft with an expression of deep distaste. Jason didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping, but it must have been longer than twenty minutes because the ice pack had been moved from his knee to the coffee table next to a compression bandage. No doubt Tim’s doing, the pushy little bastard.

Jason’s eyes narrowed and he gingerly pushed himself up into a sitting position, carefully shifting his leg off the couch. He was so not in the mood for Dick’s crap. He was tired and in pain and he wanted them all to get the hell out of his home. Unfortunately though, Dick looked like he was gearing up for the lecture of the century. Jason snatched the compression bandage off the coffee table, and pulled up his pants leg so he could get at his knee.

“Well go on,” Jason said as he started wrapping the bandage around his knee. “Get it over with, then get out.”

“Of all the irresponsible, idiotic, reckless stunts you’re capable of, this one is even more irresponsible, idiotic and reckless than usual,” Dick chastised.

“God, you sound like Bruce,” Jason snapped, positively disgusted. “Fuck, Dick, why on earth would you take your parenting cues from Bruce when you could do Alfred instead?”

“I don’t sound like Bruce, and that’s not the point!”

Jason wouldn’t be deterred; Dick was even standing like Bruce, all stiff with arms crossed. He turned his attention to Damian and sneered. “What do you think, bat brat? He sound like Bruce to you? Hell, do Bruce’s lectures even work on you? They never really did much for me, personally.”

He expected an immediate and furious response, but Damian just pursed his lips before speaking rather neutrally. “Both Grayson and my father are capable of making salient points at times.”

Jason raised a brow, surprised Damian wasn’t taking the chance to jump down his throat or righteously defend both Dick and his father. Tim and Dick were clearly surprised as well, as both turned to look at Damian in confusion.

The kid stiffened. “What? I am not yet aware of why Todd attacked Maroni’s compound in the first place. How am I to judge whether or not his approach was foolish if I am not aware of the purpose?”

“Because the moron did it alone! That’s how you know it was foolish!” Tim snapped furiously. They glared fiercely at each other and Jason’s face twisted with a shark like grin as he realized that Damian was probably a fan of a more aggressive approach to crime fighting. After all, the kid was raised by Talia al Ghul. Lethal force was necessary to be a ninja assassin. He bet it chafed the kid to have to constantly bide his time and wait in the shadows as was Batman’s usual MO. Not only could Jason sympathize, he could make it work for him.

“You want to understand, kid? Here’s the deal. Maroni was moving into Crime Alley, getting involved in all sorts of shady business on my turf and hurting innocent people in order to do it. I wanted him gone, but hey, apparently I can’t just cut off heads anymore even though that’s a pretty damn effective crime deterrent. So to get Maroni to willingly pull out of Crime Alley, I needed to make him believe that any business they can get in the Alley is not worth having to fight me for it. To make that point properly I needed to be brutal and efficient and flashy, which meant demonstrating all of this on Maroni’s doorstep. And not only did everyone live, there are a hell of a lot of enforcers who won’t be able to run or hold guns anytime in the near future. Which will considerably weaken Maroni’s empire for a while, giving you all a chance to take down the rest of his operation for good. All in all, I’d say the night was pretty damn productive.”

Jason watched as Damian thought this through, head cocked slightly to the side and lips pursed. It took barely a moment before Damian gave a short nod and declared. “Surprisingly reasonable for a useless street rat.”

He snarled at the comment, but still basked in victory because he knew what was coming next.

“What the hell?! No, it isn’t!” Tim snapped furiously.

Dick slapped a hand to his face and groaned. “No, Dami, no.”

Damian shrugged. “Todd’s strategy was sound and it was effective. So what if he did it alone? It’s not like we would have helped him.”

Jason didn’t even mind the rude comment because Dick was now in full on mentor mode, completely focused on Damian. His hands were on his hips and everything. It was beautiful. “Of course we would have helped him, Damian, he’s our brother!”

Damian was positively disgusted. “Even if you would have helped, the point is irrelevant. Todd’s point was made because Maroni believes Todd will follow through on his threat to kill. Because of our association with Batman, we would have only invalidated his efforts.”

Jason grinned.

Dick groaned and tried again. “No, Damian, that’s not the point. Jason should have come to us, and we could have figured out a better plan together.”

“Todd’s plan was perfectly sound. It was effective and efficient. I would have done the same in his position,” Damian declared, looking annoyed now that his judgement was being questioned. And Dick’s frustration was clearly growing, which only fueled Damian’s frustration.

“No, Dami, listen,” Dick pressed and Damian looked like he was about to bite Dick’s head of so Jason quickly cut in.

“Well, you guys have fun with that. I’m going to bed. Set my traps and get the hell out of my house,” he declared firmly as he headed to his bedroom. “Despite what you assholes seem to think, you’re not welcome here.”

“What? Damn it, Jason, this isn’t over!” Dick called after him angrily, but Damian was glaring at Dick in grumpy challenge and his hands were clearly full. Jason flipped him off and kept moving.

His victory march was halted when Tim called. “I’m telling Alfred. If you won’t listen to us, maybe you’ll listen to him.”

Jason stiffened grumpily. “Cheater,” he muttered under his breath before adding louder, “Fuck you, Drake. Now get out of my damn house.” He crawled under his covers and determinedly did not think about Alfred’s “I’m disappointed” speech he would soon be subjected to. He was so fucking done with this damn family.

Chapter Text

“I’m extremely disappointed in you, Master Jason,” Alfred spoke firmly as Dr. Thompkins maneuvered him for the x-rays she’d demanded to take.

Jason was pretty annoyed with the whole thing. He’d planned on spending a well-deserved lazy day sleeping on his couch and reading Neil Gaiman. But then Alfred showed up out of nowhere, ready to ferry him off to Dr. Thompkins’ clinic. Now he was facing lectures from grandma and grandpa. Apparently dealing with the three stooges the night before hadn’t been punishment enough. Jason scowled. His skin crawled with the rising need to get out of dodge. There was only so much he’d be able to take before he snapped. It was true he had missed Alfred and he liked having him back in his life, but he’d in no way asked for Dick, Tim and the spawn of Satan. They were not welcome.

“I didn’t kill anyone, Alfie,” Jason protested, frustrated.

“That is entirely irrelevant, Master Jason, and not my point of concern,” Alfred frowned. “The issue is not about whether you used lethal force, but the risk taken. I respect your reluctance to work with the family, yet you didn’t even have a member of your own team as backup. And instead of seeking out immediate medical attention, you returned to your home. All of which paints a rather troubling picture. What if you had internal injuries? What would you have done? Your life is too precious to risk so carelessly,” he said with severe look. “I was under the impression you had more sense than this.”

Jason sighed heavily, tired and greatly annoyed with Tim. Running to Alfred was just plain cheating.

“Stand right there; take a deep breath in and hold it,” Dr. Thompkins instructed him.

“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” Jason grumbled before doing as she asked. She took a couple of x-rays of his chest and one of his knees as well before leaving him to face Alfred alone.

“Really, Master Jason, why would you take such an unnecessary risk?”

Jason knew better than to argue with Alfred, especially when he was already so cross. “My bad, Alf,” he replied instead, not putting a whole lot of effort into sounding sincere. He was tired, after all. It was way too early to be up given how late he’d gone to bed. His body ached, his shoulder burned like hell, and he wasn’t in the mood for lectures.

Alfred looked skeptical. “Indeed.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think anything’s broken,” Jason replied. He was stiff and sore for sure, but he’d had enough broken bones in his life to recognize them. While he was still very much in pain, the pain had eased a little bit from the night before. Most likely he was just very deeply bruised.

“That isn’t entirely the point,” Alfred said with a disapproving look.

“Isn’t it?” Jason countered. “You’re concerned about the “risk” I took, but I went in well-armed, with solid armor and came out with no broken bones, so how much of a risk was it really?”

Alfred’s only reply was a rather stern look which quite clearly told Jason exactly what he thought of Jason’s response. He couldn’t help but slouch in his chair. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“I trust you won’t do it again?” he questioned.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Alfie, it wasn’t—”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Master Jason. I said I trust you won’t do it again. Or that if you do, you will contact myself or Leslie for immediate medical attention, like the sensible young man I know you to be capable of being.”

Jason heaved a sigh and gave up. “Yeah, yeah, okay. You win.”

Alfred nodded in satisfaction. “I’m glad to hear it.” With that, he sat down in a chair calmly and started chatting like nothing had even happened. “Christmas is only eleven days away. Master Bruce will be returning soon. I believe his business is wrapping up, and he makes an effort to be with the family for Christmas.”

Jason crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “Good for him.”

The old man continued, undeterred. “We’re going to have quite the eclectic menu this year. Master Damian favors quite a few Middle Eastern dishes, and his diet is entirely vegetarian. Master Timothy will eat anything if one is able to pin him down long enough to eat at all. His preferred method of caloric intake is still black coffee and those vile energy drinks. And heaven knows Master Dick’s diet is still atrocious. His tastes have always run towards highly processed foods with an astronomically high amount of sugar.”

“He still like those potatoes with the marshmallows?” Jason asked, a little amused despite himself. Dick was a travesty of a human being who liked travesties of food.

Alfred made a noise of assent. “He would put marshmallows on the goose if I let him. I’ve preferred having him back at the Manor. Damian needs someone when Master Bruce is gone, but mostly, it’s just nice to ensure he will not perish from a sugar overdose.”

Jason nodded, and because he was still feeling more than a little vindictive from the night before… “He used to have a cache of sugary cereal and pop-tarts in the attic of the east wing in the boxes of Bruce’s baby toys. Bet he still keeps his contraband in the same place.”

Alfred’s eyes narrowed. “Did he now?”

“He did, and he wasn’t very good at sharing either.”

“Hm, it seems I’ll be venturing into the attic this afternoon,” Alfred remarked before continuing. “Dick’s poor nutrition habits aside, do you have any requests for Christmas dinner?”

Jason stiffened and glared. “I’m not going to the Manor for Christmas, Alfred.”

The butler gave him a flat look. “I did not for a moment expect you to be so reasonable as to join us for Christmas dinner, Master Jason, but I do plan on providing you with a proper Christmas meal nonetheless.”

Jason snorted, amused at the dig. “You don’t have to make me anything, Alfie. I’ve got plans anyhow.”

“You’re allowed to have plans; however, I’ll be packing dinner for you all the same. Do you still like duck? If I recall correctly, you were quite fond of the orange sauce I prepared for the roast duck the Christmases you spent at the Manor.”

Jason hesitated. On the one hand, he didn’t want to cause Alfred any trouble, especially when there’d be more than enough food at the warehouse. On the other, Alfred’s roast orange duck was positively divine and Jason hadn’t had it in years. His indecision must have been written all over his face, because Alfred’s smile was slightly smug. “Roast duck with the orange sauce then. I know you aren’t fussed with the accompaniments, but I’ll endeavor to pack dishes I know you like all the same.”

“There’s nothing I don’t like, Alfred,” Jason said, rolling his eyes because Alfred knew that better than anyone. Growing up, Jason never had the chance in life to become a fussy eater. For the longest time, he’d been damned lucky to have anything at all. When he moved into the Manor, there was suddenly food everywhere, and Jason ate everything that was put in front of him with great enthusiasm. It was worlds better than anything he’d ever eaten before. He took a great interest in Alfred’s cooking which led to him hanging around in the kitchen while the man explained what he was doing and the particulars of the nutrients necessary to keep busy crime fighters going strong. It was really no surprise that Jason became Alfred’s favorite to cook for; he was highly appreciative and he liked everything.

“That may be true, but I know there are things you prefer when given the choice,” Alfred replied easily.

Jason’s reply was cut off by Dr. Thompkins’ return. “Well, I don’t know how you managed it, but nothing’s broken.”

“Really good armor,” Jason supplied.

She wasn’t amused, “Heaven knows it wasn’t your self-preservation instincts. I’d let you have it if I thought for a second it would do any good.”

“It’s okay; Alfred, Dick, and Tim have already got that covered,” Jason retorted.

“And I’m sure that did a lot of good,” she replied sarcastically. “I want you to wear a brace on your knee for a few days,” she said, handing him one. “Just while it heals.”

“Fair enough,” Jason agreed, strapping the stabilizer onto his knee. “So any news on the ‘how am I alive’ front?”

She frowned. “I’m afraid not. Your MRI was completely normal. There’s nothing at all to indicate that you were dead in the first place.”

“What? Seriously?” Jason complained.

“I’m sorry, Jason,” Dr. Thompkins said. “I’m afraid the medical side looks to be a dead end. I don’t think I’m going to be able to tell you how you came back to life.”

Jason frowned. He hadn’t been particularly optimistic, but he had hoped they’d find something to shed some light on why he woke up in his coffin five years ago. He didn’t like not knowing.

“If I may make a suggestion, Master Jason,” Alfred began, but Jason narrowed his eyes at him immediately.

“No. Absolutely not.”

“I’d just like to point out that this is one of the occasions where his obsessive tendencies might come in handy. Not to mention he has many connections and a vast amount of resources. If you ask him for his help, I’m sure he’ll be able to tell you how you were resurrected, which might help you understand why.”

“I am not asking Bruce. If I decide to pursue it, Tim will help me,” Jason declared firmly. “Tim can figure it out.”

“I’m sure he’d like to help you,” Alfred tried, one last time.

“We’re not asking Bruce,” Jason declared firmly.

“Very well then,” Alfred sighed.

“And on the topic of infuriating Bats, I’d appreciate it if you’d tell them to stay the hell away,” he said emphatically, having lost any and all patience with them after the night before. He didn’t want them showing up at his place whenever they damned well pleased. He didn’t want them telling him how to do his job. He didn’t want them judging him when they had no right—no way of even comprehending why Jason worked the way he did. They didn’t understand, they didn’t get to judge, and Jason didn’t have to put up with it. “I am sick of putting up with their crap, Alfie. You’re welcome to drop by and visit anytime you want, but they are not. I swear, Alf, if I see one of them anywhere near me, I’ll be out of Gotham within the hour. I am not putting up with this shit any longer.”

Alfred raised a brow at the threat. “Frustrated with your brothers?”

“They are not my brothers,” Jason retorted immediately.

“Of course they are,” Alfred replied, unbothered. “But I will tell them you require some space.”

Jason gritted his teeth, but nodded, figuring that was the best he was going to get. He turned to Dr. Thompkins. “Anything else, Doc?”

She nodded, “I’ve been doing some research on your injections from your time with the assassins. I’d like to discuss some things with you.”

“I’ll leave you to it then,” Alfred spoke, making his way to the door. “Take care of yourself, Master Jason. If I even suspect you are doing anything you shouldn’t be with your injuries, I will be very upset with you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason sighed. “See you later, Alfie.”

Alfred nodded and left the room leaving Jason with Dr. Thompkins. “This about the Prometheus then?” Jason remarked.

Dr. Thompkins nodded. “I told you before there were some anomalies in your blood that were explained by the injection. Well, I didn’t like not knowing what those anomalies might mean to your physiology, so I’ve been pouring over the formula and mapping out possible effects of long term exposure. It’s taken me a while because I’ve been busy with the regular clinic business as well, but I think I have a solid idea of the changes now.”

Jason was surprised. “You didn’t have to do that.”

She gave him a narrow-eyed look. “You are my patient, Jason. There was no way I would allow something potentially dangerous to lie.”

“Alright, didn’t mean to insult you,” he replied, hands up in surrender.

She nodded, appeased. “Alright then, so the drug was designed to interface directly with your nerve endings and pain sensors, causing intense pain in your entire body.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Jason remarked dryly, remembering being strapped to a table as his body twitched and convulsed in agony.

Dr. Thompkins frowned, but continued. “With the amount of exposure you had, it’s possible that it may have damaged your nerve endings and pain sensors. Can you tell me if you’ve noticed anything that might indicate damage? Deadened nerves maybe? Do you feel pain any differently? More intensely or less?”

Jason tilted his head, considering. “Not that I’ve noticed, honestly,” he admitted. “Definitely still feel pain, and I don’t have any deadened nerves from what I can tell. Have feeling everywhere except for a few scars.”

She nodded, making a note in his file. “Okay, there are a few more things about the substance. While its primary function was to wreak havoc on your nerves, I believe it also built up a tolerance in your body for other substances.”

“What do you mean?” Jason asked, confused.

“I think your body has a resistance to drugs and probably toxins and poisons as well. I have no idea if it was an intended effect of the drug, but several of the ingredients, when mixed, could have that effect.”

“So if pain pills barely work on me now, that would be why?” Jason asked wryly.

Her eyes narrowed a little. “Pain medicine doesn’t work?”

“Not much anyway.”

She nodded. “Yes, that would be why.”

“Ra’s wanted me to eventually be his protégé,” Jason remarked thoughtfully. “I doubt I was a popular choice for the job. It could have been intentional. They are a league of assassins. As loyal as most of them are to Ra’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them tried to poison me. Prometheus was only ever used as a punishment though. But with how often I disobeyed, I was punished with it pretty regularly.”

Dr. Thompkins nodded thoughtfully. “You should be careful with what you’re exposed to, Jason. We have no exact data on how much of it you were exposed to or how much would be required for complete immunity to foreign substances. You may still be affected enough by some poisons for them to do damage. And Prometheus’ effects won’t discriminate between substances meant to heal you or substances meant to harm you. Some poisons might cause more damage than Prometheus will allow the antidote to heal. There are too many unknowns and I’d feel much better if you’d avoid contact with any toxic substance.”

He gave her a flat look. “Because normally I look for toxic substances to expose myself to.”

Dr. Thompkins glared. “You certainly seem to look for bullet exposure. Why wouldn’t I assume you did the same for poisons?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Please.”

“I’m just saying you should be careful. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can synthesize a pain medicine that might work despite the effects of Prometheus.”

He felt oddly touched by that, and it was enough for him to stop being a smartass. “Thanks, Doc. Do you think it’s permanent?”

Dr. Thompkins shrugged. “I honestly don’t know, Jason. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. If you are exposed to anything you shouldn’t be, contact me immediately. I’d like to be able to take blood samples. The more data we have, the more I’ll be able to tell you.”

Jason nodded and stood. “Sounds like a plan. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem though. My armor is good and the hood filters out all aerosols.”

“Well I’m glad you’re doing something sensible.”

“Whatever, Doc. I’m always sensible,” Jason declared, moving for the door. “Thanks for this. Let me know if you need anything.”

“You’ve been busy enough,” she said giving him a pointed look. “But if anything comes up, I’ll call.”

Jason nodded and left the clinic.

*****

Over the next few days it became frustratingly clear just how deep Maroni had already dug himself into Crime Alley. Jason hated to admit it, but Maroni had been keeping a sort of order amongst the scum of the Alley. No one could pull a job without his say so, and in his absence filth was coming out of the woodwork to fight each other over claims to drug and gun running operations along with claims to the alley prostitutes. Jason’s few days of rest had been a pipe dream. Instead of resting his battered body he found himself running through the streets all night long impressing upon the criminals of the Alley exactly why he was much, much worse than Salvador Maroni.

On the second night after Maroni’s pullout, Jason went around giving out a number for one of his burner phones. He handed it out to Wilkes, Jamie, the alley girls, and anyone else he trusted in Crime Alley, including the owner of the hardware store. The current destabilization had been Jason’s doing so he was absolutely going to do whatever it took to protect the people of Crime Alley in its wake.

It was exhausting work though, and Jason’s body hadn’t stopped aching since his assault on Maroni’s fortress.

By early in night three, he had already gotten a call from a prostitute, Wilkes, and hardware store Bill reporting an assault, another assault, and an armed robbery of a convenience store respectively.

“And the night is still young.” Jason grumbled in frustration as he secured the thugs who’d held up the convenience store to a lamp post. They had a few broken bones each for their troubles, but Jason had never really been opposed to using excessive force. Not as Robin, and certainly not as the Red Hood. If he couldn’t kill anyone to make his point, then he had to cause enough pain for them to decide it hadn’t been worth it. He was irritated enough that beating them bloody wasn’t particularly a chore, either. Yes, the Red Hood could kill them, but why would he when he could bust both knee-caps and all the bones in their dominant hands and watch them roll around in agony instead? At least, that’s the impression he was going for.

It seemed to be working based on how desperately the punk robbers had begged for mercy. Personally, Jason was a little skeptical of how long the no-killing thing could last while he was trying to stabilize the Alley, but he was giving it a try. One thing he did know; his life would get endlessly more complicated if he got back on Gordon and the Justice League’s hit list. It’d be hard to look after the kids and look after his territory if he was on the run.

Jason secured the last robber and immediately started back towards Wilkes’ food shelter. She’d wanted to talk to him after he dealt with the assault, but Jason had immediately had to run off to thwart the robbery. He’d promised to return only because she wanted his help with something else. He stopped two attempted muggings on the way.

“Wilkes,” he greeted, landing on the roof of the food pantry. She was bundled up against the bitter December cold. Jason had been moving too much for the cold to really sink into his bones, but she was probably freezing up in the open air so late at night. It was pure luck that they hadn’t had snow yet, but it was really only a matter of time. Jason hoped it would hold off a while longer. He hated snow and it’d only bring a whole new list of complications.

“Hood,” Wilkes greeted, stone faced. Jason rolled his eyes beneath his helmet because the woman was just so damn difficult. They’d been sort of working together for weeks now, and she had even called Jason for help stopping an assault. He had no idea why she had to keep being all frowny and judgmental.

“If you want to talk about something, spit it out. I kind of have my hands full at the moment,” he said impatiently.

Wilkes hesitated for a moment. “All of this is because of Maroni.” Jason gritted his teeth. If she was about to start blaming him for all of this, he was going to be incredibly pissed. Yes, he’d made Maroni leave, but it was for the best, despite the current fallout. Before he could snap at her, however, she continued. “It’s…good. That he’s gone. Thank you.”

Jason twitched slightly, unable to contain the movement of surprise. Wilkes had had no problem endlessly criticizing him so far. He didn’t quite know how to handle a compliment. “Well, that was unexpected,” he finally said. “That why I came all the way back here?”

“No actually,” Wilkes admitted, frowning. “You’re not killing people, right?”

Jason huffed, back to being annoyed. “Not at the moment.”

She nodded, “Then I need your help. The shelter around the corner is always a bit overrun in the winter months. It’s too cold for a lot of the homeless people on the street, so they end up there. They also take in women and children who are in abusive situations,” she said, and Jason’s expression darkened immediately. “The problem is, they don’t exactly have guards working for them, and there’s not a lot they can do when the abuser shows up to drag the victim back home—not when the victim refuses to call the police or try to press charges. The owner asked if I might know anyone who could help.”

“Names,” Jason declared immediately.

“You won’t kill anyone?” Wilkes checked.

“No, but I will beat the shit out of them. See how they like it,” Jason snapped back.

Wilkes nodded, not looking too displeased by the fact. “I have a list,” she said, handing it to Jason.

He took it. “Give the shelter my number. They can call whenever there’s trouble.”

She nodded. “I don’t always agree with your methods, Hood, but you’re the only Bat we seem to have here. We’ll take what we can get.”

Jason snorted, darkly amused by that. “Yeah. That’s really the problem, isn’t it?” With that, he left, intent on beating the shit out of some abusive assholes. Wilkes made an excellent point though. Jason was necessary. His methods were necessary. Maybe they wouldn’t be if Bruce was really around. As it was, he’d been off world for months, leaving Gotham to Dick, Tim and the others while he focused on saving the entire galaxy. And even when he was in town, his focus was on Scarecrow and Penguin and all his other A-list villains who really only seemed to come out to play while he was around. He didn’t have much time for the little people. He stopped assaults and muggings, but he wasn’t out in Crime Alley every night seeing to the people there—not like Jason was. Gotham was too big and demanding of his attention. Individuals fell by the wayside. Not for him though.

By the time Jason dragged himself into his apartment and flopped down onto his mattress, the sun was up and Jason’s entire body was throbbing in time with his own heartbeat. He slept so hard he didn’t have a single nightmare.

The fourth night was when everything really went to hell. It started with a text from Tim. Jason had been rather impressed when he didn’t get any unwanted visitors for the first few days after Maroni. He really shouldn’t have been though; the others might not listen to or respect his wishes, but they did respect Alfred. He might not have been able to make them leave him alone, but Alfred could, and Jason would take what he could get. And thank god for Alfred, because he had been extremely busy and hadn’t been bothering to cook for himself or even go out to buy food. Alfred’s soups and casseroles were extremely welcome.

Tim and his checking in text messages were not.

Tim: So things are pretty hectic over there. Need any help?

Jason scowled immediately. He absolutely did not need the Replacement’s help. He was more than capable of taking care of things on his own. More importantly, Red Robin showing up in Crime Alley would be the opposite of help. Tim wouldn’t be able to stomach the amount of violence needed to gain any sort of control, for one. Two, it was the same issue he had with Maroni; if any of these scumbags thought the Red Hood needed help to get control of his territory, then he would never get control of his territory. He had no idea why none of the Bats seemed to get that. They were all trained. Surely he wasn’t the only one who grasped basic psychology of the criminal underworld.

Jason grumbled under his breath as he texted back.

Jason: Thanks, but no thanks, Replacement. Don’t need you undermining me. Stay the hell away.

Tim didn’t reply, and Jason viciously hoped Tim was bothered by the name. He was absolutely capable of being petty.

It was later that night that things really took a turn for the worst. He hadn’t even made it to the warehouse before he found Alex bolting down the street. “Hey, kid, where’s the fire?” Jason asked, jumping down in front of him. Anxious, because there was clearly something wrong.

“Hood! Hood!” the kid gasped in a breath, stumbling to a stop in front of him. “It’s Lisa! Some freak in a van snatched her! Right off the street!”

Jason snarled, immediately livid. “What did it look like and where?” he demanded, turning and bolting down the block to where his bike was stashed.

“Three blocks down. Blue van,” Alex panted as he ran after Jason. “License plate started with Z93!”

Jason jumped on the bike, disengaged the security and started it up. “Good job, kid. Get to the warehouse, stay there,” he snapped before taking off out of the alley way.

It was by pure luck that Jason found the van driving down the road. He’d been about to break his own rule and call Tim. He could have patched Jason in to Babs, who could help him find the scumbag’s car with all her millions of cameras she had all over Gotham. Thankfully though, it didn’t come to that.

Instead, Jason was left with the rather frustrating decision of what to do next. A six-year-old girl was trapped with a monster, and if she was conscious, she was terrified. Jason wanted nothing more than to shoot out the tires and put a bullet in the guy’s head right then and there. But, if Jason took out the tires, the guy might panic. If the guy wrecked the car, Lisa could get hurt—Jason doubted she was safely belted in. If he went at him head on, he’d use Lisa as a hostage. Right now, the man didn’t know anyone was after him. It was better to wait and let him think he was safe. In the short term, the calmer he was, the less danger Lisa was in. So, gritting his teeth in frustration, Jason very carefully hit the van with a tracker and turned off onto a side street, letting the van continue on. It was an extremely difficult thing to do.

He pulled up the screen on his bike and watched the little dot move towards the waterfront. He followed a couple of streets down. The van ended up at an empty boat storage place down on the water. It was pretty isolated which made it difficult to approach. Jason had to stay out of sight until the man had taken Lisa inside. Only then was it okay to move closer, and he had to leave his motorcycle further back, even with its modified quiet engine.

“Jason,” a voice spoke in his ear, almost making him jump out of his skin. He’d honestly forgotten that he’d put the com Tim had given him in the helmet. He should have known better. Barbara could hack into any Bat link there was.

“Babs,” he growled, sneaking around the edge of the boathouse. He needed to sneak in and catch the guy unaware while there was space enough between him and the kid. “I’m a little busy right now, go bother someone else.”

She continued on, undeterred. “Jason, the man in the boathouse is named Howard Donald. This isn’t his first rodeo and he has a thing for redheads—boys and girls. The Birds of Prey have been after him for months, but he grabs kids from all over the city and never takes them to the same place.”

“Well your birds are too little too late. He’s mine now,” Jason whispered, peaking in a window. The monster of a man was carrying Lisa’s body across the space to a set of chains in the middle of the floor. He snarled, and hurried to a side door. It’d be tricky to ease it open without alerting Donald, but he was pretty good at being sneaky when he wanted to be.

“That’s fine; whatever it takes to get this guy. Just leave him alive, okay?”

Jason pulled out his lock picks and carefully started working the lock. “How many kids?” Barbara hesitated, and that was enough to let him know he wouldn’t like the answer. “How many, Barbara?”

“Five,” she admitted.

Jason swore quietly, but viciously. “How the hell has it taken this long to find the guy, then? What the hell?”

“We didn’t know,” Barbara admitted. “He takes homeless kids. No one even knew kids were missing until Huntress heard a rumor. Do you know how many missing kids there are in Gotham? Most of them are just living on the street, so it’s almost impossible to tell when one goes missing for real.”

Jason tensed. “The kids? Alive or dead?”

Barbara hesitated again. “Dead,” she said quietly.

He snarled again, just as quietly, but with feeling. “Then he deserves to die too.”

“Yeah, he probably does,” Barbara replied, not mincing words. She’d always been the practical one of the group and Jason had always liked her for it. Even if the first time they met she’d treated him with hatred, telling him he’d never be Dick Grayson. She’d warmed up to him eventually, and Bruce had them work together for a while. She told Bruce that Jason was too hard and too violent to be Robin, but even after that, he’d still liked her. He hated the fact that she was now stuck in a wheelchair because of the monster who murdered him. Barbara never deserved that. He might not have had any contact with her since making his debut return in Gotham, but he knew she was far more practical and realistic than Bruce ever was. She didn’t have quite the same rose-tinted glasses when it came to crime-fighting. It was hard to maintain that kind of naivety after you’ve been crippled after all.

“Then let me kill him,” Jason argued, appealing to her intense practicality. “Let me kill him so he can never do it again.”

Her voice was hard when it came back through the line. “He deserves to suffer first.”

“I can do that.”

She huffed a sigh. “That’s not what I meant. Blackgate. There’s a reason the guy went after kids—not just because he’s a sicko. He couldn’t handle an adult. They’re going to tear him to pieces in Blackgate—eat him alive. He deserves that. He deserves all that suffering. And there’s no way he’s ever going to get out. I have all the evidence needed to turn him over.”

Jason didn’t have time to debate because the man was currently alone with Lisa, and he had finally gotten the door lock and the deadbolt silently undone. “I’m going to make him suffer first.”

“Just leave him alive,” Barbara replied quietly, and Jason wondered how much had changed to make her give him what was almost permission to torture the man. Or maybe it was just her being exceedingly practical again, knowing that there wasn’t a way to get around it if she wanted to have any chance of him being left alive by the end of the night.

“Fine. But Lisa’s not going to be part of your evidence,” Jason demanded. “The police will take her and put her in a group home or in a foster home. Trust me when I tell you that’s not what she needs right now. She’ll be in Tim’s new orphanage by February. Let her be until then.”

“Okay, deal,” Barbara agreed.

Jason nodded to himself and eased the door open a crack, peering in. Lisa was still unconscious, chained to the ground in the middle of the boathouse. Donald was nowhere to be seen, but the front door was open. Jason was willing to bet he was getting something else out of the van. He took the opportunity to rush in and run silently to the door.

He had a gun trained on Donald’s temple the second he stepped back into the boathouse.

“Hello, Howard. Let’s you and I have a chat,” Jason spoke, right before striking his temple with the butt of his gun.

Howard flopped to the floor, temporarily unconscious. Jason gave a vicious kick to his ribs before surveying the man with disgust. He was a short, skeletal man with sallow skin and a receding hairline. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him besides the fact he was a sick freak. Babs was right—they were going to eat him alive in Blackgate. The thought gave him a little satisfaction.

Jason grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him across the cold floor to where Lisa was crumbled in a small ball with chained arms and legs. Jason dropped Howard and quickly, but gently, started unlocking the chains. Lisa didn’t stir.

“There you go, Princess,” Jason soothed quietly, pulling her off the cold floor and into his arms. She was probably going to be terrified when she woke up. Jason slipped his leather jacket off and eased it around Lisa’s tiny shoulders. He didn’t like the idea of her still stuck in the boathouse, but he had business to finish with Howard, and there was no way Jason was going to let her out of his sight. That in mind, he gently moved her over to lean against a wall where Howard wouldn’t be able to see her. Jason would though, and he’d be watching for when she began to wake up.

That settled, he moved back to Howard and locked his wrists and ankles tightly in the restraints before he slapped the man.

“Wake up, Howard,” he spoke, shaking the man awake. Donald twitched as he came back into the conscious world. Jason leaned over him. “I hope you’re feeling chatty. You and I have a lot to talk about.”

His eyes opened and he seized up the second they landed on Jason’s red helmet. “Y-you,” he choked, eyes wide and shaking all over.

Jason took his helmet off so the man could see his lips twist into an absolutely vicious grin. He leaned over the man, drawing his knife. “Yes, me. You’re having a really bad day, Howard. I’m the absolute worst person that could have found you.”

The way Howard shook a little more at that made Jason think he believed it. It was nice to know his reputation still meant something. Although that begged the question of why the man would dare go after a kid on his turf.

“Do you know who I am?” Jason asked coldly.

“Yes,” even the man’s voice shook. Absolutely pathetic.

“Then why the hell were you on my turf taking kids who are under my protection?”

“I—I didn’t know!” the man cried out, shaking like a leaf, and lying through his teeth.

Jason stabbed the knife through the man’s hand then pulled it out, letting the man scream a bit before he spoke again. “Don’t lie to me, Howard. I don’t appreciate it. Why were you on my turf?”

“Crime Alley is in chaos right now,” the man sobbed out. “I didn’t think—I didn’t think you’d notice until too late.”

Jason’s lip curled in disgust. “You thought I had my hands full with all the other crazies that I wouldn’t notice a sick bastard like you, huh? Well that didn’t really work out for you now, did it, Howard?”

“N-no,” the man choked. Jason looked at him with disgust. They hadn’t even gotten started yet. Not really at least.

“What did you dose the girl with, Howard?”

He looked like he was going to try to avoid the question for a split second. “Chloroform,” he admitted.

“Okay then. We have until she wakes up to work.” Jason twirled his knife and Howard sobbed. “No, please!”

Jason hit him hard in the jaw, reveling in the loud crack. “Begging didn’t get those kids anywhere, and it’s sure as hell not going to get you anywhere,” he snarled harshly. Jason moved his knife to Howard’s left Achilles tendon. “Get ready, Howard. I don’t think you’re ever going to walk again.”

Howard screamed.

By the time Lisa first began to ease into consciousness, Howard was a sobbing mess. Jason had been careful to inflict massive amounts of pain and damage without inflicting any injuries that might be fatal. His rage had also died down to a low simmer, so that when he noticed Lisa start to come to, he had no problem finishing up. “Times up,” he growled, tucking the knife back into its sheath. He knocked the sniveling coward unconscious and then snatched up his helmet. Jason hurried over to Lisa, blocking her view of Howard as he crouched down in front of her.

“Hey there, carrot-top,” he spoke gently, and Lisa jolted into consciousness with a flinch and a whimper. Jason abruptly wanted to put a bullet in Howard’s head. He stifled the urge.

“Easy, easy,” he spoke softly. “It’s me—Hood. You’re okay, Princess. You’re safe, I promise.”

Her wide eyes darted from the red helmet beside him to Jason’s face and she jolted forward, trying hard to cling to him though her arms were stuck in the too long sleeves of his jacket.

“There you go, you’re alright,” Jason soothed, gathering her into his arms. “I’m going to get you out of here and then get you back to our base, okay? We’ll get you in front of one of the heaters, get you some warm food, and I’ll watch over you.”

She shook and cried in his arms for a minute, but reined herself in with the speed of someone who was used to being punished for making noises like that. Jason took in a shaky breath and pulled her closer, running a hand through her dirty red hair. “You’re okay, carrot-top. I got you,” he assured her, blocking out his own memories.

Lisa nodded against his chest. Jason gave her a few more moments to settle against him. “You ready to get out of here, kid?”

She nodded fervently, and Jason stood up with her in his arms, positioning her in a way where she wouldn’t see Howard on her way out of the warehouse. “Alright then let’s get going.” He slipped his hood back on and called Barbara. “Hey, O. Bring in the cops. Tell them to bring an ambulance.”

“He’s still alive, right?”

“Deal’s a deal, Red,” Jason replied, before turning his attention back to Lisa as they exited the boathouse. “So, Princess, you ever want to ride a motorcycle?”

She looked up at him cautiously, tears streaked through the dirt on her face. Her voice was quiet as she asked, “Is it fast?”

Jason nodded. “Very fast. Feels kinda like flying. What do you say?”

“Yeah,” she nodded up at him.

“Atta girl,” Jason smiled, still holding her tight as he moved to his motorcycle. “I knew you were brave. I’ll even give you the best seat, right here in front of me,” he said, settling her in front of him on the motorcycle. “Let’s get that jacket all zipped up so you stay nice and warm. Then you just hold on to me and let yourself fly, alright?”

“Okay,” Lisa said, voice sounding a little less terrified now. Jason made sure his leather jacket was zipped around her before he stood the bike up all the way.

“Alright, you want to count it down for me?” he asked. “Start at three.”

Lisa’s voice was soft, but held a note of anticipation as she spoke. “Three, two… one.”

Jason jolted the bike into movement and Lisa gave a startled shriek of excitement as they tore down the road.

He could just hear Barbara in his ear before she cut off the transmission. “Always knew you were a softie, deep down. Good job, Jason.”

Jason wanted to scoff, but he was too busy grinning at Lisa’s delighted laugh as he took corners just a little too fast. They made it back to the warehouse in record time.

Chapter Text

Word about Donald travelled fast, and within twenty-four hours all of Crime Alley knew what happened to the man. The fifth night after the showdown with Maroni was a completely different Crime Alley than Jason had seen the first four nights. He went in to check on the kids, made sure Lisa was okay even though she hadn’t left the warehouse since he brought her back, and then he went out to patrol. Only nothing was happening out on the streets. He checked in with Jamie, the girls, and Wilkes, but they hadn’t seen anything either. Jason stopped only one mugging that night before he returned to the warehouse to keep an eye on the kids until sunup.

The sixth night he only stopped one would-be car thief. Both the would-be mugger from the night before and the would-be thief shook like leaves in terror when Jason caught them—so much so that he didn’t even have to fight to secure them. After the police took the almost thief away, Jason sat on the edge of a particularly tall building, surveying the streets of Crime Alley, feeling vaguely uneasy. A calm night in Crime Alley was definitely enough to make him wary. Two calm nights in a row was even more worrying. Jason didn’t trust it.

“What on Earth is going on?” he wondered to himself, frowning at the quiet streets.

“Word got out about Donald’s condition,” a voice cut in his ear.

Jason jolted, almost falling off the edge of the building in his surprise. As soon as he righted himself, he began cursing furiously. “Damn it, Babs, what the hell? You can’t keep doing that.”

“You asked a question, I answered,” she replied in a haughty tone.

Jason grumbled. “I keep forgetting to take this thing out of my helmet.”

“Ah, don’t be like that. You miss my sparkling wit. Admit it—I’ve always been a great conversationalist.”

Jason snorted. “Whatever you need to tell yourself, Red. So to what do I owe the pleasure? Is this about the dozen calls from the Commissioner I’ve ignored?”

The burner phone he’d used to contact Gordon about Honey had been going off pretty consistently since Donald. He was sure the Commissioner had a lot to say, but Jason didn’t want to hear any of it. He was hesitant to ditch the phone though, in case Gordon ever really needed to get in touch with him. This wasn’t important though. Gordon might not be happy about the state Jason had left Donald in, but he should be thankful he’d left him in any state at all. The temptation to kill the scumbag had been strong. Still, with the amount of calls Jason had ignored, it was probably only a matter of time before Gordon sent Superman after Jason. He was definitely not in the mood for a super-lecture.

“He’s not thrilled,” Barbara admitted. “But no, that’s not why I’m currently talking in your ear. I wanted to check in on the girl. Is she okay?”

“Shaken up,” Jason admitted, pursing his lips as he thought about it. “She hasn’t left the warehouse since it happened. She’s a tough kid though. She’ll bounce back.”

“And she has you looking after her,” Barbara added, and Jason felt briefly warmed by the confidence. “Word came back on Donald. He’s eating and breathing through tubes. Doctors don’t think he’ll ever walk again, and he’ll never regain full use of his hands.”

“Pity,” Jason retorted dryly. “But hey, he’s breathing.”

“Yeah, he is. Thanks for that,” Barbara replied. “Anyway, I think that’s the cause for the quiet streets you’re seeing. Given what just happened to Donald, I think criminals are going to lay low for a little while.”

“Here’s hoping,” Jason said, meaning it. He was still sore from Maroni and he was exhausted. “So what about the Commissioner? Am I going to start seeing my face on wanted posters again?”

“He wants to yell at you, but no, I don’t think he’s going to come after you. I’d already sent the evidence of Donald’s crimes before the police arrived at the scene. No one likes child predators. I think they’re going to let this one slide, but not without some very strong words,” Barbara replied.

“Well, I’d have to pick up for that,” Jason smirked.

Barbara sounded amused. “You’d be better off getting it out of the way. Trust me; I speak from experience.”

Jason snorted. “Yeah, I guess you do. But, you know me, Babs—never one to do the smart thing.”

“I guess that’s true. Don’t ditch the com, Jason. You might need info or backup someday, and I’d like to be there if you do.”

“We’ll see, Red. Now go pester one of the others.”

“Night, Jason,” Barbara spoke, sounding almost fond.

She cut out and Jason was left contemplating what he was going to do with the com link. He pulled his helmet off and took out a cigarette. On the one hand, talking to Barbara was nice. She was right; he’d missed her. And the only people he was really talking to these days were Roy, Kori, and Alfred. Tim had been in that number briefly, and probably would be again, but for the moment Jason was still irritated with him. It was nice to be on the same side as Barbara, however briefly it might last. On the other hand, wheelchair or no, she was still a Bat. She stood up to Bruce more than any of the others, but Jason had no illusions about her doing what she felt needed to be done if it came down to it. The less the bats knew about what he was doing with his time, the better. But, of course, that was already shot. Barbara knew he was back in town—probably had known for a while. He had no doubt she’d been keeping tabs on him since. And if Barbara had tabs on him, Bruce would too, whenever he got back in town.

Jason sighed out a breath of cigarette smoke, again feeling the need to get out of Gotham. He couldn’t though—not just yet at least. Things were calm at the moment, but that was a temporary thing. The Alley needed to be stable before Jason left it again. And then there were the kids.

He put the cigarette out, slipped his helmet back on and stood, ready to head back to the warehouse. If there wasn’t work to be done, he could at least keep an eye on the kids. They’d been feeling the pressure of the last week, and had been coming in earlier in the evening to avoid more threats. The previous night’s calm hadn’t been enough to make them relax. If Barbara was right though, things might stay calm for a little while. Christmas was only five days away, and even Crime Alley tended to settle down a little for the holiday. Hopefully that’d be enough to get the kids feeling a little more secure again. Most of the older kids had taken the past week in stride, but a lot of the kids who hadn’t been on the street very long were a little twitchy. Lisa’s abduction was a scary reminder for all of them.

Lisa had been dealing with it by clinging even closer to Jason. He felt like that was fair. The kid was only six and she’d been on the street for just a few months. No one knew exactly what happened to her beforehand, but she was really skittish around any adult besides Jason, and had only managed to survive as long as she did because Alex had taken her under his wing.

He was a good kid—homeless kids willing to share resources weren’t exactly common, but Alex broke the mold. The others listened to him even if he wasn’t the oldest, and he kept a lot of them from fighting. Not that serious fights happened very often. Jason had set up rules in the beginning—everything he put in the warehouse belonged to everyone, and there would be no fighting for resources. If they didn’t have enough of something, Jason would get more. Cigarettes were allowed outside of the warehouse, but no drugs or alcohol. If the kids did any of that, they needed to do it wherever they went off during the day. It caused too many problems when they were all together. As for the cigarettes, Jason didn’t necessarily like the idea of a lot of children smoking, but he’d been the same way as a street kid. It took the edge off the hunger and helped calm the nerves. A lot of the smoking had cut down now that the kids had regular food anyway.

Jason entered the warehouse, taking off the helmet immediately. He’d started making a concerted effort not to wear it in the warehouse for Lisa’s sake. Being able to see most of his face made it easier for her; he looked nothing like the scum who’d tried to abduct her.

“Hey, carrot-top,” Jason greeted Lisa as the kid bounded towards him. “Doing alright?” he asked, as she immediately climbed up him and hugged him tight around his neck.

She didn’t say anything, but she squeezed him a little bit and he took that as her answer. He shifted her to his back and patted her arm before making the rounds to make sure everyone who hadn’t been there earlier had made it in alright. Jason was ready for Tim’s orphanage plan to get off the ground in a more substantial way. It’d be nice for the kids to have warm beds to sleep in, and he knew for a fact that a lot of them actually wanted to be back in school. School was a warm place indoors with relative safety. Jason hadn’t particularly wanted to drop out either when he’d been on the street, but he’d been a practical kid and there hadn’t been a way to stay in school and not be put in foster care, a group home, or juvie. He’d cut his losses and moved on.

Wilkes had already been by with their nightly delivery and a couple of the kids had brought back the food from Jamie’s. Jason sat on the floor so that Lisa could eat and still cling to him. There were a few little disputes over who got what, but all of those were solved with rigorous bargaining so he didn’t see the need to get involved. Any of the kids with stronger personalities who might have been willing to fight for what they wanted apparently respected the Red Hood enough not to bother with it. That respect had doubled in the last twenty-four hours. Jason suspected the kids liked knowing how far the Red Hood would go if one of them was in trouble. The warier kids who’d been maintaining a healthy distance from him had warmed up considerably since he brought Lisa back. Jason hoped that meant more of them would be willing to trust the orphanage since they’d know the Red Hood was heavily involved in it. He hadn’t gone through all this trouble to keep them safe just to dump them in a dangerous situation. They had to know that by now.

Jason sensed Tim right before he slipped in the highest window with a large pizza box in hand. He left it up on one of the higher rafters before slipping down to the ground level. Several of the kids perked up, but when Nightwing and Robin didn’t follow, they lost interest quickly. Most of the kids actually liked the duo, what with Nightwing’s gymnastics lessons and Robin’s true stories of a kid kicking bad guy ass. Red Hood and Red Robin were nowhere near as fun by comparison. Jason tried not to be jealous, but honestly, he felt mildly betrayed.

He stood, Lisa still clinging to him as he moved away from the throng of children to meet Tim. Jason glared a little, unhappy that the little bird had apparently decided Jason had had enough space. If Tim started to lecture him about Donald, Jason might seriously punch him. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I brought apology pizza,” Tim offered.

“Apology pizza. Is that a thing?”

“If it isn’t then it definitely should be. Agent A told me your favorite. I went all the way to Burnside to get it.”

Jason tilted his head as he considered it. He really didn’t have much of a problem with Tim, but he was still annoyed about the lecture and being ratted out to Alfred. “That was a real cheap shot, Red,” he said, eyes narrowed. “With Agent A,” he added so Tim would know Jason meant the Alfred thing.

“Yeah, I guess it was. Would you care to discuss it over apology pizza?” Tim asked, and Jason knew he wanted to talk things out in the relative privacy of the rafters.

“Well that’s up to carrot-top here,” Jason said, touching her arm to assure her he hadn’t forgotten about her. “She’s my priority.” He then tilted his head to the side so he could get a glance at the small six year old clinging tightly to him. “What do you think, princess? Should I talk to Red?”

“You’ll go up there?” she asked quietly, looking up at the rafters.

Jason nodded, “Yeah, but I’ll be able to keep an eye on you from up there. And no one will try to hurt you here.”

“Okay,” she nodded after a long moment, before climbing down. “Don’t leave,” she told him firmly.

“Not without seeing you first,” he assured her seriously. “Promise.”

She nodded and squeezed his hand before slipping quietly over to a group of other homeless kids. Jason followed Tim up and made sure he could see Lisa before settling down by the apology pizza.

“She alright?” Tim asked quietly, concern clear in his voice.

Jason shrugged. “She’s tough. She will be, but almost getting abducted knocked her back to where she was at when she first came. It’ll take some time for her to feel comfortable again.”

Tim nodded. “Gordon’s not happy about the state you left that guy.”

“Gordon’s lucky I left him in any state at all,” Jason snapped immediately, repeating the words he’d said to Babs.

“Yeah, good job with that, by the way. I know how you feel about that kind of thing, and Lisa’s only six. I’m impressed with your restraint,” Tim spoke, and Jason was surprised that he didn’t hear any judgment or sarcasm in his tone. He had fully expected an extensive lecture, but Tim didn’t appear to be working up to one.

Jason tested the waters. “Yeah, well maybe I just want him to suffer before I end him.”

Tim cracked a smile, apparently deciding it wasn’t a real threat. And then he changed the subject. “So things have been busy around here, huh?”

Jason let it go. If Tim wasn’t going to lecture, he certainly wasn’t going to push it. He answered Tim’s question instead. “Yeah; the inevitable fallout after Maroni. Settling down now though.”

“I’m not surprised it’s settling so quickly. You’re scarier than Maroni,” Tim remarked wryly.

“It’s been a busy few nights. And are you trying to flatter me into forgiveness?” Jason arched a brow.

Tim shook his head. “No, I’m being serious. Guys like Maroni, for them it’s business. He has rules and the criminals just have to operate within those rules. No rules with you, though. And you’re more violent. Sometimes getting left alive is scarier than death.”

Jason nodded. It was certainly true for Howard Donald. “So is Gordon out for my head or does he just want to lecture me?” Jason asked curiously. He’d gotten Barbara’s take, but he’d like a second opinion.

“I think the latter,” Tim replied. “Gordon doesn’t like child rapists and murderers any more than you do. The Birds gathered a lot of evidence against the guy. He might never walk again, but he’s going to never walk again in prison until the day he dies.”

Jason nodded and opened the pizza box. As advertised it was from his favorite place and covered in his favorite toppings, which was pretty much everything except mushrooms and anchovies. He picked up a slice of the loaded down pizza, and was unable to keep the satisfaction from his expression.

“Am I forgiven then?” Tim asked.

Jason glared. “Don’t know about just yet, Timmy. Because of you, I had to listen to Dick being a self-righteous ass. And Alfred lectured me for a solid half hour. Not to mention your own self-righteous lecture.”

“Well how about this then; I’m having a little trouble with another drug ring. Much bigger and way more professional than Long. If you’re interested, I can pretty much guarantee explosions.”

Jason’s eyes narrowed at the ploy. While help might be nice, he seriously doubted Tim actually needed it. It was much more likely that Tim was using this as a means to keep an eye on him—make sure he didn’t pull another Maroni sized stunt, all under the guise of apologizing to Jason through gratuitous explosions. He didn’t appreciate the idea of being babysat, especially because he was fully capable of watching his own back. But, on the other hand, he did like explosives, and hanging around Tim would give him a good idea of what Dick was up to. Jason didn’t like not knowing where he was and what he was doing now that Dick knew he was in Gotham—it made it more difficult to avoid him.

Besides Jason did still owe Tim from the various times he’d tried to kill him. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that was a debt that would be repaid with a couple of favors. So what if Tim was going to be keeping an eye on him; Jason would use it to keep an eye on Tim and the others as well. It could work both ways.

“Alright fine, but I want multiple explosions,” Jason demanded.

“Deal. Also, we need to go through resumes for the orphanage. Meet at my place sometime soon?”

Jason heaved a sigh. “Fine, but you’re going to do something else for me too; Dr. Thompkins hit a wall on the why am I alive thing. If science won’t give me the answers I need, it’s time to start looking elsewhere. You’ve got access to Bruce’s database; let’s start looking for any magic users who could have raised me from the dead.”

“Alright, fair enough,” Tim agreed easily. “I’ll see what I can dig up.”

Jason nodded and passed a slice of pizza to Tim as a formal act of forgiveness. They ate in peace for several minutes before Jason asked. “So now that you’re back and being annoying, how long do I have before Dickhead makes his obnoxious return?”

Tim grimaced. “The only reason he’s not here right now is because he didn’t know I was coming. Your days are numbered.”

Jason scowled. “Well he’s going to have to do a lot better than apology pizza.”

“He’s not even the one who told Alfred, Jay,” Tim spoke reasonably, but Jason didn’t care.

“He’s infuriating, Tim.”

“He was just really worried,” Tim said again. “I don’t think you understand how much it means to him that you’re alive and doing okay. And you know how he is with family and affection. Yes, he’s overbearing, but it’s because of how much he cares.”

Jason couldn’t help but think of his time as Robin and how purposefully not involved Dick was in his life. He certainly hadn’t cared then, what right did he have to care now?

“He’s going to have to do a hell of a lot better than apology pizza,” Jason said again by way of reply. Tim wouldn’t understand anyway. From what Jason could tell, Dick had been very much involved in Tim’s life from the very beginning of his Robin days. Jason hadn’t been a good enough Robin for Dick, or anybody really, but Tim—soft spoken, dangerously efficient and smart as hell Tim—had been the Robin everyone had wanted all along. Jason had just been a poor man’s Dick Grayson, and Bruce had never been a poor man. It was never really going to work, he reflected darkly. Not for much longer anyway. Even if he hadn’t died, his days with Bruce had been numbered. He’d just been too naïve to see it at the time.

“I’ll let him know,” Tim said, instead of pushing.

Jason abruptly flipped the pizza box closed and stood up, suddenly feeling claustrophobic in the large warehouse. “I’m ready for my explosions now.”

Tim smirked, eager. “Then let’s get to it.”

*****

Bruce made it back to Gotham two nights before Christmas. It wasn’t early enough to satisfy Dick, who liked to start celebrating Christmas traditions the day after Thanksgiving, but it was more than enough time to enjoy the holiday with the family. He always did his best to be in Gotham for Christmas, ever since Dick’s first Christmas at the Manor. Now there was Tim, Cassandra and Damian as well, and even if they didn’t say it, he knew spending the holiday together was important to them. So he’d worked extremely hard to speed up the intergalactic peace talks and finalize the treaty in time for Christmas Eve. And he’d even made it an entire day early, though he hadn’t actually made it back to the Manor yet.

He liked to go straight to Gordon when he returned to Gotham after a long trip. For one, it was sheer professional courtesy to let the Commissioner know he was available. Two, he liked to find out everything that’d been going on in the city while he was gone, and his old friend was a good source of info. Mostly though, he could count on Gordon to give him an unbiased account of what his sons had been up to. Bruce got frequent reports from the boys and Barbara, but he also liked to get information from a third party. His boys had a tendency to gloss over things they didn’t feel like he needed to know. Such as extreme property damage or any time one of them had a too close call. So far, they thought they got away with it. Bruce hadn’t yet disavowed them of the notion, lest it come in handy at some point.

He’d barely made it into Gordon’s office before the man gave a groan of relief. “Thank God you’re finally back. Maybe now you can get your brats in line.”

Bruce sighed in resignation. This was not at all promising. He’d just gotten back on Earth too. He wasn’t ready for this. “What’d they do?”

“Besides cause me endless migraines?” Gordon retorted quickly. “They’re going to drive me to an early grave.”

Me too, Bruce thought tiredly.

Gordon continued. “First off, there’s Hood.”

Bruce stiffened minutely. Last Bruce had checked, Jason was in Myanmar causing international chaos with Arsenal and Starfire. But, that’d been months ago, which meant Jason had had plenty of time to cause all sorts of trouble all over the galaxy while Bruce’s attention had been elsewhere. He was not really a fan of the three of them working together. As much as he was happy to see Jason moving forward instead of fixating on Batman and the Joker, the Outlaws were a volatile combination that left destruction in their wake. More than that, there was no one really to check them. He didn’t like the implication they’d been in Gotham.

“Hood,” Batman repeated, because Gordon hadn’t continued. He’d just sat there rubbing his forehead tiredly.

“Yeah, Hood,” he grumbled before looking up at Bruce. “He’s a sticky one, and he’s been dodging my calls. To be perfectly honest, he’s not doing bad work. He’s helping people out, and he’s sticking to the no-killing rule. But that stunt he pulled last week with Maroni was downright suicidal. I’m honestly amazed he didn’t get himself killed. If he keeps doing things like that, he will get himself killed. And he may not be killing anyone, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been violent. Not that I can’t understand some of that violence, but still. We have rules, Batman, and torture definitely breaks them. You need to get him in line.”

Bruce stood perfectly still as he processed Gordon’s words. Jason hadn’t just popped in, he was still in Gotham. He was working in Gotham, but he wasn’t killing, and based on what Gordon was saying, he thought Bruce had already known. In fact, it sounded like he thought the Bat had sanctioned it. Which, he had decidedly not.

Why the hell hadn’t anyone told him Jason was in Gotham? If Gordon knew, then Dick, Barbara, Tim, and Damian definitely knew. They knew and they hadn’t told him. Bruce was furious.

“On top of that, he’s now working with Red Robin. At first, I thought it might be a good thing. Maybe Red Robin would be a good influence and would help keep Hood contained, but with the number of completely unnecessary explosions they’ve left in their wake in the last three days alone, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve had six different calls from the fire department complaining about those two. I had to buy the fire chief a bottle of his favorite bourbon and that stuff is expensive. On that note, please don’t ever let Hood and Robin work together. I’m afraid there’d be nothing of Gotham left standing.”

“What’s Robin done?” Bruce asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. His youngest son was almost more trouble than the rest of the combined. Or would be if Jason wasn’t in the equation.

“Nothing yet, but only because Nightwing’s been there to reel him in. The kid is something else,” Gordon frowned disapprovingly. “More like the Red Hood than any kid that young should be. I’m concerned.”

That was fair. Bruce was also concerned. More than that though, he was angry, but not at Gordon. “Merry Christmas, Jim,” Bruce spoke before vanishing into the night.

“Fix this!” Gordon called after him.

Bruce’s teeth ground a little. He had every intention to.

He went straight to the Cave. He needed a little time to process things, and he knew all his children would still be out on patrol for a few more hours. That gave him time to find out exactly what Jason had been up to and why on Earth Tim was working with him. The fact that Jason was back in Gotham was troubling enough on its own. The fact that he’d apparently been working with Tim was downright worrying. Bruce feared for the safety of his third son. Jason had come far too close to killing Tim in the past, and for Jason to be close enough to him to have the chance to finish the job was deeply concerning. What was Tim doing and why hadn’t he told Bruce? Did Dick know they were working together? It’d be a difficult thing to hide, but Tim was entirely capable of hiding things from Dick and even Bruce. As evidenced by the fact Bruce hadn’t even known Jason was in Gotham.

What did Jason want in Gotham anyway? Bruce was afraid of the answer, yet there was a small bubble of hope rising in his chest, because Jason was back and working with Tim, and as far as Bruce could tell, it’d been months since he killed anyone. Possibly even closing in on a year. He wanted so badly to believe Jason had turned a corner somehow. He wanted to believe it too badly. It was dangerous, and it could end up blinding him if something deeper was going on. What if this was all some ruse? What if Jason was planning something big? Why hadn’t Tim told Bruce about Jason, and who else knew they were working together? Bruce didn’t like not knowing—it made him edgy. And there was nothing even remotely related to Jason in any of Tim’s latest case files. There wouldn’t be though—not if Tim was hiding it. If Tim meant to hide something, Bruce was realistic enough to know he wouldn’t find it. He was very good, and knew all of Bruce’s tactics too well.

Bruce wasn’t sure how long Jason had been in Gotham, but there was no mention about it in any of the official news channels. The Red Hood was a common theme in social media, but that wasn’t anything new. He had been discussed at length ever since Jason’s taking over of the East Side over a year ago. He was very popular amongst young people who praised his brand of justice for being what was necessary in a city like Gotham. There were plenty of recent mentions of the Red Hood, but that didn’t give Bruce the information he needed.

Eventually he decided he wasn’t going to find out what he wanted to know without speaking to his sons. He sent out a message telling them to meet him in the cave, and then he waited, stewing a little in his anger. At the very least, they had all kept vital information from him, and that was unacceptable.

“Bruce,” Dick grinned wide as he and Damian arrived in the Cave, both looking a little ruffled, but with no blood or visible wounds. Patrol had kept them busy, but they’d suffered no injuries. “Merry Christmas. How’s the League?”

“Fine,” Bruce replied coolly.

Damian gave Dick a look of disgust. “Christmas is not for another day, Grayson. Now please desist with this infernal obsession you have with the holiday. I don’t think I can take much more.” He then turned to Bruce. “Father,” he greeted, warming slightly. Bruce idly wondered if he’d ever been as obvious as Damian, who was doing his best to stand tall and proud and not look like he wanted to hug his father.

Bruce decided to grant his youngest his dignity. “Damian,” he said, squeezing his son’s shoulder instead. He’d wait until the two were alone to indulge in hugging his boy. Damian wouldn’t appreciate a hug in front of his brothers. He thought they made him look childish, and looking childish was completely unacceptable to the boy even if he was only eleven.

“Tim,” he greeted pointedly as his third son appeared with Alfred on the stairs. He was looking a tad bit singed and Bruce frowned as he recalled Gordon mentioning unnecessary explosions. Jason had always been fond of them. It seemed dying in one hadn’t changed that.

“Master Bruce,” Alfred greeted as he set out a tray of sandwiches that his sons immediately attacked. “It’s good to have you home.”

“Thank you, Alfred,” Bruce replied. He waited a moment, ensuring that all of his sons were thoroughly distracted with the food before asking. “Who knew Jason was back in Gotham?”

Tim twitched, Damian stiffened, and Dick outright choked on his sandwich. On the one hand, it was gratifying to watch them flounder. On the other hand, he’d taught them to hide their reactions much better and this was slightly disturbing. Even more disturbing, all three of them had known Jason was back in Gotham, and not one of them had told him.

“Ah, it seems I have forgotten the chips. I’ll just go fetch some,” Alfred remarked casually, and Bruce narrowed his eyes, because apparently even Alfred had known and not told him. What was this, mutiny?

“Stay,” Bruce commanded, frowning at all of them. “Explain. Now.”

“He’s been back a couple of months,” Tim admitted.

Bruce’s eyes narrowed. “And why wasn’t I informed?”

Tim took a deep breath and drew himself up, preparing himself to go head to head with Bruce. Every single one of his sons wouldn’t hesitate to challenge Bruce if they thought he was in the wrong, but Tim had never relished it. Not like Jason had.

“Hold up, Tim,” Dick said, stepping in. “I’ll take this one.”

“You sure?” Tim frowned, “I’m the one that hid it for so long.”

“You were right to,” Dick replied easily, already squaring his shoulders and staring Bruce down. “Don’t worry, Tim. I got this.”

He then surprised them all by pulling out his phone and dialing a number, still not breaking eye contact with Bruce. “Hey, Clark? We need you in the Cave. Code red.”

“Why’d you call him?” Bruce demanded as soon as he hung up the phone. This was a family matter. Clark wasn’t a member of their family, despite what the Kryptonian liked to think. There was absolutely no reason for him to be involved.

“You want answers right? Clark will be able to tell you more than any of us will,” Dick told him, making Bruce’s eyes narrow further. Since when did Clark have anything to do with Jason? Why would Clark be able to answer his questions?

“Explain,” he demanded again.

“You’ll get your answers, but first, we need to get something straight right now,” Dick said, using his stern voice, and he was the only one (besides Alfred) who got to talk to Bruce like that. He was the only one who could get away with it. “We have the chance to get Jason back. Really get him back, Bruce, and I’m sorry, but I’m not going to let you ruin this chance.”

Bruce scowled. “Jason has murdered dozens of—”

“No,” Dick cut him off. “I get that, I do, but just listen. Before you go off and do something you’ll definitely end up regretting, just sit down and let us make our case. There are things about him and his situation that you don’t understand. First off, you need to know it’s been a year since he’s killed anyone. Secondly, when he was killing, he was under the influence of the Lazarus Pit.”

Bruce stiffened despite himself, and lost all right he had to chastise his sons for their obvious reactions earlier. “You’re sure?” he demanded.

“You ever figure out how long Jason had been alive and where he’d been before he came back to Gotham?” Dick asked.

“No,” Bruce admitted reluctantly. It was a point of frustration that he hadn’t been able to uncover anything of Jason’s whereabouts between dying and returning to Gotham. He’d clearly been resurrected for some time as he’d aged several years, but where he was and what he was doing during that time remained an impenetrable mystery. Bruce adamantly disliked not knowing things.

“That’s because he was being hidden by Ra’s al Ghul,” Dick retorted. “Clark will be able to explain all that to you. He knows more than us. Until he gets here though, just think about this; Jason was made murderous and crazy by the Lazarus Pit, and the only people he killed while murderous and crazy were bad guys. To me, that’s pretty damn impressive. I mean, yeah, he tried to kill all of us at least once, but he was wound up and set on us by a master manipulator. And he never actually did kill any of us. Also, the Justice League granted him amnesty for everyone he did kill, and Jason agreed not to kill anyone else. So, yeah he’s in Gotham, but he’s here with the Justice League and Gordon’s permission.”

“Also, he did apologize for trying to kill me,” Tim broke in. “So we’re good now.”

“You should have told me,” Bruce said angrily.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Dick replied, his voice still hard. “Yeah there was the Pit, but knowing that doesn’t automatically fix everything, Bruce. He’s still Jason, which means he’s still difficult, violent, and stubborn. We’ve been working to build a relationship with him again, to bring him into the family, and it’s hard just with us. Do you know what would have happened if you had gone to him first? A really big damn fight that would have ended with Jason taking off again, that’s what. None of us want that.”

“I want that,” Damian broke in, making Tim snarl at him. Dick ignored them both.

“We couldn’t count on you to behave rationally where Jason is involved, so we chose to keep you out of the loop. That’s what you do when someone is emotionally compromised. We learned that from you,” Dick finished pointedly.

Bruce was furious. “That wasn’t your call to make; he’s my son,” he snarled, looming over Dick.

Dick just squared his shoulders and glared right back, “And he’s my brother, so yes it damn well was. I’m not going to let you ruin this, Bruce. Not until you understand. We can have him back, but only if you don’t screw it up.”

Bruce was about to shout at his oldest, but stiffened when Superman and J’onn appeared in the Cave. He turned his fury onto Clark. “You kept this from me,” he snapped, furiously. “We’ve been working side by side for months, and you didn’t think to mention this?” And everyone wondered why he was so damn paranoid. It was because of stuff like this.

Clark shrugged. “He asked me not to. Now that you know, I have every intention of telling you everything.”

Bruce looked to J’onn. “And you? You knew too?”

“I learned much about Jason under rather unfortunate circumstances,” J’onn spoke. “A few months ago, telepathic planet eating aliens descended on Earth. The Outlaws were the only ones to realize it, and they held them off long enough for Superman and myself to defeat them. The aliens fed on the pain and fear of the people of whatever planet they consumed, so in order to hold them off, Jason and the others distracted them with their own pain and fear. It is partially because of that sacrifice that your son was granted amnesty. Mostly, however, it was because of what Superman and I saw of Jason’s history when we interrupted the feeding.”

Bruce’s eyes narrowed as he realized the implication of J’onn’s words. J’onn was a telepath. He would have seen Jason’s own memories.

“What did you see?” he demanded.

“Every moment of pain and fear from his earliest memories through a couple of years after his resurrection,” J’onn answered honestly. “If you wish, I can show you. Unfortunately, however, I can not separate the memories from the feelings attached. You will feel the same fear and pain he felt if you wish to see.”

“Show me,” Bruce said immediately. He didn’t need to think about it. In Jason’s memories were the answers to how he came back to life and what he’d been doing since. It would help Bruce understand him and his motivations, which would better allow him to predict his actions and protect his other children. It would be invaluable information if Jason truly was plotting against them again. It would be foolish not to use J’onn to see.

Also, underneath his more rational reasoning, Bruce had always had a tendency to punish himself. He needed to know how Jason had felt when he died—when he’d failed him so completely. He needed to know how badly dying had hurt Jason.

“You’re certain?” J’onn asked, deep voice even more somber than usual.

Bruce had never felt more certain of anything in his life. “Yes. Show me.”

J’onn nodded. “Very well. Please sit. This might take some time.”

Bruce didn’t even acknowledge the others as he sat down in his chair. He was completely focused on J’onn as closed his eyes and opened his mind to J’onn’s familiar presence. The sounds and smells of the Cave faded quickly as Bruce was immersed in Jason’s earliest memories.

Chapter Text

From the very beginning, Bruce knew Jason faced abuse in his childhood. All the symptoms were there and he had carefully noted it in his file, along with Jason’s telling tendencies of staying just out of arm’s reach of anyone else in the room, hiding away food, and questioning every single act of kindness towards him. Bruce thought he’d understood what that meant. He’d had no idea. Knowing something happened was nothing to experiencing it, and no one who hadn’t experienced it could truly understand what it meant.

Jason’s very first memory was of his drunk father screaming in the pit of an apartment he grew up in.

“I work all night and this is the shit I come home to?!”

Willis Todd was larger than life and angry, and Jason knew to stay out of his way when he got like this, because nothing good ever happened when his father was drunk. Unfortunately though, he couldn’t go hide away while his father was focused on his mother. He couldn’t just leave her.

Jason flinched and quickly ducked behind the couch as his father threw a dish against the wall, sending ceramic shards flying.

“Will, please calm down. You’re drunk,” his mother begged and Jason stood tensely, fear coursing through him as his father grabbed his belt.

“Shut up, you stupid bitch!” Willis shouted, using his belt to hit his mother. She cried out, but he kept striking her. Jason flinched as his mother cried, curling in on herself and shielding her head and face. He needed to do something, but he didn’t know what to do. He had to be careful, because if he moved wrong, his father would only hit her more.

“You and the boy are worthless! What good are you? What do you do?”

Jason shook, terrified and frozen as his mother got angry and shoved at his father. “Leave him out of this! He’s only four! He’s just a child!”

“Shut up!” he struck out with a fist, catching her on the side of the face. Pure terror streaked through Jason as her eyes rolled back and she crumpled to the floor.

“No!” Jason shouted as she fell, bolting forward as his father kept striking her unconscious body with the belt. He threw himself between his mother and his father’s belt as the absolute terror refused to let him go. What if she didn’t wake up? What if she was dead? Jason cried as the belt hit him instead, but he didn’t move. He stayed braced over his mother, shielding her body as his father continued to beat him.

Jason had a dozen similar memories, but as he grew, he got bolder—interfering earlier, purposefully drawing his father’s attention away from his mother and onto himself. Those memories were more painful, but he hadn’t been quite as afraid. As long as his father was focused on him, then his mother was safer.

When Willis Todd was arrested for armed robbery and carted off to prison, Jason held his mother’s hand as she sobbed, unable to tell if she was crying out of sorrow or relief.

Their troubles didn’t end with Willis Todd’s incarceration. Money was a lot tighter after his father was arrested, and it was only a few months later that his mother first fainted while trudging up the several flights of stairs to their tiny little apartment. Jason wasn’t sure what exactly it was, but she went to the local clinic one day and came back pale and crying. She was sick. She needed a lot of medicine and it was expensive, she explained to Jason that night. But it would be okay, because they’d work it out, she told him. They went to bed hungry, and that night Jason snuck out of the bed he shared with his mother and grabbed the pill bottle out of her purse. He stiffened when he saw the price on the bottle, but he remembered the name, the price, and the clinic she got it from.

The next day, Jason stole for the first time.

He didn’t really want to be a criminal, he decided early on. His father had worked for Two-Face, and Jason didn’t want to be like him. But he didn’t want to abandon his mother and he didn’t want to be mean or a drunk. But he and his mother needed a place to live, they needed food, and his mother needed medicine. Even with the medicine, she seemed to be getting sicker and she was almost always in pain.

Jason stole more, landing himself on the wrong side of the police and criminals alike. He didn’t like it, but he did what he had to do. He learned where he could, picking up the tricks of the trade and doing his absolute best to avoid being pulled into a gang. He couldn’t afford for that to happen. He knew what happened to kids that got trapped in gangs and his mother needed him. She didn’t have anyone else.

He discovered quickly that he was a pretty decent pick pocket, and though he couldn’t do much with the credit cards he got a hold of, he kept the cash and there was a guy who’d give him cash for the credit cards and drivers licenses. Jason didn’t know what he did with them, but he didn’t care. It wasn’t his problem.

He came back late one night, feeling like he could relax for a few days. Rent was due in the morning, but Jason had scrounged up enough cash and he and his mom had enough food for a couple more days. He could take it easy for a day or so. Maybe study for his science test he had on Friday. When he got home, his mother was lying on the couch and Sherri from the floor below them was pushing a needle into her arm. “The heroin will help,” she promised softly. “Just relax and let it work. I’ll tell my dealer to drop by in a couple of days.”

“Thanks, Sherri,” Jason’s mother spoke.

Sherri set the needle aside and squeezed his mother’s hands before she stood up. She patted Jason’s shoulder on the way out. Jason moved over to the couch and crouched down by his mother’s head.

“Jason,” she smiled at him, expression easing in a way he hadn’t seen in a long time. The drugs were starting to work already.

“We made rent,” he told her.

Her smile flickered a little and she reached out, gathering him in her arms. “Oh Jason. I’m so sorry,” she said, sounding tearful.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, worried suddenly. Maybe part of the rent money had gone to the heroin. Maybe he needed to go back out, and make sure they had enough by tomorrow. He tried to pull away, but his mother didn’t let him.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again, holding him tight against her. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. I never wanted you to have to worry about it.”

Jason relaxed a little and hugged her back. “It’s okay, Mom. Don’t worry; we’re going to be okay. How do you feel?”

“Good,” she said, a little dreamily. “I feel good.”

Jason nodded against her shoulder and added heroin to the list of things they needed money for. If it helped, if it meant his mother wasn’t in constant pain, then he was going to make sure she got it.

*****

Jason quickly moved up to more dangerous crimes. After some practice, he got pretty good at jacking tires, and there was decent money in it if he could find the good ones. He learned a lot from older kids and anyone who’d give him a tip. Jason was a fast study, because he had to be. He also took risks.

“You tried to cheat me?!” the large, bulky man snarled, holding Jason up by his throat and slamming him back into the brick wall. “How dare you, you little shit!”

“No! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!” Jason gasped against the hand nearly crushing his windpipe. Joshua “Nickles” Nichols was a brute of a man, but he was arrogant when it came to the street kids. He thought he was a lot scarier than he really was, and Jason knew he could do a decent job convincing the man he was way too scared to ever try a scam on him again.

The man dropped Jason, only to kick him across the room, snatch him back up, and slam him into the brick wall again. Jason scrabbled at the hand around his throat, purely for show. It was just a distraction to make Nickles focus on the pin while Jason slipped his hand in the man’s jacket and snagged his wallet.

“You know, Todd,” the man breathed close, nicotine heavy on his breath. “There’s a lot of people who’d love a pair of blue eyes as pretty as yours. You cross me again, I’ll sell you. You understand me?”

“Yes sir! Sorry sir!” Jason gasped, clutching at the hand.

The man threw Jason out of his office and back into the dirty alley before slamming the door. Jason landed roughly on his left wrist and grunted in pain as he heard a crack. He gave himself a moment to breathe through the pain. Damn it, that was going to be a bitch for weeks.

“All that worth the man’s wallet?” one of the older kids asked, leaning over him with a skeptical look on his face. “You already got a decent payout for the tires. Did you have to piss him off too?”

Jason tossed out a grin he only sort of felt before pushing himself up off the ground, “Yep. Nickles keeps a ton of cash on him and my mom needs medicine.” He said, pulling out the wad of cash and tucking it away before tossing the wallet down the storm drain.

“You need to be careful, kid. If he catches you, he will sell you off. And if he doesn’t catch you, he still does the best tire deals around. You don’t want to burn that bridge just cause you got a little greedy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason said, but he’d taken the risk and the risk had paid off. No one could convince him it’d been a bad move at the moment. Not when he got what he needed. “Later, G,” Jason said, stiffly waving to the older boy. His wrist ached sharply and throbbed steadily as he moved to the clinic. Dr. Thompkins stayed open late on Tuesdays, and Jason knocked on the door.

“What happened to you?” Dr. Thompkins asked with a frown as Jason moved into the small, dingy lobby of the hole in the wall clinic.

“Got in a fight at school,” Jason lied easily. “Tommy Murphy is a giant asshole.”

“Watch your language,” she told him firmly.

“Whatever,” Jason shrugged, digging the proper amount of cash out of his pocket. “Mom’s not feeling great. I told her I’d pick up her medicine.”

Dr. Thompkins frowned a little, but accepted the cash. “How’s her appetite?”

Jason’s jaw tightened a little. “I’m working on it.”

Dr. Thompkins sighed heavily, but nodded. “Let me know if things get any worse.”

Jason nodded and Dr. Thompkins held the bottle of pills out towards his left hand. Jason tucked it back a little behind his hip and took the pill bottle with his right, but as soon he did, Dr. Thompkins snagged his left arm, making Jason hiss and twitch in her grip.

“This looks broken, Jason,” she frowned down at his wrist.

“It’s fine,” he said, trying to jerk it out of her grasp, and gasping in pain when it didn’t work.

“Stop that. You’re going to make it worse. Come on to the back and I’ll set it for you,” she said, pulling him by his arm.

Jason resisted. “I don’t have money for that.”

She sighed. “This one’s on the house, Jason. Come on. Let’s get that wrist in cast.”

Jason faltered. “You sure?”

“I’m not letting you run around with a broken wrist,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Jason relented. Dr. Thompkins gave him a shot of anesthesia, put his wrist in a cast, and gave him strict instructions on how to care for it before sending him on his way. Jason then stopped by a 24-hour convenience store to buy cans of soup and other cheap meals. At nearly one in the morning, he trudged up three flights of stairs and headed to his apartment.

“Jason,” his neighbor’s voice came through her open door. Jason peaked in and she smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you to get home. Come on in; I’ve got a birthday treat for you,” Lena smiled wide. She was dark-skinned and pretty despite the large, dark bruise on the side of her face. It was making her right eye swell slightly.

“It’s not my birthday anymore,” Jason replied with an easy shrug. Not that it had been much of a birthday to start with, seeing as how he’d spent the majority of it scamming for money and now, even though his wrist was numb, the rest of his body ached from the roughing up he got from Nickles—the price he’d had to pay to get close enough to grab his fat wallet. But now Jason was sitting pretty for the next couple weeks, so it was definitely worth it.

“You haven’t gone to sleep yet. Still your birthday. Come on,” Lena smiled, ushering him into her living room. Jason followed, dropping the groceries just inside the door before moving to her couch. On the coffee table was a cupcake with a single candle in it and a can of Sprite.

“Happy Birthday, JJ,” Lena smiled warmly, lighting the candle. “Make a wish.”

Jason wished his mom would miraculously get better before blowing out the candle. He then looked at Lena. “You can’t call me JJ anymore. I’m nine now,” he declared authoritatively, licking the icing off the candle before taking a huge bite of the cupcake.

Lena smiled at him fondly. “You sure are. Proper grownup now, aren’t you?”

Jason nodded, taking another bite of the cupcake. “Thanks, Lena. This is awesome.”

“You’re welcome, Jay. Happy birthday.”

Jason nodded and finished his cupcake before giving the bruise on the side of her face a hard look. “Who did that?”

Lena’s expression darkened. “Travers.”

“Bastard,” Jason scowled.

Lena nodded. “He’s no longer a client. If you see him around here…” she trailed off.

“Call the cops, yeah,” Jason said, nodding because he knew the drill. “Sure thing.” Lena gave him a grateful smile, and he changed the subject. “She leave the apartment today?”

Lena frowned again. “She was going to, I think, but then her dealer came by. She was pretty bad off. Sorry, Jay.”

Jason’s fists clenched in worry. Even with the medicine, she just seemed to be getting worse all the time. At least the drugs meant she was in less pain. “I need to go make sure she eats something,” he said standing up stiffly, rolling his shoulders a bit to try and alleviate the ache.

“Okay, stop by before you go to school in the morning. I’ll give you some coffee. I’m not working for the next few days, so it won’t be too early. Johns don’t like a smashed up face.”

“You could still sleep in though,” Jason argued, not liking the idea that she’d be getting up early just to help him out.

“Just come by and see me,” she said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.

Jason nodded and headed into his apartment where his mother was laid out on the large, ancient couch, needle still in her arm. He put the groceries away and put soup on the stove to heat, then he moved over to his mother, gently pulling the needle out of her arm.

She stirred. “Jason, darling, where have you been?” she asked with a sleepy smile.

“Got your medicine and some food. Think you can eat?”

She frowned a little. “I don’t know, Jay.”

“Just some soup. Not a lot,” he told her, checking her hands. They were cold so he went and got the blanket from the bed, draping it over her.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, frowning in concern as she ran fingers over the cast.

“Fell off the fire escape,” Jason lied. “Don’t worry. Doc Thompkins fixed it up.”

“Jason, I’ve been telling you for years to stop playing on the fire escape,” she scolded, mustering up a tiny bit of energy. “It’s rusty and dangerous and now you’re hurt.”

“’M fine, mom. Promise,” Jason said, tucking the blanket around her. He dished out two bowls of soup before handing one bowl to his mom along with her medicine and a glass of water. “Eat as much of the soup as you can and drink all the water,” he told her.

She only got through half the bowl before she was falling asleep so Jason set it aside and tucked her into the couch. She didn’t seem up to moving to the bed at the moment.

“I love you, Jason,” she told him softly.

“Love you too, Mom,” he replied before moving to put away the dishes.

A week later, he came home from school and found her on the floor of the bathroom, eyes wide open and staring lifelessly ahead, needle in her arm. Jason went to Lena, she called the cops, and Jason was moved into a group home. A group home that was forcing most of the kids into underage prostitution. Jason broke the nose of the man who was running it and he and the rest of the children ran, setting the place ablaze before they left. Jason had been there less than 24 hours before he was out living on the street. He couldn’t go back to school. They’d call the cops, and there was no way in hell he trusted them. Not after all those kids in the group home. There was no telling how much worse the next place he was sent would be, and there was no way Jason would risk it. He decided to take his chances on the streets.

*****

The first winter was completely brutal. Jason thought he knew how to go hungry before, but that was nothing compared to being on the streets. He had to be a lot more careful—if he even looked homeless, people often called the police, and it was the kind cops who stuck you in a group home. Crooked cops would do much worse, and there were plenty of those in Crime Alley. It meant he couldn’t trust kindness from a stranger without running the risk of ending up with the cops. Most people meant well; they didn’t want kids living on the streets in the middle of winter, but they just didn’t understand. Jason tried not to hold it against them when that limited his food options. He had to look decently put together to get food in legal ways, and depending on how his luck was going, that wasn’t always possible.

He stole more, and he got better at it. He had to, because he still didn’t want to end up in a gang, and it was surprisingly hard to remain a free agent when living on the streets of Crime Alley. But through sweat, and blood, and tears, he managed. He built himself as much of a life as he could; he found himself bolt holes, he stole money, clothes, food, tires, whatever it took. He swiped books to read, he learned the streets and alleyways of Gotham, he learned all the major players, and he learned which cops would hand him off to a crime boss as payment and which ones would naively try to help him by passing him off to social services. He stayed away from all of them. For three years, he survived, despite close calls of nearly freezing to death or nearly being murdered in an alleyway. It was insanely difficult, but he survived.

And then he got cocky.

Stealing the tires off the Batmobile was the first thought that crossed Jason’s mind when he saw the car sitting in the alley. His second thought was that he was out of his damned mind for even considering it. His third thought was about how much money he’d get for those tires, and then he was moving before he could talk himself out of it. He’d had a run of bad luck lately, and he could use a decent payout. He’d already had to skip a few meals for a few days and it was getting colder at night. It was crazy, and he didn’t even want to imagine what the Batman would do to him if he got caught, but he needed this.

Jason jacked the car up quickly and rolled under the car, inspecting the area around the wheel. He didn’t for a second think the thing wasn’t protected by some sort of booby traps. It was the Batman, after all. He’d jacked enough tires to recognize things that shouldn’t be there, and he cut some wires quickly before he got to work pulling the tire off the car. He was about to pull off the fourth tire when a shadow fell over him.

He jumped away quickly, but Batman was fast and he was strong. He had Jason by the scruff of his neck, holding him out of arms’ length before he could get away. Jason’s heart hammered in his chest, and he kicked out, catching Batman’s chest. He might as well have been kicking a brick wall.

“Let go of me!” Jason said, fear curling in his gut. He’d never heard anything about the Batman hurting kids, but this was Gotham City. He wouldn’t be surprised.

“What are you doing?” the Batman growled, and holy shit, he sounded terrifying. Still, Jason had never backed down from a fight in his life.

“Stealing your tires, what’s it look like?” Jason retorted angrily. “Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of detective or something?”

Batman’s lip curled and it made him look even more terrifying. Jason was definitely going to get himself killed. “My traps?” he growled out.

“Need some work,” Jason retorted, jutting his chin out. “I’ll give you some pointers if you don’t kill me,” he offered, damn proud that the words came out strong and not terrified.

Batman considered him and Jason squared his jaw and stared him down, scowl firmly in place to cover his terror. “What’s your name?” Batman finally asked.

“Jason.”

“Last name?”

Jason ground his teeth and Batman got in his face a little. He barely held in the flinch. “You were stealing my tires, Jason,” he reminded in a threat.

“Todd,” Jason spat furiously. “My name is Jason Todd.”

“Where’s your parents, Jason?”

“Dead,” he snapped angrily, because if Batman wasn’t going to kill him he was going to hand him over to the system and that was possibly worse.

“Where do you live?”

“None of your damn business.”

His stomach growled, sort of breaking the moment. Jason scowled and tried again to twist out of Batman’s grasp. Of course, it was completely pointless.

Batman considered him. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said after a few moments of tense silence in which Jason fought to keep scowling and not fidget. “You answer my questions, I buy you a hot meal. And I won’t kill you,” he added as an afterthought.

Jason twitched at the thought of food. It’d been days since he’d had anything more than scraps and it was so tempting. If he agreed and Batman did stick him back in the system, then he could just bolt again, he reasoned to himself. He could probably bolt before they even got him settled somewhere.

“Yeah, fine,” he retorted sulkily.

Batman slapped a pair of cuffs on him before setting him back down. “Hey! What the hell is this for?” Jason demanded, and he thought briefly about running but Batman was between him and the only way out of the alley.

“Try to slip them,” Batman instructed, and Jason tried, feeling them tighten on his wrists as he wriggled them. He then pulled a lock pick out of his pocket and quickly tried to pick it with his teeth. The lock clicked, but instead of unlocking, the cuffs tightened again.

“What the hell?” Jason asked, staring at the cuffs in confusion and more than a little curiosity. Batman did something to adjust them back so they were a little more comfortable, but still too tight to slip.

“Now that we’ve established you can’t pick them or slip them, I suggest you stick around if you want them off,” Batman stated.

And that was a pretty handy trick, Jason decided grumpily. “Yeah, fine, you win, cheater,” he grumbled, leaning up against the Batmobile in a bit of a sulk. His heart had stopped hammering quite as hard, but he was still pretty wary, unsure whether Batman was just trying to make him complacent with the promise of food.

“Where do you live?” Batman asked again as he began quickly and efficiently putting back the tires, but not before checking the wires that Jason had snipped.

“Alley a couple blocks down from here right now,” Jason retorted, scuffing his shoe on the pavement a little.

“How long have you been on the street?”

“Couple years.”

“Why aren’t you in a foster home?”

Jason snorted. Adults. They didn’t know anything. “Was sent to a group home after my mom died. Trust me; I’m much better off.”

Batman gave him a shrewd look as he began putting the third tire back on. When he was done, he opened the passenger door of the Batmobile and ordered. “Get in.”

Jason hesitated for only a moment before grabbing his beat-up backpack and doing what he was told. It could very well be a trap, but it was a pretty damn tempting one. And if Batman kept his word, well, who the hell got to ride in the Batmobile and then live to tell about it?

Batman made good on his promise for a hot meal and, after a bit of arguing, decided to drop Jason off at the home of a guy that owed Batman a favor. Jason was supposed to stay with Bruce Wayne for a few days while Batman decided what to do with him. Jason was far from crazy about the idea, but Batman was really damn good at backing people into a corner. With great reluctance and a heavy dose of wariness, Jason let himself be led to a bedroom by the butler. He let himself get a hot shower and changed into an old pair of pajamas that were a little too big for him, but were still too small to belong to an adult. And then he stood alone in the middle of the huge bedroom with the huge bed and he closed his eyes and shook a little bit.

They were a good ways outside of the city. It was really the main reason Jason hadn’t already taken off. Yeah, he could get back into Gotham, but it’d be a hell of a hike, and he didn’t want to do it if he didn’t have to. Bruce Wayne wasn’t home, from what the butler said, but he’d be back before morning. Jason’s hands clenched into fists at his sides as he took a deep breath and tried to push the panic out of his chest. Jason didn’t trust adults. He especially didn’t trust rich adults. The more money a person had, the more dangerous they were and the less they could be trusted. Bruce Wayne had a hell of a lot of money, which meant he was probably one of the least trustworthy adults in Gotham. What kind of man owed Batman a favor anyway? Or was it Batman who owed Bruce Wayne a favor? Maybe that’s what Jason was; payment for a favor. It was a possibility. Crooked cops traded punk street kids to mob bosses for favors all the time. Sometimes it was because the kids showed potential and could be indoctrinated into the crime family and turned into loyal little soldiers. Sometimes the reasons were much worse. Jason had worked very hard to avoid that kind of fate, yet here he stood, being traded as a favor between Batman and Bruce fucking Wayne.

He took a deep steadying breath before moving to the bedroom door and locking it. It didn’t really mean anything; Wayne or the butler probably had keys and could get it open easily. Jason moved a chair in front of the door then moved swiftly to the large windows. Swinging one open, he judged the distance to the ground. It’d be a long fall, and if he broke his ankle or his leg he’d be absolutely screwed. But there was a large tree and with a good jump Jason would be able to make it and use the tree to get down. Then he could take off onto the grounds and lose anyone after him in the woods. He knew the direction back into the city. If he was lucky, he could make it. If he was unlucky… well, he didn’t really want to think about that.

Jason left the window open and laid some pillows out under the blankets so that it looked like a body resting in the bed. He slipped his shoes and hoodie back on, made sure he had all his stuff in his backpack, and then he crawled under the bed, positioning himself so that he had a clear view of the door. If anyone did try to get in, the door hitting the chair would wake him and then he could bolt to the window and make his escape before anyone had a chance to stop him. It would work. He’d be okay.

It still took him several hours to fall into a very uneasy sleep.

*****

Things changed once Jason found out that Batman was Bruce Wayne—once Bruce offered him a chance at Robin. During his time as Robin, there were only brief moments of pain and fear, both from times Jason was exposed to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Not even the times he got hurt in a fight or training seemed to be enough to warrant attention. Instead of a near constant barrage of memories of Jason struggling to survive, running, hiding, freezing, seeking shelter from torrential downpours and flashes of lightning or mounds of snow, facing off criminals and cops alike who had problems with him, taking beatings and making it away… instead of all of that pain, there was nothing. They were mostly blank years, which meant the next substantial memory was Ethiopia with the Joker. It was the worst memory by far.

And yet, as horribly awful as being completely betrayed by his birth mother was, as absolutely agonizing as being beaten almost to death by the Joker was, his awful laugh echoing in Jason’s ears as he giddily beat him with a crowbar… as gut wrenching as it was to watch the timer tick down on the bomb, to know Bruce wasn’t coming for him in time and to feel that resignation and despair… as terrible as all of that was, what came after was somehow worse.

Jason gasped awake to complete blackness and a world full of pain. Every ounce of his body screamed in agony, every single bit of him felt broken, and he cried out from the sudden force of it after the complete nothingness he’d been swimming in before. He gasped and shook and it took him several moments to gather himself, to force the pain to the back of his mind so he could even think. But he couldn’t see anything. He didn’t think he’d ever been in such complete blackness in his life, and Jason quickly shifted his arms up to check for a blindfold. Walls stopped him. His hands shook as they reached out in the blackness, testing the space, feeling along the walls. They were so close and soft under his fingertips. The air felt thin and stale and the walls were all around him, closing him in tightly. There was even a damn pillow beneath his head.

His lungs seized as it clicked in place in his mind. Coffin. He was in a fucking coffin.

As soon as that realization settled deep into his bones, the panic he’d been desperately trying to keep at bay seized control and Jason screamed, pounding on the padded lid above him. “BATMAN!”

It echoed in the small space, ringing in his ears. There was no give to the lid closing him in, and he could hear nothing outside of the walls of the coffin. It was total blackness, and total silence besides his loud, panicked breaths.

God, he was in a coffin. He was trapped in a fucking coffin. His entire body shook in more terror than he’d ever felt in his life.

He clamped down on his emotions quickly. He could feel himself starting to hyperventilate, and that was beyond bad. He couldn’t afford that, trapped as he was. There wasn’t enough air for that kind of panic. He needed to get control of himself now.

“Calm,” he coached himself as his shaking hands immediately started searching his body and the space around him for any kind of tools. “Gotta stay calm. Easy breaths.” But he wasn’t in his uniform. He was in a damn suit and tie. He’d been dressed up for a funeral and there was nothing in his pockets, nothing in the coffin with him that was even remotely useful.

“Shit, fuck, shit,” his voice shook and his hands trembled more as he continued to feel around him frantically. The air was already feeling thin. “Come on, Todd, think. Gotta be something. Use your damn head,” he coached himself. His fingers skidded across his belt, and he immediately unbuckled it and yanked it off. It was the only thing he had.

Keep it together, he thought, trying to conserve oxygen. He counted his breaths, keeping them slow and measured as he frantically started ripping at the padding above him with the belt buckle, adrenaline lending him strength. The padding ripped away fairly easily, but the wood underneath was much more difficult. Jason was absolutely determined though. He was not going to die in this coffin. He was going to get out.

He didn’t know what was happening. The last thing he remembered was the timer of the bomb ticking down to zero. Was it some kind of trick? Was it the Joker’s plan all along to knock him out and bury him in a coffin? Did Bruce know? Where the fuck was he?

Jason used the belt buckle and his fingers to claw viciously at the wood above his hands, scraping his fingers raw in the process. He refused to stop, even when he broke through and dirt began to trickle onto his face. It was moist and he jerked his head to the side, shoving his fingers through the small space. He clenched his eyes shut and took in a few steady breaths before he filled his lungs as deep as they could go and wrenched the wood apart with all his strength, shoving himself up as he went.

Wet soil immediately surrounded his senses, pushing in at his eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. The panic immediately doubled in intensity and Jason desperately prayed that he wasn’t far under, even as he forced his way through, clawing upwards and shoving himself up with as much power as he could muster. His lungs burned and it was pure hell as he thrashed and moved as quickly and efficiently as he could, panic and soil closing in on him from all sides. He couldn’t move quickly enough, he had no idea if he was even making progress, and for a long, pained moment, Jason was positive he was going to die there, suffocated by the soil with no one ever even knowing. Then, as blackness was beginning to wrap itself around Jason’s mind, one hand broke the surface of the ground, reaching into air. With a final burst of hope and adrenaline, Jason surged up, dragging himself out of the ground.

His mind blinked out even as he gasped in oxygen, and for a few moments, Jason just lay there, half in the ground, gasping in air and clinging to consciousness. It took several long minutes to drag himself into some sort of mental awareness, and even what he managed was fuzzy and incomplete. With the fading of the terror and the adrenaline, his mind was left muted, and he dragged himself completely out of the ground, barely taking notice of the rain or the fact it was night. He could at least see in the moonlight, and he shook and shuddered as he realized he was in an actual cemetery. A statue angel stood guardian of the grave Jason crawled out of, engraved on its base the words: Here Lies Jason Todd.

He shook and gagged, spitting out mud before he shoved his way away from the grave, forcing his way to the left, and hopefully out of the damn cemetery.

He’d been…

He was…

Bruce. He needed Bruce. Bruce would help him. Bruce would fix his body, make the pain go away. He needed to find Bruce.

His mind muted further. He fought to make himself focus, to look for signs of a road, to think things through, but he was so tired. Everything hurt and he could feel the edges of unconsciousness creeping around the corners of his mind. He shoved it ruthlessly away and forced his legs to keep moving.

Bruce.

When his mind sparked back into some semblance of awareness, he was distantly surprised to find himself on a road. There was a car in front of him, headlights nearly blinding him as men got out and moved towards him.

Jason collapsed, unable to keep his feet any longer.

“Bruce,” he murmured with all the strength he could get out. “Bruce Wayne. Call—call Bruce Wayne,” he managed out of pure desperation. The blackness was closing in again, but he tried his absolute best to shove it away. He had to get to Bruce. He had to.

The men were speaking, but he was having a hard time grasping it.

“What’s your name?”

“—covered in mud. Look at his nose and ears. Must have been lying in it.”

“What’s in that direction?”

“Cemetery. Look at his fingers—”

“—call him.”

“—said Bruce Wayne—”

Jason’s eyes rolled back in his head. They were going to do it. They were going to contact Bruce. He let the blackness take him.

*****

The next memories were a jumble of fear and pain and confusion and everything was disjointed. The only coherent thoughts in Jason’s head were the occasional desperate demands for Bruce. But Bruce never came.

*****

Jason came back to himself gasping and drowning in a lake of glowing green liquid. It attacked him from the inside out, drowning his lungs, dragging him back to the feeling of the wet earth as he forced himself from his own grave. The liquid pushed in all around him, pouring through his nose and mouth, flooding into his veins, wrapping its claws around his soul. He felt like he was being consumed from the inside out in thick, liquid fire, and his mind erupted to screaming and singing in equal parts. He couldn’t take it—he shoved himself up and forward, determined to get out of the burning liquid. His hands broke the surface and hit rock. He gripped it tight and dragged himself out of the pit of flames.

The screaming and singing in his brain didn’t stop and, even though he was out and on solid ground, all Jason could see was green.

He screamed in rage and pain, animalistic fury coursing through his veins, drowning out every coherent thought.

He wasn’t sure how long it lasted, but eventually coherent thought and feeling returned as the green melted away from his vision. He was in a cave lit by numerous fiery torches. The liquid he’d carried out with him on his skin had pooled around him on the dirt floor leaving his bare skin dry in its absence. Nothing hurt—nothing but his mind at least. He felt whole and well for the first time in a long time, but only physically. His mind was still screaming and singing in tandem, fear and rage through his veins.

“Welcome back, Jason,” a smooth, lightly accented voice spoke.

Jason jerked up to see Ra’s al Ghul walking towards him, flanked by four of his assassins.

Fury overwhelmed Jason and he snarled in rage. Ra’s al Ghul. He was the reason Bruce hadn’t come for him, he realized with sudden clarity. Hatred boiled in his veins. “Where’s Batman?!”

“Your old mentor abandoned you, left you to die and buried you in the ground, Jason. You were dead almost a year and he did nothing. He no longer deserves your loyalty. You will serve me instead,” Ra’s spoke smoothly.

“Like hell I will,” Jason snapped, dragging himself to his feet. “I won’t do shit for you, Ra’s.”

“I believe you mean, Master,” Ra’s replied calmly.

Jason’s vision literally bled red with rage. “Never.”

“Very well,” he spoke, signaling to his assassins. Before Jason could react, all four of them were bearing down on him. He snarled and fought back, but they were skilled and he was outnumbered and completely naked with absolutely no tools at his disposal. They secured him quickly. “You’ll learn soon enough, young bat.”

Jason fought them every step of the way as they dragged him out of the cave holding the Lazarus Pit and through a huge, maze like compound, Ra’s leading the way. Eventually they reached a room where Jason was strung up and beat with a whip before they dumped him in a cell.

He couldn’t escape.

He tried for sure, and was beaten every time, but Ra’s was all too familiar with Batman and his tactics. He knew everything that Jason knew, and he took the necessary precautions to make it impossible for him to escape. Jason was blindfolded and shackled whenever he was moved about the compound, and the only time he wasn’t was when he was in his cell or in one of the large training rooms where he was allowed weapons for his training. The rooms were always guarded with dozens of assassins though, and he was usually worked so thoroughly he could barely stand by the time they were through. Still, Jason didn’t stop trying to escape and he didn’t stop mouthing off to Ra’s. He was Jason Todd and he served no one. Not even Batman, and that wouldn’t change no matter how many beatings he got or no matter how many times they injected him. And god, that injection was so much worse than the beatings.

They called it Prometheus and they used it way too often. He didn’t know how long it had been, but it felt as if the fire had been running through his veins for years. It couldn’t have been more than hours though. Jason knew he was currently strapped to a table convulsing and choking on his own gasping breaths. He knew it’d be over eventually, but before that happened it would rise and fall like waves. There were brief periods where the pain faded and coherent thought returned. That was usually when Ra’s started in on his dogma—Bruce didn’t deserve Jason’s loyalty; he’d abandoned Jason, left him for dead, hadn’t even given him the tools in which to really take care of himself. Ra’s had taught him so much more—shown him what he needed to be able to survive. Jason would be so much better off serving Ra’s. Ra’s would take care of him, blah blah blah.

And yeah, maybe Ra’s was right. Maybe Bruce didn’t deserve his loyalty. Bruce had buried him, Bruce didn’t even know he was alive and suffering. It’d been almost two years already and Bruce hadn’t come for him. Again. So yeah, Bruce didn’t deserve his loyalty, but Ra’s sure as fuck didn’t either. Not after all this shit. Jason would die again before he served Ra’s, he was certain. He was pretty sure it was coming soon, even, based on the impatience that had been rolling off Ra’s in waves lately. That impatience was a victory to Jason, even if it did make the beatings more painful. Jason was just a punk kid, but he was getting to a 700 year old immortal asshole. There was something immensely gratifying in that. He tried to focus on that as the fire tore through his blood, making every nerve ending scream.

Jason had been through this many times already. He knew by the time it was completely over, he’d be bruised and bloody where the restraints had cut into his body from all his thrashing, and he knew that by the time they dropped him in his cell he’d sleep like the dead for hours. The only plus being he’d sleep far too deeply to even dream. For now though, it was just a few minutes of coherence—a tiny break from the agony.

Voices cut through his awareness as he came back to himself. His body still shook, but it wasn’t the violent convulsions. He realized his eyes had been open, and he let them shut as he took a much needed break, glad that the voices weren’t speaking directly to him. He didn’t feel like listening to Ra’s go on and on and on right now.

“It’s been nearly two years and I don’t think his spirit is anymore broken than when he first came out of the Lazarus Pit,” a feminine voice spoke smoothly. Jason recognized the voice as Ra’s’ daughter, Talia. She’d been present for a lot of his training sessions. She’d even trained him some. She was a good teacher—Jason preferred her to Ra’s.

“His strength would be a valuable asset,” Ra’s spoke, but even he didn’t sound convinced anymore.

“It is strength if you have his loyalty. Without it, it is obstinance.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Ra’s spoke and Jason kept his eyes closed settling himself in the knowledge that he was probably going to be executed soon. He didn’t care as much as he probably should.

“When you’re finished with him, perhaps you can lend him to me. I think I might have use for him,” Talia said calmly.

“Perhaps,” Ra’s replied. “If you dispose of him properly when you’re done with him.”

“Are you finished with him then?” she asked.

“Not just yet,” Ra’s replied, and Jason listened to him leave the room.

The next thing he knew there was a gentle hand at the side of his face. “Open your eyes,” Talia spoke to him softly.

The hand felt like agony as the drug wreaked havoc on his nerve endings, but Jason was so used to pain now that it didn’t mark much of a change. He opened his eyes and looked up at Talia’s face. Her expression was gentle.

“Remain strong a little longer, Jason,” she told him kindly. “Don’t give in.”

“Not even a danger,” Jason retorted and his voice sounded like someone had ground down his vocal chords.

Talia smiled, amused and pleased. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m going to get you from my father, Jason. Then you will be free.”

“What’s that gonna cost me?” he rasped, because he’d never trusted a handout in his entire life.

“Nothing. Consider it payment for the suffering you’ve endured at my father’s hands. I will give you your freedom, hide you from my father, return you to Gotham if you wish, or continue your training and grant you the means and the resources to do whatever it is you wish.”

Jason’s expression must have made his skepticism clear, because she smiled. “Not a good enough reason? How about I might owe your father a favor. Or, perhaps, I want your father to owe me a favor.”

Now that last one Jason did believe.

She smiled at him and spoke gently. “Just a little while longer Jason.”

He squeezed his eyes shut as the pain surged again. By the time the agony and the convulsing started back in earnest, she was gone.

*****

Bruce jolted back into the present with a strangled shout.

“Steady,” J’onn’s deep voice rumbled as his hand gripped Bruce’s shoulder. They were the only two people in the Cave, and Bruce was immensely grateful for that fact as he struggled to get control of his emotions. “It’ll pass,” J’onn spoke again.

Bruce jerked to his feet and immediately began to pace about the cave, completely overwhelmed and unable to sit still in the face of it.

“I know,” J’onn spoke sympathetically. “I apologize. If I had been able to separate the feelings from the memory, I would have.”

“No,” Bruce said immediately, voice hoarse. “No, I needed to… no.”

J’onn’s expression was grim. “As you can imagine, Kal-el was unwilling to let Jason be imprisoned after what we experienced through his mind. He spoke to a tribunal on Jason’s behalf and he was granted a pardon with the condition that he refrain from further killing. So far, he has kept his end of the deal.”

Bruce could still feel phantom rage from the Lazarus Pit. He could feel how wholly it had consumed Jason. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the Pit was that it hadn’t felt foreign. Jason hadn’t realized he’d been influenced—the rage and the hate had felt so natural, a response to the hell he’d been through even. It had felt like a part of him, not a separate thing that had invaded his body. Bruce could still feel the shadows of it in his mind and it was suddenly so clear how his son had ended up on his path of revenge. He could see with the last memory the wheels Talia had set in motion, and he knew she had made good on her promise, rescued him from her father, and then she had set Jason up against them.

The timeline fit—Tim was well established as Robin by the time Ra’s gave up on Jason and Talia had yet to drop Damian on Bruce’s doorstep. With how her father had spent two years priming Jason against Bruce, all she would have had to do was show him he’d been forgotten, show him he’d been replaced, and Jason’s fury would have taken direction—had taken direction, focusing on Tim. Just like Talia wanted.

Bruce felt rage bubble up and burst within his soul. She had done this, acted out against his children, allowed her father to keep and torture Bruce’s son for two years. And he hadn’t even known—hadn’t even known that Jason was alive and suffering. And yet, despite that, he still owed her Jason’s life, because Ra’s would have executed him. She had kept her word and hidden Jason from her father, given him the means and resources to further his training and continue on his own. And he hated how much he owed her for that. And even though she had used Jason, she still hadn’t failed him as thoroughly as he had.

Bruce collapsed back in his chair trying to force the memories of pain to the back of his mind. Jason had been betrayed and abandoned by every parent he’d ever had, including Bruce. Talia was probably a breath of fresh air in comparison. She had used him, yes, but she’d made sure he was well prepared and given him all she could. She knew his life wouldn’t be in danger— there was no way Bruce would ever kill Jason, no matter what he did. And despite what she had said, he knew Talia well enough to know that she really had been trying to give him recompense for what he’d suffered at Ra’s’ hand. It just conveniently played into her plans as well. He was willing to bet that if he ever had managed to capture Jason, Talia would have broken him out of Arkham within the day. Compared to Sheila Haywood, she was practically a saint.

And god, that was another thing. Even after his birth mother had betrayed him, Jason had tried his best to save her. Jason’s death hadn’t been his fault. He’d been lured in by his mother; he’d been trying to save her. Bruce would have done the same. They all would have done the same. Jason, with his well-earned abandonment issues, hadn’t stood a chance. And then she turned him over to the Joker. Bruce was momentarily intensely satisfied that the woman was dead.

Which brought him to the Joker. “J’onn,” he spoke, voice still rough. His hands were even trembling minutely. “I need you to do something for me. I need you to monitor Arkham from the Watchtower. If the Joker gets free anytime soon… send Superman,” he ordered. It was like the immediate aftermath of Jason’s death all over again. All Bruce wanted to do was grab the clown and grind every bone in his body brutally to dust. He couldn’t though, no matter how badly he wanted to. He couldn’t because if he went away for murder, then what happened to Gotham? What happened to his children then?

“I understand,” J’onn nodded. “It will be done.”

“Thank you,” Bruce replied quietly.

“You should take time to process this,” J’onn cautioned. “What you just experienced was not easy. Like Jason and the other Outlaws, you will need some recovery time. I would caution against hasty decisions until you feel yourself again.”

Bruce nodded, but his mind was already drifting back to Jason’s memories and all the things he hadn’t been prepared to see. He hadn’t had any idea what all Jason had already been through when he took him in. He hadn’t been at all what Jason needed. He’d been so naïve.

“I will leave you now. I believe Superman is heading back to Metropolis. Please inform him of my departure.”

Bruce nodded, barely paying attention to J’onn as he left the cave.

Chapter Text

Tim frowned as J’onn and Bruce faded away from the present before turning an accusing glare on Dick. “This was your plan all along, wasn’t it?”

“You’re not the only Robin capable of being sneaky,” Dick replied casually.

He was far from amused. “You didn’t ask him. Jason wouldn’t want this. He’s going to be furious, Dick.”

Dick nodded, a little more solemn now. “Yeah, if he finds out, he’s going to be furious. But come on, Tim; think about it. They’re the two most stubborn people on the planet. If we left them to figure out everything between them on their own, we’d be waiting for years. Years of fighting and shouting and them being absolute idiots. For them to finally move forward, Bruce has to understand why Jason is the way he is. He has to stop judging him by the man he wanted him to become and understand the man he is. This is the only way for that to happen.”

Tim shook his head, furious on Jason’s behalf. He might not know that much about Jason’s history, but he did know that Jason has already had way too many choices taken from him. They weren’t supposed to make that worse.

“It doesn’t matter; it’s Jason’s life. It’s his privacy being invaded here. He’d never be okay with this so you shouldn’t have done it. We’re trying to build trust, and you just blew it. Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

Dick knew exactly what he’d done—Tim could see it on his face. Worse yet, there wasn’t any remorse. Becoming Batman was one of the worst things that could have happened to Dick. He hadn’t ever wanted to take up the mantle—he knew what being Batman did to a person. It made them secretive and distrustful. He never wanted those things, but he’d done it because he’d had to, and now even back as Nightwing, the shades of Batman were still there.

“I know you’re mad, and I know this isn’t right. But it isn’t wrong either, Tim. Not with everything that’s at stake here.”

“And when Jason finds out?” Tim demanded. “What do you think he’s going to do? You think he’s going to stick around? Even if he does, do you think he’s going to work with us ever again? Trust us ever again?”

“Tim,” Superman spoke, and Tim turned his glare on Clark, because he’d seen Jason. He’d seen his memories and his pain. He knew him, and he knew how much Jason wouldn’t want this, and he’d done it anyway. “Trust me; this wasn’t an easy decision to make. We didn’t want to do this, but I do feel like it’s the best option. Bruce needs to understand where Jason is coming from for anything to change between them. I’m going to speak with Jason before I leave Gotham, and I’ll take full responsibility for this. But Bruce needed to know.”

Tim rubbed his forehead, frustrated. “I hope we don’t all regret this,” he snapped.

“Me too,” Clark replied.

And then Bruce let out an aborted shout of pain, making all of them jump out of their skins in surprise. In his fury, Tim had forgotten Bruce and J’onn were even there.

Bruce grunted briefly again and his face twisted up in agony. J’onn remained a stone wall though.

“Might I suggest we continue this discussion upstairs over tea,” Alfred remarked, steering Damian away from where he was watching his father with a disturbed expression.

Dick was also watching Bruce worriedly and Tim scowled. How on Earth had anyone thought this would be a good idea? Honestly.

“Tea sounds lovely—thank you, Alfred,” Clark replied easily as they moved towards the stairs. They settled around the smaller table in the kitchen as Alfred put the kettle on.

“How long do you think it’ll take?” Dick asked Clark.

He shrugged. “An hour or so I’m guessing. I don’t know if J’onn will show him everything, or if he’ll just show him key moments. Either way, it moves faster in the mind than reality, especially with J’onn.”

Tim sighed and settled back in his seat to wait. They waited in silence, sipping tea as Alfred started baking pastries for later.

The sun was getting ready to rise by the time Bruce appeared in the kitchen, looking like he’d aged ten years. His face was pale and worn and his eyes were red.

“J’onn already leave?” Clark guessed.

“Yes,” Bruce replied, and his voice was rough.

Tim rubbed at his temples. He hadn’t only thought this was a bad idea because of how Jason would react. Bruce dealt with far too much guilt already for them to dump this on his shoulders too. What happened to Jason sucked, and it was terrible, but it wasn’t Bruce’s fault. None of it was. Bruce couldn’t have known Jason would come back from the dead. He couldn’t blame himself for Ra’s getting him and anything that might have happened while he was with the League of Assassins. Yet, he would do exactly that. He’d blame himself for all of it, and it wasn’t fair to Bruce. It wasn’t fair to Jason either, who wouldn’t want anyone seeing all of that. Honestly, they really should just let Tim make all the decisions, because they were apparently awful at it.

“Do you have any more questions for me?” Clark asked Bruce quietly.

“No, you can go.”

“I’m sorry about this, Bruce. I wanted to tell you sooner, but he asked, and after all that, it was too hard to tell him no.”

Bruce just nodded. “I’ll call you later. Get back to Metropolis.”

Clark nodded and left the room. Bruce dropped down into a chair and accepted a cup of tea from Alfred. His expression and tone were tired and grim as he spoke to the rest of them. “Tell me everything since he’s been back in Gotham.”

Dick looked at Tim, and Tim settled in. He’d always planned on telling Bruce eventually, so he didn’t have a problem telling him now. Telling him what Jason had been up to was completely different than showing him Jason’s own memories. One was acceptable, the other was not.

“The Outlaws decided to take a break after the whole reliving their memories thing,” Tim replied. “They needed to take some time, so Starfire has been oscillating between the Titans and the Watchtower, Arsenal is with Black Canary in Star City, and Jason came back to Gotham. From what I can tell, he came back to work with Dr. Thompkins to try and figure out how he came back to life. She ran a whole series of blood tests and did an MRI, but everything’s completely normal. The only things that stood out were caused by an injection he was given frequently while with the League of Assassins.”

“Prometheus,” Bruce spoke, tone dark. “You have the formula then? I want it.”

His expression was as dark as his tone, and Tim didn’t think he wanted to know what Prometheus did. “Yeah, it’s on the computer,” he replied. “Since Dr. Thompkins wasn’t able to turn up anything, Jason and I have moved on to trying to figure out what magic user could have brought him back from the dead and why. We haven’t made much progress though. I think it really bothers him—not knowing what happened and why. So if you have any ideas, he wouldn’t ask for it, but we could use your help.”

“I’ll look into it,” Bruce replied, and Tim could tell he wanted to help. It was an entirely different Bruce than the one from a few hours earlier that had clearly wanted to go off and confront Jason. He wasn’t questioning Jason’s motives anymore, and that was good, but Tim wasn’t sure if the progress was worth the potential consequences. He still didn’t agree with Dick and Clark’s decision.

“Other than that, Jason’s started patrolling Crime Alley,” Tim continued. “He’s put some people in the hospital, but he hasn’t killed anyone, so Gordon seems willing enough to let it slide. He’s bought a warehouse there and adopted a few dozen homeless kids. He worked with a restaurant owner and a food pantry to provide food for them, and they sleep there at night under his protection. Wayne Enterprises has bought the old East End Orphanage, and renovations are almost complete. Dr. Thompkins and I have been in contact with some social workers and a judge and we’re currently preparing to have the kids who want to go placed in the orphanage. Jason played a big part in picking out the staff, and I’ve already got licenses for everything. It should be up and running by the end of January. We’re hoping that after a few months the rest of the kids will go there once they’re sure it’s safe. He’s already talked to them about it, and about half are willing to give it a try right now.”

Bruce nodded, clenching his jaw. “Gordon mentioned torture.”

Tim nodded, not bothering to cover. Bruce would find out everything he wanted to know anyway, so better to just go ahead and tell him. “A child molester snatched a six year old girl who’s under Jason’s protection. He made it in time, but the kids the guy had grabbed before all ended up dead. Given the circumstances, I think we’re lucky that torture was all Jason did. He’s done much worse for a lot less reason in the past.”

Bruce nodded, but didn’t comment any further.

“He’s really good with the kids,” Dick spoke, steering the conversation away from the uncomfortable topic. “They all trust him. He’s been looking after them for a couple of months now, and none of them are starving anymore, and they’re not quite as wary as they used to be. He was always good with the kids we came across on patrol. He gets them.”

Bruce nodded again and looked at Tim. “I’d like files on the social workers, the judge, and the employees you’re looking to hire. I’d also like to check the paperwork for the orphanage.”

Tim wasn’t offended like Damian, Jason, or maybe even Dick would have been. He knew Bruce wasn’t questioning his work. Bruce was a control freak through and through, and would only relax once he was sure everything was exactly as it should be. “Already put it in a folder on the computer for you,” Tim replied honestly.

“What else?” Bruce asked, voice still rough.

“He’s also looking after the prostitutes in Crime Alley,” Tim spoke. “Knows all of them by name. They come to him if they’re in trouble. He makes sure they’re able to do business safely. He just went toe to toe with Maroni to make him get his hooks out of Crime Alley because they were forcing the prostitutes into business with them. And that’s really the only thing besides the torture that’s been an issue so far,” Tim finished up.

“What’d he do?”

Dick was the one who answered. “He attacked Maroni’s house. Put bullets in nearly three dozen of his men, but didn’t kill a single one. He’s been using rubber bullets now aside from that night, but he decided they wouldn’t make his point well enough. He plowed through Maroni’s men and told him to get out of Crime Alley or the next time he showed up, he’d be making kill shots.”

“Maroni pulled out, but we’re worried about retaliation,” Tim added. “You know how he is, and Jason is reckless with his own safety. He’s got safe houses, but he spends most of his time in a loft he’s renovating.”

“The protection is woefully inadequate,” Damian agreed, speaking up for the first time. “And it is hardly fit for human habitation.”

“Hey,” Dick said, looking offended. “He’s getting it there.”

“You should have seen it before he redid the ceiling,” Tim added wryly. “Place was a pit.”

“It still is,” Damian declared derisively.

Bruce placed his head in his hands and Tim frowned. He could already see the guilt weighing on his shoulders. “Bruce,” Tim spoke quietly. “I don’t know what all you saw—he doesn’t talk about it—but, he’s doing okay. He has bad days and he doesn’t always sleep, but the same goes for all of us really. He’s doing good work. The people in Crime Alley trust him and the kids love him. He lets us come around for the most part, he hasn’t tried to attack any of us, and he lets Alfred make him food and tell him what to do. We need to keep an eye out for Maroni, but Jason seriously weakened his operation so it hasn’t been hard to keep tabs on him. Things are okay right now. The things that happened to him aren’t your fault and he’s getting better, and in the meantime, he’s doing good work. Don’t blame yourself for this, okay? None of it is your fault.”

Bruce didn’t look like he agreed. “Where is he?” he asked.

“Are you going to go speak to him?” Dick asked, not even bothering to disguise the hope in his voice. Tim rolled his eyes.

“No,” Bruce said, surprising Dick, but definitely not Tim.

“Why not?” Dick asked, confused.

“Jason doesn’t want to see me,” Bruce spoke honestly. “I can’t blame him. After… after everything, he deserves to make that decision and have it honored.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Dick demanded, immediately furious. “Bruce, he might not want to see you, but you’re his father! He needs you! Since when has Jason ever done what’s good for him anyway? It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t want to see you, he needs you, Bruce.”

“Every parental figure he’s ever had has failed him, and none more than me. I’m not going to go against his wishes on this. I just want to make sure he’s alright.”

“Bruce—” Dick protested.

Tim cut him off by rattling off the addresses for Jason’s loft and the warehouse. Bruce stood from the table.

“Bruce!” Dick called after him, but Bruce didn’t hesitate as he left the room. “What’d you do that for?” Dick asked, turning to Tim grumpily.

“You’re expecting too much too soon,” Tim said shortly. “You know he’s blaming himself for every bad thing that’s ever happened to Jason. He doesn’t need to face him while he’s like this. Jason would read it as pity and it would end badly. Right now Bruce just needs to see for himself that he’s okay. Give him time to process everything. Besides, Jason’s bound to be pissed as hell for a while. Bruce needs time to process; Jason needs time to cool off. You can’t force this. It won’t work if you do.”

Dick huffed, but settled back in his chair. “Yeah, alright. But we’ll have to push it eventually. If we let him, Bruce will brood about this for years before he steps up and does something about it. I’m not going to let him do that. He has a responsibility here, and he’s going to own up to it whether he’s finished his brooding crap or not,” Dick said firmly.

Tim had no doubt that Dick was projecting his and Bruce’s relationship as well as Damian and Bruce’s relationship onto the situation. To be fair, Bruce hadn’t quite managed to live up to his role as father yet. He wondered what made Dick think Bruce would suddenly manage it now.

Shaking those thoughts away, Tim glared again. “I’m not happy with you. Or Clark. This was a stupid decision and you left me out of it because you knew I wouldn’t approve.”

“It’s our best bet, Tim,” Dick said again. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I didn’t want to bring you in on it in case we wound up convincing you we were right. I didn’t want you to have to make the decision knowing how much Jason would hate it. You two have a good thing going right now, and I didn’t want this to screw it up.”

“And what about your relationship with Jason?” Tim challenged.

Dick grimaced. “Well it’s not going particularly well right now anyway.”

“And you think this will help?!”

“No, I don’t,” he replied grimly. “I don’t really know what will,” he added quietly, looking pained by the admission.

Tim scowled because he absolutely would not feel sorry for Dick while he was angry with him.

“What’s wrong?” a soft voice broke in, startling all of them, Alfred included. Tim turned to see Cassandra approaching the table.

“You think we would have gotten used to that after all the years of Bruce,” Dick said, shaking his head ruefully. “I think you’re quieter though, Cass.”

She gave a small, pleased smile and a slight nod. “I am.”

“Hey, sis, what have you been up to?” Tim greeted as she took a seat at the table and accepted a cup of tea from Alfred.

“You’re just in time; breakfast will be ready momentarily,” Alfred smiled at her.

She smiled before turning back to Tim. “Gun smuggling ring and imminent gang war,” she replied to his earlier question. “With Stephanie.”

“All wrapped up?” Dick checked.

“Almost. Just loose ends.”

“Not before Christmas though, right?”

“No. I’m home for Christmas,” she replied calmly. Then she checked, “We’re supposed to stay here together for Christmas, yes?”

Dick grinned wide, patting her arm. “Yes, we are. Tim is staying too, aren’t you?”

Tim heaved a sigh. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal if I sleep at my apartment. I’ll be here for everything but sleep.”

“I see no reason why Drake should be here at all,” Damian retorted, immediately digging into the plate of pancakes Alfred set before him.

“Nope, we all stay at the Manor for Christmas,” Dick replied, giving both of them a firm look. “Bruce will need all us.”

“And whose fault is that?” Tim retorted with narrowed eyes. But he sighed because despite the reasons, Dick wasn’t wrong. “Fine. I’ll stay here.”

“What’s wrong?” Cassandra asked again, accepting her own plate of pancakes.

Tim gave her a brief summary of everything regarding the Jason situation and she nodded thoughtfully. “Will he come for Christmas too? He is our brother, so shouldn’t he be here?” Tim felt a surge of fondness for Cass and her easy acceptance of Jason into their family. She was better than all of them in so many ways.

Dick grimaced. “We would all like him here.” Damian scoffed, and the oldest bird shot him a disapproving look before continuing. “But Jason doesn’t really think of himself as a part of our family anymore. This isn’t home to him right now.”

Cass frowned thoughtfully, but didn’t say anything more. Even though she’d been able to speak for a few years now, she still wasn’t much for words. Speaking was a second language to her and she still communicated primarily through body language. The brief touch to Dick’s shoulder and then Tim’s hand meant the things she didn’t know how to put into words. They were all fluent in Cassandra speak by now and they smiled at her in thanks.

“So,” Dick said, changing the subject. “Presents are under the tree.”

“I put mine under the tree on the way in,” Cassandra offered. “There is a present for each of you.”

“Even the demon brat?” Tim ribbed, because it’d been too somber for too long and he could use a little levity before he caught a few hours’ worth of sleep.

“Shut up, Drake. You’re lucky I got you anything, even if it is a bag of rocks,” Damian shot back.

Tim tilted his head in thought. “See, you say bag of rocks, but I hear bag of projectiles to shoot at your head. And as far as presents go, that’s a pretty good one. So thanks, Damian.”

Damian seethed in his seat and Cassandra stepped in smoothly. “I’ll give you a hint regarding your present, littlest brother; it’s sharp.”

Damian paused, intrigued. Dick just sighed. “Great, it’s a deadly weapon, isn’t it? Don’t you think he has enough pointy things he can use to kill people?”

“No,” Cassandra and Damian answered together.

“Thank you, Cain,” Damian declared. “I assure you the present I got for you is better than the bag of rocks I plan to give to Drake.”

Cassandra smiled. “Thank you. I look forward to opening it.”

Damian gave a short nod before focusing back on his pancakes. Tim hid a grin by shoving a piece of bacon in his mouth. It was amusing to him that not even Damian could dislike Cassandra. She could kill each and every one of them, and Damian respected skill. More than that though, despite being the deadliest of all of them, she was also the kindest. She was soft spoken and capable of being remarkably gentle. Not to mention she could read all of them with perfect ease. She only ever pushed when they needed to be pushed and she always seemed to know exactly what they needed, even before they did. There was no doubt she’d have Jason wrapped around her finger in no time.

It was probably time to introduce the two of them, actually. Perhaps he could arrange it before Cassandra returned to beating up bad guys with Stephanie. She was always harder to pin down when the two of them were in the middle of a case. He wondered if Jason’s anger over the invasion of his privacy would extend to all of them—if they’d even be able to see Jason for a while.

Tim sighed. He’d just gotten back on Jason’s good side, and Dick and Superman just had to go and blow it.

“Father will be alright, won’t he?” Damian checked with Dick after a few moments of silence.

“Of course, little D,” Dick replied easily. “He just needs a little time to get used to things, and then it’ll be fine.”

“And Jason?” Tim asked, raising a challenging brow at Dick.

“Jason will probably be fine sooner than Bruce,” Dick replied. “Clark has a way of talking people down. It’ll be fine.”

“It better be,” Tim retorted before checking his phone. It was almost seven in the morning and he had a WE conference call at eleven. He needed a shower and a nap, and then he needed to figure out if he should drop by Jason’s or if he should give him a little bit of space. “I’m going to take a nap, so if anyone tries to kill anyone else, do it quietly please.”

“I’ll ensure that they do, Master Timothy,” Alfred assured him. “I need one or two more items for the Christmas dinner preparations. I will stop in and check on Master Jason while I’m out.”

Tim felt a weight come off his shoulders. Alfred would make sure everything was alright. Jason would respond best to the old butler anyway. If anyone could get through to Jason, it was him.

“Thanks, Alfred,” he replied earnestly as he stood from the table.

“It’s no trouble. Get some sleep, Master Timothy. Heaven knows you need it.”

Tim nodded and lightly touched Cassandra’s shoulder as he passed. “I’ll find you later,” he promised her. “We’ll catch up.”

She nodded and Tim headed up to his room to shower and crash.

Chapter Text

It was early in the morning on Christmas Eve and Max Kennedy was finally dead. Jason sat on the roof of his warehouse reading the police report Roy had sent him with relish. Kennedy had been stabbed sixteen times in his cell and had died before medical attention arrived. The police suspected Maroni, but so far no evidence had been recovered to link him or one of his men to the crime. It didn’t have quite the same amount of satisfaction as ending the man himself, but it was still pretty damn satisfying. Jason slipped his phone back into his belt and congratulated himself on a job well done. He’d followed everyone’s rules and Kennedy was dead without Jason having to break his agreement. Not too damn shabby, all things considered.

Things in Crime Alley remained relatively calm after Donald. All the kids were currently sleeping safe and warm beneath his feet. Sasha, Holly and the others were safe and keeping warm as well. Jason’s bruises were mostly healed up, and his knee was only a little sore. His countertops, new sink and cabinets had been delivered to his loft, and though Jason hadn’t installed any of it yet, he had gotten the island in place and it looked pretty damn good. The catering companies he’d contacted for Christmas dinner at the warehouse had confirmed and would be ready for delivery. Dick was still keeping his distance, and Jason had found good Christmas presents for Kori and Alfred. And though he hadn’t decided on Roy’s gift just yet, he had a few ideas so it was only a matter of time.

Things were actually pretty decent for once. Which made Jason think everything was bound to go to shit at any moment. That was pretty much the way his life worked, after all. Still, it’d be really nice if just this once life would cut him some slack. After all, it was Christmas time. Surely life could throw him a bone at Christmas. That’s what Christmas miracles were all about, right?

Jason stood and stretched his back muscles, preparing to give the streets of Crime Alley one more pass through before he headed back to his loft to get some sleep. As he stretched, something caught his eye and he paused. Sometime in the past twenty-four hours, one block down on the side of a tall brick building, someone had painted a mural. Jason didn’t know how he hadn’t noticed it earlier, because there was nothing obstructing it and it was rather striking. It was a mural of the Red Hood, painted like a traditional Catholic icon image of one of the patron saints. He had a golden halo behind his red helmeted head, and he was crossing pistols over his chest. The armor wasn’t completely accurate, but it was pretty good for someone who obviously hadn’t been able to inspect it closely. The border of the icon image was made up of assorted firearms and grenades, and at the bottom of the mural, written in large painted letters was: Saint Jerome Emiliani.

“Huh,” Jason said, grabbing his phone to do some quick research. He wasn’t really up to date on his Catholic Saints.

St. Jerome Emiliani: patron saint of abandoned children and orphans.

“Huh,” Jason said again, looking up at the mural and then back down at his phone as a warm, surprised feeling began spreading through his chest. Curiously, he scrolled through the article, reading about a man who’d been a soldier, then imprisoned, then escaped only to devote the rest of his life to helping abandoned kids. Not only did he take in homeless children and start orphanages, he was also a safe haven for prostitutes in need of help.

“Well damn,” Jason muttered, voice a little tight as the warm feeling grew in his chest. For maybe the first time since he’d worn the tights, Jason felt truly proud of himself. He’d been through a lot of shit and it had messed him up pretty bad, but despite all of that he was doing good work. He was a protector and he was looking after his people, and holy hell, he was actually appreciated for it. It was so rare for him to feel appreciated instead of condemned, but here in Crime Alley he was what the people needed. Not Batman, not Robin, and definitely not Nightwing. People needed the Red Hood. It was a pretty damn good feeling.

Jason snapped a picture of the huge mural and sent it off to Roy, who replied almost immediately.

Roy: Somebody’s got fans! Good job, Jaybird!

Jason smirked and saved the picture as his phone background. He could use the positive reminder the next time being back in Gotham started to feel overwhelming.

He was startled out of the moment by his phone vibrating, and he answered it quickly. “Jason? It’s Clark. I’m in Gotham. Can we meet?”

Jason blinked for a moment, shaking himself out of his reverie. “Yeah, meet me in Crime Alley. I’m on top of a warehouse. You’ll find me,” he replied easily.

“Thanks. See you in a minute.”

Jason hung up, and sure enough, in less than a minute, Superman was landing on the roof of his warehouse.

“What’s up, Supescout?” Jason greeted easily, making a concerted effort to keep his body relaxed, though he could already sense things going to shit. He doubted there was a good reason for the visit. Maybe Gordon was blaming Jason for Kennedy’s death. Maybe he’d called in Superman. Or maybe it was about Donald—since Gordon hadn’t managed to get a hold of Jason, maybe he’d decided to get Superman to do it for him.

“Jason,” Superman greeted easily. He then caught sight of the mural and smiled a little. “Got fans?”

“Looks like,” Jason replied.

Superman hesitated, and Jason waited warily.

“Bruce is back in Gotham,” he said, and Jason immediately stiffened. That was so much worse than Gordon. Clark continued like he hadn’t just knocked Jason’s entire world off-kilter.

“I wanted to give you a head’s up. Also… he knows everything.”

“What? What do you mean ‘everything’?” Jason demanded as the last dregs of the warm feeling was chased out of his chest, replaced totally and completely with dread.

“I mean everything,” Superman said pointedly, and Jason jerked in realization.

“What the fuck!” he swore furiously. “Are you fucking serious right now?” Clark winced and that was answer enough. Jason snarled, “That wasn’t his fucking business, Superman! What the actual fuck?! How?! Why?!”

Superman shrugged and didn’t look the slightest bit repentant as he replied. “He’s Batman.” Like that was answer enough on its own. And God help them all, it really was. Bruce probably hadn’t even thought twice.

Jason threw his hands up in the air, swearing violently. “He’s Batman and he’s a fucking hypocrite who doesn’t fucking respect other people’s fucking privacy. That wasn’t his business, damn it! It’s my fucking life! He doesn’t just get to help himself to whatever parts of it he wants!”

“I know you’re angry,” Superman began and in a placating voice, and it only pissed Jason off more.

Jason stomped towards him. He’d punch Superman in the face if it wouldn’t break his fucking hand. “Damn fucking right I’m angry! Why the hell wouldn’t I be angry, you asshole? Who the fuck gave Bruce the right, huh? Who gave you the right?!”

Superman remained infuriatingly calm. “You knew he’d figure out you were in Gotham eventually, and you knew that once he did, he’d gather every scrap of information he could. It’s who he is,” he pointed out. “Besides, this doesn’t change anything. So what if he knows? You’re allowed to be here. You aren’t breaking any rules.”

“That’s not the point. And, I doubt he sees it that way anyway,” Jason snarled.

Superman shrugged. “Then he can take it up with me, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem. If I’m wrong and it is, you have people on your side. I’m on your side, Jason. It’s going to be fine.”

Jason couldn’t handle this right now. This was a nightmare—it had to be. A nightmare that was causing him a migraine. A migraine that could only be cured by shooting someone in the face, preferably Bruce. All of this would go away if he could just shoot Bruce in the face.

But the thing was—the awful, terrible, shitty thing was that this whole shit show wasn’t even entirely unexpected. Jason had been avoiding thinking about Bruce and what his eventual return would mean simply because Bruce was not conducive to him pulling his life together. But if Jason were to be completely honest with himself, he’d have to admit that he’d been expecting this from the moment he realized Superman and Martian Manhunter had seen all of his worst fucking memories. There wasn’t a version of events that didn’t end with that knowledge being used against him in some way. He had no reason to trust anyone outside of Roy and Kori, and Superman and Manhunter’s loyalty would go to Bruce before Jason. The only thing that was really surprising was how long it had taken them. So, he wasn’t really surprised, but he certainly was angry. Expected or not, that kind of shattering of privacy was not okay.

And here was Clark fucking Kent looking at him with fucking sympathy in his gaze. Like Jason was something to be pitied—like he hadn’t just single handedly screwed him over in revealing all his horrible things to the last person in the entire world he would want to see them. All at once, his fury erupted into a rage, because god damn Clark Kent. Thinking he was fucking above everyone—that he had the fucking right to make these decisions for other people. Just like fucking Bruce.

Jason would empty both clips right into Superman’s face if it wouldn’t unnecessarily spook the kids. God, he wanted to make him hurt. He wanted to make him understand that he didn’t have the right. That Bruce didn’t have the right. He wanted Superman to understand what it was like to experience that sort of violation of privacy, and in that moment, Jason decided what he was going to get Roy for Christmas. Breaking into the Fortress of Solitude wouldn’t make up for it, but it was a start. They violate Jason’s privacy, he’d fucking desecrate Superman’s sanctuary.

“Jason,” Superman began in a gentle tone.

Jason wouldn’t put up with it. “Get out of my town,” he snapped angrily.

“Jason,” he said, still trying to placate him.

He snarled. “Leave. Now.”

Superman hesitated a moment before ultimately giving in. “Merry Christmas, Jason,” he spoke gently as he rose into the air.

“Go fuck yourself,” Jason retorted furiously.

The second he was gone, Jason let himself drop into a sitting position. He pulled his helmet off, dropped his head and dug his fingers into his hair. He felt—God, he felt sick. Sick, angry and utterly overwhelmed. It would have been bad enough just having Bruce back in Gotham, but now this. Bruce knew everything. How the hell did he even know everything? Had Clark told him or… or had Bruce seen? Fuck, what if he had? Jason felt almost hysterical just at the thought of Bruce seeing. It wasn’t right. Bruce didn’t get to have his memories. He didn’t get to have his past. It was Jason’s and no one had the right to it. No one.

Jason felt sick and he abruptly couldn’t stomach the thought of being in the same city as Bruce and the rest of them. He hadn’t signed up for this, and he wanted out. Kori could be in the city in a couple of hours, and with her ship they could be halfway across the galaxy by Christmas. They hadn’t screwed with any intergalactic politics lately. That could be fun. He didn’t trust the Bats not to mess with his stuff, so he’d need to pack up his arsenal, but that’d take him a few minutes, tops. He could be out of the city in a half-hour, and meet Kori somewhere that wasn’t Gotham. She’d find them a warm planet to go screw around on. It’d be good. He hated the cold and Gotham just kept getting colder anyway. Somewhere warm on an entirely different planet than Batman—that’s what he needed.

He was about to dial Kori’s number when he faltered, remembering the thirty plus kids beneath his feet. He couldn’t just up and abandon them now. The peace in Crime Alley was still tentative. Jason had no doubt that Maroni and whoever else would jump right in the second people knew the Red Hood was gone. Not to mention there was no chance that any of the kids would go to the orphanage if he wasn’t around to call in case it turned out to be just like everything they’d dealt with before. If Jason left, they’d have no reason to trust his word. And then the girls would be out of protection too.

God, that was just… that was just unfair. Jason wanted out. There had to be a way, surely. Tim could keep an eye on the kids… but Lisa. She was doing okay, but she was far from alright. Jason couldn’t just abandon her. She was only six, and she didn’t have anyone. He had at least been nine when he ended up on the street.

Maybe he didn’t have to leave the planet—or even the country. Maybe he could just get out of Gotham, head south for warm weather. Back to their island maybe, back through Florida. Maybe he could even take Lisa with him. He, Roy, and Kori could take her to Disneyworld—Kori would probably get a real kick out of it, Roy even more so. Tim could look after the kids. Jason could hope that they trusted Tim and Dick enough to try the orphanage even if he wasn’t there.

The chances weren’t good. And then there was no way Bruce would leave Jason alone if he had a kid with him. Hell, he’d probably come after him for kidnapping or child endangerment or something equally ludicrous.

Jason raked his hands through his hair angry, frustrated, and just so damn tired. What the hell was he supposed to do? How on Earth was he supposed to get out of Gotham when he was the only one holding Crime Alley together? He couldn’t just abandon these people the way he’d been abandoned. But he couldn’t stay. He couldn’t.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, huddled in the cold December air, mind running circles around his non-existent options, but he was eventually distracted by his phone buzzing. Again. For a second Jason really just wanted to chuck it off the roof of the warehouse, but it was Jamie’s number this time, and it was a text not a call.

Jaime: There’s a woman here who needs your help.

Jason squeezed his eyes shut. This is what he got for helping people; stuck. The worst part was he didn’t really even have a choice. It was the only part of Bruce’s conditioning that he never managed to shake—if someone needed help, Jason had to go. Every damn time.

He took a breath and held it in his lungs for a moment, letting them start to burn before he let it out in heavy sigh. Then he dragged himself upright and turned towards Jamie’s. This didn’t mean he wouldn’t still leave. If he did decide to help this chick, he could still figure out a way to get out of Gotham without everything in Crime Alley falling to hell.

The sun was rising by the time Jason arrived outside Jamie’s apartment. The light inside was on and her window was purposely unlocked. Jason opened it and moved through, easily spotting the women on the couch, three steaming cups of tea on the coffee table.

Jamie smiled, looking relieved to see him. “Thanks for coming.”

Jason waved it off, burying his mess of emotions deep down. The other woman was sitting on the couch by Jamie, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped stiffly around herself. She was trembling slightly and the side of her face was a mottled mess of bruises. Her eyes kept darting to Jason fearfully and she was rather pale.

He took a wide loop around her to the open armchair, not wanting her to feel caged in. “That for me?” he asked Jamie, nodding to the third cup of tea.

Jamie smiled. “Stinging nettle again.”

“Nice. Worked pretty damn well last time,” he said, using the tea as an excuse to remove his helmet. It’d help the other woman relax a little, and if both hands were occupied by the teacup, it would seem less likely he’d suddenly pull a weapon. “So what can I do for you ladies?” he asked, lounging back in the armchair with his tea.

“I—I need,” the woman started and faltered. “Jamie said you help people,” she finally managed.

“When I can,” Jason replied shortly, because he was feeling a little bitter about it at the moment. Helping people was why he was currently trapped in Gotham. Helping people was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. Just had to go save the damn planet, had to let the damn planet eater feed off of his memories. Look how well that turned out for him.

The woman sniffed a little. “Could—could you help me?” she asked, and looked so damn desperate that something in Jason just gave up. He needed time to figure out how to get out of Gotham without everything falling to pieces anyway. He could help her while he was at it.

Jason abruptly felt utterly disgusted with himself—he was such a goddamn sap.

“Yeah, I can help you,” Jason promised her, just barely managing to keep the resignation out of his tone. “What’s your name?”

“Maggie Wilson,” she replied.

“What’s your problem, Maggie?”

“His name is Douglass Cooley. I live in an apartment on Twentieth Street, and he bought it a few months ago. And a couple other apartment buildings too. And, he’s been making everyone pay extra rent. For insurance, he says. But really, it’s just a cheap protection racket. People who can’t pay have sudden “accidents”. My husband ran off a while ago and I’ve got two kids to look after. I’ve been trying, but I just can’t come up with all the money he wants.”

“He do that to you?” Jason asked, nodding to the side of her face.

Maggie grimaced. “His “nephew”. Pushed me down the stairs. Claimed it was an accident, but he did it in front of my kids. They’re terrified. I am too,” she admitted. “He’s given me another week, but if I can’t pay, I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

Single mother with kids just trying to make it through the week—Jason couldn’t have said no even if he tried. He really was a sap. “I’ll take care of it,” Jason promised. “You’ve got a week; just relax, enjoy Christmas with your kids, and I’ll have Cooley handled before your deadline is up. I promise. In the meantime, here’s my work number. If he tries anything else, call me immediately.”

Maggie looked like she was about to cry from sheer relief. “Thank you so much.”

“Your kids have any Christmas presents?”

“I put some money away, but I had to use it to buy another week.”

Jason pulled some bills out of his pocket and passed them to her before moving to the window. “Thanks for the tea, Jamie.”

“Anytime,” Jamie replied as he made his escape.

“Great. Just fucking great,” Jason grumbled to himself as he moved back to the rooftops and headed to his apartment, entering through his balcony as was his usual custom. It didn’t feel like the haven he’d been building it into, though. Instead it felt like a prison. Batman was back in Gotham and Jason couldn’t leave.

He couldn’t deal with this right now. He didn’t want to deal with this right now. So instead he focused himself on the more immediate problem of Douglass Cooley. It would be more easily fixed anyway. The main problem lay in the fact that Jason still wasn’t set up for this kind of work. He hadn’t returned to Gotham with the intention of getting back in the game. When he was here before, when he was here to screw Bruce over and kill the Joker, he’d come fully prepared. He set up shop, acquired all the tools and tech he needed, and he went at it seriously.

When Jason came back, he hadn’t planned on doing anything more than getting his head on straight. Letting familiar territory, places that were his, settle all the things that had been shaken loose in his mind. He really hadn’t planned on staying longer than it took Dr. Thompkins to find out what brought him back to life. That hadn’t panned out though and Jason ended up tied down instead.

Now he had work to do, but he lacked the tools and resources to do it. He didn’t trust that the main bases he’d operated out of before hadn’t been compromised by the Bats, so using his old equipment was a risk. Barbara was an option. Tim too. But could Jason get info from them without them turning around and telling Bruce exactly what he was up to? He loved Babs, but despite the almost amicable way they’d worked together with Donald, he doubted he was in her good graces after everything he pulled when he came back. If it was a choice between him and Bruce, Jason didn’t think she’d side with him. And he honestly didn’t know about Tim. He had no way of guaranteeing Bruce wouldn’t immediately know he was researching Cooley, and then Bruce would butt into Jason’s business, and no. Bruce had no more right to Jason’s life—any of it.

Jason collapsed on his couch, raking his hands through his hair. Maybe he didn’t really need resources to deal with Cooley. He could spend a few days watching the man, digging for what he could find without needing to hack too deep into the man’s financials. If the man had no real ties to anyone else, if he wasn’t working for anyone else, then he could deal with the issue directly without everything. He could terrify Cooley into signing over his properties and then get him arrested for whatever. He wasn’t a Bat, and he didn’t actually need to do this legally. He was not above planting evidence against the man and getting him arrested for something after he signed over his properties. He didn’t need the Bats or their intel to do the job.

But then what to do with the buildings once Cooley signed them over? Jason had no interest in being a landlord. They’d be just another thing trapping him in Gotham.

There was nothing for it. Jason texted Tim.

Jason: How does Wayne Enterprise feel about starting a few affordable housing programs in Crime Alley?

As usual, Tim’s reply was immediate. Tim: Depends on whether or not the properties are obtained legally.

Jason: Properties will be in the name of an alias—only illegal because I’m legally dead.

Tim: Under your “name” and then you sell them to WE?

Jason: For a steal. Profit will be evenly distributed to current tenants. The Wayne Foundation can use the properties to try out their new affordable housing program they’ve been developing. Tenants included.

Tim: I’m betting they’ll go for it.

Jason let out a breath. That was a start. And with it being designated as affordable housing, rent would be decided based upon individual income. They could probably even get a few more people off the street and into the buildings. He’d let Tim and the Wayne Foundation take over that project; it’d be good PR for them, the people wouldn’t have to pay more than they could afford, and it’d be off of Jason’s shoulders and one less thing he’d have to worry about when he did manage to get out of Gotham. Everybody wins. Everyone except Cooley, but fuck him. All he had to do was get Cooley to sign over the properties, and then it’d be a job well done.

Jason: Good. Keep B out of it and away from me. Everyone else too.

He tossed the phone to the couch, not interested in getting any further reply. Instead, he snatched up his despairingly civilian laptop and set up a few searches to get what he could on Cooley’s financials. That done, Jason had nothing more to distract him from the Bruce situation. And that wasn’t okay, because he couldn’t fucking handle it right now.

He was tired, but there was no way he’d be able to sleep. Not with Bruce and the conundrum of how to get out of Gotham. He changed into some raggedy sweatpants and a tank top, but he felt antsy being out of his armor, and he couldn’t just sit still and wait for his searches to finish.

“Fuck it,” Jason grumbled, turning to the pile of cabinets and counter tops waiting to be installed in his kitchen. He needed something to do with his hands, and it was as good an option as anything. He’d already done all the research and discussed everything intensively with Bill. He’d gotten another circular saw, he had all the equipment and the tools. He knew what to do and it was better than sitting there agonizing over things he had no way of changing.

Jason moved to the kitchen and started pulling everything out of his cabinets. He always thought better when he had something to do with his hands anyway. He shut everything about Bruce and Cooley out of his brain and let his mind drift between the task at hand and possible options that would allow him to get out of Gotham and keep all his people safe.

After the cabinets were cleared, he grabbed the electric screwdriver and started removing them from the wall. He was careful with the screws, stashing them away so he could reuse them when he went to install the new cabinets. They fit the lead anchors already imbedded in the brick, and Jason was keeping the same cabinet placement, so he wouldn’t need to drill any new holes or install new anchors. It was awkward work to do alone. He had to be able to brace the cabinet while he removed all the screws, and when he went to install the new cabinets, he had to use crates to prop the cabinet up at the right height for him to secure it. And he had to make sure it was perfectly level. It would have been much easier with Tim or someone there to help him. But he didn’t want to talk about Bruce. He didn’t want to talk about anything really, so he left his phone where he’d tossed it on the couch and managed on his own.

It wasn’t too difficult once he figured out how to best prop up the cabinets. When he managed that, it went pretty quickly and then he was ready to take out the old sink and the countertops and lower cabinets. By the time he was unscrewing the lower cabinets and dragging them out to his balcony for some salvage people to pick up after Christmas, he was dirty and sweaty and the sun was steadily moving higher in the sky, but his mind was quiet and he felt calmer. Not so calm that he’d be able to sleep, but calm enough that he no longer felt the need to crawl out of his own skin just to get away. He wasn’t great, but for the moment he was coping and that was good enough.

Jason didn’t bother with the drawers and cabinet doors once he got all the cabinets secured in place. He’d need to wait until after he had the countertops and sink installed before he put the drawers back in and reattached the doors. The countertops and sink would be tricky. He had done all the measurements, and he had enough butcher block for the counter tops, but he’d have to make the cuts himself and he wanted to join the countertops at a forty-five degree angle in the corner instead of a ninety-degree angle. That would require precise measurements and smooth cuts, and Jason didn’t feel like tackling that first. The piece for the island was already cut though, so Jason turned his attention to it.

Before he secured it to the island, he had to sand it down with several different grades of sandpaper for the countertop to be perfectly smooth. It was time consuming, but the repetitive motions were calming and helped keep his mind quiet. When he was finished, he secured the butcher’s block to the island by drilling screws up through the top of the island. That done, he stood back and surveyed his work.

It looked good, he decided with a slight curl of his lips. Of course the drawers weren’t in, the cabinet doors weren’t on, and he still needed to seal the butcher’s block, but it looked good. Good enough that Jason wanted to get the rest of the countertops secured as well. Which meant he had to suck it up and start measuring for the cuts.

He also had to make the cuts for his new undermount, apron front sink. It was huge, but it came with a cutting template, so hopefully it wouldn’t be too complicated. Then he had to make cuts for where the two slabs of butcher’s block would meet at the corner. There were also the cuts for either side of his large range top stove and oven. By the time he was done cutting and sanding the rest of the countertops, he was hot, sweaty, and dirty with saw dust stuck to his clothes, skin and lightly dusting his hair. Most importantly though, he needed a smoke, which was how Alfred caught him smoking on his balcony in mid-December in sweatpants and a wife beater.

“Master Jason, honestly,” the older man declared in frustration. “It’s the dead of winter. Put on a coat at the very least. And dispose of the cigarette this instance.”

“Oh come on, Alfie,” Jason protested immediately. “I’m smoking it outside. You can’t complain about your lungs if I’m smoking outside. Besides, this is my apartment. I can smoke if I want to. Haven’t we been through this already?”

“Irrelevant,” Alfred declared shortly, plucking the cigarette out of Jason’s hand and ushering him inside. “And I can complain about the damage you are doing to your lungs. No smoking in my presence, Master Jason. Now come inside before you catch a cold.”

Jason snorted. “And here I thought you were going to say before I catch my death.”

Alfred gave him a look. “You are the only one who finds those comments amusing, Master Jason.” He then turned to survey Jason’s kitchen. “I see you’ve been keeping yourself busy. Your kitchen seems to be coming along. It will look very fine when it’s completed,” Alfred remarked. “Is your oven still functional?”

“Yeah, I haven’t ordered the new appliances yet. I turned the water off though. I have to install the sink before I secure the countertop over it.”

“It’s an undermount sink?” Alfred asked, looking pleasantly surprised. Jason pointed to where the sink was set out, waiting to be installed and Alfred nodded approvingly. “I think that will be quite lovely, Master Jason.”

Jason cracked a smile. “Yeah, I think so too. Thanks Alfie.” He might not want to see anyone else, but Alfred had always been an exception to so many of Jason’s rules. Besides Kori and Roy, Alfred’s company was the only company Jason felt like he could handle at the moment. It was hard though. Jason had no illusions about who would have his loyalty if it came down to it, but he still needed Alfred. Bruce had always wanted Jason to be another Dick, but Alfred was never like that. He never expected or wanted Jason to be anyone other than who he was—the old butler simply expected him to be the best that he could be. He had accepted him without complaint when Jason had desperately needed acceptance. Though he would rather cut out his own tongue than admit it out loud, he needed that acceptance just as desperately now. Especially since Bruce was home and was no doubt already harshly judging every little thing Jason touched.

Alfred slid a covered dish into the oven and turned it on, and Jason shook off the brooding thoughts. He rolled his eyes at Alfred and pointed out. “I am still capable of cooking for myself.”

“Yet you still refrain from doing so,” Alfred retorted immediately.

“I’ve been busy.”

“Indeed. Now, shall we see about installing your new sink?”

“You want to help?” Jason asked, surprised.

“I am capable of more than just cooking, cleaning, and pulling bullets out of troublesome vigilantes, Master Jason,” Alfred declared loftily as he took off his jacket and began to roll up the sleeves of his white dress shirt.

Jason hesitated, but only for a moment. He needed this, and just this once, he was going to let himself have it. He gave Alfred a small smirk. “Alright then.”

With Alfred’s help, he got the new sink installed and the water hooked up. They carefully secured the countertop around it, and used a waterproof caulk to seal the small space between the countertop and sink. Once they were done securing the rest of the counter tops, Jason mixed some of the saw dust with the wood paste and used that to fill the seam where the corners met. It was a tip Bill had given him—to make sure the seam blended well with the counters.

“Well, Master Jason, you won’t be washing dishes in your bathroom any longer,” Alfred said, looking over the sink in satisfaction.

Jason grinned. “Nope, got a giant kitchen sink for that now.”

“You’re not interested in a dishwasher?” Alfred asked.

“Eh,” Jason replied ambivalently. “It’s kind of an unnecessary cost in Crime Alley. More money, higher utility bill. And because there wasn’t one already, I’d have to figure out a way to hook it up to the water line, and that would mean tearing up the floor or something. I don’t really see the point.”

Alfred nodded. “I see. If you’d like to go ahead and attach the cabinet drawers and doors, I can start sealing the counter tops. Then, once you are finished, you can finish the seal and I’ll put away the contents of your kitchen.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jason said, pleased that he’d have everything finished by the late afternoon. He had to do several coats of the waterlox seal, and it required at least twelve hours to dry and another light sanding in between coats, so really it’d be a couple of days before it was officially complete, but that was just semantics.

“Master Bruce is back home,” Alfred remarked easily once he was rubbing in the seal and Jason was attaching doors.

Jason tensed dramatically, and Alfred rolled his eyes heavenward. “Dear lord, Master Jason. The two of you. I’m not asking you to come to the Manor or even to see him. I only bring it up because I’d like you to get used to the idea. I have greatly enjoyed being able to spend time with you again, and though it is selfish of me, I’d rather not have that change. I know where you stand with him. He let the Joker live after he’d taken your life, therefore, you feel like he chose the Joker over you. I assure you, he did not. He came very close to killing the Joker, but he didn’t in the end. He would have lost himself if he had. He very nearly lost himself anyway. You don’t understand what losing you did to him, Jason. Just like he doesn’t understand what being murdered by that monster did to you. But, can you really tell me that not taking a life when he had another option is an unforgiveable offense?”

Jason’s hands fisted on the cabinet door he’d been securing. “He would have done it for Dick,” he said quietly. “He’d do it for Damian.”

“Master Bruce does not love you all unequally, Master Jason,” Alfred stated, voice firm. “He would have been broken by Master Dick’s death, just like he was broken by yours. If he would do it for Master Damian, it is only because he’s lost so much already. Because he already suffered through the death of one son, he might not be able to bear the death of another. But I promise you, it wouldn’t be because he loves Damian more. He loves all of you. You’re all his sons, Jason.”

Jason finished screwing the door in place before he moved off the step-ladder and turned fully towards Alfred. “Even if that were true, and I’m not saying it is, because I don’t think I’m buying what you’re selling, Alfs. But even if you are right, there’s no way we can ever have that back again. The things I did to get to him, that doesn’t just go away. The way I work, what I’m willing to do to protect my people, the things I see as necessary, that’s not going to change either, and you know how he feels about it. And whether you agree or not, he did choose the Joker. He’s still choosing the Joker. We all know he’s going to break out of Arkham again eventually, and when he does, more people will die. How many people before it’s enough? I certainly wasn’t enough. And yeah, I get it now; Batman can’t kill, whatever. But, I’m not asking Bruce to do it anymore. I’m just asking him to let me. I’m not Batman. I can do what he can’t. Why won’t he just let me?”

Alfred stripped off the gloves he’d been wearing, moved over to Jason, and placed his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Don’t you understand, Master Jason?” he asked, looking up at Jason with a gentle expression. “You are worth too much to him for him to allow you to do that. He doesn’t want to keep you from killing the Joker because he wants the Joker alive. He wants to keep you from being a murderer. He wants you to have a life—to be whole and happy. He would never sacrifice you for that monster.”

Jason shook his head. “That ship has sailed, Alfie. I’ve killed a lot of people and never lost sleep over any of them. The ones I do lose sleep over are the ones that are still alive. I know what kind of person Bruce believes that makes me, and it’s not a person that fits into his family. But, I can’t ever be whole while he’s still alive. For as long as he lives, it’ll never be over, Alfred. Don’t you get that?”

Alfred squeezed his shoulders. “You are whole now, Jason. We all have our traumas. We have our scars. While they may still affect us, they have not overcome us. You’ve already triumphed over the Joker. He sought to break you and you came back even stronger. He would have had you go as mad as him, yet here you are building yourself a home and living your life with infinite compassion towards the helpless and abandoned. Can you not see how proud that would make your father? You’re doing so much good, and you care so strongly. He hates the Joker, but you are his son; he could never sacrifice you, no matter how much that monster deserves to die. After everything we’ve all been through, no one in this family deserves to have to do it.”

“I’d be happy to do it,” Jason retorted, clenching his jaw as he glanced to his windows, uncomfortable with the amount of emotion in Alfred’s gaze. “It wouldn’t be a sacrifice. I’d enjoy the hell out of it.”

“That may be, but at the very least, you killing the Joker would mean a trial. And though you’ve demonstrated you are perfectly capable of avoiding the law, I must confess we much prefer having you here unhindered. Having you free. This family has been through so much already. It doesn’t need to be torn any further.”

Jason shook his head, but could see there was no point arguing any further. “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, Alfie,” he replied, letting the tension fall away from his shoulders.

“I suppose that is fair enough,” Alfred replied, releasing his shoulders with a final squeeze. “Although I do think you and Master Bruce will need to have an actual conversation about these things eventually, unless you both plan to pretend the other doesn’t exist. I know repression is a familial trait, but it does get tiresome.”

Jason snorted. “Hey, pretending like he doesn’t exist sounds like a winning strategy to me. If he’ll go for it, I’m totally in.”

Alfred hummed disapprovingly. “I await the day some flashy Gotham villain creates a toxin that induces the victims into voicing every little thing they feel. When that day comes, I plan on tying every single one of you up and dosing you with it.”

Jason cackled, surprised but impressed. “Damn, that’s downright diabolical, Alfie.”

“Yet necessary, I fear. You are all hopeless on your own.”

“That’s why we have you,” Jason said, casting him a charming grin.

Alfred wasn’t impressed. “Indeed. Perhaps I could contract it out. Someone out there should be able to create the formula.”

“Let’s hope not,” Jason replied, returning to his step-ladder, intending to move on to the next cabinet.

Alfred interrupted him. “Oh, the casserole smells ready. Perhaps we should break for an afternoon meal. Judging by your state when I arrived, I somehow doubt you managed to eat breakfast or lunch. Heaven knows you didn’t sleep.”

“I’m a big boy, Al. Capable of making my own poor life choices.”

“Go clear the table. I’ll find us some dishes,” Alfred directed, and really what else could Jason do but hurry off to follow his orders. Batman may have been the one to train and condition them, but it was Alfred who had them all wrapped around his fingers. That was okay, though. If there was one person in the world that Jason trusted with his life and well-being, it was Alfred Pennyworth.

“Hey,” Jason said solemnly. Alfred turned, giving Jason his full attention. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen now that he’s back, but I’ve liked being able to hang out with you too. If I do end up leaving Gotham, I promise I’ll keep in touch.”

Alfred’s expression softened and he moved forward, surprising Jason as he wrapped his arms around him in a hug. “I will hold you to that, Master Jason. Thank you.”

Jason stood stunned for a moment, before he allowed himself to settle and wrap his arms around Alfred in return.

Alfred didn’t immediately release him, and when he spoke again, his voice was a little strained. “I know it hasn’t always seemed like it, Master Jason—and I’m sorry that it hasn’t—but you are loved. You are cared for. And you were sorely, sorely missed. I can not express to you how much. I am so, so glad to have you back again.”

Jason’s throat tightened and he swallowed thickly squeezing his eyes shut to ward off any tears. Unable to speak, he simply nodded.

Alfred released him and patted his shoulder gently before turning back to the oven. Jason pretended like he didn’t see the old man dabbing at the corners of his eyes, and Alfred graciously didn’t mention the way Jason’s hands trembled slightly as he cleared off the table. By the time the table was set, they were both fully composed once more.

Chapter Text

Jason woke up because there was someone in his apartment. More accurately, someone had been in his apartment for some time, which meant it was someone he was comfortable enough with that his body had kept sleeping. That left two options, and since Roy had been very excitedly talking about his Christmas Day plans with Dinah for days now, that left his other teammate.

“Kori,” he spoke, knowing she would hear him. Sure enough, she was there a moment later, gripping him by the shoulders and yanking him off of his mattress and up into the air for a tight hug.

“Whoa!” Jason declared, because he’d barely woken up and he slept only in boxers. But Kori knew that about him already. They’d often had very close quarters on missions. It was a good thing he had high ceilings, he thought idly as he returned the mid-air hug.

“Jason,” she spoke, voice full of warmth and delight. “I’ve missed you.”

“You too, Princess,” he spoke honestly, holding her tight. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were coming by.”

She returned them to solid ground and released him from the hug, “I’ve lived on this planet long enough to understand that Christmas is a very special holiday that should be spent with family. Though the holiday doesn’t mean much to me, I did not like the idea of you not being with family today. So here I am. Also, Roy told me you have a present for me.”

Jason grinned amused. “Sure do. How long have you been here?”

“An hour. You looked tired. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“You didn’t try to cook, did you?” Jason was almost afraid to hear the answer, but Kori just rolled her eyes and replied.

“No, I did not.”

“Well then I’ll make us some breakfast,” Jason replied, grabbing some clothes off the floor to pull on.

Kori made a pleased noise as she led the way out of his room. “I’ve missed your food almost as much as I’ve missed you.”

“I’m flattered,” Jason replied but then stopped short. “Whoa,” he said again, surveying the absolutely giant TV that had apparently swallowed his old one

“Roy’s present,” Kori replied with a smile. “It’s necessary for our Christmas plans. I got everything set up while you were asleep.”

“How on Earth did Roy afford this?” Jason asked, because while they’d been traveling around as the Outlaws, Roy had gotten most of his money by conning it out of Jason. He hadn’t touched any of his trust fund money, but Talia had been generous in what she called “compensation” and Jason had plenty of dirty money lying around.

“Queen,” Kori replied smiling. “He was quite pleased with himself.”

Jason grinned wide; Oliver Queen had bought him a giant ass TV. “Nice.”

Kori nodded before admitting. “I may have singed him a bit while on the Watchtower. That’s when J’onn suggested I visit with the Titans.”

Jason laughed happily. “Oh man, I would have loved to see that.”

“He’s a fool who deserves much worse.”

“Not arguing,” Jason agreed, pulling some eggs and veggies out of the refrigerator. Kori liked omelets, but she liked them with a whole slew of strange ingredients. He wouldn’t touch one of her omelets, but he had no problem making them for her.

“You’ve made progress on your nest,” she remarked, looking around.

“Not you too,” Jason groaned.

Kori smiled. “Roy’s humor is amusing at times.”

“You’re a sucker for it; don’t lie,” Jason pointed out. Because as much as Kori was a badass queen amongst women—and he did not mean because she was a princess of a planet, he meant actual bonafide queen—as much as Kori was a warrior queen capable of striking terror into mere mortal men, she was an absolute softie when it came to the people she loved, especially Roy. She could squash him like a bug, but would never even try. It was rather endearing.

“He is occasionally adorable,” she allowed.

“Very occasionally,” Jason agreed. “Most of the time he’s just a hassle.”

“Yet he is your best friend,” Kori retorted, calling him out, and that was only fair because he’d called her out too.

“Yeah, he is, God help me,” Jason replied, making a face.

Kori laughed at his struggle before speaking, “I have a present for you as well. It’s already under your dead tree,” she smiled.

Jason smiled back, excited. “You do?”

“You’ll like it,” she assured him.

“I’m sure I will. So what are these plans that require I have a giant ass TV?”

Kori smiled. “I’ve copied all of Love Across Galaxies.”

Jason blinked. “Which is?”

“The most popular television show in at least three galaxies. I’ve heard very good things.”

Jason grinned wide. “Yeah?”

Koriand’r smiled in response. “Yes.”

“I adore you,” Jason declared fervently and Kori looked incredibly pleased herself. He’d gotten hooked on Kori’s space soap operas while they’d all been living on her ship. He’d never had a TV as a kid, and he hadn’t had much time for popular culture when living on the streets. He’d missed out on a lot of TV, music, and movies. He hadn’t caught up all that much while being Robin. A night life of crime fighting didn’t leave much time for that stuff either. And then he’d been dead and there was none of that when he was stuck with Ra’s, and very little when he was doing his revenge march through Gotham. Once the Outlaws got together, Roy took Jason’s pop culture education very seriously. He was constantly introducing Jason to shows and movies and music and shit. It was Kori’s space shows that had really hooked him though, and he and Kori watched them together all the time. Roy would join them occasionally, but he never really got into them. It was a thing between Kori and Jason.

“I also brought intergalactic junk food.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Jason declared and they settled onto the battered couch. Four hours later, they’d barely moved but there was a plethora of trash around them and they were arguing the nuances of inter-species relationships.

“It’s doomed to failure,” Kori said for the third time. “He is X’mar and she is Zimidian. Their romance can’t endure.”

“Bullshit! It’s true love, Kori. Don’t be racist!” Jason declared fervently, because nothing would ever convince him that K’thar and Zanda weren’t absolutely meant to be. He was very invested in their romance.

“It’s not racism, Jason,” Kori protested immediately. “They are different species. Their species are anatomically incompatible!”

“It’s true love,” he stressed again, because Kori clearly wasn’t getting it. “They love each other! They can get past the physical aspect. He doesn’t even care about that anyway—he just wants to be with her.”

“They’re biologically incompatible too,” Kori argued. “His life span is a fraction of hers. He will have a full life with his love but she will suffer his loss for a century.”

“A century of happiness for a century of pain,” Jason countered. “Not a bad trade for your soul mate.”

Kori sighed in exasperation. “It makes no sense,” she declared again.

“It’s love; it doesn’t have to make sense,” Jason retorted. “Think of Roy. We love Roy. Tell me; where’s the sense in that?” he demanded.

Kori’s mouth twisted in a frown. “I see your point,” she eventually decided. But before Jason could celebrate his victory, she added, “However, romantic love is far more binding. Our love for Roy is different.”

“My love is. I’m not always sure about yours,” Jason retorted. Because, while Roy and Kori were technically dating, Kori still was skittish involving any type of real commitment, claiming the culture of her home planet as the cause. Jason silently thought it was all bullshit—an excuse Kori was using to maintain distance after being burned by her relationship with Dick. They didn’t talk about it much, but Jason suspected Roy thought the same.

Kori scowled. “It’s Christmas. We are not discussing this.”

Jason held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. K’thar and Zanda are still soulmates though, and there’s nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise.”

“It will end in tragedy,” Kori retorted.

Jason shrugged. “Well, with the way Zanda’s sister is trying to sabotage the relationship, probably.”

“She reminds me of my sister,” Kori replied darkly.

“They do share some of the same crazy bitch tendencies, yeah,” Jason agreed.

Kori smirked at him in amusement, before turning her attention to his Christmas tree. “Shall we open presents before we continue?”

“You can’t stand it any longer, can you?” Jason asked, amused.

“No. I would like my present,” she declared, moving from the couch. “And I would like to give you yours.”

“Yours is the red one on top,” Jason said, waving his hand over towards the Christmas tree.

Kori grabbed it and a long plain box before returning to the couch. She surveyed her wrapped present in delight and handed the plain box to Jason. “Merry Christmas, Jason,” she smiled.

“Merry Christmas, Kori,” he replied, holding the present in his lap as he watched her tear the paper off with great enthusiasm. Jason spent a hundred thousand dollars of drug lord money on a diamond necklace, because Kori was a queen amongst women and she deserved nice things. He also framed a selfie Roy had taken of the three of them on Jason’s phone, because while a total badass queen, Kori was also secretly sentimental.

“Jason, they are wonderful!” she declared, sweeping him up into a crushing hug. She clipped the necklace on and held the framed photo in her hands with a smile. It had been right after a battle and they were all looking a little ragged. There was a raging fire in the background and grins on all of their faces. Jason had had to ditch his helmet because it partially shattered, but he’d gotten to blow a large complex and his grin was sharp. That was the day he’d finally started to think of the three of them as a team. He hadn’t even minded when Roy snatched his phone and demanded they take a selfie of the three of them and the fire.

“Thank you,” she smiled at him earnestly. “Did you make a copy for yourself as well?”

He rolled his eyes fondly. “And one for Roy. That was part of your present.”

She smiled, pleased. “You will have to put in shelves—a place to prominently display your copy.”

“I’ll add it to the list for when I finally get around to replacing the furniture.”

She nodded, satisfied, and indicated the box in his lap. “Your turn.”

Jason opened the box to find a strange, alien gun. He grinned wide. “Kori, you know me so well.”

She smiled happily. “It’s a modified Tamaraanean design with two settings. The first causes a very large amount of destruction and is lethal. However, since I know you are trying to follow Superman’s rules for the time being, there is a non-lethal setting as well. It must be very painful—the man I tested it on screamed very loudly,” she declared, showing him the setting on the gun that changed it from lethal to not. “I thought maybe you’d like to use the non-lethal setting on Batman,” she added with a smirk.

Jason’s grin grew ever wider. “I would love nothing more. Thanks, Kori. This is great.”

“I’m pleased you like it,” she said with a happy smile. “The USB drive in the box contains details of the designs since I know you like to understand how things work.”

“Thanks Princess. What’d you get Roy?” he asked curiously.

“Concert tickets for that band he likes. Unfortunately, I will have to accompany him,” she replied. “You?”

“All the details I remember about the Fortress of Solitude from the Bat-computer and black market kryptonite.”

“You’re encouraging him!” Kori declared, appalled. “Though I don’t particularly care for him, Superman is not an enemy we need, Jason. I can’t believe you.”

Jason shrugged, unrepentant. “Superman pissed me off.”

“And that’s reason enough to aid Roy in his ridiculous quest to rob the Fortress of Solitude?” she asked with a disapproving look.

“He really pissed me off,” Jason replied, and something in his expression must have shown just how badly, because she sighed in resignation. He continued, “Come on, Kori; Roy doesn’t mean any harm. Besides, you know he does better when he has a project. The last few months haven’t been easy on any of us, and he’s dealt with a lot of shit from Ollie in the meantime. What’s the harm in letting him have a little fun and letting me get a little revenge?”

“I am not breaking into the Fortress of Solitude,” she declared firmly.

“You don’t have to,” Jason agreed easily. “The two of us should be able to manage on our own. It’s easier to get into than the Bat-Cave. Once you manage to get there at least.”

She gave him a look. “I know you two. Somehow you’ll manage to talk me into it, and then I’ll have to suffer through whatever self-righteous lecture Superman delivers when we get caught. We just got out of trouble with the Justice League. I am displeased. However, I am stopping by Star City to see him on my way back to the Titans, and I will deliver his present for you.”

Jason smirked. “Thanks, Kori.”

“What about the remaining presents?” Kori asked him, looking at the presents left under his tree. “Who are they for?”

Jason sighed. “Me. From Alfred, Dick, and Tim.”

“Are you going to open them?” she asked curiously.

Jason didn’t really want to, but he didn’t really want to leave them there under his tree either. They’d been staring him down ever since Alfred dropped them off. If he opened them, he wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore. He sighed and pulled them out from under the tree before returning to the couch. He opened Alfred’s first because it was least likely to piss him off. Whatever was in the box was neatly wrapped up in tissue paper, and there was a card lying on the top. Jason picked it up and read.

Jason,

Since it is already December and you have yet to pick up some weather appropriate clothing, I thought I would assist you in this endeavor. Since I know you, none of the items in this box are very expensive. You will find no cashmere, however, the woolen sweaters are quite warm. I hope you find everything to your liking, and do try to keep warm. Merry Christmas, Master Jason.

-Love Alfred

Jason set the card gently aside and moved the tissue paper to find three thick wool sweaters in dark red, dark blue, and dark green, a scarf, a pair of gloves, and a pair of earmuffs. Jason chuckled at the present and pulled out his phone to text Alfred.

Jason: Thanks for the clothes, Mom.

Alfred: Do try to make use of them. And thank you very much for the tea. How you managed to find my favorite Chinese tea in Gotham, I will never know.

Jason: My secret, Al. Merry Christmas.

“These are quite handsome,” Kori said, inspecting the red sweater. “You should try them on.”

“It’s plenty warm in here already,” Jason retorted, but Kori shoved it at his face.

“It’s your Christmas present. Put it on,” she declared authoritatively. Jason sighed and did what she demanded, slipping it on over his t-shirt. It was rather cozy, he decided.

Kori smiled. “Very handsome.”

“Thanks, Kor,” he said before picking up Tim’s present. He ripped it open quickly and was rather surprised to find an extremely high-tech laptop.

There was a messily scribbled note on top and Jason snatched it up.

Jay,

I have no idea how you’re managing to get anything done with that outdated civilian laptop of yours, but hopefully this helps. I’ve built some backdoors into the GCPD databases so you’ll have access to anything they’ve got without them knowing. I would have given you access to the Bat-computer too, but there’s no way I would have been able to do that without Bruce being able to find the connection and trace it back. I figured you would rather go without than have that, but the GCPD files should be good enough to get you going with whatever you need.

Merry Christmas!

Tim

“Huh,” Jason remarked, inspecting the laptop skeptically.

“What?” Kori asked.

“Just trying to determine whether or not baby bird would have built himself a back door into the laptop so he could see whatever I’m researching. It’d make it way more convenient to keep an eye on me and Tim kind of fancies himself my babysitter right now. He’s really good at this stuff. I’m good too, but not good enough to find him if he inserted himself into the system.”

Which meant Jason had better not risk using it for anything he didn’t want the Bats to know about. He firmly set the laptop aside.

Kori sighed and shook her head. “Richard was also paranoid.”

“Yeah, yeah. We’re all paranoid, secretive bastards. I blame Batman.”

“I do too,” she replied. “A father is supposed to love his children—not teach them to be suspicious of him and their own brothers.”

“To be fair we’re not really brothers,” Jason replied. “And I don’t mean just because of blood either. Dick wasn’t interested in being family with me when I was there, and then I died. When I came back I wasn’t interested in being brothers with any of them. They may be a family, but they’re not my family. You are,” he said, looking Kori in the eyes. “You and Roy.”

Her expression softened as she nodded. “Yes, we are family. But I believe they’re your family too.” She held up her hand when Jason started to protest. He stopped and let her continue. “They may not have been a good family to you, and they absolutely don’t deserve you. However, I do believe that they’re trying, and there’s no shame in giving them another chance if that is what you wish. There’s also no shame in denying them that chance.” Her words were soft and Jason thought of her sister and how she’d sold Kori into slavery and betrayed her again and again. He thought of how despite everything, Kori still wanted things to be right between them. She meant what she said. “It is up to you to decide what you want. But, if you do decide to give them another chance, even though they don’t deserve you, and they destroy that chance, Roy and I will stand with you and punish them for it,” she declared fiercely. And Jason knew she meant that too. She’d pick up a sword and declare war on Batman with one word from Jason.

A warm feeling pooled in his gut. “You too, Kori. You ever want to go to war with Tamaraan, we’ll be right there beside you.”

She smiled. “Because we’re family.”

“Because we’re family,” he agreed softly as he thought through her words.

Feeling a little numb, he picked up the present from Dick, and was rather surprised to find it was a box of various Wonder Woman attire. Jason immediately thought back to his time as Robin and one of the few positive interactions he’d had with Dick. Dick and Bruce had still mostly been fighting, but Dick had helped out on a couple of things, and though he hadn’t even made the effort to get to know Jason before then, they’d somehow ended up in a conversation about the Justice League. Dick had wanted to know what he thought about Superman, and Jason had ended up confessing that the only member of the Justice League he had been star struck by so far was Wonder Woman. Dick had laughed and teased a little, but had ultimately agreed that Wonder Woman was very impressive. It was one of the few conversations they’d had that didn’t end with Dick being cold and resentful or Jason being loud and resentful.

Jason fingered one of the t-shirts thoughtfully. He wasn’t really surprised that Dick remembered that conversation, and it was rather obvious what he was trying to say with the present. Seemed he was pretty stuck on trying out this brother thing again, if Jason would let him.

Kori’s hand dipped into the box and pulled out a scrap of paper before handing it to him.

He sighed a little as he opened it up.

Little Wing,

I’m betting Wonder Woman is still the only member of the JL that impresses you, so here’s some t-shirts. However, Bruce happens to find her impressive too, so he won’t mind if he sees you wearing one. If you really want to piss him off, let him catch you wearing the Superman t-shirt. There’s one at the bottom of the stack. Merry Christmas, little brother! Hope you’re having a great day!

Dick

Jason frowned at the note—he wouldn’t be touching the Superman shirt anytime soon; he was still pissed. Dick was right about the other part though—he absolutely still found Wonder Woman very impressive, and if he was going to be completely honest, he was still a little star struck by her. And why wouldn’t he be? She kicked ass. She was also not afraid of doing what it took to get things done. Yeah, she followed the no kill rule while working with the Justice League, but she had absolutely no problem killing and would do it when necessary. So of course Jason thought she was awesome. He would proudly wear Wonder Woman t-shirts and pajama pants.

However… “Does accepting the present mean I’m accepting him? Because I really want these,” Jason admitted, looking to Kori for help.

“It’s a gift,” Kori replied. “It’s not meant to come with conditions or obligations. If you like them, keep them and wear them. That doesn’t mean you have to keep him.”

Jason sighed. It was complicated. Maybe even more so because Kori had been engaged to Dick at one point in time. She knew him well and knew what he was like. “I don’t want to give him another chance,” he admitted to Kori.

“Then don’t; as I said, Jason, he doesn’t deserve you. None of them do.”

Which was true, in a way. At least as far as Dick, Bruce, and Damian went. Dick had wanted nothing to do with Jason when Bruce took him in. He hadn’t been a brother or even a friend, really. He’d been an ally and at times, a reluctant one. He’d pointedly kept his distance from Jason, which made it sting even more that he apparently immediately accepted Tim. And then there was Bruce who left him unavenged, who replaced him with a better model, who reduced his time as Robin to a cautionary tale. To “this is what happens when you’re impulsive. This is what will happen if you don’t do as I say.” It made Jason’s lip curl in disgust just thinking about it. Then there was Damian who clearly wanted nothing to do with the failed street rat Robin and let his scorn be freely known. So yeah, they didn’t deserve his time.

But, and Jason would only admit to this in the privacy of his own mind, maybe he didn’t really deserve them either. He’d taken shots at all of them. He hadn’t actively been trying to kill Damian or Dick, but he had made them hurt. Tim he’d actually tried to kill in cold blood, and he’d never really done anything to deserve it. As justified as going after Bruce had been in Jason’s mind, nothing he’d done to him was justified. Tim hadn’t ever done anything wrong. Not really, anyway. He would have killed him. He would have robbed Dick and Damian of a brother. So yeah, they didn’t deserve Jason, but he didn’t really deserve them either.

So why on Earth were Tim and Dick even pushing this brother thing so hard? It didn’t make sense. They’d be so much better off just going their separate ways. But no, they had to dig into his life and his business like it was their fucking jobs.

Abruptly, Jason dropped the clothes back in the box and shoved it away. He didn’t feel like dealing with it anymore. He could figure it out later.

Kori smiled at him. “We haven’t finished our junk food or our TV marathon.”

Jason nodded, settling back on the couch. He dropped his feet down on the coffee table. “You’re right. Ten bucks says Zanda’s sister makes a move on K’thar.”

“You’re on. She’s clearly going to forge communication to K’thar from Zanda stating that she never wants to see him again.”

Jason grinned. “Prepare to lose, Kori. I rock at this game.”

“It will be you who will lose,” Kori declared haughtily.

An hour later they stared at the TV in confusion. “Okay, so we were both right. What does that mean?”

“It means we double down,” Kori declared fervently. They spent the next few hours making increasingly more detailed bets. By the time Jason needed to go to the warehouse for the catering companies to deliver the food, five hundred dollars had swapped hands, yet they’d both broken even. It might have been the best Christmas he’d ever had.

Chapter Text

Jason watched with a smirk as the kids excitedly stuffed their faces with the catered Christmas dinner. All the food was kid friendly, and there was plenty of it. The kids were all grouped on blankets, eating and chatting happily. Kori decided to string up Christmas lights from the rafters and he used Christmas as an excuse to add a couple of heaters and replace the blankets, pillows and sleeping bags with fresh ones. Wilkes also arranged a donation of clothes, shoes, and coats that she’d dropped off in boxes earlier. They weren’t Christmas gifts in the traditional sense, but everyone was accounted for, everyone was warm and dry, and everyone was well on their way to being stuffed with a real, hot Christmas dinner. By the standards he knew these kids were used to, it was pretty damn good day. Jason even got a smile out of Wilkes when she saw the Christmas lights and the vast array of food and didn’t even ask where he’d gotten the money. And he was still riding high from the visit from Kori, so despite all the shit with Bruce and Superman, he was amazingly content.

“I want to go up there,” Lisa spoke suddenly, and Jason tilted his head to see her pointing up to the high rafters.

“You do, huh?” he asked, amused.

“Looks high,” she answered. “I want to try it.”

“Okay,” Jason replied easily.

She bounced on his back in excitement, and Jason smiled, happy to see her at ease. He moved to one of the tables the food was laid out on and snagged a couple of cookies before he pulled his grapple gun from his belt. “Hold on, carrot-top.”

Jason could feel the nervous excitement in her limbs as they tightened around him. She let out a loud squeal as they launched into the air that turned into a giggle as he pulled them onto the highest rafter. He tried to pull her from his back to settle her beside him, but she just squeezed him tighter.

He chuckled. “Easy, kid, you’re going to choke me. Come on, sit beside me. I’m not going to let you fall. There you go,” he coaxed, gently settling her beside him on the rafter. She quickly threw her tiny little arms around his waist and held on tightly. Jason held up a cookie in front of her face, waving it enticingly. “You’ll need at least one hand to eat this.”

“It’s really high,” she protested.

Jason nodded. “Yeah, it’s pretty high, but I told you; I won’t let you fall. I got you. So relax and eat your cookie.”

One little hand stayed fisted in the back of his leather jacket, but the other hand slowly released him to take the cookie. It took her a few minutes, but eventually she loosened up a little and giggled.

“Nice, huh?” Jason asked, smirking.

She nodded vigorously.

Jason smiled and ruffled her dirty, red hair. “Merry Christmas, carrot-top.”

She nodded again.

Jason wasn’t at all surprised when he felt a presence at the window. They’d been giving him space, but he didn’t really expect Tim and Dick to let him get through Christmas day without seeing them. They hadn’t moved in yet, likely not wanting to startle Lisa. He was grateful for the consideration, even if he wasn’t particularly thrilled by the visitors.

“We got company, kiddo,” Jason said, pointing towards the window. She turned her head cautiously and Tim took that as permission to enter. He wasn’t alone either. Dick, Damian, and the Black Bat were with him. Jason did his best not to tense. Lisa would feel it and it would make her edgy, which was not a good thing when she was up so high.

“This looks festive,” Tim greeted cheerfully as he looked at all the lights.

Jason shrugged and replied blandly. “It’s Christmas.”

“We come bearing a late Christmas dinner,” Dick declared, and Jason noticed a bag slung over his shoulder that was undoubtedly filled with containers of food. “Courtesy of Agent A.”

“Thought we’d have a sibling dinner,” Tim said cheerfully. “We’ve got a heater set up on the roof.”

Jason sighed at the fact that Tim had bypassed his motion detectors. Again. “Oh joy,” he retorted flatly and just barely managed not to tense up as Black Bat, Cassandra Cain, moved close and sat down beside Lisa. The two watched each other curiously, tilting their heads slightly at each other, managing to look remarkably like birds. He did not like for one second that Lisa was between him and Cain. He knew her history—scary, deadly daughter of two assassins. He’d seen footage of her fight, though he’d never met her in person. He knew how deadly she was and there was a very large part of him that wanted to pick Lisa up and settle her on the other side of him so that he would be between the young girl and the assassin. He settled for giving Cain a hard glare that told her exactly what he’d do if she made any move to hurt the girl.

Cain met his gaze for a moment, acknowledging the warning. It didn’t make Jason relax any, and he watched carefully as Cain’s eyes tilted back down to Lisa.

“I’m Black Bat,” she declared suddenly.

“I’m Lisa, but he calls me carrot-top,” the little girl replied, poking at Jason’s side. Surprisingly hard too. He swatted her fingers away lightly.

“Nice to meet you,” Cain said seriously.

“Do you fight bad guys too?” Lisa asked. Cain nodded and the little redhead seemed very intrigued.

“Cool,” she declared.

“Very cool,” Cain agreed. Her expression hadn’t changed at all and Jason found it a little unsettling.

“Well, dinner?” Dick asked cheerfully, breaking whatever weirdness was occurring between Cain and Lisa. Lisa turned to look up at him curiously as they all waited for Jason’s response. He gave the Bats measuring looks. He wasn’t in the mood for a warm and cozy family dinner, but he had a feeling that if he wanted Alfred’s marvelous Christmas dinner, he’d have to put up with them. And they’d managed to catch him in a pretty decent mood.

“I want back down,” Lisa abruptly decided, breaking Jason from his train of thought.

“Do you now?” Jason asked looking back down at her.

She nodded seriously. “The cookies are down there.”

Jason smirked. “Yeah, I guess they are. Alright,” he said, sliding her back onto his back. “You thought getting up here was fun? Getting down will be even better. Hold on tight, carrot-top,” he said, standing on the rafter.

Her little limbs tightened around him and Jason grinned and leapt, laughing at her high-pitched squeal. She was light and he adapted to the extra weight on his back quickly. He took a much more convoluted path down than usual, adding in unnecessary flips and swinging using the grapple gun at one point, just to make it more fun for the little girl, who was giggling in delight by the time they reached the ground.

Jason chuckled as she climbed down him and jumped up and down in front of him, speaking in a quick rush that he didn’t quite understand. He got the general gist though—it was fun, they’d be doing it again, etc.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, Princess. Go get your cookies,” he told her, ruffling her hair again.

She bounded off in Alex’s direction to make sure the he had seen the acrobatics. Jason took a moment to breathe before making his way back up to the rafters. He always felt like he had to brace himself whenever there was more than one of them around, and at the moment, he had the whole damn crew.

Tim, Damian and Cain were already making their way out the window by the time Jason reached the top rafter, but Dick was waiting for him.

“Are we going to eat or not, Grayson?” Jason asked, when Dick made no move to head out after the others.

“We are, but I was hoping we could talk first,” Dick said, hesitantly. “Tim said you were mad.”

“Well he is the better detective,” Jason replied flatly, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared Dick down.

Dick frowned. “I don’t want this to be how things are between us, Jason. I didn’t mean to make you mad; I was just worried. Going up against Maroni on your own was dangerous. I was upset because I didn’t want something to happen to you.”

Jason glared. “You have no right to tell me how to do my job, Dick. None of you do. I don’t work under Batman; I don’t follow his rules. I’m not one of you. You don’t get to act like a concerned big brother—not when you never bothered before.”

Dick jolted a little. “That’s not fair.”

Jason scoffed. “Seriously? Of course it’s fair, Dick. You weren’t a brother to me when I was in the family. Why do you get to act like one now that I’m not?”

Dick grimaced. “Look, I know I screwed up. Damn it, Jason, I know that. But no matter what your relationship with Bruce is like, you are still our brother. So just… please let me try and be a better one than I was before.”

“What’s the point?” Jason asked. “You’ve got them,” he said pointing up at the roof. “You didn’t need me then, you definitely don’t need me now. And it’s not like me being in Gotham is permanent anyway, so why even bother?” he asked, echoing the questions he’d asked a couple of weeks before.

“For one, I owe you,” Dick replied. “I was a sucky brother, and you deserved so much better. But mostly, I want to get to know the person you are now—the guy who takes in homeless kids, and saves the whole damn planet and doesn’t even advertise it. I know the kind of man you are, Jason. You care, and you fight for the people that get left behind. I know that you’re strong and good and stubborn as hell, but I don’t really know you. I have no idea what you like to do, or what kind of music, movies or books you like. I don’t know what makes you laugh besides your awful, inappropriate, “I died” jokes. I don’t know anything about the people in your life besides Roy and Kori. I don’t know you, but I want to. You’re a good man that I’m lucky to call a brother. So please just give me a chance.”

Jason stared at Dick skeptically. “I tried to kill Tim,” he pointed out. “I tried to kill Bruce. I would have too. I almost did, Dick.”

“Are you going to try again?” Dick asked, like it was that simple.

“Not Tim, but Bruce and I kind of have an explosive relationship,” Jason replied wryly.

Dick grinned wide. “That was a joke, right? Cause you died in an explosion and then you tried to blow him up? See? I’m learning already. Come on, Little Wing. What do you say?”

“That this is a colossally bad idea. All of this family crap.”

“Then you should be on board, right?” Dick teased.

Jason glared, not even slightly amused. “Look, Dick. There is only one way that you and I will manage any sort of relationship, and that’s if you tread lightly. I tell you to back off, you back the fuck off. I tell you to get out of my business, then you get the hell out of my business. Don’t push and don’t tell me how to do my job or what to do. No one gets to make me do anything I don’t want to do. Trust me, Ra’s al Ghul tried for two fucking years. It didn’t work for him, it’s not going to work for you.”

Dick nodded seriously. “You can out-stubborn anybody except for maybe Bruce himself. Trust me, Jay, I know. And I’ll try, okay? I’m bound to screw up every now and then, but I swear I’ll try.”

“Okay,” Jason allowed, surprising himself.

“Okay?” Dick asked, also surprised, but he perked up in a hopeful puppy dog kind of way.

Jason groaned and ran a hand over his, face. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. “Yeah. Fine. Okay.”

Dick grinned wide and threw his arms open as he took a step forward. Jason immediately held his hands up to fend him off. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Big Bird. This is a fine line you’re walking here,” he warned.

Dick lowered his arms, but his grin widened even further. “Well then I guess it’s a good thing I’m one hell of an acrobat.”

Jason rolled his eyes hard. “Oh my god, you’re the worst.”

“I’m just saying I’m a pretty good tightrope walker,” Dick replied smugly.

“Just stop,” Jason retorted. “I was promised food. Time for you to deliver.”

Dick fairly bounced his way back to the window. “Happy to, Little Wing. Tell you what, Alfred really outdid himself this year. We had our first dinner hours ago with Bruce, and I thought I was going to die from how good it was.”

“Speaking of Bruce, I’m not about to be ambushed, am I?” Jason asked, making Dick pause before he slipped out the window. He really hoped Batman wouldn’t be waiting for him on the roof. If he was, Jason’s definitely going to shoot him with his new alien gun. He didn’t even care what setting. “Because that’s a real good way of ruining your chances for good.”

“Nah. He said you wouldn’t want to see him. He’s going to honor that, apparently,” Dick replied, and the only reason Jason bought it was because Dick sounded so put out by it.

“So we are going to do the whole pretend the other doesn’t exist thing. Good,” Jason declared firmly.

Dick frowned. “I’m guessing that talking to you about Bruce would be classified as pushing, huh?”

“Right off a fucking cliff.”

“Damn,” Dick sighed, finally moving out the window. Jason followed him.

“About time,” Tim declared. He, Cain and Damian were settled on a large blanket with a space heater in the middle. “I’m starving here, and Dick has the food.”

“You ate four servings of dinner,” Damian said with a disgusted expression.

“And now I’m hungry again,” Tim retorted. “Maybe I’m going through a growth spirt,” he said, a hopeful tinge to his voice.

Jason snorted. “You wish, baby bird.”

“Hey,” Tim protested.

Cain smiled, which on her was a small twist of her lips. She patted his head. “That’s okay. I like you as my little brother.”

Jason smirked as Tim scowled. Damian gave a smug look. “It’s only a matter of time before I surpass you in height, Drake. Then I’ll be your superior in every way.”

“You’d be my superior in height only, Damian,” Tim snapped shortly. “And since you’re still a midget, you’ve surpassed me in nothing except for maybe the ability to be an obnoxious little shit.”

Damian snarled and went for a knife at his belt, but Cain cut in smoothly. “No using your Christmas present to hurt our brother.”

Damian grumbled, but released the knife, which Jason thought was pretty fair. He didn’t stand a chance against Cain, so backing down was the smart move.

She looked up at Jason and pointed at the blanket beside her. “Sit by me.”

“You gonna try to kill me?” Jason challenged.

Cain shook her head. “You’re my brother. I’m your sister,” she declared, like it was that simple.

“Is that right?” Jason retorted skeptically.

She nodded decisively, and Jason moved over to cautiously sit beside her. “I’ve never had a sister before.”

“Cass is a good sister,” Tim said cheerfully.

“The best,” Cain—or Cass, he supposed—replied solemnly. She then took the bag of food from Dick and dug through it until she pulled out a container of cherry pie. “Alfred said it’s your favorite,” she said, offering the container to him.

Jason took it, still mildly unsettled by the seriousness of her expression and how closely she was watching him. He knew her thing was reading people, but he didn’t know why his reaction would be important to her. It’s not like he was going to explode into violence at any moment. He’d be greatly outnumbered if he did, and he was wary enough of her abilities not to try anything on her without very careful planning. So the importance of it didn’t really make sense to him.

Unless—he startled a bit as he realized—unless she wanted him to like her. And from the way she was waiting and watching him like a hawk, he was inclined to believe she did. Which was weird. Jason had never done anything to her personally, but he’d heard Tim talk about her enough to know that the two of them were pretty close. She should hate Jason for the simple fact that he’d tried to kill Tim. But instead she was handing him cherry pie, and hoping for some sort of friendship in return.

If Jason was mildly unsettled before, he was fully disturbed now. “Thanks,” he eventually managed. “It is my favorite. I appreciate it.”

Her shoulders relaxed minutely and the smile she gave was small, but genuine. “Good. I am still the best sister.”

Jason snorted. “You’d be my only sister so you pretty much have that one in the bag already.”

She looked pleased by this, and returned to taking food out of the bag and passing it around. There was a container with his name on it, and she passed it to him with a fork. The bag must have been insulated because the container was still warm.

Jason moaned at the first taste of duck. “Oh my god, this is amazing.”

Dick grinned. “Right? I’m going to need to alter my suit by the time all the leftovers are gone.”

Damian made a disapproving noise. “Grayson, you are a disgrace.”

“Oh please, I saw you going for thirds at dinner, Little D,” Dick retorted. “Alfred’s Christmas dinners are heavenly and deserve to be appreciated fully.”

“So shut up and appreciate,” Jason replied, stuffing an enormous bite of sweet potato casserole in his mouth.

Tim snorted and almost choked. Dick watched him cough with a smug look on his face. “That’s what you get for laughing at me, Little Red.”

“Little Red?” Jason asked, knowing he was going to regret it.

Dick smiled. “Well you’re Red Hood, so he’s Little Red. You’re Little Wing, Cass is Little Bat, and Damian is Little D.”

Again, Jason felt mildly disturbed. “I think you’re taking this big happy family thing a bit far.”

“Nonsense,” Dick retorted, but from the way Damian was grumbling, the kid seemed to agree with Jason.

About halfway through Jason’s container of food, he felt a heavy gaze on him. One he knew far too well. Batman was keeping his distance, but he was present nonetheless. His hands tightened around his fork and his container of food as he tried not to let his lips curl up in a snarl. “You guys patrolling tonight?” he asked tightly, wondering if Bruce was letting the others know it was time to get going.

“Nah, B said he’d take it on his own,” Dick replied.

Tim nodded. “Crime’s always slow on Christmas anyway unless there’s been a breakout at Arkham. It’ll be a short patrol.”

“Then why is he here?” Jason growled out.

“Because he’s an emotionally inept, uncommunicative ass?” Dick grumbled, making Jason shoot him a look. Sure, Dick and Bruce had fought on and off for most of Jason’s tenure as Robin, but he’d been under the impression that they were one big happy Bat-family in his absence. The comment shot Jason straight back in time to his younger years, and it took him a moment for the déjà vu to leave. “What? He is,” Dick insisted, pouting at Cassandra’s stern look.

Jason tensed slightly when Cassandra brushed her fingers over the back of his hand. She tapped twice in a gesture he thought was meant to be reassuring. He looked at her warily and she met his gaze easily. “He will not interfere,” she spoke so softly he doubted the others heard. Or if they did hear, they were tactfully pretending they hadn’t. “This is your place.”

He nodded and did his best to shove Bruce out of his mind. He would not let Bruce see how much he got under his skin. Bruce had gotten enough of him; he’d gotten his memories, he wouldn’t be getting this too. Jason wouldn’t give Bruce the satisfaction. He had to admit though, he was surprised the other man was keeping his distance. He’d thought for sure that the big Bat would turn up to chew him out about Donald or lecture him about Maroni, or otherwise criticize the hell out of him at the first opportunity. That was what Bruce did; he judged and pushed. The fact that he was doing neither of those things now left him suspicious of the sudden change of heart. Bruce had had no problem showing up to chew him out in the past, why stop now?

The only answer he could come up with was the memories. Bruce knew everything about Jason’s past now, when he hadn’t before. Now he was keeping his distance, probably because of some misguided guilt about all of his own shortcomings. It probably had nothing to do with the actual issue, which was how thoroughly they had violated his privacy. Disgust welled within him, and he wished Bruce would just get lost. He had one goal at the moment, and that was to make it through until he wrapped things up in Crime Alley so he could get the hell out of Gotham. Pretending that Bruce didn’t exist was an integral part of that plan, and him looming melodramatically in the distance wasn’t helping.

“So what’s that?” Dick said, breaking Jason out of his thoughts. He turned to see the man was looking at the very large mural of the Red Hood a block away.

Jason made himself smirk, even if he didn’t feel it with Batman’s distant shadow over him. “I got fans, Big Bird.”

Tim looked amused. “Patron saint of orphaned and abandoned children. Apt. Although they didn’t need to make your head so big—it’s big enough on its own.”

“Watch it, baby bird,” Jason scowled, pointing his fork at Tim. “Just cause you don’t have fans doesn’t mean you should act jealous.”

“Why on Earth would anyone be jealous of you, Todd?” Damian protested.

“My chiseled good looks for one,” Jason declared. “The fact that I could kick all your asses except maybe hers, for two. The fact that I got three feet on you easy, Bat brat. The fact that my weapons are way cooler than yours. I mean, come on. Check out my new space gun,” he said, pulling it from his thigh. “It’s beautiful.”

Dick groaned loudly. “No, not a Tamaraanean energy blaster. Those things are awful.”

Jason grinned sharply. “Christmas present from Kori. So watch your step, Big Bird. Kori said it packs one hell of a punch.”

“That’d be putting it lightly,” Dick muttered.

“Oh really?” Jason grinned, looking at the thing in a new light.

“I don’t want to know,” Tim declared.

“It has a non-lethal setting,” Jason offered.

“Yeah, that’s the setting I’m talking about,” Dick grumbled. “You don’t want to be hit by that thing.”

Jason grinned happily. “Then you know what’ll happen if you push, Big Bird. I’ve got leverage now. Kori is an absolute queen. That hundred thousand dollar necklace wasn’t enough.”

“I don’t want to know that either,” Tim said, hunkering down in his denial. “Don’t wanna know where you got the money or if you stole the necklace or any of it.”

Jason snickered and slipped the gun back into the holster, making a mental note to text Kori a thank you. “She ever shoot you with one of these, Dick?” he asked.

“Tamaraanean soldier, but she has shot me with her starbolts a couple of times,” Dick admitted.

“I’m sure you deserved it,” Tim remarked.

“Probably,” Dick agreed.

Jason snorted again and placed his empty food container on the blanket. “Well the company might have been lacking, but the food was good.”

“Hey,” Dick protested and Cassandra poked him hard in the shoulder.

“I apologize,” Jason replied immediately. “The company minus my lovely new sister was lacking.”

Cassandra nodded, appeased.

“Well you lazy bums might not be working tonight, but I am,” Jason said, standing up. “I suggest you head off. And tell Batman to get the fuck gone while you’re at it.”

“Anything I can help with?” Tim asked too casually.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Get lost, Timmy.”

He shrugged. “Alright then. You know where to find me if you need anything.”

“Yeah, yeah. Scram.”

“Bye, brother,” Cass nodded at him and Dick moved forward for a hug, but stopped when Jason held up his hand.

“Come on, Jay, it’s Christmas,” Dick whined.

“No pushing,” Jason reminded him. “No hugging.”

“Fine, but I will get a hug, Little Wing,” he declared, before motioning to Damian. “Come on, Little D. Maybe Bruce won’t mind us making a round of the city with him.”

Damian perked up immediately and they quickly headed off. Jason waited until they were all off and he no longer felt Batman’s distant gaze before he let himself slump and rub at his head. It was too much. Too much and no one had ended up shouting or attacking each other, and Jason just didn’t know how to deal with that.

He took a steadying breath and decided to distract himself with work. So of course there was a text message from Oracle waiting.

Oracle: Too much too soon?

Jason rolled his eyes and replied. Jason: Stop spying.

Oracle: I just wanted to check in and give you your Christmas present.

There was another text message immediately following; a file filled with Douglas Cooley’s financial records.

“How the hell…” he began, but trailed off because it was pointless. Barbara was omniscient. That’s all there was to it. She knew everything and he kind of really hated it, because she was a Bat and he didn’t want them knowing his business.

Jason: Speaking of too much too soon. He texted, knowing that she’d understand.

Oracle: You shouldn’t be stuck doing this stuff on your own, J. I’m not trying to nose into your business, I’m just trying to provide you resources you should have access to anyway. I swear I won’t tell B. Just let me help you.

Jason didn’t ask why. He didn’t want to get into a conversation about family and loyalty with Barbara. He hadn’t been the only one burned by this life, and that made it harder to fight with her. What was the point when she’d had her life taken from her by the Joker as well? None of the others could come close to understanding what he had lost, but Barbara, she could. Fighting with her would be pointless.

That didn’t mean he was okay with her in his business though.

Jason: Just this once. From here on out, if I want your help, I’ll ask for it.

Oracle: Okay. Ask me any time. Merry Christmas, J.

Jason: Merry Christmas, O.

Jason settled down in front of the heater the others had left and began to pour through the information. Below him, the noise from the warehouse steadily began to quiet as the kids started moving to the sleeping bags so they could sleep off their impending food comas. He stayed, keeping an eye on them for a few hours more.

Chapter Text

Several days passed and Bruce made no attempt to contact Jason, though occasionally, he could feel the weight of his gaze as he went about his business taking care of Crime Alley. It pissed him off, because if Bruce wasn’t going to play pretend that the other didn’t exist, then he wanted some sort of explosive confrontation. He wanted Bruce to show up and try to explain himself—try to explain why the hell he thought he had the right to Jason’s past. He wanted to scream and yell and maybe shoot the other man with Kori’s present (which just happened to be the best gun in the whole damn galaxy). He wanted to let him have it, and maybe he wanted him to do the same. Maybe he wanted Bruce to yell at him a little bit so Jason could have even more ammunition to hate him—more things to rage against. Part of him craved it even, because this waiting while the man apparently gave him “space” (yet not nearly enough space) was driving him mad. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it was making him antsy as hell.

The only thing that saved him was that Jason suddenly found himself too busy to dwell much on it. Cooley was a scumbag, but a coward, so it was easy to terrify the man into signing over his properties to the alias of Jason’s choice. With the financial information Barbara sent him, he was able to find evidence of tax evasion to feed to the cops. Some planted evidence and illegal contraband in his apartment quickly led to the arrest of Cooley’s two “nephews”. In the end, he was charged with much more than just tax evasion and would be in prison for quite some time.

Which left Jason in the somewhat unfortunate position of owner and landlord to three dilapidated tenant buildings right in the middle of Crime Alley. Because he didn’t have enough on his plate at the moment. With it being right in the middle of the holidays, WE wouldn’t be getting around to taking the properties off his hands until sometime after the New Year, which meant they were his responsibility for a little while longer. More responsibility; more to take care of before he was able to make his escape. And to make things even better, very few people had working heat and there was a surprise snow piling down on them. It was the first of the winter, and based on the weather reports, it was going to be a heavy one, which meant he was scrambling trying to get the heat turned back on before nightfall. Needless to say, scrambling around Crime Alley making sure everyone was prepared to keep warm wasn’t how he had planned to spend his New Year’s Eve.

How on Earth was this his life?

After Jason had managed to do everything he possibly could as a civilian, he stood in full Red Hood gear on the roof of the warehouse, watching the snow pile up on the streets grimly. The first snow was pretty much the only time of the year Gotham looked clean. The snow dampened the smog and settled like a white blanket, making the city look soft and clean. It was a lie though. Gotham would never be soft or clean, no matter what Bruce hoped. There was just something about the city that brought out the worst in people. Maybe something in the water. You couldn’t grow up in Gotham without being nothing but rough edges, and fresh clean snow couldn’t hide those.

Jason had always hated snow. It was something about growing up poorer than dirt. Snow meant trudging around in holey socks and sopping boots. It meant threadbare sweaters, musty too-large jackets, and wearing every pair of socks he owned to bed and still shivering through most of the night. When he was living on the streets, it went from being a horrible nuisance to being downright deadly. There were several nights when the snow was melting into his rags that Jason legitimately thought he was going to die, shaking in whatever meager shelter he’d been able to find for himself. There were nights he’d had to force himself to keep moving because he knew if he stopped and fell asleep, he wouldn’t wake back up. It didn’t matter that it’d been years since he had to worry about freezing to death in his sleep; he still viewed snow with a grim wariness. Having most of Crime Alley currently under his protection just made it worse. He didn’t want anyone freezing to death on his watch.

“Jay!” a chipper voice sounded as a body vaulted onto the roof of the warehouse next to him.

Jason groaned because dealing with Dick wasn’t going to make his night any better. “What do you want, Big Bird?”

“Found one of Freeze’s old labs,” Dick chirped happily as the snow began to pile up on the rooftops, sidewalks and road. Jason scowled at the huge clumps fluttering down around them. “There’s a lot of stuff—too much to haul off—and Tim said you’re a fan of explosives these days. Thought you might wanna join me and blow it all? It’s in an old warehouse outside of town so we could go as big as you want. Should be way more fun than Gotham’s New Year’s fireworks show” he spoke hopefully.

Jason snorted, amused despite himself by how hard Dick was trying. And hell, he wasn’t opposed to blowing things up just for fun, but the snow was still coming down fast and he didn’t have time for Dick and whatever brotherly bonding he was trying to accomplish.

“If it can wait, I’m a little busy at the moment,” Jason replied, surveying the mostly empty street with a frown. It was still early, but the streets were relatively empty. People were staying in, and that was good, but not all of the kids had made it to the warehouse yet. The snow had been falling for hours, which was plenty of time for them to be soaking wet and freezing by now.

“Oh, sure,” Dick replied easily. But when Jason gave no explanation or made no attempt to continue any kind of conversation, he rocked back on his heels a little. “So… snow’s kind of nice, huh?” he asked in a pretty pathetic attempt at conversation.

Jason’s mouth twisted underneath his helmet and he made a noise of deep distaste.

Dick looked vaguely amused. “Okay, maybe not.”

“Definitely not,” Jason said because, besides Batman, snow was the current bane of his existence. He gave a little huff. He didn’t like that not all the kids were thawing out inside yet. Worse, this would be the first winter on the streets for a decent number of them. They’d have no idea how to deal with snow while living on the streets. Someone would need to teach them. One more thing he needed to do. And he really should do a run through of the Alley; see if he could find them.

Jason moved to the edge of the rooftop, and something in his demeanor must have tipped Dick off, because he was immediately asking, “What’s wrong? Can I help?”

“It’s the snow,” he answered shortly. “Kids aren’t all here yet and the snow is dangerous.”

“What can I do?” Dick asked, determined to be helpful as per usual Dick Grayson behavior. Jason wasn’t about to get petty when he had seven kids still missing. He’d take the help offered.

“Run through the area. You take the south, I’ll take the north. Take any kids to the warehouse. Any other homeless people, take to the shelter on 14th Street. Tell them I sent you. Also, long socks and plastic grocery bags. I need a bunch of both.”

Dick looked a little confused by the last part, but he nodded anyway. “Okay.” And then he was bounding off the roof. Jason slipped back into the warehouse to make sure one of the older kids called him in case any of the others kids showed up. After Lisa was snatched he’d left a burner phone at the warehouse so if anything happened, no one would have to run to find him. It was an added bit of security now that Jason was doing more in Crime Alley than just keeping an eye on the kids. With that handled, he slipped back out, and took off towards the north, scanning alleyways.

Crime Alley was quiet. Petty criminals didn’t like being out in near blizzard conditions any more than the average joe, and Jason had done a pretty damn good job of driving out any major players. He’d pretty successfully claimed his territory, and no one seemed to think business in Crime Alley was worth crossing him at the moment. Which hopefully meant that no one had gone after the kids who were currently missing. He doubted they were in danger of anything but the elements. WE needed to finish construction on the orphanage pronto though. Now that the snow had finally come, the rest of winter was going to be a nightmare.

Jason’s phone rang and he pulled it from his jacket pocket. Amanda, a no-nonsense fourteen year old who was faster than just about any kid he had ever seen, quickly informed him that five of the other kids had come straggling in on their own, and Nightwing had dropped off a sixth, which meant there was only one still missing.

“Okay, kid, where are you?” Jason muttered to himself. It took another quarter of an hour to find the kid, and when he did, it was in an alleyway on the edge of Crime Alley. He recognized Danny immediately even as he moved from trying ineffectually to shove a very full and heavy dumpster to the side, to dropping down and trying to coax something out from underneath it.

Jason sighed and dropped down into the alleyway, startling Danny briefly. The kid had snow all over him and a lot of it had already soaked into his clothes. He could see him shivering and could hear his teeth chattering from the cold.

“The fuck are you doing, kid?” Jason snapped, exasperated. Honestly. Danny was supposed to be one of the smart ones. He was ten and had been successfully doing the street thing for a couple of years. He stuck to himself and didn’t really talk to any of the others much, but he was sharp as a tack and had way more sense than this.

Danny shifted, looking a mix of guilty and defiant as he sat up and gestured to under the dumpster. “It’s gonna freeze to death,” he muttered grudgingly.

Jason frowned and dropped down into the snow so he could look under the dumpster. Way back, pressed up to the wall, was a small gray kitten shaking miserably. Jason sighed. “Really, kid?”

“It won’t make it on its own,” Danny replied mulishly. There was no point arguing with him. He’d been at this for a while and wasn’t giving up even if he was already soaked through and freezing. Even his dark hair was sopping wet and his brown eyes were determined and challenging. Jason grumbled as he shoved himself as close to the dumpster as he could before reaching his arm out underneath. He just barely managed to grab the kitten by the scruff of its neck. He dragged it forward, ignoring its rather loud protests.

“You have any dry clothes?” Jason asked gruffly as he extricated the kitten.

Danny nodded and snatched up his bag, unzipping it quickly. Jason sorted through and snatched up a dirty t-shirt. He rubbed the kitten’s damp fur a little before he began wrapping it in the t-shirt, making sure to trap its tiny paws. “Change,” he told Danny, pointing to a large sweater and a pair of jeans that were at least dry.

Danny immediately began stripping even though it was freezing cold. Better freezing and dry than freezing and wet. By the time he was stuffing his wet clothes back in the bag, Jason had the kitten successfully wrapped up and had his jacket stripped off.

“Put this on,” He ordered, handing it to the kid. “Zip it up.”

Danny nodded again, but he was shivering violently enough that he struggled to zip it. Jason huffed and did it himself before he grabbed the kid’s collar and slipped the kitten into the top of the sweater. Danny immediately wrapped his arms around his chest, cuddling the freezing kitten close. Jason then snatched the kid up and slipped him onto his back. “Come on, kid.”

“What—hey!” Danny protested immediately. “I’m not a baby, I can walk myself!”

Jason rolled his eyes, but kept his grip on the kid. “You’re not a baby, but you’re an idiot who let yourself freeze almost to death for a kitten. You’re shaking too much to move very quickly and we need to get you back to the warehouse, so you’re just going to have to deal. Consequences for being stupid,” he chastised, but his tone wasn’t too harsh. He couldn’t really blame the kid. Yeah, it was stupid, but who would want to leave a poor little kitten to freeze to death? “Plus, you need body heat.”

Danny didn’t answer, but he did burrow a little closer to Jason’s back. Jason waited till the kid got a good grip on him and then he began moving quickly. He got waylaid though, because in the alley near the corner the girls worked, Holly was huddled up, trying to keep warm.

“You’re not working tonight, are you?” Jason asked, frowning.

Holly moved forward, and kissed the side of his helmet. She’d been doing that ever since Jason got rid of Max Kennedy. She was quickly becoming as close a friend and as good a source of information as Sasha. “Nah, I’m done for the night. Just waiting on Sugar.”

“How much longer?”

“Few minutes, probably,” Holly said, bouncing a little as she rubbed her arms. She smiled at Danny who was still shivering, but not as violently as before.

“You guys have some place to go?” Jason checked.

Holly nodded. “Yeah, I’m staying at Sugar’s. My heat doesn’t work very well, but her place is warm.”

Jason frowned because he didn’t like the idea of leaving Holly out here on her own, but Danny was still freezing and needed to get warm quickly. Luckily, a car pulled around the corner and let Sugar out. He relaxed a little.

“Hood!” Sugar greeted, smiling wide. She moved impressively fast in heels on a snowy sidewalk, and was standing before him smiling invitingly in mere moments. “Nice of you to check on us. Hey kid,” she smiled at Danny. Jason could feel him nod.

Holly spoke, “Come on, Sugar. Let’s get out of here, I’m freezing my ass off. Hood is worried,” she added with a cheeky smile.

“Damn right I am,” Jason retorted, not bothering to lie. “Get out of here. Get warm.”

“Will do,” Holly smiled warmly, giving him another parting kiss on the side of his helmet.

“Call if you need anything.”

They nodded and were quickly off. Jason looked up, sensing Dick’s presence. Sure enough Nightwing was standing on the roof, overlooking the alleyway. Jason jerked his head in the direction Holly and Sugar had headed off in, and Nightwing nodded, moving to follow and make sure they got home alright.

Jason hurried the rest of the way to the warehouse and dropped Danny in front of a heater. He then grabbed the wet clothes out of Danny’s bag and laid them out in front of another heater to dry while the boy pulled the kitten out of his sweater. Jason then let himself relax a little. All the kids were at the warehouse, they were all safe, they were getting warm, and everyone else was off the street.

Looking around, he searched out all the kids who were dealing with snow for the first time as a homeless kid. “Okay, if it’s your first winter on the streets, over here,” Jason called. Twelve of the kids stood and started shuffling over to him as he grabbed a bag he’d dropped off earlier. Lisa climbed up his back as Jason dumped out several dozen candlesticks. Seeing Dick come in through one of the upper windows, Jason waved him down. Dick hurriedly moved down, and handed Jason a duffle bag full of plastic bags and tube socks.

“You can’t stay warm if you can’t stay dry,” Jason spoke. “Unless you’ve got water proof boots and clothes, you’re going to have a problem with snow melting into everything. Let’s start with keeping your feet dry.”

A blonde kid held up a roll of duct-tape in question, but Jason shook his head. “It’ll keep the snow out, but you’d lose all traction on your shoes. No traction means you can’t run away.” He grabbed a stack of unused plastic grocery bags. “Here’s a trick some crazy old vet taught me my first winter on the streets. If you’ve got nothing better, then sock, grocery bag, sock. Your shoes will still get wet, but your feet will stay dry. Start collecting these.” He passed the stacks and socks around, gesturing for the more experienced kids to grab some if they needed them.

“Next, your clothes,” Jason said, holding up a candlestick. “Wax repels water. Rub the wax into your pants then hold them up in front of the heaters. The wax will melt into the fabric and keep the snow from melting. It’ll make them a little stiff, but better than being wet. You’ll need to redo it often, but it’ll work for your bags too. Duct-tape is good for your bags too.”

The kids nodded and began grabbing candlesticks. Jason grabbed a couple of bags and some socks and a candle before he moved to one of the heaters with Lisa and her backpack of scant clothes. She was the youngest so Jason would show her how to do it properly. Dick came and sat down beside them, but he didn’t immediately start chattering, which was fairly uncharacteristic of him. Instead he just sat with his legs crossed underneath him and watched silently as Jason methodically rubbed the candlewax into the two extra pair of jeans Lisa carried around in her backpack. She chattered happily as she pulled socks up over the grocery bags on her feet. Afterwards, he showed her how to melt the wax into the jeans. Then he packed her stuff up in her bag and got her a plate of food before moving up into the rafters. Dick followed him.

“Okay, so I get why you don’t like snow now,” he said, frowning.

“It was always a pain before, but once I was on the street it was a nightmare,” Jason admitted. “Almost died my first winter.”

Dick let out a heavy breath. “I’m glad these kids have you. You’re—you’re pretty great, Jay.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Don’t get all mushy on me, Grayson.”

For a moment it looked like Dick was going to push the issue, then he abruptly shook his head and changed the subject. “So, you want to go blow Freeze’s old hideout to hell?”

“Yeah,” Jason said, surprising himself a little given the company he’d have. But it’d been an incredibly stressful day and some explosive therapy sounded pretty fantastic. “Yeah, I really do.”

Dick grinned wide and stood up. “Great! Brotherly bonding through explosives!”

Jason rolled his eyes and followed him back out into the snow. “Whatever you say, Big Bird.”

“Hey, it seems to have worked for you and Tim. I thought I might get in on the action,” Dick said with a cheerful smile.

Dick wasn’t actually that bad of company as Jason readied the place to blow. He was impressed by Jason’s equipment, the speed in which he assessed the structure, and rigged the place up so that every last bit would be destroyed, and the creative way in which he cannibalized Freeze’s own equipment to increase the destruction of the blast. Jason might have showed off a little bit, but a nice explosion always seemed to get his blood rushing in all the right ways as long as he was the one who caused it.

“I feel like I should be worried about how good you are at this, but mostly I’m just really excited to see this place blow,” Dick said as Jason finalized the detonator.

“You’re less of a wet blanket than Tim is at least,” Jason said, standing up. “We’re gonna want to get a good distance.”

Dick insisted on doing a traditional New Year’s Eve countdown for the explosion even though it was already past midnight. Despite the distance, the force of the explosion knocked both of them off their feet into the snow. They laid there for a moment in stunned silence before Jason jumped up and let out a loud whoop at the burning rubble.

“Holy crap,” Dick said, sitting up, staring at the remains in awe.

“That was awesome!” Jason exclaimed, adrenaline surging through his veins. He hadn’t had the opportunity to cause as much destruction as he wanted in a while and now his blood was singing in his veins.

Abruptly Dick started laughing and Jason couldn’t help joining in. They could feel the heat of the fire even from a distance.

“Oh my god, Jason, what did you do?” Dick laughed.

“I blew that shit to hell, Dick,” Jason replied, all kinds of smug.

Dick laughed some more. “Okay, way better than the fireworks. And I know who to call next time I need something blown up.”

“Red Hood: former Robin, successful crime lord, explosive extraordinaire,” Jason grinned.

Dick snorted and stood. They stayed for a while, watching the fire and enjoying the warmth. Jason had no doubt that any tech Freeze had left behind was now damaged beyond repair, but Dick wanted to let it burn for a bit to be sure. Then he’d put in an anonymous call to emergency services. Although, with strength of the explosion and the size of the fire, he would be surprised if they weren’t already on their way. Dick seemed to be thinking along the same lines.

“That was fun. We should do it again sometime, Little Wing,” Dick declared after making the call.

Jason gave him a serious look. “Big Bird, I’d be more than happy to blow shit to hell any day of the week.”

Dick grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind. Happy New Year’s, Jason. See you later?” he asked hopefully.

“Yeah, yeah. Now let’s get out of here, Big Bird,” Jason replied, smirking at the happy excitement on Dick’s face as they mounted their motorcycles.

They raced back into Gotham before peeling off in separate directions. Jason swung back to the warehouse, checking in on the kids before moving back to his apartment.

The explosion had done a lot to quell the antsy feeling underneath his skin, but he knew it was only a matter of time before it came back. There was no quick and easy way out of Gotham, so Jason was resigned to having to wait for the completion of the orphanage. The licenses had already been approved, staff had been hired, necessities bought, but construction had yet to finish. It’d only be a few more weeks though, and once the kids were moved into the orphanage, Jason could kiss Gotham and Bruce fucking Wayne good-bye. Until then he would just have to deal.

He moved about his apartment, still a little too keyed up from the explosion to sleep yet. But he’d finished the last coat of seal on his countertops days ago, and he’d gotten his shiny new appliances and installed them already, which meant he was fresh out of projects. He looked about his apartment in contemplation. He still needed new furniture, but that was something he’d rather do at a store in daylight hours than search around online. His bathroom could use a complete overhaul, and he had the space to do a lot with it, but Jason wasn’t interested in diving in when he was planning on cutting out of Gotham as soon as possible. That would be an even more extensive renovation than the kitchen since even the floor tile would need to go.

He decided to contemplate the possibilities over food. Of course, since the completion of his kitchen, Alfred had stopped delivering pre-cooked stews and casseroles. Instead his cabinets and fridge were stocked full of ingredients and spices, everything Jason needed for any number of dishes. There was also a box full of recipes, all hand written in Alfred’s neat script. All of them Jason’s favorites from his time at the Manor.

Jason snorted as he pulled out some raw chicken and veggies from fridge. He could take the hint. It was time for him to actually start cooking again. He grabbed some rice and spices out of the cabinet and laid everything out on the counter, deciding on some spicy Thai curry. He put the rice on to cook and started peeling and chopping the vegetables. It was relatively quick and easy, and he liked every flavor curry he’d ever tasted.

He was stirring the chicken and veggies with the curry paste in a pan when he felt someone in his apartment. He snatched up his gun and spun around before spitting out a string of curses. There, standing in his living room, was Cassandra Cain in full Black Bat costume, sans the domino. She was holding a bag of groceries and must have come in through the balcony even though it squeaked and was already closed. How she had managed to open it and close it without him noticing was an absolute mystery Jason wanted solved.

He let out a few more curses and placed his gun back on the counter before letting out a breath. He fixed a look on Cassandra as his heart rate started to slow back down to something relatively normal. “Okay, Cain, we need to talk about boundaries,” Jason declared firmly.

Cassandra tilted her head to the side like a bird. “Bad?” she asked, gesturing to the balcony door with a small, economic movement of two fingers.

“When you’re quieter than Batman and you’re sneaking up on someone with more than the literal triggers, then yes. Bad.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied.

The intensity of her gaze unnerved him a little—the absolute focus in which she watched him. God, she must be terrifying to criminals, Jason decided. Even five foot nothing and looking like a China doll, he bet she did Batman even better than Bruce did.

“It’s fine,” Jason sighed, forcibly rolling the tension out of his shoulders. “Just make some noise next time or something.”

Cassandra nodded seriously and Jason relaxed further. She still made him a little wary, but Jason didn’t think she meant any harm. “Thanks. Now why are you standing in my apartment?”

“Delivery. From Alfred,” she remarked, holding up the bag of food.

Seemed that Alfred assumed he’d already started cooking. “Thanks. Tell Alfred he can stop delivering food though. I got the message loud and clear,” Jason said, gesturing to the stove. Maybe coming from Cassandra it would actually work. He imagined she was a pretty difficult person to say no to.

Cassandra frowned slightly. “I will. But Alfred is difficult.”

That made Jason crack a smirk. “Yeah, he is, isn’t he? Well, it was worth a shot.” He moved to the counter to set down the groceries and check on his curry. He added the coconut milk to the pan and began stirring it. The curry paste mixed in with the coconut milk and Jason waited for it to thicken.

Cassandra moved over to his island and sat down on one of the stools. Jason figured she was sticking around for a little while, then. After a moment of deliberation Jason asked, “You hungry?”

She nodded decisively so Jason grabbed two plates to dish out the rice. He moved to the fridge to grab them both bottles of water, and when the curry was fully mixed and no longer soupy, he ladled it out over the rice. He set one plate on the island for her and leaned up against the counter with his own plate in hand. Cassandra tore into it immediately, reminding Jason a little of himself. She apparently did not mess around with food. Like him, she probably grew up knowing that you ate what was in front of you because you didn’t know when you’d be eating again.

“It’s good,” she declared, between bites.

“Thanks,” Jason replied, and watched with mild amusement as she shoveled large bites into her mouth in quick succession. She was finished with her plate before Jason was halfway done with his.

“You want more?” he asked.

She nodded immediately and Jason scooped the rest of the rice onto her plate and dished out the remainder of the curry. She ate a little slower this time, but was still finished by the time Jason finished his.

He thought she’d run off immediately, but instead she sat there watching him as she sipped her bottle of water. Jason watched her right back.

“Our brothers don’t cook,” she finally said.

Jason snorted. “Nah. Cereal and takeout for Dick, I’m betting. Coffee and takeout for Tim.”

“And energy drinks.”

Jason scoffed. “And energy drinks. Kid’s gonna drop dead with that kind of diet. That’s why Alfred’s always dragging them back to the Manor. They have to get nutrients somewhere. What about you?”

“Takeout,” she admitted before adding, “Sometimes Stephanie cooks. Sometimes she stays with her mother though. And sometimes she doesn’t want to.”

“Stephanie. That’s the current Batgirl, right?” Cassandra nodded and Jason asked, “You two work together?”

Cassandra nodded. “She is my partner. I can’t always…” she trailed off, like she couldn’t find the words and was frustrated by it.

“She does the things you’re no good at?” Jason guessed.

“Yes.”

Jason nodded, thinking of Roy and Kori. “Yeah, I get that. I’ve got a team. They pick up where I slack off and vice versa. Good teams are like that. So if you’ve got that in Batgirl, you guys are a good team.”

Cassandra’s lips twisted in a small and satisfied smile. “Yes. We are a good team.”

“I bet. I’m sure you guys kick serious ass.”

Cassandra’s smile went a little more vicious. “We do.”

“I think I’d like to see that sometime,” Jason admitted, thinking. He bet they’d kick Dick and Tim’s asses in a training game. He would pay a hell of a lot of money to see that.

“Thank you for dinner, brother,” Cass said standing up.

“Thanks for the delivery, sis,” Jason replied.

Cassandra nodded and moved to the balcony as she slipped her mask back on. This time the door made noise as she opened it and Jason knew it was purposefully done. Jason washed his dishes in silence, set them on the drying rack and went and dropped down on his mattress. The day had been awful, but his night was better than expected. One of his better New Year’s even. The sun was just starting to come up, but he ignored it and dropped off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Cassandra had a real talent for showing up when Jason was in the middle of cooking. Jason found that he really didn’t mind though. He had nothing against Black Bat other than the fact that she was loyal to Bruce. But he knew enough of her background and her parents to know her childhood had probably been as bad as his, if not worse. She’d also killed before so her decision not to kill was at least more informed than the others. It was also a direct “fuck you” to her very pro-killing assassin parents, so Jason could even appreciate it. Besides, it wasn’t like Jason had any room to judge at the moment; he wasn’t exactly killing either. In any case, despite being deadly as hell, Jason felt no hostility or duplicity from her, and as they did not have a complicated history, it was easy enough to let her come around and eat his food.

It was also kind of nice to cook for someone other than himself. Jason had always enjoyed cooking, but it wasn’t quite the same when he was the only one eating. He’d gotten used to cooking for people with Roy and Kori and it was kind of nice to have that again. Cassandra was also a very gratifying person to cook for, since she always ate every bite of whatever he made.

There were many benefits to Jason’s renewed interest in cooking. Not only did it serve as a nice replacement for his renovation projects, it had the added bonus of relieving one of the many burdens from Alfred’s shoulders. Jason knew the man probably had his hands more than full now that Bruce was back, and he didn’t want to cause him any more trouble. Then there was the fact that Jason wanted his life to be as together as possible so that there was nothing for Bruce to criticize him over. Not that Bruce wouldn’t find something, but still. He wanted Bruce to know he was doing just fucking fine on his own. And now that Jason was cooking for himself, Alfred was content to allow Jason to do his own grocery shopping and find his own ingredients, since only Jason knew what he wanted to cook. Instead of stopping by to drop off ingredients, Alfred had been coming for Wednesday lunches for the last three weeks so that Jason could return the favor and cook for him. Alfred always insisted on doing the dishes afterwards, but Jason was working on a way to break him out of that.

Between Alfred for lunch and Cass for after patrol dinners, Jason was cooking for people pretty regularly. She didn’t always show up, but she’d only missed two days in the past week, so Jason went ahead and made extra anyway. He was still half in his Red Hood gear and in the middle of making pan-seared chicken and couscous in the early morning after patrol when he heard her now customary double tap on his balcony door. He much preferred it to Tim and Dick just unlocking his door and strolling in whenever they felt like it, though to be fair, Dick was still giving his apartment space after their blow up about Maroni. Tim had started texting Jason a heads up when he wanted to drop off the latest drafts of the WE affordable housing program so that Jason could meet him over at the warehouse. Both Tim and Dick were treating the apartment as Jason’s sanctuary at the moment, and were limiting themselves to dropping by the warehouse instead. Jason appreciated the space, and he knew if he asked Cassandra to do the same, she absolutely would. He didn’t need that from her though. He didn’t mind her showing up to eat.

“Come in,” he called, not looking away from the stove.

He didn’t look up as the glass door opened, but then Cass spoke in her preferred one word straight to the point way, “Guest.”

He jerked his head over to see the current Batgirl standing next to her. She was a tall, leggy blonde chick who had nice curves and a rather vicious expression on her face.

Jason heaved a put-upon sigh, because there went his sanctuary. Again. “Really, Cass?”

She nodded, unconcerned, and moved over to see what he was cooking, which was pretty much discussion closed in her books. She took over the pan, which left Jason with the blonde who was currently staring him down. Jason knew Batgirl was Cass’s friend and that she wanted him to be friends with her as well, so Jason gave a sigh and figured he could at least give it a shot.

“Hey, I guess. You staying for dinner too?”

Out of nowhere, the chick reeled back and punched him hard in the shoulder. “Ow! Hey! What the hell, Blondie?!” Damn, that was a nice punch, Jason thought grudgingly. But she’d hit him in the shoulder where the hit wouldn’t do any damage. That was the only reason Jason wasn’t hitting her back. He had no problems hitting a girl if one attacked him. He was all for equality.

“That was for Tim. He’s my friend, you jerk, and you almost killed him! More than once!” she declared hotly.

Jason scowled, “Yeah, well he got over it. And trust me, Blondie, he’s making me pay for it now. Little shit won’t leave me alone,” he snapped angrily.

She sniffed primly, “Well. Don’t do it again or you’ll have to deal with me.”

“Only Bat I’ve got a problem with these days is the big one. Tim and I are cool. But you and I won’t be if you try any crap like that again,” he declared in blatant warning.

She stared him down a little. “Alright. Just so we’re clear.” And then it was like a switch was flipped and she pulled back her cowl and moved to the stove. “Oh my god, what’s that, it smells amazing!”

“Jason is a good cook,” Cass replied, looking completely unbothered by the mini show down that had just occurred.

“Yeah?” she asked, looking over at Jason. “No one ever mentioned that. I’m Stephanie, by the way. Nice to meet you.”

She was all smiles now, and Jason shook his head. “Unbelievable. And why would Bruce mention me cooking when he could mention all the ways I was a screw-up instead?”

Cass tapped his wrist once with three fingers in a way he’d come to learn meant she was chastising him. “What?” he protested.

“Man’s got a point, Cass. Things might be all sunshine and smiles between you and B-Man, but it’s not so easy for the rest of us,” Stephanie declared with clear bitterness in her tone, and Jason’s estimation of her went up ten-fold. Stephanie received a chastising Cassandra finger tap too, and she stuck her tongue out in retaliation.

Stephanie turned back to him with a calculating look before admitting, “I was Robin too for a hot minute.” Jason’s eyes widened in surprise because despite all the research he’d done before coming back and wreaking havoc on the Bat-family, he hadn’t actually known that. “Bruce fired me,” she added.

Jason wasn’t quite sure how to process that, but there was a small bit of him that found it kind of refreshing that he wasn’t the only one discarded and replaced. Tim had been replaced, twice it sounded like. Hell, even Dick was replaced by Jason.

“Well,” Jason said after a moment. “Bruce is an ass.”

The trace amount of bitterness fled her expression as she gave a wide, genuine smile. “Yeah, he really, really is. Bad Robins Club?” she asked, throwing her hand up for a high five.

Jason snorted, amused. “Sure,” he said, high fiving her. Cass made a disapproving noise, but they ignored her. “You hungry?” Jason asked her.

“Oh my god, yes,” Stephanie declared fervently. She pulled out one of the island stools and sat down eagerly. Cass took a seat beside her and Jason checked the chicken before pulling plates out.

“You can eat, but you’re doing dishes after,” Jason declared.

“Fair enough,” she agreed easily, practically bouncing in her seat in excitement as Jason placed the plates in front of her and Cassandra. He leaned up against the counter with his own plate like he had the first time Cassandra was over. He didn’t really know the chick, and he didn’t want to take the chance that she’d slug him again in the middle of eating.

Stephanie started moaning excessively at the first bite. “Oh my god, this is amazing. It’s like gourmet!”

Jason quirked a brow in mild amusement, “You gonna be alright there, Blondie?”

“I mean, I cook but like basic food. This is the real deal. I haven’t had food this good since the last time I ate at the Manor, and I haven’t done that since B-man came back from the whole dead slash lost in time thing,” she said before shoveling another large bite into her mouth with a loud moan.

Jason hummed around his own bite of food and asked curiously, “So you know my deal with Bruce—was murdered, came back, he’s an ass, whatever. What’s yours, Blondie?”

Stephanie frowned briefly, letting her fork settle back down on her plate for a moment. “Bruce fired me. I accidentally started a gang war. Got caught and tortured by the Black Mask then Dr. Thompkins faked my death and helped get me out of Gotham for a while. Without telling Bruce or anyone else that I wasn’t actually dead.”

“Holy shit, you serious?” Jason asked, standing up a little straighter.

Stephanie grimaced, “Yeah. And when he came back from the whole lost in time deal, he wasn’t particularly pleased to find me kicking ass as Batgirl. But, Batgirl has never been his say. Cass passed it to me, Babs approved it. He doesn’t get to dispute it.”

Jason nodded, completely understanding, “Well you just keep kicking ass as Batgirl. That’ll show him.”

Stephanie grinned again, “You too, Hood.” She threw her fist forward and Jason chuckled as he moved forward and bumped it with his own.

Cass sighed pointedly and Stephanie just stuck her tongue out at her again. Then she turned back to Jason and changed the subject. “So Tim says you’ve been renovating this place. Looks fantastic,” she declared enthusiastically. “I mean, this kitchen is incredible.”

“Thanks,” Jason replied, a little smug and a little proud.

“You could use some new furniture though,” she said, eying his beat-up couch like she thought someone might have died on it. Which, that was fair, Jason supposed.

“Yeah, that’s next on the list. I don’t actually know where people go to furniture shop in Gotham though. Or where to shop for furniture period. Besides thrift stores. I’ve never furniture shopped before, and I haven’t really wanted to bother Alfred with it. And I’m not sure he would know where to go for normal, reasonably priced shit anyway.”

Stephanie frowned as she surveyed the space. “Well we’re going to have to do something. This is a hell of a nice place; you can’t stick other people’s old furniture in here. You need your own. I’ll help. And so can Babs. She’s great at this stuff and she always knows where the sales are. Man this is gonna be fun! Helping the Red Hood furniture shop. Eating the Red Hood’s gourmet cooked meals in his awesome redone kitchen. Punched the Red Hood and didn’t even die. Man, this is just the greatest day.”

Jason snorted in amusement, “Yeah, we’ll see, Blondie.”

True to word, Stephanie washed the dishes once they were done, and as a gesture of goodwill, Jason packed up the leftovers of the meal and handed them over. Stephanie refused to leave until Jason let her take pictures of his place so she could get ideas on where to start for furniture. When they did finally leave, Cassandra gave him the happiest smile he’d seen on her face yet, so overall Jason figured that Stephanie was pretty alright.

They showed up the next three nights after patrol, and Jason minded a lot less than he thought he would. Both of them always knocked, and they were never overbearing. Hell, they even brought groceries because of how much of Jason’s food they were eating. They were polite and considerate, and Jason liked both of them. He was honestly surprised by how much he liked Stephanie, but they were both from the shit parts of Gotham, had abusive and criminal fathers, and had both disappointed and been disappointed by Batman. In retrospect, it really shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. Not to mention she was sharp and funny as hell so they got along like a house on fire. He did make a mental note to never allow her to meet Roy though. The world just wasn’t ready for that.

In any case, based on the many things he’d learned about her over their rather short acquaintance, Jason really shouldn’t have been surprised when she showed up at his door one morning in full civvies and declared, “Get in, Loser, we’re going shopping.”

“What?” Jason asked, frowning.

Stephanie was appalled. “What do you mean what? It’s Mean Girls! Come on, man, that’s classic!”

Jason frowned, “Yeah a lot of “classics” are lost on me. Homeless then dead, remember?”

She was silent for a moment before a rather unsettling grin spread across her face, “Oh you poor walking tragedy. You have no idea the world of possibilities that just opened up before us. All the things I get to teach you now. This is going to be so much fun.”

Jason heaved a sigh, but he pulled on his boots and one of the sweaters from Alfred. Grabbing the scarf and gloves and then his coat, he grumbled, “I’m not going to get out of this, am I?”

“Nope! Now let’s go buy you some furniture with some former drug lord’s money! Tonight before patrol we’ll celebrate with you making something delicious and then we can watch Mean Girls.”

“Whatever you say, Blondie,” Jason replied, deciding it’d be easier to just accept it then try to fight her on it. He was planning on cooking anyway, and he was pretty sure Mean Girls was on Roy’s Educate Jaybird on the Joys of Pop Culture list.

Stephanie turned out to be a pretty awesome shopping buddy. She had a list of things he needed, she figured out quickly the style of pieces Jason liked and found more, and she was good at getting the employees to bend over backwards to accommodate them, which was pretty impressive for two poor as dirt kids from the poorest parts of Gotham. Jason had already picked out a bedroom set, some lamps, and some bookcases. He was busy deciding on the perfect couch when Tim called.

“What’s up, Baby Bird,” he greeted cheerfully.

“Hey, it looks like WE is finally wrapping up the policies and contracts for your buildings. I think we’ve got the final paperwork ready,” Tim said without preamble. “You’ll need to read them over and make sure you’re satisfied, then we’ll meet up to sign all the paperwork. We’ll have to have a notary and witness present.”

“Yeah, sure, just send the paperwork my way so I can look it over,” Jason replied. Stephanie hopped up from the couch she was currently sitting on and plopped down next to him on the burgundy couch he was heavily considering.

“That Tim? Let me talk to him,” she grinned, holding her hand out.

Jason shrugged and handed the phone over. “Hey there, Tiny Tim,” Steph said with a shark like grin and immediately Jason found himself liking her even more.

Tiny Tim, oh my god,” Jason said low, but absolutely delighted. There was no way he wouldn’t be using that in the future. Steph’s grin widened.

There was a noise on the other line that sounded distinctly like a squeak and Jason muffled a cackle. “Steph? What—why—what are you doing with Jason? Why are you with Jason?”

“Haven’t told him you’ve been coming around and eating all my food?” Jason whispered quietly.

Steph’s grin widened even more as she shook her head and answered Tim, “Wouldn’t you like to know? It’s not work related if that helps.”

“You guys… you guys hang out together?” Tim asked, without squeaking this time, if only just barely. “I didn’t know you guys even knew each other!”

“Mutual friend introduced us,” Steph replied. “Turns out we’ve got quite a bit in common.”

The next sound was more of a choke than a squeak, but it still had Jason snickering quietly. “Are you—are you two—I—what?”

Stephanie looked like the damn Cheshire Cat. “Are me and Jason a thing?” Stephanie asked for him. “Nah, more like soul siblings. But even if we were, you wouldn’t get a say. Exes don’t get a say, remember?”

“Soul sibling?” Jason asked, amused.

“Like soulmate but on a platonic brother sister level,” Stephanie replied and Jason nodded, because yeah, he could see that.

Then the other part of Stephanie’s words sank in. “Wait, ex? He’s your ex? Seriously?”

Stephanie blinked, “Oh, didn’t I mention that? Tim and I dated in high school.”

“Well damn. Didn’t know the kid had it in him,” Jason mused, impressed, despite himself. Steph was a catch. Which, on the other hand, “Really though, Blondie? Tim?”

“Hey!” Tim declared, offended. Apparently he could hear Jason as easily as Jason could hear Tim.

“He’s not so bad under that insufferable I-know-everything-about-everyone thing he’s got going on. And he can be pretty sweet,” Steph defended. “We’re much better friends than we were boyfriend and girlfriend though. He and Tam were a better match when they were together.”

“Tam, huh?” Jason asked, smirking. “You don’t mean Tam Fox, do you?”

“Oh for the—can we not discuss my love life please?” he practically pleaded.

Jason gave a sharp grin and asked Stephanie, “His relationships neat and tidy or did he take all his relationship cues from Dick?”

“Second one, definitely,” Stephanie replied gleefully. “Half the Titans are in love with him too. It’s caused some issues.”

“Stop, for the love of all that is good in this world, please stop,” Tim lamented.

Jason cackled. “So tell me, why didn’t it work out for the two of you?”

“No, we’re not doing this,” Tim declared firmly.

Stephanie didn’t agree, “Tim has a tendency to make big relationship decisions for both parties without really discussing it with the other party first. Always thinks he knows best.”

“Not just in romantic relationships,” Jason declared pointedly.

“Oh, he did it to you too?” Stephanie asked.

“Ratted out my being back in Gotham to Big Bird. Even told him where to find me. Then again with the demon brat.”

“Hey, Damian was all Dick!” Tim protested.

Stephanie shook her head and made a disapproving sound. “Just doesn’t learn does he? And everyone always says he’s the smart one. This one time when we were dating—”

“Dear God, what do I have to do to make you stop,” Tim practically begged.

Steph grinned at Jason, “I’m working on a solo project and I need some samples run through Bruce’s fancy ass machines without him deciding to stick his nose in my case.”

“Done.” Tim replied immediately. “Jay?”

“How about a favor I can call in later.”

Tim groaned again, “Fine. As long as no one will end up dead, fine.”

“Did you need anything else?” Steph asked politely.

Tim grumbled, “No. Jason, I’ll email you those documents. We’ll set up a time to sign them later. You’re both evil and I hope your day sucks,” he declared petulantly before hanging up. Jason forgot sometimes that Tim was still a teenager, until times like this when he acted like one. Steph apparently brought it out in him pretty easily.

Jason chuckled, “Nice one, Blondie.”

“Why thank you. If I asked Tim to run the samples for me he would, but this was way more fun.”

“Bruce still give you problems?” Jason asked curiously.

She huffed, “Not when I’m working with Cass. We make a good team, and he keeps out of our business mainly because he trusts Cass to keep me out of trouble or whatever. But anytime I’m working on something alone, he tries to keep tabs. Doesn’t think I can hack it on my own, I guess. Working with Cass is great, don’t get me wrong. She’s my best friend and I’m good at the stuff she struggles with and vice versa. But I’m not going to get better if I always have her there as my crutch, you know?”

Jason shrugged, “Do what you gotta do, Steph. Trust me; I get Bruce being an overbearing ass. He’s being careful about it, but I have no doubt he’s watching every little thing I’m doing.”

Stephanie patted him on the shoulder sympathetically, “If he ever gets too out of line, Cass will let him have it. She’s one of the only ones who can get away with it, and he actually listens to her sometimes. And she really likes you, just so you know. She’ll have your back.”

Jason nodded and tilted his head back against the couch. He didn’t really want to talk about Bruce anymore so he patted the couch. “I’m thinking this one. It’s comfy, it’s big enough to nap on, and it’s red. What do you think?”

Stephanie nodded approvingly. “It’ll be good for hiding blood stains.”

“Exactly.”

“And you’re right; it is pretty comfy.”

“Then it’s settled. This is my couch.”

“Perfect. Now you need a matching love seat and two coordinating arm chairs and some nice throw pillows,” Steph declared, standing up.

“That’s a hell of a lot of seating,” Jason replied with a frown. His living area was large, but that much seating was completely unnecessary. When would he ever have that many people at his apartment? When would he want that many people at his apartment?

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied immediately. “It is a completely reasonable amount of seating. Persian rug?” she asked, pointing to the rug that was paired with the couch in the mock living room set up. “It’s a good match.”

“Yeah, coffee table too,” Jason replied, running his hand over the smooth, dark wood of the coffee table.

“Mm, good choice,” she nodded approvingly. “The matching lamp tables for either side of the couch?”

“Yes,” Jason declared immediately, liking them as well.

“Thought,” Stephanie declared. “Red couch here with the end tables and those great lamps you already picked out that so totally go with the couch by the way, so nice one there. Couch here, then love seat on that side perpendicular. Two armchairs, opposite the love seat with the coffee table in the middle. What do you say we look for the armchairs and love seat in a cream?” Stephanie asked.

Jason took a moment to picture it in his head before nodding, “Not great for blood stains, but sounds nice.”

“Limit your bleeding to the couch and you’ll be fine,” Steph replied.

Jason nodded, “Yeah, sounds good.”

“Then some patterned pillows to tie in the burgundy and cream together. It’ll look great,” she declared enthusiastically before calling over to the employee who’d been hanging back eagerly. He’d been hanging on Stephanie’s every word. Of course, it helped that he was probably making his commission goal for the month in just one day. “We’re ready for more, Doug.”

He was by her side immediately, “Yes, Miss Brown. What did you decide?”

“This couch, the rug, the coffee table and the end tables. Now we want a love seat and matching arm chairs in cream, some coordinating pillows, and we’d like to see your entertainment centers.”

“Yes, Miss Brown, Mr. Harper. If you’ll just come this way, I think we’ve got exactly what you’re looking for.”

Jason smirked and followed them over to some more couches. An hour later, everything was picked and would be delivered straight to “Mr. Todd Harper’s” loft by the afternoon. It was amazing what could get done when a leggy blonde was waving money around. Movers would bring in and set up his new furniture then carry off all the old stuff. That gave Jason time to get back home and stash his weapons and equipment before they got there. By the time the sun was setting Jason’s place looked like an actual home.

“Nice,” Stephanie surveyed their work with a grin as Jason continued stacking his books on the one of the large, tall bookcases they’d bought.

“Yeah, thanks for your help,” Jason replied.

“Consider it a return favor for all the food,” Steph said, then hesitated before speaking again, “So, in the spirit of not pulling a Tim or a Dick, how do you feel about me inviting Barbara over for our movie night? She’s been wanting to see you in person, but she doesn’t want to push.”

Jason looked up, surprised, “What? Really?”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Yes, she wants to see you. She thought you’d come by and see her when you were ready, but you haven’t yet, so I thought I’d ask for her.”

Jason blinked, “She wanted me to go see her? Really?”

Stephanie rolled her eyes, “Yes, weren’t you listening? I mean, you know where her base is, right? You’re a bat, you’re smart, of course you know where to find her.”

“Well yeah, but I didn’t think I’d be welcome,” Jason admitted. “Not at the Clocktower. And then I didn’t want to just show up on her turf either, or infringe on her civilian life.”

Stephanie gave him an unhappy look, “You’re absolutely welcome at the Clocktower. Any time. And you wouldn’t be infringing on anything. But don’t let me tell you that. Let me invite Babs over so she can tell you herself.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jason replied easily. Barbara had been respecting his privacy besides the occasional unsolicited info on his cases. But that had just been the once and she stopped when he asked. They’d talked a few times, but he hadn’t actually seen her in person since before he died. It would be nice to see her again.

“Great,” Stephanie said, smiling wide as she shot off a text then sat down by him. She picked up a few books and briefly examined them before carelessly lining them up on the shelf. Jason immediately took them back off. Steph grabbed a few more and stuck them on. Jason pulled those off too. Thankfully she got distracted with actually looking through the books.

“You have a lot of books. Like a lot of books,” she said, noticing the sheer number of shelves they’d had to purchase for the first time. “And most of these are classics.”

“So?” Jason said, feeling slightly defensive. It felt like she was leading up to something, and Jason wasn’t sure what it was, but he had the feeling he wasn’t going to like it.

“Have you read all these?”

“I have a stack over there for ones I haven’t gotten around to yet. They’ll have their own shelf,” Jason replied.

“That’s only like twenty books. There has to be over three hundred books here,” she exclaimed.

Jason frowned, “What’s your point, Blondie?”

“Oh my god, you’re a nerd!” she declared with a giggle.

“What?!” Jason protested. “I am not!”

Stephanie was too busy laughing to listen though, “You act like the badass too cool for school Robin of the bunch, but you’re a total book nerd!”

“I like books! What’s wrong with that?”

Stephanie continued to giggle, “No, it’s great. I’m just picturing you as a hipster college student studying English Literature, and I’m having a hard time taking you seriously now.”

“Well what do you do in your free time?” he snapped, defensively.

Her laughter died down, but she was still grinning when she replied, “Help my mom around the house, take classes at the community college, homework, watch crap TV, teach bat brat how to be a real boy. You know, the usual stuff.”

Jason snorted at the bat brat part. He was still so thrilled that nickname stuck. “You’re teaching the demon how to be human? How’s that going?”

Stephanie shrugged, “We don’t hang out much now that Bruce is back. Dick needed a little help when he was trying to balance everything with Bruce gone, and Damian needed more than just Dick and Alfred. Not that the kid would ever admit it, of course.”

“Course not,” Jason muttered. “No offense, but I don’t think any of your lessons stuck.”

“Oh they did. He was worse,” Stephanie replied.

Jason let out a low whistle, “That I wouldn’t like to see.”

Stephanie snorted then picked up a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo. “This isn’t even English. This is French.”

Jason shrugged, “Original language. Dumas was French.”

“Oh my god, you’re a super nerd,” she exclaimed, laughing again. She shoved it on the shelf next to Tolkein, which no. Mixing genres completely. Plus, he had a section for classic French novels.

“I know you were a Robin so you have to be super hella smart, but reading classic literature in other languages?”

“In their original languages,” Jason corrected, because what was the point of reading translations?

“What’s up with that?” she questioned.

Jason shrugged, “Like you said; I was Robin. I had to be able to do all the science and math and ass kicking, but it was the languages I was really good at. I picked them up quickly. Especially the ones Alfred taught me.”

She nodded, “I bet he made a real effective teacher since he was the one supplying food.”

Jason snorted, “Exactly. Pronounce something correctly, get a cookie.”

Stephanie picked up A Tale of Two Cities and started to flip through it roughly. Jason grimaced. “Put that with the other Dickens. No, Shakespeare gets his own shelf. Oh just give me that,” he said, impatiently taking the book from her. Then he frowned again as she picked up Jane Eyre. “Okay, I get that you’re not sorting in any way, shape or form, but you can at least group the Brontë sisters together. Over there,” he pointed and relaxed a little as she stuck Jane Eyre in with Wuthering Heights and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

“You’re as bad as Tim whenever I use one of his laptops,” she snickered.

And Jason didn’t even care. He just wanted her away from his books as quickly as possible. “You said you like crap TV. How do you feel about soap operas?” he asked.

“Hate to love ‘em, love to hate ‘em,” she replied immediately. “I mean they’re so awful, but I always get sucked in. I went through like twelve seasons of this one soap last winter after I broke my leg.”

Jason smirked, “How do you feel about space soap operas?”

She blinked, “Space?”

“As in aliens. As in soap operas from other planets.”

Her eyes went wide, “Oh my god, that sounds absolutely awful and utterly fantastic, and I have to know what that’s like right now.”

Jason grinned in triumph, “Stephanie Brown, I’m going to change your life.”

Half an hour later Stephanie was completely sucked into Love Across Galaxies and was blessedly keeping her pawing hands off his books. Sorting the shelves went much smoother after that.

*****

Jason was mostly through with dinner when Cass arrived with Barbara a few hours later. They used the actual door since Barbara was in her wheelchair. Cass moved in without preamble, looking around at all the new furniture and declaring, “Good.”

Stephanie immediately swept her away to show her the bedroom furniture, which left Jason and Barbara alone. God, it’d been years, but she looked so much the same, down to the wry quirk of her lips. Jason felt his throat thicken a little, and he had absolutely no idea what to say to her.

Without a word Barbara opened her arms and Jason immediately bent down and pulled her up into a fierce hug.

She gave a watery laugh and hugged him back tightly. “Oh my god, when did you get so tall? You were always so scrawny. I think you’re as tall as Bruce now!” she declared in amazement, not letting him go.

Jason gave his own chuckle, “Grew like a weed after the Lazarus Pit. Talia thinks it erased any lingering effects of the childhood malnutrition.”

“So theoretically you were able to grow to your body’s full potential when before your growth was possibly stunted by malnourishment,” Barbara said into his shoulder. “Makes sense.”

Jason nodded and released her with a final squeeze, helping to settle her back into her chair. “Taller than Dick now. That’s fun.”

Barbara grinned, “Bet that rankles him. Damian’s going to be taller than him too. At least he’ll always be taller than Tim though.”

Jason chuckled, “Yeah, Tiny Tim will always be scrawny.”

Steph, who’d just come back out of the bedroom with Cass, threw up an arm for a high five at the use of the nickname and Barbara shook her head fondly. “Poor Tim. Your friendship won’t be a good development for him.”

“He’ll live,” Steph replied. Cass was over at the stove, examining the food.

“It smells delicious, Jay. Alfred has been saying good things about your cooking.”

“It’s amazing,” Stephanie gushed.

“Moroccan spiced lamb pitas,” Jason said, then added, “Pull the pitas out of the oven, would you, Cass?”

Cass nodded and Stephanie immediately started setting the table. They ate at the bar when it was just the three of them, but with Barbara here too, Jason figured Stephanie wanted to do dinner properly. He didn’t mind.

“You look good, Babs,” Jason told Barbara seriously.

She smiled, “You too, Jason. This place is incredible. You did all this?” she asked, looking around.

“Floor hasn’t changed, but the ceiling and kitchen, yeah. Started with the windows.”

Barbara smiled and wheeled herself further into the apartment, “Well it looks great. Seriously, you have good taste.”

“Course I do. You were always my favorite caped crusader, after all,” he teased.

Barbara smirked, “Damn well better been. Now come on, Jason. Show me your kitchen. Brag on your renovation a little.”

Jason grinned wide and led her into the kitchen, “More than happy to, Babs.”

Barbara wanted to know all about the details of the renovation and Jason was more than happy to discuss cabinets, countertops and recipes with her as they all sat at the table for dinner. It kept them from discussing less pleasant things. Barbara didn’t mention anything he’d been up to in the last few years, and Jason was more than willing to let it lie. Instead they focused on what Jason would need to do for a bathroom renovation, Alfred’s cooking, and what Barbara had been up to with the Birds of Prey. They talked so much through dinner and afterwards that they never actually got around to watching the movie, but Jason didn’t mind. It was nice, and when they all headed their separate ways for patrol or the overseeing of various patrols, Jason was the most relaxed he’d been since Bruce showed back up in Gotham.

Chapter Text

As January moved quickly into February, ownership of the three apartment buildings transferred over to the Wayne Foundation. Jason was relieved when they were out of his hands. Unfortunately, the weather delayed the completion of the orphanage by a few weeks, but the rest of the process was proceeding quickly. With only a few weeks left on construction, and staff already hired, the focus was now on getting their chosen judge to approve the kids’ placement in the orphanage. Jason was lucky; things needed to be done legally, and as he was legally dead, he didn’t have to deal with the paperwork and judges. Tim, on the other hand, had set aside all other projects and was working on the orphanage exclusively. Jason didn’t have a problem admitting Tim was the best one for the job. With his influence, he found the perfect judge who was still idealistic enough to want what’s best for the kids, yet realistic enough to know that wasn’t always family members.

It was good. Jason wouldn’t have been able to set up a permanent solution for the kids on his own. He had no legitimacy to offer and none of the influence of Timothy Drake-Wayne. Jason honestly preferred being legally dead. It meant he didn’t have to maintain any kind of cover. No one knew him as Jason Wayne. He had none of the issues that came with having a secret identity. It freed up his time to focus exclusively on the Red Hood/Outlaws stuff. He wouldn’t have been able to help out the people of Crime Alley half as much if he had to deal with all that other stuff too. He wouldn’t have the time. With Tim there to take care of all the things Jason couldn’t do without an official identity, it wasn’t an issue.

“The next steps are going to be the tricky ones,” Tim remarked as he and Jason sat in the rafters of the warehouse, watching the kids.

“Yeah? How so?” Jason asked around a large bite of taco. Tim had his own half taco falling apart in his hands. He made a valiant attempt to save it by sweeping the taco up over his head and dropping the rest of it into his mouth. Jason rolled his eyes and took another bite as he waited for Tim to finish chewing.

“With the kids that ran away from the foster system, it’s not that big of a deal. All we have to do is get them to speak to one of our people from Child Protective Services. The kids say they’d rather go into the orphanage than go back into the foster system or to a group home, and that’s that. CPS will place them in the orphanage. The kids who ran away from family though, that’s going to be more difficult. The judge wants to speak to them personally so that he can hear it from them that they’d rather be at the orphanage than in whatever situation they ran away from.”

“That’s going to be no picnic,” Jason muttered, surveying the children down below him. They were asking a lot of trust from these kids already. They were skittish enough at the prospect of speaking to CPS and trying out the orphanage. Asking them to speak to a judge—something the Red Hood wouldn’t be able to do with them—that might be asking a little too much.

“I know,” Tim agreed. “It gets worse. The judge will place them in the orphanage if the kids go before him and ask. But the thing is, the family member who technically has custody will be able to contest the judge’s decision if they find out. Which means the judge will need evidence that the custody holder should be denied custody, or by law he’ll have to honor the custody claim.”

Jason swore lowly and snatched up another taco, chewing thoughtfully. “So we’ll need to preemptively get that evidence to the judge for any of these kids who want to go to the orphanage. That way if anyone does come forward to claim custody, the kids won’t have to go through any of that upheaval shit after they’ve already settled in. It’ll be less of a risk of the kids running again if they know for sure there’s no way they’ll have to go back into whatever situation they ran from.”

“That would be the better option,” Tim agreed, taking another taco. Jason had bought the tacos for himself, but didn’t protest when Tim started eating them as well. The kid was way too scrawny for Jason to be denying him food. “But I’d prefer this not to be one of your falsified evidence deals. If we want to give these kids real security, everything needs to be completely legal and above board.”

Jason wasn’t even surprised that Tim knew about him falsifying evidence. “Yeah, alright fine. It’s not like we won’t be able to build a case against these people otherwise. The orphanage won’t be up and running for a few more weeks, so that gives us time to gather evidence for all the kids who ran away from relatives.”

“We should go ahead and build cases for all of them—not just the ones who have agreed to the orphanage.”

Jason nodded. “Yeah. Not all the kids have opened up about their situations from before they were on the street, and I haven’t forced them. I assume you’ve already matched everyone to missing kid cases and know all of their full names though,” he finished, side eying Tim.

Tim shrugged, not denying it. “We can split up the list of names and get it done quickly. How many are on board to move to the orphanage these days?”

“Just over half,” Jason replied. “Pretty much all of the newbies have signed on, especially after the last few weeks of snow. I’m not really surprised; I’d have jumped at the opportunity my first winter too. Most of the holdouts are the ones that have been on the street for a while. That number will probably grow now that they’ve gotta talk to a judge though.” Jason said, thinking of Amanda, Danny and possibly Alex. Alex had been on board with the orphanage idea, but now that he’d have to talk to a judge, Jason wasn’t sure. Alex trusted Jason and was always quick to let all the younger kids know they should too, but the kid had run away from his uncle, who still technically had custody. It was a bigger risk for him than it was for kids who ran away from a foster home.

Tim nodded, “It might be better to tell them that detail after we’ve already got evidence against their relatives.”

Jason nodded, but if any of the kids asked about it, he wouldn’t lie to them.

“You’ve got time for this?” he asked Tim, because the young man had already devoted countless hours to getting this orphanage off the ground and he had a ton of other responsibilities Jason didn’t have to worry about. Now he was about to add stalking residents of Crime Alley to his list. Then again, wasn’t stalking how Timmy got into vigilantism in the first place?

“It’s fine. The others can handle things till we get this done.”

“Alright then,” Jason said. His phone vibrated in his jacket pocket, and he pulled it out, scoffing as he realized Roy had sent him yet another picture of homemade macaroni and cheese.

“What?” Tim asked curiously.

“Harper,” Jason explained. “He’s been learning to cook over our little sabbatical. It’s been a couple of months already and he’s only been cooking macaroni and cheese.”

Tim looked amused. “You say that like you’re surprised. From everything I know about Roy Harper, that’s not surprising in the least.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Jason admitted. Kori was already responding to the picture in their little group chat.

Kori: Roy, as fond of you as I am, and as pleased as I am that you’ve been learning to cook, I don’t want another picture of macaroni and cheese. Stop sending them.

Jason snorted and sent his own text. Jason: Seconded. What the hell, Roy? When are you going to learn something new?

Roy: THIS IS NEW! This 1 has gruyere cheese and is topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.

Kori: I don’t care. Stop sending me pictures or I stop sending pictures of my boobs.

Roy: I accept your terms.

Jason: You’re such a moron. Why are you only making mac and cheese anyway?

Roy: I’m doing a definitive ranking of the world’s best mac & cheese. When I’ve decided and mastered the top 10, I’ll move on to something else. You’re gonna love this one, Jaybird. It’s definitely in the top 3!

Jason shook his head and pocketed his phone without responding. “Moron,” he muttered. Jason had no doubt that once they were all back together he and Kori would be trying each one of Roy’s top 10. Jason liked macaroni and cheese just fine, and would be happy to eat any kind that wasn’t made from a box, but still.

“No arguments here, but he’s your moronic teammate,” Tim said lightly, picking up another taco.

“Don’t even get me started on your Teen Titans, Timbers. You wanna talk moronic teammates, we can start with the speedsters and move on to the clones,” Jason retorted grabbing the last taco.

Tim winced. “Solid point.”

“If you want to talk about morons you only need speak of yourselves,” a haughty voice sounded from the top window that led to the roof. Jason looked over to see Damian slipping into the warehouse in full Robin gear with a duffle bag strapped to his back.

“Oh fuck,” Jason cursed, dropping the taco back in the bag in disgust. “What are you doing here, bat brat?”

Beside him, Tim was glaring at Damian and looking like he swallowed something sour.

Damian shifted the tiniest bit, but it was enough for Jason to pick up on his slight discomfort. “I was informed by Grayson that there is now a cat living in this warehouse. I thought it unlikely that the child army possessed the necessary supplies for cat care so I brought some over.”

Jason smirked a little, amused. “If you want to play with the little kitty, you’re gonna have to ask permission. It’s Danny’s cat.”

Damian stiffened. “I’m not here to play with the cat, Hood! I’m here to make sure it’ll be properly taken care of.”

“Sure, whatever you say, short stuff. Just try and play nice with the other kiddies.”

Beside him, Tim snickered quietly.

Damian sneered. “I’ll just leave you to your second-rate Robins meeting. You should call Brown over. Then you’d all be present.” With that, the youngest Robin was moving down the rafters to join the kids on the ground level.

Jason snarled quietly. “Can we call Dick and tell him to come fetch his gremlin?”

“Bruce is in Gotham. Gremlin responsibility falls to him. I’m guessing you don’t want him showing up even if it meant getting rid of Damian,” Tim said, arching a brow.

He grimaced. “Don’t they have joint gremlin custody?”

“Pretty much, but Dick tries to back off when Bruce is in town. He doesn’t want to fill the role of Damian’s dad,” Tim revealed. “They got close when Bruce was lost in time and now Dick’s trying to make sure Bruce can have that with Damian too.”

Jason scowled, automatically angry on Damian’s behalf, even if he couldn’t stand the little bastard. It just reminded him a little too much of his own issues with Bruce. “Dick wouldn’t have to worry about it if Bruce would just step up to the plate and do his job in the first place, especially since Damian is actually his son. God, this family. Has it ever been functional?”

Tim snorted, and to Jason it sounded a little bitter. “For brief stretches of time. I think Bruce and Dick had something functional back in the day, but it didn’t last through Dick’s teenage years. He did runaway to Bludhaven to be a cop, after all. Then you and Bruce were functional for a while.”

Jason jerked around to glare at Tim. “What.”

Tim wasn’t the least bit bothered by his glare or flat tone. “Don’t give me that; I’ve got photographic evidence. I was only around for the tail end of Bruce and Dick, and they were already butting heads by then. You and Bruce though…” he trailed off for a moment before continuing. “The two of you on patrol were amazing. When you were Robin, Batman laughed, Jay. I don’t think you realize how big a deal that was. I had a lot to live up to when I became Robin—from Dick and you, but that... that was something I never quite managed. No one has since.”

Jason frowned. It was hard for him to think back on his time as Robin and see it clearly. For the longest time the Pit affected everything about his brain and the way it worked, including the way it perceived memories. Even with its influence diminished, Jason could only see all the ways he was never able to measure up. After all this time, he still couldn’t quite shake what Babs said when he first became Robin: You’ll never be Dick Grayson. That’s what he remembered from his time as Robin. He knew for sure it had been that way towards the end, when they would return from a patrol only for Bruce to immediately start lecturing him about his anger, about all the things he did wrong, what he should have done instead, etc. All he’d been able to hear in those times was Babs saying You’ll never be Dick Grayson. With the Pit influence, he recalled it with perfect clarity.

By contrast, it was harder to remember the good times before those last six months. But now that Tim mentioned it, Bruce had laughed on patrol. He’d laughed in the Batmobile. He’d laughed at the Manor. Sure, he was still a broody bastard with a stick up his ass a lot of times, but he’d laughed. Jason had laughed too. Those first two years had been the best years of his life. Robin had meant so much to him. Bruce had meant so much to him. Otherwise it wouldn’t have hurt so damn bad when he found out he’d been replaced so soon after being put in the ground.

Jason shook the thoughts from his head. It didn’t matter anymore. He and Bruce had had something good back then, but it ended far before his death. He needed to remember that.

Uncomfortable with the way Tim was covertly watching him, Jason shifted the topic onto him. “What about you, Replacement? Dick and B had their falling out, now Dick’s the golden boy. As for Damian, Dick’s more his dad than Bruce has ever even tried to be, which is messed up since Bruce actually is this little bird’s dad. But what about you and B-Man? What are your bat-daddy issues?”

Tim deflected. “I think you might overestimate Dick and Bruce. They’re both stubborn assholes who butt heads all the time.”

Jason frowned. “Nice try. I’m not asking about Bruce and Dickhead, I’m asking about Bruce and you. Come on, Tiny Tim. Spill your guts for the class.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Wow. Thanks for confirming that you are in fact a teenage virgin. This isn’t Facebook, Timmy.”

Tim gave a short sigh, before he shifted around a bit to better face Jason. “You know what? Fine. You want to do this, let’s do this. I care about Bruce. He means a lot to me. But he’s not my dad.”

Jason blinked, honestly a little surprised. He knew Bruce legally adopted Tim and with how similar they were in some areas, Jason thought they had the easiest time getting along. While Bruce probably loved Dick best, he thought that Tim was the one he liked most—definitely the one he liked to work with most.

“My dad died. He wasn’t much of a dad for most of my life, but he really tried there, towards the end. Bruce can’t replace him. And not because Bruce isn’t biologically my dad, but because Bruce is incapable of being that for anyone. I care about Bruce and I respect him, but after all these years, I’ve got a pretty realistic view of him. Bruce is broken and has been since he was eight years old and his parents were shot in an alley a few blocks from here. He’s held on to it all these years and he’ll never let that go. Which means he’ll never be capable of being emotionally supportive—being a parent—to anyone. And if we put those unrealistic expectations on him, we’ll be disappointed every time. That line of thinking only leads to bitterness.”

“Well shit,” Jason breathed, sobered and just a little bit stunned. Because, well, Tim wasn’t exactly wrong, was he? He’d thought out of all of them besides maybe Dick, Tim was the most emotionally stable. Now it felt that he’s just as bitter as the rest of them. Or maybe not bitter—maybe just cynical. Maybe emotional stability was just cynicism in the end.

“Fuck, baby bird. I feel like I need a drink. You need a drink?”

Tim rolled his eyes. “I’m not legal, Jason.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ve got alcohol at my place.”

Tim shook his head, but his lips twitched up, amused. “No, I’m good.”

Jason rubbed a hand over his face. “You think someone should tell him to stop adopting kids since he’s so damn bad at it?”

“I think we’ve all told him that at least once,” Tim admitted.

“I’m still pissed as hell at him,” Jason declared. “Not just for screwing up the whole dad thing. For a bunch of stuff. He’s an ass. He doesn’t get to use being emotionally incompetent as an excuse.”

“That’s fair,” Tim replied.

They sat in silence for a few moments before Jason scowled down at Damian. While they’d been talking, Damian and Danny had been getting a litterbox, cat food, and a cat bed set up for the little kitten. Now he was playing with the kitten and telling a story about a recent run in with Freeze while all the younger kids gathered around him eagerly. Even Lisa was listening and looking starry-eyed.

Tim took one look at Jason and snickered. “You hate it, don’t you?” he asked, nodding to Robin and the group of kids.

Jason played dumb. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Tim scoffed. “Of course you don’t. Don’t worry, Jay. They still like you best.”

“The little bastards better,” he replied, giving up all pretense. “I’d already be shaking the dust from this godforsaken town off my boots if not for them.”

“I’m glad you’re not. You’re doing a good thing here,” Tim said, no longer having fun at Jason’s expense.

He sighed. “Yeah, well you too. The orphanage will be good. Get these guys back in school.”

“I think I’m going to have to make them accept the cat though,” Tim said, watching the kids and Damian play with the kitten.

“If we want Danny to even think about going, then definitely,” Jason said, nodding. He sighed. “Thirty-four kids and a cat. How the hell did this even happen?”

Tim smirked. “My theory is that little bits of Bruce rubbed off on all of us. You just got stuck with his penchant for adopting things.”

Jason scowled. “Great. Thanks.”

“If it helps, I think you might be better at it than him.”

Jason considered it. “Yeah, that does help.”

Their alarms pinged at the exact same time. Jason checked his phone as Tim checked his wrist computer. The message was from Oracle. Jason took one look at it and immediately swore as he and Tim stood up. “Well that’s just fucking great.”

“Robin, time to go,” Tim called down to the kid. Robin was up in a flash.

“Tell Oracle I’ll search the Alley and the Bowery as soon as I warn the kids,” Jason said.

Tim nodded. “We’ll keep you in the loop.” Then he and Damian were out the window.

Jason looked back down at the message and gave one last grumble as he moved down to talk to the kids.

Arkham breakout. Scarecrow loose. Divide and search.

Chapter Text

Scarecrow must have been planning his escape and subsequent return to the streets of Gotham for some time because just sixteen hours after his disappearance, the first fear gas attack occurred in Robinson Park. Of course, it just had to happen on a Saturday afternoon when the park was filled with families wanting to enjoy ice-skating and fresh snow for their children to play in. Police were dispatched quickly, but by the time of the second attack, three hours later, they’d yet to get the park fully contained. The second attack was at a shopping mall in the Upper West Side after the sun had already set. And if a fear gas attack in a very crowded indoor shopping mall wasn’t enough, there was a second element to the attack. While the park had been a standard fear gas formula, the shopping mall involved a secondary formula. The first formula was pumped into the building through the air vents, creating mass hysteria. Then Scarecrow had men planted in the mall shooting additional victims with a separate compound that turned victims crazed, violent and intensely aggressive. Mix a large fear-gassed population with a few insanely violent rampaging madmen, and things dissolved into pure chaos. The bustling street market in Chinatown was the next to get hit, with both the gas and the additional serum.

Jason had been monitoring the situation since Oracle’s alert the night before, but he hadn’t strayed out of Crime Alley and the Bowery. None of the attacks were centered on the north island, and Jason doubted Crane had much interest in the Alley. Horrible things happened there all the time. There was little shock and awe value to be had, and people outside of the worst parts of the city didn’t much care about the slums. But with the fear gas coursing through a large portion of the southern part of Gotham, chaos was starting to erupt in the northern parts too. Mostly, it was a lot of armed idiots deciding Scarecrow’s commotion was the perfect time to start shooting each other and robbing shit. Jason wasn’t usually a big fan of the local cops, but with the city-wide pandemonium and the fact that he’d been running for hours, he appreciated the extra legs on the ground.

As much as he tried, Jason just couldn’t be everywhere at once, especially when he didn’t want to move too far from the warehouse. The kids were safely holed away and he had cameras and motion sensors to alert him if anything happened, but he wanted to be close just in case. Even so, he was monitoring the comms. He wanted to keep up with what was happening, but it would also serve as a first alert if any of Scarecrow’s men were moving Jason’s way. The police were handling the dwindling turmoil in Robinson Park and Nightwing, Red Robin, Batgirl and Black Bat were able to breach the mall and had been in the process of taking out Scarecrow’s snipers and disabling the civilians who received the secondary compound when the attack on Chinatown occurred. With things wrapping up at the mall, Black Bat and Batgirl left to take on the new threat in Chinatown while Batman and Robin were tracking a hunch to the city’s reservoir. Because when did a villain like Scarecrow pass up a chance to get his fear toxin into the water supply?

“Bad news,” Oracle spoke through the main comm line. “I’ve spotted some more of Scarecrow’s thugs on the move, and it looks like they’re headed to Gotham Central Terminal.”

Jason growled under his helmet. That was the last thing they needed. The Central Terminal was located at the south end of the Upper East Side, just north of the Fashion District, and had train, bus, and subway lines to pretty much everywhere in the city. If Scarecrow got access to any of the lines, things would go from bad to nightmare in no time flat.

“Great,” Nightwing snapped, and Jason sympathized.

“The GCPD are already there, but they won’t be able to hold Scarecrow’s men off on their own, especially once they start bombing everyone with fear gas,” Oracle said, grimly.

“Okay, we’ve got the serum victims and Scarecrow’s men taken care of here. The police can handle the rest. Red Robin and I will move to the station.” There was a pause before Nightwing added, voice strained enough that Jason knew he was already on the move. “Hood. I’m pretty sure you’re listening in. We could use all hands on deck here.”

Jason tapped the side of his helmet to unmute the line. “My hands don’t work on your deck anymore, N,” he answered, startling some punk-ass who’d decided to break into a closed bodega. He snagged the guy by the collar before he could run off. The guy had a year or so on Jason, but his face paled dramatically and he began to shake as he tried to stutter out some sort of plea for his life.

Jason jerked him around a little and snapped in his face. “What the hell are you doing, you fucking moron?” The guy paled further. Based on the level of fear, Jason was betting he was more of an opportunist than a hardened criminal. “You want me to shoot your stupid ass? Then go the fuck home!”

“Y-you’re gonna let me go?” he stuttered, wide eyed and terrified.

“If you go home,” Jason snapped. “I’ve got bigger problems to deal with than idiots like you.”

“I’ll go home! I’ll go home!”

Jason shoved him and the guy took off like a shot. He hurried off as well. There were a lot more hardened criminals than opportunists out, and they were the ones Jason was concerned with at the moment.

“Hood,” Nightwing tried again, panting a little this time. “We’re swamped. We need help.”

Jason grunted in annoyance as he grappled back to the rooftops, making a run for Sasha’s street corner. He checked with the girls earlier and they’d all taken off, but he was worried that one of the girls he was less familiar with would take their chances on the street tonight.

“I’m not exactly twiddling my thumbs here, N. I’ve got thirty odd kids and a cat barricaded in a warehouse, and a town of assholes running around with weapons. That’s not even including the threat of Scarecrow’s toxin. I’m not taking any chances.”

Barbara tried next. “Hood, the biggest risk of Crime Alley being contaminated is through a Gotham Central Terminal attack. If you help us, we have a better chance of keeping that from happening.”

“You’ve got no guarantee,” Jason argued. “If anything happens, I’ll be too far away to help them.”

“I’ve got cameras on the warehouse and I’ve tapped into your motion sensors. I can patch into the local police stations, assign officers I approve of to the area around the warehouse. They might know about the kids, they might not, but if anything happens they can be there almost immediately. Only the good ones, I promise.”

Jason took a deep breath. He didn’t want to leave the kids, but he also didn’t like hanging back when all the real action was happening elsewhere. Barbara was right though; the biggest risk to the Alley that they knew of was the Gotham Central Terminal. With so many lines, it’d be tricky for Dick and Tim to handle it all alone. And if any fear toxin did get into the Crime Alley, Jason wouldn’t be able get it under control by himself.

Jason cursed furiously before capitulating. “Fine, but if anything happens to my kids, it’s on you, O. You watch them.”

“I promise I will. I’ve got a screen dedicated to them.”

Jason took another deep breath, shoving down the instinctual panic. “Fuck, alright. En route then.”

“Thank you, Hood,” Dick replied.

“Yeah, well you’re gonna owe me one, Big Bird. I’m pretty sure this is a terrible idea,” Jason declared, moving quickly to get to his motorcycle. “Sending the guy with major trauma issues to fight a bunch of guys with fear toxin. No way that’s not going to bite everyone in the ass,” Jason grumbled to himself, straddling the bike. “And by everyone, I mean me.”

“Stop complaining and get here already,” he answered. “And switch to line seven.”

“Screw you, Golden Boy,” Jason snapped, but did as he said, switching to the new com line he assumed would be used by just him, Dick and Tim to avoid confusion. With Babs monitoring in case they needed her. The comms were great, but if you were on separate missions trying to get things done, it was impossible to coordinate with everyone else speaking at the same time.

Jason took a deep breath, mentally adjusting his thought processes to Nightwing and Red Robin instead of Dick and Tim, now that he was committed to the mission. This was the first time he’d be really working with the Bats since he died, and it was all because of Scarecrow. It was very likely to be a bad combination. He didn’t have to worry about rebreathers and antidotes like the others; the helmet filtered out airborne toxins so he wasn’t that worried about being exposed. Not to mention he had a resistance to foreign substances these days, so even if directly exposed, he was at minimum risk. Otherwise, he would have never agreed to it. Crisis or not, Jason was not stupid enough to put himself at risk of fear gas exposure. Not with the kind of issues he had lurking just around the corners of his psyche. That would be all kinds of stupid and all kinds of deadly for anyone near him.

Northbound traffic was a bitch as a lot of the people not hunkered down safely in their homes attempted to move up to the north island and out of the city. Luckily for Jason, the only other vehicles moving south were emergency vehicles. Unfortunately, once he got into the Upper East Side, it was a bit trickier. People were in the process of rushing back home or trying to move north which made for a lot of traffic as Jason tried to move towards the Central Terminal. It’d probably be crowded as well, since it had lines moving out of the city proper. Jason doubted there’d be a mass exodus out of the city (this was Gotham, and if people left during every disaster there would hardly ever be anyone in the city), but, instead of just barricading themselves in their homes, many people were attempting to move out of Scarecrow’s line of fire. That was all fine and good, but they were getting in his way.

“The first fear gas bomb’s already gone off,” Red Robin spoke into the comm. “N, you look for the snipers. I can shut down the subway lines completely. If no subway trains go out, they can’t spread the gas that way. We still need to keep them away from the buses and above ground trains though.”

“Right, make it fast,” Nightwing replied. “Hood, where are you?”

“Five minutes. Think you kids can manage till then?”

“Yeah, but hurry up.”

Jason could see the chaos on the street before he even reached the station. “Was the bomb in the station or outside it?” he asked, skidding to a stop before he hit a crowd of fear crazed civilians. There was no time to stash his bike anywhere, but he did set the security before he started moving. There were people everywhere, all screaming, some hunkered down wherever they could get, arms covering their heads, trying to shield themselves from whatever it was they were seeing. Others were running or trying to fight off their hallucinations. Scattered in were a few police officers equipped with gas masks, trying to subdue the real crazies, the ones that had to have been hit with the secondary serum.

“Both now. They’re trying to bog us down so we can’t keep them from getting the toxin out,” Nightwing answered.

“Yeah, and it’s working,” Red Robin snapped.

“Focus on shutting down the subway.”

“Easier said than done when I’ve got a bunch of Scarecrow’s cronies in my way!”

“On my way, baby bird,” Jason said, moving quickly, shooting one of the secondary serum civilians with the Tamaraanean blaster. There was no way that was Crane’s normal mixture. The guy was practically foaming at the mouth, snarling and trying to violently attack another man who was huddled up under a bench. The hit from the blaster didn’t even faze the guy and he grabbed the other man’s arm, dragging him out from under the bench before he started clawing at the man’s throat.

“Shit!” Jason said, running forward, hitting him with the blaster again.

The crazy guy dropped like a stone.

“Uh oh,” Jason breathed as the man who’d been attacked shrieked and ran, blood at his neck, but not enough that his life was in danger. Jason focused on the crazy one and moved forward quickly.

“Did you just say uh oh?” Red Robin spoke, voice wary.

“No, why would I say that? Must have been someone else,” Jason said as he reached the guy, letting out a little breath as he realized the man was still breathing. He checked his pulse and it was steady. “No uh oh’s here, we’re good,” he continued, checking the guy’s pupils. Then he moved to zip tie the guy’s limbs in case he woke up too early.

“You’re making me nervous, Hood,” Nightwing said.

“You called, I came. You don’t get to complain about it, N. On a definitely and completely unrelated note, did you guys know that a double tap from the non-lethal setting on my blaster will knock a person out? Because I didn’t.”

“Oh for the love of fuck,” Red Robin swore lowly and Nightwing groaned, making Jason grin in amusement as he bounded up the steps into the station.

If it was crazy on the street, it was even worse inside. Most of the police on the scene were inside trying to deal with the second serum crazies while Nightwing had his hands full with them and Scarecrow’s men who were shooting darts at random civilians in Nightwing’s path as he tried to move out to the trains. Jason watched a dart hit a woman in the neck and in three seconds she was a raving lunatic, shrieking and attacking the nearest person with her bare hands. Jason shot her twice with the blaster and she went down cold.

“Hope that doesn’t have any bad side effects,” Jason muttered, pushing through the chaos. “Red, where are you?”

“Don’t bother, I can handle these guys,” Red Robin replied, and it sounded like he was still fighting. “We still need someone to cover the bus terminal.”

“Yeah, alright then,” Jason replied, turning his attention to the western wing of the building that acted as the bus terminal. There was a large number of civilians and henchmen in his way, and he started shoving his way through. If nothing else, Scarecrow’s lackeys were easy to spot by the poor copies of scarecrow masks on their heads. Jason shook his head at the sheer stupidity of some criminals. These morons were making the Bats’ jobs so much easier. Only in Gotham did villains choose cheap theatricality over efficiency. If the idiots were disguised as civilians, they’d have probably already gotten their toxin out into the rest of the city.

“You know,” Jason began conversationally, as he punched one of Scarecrow’s men in the face and shot another twice with the blaster. “I’ve been all around the world and I’ve shot a lot of bad guys.”

“Does this story have a point?” Red Robin asked.

“Course it does, Red. And I’ll get to it if you’ll just let me,” he added, pushing through the corridor and into the atrium of the bus terminal, ignoring all civilians except the raving lunatics. “I’ve been all around the world, shot all kinds of bad guys, and not one of them were anywhere near as stupidly melodramatic as the assholes we’ve got here.”

“So? What’s your point?” Nightwing asked.

Jason grumbled at them. There were more goons than civilians as he pushed outside to the buses, so he let himself loose a little, happy to unleash hell on some assholes.

“My point is that you guys have been stuck in Gotham too long,” he replied, leaping into the air and kicking some guy right in his masked teeth. “You gotta get out of this hellhole. Take a step back. Then you can really see how completely fucked up and ridiculous this whole city is.”

These guys weren’t the most skilled fighters, but Crane didn’t suffer fools lightly, so for the most part, they were at least mildly intelligent, which meant they were trying to hit Jason with darts full of the crazy compound. Jason was faster though, and he was smarter.

A bus took off and Jason took out three of its wheels, turning to shoot a few assholes as well. “I mean, think about it,” he pushed, shooting another who was loading canisters of fear gas onto a different bus. “Whole big world out there and all the major crazies are here in this one city running around in scarecrow masks and shit. Doesn’t it ever get to you?”

“No,” Red Robin replied before exclaiming, “Finally! Subway shut down.”

“Good job, Red Robin. I’m working on the trains,” Nightwing replied.

“Buses good so far,” Jason sighed, shooting out a second one’s tires. “I’m serious though; you guys really need to get out more. Fight some normal guys for a change.”

“Didn’t you spend most of last year traveling around the world hunting ancient, evil immortal zombies?” Red Robin challenged, and Jason blinked, surprised.

“…Shut up.”

Nightwing snickered.

It got too busy for Jason to chat. His hands were full with the sheer number of goons and buses. A few landed some solid hits, but nothing debilitating or dangerous. One got Jason’s side with a knife, but it wasn’t too deep and Jason barely felt it in the commotion. After long minutes of frantic fighting and disabling any bus that moved, the tide began to turn. There were only a few goons left and more masked GCPD men moving in, securing the henchmen Jason had shot or taken out already. Jason moved quickly in between the busses, shooting out tires here or there as he took out more and more of Scarecrow’s men. The City Council could afford to replace some tires. Hell, Bruce would probably be donating a huge chunk of change to aid in the “recovery effort” in the next couple of days.

“Trains secure,” Nightwing said through a huge sigh.

“Atrium too. GCPD’s loading up Scarecrow’s men and the serum victims as we speak,” Red Robin added. “I’ve got samples of the serum. Already running through my wrist computer. If things are quieting down, I can get an antidote synthesized.”

“Think the buses are good. None will be moving any time soon at least. GCPD wrapping the rest up,” Jason replied, moving back into the station towards the main atrium. Any other day of the week and the GCPD would be lining up to shoot him, but they made no effort now. Jason didn’t acknowledge them and just kept moving, figuring it’d be better for everyone that way.

“Oracle, any other attacks?” Nightwing asked, and he sounded tired. Jason was too. He might not have been dealing with the fear gassed masses all night, but he’d been running around since they got news of Crane’s escape, and he was ready for this crap to wrap up.

“Please tell me B is doing his job and has got the asshole already?” Jason grumbled, moving into the Atrium. Red Robin was wrapping up a conversation with a police officer. He had a couple of nicks here and there and was favoring a knee, but other than that he looked fine. Nightwing moved back into the large space, and Jason took stock of the slice to his thigh and the beginnings of a solid shiner behind his domino.

“Not yet. It’s been a cat and mouse game so far. Scarecrow did set something up for the Reservoir, but Batman and Robin caught it in time. The attack in Chinatown spread into the Upper West Side so Batgirl and Black Bat are still working to contain that,” Oracle answered. “I’m trying to track Scarecrow now.”

“And my kids?” Jason asked.

“Safe and sound. Police is still in the area, but they haven’t approached the warehouse.”

“Good.”

“Keep us posted, O,” Nightwing requested.

Jason let himself drop down onto one of the benches scattered around the large space. “Now what?”

Before he could get an answer, all the TVs in the atrium sparked to life and Scarecrow’s masked face appeared on the screens. “Well this is disappointing. I had plans for this station, you know,” Crane spoke, tapping the needle claws of his glove in displeasure. “Surely you know I won’t let this stand.”

“I’d apologize, Crane, but we both know I’m not sorry,” Nightwing spoke, grinning cheerfully. Red Robin was subtly doing something on his wrist computer, no doubt trying to track the signal. Crane was probably tapped into the security cameras, but Red was angled just right so that it wouldn’t be visible. Crane probably also had the place bugged since he could apparently hear them, but that wouldn’t give Red Robin away.

“There is no Crane here. Only Scarecrow,” Crane retorted dramatically.

Jason gave a disgusted snort and turned to Nightwing, “See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. I mean, what even is this shit? Nowhere else in the world, Nightwing, I swear.”

Nightwing gave a little shrug. “Yeah, so?”

Jason shook his head. “There’s gotta be something in the water or something. You’ve been drinking it too long, Nightwing.”

“Red Hood,” Crane interrupted, sounding a little startled. “This is unexpected. Since when do you work with the Bats?”

“It’s a one time deal,” Jason answered, a little confused as to why he was being singled out here. He didn’t have any sort of history with Scarecrow as the Red Hood and Jason didn’t think many of the Rogues had connected him to the second Robin. “What’s it to you?”

“You’re interfering, and that’s a problem. The Bats, they’re all fair game,” he said, waving his needle hand dismissively. “But Joker’s called dibs on you, Hood.”

Jason stiffened and he could see Nightwing doing the same out of the corner of his eye. He figured he’d attract the Joker’s attention when he started operating in Gotham again, but the Joker was unpredictable and unless you were Batman, his attention was fleeting. There was a fair chance he’d get distracted by something else. But if the Joker had already called dibs on him, that chance was far less likely.

He took a slow steady breath in through his nose. It was fine. If the Joker wanted to play, then Jason would give him somebody to play with. And this time, he could end the Joker for good.

Crane continued. “I don’t typically go out of my way to accommodate Joker, but he does have his uses, so I’d prefer not to be on his bad side if given the option. And since things are so personal between you two, it doesn’t seem right for me to get in the way. So I’ll tell you what—you leave now and I’ll let you go.”

Let him go. Like Crane was in any position to stop him when they’d already taken out all of his goons and he was on the other side of a camera somewhere.

Jason turned to Nightwing, not wanting to draw any attention to Red Robin who was still doing something furiously on his wrist computer. “Is he for real?”

Nightwing rolled his shoulders in an easy shrug. “Sounds like it. What do you say, Hood? You tired already? Want to call it an early night and turn in while the rest of us deal with Crane here?” If he had any lingering concern about the Joker calling dibs on the Red Hood, he was hiding it well.

“Nah, I’d just get bored,” Jason replied.

On the screen, Crane shrugged, “Well, I did try to be sporting. I have a feeling by the time the night’s through, you’ll wish you took the out, Hood. Or rather it’ll be your companions wishing it.”

There was a sudden shot and Jason grunted as something hit him in the neck. Jason spotted the sniper behind the ticket counter immediately and shot him twice with the blaster before he got the chance to get Nightwing or Red Robin as well. The thug went down and Red Robin quickly snatched the dart gun away and secured his hands and feet. Jason grabbed at his neck, pulling the empty needle away.

Oh crap,” Nightwing breathed, the whites of his domino widening in horror.

Crane sounded annoyingly smug. “I know all about your penchant for violence, Hood. You’re going to tear these two Bats apart. They’ll have to kill you to stop you. If you don’t slaughter them first, that is. Let’s see how many people you butcher before the sun rises,” he finished just before the screen blinked out, leaving Jason contemplating again how annoyingly melodramatic most of Gotham’s villains were.

The room stood frozen for a moment, Nightwing and Red Robin staring at Jason with wide eyes and tensed muscles. Jason’s whole body seemed to pulse. He eyed the empty dart in his gloved palm.

“Well shit.”

Chapter Text

Jason tossed the needle away in frustration. The armor at his neck was much less durable in order to facilitate easy movement. Clearly though, he was going to have to make some upgrades.

He was broken out of his thoughts by Nightwing. “Little Wing,” he spoke, attempting to sound soothing, but barely covering the panic in his tone.

“Careful, N,” Red Robin hissed. “The serum is already taking over his system.”

And it was. Jason could feel it coursing through his blood—an anxious and hostile itch under his skin. Nothing like he imagined it was supposed to work, but just enough oomph to make him agitated and trigger happy. He concentrated on his breathing, utilizing a relaxation technique Talia had taught him. Exhale, inhale 4 seconds, hold 7 seconds, exhale 8 seconds. After that he focused on keeping his breaths steady and even.

Nightwing held his hands out and moved forward slowly, still speaking in that annoyingly placating voice. Like he was speaking to a hurt, scared kid he found on patrol. “Little Wing, it’s going to be alright. Okay? You’re going to be fine. Nothing is going to get you. But I need you to give me your guns, Little Wing. Your guns and your knives.” He was trying to speak soothingly, but it sounded too loud in Jason’s suddenly sensitive ears.

Meanwhile, Tim was moving stealthily, circling to Jason’s flank in an attempt to box him in. Jason’s agitation spiked and he swung the blaster in Tim’s direction because he couldn’t see Tim’s hands which meant he was going for a syringe.

“Try to sedate me, Red, and I will shoot you right in the dick, so help me God,” he snapped angrily. “And you,” he growled, flicking his gaze to Dick as he drew another gun and aimed it at Dick’s thigh. “Stop talking to me like I’m some stray dog and back the fuck off.”

They were wary and surprised enough that they both froze carefully. “Hood,” Tim began in a tone far less patronizing than Dick had used. “You’re going to lose control and go crazy violent. You’ve seen it already tonight. You know what’s coming. You have to give us your weapons.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Jason snapped.

“I don’t understand,” Dick said to Tim. “The others went feral immediately. He should already be tearing us to shreds.”

“Keep talking about me like I’m not standing right here and I still might,” Jason growled.

“Hood, what’s going on,” Tim asked which was a step in the right direction, but one hand was still hidden behind his back so Jason knew he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“I’ll tell you, but first I want both of you to take five steps back and hold your hands out where I can see them. If you do that, I’ll put my guns away,” Jason replied.

Dick and Tim had a complicated discussion using only facial expressions before Dick finally nodded. “Alright, Little Wing. Whatever you need.”

Both he and Tim took several steps back and held out their hands so Jason could see they were empty. He waited a beat before sliding his guns back into their holsters. “Okay,” Jason said. “Now that no one’s going to do anything stupid, let’s talk.”

“What’s happening?” Tim demanded immediately. “Why isn’t Crane’s serum affecting you?”

“Oh it’s affecting me, but not nearly as severely as it should be. It’s making me hella edgy though, so no sudden movements. I’ll be fine as long as I don’t feel like you two assholes are going to jump me at a moment’s notice,” he snipped pointedly.

“Okay,” Dick agreed with a nod, visibly releasing the tension from his body. Jason knew he could still spring into action at a moment’s notice, but he no longer looked like it. It helped. “Why isn’t it working like it should?”

“Nothing works like it should anymore,” Jason replied coolly, keeping his eyes on his brothers and not on the shadows in the corners of his vision that kind of looked like they were moving. “Toxins, poisons, pain meds, anesthesia, not even alcohol really. Courtesy of Ra’s al Ghul and possibly the Lazarus Pit. So if you try to sedate me, Red, I won’t go down,” Jason said with a warning look, because he didn’t think for a moment that Tim had given up on that plan. “It’ll mess with my head though—make me less lucid than I am now, which will make it much harder for me to control the edgy feeling under my skin and then you really will have a problem. So do us all a favor, and don’t try it.”

“Okay,” Tim said, relaxing his body as well. “No sedation.”

Jason believed him. “Okay,” he said, forcing his own body to release the tension coiled in his muscles.

“We still need to get you out of the field,” Dick said seriously. “We don’t know anything about this new compound and we don’t know enough about how this works on you for it to be safe to keep you on the streets.”

“Fine,” Jason agreed, because with the panic lying just below the surface, the shadows moving at the edges of his vision, and the roaring in his ears, he couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t slice the throat of the first criminal or crazed civilian that made a move on him.

“Oracle,” Tim spoke, hand on his ear. “What’s the status of the others?” He listened for a moment before replying, “We have a sample of the new compound. Hood’s been marginally compromised. We’ll go to the Cave to synthesize an antidote. Red Robin out.”

“The Cave?” Jason scowled under his helmet. “I’ve got a crazy toxin running through my veins that could make me lash out at the slightest trigger, and you want to take me to the Cave?”

“We have to be safe,” Tim countered. “We don’t know anything about your condition, and we can’t leave you alone in case you’re triggered. We also can’t spare anyone to babysit you at your place. Plus, we’ll need your blood. If you have any better ideas, I’m all ears.”

“Fuck,” Jason swore grumpily. They were all excellent points and with Crane still on the loose, they couldn’t afford to be anywhere other than out in the field or at the Batcave.

“Agent A will be there,” Dick pointed out.

Jason nodded. Being around Alfred would help, even if it was in the Cave. “Yeah, fine.”

“Okay,” Dick said, taking charge. “We should cut through the sewers to get to the Batmobile. Cut off any potential contact with civilians.”

“Not going to work,” Jason said immediately. Just the thought of going into the sewers, going underground, had the panic ratcheting up to higher levels. He wanted to grab a gun and put a bullet in the face of any and all threats that got even remotely close.

“We can’t take you on the streets like this,” Dick argued.

“I don’t care; it’s not going to work.”

“Hood—”

“Nightwing, listen to me. I know my fucking limits. I am holding it together now. You force me underground in a space any smaller than the Cave, I won’t be. The sewers won’t work.”

He hated how much that revealed about his patchwork psyche, but they had to know there was no way Jason was setting foot in a dark, enclosed underground space. He wasn’t even crazy about the Cave despite how massive and open it was. Something tight like the sewers would just be asking for visions of small coffins and suffocating dirt.

“Okay,” Dick said, thankfully accepting it without further comment. “Ideas?” he asked, looking to Tim.

Tim was already on the comms again, “I know you’re busy, but we need you to pilot a Batmobile to us… Thanks, O.” He dropped his hand and looked at Jason, explaining. “We brought two out tonight.”

“Yippee,” Jason retorted dryly. Normally he’d jump at the chance to get his hands on one of the several Batmobiles. Not with Bat supervision though and not when he’d be heading back to the Batcave.

“It’ll be fine,” Dick said, using a soothing tone yet again.

“Stop that,” Jason snapped, because the serum was making him hostile and aggressive and Dick’s calming big brother crap was seriously irritating him.

“Okay, it won’t be fine,” Dick said, holding his hands up in surrender. His voice grated in Jason’s ears.

Jason briefly ground his teeth. “Just don’t say anything.”

Dick nodded, but started rocking back and forth on his heels, and even that kind of made Jason want to shoot him. He exhaled and did the breathing thing again instead.

It took a few minutes, but soon the Batmobile was pulling up to the side of Gotham Central Terminal. “Shotgun,” Jason declared, moving to the front seat. Tim slid into the backseat, thankfully moving behind Dick so Jason had a better view of him from his peripheral vision. He appreciated the effort to keep him at ease. Tim’s silent, subtle concessions were a lot less irritating than Dick’s attempts at coddling.

Jason tried to settle in as Dick steered them in the direction of the Manor. The Batmobile had excellent sightlines, but it was still an enclosed space. And now that he was inside of it, his helmet felt suffocating. He pulled it off and settled it in his lap, fingers clenching and unclenching around it.

“Pulse?” Tim asked him, working rapidly on his wrist computer again.

“Fuck off,” Jason retorted.

Tim sighed, but didn’t push it. Jason pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and dialed Leslie’s personal cell. “Hey, Doc. What’s shakin’?”

“What do you want?” she demanded impatiently. Jason pulled the phone away from his ear with a wince. He turned the volume down quickly. “You’re not the only one who gets busy when there’s a break out at Arkham, Jason.”

“Yeah, about that. You remember how you told me to avoid exposure to toxic substances?”

There was a noise of sheer exasperation. If Dr. Thompkins were the cursing type, she’d be cursing him out, Jason knew. “What did you do?”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Jason protested immediately. “The bastard got me with a needle.”

“The fear compound going around?” Dr. Thompkins guessed immediately. “The regular one or the more potent one?”

“The second,” Jason admitted.

There was more grumbling before she reluctantly said, “I can’t have you here, Jason. This place is filled up with patients right now and I don’t know how stable you are.”

“I know. That’s not why I’m calling.”

“I’ll send you everything I’ve got—all my notes,” Dr. Thompkins replied, guessing what Jason was after. “I want blood samples though.”

“I’ll get some for you,” Jason agreed.

“Where will you be?”

“The Cave.”

“Do I have permission to consult with them on this?”

Jason frowned. “Don’t have much of a choice at this point, do we?”

“Only what’s necessary to figure out how best to get this out of your system,” Dr. Thompkins replied. “Keep me updated.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” Jason retorted before hanging up the phone. It was only a minute before he started receiving files. He forwarded them all immediately to Tim.

“Bloodwork coming your way, Timmers,” he said casually, attempting to cover how not thrilled he was with the prospect of sharing this stuff with Tim, and therefore with the rest of the family. He was too agitated to look through any of it himself though. He felt like he was crawling out of his skin, and there was no way he could concentrate. He needed all of his focus in order to keep himself under control so he’d have to depend on Tim for the antidote.

“Thanks,” Tim replied, opening the files on his tablet immediately. “I’ll make sure to send everything to Dr. Thompkins.”

“Yeah, good, thanks,” Jason grumbled. He did the breathing thing again while Dick very pointedly didn’t say anything. They spent the next few minutes in silence, though it was a deafening sort of silence for Jason. The roar of the engine seemed unreasonably loud, as did Dick’s breathing and Tim’s fingers tapping away at his wrist computer and now a tablet as well. Jason tried to shut it out and focus on his breathing as he kept his eyes trained on the road ahead, completely ignoring the shadows within the car and outside of it.

“Oracle thinks she’s got a line on Crane. Batman and Robin are going to investigate,” Tim updated after long minutes. “Black Bat and Batgirl have gotten the rest of Crane’s men in the Upper West Side, and are now just helping the police contain the scene.”

Dick nodded, but remained silent. Jason didn’t say anything, keeping his focus on controlling the agitation growing under his skin. The entire exercise was in vain though. He suspected it would be easier to control himself if he were simply going home, but the closer and closer he got to Wayne Manor, the agitation only grew. By the time they reached the Batcave, it was at record levels.

“Nope,” Jason declared, shaking his head emphatically the second he was out of the Batmobile. “Definitely nope. Don’t like this. Let’s leave.”

“Jason, all the equipment is here,” Tim said patiently. “Not to mention we could all use a lookover from Alfred. I think your ribs and Dick’s thigh need stitches.”

“Stitches? Nah, it’s just a scratch. You stay and get the antidotes done and Dick can get his stitches. I’ll just head on out,” Jason said, backing toward the cave entrance.

Of course, that’s when Alfred appeared out of nowhere and gently took Jason’s arm, not the slightest bit worried about the potential danger in doing so. “Master Jason, do come sit down,” he said, herding Jason over to one of the medical tables. “You too, Master Richard,” he said, nodding to another. “Don’t even think about moving until I’ve done your stitches.”

“Yes, Alfred,” Dick complied a little reluctantly.

Jason frowned at Alfred. “I don’t want to be here,” he said plaintively.

Alfred patted his arm sympathetically. “I know. Once we get you stitched up and you’ve gotten the antidote you will be able to go.”

Jason huffed, but sat down. “Fine. Let’s make it fast then.”

Alfred nodded. “Leslie called and informed me of your complication regarding foreign substances. Will local anesthesia help at all for the stitches?”

“Not much, but it takes the edge off,” Jason replied.

“Then do it. You’re edgy enough already,” Tim piped in. “I need a blood sample first though.” He’d already gotten some latex gloves on and gathered the necessary materials. “Will I be able to do it or do you need it to be Alfred?”

Jason took a breath and considered Tim. They’d been around each other and had been working together enough lately that Jason didn’t feel threatened by him. Of course, he had no doubt that Tim could give him hell in a fight if he wanted to, but Tim wasn’t going to attack him out of nowhere.

“We’re good. You can do it,” he decided.

Tim nodded and sat down in a chair so he was lower than Jason—a deliberate move to give Jason the height advantage and make him feel more secure, he was sure.

“You can draw your blaster.”

“I’ll be fine,” Jason replied.

Tim gave him a look. “I’d rather you hit me with the blaster than pull a knife on me or shoot me so if there’s any danger of that happening, I’d prefer the weapon that won’t cause permanent damage.”

Jason felt like that was reasonable, but he still thought it unnecessary. He took a moment to run through Talia’s breathing technique one more time before he locked gazes with Tim. “I’ll be fine, Tim. I’m not going to suddenly snap. You can take the blood samples, Alfred can stitch me up. Hell, Dick can hold my hand if he wants. But only one at a time. Don’t crowd me. Stay where I can see you. No sudden movements and we’ll be good. Promise.”

“Okay. I’m going to get started then.”

Jason breathed, taking a moment to appreciate the fact that Tim was trusting Jason as much as he was trusting him. Tim was putting himself in a position where Jason could snap and hurt him, but he was trusting Jason to know his limits and be honest about them. The only other people who trusted Jason like that were Roy and Kori. It was a bit of a daunting feeling.

“Just let me know when you’re ready for me to hold your hand, Little Wing,” Dick said, breaking Jason out of his thoughts.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Shut up.”

Dick grinned. Alfred had moved to Dick to give him a dose of local anesthesia and look over his eye before he got started on Dick’s stitches which gave Jason room to breathe as Tim wiped his arm with an alcohol swab and started drawing blood.

“Has it gotten any worse?” Tim asked quietly.

“A little, but it’s manageable.”

“What does it feel like?”

Jason knew Tim was only trying to get more information to help better understand the compound. He wasn’t just prodding at him for no reason. “The adrenaline from earlier hasn’t faded at all. I’m guessing the compound screws around with it pretty bad. I’m antsy, hyper aware. Everything’s a little too loud. I feel like my body wants to tear itself out of my skin. And there’s at least a mild hallucinogenic involved. I keep seeing movement out of the corner of my eyes. Like the shadows are moving.”

“Any fear response?”

Jason considered it, thinking back to the victims who’d been hit by the serum earlier. “Not…not fear necessarily. More like agitation, paranoia. Definitely aggression.”

Tim smirked a little. “You have been a bit hostile.”

“I could be a lot worse so you should be thankful for what you’re getting,” Jason declared a little hotly.

Tim grinned, amused as he pulled the needle out of Jason’s arm and stuck a bit of gauze on the injection site. Jason took over putting pressure on it as Tim gathered up the eight vials he’d drawn. “The computer’s already running the formula, but let’s get it running against your blood sample as well.”

“You realize the antidote for me will likely be different than the antidote for everyone else. Whatever got left in my bloodstream from Ra’s changes how shit operates in my body. It’s possible it’s just a muted reaction, but it could be a full on chemical change.”

Tim gave him a look. “I’m not stupid, Jason. That’s why we’re running an antidote with your blood sample too.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Right. Sorry to offend your supreme intelligence.”

“Apology accepted,” Tim declared primly, moving to the massive computer.

“Grab an icepack for that knee, Master Timothy,” Alfred called after him imperiously.

Dick had an icepack held up against his eye and Alfred was making quick work of the stitches on his leg. Jason stayed put as he waited for the butler to finish up.

“You’ve got the antidote stuff handled?” Dick asked Tim, who nodded distractedly, already deep in the work. “Then I think I’ll head back out, see if I can give Batman and Robin a hand.”

“You will do no such thing,” Alfred spoke firmly.

“Alfred it’s just a cut! I’m fine.”

“The second you start running around these stitches will tear and this wound will be worse. You won’t be going anywhere. Black Bat and Batgirl have helped secure the remainder of Scarecrow’s men and Batman and Robin are fully capable of handling Scarecrow. If they need backup, they’ll call and someone without fresh stitches can go to their aid.”

“But—”

“Master Richard, I will keep you here by force if necessary.”

Dick heaved a frustrated sigh, “It’s barely a scratch, Alfred! This is ridiculous.”

“I’m not repeating these stitches. You will remain here.”

Dick grumbled, but didn’t refuse.

“Excellent,” Alfred spoke easily. “When I’m finished with your stitches, you can assist Master Timothy in synthesizing the antidotes.”

“Fine,” Dick said, visibly pouting.

Jason would have snorted in amusement if he weren’t too busy trying not to tear out his own hair.

“There,” Alfred said after another minute, smoothing down the bandage on the stitches. “Be easy on them or I’ll make you stay at the Manor for a few days so I can keep an eye on you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dick sighed, carefully hobbling over to join Tim at the computer.

Jason focused on Alfred as he maneuvered out of the top half of his suit and the tank top he wore underneath. The slice to his side was high along his ribs and curved around the bottom part of his scapula. The guy had gotten in under Jason’s guard while he’d been hurling another one of them into a wall. Alfred donned a fresh set of gloves and prepared another shot of local anesthetic.

“We’ll give it a few minutes to start working as well as it’s going to,” Alfred spoke calmly as he stuck Jason carefully with the needle in a couple of places. “I’m going to have to move a little behind you to get to work on the end of the gash. Will that be alright?”

Anyone else and Jason would probably have said no. Alfred was the safest person Jason knew though. “It’s fine.”

Alfred moved around to Jason’s back and immediately paused. Jason could hear the startled breath and knew it had to be the scars that drew the reaction.

“Ra’s,” he answered before Alfred could ask. Thankfully Dick and Tim were too far away and too distracted to pick up on the conversation. “Don’t worry; I won,” he added, letting the vicious satisfaction shine through in his tone. To this day, he was fiercely proud that he’d outlasted Ra’s al Ghul. The man had come at him with all he had and Jason hadn’t buckled.

“Master Jason,” Alfred spoke quietly, voice tight with sorrow.

“I’m fine, Alfie,” Jason replied, meaning it. “Ra’s sucked, but I won. I’m fine. He’s not the one that gives me night terrors.”

Alfred breathed a sigh, understanding. “You’re still so young,” he spoke, injecting the last bit of the local anesthetic into Jason’s back. He moved back around to Jason’s front to prep the tools for the stitches.

“Not too young.”

“Too young for all the suffering you’ve experienced.”

“You could say that about all of us,” Jason said, nodding towards Dick and Tim. “Kind of goes with the whole vigilante deal.”

Alfred frowned but nodded. Jason wasn’t wrong.

They gave the anesthetic a few minutes to work before Alfred carefully cleaned the gash and began to stitch it up, Jason holding his arm out of the way, but in a position that wouldn’t stretch the skin too much. Alfred was working on his back when Dick let out a low whistle.

“Man, Little Wing. The amount of adrenaline and stuff swimming in your blood right now; I’m amazed you’re holding it together.”

“I’ve got plenty of experience controlling my violent urges, Big Bird, else I woulda shot you in the face weeks ago,” Jason retorted automatically.

“Ouch, Little Wing. That mean you don’t want me to hold your hand after all?”

Jason closed his eyes and counted to ten before opening them again to give Dick a flat look. “See? Just did it again.”

Dick grinned for a moment before looking back at Jason’s blood panel. “Really though, Jay, this is going to be one hell of a crash after the antidote starts working. Post Bane’s venom level crash. It’s going to knock you on your back. Twelve hours maybe. Probably more. Which isn’t good because every second this stuff is in you, it’s dehydrating you even more.”

“Great,” Jason scowled. “Although now that you mention it, I’m super hella thirsty.”

Dick nodded and immediately went for a water bottle. “We can’t leave you alone. I think you’ll need some IV fluids while you sleep off the crash.”

Jason immediately craned his head to look back at Alfred. “No, Alfie. I know what you’re thinking, but no, no, no.”

“It doesn’t have to be your room, Master Jason. There are plenty of guest rooms open. And only until you are better. You know I won’t be able to rest until I’m sure you’re properly taken care of, and with the others likely to need medical attention as well, I won’t be able to leave.”

Jason took a deep breath, trying to keep himself from freaking out on all of them. “I don’t want to,” he said plainly. “I can barely stand being in here as it is, Alfred. It’ll probably be worse in the Manor.”

“Not with the antidote. Not to mention you’ll be asleep for most of it. When you wake up you’ll be fully rehydrated, completely healthy, and ready to go,” Dick said, handing him two water bottles.

“I told you,” Jason glared at Dick before he drained half of one in a single go. “I fucking told you this was going to come back to bite me in the ass. You owe me big time, goldilocks.”

Dick frowned. “Goldilocks? Seriously? That one doesn’t even make sense.”

“Shut up,” Jason snapped.

Dick held his hands up in surrender, backing up. “Okay, okay. But yeah, you’re right. I owe you a big one, Little Wing. We probably wouldn’t have been able to stop them all without your help. I promise, the second you wake up, I’ll drive you back to your place.”

Jason thought about making Dick take him home as soon as he got the antidote, making him change out the IV bags while Jason slept in his own bed. But with the domino off Dick’s face, the older vigilante looked exhausted. None of them had slept since before Scarecrow broke out, and Jason didn’t doubt that Dick would be crashing himself before too long. If Jason was at the Manor then the others could take turns. No one would solely be stuck with the responsibility the entire time Jason was knocked flat on his ass.

Jason certainly didn’t want to be at the Manor, but he didn’t exactly want to be alone either. The serum wasn’t necessarily fear inducing, but there was a definitely an increased level of anxiety, and he was still having to ignore the shadows moving about the large space. Being around Tim, Dick and Alfred was distracting in a good sense. If Jason was alone, it’d probably take no time at all for the memories of his death and his coffin to completely overwhelm him, and in this state he wouldn’t be able to handle that.

“Fucking fine!” Jason growled as Alfred finished up his stitches. “But you owe me twice, Dick. And I will fucking collect, I swear.”

Dick nodded. “Yeah, okay. Completely fair.”

Alfred moved off to collect a black t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants for Jason to slip on. He changed and moved closer to the computer. Tim had cleared one of the monitors and pulled up the images for the warehouse cameras. Jason settled in a rolling chair Alfred produced for him, out of reach of Dick and Tim, but within easy view of the monitor. He settled himself back in the chair as best as he could with his body still pulsing with adrenaline, and focused on the screen and his breathing as Dick and Tim worked on the mapping out the chemical structure of Crane’s compound. Jason tuned them out and started counting his breathing as he watched the screen, only breaking from the mental exercise to drink the bottles of water Alfred periodically brought to him. Two hours passed before Tim snapped him back to reality.

“Got them. Jason, yours was a little tricky because of the whole Prometheus issue, but it’s going to work. I’m emailing the other one to Lucius to mass produce and distribute to the hospitals,” Tim said, bursting into a flurry of movement. He was quickly in front of Jason with a needle, hair a bit wild and eyes a bit manic. If Jason had to guess, he’d say Tim had mainlined coffee while Jason was focused on the cameras.

“You ready?” he asked, letting Jason see the antidote.

“Fuck yes,” Jason breathed. He felt exhausted and frayed around the edges, but his body was still thrumming with adrenaline and anxiety, keeping him strung tight and unable to relax. He was more than ready for it to be over.

Tim nodded. “Just let yourself crash, okay? You’re probably going to feel really hungover, but if you don’t try to fight through it, you’ll sleep it all off. I’ll go to the warehouse, update the kids. You’ve been watching and they’re completely fine. The city’s calmed down and so has the Alley and the Bowery. Sun’s almost up, so everyone’s going to be fine and you’ve got nothing to worry about. Just let yourself crash and you can get out of here as soon as you wake up.”

Jason drew in a slow, steady breath. “You’ll talk to the kids? Make sure they don’t need anything?”

Tim nodded. “I promise.”

Jason trusted Tim. “Okay, give it to me.”

Jason felt the prick of the needle then, for a long moment, he didn’t feel anything. Then it was as if his body suddenly put on the breaks, going from 100 to 0 in a matter of seconds.

“Holy shit,” Jason breathed, sagging in the chair.

“Feel better?” Tim asked.

“And worse,” Jason said, trying to stand, but not really managing it. Dick moved in, easing one of Jason’s arms over his shoulder, helping him upright and taking some of his weight even with the bum leg.

“Let’s get you in a bed so you can sleep it off,” Dick said, gently moving Jason along.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” Jason said, blinking heavily and fighting to focus as Dick moved him towards the stairs, Alfred in tow.

“Wow, Little Wing, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you so agreeable,” Dick joked.

“Yeah, well screw you, Dickiebird,” Jason muttered, exhausted. He briefly contemplated letting himself pass out right there—make Dick work to get him in a bed somewhere. It would serve him right and Jason would be able to sleep even sooner. It was a good plan, and Jason was strongly considering it, but then his eyes caught a case by the stairs. He hadn’t noticed it earlier; the stairs had been out of his line of sight. But now that they were moving towards it, Jason couldn’t look away.

He jerked against Dick and stopped moving, eyes utterly fixated. It’d been a while since he’d seen it, but he’d recognize his old Robin suit anywhere. It was on display in a well-lit glass case bearing a plaque that read Jason Todd: A Good Soldier.

“Jay?” Dick asked confused, then turned to follow Jason’s gaze. He stiffened and swore.

“What the fuck is that?” Jason hissed.

“Bruce,” Dick replied quietly. “He put it up after you died.”

Jason heaved in a breath, feeling almost frantic. He couldn’t look away. “That’s—that’s—fuck!” he swore furiously, rounding on Dick. Alfred and Tim were standing behind them, Alfred solemn, Tim tense. “I’m not dead, Dick! I’m not fucking dead! Why is it here?!” He sucked in another breath and in a very distant part of his mind he wondered why this was hitting him so hard—why he was almost having a panic attack over a memorial case.

“Jason! Jay,” Dick said, grabbing Jason by the shoulders and turning him away from the case completely. “It’s okay. Breathe. You’re not dead. You’re not gone.”

“He knows that!” Jason protested, pointing back at the case accusingly. “He fucking knows that so why is it here?! And what the fuck is that?!” he shouted, pointing at the plaque. “I’m not a soldier! And I was never a good one! That was the whole fucking point! That was the whole damn reason I left, Dick! Because I wasn’t the good little soldier he wanted me to be! And I’m not dead, and he’s known that so why is it still here?!” Jason paused, jerking and curling in on himself a little as the answer came to him. It was something that’d been coiling in his mind for over a year and now he knew more than ever that it was true. “He doesn’t want me,” he breathed, eyes wild as he looked at his older brother. “Fuck, Dick, he doesn’t want the person who came back. He wants the kid who died!”

“No, Jay—” Dick protested vehemently, but Jason kept going.

“He wants the kid that died, but that’s a load of shit because I was never that kid, Dick! You know that. I was never a good soldier! He’s just deluded himself!”

No,” Dick said, cutting stronger this time. He moved his hands to the sides of Jason’s face, holding it firmly in his hands. “Jason, no. That’s not it at all! Bruce is so happy you’re back. You’re right; the plaque is completely fucked up, but you know Bruce can’t express emotion in a healthy way. It was a way to honor your memory while trying to emotionally distance himself from the thought of son because the asshole can’t cope with that level of emotion. But he is so happy, so relieved you’re alive, Jay, I swear! You’re alive. You’re so alive, but it’s still here because you still suffered. You still sacrificed. And none of us should ever forget that. None of us should forget what you went through, Jason. Even though you’re alive now, you still deserve to be honored. That’s why the case is still here.”

Jason choked out a breath that was almost a sob. It was too much; he was so exhausted and completely overwhelmed. “I—get rid of that fucking plaque. I can’t—I need it gone.”

“Yes,” Dick said, nodding fervently. “Absolutely.”

Tim snatched a batarang from a nearby table, moved forward, and immediately pried the thing of the glass case.

“Melt it down,” Jason choked out.

“I will,” Tim swore. “Promise.”

Jason let out a ragged breath and the last dregs of adrenaline that had spiked when he saw the case drained out of his body. He slumped forward into Dick who immediately wrapped his arms around Jason’s broad shoulders, hugging him close to his chest.

“You’re okay. It’s all okay, Little Wing. That stupid plaque is gone. You’re alive and you’re here and that’s all that matters.”

Jason let himself stay there for a moment as Dick rubbed his back. He felt shattered.

“Come on, Little Wing,” Dick soothed after a minute, pulling Jason up a little. “Let’s get you into a bed and you can sleep for fourteen hours. Sound good?”

Jason nodded numbly and managed to stand on his own two feet. Dick took one arm and Tim took the other as they braced Jason between them and helped him move up the stairs. It was a little awkward because Jason was taller than the both of them, but he was too tired and too emotionally drained to care. Alfred carried the supplies for the IV setup behind them as he directed Tim and Dick to one of the guest rooms. Jason let himself crash onto the bed and didn’t pay much attention to Dick maneuvering the covers around him or Alfred preparing the IV.

“You’re alright, Master Jason,” Alfred promised, brushing his hand over Jason’s arm. Jason barely even felt the pinch as Alfred got the port situated. “Just rest. Things will be better when you wake up.”

Jason’s eyes fluttered shut. He fell asleep before they even got out of the room.

Chapter Text

Jason woke up a couple of times to use the bathroom, but he was barely conscious, pulling the IV line out of the port before stumbling to the bathroom and back. When he finally woke up with any sort of coherency, the room was dark and he felt like he hadn’t moved in days. A dim alarm clock to his left read sometime after midnight which meant he’d been sleeping for almost twenty hours.

“Holy shit,” he breathed, grunting at the pull of stiff muscle as he leaned over to fumble at the bedside table. Someone had plugged his cellphone in and left it on the table next to a bottle of water. In the dim moonlight shining through the windows, he could see his Red Hood uniform, weapons, and helmet waiting on the other side of the bed. The IV and port were gone so Jason figured he was sufficiently rehydrated. His mouth didn’t feel like cotton at least.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, feeling a little hungover and a lot gross. He needed a shower. The chance to brush his teeth would be nice too. Maybe he could shower at the Manor and take advantage of the clean bathrooms and endless hot water before he ditched. He hadn’t even started any sort of bathroom renovation at his loft and it was in sorry shape. Since he was already here, maybe he should go ahead and take advantage.

“Jason,” a voice spoke out of nowhere and Jason would never admit it, but he jumped about a foot in the air, swore loudly, and rather clumsily snatched up one of his guns before pointing it in the direction of the voice.

A standing lamp clicked on revealing Bruce sitting in an armchair looking exhausted.

Jason dropped the gun on the bed, breathing heavily. “What the flying fuck, Bruce? The hell was that!” he exclaimed furiously.

“I didn’t mean to startle you.” It was the first time Jason had seen Bruce up close, since he was last in Gotham doing the whole revenge/crime lord thing, and he looked like shit. He was pale and his eyes were bloodshot, like he still hadn’t slept since before Scarecrow’s Arkham breakout.

“Then what the hell were you trying to do?” he snapped in annoyance. It was absolutely unfair for Bruce to ambush him like this, when Jason was barely awake and not yet alert enough to go toe-to-toe with him. And where the hell were Tim, Dick and Alfred? Weren’t they supposed to be keeping shit like this from happening?

“I just wanted to make sure you’re okay,” Bruce said solemnly, and the tortured look of guilt and pity on his face had Jason practically snarling as all the reasons he was furious at Bruce came crashing back down on him.

“Yeah, well I’m fine so you can just get fucking lost. Or better yet, I will,” Jason growled, shoving the blanket off of him and standing up. His legs were unsteady for a moment due to the length of disuse, but he recovered quickly, snatching his phone off the charger. “Get out so I can change.”

“Jason,” he tried again, standing and moving closer. Jason hated the fact that Bruce still had a couple of inches on him. His shoulders were broader too, meaning he could loom effectively. “I just want to talk.”

If Crane’s serum was still in his veins, Jason knew he would have snatched up a gun and emptied a clip into Bruce then and there. As it was, his vision flashed red and he snapped furiously. “No! You don’t get to talk, Bruce. You don’t get to fucking do anything.”

“Jason, I just want to apologize,” the other man pushed, getting agitated and impatient.

“For what?” Jason demanded, waving his arms about angrily. “What do you want to apologize for?”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, voice thick. “I’m sorry I didn’t save you. And I’m sorry I didn’t save you again after you came back to life. You needed me and I wasn’t there.”

“God, Bruce!” he snapped, gripping his hair briefly in pure frustration. “You’re so fucking—you don’t even know what you should actually be apologizing for!”

Bruce stared, expression completely blank and he realized he really had no fucking clue. Jason didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or scream at him. He settled for a little bit of both. “Damn it, Bruce. I don’t care that you didn’t save me, you asshole! Shit happens, and the second time you didn’t even know I was alive! I don’t give a damn about that; I care that you didn’t do anything about it! That you didn’t care enough to make sure the Joker could never do it again!”

“I did care!” he broke in hotly, taking a jerking step forward. “Of course I cared! But I can’t cross that line, Jason! If I did, I’d never come back.”

“God, do you ever get tired of saying that?” Jason snapped furiously.

Bruce looked as frustrated as Jason felt. “I’m not here to fight with you, Jason.”

“Well too fucking bad, because I’ve got a new bone to pick with you, asshole,” Jason growled, getting up in Bruce’s space. “Forget the Joker, forget replacing me. Who the fuck gave you the right to my memories?”

Bruce was so startled, Jason could actually read it on his face.

He pressed on. “Did you think for even a second about what I would have wanted, or did you just fucking help yourself?”

It was clear by the expression on his face that Bruce hadn’t thought about Jason at all. Jason was so damn angry he was shaking with it. “Fuck you, asshole! You had no right! Superman had no right! None of you did! Those were my memories! My past! You don’t get to have it, but you took it anyway!”

“Jason,” Bruce began, but stopped. He stood there stiffly in the middle of the room with no clue what to say.

“Why?” Jason demanded. “Tell me why you let them do it.”

“I needed to know why you were here,” Bruce said finally, expression guarded once more. “I found out that you’d been here for months and were working with Tim. I needed to know if you were planning anything. If Tim was safe. I thought it might help me figure out what you were after.”

Jason stiffened, taken aback. “You thought I was here to try something?”

“What was I supposed to think?” Bruce demanded shortly. “You tried to kill Tim. You tried to kill Dick and Damian.”

“Yeah, and Dick and Tim, hell even Superman, would have told you that you were fucking wrong,” Jason snapped. “Did you listen to them? No, because you don’t listen to anyone. Instead you violate their privacy! My privacy! Well fuck you!”

“Jason—”

“And what the hell is that stupid case doing in the cave? A good soldier. Are you kidding me? I die and that’s all you have to say? A good fucking soldier? I wasn’t a soldier, I was your son!” he shouted, voice breaking a little on the last word and he hated it. Hated it so much.

“Jason,” Bruce spoke again, this time sounding every bit as broken as him. Jason couldn’t stand it.

“Get out,” he growled, not wanting to hear any of Bruce’s excuses. There was nothing he could say that would make it better.

“Would you just listen to me?”

Get out.”

For a moment they just stood there, tensely facing each other down. Then Bruce folded. Jason seethed as the older man moved stiffly towards the door, pausing on his way out. “I’m sorry,” he said again, quietly. Then he was gone.

Jason snarled and tore off the sweatpants and t-shirt, dressing in his armor in record time. He snatched up his phone and helmet and was halfway out the window by the time the call even connected.

Kori answered almost immediately. “Jason.”

“I need you to come get me,” he said, voice tight with emotion as he maneuvered himself the rest of the way out the window and safely to the ground. He immediately started the long trek to the front gates. “I’m at the Manor now, but I’m about to hit the highway back into Gotham. I don’t have my bike so it might take me a while to get a vehicle, but then I can meet you wherever.”

It’d be so much easier if Kori could just pilot her ship to the Manor. But that was a bad idea on the off chance that anyone noticed an alien ship landing at Bruce Wayne’s house. They tended not to use it if they weren’t on missions given how conspicuous it was. Instead, Jason would need to find a car and meet her somewhere. Not ideal, but good enough. At least he would be moving and putting space between him and this house as quickly as possible. Between him and Bruce.

“Stay where you are, Jason. Roy and I already have a car and will be at the Manor in a few minutes,” Kori replied, voice soothing.

Jason stopped his angry march, confused. “What?”

“Red Robin called us hours ago,” she replied. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but I thought it best to bring Roy as well.”

“No, that’s fine. That’s good,” Jason said, blinking in surprise. “I’ll just…” he trailed off, feeling a rush of too many emotions. He was furious at Bruce, relieved that Roy and Kori were minutes away, thankful for Tim, but also a little annoyed because yet again he somehow seemed to know everything, predict Jason’s needs, and smooth things over like it was no effort at all. Jason sort of felt like he was being handled and he didn’t really like it. Yet, apparently he needed it and if anyone was going to be handling him in this screwed up family, Tim and Alfred were the best options. Still, he didn’t like feeling like he was predictable.

“Just a few minutes more,” Kori promised, no doubt picking up on Jason’s mess of emotions.

“Yeah. See you in a minute.” Jason hung up the phone. He was completely unsurprised when Tim dropped out of a tree. The little stalker must have been keeping an eye on Jason’s window as well as the long drive from the gates.

“Sorry,” Tim spoke, frowning. “I told him to keep his distance, but he waited till Dick was gone and I was sleeping. I thought something like this might happen so I called Arsenal and Starfire. I didn’t mean to cross any lines, but I figured you’d want to get out of town as quickly as possible, and they’d be easier on you than me or Dick.”

Jason clenched a fist tightly, but nodded. “You were right. Thanks,” he admitted, though even that was a little bit of a struggle.

“I’ll keep watch at the warehouse. Steph, Cass, and Dick are splitting up my territory, so I’ll be free to watch the Alley. How long do you need?”

“More time than I can afford to take,” Jason admitted tiredly, letting some of the hostility drain out of him. Tim didn’t deserve it with how much he was helping him at the moment.

Tim nodded, understanding. “Try a week. If you need more, take another one. You’ve got a phone at the warehouse, right? Keep in contact with the kids. Make sure they know you haven’t left for good and they’ll be fine.”

Jason frowned. A lot of these kids had already been abandoned by one or more parents. They were independent now and fending for themselves for the most part, but he didn’t want to be another person in their lives that let them down.

“It’ll be fine, Jason. I’ll take care of them,” Tim said, easily reading his reluctance. “I’ll keep you updated. If I think you need to come back early, I’ll tell you. You’ve been solely responsible for over thirty kids for weeks now, Jason. You deserve a break. You need a break. Steph, Cass, Dick and I will keep you covered.”

Jason gave in. “A week.”

Tim nodded. “A week.”

He turned back towards the gate as Roy and Kori’s headlights came into view. It was only a few moments before the dark, nondescript SUV was pulling to a stop on the gravel drive. Kori was out of the car before it even stopped, Roy shortly after.

“Jason!” Kori said, hovering in the air at his shoulder.

“Jaybird!” Roy exclaimed, bounding up to his other side. “You okay? Do we need to go in there and kick Batman’s ass?”

Jason rolled his eyes and shoved Roy for being the idiot he was. “He’d be the one kicking your ass, but thanks for the sentiment.”

“I don’t know; I think we can take him,” Roy grinned, draping his arm over Jason’s shoulders.

Kori wrapped her arms around both of their shoulders, flying easily behind them. “Certainly if we were doing it together.”

“Teamwork! Exactly!” Roy declared.

Jason smirked, amused and damn glad to see them. It had been way too long since they were all together. “Maybe later. Right now I’m starved.”

“Lucky for you we stopped for burgers on the way in,” Roy said as they moved for the car. Jason took the driver’s seat and Roy seemed happy enough taking the back. “RR said you’d be hungry.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Of course he did.” Even so, he rolled down the window and gave Tim a parting wave. “I’ll keep in touch.”

Tim nodded, waving him off.

“So,” Jason said, tearing down the driveway, feeling himself lighten with every foot he put between them and Bruce. He was getting out of Gotham. Even if it was only for a week, it was a huge relief and the tension he’d been carrying for weeks just fell off of him. “Who wants to go get fucking warm?”

Even though Kori was always warm, the answer was still unanimous. “To the island!” Roy happily declared and Kori smiled brightly.

Jason grinned in response. “To the island.”

*****

Bruce watched undetected from the safety of a second story window as Jason marched down the long drive towards the front gates, only to stop when Tim quite literally dropped out of a tree. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little nervous for his third son. All of Jason’s tortured memories still sat heavy on his mind, but he also had the memories of Jason stabbing Tim—almost killing him. He couldn’t just ignore that. But while Jason still carried the tension he’d worn like armor during their brief and unproductive conversation, the hostility seemed to fade away in the face of Tim. Not only that, but the longer the two talked, the more Jason seemed to settle. The tension was still there, but he didn’t look like he was going snap into violence at any moment.

Enthralled, Bruce watched, wondering when the two of them had become anything more than enemies. How was it that, out of everyone in the family and after everything that had happened, Tim had the best relationship with Jason short of Alfred? And how on Earth did he miss it happening?

A weight pressed down on his chest as Bruce continued to observe his two sons. Jason was nodding at whatever Tim was saying and then replying, jerking his hand about in emphasis. Tim nodded in return and they both turned back to look down the drive at the approach of an SUV. It stopped a few yards ahead of them and Starfire flew out, darting through the air towards Jason. Arsenal jumped out as soon as he managed to stop the car, and hurried over as well. Bruce noticed that, while Jason’s two teammates were certainly hovering, neither one made a move to touch him. Not until Jason rolled his eyes and shoved at Arsenal’s shoulder. Then, like it was an unspoken signal, Arsenal threw an arm around Jason’s shoulder and Starfire draped herself over the both of them. Bruce watched Jason grumble and posture, but he could see the way he relaxed, the small tilt to his lips.

Bruce was a mess of mixed emotions as they shepherded his son to the car. Jason slid easily into the driver’s seat while Starfire took the passenger seat and Arsenal slipped into the back. Jason gave a wave and a last parting word to Tim, and then they were speeding down the long driveway.

Tim waited a beat before turning back to the Manor, eyes instantly finding Bruce at his spot at the second story window. He nodded like he already knew Bruce wanted to speak to him. He wasn’t surprised. All his children were perceptive, even if they all had giant blind spots when it came to the family. Bruce thought Tim’s might be smaller. At least when it wasn’t concerning his place in the family. Then it was possible his blind spot was the biggest.

It took a few minutes for Tim to enter the room. Bruce didn’t move away from the window. “He’s leaving,” he spoke instead, not quite keeping the pain and frustration out of his voice.

“For a week. Maybe a little more. He won’t be gone long; he can’t leave the kids. They still don’t feel safe without him around, and he’ll do pretty much anything for them.”

Bruce spoke to the reflection of Tim in the window. “Thank you. For all the work you’ve done to get the orphanage off the ground. That’s a lot of responsibility and you shouldn’t have had to handle it alone.”

“Jason’s helped and I utilized a whole department at WE to get the project moving,” Tim said, reflection shrugging as he diverted recognition from himself, as was his habit. Idly, Bruce wondered if Tim had any idea how highly valued he was in the family. The answer was undoubtedly no, due in no small part to that blind spot.

Bruce pressed. “Really, Tim. Thank you.”

He caught Tim shifting out of the corner of his eye, projecting slight awkwardness and discomfort. When he changed the subject, Bruce let him. “When things get better between you two, you’ll have to come see him with the kids. They’ve got him wrapped around their fingers. It’s pretty funny watching the big bad Hood giving six year olds piggy back rides.”

Bruce smiled at the mental image. It was such a relief to see bits of the young Jason in the wild grown man he was now. Jason had always been a sucker for kids who needed help. Or women who needed help or really anyone who’d been victimized. It was something he’d been able to do better than any of them—identify with the victim, understand them on a deeper level, and empathize with them completely. It was why Felipe Garzonas and his diplomatic immunity had been too hard to swallow for the boy. It was where all the brutality and rage came from when he was facing off against criminals.

It was also why, to this day, Jason either couldn’t or didn’t care to compartmentalize—didn’t bother separating Jason Todd from the Red Hood like the rest of them did. It went beyond the fact that Jason Todd was legally dead and therefore he didn’t need to get bogged down with a civilian identity. Even when he was younger, he’d never bothered to distinguish between what Robin would do and what Jason would do. To him, they were one and the same. It was the complete opposite of Bruce, who swapped out personas like masks, going from Bruce Wayne the cunning businessman to Brucie the vapid socialite to Batman the Dark Knight, and countless other aliases at the drop of a hat. Jason just didn’t. He rode his feelings, not bothering to temper them or segregate them into neat little boxes. He gave into them completely and he felt them so strongly. Because like the people they saved, Jason was also a victim. Had been for his whole life. And he killed so that other victims would be safe—could feel safe. Because out of everyone else, Jason understood best just how important it was for the victim to feel safe.

In the weeks since he’d been processing Jason’s memories, Bruce had come to understand his son so much better. The difference between the Jason that had been raging through Gotham trying to hurt Bruce and the Jason that had stepped in and fought beside Dick and Tim in order to protect children he thought of as his was astounding. Bruce had been concerned when Dick first asked Jason to help them, but he’d allowed it because, despite what Dick, Tim and even Clark had told him, he needed to see for himself that he had changed. That he wouldn’t kill whatever criminal he thought deserved it.

He’d seen Jason’s memories so he knew what the Lazarus Pit had done to him. He had felt the consuming rage for himself and he understood how Jason ended up going after the family. Ra’s and Talia had set him up for it. Wound him up and set him loose. Murdering criminals though, that was all Jason. That was the rage that had always been in the boy, the need to protect he’d felt ever since he was a small child shielding Catherine Todd from his drunk father. That was the need to stand up and do something that had made Bruce offer him the mantle of Robin in the first place. It was the fiercest parts of Jason set fire by the Pit.

And even now that the Pit had receded and was no longer driving Jason’s every action, Bruce knew that the parts of Jason that had allowed him to be a killer weren’t gone. He knew there were people his son still believed deserved to die. He knew the Joker was at the top of that list and just because he wasn’t acting on those desires now, didn’t mean he wouldn’t. Bruce understood those desires. Whatever Jason thought, he really, truly did. But it was a line Bruce couldn’t cross and one he didn’t want Jason to have to cross. He didn’t want that burden for Jason, for his son. He understood his feelings on the matter and knew they were unlikely to change anytime soon, but Jason had made a deal with Clark not to kill and that was good enough for Bruce. Jason was his son, and he needed things to be right between them just as much as he needed to breathe. If there was even the slightest chance he could have his son back, if Jason could continue to refrain from killing, no matter how he felt about it, then Bruce could work with that. He’d take whatever he could get.

But it was a moot point if Jason continued to want nothing to do with him, which brought him back to Tim’s words. When things get better between you. “Do you think there’s a chance for things to get better between us?”

Tim’s reflection shrugged. “You’re both stubborn assholes so it’s not like it’ll be easy, but yeah. I think there is. If you do it right.”

“And how do I do it right?” Bruce asked, finally turning towards Tim. “How did you do it? Jason likes you. He trusts you, I can see it. How did you manage it?”

“I was persistent. I don’t think that’s going to be what works for you though. Didn’t really work for Dick either. Not until they hashed stuff out at least and they’re still on pretty shaky ground, though I think it’s better after last night.”

“What do I do?” Bruce asked outright. He was the world’s greatest detective and he was the Batman, but he wasn’t above admitting when he was completely lost. Not when the stakes were this high.

Tim sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. He looked exhausted and Bruce was reminded of all the things Tim had been handling while he’d been off planet saving the galaxy. “I think you’re going to have to give him space. But also, let him know you’re still here. He needs to know there’s a place for him whenever he’s ready. I’d say back off, don’t force contact, but maybe check in every now and then. But not on the Red Hood. You need to show a little faith on that front. Trust that Jason’s been controlling himself and will continue to do so. If he thinks you’re playing policeman on him, he’ll explode on you and set us back a couple of months. Don’t be Batman checking in on the Red Hood. Just be… be Bruce. Checking on Jason. Your son.”

Bruce let out a huff, frustrated. Out of all the roles he played and practiced, he played Bruce the father the worst.

Tim smirked and Bruce had no doubt that perception of his was telling him just what Bruce was frustrated about. “Don’t worry Bruce. You’re not that bad at it. You’ve got three sons still here, after all.”

“Heaven knows how,” Bruce grumbled darkly. “And I lost Dick for a while. It might still happen with Damian. He already prefers Dick. And you’ve been keeping yourself separate since I came back from being lost in time. Up until this business with Jason at least,” he spoke, eyeing Tim. He’d been meaning to address this for a while, but his third son was hard to pin down when he wanted to avoid something.

Even now he looked ready to bolt, surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. “What happened, Tim?” Bruce pressed before he could formulate some sort of escape. “Things have been rocky between us at times over the years, but they weren’t bad before I was gone. When I got back you’d already greatly removed yourself from the family, focusing on building your Titans.”

Tim frowned and looked away. “I knew you weren’t dead, but they didn’t believe me. No one did. And then Dick took Robin, gave it to Damian even though the kid was still trying to kill me at least once a week. There wasn’t really a place for me here and I needed to track you down, so I left. Then when you came back, things didn’t really change so I kept focusing on the Titans.”

Bruce frowned. “When I got back, you’d already built a name for yourself. A life of your own. I was proud of what you’d accomplished. You were more than capable of being out on your own. Did you really want to go back to being Robin?”

Tim’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I wanted to go back to being your partner.”

“You’re still my partner, Tim. All of you are. I need all of you. Damian needs guidance. He can’t be out there on his own; he’s nowhere close to being ready for that. You’ve been doing it for years. But don’t think that I rely on you any less for it. I rely on you more now.”

Tim shifted, uncomfortable with the conversation, and Bruce could sympathize completely. There’d been an uncomfortable level of emotions revealed tonight and he was worn and ragged for it.

It was a bit of a relief when Tim changed the subject. “Did Jason tell you why he was mad? Besides the plaque,” he added pointedly. Dick had already chewed Bruce out thoroughly for that and he had no desire to repeat the process with Tim.

“You mean other than the fact that I won’t kill or condone him killing the Joker?” Bruce asked, sardonic and more than a little defeated. At Tim’s nod, he answered. “He was not happy about the memories.”

“I knew he wouldn’t be. Clark and Dick were stupid. They should have never done that. He has every right to be angry. You should apologize.”

“I did, but I doubt it’ll do much good,” Bruce sighed.

“Still needed to be done,” Tim replied, turning back towards the door. “Remember what I said about giving him space. He’ll come around when he’s ready. But be prepared to wait, Bruce. It’ll probably be a while.”

Bruce sighed, but turned to follow Tim. “Take a short patrol tonight. You need more sleep,” he instructed.

Tim gave him a look over his shoulder and spoke very seriously. “Sleep is for the weak, Bruce.”

And despite Bruce’s exhaustion, the heavy aftermath of the emotional rollercoaster the last few days had been, Bruce snorted. He had absolutely no idea what he’d done to deserve Tim, but he was damn positive he was going to do his best to be a better father than he’d been so far. For all of his children.

Chapter Text

Jason called and let the kids know he’d be gone for a week, assuring that Red Robin, Nightwing and the others would be keeping them safe while he was gone. No one seemed to have a problem with it as Tim had already dropped by to explain things. He wasn’t sure exactly what Tim said, but everyone was fine. Everyone except Lisa who refused to speak to him when Jason tried to talk to her. He was half convinced to suck it up and go back to Gotham, but Alex talked him down, promising him that Lisa would be fine and he’d take care of her. Reluctantly, Jason agreed, but on the condition that Alex text him daily updates.

He worried constantly at first, but the sun, water, and Roy and Kori quickly wore him down. After a couple of days, the kids were still fine, Tim wasn’t having any issues keeping them safe, and Jason was warm. Despite Lisa’s anger, he found himself relaxing.

“No,” he declared the second Roy’s shadow fell over him. He was lounging with a book, enjoying the warm winter sun. This far south it was strong enough to be pleasantly warm, but not so hot that he was sweaty and miserable. It was pretty much perfect, and Jason had spent three days reading and napping lazily out by the water. The water itself was a bit too cold for his taste, but Kori, with her super-heated core body temperature, was in and out constantly. Roy was dividing his time between causing minor explosions with projects he was testing out, hanging out by the water with Jason and Kori, and making macaroni and cheese. The last one was what had Jason protesting.

“But, Jaybird,” Roy complained, and Jason cut in quickly.

“Roy, I’ve eaten macaroni and cheese for three days now. They’ve all been delicious and gourmet worthy, but damn it I’m not eating it again this week. Next time.”

Roy gave a huff and dropped into the chair by Jason. “Fine. Be that way.”

Jason rolled his eyes and went back to his book. It’d been only three days, but he already felt ten times better. Being out of Gotham, being here on the island, a place that felt like it belonged to them where no one else could touch them, was like being able to breathe easily again for the first time in months. It was exactly what he needed to get a handle on his chaotic emotions before he dove back into the muck and finished what he started in Gotham. After just three days of warm sun and lazy afternoons, the idea of returning to Gotham didn’t make him feel like shooting someone anymore.

It was early afternoon and the sun was lulling him into a light dose. Jason settled his book down in the sand and let himself drift a bit, only to be brought back to reality minutes later by his phone beeping. He sighed and picked it up, unsurprised that it was a text from Stephanie. She’d been texting him almost constantly since he left Gotham, not at all happy that she hadn’t been able to check in with him in person before he left. She calmed down a little once he assured her he wasn’t letting Bruce run him off for good. Still, she kept up a steady flow of conversation, telling him about her classes, what she and Cass were getting up to on patrol, what she was eating since she didn’t have his food to mooch off of. And she wasn’t the only one.

Tim was keeping him constantly updated, letting him know what he’d found on the kids’ families thus far, how Lisa was doing, letting him know that Damian had dropped by again to continue the “child army” training or whatever. Jason was no big fan of the little demon, but he thought maybe that Dick wasn’t wrong all those weeks ago when he said that socializing with the kids would be good for him. The younger ones seemed to like him so he didn’t have the heart to banish him completely.

Dick was also in consistent contact. The first day of Jason’s vacation, Tim had texted saying that their older brother asked for Jason’s number. Against his better judgment, he’d given Tim permission to pass it on to Dick, and they’d been in contact since.

Surprisingly, Jason hadn’t regretted it thus far. Dick didn’t actually talk much besides the occasional, “How’s it going?” and “What’s up, Little Wing?” Instead, he sent a steady stream of pictures. A steady stream of candid pictures of different members of the family in funny positions or with funny facial expressions. Pictures of Damian looking utterly undignified with a mouthful of food, Tim dead asleep with his face mashed into the keyboard at the Batcomputer, Cass with a quizzical expression on her face, Stephanie mid trip, arms flailing.

Every single one of them had Jason snorting in amusement and he very gleefully saved them to his phone to use for blackmail purposes at a later date. There were even pictures of Alfred, but they featured his infamous, raised, sardonic brow since it was almost impossible to catch the butler looking undignified in anyway.

Jason replied with pictures of his own; Roy with a sunburn everywhere but the white strip across his eyes where his sunglasses had been, a long streak of orange underneath the blue water as Kori swam, fresh fish they cooked over a fire, wrapped in banana leaves.

Stephanie got pictures too; pictures of the crystal blue water and white sand just so Jason could laugh at her jealous, angry faced emojis and complaints of class and dirty snow. Privately though, he thought that if anyone deserved a free vacation on a tropical island, it was Stephanie Brown. Out of all of them, she’d gotten to enjoy the perks of the Wayne fortune the least, and she hadn’t had the chance to get out of Gotham much lately. Once Jason’s business was all wrapped up and she had a break from classes, it might be nice to bring her along for another island vacation. She and Kori would probably get along well. It was Steph and Roy that worried him. They’d get along too well, and Jason would probably find himself facing karmic retribution for how much he and Steph teased Tim. Also he wasn’t quite sure the Earth wouldn’t be destroyed by a Batgirl/Arsenal team-up.

Then again, maybe Arsenal and Starfire didn’t have to be involved. Maybe he could just send Steph and Cass on a tropical vacation as a gift. He had the money for it. Who cared if it was dirty?

“It’s nice, Jaybird,” Roy said as Jason sent Steph another picture of the water.

“What is?”

“You talking to people. We traveled around for months and you didn’t talk to anyone but me, Kori, and the random girls you put the moves on. Your phone’s been going off constantly since we got here.”

Jason tensed a little, hand tightening around his phone.

Beside him, Roy rolled his eyes. “I said it was a good thing, Jaybird, sheesh. It’s good that you’re working things out with your family. You don’t have to work anything out with Batman if you don’t want to, but you deserve to have something good with the rest of your family. Like me and Dinah. Things with Ollie will probably never get better, but just because Dinah and Ollie are getting along again, doesn’t mean I can’t have something good with her. And Kori’s been reconnecting with our generation of Titans. Talking to Garth, Raven and Vic again. Me too a little, even though we’re both still keeping our distance from Grayson. We’re growing up or some shit. But it’s good. We deserve some good, Jaybird.”

Jason sighed, but didn’t argue. It was nice; having Tim, Steph and Cass. Dick wasn’t bad either. He was still an infuriatingly perfect self-righteous goody-two-shoes, but he’d always been that way and everyone had their flaws. As long as Dick wasn’t using that flaw to try and tell Jason what he could and couldn’t do, he supposed it was okay. He might be able to overlook it. He didn’t know how realistic it was—thinking that he could have any sort of relationship with his siblings knowing he’d never reconcile or come to terms with Bruce, but for now it was okay. He was alright with letting it happen. Things might change later, but for now it was nice.

Roy broke Jason out of his thoughts. “You know though…you and Kori come first. You guys are my family now. We’re a team. That trumps all the other stuff,” he said, staring out over the water.

Jason didn’t look at him, but answered. “Yeah. Outlaws first.”

He could see Roy grin wide in his peripheral vision. “Damn straight.”

Jason closed his eyes and settled back for a nap.

*****

The sixth day on the island, the day before they were set to leave, Jason was yet again stretched out on the beach reading. Kori was napping beside him and beside her Roy had headphones in and was tinkering with some device that Jason really hoped wouldn’t explode. He had his nose stuck in another book when he got a text from a number not in his contacts. It had a Gotham area code though, and Jason read the text with a frown on his face.

Are you well, Jason?

Jason stared for a moment before texting Tim, anger and annoyance welling up in him as he realized who it must be.

Jason: Who gave Bruce my number?

Tim’s reply was satisfyingly swift.

Tim: I doubt any of us did. Not even Dick would have pulled that without your permission after the memorial case thing. But he’s Bruce so it’s not like it would have been difficult for him to get. What’d he do?

Jason: He texted me. Said “Are you well?” What the hell. No one talks like that except Alfred. And what makes him think he gets to text me anyway?

Tim: Do me a favor. If you ditch this number at least give me a heads up and a way to get in touch.

Jason glared at the text for a long moment, debating on what he’d do. Tim was right; if Bruce wanted his number, he’d get it. It didn’t matter if he got a new phone, Bruce would manage to get a hold of him. He could get new phone after new phone and Bruce would still manage to text him somehow. And if by some miracle, he didn’t manage it, then he might show up in person instead, and he sure as hell didn’t want that.

He sighed.

Jason: What’s the point? It wouldn’t help anything. I’ll just ignore him, I guess.

Tim: Whatever you want. Just keep me informed.

Jason huffed, not seeing the point of keeping the little bird informed. Tim was a whole hell of a lot like Bruce with a dose of Babs on top. He suspected Tim already had the numbers for all of his burners anyway. He’d blame Tim’s incessant need to know everything about everyone, his need for control, on Bruce, but he suspected those were natural born Tim Drake tendencies. Again, the kid got his start by stalking Batman and Robin, figuring out who they were when no one else could. Bruce certainly hadn’t helped things though.

To cheer himself up, Jason forwarded Tim one of the pictures Dick had taken of him drooling on some papers.

Tim: Dick.

Jason snorted, unsure whether it was an accusation of who was responsible for the picture, if Tim was calling Jason a dick, or if he was calling their older brother one.

He sent a few more of the pictures, snickering at Tim’s reply.

Tim: I’m going to kill him.

Jason: As long as you film it for posterity.

He put his phone away and sat up. The week was almost over and Jason needed to gather his crap. He would have gladly stayed longer, but it wouldn’t be fair to Tim who was carrying the load of the warehouse and the orphanage while Jason was enjoying a nice, Caribbean vacation. He’d gotten his break and the chance to get his head on straight. It was time to get back to his responsibilities.

“So what’s the plan?” Roy asked him, removing his headphones and waking Kori from her doze. The sunburn he’d gotten earlier in the week had mostly faded once he started using sunscreen, but his freckles were standing out more than they usually did. “I mean, not the immediate plan, but the plan plan. We’re still gonna be the Outlaws right? We’re not breaking the band up for good or anything? Cause you guys will always be my family no matter what we do, but I like us as a team and I’d prefer to keep it that way.”

“I have to wrap things up in Gotham before we do more Outlaw stuff,” Jason said, frowning a little. He certainly didn’t want to give up the Outlaws, but it would take time for all the kids to migrate and acclimate to the orphanage, and Jason wasn’t sure he’d ever stop feeling responsible for Crime Alley. Even if the kids were taken care of, there was still Sasha, Holly, Jamie, Bill and everyone else.

Kori nodded and stretched languidly. “That’s fine. There’s no need to rush. We are a team no matter what we’re doing at the moment. And I think it’s possible for us to be a team and have you still return to Gotham between missions.”

Jason turned towards her, confused. “What?”

“You have commitments in Gotham, don’t you?”

“Well, right now, yeah. The alley kids and the working girls.” Though thankfully he no longer had any tenement buildings to take care of on top of everything.

“I doubt those commitments will fade easily,” she continued, echoing his earlier thoughts. “I don’t see why you can’t work in Gotham between whatever missions we choose to work as a team. I see no reason why some of those missions couldn’t involve your city. We’ve just been staying on my ship thus far. You could choose to stay in Gotham between missions instead.”

“Stay in Gotham. With Batman,” Jason protested.

Kori shrugged. “I don’t see why not. The decision is yours, Jason. If your commitments are important to you, you should be able to be the Red Hood of the Outlaws and the Red Hood of Crime Alley.”

“That’s what we did back in the Titans days,” Roy piped in. “I don’t have a problem splitting my time between Star City and Outlaw missions. Hell, I wouldn’t mind splitting time in Gotham too. I know how territorial you Bats get over your precious city, but work will probably put us in Gotham at some point. And with Kori’s ship, it’s not like travel is much of an issue. There’s plenty of ways we can work this, Jaybird. You don’t have to pick one or the other.”

“Why the hell would I want to pick Gotham at all?” Jason protested. He’d been spending weeks trying to come up with solutions to get out of Gotham. Why on earth would he want to stay in?

Roy and Kori both gave him knowing looks that had him bristling. Reconnecting with his siblings was one thing, but he hadn’t planned on staying.

“Jaybird,” Roy said, patronizing. “You pretty much literally built yourself a nest then adopted a few dozen baby birds to take care of. You’ve been settling into the city pretty much since you got there, and now you’re patching things up with the other birds and bats. Gotham’s your home.”

“Gotham’s a hellhole.”

“But it’s your hellhole,” Roy pressed. “And that’s fine. We can still do us whether you go back to Gotham in between missions or not. You don’t have to make any decisions now. It’s going to be a little while before you can leave for missions even if you do decide to make Gotham your home base. We’re just saying that we, as your teammates, can work with that so you should consider it as an option.”

Jason didn’t want to consider it an option. He was starting to feel pinned in and he didn’t like it. Gotham was a sensitive topic for him and he was feeling a bit ambushed. It made him defensive and combative. “I’d have to play by the rules. No killing at all, no matter how rotten the scumbag.”

Roy shot him a look, unimpressed. “Don’t even pretend you haven’t already made that decision. You’ve been playing by Supes’ rules for months already. Were you planning on suddenly breaking them and having the united righteousness of the Justice League reign down on you again?”

“I was keeping my options open about it,” Jason retorted, snappish. Superman’s rules or no, if he had the chance, he would kill the Joker. Even if it brought Batman, Superman, all of the Justice League and the GCPD down on his head, he would take that chance.

Roy scoffed, clearly not buying it. “Yeah, okay. If that’s the story you’re going with, you can continue to keep your options open. Like I said, you don’t have to make decisions now, and when you do decide, you’re allowed to change your mind later. It’s just an option, that’s all. No one’s making you do anything.”

“Yeah, sure. I’m going to pack,” Jason grumbled and stalked off.

“That could have gone better,” he heard Roy say to Kori.

“Give him time to get used to the idea. Jason will make the decision that’s best for him when he’s ready,” Kori replied, unconcerned.

Jason huffed. Returning to Gotham to wrap up his business was one thing. Staying in Gotham? That was just stupid.

*****

The city was frozen and covered in piles of nasty, black snow when Jason got back, but someone had come through and turned his heat on and made sure there was fresh food in his fridge. It was pretty obvious who’d done it, so he texted Alfred a brief thanks before sending a message to Tim, asking him to meet at the warehouse. A week had been wasted so now it was time to get to work.

He very pointedly ignored the new text from Bruce.

Bruce: Do you need anything?

Somehow he thought answering For you to fuck off wouldn’t get him anywhere. And if Bruce got any kind of response, he’d see it as a progress. Jason refused to open the line of communication between them. He had no idea what Bruce thought he was doing, but he was having none of it. So he pushed aside all the curses, all the vitriol he wanted to spit in Bruce’s face, and made his way to the warehouse instead.

The kids had a lot of questions, but they quieted down when Lisa stomped his way and placed her tiny little fists on her hips. She didn’t speak, just stood there glaring up at him. Jason didn’t think he’d ever felt sheepish in front of a six year old before, but there was a first time for everything. “Hey there, Carrot-top.”

She continued to glare.

“Still mad, huh?” he asked, wondering how he was supposed to fix it. He wasn’t interested in making excuses. He’d promised to keep her safe and he’d ditched for a week. She had every right to be put out with him. “You know I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t trust Red Robin to look out for you.” It wasn’t really an excuse, but it was true.

Her little brow scrunched up and she looked like she was about to let him have it when another kid, one of the younger ones named Jose piped up. “Is Batman your dad?”

Jason twitched. “What? No.”

“But Red Robin and the others are your brothers and Batman is their dad, right?” Jose pushed and several of the other younger kids nodded. Dozens of pairs of eyes stared at Jason curiously as he fumbled, trying to figure out what to say. Lisa stood in front of the pack, hands still on her hips, waiting.

“Why is this happening?” he asked himself, uncomfortable.

Alex stepped in to explain, poorly covering the fact that he was laughing at Jason’s pain. “The little kids were upset when Red Robin came and said you’d be gone for a little while. He told them you got hit with fear toxin when you helped them fight Scarecrow and then you got in a fight with your dad—Batman. Is that what happened?”

“Well, yeah, but Batman isn’t my dad,” Jason said firmly, crossing his arms. “The asshole just likes to pretend he is.”

“Were you a Robin like Nightwing?” a scruffy little blonde named Charlotte asked, only for an older, dark-skinned kid named Jacob to answer for him.

“Of course he was. How else was Batman his dad?”

That caused immediate chaos and there were suddenly a dozen little kids crowding around him all asking questions over each other.

“You were Robin?”

“That’s so cool! What’s the Batmobile like?”

“How long were you Robin?”

“Which Robin were you?”

“Can I be Robin?”

“Why are you fighting with Batman?”

Jason groaned, covering his face with his hands. For months he’d been looking after these kids and for months they’d minded their own business. He left them with Tim for one week and everything goes to hell.

“Okay!” he shouted after a dozen more questions. The kids quieted down and waited eagerly. “Yes,” Jason gritted out. “I was Robin. For three years. Batman and I got in a fight and I left Gotham. For a long time,” he said, skipping over his death. He didn’t even want to begin to explain his inexplicable resurrection to the kids. “I came back to Gotham, but we’re still fighting.”

“Why are you fighting?” Danny asked quietly, causing many of the others to nod.

“We have different views on dealing with the bad guys.”

“Like what?” Jose asked curiously, but Jacob answered before Jason could, rolling his eyes at the other boy’s apparent ignorance.

“Red Hood kills bad guys and Batman doesn’t. Duh.”

Jason didn’t even wince. These were Crime Alley kids. They may be young, but they were no strangers to the bad things in the world.

“Well that’s stupid,” Charlotte said with frown. Her face was smudged with dirt and it looked like she hadn’t managed to get a hold of fresh clothes in a while. Jason would talk to Wilkes, see if she could scrounge some stuff up if he provided a donation. “If you don’t kill the bad guys, how do you keep them from coming back and doing more bad things?”

If anyone disagreed with Charlotte, they didn’t voice it out loud. Jason just nodded. If nine year old Alley kids got it, how was it that Bruce still didn’t?

He changed the subject. “I’m sorry I left. Batman really pisses me off and I knew you’d be safe. I’m back now, and I won’t do it again.”

This seemed to satisfy most everyone but Lisa who was still scowling up at him with hands on her hips. Jason sunk down to a crouch and for a moment he strongly considered taking off his domino so he could look her in the eye properly. “I’m sorry, carrot-top.”

“You’re not supposed to leave,” she told him, frowning. Jason could see wariness in her expression, and he cursed silently. He’d absolutely needed to get out of town, but he wished it hadn’t meant negatively impacting the small girl.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“I’m mad at you,” she declared, outright.

“That’s fair,” Jason agreed. “You can be mad for as long as you want. I’ll still be here when you’re done being mad.”

She considered this for a moment before deciding those were acceptable terms. She nodded once and turned on her heel, marching away from. Jason sighed and looked up, spotting Tim waiting up in the rafters. He made his way up and gave him a glare as he sat down.

“You didn’t have to tell them about Batman.” He’d been relieved when the kids hadn’t really minded his week vacation. Now that he knew the cost, he wasn’t so sure.

“They wanted to know why you were gone,” Tim replied, unrepentant.

“Did you have to tell them that?” Jason protested.

“You mean the truth?” Tim challenged. “Look; you needed a vacation. You needed one where you wouldn’t have to worry about upsetting the kids or anything like that. They needed to understand why you took off with no warning. And it didn’t hurt anything.” He then changed the subject before Jason could argue. “We’ll need to be careful though or else we’ll end up with thirty-four little Red Hood disciples.”

Jason waved it off. “Nah. I leave the child soldier raising to Bruce.”

“Jay…”

“Tell me I’m wrong, Baby bird.”

Tim sighed, but didn’t argue. Instead, he passed Jason a list of names. “You’ll probably need the laptop I gave you for Christmas to get what we need. If you’ve even used it yet.” At the look Jason slid his way, Tim huffed in exasperation. “It’s not like I booby-trapped it or something.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jason replied, scanning the names. He was more inclined to believe it now than he was at Christmas. And if they wanted to build iron-clad cases, he probably would need it.

“Oracle’s also available to help if you run into trouble finding anything,” Tim replied.

Jason nodded and slipped the list of names into his jacket pocket. “Thanks for this, Tim. I didn’t mean to just dump all this on you while I was gone.”

“It was fine. You needed a break and I didn’t mind. Any more texts from Bruce?”

Jason scowled. “Do you need anything? Honestly, what the hell is going through his big, fat head, huh?”

“Well, if I had to guess, I’d say he was wondering whether or not you needed anything.”

Jason gave him a flat look. “Not funny, Timmy.”

“You say anything back?”

“Of course not. I’m not encouraging this. Whatever the hell it is, he will get no encouragement from me.”

“Sure. Stick to your guns.” Tim said, sounding completely patronizing. “Just not the literal, physical ones. Those you can lose any time.”

“Ha ha.”

Tim stood up. “I should patrol. Meet up in a few days to discuss progress?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jason said, rolling his shoulders. “Come over. I’ll cook.”

Tim smiled. “Dick’ll be jealous. He’s been waiting for you to let him come back over. He was so upset when you had all the girls over and he wasn’t invited.”

Jason smirked, believing it easily. Dick seemed to be all about family these days, and he wanted to be included in anything that could even remotely be called “family bonding.” That night at Jason’s, he’d been purposely excluded and it’d probably driven him crazy. His smirk widened as he considered possibilities. “Maybe I should have you, Babs, Steph and Cass over all together then. Leave Dickie out in the cold.”

“That’s mean, Jay,” Tim chided, but he was smiling. Jason thought maybe all the pictures of him drooling had Tim in the want of a little payback.

“We won’t make him suffer long. Just long enough to make him think he really doesn’t get to join in.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tim said, moving to the window. “Let me know what Bruce texts next. Alfred and I have a bet going on his social ineptitude.”

“Sure, but I expect a percentage of winnings seeing as how I’m the one having to suffer,” Jason replied. Tim nodded and slipped out into the night, leaving Jason up in the rafters alone. He needed to get back to a regular patrol, but for tonight he thought it might be better to stick close. To help reassure the kids that he wasn’t going anywhere. To help reassure him the kids were still fine. A nice quiet night before he got back into the swing of things. He settled in to keep watch.

Chapter Text

Tim sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It was getting longer and he needed it trimmed soon, not that he would find the time before it was far too long. He had too many things going on and no time to worry about hair. Not when he had orphanages, judges, social workers, Bruce, Jason and Maroni to worry about. Not that Maroni had tried anything. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t though, and someone needed to be concerned with the possibility. Of course that was pretty much on the backburner as well. At least until the kids were taken care of.

Technically, the orphanage was up and running. The staff had already moved in, and the kids would be moving in groups as they met with Child Protective Services. Tim had his hands full making sure CPS had everything they needed. They were working with the orphanage staff to evaluate the education level of the kids and figure out school placement. They could make rough estimates based on when the kids were last in school, but a lot of the placement, a lot of determining the needs of the individual child, couldn’t be done until the kids were actually meeting with CPS. As soon as the kids met with them, they’d have to immediately move into the orphanage. CPS couldn’t allow homeless children back out onto the streets once they knew where the child was and there was a safe place to put them. Which made the entire process more complicated.

And it wasn’t like the Red Hood could hold their hand through the process. Or even Red Robin. This was a Wayne project, not a Batman project, and though technically speaking by now, most of Gotham assumed Bruce Wayne funded Batman in some way, it still wasn’t a good idea to advertise Gotham’s most well-known family had connections to Gotham’s most well-known vigilantes. There didn’t need to be any rumors that Red Robin or Red Hood were involved in the new Wayne orphanage. But, they also couldn’t leave the kids to face CPS on their own.

Part of the solution he and Jason came up with was to use Tamara Wilkes. Publicly, she would be the one passing the children’s names to CPS and arranging the meetings, which would take place at the food pantry. Her connection made sense and was a solid cover for the Red Hood and Red Robin’s involvement. Running a food pantry would theoretically put her in contact with the Alley’s various homeless kids, and Tim could argue that they’d been in touch since he gave the pantry a hefty donation several months before. Wilkes was happy to step up if it meant keeping the kids off the street.

The other part of the solution, to give the kids a little extra security, was to introduce them to Timothy Drake-Wayne. Let them in on the fact the Red Hood had been working with Tim and WE to get the kids a safe place to stay. Tim could meet the kids as a civilian, interact with them a little bit as the Red Hood showed that he trusted him, and maybe then the kids would feel a little safer during their transition into the orphanage. And of course, Jason was planning on shadowing even if he couldn’t do it in costume, and Tim had no doubt he’d tell the kids as much.

Everything hinged on how much the kids trusted the Red Hood. He knew they all liked him and trusted him enough to watch out for them while they slept, but there was a lot of fear involved in the transition, and fear was a pretty substantial motivator. Did they trust him enough to trust a random stranger just because Hood said they could?

Tim rubbed at his eyes as he slouched over his desk in his office at WE. He was meeting the kids as Tim Drake later that night and the first group would be meeting with CPS tomorrow afternoon at the food pantry. The first group were volunteers who’d run away from foster or group homes. They were the easy ones, and after CPS cleared them, they’d walk the few short blocks to the orphanage and get settled in with the staff.

The following day, the volunteers who’d run away from family would meet with the judge Tim had thoroughly vetted. He’d agreed to meet with them at the food pantry as well, and a licensed social worker working for the orphanage would represent the kids as the judge spoke to them. Tim had already given the judge files on all of them so it shouldn’t be more than a formality with the child saying where they’d like to go.

Then, once all the volunteers were settled, they’d have to wait on the rest. It’d take time for them to come around to the idea. They’d need to see proof that the others were allowed into the orphanage instead of being sent back to family or shoved in the foster system. Then they’d need proof that the orphanage itself was safe. That no one was using them for any other purposes. Tim had no idea how long that would take.

In the meantime, he was swamped with last minute details and paperwork. There was a hell of a lot of hoops to jump through to run a children’s home, even a privately funded one. Tim wasn’t surprised there weren’t more of them in Gotham. Government insurance alone for the kids was a nightmare.

He sighed and shoved himself up from his desk, wanting caffeine but something stronger than the coffee in the break room. He also wanted the chance to stretch his legs so he headed out of the building and down the block to his favorite coffee shop. Which was where Vicki Vale found him a few minutes after he sat down with his espresso.

Tim frowned as she sat across from him. This was his coffee shop and now Vale would be showing up whenever she wanted to write an article about him or the family. Which absolutely sucked. Like his day wasn’t frustrating enough. He should have just stayed at the office.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she smiled like she hadn’t been stalking outside of Wayne Tower for the chance to get a member of the Wayne family alone somewhere. “Mind if I join you?”

“Well, you did already sit,” Tim pointed out drily. He still had a certain level of resentment from having to trudge around in knee braces for so long back when the reporter was trying to prove he was Red Robin. He could guess what she was after as she tucked red hair behind her ear, slipped off her heavy pea coat and further made herself comfortable at his table.

“I’m sure you’re busy so I’ll get straight to the point,” she spoke intently, leaning forward a little. “Is it true the Wayne Foundation is opening an orphanage in Crime Alley?”

“Yes,” Tim replied easily. He’d been trying to keep it out of the media as best as he could, but he wouldn’t deny it now that it was out in the open. He put his Timothy Drake-Wayne publicity face on. “The old East End Orphanage has been shut down for a couple of decades, and has left a need in the community. Group homes in Crime Alley and the Bowery are overfilled and there aren’t enough foster families in the community to support the number of homeless children. As you know, the Wayne Foundation has made the redevelopment of Crime Alley a priority. We were made aware of the need and there was something we could do about it, so we got busy.”

It was all true, but he knew it wasn’t really what Vale was interested in. Many people assumed that Bruce continued the Wayne Foundation for the good press and various tax incentives. The truth was Bruce just cared about Gotham. It was also a way to honor his parents, as it had been started by them years ago. It was also a way for him to legally help the city, to help spark change in a way that didn’t require costumes and late night vigilantism. The public was much more interested in the family’s dating lives or what events they were attending though. Most of the time, when Tim was asked about some of the projects they were doing, it was usually just a way to get him to talk to them so that they could ask about his and his brothers’ personal lives instead.

“We’ve also started a few affordable housing programs in Crime Alley that have been pretty successful so far,” he continued, just to annoy Vale. He wasn’t sure what she was after, whether or not she was really interested in the orphanage, or if she was after something more personal, but he knew it wasn’t affordable housing programs. “We worked with the homeless shelter in Crime Alley to get in touch with families who didn’t have a place to live and assigned rent on a case by case basis.”

She gave a somewhat impatient smile and changed the subject. “The orphanage is set to be up and running by the end of the week? Why is this the first time we’re hearing about it?”

Tim considered her. He wasn’t sure why she’d be interested in the orphanage, but whatever her interest was, it’d probably be bad for the family. Putting her off the kids seemed like a safe bet as far as responses went. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if vigilantism came into the conversation at some point, and the kids were the only ones directly linked to any of the vigilantes. Not to mention what Jason would do if Tim let Vale turn the kids into a media sideshow for the better off inhabitants of Gotham.

“Because we’re trying to help the kids, not turn them into a media spectacle,” Tim answered, tone a little hard.

Vale’s expression remained intent. “Of course, but what do you make of the rumors regarding the Red Hood’s connection to the homeless children of Crime Alley?”

And there it is, Tim thought. It certainly didn’t take her long to show her hand. He didn’t know where she got her info, but all of Crime Alley knew the Alley kids were off limits on pain of Red Hood. It wasn’t particularly surprising that that knowledge had spread. Tim kept himself relaxed as he replied, “I haven’t heard any of those rumors. We realized the need for an orphanage through our work with Tamara Wilkes. She runs a food pantry and is a pillar of the Crime Alley community, and we’ve been working with her organization for a while now. She comes across a lot of these kids in need through her work and has been working with us and Child Protective Services to find them homes.”

Vale stared him down for a moment and Tim smiled. “Did you have any other questions about the project?” He didn’t know if she’d drop the Red Hood line of questioning or not. If she decided to pursue an investigation into the Red Hood’s activities in Crime Alley then Tim’s life would get far more complicated and Jason would get much harder to manage. He had little patience for the media and reporters like Vicki Vale from what Tim remembered about his time as Robin. He had no idea what Jason would do if Vale started nosing in on his business, but he doubted it would be good for anyone. He needed to give her a different direction to focus on.

“You’re calling it the Todd-Wayne Home for Children?” she asked after a moment, changing her line of questioning. “Can we assume the Todd is for Jason Todd? Bruce’s late second son?”

That would work, Tim decided quickly. Jason wouldn’t like it, but technically speaking, Jason Todd was dead. A brief renewal of public interest in him was much safer than Vale pursuing an investigation on the Red Hood’s activities.

“Seeing as how he was a homeless kid from Crime Alley, I’d say that’s a pretty safe assumption,” he replied wryly. “Bruce chose the name,” he lied, watching as Vale’s eyes sharpened in interest. He needed to redirect interest, but he needed it to be subtle so the reporter would think it was her idea. “Jason’s death was hard on him. It’s been years, but Bruce still struggles with it sometimes. This April will be the sixth year anniversary, and this project was a way for him to honor his son’s memory. Jason would approve of the project, I think.”

“Really?” she asked, leaning forward a little more in interest. “You never got to meet Jason, did you?”

“No, my parents were still alive when Jason died so I came to the Manor after he was already gone. I came in on the aftermath of his loss and saw firsthand how it affected Bruce, Dick and Alfred. There were still some of his things around the house, and Alfred liked to talk about him a lot, as a form of grieving. I feel like I got to know him through Alfred and Bruce.”

“What was he like? I’m assuming he was the kind of person who would be invested in the orphanage project?” she asked, and Tim could practically see her gears turning. How she was shifting from a Red Hood investigative story to a Bruce Wayne family drama story revolving around his dead, somewhat scandalous son. It probably wasn’t the story she wanted, but Tim knew it would sell a lot of papers. The public loved nosing in on the Wayne’s personal lives and the family gossip brought in more interest than Gotham’s vigilantes. Batman was in the paper every day, after all. The Wayne’s tended to try and stay out of the papers when they could help it. All Tim had to do was keep her interest there and give her enough to make a story.

Jason would be thrilled.

“Jason was a Crime Alley kid,” Tim reminded her. “Lived on the street for a couple of years before Bruce picked him up and took him home. Obviously he didn’t fit into Gotham upper crust living and we all know he had a hard time getting used to the media attention.”

“Certainly harder than you or Dick,” Vale agreed easily. “The media made him out to be a violent, rough around the edges street punk from what I remember. Would you agree with that assessment?”

“Not really. I mean, he was certainly reckless if half the stories Alfred told me are true. But the thing the media never really talked about was how smart Jason was. He survived as a kid on the streets of Crime Alley for years. And after he went to live with Bruce, he was put in the most prestigious school in Gotham. He had to catch up on years of school, but he was still at the top of his class in pretty much every subject. He was a big reader and good at languages. I’ve seen the papers he wrote. If he hadn’t died, he could have done anything. All he needed was a chance and Bruce gave it to him.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here with the orphanage. These kids just need a chance to make a better future for themselves, but right now they don’t have that opportunity. The orphanage will be privately funded through the Wayne Foundation, which will allow us to keep the kids on past their eighteenth birthday. For those that want to, we can carry them through an extra two years where they can get associate’s degrees in any field they want at Gotham Community College. By the time they leave, they’ll have saved some money from part time jobs and already have a bit of a college education, which will give them a much better chance of making it once they’re out on their own.”

Vale nodded, making a few notes on her phone. Tim stood, making his getaway. “I really should be getting back to the office. But if you’re interested in any Jason Todd stories, you should probably get in touch with Dick. He’s got a bunch.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you for your time, Tim. As always, it was a pleasure,” she spoke, standing and offering her hand.

Right. A pleasure, Tim thought as he shook her hand and left the coffee shop. He texted Dick.

Tim: If Vicki Vale comes after you asking questions about pre-death Jason Todd, humor her.

Dick: What? Why?

Tim: Better dead Jason than living Red Hood.

Dick: I don’t really know what’s going on, but whatever you say, Little Red. He isn’t going to like this though.

Tim: Nope.

Tim sighed as he slipped his phone back into his pocket. He needed sleep. He needed for this to be over. He needed Bruce and Jason to make up already so he could hide away in his apartment and sleep for a week. He wanted to go back to California, see his friends, end his little hiatus from the Titans. It was someone else’s turn to be the responsible one.

*****

Thanks to the digital age of news media, Vicki Vale had an online article out by the time Tim was knocking on Jason’s door later that night, dressed in civvies. Bruce had called him an hour before wanting to know what the hell was going on. Tim patiently explained that he’d needed to deflect from the Red Hood. Bruce had given a weary sigh and accepted it before returning to whatever it was he was working on.

Tim doubted Jason would let it go as easily.

Jason opened the door and immediately shoved his phone in Tim’s face. Vicki Vale’s article was pulled up on the screen. “What the hell is this?” he demanded, waving it around Tim’s face for emphasis.

“Well hello to you too,” Tim said, ducking around Jason and the phone and into the loft. He could smell beef sizzling in the kitchen and he sincerely hoped Jason wouldn’t kick him out. It smelled incredible.

Jason huffed as he shoved the door closed and locked it.

“Seriously, Replacement, what the hell was that?” he demanded, stalking back to the stove. He only called Tim “Replacement” these days when he was feeling particularly agitated about something.

Tim sighed. “Vale ambushed me and was asking about the Red Hood’s involvement with the Alley kids. She’s absolutely relentless when there’s a story she wants, so I thought it’d be best to give her a new one. And I knew you wouldn’t want the focus on the kids so I thought Jason Todd was the best way to go. And since you’re legally dead, it’s not like you’ll have to deal with any of the media attention, right?”

Jason glared at him for a long moment before letting out a long string of curses and turning back to his cooking. “Fucking fine!”

“It could be worse,” Tim pointed out, settling onto one of the bar stools. “At least the focus won’t be on the orphanage itself. The kids will have an easier transition without the media swarming around trying to take pictures of the place.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he huffed. “Fucking Vicki Vale. Pain in my fucking ass.”

Tim grinned. “And now you’re officially a member of the family again. Welcome back.”

Jason shot him an unamused look, but he didn’t throw something at Tim or kick him out, so he grinned wider. “So what’s for dinner? It smells great.” Really great. Tim’s stomach had been rumbling since he walked in.

“Just a quick teriyaki stir-fry with rice. I’ve been out tracking down evidence all day so I didn’t have time for much,” Jason replied.

“Sounds good to me,” Tim replied honestly. And it looked awesome too from what he could see of the beef tips, onions and brightly colored bell peppers Jason was stirring in a homemade teriyaki sauce that was likely replicated from something he came across in his extensive travels.

Jason shook his head, looking faintly amused. They chatted for the few remaining minutes it took him to finish the food. He divided the rice and stir-fry onto two plates and settled them on the island with two bottles of water. Tim didn’t waste any time, immediately inhaling the food. It was amazing.

“Holy crap, Steph wasn’t lying,” he managed through a mouthful of food.

Jason smirked, amused. “What was that? I don’t think I could understand you through the massive amounts of food rolling around in your mouth.”

Tim swallowed. “Shut up. You did so. Do you cook like this all the time? No wonder Cass and Steph are always crashing your place.”

“I take food very seriously,” Jason replied, and Tim knew it was true.

“Well this is amazing. Seriously.”

“Thanks, baby bird,” he replied.

After they finished, Jason dropped the plates in the sink and snagged a folder from the table. “Here’s the evidence against Danny’s stepdad, David Rodriguez. You’ll need to get it to the right people at the GCPD. He’s gonna be going away for a while,” he said darkly, making Tim’s eyes narrow at the tone.

The past week of investigation had been a little bit trying on Jason, from what he could tell. He’d been tense and snappish here and there, and Tim figured that this was all a little too familiar for the man. A little too reminiscent of his own childhood. Tim didn’t know many specifics about Jason’s childhood aside from the deaths of Catherine and Willis Todd, but he suspected Jason had been a victim of abuse. What kind of abuse, he wasn’t entirely sure, though he knew Bruce now knew thanks to Jason’s memories. Based on the intensity of Bruce’s reaction, Tim was willing to bet he hadn’t known many of the specifics either.

Either way, everything about the investigations into the legal guardians of the kids was hitting a little too close to home for Jason. Abused and/or neglected children would always be a hot button for him it seemed.

“Going away for what?” Tim asked, frowning at the unopened envelope.

“Child pornography,” Jason spat, glaring at the folder.

Tim’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Lovely.”

“Yeah,” Jason replied shortly.

Tim sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “I’ll get this to the right police officers after I meet the kids. Rodriguez will be in jail by morning.”

Jason shook it off and stood abruptly. “So, look at what that asshole did,” he said, as he moved to the coffee table. He grabbed a box from his coffee table and came back, dropping it in front of Tim.

Tim blinked, not sure what he was going to find. “Is this still the child pornography thing because I really don’t want to see any of that.”

No,” Jason said, looking incredibly offended. “The asshole I’m talking about is Bruce, you moron.”

“Well how was I supposed to know that?” Tim protested.

“Because I said that asshole. I’m always talking about Bruce when I say that.”

Tim smirked up at him and teased, “Well you have been talking about Bruce a lot lately so you’re right; I probably should have guessed that.”

Jason glared. “Screw you, Tiny Tim. Just look at the damn box. I found it on my freaking balcony after patrol this morning. He was freaking here.”

Tim snickered and opened the box to find the material they wore under their suits in winter. There was a note on top, clearly written by Bruce.

If you insist on riding a motorcycle in the middle of winter, you should at least stay warm.

Tim snickered again. “Wasn’t his last text asking you if you were keeping warm? And this is our latest heat regulating material. Oh, Alfred is going to love this,” he said, grabbing his phone and snapping a picture, careful to make sure the note was legible on the screen.

“Why is this funny to you?” Jason demanded, frustrated.

“It’s funny because it’s Bruce. Dick or Alfred mother henning you, and none of us would even bat an eye. That’s what they do to everyone. But it’s Bruce acting like the socially awkward mother hen here. Come on, you know that’s funny. Anyway, this stuff is great so I’d make use of it.”

Jason scoffed. “Please, he probably planted a tracker in it.”

Tim rolled his eyes. “How small do you think our trackers are these days? But hey, you’re paranoid when it comes to Bruce so by all means check the hems for trackers, but keep the clothing. It’s thin enough to go under the suits while still keeping you ridiculously warm.”

Jason grumbled a little, as he lifted up the long sleeve shirt. He started inspecting the hems thoroughly, looking for the tracker he believed Bruce had planted. Tim doubted he would try something like that. Not when he was trying to reconcile himself with Jason. No way the former Robin would accept that until he was sure though.

If nothing else, Bruce was at least technically heeding Tim’s advice, even if this wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he said for Bruce to give Jason space while checking in on him every now and again. Somehow, in Bruce’s mind, that had translated to sending Jason an increasing number of texts and now he was adding gifts to the equation. But maybe it wasn’t a bad move on Bruce’s part. Tim had absolutely no idea whether or not it would eventually work—if Bruce would miraculously manage to wear Jason down through steady texts and occasional peace offerings, but as long as he wasn’t showing up in person trying to force a conversation, it was at least unlikely to do any harm.

“I can’t find it,” Jason grumbled, breaking Tim out of his thoughts as he dropped the pants back in the box.

“That’s because it’s not there,” Tim replied easily.

“Bullshit, baby bird. They’re from Bruce. Of course there’s a tracker or something.” He hadn’t stopped glaring at the clothing.

“This family,” Tim sighed. Jason didn’t look like he was about to stop his stare down with Bruce’s gift anytime soon so he tried to get his attention back on the matters at hand. “How’s tonight going to work?”

“I talked to Wilkes,” Jason said, reluctantly looking away from the box and Bruce’s note. “She’s going to come with you to meet the kids. I think it’ll help for them to see you both again before tomorrow. They’re pretty used to her by now so it’ll be good for them to know you two are friendly. She’s going to meet you at the food pantry so you two can head over together. I’ll meet you outside and we’ll all go in together. Better to sell it for the kids. I already told them you’re coming so they’re ready for you.”

Tim nodded. “Sounds good to me. I guess I’ll head on over to Wilkes’ and meet you at the warehouse?”

Jason nodded and Tim grabbed the file and headed out.

*****

A few hours later, Tim slipped through the window of his apartment and immediately began shedding his Red Robin uniform. With how busy the next day would be, he’d kept his patrol short after he left the warehouse. The meeting with the kids had gone well. They hadn’t been much interested in him, but he did have the chance to talk to most of the ones who’d be moving the next day. Wilkes had done the bulk of the talking, which had allowed Tim to fade into the background and watch.

The Red Hood and Lisa had been particularly amusing. Hood stuck next to the girl as Wilkes explained how the transition would work for the kids, even if Lisa still wasn’t speaking to him. Tim suspected the little girl had pretty much forgiven him, but didn’t want him or any of the others to know. Tim also suspected Jason knew that and was indulging her, allowing her to maintain the appearance for her pride or whatever it was holding her back from being openly friends again. He’d had to hide a smirk when Jason took advantage of the other kids’ distraction to smoothly slip two cookies out of his jacket sleeve and stealthily offer them to Lisa without looking her way or betraying any obvious movement. The little redhead had glanced at the cookies before sneakily accepting them, stuffing one in her mouth and tucking the other behind her out of sight. Both acted like no exchange had occurred, and Tim had had to fake a cough to cover his snort of amusement.

Jason was hopeless.

Tim had no idea how he was going to reassure the orphanage staff if they ever caught the Red Hood sneaking in and out of the orphanage windows in the middle of the night. There was no doubt in Tim’s mind that Jason would be visiting Lisa constantly, even after she got settled. One thing was for sure; no one was ever going to mess with her at school or at the orphanage. Not when she had the Red Hood wrapped around her little fingers.

He yawned and moved to the kitchen, figuring he could wait to deal with vigilantes at the orphanages when it actually became an issue. For now he wanted a bottle of water, a power bar, and at least four hours of sleep.

Tim paused at his kitchen counter when something caught his eye. In front of his coffee maker, where he definitely would have seen it in the morning if he hadn’t caught it before, was a pair of clearly expensive earmuffs with a note written in Bruce’s handwriting.

You don’t dress warm enough in civilian clothing. You could get sick.

Tim stared dumbly for a moment before he snapped a picture and sent it to Jason, who almost immediately replied with a bunch of laughing emojis. He stared for a moment longer before deciding he’d deal with whatever was going on with Bruce later. He shoved a power bar in his mouth and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. The fingers of his unoccupied hand reached out to brush the earmuffs as he passed. They were soft, he realized, perking up a little bit. Maybe Bruce was right and his ears could stand to be a little warmer when he was moving around the city. In any case, they were here. He might as well make use of them.

He got another text as he was settling into bed.

Bruce: Good job today.

Tim stared at it for a moment wondering what the hell was going on with him, if something was wrong. When no immediate answer came to him, he shrugged it off and put it on the mental list of things he’d deal with later, right under his too long hair. For now, sleep was the most important thing. Weird Bruce could wait.

Chapter Text

The first time Bruce called Jason, it took him by surprise. He’d only gotten in from patrol a few hours before, and it was way too early for phone calls. Which meant it was probably important. Jason grumbled, head shoved under the pillow to help block out the Monday morning light, and blindly reached out for his phone. He knocked the alarm clock and a half full bottle of water off the bedside table before he managed to drag his phone under the pillow.

“What?” he grumbled sleepily.

There was a pause and then Bruce’s surprised voice on the line. “Jason?” he asked, like he hadn’t expected Jason to answer.

Jason jerked up in bed, startled. “The hell?” He looked at the phone screen and sure enough, it read Bruce. He scowled. That was the last time he would ever answer his phone without looking to see who it was first.

“Is someone dead or dying?” he demanded.

“No,” Bruce replied.

“Then don’t call me,” Jason barked angrily. “And the hell, Bruce? It’s eight in the morning! You don’t call a nocturnal vigilante at eight in the morning! It’s fucking rude.” He hung up the phone and flopped back down in the bed, dragging the pillow back over his head with a long, drawn out groan. Next to him his phone gave a little buzz and he snatched it up to read the text.

Bruce: Sorry I woke you. Sleep well.

Jason growled and tossed the phone away. Bruce could sulk all he wanted, he still wasn’t getting an answer from him.

It became a thing after that. Along with the daily text messages and the occasional random gifts left on his balcony, Bruce called him twice a week. Jason never answered and Bruce never left voicemails, but he at least called later in the day, even though it decreased the likelihood of Jason answering on accident. Weeks passed that way, with both Tim and Alfred amusing themselves with Bruce’s antics at Jason’s expense. He let them since it was Bruce they were laughing at and not him. Instead, he did his best to ignore it and focus on patrolling Crime Alley and the Bowery and getting the remaining kids to give the orphanage a shot.

By mid-March about two thirds of the kids had made the transition so far, and it was a good thing because they’d had a couple of late snows. Winter had yet to let go of Gotham and the nights were cold and wet. Jason caved early on and used the heat regulating material Bruce left him along with the nice pair of insulated gloves he left a week after. They were warm without being bulky and had tech friendly finger pads that made using touch screens easy and convenient. No need to lose his gloves to use his phone. They were expensive as all hell and custom made by WE so Jason debated for all of two seconds before giving in and slipping them on. He repeated Kori’s words from Christmas in his head. Accepting the gift didn’t mean he was accepting Bruce. And besides, he never had to know Jason used the special thermals or the gloves.

Which, yeah right. Bruce knew all, but Jason was capable of lying to himself with the best of them.

The man was hard to ignore though, partially because his attempts at contact were so persistent and partially because Jason was paranoid and half expected him to be around every corner or just out of sight. But if Bruce was stalking him around Gotham, he was doing a good job of keeping himself hidden. Jason didn’t see Batman once, even when he was knee deep in scumbags who thought they’d try and pull a Max Kennedy and take over the working girl business in the Alley without a big name like Maroni to offer support. The entire time Jason was handling it, he expected Bruce to come tell him off for his more violent methods, or come take over or something, but instead it was just the regular text messages.

Bruce: I read a book I thought you’d like.

Bruce: Alfred noticed you were favoring your ankle when you had lunch earlier. Are you alright?

Bruce: Don’t forget to sleep.

And then, once it was done and the appropriate assholes were being carted off to Blackgate, it was:

Bruce: Good job with the prostitution ring.

Jason stared at his phone for a full two minutes, unable to make sense of the man, before he gave up and headed back to his apartment for the night. He wasn’t really surprised when he found Tim camped out at his kitchen island, sucking down a still steaming cup of coffee while typing furiously away on one of his laptops. He’d expected to see less of Tim once the orphanage was safely up and running, but so far that hadn’t been the case. He dropped by both the loft and the warehouse regularly, showing up for food or to chat, or because he wanted Jason as backup for a case. After a while, he stopped being surprised and just accepted Tim as an inevitable presence in his space. It could be worse; the kid wasn’t half-bad company.

“I don’t have a coffee maker,” he said at the strong coffee smell in his apartment and the incriminating mug in Tim’s hand.

“Correction, you didn’t have a coffee maker,” Tim replied, not looking up from his laptop.

“Fine, I didn’t have a coffee maker,” Jason said, defeated. “You better find cabinet space for it though. I don’t want that crap cluttering my counters.”

Tim waved it off dismissively. Jason let it go and moved over to his fridge. He’d worked up a hell of an appetite and he was starving. Tim was probably due for a meal too. He doubted he’d see Steph or Cass for post patrol dinner though. His soul-sister was knee-deep in midterms and was taking the week off from the vigilante business. Cass was still patrolling but also checking in on Steph to make sure she was sleeping and eating.

“I have to get a new phone,” he said, digging through his fridge to check for ingredients. His eyes immediately landed on the tomatillos he’d found at the market the day before. He grabbed them, some onions and some chicken and a jalapeño, deciding on enchiladas with salsa verde.

“It won’t do you any good. He’s going to keep contacting you no matter what you do now,” Tim replied, still not looking up from his laptop.

Jason scowled. “This is getting ridiculous. He texts me all the time. And he calls, Tim! Maybe I should just go ahead and move out of Gotham now.”

“Yeah, like you’re going to do that when you still have ten kids living on the street,” Tim scoffed.

“Eleven,” Jason corrected automatically.

“Exactly. And even if you did leave Gotham, he’s still going to text and call. As long as you have a phone he’s going to try to contact you, and you have to keep a phone so that we can get in touch in case of emergency. Just ignore him if it’s bothering you that much.”

“Easier said than done,” Jason grumbled, frowning at Tim. He was dressed in civvies and Jason wondered how long he’d been in his apartment. “What are you even doing here, baby bird?”

“It’s supposed to be my night off. Dick wanted to make sure I didn’t end up working.”

“And what are you doing right now?” Jason challenged.

“I’m not working. I’m just checking what Maroni’s been up to lately,” Tim defended himself.

“Oh, yeah. Sure. Not working at all,” he replied sarcastically as he stuck the tomatillos in the oven to roast a little. He turned his attention to cutting up the raw chicken. “Are you still worried about that asshole?”

Tim shot him a dirty look over the screen of his laptop. “Since he’s got a thing for bloody revenge plots, yes I am.”

“Please,” Jason scoffed. “Maroni knows he’s outclassed. He’s not going to come after me himself. He’ll outsource it.”

“Yeah, that makes me feel better,” Tim replied, tone drenched in sarcasm.

“It should. His operation’s hanging on by a thread. He won’t be able to afford anyone who stands a chance of pulling it off.”

“Yeah, but he’s smart,” Tim reminded him.

Jason shrugged. “I’m not worried. If I’m not, you shouldn’t be.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. But no substantial amount of money has changed hands so if he’s got a plan, I don’t know what it is yet.”

“Well it’s not worth worrying about on your night off.”

“It’s my night off. You can’t tell me what to do with it.”

“Which is why you’re here hiding away from Dick?”

Tim’s reply was prim. “He can’t tell me what to do with it either.”

“And I thought I was the belligerent one,” Jason retorted, grabbing a pan. He drizzled some oil in and let it heat as he tossed the chicken in spices. He then dumped it in the pan, letting it sizzle and cook. He turned his attention to cutting up onion, garlic and the jalapeño.

Tim ignored him. Both of their phones vibrated at the same time.

Dick: Is Tim there? I need to talk to you both. It’s important.

Jason looked up at Tim. “Well? What do you want to do?”

Tim sighed as he texted Dick a reply. “He doesn’t throw around the word important unless it really is important. Do you mind if he comes here?

“Nah, he might as well,” Jason answered, glad he’d used all the chicken. He didn’t know if Dick would be staying to eat, but he did know the big bird wasn’t the type to pass up food if it was there. Which meant he’d need enough enchiladas for all of them. He moved the chicken off the heat, pulled the tomatillos out of the oven and dumped the onion and garlic in another pan to let them cook a little before he added the tomatillos and jalapeño to make the salsa verde.

“What do you think he wants?” he asked Tim.

“Dunno,” Tim answered. “I wonder if the little demon did something.”

Jason considered it. “Chances are decent, but Dick can handle the gremlin without us. The brat likes Dickie so it can’t be something too bad if he’s the one to blame.”

They let it drop and chatted about other things while the salsa cooked. Tim was concerned about getting the eleven remaining kids into the orphanage, but Jason knew it wasn’t something that could be forced. That said, it was probably time to remind them all that the orphanage was still an option and that he had the evidence to guarantee they wouldn’t land back where they were if they wanted to give it a shot. The kids were smart. Jaded, but smart. They knew they wouldn’t make it forever on the streets, Red Hood or no.

He had the enchiladas and salsa baking in the oven by the time Dick showed up on his balcony, still in Nightwing gear. “You weren’t supposed to work tonight,” he frowned immediately at Tim.

Tim was utterly unrepentant. “I didn’t patrol. I’ve been in all night.”

“Yeah, working on your laptop. You were supposed to sleep.”

Tim remained unbothered and Jason stepped in, ready to get the show on the road. “Yeah, yeah. Tiny Tim is a real rebel. Was there actual business or were you just looking for Tim?” he asked, grabbing a beer out of the fridge.

Dick relented. “Something’s going on with Bruce,” he said, peeling off his domino. He looked deeply worried and Jason scowled in response.

“Oh no. This is a you and Timbo problem. Leave me out of it.”

Dick looked frustrated and ready to argue, but abruptly thought better of it and turned to Tim. “Have you noticed anything off about him lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s been acting weird. Last week, he took me to lunch,” Dick began like it was the strangest thing to ever happen to him when they fought costumed crazies on the regular. “It wasn’t for business or anything like that. It was just lunch. Then, when he asked me how things were going, I started updating him on my current cases, but he stopped me. Said that wasn’t what he meant. He spent the next hour talking to me about Babs, and what I’ve been up to in my free time.”

Jason blinked, unsure whether or not this was some weird joke of Dick’s. “Are you serious?”

Dick apparently didn’t find the question worth answering. “I wouldn’t freak out about it, but he called me three times last week and asked me to the Manor for dinner next week. Cass said they’ve been going out for ice cream once a week, and Steph said she found brand new copies of all her textbooks in her room last week. She’d been borrowing the school library copies all semester. Then, he watched a movie with Damian last night. Has he been weird with you?”

Jason watched, utterly bemused.

Tim replied. “Yeah, a bit. He’s called and texted a couple of times. We went to lunch last week too. He gave me some earmuffs and he invited me for dinner on Wednesday. Is that when he invited you?”

Dick nodded, expression of deep concern turning to anxiety quickly. “You don’t think he’s dying or something, do you?”

Jason stared. “Okay, now that’s just sad.” Bruce starts doing his damn job for once and Dick’s first thought was that the man was dying? Oh yeah, they were the poster kids for a happy, healthy family, weren’t they?

Dick gave him a dirty look before turning back to Tim. “You’d know if he’s dying, right? I tried to ask Alfred, but he just did that Alfred thing where he calls Bruce an idiot without actually calling him an idiot. You don’t think he’s dying and not telling us, right? Because that’s exactly the kind of asshole move Bruce would pull.”

“He’s not dying,” Tim replied. “If he were, I’d know. He’s just trying to do the whole father thing, I think.”

Dick frowned. “And you’re sure that’s not because he’s dying?”

Jason shook his head and swore. “That’s the conclusion you jump to? Bruce starts playing dad and you think he’s dying? You’re the golden child. You’re supposed to be the one with the good relationship with him.”

Dick abruptly lost his patience. “I don’t know where you got the idea that Bruce and I became the perfect father and son while you were gone, but that’s not what happened,” he barked.

Jason was so close to snapping back at him, but he paused and considered the older man instead. Dick looked rough and Jason’s mind flashed back to when he was holding him up, promising him that he was okay and no one was disappointed that he was alive. The anger drained out of him and Jason sighed. “Fair enough. Sit,” he pointed at a bar stool.

“What?” Dick blinked.

Sit,” Jason said again, grabbing two more beers from the fridge. He set them before Tim and Dick then pulled the enchiladas out of the oven. They were silent as Jason dished them out onto three plates and passed them around.

They ate in silence until Tim finally spoke again. “It’s not because he’s dying. It’s because of Jason.”

“Whoa, hey!” Jason protested, mouth full of food. “Don’t make this my fault!”

Tim ignored him. “He realized he screwed up. He wants Jason back and realized he’d have to do better. Somewhere down the line, he decided he needed to do better with all of us.”

“Well he’s clearly not wrong if your first response to Bruce acting like an involved father figure is to assume he’s dying,” Jason replied scornfully.

“He’s been doing this with you too?” Dick asked, looking at Jason in interest.

Jason scowled. “Fucking won’t leave me alone. Texts all the time. Calls. Leaves shit on my balcony.”

“Oh, speaking of, this was on your balcony when I got here. Thought I’d bring it inside for you,” Tim broke in, holding up a small, brown box.

“See?” Jason grumbled, almost snatching the box out of Tim’s hand. He opened it with a little more force than necessary, grumbling at the note.

Alfred said you were fond of this blend.

He pulled out the tin and stared at the extremely fine kabusecha tea. It probably cost a small fortune.

“Bruce had a business trip in Tokyo earlier this week,” Tim explained. “He brought me back some manga,” he added, looking pleased. “Cass and Steph got silk robes. Steph was going to refuse hers, but it was purple and she couldn’t resist.”

“I got some junk food,” Dick smiled, looking just as pleased by the junk food as Tim was with the manga. “Dami got art supplies. So he’s really doing this, huh?”

“Looks like it,” Tim said, noncommittal.

“Good,” Dick said finally, a slow but genuine smile stretching across his face. “This is good.”

“Is it?” Jason challenged with a frown. “This is Bruce we’re talking about. You know he’s going to royally screw it up.”

“Of course he is,” Dick agreed easily, not losing his smile even a little bit. “He’s absolutely going to screw up. More than once. But if he’s serious about it, and we know he is because Bruce doesn’t do anything unless he’s serious about it first, then we can pick up the slack for him whenever he does. So what do you say, little red? Dinner at the Manor Wednesday night?”

The look on Tim’s face was both a little amused and a little skeptical and Jason thought back to their conversation in the warehouse weeks back, how Tim thought Bruce was incapable of being a father to anyone. Jason wasn’t sure if Dick really believed this would work out, even a little bit, but he could read Tim’s skepticism like an open book.

Yeah, me too, baby bird. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Still, Tim shrugged. “Sure.”

Dick nodded, looking determined. “Great. Bruce might not be able to make this work, but we can. He’s taking the first step, we can make sure he doesn’t backslide. We’re just as stubborn as he is and there are more of us, so if we work together on this, we’ll win. Plus we’ve got Alfred on our side. Jason, you in? Dinner at the Manor on Wednesday?”

“Fuck no,” Jason replied with feeling. “You’re not sucking me into this one big happy family crap, Dick.”

“Of course, Little Wing. Wouldn’t dream of it. You’re keeping your tea though, right?” he asked with a teasing grin, making Jason scowl.

“Shut up,” he snapped, even as he slid the tea tin into the cabinet that held the rest of his tea. It wasn’t the tea’s fault it’d been bought by Bruce. No reason to let it go to waste.

Dick grinned and stuffed the last bit of food in his mouth before he stood up. “This was really good, Jay. I should come over for dinner more often. Friday sound good to you? Perfect, I’ll be over around seven.” Then he was making a hasty retreat to the balcony, ignoring Jason’s protests.

“Whoa, hey no! This isn’t an open invitation, dickhead! Don’t you dare show up and start eating all my food, I’ve got enough moochers!”

The only reply he got was Dick laughing as he swung off. Jason slumped back on his stool and cursed.

“You’re never going to get rid of him now,” Tim said, taking a swig of beer, and he looked far too smug doing it.

Jason swore and gave him a dirty look. “This is your fault. I’m not sure how, but I know it is.”

“I’ll never talk.”

Jason swore some more.

*****


Somehow Dick wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the bat shadow that appeared on the roof across from Jason’s loft when he exited through the balcony. He changed his trajectory and landed smoothly next to Bruce, waiting for the man to speak, but again wasn’t surprised when nothing came. Annoyance flared briefly within him before he tamped it back down. Bruce is trying, he reminded himself. That was more than they’d had for a while. It was a start, so Dick could throw him a bone.

“Jay liked his tea,” he offered.

“I doubt he said as much,” Bruce replied, tone just a little tight, indicating the frustration he was no doubt feeling about his lack of progress with Jason.

“Well, he didn’t set it on fire,” Dick said with a good-natured shrug. “And he put it in the cabinet with the rest of his tea, so he at least didn’t hate it.”

Bruce made no further comment and he waited for him to say anything at all, but again it was only silence. He sighed, figuring he was going to have to do all the work to have this conversation. And if that were the case, then he might as well get right to the point.

“Are you serious about this, Bruce?” Dick was fairly confident he was, for the reason he’d told his little brothers, but he still wanted to hear it from Bruce’s mouth. Needed to hear it from his mouth, because Jason, Tim and Damian were his little brothers and he’d protect them. Even from their father if that’s what it took.

“Regarding?”

Again, Dick tamped down the flare of annoyance. “Regarding this new-found effort to be involved in our lives. Because I’m telling you right now, if this is a temporary thing that you’re going to drop the next time one of us has a close call because you suddenly remember why you never get close to people, then go ahead and cut it out. They’ve gone through too much crap to also have to deal with whatever emotional whiplash you pull on them. So tell me right now: are you serious?”

Bruce was silent for a moment and Dick could practically see him gathering himself. Finally he spoke. “I’m serious.”

“Okay,” Dick said with a nod, relaxing a little now that Bruce had spoken the words out loud. “You’re serious. That means you stick with this no matter what happens. You can’t be there for them, let them start to depend on you, then change your mind later. I won’t let you,” he warned.

“Good,” Bruce replied, surprising Dick a little. “I’m not…” He paused and the very fact that Bruce needed a moment to work through his words, actually clenched his hands into fists at the frustration of not finding the right ones, settled Dick’s concerns way more than the man admitting he was serious. Bruce could say he was serious, but this proved it. He only struggled with words when it was important to him. The smoother he was, the less he cared.

“I’m going to make mistakes,” he finally managed. “I need you to be there when that happens.”

“I can do that. But I’m going to remember you said that, Bruce. If you go back on this… I’ll kick your ass.”

“That’s fair.”

“Okay then,” Dick nodded and then waited a third time for Bruce to speak. He had come for a reason after all, and now that they had all that out of the way, Dick was waiting for Bruce to get to it.

It took a few long moments, but he finally got there. “You and Jason are getting along.”

Dick knew Bruce well enough to hear the question in the statement. “Yeah, but only recently. It’s still a bit shaky. He’s stubborn.”

“How?”

Dick sighed. “I had to wait until Jay was willing to give me a shot. And even when he was tentatively giving me that, he was still suspicious of every little thing I did. We didn’t make any real progress until the memorial case disaster” He gave Bruce a hard look.

Bruce’s mouth moved into a thin line at the reminder of all the yelling Dick had done after that. “What do you suggest?”

He frowned and took a moment to think it through before he answered. “I think you need to really think about Jason. He’s not the kid we knew. A lot has happened; you can’t expect him to be that kid. Just like you can’t expect me to be the kid I was when I was Robin, or Tim.”

“He grew up,” Bruce agreed. “We missed it. He grew up and he had to do it alone.”

“With only Talia to help him, that pretty much counts as alone,” Dick agreed coolly. His dislike for the woman had never been a secret. “The point is he grew up. He’s not the kid he was and you can’t see him that way. You’ve got to see him for who he is now.”

“I do. The important parts are still the same,” Bruce interjected. “He’s grown up and he’s made mistakes, but he’s still Jason. He still cares about the helpless and still puts them above himself. He’s still good. He’s still my son.”

“Have you told him that?” Dick challenged. “Because the Jason staring down his own memorial case a couple of weeks ago did not know that.”

Bruce’s silence was answer enough. Dick sighed. The relationship between Bruce and Jason had been far different than the relationship he had with the man. Dick hadn’t thought of him as his dad growing up. He’d had a dad. Bruce was Bruce. It was part of what added to the tension between him and Jason back when Jason was Robin. Not only had Bruce given Robin away to some random stranger without even asking, he’d taken the kid in and actually adopted him when he hadn’t even tried with Dick. He understood now, of course. He’d had a good, loving father and Bruce had never wanted to try and take his place. It wasn’t until after he was grown that he thought of Bruce as something closer to a father, but even now it wasn’t quite father and son. They were more equals; partners.

But for Jason, Bruce had been his dad, more than he had been with Tim, more than with him, and in a different way than with Damian. Easier even, because with Damian, Bruce was almost paralyzed by his failures with his second son, which made him a more guarded father to Damian. It made everything that happened with Jason’s death and afterwards so much harder. Tim being there, the Joker living, the memorial case, all of it was so much worse. If there was any chance of fixing things then Bruce would have to step back up to that role and make Jason understand how he feels.

Dick looked at Bruce, even more determined now. “Start with what you just said. He definitely needs to hear it. A lot of mistakes have been made all around. We’ve all been through a lot, but no matter what’s happened, he’s still your son. There are things he needs to hear from his dad and there are things you need to say to your son. So just start there. It might not change things with you and him anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to hear it anyway.”

Bruce didn’t respond, only turned his attention back to the city and moved to depart. But his body language wasn’t closed off. Dick could tell he was giving the suggestion serious consideration. It was a relief. It wouldn’t magically fix things between the two of them, but it would be a start. And even if it wasn’t, Jason still needed to hear what Bruce had just said, and he needed to hear it from him, not anyone else.

Bruce paused on the edge of the building, grapple raised. “Wednesday?”

Dick smiled. “Tim and I will be there.”

“Good.” And with that, Batman took off into the night. Dick took one last peak at Jason’s apartment to ma