Dick was swinging between two buildings when the sound of angry voices shattered the still night. Not an unusual sound in Gotham by any stretch, but he made a point of checking it out anyway. When he landed, he doubled back to peer over the edge of the building into the narrow alley below. The back door was open to the tenement building across the way – another one of Gotham’s plethora of low rent government housing – and there was a man in the doorway fighting with a kid about Dick’s age. Well, maybe “fighting” was a stretch; it was far more one-sided than that. The man had the kid by the collar of his shirt and was snarling something at him that Dick couldn’t quite make out. Then, to Dick’s shock, he pulled back and drove his fist into the kid’s stomach, seemingly with all of his strength. It had to have hurt, considering the size of the man, but to the kid’s credit, he barely made a sound as his skinny body absorbed the blow.
“You fix this, or don’t bother coming back!” the man shouted as he deliberately shoved the kid into a row of garbage cans.
Dick winced at the loud clatter as the boy tumbled over the cans, knocking them over and strewing the street with garbage.
The man promptly retreated back into the building, slamming the door in his wake.
Dick flipped down off the building and landed where the boy could see him, so as not to startle him. He wasn’t sneaking up on a bad guy, after all. “Hey, you all right?” he asked, hunkering down to the kid’s level. He was startled to receive a hard kick aimed at his chest – which he caught with his hands, but that was beside the point. “Hey!” he exclaimed indignantly.
“Don’t come any closer!” the boy snapped as he scrambled to his feet and backed warily away from him.
Dick rose with him, but he hung back, giving the kid some space. Now that he got a good look at him, he realized the kid was quite a bit shorter than him, and probably younger than him by a good few years. He couldn’t have been more than twelve at the most. Dick frowned when a closer inspection revealed even more details, like the kid’s bleeding nose, the ragged, stained, once-white t-shirt that he was currently shivering in, and the stick-thin arms he held up to defend himself, just in case Dick decided to attack him.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Dick assured him. “I’m Robin.”
“No shit,” the boy sneered, though he seemed to relax fractionally.
Dick held back a grin. He reached into his utility belt (slowly, so the kid wouldn’t think he was reaching for a weapon) and withdrew a handkerchief. “Here.” He offered it to the boy and gestured at his nose. “I get those a lot too.”
The boy eyed the handkerchief as though Dick were offering him a giant hairy spider, but after a moment, he snatched it from Dick’s hand and pressed it to his bleeding face. “From Batman?” he asked, his tone surprisingly sympathetic.
“Uh, no,” Dick said, startled by the implication. “I mean…it’s usually from bad guys, you know?”
“Oh yeah, right,” the boy said ruefully. “So Batman’s pretty cool, huh?”
“He’s totally astrous,” Dick confirmed.
“Huh,” the boy grunted. “My dad says he’s a self righteous prick who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Dick cocked his head at the boy. “What about you? What do you think?”
“He’s all right, I guess,” the boy said with a shrug. “I mean, at least he’s trying. Nobody else does.”
Dick smiled, and felt himself warming to the kid. “By the way, if you’re gonna kick someone, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck if you put your whole body into it, not just your leg muscles. See?” He demonstrated by sending one of the garbage cans flying. “It also helps if you aim for vulnerable spots like groin, ankles and knees.”
The boy’s eyes rounded in surprise. “Uh…thanks.”
“No problem. Hey, us little guys gotta stick together, right?” Dick shot the boy a conspiratorial smirk.
“Uh, yeah. I guess so,” the boy said sheepishly. “Anyway, I ah…I gotta go.” He turned to go, but Dick stopped him.
“Hey, wait. I don’t know what that was about,” he said, jerking a thumb at the tenement door, “but is there anything I can do to help?”
The boy scowled at the door, but then he shook his head. “Naw, it’s cool, I got it.”
“All right, but here, take this.” Dick reached into another compartment on his belt and pulled out a business card with one of his burner phone numbers on it. He handed it to the boy. “If he does that again, call me, ok? I can get the big guy to have a word with him.”
The boy’s eyes lit up for just a moment, before his expression clouded again. “Don’t think that’s such a good idea, but thanks anyway.” He shoved the card into his pocket and turned to sprint down the street.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Dick yelled after him.
“Jay!” the boy bellowed over his shoulder before he nipped down a side alley and disappeared from view.
Dick opened his wrist computer and tapped in the address of the building, the boy’s name, and the number of the phone he’d given him, so he wouldn’t accidentally throw it away. Then he shot his grappling gun up to the roof of the building and continued on his way.
Jason opened the door to his apartment and slipped inside as quietly as he could. The house was dark, with that particular stillness that indicated it was empty. A pang of concern rippled through him, but he silently chided himself as he closed and locked the door behind him. His dad was fine. Two Face wouldn’t hurt him before the deadline – that was just bad business. As long as Jason didn’t chicken out, everything was going to be just fine.
He made his way to the shared bedroom without turning on any of the lights. He knew his way around, and the apartment looked a lot less shitty in the dark. Besides, electricity was best conserved for more important things like running the fridge and the stove.
He dropped his backpack on the floor and sat down on his bed - the smaller of the two mattresses on the floor. He lit a single candle and pulled two items from his backpack, a pack of cigarettes he’d liberated from his dad’s jacket pocket a few nights ago, and one of his dad’s discarded pre-paid cell phones. He knew there was a reason it had been discarded, that he’d be dead meat if his dad found out he’d dug it out of the trash, but at the moment, he had too many other things to worry about to care about a measly phone. He lit up a cigarette and took a few drags to calm his nerves before he pulled the final necessary item from his pocket – Robin’s card. He stared down at it in the dim light of the candle, running his fingers lightly over the embossed letters and numbers. After a moment, he put the card down.
Maybe he shouldn’t. Robin had seemed like such a genuinely nice guy; it was downright despicable to take advantage of his kindness by dragging him into this. Besides, every minute Robin wasted on him was a minute he wasn’t spending helping people…innocent people who really deserved his help. Jason brushed the card and phone off the bed onto the floor with an irritable sigh. What was wrong with him? What was he even thinking?
He went to the kitchen and got himself a big glass of water. He already knew what was in the fridge - a really old jar of mayo, some cans of beer, and two cans of coke. He’d get the everlovin’ shit kicked out of him if he drank the beer, the coke was for later, and he wasn’t quite hungry enough to eat the mayo, so he wandered back to the bedroom with his water.
He drummed his fingers against his knee in agitation before he finally picked the card up again. Whatever his feelings were on the matter, the bottom line was, he had to go through with it. Without Robin, they were screwed. Quickly, before he could lose his nerve, he dialed the number and pressed send. He chewed on his lip as the phone rang, seemingly endlessly. Then suddenly it clicked.
For a terrifying moment, Jason’s mind blanked. He tried to say something, but nothing came out.
“Uh…” Jason said, aware that that was not an answer, or even really a word.
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line before Robin said, “Jay? Is that you?”
Jason’s heart pounded in his chest as he swallowed hard. “You remembered,” he said (squeaked).
Robin chuckled. “Yeah, I remember. What, you think I give my number out to just anyone?”
“Well…yeah,” Jason admitted. Not just that, but he failed to see what was so memorable about him in particular. Robin probably helped dozens of kids every week, and he’d bet dollars to doughnuts that most of them were a lot worse off than him. At least he still had his dad, and a place to live. A lot of people didn’t even have that much.
“I don’t, Jay,” Robin said seriously.
It suddenly occurred to Jason that Robin was trying to make him feel special, like he mattered. Usually when someone lied to him like that, they had some kind of ulterior motive in mind. Robin didn't seem the sort though, so in this case, he thought it was probably just pity. Still, it was nice of him to try, he supposed.
“So what’s up? Is everything all right?” Robin asked.
“Nothing’s up,” Jason said. “I mean, I just…I dunno.” He fiddled with the hem of his t-shirt. “You’re probably busy. I should let you go.”
“No, I’m not busy,” Robin said quickly. “Well, I’m just doing homework. I’d rather talk to you.”
Jason firmly tamped down the rush of warmth that elicited. Sure, Robin had said he preferred to talk to him, but over doing homework, which was like saying eating broccoli was better than getting kicked in the face. That sure as hell didn’t mean you liked broccoli. And anyway, what did it matter whether Robin liked him or not? Even if he did, he wasn’t going to for very much longer.
“So…what homework are you doing?” Jason ventured.
Robin groaned. “English. I have an essay due tomorrow on ‘Why the Caged Bird Sings’, which I totally didn’t have time to read. I skimmed the Cliffs Notes, but it only gives you enough info to answer the study guide questions, not write an essay.”
“I read that book,” Jason volunteered. He kept the fact that he’d failed the unit to himself. English was his least hated class, and he liked reading the books; he just wasn’t big on writing essays, or completing homework assignments in general. “What’s the essay about?”
“There’s a couple topics to choose from, but I think I’m going to write on this one: in chapter 29, Daddy Clidell introduces Maya to con men. Maya says that ‘the needs of a society determine its ethics.’ What do you think she means by this? Do you feel that she is correct?”
Jason frowned. “What do you think?”
Robin sighed. “I don’t know, I didn’t make it to chapter 29. What even happened?”
“Some black guys rob some white guys, and she basically figures that’s ok, on account of how much shit the black people had to put up with,” Jason explained.
“That doesn’t make it right, though, does it?” Robin said. “Revenge isn’t the same as justice, and it doesn’t fix anything. It just perpetuates the cycle of violence and oppression.”
“Yeah, but how were those people ever gonna get justice? You can’t put people in jail for treating you like shit. And even if you could, the justice system was totally stacked against them. So what if those assholes got robbed a little? It wasn’t like they couldn’t afford it,” Jason argued. “Besides, how do you know it was for revenge? Maybe they were just in a tough spot, like they just really needed the money, or someone they cared about was gonna get hurt.”
“Maybe so, but morality is absolute. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or rich or poor, stealing is wrong,” Robin insisted. Then he sighed. “Do you think that’s what the teacher’s aiming at, or do you think this is some kind of lesson in sensitivity?”
“I dunno.” Jason laid back on the bed and stared up at the water stained ceiling. His stomach gurgled but he ignored it. “Maybe both? Like, maybe you’re supposed to get why she thinks the way she thinks, but also get that just ‘cause that’s what she thinks, it doesn’t make it right.”
“You know, I bet you’re right,” Robin said. “Thanks. That was really helpful. I asked my friend Wally about this like an hour ago and he was totally the opposite of helpful. He spent the whole time stuffing his face and chewing in my ear, and then he had to go so he could talk to his girlfriend.”
Jason found himself envying this Wally kid just a little as he lit up another cigarette to settle his stomach. “No problem.”
Robin paused, and then he said, “Listen, Jay, I know you didn’t call to talk about my homework. Are you ok? Did your dad hurt you again?”
“Nah, he ain’t even here.”
“You’re by yourself?” Robin asked.
“I can take care of myself,” Jason assured him.
“What about that thing he asked you to fix the other day? Did everything go ok with that?” Robin asked.
Jason swallowed hard. “Well…actually…I could sort of use your help with that. Do you think you could meet me here? It won’t take long, I promise.”
‘Yeah, I can meet you,” Robin said immediately. “I gotta run it past the big guy, but he shouldn’t have a problem with it, especially if it’s not going to take all night.”
“Cool. But ah…don’t tell him you’re coming to see me, ok?” Jason said. “It’s just…it’s kind of embarrassing, you know?”
“No problem. I’ll just say I have a friend who needs my help. I won’t give him any specifics. Hang tight. I’ll see you in about fifteen,” Robin said.
Jason clicked off the phone. He sat up, and a wave of dizziness and nausea crashed over him. He sprinted to the bathroom just in time to vomit into the grimy toilet. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing in his stomach but the water he’d just drunk, but his body insisted on gagging and retching a few more times till it finally got the message. He stood up and rinsed his mouth out in the sink with shaking hands.
This was such a stupid idea. What was he thinking? But he couldn’t lose his nerve, not now, not when he was this close to getting the help he so desperately needed. Luck had thrown Robin in his path just when he needed him most, and he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, not when so much was riding on it.
It hadn’t taken Dick long to convince Bruce to let him go. All he’d had to say was that a kid was hurt and needed his help, and that was all she wrote. He still needed to complete his essay for tomorrow, but he knew that if this ended up taking too long, Bruce would write him a note for tomorrow so that he could get an extension. Neither of them liked doing that, but it was better than letting Jay get hurt by his skeezy dad.
He slipped in through the window, open just the way Jay had said it would be. He stilled, his instincts suddenly on high alert. The room was completely dark save for a single candle, flickering wildly in the draft from the open window and throwing writhing shadows all around the room. Dick crouched low in a defensive stance, his eyes and ears open for the slightest sound. He knew that Jay had said he was home alone, but his dad could’ve returned in the time it took Dick to get there. He sort of secretly hoped the man was there, because he itched to put a fist in his face. See how that abusive jerk liked it for a change.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps approaching - light, quick steps, and he relaxed back into a neutral stance.
“Hey, Jay,” he greeted as he stepped out of the shadows.
Jay yelped loudly and slapped his hand against the wall. The naked lightbulb above them flicked on with a low buzz, and Dick squinted against the sudden flood of sickly yellow light.
“Jeez, you wanna gimme a heart attack?” Jay hissed.
Dick’s gaze immediately zeroed in on the boy’s face, currently a swollen, mult-coloured whirl of dark purple, blue and red. “Jay, what happened?” he said, moving closer to get a better look.
“Nothing.” Jay avoided his gaze, and quickly flicked off the lights again, shrouding the room in darkness. “Look, it’s my fault, ok? I screwed up, and that’s…that’s why I need your help. Please.”
Dick put a tentative hand on Jay’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me about it? I promise I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
Jay nodded. “You wanna sit? That’s my bed there,” he said, pointing to a dingy mattress on the floor. “You ah…you want something to drink? I’ve got coke.”
The mattress was so saggy that he might as well have been sitting on the ground, but Dick didn’t comment on it. “Yeah, that sounds great.”
Jay disappeared and returned a moment later with two cokes, both already popped open. He handed one to Dick and settled on the other end of the mattress with his own.
Dick murmured his thanks before he took a sip of the soda. “So tell me what happened.”
Jay took a gulp of his soda as though to steel himself for what he was about to say. “So, I run errands for my dad sometimes. Nothing big, just pickups, deliveries, that kind of thing. I never know what’s inside the packages – they don’t tell me and I don’t look. The other night, when you saw us, I’d just come back from a run. And…well…some goons had jumped me, and taken my package. My dad flipped out, and told me to go get it back. The thing is, I tried, but they were long gone by the time I got back there.”
Dick drank his soda and nodded. “Well sure, they’re not just gonna hang around waiting for you to come back with reinforcements, are they?”
“Yeah. So dad had to break it to his boss that we’d lost the package. Turned out it was a hundred g’s . Now they’re saying he stole it, that they’re gonna kill him if he doesn’t give them the money back.”
“Oh, Jay, tha’s-” Dick stopped abruptly. Did he just slur his words? Come to think of it, he felt strange, and really dizzy all of a sudden. He glanced down at his soda and then up into Jay’s terrified expression.
“I’m sorry!” Jay blurted just before Dick’s vision blurred and he lost consciousness.