Jason Todd was starving. At least he thought he was, as the whole sensation of having a stomach, the odd squirming that obviously meant it was empty and even the fucking flow of air through his mouth and nose was bizarre. But he hadn’t hunted down a dumpster meal (he had no cash or even loose change on him, which was terrifying) because of the bleak stone before him.
Jason Todd it read, and the birth date was correct. No epitaph, but Jason hadn’t really known or cared about anyone anyway.
One problem: the stone said Jason had been 15, and he was pretty sure he was 12.
It probably should have freaked him out that he couldn’t refute his apparent death. The dented beyond repair belt buckle still in his grip was digging into his skin, but he couldn’t seem to uncurl his fist. He didn’t remember losing feeling in his fingers.
Last he checked he was twelve and a few months and was in the process of jacking the Batman's tires. He needed to eat and who could resist that gorgeous car? Not like the Bat would go to the cops to complain.
The ground at his feet was upturned and there was a gaping hole with a coffin at the bottom, broken open from the inside. The long drop was blacker than night and his shoulders seized, his body pulling him back, anything to get away from the dark, from the walls, from the fear that seemed a distant but vivid memory. His nails were gone, all twenty of them, skin peeling and fraying from the tops of his fingers and toes, and he wasn’t sure why it wasn’t painful. His knees, elbows and heels were much the same.
Dad… he’d been screaming for a father, his father. But Jason had never relied on Willis Todd and felt his eyes sting remembering that his mother wasn’t here for him either. Who had he been desperate for?
The clothes on his body were faded and worn and the more than few bugs and worms had Jason nearly throwing them all off before his body realigned with the temperature to inform him that it was cold. He tossed the ruined jacket over the hole and looked down. His shoes might have been expensive once, but they were frayed to hell, the soles completely gone and the rest falling off his feet. Whoever dressed him got the sizes wrong. A buttoned white shirt and pants were shredded at the cuffs and shins, but the wristwatch (seriously expensive, what the fuck!) would get him some money. Enough until he figured out what to do.
The dirt looked like shit. Also smelled like shit. Which he was sure he smelled like too. His nose was still adjusting, and Jason had sneezed eight times in the last few minutes. He really should have left, but where to?
The stone with his name glared at him, demanding that he crawl back under it and stay dead like a dead person.
Jason had never been good at listening to others.
Ignoring the fire that bled into his legs and arms, he hobbled out of the cemetery, tears falling with every breath.
* * * * *
The restraints were utterly child's play. Damian should have been out of them the second the buffoons had left the room. Unfortunately his sprained wrist would not cooperate. His other hand was wriggling desperate in its chain, trying to gather enough sweat to slide out. He'd already dislocated his thumb for the attempt.
Humiliating. Undoubtedly Grayson would order him to remain in the Manor for an unseen amount of time after this debacle.
Where was the infuriating man? He'd disregarded orders to come here, but Grayson always tracked him.
Minutes passed and the slight wound at his side asserted its presence. It would be infected soon if he did not receive treatment. Where was he?!
There was shouting outside and Damian took the moment to arrange his face. It wouldn't do to let Grayson see that he was not in control of the situation. The man who slapped the cuffs on him bolted into the room and face planted when a long bar connected with his head. All was silent as a tall figure stepped over the body. Too silent, not Grayson who would have been ranting at him by now. The steps were not as light as Nightwing's, but light enough to be suspicious. The person was also sticking to the shadows.
"Who are you? I demand that you identify yourself!"
The figure flinched back. "No need to get your greens in a twist."
The voice was male and out of puberty, but sounded young, like Drake. His maybe savior stepped into the light, long limbs, wide shoulders and narrow hips. “If I’d a realized a Bat was in here, I mightn’t have bothered. Leotard Boy should be here soon; thought I heard his luscious ride outside.” A plank of wood was in his right hand and his left hand pulled off the ski mask. "Better, Boy Wonder?"
Damian stared. It wasn't possible.
"Robin!" Grayson flew into the warehouse and before his eyes, Damian's savior melted into the darkness, leaving the wood behind.
Nightwing unlocked the restraints without noticing the witness and it added to the validity of what he saw. Also proved Grayson was not up to his father's level. Father would have noticed... he thought. Picked up like a damsel, Damian forgot to scowl, his eyes combing the shadows where a nearly invisible figure saluted him before vanishing completely.
They arrived at the cave quickly enough. Father was on a League mission and Drake and Cain were still on patrol. Damian gritted his teeth when Grayson and Pennyworth forced him into his bed after wrapping his hands and torso. At least Grayson hadn't asked why all the thugs were knocked out when he’d arrived.
How could he explain that the ghost of Jason Todd had done it?
Before anyone freaks out (or maybe you already have) I know Jason's gravestone does have an epitaph. I've just never had confirmation on what it is. Regardless, it will remain blank in this fic.
Why? You might ask.
To create more delicious tension, of course! ^^
Well, this is my first fic on Archive and my first Jason fic. Please let me know what you think and if you like it.
Chapter 2: Damian I
Sorry guys! I don't know why it didn't add the chapter. Hopefully it worked this time.
Anyway, just to clarify what I mean by Alternate Timelines... I'm shuffling around some of the events from the comics and adding them to events from other Batman media. Starting this chapter, the Hush Incident has begun and the final outcome will be very different from canon.
Also starting with this chapter and for the rest of Ghosts, the Chapter Titles will the Name of the POV Character with a Roman Numeral to differentiate between the different chapters for each character.
I hope you all enjoy the chapter and let me know if there is anything that doesn't make sense or is too weird. I want you guys to love this, so I'll tweak here and there if it's becoming too lame.
The rain was light and steady, drowning out the bright colors of his uniform and drawing the stench of the city up from the ground. Even on a rooftop, the odor was overpowering.
Damian ignored it in favor of staring into a rundown old apartment in Park Row. It had been a week before Grayson had allowed him back on patrol. Another two weeks after that before he was permitted to make sweeps on his own.
The door to the apartment building opened, and Jason Todd stumbled into the arms of several children.
Damian had spent his time benched researching everything about the former Robin, the one his father had lost, the one whose uniform was memorialized in the Cave. Revealing his suspicions was tempting, but Damian kept his mouth shut. He couldn't be sure the teenager was Jason Todd. He went by Alfred Todd and looked about eighteen. The real Jason Todd had died at fifteen and would have been twenty-three if alive.
It was the same face, only thinner, wearier.
Shifting the binoculars to the next window, he observed the teenager climb onto a chair as a young woman hurried over to him. Horrific burn scars covered her face, making Damian flinch. He recognized her, Sasha: had failed to save her, had then lost track of her when she had vanished and their last link (her scumbag father) had been smothered to death.
What was she doing here? Damian peered through the rain and felt his gut clench when Todd kissed her hand gallantly. She was facing away from him, but Damian could see her swat the young man’s hand and turn to leave. Todd was having none of it and dragged her back into a hug.
The children, Todd’s personal gang from what he’d seen in the last few days, crowded into the tiny kitchen. With a deep breath, Damian dropped down to street level. He had it all planned out, return the wooden plank and get information.
Even in the rain, he could see a dozen people outside, huddling under what meager shelter they could find. Crime Alley was a mess. During his father's perceived death, this side of the city had become worse than ever. All the masked criminals were based here, but they didn't have the evidence yet to crack down. Pulling his cape close to keep from announcing himself with his colors, Damian crossed to the apartment and buzzed the decidedly broken bell. A knock looked like it would break the door down and Damian could not simply enter, not without possibly starting a panic.
“It’s Robin!” A redhead approximately his age was leaning out a window on the second floor. Why hadn’t he noticed the child before now? The door pulled back and Jason Todd (Alfred?) was grinning down at him, looking exactly like the photograph on the Cave’s computer.
“Boy Wonder. What brings you to our humble doorstep?”
He was easily taller than Drake and if he got much taller, he’d pass Grayson. Up close, Damian catalogued a healing black eye, hunched shoulders and back, and a variety of other scars visible on decidedly too thin limbs. Did he eat at all?
Todd’s smile turned slightly manic and Damian scowled, holding out the bar before he could reach out to ruffle his hair. He got enough from Grayson to recognize the warning signs. The look didn’t pass and Damian quickly reassessed it as curiosity.
“Thanks, princeling. Wood is always a plus in the-”
“Princeling?” Damian shifted his stance, one hand at his utility belt. There were few in Gotham who could be called such, and Jason Todd would know not to compromise his identity. Had this been a trap?
Todd looked unimpressed. “You haven’t been at this long, have you? Less than a year at least given how much smaller you are than the last Robin.” Damian bristled. He was above the fiftieth percentile in height for his age. He was not short! “But you kind of… when you spoke in the warehouse and even just standing here now. It’s easy to see. Or maybe that’s just part of being a tights wearing vigilante.” They weren’t tights! They were armored pants… and why did Todd not know they were armored pants?
“Colin, you can come down. We’re eating.” He called up to the boy on the second floor before giving Damian a wary smile. “Anyway, you want to come in?” Damian nodded numbly and stepped into the hallway. Did Todd not remember? Did he have amnesia?
“I’m Alfred Todd. You probably won’t give me your name, so I reserve the right to come up with any nickname I can think of.”
The young man smiled and opened the side door to the flat he shared with the others. The kids were sharing what looked like canned beans off paper plates. Todd accepted a plate from Sasha, but slid most of the beans onto a dark haired girl’s plate.
Sasha was about to argue when Jason announced. “Hey irregulars! Check out what I brought home.”
Damian was suddenly targeted by too many eyes and almost as one the kids abandoned their plates and rushed him. There were fourteen of them and they were asking everything from his name to his age to whether he’s punched the Joker yet.
“I’m like your biggest fan!” A short girl with auburn hair and a smattering of freckles burst. There was a stylized R drawn onto the corner of her faded red shirt. “You and Batman!”
“Carrie, he doesn't need to hear about your crush.” A blond boy around twelve teased as Carrie’s cheeks went pink.
It was a more upfront interaction than Damian had encountered in possibly his entire life. Most of his classmates at Gotham Academy kept their distance, and there were no others remotely his age in the other aspects of his life. Holding his hands under his cape, he stayed silent. Grayson and Father had not briefed him on how to interact with civilians outside the normal protocol for acquiring information.
Well, he was here for information, but by that reasoning, he’d also failed the moment he’d approached the door. Bats did not confront directly unless all the facts were already plain.
“Do you have money for food?” A small dark haired boy, maybe seven, pushed through the group. They were all exceedingly thin now that Damian looked and likely too short for their years. He had emergency funds in his utility belt, but before he could reach for them, Todd grabbed his arm. Damian barely managed to keep from flipping him over his shoulder.
“No.” Todd’s voice was tense and angry as all the kids backed up a step. “We don’t make friends just because they have money or food. Boy Wonder does plenty for us already, keeping us safe every day.”
The dark haired boy’s eyes were suddenly glassy, but he nodded as the others looked at their feet. Frankly, the argument was ridiculous. They clearly didn’t have the livelihood to be picky about where their money came from. He would have argued, but Todd had already released his wrist to sweep the child into a hug that lifted him off the floor. “I’m sorry, Danny. I’ll work harder and get more food.”
Danny nodded into Todd’s shoulder, putting his arms around the older teen’s neck.
“Why don’t we finish eating? I’m sure Robin will stay if he isn’t busy and if you ask nicely.” Sasha stepped out of the kitchenette, wiping her hands on a rag that was likely making them dirtier.
Damian froze when her eyes, a dull blue-gray, nearly purple, focused on him. It was there on the tip of his tongue. I’m sorry. I should have done more, should have saved you. Then her eyes moved away and she herded the children back to their food. Todd lowered Danny into a chair and ruffled several other kids’ hair. Somehow, Damian wound up next to the small redhead who’d been on lookout. His hair was the same red as Gordon’s. The boy smiled shyly and offered Damian his plate. The beans were barely enough to cover the paper in a single layer and smelled stale. “I already ate.” Hurt passed over his features so Damian plowed ahead. “Why are you eating so late?”
“Not that late.” Danny piped up. Ten o’clock was late, but there were no clocks or watches around. Did they not know the time?
The blonde who seemed the oldest of the kids shrugged. “We don’t eat until everyone is here.”
Several of them turned to the doorway where Todd was talking with Sasha in low tones.
“Al won’t eat unless he knows someone else will be hungry if he doesn’t.” The redhead whispered. “Oh! And I’m Colin.”
Damian nodded absently, watching Todd. The second Robin was never brought up at the Manor except for one day a year when the whole house seemed to shut down and Father and Pennyworth would visit his grave. Still… what he’d gathered hinted at Jason Todd being a pretentious and arrogant child, easily angered and incapable of following orders. How could someone like that secure the devotion of a group of street kids and care enough to keep them all fed and safe?
With a crash a rock broke through the lone window, hurtling to the floor and scattering glass shards. “Todd, fuckin’ whore! Ge’ yer ass out here!”
The kids were up in an instant, scrambling for their plates as Todd and Sasha went for the cabinets, drawing out dented baseball bats and an assortment of other easily dismissed items. Swallowing down the last of their dinners, the kids were lining up for a weapon each and Damian saw the blonde pulled over with Todd, whispering as he approached.
“Paul’s all bark, but if any of his friends show up we might have trouble.” He pressed the metal bat into the pre-teen’s hands. “Watch out for the others. Sasha is still new at this, so you’re in charge until I get back.”
“What are you taking?” The blonde asked, his hands shaking on the metal.
Todd grinned, all teeth, and brandished the wooden plank. He spotted Damian and with a smile, pushed the blonde towards the others.
“I’ll help.” Damian interrupted. He should have been telling Todd to stay with the others while he handled it, but keeping him out of the fight seemed ridiculous. If he was the former Robin…
“Thanks man. Stay with Colin.”
What? Damian turned to see the redhead behind him, his smile nervous.
“I can fight! I’m Robin.” He reminded the teen. Was it because he was obviously younger?
Todd was pulling on a jacket that carried at least three knives. He looked down at Damian, his eyes all business. “I know. But if a Bat is seen saving our hides, saving… my hide, it’ll bring the real freak shows down on us.”
He wanted to argue, but Todd gripped his shoulder. “The others are holing up in the basement, but Colin can’t hide with them. He doesn’t like close spaces. Please,” Damian boggled, never expecting the word from Jason Todd’s mouth, “keep him safe.”
As much as he hated it, going out as Robin would attract the attention of the masked criminals, so Damian nodded, trying not to scowl when Todd smiled at him.
“Al?” Colin was frowning and Todd bent down to give him a hug. The redhead ran into him and gripped tight as the older boy whispered reassuringly in his ear.
The two separated and Colin grabbed Damian’s hand, which he almost shrugged off before noticing all the other kids holding hands and remembering the buddy system at school. Perhaps Todd had instigated something similar for the children.
“Don’t be in such a hurry for a beating, Paulie.” The teen hollered and leapt through the window, clearing the glass effortlessly. Father had trained Jason Todd in acrobatics; seeing some proof to reconcile this teen relaxed Damian slightly.
“Come on.” He pulled Colin out of the room and into the hallway. The boy trailed after him silently as they climbed the stairs. Everyone else living in the building had closed his doors and was likely huddling away from windows. They passed a spare room that had the central switchboard of the building. Damian found the door to the overseeing window open and dragged Colin inside, as a scream echoed from the street.
“How do you keep watch without attracting attention?” He demanded, there were no good hidden spots here if anyone came looking. Colin’s eyes snapped from the window to him, terrified.
“Al put a mirror in the windowsill so you just make sure you can see it. Most people don’t notice it and it’s too small for them to notice you if they look at it anyway.” The redhead pointed out the compact fixed to the window. Sure enough, he could see Todd beating down three others. But they were getting in hits as well.
Another yell tore through the patter of rain, and Colin’s grip on his hand tightening. Yeah, first the child. He tugged the boy back into the hallway to the spare room. “Just stay here and you’ll be fine.”
“And give me your shirt.” It was too big for either of them and should cover his colors just fine. “I’ll have to help if Todd can’t handle them.”
Colin looked torn, but the mention of the young man had him relinquishing his shirt. It was filthy, but Damian unclipped his cape and pulled on the garment. He forced Colin into the tiny room, pushing him into the hollowed corner under the switchboard and throwing his cape over him. The boy was still protesting, but Damian hissed and he stilled, going silent.
Closing the door, he hurried back to the room. Todd was actually holding his own now with one of the men on the ground and another limping. He frowned, watching the teen fight. There was no finesse, no style he could recognize besides basic street brawling, and no real training. Damian’s stomach plummeted. There wasn’t a trace of his father’s teaching in Todd. Certainly he was an agile fighter, but there was no discipline in his form, no trace of holding back as he slammed the bar into one assailant’s shoulder, sending him down hard. The man screamed and likely had a dislocated or broken shoulder from the force of the blow.
A gunshot rang out and all the men jerked down as a forth assailant arrived, wobbling drunkenly. Todd was looking directly at the mirror, mouthing furiously Stay with Colin, but Damian was up and flinging a batarang at the gunman. It connected, sending the man to the ground unconscious and Todd caught the batarang on the rebound.
With a crack, Todd got the last of the men in the back of the head. All four remained on the ground and Damian rushed into the hall, eager to get down and make sure he was okay.
Only when he passed the spare door did he notice the frantic whimpers and scrapes against the wood. “Colin?”
The boy gasped and choked and Damian fumbled to open the door. The knob was stuck. Throwing his weight behind it, he pulled the knob out of its socket and the door flew open as Colin tumbled into him, throwing them both to the floor. Thin arms and legs clamped around his body, and Damian found he couldn’t budge under the trembling boy. His red hair was matted down with sweat, and he had what looked like vomit running from the corner of his mouth.
He didn’t have time for this. Breaking Colin’s hold, he shoved him off and moved to the stairs when he was tackled and the pair fell off the stairwell. Damian just managed catch the railing with his legs. His head slammed into a stair and his vision went blurry.
“What is wrong with you?” He snarled when his breath returned. Colin was now clinging to his back, trembling as he held on.
“Don’t go.” The boy whispered between his shoulder blades and Damian felt tears on the back of his neck. With some effort, he got them both back to the landing and seated. Colin was still holding his clothes though at least Damian could see him now. His skin had gone so pale his freckles looked like a rash and his cheeks were tearstained. And that definitely was vomit on his face and shoulder, not much but that was likely because he had nothing in his stomach to throw up.
“Im…” Colin was mumbling under his breaths, which were shaky at best. What had happened? Damian would have heard if anyone had come into the hallway.
“I can’t hear.” He spat. Why had he been left in charge of this child?
“I’m claustrophobic.” Damian stared as Colin burst into more tears. He’d messed up again. He hadn’t thought not liking closed spaces was that serious, but Todd wouldn’t have separated Colin from the others if it wasn’t.
“I…” The apology caught in his throat. Why was this so hard?
“Don’t leave me.” Colin leaned closer, and Damian let him.
The front door opened, but the landing was out of sight, so Todd headed into the apartment. Footsteps pounded in the little apartment and sirens blared. At least Todd was inside. The GCPD wouldn’t look much farther than the four unconscious men on the street. Damian turned from the stairs to the redhead. “Let’s get you clean.”
The other boy hummed weakly and led Damian to the absolutely tiny bathroom in the apartment. The closets in the Manor weren’t this small! Colin was still shaking, so Damian ran a wet towel over his torso and neck. The water was freezing and not getting warmer, but the redhead didn’t seem to notice, his eyes on his feet.
Once adequately clean, Colin rinsed the borrowed shirt and returned the cape. Damian was just grateful the cape wasn’t a mess. Taking the other’s hand, he led Colin back into the kitchen. Most of the kids were being sent into the living room by Sasha who was fretting over Todd.
Todd was… more of a mess than he was ready to accept. The healing eye was bruised shut and more bruises were darkening on his left arm and leg. The worst appeared to be a gash on his back. Sasha’s eyes were glassy as she cleaned and wrapped the wound. The injured party sat perfectly still, not flinching at the little touches and twirling the batarang in his hands. Damian gaped. Todd’s fingers were scarred beyond reason. He hadn’t noticed before that the nails grew in awkwardly and the skin was flaking. It was clearly an old injury, but more troubling than anything he’d gotten in this fight. What could result in his hands looking like they were shredded?
Looking up, Todd caught his horrified gaze, and smiled. “Good job, Bat Jr.”
“Are you okay, Al?” Colin regained his voice control, his eyes fixed on the stab wound.
“Nothing my girl’s miracle touch won’t fix.” Todd grinned raucously and Sasha flushed.
“You wouldn’t need to rely on miracles if you were more careful, Alfred. What did you do to tick off that jerk?”
“He offered a job and I said no.” Todd dismissed, twirling the batarang through his scarred fingers and around his wrist. “That was after I met you, Boy Wonder.”
What did meeting him have to do with it? “You leave your left side open.” He said instead.
Sasha actually smiled at him. If she tended his wounds regularly she would know it as well. Todd just smirked. “We can’t all be trained by bats.”
Weren’t you? He wanted to ask because he looked so much like Jason Todd. And Alfred, the name, couldn’t be a coincidence.
His comlink beeped. Grayson must have run into something. “I have to…” He’d never had to justify his leaving before. Bats and Birds just vanished, but that would be disrespectful to his maybe predecessor.
Colin released his hand and gave him a swift hug, which left Damian paralyzed. It was more hesitant than Grayson’s habit of crushing his ribs, but just as warm. “Thanks for helping me.”
Sasha finished tying the wraps and ushered Colin into the chair as Todd approached him. His steps were light, but his breaths were too loud. With a smirk, Todd raised the batarang. It flew neatly across the room and bounced off the center of the door. Dead center.
“It’s blunted, so it will swing back if you throw it correctly.” He was staring at Todd, not sure what his face looked like. The former Robin picked up the batarang, running his fingers over its edges.
“Like a boomerang? Thought they were like those ninja throwing stars.” He met Damian’s eyes and the teal was so vibrant, green unlike the rest of the Robins, who all had blue eyes. Protocol dictated he retrieve the batarang, but would Todd let him? Hip cocked, he seemed to be daring Damian to try. It just made him painfully aware of how thin the young man was. His iliac crests should not be that visible.
He dug out his emergency cash. “You all really do need to eat more,” he lectured, trying to keep his eyes off Todd’s ribs, which he could count fairly easily.
“You’ll spoil me, but I’m grateful.” Todd smiled, and there was something there. A reason he didn’t want these kids taking his money, but had no problem taking it himself. “I hope you don’t mind if I tell them I got a great gig when I bring home real meals for them.” He must have seen Damian’s question because he leaned in, whispering. “I’d rather they learned to live on their own feet instead of relying on the kindness of strangers. Being that naïve gets people killed down here.”
Father could have them living in luxury for the rest of their days. The kindest thing to do for the Bats of Gotham would be to knock out the teen and drag him back to the Manor. Grayson would be confused and Father, furious, but they’d work it out.
The ache to bring his brother home was strong. They’d both been raised to take what they needed, damn the consequences, had both entered the Cave with moral compasses that clashed with Father’s, had had no adequate father figure before Batman.
A hand was before his eyes and Damian looked up, startled. Todd’s expression was grim, cautious but curious. Shaking the hand, he found he could feel the slight dents and bends in the poorly healed bones. Thin cuts opened on his knuckles and fingertips when the young man tightened his grip. Todd breathed deep, his voice going impossibly low. “Thank you.”
Damian had no idea what he was being thanked for. Glancing back at the children, Sasha, and Colin… he couldn’t do it. Alfred Todd may have been Jason Todd and Robin once, but he’d made a life for himself here, one he was content with.
“Bye, Robin.” Colin was waving from his chair and the rest of the kids were peaking out of the other room, smiling at him asking him to visit again. It felt nice in a way he didn’t known at the Manor.
“Whenever you want, Robin. Our door is always open for you.”
It was two weeks before he could return to the apartment. A run-in with Killer Croc and Poison Ivy had left his father with a fractured skull only days after he’d last visited. Pennyworth had requested a friend of father’s, Thomas Elliot, to perform the surgery, but his father had been on strict bed rest since then. The remaining Bats had to patrol longer hours as once again Gotham City instinctively knew and responded to the opportunity. As even small time crooks cowed by the cowl crawled out of the woodwork, the Bats had worked to the bone, making up for father’s temporary disappearance.
He hadn’t had the time to inspect Todd’s grave to confirm his suspicions. Digging up the casket was out of the question, but even if he did, Damian knew a corpse would prove nothing. The existence of another Todd, looking so similar as to certainly be related to the second Robin was evidence enough that something more was at work. His father would have tracked down any of his ward’s remaining family, especially since the young man had a record. Batman was too meticulous to have missed a living relative and upon finding Alfred Todd, his father would have taken it upon himself to assist him. The only surety was that a funeral had been held for Jason Todd. The body could have been swapped from Ethiopia. Perhaps a false corpse was planted at the warehouse from the start. His grandfather had immersed himself in the Lazarus Pit often enough to stave off death, Troia had returned from death, and Bruce Wayne had been believed dead. Regardless, a trip to the site was necessary if only to ensure nothing had compromised his brother's coffin.
Since yesterday, father had returned to patrol, taking back his city with brute force. Drake and Gordon were tracking Ivy, who had vanished with the ransom money Croc had demanded for a kidnapped boy. Father’s current paramour, Selina Kyle, was aiding Grayson and Cain comb through Ivy’s old hideouts. As the youngest (Damian gritted his teeth) he’d been left to run surveillance through the city, which was completely unnecessary as Pennyworth did that well enough from the Cave. Kyle was even one of father’s former enemies. He refused to acknowledge that she shared much in common with his mother. The woman had the gall to flirt with his father when Damian was present!
The sun had just set when he arrived at Park Row. It was startling how close the apartment was from the old theater. Alfred Todd had paperwork here going back seven years. Had father never run across him when he came down here?
The apartment was empty except for Sasha who had a gun in hand as soon as Damian hopped through the window. He froze, eyes on the barrel. Sasha slumped against the counter, “Warn a girl before you do that.”
Her hands were surprisingly steady on the gun, and her finger had left the trigger. Luckily she didn’t seem to harbor enough resentment to shoot him, just enough to ignore him and return to her cooking. Damian looked at his hands, berating himself. He’d dropped his guard as soon as he’d crossed the windowpane. Perhaps father’s dismissal wasn’t so unfounded.
Steeling himself, he pulled a bag from inside his cape and set it on the counter. Sasha looked up from struggling with a lighter and the gas stove to start a fire. After a hard glance at him, she emptied the bag, eyes going even more bug-eyed in her face.
“I-” He still couldn’t say it. “The other Dollotron victims are still catatonic, but Silvadene appears to be helping them.”
Sasha turned her stunned gaze on him and Damian fought to keep from fleeing under her scars. “It’s a prescription medication, so you really should see a doctor first, but…”
If they barely had food to eat, it was unlikely the group had managed to pull the funds for Sasha’s treatment. He should get her proper treatment, pay for it himself. No one would object, but questions would arise. How had he found her? Where was she? Then it would only be a matter of time before the Bats found Todd. He knew it was selfish. “I’m sorry.” He finally whispered.
“No, Robin.” With a watery smile, the young woman bent over him and hugged him close. What was with these people and hugs? They were Grayson's chosen people and he didn’t even know it. But it felt good, felt like he could breathe again.
Sasha pulled back, pressing a chapped kiss to his forehead. “I’m the one who should be sorry. Twice now you’ve helped us, and I’ve given you the cold shoulder.”
Twice? He’d only met them once. “But I promised to save you-”
“I don’t, don’t blame you. I mean, you’re only-”
“A child?” He couldn’t help but snap, gritting his teeth. Perhaps things weren’t so different from the Mansion after all.
“Only human.” Damian looked up, stunned. Sasha put her hands on his upper arms, not on his shoulders like a child. “I am upset; I won’t lie about that. I wasn’t the prettiest girl ever, but compared to this…” She smiled and Damian felt his gut clench again. “But if not for this I would have never met Alfred or Stephanie or any of the others. My father was a thug. I would have wound up in trouble regardless. At least this way, I’ve been found by people who care.”
She cupped his jaw and he was brought up short by the memory of when his mother used to do the same. “And you are trying to help me. I would have never thought the Bats had the time to come down from their perches and do more than sympathize.”
He had to say something before he embarrassed himself further. “Where are Todd and the others? Why are you here by yourself?” The ‘it’s dangerous’ went unsaid but heard all the same.
Sasha’s smile turned down and Damian tensed. “Alfred has a job tonight. He should be back soon.”
Glancing up, she rushed to assure him. “Al will be fine, really. He’s been doing this for longer than I’ve known him, longer than Steph’s known him.”
Night jobs that weren’t regular usually entailed grunt work for the mob or the various masked criminals.
“The rest are at St. Aden’s.” Sasha was looking panicked now, so Damian pushed down his speculations.
“It’s getting late. I will escort them back.” He attempted to push aside his instinct telling him to follow up on Todd. Nipping crimes in the bud was the surest way to keep resulting collateral low, but they had so little as it was. If Todd was revealed to have any connection to the Bats, the group’s livelihood might vanish.
“Most Thursdays the orphanage can scrape together extra food for the kids. They’ll be staying there, but if you can help Steph back, I’d be grateful, well, more than I already am.”
Damian nodded and left through the window, making sure there weren’t any suspicious persons heading in the direction of the apartment.
St. Aden’s was one of the many orphanages in Gotham, one of the many that were nearly overflowing. Colin Wilkes was listed as a living at the orphanage, but most of the other children frequenting the apartment were on waiting lists to be pulled into the system.
He was greeted by a tiny storm of feet when he touched down on the roof of the orphanage. The roof door flew open and the apartment children cheered, following behind a sheepish looking Colin.
“I saw you coming.” His face was red enough to overshadow his freckles.
Damian had neglected to check the windows, again. Forcing down his anger, he looked over the boy quickly. His episode didn’t appear to have resulted in any lasting trauma.
“Are you healthy?”
Colin looked taken aback and Damian winced at his blunt words.
“Yeah, thanks for asking.” Colin smiled shyly at him, taking a step closer to him.
“Wow, it really is Robin.” A new girl, an older adolescent with long blond hair and a dilapidated purple hooded sweatshirt stepped onto the rooftop. Several of the kids grabbed her hands from her pockets, pulling her forward.
“We told you!”
“Yeah, and you didn’t believe us!”
“Well, you can’t expect me to believe Wonder Bread stopped by our dingy HQ.” She grinned at Damian but he scowled at the nickname. Somehow it was more irritating from her than from Todd.
Danny leapt onto her back, pulling her hair. With a yelp, the girl dropped, using the momentum to pull the child off her. “Don’t insult Robin!” He bellowed into her face, leaving her momentarily dazed. Damian held back a smirk. At least the kids displayed proper respect.
“He’s a badass!” A dark skinned boy crowed, thick cracked glasses on his nose and short dark hair in ringlets close to his head.
“Reginald! Language!” The older girl admonished.
The blonde preteen appeared in the doorway with a laugh. “It wasn’t insulting, Steph. Besides, you use worse language all the time.”
“John!” Stephanie whined as the children giggled around her. With a frown, she released Danny and stood, stepping forward and planting her feet. Her arms crossed.
“I’m Stephanie Brown. What brings you all the way out here, Wonder Breath? Thought the Bats and Birds didn’t have the spines for this side of town.”
Arrogant and insulting. Todd lived with this infuriating girl?
“Don’t mind Steph. She’s really very nice.” Colin smiled at him and that only made Damian angrier. The boy probably thought that of everyone, probably thought his living situation was perfectly acceptable.
Brown smiled all teeth; she was on her guard, like Sasha.
What was Todd doing tonight?
“Steph, is Al going to be able to come?” John asked, pulling a small girl from the stairwell. Her dark hair was a frazzled mess around her face and her eyes were red and swollen, mucus smearing her nose.
Brown was there in an instant, pulling the child into a strong hug, not unlike the one Todd had given Danny last time, though the girl’s feet didn’t leave the ground. “Nell- I’m sorry, Nell.”
Glancing around, Damian noted the tension in the other children, even John looked uncomfortable. Colin met his sweeping gaze. “Al doesn’t come to the orphanage a lot so Nell won’t get to see him much anymore.”
“Because she’s living here from today.” Some of the closer kids flinched at Colin’s admission. At the door, Brown dried Nell’s eyes and wiped her nose with her sleeve. Was Todd not permitted to visit the Orphanage? Brown was here just fine; surely the girl could wait until tomorrow.
The moment was interrupted by the appearance of an older woman at the door. “It’s nearly midnight! What are you all doing up here instead of sleeping?”
She was in her late forties and glaring at the assembly. Graying hair was pulled back into a tight bun, giving her face a stretched and bloated look. Piercing brown eyes sized him up and Damian blinked behind his mask when the children shuffled closer to him.
“Mrs. Cooper, they’ll be right in. We’re very sorry for the fuss.” Brown stepped in front of the group, her voice sweet and apologetic as she set Nell on her feet.
Harriet Cooper, Matron of St. Aden’s, raised a dark brow imperiously, not impressed with her tone. “Miss Brown, you were asked to vacate the building hours ago. I have no room to put you up.”
Damian frowned as Brown flinched back, but Cooper had already looked past her to him again. The lines around her mouth deepened. "I do not condone violent persons. Kindly remove yourself from the premise.
"Robin is a hero!" John surprisingly snarled and several of the children latched onto his sleeves in protest.
"And he still isn't welcome in or on this building. All of you to bed, now!"
John looked ready to riot when Brown clapped a hand on his shoulder. "It's late. You guys should go to sleep. Robin has come by twice now. I'm sure a third round is up and coming." She fixed him a hard smile, clearly not thrilled with the prospect. Damian was more concerned by the Orphanage Matron. She was condescending and rude. Brown was of age with Drake so he dismissed her as useless by default, but were the children thriving under Cooper's care? Looking sideways at Colin, he noticed the boy fidgeting. Would he face repercussions because he was under her authority?
But the children were already shuffling back into the building, some asking him to return soon and most waving. With one last smile at him and a hug from Brown, Colin scampered after them. Cooper sniffed but said nothing when he dashed past her. With a glare, she slammed the door closed behind her, leaving himself and Brown on the rooftop.
Exhaling sharply, Brown walked away from the door.
"Why do you tolerate such blatant disrespect?" Damian couldn't stop himself from asking. Why do you leave the children under her power for any length of time?
Hands loose at her sides, Brown met his gaze over her shoulder. "She has extra food, nutritious food, which they really need. Besides, sleeping here is infinitely safer than Crime Alley." She bent down, sitting on the ledge with her feet dangling.
"She locked you up here. Does this occur frequently?" Annoying though she was, the idea of one of Todd's companions unflinchingly subjected so such treatment was intolerable.
"The door isn’t locked. That’s just to let me know she’s angry with me. Besides, Mrs. Cooper actually pays to maintain the fire escape. So getting down from here is never hard... unless..." She turned back to assess him.
Damian tensed as she grinned dangerously. "You are a boy wonder." He bit back a scream, "but you Bats are pretty strong from what I've heard. Think you can fly me down to street level?"
He would have refused if not for a series of high pitched gasps. The children's rooms must be directly under them and, leaning over the edge, he could see Colin's smile and several pairs of wide eyes as the kids piled up by the windows. Anger dissipating, he felt a thrill when he nodded to Brown. With a beaming smile, she stepped next to him and he maneuvered her arms around his shoulders and gripped her waist. It was awkward with her bent to his height, but once securing his grapple, the swing down was manageable. Brown clung desperately to him, but laughed with glee. They hit the pavement, Brown dropping to her bottom and cheers erupted from the uppermost windows. Other heads began to poke out the other windows on the Orphanage and on the surrounding buildings, so Damian steered Brown into the shadows, failing to keep a foolish smile off his face.
Escorting Brown to the apartment was less eventful than he'd anticipated. With her hood shading her face, she swaggered down the backstreets, hunching her shoulders and shielding her gender well enough to those giving her less than a cursory glance. She took care to project her confidence; it was clear that she was, like Todd, from the lower class. He wasn't needed, but Brown hadn't warned him off, had just nodded when he'd confirmed Sasha requesting he follow her. Despite that, he could see the nervous glances she cast at the rooftops. Hoping to spot him? Making sure he was still following her? Both women were keeping him away from Todd's business. What was he up to?
"Blondie." A bulk stumbled into Brown's path, taller than her and slurring horrendously.
"Thin' I canno' see ya unde' ta'?"
Brown stopped smoothly, but from his position Damian couldn't determine her reaction accurately.
"Paul-Ball, thought Al knocked yer teeth out."
Idiot! Damian launched himself from the rooftop as the thug lunged, getting between the inebriated man and Brown. The man from his previous visit reared back, the knife in his meaty fist flashing in the dim street light. Blinking stupidly, he pocketed the knife (he hoped the lout stabbed himself) and his face split in a grin. He leered at Damian who nearly blanched at the putrid stench. Did the buffoon not bathe?
Damian leveled his fists, shifting his stance when Paul reached out. Just a little more and he'd have a clear shot at the drunk's solar plexus.
"Knew Todd's too mucha who' to pass money. Fin'ly got one a da brats ta-"
A bottle shattered over his head and Paul dropped unconscious. Brown stood behind him, heaving and glaring daggers at the man. She dropped the broken glass and grabbed his hand, dragging him away from the scene.
Damian kept up easily, but couldn't extract his wrist from her grip. Digging his heels, he pulled her to a stop. Brown whirled on him, her eyes wide and terrified.
"He was still breathing. He'll live." Brown didn't let go of him, and the mania didn't leave her face. Having failed to calm her down, Damian didn't bother to mention that Paul the Thug probably had a concussion or worse. That kind of strength should be beyond her, given her size and weight. The hate in her eyes as she's looked down at Paul was burned into his retinas. She could have worked up the adrenaline to manage the feat, but why?
Brown dragged him the rest of the way to the apartment in silence, not releasing him and Damian did his best to remain inconspicuous. Todd had done worse to the brutes on his last visit, so why was she rattled?
Flying into the apartment, Damian was promptly dropped as Brown rushed into Sasha's arms. The girls didn't speak, the blonde clinging much like Grayson did but with a visible tremble in her shoulders. Peaking over her shoulder, Sasha met Damian's gaze and when Brown murmured something in her ear Sasha returned the embrace. Though three years younger and half a foot shorter, Sasha supported Brown steadily, tracing her fingers over the other's back. Curiosity didn't sit well with him and Damian fisted his hands. What was he missing? What had the buffoon said to set this off?
"Sorry, Robin. We-Steph gets like this when... trouble shows up."
It was appallingly cryptic and Damian was ready to demand answers when the door rattled. Todd staggered through the arch and tripped over the doorstop, landing with a dull thud. Both girls were at his side in an instant. Brown rolled Todd into her lap while Sasha closed the door and began her own inspection of the near unconscious teenager.
For a second time, he was seeing Todd worse for wear, but...
The knees of his jeans were bloodied and torn. Dark bruises crossed his bare torso, front and back, patterned like belt lashings. Shining, something clearly not water lingered on his cheeks and forehead. Brown's fingers came away from his hair sticky and when Sasha lifted his head to wipe away the filth, Damian could see vivid strangulation marks.
Todd's lips were bright red and swollen and bleeding from one corner. Bills were held tight in his fist.
"Prostitution is illegal." It was the wrong thing to say, the worst thing to say.
Brown snapped up, furious with all the protective instinct of a lioness. Sasha curled around Todd, pressing gentle kisses to his face and neck and the finger shaped bruises at his collar. That was somehow worse than Brown's anger.
"You little shit! What-"
"Steph, it's fine."
Todd was awake, eyes fluttering as he turned to Damian. With his hair spilling into his green eyes, the former Robin said nothing only breathed and watched him as the girls fretted.
Feeding fourteen children was hardly cheap, and of the caretakers, only Brown had a stable job. Of course Todd made up the difference somewhere and his sparse papers ensured he couldn’t get legal work, but why couldn't he just be a grunt for the mob? Gritting his teeth, Damian met his gaze unflinching. Father's files had never mentioned hustling when Todd was on the streets. But he had been alone on the streets after his stepmother's death, and automobile parts were enough to feed one, not fourteen plus three. Anyone would make do where they could, and Todd clearly cared about these kids enough to sacrifice himself.
Todd was panting weakly as the girls pulled him to his feet and maneuvered him towards the bedroom. Each step brought a wince has the older boy walked in a half crouch. Damian had to look away. It was humiliating to see his predecessor like this.
"Why did you go to Bernie? He always half kills you!" Brown demanded as Todd slumped and she lost her grip. Bernie. Damian would look into it. The man needed a knife in his genitals for touching Todd.
A hissing laugh and Todd rolled his head back. "He pays well. Jack'll have us on the street if we don't pay up tomorrow."
"If you won't let me whore myself at least go to someone who won't slit your throat!"
"Paul might be a sick bastard, but he doesn't hurt you like this." Sasha piped in quietly.
Knew Todd's too mucha who' to pass money. Fin'ly got one a da brats ta-
Damian threw open the bedroom door, ignoring Brown's snarl to Stay out! He all but broke down the closet door and felt his blood run cold.
Children's clothes filled up most of the meager space, folded neatly on the top shelves. The lowest shelf had three sets of clothes, all that Todd, Brown and Sasha allowed themselves. On the floor was a copy of the Nightwing uniform, except it wasn't Kevlar, wasn't one solid fabric rather than a mess of combined fabrics, wasn't the correct shades of blue and black. It was the Robin forgery underneath that made Damian see red.
"It pays better that you'd expect."
Todd was standing on his own, his knees trembling, but keeping his shoulders straight. "I outgrew Robin a while ago and there's no way I'd let one of the kids do this. Nightwing might be taller now, but creepy fucks have always dreamed about banging that ass."
The thought of scum fantasizing about Grayson-
Damian froze. Todd hadn't looked away, didn't lower his eyes despite his obvious shame. "I need to keep us alive, and... I know it doesn't help, but I haven't used those costumes since I met you."
His brother was selling his body often enough to know which perverts were more dangerous than others. Father would be horrified, would have gotten Todd out of this slum the instant he set eyes on him.
"Don't." Todd was kneeling in front of him, blue green eyes blazing. "You can't save everyone, Robin, and there are people who are much worse off than us, plenty of kids we haven't been able to save."
Memories or not, Todd was a Bat, putting himself in harm's way to help others, doing everything in his power to protect the innocent.
He respected Damian, Robin, where most civilians - even the rest of the family - treated him like a petulant child. Whatever it took, Damian would get his brother out of this. He wouldn't leave the orphans, but after the children were brought into the foster system... He'd have to provide better living for Brown and Sasha, but there was plenty of space in Wayne Manor and the two were clearly why the former Robin wasn't dead again of recklessness.
"I understand." He didn't trust himself to say more, for his mouth to not run away from him again.
"Thank you for the medicine. Steph and I will make sure Sasha puts it on regularly."
That was likely why Brown had yet to ambush him. He helped Todd onto his feet, stopping himself from hugging the man, both in horror at his actions (Grayson was getting to him) and at Todd flinching back.
Steadying himself, Damian pulled his third objective from his uniform. With a confused smile, Todd upended the parcel: a roll of bandages, a box of dermal ointment, and gloves.
“The wrap is similar to the one we use for injuries and the salve should heal your fingers at the lower dermal levels. In a few months, your hands should stop peeling.” If he was exposing himself to disease often, it would be better to cut off any other entries into the body. Damian's hands itched to collect a blood sample, less to confirm his brother's identity and more to ensure he wasn't harboring a dormant STD.
"Less movement is preferable, so you should use the salve one hand at a time. The gloves will help with that." Todd was staring, mesmerized, as he picked up the gloves. Black and sleek, they would impede his movement and the fingertips were electrical conductive thread to operate touch screens without removal. Of course he probably didn’t have access to touch screens. "The padding will restrict movement allowing your hands to heal properly."
“It’s soft.” The teenager gasped as he gently pulled back the wrists of the gloves, revealing the cashmerette lining.
Todd smiled softly. "I think you should know I'm a terrible patient. I might not be able to use your gift for a while, but thank you."
The moonlight through the single window threw Todd’s injuries into sharp relief, the marks on his throat already darkening. His smile was kind and Damian couldn’t speak for the lump in his throat. He’d been naïve, imagining this life was anything like what his brother deserved. Father would have taken him away from this, kept him from getting hurt. Damian’s silence had enabled this.
His brother was always thinking of the children. Something like pride and jealousy constricted his chest. It was ridiculous to feel proud of not having commissioned real cashmere, but Todd would surely have sold it for his charges. With a last nod, he opened the window and vanished into the shadows. He had to find some way to speed up the foster integration process, and he couldn't keep Todd a secret anymore, not if he wanted to get him out of East End. He'd inform Grayson, who would be suspicious, but less likely to wait overly long while confirming Todd's identity before acting. The sooner his brother was free of dependents, the sooner he could bring the wayward bird home.
Completely forgot I had Dick as Batman in the Prologue. Sorry; I went back and corrected that. He is Nightwing and has been since Bruce came back from his vacation through time.
Starting next chapter, we have a new POV! I’ve already written 3000 words and it’s not even halfway done. *shudder* I hope you guys don’t mind if I’m a little late next week with the update.
I posted a basic timeline of this universe under the series page for anyone who is confused about what is going one. Everything is comics canon (ignoring the reboot) up until Jason is resurrected in his coffin, and the story changes from there.
Has anyone noticed what I did with the kids? They aren’t really OCs, if you look into them. Hehehe… (Doesn’t matter that much because they really are only there to facilitate our delicious family drama/angst) Seriously, don’t worry about the kids. They won’t be a main focus since the POVs are only the BatFam and their primary function is to move the plot along. (With the exception of Colin ^^)
Jason is becoming really sweet as I keep writing this. Huh? It’s probably because his duties to his group of kids have toned him down. Remember, this Jason doesn't have all of Bruce's training and all the extra training he got after digging his way out of his grave. He wants to help the city, but he doesn't have the knowledge, skills, or resources, so he's working small. But never fear! We will see more angry Jason with the coming chapters. I promise he isn’t perfect. He’d just very good at projecting that kind of image.
Was it good? Was it bad? Was this Author’s note too long? Was the reveal of Jason’s clients’ fetishes too out there? I know my beta basically went O.o.
Chapter 4: Dick I
Sorry this is late guys. Getting ready for school next month is freaking with my schedule.
To that end, I will be taking a 2 week break starting today. I'm really sorry about this guys, but I'd rather not hand out half assed chapters. This one is technically that, but only in that I didn't get much chance to edit or make sure it flows well. Please feel free to tear me to shreds in the comments. Remember, if you don't like it TELL ME! And I will try to make it better.
The Supers do appear in this chapter, but in general they won't be around much. This is mostly about the Bats. Speaking of which, I'm not including Luke Fox (Batwing II). Sorry if you're a fan, but I don't know anything about him or his character. Let's just say he never became Batwing in this universe. All of the other Gotham vigilantes are part of the Birds of Prey which also monitors Bludhaven and the surrounding areas. Batman Inc. members are still stationed in their areas, but aside from Cass, we won't see them.
Damian had been trying to talk to him for two days.
Damian had been trying to talk to him.
Dick wasn't sure if he should celebrate or make sure the boy wasn't a clone or a lookalike (a clone of Damian would probably be as high handed as the original).
His Robin cast him another half desperate look and part of Dick wanted to cry and another part to hug the daylights out of his littlest brother. But they were in the Cave, with the entire family plus the Supers, and Damian would kill him if he tried anything.
They had work to do.
Freeing Clark and Kara from Poison Ivy's Kryptonite control had taken the Bats and Birds away from Gotham just long enough for nearly all Gotham's rogues to team up.
Damian, Tim, Conner, and Kara were reviewing the data from the last three nights, trying to find some clue as to the next hit. Clark and Cass were hovering around Bruce who was at the main consol, flipping through police frequencies. Dr. Elliot's death was just one more strike against the Joker and Bruce had nearly gone over the edge this time.
How many more would the deranged clown take from them? He pointedly didn’t look at the case.
Tightening his fists, he flashed back to the feel of the crowbar in his hands as he’d beat the clown. Whatever Bruce said, Dick understood that he’d gone too far. That didn’t mean he regretted his actions.
He had to reign in his temper. Damian and Tim needed to see him level headed. Both boys were tiptoeing around Bruce as it was.
[Something on your mind, N?]
Babs... another victim of the Joker. Certainly she was more in her element as Oracle than ever, but she had closed herself off from them, from him.
"B is tense. This case is wearing him down."
[As long as he keeps his head in the game, he'll be fine. Besides, letting loose might do him some good. You should try it.]
As always, she saw straight through his anxieties. God, he missed being with her.
"Robin, pay attention."
Damian glared at Tim. As they stared each other down, Conner ignored them, continuing to sort through the files. Kara met Dick's eyes and they both sighed. If Damian was seeking more support from Dick, he had become more hostile than ever towards his other brother. Luckily Bruce had yet to notice the renewed conflict, though Clark did look over his shoulder at the group, betraying nothing as he turned back to the consol.
[Did you figure out what R has been up to?]
"No." Damian had vanished at the start of two patrols in the last few weeks, turning off his tracers and commlink from his side. "He's only ten so it probably isn't romantic."
[Slow down, Circus Boy, you were plenty horny at his age.] Babs laughed. [Perhaps it's just a Robin thing. Jason was flirty as well, and I'm still convinced Tim is repressing.]
Trying for a smile, Dick waved off Cass who looked at him in concern. It didn't work, obviously, and his sister made a beeline for him, her movements making him jealous as always.
B jumped, chair clattering to the floor and the cave went silent.
"Bruce?" Clark was at his shoulder, looking at the screen. A window had popped up with a blinking red light.
"It-It's," Dick couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Batman stammer. "It's Jason's grave. There is activity at Jason's grave."
Jason's grave? He'd never visited; anyone who knew them knew Jason's real grave was in the cave even if his body wasn't. Was someone doing something to his little brother's body?
Bruce was rushing for the Batmobile, pulling his cowl on haphazardly as the rest dashed to catch up. Superman was right behind him, arms around Batman’s waist and flying them both out of the cave, likely to get them both to the graveyard faster. Conner, carrying Tim, was gone the next instant. Dick only had enough time to grab a fresh coil of wingdings before Kara had grabbed Cass and him. He scooped up Damian in his own arms as they left the ground.
Supergirl was less accustomed to taking multiple passengers, but they were flying at easily 80 mph. Still, it was slower than the other Supers.
“Can’t we go any faster?” Damian demanded.
Kara rolled her eyes. “We’ll get there a minute after them at most. Cool your jets, kid.”
“A minute more of some heathen defiling Todd’s grave!”
Now this was interesting. Damian had never shown much interest in Jason, writing off the boy as a failure even before arriving at the Manor. Perhaps that was where Damian had vanished from patrol? He could learn enough about Jason at home. There wasn’t any need to go alone to Jason’s grave. Bruce did it every year, but wasn’t the case in the cave torture enough?
“O? Can the Birds patrol tonight?”
[Already on it. Just focus on giving those bastards a serious beat down. Sensors are picking up two figures. O out.]
Bruce would want to go on patrol once this was taken care of, but there was no way Dick would let him go anywhere except to sleep. First, Dr. Elliot, now this? Someone was meticulously wearing away at Bruce’s nerves. It wouldn’t have worked if he was just Bruce Wayne. This kind of targeted assault could only mean one thing.
Someone had connected Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Damian was muttering under his breath, snarls lost in the wind. Did his Robin feel a connection to Jason that he’d never divulged?
[Nightwing, hold back] Batman barked down the commlink.
Kara nodded when he looked up, having heard the order loud and clear. They soared past the graveyard gates and were lowered to the ground. With a growl terrifyingly like his father's, Damian sprinted ahead, Cass at his heels. Robin was too loud, too reckless, but Supergirl was on it, plucking up the littlest bird as she flew close to the ground and covering his mouth in warning. Making their way to the gravesite in silence, Dick signaled the group to the shrubbery.
Once they were in position, he looked up.
His heart stopped.
Superman and Conner were flanking Batman whose hands were fisted, mouth tense. Beside Jason's grave Red Robin was in a stranglehold, feet dangling above the ground in the grip of... Jason.
Seven years later and there was no doubt who the young man was. Dick had rarely left Bludhaven in those days, but he remembered vividly how quickly the street punk Bruce had picked up had grown, requiring the larger uniforms long before he had.
"Todd?" Damian crouched beside him, arms slack, confusion obvious despite the mask. There wasn't time to reflect on the implications. Snapping open a wingding, he forced back his shock. Jason was strangling Tim, if that was Jason. More importantly, neither of the Supers had yet rescued him. Conner was trembling with rage and Clark was tense. The objective would be to keep both unharmed, but with a possibly unstable gravesite under them, they couldn't take that chance.
“Seems you got a lot of brats after I died, huh Bats?” Jason sneered, pulling Tim higher. Had he targeted Tim specifically for replacing him? Guilt weighed on Dick's shoulders and chest, stealing his breath. If that was true, he had certainly set the precedent. He had tried at the end, but with so little time left before Jason died, it was absolutely not enough to make up for the years he had scorned his little brother.
Bruce raised open palms, taking a step forward. “Jason, please-”
A low whistle and Jason pitched forward, Tim sliding out of his loosened grip. Everyone froze. A batarang was embedded in the back of his neck, buried halfway through.
Dick was up and moving, Damian right behind him. They couldn’t lose Jason again, not like this. Who had thrown it?
But before he could reach Jason, the body bubbled and morphed, colors giving way to mud and sludge, and the batarang slid smoothly out of the muck. Clayface!
Bruce charged forward, ice gun in hand, but Clayface was faster, lashing at the others. Dick hurled Damian out of the way as a coil of mud threw him to the ground, covering his utility belt and cutting off access to his ice pellets. Feeling the pull of the mud, he dug the spikes of his gauntlets into the earth, not that it helped much, but he did get enough time to check on the others. Cass had dodged her mud tentacle and melted into the darkness with a frown in the other direction. Damian was running towards him, pulling out his ice pellets. Conner had scooped Tim outside Clayface’s range, and Superman and Supergirl were trying to immobilize Clayface with their Freeze Breath alongside Bruce, who had already trapped three of the mud limbs.
Damian froze the mud, allowing Dick to break through the ice. He gave Damian a quick smile that the boy scowled at. His legs were half frozen, making him useless for the duration of the battle. Admittedly, he wasn’t needed as the two Supers and Batman finished icing Clayface. With a satisfied and relieved look, Damian muttered, “Imbecile.
Before Dick could ask who the boy was referring to, or even catch a breath, a voice was screeching from past a tree grove.
“What can I say… I’m a stubborn bitch.”
Damian’s expression melted into horror and he dashed for the trees, Dick on his tail. The two combatants were obscured by shadows, but the Riddler’s green costume and staff were obvious. The other was not a mask at all, half panicked dodges speaking of no training.
Cassandra was already behind the pair and a swift jab took down the Riddler. The unconscious drop forced the civilian to jump back, directly into a beam of moonlight.
It was Jason.
His wingding was flying on reflex and the construct dropped as it hurtled towards him. Bruce was already on it and had sent a batarang at his feet. He froze as the batarang whirled closer.
Then Damian was in front of him, knocking the batarang aside with his gauntlets. "Are you hurt?" He demanded, crouching down beside the figure.
"Nice to see you too, Robin... Thanks for the save." The construct panted. It was a construct, right? What else could it be? But why had Damian protected it?
"Answer the question." His babybat was so going to sound just like his father when he grew up. And why hadn't Bruce pulled his son away from the imposter?
"Little winded, but I've had worse. Didn't think I'd have to protect my rep beyond the grave." He laughed, huffing and Dick plowed through his shock.
"Robin, fall back!"
Damian didn't flinch. Damian never flinched, but he did go very still and turn slowly to glare at Dick. The construct looked up at Nightwing and... was that fear? But Robin still hadn't moved and luckily for Dick, higher forces stepped in.
"Robin, what is this?" Bruce stepped forward, jaw set menacingly. Conner landed Tim a short ways off and Babybird was goggling at the construct.
"Come on, Bats. Even corpses are who's, not what's. Name’s Todd. Most people call me Alfred now but my mother named me Jason." The figure sat up, shoulders back and stared down the cowl. Impressive.
Why was it claiming to be Jason?
Looking closer, Dick could point out all the reasons this couldn't possibly be Jason. For one, he was at least thirty pounds too skinny for comfort and looked closer to Tim’s age than the 23 years Jason would be if alive. Then there was the fact that he was still on the ground, letting Robin hover over him. Jason hadn't wanted anyone to protect him. Last, and most obvious, was the fear as he stared down the Batman. Jason had never been scared... no.
Little Wing had never allowed anyone to see his fear.
And Damian was still standing too close and why had he not backed away?
Then the figure dropped like a stone, Cassandra standing over him. The betrayal was clear across Damian's face as he bent down, checking for a pulse. Cassandra stood very straight, shoulders back and leveled them all with a calm stare. "Wrong place. Fight later. Not safe."
"She's right. It's too hot for that ice to hold Clayface for long." Kara had taken to the skies, keeping an eye out.
Damian had one of the construct’s arms over his shoulder and would have dragged it if Bruce hadn’t yanked him aside. Clark caught the body, ignoring the glare Batman threw his way.
“Commissioner Gordon, Red Robin here…” Tim was back on his feet. Conner was with Kara on lookout.
Superman was frowning at the body in his grip. “Batman, he’s bleeding.”
Another growl and his Robin was struggling worse than ever. Tim appeared beside Clark, finished alerting the Commish, running his fingers over the apparent person’s pulse and temples.
“That rules out Clayface.” Tim's hands were steady as he drew a clean syringe from his belt and collected a sample. Neither him nor any of the Supers were freaking out, not like Bruce who had yet to say anything, not like Damian who was hissing. Dick's fingers were trembling, whether to strangle this person or to hug him he didn't know. Clark would have already slapped cuffs on him if he was a threat.
But Jason was dead!
The Riddler groaned, moments from consciousness and Bruce was back in control.
"Red Robin and Black Bat will remain here until the authorities have arrived." Batman dragged Damian to Dick, passing the boy to him. Under his father's stare, Damian subsided. “Then you’ll head back to the cave and run the blood sample.”
Tim and Cass nodded, Cass joining Tim on the edge of the group, listening for the other’s orders and keeping an eye on Clayface.
“Nightwing will escort everyone else to a safe house. Do not leave him unobserved.”
There was no need to clarify who Bruce meant.
[And the Riddler?]
Babs’s voice was strained and furious. She’d likely seen the whole thing from Cass’s cowl.
“I will handle him.” Bruce’s growl could have crumbled stone and unceremoniously, he dragged the green clad villain into the darkness.
Damian broke his hold and was at Clark’s side in an instant. The worry was so obvious, so out of character. Had he been drugged?
Tim’s hand was at his elbow. “Damian is not ignorant. Don’t go in there thinking that.”
Cass was watching him as well, her lenses up and brown eyes piercing. “Boy not danger. Not harm Robin.”
A laughed strangled and died in his throat. “What am I supposed to think?” Jason was dead! Jason was untouchable, was the brother he’d failed forever. It couldn’t be as simple as him suddenly being alive.
Tim’s grip tightened to painful, his frown grim. “You can bet B is not going to believe until everything else has been ruled out. Even then, he’ll be suspicious. I don’t like the Demon Brat but disregarding his take on this situation is not going to help anyone.”
“Could be a clone.” Conner was suddenly behind him, eyes determinedly on Clayface. Dick flinched and could feel Kara’s and Tim’s glares on his back.
“He opened his back, stupid buffoon!” Damian rounded on Dick. “Grayson, stop posturing and let’s move!”
Upon his return to Gotham, it had been easier to bring Damian to Bruce’s safe houses. As a result, his barely had the essentials to function as a base. Still, they couldn’t compromise a a more regular base until they knew more. Damian took a second to glare at him before pulling Superman to the sparse bed. Red was spreading across the young man’s back, through his shirt, and Damian was cutting away the fabric, not bothering to try to get it over his head. Clark stepped back to let Dick through and Conner and Kara were looking ill at ease.
The boy’s back was littered with scars, not as many as Dick's or even Tim's, but the white and red skin bunched together unevenly… probably closed without stitches or even antiseptic. On the lower left side was a short, deep wound, at least a week old and knife inflicted and clearly infected. Damian was riffling through his closet and cabinets for the first aid kit (He was never good about putting it in a regular place) when Batman swept into the safe house. He made a beeline for the boy and Dick could see the tensions fade just slightly at the sight of his back. There’s no way their Jason would look like that.
But a second later, B was back to taut, his fingers coming up to the boy’s left shoulder blade. “Jason got this falling out a second story window several months before I found him.”
The scar was horrific even compared to the rest of Jason’s back, spider web lines gnarled and thick reaching from the spine to his shoulder and neck. Bruce’s gloves creaked as his fists tightened. With a grunt, Damian hauled the massive first aid kit to the bed, but in the seconds to catch his breath, Bruce took over, pulling out disinfectant and a roll of bandages and cotton balls and ordering Damian to bring hot water.
A clone or any other copy couldn't possibly have that scar. Dick’s chest hurt as he looked at Damian, who was putting out several pots of water on the stove to boil. Why hadn't Dami told any of them?
“I’ll exhume the coffin.” Clark hadn't looked away and was watching Jason with intensity reminiscent of his x-ray vision.
Jason… Oh God, was it really Jason?
Bruce said nothing and Clark vanished, Conner and Kara following after him.
A low beep informed then that Barbara had opened their lines to each other. Damian looked at Dick and he recognized the look of helplessness. Had his Robin been trying to tell him?
By the time Damian had finished his tale, everyone had reconvened. The DNA was a match and in the center of the room was a large coffin.
A broken coffin.
Then Jason coughed and bolted up. Wide green-blue eyes, so familiar, flashed around the room, assessing every person before looking down. His shoulders bunched together, his eye brows bunched together.
And then it stopped, and the tension drained out of his body, a mocking tilt to Jason’s head, his smirk showing just enough teeth to be convincing.
“Jason?” He looked just like Jason, smiled like Jason, hid like Jason, and Dick had to know. The bravado dimmed and all too quickly those eyes were focused on Damian, ignoring everyone else completely.
“I guess that’s why Boy Wonder here has been crashing our pad.”
Damian stood tall, but his eyes dropped to the floor. Jason wouldn't let him up. “Well? Do you know me, Robin?”
Damian froze, his face blank, and Dick knew he was scared.
“Why don’t you tell us?” Kara appeared in front of Damian, glaring at Jason whose eyes widened at the symbol on her uniform.
Conner, Tim, and Bruce had been going over the coffin. It had clearly been broken out of and Dick realized Jason had looked around the room, but never at the floor. His shoulders were trembling now as he watched Conner retrieve a cross and prayer beads from the dirt.
“Ha! Was wondering what people thought seeing that hole. Probably worried about zombies.”
“The luminal glow is faint, but it’s pervasive.” Tim’s voice faltered over the words and Damian was next to Jason, pulling off the faded brown gloves he was wearing even as Jason tried to get away.
“Robin! What ar-”
Damian stepped back revealing flayed fingers to the rest of the room. Dick's feet finally moved and he was pulling Little Wing’s hands towards the light. The injury was old, Jason’s fingertips gone (probably why he wasn't identified as Jason Todd long before now, no prints). When they cracked and splintered under his gauntlets, Jason pulled away with a growl, but Dick could feel the bile rising in his throat as he looked back at the coffin. The wood was pushed back, torn open in pieces. His baby brother had woken up in that coffin, had dug his way out to the point of flaying his hands.
“Your elbows, knees, and feet are in similar condition.” Clark was obviously reigning in his anger and concern.
Jason blinked up at Superman and smiled sassy and sharp, it wobbled with fear as his eyes raked over Clark. “I've got a price for people who see me naked, Big Blue.”
Bruce flinched back at those words. That by itself might have been a fluke, but when Damian flinched, Dick saw red. Robin had obviously left something out of his story.
That anyone had touched Jay, Little Wing.
“Look, this has been fun and thanks for making sure the Riddler didn't bash my head in, but I need to go.”
“You’re not leaving!” Dick was stunned at how angry he sounded. Jason froze halfway out of the bed to gape at him.
"Please stay, Jason." Tim blocked their view of the coffin, walking forward with his arms outstretched, open, nonthreatening. Jason stilled, letting Tim get within arm's reach before tilting his head, eyes narrowed.
"I don't know you, do I?" Straightening, he towered over Tim. God, he was probably Dick's height. How had that happen? When did it happen?
Tim smiled, small and sad, and Dick wanted to hug Babybird.
"No, but I know you, of you. We all do." Confusion was obvious on Jason's face as he cataloged them each in turn. His gaze is weary and a little scared when it reached Dick and turned to steel when it landed on Bruce.
"You'll stay the night." Bruce didn't meet Jason's eyes, and Dick could see any rising fight die. An ingrained Robin reflex? Or just a civilian's reaction to Batman?
Kara and Conner brought the coffin to the BatCave and filled in the gravesite. They would have to look into the groundskeepers at the cemetery tomorrow. It was already 3am when the Supers left, Clark imploring Bruce to keep him in the loop. It was a lost cause. B was ultra protective of things in the family.
Kara and Cass traded a look and at least that was one avenue for the Kents to stay in touch.
Bruce cuffed Jason to the bed and Damian snarled and Tim looked shocked. Dick tried not to think about the fear and resignation on the lines of Jason's body. His hips were cocked and his legs parted slightly and Dick wanted to beat Bruce for reminding them of what his little brother apparently did on the street, to keep a group of fourteen children alive. To his credit, Bruce stiffened and practically fled the safe house. There was always more patrol, but Dick couldn't bring himself to worry about his mentor right now.
Cass lingered for a second, dark lenses focused on Jason, doubtless reading his silence. Hopefully she could talk Bruce out of whatever funk he would surely dive into to avoid this mess.
As soon as the security clicked back into place, Damian all but broke the cuffs. Jason sat up to rub his wrists and gave Damian a strained smile. "Was worried you'd dragged me into some weird vigilante strip party."
"Woah! I know."
Damian subsided, emotionless as trained, but the hurt radiated off him and Dick finally let go of protocol and rounded the bed to hug his Robin. For once, Damian accepted it with minimal complaint.
"Alfred Todd has records going back seven and a half years as Robin said." Just like Tim to look into all the details as the cave's computer was running the analysis. "Why did you change your name? Why Alfred?"
Jason frowned, shaking his head. "Should have known those papers wouldn't hold against any serious investigation."
Tim reached out, resting his hand on Jason's arm. Unspoken was the question of why Jason hadn't come back to the Manor? Why had Little Wing spent more than seven years on the streets.
Covering Red Robin's hand with his own, Jason looked straight into Tim's eyes. "Jason Todd died at fifteen, but I was twelve and alive. I lost three years of my life when I came back, however it happened. I've been on my own since my mother died, so I just went back to that."
Jason's brows furrowed. Dick couldn't image losing the time he'd had at the Manor.
"That's why I was there tonight. Mom... I didn't stick around for the funeral so I don't know where she is. On her day I leave flowers at... my grave."
Clearly, Jason didn't want to talk about this. Dick couldn't blame him. Had Bruce ever discovered where Catherine Todd was buried? Was the location something else Jason had lost to death?
"Alfred, the name felt safe. Safer than the other names rattling around my head, less painful, more reliable, more reassuring." Alfred would love hearing this. Well, Alfred would have Jason eating nonstop for days until his shoulders were less terrifyingly bony, but he would smile and Jason would come home.
Almost imperceptibly, Damian's weight settled more firmly against Dick's shoulder. It was way past any ordinary ten year old's bed time, and with all the excitement tonight, it was no wonder even his highly trained assassin Robin was exhausted.
"It's getting late. We should get some rest." Dick winced when his words had Tim pulling away rather quickly. Had they been having a moment?
If they were, Jason shook if off. "That's great, but while that's happening, my girls and all the kids will be freaking out."
"We'll stop by to tell them in the morning."
"You don't know my- those kids, man!" Jason wasn't going to let this go, and Damian was awake again. "Steph and Sash will keep the younger ones inside but the older ones will be tearing the city apart soon if they don't know where I am and I never stay the night with clients."
Tim blanched and Damian slid off the bed, stretching to force back his exhaustion. "I'll go talk to them."
"Not alone...you're not." Tim yawned and Dick ruffled his hair before following after Damian. Grabbing his laptop from the bedside table, Red Robin propped himself up against the headboard. Jason tried to shuffle past him when Tim's legs caught his knees, tumbling Jason onto his calves.
Jason glared. "I--"
"Sorry, Jaybird. B-man's orders. Gotta keep you here till he lets you go." Little Wing stared at him like he'd grown a second head. Oh, he wouldn't remember any of Dick's nicknames.
"We won't hurt you." Tim put his laptop next to him and stared down at Jason's prone form. Their lost brother huffed, resting his chin on his arms.
"This is like a bad alien porno. 'We'll just probe your anus; it won't hurt we promise.'"
Damian's foot slipped on the windowsill. Why was Jay bringing the subject back to that again? Pushing up from the bed, Jason swung his body up and Tim squeaked. They were nose to nose as Jason smiled. "Do you want a piece of my ass, kid?" His fingers were trailing over the seams of Tim's uniform and Babybird was turning horribly red.
Dick was about to storm forward and pull them apart when Damian snapped. "Todd, stop provoking Red Robin and Nightwing!"
Jason frowned at Damian and hoped off Tim, his expression cool and relaxed. Dick was sorely tempted to punch him. Tim was nearly shaking and still red. "Relax, Big Bird. I'll leave Red Robin alone. I'm not interested in minors."
"I'm eighteen!" Tim squeaked, but his skin was nearly glowing now. Really? Did Jason have to torment everyone around him?
"You're hoping we'll kick you out if you weird us out enough, or that we'll all leave and you can get away."
Now Jason's confidence melted into the scowl he remembered so well. It was surprisingly similar to Damian's.
"Tt." Damian walked forward and actually swatted Jason across the forehead! Jason nearly growled, but didn't look indignant. Odd. He'd also refrained from ever referring to Damian as a child, always using the title Boy Wonder. It was the only referral to his age Dami permitted. Instead, Jason's kid comment had been leveled at Tim. Tim who probably admired Jason more than anyone else in their family, who was constantly in front of his case when Bruce could barely look at it.
"Red, you want to switch with me?" Jason snorted and rolled over so his back was to them. Still winded, Tim leveled his own glare at Dick and opened his laptop.
Assured that Tim could hold his own (it's not like Jason had any of their training, or any training at all most likely), Nightwing and Robin flew over the city towards East End. As soon as they hit Park Row, Dick found himself questioning the ability of the Bats of Gotham. Jason's apartment was on the same street as the Old Theater. Bruce came here every year. Tim had scoped out the Old Theater as a potential base before Bruce had forced him back to the Manor.
True to form, the street was falling apart and had a single street lamp to provide light on new moon nights. Crime never slept in Gotham City, but luckily for them before the wee hours it did zone out if not take power naps so most of the street wasn't aware of two of Gotham's birds swooping in. However, there was a flurry of activity in front of the apartment in question. Two figures were silent on the stairs.
Damian wasted no time in reaching them and both stood with a startled gasp.
"You're really here!" A boy probably around Damian's age rushed down the steps, throwing his arms around Damian as his Robin tried to dodge. The end result was the both of them falling to the street, the kid on top of Damian.
"Hello, Colin." Damian's greeting was breathless and Dick bit back a laugh.
"Something we can do fer ya, Wingnut?"
The other figure stood, long blonde hair pulled into a tail. Her face was darkened by shadows but her stance was clearly hostile.
"Robin, Al is missing! You gotta find him." Colin was pulling Damian up, as from the windows of the apartment, a whole slew of children poked their heads out.
The chatter was building as the kids threw comments and suggestions at the Birds. Dick couldn't remember Jason having any friends while at the Manor. Seeing this reception and trying to match the Jason in his safe house with the one from his memories was making his head spin with ugly implications. Taking a deep breath, Dick projected. "We have him."
It was his best impersonation of Bruce's tone and no nonsense growl and a pin drop could have been heard in the aftermath.
But only for a few seconds.
"What does that mean?" A voice behind him sneered and Dick spun around. Four figures were standing at various levels near the top of the fire escape. Three were near Damian's age, but the youngest looked about seven, two boys and two girls. The older girl had spoken, long dark hair whipping in the wind. The older boy, blonde and probably twelve, almost carelessly swung over the railing and cart-wheeled to street level, grabbing the fire escape before he touched the ground. It was professional; the kid was an aerialist or at least an acrobat. The other three followed suit, though with less finesse than the blond; it was still impressive.
All four were ready to fight. How had Jason managed to inspire such loyalty?
"Return Alfred to us!" The older girl demanded. Her hands fisted at her hips and shoulders back. She stood regally despite the threadbare clothes, icy blue eyes glaring at him. She couldn't be older than the blond.
Damian stomped forward. "He was ours first!"
Okay... when had this turned into a pissing contest? Granted, Damian never reacted well to what he perceived as disrespect, but they couldn't afford these people's reproach.
The younger girl, a red head with glasses held back the youngest from charging Damian, but narrowed her eyes at the birds. "Even if he was, you lost him."
"Now he's ours!" The seven year old cried and the older boy clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Should have kept a closer eye on him." The dark haired girl snapped. That hurt and Dick could see Damian's shoulders tense in shock and shame. No, Dami shouldn't be feeling guilty, that was for him and Bruce, who had failed Jason since day one. Jason clearly had more potential that he or Bruce had ever given him credit for.
"Helena! Carrie! That's enough!" The blonde woman rushed across the street, positioning herself in front of the kids before turning to Nightwing. "Alfred hasn't hurt anyone but himself. You have no reason to keep him."
Damian was going to yell again, and Dick didn't need this. He wasn't sure any of the Bats had the right to fight this apparent group of strays Jason had round up and turned into a family revolving around him.
"Robin." Damian held back at his voice, but only just and Dick could see him itching for a fight. It was so like Jason from so long ago Dick wanted to cry. When Robin stood down, Nightwing turned to the teenager.
"I can't promise that Ja-Alfred will be coming back," No way Bruce would let him come back to this life, "but I promise he won't be harmed. He means a lot to us too."
The girl's eyes narrowed as she marched forward, getting right in his face. "Where were you all these years?" Her voice was whispered fury and her fists were trembling at her sides. "I've seen Al put himself through more hell than anyone should have to face to protect us. Where were you when he decided to whore himself out to keep food in our bellies?"
There was nothing he could say. No excuse he could give her. Jason had been dead and then he wasn't and none of them had noticed. There wasn't really a way they could have noticed since Bruce had only set the alarms on the grave on the first anniversary of Jason's death and Little Wing had already crawled out by then. He didn't think it would be excuse their absence to Jason's new family. Dick wasn't sure he was satisfied with the excuse either.
Stepping back, he launched his grapple gun. Robin was looking forlorn at Colin but the boy ran up the stairs, slamming the door behind him. The effort to shake off the pain was obvious, but Damian squared his shoulders and with a brief nod the two were on the rooftop, racing back to the safe house.
Dick didn't like to think they were running away from apartment and all those accusing eyes.
"Everything is a perfect match."
Tim pushed away from the monitor, rubbing his forehead and Dick repressed a frown. Babybird was spending way too much time in front of the computer. He would have said something about it too, but Tim gave him a look, one brow raised.
Coming back to the safe house had been interesting, mostly because Tim had been sitting on Jason's back, pinning him to the bed. Damian had been appalled and Tim had gone very red and explained that Dick's security left something to be desired. Apparently Jason had tried to sneak out of the building via bathroom window. Only newly installed security programs Tim had been browsing through on his laptop that night had prevented Jason from getting away.
One thing was sure, Jason's language was as crude and creative as ever.
Damian stalked over to the screen. "What are you dawdling on, Drake?"
"Jason and Alfred Todd's physical compatibility." Tim's face was blank, but he couldn't be more obvious about who he was really speaking to.
Bruce... probably scowled (he hadn't looked away from his monitor), and pulled up his cowl before vanishing down the Cave into the Batmobile. The screech of the tires was harsher than usual. Tim shrugged at Dick and returned to his research. Damian's continued to watch the spot where his father had vanished. Dick just wanted to drag Bruce over to Jason's apartment. The Bat was being ridiculous if he'd go out in uniform in the middle of the day over talking about his returned ward.
It had been two days since Bruce had reluctantly admitted that holding Jason wasn't doing anything for anyone. Jason, who refused to be called Jason, remembered nothing, not even his first encounter with the Batman which was saying something as it was probably one of the more memorable ways to meet the Dark Knight.
Unfortunately, Batman was too stubborn to cut his losses and let Jason leave.
Dick sighed. Cass had decided to postpone her return to Hong Kong and was currently keeping watch over Jason. (My name is Alfred!)
For three days now, Jason had been someone Dick didn't recognize. He was unfailingly polite despite the habitual swearing and didn't try to get away after that first night. Oddly enough, he demanded that anyone keeping an eye on him at night get under the sheets with him in exchange for his good behavior. Damian had acquiesced twice and Tim once, though his face had nearly erupted in flames. It didn't stop the second Robin's eyes from burning with rage and fear, mostly around Bruce, but never around Damian.
It was a complete 180 from the Jason Dick remembered, callous and rowdy, but passionate and welcoming. Yes, he hadn't been around often, but stories of the second Robin were telling and the few times he had come to the Manor were treasured memories. It hurt to know Jason remembered nothing of their ski trip, the first time Dick had tried to reach out to Jason without his own jealousy and failings clouding his judgment.
Pushing aside the memories, Dick sighed at the wall of impermeability hiked up between Tim and Damian. At least they now knew why Damian's hostilities had mounted. According to official records, Alfred Todd had been running around Gotham since about six months after Jason's death, before Tim had become Robin.
"I'm just surprised Jason can take care of so many kids. I wouldn't have pegged him as responsible enough for even one." Dick hopped onto the stool between them, forcing them to look at him to talk and hopefully look at each other. "If you do get with him Tim, at least he'll be a good hubby."
There was Tim's adorable blush. It was good to know Jason's mocking flirtations hadn't been taken seriously. Or Tim could be ignoring them. It was hard to tell with Babybird.
"Most of those kids were orphaned while father was away." Damian had swiveled to stare at Jason's case. Bruce should probably take that down.
Then it hit Dick. Batman being away was how Damian now referred to the time period when Bruce had been stranded in time. Those months when Dick had worn the cowl... Jason was taking care of fourteen kids and that was only in East End. Barbara had drawn up statistics on the fallout of Bruce's disappearance when he returned. They had to know for next time she'd said, but the data hadn't included anything on street kids who were so hard to keep track of outside of juvie hall.
"Then it's good Jason found them." Tim glared at Damian, who just huffed and crossed his arms.
They continued in strained silence, Dick unwilling to bring up the subject again when Damian growled and stomped towards the cave entrance.
"Where are you going?"
"Don't do anything stupid, brat."
Damian's glare was chilling, and Dick berated himself again for not having the guts to make Bruce decided what to do with Jason already. It was obvious his Robin had bonded with Jason's new family, and keeping Jason away from them could not be helping relations. Part of Dick was ruthlessly jealous. Why had Damian, who had had no connection to Jason become the closest to Little Wing? But he couldn’t really blame his Robin, the apparent lack of similarities may well be why Jason had taken so well to Damian.
"Father will disapprove, but I am returning Todd to his companions. This has hurt Colin and Sasha enough as it is."
He stormed out and Tim gaped. "Did it sound like he was being considerate of someone other than himself and Bruce? These people must be something special."
Sasha Niko certainly was. He hadn't seen her that night, but surveillance footage at Gotham General had caught her smothering her father. Damian had demanded that Dick find a way to clear the girl of charges, and Dick was sure her actions had been influenced by the mask, considering how it had turned most of the Dollotron victims into mindless slaves.
Colin was perhaps more interesting, an orphan with no prior connection to Damian who had somehow wormed his way into the most violent Robin's heart. The boy was registered under... Hold on...
"Tim, what orphanage is Colin Wilkes registered under?"
"St. Aden’s. Why?"
Dick remembered, years ago when he'd had a family tree assignment from school.
"My aunt is the Matron."
"What?!" Tim was staring, eyes wide with shock and Dick doubled back.
"Well, she's like my fourth or fifth cousin, but I've met her before." Shortly after Bruce had taken him in, the authorities had discovered his relation to her. But the woman, already running the orphanage, had insisted Dick would be better off with Bruce, someone who could devote more attention to Dick whereas she would be have to lump him together with her other charges. She'd left him to Bruce without even meeting Dick, but a family tree assignment had brought them face to face at last.
He hadn't visited her in a few years, and it was a Thursday.
"I'm heading out." He pulled a set of civilian clothes and started changing.
"Don't do anything stupid." Tim sighed.
Dick almost tripped as he pulled up the pants. "Did you just give me the same warning as Damian?!"
"I'll probably start giving it to Bruce if he doesn't stop being an idiot." Tim shot back with a grin.
"Later, Babybird." Fastening the last button, he raced up the stairs. The Wayne Manor car garage (because there were other garages, like for Bruce's boats) was nearly the size of a major store parking lot. He found his motorcycle and after a quick check of his wallet, sped onto the street.
The wind was great as he crossed Robert Kane Memorial Bridge. As always, traffic tended towards overflowing. Despite the Tubes built specifically to lessen the burden of traffic, most were unwilling to travel through East End streets to commute to work. The RKM Bridge connected to the many bridge highways above the streets and allowed fast access to the Sprang and Trigate Bridges that connected East End, Otisburg, and Burnley to the rest of the city.
Taking the first exit, Dick drove down the ramp. The only other driver at this time of day (afternoon but too soon to leave work) was another motorcycle. His Bluetooth beeped in his ear.
"Dick Grayson." He greeted.
"This Cass." Oh, so that was the motorcycle. Dick waved vaguely at the oncoming bike which was still too far to identify the person. Sometimes Cass scared him with what she could do.
"I allow Damian take Jason." He couldn't see her under her helmet, but her voice was more subdued than usual.
With a chuckle, he smiled, trying to effuse it into his words. "No problem, little sister." Cass was so different from Damian that he often had to change gears when interacting with them. Damian would bite his head off for coddling, but Cass was almost too grateful and shocked at familial affection.
Cass waved as she passed, on her way back to the Manor. Which meant Damian would be making a beeline for St. Aden's with Jason.
Taking a deep breath, Dick continued into East End. Traversing the city mostly at night made it easy to forget that Gotham, for all its crime, was a thriving city with more innocent people just trying to make the most of their lives than the criminals could hope to number. Even in East End, there were truly good people. Leslie was from Park Row, now disparagingly called Crime Alley, and the Thompkins Clinic saw the largest density of patients to medical staff in the city.
East End was also where Bruce had found Jason.
That said, the disparity of the area couldn't be ignored. Gotham City visibly shifted when crossing into East End. Aside from the RKH bridge, it was clear the district was less maintained than the rest of Gotham. Roads were broken with potholes and public garbage cans were overflowing. The streets were literally narrower, alleyways allowing at most four people to walk side by side. The buildings were older, more gothic spires and gargoyles. Their peaks reached high and their dark stone provide a strange contrast on sunny days. What had been intended to become the richest district in Gotham had lost most of its development contracts after the death of the Waynes and had never been able to pull itself out of poverty.
St. Aden's was located on the border between Burnley and the Bowery. It was a wonder Aunt Harriet was able to maintain the orphanage here.
Pulling up, Dick locked his Ducati to a railing. Bruce had equipped all their rides to release low grade electrical shocks if not handled correctly. It was the only reason he didn't drag the bike with him up the stairs.
The redhead from the other night, Colin, was leaning out the window to stare at him. Dick smiled and waved, but the boy flinched back and vanished. Suddenly nervous, the first Robin rang the door bell.
Instantly, there was a flurry of sound. Pounding feet and a sharp bark before the door opened.
Harriet Cooper looked the same as when Dick had last seen her, far too old for her age. Although her hair was only lightly graying, the bags under her eyes and the wrinkles around the corners of her mouth made her seem decades older. She was wearing a frankly awful floral print dress, probably the same one she'd worn for years, and was skinny rather than slim, her wrists thin and her hands worn and wrinkled from a lifetime looking after more children than the building could hold.
"Richard?" Her hazel eyes goggled at him and Dick stepped inside and met her half way in a strong hug. She wasn't a Grayson, but Aunt Harriet was well versed in their hugs. He swallowed down his guilt. If he'd stayed in touch, they might have found Jason long before this.
"What are you doing here? Come into the kitchen, you must tell me how you've been." She smiled, and even that was tired and old.
"Ah!" A small girl tripped in front of him and Dick caught her before she could face plant.
"Nell, what have I said about running?" Just like that the smiling woman was gone and the Matron stared coolly down at the child.
The girl blushed and fidgeted. "That we shouldn't?"
"Make sure you remember. Now off you go. Doubtless, the others are on the roof from the noise."
Nell nodded in a rush and sprinted past them as fast as her little legs could carry her. Dick turned back to his Aunt. "Roof?"
Aunt Harriet sighed. "Unfortunately not all of the children are registered in the foster system yet. Those who aren't are being looked after by three teenagers in Crime Alley. One of them vanished several days ago and the children have been frantic."
"Can I go up with her?" Dick tried to keep his face straight, but he'd never managed to lie to family.
"Alright... I'll be in the kitchen when you come down." Aunt Harriet hid her confusion well and turned down the hall.
Dick took the stairs in twos and threes and reached the rooftop slightly out of breath. It was brighter on the roof, and the prime attraction was his little brother... being mauled by a group of tiny people. He would make a comment about Guiliver's Travels, but the assembly froze and turned as one to stare at him.
Most of the children were wrapped around Jason, who was somehow managing to remain mostly upright. But four of the kids, the four from the previous night, had backed Robin to a corner of the rooftop. Damian was gaping at him, both baffled at his presence as Dick Grayson and confused over whether he was permitted to reveal his identity.
Dick pointedly didn't look at Damian, (His Robin was sharp enough to keep cover.) and approached Jason.
"I'm Dick Grayson. You're Alfred Todd?"
It hurt to say a false name, but Dick forced his smile to stick.
Jason wasn't convinced. "The Circus Prince?"
Damian snorted, but most of the kid's grim faces turned to smiles. He'd never heard that moniker before, but it could be worse.
It was certainly a step up from Discowing and he smiled at the kids who were now gaping at him in awe.
"You here to adopt?"
Dick's eyes snapped back to his little brother. Jason's voice had gone flat, not emotionless, but without the general bite and mocking he'd long come to associate with his successor. Piercing blue-green eyes were nearly x-raying him even as Jason deliberately stepped away from the children clutching him and they fell away easily. Except for the four surrounding Damian, all the children were watching him with more hope than Dick could reward.
"I barely know how to handle my younger brothers, a child is well beyond my capability."
He reached into his pocket but Jason was suddenly in front of him, grabbing his wrists. Jason's eyes flinted and Dick knew he'd misstepped.
"That's too bad." His smile was nearly feral, his grip tight enough to hurt.
It must have been a signal because the three oldest quickly shuffled the other children back inside, Steve being the only one remaining with them.
"Guys." Jason's tone was steel, and the oldest of the group sighed and pulled the girl, Helena, by the elbow. Dick watched the boy walk past them. His posture was flawless, his gait smooth, though his steps were heavier than Dick's had been at that age. Perhaps not an aerialist then, but certainly a trained acrobat.
With the slamming of the door, Jason released his hands, all but threw them out of his grip. His eyes narrowed and his smile dropped and Dick couldn't help but be proud that Jason could restrain himself at least this much around a group of children.
"The fuck's a rich bitch like you doing in East End?" Wow, Jason's snarl was eerily like Bruce's.
Dick fumbled for his wallet again when Jason snapped. "You pull that out and I'll chuck you over the side of the building. We don't need your money, pretty boy."
"You accepted money from me." Both of them jumped when Damian stepped forward. Dick would have to congratulate his Robin on managing to remain unnoticed in costume in the middle of the day.
The second Robin frowned at Damian, turning his back on Dick. "You're a hero. I can at least expect that you're not giving out handouts because you're looking down on us."
He glanced over his shoulder, face contorted with rage. "Don't waste your time coming down here when you know nothing of the shit we live through."
Dick jumped back as Jason swung at him.
"Todd!" Damian leapt forward, getting between them, glaring up at Jason. Jason shoved his hands into his pockets, pushing past them and slamming the door shut.
It hurt. It hurt like Bruce firing him all those years ago, hurt like drifting apart from Barbara, hurt like losing Jason the first time.
"Grayson, that was foolish."
He looked back at Damian who had pulled off the domino, blue eyes angry. "You don't patronize me, so why would you be that way with Todd?"
Patronize? He just wanted to help. Saying nice things and hanging out was all well and good, but what they needed was food, a better living space, lots of things. What had he done wrong? Damian refused to be babied because he was Bruce's son, Talia's son, the heir to both Batman and the League of Shadows. Jason wasn't.
So why had he lost Jason? How had Dick now lost his brother both as Nightwing and as Dick Grayson?
Well, my two weeks turned into five weeks. I'm really sorry, guys. I just got into medical school so everything was kind of a rush to pack and move. I can't promise I'll be regular with my updates from here on out with school and everything, but I will try my best.
And if anyone noticed how choppy the ends of Dick's chapters were, it's because he's surprising difficult to write. (At least for me.) I'm really sorry for the way Jason keeps shooting him down. Their current personalities and understanding of each other just don't synch well.
Also if anyone has noticed, this chapter and the previous one were unbetaed. I'm really not proud of these two chapters, but I personally cannot figure out how to make them flow better. To that end, I am humbly asking for a beta. Please let me know if you've written any other work on archive or anywhere else. My best friend betaed (I have no idea how to make that past tense) the first three chapters, but she's not actually a DC fan, so I can't really use her to bounce ideas off of, and she can't tell me if the characters are becoming too OOC. I hope to hear from anyone interested soon.
Chapter 6: Barbara I
Before reading this chapter please go back and read the revised version of chapter 5. I really didn't like the way I left Dick's chapter so I adjusted it a little. I just added a teaser for what Jason's ire with Dick is actually caused by. Unfortunately, Dick won't get another POV chapter until Part 2, but Jason doesn't hate Nightwing as much as Dick thinks. We'll see proof of that with the next chapter.
Also, this is my shortest chapter to date. D: I'm so sorry. I can't seem to get into Barbara's head at all. I'm a little worried that I used her too much as an expository mouthpiece. I'll try better for the next chapter.
Thank you all for putting up with the wait time for this chapter and please let me know if Barbara is out of character.
With a howl, the wind slammed the apartment door before she could wheel inside.
There were days Barbara wanted to throw in the towel; it usually had nothing to do with fighting crime.
The door squealed open, Dick Grayson smiling at her. "My lady."
She forced out a smile. Dick acted like this with everyone, coddles everyone. If she repeated it often enough, she might one day believe it.
Her apartment was across from Police Headquarters, a compromise between herself and her father. She didn't have to get an office in the building but was still close enough for Dad to keep her safe. It was as if she'd never been Batgirl as far as most were concerned.
Sure everyone relied on her as Oracle, but she was more of an all knowing computer, the new adorkable Q with likely next to no physical training, than an agent on the field.
Dick held open every door right into her apartment and Barbara started reciting all the crooks currently on parole alphabetically backwards in her head.
When he tried to lift her onto the kitchen counter, Barbara nearly snapped his fingers off. Dick jumped back and she finally noticed his smile was just this side of completely forced.
Like he needed help, like he was buttering her up, like he needed reassurance that she was here.
The tension drained out of her and Barbara grabbed the overhanging bars, pulling herself onto the counter. The first Boy Wonder looked decidedly less than wonderful, his shoulders drooped and his back slouched. There were dark rings under his eyes, well... darker ones than usual. The life came with next to no sleep but they were all masters of power naps, Dick perhaps the best of all.
"Please visit Jason with me, Babs."
That... was not what she'd expected. Part of her had been ready to charge down to East End since they'd found the second Robin, but the rest of her closed up. Dick had gone to see Jason once and Bruce had just barely given him a pass for his connection to the Matron of St. Aden's. This time, they'd have to be in uniform. Jason didn't know Oracle. Even if he remembered none of it, Barbara didn't want him to see her as just a girl in a wheelchair. Bruce and Dick had been running around Gotham long before she'd joined the fray and Tim, Cass, and Damian had arrived only after she was in the chair. Jason, for all his teasing, had really looked up to her. She didn't want him to pity her, that wasn't supposed to be the role of an older sister.
Dick must have seen right through her, because he'd backed up considerable. "Sorry Babs. Don't worry about it."
He tried to slap that false smile back on and Barbara just felt guilty. Whatever her condition, Dick never actively tried to make her feel weak. And for the first time in what felt like years he was asking something of her.
She'd caved, of course, and was now in front of a dingy brownstone on Crime Alley. Nightwing was wringing his hands and she adjusted her cowl. Paraplegic or not, she wanted to be Batgirl for tonight.
The door opened and Damian scowled at both of them. The little brat was dropping by the apartment every night, desperately trying to mend his friendship with the orphans in Jason's care.
"Batgirl?!" A tiny redhead goggled up at her, peering from around Robin. Colin Wilkes, ten years old, orphaned and potentially crippling list of psychological handicaps. The first outsider to get under Damian Wayne's skin. She was stunned Bruce hadn't dragged the kid down to the cave yet for a thorough interrogation. If there was one person on their roster with no clue how to act around Damian out of costume, it was sadly the boy's father.
"Batgirl?" A blond teen, Stephanie Brown, echoed, stepping into the vestibule. Her eyes looked past Nightwing and Barbara didn't miss the way Dick stiffened. Her boy didn't know what it was to have people hate him, people who weren't criminals anyway.
"Retired, but," She held out her hand, putting on her best smile, "I'm the first Batgirl."
Stephanie shook her hand and nodded, her eyes flickering down to the wheelchair and Barbara fought to keep her smile straight.
Inside, the kids were in a circle, cheering the preteen blonde in the center who was walking on his hands.
"John, don't you dare sprain your wrist again!" Stephanie snapped as the boy wobbled. He was extending his back too far and Barbara could see Dick following his movements with razor focus. She elbowed him and glared when he turned a pleading frown on her.
"You shouldn't keep your elbows so straight."
The children froze and the boy in the center slipped backwards, flailing before Dick was there, righting him and lowering him to his feet. The boy, John, screwed his face up in a scowl, but he was panting and wound up looking exhausted instead.
"Might as well take the time to learn from a senior, John."
Barbara swallowed hard.
Jason at nineteen was less healthy than Jason at fifteen. He was far too skinny and walked with the hunch she remembered Bruce and Alfred dedicating weeks to working out of him.
There were faint lines around his mouth and on his forehead, but his eyes, those green-blue eyes were as striking as the first day she'd seen them.
Those eyes found her and widened. They took her in, ignoring the wheelchair completely as he ate up the ground between them.
He was tall and wide, but in that hollow way of clothes stretched over wire models. His frame was meant for Bruce's height though he didn't reach that far. He would have certainly passed Dick if he hadn't been severely malnourished, but was tall enough that she had to crane her neck back to maintain eye contact. It didn't last long.
Closer than strictly appropriate for strangers, Jason got down on one knee and Barbara remembered when he'd joke with her. Would propose to her with a flower and a flirtatious grin. Would take the time to put a smile on her face when the weight of her legs was too much to bare.
"Babs?" He tilted his head, wavy strands falling into his eyes just like before. She couldn't speak as he traced her features with his gaze. She could feel Dick's jealous stare where he was instructing John, and Stephanie was staring slack jawed at them.
With trembling fingers, she reached out, forcing her throat open. "Hi Jason."
Jason's smile wobbled. "I... don't remember anything else... about you."
"I'm thrilled you remember me at all." Considering how often Bruce's face was plastered over the paper, it was clear he didn't remember Batman. That he could recognize her in costume, in a wheelchair... Barbara took several breaths, willing herself not to cry.
"So I did know the Bats." Jason's fingers laced through hers as he folded his legs, sitting at her feet. Taking a chance, she brought her other hand up to his head, carding her fingers through his hair. She'd done this often when Jay fell asleep on her couch back when the worst thing to happen to her had been losing her legs. Then Jason had died, and she learned how much she could hurt without physical wounds.
Jason tensed beneath her fingers, but Barbara refused to back off. She had plenty of experience with the second Robin's heckles. "We want to help, J'lo."
"Ha!" The last teenager appeared, a hand over her mouth, though the smile was evident with the stretch of the pyg mask. "What did you call him?" She giggled.
Barbara grinned at Jason, willing him to fight back. He took the bait. "And just how do you plan on doing that, Secret Agent Barbie."
Barbara leaned in, beckoning Sasha over with a wave. "We're working on getting the kids into the system faster."
Sasha froze and Jason went still, eyes wide. In all honestly, the Bats had never had much reason to look into the foster system. Bruce adopted all the kids he ran into who needed help and after Jason, anything involving East End had taken a back seat. It was too painful for all of them.
"Why would you do that?" Jason half sneered, challenging her. Dick probably crumbled under that look. The poor boy hated being the bad guy, hated not being trusted. Honestly, he might have been better off as Superman's sidekick.
Sitting back, Barbara watched Dick show the kids how to perform safe and effective handstands. "Most of your kids became orphans when the original Batman was out of commission. The rest of us were still around, so it is our problem, whatever you think."
Sasha smiled, won over, but Jason remained a statue under her hands. Barbara forced him to meet her eyes. "This isn't pity or a handout. I may not be the Batgirl running across rooftops these days, but I am still one hundred percent in the game. We aren't gods and I won't flaunt what I can do. That would be both stupid and arrogant, but where I see trouble, I'll help. What else can I do?"
She could almost see twelve year old Jason at her feet, having been sent to her after his first violent beatdown as Robin. She hadn't bothered to preech to him. It wouldn't have worked then and it certainly wouldn't work now. This Jason was grown up, bone thin and stretched beyond what anyone should endure, but he was his own guardian. Alfred Todd had no other family. So Jason had been by himself for seven years. It was probably too late for him to be a younger sibling again.
Her fingers creaked as Jason tightened his grip. "Not just the kids."
Now they were on more familiar territory. Barbara looked up, her fingers still in Jason's hand. "You're Sasha Niko, right?"
The girl flinched, every muscle tightening, ready to flee. "I won't take you away from here, well, maybe this apartment but not from Jason and Stephanie."
Sasha was a minor, fifteen years old and had suffered severe trauma before murdering her father. It might not have worked anywhere else, but Barbara was certain they could have her cleared of all charges. Her father would want her monitored for any psychotic breaks and who better than his daughter, who had already trained up another Batgirl.
"I will get all these children into comfortable homes. When that time comes, I want you to come live with me." Sasha looked, well honestly, it was hard to read her expressions with the cracking flesh mask, but her shoulders were up, her guard still up.
"What about Steph and Al-Ja-Alfred?" Jason was up and pulling the girl into a strong embrace. Barbara blinked, shocked all over again. Definitely not Bruce's Jason anymore, and was it traitorous that she felt it was a good thing?
Jason rubbed soothing circles into Sasha's back. "I'm still Alfred, Sash. I'll still be here. I'm nineteen so don't worry. I'll get a job and stop worrying all of you."
Barbara seriously doubted Bruce would let Jason remain on the streets, but said nothing. It was just as likely that Batman would clam up and not do anything. She had to assume Bruce would let his guilt keep him from being useful at least for her returned brother.
"Jason, your file has been tagged for observation by my father. Why is that?"
"Father?" Jason looked at her and she could see the gears turning behind his eyes. "Oh, Commish Gordon? Yeah, I've got a friend on the force who put in a good word for me. If I stay out of jail until I'm twenty, Headquarters will fund my prerecs and Police Academy."
"You want to be a police officer, Jason?" Nightwing and Stephanie had left the kids, all of them trying handstands now under Damian's tutelage.
Jason shrugged. "The Mob doesn't usually mess with unaffiliated cops and I can protect the kids better. A steady paycheck wouldn't hurt either."
"You know, Nightwing is an officer."
Dick looked at her like she was crazy, but was quick enough when the three teens turned their attention to him. "Uh yeah. I was one in Bludhaven. Nightwing was for when I was off duty."
Bruce would have their heads, but Jason was actually looking at Dick with admiration.
"Why'd you stop?" Stephanie was clearly not impressed as she stood on Jason's other side, arms crossed.
Dick's gaze shifted to the kids, to Damian. "I got a little brother and our Dad was out of commission."
"Batman." They all turned to Sasha who was staring at Nightwing with wide glassy eyes. "You were Batman when I..." She choked and Jason rested his chin on her head as he did his best impression of pulling her into his chest cavity.
Dick nodded and stepped forward. The three didn't react when he placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "I'm sorry we did get there in time to stop him."
Sasha wailed and Barbara could feel Dick's restraint. Jason must have felt it too, meeting Nightwing's gaze and nodding once. Dick smiled and wrapped the teens in a hug, his hands shaking where they touched Jason's shoulders.
"I guess I can forgive him." Stephanie crouched next to her, a huff blowing blond stands out of her face.
"So easily?" Stephanie Brown, the daughter of Cluemaster, had few good interactions with the Bats of Gotham. As Spoiler, Batman had chewed her out for her lack of discipline and for constantly getting in the way of Robin's (then Tim) missions. None of them had paid attention when she vanished. They might have found Jason so much sooner if they had.
Stephanie looked up at her, her eyes grim. "Grudges get you killed down here, especially when the other party is stronger than you are."
"My invitation is for you as well, Stephanie." The blonde gaped at her. Barbara smiled, trying to look accepting.
"You can take Spoiler again or another name if you'd like. Or you can put that all aside. I won't require you to join our cause."
Stephanie's eyes strayed to the others. "I don't want Sasha or Jason to be on the streets fighting crime."
Apparently Jason had entrusted her with his real name before this fiasco. "They would have to make that choice, but extensive training comes first of course." Jason didn't remember being Robin, and Barbara knew Bruce was perfectly happy keeping it that way. He hadn't exactly been the greatest parent for Jason, a teacher, a drill sergeant sure, but not really a father, not in the ways that Jason probably needed. As for Sasha, without extensive therapy for her face she would be far too recognizable and a full face cowl might exacerbate her skin.
"And if I decided not to?"
"I would foster the both of you, make sure you finish mandatory education regardless."
Barbara paused. There were only so many lies that worked on kids raised in the worst part of Gotham. Jason had proven that years ago, and in her experience only Cass was more adept at spotting lies and malicious intent. Stephanie was also from this side of the city. She had always suspected it was at least part of the reason Bruce had been so quick to dismiss her.
"Jason has past history with Batman. Even if the big guy keeps staying away there isn't really any chance that you guys will get rid of Robin and Nightwing. I imagine Red Robin will be stopping by frequently as well, if Jason decides to live on his own rather than with us."
Jason was nineteen, no longer a minor and never really a child. He had friends and apparently connections, bare as they were. If he didn't bond with the Bats, they might lose him again. She was grateful for the first time, for Damian's high handedness that had allowed him to get close to this family without informing them.
Stephanie got up, planting her feet, and Barbara didn't hesitate to shake her hand. Three years ago, the girl might have been too green, but they had all been too green at the start.
"If you're no longer Batgirl, what handle are you using now?"
Barbara smiled. In spite of the wheelchair, Stephanie's voice held nothing but confidence. A handle. She was still a hero even if she wasn't Batgirl. She could really get to like a person who appreciated that.
Barbara folded her glasses and rubbed her forehead. Money and connections did not suddenly free up Gotham's clogged foster system. There were simply too many children and the city was barely scraping by with the absolute maximum ratio of children to caretakers in its three orphanages. Even spreading the adults thin enough for one or two per center would be noticed by state child protective services.
"But it might generate the awareness to have more centers created." Tim had closed his laptop a while ago, enviously disciplined (compared to her) about how long he exposed his eyes to electronic screens.
The barest click had them turning as one to the shadowed corner where Batman slipped into the apartment.
"Bruce." Tim nodded. Barbara ignored their mentor, closing her laptop and turning to face Red Robin.
"Perhaps, but it would also create more delays in the program. That's not going to help Jason's kids." Wind blew through her curtains and Barbara grimaced as droplets ran off Bruce's cape onto her carpet. It had better just be water!
Closing the window, Bruce pulled back the cowl while still hovering in the shadows. "Those children have survived this far."
Tim snorted. "Yeah, but not exactly in the best condition. They certainly aren't getting proper nutrition or even enough calories."
Barbara watched as Tim listed off poor living environment, untrained caretakers and a plethora of other issues. It was nice to see the third Robin when he got invested. Prior experience was enough to cast a hopeful light on their endeavors if Red Robin was throwing in his all.
Unfortunately they were both missing the other more personal point. If the years as Batgirl and Oracle had taught her anything, it was that you protected your own. It guaranteed long term stability. "The sooner Jason isn't looking out for those kids, the sooner he can focus on getting a legal and safe job."
She could see the light bulb light up over Tim's head, but Bruce had frozen in the corner, his bulb probably fizzled out. "B, you've said Jason would have become a crook without your intervention. And you were right. Jason's juvie record speaks for itself though it was mostly petty theft until he started working street corners. Even now he's breaking the law. My father promised him to the police academy if he stays out of jail for another year. Both of them are well aware that prostitution isn't likely to land Jason behind bars unless he is careless."
Her father was a wiser but harder man than he had once been. That he wasn't actively keeping an eye on Jason spoke volumes about what he knew was happening with his maybe-recruit.
"Jason's not a crook." Tim was frowning hard at her, but Barbara was watching Bruce. Despite all the years they'd worked together, she could never get a read on him when Jason was the topic of conversation. She'd never gotten much practice admittedly. Bruce was every inch a father in mourning and she wondered if Jason's miraculous resurrection had done anything to change that. He’d suddenly taken to daylight vigilantism, and Barbara had to wonder if that was to avoid everyone at the Manor.
Barbara was tired. As a rule, none of the Bats did well with their pasts, Bruce most of all. But Jason was alive, was living in Gotham. No amount of repression would make it just go away like they had always pretended. Especially with Jason under her father's eye, Bruce would be seeing more of him whether he wanted to or not.
"There a reason you dropped by, B?" Tim was still frowning as he changed the subject.
Bruce finally stepped away from the curtains, and Cass appeared, neither Tim nor Barbara having noticed her until then.
Her protégé never ceased to amaze her. "Hey, Batgirl."
The full face cowl made Cassandra almost unreadable, but her shoulders did drop as she came close and bent down for a hug.
"There's a potential metahuman robbing banks." Bruce remained by the window.
Cass drew back, allowing Barbara to pull up the files. Two incidents had been reported with surveillance footage confirming both robberies as one man operations although the face had been captured by the cameras. She loaded the files onto a flash drive and tossed it at Bruce.
"I was going to have Dick and Damian cover this one, but if you're taking it, leave Cass out. I need her." Barbara crossed her arms over her chest, bringing Oracle out in full force. Cassandra was formally one of the Birds of Prey and had been her charge long before Bruce had taken her in.
Bruce pocketed the drive and nodded, pulling on his cowl and leaping out the window. Tim got up and closed the glass. "Do you think Bruce should be taking this case alone?"
"Bruce was protecting Gotham all by himself long before any of us got here. It's good for him to have his ego reassured these days." Batman was as competent if not more so than ever, the problem was that the mission had become darker, entangled, and spanned often past Gotham City borders.
"Batman does not want speak to Jason." Cass plopped onto the couch next to Tim, having pulled off her cowl.
Tim's brows furrowed again, but he didn't respond. They both knew Cass had reached the heart of the matter. Barbara sighed. "He needs to talk to Jason, but we know how stubborn the man is. At the very least, he can make himself useful."
Curling his feet under him, Tim turned towards the window. Cass squeezed his hand and Tim flashed her a smile but remained tense.
Cass straightened in her seat. "You need me for mission?"
"A different mission from usual." Without embellishment, Barbara rolled over to her cabinet, drew out a folder and threw it on the coffee table.
Cass and Tim leaned down over the picture.
"Hush has been hanging around Jason's apartment." The photograph was blurry, but the bandages were obvious. She'd had Dick install surveillance around the apartment after their visit.
"Why not ask Damian and Dick?" Tim shuffled through the papers.
"Harley Quinn confirmed to Huntress that the Joker hasn’t been seen because Hush ran him out of the city. I’m not going to set anyone on him until we are sure of his capabilities. Besides, both have been around the apartment often enough that Hush will notice their absence if they try to pursue him." Barbara reopened her laptop and pulled up Arkham records. Clayface hadn't made it to the Asylum, an accident having cast him into Gotham Harbor and possibly to his death. The Riddler was back in Arkham but in nearly constant intensive care after the thorough beating he’d received, and Poison Ivy was still recovering from near death. Hush, a brand new baddie, had carved himself into the Gotham masked criminal fraternity with a serrated knife. If he discovered the connection between Jason and Bruce...
"I will keep him in my sight." Cass stood silently. Barbara caught her hand as she moved to the window.
"We have to introduce you first. I don't want Jason’s group to be on their guard around you." Particularly Jason and Stephanie. "You coming, Tim?"
"Nope." Tim was back on his laptop, cheeks pink. Cass snorted next to her and disappeared into her bedroom, reappearing with cargo pants and a hoodie over her uniform.
They were a sight as they board the train and Barbara could see the tension of the overly packed car fluctuate. One woman had her son and daughter clutched in her lap and sent them a frantic smile.
A tank of a man filled up a good deal more of the space than any three people could and Barbara heard the creak of Cass’s fingers tightening on her wheelchair. By his side was a small girl with dark hair and a worried expression. Barbara had seen that look and a glance at Cass confirmed it. Surreptitiously, the pair shifted, leaving a clear but narrow path to the doors as they reached the first stop in East End.
Like a shot, the child was out of the train. The tank moved with a roar but his way was impeded by the influx of passengers. By the time he’d manage to get out, the girl would have a rather good head start. It would have to do.
“She is scared,” Cass spoke up when they disembarked, “for her life.”
Barbara looked up and saw the sorrow crease her student’s face. “She was smart enough to run. We just have to hope she finds someone who can protect her.”
The new Batgirl uniform had a complete face cowl and Barbara was reminded again why. Cass’s face was an open book. Without language, expression had been her only means of communicating with anyone. Now her grimace said clearly that they were the right people for a little girl to run to.
“I’ll get Helena to find her tonight.” She patted Cass’s hand and was grateful when the girl let out a deep breath.
The trip from the station to the apartment was best done in daylight given her wheelchair. The sun filtered through spires and gargoyles, casting a muted but steady glow upon the streets. There were so many people, and the stain of fear was evident on most. Come nightfall, they would be behind barricaded doors and windows, praying the night would pass without the mobs or masked criminals tearing up their lives.
Crime Alley itself was less haunted by day. It was good to remind herself of this, to come down here to see what they were fighting for. Not that any of them did with any frequency. Bruce only came down to remember, and the ghost of his innocence kept the rest of them away.
Arriving at the apartment, Barbara maneuvered herself onto the bottom stair as Cass carried up her chair. She was about to work her way up when the door burst open and a riot of children flowed down the stairs. They streamed around Barbara and Cass like water around rock. Several held dented bats and ragged balls; others held jump ropes and colored chalks. In the blink of an eye the street had transformed into a children’s playground.
Barbara was stunned again by the sheer number of children Jason, her little Jason, was taking care of. Clenching her fists, she reminded herself. There would likely have been even more kids had Tim not stolen Nightwing and forced the Cowl on Dick.
The apartment door creaked open again and Jason vaulted down the stairs and threw his arms around her. He lifted her at the waist and twirled her, resting his cheek against her collar. Strangely, the old resentment towards her legs did not rise up. From up here she could remember when Jason had been shorter than her. She cupped his jaw and kissed his forehead. “You haven’t changed at all, Jay.”
Jason beamed and carried her quite deliberately up into the vestibule. He shot a dazzling smile at Cass and set Barbara in the chair. “Who is this, Babs?”
Barbara reached out and met Cass’s fingers half way. “This is my successor.”
She felt Jason still beside her and could see Cass watching him anxiously.
“You’re the Batgirl who terrifies everyone.” There was more than a little awe in his voice.
Cass winced but Jason barreled ahead. “We all thought the first Batgirl had taken a vacation and gotten some serious training,” He looked her up and down. “You can’t be much older or younger than me. That’s amazing.”
The smile broke through to Cass and she smiled back shyly. She didn’t often receive praise for her talents. The Bats and Birds were accustomed to her skills and she hid them thoroughly when not in the mask. Perhaps she should encourage the girl to stay with the Titans for a few months. They would definitely give her ample praise as she deserved.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to let her protégé bask. “Jason, we have to speak with you.”
Jason ushered them inside and rounded up Stephanie and Sasha. It warmed her heart to see Jason so readily share with others. Her very secretive and angry boy had grown up.
Barbara laid out the pictures and let them speak for themselves. Sasha’s face scrunched in pained worry, but Jason and Stephanie froze in horror.
“You see him before?” Cass asked. She had gotten better about asking even when she could read the certainty in their postures and expressions.
Stephanie half rose, but Jason pulled her back down. “Yes, we’ve seen him, but not since, I guess, Nightwing became Batman.”
Barbara exchanged a glance with Cass, the hairs on the back of her neck rising. Hush was dangerous enough as a newbie. How far might his reach extend having operated for a year without interference?
“I’m going to keep an eye on the kids.” Sasha clapped her hands on Jason’s and Steph’s shoulders and was out the door in an instant. Barbara was glad the girl didn’t see her flinch at the rictus of her face before she disappeared. A small hand settled on her shoulder. Right, time to focus. She smiled at Cass and turned back to the photographs.
Jason was chewing his lip and Stephanie was pale. Barbara nodded. “I would like to set up surveillance around this apartment. It’s not often we have advanced warning about one of the Arkham criminals.”
Cass glided forward and placed their newest sensor on the table. It was built to resemble the electrical boxes on every telephone pole and it would be little work to set it up.
Jason picked up the camera, and Stephanie’s palor was bleak. “So he’s probably seen Nightwing and Boy Wonder coming and going?”
Cass took the young woman’s hand. “I will protect you all.”
The former Spoiler stared intently at the new Batgirl. “You must be something special to have caught Batgirl’s eye.”
It might have been condescension, but the girl flashed a grin and pumped Cass’s hand. “Thank you.”
A chair groaned against the floor and Jason was leaning out the window. “Helena, come in for a second.”
“We know who he’ll most like go after.” He huffed and opened the main door.
Barbara had seen this girl the last time she was here, but now, paying close attention several alarms were blaring in her mind. The girl could be an old ten or a late bloomer at fourteen. With dark brown hair edging to black and piercing blue eyes, she could have been any of the Robins. If any of them had been female.
Two more kids followed her in, the oldest ones, John and Carrie.
“Where’s Steve?” Jason frowned as he closed the door.
Carrie grinned. “Out.”
Stephanie stood and crossed her arms. Carrie giggled, and Helena spoke up. “He’s on a date.”
Barbara blinked and Jason and Steph seemed to be rooted in place.
“You are not too young?” Cass inquired.
The three young people were immediately affronted.
“I’ve already had two girlfriends!” John reprimanded and the girl both smacked his arms.
“It didn’t count.” Helena growled.
Carrie nodded and glared. “We promised never to speak of those days.”
“Your ages are irrelevant since Steve is seven!” Jason chided, having finally unfrozen. “Who’s the lucky kid?”
“It is another kid, right?!” Stephanie demanded.
“She’s about his age, lives with her dad.” John muttered, shuffling behind the girls.
Barbara was amazed at how fast kids were these days, then was appalled at the thought. She was not old!
“Why did you call me, anyway?” Helena asked, eyeing the two visitors.
Five minutes later, Helena is sitting in Jason’s lap, her face buried in his shoulder and arms thrown desperately around his middle. She’d frozen at the pictures and Barbara catalogued that for the future. If Helena regularly froze around Hush, rescues would be exponentially more difficult. All the more reason not to let her be taken in the first place.
“Carrie and I found Helena in a basement.” John was explaining, fingers dancing over Barbara’s smartphone map. “She was tied to a chair and her hair was cut short like a boy’s.”
And somehow, the girl whimpered at the mention of short hair but not the chair.
Carrie was watching the door and windows feverishly and Stephanie was rubbing Helena’s back and whispering in her ear.
“Here.” John marked the site and looked up, his face furious. “We got her out of there and brought her here, well, to where we were staying before here.”
“He found us,” Steph added, “but once Batman… reappeared, he stopped coming around. We moved and assumed he’d given up on her.”
“Do you know who he is?” Barbara asked. Helena had turned her head and was watching the group with wisps of hair caught in her mouth, though her grip on Jason hadn’t loosened.
Jason pulled her hair from her face and nodded at her encouragingly.
After a moment, “I saw his face once.”
That was hardly useful, the memory of any witness being as reliable as playing darts with a blindfold. She might recognize his face, but they’d need to narrow down suspects first.
“He wanted me to be like… Damian Wayne.”
Cass gasped behind her and Barbara closed her eyes. So Hush had an undeniable tie with Bruce. Not good.
“Why?” Cass asked, her voice trembling with anxiety.
But Helena shook her head and turned back to Jason, who kissed the top of her head and asked the other kids to bring her to the bedroom and stay with her.
“Do you know who Helena’s parents are?” Barbara had to ask. It wasn’t likely that Bruce had another child but it was possible.
“No.” Sasha had reappeared with Steve at her side. The boy reddened under the group’s stare and dashed off to his friends.
“Her mother was Sarah Arlert, but she was born, raised, and died in East End. She probably never saw the Waynes except for newspapers or periodicals.”
“Well…” Barbara tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “Batgirl will be keeping an eye on the apartment. We’ll catch him.”
“Thank you.” Jason met her eyes and Barbara smiled, her mind racing. They would need to ensure the all the children were out of the eye of any criminals before bringing them into the foster system. This plan was getting more complicated by the day.
Hello everyone! Sorry for the long… break?... block? A new subplot wedged itself into this chapter and I couldn’t get around it or shuffle off its opening scene for the sequel. Plus, it’s really hard for me to write Barbara. Probably because she is the member of the BatClan I identify with most and least. From a narrative standpoint, she could have had a very close relationship with Jason, but I always saw her as stable enough to not obsess over Jason being dead and now Jason being alive. This was just really hard for me to get my brain around. The next chapters should come out in a more timely fashion, though the next one up is Cass :O
Chapter 8: Cass I
Cass watched the CCTV blimp pass overhead, the search lights gliding over the city. People in large groups scattered out of the illuminated pools like startled cats. It was a windy night, enough that all pedestrians would turn up their collars and keep their gazes forward. Not that she worried about being spotted with her floor length cowl and skin covering suit.
She’d had to break up a brawl several streets down an hour ago but otherwise, the neighborhood around Jason Todd’s apartment was quiet.
The rooftop door opened and Sasha Nico appeared, saying. “If you’ve finished with the box, you’re welcome to come inside.”
Cass double checked the surveillance box and nodded. Sasha looked at her warily, maybe. In her years, Cass had rarely came across someone whose face was as altered as this girl’s. Her actions and intentions were all laced with phantom pain, and emotions were nearly impossible to see. She had to pay a lot more attention to Sasha’s words.
“Ok.” Cass answered and unbent from where she’d been crouched on the corner, trying to emulate the stone gargoyles on this side of the city. Dick was complaining that the building Jason was living in was held together by bad architecture and luck according to him, but Cass found herself remembering those years before she’d come to Gotham. Keeping her distance from her father had been about moving constantly and she’d squatted in plenty of places like this.
If there were any other tenants in this building, they kept their doors shut or stayed out when the Bats came to visit. Barbara was going through their records to make sure Hush hadn’t rented an apartment under an assumed name.
They opened the door to a chorus of groans and a rush of kids away from the table. Jason and Steph were staring down into a plastic bag with undisguised glee. Sasha darted forward, asking. “You got some?”
“More than some!” Stephanie beamed and upended the bag. About a dozen bottles of multivitamins clattered onto the tabletop. “Doc Thompkins let me take as many as we need before handing them out.”
Jason was already opening a bottle. “Come on, guys, you have to eat one a day.”
The kids were less than impressed.
“They taste bad!”
“Yeah and the taste lingers!”
With gagging motions and dramatic shuddering, the children endeavored to get to the back of the crowd, resulting in a strange encircling group.
Stephanie put her hands on her hips. “It will keep you from getting sick.”
That wasn’t strictly true according to Barbara, but Cass smiled and kept her mouth shut.
“A drink will help you with the taste.” Sasha promised, pulling out several water bottles from their little fridge. She winked at Cass, another lie.
With much grumbling, the kids lined up for their vitamins. But there was one child missing by her count.
Jason turned to Cass, all business when he asked. “All clear outside?”
“Yes.” Cass felt herself straightening when she spoke.
“Do you mind helping Stephanie?” Jason followed up.
Cass nodded. She wasn’t sure how to act around Jason. Damian didn’t seem to be having any trouble adapting and Tim was avoiding this place like the plague. She remembered Bruce bringing her to Jason’s grave and all the things he’d said, but it was hard to put those details to this man. He looked the type to give someone else his neopolitan ice cream rather than eat it himself.
A hand was waving in front of her face and Cass jerked back to see Stephanie watching her. Sure of Cass’s attention, she explained. “Hiro is sick and I need to bring him down to the clinic.”
Inside their bedroom, a small boy was curled up under a ratty comforter, his hand over his left ear. He was red with fever and his eyes were glassy. “Stephy.” Hiro rasped.
Stephanie picked up the boy and settled him on her hip. He was probably six, but extremely scrawny and sagged against her shoulder. Back in the main room, Sasha helped maneuver Hiro into an over-large down coat before they left.
It was quiet on Park Row and Cass followed Steph and the boy at an inconspicuous distance. Her commlink crackled.
“Batgirl.” Damian demanded.
“Robin.” Cass answered, smiling under her cowl.
“I’ll stay with them for the night.” Damian stated, with no room for argument. How had he gotten Bruce or Dick to go along with that? Damian must have taken her silence for agreement because he disconnected the line. Well, she’d just have to make sure her littlest brother didn’t notice her keeping vigil on the rooftop.
“I’m amazed none of you have given that brat a good wallop.” Stephanie called over her shoulder. She had stopped to allow Batgirl to catch up, and the pair walked together. Cass remembered the early days of Spoiler, the only days before she had left. The Bats and Birds had not treated her well. Watching Stephanie march forward, unencumbered by the weight of the child, Cass wondered why.
“He is young.” Cass said, which was true about Damian though he'd argue the fact.
Stephanie snorted and said sarcastically. “I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with you.”
“Ten and four months.” Cass pitched her voice into Damian’s range and Stephanie muffled her laughter in Hiro’s shoulder. The boy fidgeted.
“Wha-” He mumbled.
“Almost there, kiddo.” Stephanie assured him. She patted his head and brought it back down to her shoulder. Hiro warbled feebly and went slack against her.
Cass would have twiddled her thumbs if her father hadn’t stamped the habit out long ago. “Lucky clinic is nearby.” She tried again.
With a rueful grin, Stephanie hitched up the boy. “Yes. Doc T is well acquainted with all the kids. She actually checked out that salve Robin got for Sasha. High priced stuff that. But don’t tell him I’m impressed.”
“Pyg.” Cass growled with as much menace as she could into the name but Stephanie had her beat.
The girl nearly snarled. “She still had that goddamn mask on when Jason found her. For a long time, she was convinced it would take her face when it finally came off. If I could get my hands on that rat bastard-”
Cass grabbed her elbow before she started screaming her fury. Stephanie subsided, her grip tight around Hiro. “None of them are old enough to get a driver’s license. It isn’t right. Red Robin probably isn’t much different. What about you?”
“I am twenty, but small.” Cass said but frowned, fingering her cape.
“With your moves, no one doubts you, trust me.” Steph said with a grin, “But I remember, Robin, Red Robin now, was tiny.”
“Babybird.” Cass giggled.
“No! Really?” Stephanie cackled. “And why does his uniform look like Doctor Mid-Nite?”
They smiled at one another and though Cass had a full face cowl, Stephanie seemed able to see her delight.
They reached the clinic where Doctor Thompkins was sitting at the front desk’s computer, fingers flying over the keyboard. “No quips, Stephanie?” Then she looked up and frowned. They were instantly pulled into one of the rooms and Stephanie was rattling off symptoms as the doctor checked the boy’s nose, eyes, ears and mouth, then swabbed his mouth, then stuck a thermometer in said mouth. The boy fussed slightly, but Stephanie kept a tight grip on his shoulders. “It sounds like an ear infection. Not dire, but you’ll want to keep him away from the other kids and definitely out of St. Aden’s until he’s better. A warm compress and ibuprofen should work for now. I should have the results in a few days. Let me know if it gets worse.”
Stephanie nodded and passed the boy, who had fallen asleep, to Cass. She had a form clutched in her hand and was filling it out. Leslie returned to the computer and entered the boy’s visit before barking. “And get Al down here! I know he hasn’t been going to any other doctors.”
“You know how he is, Doc.” Stephanie laughed when Leslie looked up with a frown.
The doctor sighed. “I hope he doesn’t think he can fight off disease through will power.”
“Actually,” Stephanie pondered, “He never gets sick. Even when Sasha and I were laid up with the flu with half the kids, he didn’t even sniffle once. It’s practically supernatural.”
She beamed with second hand pride. Stephanie had an infectious smile. Cass felt herself grin, until the sound of pounding feet turned their attention to the door. A pair of children rushed into the front lobby, a boy younger than Damian and a girl the same age in a red cardigan.
Panting, the girl put her hands on her knees and turned to the boy, her dark hair swinging into her face, and said. “Steve, I don’t think-”
“No!” The boy interrupted. “Doctor Leslie will protect you. We can stay here until your dad leaves and then we can go to my place.” Steve was half yelling and his eyes were wild. He looked up and shouted. “Steph!”
Steve grabbed the girl’s arm and dragged her up to the reception desk. When his eyes finally landed on Cass he gaped. “Batgirl!”
He glared but looked conflicted. “Did you find the guy following Helena?”
Cass shook her head and Steph jumped to her defense. “It’s been a busy day, Steve.” She put her hands on her hips and looked pointedly at where Steve was still holding the girl’s hand.
“Who is this?” Stephanie asked with edged sarcasm.
The girl dropped her eyes and tried to pull her hand away, but Steve had a tight grip. He scowled up at Stephanie, his voice indignant. “This is Annie. Her Dad hit her!”
“Where?” Cass demanded and realized Steph had said the same thing. They glanced at each other before turning to the girl, Annie.
She shrank behind Steve, her hands gripping his arm. Luckily, Steve seemed to have her trust and he guided Annie to Doctor Thompkins, who was waiting patiently. She observed Annie’s face without touching. “You certainly have bruising.” Leslie said slowly, “But, it’s already healing. When did he hit you?”
Annie looked up and down and all around before Steve took her hand in his again. She glanced at him and took a deep breath. “Tonight.”
Leslie didn’t argue though even Cass could see the faded bruising on her cheek must have been a few days old. “And has he hurt you before tonight?” She asked.
The girl looked hunted, her face scrunching as though in pain. “I… I don’t remember.” She took a strangled breath and nearly buried herself against Steve’s side. He wrapped his arms around her.
“She doesn’t even remember her name, Doc. I decided to call her Annie.” He said.
“So is that man actually her father?” Steph asked.
Steve chewed his lip. “He didn’t actually say so. He just was angry that she hadn’t come home? Maybe? He said…” He screwed his eyes tight shut and hummed.
“‘Where have you been?’” He said slowly. “‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you.’ And then I got in the way and then he threw me into a wall.”
Steph gasped but Cass threw an arm in front of her. It was better for Steve to say everything now before his memory was less clear of the event.
“And then Annie got in the way and told him not to hurt me.” Steve continued. “And then he backhanded Annie across the face.” He opened his eyes. “And he was really strong. I flew all the way down the alley before I hit that wall.”
Cass lowered her arm and Steph rushed forward. “Are you alright? Did you get hurt? Doc!” She spun to Leslie who came over to check the boy.
Batgirl was out of the clinic and surveying the area. No one was in the open and when she climbed to the rooftop, the surrounding streets were equally empty. Whomever the man was, he hadn’t stuck around after chasing the children here.
Turning on her comm, she pinged Barbara and reported. “Another girl has been added to Jason’s group, and this has what might be a metahuman after her.”
“Description?” Barbara asked, the unmistakable sound of typing filtering through the connection.
“The man was described as strong enough to lift a seven year old and throw him the length of an alley. The girl is six or seven with straight dark hair and tanned skin. I wasn’t able to identify an ethnicity, but she might have some memory loss.”
Barbara sighed. Amnesia cases were rare but kids running from parents was nearly a dime a dozen in this part of Gotham. “Are you at the house?” She asked.
“No. We’re at the Free Clinic and I’ll escort them back to the house.” Cass answered. “I’ll update Robin when we get there.”
Damian might just decide to live with Jason and his brood after this latest event.