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Tales of the Scented Harbour

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A month ago

 

A lot of people believed Jason to be insane. Jason himself wasn’t too sure. Madness was a common side-effect of the Lazarus Pit, after all, and Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t exactly a model of mental health himself. Despite his bias though, he had always found his mind to be clear. He couldn’t deny having given in to his anger for a few years after coming back from the dead, but never, in all that time, had he lost track of the bigger picture.

Jason always knew what he was doing, why he was doing it, and how he was doing it. Even in the middle of a battle he refused to give in to fear and anger to the point of losing his cool. That was Jason Todd: the man who was constantly taking the next step in his war against crime.

Jason wasn’t the type to take a break between adventures, or to give in to a fight.

Not so long ago, or not long enough for it to be obsolete, Jason had been facing Batman. The altercation had proved something fundamental about the young crime-fighter: Jason was eerily rational, even in his darkest moments. Taking over the criminal underworld, playing with Batman like a playwright with his characters, taking out Black Mask and nearly the Joker at once - without them even being the priority - and avoiding collateral damage and dragging in civilians all the same - that was not the work of a madman.

The Red Hood didn’t consider himself an enemy of the Bats. He didn’t want them dead, he didn’t even wanted them to fail. On the contrary, he wanted them to wake up and get better at what they do. But they wouldn’t listen. And they were going to get another Robin killed someday. Just because of some misplaced sense of moral superiority.

He was justified in his anger. He wasn’t insane.

Yet his still had to convince himself of that again, everyday, and every time he faced a mirror.

He needed time alone. Just him and the giant Bat symbol in front of him.

Down in the streets, the city was alive. Cars were honking, people were yelling at each other, babies were crying, couples were hiding in dark alleys, dogs were chasing stupid pigeons - the smells and sounds of Gotham felt far away up on rooftops. It was the middle of the day and everyone was with someone doing something - or the other way around - except for Jason.

For him, it was like time had stopped. The part of his mind that was supposed to be dissecting everything he saw, hear, smelled or touched, that part that had been honed by Batman, Talia and all his other teachers, was completely tuning out his surroundings instead.

Just him and the Bat.

“He doesn’t come out during daytime, son.”

Jason turned his head to see the commissioner standing next to him, a warm cup of coffee in his hands. It was a very distinct cup of coffee, which, mixed with the scent of cigarette, characterised Jim Gordon. Blinded, deafened and concussed, Jason could have recognised the man by that alone.

Gordon on the other hand, did not show any sign of recognition, or even of suspicion. After all, Jason just looked like a normal twenty year old, without a domino mask or a helmet, and without any weapons on him. Besides, Gordon had not interacted with the Red Hood enough to make the connection, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to link him to the second Robin.

The dumbed out part of his mind wanted to ask the commissioner what the hell he was doing there, but this was the rooftop of the police precinct, and Gordon was not the one trespassing.

“I know,” Jason replied indifferently. He had known - it was why he was there at the moment and not anytime later. Bruce Wayne was likely too busy sleeping or recuperating to be Batman. That, and the fact that he wasn’t even sure if Bruce was alive at all.

“You a fan?” Jim asked, seemingly not disturbed that a random man had made it to the rooftop of his workplace without being noticed by anyone, “You have no idea how many we get trying to catch a glimpse of Batman.”

Jason raised an eyebrow. It was true that he had no idea Batman and Gordon had been dealing with that kind of problem.

“Just the other night, a young girl from Gotham Academy fell asleep under the beacon with a pile of drawings she wanted to show him,” Gordon continued, “I think she wanted to convince Batman to make her Robin or something. Never got to know in the end, Batman just carried her back to the Academy before she could wake up.”

That got a sad smile from Jason. Batman, figure of nightmares, cradling a little girl in his arms. He knew Bruce of course, and he knew the man was a huge marshmallow when it came to children and as long as the conversation didn’t go past the weather. But the sight of the Dark Knight being so considerate was rare and nostalgic.

The past was the past.

“But that's not why you’re here, is it?” Gordon guessed, “You haven’t even tried lighting the beacon yet, and you haven’t asked me about the scandalous relationship between me and Bats that the gossip column of the Gazette mentioned last Wednesday.”

“The Gazette is just pissed you won’t tell them anything,” Jason smirked, “you might want to do something about it before they start announcing Robin is your secret love child.”

Gordon’s mouth twitched and Jason knew it was a source of frustration for him. The Gotham Gazette wasn’t the Daily Planet; they weren’t afraid of running false stories for fame.

“I see you’re familiar with our newspaper’s… vindictiveness,” Gordon sighed, “I take it you’re from around here?”

“Born and raised a Gothamite,” Jason confirmed, allowing a hint of pride to seep through. Gotham was shit-hole on good days, but there was something about being in the city that, ironically, made him feel safe and right. “But I’ve been away for a while. Only just came back this morning actually.”

“So what does that symbol mean to you?” Gordon wondered, tapping on the black bat on the spotlight.

“Who said it meant anything?” Jason challenged.

“You've been staring at it for the bast fifteen minutes, son,” Gordon pointed out, “you're not fooling anyone. Besides, we’re in Gotham - the Bat means something to everyone here.”

Jason looked back at the black cut out on the searchlight in front of them. Gordon was wrong, it wasn’t the Bat that people considered in Gotham, it was the Batman. The symbol itself had long grown much, much bigger than the man, but only a handful of people made the distinction. Not that it made much of a difference - Jason had always been conflicted about both.

“Fear or admiration,” Jason guessed, “are you asking to see if you should arrest me?”

“Criminals are not the only ones who fear the Batman,” Gordon told him solemnly, “and those who admire him are not always innocent.”

“So what do you see in the Bat, commish?” Jason found himself asking, “You’ve met the man, surely you’ve been disillusioned of some of the myth.”

“Quite the opposite,” Gordon confessed, “it’s humbling to meet him as a cop. We like to think ourselves as this city’s crime fighters, but we’re no Batman. He does what we can’t, what we’re not brave enough to do. He makes impossible things possible. That’s why I installed this light. To me, the Batman is a symbol of hope - which is why I find it curious for a young man like you to be staring so intensely at it. I can’t tell if this hope is all you have left or if you’re desperately searching for some.”

Batman, a symbol for hope? Superman was usually the one mentioned in such context. People thought the Batman too dark, too violent to symbolise hope. It probably spoke volumes about Gothamites that Gordon, one of the noblest of them all, would say that.

“Or maybe I’m planting a trap to kill the Batman,” Jason joked, “maybe I’m just here to charge up on anger. You’re not going to give me the suicide prevention number, are you?”

Gordon didn’t seem to buy the partial truth.

“You'd be staring down the streets if I needed to,” the commissioner shrugged, “not the signal. Look, I know I’m no therapist, but I wear the badge for a reason, son. I have a duty to every citizen of this city and if you need an ear to unload on, well, you have twenty minutes before my lunch break is over.”

Jason couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. Gordon hadn’t changed. He was still the same man who was both driven and flippant. As far as righteousness went, Jason trusted Gordon more than Superman because while Gordon didn’t regularly endanger his life to save the planet, Gordon knew to when and where to make concession. He knew when to turn a blind eye to Batman’s illegal actions and he knew when to ask too many questions and when not to. Superman had one vision of Good, and he forced it on others. Gordon was focused on what was right, and he was willing to converse.

This was one of the times the commissioner was putting his faith in someone else’s judgement, namely Jason's. He hadn’t asked for his name, hadn’t asked how he had gotten there, nor had he warned anyone else of his presence. There was no lecture on the importance of life, no ‘it’s gonna get better’ and no ‘I understand’. All there was was silent support, the choice of asking for help.

This was James Gordon, one of the few civilians the Bat-clan respected as much as their fellow heroes, the man who had a cup of hot chocolate waiting for Robin after long patrol nights.

“I recently found out I owed my life to a universal fuck up,” Jason admitted, feeling the cold wind pick up a bit, “literally. What the hell am I supposed to with that information?”

“You don’t have to do anything about it, honestly,” Gordon pointed out after taking a sip from his coffee, “Doesn’t really matter if your shirt’s made in China or India - you wear it the same in the end.”

“That’s what I thought too,” Jason sighed, balling his cold hands into the pockets of his jacket, “before I knew. I mean - I hadn’t even cared enough to ask the question in the first place; I just got the answer by happenstance. But now that I know it’s just - I don’t even know what it is. It makes things different but I don’t know why.”

“And staring at the Bat-signal was going to illuminate you on that?” Gordon asked with a raised eyebrow.

Of course not. Bats couldn’t speak.

Coming back to life after death was surprisingly common in the superhero community. Sometimes there was a Lazarus Pit involved, sometimes it was magic, sometimes it was some weird time travelling gig that went haywire. Either ways, it wasn’t the fact that Jason Todd had risen from the dead that was most disturbing about the man. It was the fact that one day, his eyes had simply opened again.

No explanation. No lead. Not even a theory.

Out of all the heroes, Jason Todd was far from the most remarkable. Prior to his death, he had been a sidekick and not even a particularly good one. He had been a Robin; a soldier without superpowers, without a destiny or a fated arch-enemy. He had been Jason Todd, street kid, son of a small time criminal and a junkie. He hadn’t even died in an extraordinary way - just a crowbar beating and an explosion.

But one day, he had opened his eyes again.

No one looked at Green Arrow or Superman the way they looked at Jason. It was human nature to fear the unknown and as far as unknown went, Jason took the crown. He had the reputation of being unpredictable and his rise from the grave only added to his mystery. Him being alive unsettled others, he knew.

He could hear them ask silently: Why him? Was he hiding any powers? Did he make a contract with a demon? Is he even really Jason Todd? What does he know about his death? About his life?

Nothing. The answer was nothing.

Jason wasn’t hiding anything, and he had known as much about his own resurrection as G'Nort did. He had never actively tried to look for the reason of his continued existence - there had been something gnawing at his mind whenever his thoughts had strayed to the topic. He had a feeling the answer would pull a Schrodinger; that the second they opened the box, it would be dead, but as long as it was hidden, there was still hope. Besides, he didn’t mind much not knowing, he wasn’t the type to sweat the small details.

He did, however, find out by accident. And unfortunately, he had been right not to look into it.

Knowing you were alive because of a glitch in the Universe didn’t do much for self-esteem. At least, before, he could pretend some higher power had given half a fuck about him, but as it turned out, it was all a big mistake. His death had been a mistake - oops, the Joker wasn’t supposed to do that - his survival had been a mistake - a side effect of shattering reality - his anger had been a mistake - let’s dip him into the Lazarus Pit and see, shall we? - Well, to be honest, Jason was used to being a mistake. His mother hadn’t intended to become pregnant, Batman hadn’t intended to raise such a violent kid to be Robin, the Joker hadn’t intended to create a super villain, hell, Jason hadn’t intended to mess up so much and so many times.

But despite all the messing up and his usual devil may care attitude, that one revelation had rattled him more than he had thought he would, and he just couldn’t understand why. It just didn’t make sense. His resurrection had always been one of the last thing on his mind before - so why was it at its forefront now? Why did the answer to a question he hadn’t even cared about weighted so much on his heart?

Upon realising Jason wasn’t likely to answer his question, the commissioner broached another subject, “You chose a hell of a time to come back to Gotham.”

“I’m guessing it’s true then,” Jason concluded, “the Bat is dead.”

Gordon didn’t answer, or perhaps he couldn’t. It was hard to tell with how many close calls Bruce had had over the years. Yet the Bat was unmistakably absent these days, and an impostor was playing Bruce Wayne.

“The gangs are stirring,” Jason continued, “I heard there have been a few riots already.”

“We can deal with it,” Gordon told him, with him a warning look. You better not be thinking about getting involved, young man, he seemed to say. “you’re going to have to sit tight though. Gotham’s about to go through a rough patch.”

“Wouldn't be Gotham otherwise,” Jason muttered.

“Go home, kid,” Gordon advised, “you look tired.”

“Yeah, I should,” Jason agreed, walking towards the staircase and receiving a curious look from the commissioner. He stopped before he made it to the door though, and turned around for some last minute words, “You know, you shouldn’t sell yourself short, commish. You may never have been Batman, but it’s no secret that you’ve always been Gotham’s first hero.”

And then he was gone.

Go home. Where was home even these days?

He’d give Gotham another go. And if that didn’t pan out… Then maybe it was time for Jason to find another nest. He’d given up on Bruce, he could give up on Gotham. He was tired of feeling displaced.

 

Two week ago

 

Batman was dead.

Cassandra had seen Oracle, Nightwing and Robin — well, not Robin-Robin anymore, but her Robin — break at the news. It wasn’t the tears that had given them away. It was how Nightwing sometimes checked the shadows, how Robin had to stop himself mid-sentence to avoid adding “Right, Batman?” at the end, how Oracle deflated when she realised no one was there to take the final word from her during brainstorming sessions. It was the glances, the shoulders slumping, the sighs, the biting of the lips, and Alfred.

Oh Alfred.

Alfred was the worst.

There was always a slowness to his movements, a reluctance that betrayed his selfish desires. Any help Alfred brought to Batman destroyed Bruce Wayne, and he knew it only too well. And now, Alfred had to deal with everything he had always feared, as well as trying to keep his son’s family afloat.

Cassandra had always been less close to him than any of the others. Still, she found relief in knowing she wouldn’t be adding to his burden. He was old now, both in body and spirit.

It was strange though, how she couldn’t find it in herself to cry. Stephanie’s death had devastated her, but Batman’s, she had almost expected. He had prepared her.

Her relationship with Batman had always been a very peculiar one. She had never cared much for Bruce Wayne — in fact, she hadn’t even thought of Batman being anyone else than Batman until David Cain framed him for murder. Knowing didn’t change anything. Maybe this was why she was at peace with his death. Batman died fighting for others and lived on through Nightwing. If there was any one way she would have liked him to go, it was this one.

That Bruce Wayne died was inconsequential.

But… Cassandra was going to miss having someone who truly understood her around. The others… They just didn’t get it. She wasn’t a normal girl. She didn’t want to be. She was a fighter. And she wanted to kick ass. To get better. To go forward. Batman understood; he too, didn’t like ‘normal life’.

I won’t leave you a message, or include you in my will,” he had once told her during a spar, a few days after her adoption, “by the time I die, you will already have received everything you need from me.”

No softening the news. No padding his words. It was always better that way.

The symbol of the Bat will always be yours to fight under so long as you respect its values,” he had added, “but I can see that Gotham was never your home; so don’t let it become your obligation. The others may try to stick together — after what happened with Deathstroke and David Cain, I expect you won’t let them tie you down either. They’ll be strong enough to continue without me, so focus on yourself.”

He hadn’t planned on dying so soon after, but he’d planned on dying eventually, and those were the parting words he had chosen to give her. A disobligation, and a sequence of instructions.

He had told her to give Stephanie the Batgirl mantle in the event of his death. 

He died. She stripped it off on a rooftop in the rain.

He had told her to ensure the Outsiders would continue their work.

He died. She created the Network and let Nightwing and Alfred supervise it.

He had told her to choose what followed herself, but to find a path nonetheless.

He died.

Nightwing was wearing Batman’s cowl now, and Damian had taken the role of Robin.

Everyone was moving along their own roads. It was Cassandra’s turn.

Now she had a nice, clean slate from which to start. No name to live up to. No family to make proud. No city to chain her feet. She could board the first boat she saw, and go on from there. 

In fact, she would.

 

Today

 

Cassandra caught on the window ledge, and pushed herself up. With a hidden lock-pick, she clicked it open, and slid inside without a sound. It was a small building, without much security, and the action had almost become routine to her. The darkness of the night barely phased her in her endeavour. 

Her feet dropped to the floor of the kitchen like cushions on a bed.

There was a bowl of fried rice covered in cellophane left out for her, but it was cold. The dishwasher was already running, and if it weren’t for the light coming from the living room, Cassandra would have guessed its inhabitants were fast asleep.

They weren’t though, which was strange.

Kevin was on patrol duty early in the morning, and his mother was too old to stay up so late. Yet she could unmistakably hear the sound of cutlery, as well as smell the chamomile infusion wafting through the air.

Cautiously, she tiptoed towards the next room.

Peeking in, she saw Kevin sitting at the small circular table. He was scooting as far away from the other side as possible, obviously scared and uncomfortable. Cassandra could pick on all the signs; his sweat, his stiffness, his carefully controlled breath, his hyper aware eyes… His mother didn’t seem to share his concern as she nibbled on some dried mango, but then again, his mother was a strange woman.

Truth be told, Cassandra tensed up a bit herself when she saw Kevin had a guest, and who it was. The guest spotted her immediately.

“I'd say welcome to Hong Kong,” the Red Hood growled, “but I think we both know I’m not too happy with you being here right now, especially after that stupid shit stunt of yours. So let’s get to it: give me one good reason not to kill you right here right now.”

“Try,” Cassandra dared him blandly, crossing her arms.