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a palace from ruin

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Jason was ten years old when he met her for the first time.

He had seen her plenty before of course, flying over the city with effusive grace, her cape swooping out behind her like a pair of great blue wings. The yellow bat on her chest, her yellow boots and gauntlets, the slate-gray of her uniform, her pale skin and gingery freckles and her vivid green eyes through her cowl, everything about her was stunning, but what had really caught his attention was the arresting beauty of her long red hair. Catching the electric light, the neon shining through it, it was like dying leaves, like sunsets, like fire. It seemed almost alive, a reflection of her indomitable spirit.

Her hair was beautiful. Like all of her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” someone might’ve said to him years later. “How can you say that you were never attracted to her, considering how often you say how incredible she is, how beautiful she is?”

He might’ve told them what he’d learned when he was ten: there’s a very big difference between just being attracted to someone, and really seeing and appreciating their beauty, the beauty of who they were.

He was ten years old, and crying in an alleyway. His curly hair had been longer
than usual and unkempt since his mama had died, since he hadn’t been able to pay the rent and had to run away.

He needed money.

Strange men had offered him money, when they saw him hanging around or passing by on the sidewalk.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?” they had asked, smiling, their voices like scorpion venom dissolved in honey.

Jason had been the name on his tongue. The name he had only just asked his mama to call him a few months before she’d died. She’d always called him Jason after that, Jason, with a little smile on her face as she remembered that she had a son.

“Petra,” he had replied to strangers. “Petra Todd.”

“You’re just a little one, Petra. You shouldn’t be out here all alone. You want some company, hmm? You want some money?”

Well, he’d gotten his money. But he always felt sick afterwards, felt rotten, as though something inside him was steadily decaying.

It all felt like too much that night. He didn’t even hear the swoop of the cape, the boots crunching lightly on the concrete.

“Hey. You alright, kiddo?”

He looked up.

She was taller than he’d thought. Her red hair fell over one shoulder as she bent down towards him, and there was concern in her eyes.

Jason shied away from her.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said softly. She extended a hand, the yellow gauntlet sheathing her fingers. “If there’s anything I can do to help...I know it’s hard. But us girls gotta stick together.”

Despite himself, his head snapped up, and he found himself saying:

“I’m not a girl. I’m a boy.”

Oh. Okay.” Batgirl didn’t withdraw her hand. “That’s okay. But still, if there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll be happy to.”

They were still for a few moments. Jason faced her, wondering if he should bolt while he still could. He was small, but he could kick her hard in the shins and run pretty fast.

But he didn’t.

“Actually, you could just sit here. With me. For a little while, anyway. I’ve got stuff to do.”

Batgirl was still, then nodded.

“But if you need anything else —”

“You’re kinda pushy, lady.”

She was still for a moment. He thought he’d just pissed off the only person who’d given a damn since his mama.

Then she laughed

“You’re right. Okay. If you need me to just sit, then I’ll just sit.”

She did. She sat beside him for an hour while he worked out the last of his tears, slowly steadied his breathing. Then she took his hand, wished him luck.

He looked down to see what she’d pressed into his hand.

Fifty whole dollars. Enough to feed him for days to come.

He looked up to face her again.

“I didn’t ask for charity, lady —”

But she was gone. Disappeared, with all the finesse and more of the original Bat himself.

For the first time in days, Jason smiled.

 


 

It was another whole year before Jason slipped up and let the truth spill from his lips again.

“Be a good girl,” the man had crooned, and it had been a long day, with very little food to be found in the local dumpsters, and hearing the word girl for the thousandth time had pushed him over.

“I’m a boy, idiota,” he’d hissed under his breath, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood, but not enough to hide what he’d said.

The man had hit him and called him slurs, then kicked him out of the dirty apartment, telling him to never come back. Jason had cried, but they were angry tears, not his usual dirty-bad-I-feel-disgusting ones.

When he was done crying, he went and stole another homeless kid’s switchblade and cut all his hair off, and vowed to never let anyone call him a girl ever again, even for money. They didn’t deserve the benefit, the comfort, of his lies.

The stealing gave him an idea for how to get money from then on out. The next day, he boosted his first set of tires.

 


 

The Batman was real. He wasn’t beautiful like Batgirl had been two years ago, he was rough, but he’d laughed, impressed, when he’d found his tires missing.

He’d also managed to chase after Jason and catch him even after being whacked with a tire iron, so Jason was impressed in turn.

So maybe he’d die, he thought in the backseat of the Batmobile, but at least he’d put up a good fight, and at least it’d be at the hands of an urban legend. At least the Batman was alright.

He took off his cowl, he was all black and gray with no bright colors, he was much paler, and his eyes were like pale blue chips of ice, and holy shit that was Bruce Wayne.

Jason had never before had an older man been impressed with him in a way that had been good for him. Even the manor, with its kitchen, its hot showers, and its soft bed, left him apprehensive at first.

“Just give him time, Master Bruce.”

 


 

Jason waited a week. Bruce never made a move on him. Only awkward cautious kindness, as if he was waiting for Jason to do something.

He might’ve run away out of apprehension and anticipation if it hadn’t been for her.

Her.

She came by the manor one night, and he hid under the couch and watched her go to the grandfather clock in the corner. She set the hands to a certain time, then slipped through the hidden elevator and headed down.

She was gone for so long that he had plenty of time to sneak up to the library, grab one of the old books, and get quite a bit into it before she came back.

She walked into the living room in her uniform, and they were both shocked to see each other.

“Batgirl?”

“Kid?”

 


 

They exchanged names.

They sat on the couch for a while, not quite knowing what to say. Apparently, she’d been told Bruce was watching a street kid, but had definitely not known that she’d met him before.

Nor that Bruce had told him his secret identity yet.

“Is that Pride and Prejudice?” she finally asked. “Austen?”

“Yeah, I guess. I never finished school, I don’t know all the book titles yet.”

Barbara smiled.

“Maybe not, but you’re in luck. I used to be a librarian.”

“A librarian? No shit?”

“No shit.”

Jason decided that Batgirl, that Barbara, was officially the coolest person he’d ever met.

 


 

“He’s a good kid, Bruce,” he heard her say later.

“Yes he is. So different than Dick, but...”

“Does that mean you want to keep him around?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Something tells me he needs care and stability.”

What is she, my sister? Jason thought, but he smiled nonetheless.

 


 

He got his period for the first time the week after he became Robin.

He didn’t realize anything was off at first, moving along the rooftops at Bruce’s side, until a wave of unbearable pain gripped his insides. He fell over, gasping, wondering what was wrong with him, vaguely aware of Bruce carrying him back to the Batmobile and then starting the drive back home.

He had no idea what was going on until he looked at his crotch and saw that the green material was stained the color of old rust.

No. No. He wasn’t a girl, they’d treat him like a girl now, he couldn’t be a girl —

They found him hiding in the bathtub, naked, staining the porcelain red, clutching his abdomen and wishing the agony away.

Bruce reached for him. Even with the selfless concern in Bruce’s face, it brought back memories of other men reaching for him when he was naked, and he screamed curses in Spanish and fell back.

It wasn’t until Barbara shooed out Bruce, and she offered him a cup of water and some painkillers while Alfred turned on the blessed warmth of the shower for him, that the painful memories loosened their grip. For the moment.

“I suspected as much after we first met.”

“Suspected what?” he said defensively. “I’m still not a girl.”

“No, I know. You’re a boy, Jason. You told me a boy, so you’re a boy.”

Standing under the warm water, he stared at her for a while. Even standing before him in her jeans and hoodie, Barbara Gordon had never looked more beautiful.

“But next time, you might want to stock some tampons and Motrin in your utility belt.”

“Now you tell me, Barbie.”

She laughed a little incredulously.

Barbie? Well, you’re officially the first person to call me that without getting slapped.”

“I’m honored,” he grinned, and meant it.

 


 

Her boyfriend’s name was also Jason, which he found hilariously ironic.

“I didn’t choose it, I knew him before I knew you.”

“I’m still your favorite Jason though, right Barbie?”

She’d laughed again. He found he liked making her laugh.

“Okay, we’ll call you my favorite.”

He wouldn’t call Private Investigator Bard anything other than The Other Jason — TOJ for short — from then on out. Barbara found that considerably less amusing.

 


 

She read more than just Pride and Prejudice with him after he started school again.

The school made him read The House On Mango Street and Oliver Twist and The Outsiders and The Happy Prince and he liked them all, and they all hit a little close to home. He found The Bluest Eye in the reading list for high schoolers, and was so violently sick after getting through it that Alfred had to bring him home for the day, though he couldn’t understand why.

Between school and patrol, Barbara shared book recommendations with him, and, best of all, they would sit together in the manor’s library and read together.

They read The Round House and Song of Solomon and Frankenstein and V For Vendetta and Discworld and American Gods and The Thing Around Your Neck and Fahrenheit 451 and Strangers On A Train and Lord of the Rings and Fun Home and The Handmaid’s Tale and Twenty Love Poems & A Song of Despair and It.

“And I thought our city’s clown was bad,” Jason remarked when they were done. “Least he’s not gonna eat us.”

“He’s not gonna get us at all,” Barbara smirked. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

 


 

On his thirteenth birthday, Alfred baked him a massive chocolate cake. Barbara took him to a history museum. Bruce gave him puberty blockers and his very first set of hormones.

He hugged Bruce and cried with happiness and felt, for the very first time, that maybe here was a man old enough to be his father that he could actually trust.

 


 

He’d heard about Dick Grayson, the first Robin, many times, even before he came to live at the manor. But for six months, he saw nothing of him, only heard the others on the phone with him, saw a shadow cross Bruce’s brow when he was brought up.

He met Dick Grayson six months and a day after he was first brought to the manor.

His first thought upon seeing the strange man in the doorway that Barbara greeted with a flying hug: who is this guy, and what is up with his clothes?

Outfit aside, he was beautiful too, in a way. Barbara was a steady flame, a constant but not usually overpowering force. This guy burned like a star, like the sun’s light.

He also gave Jason a look of apology.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come to meet you earlier,” he said, once Barbara let go of him. “I know I was Robin...but you are now. I should’ve been more fair to you.”

Jason realized who he was and nearly fell over in astonishment.

He was so cool, had done so much...Bruce still talked about his achievements constantly...

“What you should be apologizing for, Grayson, is that it’s the twenty-first century and you still call yourself Dick.”

Both the adults stared at him in shock for a moment.

Then they both howled with delighted laughter while Jason grinned proudly.

 


 

He met the Titans not long afterwards.

“Don’t ogle Kori.”

“I’m not gonna ogle your girlfriend, Dick.”

“That’s what they all say.”

He didn’t ogle Kori. He felt no attraction to her at all, which he supposed was a bit weird.

She was beautiful though. All the female Titans were beautiful. Karen, Raven, but Kori, bombastic as she was, was one of his favorites, along with kindhearted Donna. Joey and Garth were nice, Victor was very cool, and Garfield and Wally were actually really funny, even if they did like to tease him about being short.

But it was mouthy and moody Speedy, Roy, that made Jason stop dead in his tracks.

His red hair was just as lovely as Barbara’s and Kori’s in his eyes, and the older boy’s toned arms and shoulders from those years of archery made him catch his breath. When Roy actually stopped to talk to him, his tongue seemed to swell to fill his mouth, and his heart stuttered.

Then his heart felt sick.

What did it say about him that he couldn’t feel attracted to girls like he should, that the first time he felt this way was for an older boy? Should he feel that? Did he only feel that because of what he’d done when he was younger?

He shied away from Roy, and spent the rest of the visit hanging out with the girls. That was okay. The girls were pretty amazing, even if he couldn’t make his heart do the same backflip for any of them.

 


 

Afterwards, he saw more of Dick around Gotham when he wasn’t too busy leading the Titans. The three of them, Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, became a staple, creatures of the night together.

“Although stealth is hard for you two with uniforms like that,” Barbara remarked once while she was gathering evidence.

The boys rolled their eyes at each other.

“I happen to like these uniforms,” Dick said haughtily.

“Of course you do, you’re the one who designed them, Fashionably-Challenged-Wonder.”

“Don’t listen to her, her taste isn’t great either,” Jason grinned. “I mean, The Other Jason is kind of a basic bitch.”

“He is not,” she snapped while they laughed.

“Whereas you, Dick, you have great taste in women.”

“I do, don’t I?”

She rolled her eyes again and went back to scouring the crime scene, slowing getting to her feet and stowing evidence in her utility belt.

“Babs, c’mon.”

“I’m working on it.”

“Yeah, c’mon Barbie, hurry up!”

“Oh my God, I’m coming, Jason, I’m coming!”

“Bet that’s the first time you’ve said that!” he quipped. Dick instantly dissolved back into fits of laughter.

She cuffed them both upside the head for that, but it was worth it.

 


 

Joking aside, he eventually found her sitting on a rooftop, lost in thought.

“Is this because you think TOJ is planning to propose to you?”

“I don’t think, I know.”

He didn’t question it.

“But I don’t feel like wife material. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to be married, if I can even do it. I never even told him I’m Batgirl, and this, plus my career, those are what really matter to me, not my relationship.”

“Hey, you love a hell of a lot. The problem isn’t that you don’t love, that you can’t have both.” He nudged her gently. “You should do what makes you happy, Barbara. And screw everyone else.”

She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. He groaned, but smiled nonetheless.

“It’s good to have you around at least, Little Wing.”

“Aww, Barbie, you do care.”

 


 

He had never had a sister. Never even considered the possibility.

But he imagined that having a sister would be a lot like what he already had with Barbara Gordon.

 


 

Sometime after he turned fourteen, even after being on the hormones for over a year, he was mistaken for a girl again.

Coming back from a Knights game, with Bruce’s arm wrapped gently around his shoulders, someone whistled at him from the street.

“Hey sweetheart, forget your daddy and c’mere instead!”

Jason tensed, feeling the familiar sickness begin to seep into his body, felt his breathing begin to quicken.

Bruce, meanwhile, turned and leveled his most terrifying glare at the perpetrator. The man paled and scurried away.

“Jay-lad, are you alright?”

For a moment, Jason couldn’t see the man who’d been taking care of him and acting as his mentor, but just a man.

“Don’t touch me!”

Bruce looked upset, but took his hand off his shoulders nonetheless.

 


 

He overheard Bruce and Alfred talking again later.

“Alfred, I’m worried something else happened to Jason. Something even beside his mother dying, near-starvation, and having to be poor and homeless. The nightmares he has that he won’t describe, the way he still shies away from me...”

“Sir, you have to talk to him. He can’t heal if he won’t talk about it.”

“He won’t want to talk about it.”

“You don’t know that if you don’t ask him.”

 


 

He and Barbara were reading together again when she looked up from The Second Sex and faced him.

“Jason...there’s something you never told me.”

He looked up from The Feminine Mystique.

“The first time we met, all those years ago, when I was Batgirl and you were in that alleyway. You never told me what made you cry like that.”

Jason ducked his head at first, scowling.

But the longer she faced him, those vivid green eyes piercing him to the core, the longer the pressure began to build in his chest. He’d never given voice to it before, never said a word to anyone.

He’d never known what it was like to be safe before.

“Some men...” His voice rasped like he was much older. “Heh. I think you could guess, but...now you know that some men are more than ready to offer their money to fuck a little girl.”

It took a second for it to register with her, but when it did, rage and sorrow and horror all bloomed in her face at once.

In a heartbeat, her arms were around him. He buried his face in her shoulder, losing himself in her strength, in her sweet-smelling hair. Her hands trembled, clutching his shoulders and the back of his head.

He didn’t cry yet.

 


 

He didn’t cry until Bruce saw him coming out of the library, Barbara still holding him, and opened his mouth to ask.

The dam broke and everything spilled out at once, every single part of his first twelve years, Barbara’s hands the only thing anchoring him.

Bruce seemed like he was carved from granite the whole time. It wasn’t until it was all over that he bent and he held Jason too, letting the boy cry, rubbing his hands up and down his back to comfort, to try to ease some of the old pain.

For the first time, Jason thought of Bruce and thought dad. He never wanted his dad to let go of him, never doubted the love in his dad’s arms, no, not for an instant.

 


 

Alfred knew too, somehow. Jason didn’t doubt that he knew.

He prepared his lunch for school quieter than usual the next morning, and when Jason accepted it, the words slipped out:

Gracias, abuelo.

The old man gasped and pressed a hand to his mouth as Jason blushed. But neither would’ve taken it back.

 


 

Dick and Bruce had another fight. It had nothing to do with him, so he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling until Bruce came back in, looking haggard.

He hugged his dad around the waist and held on, not even caring that boys his age weren’t supposed to do that. Bruce stroked his hair, not saying anything, and Jason wondered what he and Dick had been fighting about that had left him so upset.

He silently promised himself that when he was grown he would never, never fight with Bruce like that. He just hated to see his dad upset too much.

 


 

Dick was still nice to him, though. He even brought him back to the Titans a few more times.

Jason still loved spending time with the girls best. But he couldn’t quite stop himself from glancing over in Roy’s direction and blushing every so often, even if those feelings did make him feel worried and sick inside.

But Dick caught him staring once, and Dick didn’t recoil or act like there was something wrong with him for it. He just smiled knowingly.

Jason felt a little better after that.

 


 

Jason woke up screaming from another nightmare about gunfire and his dead mother and leering men undoing their belt buckles as Barbara came back from patrol. She ran up to his room, and cradled him and stroked his hair and murmured like he was still a kid.

“You know you don’t still have to do this,” he mumbled into her strong arms.

“Shut up. You need it.”

They were quiet for a while.

“My periods stopped.”

“That’s good.”

He leaned into her shoulder, and fell asleep soon afterwards. No more dreams bothered him for the rest of the night.

It wasn’t until the next morning that he found out that The Other Jason had proposed to her before patrol that night.

 


 

He found that if Dick and Kori got married, he’d be happy with it, even if it did make Bruce sulk a bit more.

In fact, so many of his circumstances seemed to be just right. He was Robin, he did good in the world. His teachers had told him that with his grades, he could qualify for an Ivy League school in a couple years. The library never ran out of new material.

He even had a family of sorts. A strange, sometimes splintered one, but one nonetheless. He’d never had a brother or sister before. Or a grandpa. Or a real father.

Sitting on rooftops next to gargoyles, taking a quick smoke break or mocking Gordon behind his back or standing by Bruce’s side, Jason wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world.

 


 

Things could in fact get better. He met the Justice League. He saved Superman from Mongol and that Black Mercy. Wonder Woman told him he was brave and clever, and he felt like he was glowing.

He turned fifteen soon after that, and his whole family was there. Even Bruce and Dick put their quarrels on hold. He blew out the candles, and Alfred remarked on how quickly he was growing up.

Barbara kissed him on the head for that.

“Aww Barbie, c’mon.”

But he was happy. Bad shit had happened to him, but now? Now he could get better, have a good life.

 


 

He had another mother. A biological mother.

 


 

The Joker escaped from Arkham Asylum again.

 


 

It couldn’t last. His happiness couldn’t have lasted.

It all began to end when Barbara got shot. When the entire earth seemed to stand still.

Lying unconscious in that hospital bed, her hair hanging lank instead of flowing and lovely, she breathed slow and shallow under the oxygen mask.

Jason sat at her bedside with a get-well card that felt trite and useless, sobbing into his hands, his chest in physical pain. Dick joined him, having flown all the way across the country the second he’d heard, the two boys leaning on each other and crying for her.

“What for?” Jason choked through his tears. “She didn’t deserve this. She didn’t do anything to him! He didn’t know she was Batgirl.”

“He doesn’t care, Jay.” Dick’s face was twisted with misery. “He didn’t care, even if he thought she was an innocent. He did it to hurt Gordon, to hurt Bruce. What’s more...he did it because he could.”

Jason choked out a sorrowful, slightly hysterical laugh.

“Not even innocents are safe in this city, huh? Not even heroes.”

He looked at her in that hospital bed and recalled the first time he’d met her. So powerful, so full of fire and grace and determination. She’d helped him once, and she’d been a positive force in his life since then. She’d been a positive force in all their lives.

He reached out and took her limp hand, noting how cold it was.

What was going to happen to his sister? What would he do, without her there by his side? What was going to happen to him?

 


 

He should’ve known that it would come to his death.

 


 

She would recover, but he wouldn’t know that for a long, long time.

“Did you know that she avenged you?” someone might’ve asked him years later. “Did you know she’s still your sister? Did you know she’s still every bit as magnificent, and more?”

A mysterious internet presence known as the Oracle tracked down, through the records of a former pimp, every man who’d solicited a little girl named Petra Todd. She’d brought each of them down in turn, funneling away their resources, pouring their secrets into the news, and, if their lawyers were too good, sending her associates to beat them black-and-blue until they felt some semblance of all the pain they’d inflicted on others.

Bruce — Bruce, damn him, damn his love for him — stayed his fist, but Oracle had the Joker locked in the Slab, and devoted extensive time and resources to making sure he didn’t break out. She had no love for him either, even before she lost her little brother.

She still reached out to lost little boys, then to lost young girls. To lost women. Her heart ached every year on April 27th.

Bruce was too painful. Maybe Bruce would be too painful for a lot more time yet to come.

But years later, Jason would fall to his knees in front of her wheelchair and wouldn’t say how much he was hurting, but she would know.

She would be surrounded by glowing screens, glorious in the freedom they gave her, even more than her cape. Her head would still be held up proud, her hair brighter than a blazing flame. She was still just as and even more beautiful than before.

She would stay by him again, and that magnificent head would bow as she wrapped her arms around him and whispered that “I missed you, Little Wing.”

But he wouldn’t know that for years to come.