“Did something happen? Is everyone okay?” Dick immediately switches from mischievous, teasing older brother to Nightwing mode, the change causes Jason to clench his teeth. He still wanted to give that knucklehead a piece of his mind.
“Everyone’s okay. Is nothing of the sorts.” Bruce’s grumpy voice replies and Dick’s shoulders seem to loosen significantly.
“It’s good to hear. Okay, well, in that case… Did you hear my full report from earlier today? You understood the context, right B? About Star Trek?” Jason raises an eyebrow. What the hell is he talking about? Oh, right, he’s talking about the insufferably long and ridiculous voice memos that Dick seems to want to send to everyone these days. Maybe he’s not in Nightwing mode after all.
“Yes Dick, I did,” Bruce grumbles.
“And?” Dick prompts him to comment. “You liked it?” There’s a 5-second silence where Bruce sighs heavily and then he replies.
“Aye,” Dick snorts at that and then Bruce clears his throat. “But unfortunately, I did not call to talk about such pleasantries. Are the three of you all right?”
“Physically, yes. In state of mind? Not as much if you like to consider my humour is equivalent to a dragon spitting fire as we speak.” Damian shoves himself into the conversation. “What do you want to discuss, Father? We are in the middle of an important conversation if you do not mind. I was scolding Grayson for being—”
“Damian, don’t start. That’s not important now. B, what’d you want to talk about?” Goldie finally breaks that annoying deadpan expression not at all according to Dick’s ever-open face, giving a warning look to the demon.
“Not important my ass. Don’t try to change the subject, Dickface.” He mumbles and Goldie cast him a glance too. Teaming up with Damian is only bearable if it’s to annoy the golden child. Period.
“Do not interrupt me again, this is a pressing matter, Grayson. We are not done talking about the fact that you cannot just vanish off my sight and hope an apology solves everything. You’ve made that clear in the past, remember? I will not let this call from Father be the perfect excuse to not touch this topic never again. For a moment I thought—” The words seem to get stuck in Damian’s throat, which seems to make him angrier as he slams his fist into the table. Dick’s face morphs into one of total remorse.
“Dami—” But none can continue with the sentimental turn in the conversation when they hear a grunt from the forgotten phone-call.
“Enough.” The words resonate with the worn-out speakers on Dick’s phone. “We can sort out that later, but right now we have more compelling matters to discuss,” He says in a bossy voice, but Jason can hear Bruce’s well-hidden tone of concern underneath. He knows the Bat is dying to ask about what happened that made Damian had his feathers on a ruffle. “Such as why were none of you answering the phone? And in that case, why has no one tried to investigate the reason for this dubious failure in the feed? You should have reported any day finds at the usual time. What happened?”
“In my defence, I never heard my phone, nor do I have any missed calls from you or anyone else,” Dick says quietly and Jason puffs a breath. Yeah, sure.
“I wasn’t aware that you had tried to contact me, Father. I do apologize, we were focused on something else, now I see my mistake.” Damian says through his teeth, avoiding looking at Dick, who instead seems to sink more in his seat.
“I would likely have ignored your calls anyway, but this time it wasn’t my doing, old man.” He says irritably. “Apparently Barbara tried to call me too, and I didn’t hear shit. What do you want us to do, anyway? Go check the antenna to find the problem? What’s wrong with not reporting in time? It’s not the end of the world.”
“No, it may not be the end of the world, but we had agreed on a specific time to communicate any development during the day, failing to do so can be assumed as something wrong has happened. I am not a fortune-teller; I cannot know everything that happens over there. You are my eyes and ears. And no, Jason, I am not asking you to go check the antenna, maybe I’m just asking for a little more discipline regarding the protocol, or has your training been of no use?” Bruce grunts. “All these years and you don’t remember the importance of communication?”
“Uh, yeah, as we are proper adults who communicate with words instead of grunts and express their feelings like normal people, right?” His tone sounded drenched with sarcasm. “You should know by now that we suck at communicating.”
“I’m aware of the many issues we still have to solve, hopefully, we are on the right path to do so, yet we’re not normal people, are we, Jason? And therefore, we cannot act as such.” Bruce replies composedly, not falling for Jason’s provocation to start a fight. “And not being normal people, your job there is not to sunbathe on the Sun Deck or indulge on the restaurant menu, is it? Your job here is to gather information for the case. Correct?” Jason can feel the heat rising to his face, can recognize the bursts of irritation rising through his veins like lava.
“However,” Bruce cuts him off promptly, his voice sounded harsh, as if his next words were difficult to spit out. “Perhaps this time I made the mistake of thinking that this mission would be promising in some way, but it hasn’t, and it probably won’t. If the information I collected this very night ends up being legitimate, I’m afraid that we can take for granted that this mission has been a waste of time. And hence, the blame will be on me.” Bruce snarls and Jason can clearly hear Dick gasp.
“What are you talking about? What the hell did you find?” Jason asks solemnly, oh man. Bruce never usually manifests when he’s made a mistake, but when he does, it turns out to be earth-shaking.
“Wait,” Dick interrupts whatever Bruce was about to say. “I can’t take you seriously if I’m not seeing your grumpy face. That’s why technology does exist, you know? To connect people even if they’re on the other side of the world. Let’s FaceTime, shall we?” Dick smiles without humour, making him and Damian shift uncomfortably on their feet.
“Fine,” Bruce growls and hangs up. A moment later, Damian’s tablet lights up announcing the new call. The dwarf takes it and puts it aside from the other tablet on top of the table. Jason decides to stand behind Goldie, putting his hands on the back of the chair. From there Jason can see over Dick’s head said tablet running a program to decode information.
“How different,” Dick mumbles with a cheeky tone, making a little bow with his head. “Sir, please continue with your report.” Jason could see how Bruce’s face looked as if he was about to grow a thousand new grey hairs in the next second. The old man was in the cave wearing civilian clothes instead of the Batsuit. He looked freshly bathed but his face was of someone who had been awake for days. Not a very nice picture. On Jason’s left side, Damian seems to straighten up, swiftly slapping the back of Dick’s head.
“Ignore the tot, please continue.”
“As I was saying… I may have found an informant, though his word remains in doubt until proven otherwise, the information provided seems very revealing to me. As you know, there was a strong rumour about the crew known as ‘The Poseidon’s Fall’ wanting to move their base of operations here in Gotham. So I’ve kept an eye on the port, watchful of any indication of operations happening in the dark. Today it proved fruitful when I found an informant who was willing to leak information due to his brother being involved, he feared he might be killed one of these days,” Bruce explains thoroughly to then add:
“That person told me everything he knew about their operations, and how his brother ended up joining the organization. For starters, the crew is much broader than we first thought, they are not a simple gang of criminals, but by now they are a well-structured organization that has only grown in recent months. I know we believed that they weren’t recruiting, but it appears that you don’t ask to join them, the invitation comes to you anonymously. Everything is arranged via phone calls and through the internet, so following the trail would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. According to my informant, the core of the gang remains to be top secret, high-end mercenaries, and former marines as we already knew, but the new recruits are not. They are not people from that league, if not ‘ordinary’ civilians, people who have no associations with anyone in the criminal world, people that normally would go unnoticed on our radar. It is the perfect setup, they’re disposable in case they get caught, and by not knowing the identity of the people in charge, nobody can talk or rat out no one, which makes them untouchables.”
“Clever,” Jason mumbles absorbing the new information, knowing closely that type of operations. They haven’t been the first nor will they be the only ones to implement that M.O, but it’s always a fucking pain in the ass. It takes time, dedication, and a lot of patience to catch assholes like that. “Nobody knows the people in charge, nobody talks, nobody knows anything, which means we’re dealing with real pros, people who know how to evade the law, or in this case, the Bat clan itself. Challenge accepted.” He says with a smirk.
“Nobody is untouchable,” Damian adds. “We have dealt with this type of operations in the past. Knowing their way of operating can put us one step ahead of them. As they all follow predictable patterns, they will eventually make a mistake. We just need to step on their heels long enough to catch them. No one is flawless.”
“And we can take advantage of the fact that the recruits aren’t professionals like the core crew. Just like your informant, I can get them to talk if I put my hands on one of them.” Jason smirks at the thought. His speciality was making rats talk. Bruce frowns at the prospect, knowing well what was going through his mind. “I’m guessing that getting the information about the recruits will be easier, right?” Jason’s mind immediately goes against Kai Beck, the bearded hipster. Of course. That jerk definitely has something to do with this, it’s obvious. No one is that clean. “They’ll squeal like pigs once I speak to them.”
“Nobody’s gonna make them ‘squeal’, Jason. That’s not your task on this mission, and you know it. I’ll get that information. For now, I don’t have any particular name yet, but as Damian said, it’s just a matter of time. Apparently, they aren’t just civilians, but cruise ship employees who were extorted or bought to sell information and facilitate the attacks. The roots of the operation run deeper than I thought.” The old man sighs heavily, passing a hand across his face with a solemn expression. “However, just because getting the names of the recruits may be easier doesn’t mean it will be of any help. The problem lies in the fact that we can catch as many recruits as we can, but it will count for nothing if we can’t catch the main perpetrators. Catching people rank so highly always takes time, time that we do not have now.” Bruce’s voice sounds so stress-laden that he feels his own anger growing. “In the slim probability that there would be undercover thugs on-board, and even if Dick’s ring were to be usurped, the GPS signal would most likely direct us to some pawnshop or a third party involved who would purchase the ring to auction it on the black market at the highest price. Even if we keep under surveillance the transition, that doesn’t guarantee it’ll lead us to the original perpetrators.”
“Then what shall we do, Father?” Damian inquires warily, touching his chin in a restless gesture. “How will we catch the criminals?”
“As we have done before. We must be smarter to predict their moves and wait for the right moment. Hypothetically speaking, if there were to be an attack on the cruise, let them take the loot, once on land catch the recruits, and force them to speak if necessary to give us more information about the core crew. I have faith that working together, like the handles of a watch, will make us catch them soon enough.” Bruce seems to look at each one in the eye through the screen, a determined look on his face. Damian nods and Jason just folds his arms around his chest.
“Sounds acceptable to me. Adjusting to what we have at the moment and stay one step ahead.” Damian comments nodding at his Father. “Patience will pay its dividends in due time.”
“All I can say is for you to be cautious, not because they’re recruits and look like civilians mean they’re not dangerous. Remember that if the information is legitimate, they were chosen for a reason. In case something happens, do not underestimate them, is that clear?” Jason finds himself nodding when he realizes that a certain blue-eyed has been quiet the whole conversation, which is so out of character that makes Jason raise his eyebrow inquiringly down at him. To be safe, Jason places a hand on Dick’s forehead, checking to see if the acrobat had a fever or was ill somehow. Dick whines and pats his hand away. “Dick, is that clear?” Bruce inquires with a frown as he looks at his eldest son. “You have been uncharacteristically quiet.” All eyes turn to Dick, who cracks his knuckles before answering.
“B, what would you say if I told you I know the big cheese?” Dick finally intervenes in the conversation with a chipper tone. “Or rather, I have all the attention of said big cheese over my back? Would you finally admit that I beat you that last time we played Monopoly?” He and Damian both glare at Dick in disbelief. Oh, right. Dick supposedly found proofs against Aleksander. Jason hopes that for Dick’s sake those proofs are weighty cause if not, Jason will kick that legendary ass.
“Elaborate,” Bruce demands squinting his eyes at him, clearly not buying it.
“Well, while my two brothers were worried about me—”
“I wasn’t worried.” Jason states and Dick glances up behind his shoulder to glare at him in a clear sign of ‘Bullshit’.
“Like I was saying, while Jason was talking to a girl and Damian was lurking around, I was chatting with a certain man named Aleksander, who from the first moment he approached Jay and me in the game of Blackjack, gave me a bad feeling, like a really bad feeling, B. From the start he tried to get my attention, he invited me to drink, he was even kind, but in the meantime, he tried to hook up me to give him information about my life. Clearly, he knew who I was, and I have no doubt he chose me as his target.”
“Target?” Bruce wrinkled his forehead. “As in—”
“Yeah, target, B. Like when a hunter picks its prey,” Dick says in exasperation.
“Even though those are suspicious actions, yes, that doesn’t mean he’s one of the criminals on the top, does it? Maybe I’ll make him a possible undercover thug, but not one of the main ones, correct? Dick, you know very well that a hunch is useless without evidence, right? Besides, how can you ensure that man is an undercover criminal and not just a… suitor.” Bruce says uncomfortably.
“He is not a suitor. And yeah, I know that. You don’t think I’d come to tell you my findings without proofs, right? Have you lost your faith in me, old man?” Goldie chuckles softly, dramatically touching his chest.
“Dick,” Bruce says, not having the patience to deal with his eldest trying to mock him.
“Hear to this and judge it for yourself. As I was about to tell Dami and Jay before you called, I disappeared from the radar just for a moment to speak more privately with Aleksander, cause he was as insipid as you to share his thoughts, ya know? Anyway, I got his suite number and sneaked into his cabin. Between a room ordered at a military level, high-end laptops, lots of technology not according to a supposed businessman, and zero Hawaiian T-shirts, I found the crown jewel,” Goldie taps his fingers near the connected thumb drive on the tablet. “A thumb drive that contains a lot of highly coded information, which by itself says a lot. What normal person carries a thumb drive encrypted like that to save a few documents!? Isn’t that as incriminating as it is? I don’t even have my laptop protected like that, and I’m talking about my work laptop if you know what I mean.” He says waving his arms in the air. “Right now I’m running a program to open it, and I can bet all my allowance that that contains info about the passengers, plan decks, and anything incriminating that you can imagine.” He slaps Dick in the back of his head.
“That’s what you were doing? You couldn’t have sent, I don’t know, a fucking message or something? Dammit.” Jason accuses him.
“Sorry, Jay,” Goldie mumbles pitifully.
“Hmm. As I said, even though you’ve found very probable evidence against him, that doesn’t prove that man is the head of the organization, does it?” Bruce insists again, not yet convinced.
“He didn’t look like a rookie to me, Bruce. When you been in the vigilante world from the age of nine, you learn how to recognize dangerous people with just one look. Why is it so hard for you to believe what I just said? His body language was all wrong! It gave me chills, B, and you know very well the sharpness of my sixth sense. He had the posture and the gestures of a trained person, he knew what he was doing, and he kept looking at the ring, the damn ring, B! If you’d only seen his face when he kissed my hand, it looked like he was drooling to get his hands on the bloody ring!” Suddenly, Damian emits a noise of wrath, approaching his face to Dick’s.
“He did what?” The demon snarls. “The imbecile dared to violate your personal space bringing his filthy mouth to your hand? Why didn’t you say so before, Grayson? Who the hell he thinks he is—”
“Dami, hey,” Dick stands up, accidentally pushing the chair and smacking Jason’s foot with the leg of the chair, but he refrains from saying anything when Goldie puts both hands on Damian’s shoulders, calming the cobra down with his harmonious voice. “No one violated my space, I allowed it. I was the one in control. I was the one handling the situation. Remember, I don’t need protection, kiddo. I’m fine, okay?” But that doesn’t seem to be the right thing to say, because Damian shakes his head sharply.
“I detest the fact that you are willing to spend an uncomfortable moment to get information for the mission. I detest that you have to be in that defenseless position, where they think you are just a pretty thing to impress. I’ll never agree to that; I do not care how many times you tell me it’s for the greater good. Throwing you to the wolves, doesn’t seem fair to me. It doesn’t matter if you say you’re okay with it, I can’t tolerate it.”
There’s a silence that feels way too prolonged, and where Jason doesn’t even know how to react. Listening to Damian express his fears and private thoughts is not something he is allowed to hear very often. At best, Damian would sit next to him quietly on top of a building, and Jason would only remain silent as well, letting the city’s lullaby calm Damian (or both) long enough to continue their patrol. It was their unspoken way of making themselves known that they were there for each other, in those few moments of weakness. But hearing him here, seeing his open expression of vulnerability, leaves him pinned to the ground. Dick recovers immediately, of course. He is the only one after Bruce (if not more) who knows intimately that little man standing there, someone who knows his secrets, fears, and longings, and that understands him as if they were the same person. Hell, what Jason would give for a connection like that with someone.
“Damian, I know I can’t possibly ask you to agree to something like that, it wouldn’t be fair of me.” Dick begins to say, giving a little squeeze to the demon’s shoulders. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do what we do, there wouldn’t be bad people to fight every night, and I wouldn’t have to do the things I do, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We are trying to build a better, fairer world. Save those who need saving. I know I don’t usually protect myself as much as I should, but I know I’m not alone, I have you, and the whole family to watch my back. A lot of people don’t have that privilege, and if I can do anything to help them, I will. I can’t promise you that someday I’ll stop putting myself on the line, but I promise you every day I do my best to get back to you. Us against the world, right kiddo?”
“I’m not a kid,” Damian corrects him, but his voice sounds light, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. “I understand what you mean, and I appreciate your words, Richard. We can move forward with the outstanding matters on hand.” If Damian’s cheeks were pink, no one commented on it.
“Remember the old man is still watching us, Dickface.” Jason comments with a mocking tone, breathing a sigh at the change of vibe in the suite.
“Oh, right,” Goldie chuckles softly and looks at the tablet. “You there, B?”
Bruce responds immediately, clearly having watched the whole thing. He doesn’t seem to want to comment about it, however, his face was the contradictory combination between comfort and distress. As if he somehow felt responsible for that way of being so self-sacrificing of Dick, but at the same time was proud of his strong morals. It was a dilemma, one that Jason would never share with Bruce. Dick’s overwhelming need to save people before himself was something that Jason both admired and repudiated. But it seemed like Dick didn’t want to understand that he wouldn’t be able to save anyone else if he ended up dead, and that wasn’t an option Jason would allow to happen.
“Good. Looks like now we just have to wait for my program to finish cracking the codes so I can shut your mouth, right B?” Dick smirks devilishly at the camera.
“You can try, brat,” Bruce replies with a smug smirk of his own. A moment later, they hear a notification from the other line. “I have a guest who wants to join the video-call.” The demon sighs irritably, guessing who. Jason leans on the back of the chair once more when a new face appears on the screen, the face of someone who survives on caffeine alone and has a diet based on take-outs.
“Timmy! Lil brother, how are you? Have you eaten on time? Are you getting enough sleep?” Dick immediately bombards the black-haired punk with questions, not giving Tim time to even answer. “I know you’ve been busy, but you haven’t even tried to reply to my messages.” Goldie pouts foolishly, making Damian roll his eyes.
“Yes, Dick, I’m perfectly fine,” Tim replies in a light tone. “I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your messages, it’s just that work has taken all my time, but I’ve seen all the pictures you’ve sent me. Even the puppy meme.” Tim answers making a gesture with the phone in his hand. It seemed that he was in his apartment, although the curtains were closed and Jason could only distinguish his face illuminated by the screen.
“What do you require, Drake?” Damian asks petulantly.
“Jason asked me to look into something, and I did. Turns out what I found is more interesting than I thought. Did you know there’s a connection between a certain Aleksander Lane and Andrei Chapman?” Tim replies with an intrigued tone. “Which by the way, the name of Aleksander did not appear in the passenger data I sent you because even with the Batcave database there are no records about him. Finding his name in the passenger log took me a while as if somehow it was protected. Apparently, Aleksander owns an endless number of nightclubs in various parts of the state. You could say he’s someone important due to his fortune, which could actually buy him certain privileges, but why hide his name from the passenger list in the first place?” Okay, yeah, that’s highly incriminating. You don’t hide like that unless you have skeletons in the closet.
“That’s the story he told me,” Dick comments, concentrating again on writing codes on the tablet and Jason must remember that Dick is also an excellent hacker, which seemed to be forgotten when Barbara and Tim came to the picture. With that in mind, he stays a good moment observing the elegant movement of his lean fingers on the screen. “But I’m not buying it. I’m about to end this man’s whole career.”
“What’s the connection? Cut to the chase, Timbers.” Jason says trying not to snort at Dick’s comment.
“Well, here’s the interesting part. As Damian investigated, Andrei was locked for six-years and when he served his sentence he got out of jail and magically became the owner of an important newspaper company. Well, it turns out Aleksander not only did bail him out many times before he was imprisoned, making it clear that they have known each other for years, but he is the co-president of the company. Don’t you find it curious that a major newspaper company, which influences many other companies, has not mentioned anything about the pirates in the last months? You know how the media works, yellow journalism pays more. It seems strange to me, that despite the many alerts that have been announced on TV, hardly any newspaper has published anything about them.”
“Funny,” Jason says. “What are the odds of bumping into your crime partner on a luxury cruise just like this?”
“While this makes them our prime suspects, it does not mean we can rush to say they’re part of the core crew. I wish I had the confidence to affirm their complicity, but we can’t get ahead of the facts. Their records don’t indicate that they been former marines or something of the sort.” Bruce insists again. That fucker of little faith.
“Finding an encrypted thumb drive is not inherently incriminating to you, old man?” Jason supports Dick’s theory, cause it was getting more and more sense. It wouldn’t be something like divine justice that precisely, the top dogs of the organization had decided to rob the ship themselves, at the same time that they had boarded the cruise ship on an undercover mission?
“5 more minutes and I’ll have my hands on everything,” Dick mumbles. “Almost there.”
“Ok, hypothetically speaking, and that by some chance in fate the core crew were there, how do you know Aleksander will keep his sight on you and not on the other wealthy passengers? It all depends on that ring getting into their hands. Without it, everything we’ve achieved could be lost along with them.” There are a collective eye roll and facepalm of all the members of the video-call, simultaneously followed by complaints.
“Are you aware of Dick’s superpower with enchanting people, right?”
“Please, B. All villains have had a crush on Nightwing at some point.”
“Father, if only you could see all the indiscreet and obscene looks that Richard has received throughout this crossing you would be as scandalized as me.”
“Oh, B,” Dick chirps trying to hide his flushed face. “There’s only two types of people in the world: The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe, ya know?” Jason chuckles at the reference. “I can bet a kidney that Aleksander has his sight on me. And not just for being Richie Grayson, heir of billionaire Bruce Wayne, but because I’m sure I pissed him off with something I said.”
“What’d you do this time, dumbass?” Jason asks. Dick had the natural talent to annoy people to the point where they wanted to beat the shit out of him.
“You know, I may have said something about pirates being ridiculous stories and being just copies of scoundrels from the past.” Uh, does Dick never learn the consequences of opening his big mouth? Apparently not.
“That’s Dick Grayson’s speciality, pissing off the hornet’s nest.”
A voice infiltrates in the video-call, a second later, a new window opens announcing the face of the third participant of the video-call. Oracle, who didn’t look happy. Crap. Jason scratches the nape of his neck while looking more closely at Barbara. Her red hair was tied in a tall ponytail and Jason could tell that she was in the Clock Tower. Even across the screen, Jason could feel the fury of her gaze upon them, but more precisely upon him. “That was a risky move, Grayson. Not something I would have recommended doing, but definitely will keep his attention on you.”
“Hey, Babs. Thank you for making my night with your lovely presence.” Dick says in a sweet tone.
“Don’t think if you’re sweet you’ll get rid of a scolding, Dick. Why wasn’t anyone answering my calls? Communication is the bottom of any successful mission. And before you say you didn’t even hear my calls, Jason, you were able to talk to Tim. Isn’t that right?” Barbara lowers her glasses a little revealing that deadly glare at him.
“I have no excuses; all I can say is that I’m a fucking jackass. Sorry.” Jason recites his always reliable argument when Babs scolds him.
“No swear words.” Bruce grunts.
“I’ve been swearing all night, why the reprimand now?” He asks incredulously.
“Did you find anything Babs? I’m sure you have something.” Dick interrupts the bickering that was coming.
“Unfortunately, I did. I didn’t have much hope of doing so, but there are many signs I can’t ignore. One, everything you already mentioned. Two, the fact that cell signal and Wi-Fi have failed simultaneously throughout the day. I hacked my way into the control centre and found that the crew has made an alert for unexpected interference with the ship’s communications to the outside world. However, they attributed it to technical problems, and not as something strange going on.”
“The probability of communications failing on a modern cruise ship is not so out of the ordinary, but given all the other factors I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” Tim adds.
“Exactly, and if we take into account that there are more than two suspicious passengers, it’s almost obvious. I have no doubt you have stowaways on-board, boys.” Barbara says carefully. “And adding the fact that I finally managed to blow the lid off Kai Beck, that takes things for granted.”
“What were your findings, Gordon? He is an inside man, isn’t he?” Damian says wrinkling his forehead.
“Yes, he is. But not the way you think. Surprisingly, Kai Beck is not an undercover pirate, but an undercover FBI agent.”
“What? No way.” Jason yells at the turn of events of something that certainly hadn’t crossed his mind. “Are you serious?”
“There must be a mistake, Gordon. I’m aware that not everyone who wears a badge is corrupt, or that inept, but Beck cannot be good, I could see the malice in his eyes. He does not radiate confidence.” Damian says in denial.
“That is why we must not judge a book by its cover. Having searched so deeply for some shady records and not having found anything left me intrigued, so out of curiosity I went through the FBI databases, imagine my surprise when I discovered his file. His information was obviously well protected to prevent anyone from discovering his real affiliation. I don’t know if you guys can trust him, but his records don’t lie, he’s had many successes in catching criminal organizations in the past, and he has recently been working to gather information about the pirates. Judge it for yourselves.”
“We have to give him the benefit of the doubt, right?” Dick of course says, but Jason’s not that sure.
“If he’s there, it means the police aren’t as far behind in their investigation as they were a few months ago,” Bruce announces with a thoughtful expression.
“Or because he knew that Richard Grayson and Damian Wayne were going to board the cruise, which was too big of a bait to let go. Though curiously, Kai is off-duty. He may have followed an investigation on his own, which is not a smart move. Now he is one more factor to think about.” Barbara says, tilting her head while looking at Goldie. “You found something, Hunk Wonder?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dick finally slumps away from the tablet, and Jason can observe an extensive list of files and documents appearing on the screen. The blue-eyed place the tablet on his lap and begins to review the documents one by one. “This is nuts, there’s like a thousand files here. I’m sending you guys parts so we can decrypt everything faster. Each document contains an extra encoding, don’t you think that’s a lot for a simple recruit, Bruce?” Goldie asks with sarcasm.
“Let me see, Grayson.” Damian leans over Dick to read the documents while Jason is still processing all the information blowing up in his brain. “Aren’t those blueprints from another luxury cruise line?”
“They are, Little D,” Dick says giving Bruce a quick glare.
“Okay, I already got a piece. I’m opening it.” Tim announces, quickly focused on reading and typing.
“So you’ve stolen the thumb drive instead of making a copy of the information,” Bruce comments cautiously at the acrobat.
“It’s not stealing, it’s borrowing. And yes, I couldn’t just copy the documents, B. I couldn’t risk losing everything in case Aleksander returned to the suite. This contains the evidence we need to maybe catch them sooner and not just the recruits, but the big whales. Remember?”
“And you don’t think he’s gonna realize that something this important was stolen from him?” Jason says, suddenly feeling like that was an awful mistake.
“It’s impossible for him to know I was the one who took it. It’s no big deal.”
“Dick—” Bruce begins to say.
“Do you trust me?” Dick suddenly asks, taking Bruce by surprise and apparently all the associated Bats on the call. A second later, Bruce’s face contorts into one offended.
“Then trust in me when I say this man is one of the big enchiladas of the organization. When I bragged about this trip, he saw it as the perfect chance to get his hands on a lot of money if he put his hands on us. I bet he wanted to tag along to make sure no one messed things up. This would be their most significant job, the one who would throw them into fame, something like their master move. Think about it, it was a big business: he didn’t want to leave it in the hands of some rookies. He wanted to make sure this would be successful in every way. I know it, B. Trust me.” There’s a silence for a moment in which Bruce seems to absorb Goldie’s words, but Jason can see how Bruce nods softly in surrender.
“Why didn’t happen when I went on the cruise?” Tim teases, but Damian doesn’t seem to take it humorously.
“Because you are not relevant, Drake.”
“And you are, brat?”
“Of course. I’m Father’s biological son, and therefore, the rightful heir. Perhaps I will just divide the fortune with Richard, but not with you.” Before Tim could answer, Goldie interrupts them.
“There are many files with documents, real estates, and endless screenshots of account transfers in the last few months. It seems to me that he keeps a log of all the transfers to keep track of the big bucks in his accounts. Oh, there are also pictures. Tell me what kind of pictures you have and I’ll tell you who you are.” Jason glances down at the tablet in his hands noticing how the blue-eyed has opened a file and he can see several pictures being passed haphazardly by him, Jason hopes there aren’t nude pictures over there.
“You’re right, Hunk Wonder. There are a lot of documents with bank accounts. Isn’t that a lot for a nightclub owner? I mean, is not that many clubs are clean, but this is ridiculous.” Barbara says making a gesture with her hand. Dick hums as he passes a picture but a second later he opens it again, dropping the tablet with a gasp.
“What?” Damian and Bruce ask at the same time.
“Look at this!”
Dick lifts the tablet and Jason can observe why his commotion. It’s an old photo and the caption indicates it was taken in mid-2002. The person posing for the photo was no more nor less than a much younger Aleksander, wearing a combat utility uniform from the U.S Marine. His face hadn’t changed much, but he looked young and his smile seemed authentic, a completely different contrast to the man they met tonight. He held an M16 rifle and looked as if he was on some mission. The picture spoke for itself.
“I’m sending you the photo, B. You owe me an apology; don’t you think?” Dick says in a flippant tone giving Damian the tablet, putting his hands on his hips. “We’ve got him.” It was a satisfying thing to be able to fit the pieces into the puzzle, and although there was a lot of information missing, this was the key moment in the mission. Jason breathes a sigh with such a significant breakthrough after months of investigation, after all, having this kind of luck of having coincided with the top dog of the organization wasn’t something that happened every day. Things didn’t use to be that simple, and for that very reason, Jason begins to feel his stomach twisting at the thought.
“That photograph itself is very relevant, isn’t it, Father? We had the culprit right in front of us. If I had only known before.” Damian says looking at Dick with a frown.
“Now everything depends on a bloody ring,” Jason says and immediately Goldie spins in his place to look at him with a playful grin.
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
“Okay, don’t be a smartass. And stop with the references.” Jason can’t hide the smile tugging at the end of his mouth, though. Even Tim snorts, but then his face changes to a more serious one.
“Okay, knowing that now comes another question. We already know about Andrei Chapman and Aleksander, but the question is, who else is undercover?” Tim asks and the words sink into Jason like scorching magma. They still hadn’t fucking clue how many more thugs were undercover, and time was running out. It was no longer a question of if, but when.
“Shit, then we won’t enjoy the fucking cruise after all.” Is the first thing that comes from his mouth to hide his uneasiness.
“That’s your crucial concern right now?” Damian grunts giving him a sour look.
“Really, Jay?” Tim snorts without humour.
“I feel personally attacked, I wanted to know the French Polynesia.” Jason half-jokes with a grunt. He did wanted to explore Bora Bora, dammit.
“What’s next?” Damian asks placing his hands under his chin.
“As I had already made clear, you will follow the protocol,” Bruce speaks. “This doesn’t change things; it just brings out the importance of them taking the ring and of you acting like the professionals you are.”
“What if they want to take a piece of Dick too, uh?” Jason says. “We won’t do anything about it if that happens?”
“We’re just here to observe and make them bite the hook, not to engage,” Dick says seriously. “Richard Grayson can’t make a mortal leap and knock out someone in public. We’re undercover.”
“Good thing I brought my knife,” Jason mumbles and Dick stamps down the tablet turning around to glare at him.
“You brought a knife!?” Dick asks in disbelief. “You can’t leave home without some kind of weapon or something?”
“I’m a cautious man. I don’t jump without a safety net, unlike others.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Goldie snaps.
“What do you think?” Jason says back. “You insulted the man, who by the way is a bloody fucking pirate, and I’m sure he’s not gonna take lightly that you made fun of him. What do you think’s gonna happen, asshole?
“He needs me alive so he can collect his money. We’ll figure something out later.”
“And I’m just gonna let you offer yourself up as bait, again? What if he decides to take you hostage and keep you as a guarantee? Or what if he decides to kill you after collecting his money, huh? Damian and I are just supposed to let that happen?”
“That’s an extreme case, Jason,” Dick mumbles and Jason feels the rage raising again. “We need this to happen, we can’t lose them. Please—”
“Then what? We are supposed to let them rob this ship too? They are merciless and won’t hesitate to kill crew members or passengers to leave no witnesses or evidence of their presence. Are you willing to risk that?” Jason growls and Dick bites the inside of his cheek.
“Of course not.”
“Maybe Richard Grayson can’t take down a few crooks, but sure I can. Nobody recognizes my face. As far as the public is concerned, I’m a dead man, and as such, I can do as I fucking please.” Jason says and Dick rolls his eyes.
“What are you gonna do? Stab them all with your knife?” Tim says trying to lighten things up. It doesn’t work.
“You really think I need a weapon to bring down a few thugs?”
“Absolutely not.” Bruce cuts them off. “No one’s going to intervene in anything, we can’t jeopardize the mission, not now that we know one of the main perpetrators is on the ship. Jason, you won’t do anything, and that’s an order.”
“Fuck you! You are not the boss of me!”
“Jason, you can’t let your emotions cloud your judgment. I fully trust that each of you will know how to handle the situation properly, and although insulting the man was a mistake, I’m sure Dick will get a handle on the situation to keep it from escalating into some catastrophe.”
“And I just have to trust that everything will work out? Will we trust that a man who kills people in cold blood just for money won’t kill us too? They don’t have values, Bruce. They won’t stretch their hearts.”
“Jason. You agreed on the terms of this mission from the very beginning. You knew in advance the plan in the case of stowaways on-board. You won’t engage and that is my final word. Is that clear?”
“Stop it. The signal is failing again,” Barbara interrupts their fight and Jason observes how the video-call begins to have interference. “—ing connection, do you hear me?” Her voice sounds choppy too.
“We cannot hear you, Gordon. Try again.” Damian stands with a tense posture on his shoulders. “Father?”
“—better be fine, do— hear me?” Bruce kinda manages to say.
“Don’t worry B, we’ll be fine,” Dick promises in a soft tone. “I promise we’ll—”
But Dick cannot finish his sentence when suddenly the signal is cut off definitively. The screen announces that the connection had been lost.
Phase one began at 2:54 a.m.
“Jay, can you sit down, please?” Jason grudgingly moves away from his slouched position on the railing to sit heavily in the small wooden chair. He places his sunglasses over his head giving the blue-eyed a sulky glare. “Come on, eat something. Yeah?” Dick slides his half-finished plate across the table towards him. “We need to be well-fed, you know?”
“I’m not a dog,” He mumbles eyeing the nice smoked beef, but the very thought of eating makes the knot in his stomach widen. “And I’m not fucking hungry.”
“Do not waste your energy on this stubborn fool, Richard. Is not worth it.”
The demon says without his usual condescending tone, Damian hadn’t been able to finish his meal either. After a whole night of almost no sleep, a whole morning and a better part of the day playing dumb and avoiding discussing the issue on hand, the three were sitting in the grill that was in the stern of the ship. Honestly, it was a really nice place, as it was open, they could feel the air over their faces and have an unobstructed view of the sea. Even though it was getting late, the weather was warm. The colours in the sky looked like a work of art, warm orange tones mingling with the turquoise blue of the sea. It was impossible not to look at the sky and feel peacefulness. In a certain way, it felt like the calm before the storm.
“You really want to start a sparring match now, runt?”
“You wish,” Damian says without looking at him. He was doing some sketches in his sketchbook. Duh.
“Chill out,” Dick says leaning his cheek over his open palm. He didn’t appear to be worried, but he was just very good at hiding it. Jason could read all those little things that didn’t fit with his magnetizing way of being. His baby blues had a distant and troubled glint making him look older, so Jason lets that awful feeling of helplessness take over his mouth.
“We’re stuck on a ship thousands of miles away from land with an unknown number of crooks. Don’t ask me to calm down.” He growls feeling that nerve-racking anxiety and that just makes him feel angry, always angry.
“What do you want me to say?” Dick asks looking him in the eye. “A lie? That everything will work out? I can’t make a statement like that, Jason. I can only try to stay calm and hope for the best.”
“Good for you.”
He sharply rises from the table and returns to his original position on the railing. He pulls out of his pocket shirt his last pack of cigarettes and lights one, hoping that the nicotine works its magic. How could he possibly calm down knowing what lies ahead? There was nothing worse than waiting, he decides. It was like if you saw the future and you know what’s going to happen, but you can’t do shit to change things. You can just sit there pathetically, waiting.
Technical problems. That’s what the ship crew said.
We will solve it as soon as possible, they said.
There was no way to communicate with the outside world. Without the other passengers knowing, they were already in the hands of the pirates. They could only spin the coin in the air, hoping that fortune would be on their side once again. But hell, there was so much going through Jason’s mind. For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about what Bruce had said. Okay, yeah, Jason knew what he was getting into since Bruce called him that night. But now it was so different when he was already here, standing in the middle of the mess. He was aware that many, many things could go wrong (It seemed that his mind at this point could only think about pessimistic scenarios) There were many factors they hadn’t take into consideration. Many things were out of their control, and he could only think some way or another, everything was going to go wrong.
“Hey,” Dick’s voice pulls him out of his spiral of bad thoughts. Before he could answer, Dick takes the cigarette from his lips and gives it a drag, pulling the smoke out gracefully through his nose. He squints comically and Goldie smiles sideways. “What? You think you’re the only one with tricks?”
“I thought you knew better than to burn your lungs with this shit.” He takes back the last of the cigarette to give it the last drag. Jason hopes there are cigarettes all the way down to hell.
“Yeah, well, you can’t deny how handsome I look smoking, Little Wing,” Jason chuckles at that. For a moment, all his worries pass to the back of his mind. But he can't stay in this state, not when he feels responsible for these two idiots next to him. “Oi, please take off that wet puppy face. I can’t stand it. I know it’s wrong to promise things you don’t know if you can keep, but I—”
“Don’t,” Jason lifts his finger at him. “I don’t wanna hear it. If you want to promise me something, let it be this, Dickie. Promise me you won’t leap into the danger without a second thought.” Dick lowers his gaze towards the floor, deliberating his answer thoughtfully. Just then Jason observes something unusual in his peripheral view. The ship was no longer advancing as fast as it should have been, it seemed to be slowing down, but before he could pronounce any warning, there was a loud, strident sound of something falling into the sea and splashing water.
A second later, the sudden and abrupt stop of the ship propels them from their shafts, pushing them back brusquely and dangerously close to the railing. The air leaves his lungs with the impact and Jason lets out a grunt. Reflexively, Jason shoots his hand at Dick’s forearm, holding him firmly in place. The sound of cries of surprise, curses, and things falling to the ground fill his ears immediately, leaving his ears ringing for a minute. In a millisecond, Damian is next to them putting one hand on Dick’s shoulder. Jason shakes his head trying to get rid of the sound of his own heart beating hard on his chest. The rush of adrenaline is immediate; Jason can feel his senses sharpening, he can feel his body getting ready to attack and protect. It’s an immediate response, something carved into his very brain and muscles. Always ready to fight.
“Are you okay?” Jason asks once he knows his voice won’t quiver because of all the jitters also running through his veins. He can hear the voices away from the waiters trying to calm the people down and the sound of the tables being moved off the ground.
“Yeah, ‘wing. Come on.” That’s not Dick’s voice, that’s Nightwing speaking. Immediately, Dick straightens up and approaches to help the few disoriented people still on the ground, Jason and Damian behind his heels. Was that the ship’s anchor? Is that why the movement was so abrupt?
“We must—” But Damian can’t finish whatever he was about to say when everyone hears a clang followed by some interference coming from the ship speakers. In the background, they can hear the sound of yells and complaints, and then a thick voice takes over the speakers.
“Hello, Celestial Seas. This is your new captain speaking. Our previous captain is not in a good disposition to continue with his duty, but do not worry. You are in good hands.”
Jason can recognize that voice straightaway, yet the accent is so different, it’s a strong Russian accent, dark and heartless. Immediately after, they hear the sound of a gunshot and screams of terror echoing through the speakers, giving him goosebumps.
That’s when things go south.