Jason hated this. He hated discovering the cesspit of humanity. He hated knowing every depraved thing that the people of this fucking city liked doing. He detested the handoff of bills at the end, as though the money made it all okay.
Unfortunately, he still had to eat.
He didn’t do it all the time. Between the cops and the fact that Jason could net enough money in one night to pay for a week’s worth of food if he was careful, Jason only packed up his clothes and nice warm hoodie and shivered on street corners maybe twice a week.
The other girls watched out for him, tugging him back into the alleyway behind them and up onto the fire escape any time they recognized a face they didn’t like. So it was bad, but Jason knew it could be worse – had heard the stories and rumors passed in hushed whispers, remembered what his mother had looked like when they ran out of money to keep buying drugs.
He knew it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out, though.
A silence spread through the spread out line of girls along the street, and Jason shivered – silence usually meant something bad, it meant that no one was trying to solicit the new client, and the girls only did that when they were afraid. He took a step back into the shadow of the alleyway, but no one pushed him back or whispered for him to run, so he stalled, waiting.
The newcomer stumbled as they walked down the street, and Jason stared.
Because that was a kid.
He couldn’t have been older than Jason, he was too short and skinny, and the only difference Jason could see was that the kid was wrapped up in a warm winter coat. But the kid being here meant only one thing, and Jason swallowed, looking up to find the closest girl.
It was Mandy, and she gave him a sad smile and a short nod. A couple of them had banded together to teach Jason the basics – at least the basics they thought he should know right now, Jason wasn’t an idiot, he knew there was much more clients wanted than blowjobs – and now it looked like it was his turn.
The kid neared Jason, looking up at him, and Jason extended a hand, his throat closing up. God, was this what the other girls felt when he started standing around with them? No wonder they kept trying to share their take.
Jason wanted to give the kid the ten dollars he’d already managed to earn and send him to go get a hot meal. Wished desperately that the shelters actually worked, that they weren’t just the same thing as standing on corners except you couldn’t set limits and you didn’t get paid.
Small fingers closed around his and he felt his stomach twist. The kid was so tiny. He didn’t deserve this.
Jason tugged him back into the alleyway, so they could have some privacy for this conversation. God, where did he even start? What did the kid even know? But before he could open his mouth, the kid thrust his other hand out.
His hand, that had a fist full of bills.
The kid blinked up at him. “Is this enough?” he asked, his voice high and almost squeaky.
Enough for what?
“What are you –” Jason started, his brain stalling as it tried to make the connection between ‘a goddamn child’ and ‘paying customer’. “You’re – you’re paying me.”
He was even younger than Jason, this was like ten different kinds of fucked up.
“Is it enough?” the kid asked, blue eyes round and wide, “Because I didn’t know how much I should pay and I didn’t know who to ask, but I can get some more if you want.”
“Kid,” Jason said, strangled, “Why are you paying me?” And where did he get the money from? Though, on second glance, that looked like an expensive winter coat. Either the kid came from money, or he had recently netted a large score.
The kid dropped his gaze to the ground and fidgeted. “I,” he started, and cleared his throat, “Iwantahug.”
What the absolute fuck.
“You want a hug,” Jason repeated blankly, “Like a ‘wrap your arms around me’ kind of hug.”
The kid looked up at him, “I don’t – are there different types of hugs?”
What the goddamn fuck.
“I’m sorry – I don’t know – I just – a standard hug?” the kid asked, and Jason could read desperation all over his face, “However much this will buy me?” He thrust the bills at Jason, who automatically took them and smoothed out the crumped notes.
Twenties. This was four twenties.
“You want a hug?” Jason double-checked, “Nothing else?” This was the kind of money the girls got for taking johns back to their rooms, not for the simple stuff.
“A hug,” the kid confirmed.
Jason had a lot of questions – did this kid not get any hugs? Did he have no one to ask for a hug? Why did he have so much money? Was Jason being pranked? – but he shoved all of them aside. The kid had money, and a hug was definitely the least objectionable thing he’d been asked to do so far.
“Okay,” Jason said, a little awkward, tucking the bills away. He opened his arms and the kid eyed them warily, like Jason was going to eat him or something.
Looked like he was going to have to do all the work here. Jason slowly stepped forward, like the kid was a stray kitten that would spook, until he was close enough that he could wrap his arms around the kid’s shoulders.
He was warm. Warmer than Jason was, and he squeezed a little tighter as he instinctively pressed close to the warmth.
The kid squeaked, and Jason hurriedly disengaged. “Everything okay?” Jason asked, studying the boy’s face for any trace of tears.
The kid looked…stupefied. “Is that a hug?” he asked softly.
“Yup,” Jason said, feeling his heart sink. Even his dad had given him hugs, on the rare occasion he wasn’t drunk or in jail. “Do you – do you not want them, I can give the money back –”
“N-no! Please, I want a hug!” The kid was staring at him with wide, frantic eyes, like he thought Jason was going to run away.
“Okay,” Jason said, reaching out to encircle the kid again. The kid made another choked sound, and slowly, gradually, melted into Jason’s arms. Jason squeezed tighter, pulling the kid close – the stiffness was easing, but the kid was still emulating a wooden plank.
“You know, you can wrap your arms around me too,” Jason said, “If you want.”
The kid made a soft gasp, and skinny arms slowly wrapped around Jason’s back. It felt…nice. Jason hadn’t realized how long it had been since he had touch that wasn’t a prelude to something else.
They stood there, wrapped into a hug, as the silence stretched. Jason pretended like he couldn’t feel the wetness seeping through his shirt, or hear the muffled sobs. Finally, the kid spoke up, “How long does a hug last?”
For eighty dollars, Jason was willing the cuddle the kid for the rest of the night. “As long as you want, boss.”
“Oh. O-okay.” The kid squeezed Jason tightly, and kept clinging to him.
Mandy came to check on them after five minutes, and her expression did a sad twist when she saw the kid clutching him. She silently asked if he wanted some help, and Jason shook his head. It wasn’t what she thought it was.
Jason was having a hard time figuring out if it was better or worse.
On one hand, the kid clearly had money. Lots of it, if he could take eighty dollars without his parents finding out. On the other hand, where the hell were those parents, because a ten-year-old that didn’t know what a hug was made Jason want to punch someone.
The kid finally mumbled something ten minutes in, and Jason let go. “Thank you,” the kid croaked out, his face red and splotchy.
“No problem,” Jason said, eyeing the kid critically, “You sure you can head home on your own?”
The kid nodded, “I live around here.” He waved his hand in a vague direction.
Jason very much doubted that, but he couldn’t escort the kid all the way back to where he came from, he wasn’t a babysitter. “Alright,” he said, and watched the kid totter off, ignoring the twinge of guilt that came from accepting eighty dollars for a ten-minute hug.
He didn’t set the price, it wasn’t his problem.
“Kid?” Jason asked, sitting on the edge of the fire escape with the younger boy bundled up in his arms, drifting a hand through his glossy black hair. Jason thought it was odd at first – he didn’t have access to regular showers, the kid shouldn’t want his grimy fingers in his hair – but the kid had practically melted every time he did it.
“Do your – does nobody else give you a hug?”
The kid wormed deeper into Jason’s embrace. “No,” he said, muffled by Jason’s shirt.
“What about your parents?” Jason asked, because the kid had to have guardians of some sort, the eighty dollars kept showing up, like clockwork.
The kid was silent for a long while. Finally, he said, “They travel a lot.”
That – that wasn’t an answer to his question. So what if they traveled? Surely they’d at least give their kid a hug when they came back and before they left again?
“Okay,” Jason said, because he was getting paid to cuddle, not investigate his home life.
Even if his home life needed investigating.
Even if Jason felt like not letting go and bundling the kid into one of the small rooms the girls usually rented and staying with him until the kid didn’t start crying every time Jason hugged him.
“They ever bring back any cool souvenirs?” Jason asked, and the kid lit up, talking about some artifact or something from a country that Jason didn’t recognize but thought might be in South America. Jason kept up his steady, rhythmic stroking as the kid babbled excitedly.
Jason hummed at all the right moments, staring at the brick pattern of the opposite wall as his stomach twisted painfully again. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the curl of guilt – he was getting as much out of this as the kid, it had been so long since he’d been able to cuddle with someone, so long since he could have a normal conversation with another kid, and yet Jason kept taking the eighty dollars each time.
The kid began yawning, and Jason smiled softly as the story trailed off, the words getting more disjointed as the kid leaned heavily on Jason. The kid should’ve been in bed, not in Crime Alley paying a hooker to give him hugs.
His heart ached – he wanted his mom back, he wanted his family back, he wanted a home and a hug and warmth and safety. And if he’d run into the kid then, he would’ve snatched him, rich parents or no, because a steady stream of money meant nothing if there was no love.
He could give the kid a hug every day then, feel his desperate clutching grasp fade to something gentler, stop the wide-eyed wonder every time Jason wrapped his arms around him, like he couldn’t believe it was real.
But he didn’t have any of that. And Jason wasn’t prepared to make that offer – both because this wasn’t a life he wanted to drag another kid into, and because he thought the kid might actually say yes.
There was a snapping sound above them, like a cloth flapping in the wind, and Jason looked up – a dark shape flitted over the rooftops, followed by a much more brightly colored one. Batman and Robin.
The kid was going to be sorry he missed it. Jason smiled faintly, and leaned against the wall, shifting so the kid was more comfortable, sleeping curled up with his head resting on Jason’s shoulder.
“I wish I could keep you,” Jason said softly, tucking the kid close.
The thing was, Jason had told the kid the days that he was available. He came around maybe twice a month, and only asked for Jason – the other girls thought it was sweet, and Jason pretended not to see them cooing over them from a distance.
As Jason got better and better at stripping cars – he laid his hands on a tire iron one day, and from that point, it became so much easier – he spent less and less time on the corner. The other girls usually let the kid know whenever Jason wasn’t there, and the kid had started planning visits in advance, so he could keep up with Jason’s changing schedule.
Selling stolen tires and hubcaps was much, much better than shivering on a street corner, and now he really only went back when the kid said he’d show up. But the kid’s parents were back in town – he’d been excitedly babbling about some birthday present, and his parents were going to be there for a whole month, and they had tickets to the museum and the theatre and the zoo – and Jason wasn’t expecting him to show up for a couple of weeks.
He certainly wasn’t expecting Mandy to track him down when he was halfway through prying out a side mirror.
“What happened?” Jason asked, eyes wide, scrambling back to his feet, “Did someone get hurt? Is it the cops?”
“It’s the kid,” Mandy said quietly, “He’s – well, he’s asking for you.” She headed back to the street they worked on, and Jason followed, confused. Surely the kid couldn’t have snuck out under his parents’ noses?
When they got back to the street, it became extremely clear why Mandy had gone to get him. The girls were all milling around nervously, a small knot of them blocking the sight of the kid curled up, leaning against the wall and shuddering violently.
Jason immediately dropped into a crouch, gently putting a hand on the kid’s shoulder. The moment it landed, the kid uncurled, wide blue eyes gleaming wetly, and flung himself at Jason.
Jason actually toppled back from the force of the lunge, landing on his ass with a wheeze as the sobbing child almost strangled him. He was shaking, sobs too loud and wrenching to make out a single word, but Jason had a feeling he knew what had happened.
“It’s okay,” Jason gently shushed him, half crawling back to the wall as he kept his arms squeezed tight around the kid. The girls adjusted their little barrier, shooting worried glances as Jason tried to calm down the upset ten-year-old. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”
“I-it’s n-not,” the kid wailed, hiccupping, “T-they said t-they’d be here, Jay, they p-promised!”
“Oh, kid,” Jason sighed, holding him close and letting the kid soak his hoodie with his tears, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He’d been so excited to spend time with his parents – Jason had been happy for him, had the painful hope that maybe the kid’s parents would start spending more time with him, start hugging him, start being the family they were so lucky to have.
“They left,” the kid said with heart-wrenching misery, his voice cracking, “They – they didn’t even wish me a happy birthday.”
Jason tugged the kid close, tucking him under his chin, and started rubbing his back, sympathy tears prickling at his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, because he didn’t know what to do.
He wished he could take the kid and run. But for that he needed money, he needed a place to stay, he needed a job, and those were all things people didn’t give twelve-year-olds.
Something in his mind pointed out that he was planning to semi-abduct a kid when he didn’t even know his name. The other part of his mind pointed out that he didn’t need to know his name, he knew that he was smart, and he loved photography, and he had a variety of interesting opinions on Batman, and he absolutely adored Robin, and his breathing whistled when he fell asleep, and he deserved all the hugs in the world.
The kid clung to him for verging on an hour, as Jason quietly stroked his hair and patted his back, wishing he could drag the kid’s parents back from whatever stupid trip had been more important than their newly ten-year-old son, and force them to give their kid a hug.
Finally, the kid pushed back, rubbing at red, tearstained eyes before removing a fistful of bills from his pocket. “Here,” the kid croaked out, and Jason’s heart twisted so sharply it felt like someone had slid a knife between his ribs.
Jason gently pushed the hand back to him. “No,” he said softly, “I’m not taking your money.”
The kid stared at him, pale and wavering. “But – but that’s the deal,” he said, almost trembling, “You’re supposed to take the money, that’s what I’m paying you for –”
“Consider it a birthday present,” Jason said, and the kid’s whole face sort of wobbled before he threw himself back into Jason’s arms.
It took a further ten minutes before the kid hiccupped and sniffled his way to a sodden state of calm, and finally extricated himself from Jason’s grip. “Thank you,” the kid said hoarsely, drying his face with the sleeve of his jacket. Jason dredged up a smile for the kid, and watched anxiously as he tottered off, heading in the direction of the bus station.
“Every time I think I’ve seen the worst of what this city has to offer,” Mandy murmured quietly, shaking her head.
“Is there – is there anything we can do?” Jason asked, crossing his arms tightly.
“In Gotham?” Mandy huffed a hoarse laugh, “Not a chance.” Jason hunched his shoulders in further, and Mandy sighed, “You’re a good kid, Jay.”
Jason wished that was enough.
He went back to searching for some tires to grab, idly musing on how much money he’d need to set up a semi-stable life for two kids in Crime Alley – and happened upon a gleaming dark tank of a car.
Jason didn’t know how to search for the kid. He had access to an amazing database, but he didn’t even know the kid’s name, and dark-haired, blue-eyed shrimp wasn’t going to bring up any results.
He hung around Crime Alley as Robin, searching for a kid wandering around in an expensive coat and camera, but he couldn’t stall for very long before Batman showed up, and he didn’t dare talk to Mandy or the other girls.
Bruce didn’t know what he used to do on the streets, and it was going to stay that way. Jason didn’t know whether or not he’d kick Jason back out, but he would certainly take away Robin, and Jason needed Robin. He needed the bright thrill it gave him, the weightless soaring through the sky, the rush of power and righteousness.
Jason had expected to find the kid on one of his patrols. Maybe talk to him about his parents, use the kid’s hero worship of Robin to ask all the questions that Jay the street hooker hadn’t been able to ask. Be able to do something about those awful parents of his, or even just point Dick Grayson, professional octopus hugger, in his direction.
Jason had not been expecting to trip over the kid at some fancy gala.
Jason hadn’t recognized him either – he’d mentally noted ‘little rich kid’, sighed in relief at the lack of hovering parents to sneer at the street kid charity case, and was turning away when the kid’s eyes went wide.
Round, blue eyes.
Jason whipped back around.
The kid stared at him – his whole face was brightening up, excitement suffusing every part of it, and Jason felt an answering pang of joy. He’d found the kid! The kid wasn’t dead in a gutter somewhere because Jason had gotten semi-kidnapped by Batman. He’d –
The kid was dressed in a black suit, wearing it with more ease than Jason was in his own ridiculously expensive tailored suit. He looked relaxed in the gaudy ballroom, the sharp lines of his face accentuated by his outfit, and Jason knew the kid was rich, but not this rich.
Jason stepped back, his heart suddenly racing.
The kid opened his mouth – to say what, Jason never knew, because he took another step back, and another, until he spied a waiter crossing by him and edged around him to flee into the crowd.
His throat was dry, a lump rising up hot and thick. He couldn’t. Bruce was going to find him talking to the kid, and he’d ask them how they met, and he couldn’t.
The kid would tell him the truth, because the kid was an idiot who went around handing out eighty dollars for a hug, and Jason couldn’t even bribe him to keep his mouth shut, and then Bruce would kick him out – or maybe not, but he’d still know, and Jason would see the same disgust in his face that he saw in the eyes of every rich asshole in this building.
Jason couldn’t. Not when he actually had something to lose. Not when three square meals and school and Robin was hanging on the line.
It was fine. The kid was clearly still alive. His life couldn’t be all that miserable if he was this rich, anyway. It was fine.
Jason caught sight of the kid watching him two more times throughout the night, and each time he wasn’t fast enough to avoid the heartbroken look on the kid’s face, like Jason had carved his ribs up with a rusty fork.
The kid didn’t try to approach him again.
Days later, when Robin saw a boy with a camera scrambling after them on patrol, he pretended like he didn’t notice.
Hood sat casually on the rooftop, hidden enough in the shadows to conceal the bright red gleam of his helmet. It was a good vantage point of the street, and an easy way to keep track of the prostitutes – if he was down there, he’d scare off the clientele, and he’d already made it clear to everyone involved that no one under the age of eighteen was allowed in the business.
Patrol had wrapped up, but Hood had heard that Ivy was causing trouble tonight, and he wanted to ensure no one tried to do anything with her pollen as an excuse. Being desperate for human touch sometimes made people take advantage of, or be taken advantage of, and he wasn’t letting either happen in Crime Alley.
Then again, Ivy’s rampage had been in the Diamond District, far enough away and contained quickly enough that it hadn’t seeped into Crime Alley, and the night was quiet. Hood gave himself another ten minutes before he turned in, exhaustion was already pulling at his eyelids.
A slight, short figure limped up to the line, dark Superboy hoodie on and hood pulled firmly over their head. They exchanged a couple words with Mandy, who was more or less in charge of the group now, and she crooked a finger at one of the youngest girls there – Cel, who was just barely eighteen.
Hood sat up, a shiver running down his spine.
Mandy murmured something to Cel, who beckoned the hooded figure towards the apartment building behind them – a gift from the Red Hood, so they could conduct business on their own terms, instead of relying on seedy motel rooms or the client’s apartment. Hood couldn’t exactly pinpoint what was getting under his skin about the encounter, but he had a feeling that something was off.
By the time he grappled over to the building and hunted down the window to Cel’s room, he’d figured it out – he’d been too far away to catch a clear look, but the short figure and soft visible features had pinged something in his head. He doubted that the hooded figure was an adult.
Hood eased the window up slowly, and paused on the sill to take in the scene.
Everyone was still wearing their clothes. Cel was kneeling on the bed, the hooded figure half curled in her lap, and her arms were wrapped tightly around him. The hood had slipped slightly, revealing gleaming dark hair, and Cel was slowly patting a shoulder as the figure shook silently.
Hood didn’t move.
Cel spotted him first, her expression going from surprise straight up to terror – she hastily let go and scrambled back, arms raised. “This isn’t what it looks like!” she blurted out in a rush, cementing that the hooded figure was underage.
The kid groaned and pushed himself up on an elbow – he caught sight of Hood, and went deathly pale.
“I swear, Mr. Hood, it isn’t – we weren’t –” Cel said, nearly frantic, “It was just a hug, I swear. We weren’t doing anything, I promise!”
The kid hadn’t moved, half-sprawled on the bed and breathing shallowly.
“We’re following your rules, Mr. Hood, I swear we are,” Cel’s voice was cracking, and he forced himself to unfreeze.
“I know,” Jason said flatly, “I believe you.”
Cel deflated in pure relief.
“I need to borrow your room.”
“Whatever you want, Mr. Hood,” Cel said rapidly, words running together, and she barely paused to shoot the kid a glance before she left the room.
No hesitation. Why would she? Everyone in Crime Alley knew that the Red Hood didn’t hurt kids. She probably thought he was safer with Jason than he’d been all night. She had no reason to believe that Jason was a threat.
She certainly didn’t know that Jason had wrested the kid’s bo staff and used it to beat him bloody only a couple months ago.
The Replacement shot one panicked, betrayed glance after Cel before he squeezed his eyes shut, tense and trembling. More resignation than Jason had expected from the third Robin, especially considering that Jason was still near the window and the kid had more than enough time to run for the door.
Unless, for some reason, he couldn’t.
The Replacement’s shaking got worse as Jason prowled closer, and he dropped back, flat against the bed as Jason rested a knee on the mattress. He raised an arm to cover his eyes, as though Jason couldn’t already tell he was crying.
The edges of a wrap were visible around his right ankle, but that couldn’t be what was stopping him. Jason had seen him walk on that ankle. The Replacement’s hands were balled into fists so tightly they were white, and it didn’t seem like an offensive maneuver.
Jason slowly eased on top of the bed, and watched as the Replacement didn’t try to get away. Watched as the Replacement tried very hard not to get closer.
“You got hit by pollen,” Jason concluded, putting together the opposing forces of fear and desperation.
The kid made a sharp, choked sound. Jason was honestly surprised that he could still hold it together – that he’d held it together long enough to get out of his uniform, take a shower, put on civilian clothes, and get all the way to Crime Alley to pay a prostitute to hold him.
Unfortunately for the Replacement, he’d let that self-control lapse, and Jason could see him struggling to get it back. He swallowed, fists twisting, leaning away from Jason as he tried to regain his composure.
Jason put a deliberate hand on his wrist, and the kid actually stopped breathing.
His whole body curved towards Jason as he shuddered, “Hood, p-please don’t –”
Jason ignored him and shifted his grip to the kid’s elbow, hauling the light frame up – a task made magnitudes easier by the way the Replacement followed his movements even if Jason could tell he really didn’t want to.
The kid’s face crashed into his armor as he clutched his jacket, fitting easily into Jason’s lap. Jason hesitated for a moment before slowly curling his arms around the Replacement.
The kid sobbed even harder, taking gasping breaths that were nowhere near large enough, a mix of stuttered apologies and pleas spilling out amidst the tears, “I’m sorry – won’t come to Crime Alley again, I swear – please let me go – please – I won’t do it again – I’m sorry –”
Jason was disgruntled by this automatic assumption that he was here to torture the kid. He hadn’t even threatened the kid. He hadn’t even implied he was going to threaten the kid. Did the Replacement really think Jason would hunt him down while he was incapacitated just to hurt him?
That was very unfair.
…Okay, no, Jason could see it, he had given the kid no reason to think he wasn’t a mass-murdering psychopath with a vendetta, he’d accept the blame on this one.
“Calm down, kid,” Jason said, adjusting his grip so he could run a gloved hand through the Replacement’s hair, “I’m not here to hurt you.”
The Replacement made a helpless, agonized sound and went limp, shaking as his sobs turned silent. Jason bit his lip so hard it started bleeding, and continued the strokes, regretting half his life decisions.
Before he could figure out what to do with the kid, the door opened with a light knock. Mandy walked inside, and froze.
“Hood,” she said finally. He could practically see her recalibrating what she’d planned to say – her eyes flickered over Tim, rested on the hand in his hair, and narrowed in sudden recognition. “I wanted to assure you that we don’t serve underage clients.”
Mandy nodded stiffly. She rocked back on her heels, before pausing again. “He missed you,” she said softly.
Tim made a sharp, terrified sound, largely muffled by the armor. Jason’s strokes stuttered, before picking back up.
He hadn’t known. He hadn’t wanted to know. He’d – he’d known, he’d put the pieces together when he searched the kid’s civilian name, but he’d chosen to ignore it, the same way he’d ignored everything that didn’t fit with the green-tinted worldview he desperately clung to.
Jason didn’t acknowledge her words, aside from drawing a wad of bills out from his pocket and tossing it at her, “The room for the rest of the night, please.”
Tim choked on his hitched inhale.
Mandy took the money and stepped away, walking back out of the room. She hesitated on the threshold, and half turned towards them. “You once asked if you could do something,” she said slowly, carefully choosing her words.
Jason felt them like a jolt of ice down his spine.
“You said in Gotham, not a chance,” he replied roughly.
Mandy looked at him, at the red helmet and body armor and weapons, and raised an eyebrow, smile quirking her lips, “Maybe I changed my mind.”
Her words lingered long after she left, and Jason had to shake himself free of the daze, reminding himself that he had a hundred and fifty pounds of terrified vigilante in his lap. Jason was on the very bottom of the list of people the Replacement wanted to see him like this, but Jason wasn’t handing him over to a prostitute, not when he was still shivering through Ivy’s pollen.
Wait a minute. The kid had been adopted, hadn’t he? Why the hell had he come all the way to Crime Alley when there was a perfectly willing family to give him all the hugs he wanted?
Jason scowled down at the messy mop of dark hair. This was going to be an uncomfortable phone call.
He almost chickened out and called Dick instead, but there had been no reports of Nightwing in tonight’s fight, and he was pretty sure the kid would start hyperventilating if they had to wait that long. Besides, Bruce couldn’t keep offloading emotional labor to his eldest son, and the idea of making Batman squirm hadn’t lost any of its appeal.
Jason managed to get his phone out without letting go of the kid, but then he hit a little snag. His helmet was not designed to be unlatched one-handed which, now that he was thinking about it, was a major flaw.
Either way, it meant he had to let go – and the second he did, despite all of the Replacement’s begging about Jason doing just that, the kid pressed tight against Jason like he was trying to fuse with his armor, gasping shallowly again.
Jason got the helmet off, and embraced the kid again, stroking his hair until the kid’s breathing quieted back down to hitched breaths. “Is B in town?” Jason asked, and felt the kid stiffen back up again.
“What – why – what are you –”
Actually, Jason realized he didn’t care. Either way, he’d get to yell at Bruce.
“Wait, Jason don’t –”
Too late. It was already ringing. It got all the way to the last ring before Bruce picked up groggily. “Hello?” he asked hoarsely, “Who is this?”
“You are either astonishingly incompetent for someone called the World’s Greatest Detective, or you’re an abusive father, which one is it?”
Tim had started shaking again, but he was doing so silently. Jason hated that. He’d hated it for years, the kid’s tendency to cry without making a sound was worrisome.
The line was silent for a long, stretching moment.
“Jay?” Bruce asked, sounding incredibly confused, “What happened?” A beat, and then he sounded a lot more alert, “Are you hurt?”
Jason barked out a harsh laugh, “No, you already dropped the ball on that one, old man, and you seem determined to repeat the same mistakes again.”
For all his insults, Bruce was frighteningly good at putting pieces together, even at three in the morning.
“Tim,” Bruce said flatly, “What happened to Tim?”
“Missed that he got hit with Ivy’s pollen, huh?”
The line went silent again – probably Bruce trying and failing to pick up Robin’s tracker.
“Where is he.” No pretense anymore, not even a hint of the earlier concern. Jason told himself that he didn’t care.
“You’ll be thrilled to know he’s safe and sound with me, I’m sure.”
This time, Bruce was definitely grinding his teeth. “I want to talk to him,” he demanded.
Jason mentally shrugged and switched the phone to speaker, “Hey, Timbers, the old man wants proof of life.”
Tim didn’t say anything – he’d turned into a silent statue in Jason’s arms.
Jason poked him sharply, but it didn’t even earn him a gasp.
“Tim?” Bruce called through the line.
Tim’s shoulders shook, but he was still silent, his face buried into Jason’s armor. Jason scowled and dragged him free – Tim immediately burst into babbled apologies, his face red and splotchy and glimmering with tear tracks, scrabbling to get a grip on Jason’s jacket.
The other side of the line almost thrummed with tension, and Jason sighed, letting the kid fold himself back under Jason’s jacket, turning off speaker and growling into the phone, “Meadowcreek, apartment 301.” He ended the call and tucked the phone away.
Tim fit his limbs back into place as his shivering calmed. “Thanks for that,” Jason grumbled, “Now he thinks I’m torturing you.”
Tim stayed silent.
“I’m not torturing you,” Jason clarified, “In case that wasn’t clear.”
Tim shifted, just enough that his mouth wasn’t pressed to the armor. “Why did you call Bruce?” he asked, barely a whisper.
“Who else was I supposed to call?” Jason snapped, “Nightwing’s clearly not in town.”
Tim shook his head, his voice a little stronger, “You didn’t have to call anyone. You didn’t – you didn’t have to barge in. I was handling it.”
“Handling it,” Jason repeated, his voice flat, “Prostitutes in Crime Alley is your definition of handling it?”
“It’s not the first – I’m not an idiot, I know how to be careful –”
“You are an idiot,” Jason snarled, his temper flaring at the reminder of just how long Tim had been wandering to Crime Alley to get hugs. “You’re so hopped up on pollen that you can’t defend yourself if someone decides to take your money and go for more.”
“I’m not,” the kid snapped, “I’m fine, I can defend myself –”
Jason grabbed the edge of his jaw and forced his head up, until he could meet that blue-eyed glare.
“Can you?” Jason asked, soft. He didn’t make it a threat. He didn’t have to.
Tim swallowed, defiance leaching out of his eyes. Jason let go of his jaw and the kid tucked it back down, curling up tighter.
“You’re an idiot,” Jason repeated, allowing no room for dissent, “One, for not telling B you got hit. Two, for leaving the house after you got hit. Three, for coming to the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in this country instead of trusting your own goddamn family.”
The kid’s breath hitched, like he’d opened his mouth to say something, but no words were forthcoming.
Jason settled back against the headboard, stretched out his legs, shifted Tim’s weight so he wasn’t cutting off circulation, and drew the baby bird closer, running a hand through his hair in absent movements.
The kid relaxed, inch by inch, the same way he used to when both of them were smaller and sitting on the edge of a fire escape.
Jason buried his nose in the slightly damp hair, and squeezed his eyes shut.
Jason was expecting Batman to show up somewhere in the ten to fifteen minute range, but he clearly underestimated the speed of the Batmobile because he felt a familiar prickle nine minutes after he’d cut the call.
He waited it out, but there were no further signs of movement, and finally Jason let his head thud back against the wall. “You may be fine lurking there all night, but some of us have other things to do,” Jason snapped, “Get over here and take this idiot off my hands.”
Tim’s fingers tightened on his jacket, and Jason hoped he didn’t have to pry the kid off.
Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary – the moment Batman reached across the bed, Tim was moving, disentangling from Jason to fling himself into Batman’s waiting arms. He’d started shaking again, and Batman sat on the mattress to pull Tim into a tight hug, gently rubbing his back.
There. Not completely hopeless, which meant that it was time for Jason to leave.
Jason collected his helmet, ignoring the growing ache inside of him and the clearly insane part of his mind that was shrieking at him to go back and tuck himself under Batman’s cape like he was twelve again.
He aimed a brief glance at Batman to make sure the guy wasn’t trying to pin a tracker on him or something, and found the man rubbing a lock of Tim’s hair between his fingers and frowning at it. Jason resisted the urge to tell him that that wasn’t how you stroked someone’s hair, and turned to leave.
Before he could, however, the cowl came up and pinned him with an intense stare. Jason froze.
“What?” he asked warily.
“Tim didn’t wash his hair properly,” Batman said in his typical growl. The kid made a small squeak.
Jason automatically brought his glove up – yup, he could see the telltale shimmer of pollen. It would also explain his uncharacteristic desire to crawl back across the bed and fit himself into Batman’s hug.
“Great,” Jason said flatly instead, “No good deed goes unpunished.” He spun away from Batman and headed back to the window.
“Hood,” Batman called out. Jason ignored him. His fingers were shaking, he couldn’t put the helmet back on. “Jason.” He pulled the window open again. “Jay.”
He couldn’t force his feet up on the windowsill. He couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried. His fingers squeezed the frame as he tried to make himself go out, tried to ignore the now-shrieking ache of emptiness inside of him, tried to leave even though he knew there was no one waiting for him at his shitty safehouse, even though he knew that the safest arms in the city were right behind him.
Jason turned back for a glance – just one. Bruce had his hand outstretched, and Jason broke.
“I still hate you,” Jason muttered, letting Bruce tuck his head under his chin and wrap a strong arm around him. Tim wriggled a bit in place, until he was pressing back against Jason, and Jason automatically raised his hand to start gently tugging at the kid’s hair again.
Like this, Jason couldn’t help but remembering the shrimp he’d once been, so desperate for affection that he risked wandering straight into the shark’s jaws. That look of pure heartbreak when Jason had walked away. The guilt that had sat like a festering pit in his stomach ever after.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed out quietly.
There was a long silence.
“For what?” Tim asked finally.
“For – for ignoring you. At that gala.” Judging by the way Tim suddenly stiffened, he knew what Jason was talking about. “I never meant to – I was scared. I was scared that you would tell Bruce how we met and I was scared that I’d – that – it wasn’t on you. I’m sorry.”
Tim was silent for another long moment. “I wouldn’t have told him,” he said quietly, “If you had asked, I would never have said a word.”
He’d clued into Tim’s secret-keeping abilities along the way. “I know,” Jason said hoarsely, “But I – I didn’t want to risk it.”
“What did you think he was going to do?”
Jason took a deep breath, consciously aware that Bruce was intently listening to their conversation, and refused to look up at the cowl. “I thought he was going to kick me out,” he said hollowly.
And then he had. Unrelated matter, but there had clearly been a line of acceptable actions, and Jason was pretty sure prostitute wasn’t on it.
Not that it mattered anymore.
Bruce’s arm tensed around him, squeezing so tight that Jason would have to break something if he wanted to get free.
Another stretching beat of silence. “Of all the things to apologize for, you chose that?” Tim huffed.
“One at a time, baby bird.” And no betrayal had been as sharp as the first.
Tim stretched back, leaning into Jason’s hands in his hair. “Apology accepted,” he said, “But I’m no longer paying eighty bucks for your hugs.”