Five and One - Okay, make it Six
SUMMARY: (AU) Five times a Cat got the better of a Bat and the one time... well, maybe we should just make it six.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This little nibble struck me the other day after I was going through my favorites over on DA trying to get some inspiration for a few YJ pieces I'm working on. Then I saw this image by Callousvixen:
It's a shame they never got to introduce Catwoman to the Young Justice Verse. There are so many versions of Catwoman that do the character justice, but I think I'm most fond of the Animated version from the 90s. She was just the perfect counterpoint for Batman. However, I adored Anne Hathaway's costume from The Dark Knight Rises so that's what I've based the look on. Google it if you'd like a reference.
This story is pure ridiculous. I started writing it and it just kept getting worse and worse. And I love every word of it! lol It may not be your cup of tea, but I do hope those that read it enjoy it.
GOTHAM CITY FAIRGROUNDS
APRIL 1, 2006 (21:45 EDT)
It wasn't until later that they realized the boy was missing.
One minute he had been up on the platform, watching as the world he knew changed forever when his family fell, and the next he was gone.
Bruce Wayne had been there that night, and the familiar agony he saw etched on the child's face was something he saw in the mirror nearly every day. In that instant he knew that boy, the youngest and last of the Graysons, would need someone like him. While everyone else concentrated on the dead and dying, Bruce only had eyes for the blue-eyed child as the youngster scrambled down from the platform. He had been making his way through the crowd to get to him, but then he saw a dark-haired woman come from backstage and hold on to the boy, keeping him from running to the bodies of his family, and Bruce took that moment to allow his role as Batman to take precedent. After all, the boy would be well watched and cared for by one of the circus troop.
But it wasn't until after the bodies had been removed and Jack Haly went looking for the boy that he realized the woman had not been a member of the circus. By then, it was too late.
That night Richard Grayson became another missing child in the city that was Gotham.
She hated to admit it, but the boy got to her.
If asked she would never be able to explain why she was there that day, why she found herself wandering the fairgrounds when she had no interest in the Circus. Although, when she had seen the magnificent animals in their large cages, she was glad she came. The Lion was impressive - if a little docile after being trained and domesticated for most of its life - but it was the tiger cage that held her attention.
Them, and the little boy inside wrestling with one of the large cats under the watchful eye of the trainer.
The trainer, mistaking her wide-eyed wonder for worry, assured her that the cats wouldn't hurt the boy. He had been raised at the circus and the one he was currently playing with had been a cub at the same time, and they were practically brothers.
She watched them for more than an hour, smiling when boy invited her to pet the impressive man-eater. He spoke at length about the cats and their lives with the circus, and she was pleased to hear they were well cared for and loved by the trainer and the boy. When his mother came for him to prepare for the evening's performance, the trainer invited her to watch from backstage.
That was where Selena Kyle saw a little boy's heart break when his world shattered.
As he climbed down to reach his fallen family, she knew what would happen to the boy. The system would never let him remain with his circus family and a gypsy, like the boy, would not find respite with a proper foster family. He would be shunted away to a group home and forgotten in the system.
Like she had been.
It was not a fate she would wish on a boy as kind hearted as Richard Grayson.
It was a fate she would not allow.
When he touched down on the ground she was there for him, wrapping her arms around his shivering torso to keep him from seeing the broken remains of his family. She whispered nothing words in his ear, trying to comfort the overwhelming grief he felt, promising him that she would take care of him now; that he would never be alone as long as he wanted her. He latched on to her desperately, probably unaware of what he was doing in his despair, and she lifted him easily into her arms.
That night Catwoman took home another stray.
GOTHAM CITY MUSEUM
MAY 9, 2009 (01:00 EDT)
It had to be tonight.
The Exhibit was on loan from the National Museum of Ireland and due to be shipped back to Dublin in the morning. There were several dozen priceless artifacts that could potentially fetch a hefty sum on the black market, but it was the collection of one-of-a-kind Celtic Cat carvings that Batman was keen on watching.
His sources had alerted him that Catwoman was back in town after disappearing about three years ago. He hadn't heard anything from the infamous Cat Burglar Stateside since then, and only a few of her international exploits had made his attention. When he heard she was back in Gotham, he immediately began searching for what would have drawn her back to his City – and found the exhibit.
Batman had been surveilling the Gotham Museum for the past three nights, but nothing of note had taken place. He had even approached the museum during business hours with a nameless redhead on his arm but, other than an afternoon school tour, there had been no sign of the elusive thief.
So he watched and waited.
His patience was rewarded when he saw the lithe shadow slip in through a third story window.
When he got there the window pane had been cut, an opening large enough for the slender Catwoman, and the security system undisturbed. He wouldn't fit through the hole so he went in through the elevator roof access and made his way directly to the Celtic Cat exhibit. He was expecting to find someone inside the room, but who he found was not what he was expecting.
There were similarities with the clothing: the same black body suit, the same gear clipped onto the belt and shoulder harness, the same glowing goggles masking the eyes. But that was where the similarities ended. Instead of the feminine curves he had anticipated, the frame he saw now was undoubtedly male; a young male at that.
The boy, sitting atop one of the display cases, had a smirk tugging at his lips when the Dark Knight darted into the exhibit and despite the shadows in which he hid, Batman was aware that those glowing goggles had registered his heat signature as he approached. He stopped trying for stealth and stepped into the open.
"Wow," the kid breathed, his voice denoting his age as somewhere around early puberty; between twelve and fourteen. He had a slight accent, Western Europe possibly but it was hard to detect exactly where from. "I've heard all the stories, but I've got to admit: you're so much more impressive in person."
"You shouldn't be here," Batman growled, filling his voice with every ounce of menace that he could, but otherwise didn't move. He was at a loss at what to do now that he was faced with a child.
"Oh, I know," the boy cackled in amusement, flicking part of the goggles up. The glow faded and the piece now resting on the top of his head formed a familiar feline-esque silhouette. His eyes were still hidden behind a stylized domino mask, but the intense blue eyes that Batman had attributed to the glow of the goggles remained. The boy slid from the case and onto his feet. "She's going to kill me for sure. I wasn't supposed to come out tonight, you see, but I really had no choice. Tomorrow it would have been too late."
Batman watched the boy as he practically slinked between the cases, his clawed gloves scraping across the glass as he moved. It looked as if he were browsing the wares for sale. There were so many things in the boy's statement that had the detective curious, but he found himself asking: "What's tomorrow?"
Impossibly blue eyes regarded him like he had two heads, and the boy answered as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. "Mother's Day, of course."
It was not the answer he had been expecting. "Mother's Day. And you're here-"
"Duh!" the youth drawled, as only one his age could. "I need the perfect present and the horrible knock-offs in the gift shop just wouldn't do. She deserves only the best."
This was unbelievable, and nothing Batman had ever considered that he might encounter. For the first time since donning his vigilante persona, Batman showed his human side by pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing his exasperation. "Catwoman is you mother."
The boy paused in his perusal of a case containing a dozen small cat pendants and looked pensive for a moment. "Well, I suppose she would be my foster mother; if you want to get technical."
"And we both know how you love your technicalities," a voice purred from behind the Batman.
He didn't bother turning around, as the one he had been expecting sashayed past him and over to the boy. The youth's smirk morphed into a genuinely warm smile, as Catwoman ran a hand affectionately over the boy's black locks. "What did I tell you while in Gotham?"
The boy rolled his eyes and huffed, "No engaging Bats until I'm thirty; if ever. But-"
"No buts, kitten," Catwoman tapped his nose with an elegant finger. "You are so grounded when we get home."
"Catwoman," Batman growled at being ignored.
She turned her head to him, long, dark hair fanning out behind her. "Thank you for finding him, Batman. I was worried when I couldn't find him after we finished up at the Diamond Exchange."
Her smug smirk, an identical one on the boy's features, was all he needed to know. Batman gnashed his teeth together at the realization that he had been played. The Celtic Cat Collection had been a red herring, a distraction for her - their real target. A few hundred thousand in diamonds was not what concerned him at the moment, however. "What is this, Selena?" he demanded, gesturing to the boy.
"I think the question you wanted to ask was 'Who is this?' or were you purposely facetious just to be rude?" the boy asked with a disapproving glower.
"Down, kitten," Catwoman chuckled and put a protective arm around the boy's shoulder. "I think the answer would be obvious, Batman."
His mind flashed back three years. Catwoman had disappeared. But so had many others, children included. One child in particular: a material witness in the murders of the Grayson family. A child with dark hair and impossibly blue eyes. A child who had vanished from the scene with an unknown dark haired woman.
"You kidnapped a child," Batman snarled.
Both Cats frowned at the accusation, although Catwoman appeared a little hurt. "I thought you knew me better than that, Bats."
"She didn't kidnap me!" the boy spat, practically hissing like an angry cat, and curling his hands into vicious claws as he took a step away from the woman. "She saved me!"
"Stray," Catwoman reached out calmly and took hold of the boy's shoulders and spun him around to face her. "You're not ready for a Bat."
He huffed and nodded, but not before throwing an angry glare over his shoulder at the Dark Knight. "Can we go home, Catwoman?"
She looked up at Batman. "I think we came back to Gotham too soon, Stray."
The only warning he got was their goggles snapping into place over their masks before a flash bomb went off in between them. He hadn't even seen the boy - Stray - throw the device. When his vision cleared, they were gone. He walked around the room, inspecting every display. And even though one had a hole in the glass a little larger than a small boy's fist, there didn't appear to be anything missing from the case.
It wasn't until later, after talking with the curator, that it was discovered one of the pieces had been replaced by a cheap knock-off from the gift shop.
In first class, on an international flight out of JFK Airport, a dark haired teen fastened the clasp of a chain around the neck of the statuesque woman sitting beside him. He kissed her cheek as she inspected the stunning white-gold cat pendant, carved with Celtic filigree and possessing two sparkling sapphire eyes that dangled from the chain.
"Happy Mother's Day, Selena."
BATCAVE, GOTHAM CITY
JULY 7, 2009 (21:30 EDT)
There was no doubt in Batman's mind that the boy he had seen the previous year with Catwoman had been the missing Grayson boy. The missing person's report that had been filed with the GCPD had been uninformative, containing nothing more on the boy than what Batman already knew. All the vigilante could do was adjust the parameters of his searches and alerts pertaining to Catwoman and any high profile thefts. He also initiated a facial recognition search on the boy.
When Alfred questioned him about it, he could only explain that it didn't feel right leaving a child with a known criminal. Batman needed to find Richard Grayson before he fell too far into the criminal world. It was a small step from thievery to something darker and more sinister.
So here he sat, searching for everything he could find on the Flying Graysons, where they and their son came from. The more he knew the better he could profile a child thief who was quickly becoming as well known as his foster mother.
"Tut, tut, Bats!"
Batman managed not to jump when a voice sounded from his computer speaker and the main screen of the Batcomputer flared with the face of an amused and mask-less Stray. Instantly he lost all control of his system and his eyes were wide as the files he had amassed on both Catwoman and Richard Grayson began deleting.
"You do know it's not nice to snoop into people's lives, right?" the boy taunted while Batman worked desperately to sever the connection. "Oh wait, that's what you do for a living right? I mean, when you're not playing at being all vapid and narcissistic as Bruce Wayne, right?"
Batman froze and glared up at the computer. "How?!" he demanded, forgoing the fact the boy knew his civilian identity – mostly because he assumed Selena had divulged it.
"Oh, don't give yourself a coronary, Bats!" Stray chuckled, his unseen hands moving across his own keyboard. "I won't touch anything other than what's mine. Well, and Selena's. I swear, the way you're stalking her... it's unhealthy! There's got to be better villains to concentrate on. After all, we're not hurting anyone."
"You're thieves!" Batman snarled, concentrating on everything he was seeing on the screen in front of him. It looked like Stay was working on a laptop that was resting on his lap. There wasn't much to see in the background, a large window that only showed brilliant blue skies. Given that it was nearing midnight on the east coast, he assumed the boy was somewhere in Europe.
"But we're not killers." Stray glared through the screen at the Batman. "Joker, Two-Face, not to mention the non-crazies. Just how many crime families do you have there in Gotham? Oh, and tell me, Bruce, have they arrested tony Zucco yet?"
Batman grit his teeth at the reminder of the mob enforcer who was prime suspect in the murder of the Grayson family. The family of the boy that was staring accusingly at him. "Richard-"
"You don't get to call me that," Stray snapped with a shake of his head.
"Kitten, are you all right?"
Selena's calming voice came through the speaker though Batman couldn't see her on screen. Stray looked up and the glare vanished from his features. "It's all good, Cat. Just having a conversation with an old annoyance."
Dark hair preceded her face as Selena peered around the laptop and she was picked up by the camera. Her eyes were wide as she took in the glowing Batman and looked back at her protégé with undisguised amazement. "You hacked the Batcave?"
"He hacked the Batcave," Batman snarled.
Stray's face lit up with an accomplished grin. "I hacked the Batcave."
Selena leaned across the cameras view and kissed the boy's forehead. "Don't forget to clean up after yourself."
"Always, Cat." Stray made a few more keystrokes before control was returned to Batman.
All their files were gone.
"Don't bother trying to trace the signal, Bats," Stray chuckled when Batman attacked his keyboard to do just that. "I've got more than enough worms and bots and virus' out there that you'll never find us. Why not spend that time cleaning up your city and finding the real bad guys. Do yourself a favour, Bats, and leave us alone."
Stray's face vanished with an eerie cackle, only to be replaced by what appeared to be a pop-tart, with a cat face, legs and tail, flying through space with a rainbow trailing behind it. The high-pitched song playing was annoying after the first few seconds and made Batman's teeth crawl.
It took him six hours to get rid of the bloody thing only to discover that, whenever he tried initiating a search for Catwoman or Stray, it came back louder and was even more difficult to get rid of.
He finally stopped when it took him two days to get rid of it, but it was too late. The song was stuck in his head for weeks after.
WAYNE TECH, PHILADELPHIA
AUGUST 8, 2010(21:45 EDT)
It was supposed to have been a simple mission, otherwise he would never have assigned it to... them.
They were everywhere now.
First Speedy, then Kid Flash and Aqualad. Now, they had a clone of Superman, and a Martian niece, and the daughter of a well known mercenary. All these hero wannabes and he was expected to train them and give them League missions. What next? Would they want him to have his own sidekick to play with the other kiddies? It would never happen. He had no use for children; as Batman or Bruce Wayne.
And tonight was a perfect example of that.
All they had to do was protect Dr. Serling from the League of Shadows long enough for her to finish the virus that would destroy the nanotech fog. It was child's play, but apparently even that was too much for the children. Not only had the fog infiltrated the MBU Robotic Laboratory, but League assassins had found Serling and the team protecting her, and a battle had ensued. To add insult to injury, Star Labs in Philadelphia had been utterly decimated by the Fog and it was now apparent that Wayne Tech was the next target.
Batman wasn't about to leave his company's welfare in the hands of children.
He arrived in time to see Superboy lunging at Professor Ojo, only after the villain had released the Fog. It had already entered the building and Batman was surging after it without a second thought. Except as he ran into the building he realized he wasn't the only one.
Not far ahead, a lithe figure was zipping after the dark cloud. They both passed the security desk, the guard indignantly activating security protocols. Batman watched as the security gates began descending and the figured slid to its knees. When the body bent in half backwards, arms spread out to the side, and the momentum carried the body beneath the gate, Batman saw the masked face of Stray and cursed.
"Wayne Tech override BW12," Batman growled without losing speed, ducking beneath the now rising gate and keeping in pursuit of the little thief. He lost sight of both the cloud and the boy in mass of panicked employees running for escape, but was able to follow the path their created throughout the building. A minute after entering the building, Batman found himself in the facility's cafeteria.
Stray was crouched on the counter next to a cowering worker, the Fog churning overhead as it devoured the structure. He was about to interfere when Stray gave a 'Whoop!' of joy and an instant later the Fog solidified and began falling to the ground.
"Why are you here?" Batman growled, stepping toward the boy menacingly.
Stray glanced at him and slowly stood on the counter. He was frowning and gestured around them. "Saving the day; wasn't that obvious?"
"Why are you here?!" the threat behind the words seemed lost to the boy, or he just didn't care. Either way, it was perplexing for the man who relied on intimidation to work.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Stray all but pouted. "Really, you do a guy a solid and this is the thanks you get. Did you have a plan to stop the nanobots from destroying everything or were you hoping for a Hail Mary Pass from Dr. Serling and your Junior Justice League? I know, you should have glared at it! That would have worked!"
Having inched his way closer to the little thief, Batman swung his fist at the boy's legs only to have Stray flip into the air and twist his body to land on his feet behind the counter. Right beside the still cowering cashier who gave a little shriek of surprise and brought their attention to her.
Batman surged forward only to stop when Stray reached down and took the young woman by the arm, gently lifting her to her feet and keeping her steady. The Dark Knight held steady as he waited to see what the young criminal would do with an innocent bystander.
"Well, this must have been rather overwhelming for you," Stray told her with a hint of amusement. His hand let go of her arm and he gave her a light push to the small of her back. She needed no other encouraging and ran from the room.
"Where's Catwoman?" Batman demanded, as the boy leaned against the counter between them.
Stray wore a pensive expression and ignored the question. "She was overwhelmed; you are underwhelming. Can't someone just be whelmed?"
"Enough!" Batman barked, the frustration he felt every time he encountered the boy bleeding through.
"You need to relax, Bats!" Stray leapt onto the counter with an easy smile. "Your infiltrators have been out-filtrated!" With that, he took off at a run down the counter until he came to the end where he leapt through the hole that had been created in the wall by the fog.
Batman bolted for the window, expecting to see the boy's body falling to the ground. Instead he only heard a familiar cackle from above and looked up to see Stray's feet disappear onto the roof. By the time he got there, Stray was long gone.
Selena looked up from where she lay on the lounge in the hotel suite as the shadowed figure landed on the room's balcony. She sat up with a welcoming smile as her little kitten sauntered in from outside. "Have a good night, Stray?"
The boy removed the goggles and mask with a large grin on his face. He closed the distance between the two and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "It was whelming. Find what you were looking for, Selena?" he asked and flopped onto the cushion beside her.
She lifted up her hand and the elaborate necklace of cat's eye gems, which she had been admiring when he returned. "And you, Dick? Did you get what you were looking for?"
"Imagine," he said as he held his palm out for her to see, though she had to squint to be able to see the tiny bug-like robot in his hand, "what I'll be able to do when I reverse engineer this thing."
WAYNE MANOR, GOTHAM CITY
DECEMBER 31, 2012 (23:30 EDT)
The sounds of the party going on in the ballroom echoed through the manor house, following behind the young man who stalked the dark halls of the family wing. Reaching up and around his neck, thirteen-year-old Jason Todd loosened the tie he wore and let it hand loose around his collar. After three hours of nauseating boredom and phony smiles, the former street-rat had been able to finally make his escape. He knew Bruce and Alfred had seen him go, but neither man made an attempt to keep him with the other guests.
They both knew they were lucky he'd behaved as long as he had.
Heading for his room he was surprised to feel a cold draft of Connecticut winter air ghost across his feet. He paused in the black corridor, taking a moment to gauge where the breeze was coming from. He frowned when he noticed the dim light flitting about behind the partially opened door of Bruce's private office. He glanced back once in the direction of the party before moving to the door himself.
Thanks to Alfred's OCD-like maintenance, the door opened without a sound at his careful push. He looked in through the crack and frowned when he could only make out the general shape of someone bending over behind Bruce's computer. The face was obscured with shadows accentuated by the pen light that was held between the person's lips.
"What're you doing?" Jason demanded, pushing the door all the way open and stepping into the room.
The individual looked up and took the small flashlight from its mouth. "Well, this is unfortunate."
Jason's eyes adjusted to the little bit of light and he finally got a decent look at the intruder. The guy wasn't much older than Jason, a couple of years at best, with dark hair and an outfit that practically screamed bad-guy. That, or stripper. The skin tight, black jump suit had a zipper up the front that was only done up about half way, exposing a well defined muscled bare chest beneath. He had a belt of tools and equipment, not all that different from Batman's belt, and a shoulder harness just as stocked. A thick leather collar sat at the base of his throat with a silver cat's head dangling from it. But it was the stylized half-mask and pointed ear-like attachment that had the younger boy frowning.
"Something like that," the other guy admitted, standing to his full height of nearly six feet. "And you're the new kid on the block: Robin. Right? Gotta admit, never thought ol' Bats would ever get a sidekick."
"Partner," Jason snapped automatically. His eyes went wide as he realized what he had just given away.
The young thief only chuckled and walked around the opulent desk that stood between them. "Don't worry kid, I've known about Bats for years. By the way, how old are you? Ten?"
"Thirteen," was Jason's annoyed response.
"I used to get that all the time too." Stray moved across the room and Jason mirrored him, keeping the same distance between them. "I didn't have a decent growth spurt until last year. Anywho, now that introductions are out of the way, I really need to get back to work."
Jason just about cringed when he realized that Stray was now between him and the door; which was apparently the older boy's plan as he nudge to door closed with his foot. Stray moved quickly then, coming at Jason with near inhuman agility that has the young hero staggering back in surprise. He brought his arm up to block the incoming swipe of a clawed glove, only to again recognize the feint a moment too late.
Fingers wrapped around his wrist and spun him around as the hand was twisted behind his back. He slammed his free elbow back, only to have the blow blocked and that hand also pulled behind him. He hissed at the sudden pinch of thick plastic zip-tie binding his wrists together. He was shoved lightly and suddenly found himself falling onto his stomach on the sofa. A knee was pressed into his lower back, muffling his curses and shouts with the cushions.
"Sorry about this, Kid," Stray was saying as he was doing something over the pinned teenager. "I was just supposed to be in and out with the information I need, but Bruce has gotten good at keeping me out of his computer systems. I actually needed to access the machine itself to bypass his security. I was, mildly, impressed."
Jason felt a thin cord, not too unlike their grappling lines, wrap several times around his chest and arms. There was a 'Thunk!' of something hitting the ceiling above him and a minute later he was dangling from the ceiling, his feet several inches off the floor. Every time he struggled and tried to free himself from his bindings, he spun in the air uncontrollably.
"Bruce!" he shouted, only to have Stray chuckle again, as he moved back to the computer.
"Go ahead and yell, Kid," he told him, unconcerned. "With the number of people downstairs, the band, and the impending countdown, no one's going to hear you."
"Damn it!" Jason yelled, a blush or anger coloring his cheeks at the indignity of Batman's partner being caught so easily. "Let me down! Bruce! Alfred! BRUCE!"
Stray didn't even look at him as he began working on the laptop. "Cool your jets, Boy Wonder, or I'll gag you just to save me the headache."
The threat was delivered so coolly that Jason had no trouble believing him. He stopped yelling and kept his eyes on the intruder even as his body continued to lightly sway. He glared at Stray whenever the guy would look up at him, earning an amused chuckle every time.
"Asshole," Jason muttered under his breath.
Stray glanced up and smirked. "How'd Bruce ever find someone like you?"
"Jacked the tires to his car."
The older boy's eyes went wide beneath his mask and grin widened appreciatively. "Which one? The Rolls or the Benz?"
It was Jason's turn to smirk, he couldn't help it. "His night ride."
"No kidding!" Stray outright laughed and went back to the computer, typing in a few more commands before slipping a portable drive into the USB port. "Gotta say: I'm impressed. I don't know many who'd have the brass to mess with the Bat's ride."
"Didn't do it to impress anyone," Jason huffed.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't." Stray came around from behind the computer and stood in front of the captive boy. "You must have impressed Bats, though, if he brought you up to the big house and is training you. What do your parents think about it?"
"Parents are dead," he answered harshly.
Something passed over the other boy's eyes. "Mine too; watched them murdered right in front of me."
Jason could empathize. His old man never made it out of prison while his mother OD'd in front of him. But to have them murdered... "I'm sorry," he heard himself say.
"Thanks. Sorry about your folks too."
Stray snickered softly. "Funny thought. Bruce was there that night too, but someone else got to me first. Looks like the Bat's not above taking in a stray of his own... I could have been you."
"Would you have wanted to be?" Jason asked, again speaking before he realized it.
"A hero?" Stray snorted and went back to the computer when it beeped at him. "Maybe. I like my life now, though. Cat's good to me." He retrieved his flash drive and held it up with a triumphant smile. "And I'm good to her."
Slipping the small stick into a pouch, the thief came back to Jason's side. Beyond the door, the countdown to the new year began with the cry of nearly a hundred voices. "Times up; I gotta go."
"You're just going to leave me here?" Jason demanded, jerking his wrists once in a futile attempt at freedom.
Stray grabbed and stilled him when Jason started to swing again. "You'll buy me some time," he told the boy. "I give Bruce another hour before he clears his guests out and then he'll head up this way. Don't know what kind of father he is, but chances are he'll check up on you, and when he can't find you in your room he'll go in to Bat mode."
"He'll find me soon enough, then."
The other boy nodded and reached into a pocket on his belt and walked over to the door, flicking the lock. "See, I need about three hours or this information I got from Wayne Tech is useless. Once Bruce see's you're not in your room, he and that butler of his will start searching the house. The doors locked, which it was when I first came in, and he'll move on to another room thinking it's still secure."
"The door was-" Jason cut himself off and glanced at the opened window. He looked back at the amused grin playing across the thief's face. "You set me up!" he bellowed furiously, his shout masked by the thunderous 'Happy New Year!' from downstairs.
"I knew," Stray said as he walked back to Jason's side, "that if it were me I'd be bored to tears long before the midnight countdown. Your room is just down the hall and I also knew that you had to come by here on your way there. A cold breeze, a flickering light, a partially opened door, and your innate curiosity... well, here we are."
"Oh, hell no," Jason snarled at being played. "Bruce! Bru-phmph!" The thick, wad of fabric slid easily into his mouth as he shouted for his mentor; his eyes wide as a strip of heavy duty duct tape was secured over his mouth to hold it in place. He glared indignantly at the thief in front of him, his more inventive curses muffled significantly behind the gag.
"I'll admit, I could have probably gotten the information without anyone knowing it was gone until morning," Stray stated casually, and Jason didn't doubt the validity of that statement. "However, I have to confess that I wanted to meet you. I like you, kid."
Jason growled when a gloved hand ruffled his hair, the motion causing him to sway again, but this time the thief didn't bother stopping him. From the window, with the goggles of his mask in place and glowing as the night vision activated, Stray wiggled his fingers in a condescending wave.
"Happy New Year, Jay-Bird. Be seeing you around."
With that the thief climbed out of the window, closed it, and was gone.
Jason swore and struggled to free himself. As he spun and closed his eyes to the dizziness and nausea it created, he only had one thought.
This meant war!
GOTHAM MUSEUM, GOTHAM CITY
AUGUST 16, 2016 (02:30 EST)
"I. Am. Impressed. Immortals, assassins, an alien invasion, and all before you were seventeen!"
The voice startled him from his musings but there was no outward evidence of that fact. Turning his crimson-mask-clad face to the approaching sound, Jason scoffed at the figure approaching him from the other side of the rooftop with an amused snort.
"Damn, Grayson, can you get any more indecent?"
"What, you don't like it?" The international cat burglar chuckled as he glanced down at his costume. It really hadn't changed much over the years; the same skin tight body-suit, the same plunging zipper that exposed that obscenely defined chest, the same tousled ebony locks and piercing sapphire eyes framed by the mask and goggle combination he and his mentor had always used, the same canary-eating grin that he was famous for.
"Forget it, Catlad," Jason rolled his eyes beneath his own polarized lenses and leaned back against the roof ledge.
"Don't call me that," the other man huffed, joining him as he looked across the street at the museum.
"I'm not going to call you Nightclaw either."
"Better than Red Hood. I keep wanting to look around for the big bad wolf whenever I hear it, let alone say it."
There was a beat of silence before both burst out laughing at the absurdity of the conversation. After a moment, Jason calmed and glanced over at his friend. "What are you doing here, Claw?" He scowled suddenly and looked over at the museum. "You and Catwoman working?"
"Nah," Nightclaw shook his head with a sad little smile. "Cat retired last year. Didn't Batman tell you and the Replacement?"
"Don't call him that," Jason bit out protectively.
"Sorry!" The thief held up his hands in surrender. "I forgot; Robin."
"Kid damn well earned it," Jason huffed, "you better respect that."
"All right, Red; I promise not to call him that again."
"Good." Jason watched the older boy for a moment then shook his head. "And no; B never told us about Catwoman. Why she get out of the game?"
"We got on the wrong side of the League of Shadows last year," Nightclaw answered grimly. "They wanted something, we wanted the same thing, we just got to it first. Things were said and done, and Cat ended up with a bullet in the back."
"Damn," Jason shook his head. "She all right?"
"She's good, but there the bullet was lodged against her spine and she lost some feeling in her one leg. Not much, but enough to have her enjoying early retirement on a private little island we got in the South Pacific."
"Nice! Tell her I'm sorry about what happened."
"I will; she'll appreciate it. She misses messing with you and Bats."
Jason snorted derisively. "B hates it when you're both in town. He's got it bad for Cat and he just loathes you! Together you both just mess him up and have I mentioned how much he hates that we're friends. Well, sort of friends."
Nightclaw laughed. "He still pissed about New Years Eve?"
"I'm still pissed!" he snarled. "I was hanging there for six bloody hours! Do you know how bad I had to pee by the time Bruce finally found me in there?"
The black-clad thief was grinning like the Cheshire cat and clapped the younger teen on the shoulder. "Get traught or get dead, I always say. Suck it up, Jay-Bird."
"Don't call me that either," Jason responded automatically. "And I swear I'll get you back for it one day."
"Now where have I heard that before." He chuckled, as he dodged the punch Jason aimed at his arm, only to dance back beside the younger boy a second later. A companionable silence fell around them unlikely friend.
"So, you never said why you're here," Jason pressed after a minute.
"Wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday," Nightclaw answered with complete sincerity. "Seventeen now; almost an adult. And, after everything you guys went through and did over the past few months, I wanted to see you; see how you were doing. Thought you could use a friend."
"I've got friends," Jason defended.
"No, you've got teammates." Nightclaw turned his back on the museum and rested against the ledge, his arms crossed over his chest and his legs stretched out. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. "Do any of them know you like I do, Jay? Do they know about the pack of smokes in your inside jacket pocket? Or the bolt hole you've got down in Crime Alley? Or where you vanished to two years ago before the Replacement - Sorry! - before the new Wonder Bird tracked you down?"
Jason went cold in the August heat, his stomach churning with the truth of the thief's point. "Dick-"
"I told you when you and I got together in Atlantic City when you bailed on Bruce," Nightwing's piercing blue eyes bore into his pale green, "you enjoyed playing on my side of the fence. With Cat out of the game now, I could use a new partner."
"So that's why you're here," Jason snarled and glared at the older boy. "This your big recruitment spiel? Look around you, Claw; I'm a hero! I just saved the goddamn world! Why would I ever go back to the other side?"
Nightclaw just grinned in the face of Red Hood's anger. "Because you were damn good, kid. Almost as good as me and with a little bit of training-"
"Forget it, Claw." Jason shook his head and turned away. "Never gonna happen."
"If you say so." With a shrug, the subject dropped, but this time the silence that descended was uncomfortable. It was Nightclaw who broke it this time. "So why are you scoping out the museum? Anything I should check out?"
The tension between them faded and Jason chuckled. "Don't even think it, Claw. Just because you can erase every warrant they draw up in your name doesn't mean I won't bust your ass if you take one step toward that building."
Nightclaw was snickering with him. "Consider me warned." The light laughter suddenly cut off and he tilted his head to the side as if he heard something.
Jason opened his mouth to speak when his radio earpiece suddenly crackled with static and he frowned, as a frantic voice broke through the interference. "Robin to Red Hood! Where are you?!"
"Red Hood to Robin-"
"Where the hell have you been?" the kid's voice demanded over the comm. "I've been trying to reach you for ten minutes! Catwoman just emptied Gotham First National Bank! Batman's locked in the vault and there's some kind of virus stopping me from getting in!"
Red Hood scowled and his head snapped to the side where Nightclaw stood, showing off the jamming device he held in one hand. The thief moved quickly, wrapping his arm around Red Hood's waist and using his larger body to pin the hero to the edge of the roof. Too late, Jason realized it should have been the other hand he was watching. A damp cloth was held over his mouth and nose, the pungent smell of chloroform assaulting his airways before he could stop it.
"Sorry I lied, Jay-Bird," he heard his sort-of-friend say through the fog clouding his mind. He felt his lax body being lowered gently to the ground. His vision went dark and the last he heard was:
"But I really meant it when I wished you a Happy Birthday."
A sharp sting to the side of his face cut through the fog and he fought to open his eyes. He groaned at the pounding in his head and the discomfort in his arms.
"That's it, Hood, easy does it. Don't – giggle – don't try to stand up just yet."
Blinking to clear away the last of the haze, Jason looked into the amused face of Batgirl. He shifted where he sat only to realize that he had been stripped of his gear and armour, leaving him sitting on the roof in nothing but his boxer-briefs and face mask. "Son of a bitch!" he snarled, blushing to the tip of his ears.
"At least you don't have to explain to Batman that you lost another suit of Kevlar and your utility belt to a Cat." Batgirl giggled and motioned to the side. Turning his head he saw his stuff folded neatly in a pile with a brightly wrapped present sitting on top like a cherry. "He got you again?" the female Bat asked with unrestrained glee.
"You think?" he snapped, only to elicit a laugh from the girl. Embarrassed, he tried to stand, only to be held in spot. He frowned when he finally recognized the heavy weight of cuffs on his wrists. He glowered at Batgirl who was trying to stifle her laughter. "Care to explain why I'm still frickin' tied up?!"
She was chortling again as she tried to answer him. "Well, see, I tried to pick the lock, but I couldn't find one. He, uh, seems to have developed a seamless, lock-less set of manacles. Short of cutting the pipe he's got you tied to, we're going to have to wait for Superman to come laser you out. Except he's busy at the moment getting Batman out of the vault at the bank. Robin - none of the league hackers - couldn't get past Nightclaw's virus. So once they're done there, I'm sure Superman and Batman will be right along to get you out free."
Grayson was a dead man.
"SON OF A BITCH!"
BATCAVE, GOTHAM CITY
SEPTEMBER 23, 2016 (22:15 EST)
Securing the last clasp of his body armor, Jason shouldered on the Kevlar lined leather jacket as he was coming out the cave's change room. "Get the led out, Timmy. Moonlight's a wasting!"
"Be out in a minute!"
The older hero smiled warmly as he passed by Alfred, taking the domino mask from the gentleman's hand as he offered it. "Thank you, Al."
"My pleasure, Master Jason."
Pressing the body-heat activated adhesive against his skin, Red Hood secured his mask in place and fingered the lens control to adjust the light coming through. Even with the artificial lighting throughout the cave it was hard to see through the polarized lenses. Dressed and ready for the night's patrol, Red Hood climbed the short flight of stairs to the computer banks where Bruce stood with his cowl pushed back.
"Anything on the grid tonight?" the young man asked his mentor, as he hopped into the unoccupied chair and kicked his feet up onto the consol. When he didn't get a response from the older man, Jason tilted back in the chair to look up at him. "Bruce?"
Reaching around his lounging partner, Bruce increased the volume of the newscast he was watching and brought it up on the main screen.
"... International thieves apprehended in Tokyo this morning in a joint effort with the NSA, FBI, Interpol, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research office of Japan, and the Justice League." The news anchor was replaced with a video clip of Selena Kyle and Richard Grayson being escorted into a Tokyo police station. "Sources report that both worldwide notorious burglars were arrested during an undercover sting operation where they were attempting to sell stolen National Defense Secrets and nuclear armament codes, obtained when nineteen-year-old Richard Grayson-"
"That's bullshit!" Jason roared, leaping to his feet so fast it knocked the chair to the floor. "Bruce, you know that's not right! Catwoman and Claw may steal and sell a lot of things, but nuclear armament codes? They're being set up!"
"He's dangerous," was Batman's curt reply, as he slid his cowl into place.
Jason scowled at his mentor as he watched the man make his way toward the Batmobile. "...'He's dangerous'? Don't you mean they?"
"Get your cycle, Red," Batman ordered, without answering, "we've got patrol."
"Oh, hell no!" Jason tore off his mask, ignoring the sting against his skin, and tossed it onto the computer consol. "You did this! You set Grayson up!"
"He's dangerous!" Batman bellowed, his voice scattering the bats residing overhead, spinning around to face his equally irate protégé. "Why can't you see that?"
"Because he's not!" Jason yelled back. "When has he ever hurt anyone?"
"Just because he hasn't yet doesn't mean he won't." Batman started stalking back toward him. "Look at what he did to you that New Years Eve!"
"Oh, my god, he tied me up four years ago! Big deal! Other villains have left me a bloody mess!"
"He left you bound and gagged, and hanging from the ceiling!"
"I was fine!"
Batman was standing in front of him now. "And what about all the other times? Since that night he has harassed you, ambushed you, kidnapped you, and drugged you, nearly a dozen times!"
"And I've done the same to him just as many times!" Jason defended, throwing his hands up in frustration.
"He's obsessed with you!"
"Like Selena's obsessed with you? Catwoman goes out of her way to bait you and you fall for it every single time!"
"It is completely different-"
"Yeah; I'm never gonna sleep with Nightclaw!"
Jason stepped into Batman's space and stared up into the taller man's face. "You didn't do this because he's dangerous. You did it because you can't beat him. In a fight you're stronger, better trained, but he's faster and thinking a dozen steps ahead of you at every turn. As a detective you're unparalleled, and yet he out manoeuvres you every time. And, ever since Grayson entered the game, Selena has been untouchable. She used to come to you when she got in trouble with the law, or in too deep with the mob, or on the wrong side of Two-Face's coin; but ever since she picked up Stray she hasn't needed you and that kills you."
Batman stared down at his protégé and Jason could see the truth of his words in the man's blue eyes, but there was something else. For the first time since he took the young street-rat under his wing, Batman stepped back from his would-be son. He sighed and pushed his cowl back again. "Richard Grayson is dangerous, Jason. More dangerous than any other villain you've ever faced."
"Tell me why," he pleaded, "because I don't see it."
"Because I know what happened when you ran away from home two years ago," Bruce answered bluntly, and Jason blanched. "I know you went to him in Atlantic City. I know you ran with him for three months, before Tim found you both in Seattle. I know that he is what you could have become if you hadn't tried to steal the tires from the car that night. And more than anything, I know that he will be the thing that takes you away from me again."
Jason was... floored. Completely and utterly floored at the honest and naked emotion he saw plain on his mentor's face. It was the first time in almost five years that he had ever seen Bruce like that and Jason did the only thing he could.
His arms wrapped around the man and rest his head against the comforting shell of armor surrounding Bruce's chest. "I'm not leaving, Bruce. Never again."
The rigidity in Bruce's frame fled and his arms returned the embrace heartily, the billionaire's chin resting lightly atop Jason's head. They stayed that way, taking comfort in each other, for a moment before Bruce cleared his throat and took a step back. "Let's forget patrolling tonight. We need to talk about a few things."
Jason nodded and looked back at the computer screen where the story was still playing. He frowned and saw Bruce cringe. "You won't be able to fix this," Jason told him icily. "You've condemned him. You may as well have been judge, jury and executioner, because framing him for selling nuclear armament codes and defense secrets of the United States will see him - and Selena - take a one way trip to Guantanamo Bay. Even with all your influence both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, you won't be able to stop this. They will never again see the light of day."
"I know," Bruce admitted, his guilt evident in his stance. "But I'll try, Jason. I still don't trust him, and I doubt I ever will - not where you're concerned - but I will try to fix this."
SEPTEMBER 24, 2016 (17:00 EST)
"First order of business," Superman stood at the head of the conference table, surrounded by the leading members of both the Justice League and the Young JL Team. "J'onn, you've fielded this, so I'm going to let you have to floor to explain what's happened."
"Thank you, Superman." The Martian Manhunter stood from his seat with a slight bow of his head to the leader of the League. "Earlier this morning I was able to meet with the world's foremost authority on Espionage and Security. World leaders across the globe agree that this individual has no equal in his fields of expertise. He has, with few concessions on our part, agreed to come aboard the Watchtower to upgrade our computer security, as well as training our members in infiltration, stealth, and other various skills that would be useful to all operatives, especially those of the covert team. Aqualad, Red Hood; as he will be working primarily with the Team he will be assigned living quarters with your members here on the station until the new facility construction has been completely. I trust you will make him welcome?"
"Of course, J'onn," Aqualad spoke as leader of Alpha team and Red Hood nodded as leader of Beta Team.
"You mentioned concessions," Batman growled out with a frown. Why hadn't he heard anything about this so-called Expert? He would have to do some digging to find out more.
"Yes, and they were quite reasonable," Superman nodded and stood again as J'onn retook his seat. "I saw no problem granting his requests if it meant we had use of his talent."
"What were they?" the Dark Knight demanded.
"His mother has agreed to early retirement and is to be protected and relocated to a location of his choosing." Superman smiled his amusement when he met Batman's penetrating stare. "And we were asked to look past some of their past... transgressions. That's all."
"Transgressions?" Batman snarled. The door to the conference room opened in answer to the vigilante's question and without realizing it he had blurted, "Oh, hell no!"
Red Hood started laughing as the all-too familiar figure slinked into the room. He was quickly joined by the Flashes and most of the present members of the Young JL Teams. Even Superman was hard pressed to keep his chuckles in check.
The same skin tight body-suit, the same plunging zipper that exposed that obscenely defined chest, the same tousled ebony locks and piercing sapphire eyes framed by the mask and goggle combination he and his mentor had always used, the same canary-eating grin that he was famous for. "Sorry I'm late."
Batman was stunned, and he could only watch as his protégé got up from his seat and wrapped the young thief in a brotherly embrace; one that was readily reciprocated. Red Hood was still laughing, his hands clapping the older teen on the back before stepping back.
"Thought you'd try things out on this side of the fence for a while, Claw?"
"What can I say?" The young man shrugged before throwing a knowing and satisfied smirk over Red's shoulder and straight at the Batman. "I've been bored."