Chaotic Good - Honorable Intentions, Questionable Methods - RaeBlack42 - Harry Potter (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Fly Away on Wings Made of Lace (be kind, they weren't sewn sober) Chapter Text Chapter 2: Hiding Away to Keep What is Precious (and it sure as hell ain't a ring) Chapter Text Chapter 3: Statuesque in a Pale White Dress (the gloves were ditched long ago) Chapter Text Chapter 4: Spine Straight Like a Proper Soldier (the commander lost more than a leg) Chapter Text Chapter 5: So the Red Strings Tie Us (if only it wasn't knotted to hell) Chapter Text Chapter 6: The Foundation Shall not Forsake Us (that's why we race across roofs) Chapter Text Chapter 7: Herold of the Hearth, Point Me Towards Destiny (fate's currently in time out for being a brat) Chapter Text Chapter 8: Cradled Close with Deep Roots (or you could just f*cking bury me already) Chapter Text Chapter 9: Sworn to Thy Promise, Sworn to Thy Name (should've gotten this sworn sh*t in writing) Chapter Text Chapter 10: We the Line Guard the Gates (if only we were allowed to shut the door) Chapter Text Chapter 11: Man the Cannons, Raise your Spear (down a flask in a bid for courage, it's all we have) Chapter Text Chapter 12: A Meeting of Two Sides (someone shot the messanger) Chapter Text Chapter 13: Harold of the Old, Hand of the King (had more than enough and jumped into the sea) Chapter Text Chapter 14: Pilgrimage to Seek the Prophet (mayhaps listen to your conscious first?) Chapter Text Chapter 15: Par for One, Par for the Course (par for the inevitable, par for the hearse) Chapter Text Chapter 16: Dark Ink Lines the Mission Brief (did anyone mention no one speaks the language?) Chapter Text Chapter 17: Fear Not, the Door is Always Open (just never your shape or size) Chapter Text Chapter 18: Offer an Arm, Lend a Hand (does it have to be attached?) Chapter Text Chapter 19: An Eye for an Eye (will leave the whole world blind) Chapter Text Chapter 20: Follow the Leader, Walk the Line (do a flip off the roof to pass the time) Chapter Text Chapter 21: Prepare the Battlements, Raise the Stakes (ignore the voice saying it was all a mistake) Chapter Text Chapter 22: Walk Three Paces, Turn at Four (aim for the heart to even the score) Chapter Text Chapter 23: Walking Down the Highroad (stepping off the cliff) Chapter Text Chapter 24: Retrospect, the Law of the Unspoken (retrograde, the curse of the lost) Chapter Text Chapter 25: Come 'Round for Our Last Dance (the fiddle is in peices, the bard ran off) Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: Fly Away on Wings Made of Lace (be kind, they weren't sewn sober)

Chapter Text

For the record: Hadriyan was not hiding.

"I'm sorry," the very much not belovelent, skating towards the edge of murderous voice at the other end of the line seethed, "care to run that by me again?"

Hadriyan peeked around the edge of her sofa, cradling the new, sleek cellphone in her hand like one would handle a hissing horned tail youngling. The walls of her new home greeted her warmly- smiling somewhere in between the questionable stains and bullet holes. The peeling wallpaper had yet to be completely removed, and Hadriyan- Rin, if you would- wouldn't put it past her glorious, warlord of a best friend to melt out of the surface in a terrifying impression of The Ring.

(It didn't matter that she was in what was basically a meta-no-zone and an ocean away, or that as of this moment her location remained uncompromised: Hermione was just that good.)

"Uhhh…."

Rin drew the sound out, scrambling for time and a way out. Pinned between two towers of drywall and nesting a dangerous five feet of open space away was an arched window. The second floor was a good place to be if you wanted a decent vantage point, she thought frantically, yet not the best spot if she was interested in fleeing for her life.

Yet.

She'd fallen from higher… right?

"Don't you dare!" Hermione shrieked from the other side of the line, already one with Rin's thought process in a way even Luna could not achieve. Ron had called it the 'mother instinct' more days than not. The twins called it 'common sense'.

(Rin often in turn argued that she lived this long already so surely she must have something working for her- the expressions following that rebuttal usually ranged from mildly bemused to strung-out exasperation.)

(Draco swore she was immortal. Blaise was pretty sure she was cursed.)

On pure conditioning alone, Rin apologized.

"I wasn't."

(She totally was.)

"Hadriyan Black."

Rin winced, gritting her teeth so her soul wouldn't escape out her mouth. Full names now. sh*t.

(So maybe she was hiding.)

"It would've been a small jump," she offered feebly, switching the object to the other ear and turtling herself between the couch and the wall. "Two floors: tops?"

Her voice sounded weak in her own ears- something she'd become accustomed to in their short, 19 years together. Even more accustomed was the haggard sigh over the line she'd become accustomed to in an even shorter amount of 8 years.

"Rin…" Hermione started, both tired and accepting all at once. Rin couldn't help the ease that came with the sigh and shortening. They were past the anger now. That was good.

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

(As it was, Rin did not know it, but the clarification was always nice. Hermione was amazing in many, many things, but without the ever steady presence of Ron to ask Rin's admittedly dumb questions out loud- remembering she was the sharpest crayon in the family's artbox was not one of them.)

Rin buried herself under the blankets she pulled from the couch arm- wrapping herself in a cacoon of fluff while picking at the edge of the nearest sitting cloth.

"I thought…" she started weakly, always at odds with the practice of stating selfish wants out loud despite Hermione and Ginny's insistence that she do so on the regular, "that I could maybe try… to build something here. For me."

The sigh that came after was a warm one- tired, yes, but proud. Rin couldn't help the gush of happy feelings that paraded around her chest at the sound, nor the shy pull of her lips as the reality of Hermione not really being mad at her fluttered around.

You stupid but brave girl.

Rin knew the sigh well- just as she knew the next words that would come.

"We're coming too."

They were spoken harshly, of course, coated in a layer of will that could not and would not be moved. Rin knew this, but still fulfilled her end of the 'next words to come' like an actor reading from a play.

"I can't let you do that." She argued, just as she tried to smother the delight the sentence brought her or the beaming grin that came from the small 'ping' her phone chirped.

(A quick peek showed three images from Luna- all very distinct and different rooms, with clear color palettes and design aesthetics. Rin couldn't help the anticipation bubbling up as she scrutinized each image- even squeaking when the picture of a grand and spacious library followed.)

Hermione presented the next line in amusem*nt.

"I dare you to try to stop us."

Rin's fingers darted through her hair- a nervous tick she could never seem to completely get rid of, just like her habit of chewing on her lip.

"Oh, sister." She breathed lightly, in between the knaw of teeth. "You know how I love a dare."

The rolling of Hermione's eyes was something Rin could feel, even without her being fully present. Like the coming of thunder, she mused. Or the breath of a butterflies wings.

"Uh-huh…" Hermione hummed, the accusation near audible. "Riiiiight."

And what could Rin do to that but smile?

"I really meant it though," Rin muttered, picking at the edges of her blanket fluff and attempting to squash the near vapid growing hope on reflex and experience alone. "I can't let all of you do that for me."

Hermione was at least nice enough not to audibly scoff- returning to her uncontested position in the scene they were playing out despite knowing exactly how it would end.

"Look me in the eye, Black, and tell me you aren't currently sitting in a household big enough for all of us- bought in your name."

Rin bit down a watery smile.

"It was… in case you wanted to visit." She defended, wiping away any stray tears and soaking up the sheer love radiating over the phone. "Or bad days, maybe."

The answer earned Rin another warm- impossibly, lovingly, impeccably warm- sigh, to which Rin's breath hitched.

(It was another line of the play- one that would go left unsaid. They both knew that what Rin claimed was true: she bought the house for herself, first and foremost- with the desperate hope that her family would be willing to ignore the location and the implications around it and still visit. They both also knew that the hope in question was in of itself a compromise: Rin wasn't capable of admitting how deeply she wished to have them all together again.)

"And I can't exactly look you in the eye, you know." She wobbled. "You're an ocean away."

Hermione's answering laugh was… unsettling, to say the least: all bright and light and airy in a way that spoke of carbon monoxide more than it did sunshine.

"Oh, am I?" She purred.

Rin paled, her earlier fears coming back full force. Only a mere blink of the eye later, there was a gentle knock at the door- seven short taps in quick succession, just as Luna had always done- followed by the rattling banging that could only be procured by the side of one's fist (a sound more than capable of drifting up a flight of stairs).

"Oi! Twin!"

"Oi! Twin!"

The plank of wood and space between did little to muffle the other red-head's voice, echoing in between that and the phone in Rin's ear.

"Open up! I want to see my new house!"

"Open up! I want to see my new house!"

"Oh, Gotham really is lovely, isn't it?"

Rin shrunk into her fluff hovel, not for the first time cursing her ancestors for all they were worth. Yes, Rin was the one to make the impulsive decision with zero follow up consideration and was ultimately to blame- but surely with a few tweaks along the generational line, Rin could've been a sharper art supply?

"What's taking her so long?"

"Remind Rin I can pick locks, won't you?"

Hermione picked up the script, her voice settled into a deep, satisfied demented purr.

"Won't you open the door, Black?"

Honestly, their sharpest was too terrifying for words.

[A/N:

Aight. I'm gonna be real with you: my knowledge of DC anything comes second hand from a comic nerd brother, a hardcore Batman fan dad, and a year-long strong hyperfixation on Jason Todd that lead to many, many, MANY read fanfics.

If you're looking for comic-like accuracy, it ain't here. I got something wildly wrong? Welcome to the multiverse, lovelys: this *slaps the hood of this fic* is mine. Cool? Cool.

So. In terms of the HP universe: I'm playing loose and fast. No magic, yes meta. A very female Harry Potter that got Lily's red hair (because f*ck YEAH RED HEADS!!) and a huge f*ck you to J K Rowling's trash opinion on trans peeps. Some liberties may be applied.

(Actually- many liberties WILL be applied.)

As always: I can be summoned with 💀.

(I wouldn't expect something stupidly plot heavy here either. I needed something to give me the happy brain chemicals as I wrote it and this fic volunteered. It is now at my mercy 🥰)

Pray for them]

Chapter 2: Hiding Away to Keep What is Precious (and it sure as hell ain't a ring)

Chapter Text

For the record: Jason was not hiding.

Jason didn't do 'hiding'.

He was Jason-motherf*cking-Todd: son of Gotham's richest bastard and all around all star mechanic by day, protector and enforcer of Crime Alley by night. He knew nothing of cowardice. He didn't know fear- fear knew him. The mere mention of the word 'Hood' on any of the cobblestones lining his territory was more than enough to throw even the most defiant of gangs back in line: and goddammit he earned every inch of it.

He was the de-facto nightmare of every goon on the block. He had a hit list to reach as far as the moon. His apartment could arm a small country. He had eyes and ears everywhere.

He was that bitch.

(And he was absolutely, positively, as a matter of fact, not hiding.)

"Little Wiiinnnnng~"

Jason dove under Bruce's obscenely priced wooden coffee table like his life depended on it, silently praying that Dick didn't catch the moment his shoulder hit the edge. The table didn't budge from the impact. His body fit under just as easily as when he was a scrawny little thing. The sting from the corner was a small one at best- laughably negligible in the face of the scars decorating his skin- but it made a sound.

Jason could not afford a sound.

Dick was in one of his moods.

"Com'on, Little Wing," his regrettably elder brother sang, the sound echoing through the hall like a death knell. Jason risked scooting back a bit further- if only to ensure none of him peeked around the edges of oak. "Spend some time with your favorite brother!"

Dick's footsteps clattered around in that feather-light way they always did: graceful enough so you never heard them coming, but forceful enough you could feel the approach in your bones. The fact that Jason could still feel the bastard even after having all of his broken and stitched up again (by seething, acid green, semi-sentient, always permanent water no less) was either a testament to how powerful one Dick Greyson's intent could be, or how intrinsically screwed one Jason Todd was by way of existing.

(Jason often voted for the latter.)

(There was- let it be said- also an extra pep there, Jason noted dismally. An extra 'hop' to his demented skip. Mentally, Jason bet money that he got into the treat cabinet again. Dick was an absolute demon on sugar. An absolute demon.)

'Who the f*ck told him I was at the manor?' He grumbled silently, squeezing as far as he could towards the wall. 'And why the f*ck was he here too? '

The footsteps, ignorant to his suffering and probably not one to be bothered by it if it did, neared closer.

Jason cursed quite colorfully.

Jason, on record, avoided the manor as much as humanly possible. Read yet again: as much as humanly possible. Like, 4willing visits per year- tops. (And if those four visits were centered around the life and happiness of one Alfred Pennyworth, then Jason would have you mind ya buisness if you would so f*cking please, and keep your opinion out of it. The important part of this was that he rarely shoved his foot through the door by choice and Alfie ain't no snitch.)

Dick wasn't supposed to be around.

Better yet: Dick wasn't supposed to be in Gotham!

Dick had a home: in Bludhaven. Half an hour away, across various interstates- far, far away from wherever Jason might be. That's where he should be. (Really, the flamboyant dickwad didn't even live under B's roof… and yet somehow ended up there 24/7? And! He paid for the apartment in Bludhaven. Paid for it! With his own money! Who the f*ck pays for something and doesn't f*cking use it!?)

"Little Wing?"

Jason froze, holding his breath.

A pair of pressed leather loafers pranced into his line of sight, fluttering across Alfie's miraculously pristine carpet in even, sure steps. They rounded the room, shifting and swaying as Dick peeked around corners and checked other tight nooks.

Dick had owned those shoes for forever, it seemed. Jason wasn't too sure when exactly they were given as a present (it might've been a Christmas? A birthday? Memories before the Pits never seemed to stay in order- always melting under the pressure of muddy thought and compressed rage… he couldn't be sure he was even there for it), but he was confident they were just as ugly on day one as they were now.

In Jason's humble opinion, burning them would be a mercy. Leather deserved better than those shoes. Firstly: the shape was just wrong. Right for a pair of stilettos, maybe, but not loafers. The color, too, was a crime. (Did they not dye it at all? Yes, leather was technically skin, but it shouldn't look like it damnit! That shade of tan couldn't be anything other than hide.) More than any of that, they were on their last legs… years ago. The sole had been worn down to nothing. The sides near the ankle flayed out at the edges. The whole flat side of the left foot was largely discolored- as if someone dropped it in questionable chemicals trying to put the thing out of its misery and just missed because someone got distracted during lookout.

By now they were more than likely a biohazard.

… And the f*cker still wore them.

(Whatever, there'd be more chances later.)

The shoes came to a stop in front of Jason's face, a shiver a sheer doom running down his spine.

It's here.

"Still using the same hiding spot, Little Wing?" Dick sang, his coming crouch betrayed by his rocking heel. Jason switched strategies immediately- already writing off the coffee table as a loss.

(It's not like B couldn't afford another one.)

"There you ar- ah gk- sh*t- not the face!"

Chapter 3: Statuesque in a Pale White Dress (the gloves were ditched long ago)

Chapter Text

Ginny loved her family, she really did, but every so often she couldn't help but think that they really needed to grow a pair.

"Gotham?!"

Ginny rolled her eyes as the boy on the other line squeaked out half syllables and partial questions in a stream of half-baked consciousness, thudding and thumping along with every attempt. The racket caught Luna's attention- one particular crashing noise that Ginny was almost sure was his dresser caused the fair haired girl to look up from the itemized list Hermione had shoved at them as they stepped out the door- but Ginny waved her off.

Ron was just being dramatic.

"Yes, Ronald. Gotham." She drawled, taking the box Luna handed her and throwing it in their shopping cart with nary a blink. Pop-tarts probably weren't officially on their Warlord Approved ™ list, but Ginny couldn't say sh*t. She didn't have the list. She didn't know what it said.

And Twin was buying.

Ginny was just muscle.

"Gotham." Ron parroted, sounding more and more distressed by the second. "Crazy killer clown, I am the dark knight, no metas allowed Gotham?"

Luna turned from the shelving, holding up two packages of fruit snacks with a questioning tilt. Ginny pulled the phone away from her ear, nodding to the tropical. Twin would like those.

"Yep." She answered, popping the 'p' and adding the fruit snacks to the pile. "That's the one."

There was a shuffling from the other line, probably Ron scrambling to find some clothes and call a family meeting or something equally frivolous, and Ginny just had to add fuel to the fire.

Had to. By sibling law.

"Twin wanted to make roots, you know."

The responding noise was strangled in nature.

"In no meta Gotham?"

Luna turned them down the candy aisle, grabbing several bags as she went. Ginny hummed, bemused.

(Hermione was such a stickler for health, honestly: it was probably the having-dentists-for-parents thing. Ginny wouldn't know anything about it, but it was a give-in that the now six bags of Reese's weren't approved in the slightest. As it was- it was always tickling to have her suspicions confirmed: the list was a lost cause and she was now the moon-babe's bitch. f*ck yeah, life was good.)

The low tones of him frantically texting while she was on the line was music to the red-head's ears.

(Her closest brother was such a funny little thing when he panicked.)

"Gin," Ron cried in between muffles of fabric, sounding physically pained, "We're meta."

Ginny pulled the phone away, dodging a speculative woman about her age with blonde hair stationed in front of the chocolate section.

The stranger in question was, quite frankly, wonderfully pretty (with glorious muscle tone hidden under a loose fit), and wore an outfit of purple. An obscene amount of purple. A respectably obscene amount of purple.

Ginny couldn't help but shake her head in sheer wonder. Twin had such a way with knowing what they needed when they needed it. And it wasn't even her meta!

(Read: That they knew of. Let it be said Twin also had a way with finding herself in the most ridiculous of situations and could quite possibly be the only person in the world with several. 'Mione firmly maintained that such a thing was impossible- muttering something about genetics, facets, and origins- but also didn't argue against Rin maybe possibly being the first if there ever was one. For all they knew Blaise had the right of it and the girl really was cursed. Either way, the smaller red-head knew sh*t.)

Would Ginny have guessed Gotham being the answer? No. Absolutely not. Was there any doubt in her mind that it was? Not a chance in hell.

One day Ron would get the picture.

Probably.

"He's gone stupid," she informed Luna gleefully, coming to a full stop near the hard candies. Luna joined her- blessing her with a grateful look before turning to the shelf to begin her careful, rigorous, and possibly random method of choosing her snacks. To this day Ginny had no idea which ones were her favorites or what the criteria was for a proper candy, so she just let her companion have at it.

Luna always knew what she wanted.

"Gin, if Batman finds out-"

Ginny cut off her brother with a solid grunt.

"Ron," she forced out, chest tight with being all at once done with wealthy men trying to tell her what she could and could not do, "I'm not about to dictate my life based on the opinions of a fly-by-night, middle-aged cosplayer with daddy issues. If Batman doesn't like it, Batman can deal. "

Ginny got the attention of the other girl with that comment- a firm, icy thrill up her spine said as such- but she didn't do anything to take it back, Ron's squawking be damned.

(So her brother didn't like her ballsy approach to life- so f*cking what? She'd done enough cowering to last a lifetime, thank you very much. Like hell was she going to dip into overtime with that sh*t. Especially when the monster of her and Twin's nightmares was nowhere near their physical proximity and most importantly: dead.)

"Ginny! You can't just call Batman-"

Luna reached over and took the phone from Ginny's hand, tapping the 'end call' button with a serene dignity that Ginny had only ever seen Luna pull off. It was a royal-like thing: that dignity. Something that wouldn't be out of place in a serpent's castle or a god's haven.

Ginny could never.

(She was more of a 'hit it and then hit it harder' kind of gal.)

Luna handed her back the phone with an amused hum, to which Ginny stared at with a serious and solemn air.

"My blood…" she drew out slowly, the syllables coloring her tongue in mourning shame, "My own blood…"

Luna patted her shoulder in comfort, nodding her head just as gravely.

"He's brave in his own ways." She placated softly, carefully placing her candied selections along the sides of their shopping cart. The pile in question was getting to be quite the hoard, if Ginny did say so herself. She was actually decently proud of their moon's rebellion.

(Because, subject matter aside, Ginny was unfailingly certain that's what it was. In her own, unique way, Luna was telling Hermione to lighten the f*ck up- and because Luna was Luna- Hermione would listen. She was awesome like that.)

Whatever comment Ginny had to that assurance was superseded by the expectant gaze of their stowaway- with the sheer focus of it, Ginny couldn't help but turn. The girl blinked, perhaps caught off guard that her staring did not go unnoticed (or maybe flummoxed at Ginny's mouth? Now that she thought about it… what was the opinion of Batman in Gotham?), but she recovered quickly.

"Hi!" The girl greeted cheerfully, hand raised in a little wave. "I'm Stephanie."

Luna waved back, the motion more of a wiggle than anything else. Ginny grinned.

('Mione might've made them sit through a stupidly long safety lecture before they even entered the city, but Stephanie had Moon Approval ™ here. That was just as good as Twins.)

"I'm Luna."

Stephanie bounced on her heels, pleased with the name. Ginny gave a half-hearted salute in solidarity.

"Ginevra," she introduced, pocketing the phone with the other hand. "Call me anything other than Ginny or Gin, and I'll have to kick your teeth in."

As a testament to the sheer power of Moon Approval™, Stephanie didn't blink at the threat. Instead, she beamed.

"It's Steph," she corrected happily. "Or you get a brick to the face."

Ginny nodded in both understanding and respect.

(Ginny was as acquainted with colorful threats as any other Foundling, but a brick? To the face? Hadn't heard that one before.)

Steph continued, her body damn near vibrating in delight.

"New to Gotham?" She asked, half choked.

Luna answered for them, leaning forward to get a better view.

"We just moved here, actually."

Steph nodded along absently.

"Really? Wow, that's cool. Awesome, really. The best. You seem chill. Now: so, uh, not to be weird or too forward or anything, but I need us to be friends. Like: right now."

Chapter 4: Spine Straight Like a Proper Soldier (the commander lost more than a leg)

Chapter Text

Duke loved his family, he really did, but every once and a while he couldn't help but think that they really needed help. Like: Grade-A, psychological, professional help.

"I'm sorry Tim…" Duke damn near sighed, silently wishing away his coming headache by way of rubbing the back of his neck. It hadn't yet been successful… do matter how many times he tried… but what was life without a little hope? "You kind of lost me there. One more time?"

His brother- adopted brother, mind you (a distinction Duke only bothered making when his adopted family was being at least five leagues away from ok and just a hair shy of concerning; which, if we were being honest here, was almost always) - stared flatly as he repeated his statement/question, keeping the sounds long and even. One dark, haggard eyebrow remained raised during this exchange: conveying a sense of disbelief like Duke was being the absurd one in this situation and the fact that he was being forced to repeat his completely normal request was idiocy at its finest.

"I plead sanctuary." He grumbled slowly, bracing himself more firmly across the threshold of Duke's door. Duke looked over Tim's shoulder in equal exasperation, rubbing the back of his neck a little harder and trying his damndest not to be bothered.

"You've seemed to have found it just fine." He commented lightly, pointedly not trying to question as to why it was Duke's boxing gloves, bookcase, and bed that stared back at him. The fact that he somehow ended up on the wrong side of his own room was not too odd, he was determined to decide peacefully, and thus not a reason to worry. Worrying would get him nowhere, you see. 'Worry' was a four letter word.

(Yes, Duke knew how to spell. No, he wasn't ignorant to how many actual letters were in the f*cking word. The point of it all was, quite simply, that to worry about the reason behind why any of his adopted brothers did anything was, in his humble opinion, a one way ticket to Arkham. Duke- and he meant this in the most truest of senses- did not have time for that.)

You know what? So Tim was in his room. So what? It wasn't Damian, so sabotage was unlikely. He didn't have any coffee in there, so there wouldn't be anything Tim would want, really. Nothing looked out of place.

(And if he managed to go selectively deaf to the growing clamor coming from downstairs, steadily approaching the proud decimal of a warzone- complete with death threats and cursing and bodily harm- then that was him just defending his title as the Second Most Sane in the Manor, thank you very much.)

(Cass and Alfred gave him that honor. In tandem. Together. Duke defended it with pride. And practically no effort)

Tim graced him with a bleak, mournful scowl.

"Official sanctuary," he corrected dimly, gripping Duke's door frame with thin, pale fingers like steel vices. Even paler blue eyes flickered down and up, the skin around them flinching as something - Duke couldn't for sure tell what exactly it was, but based off the hollow 'thunk' and the blistering of glass he'd have to guess picture frame- broke to pieces a floor below.

The growing vigilante in Duke stood at attention then, having learnt this lesson the hard way a few months ago with Steph.

('Sanctuary', it had turned out, could be anything under the sun with his adopted family: a place to hide, opening a door, a dash of purposeful ignorance here and there, etc. Easy enough to give, in Duke's opinion, and with just enough plausible deniability to keep you clean from whatever mess they were running from. 'Official Sanctuary', however, had no deniability. It meant protection. It meant coming to their defense. Taking their side.)

(it meant joining the fallout)

Duke's eyes narrowed immediately.

"What'd you do?"

Tim was quick to defend himself, his shoulders hunching.

"Nothing!"

Deep, echoing bangs rang up the stairwell, traveling closer and closer to the landing. Brittle glass clattered as it was thrown around, scraping raw against carpet and what Duke could only hope was sturdy shoe soles. The migration of it all- the clear, uncontested direction it was taking- crumbled Tim's defense as he grew whiter than a sheet. Duke crossed his arms over his chest, dipping his head towards the floor below them, eyebrow raised.

Tim quickly admitted defeat after a particularly deep curse muffled its way up.

"Ok," he hedged weakly, looking more spooked by the second, "I might've… told Dick something?"

"Dick?" Duke echoed with a sigh, already trying to debate whether or not it was worth it to say yes. Duke could swear he felt his blood pressure raise.

"Dude, you know he's been in a mood."

Tim winced.

"I mean- yeah-"

The sounds of struggle gave a particularly loud bang then, almost like the sound of a gun. Or at least, that's what Duke thought, then he heard a particularly deep voice that had him not so sure that 'almost' was the right word. Duke felt a shiver go down his spine.

'Wait… I know that voice.'

"Tim…" He asked in disbelief, wide eyed to the smaller boy in front of him. "Did you sell out Jason? To Dick?"

His certifiably insane brother, one Duke was at least marginally sure had a death wish at all times, set his jaw stubbornly.

"I plead official sanctuary." He repeated.

Duke shook his head, both dismayed and amazed at his brother's particular brand of bravery.

(Tim operated on a 'yes/no' system, Duke had learned quickly, with immense consideration going into whether or not he should or should not do the thing in question. Once he decided on a 'yes', however, all bets were off- consequences be damned. Now Duke was all for fun as much as the next guy- and yeah, heckling your siblings was supposed to be a rite of passage or normal modus operandi or some sh*t like that- but with Jason and Damian? Poking the sleeping bear despite and in spite of the glaringly apparent assassination background or mind altering resurrectional side effects? f*ck that, Duke wanted to live.)

Duke raised his hands in shallow apology, not meaning an ounce of it.

"Sorry man- not a chance."

The fight hit the stairwell.

"Replacement!!" Came a roar.

Tim tensed- his eyes glazing over as his life flashed before his eyes. After a heartbeats moment of consideration, weighing all the pro's and con's involved, Duke pointed to his window idley.

"That may or may not be unlocked-"

Tim didn't even let Duke finish his sentence before he was out- and please forgive Duke for this- like a bat outta hell. Staring at the puff of dust he left behind, Duke shook his head sadly. He didn't turn as Jason emerged from the stairwell, breathing heavily.

(The weight of his rage was more than enough to announce his presence.)

"Oi, Thomas," Jason seethed out roughly, his throat scratched in his effort to smother his burning ire, "where is he?"

Duke shrugged, his next decision pouring from his lips without an ounce of guilt.

"I think he went to find Damian for something." He answered, as if he wasn't exactly sure why Tim would hypothetically want Damian for anything but not hypothetically willing to ask. He didn't bat an eye as Jason cursed and took off running, Dick closely following- his chest heaving and a few new bruises decorating his skin.

Duke waved at him as he ran past.

(Throw his feral brothers under the bus? No f*cking thank you. Throw them at each other? Hypothetically, not... the worst idea Duke's ever had.)

Chapter 5: So the Red Strings Tie Us (if only it wasn't knotted to hell)

Chapter Text

Contrary to Rin's arguable panic and near-spiraling rotation of second-guessing and unreasonable guilt, making a home in Gotham was not the worst thing she could've done. Hermione was the Rin-bullsh*t extraordinaire here: she knew what she was talking about.

She had an itinerary for the nonsense that followed the red-haired girl like a lost puppy. A manual- many manuals, really- for her impulsive yet astoundingly astute responses. She had contingencies for the smaller girl: contingencies upon contingencies. She had plans. Back up plans. Back up plans for the back up plans: all ready and waiting for when whatever inevitable, thing-of-legends evil decided to come knocking at their door.

Gotham? Concerning, if Hermione was being generous, but not the worst. Living in Gotham? Didn't even break DEFCON 4.

Honestly, Ronald needed to take a moment to think about his blood pressure.

"I've got it handled, Ron" she assured blandly, once again, not sparing a glance to the disheveled face of her on-again-off-again boyfriend of 4 years reflected back on the computer screen. "You know I wouldn't've let her step foot in the city if I didn't."

The computer at her foot crackled with static as the boy in question moved his device, settling it to a more comfortable position on his lap. A quick peek assured that he wasn't getting ready to hang up, so she returned to the piles of paper littering the floor- picking up a red marker near her foot with a hum.

(Tracking the movements of Batman and friends was more cathargic than expected, she mused idly, heck… it was kind of fun? She had expected it to be a challenge- and it was: in a complex, geometric, aerobic sense- but there was a certain amount of logic to the patterns that acted like a balm to her soul. Riddle… now, Riddle was the bane of her existence: operating on just enough sanity to make a plan and just enough insanity to be nothing short of unpredictable. She was seeing some disconcerning parallels between how he operated and the Joker's methods of choice- but Batman? Batman made sense.)

"I know you do, 'Mione," Ron sighed once the shuffling had stopped. "Gods know you do- but we can't just overlook the obvious here. She couldn't've bought a home in the middle of nowhere Idaho or something? Kansas? I dunno, Ohio?? Nothing ever happens in Ohio."

Hermione couldn't help but roll her eyes, switching the red marker for a blue one.

"Ron," she drawled, her lips quirked up in an amused smirk as she lined Nightwing's last known sightings for the week in a crooked, jagged line, "You've never been to America, let alone Ohio. You don't know what they do there."

"They do less than Gotham," he muttered darkly, "I know that."

Taking a quick glance at her laptop, Hermione smothered a snort. In the reflected light of the screen, Ron's rusted copper mop of hair stuck out in all directions- a product of his established habit of aggressively rubbing his head when frustrated. The effect of that plus the disorientation of the arranged pixels made the boy resemble what Hermione could only describe as Peter Pan's sleep-deprived older brother.

It never failed to amuse her.

"Anything less and she'd die of boredom." She reminded him peacefully, pulling out a blank page from behind the layered maps to write down her calculations. She could've used a calculator, yes, but there was something about paper that made everything better. It made it right.

"Or worse," She continued with a fond sigh, shivering at the thought, "she'd go looking for something to alleviate it."

Ronald shared her suffering.

"Oh gods, 'Mione…" Ron begged prettily, his tenor ground out in a low, drawn out groan of pure agony, "Don't even joke like that! I don't think my heart can take it… That lunatic would only get five steps out the door before something happened!"

Staring at the blank space between her carefully written lines while her mind worked over the numbers, Hermione nodded abdently in agreement- pulling the edge of her laptop so that Ron could follow her as she rotated positions to get the mapping under her thigh. Her near-untamable curls bounced from their bun, the lock near her ear waving as she leaned over the screen to get anything trapped underneath. Her headphones crackled with the pull of the wire.

"We'll figure it out, Ron." She promised, popping out the farthest earbud and carefully arranging her papers so they were in order- but more importantly straight. "Between the five of us, I'm sure we can arrange something to counter even Rin's luck. Besides: she's already happy. So we're off to a good start."

When the other end of her web-call turned as silent as the grave, Hermione turned her attention to her laptop- bemused at the boy's expression of pure terror.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized serenely, eyes gleaming and not meaning a goddamned ounce of the apology, "Should I have waited for you to get to the part where you tell us the Twins are coming too?"

She raised her eyebrow in a silent challenge, waiting for Ron to respond.

(One of the main reasons behind the fact that she and Ron couldn't manage to keep their relationship steady despite their love for each other was a sense of fragile masculinity the other couldn't let go of and a strong sense of pride she refused to relinquish. Ron was loyal, incredible, and so sweet in so many ways- and he'd have a place in Hermione's heart for as long as she lived- but she was slowly coming to understand that perhaps he needed a… different long-term partner. One more willing to settle for a slow, domestic life and be happier for it.)

To Ron's credit, he only swallowed roughly.

"You scare me when you do that, 'Mione." He muttered awkwardly, looking away. Hermione sat back slowly, breathing through the action.

Change takes time, she reminded herself firmly, change takes time.

(And if part of her wished desperately that they'd work it out this time, despite history proving otherwise, then that hope was tucked away where no one but her could find it. She'd never say it outloud. It was her secret to keep.)

"When can we expect them?" She asked instead.

"Friday." He answered, avoiding her eyes.

(Another source of their fights, she noted dimly against the growing burn in her gut. You can fight a madman but not look me in the eye? Do I matter so little? Am I really that scary?)

She nodded in assent, motioning to end their meeting before any disagreements could start on her behalf.

"I'll get everything ready," she promised hastily, rising to her knees to gather her project. The thin padding of her leggings did little to protect her from the hard wooden surface, but the small bruises decorating her kneecaps were a part of the process just as much as the color coordination. The darkened skin at her elbows and the calluses lining her fingers were small sacrifices to make in light of- as Albus had often said; the manipulative, infuriatingly wise asshole that he was- the greater good.

"Just keep me updated."

The feed glitched from Ron jerking his tablet a bit too hard: slashing sections of primary-colored overlay across his conflicted expression. His eyebrows were crooked inward, like they always were when he was thinking too hard, pulling his forehead down and pinching up the shape. Had he been an engine, or something similarly mechanical, there was sure to be smoke soon coming out of every orifice for how severe the force of it was.

(For all Hermione knew, he could've had a thousand discussions sitting on the tip of his tongue. He could've wanted to talk it out. He could've been willing to work with her on them. But- like always- he settled on the safest answer. What came out was nothing Hermione wanted.)

"Stay safe."

Hermione tried for a smile- tried to remind herself that he was probably trying to keep the peace: like she did, not too many moments ago.

(Not for the first time, Hermione wished people could make as much sense as maps and math. Maps never did this to her. Math never gave her endless wrong answers she didn't know how to help.)

"I promise to try." She gritted out.

The screen switched to black quickly: as if the shiny slate of glass knew how sour her social call turned and wished to alleviate Hermione's misery as soon as digitally possible. Or maybe Ronald wanted to hop off as fast as he could. Pulling out her other earbud, Hermione held her face in her hands with a small sigh.

(Sometimes we wish for something impossible, she thought dully, Sometimes what we want just can't be done.)

A knock at the room's door pulled her out of her thoughts before they could get any lower.

"What is it?" She asked, knowing it was Rin on the other side. Rin always did her best to give Hermione some privacy when she talked to Ron…. One of her most endearing qualities as Hermione's sister-in-all-but-legal was that she kept her nose out of Hermione's relationships. She was there for her, of course- if Hermione needed it- but she didn't meddle.

Ginny could learn a lot from her.

Rin shuffled nervously, the action loud enough to be heard through the door.

"Gin and Luna are on their way back," she said, the sound soft and muffled, "I got a text."

Hermione frowned, standing up and opening the door with an ominous creek. Rin, in an oversized sweater and paint splashed blue jeans, handed her phone over without a word- the message already open.

Hermione felt her blood pressure raise with each letter.

"Who… the f*ck is Steph?"

FROM: Twins til Fin 11:23 AM

'Oi Twin, tell the Warlord to hide the maniacal evil plans and sh*t, would ya? We already promised Steph we weren't serial killers before she got in the car. (Luna approved of all of this btw. Mini can bite me.)'

FROM: Twins til Fin 11:23 AM

'She's hot as hell's bells and threatened me with a brick to the face.'

FROM: Twins til Fin 11:24 AM

'Today begins the start of a glorious ✨️ friendship ✨️ '

Chapter 6: The Foundation Shall not Forsake Us (that's why we race across roofs)

Chapter Text

Contrary to Bruce's unending lectures on personal responsibility and near constant look of tired-dad disapproval, Stephanie did, in fact , 'consider any possible consequences' and 'recognize the ramifications of her actions as it relates to others'. She wasn't dumb.

So she didn't study and cross-examine and research and write a 3,000 page thesis about her entry and exit plan before punching a bad guy in the face, so what? Bruce needed to lay off. She was not- not that the statuesque grump of a man would ever hear a word of it- that impulsive. She got the job done.

And! And! Get this: she was good at it. Without having to shove a ten foot pole up her ass.

So.

Would Bruce like her current course of action? No, no he would not. Was hopping in the car of two amazing, yet literal strangers the moment Cass texted her saying Tim was on the run from Jason a pre-approved Bat Plan™? No, no it was not. Did Steph give a flying f*ck that it wasn't? No, no she did not.

Batdaddy wasn't her father and she wasn't a kid.

Right.

So.

In conclusion: those powerpoints were completely unnecessary, Bruce could shove it, and Steph was a perfectly responsable, perfectly reasonable, damn near perfect specimen of an adult.

(Honestly, you'd think that all that time with Selina would loosen up his tie a little.)

"Left! Left! Left!" Steph chanted, slapping the hood of the sturdy sedan Gin and Luna had piled her into. The equally structurally sound divots lining the rear passenger door found another- far more important- use for their existence other than holding hard candies, loose change, and granulated dust: ensuring Steph didn't brain herself on any reinforced glass.

The loud 'whoopp' she let out as Gin took the turn beautifully- tires screeching in an ungodly battle cry and the groceries slamming against the back- was an accident, thank you very much. There was a crash of glass that she might've felt sorry for if it was her interior, but it wasn't and Gin didn't once pump the brakes so take that Imaginary-not-there-disappointed Bruce!

Luna braced herself on the dash as they swung around- her delicate limbs cradling six bags of Reeses in the crook of her arm and a foot steeling her slight body on the divider. The small 'eep' that came out when they popped the curb was f*cking adorable and Steph was pretty sure if anything ever happened to the pastel-pretty girl, despite having just met her, she'd be forced into her villian era.

Bruce would just have to understand.

"Motherfuc-!"

The runaway convertible and the following police entourage just missed their bumper with how fast they were going- by inches at most, if Steph was being generous - barreling past at indescribable speeds in rounding flashes of red, black, white and blue. As they crossed the brief snapshot presented by the two alleyway walls, Steph could barely make out the drivers: one man and one woman, both early to mid 20's, with a horrendous fashion sense outdated by more than a few decades.

As one, Steph and Gin flipped them off as they went.

(And if Steph committed every detail she could to memory- from their profiles to the car type to the license plate as her heart ran away with excess adrenaline- for more… nocturnal purposes later, then that was her business and her business only. Bruce couldn't prove sh*t.)

Luna stuck out her tongue at the passing vehicles, pouting at the dust left behind. Their suburban, a dark blue, relatively clean six seater with tan upholstery, rolled to a sluggish stop.

"Did the pickles make it?" Gin asked her a tad bit desperately. Steph preened in glee as she shuffled over the seats to check the bags.

Ahhhhhh, yes. These were her people.

Steph snigg*red, rightening herself and turning back into her seat after verifying the goods.

"The pickles are secure Captain," She reported in her most serious voice, throwing up a horrendously inaccurate salute that would have Tim frothing at the mouth. "However, there's been a casualty in the seasoning section."

Gin set her mouth in a grim line, putting the car in gear and nodding slowly. Luna hung her head mournfully as they began moving again.

"Is there any hope of recovery?" Gin questioned, pulling out of the alleyway on the other side after carefully avoiding any lining dumpsters. Steph bleakly shook her head, her response coming at the same time the sharp, warm scent wafted throughout the cabin.

"I'm sorry, Captain."

Gin breathed deeply in grief (and a fair bit of pleasure).

"The cinnamon will not be forgotten."

Luna nodded in equal regret, rearranging her bags of Reeses into a proper pile with one serious poker face. Steph and Gin only made it a few seconds more before they broke out in giggles- Gin covering her mouth to try to keep them inside.

Steph coughed in an attempt to catch her breath.

Luna and Gin, Steph noted, were two very different people- but obviously very close.

Luna was the taller of the two. She was pale in both hair and skin, willowy in stature, and whose very existence had more free flowing grace in one finger than Steph would have in her entire life. Her eyes were a pale, clear-afternoon-skies blue, her hair so fair the word 'blonde' felt too dark for some reason, and she wore a loose, lacey, white sundress with crisscrossed ribbons and fluttery fillery Steph theorized was homemade.

(And although the ivory coloring hid them well, Steph could not ignore the thin, faded lines lying diagonally across Luna's wrists- tilted and overlapped in the way restraints cut into your skin if you fought them too long. With how comfortable the girl was with letting them show, Steph could only guess that the scars were old, but she wasn't about to ask even though she wanted to soooooo badly. Occasionally, she did have some tact.)

Honestly, Steph was legitimately starting to think the girl was part fairy.

Gin was another boat entirely. While Luna gave off feelings of delicacy and grace like a foreign princess, Gin had the vibe of a blacksmith. Or the foreign princess's guard.

Dressed in a relaxed fit pair of faded jeans and a army green quarter sleeve t-shirt, Gin- despite being approximately three and a half inches shorter than what Steph was categorizing as her sister- felt like the taller of the two. Her hair was a rustic gingered color, her eyes a lighter shade of brown, but her skin landed somewhere in between freckled and tan depending on where you looked.

(It did nothing to disguise the scarring, Steph silently mused, but Gin didn't wear them with ease like Luna did. She wore them with pride. And it didn't take a genius to figure out why: pairing off her matching, damaged wrists was a crosshatched webbing across Gin's knuckles that Steph saw everyday when she took off her gloves. She saw it on Jay's hands. She saw it on Tim's. If Gin wasn't a fighter, Steph would vocally praise Bruce on everything he did for the next year.)

The girl in question broke Steph out of her thoughts as they pulled on the main road.

"I don't suppose a native like you would know how to get to Hillcrest from wherever the hell we are?" Gin asked blithely.

Steph blinked in shock, once again feeling as if their meeting was fate.

"Hillcrest? No sh*t?"

Gin tilted her head, eyebrows furrowed.

"You know it?"

Steph laughed in disbelief.

(Duuuuuude, Bruce was going to lose his sh*t!)

"Know it?" She crowed, "Dude, everyone knows it! And it's like, 300 or 400 ish acres- forgot the exact number in rich people neighborhood numbers- from my ex's house!"

Gin winced in sympathy as Luna turned around in interest.

"Bad ex?" She asked hesitantly.

Steph waved them off.

"Good ex," She corrected. "We're still green for go."

It was when Gin sighed with relief at her response that Steph decided to discuss the more important factoid of the aforementioned Hillcrest house.

"You know that place is haunted, right?" She asked eagerly, leaning forward in between the seats to ensure the two girls got her meaning. "Like, actually haunted?"

Luna smiled effortlessly, in a sparse moment looking as if she knew every secret of the universe at once.

"Oh yes. We know."

Chapter 7: Herold of the Hearth, Point Me Towards Destiny (fate's currently in time out for being a brat)

Chapter Text

Luna had heard once- through one means or another- that hardship made people bitter. It made them harsher. As a rule. She had heard it was a shield of sorts: a way to keep themselves safe. After all, how could anything hurt you if you kept yourself armed? Surely then you could be forgiven for sparse moments of cruelty- if the other person knew what you hid from. What you fought through. If you explained that you didn't mean it.

Cruelty, Luna later learned, was easy. Kindness in the face of cruelty, however, was hard. Indescribably so. It took resolve. It took strength. It took will. It took an unwavering hope in the people around you, an unbreakable faith in the possibilities of living, and a love of life that couldn't be smothered to smile when everything fell apart.

(For all the teachers in Luna's life, Rin was the one to ensure that important lesson didn't pass Luna by. Luna, too, was wise enough to learn. She knew now that some rules were meant to be broken.)

Hermione would get there.

In time.

"Oh my gosh you're so cute! Just how tall are you?"

Rin flushed a deep red as Steph fluttered around her in excited awe. The weighty grocery bags twisted in her grip did little to slow her admiration, neither did the uneven ground of their front lawn. Hermione had theorized the state of their front yard was a byproduct of time- after all, it had been many years since the house was occupied and subjected to matnienance. Deep dips and what could be described as 'overgrown' weeds scattered around the front. The blooms were thin and vibrant, ranging from darker blues to hotter pinks. The grass stood a medium height with hair-thick reeds. The trees framing the property flourished in their freedom- the thick, clotted bushels of leaves leaving only small windowed sections for the sky to peek in- whilst still laying far enough to not endanger the home's structure.

(Luna had been immensely pleased when Rin noticed her adoration for the property as it was and decided that there was no need to shave down the growth. At times Luna felt as if she stood in the thick of it and closed her eyes, she could feel her mother's spirit within reach. She had not yet been brave enough to ask Rin whether or not the feeling was true. Luna wasn't sure she would ever be.)

"I'm, uh, I'm five foot even." Rin answered, gaze darting to her feet in an effort to balance her own bulky parcel as they made their way to the door. Gin followed behind her, the bulk of their shopping extrusion hooked between her fingers. Steph squealed in response, bouncing up and down like a magpie.

"Oooooh you're so tiny!" She crowed, grinning from ear to ear in good-natured mirth, "Like, tiny tiny! But it's adorable- like a little fairy! Are your eyes natural? sh*t, I don't think contacts could touch that color! They're not, right?"

Luna opened the door for them with her free hand, dutifully pretending not to see Hermione's accusing stare as she led them inside or the glowing fluster painting Rin's cheeks. The girl was immune to any short jokes by now, but compliments never failed to render her multiple shades of red.

(Gin had decided that Rin needed to love herself more long ago when they were twelve, so since then there had been an ongoing competition to see who could get her to blush the most. The criteria ranged from color concentration, area of flush, to duration of flusterness with special consideration given if Rin teared up- with happiness Draco you dumb sh*t. Naturally, Luna was in the lead.)

(Also: Luna was for sure going to have to go through the Stranger Safety powerpoint again. She could sense it. In the force.)

"Oh, no, they're natural. I've been told I got them from my mom?"

Steph beamed in answer, looking around their half-way home in interest as they worked their way to the kitchen. The shared living spaces in particular needed the most renovation, and it was clear to any layman that they were still in the process of building their home. There was much more work to be done, for sure, but even in its beginning stages Luna could feel their hearth growing.

The living room, they decided, would be painted a slated gray. Luna had almost become accustomed to the heavy, sharp scent that hung in the air as the first layer dried. It mixed with the musty grain of caulk putty rather well- although Luna would admit patching up bullet holes was a new experience for her. The farthest wall still had rectangles of off-white in odd sections. Since they had no couch for the ground-floor yet, a designated corner was piled with pillows and cushions of differing shapes, colors, and sizes.

It was almost as if a particularly crow-minded cat made a den.

The kitchen, at least, was pristine.

"You look good in purple," Rin offered in return, taking note of her outfit as they entered the said kitchen. Had it been anyone else, the words would've sounded like a hesitant attempt at conversation. But since it was Rin it could only sound sincere.

(And it wasn't as if she was lying. Steph did look good in purple.)

"Couldn't've made it 3 days?" Hermione hissed at Luna as she passed. Luna smiled innocently, as if she knew nothing of anything at any given moment. In turn, Hermione scoffed and crossed her arms as she watched Luna place her bags on the black granite countertop with care.

(Luna, it should be said, was incredibly skilled at knowing more than she ought to. Out of the charades she could've chosen, ignorance was the most coy.)

"Thanks!" Steph chirped, relieving herself of her own carry-ons with the gentle touch one uses when they handle things that are not their own. "Purple is the ideal color after all!"

From the other end of the kitchen, Gin- now free of her own weighted burden- took immediate offense.

"Bullsh*t!" She scoffed, her hair slipping past her ears in the way Luna knew frustrated her to no end. Gin's hands moved up to her neck to pull the nuisance back before pausing- eyes flicking to her bare wrist with a breathless huff. Wordlessly, Rin offered her one of the many hair ties that lived on her own wrist. Thanks to the curls in her hair, Rin had many. Gin took it with flourish and continued. "Green's the best!"

Steph- the lovely Steph- reared back, as if struck.

"Green?" Steph gasped, clutching the collar of her loose fitted shirt in horror. "Surely not! Gin, I cannot abide by this! I thought you were different!"

Rin looked between the two, her face twisted in both amusem*nt and unending confusion. From over Steph's shoulder, Luna gave her a reassuring smile- once again feeling the rightness of their current company wash over her in warm, buttery pleasure.

Hermione tilted her head back, no doubt noting a number of irritating parallels between their guest and her kin, looking at the ceiling in silent prayer.

(It was a funny habit, if you asked Luna- especially given that Hermione was a firm atheist and had no one she wished to pray to. The ceiling, at least, had not offered her any help. Not to date, anyways.)

"What's wrong with green?" Rin dared to ask, her question colored with genuine intrigue. Her impossibly green eyes glittered- no doubt bracing herself for more theatrics.

Steph did not dare to disappoint.

"What's not wrong with green!" Steph cried, twirling on the ball of her foot and pacing around the kitchen island. Steph gestured with her hands as she spoke, swinging them up and around as if she was performing a ballet routine. Rin ducked when she came around, giggling into the palm of her hand.

"It's the forbidden fruit!" She lectured passionately. "The forsaken subject! That which is not known to any Gothamite! The spectral vision!"

Luna began humming a flute-like tune from the counter, hugging the surface closely so Steph had more space for her stage. Hermione made a face at the amount of candy bags Luna began to pull out but didn't comment on it- instead, she chose to address the more important subject matter at hand.

"There's literally green on our lawn." She countered with a raised eyebrow and dry tone. Steph paused from her pacing to address the point.

"That's Gotham green," Steph emphasized- making sure they understood the importance of the stress. "It's different."

Luna looked up from her act of unloading, interested in the technicality.

"What's the difference?" She asked in wonder.

Truefully, the possibility of possessive colors had never occurred to her before that moment. Luna had only known colors to be just that: colors. She had heard descriptions of course- 'sun yellow', or 'sky blue' or 'screw me red'- but the inflection Steph used on the word 'Gotham' sounded like… more than a mere attribute.

Steph shrugged, the motion fluid and natural.

"Something along the vibracy." She explained with a flip of her wrist. The question had intrigued her, Luna could tell, but it didn't look like Steph had a way to formally describe the difference. Luna understood the feeling quite well. Using words to describe that which is innately known- it should be said- was, as Gin would describe, a Percy-sized pain in the ass. "It's easier to understand if you visit Metropolis."

Luna nodded seriously.

Yes… Steph was correct: hands-on experience was best in these types of situations. It let the other person in question make their own words- their own understandings.

Rin turned to the window, rubbing her face roughly in an effort to get her laughing under control.

"I can't exactly argue with that." She commented, pressing her lips together as she thoughtfully surveyed their front yard. The overcast sky gave the waving grass a thin, gray hue. That, paired with the darker stain of hanging fog, tinted the life beyond the window. Rin's lips quirked up in a fond smile. "Everything is a little more… dark-ish here."

"And we like it like that!" Steph cheered, twirling towards Rin. After a beat, Steph's blue eyes widened in realization- a soft curse spilling from her lips.

"Oh sh*t- sorry," Steph apologized hastily, offering Rin her partially gloved hand, "I totally forgot to introduce myself. I'm Steph!"

Rin, never one for formalities, took it with a sweet friendliness. Steph paused the moment their skin made contact, her breath hitching. Gin and Luna shared a fond moment of understanding, having had the same happen to them years ago.

(Metas- Luna often mused- sadly, didn't come with an operation manual at birth. Much of their lives, her's and Rin's especially, were spent trying to understand the power that lived in their very being. There were theories, of course, as to why it happened- each more convoluted than the next due to her meta's abstract nature and Rin's inability to talk about it just yet- but something did undeniably happen when Rin's skin touched your own. If they were to use Luna's words, she'd say that Rin's meta- when passive - had a way of making you feel seen. It was if the moment Rin touched your skin the smaller girl knew every skeleton lining your closet- every sinful thought and dark secret you ever had- and somehow… it didn't change anything. It was as if those things never mattered to begin with.)

"I'm Rin." She introduced happily, completely oblivious to the effect she had on others. Gin shook her head in exasperation. "The grumpy one is Hermione."

Steph removed her hand very naturally and shook off the feeling with only a little unease.

"Ah yes," She laughed lightly, straightening up and bowing formally towards the burnette. "The non-serial killer Warlord. Pleased to make your acquaintance my liege."

Hermione uncrossed her arms and leaned back on the countertop, her dark brown eyes assessing Steph with the concentration one would use to disarm a bomb. Having been on the other end of that stare, Luna felt for Steph. The focus to it… well, let's just say there was a ferocity to that stare that Luna often likened to a hunter.

It used to be softer- before the war. Careful and curious, yes, but still full of trust. Now it was protective. Predatory. Intense. Truely: the only other way Hermione could've gotten more information on the blonde-haired girl's intentions towards their family was if she bound her to a metal table and started carving away.

Steph, Luna was certain, could feel the pressure. They all could. But after a tense moment, Hermione relaxed- her scrutiny easing and her tone melting into something more friendly as she judged Steph as 'non-hostile'.

(Steph felt that too, Luna noticed, humming with interest as she straightened up the second after Hermione backed off. Good. Sharp instincts were good.)

"A pleasure." Hermione drawled in her lax, exhausted way. "So. How’d they convince you to get in the car?”

Gin grunted, the offended noise half-buried under the scraping of whatever box she unearthed.

Oi!" She huffed, "I resent that! She asked!Her brother was being stupid so we’re sheltering.”

Steph nodded in unwavering agreement, defending their honor with pride. Rin peeked around the cylindrical container she held with hopeful eyes.

“You have a brother?” She asked eagerly, looking less like a fairy and more like a begging kitten. Steph laughed as she hopped on to sit on the countertop, her earlier hesitation around Rin vanishing into nothing. Luna nodded in approval, handing over a bag of rice to Steph to pass along.

Too many brothers, if you ask me.” Steph answered, passing the bag to Rin. Rin took it and moved toward the cabinets, her attention still on Steph.

“But my ex would be lost without me," Steph continued with a fond sigh, "as would his stupidly large family, so I take the burden with grace.”

At that Herminone's wariness melted a little bit more, a small noise of comradery escaping without her say-so.

“I know the feeling.” She mused, walking over to assist in putting away their food. Gin hissed, slamming the kitchen drawer she had open with more force than was necessary.

“Again! I resent that!”

Hermione waved off her fury, pulling at the closest piece of plastic before pausing as she remembered something. “Ah, by the way Ginny- the twins will be here on Friday.”

Rin perked up, happy and hopeful.

“Fred and George are visiting?” She asked, frozen from where Steph was passing along the fruit snacks.

Gin rolled her eyes with a groan.

“I’ll start moving sh*t for their rooms.” She grumbled, gathering any empty bags and stuffing them all in one singular, designated slip of plastic.

Luna took it upon herself to correct any misunderstandings before Rin could run away with them. “Oh they’re going to live here too,” Luna clarified cheerfully.

Rin's eyes rounded and watered.

“Really…?" She sniffled, clutching the box of fruit snacks like a teddy. "Are they- I mean, are they sure?”

Hermione dipped to her knees so Rin couldn't see her hang her head or hear her less than lady-like whispers. “One day,” she muttered furiously, “One day.”

Luna nodded to both.

(Oh yes… one day… one day Luna would have to ask Rin for forgiveness for their actions towards her aunt and uncle. One day. After the deed was done.)

“Oh, they're very sure.” She said aloud instead, unboxing the cans of soda in front of her. Rin let out a soft 'oh', then turned to shelf the box and hide her face.

“Family?” Steph asked easily, pulling out a bag of green and red candies and pancake mix and most decidedly not making a big deal of Rin's reaction. Gin nodded in both verification and appreciation.

“We’ve got a big one." She answered bluntly. "You’re ex too, right? He’s the rich bitch across the forest.”

Steph snorted.

“That is not a forest.”

Gin shrugged.

“Close enough.”

Rin turned from the cabinets with a frown, quickly wiping her face with a swipe of her sweater.

“Our neighbors?” Rin asked, the words coming out scratchy as her forehead creased in concern. “Is… that ok?”

Steph, in a slight panic, was quick to assure her it was fine.

“We parted on good terms," she swore, holding her hands up in general surrender and nodding along to her own words. "I was too awesome for him. Really, we’re family now! We love each other!"

Steph's blue eyes begged Rin to believe her as she offered the smaller girl the box of pancake mix like a treaty. Rin made a valiant effort to move past what she would describe as an 'embarrassing' moment- taking the box and nudging her cheek with her clothed shoulder with a sniffle. Luna watched the exchange with a dreamy smile, both encouraging and arguably innocent should Steph veer in the wrong direction.

(While Luna had every faith that Steph wouldn't purposefully hurt Rin in any way, shape, or form- flying objects were a distinct possibility if she accidentally made the situation worse. The house was haunted, after all.)

“Oh, oh, that’s great!” Rin said, putting the offered box away with a slightly wistful expression. “I’ve always wanted that- if I had a relationship that didn’t work out, you know? I’d love for us to be friends after… I mean, it'd be so sad to miss out on such a close relationship just cause we didn't work out romantically, right?"

Rin turned to Steph with a slight flush and wide, hopeful eyes and such sincere yearning that Luna could pinpoint the exact moment Steph's brain glitched, crashed, and rebooted.

(Luna's still did from time to time.)

“Oh my god…" Steph breathed in awe once the full process was completed, "you’re so f*cking pure!"

Rin blinked in confusion as Steph kicked off the countertop- landing with a swinging grace right in front of Rin. Rin blinked even more when Steph took her hands in a careful, protective grip and rapid fire questions tumbled out.

"What the f*ck are you doing in Gotham?" Steph demanded, turning over Rin's fingers as if the answers laid in each digit. Luna smothered a laugh at the rosey color returning to her sister's cheeks.(As it was, if Steph ever decided to participate in their competition… well, Luna might actually have a challenge on her hands.)

"This isn’t a sugar daddy situation, is it?" Steph continued, a bit crazed. "Is it? This is a big house. Are you here against your will? Blink twice if you're here against your will. I’ll beat him up for you! He’ll never see the light of day again!!”

Rin, getting redder by the second, desperately tried to form a proper denial out of her stuttering lips.

“Oh no! No, there’s- there’s no, ah- no, we’re not-”

And Gin- Luna's lovely, vindictive, spiteful elder sister Gin- started crackeling.

“You tell her, Sugar Momma!” Gin cheered, her words raspy from lack of air. All at once Steph's ongoing questioning stopped, her mouth popped open in shock. Rin, their gracious benefactor, hung her head in her hands and groaned.

"No way."

Luna hummed, her eyes glittering mischievously.

“Oh yes," Luna sang, "Rin takes very good care of us.”

The sound Rin made belonged to a dying animal.

Luna!" Rin begged helplessly, having had this same argument before with little to no luck. "Don’t say it like that!”

Steph, the wonderful girl, broke out in a grin.

“Are there any openings?” She asked gleefully.

Rin was saved from having to answer by the soft clink of glass and Hermione's sharp curse.

“Ginny- what the f*ck happened to my cinnamon!"

Chapter 8: Cradled Close with Deep Roots (or you could just f*cking bury me already)

Chapter Text

Tim had heard once- through one means or another- that the greatest, purest bond anyone could have was family. Family, it said, was the one thing you could count on when worse came to worst- when the chips came down and the fields caught fire, when the moon took over the sun and time itself stilled- family, it maintained, stayed. Family was forever.

Tim maintained that that entire notion- cross over the heart and everything- was bullsh*t. Complete and utter bullsh*t.

Family was the worst thing to ever happen to him, he'll have you know. The worst. They were no haven, no respite- they were the modern day Judas. The devil in disguise, he tells you. The raisin cookie hiding in the chocolate. The inopportune space in the code. They were the league opperative crouched in the shadowed corner because somebody can't take the f*cking hint that he wasn't about to become anyone's heir goddamnit-

(Honestly… you'd think all those years on earth would give Ra's a clue. You'd think Tim's less than graceful refusals would spell it out for him. You'd think- after an undisclosed number of bases Tim may or may have not rendered to ashes unusable with a hypothetical arsenal Tim totally didn't have- that he'd made himself clear. Was it a genetic thing? Was that what it was? The demon brat did possess a level of stubborness previously unknown to man… and here Tim had been sure it was just Bruce's influence at work…)

Ah, f*ck- got off topic. Where was he? Where was Tim going with this? Tim had a point here.

Oh! Oh right: Family.

Yeah, so on the subject of family: all of them- all of them, although an argument could be made for Dick and Duke in particular at this given time- were dead to him. Dead! Gone! Forsaken! Forecast into the depths of an unimaginable hell that even Ra's glowstick, zombified hot tub couldn't reach.

"Well?" Alfed asked- his tone impeccably, disgustingly calm. In any other adult Tim would have marked those words as the precursor to a bout of simmering rage- he could already hear the seething intent lurking under pretty, polite phrasing; always in Janet's voice- but not with Alfred.

Never with Alfred.

Tim- not a faithless man but neither a saint- had never claimed to have any strong feelings towards one religion or another, but if he were ever to subscribe to one it'd likely be The Temple of Alfred Pennyworth. Tim still remembered, so very distinctly in the very beginning- back when Jason had just passed- the unshakable patience the elder man showed both him and Bruce. There was no question as to whether or not they had earned a smack or two, but even in spite of that (and a few hundred honorable mentions thereafter) Tim couldn't remember a time of seeing Alfred truly angry.

(Now if only the lack of anger would make it easier to face Alfred's disappointment, Tim pondered with a sinking, flipping stomach. That sh*t- and Tim did mean this in an almost biblical sense- was lethal.)

Well, at least his misery had company.

Four companies, really. If Tim was being specific. And while he had no buisness standing where he stood seeing as Tim ran away for f*cks sake, he could appreciate the general 'if I'm going down, you're going down with me' mentality they all shared. Enough so that he was almost… ok with the fact that Damian actually dragged him back to the manor. Dragged. Like a f*cking doll.

(Actually, no. No, that was a lie. A f*cking lie. If any inch of his ankle was bruised, Tim was going to punt the stabby brat off a roof at the next available opportunity.)

Let it be known to all that Tim was the victim in this situation. The victim!

And! And he didn't know sh*t about the shattered, mangled remains of what Tim would guess as that quasi-Monet still-life knockoff that lived on the lower library floor.

(Not that he was mourning any. Really- out of all the mild, aesthetically pleasing paintings the guy pushed out, Bruce had to go with Rue Montorguiel? That flag-slashed, red and white mush of color was better than, say, flowers??? Bruce could defend himself all he wanted with his 'supporting young artists' and 'encouraging creative works' spiel- that thing was such a blatant act of plagiarization Tim was surprised Monet didn't rise out of his grave to backhand whoever painted it. Honestly… why were all of Bruces collectables so weird?)

Why was it laying pathetically at their feet? Tim couldn't say. How'd it get all smashed up and transported in the livingroom? Tim knew nothing. Why was he being lectured- like the only thing he was guilty of was defending his life and living the rest of it in comfortable, decisive ignorance? Your guess was as good as his- but to be clear: Tim was salty about it.

Himalayan levels of salt.

(Damain was so gonna get it later.)

For the sake of everyone involved- and due to the 'seating chart' courtesy of Selina, naming graces courtesy of Harley Quinn of all people (now that was a weird evening)- they had a particular order to their Line of Shame: Jason as far away from Tim as humanly possible, and Dick in between him and Damian as some kind of friendly buffer. The fact that they were in this situation again wasn't anything to write home about, happened every Tuesday really, but there was a brief moment of muted astonishment when it occured to Tim that no only was Steph notably absent from her particular spot beside him (and believe him, if Steph had a claim on anything in their household it would be a mere second to her spot in the Line of Shame), but Duke was in her place.

Tim managed to get Duke in the Line of Shame.

Honestly, it was a bit surreal.

Alfred raised an eyebrow in clear expectation.

Tim crumpled like a wet paper towel.

"It was Dick's fault!" Tim blurted, internally cringing at the volume. Both heads in question- the one mentioned and the one with the unspokenly assumed blame- snapped to him. Tim met Dick's gaze with firm resolve, knowing what fate he was sentencing his arguably favorite brother to. Dick got the message, his eyes widening and pathetically begging Tim not to continue, but Tim paid it no mind and showed no mercy.

Alfred's disappointment was at stake.

"He bribed me to let him know when Jason stopped by." Tim sentenced solemnly, turning his stare forward. "I was just fulfilling my end of the deal."

Jason bristled, leaning over the line to glare at them both with a burning fire.

"You took a bribe out on me?" He demanded, his bulky frame easily slipping past Dick's slimmer build and his fists clenched at his sides. He said it like it wasn't something Tim would do in a heartbeat, especially if Dick was the one to ask. After a notable pause, Jason seemed to realize this and turned his anger towards Dick.

"You bribed him?" He hissed.

Dick lifted his hands in surrender, a lie on his lips.

"Noooo…"

Ah, no- Tim was having none of that.

"I got six cases of Liquid Death Coffee out of it." He informed helpfully, scooting so he hid behind Dick better. It took little effort due to the fact that almost everyone under Bruce's employ was born a giant beefcake. Damian's jibes aside, sometimes it did pay to be smaller.

"Well, you never visit me anymore!" Dick quickly defended, now that lying wasn't an option. "I just wanted to see you!"

Tim tried not to roll his eyes.

Bullsh*t.

"Bullsh*t," Jason spat, crossing his hulk-like arms, "you practically stalk me like every night!"

Dick, ever the dramatic, winced like Jason had hit him.

But really: he wasn't wrong. Even Tim could admit Dick did spend quite a lot of time in Gotham for being Bludhaven's supposed hero. Tim could appreciate the need to get out from under that, just like getting out from under Bruce. With Bruce it was a matter of breaking out of his shadow- and damn that thing went everywhere - but with Dick it was more of a matter of perspective: Dick's morally gray was more of a morally off-white. Stepping over the line with him looking over your shoulder got you lectures.

Or worse: pouting .

"You told me he sold me out!" Jason continued, just as hissy.

"He did!" Dick squeaked.

"I didn't."

Jason moved toward Dick, his fist half-raised.

"That's a bribe dickface," He growled. "It's different!"

Thankfully, Alfred's delicate cough muted their fight before it could begin. With one deliberate tilt of the head towards Jason, Alfred was given a muttered- yet no less sincere apology for the curse word and the taller boy backed down.

Because of course he did.

(Alfred was all-powerful like that.)

In the lul that followed, Damian decided it was high time to pitch in his two cents.

"So what you are saying," He snapped, likely aggravated at the situation as a whole and leaning around Dick and Duke to glare at Jason, "is that in spite of being directed to the proper target, you chose instead to come after me?"

Having a better view point of the child, Tim gleefully noted that his usually refined appearance had a distinct gruffyness to it: what with his crumpled shirt and dirt stained slacks. Now whether or not that damage was due to Jason or Tim was still up in the air- but really: Tim didn't rightly care who it was.

Damian had more gruffyness in his future.

(Tim would f*cking make sure of it.)

Jason waved a flippant hand, nonplussed and unimpressed.

"Duke said Timbers was hiding with you." He explained blandly.

(And if something in Tim relaxed the moment he went from 'Replacement' to 'Timbers', then that was neither here nor there. Jason was doing better nowadays, and that's all that mattered. Tim reminded himself of that on a daily basis. Sometimes on an hourly.)

"And you actually believed I'd hide Drake?" Damain challenged, rightfully finding the idea doubtful at best.

Tim couldn't find it within himself to be mad at the derisive tone. Him and Damain were doing better too, half hearted murder attempts aside, but… yeeeeeeah… Tim probably would've taken his chances on his own before trying to hide behind Damian.

(Actually, now that Tim thought about it, Tim probably would've taken a lot of chances before hiding behind Damian. Many, many inadvisable, irreversible, arguably insane chances.)

(Or better yet: just layed down and died.)

"It came from Duke." Jason huffed out.

It said something about Duke's usual reliability that Damian actually took a moment to consider Jason's reasoning. That being said, Tim was quick to jump to Duke's defense before Damian had the chance to consider anything too thoroughly- it was one thing to be in the Line of Shame, it was another thing entirely to have Damian out for your head.

"I asked him for sanctuary when you two were ripping apart the floor." Tim explained hurriedly, looking between the two. "The man was just defending his life."

Duke nodded in fierce agreement.

"Sorry to lie to you man," he apologized sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck, "Damian just struck me as the one with the best shot."

(Shot at what exactly was never expanded upon, but his words had the desired effect: Jason relaxed, rolling his eyes like Duke had made a rookie mistake or something equally tickling, and Damian grumbled in reluctant pleasure at having his skills praised.)

(Tim had more than once found himself quite envious of Duke's ability to find the right words.)

"Well," Alfred mused mildly, stroking his mustache with far less disappointment than before, "It seems we've had another miscommunication. While these things are bound to happen from time to time, I must ask that the manor be spared from any aftermath. Surely Master Bruce did not integrate so many sparring rooms both upstairs and downstairs for nothing?"

Tim joined the others in shaking his head frantically, promises spilling from his lips like liquid honey.

"We'll clean it up!" Dick added on helpfully, hands half-clasped in prayer and head nodding and nodding away. "All of it!"

Alfred hummed in approval, the last of his displeasure melting away with a shine in his eyes.

(And thank f*ck it did- now Tim's stomach could finally start making its way back to his torso from his toes.)

"See that you do." Alfred said, turning on his heel and wafting out of the room. But not, of course, before looking over his shoulder and adding with quite a dramatic flair: "Bullet holes included."

Jason flushed from the tips of his ears to the V of his neck at a fascinating pace under the weight of their stares.

"It was Dick's fault!" He hissed crossly, once it was clear that Alfred was out of hearing range. "It wasn't even my f*cking gun!"

"Really?" Duke asked, turning to Dick in shock. Dick was quick to shrug.

"It was the old colt," He explained, amused. He said it like it was an expectable problem. Tim, on the other hand, was floored.

"That thing's still operable??" He demanded roughly, the image of the rusted weapon springing to mind. "It still had actual ammo????"

Damian clicked his tongue.

"You are all imbeciles."

Chapter 9: Sworn to Thy Promise, Sworn to Thy Name (should've gotten this sworn sh*t in writing)

Chapter Text

More often than not, Rin found herself grappling with the sudden impulse to hit her forehead on the nearest flat, hard surface in the hopes that it would fix her. Fix what exactly about her she could not say, but somewhere out there in the big, wide world: she was sure the idea had merit.

(Most ideas of note did, after all.)

She could, of course, give it a try to see what would happen- after all, this wasn't the first time the impulse made itself known- but that course of action had a very particular and very specific obstacle in its way: everytime she was reminded of the idea, she was then immediately distracted by whatever situation brought it up.

Case and point: if she didn't figure this sh*t out soon, Hermione was absolutely going to kill her. Like, a full send to hell with naught even a kiss goodbye. An uncontested voyage with Charon RSVP’d in the passenger seat. Rin was going to be compressed into nothing but a speck of atmospheric dust to be crushed under her sister's finger and she had no one to blame but herself.

Oh boy…

Thickets of towering, spiraling trees lined Rin on all sides: their silhouette known only by the highlight of the moon luminescent from behind the shroud of an overcast sky. Their leaves whipped in an unnatural torrent, caught in the night's unexpected change. With every leaf that got ripped off its branch, Rin gave it a curse buddy to go with it. A ‘caged between her chattering teeth with a will worthy of one of those green rings’, descriptive, flourished, absolutely filthy curse buddy.

The rate everything had turned f*cking freezing, if you were to care for Rin's opinion in this particular moment, was stupidly ridiculous.

Ri-dic-u-lous.

It was as if someone chucked Gotham as a whole in an ice chest.

The box Rin held in her hands was thankfully not very weighty. It was on the small side, making it easy enough to grasp, and its ornate carvings were shallow enough as to not dig into her skin, but it was- to her immense and immediate dismay- metal. The delicate clinking of the items within was a pleasurable sound. The piercing numbness spreading from the tips of her fingers was far less pleasurable.

Her nightgown, too thin for any of this bullsh*t but perfect for what the weather was before goddamnit, snug to her legs.

Mrs. Wagner shook her head sadly, and apology in her faded eyes.

‘I am so sorry, child,’ she murmured, her voice no more than a faded whisper scraping across the fallen leaves, ‘I had not thought my request would cause you such burdens.’

Rin shook her head fiercely, turning her head to the woman in spite of the pulsing headache it brought. Mrs. Wagner's form, like so many of the spirits Hallow brought her, was misted and opaque at the edges- a stream of running water firmed with the icy regret. Her dress, a layered, covering thing worn in the time she owned the Hillcrest house and in the time of her death, had lost its pearled color and was now dotted in a speckle of grime and downpour of red. Her dark, curled hair had gotten tangled and immortalized in the struggle- a fact that irked her to no end.

Mrs. Wagner was a nice woman, really.

But mostly a sad one.

“I promised.” Rin argued in her defense, careful to keep the contents of the box cradled near her body- warm and safe. “And these are important to you.”

Mrs. Wagner sighed, the hiss going through Rin and freezing her twice over. In the shadows and backs of the trees, Rin's meta- ‘Hallow’ as she had named them after it became clear that the fluid-like creature, bathed in deep blacks and layered voids, was inarguably sentient- watched them both, thrumming with pleasure.

‘I had wished to ask this of my children Mrs. Wagner admitted softly, her essence wistful and mourning. ‘It should have been them.’

Rin felt her heart tug as she was reminded of just why she was entrusted with this task, and why she was entrusted Mrs. Wagner's estate. The fainted remains of the family's spirit rested in the walls of her new home, as did the possibilities taken from them. The anger there had never truely faded.

(The house was, in fact, haunted.)

Rin had promised she would respect them in their own home, as would her family and anyone to walk through thier doors. She had promised to return that which wasn't hers- anything Mrs. Wagner or her family wanted to keep to themselves. She had promised that- if no one else would- she would remember them, she would return Mrs. Wagner's heirlooms to her grave, and she would not show the strong willed woman any pity over it.

With that promise in mind, Rin buried the tug back where it came from and instead tried for a smile.

“I'd never be so bold as to think I could replace your children Mrs. Wagner.” She offered softly, weaving around the trees with frozen, numbed feet, “But we could pretend for a night?”

Rin made sure to keep the offer as a question, and not something forced. Pretending wasn't a comfort for everyone, as she very well knew, but she couldn't not offer the woman any sort of support. Although Rin could feel the presence of Mrs. Wagner's family within their home's walls, she had never seen them with the same clarity as her companion.

(Maybe they had less to regret.)

The visage of Rin's come-to-be friend softened, rounded at the edges.

‘A long night, it seems,’ she murmured, twisting her darkened fingertips with a nervousness she would never admit, ‘Longer still, if I cannot recall where my body lies.’

A lull followed as Rin considered that statement- her earlier feelings of distress bubbling up like a hot spring breaking through the earth's crust.

The acres surrounding the Hillcrest House were wide and thick, with many pockets and divots connecting from the property line to the large cliff facing off its side. The fact that Mrs. Wagner's remains still rested on the property was not the question. Mrs. Wagner could feel their presence. Hallow was sure of Rin's success. The problem, the one Rin didn't truely consider before partaking on her adventrue, the catalyst as to why she wished so badly to bash her head on the nearest tree- exasperated by the whiplash that was Gotham's climate- was that the property was so f*cking big.

Ridiculously, absurdly, illogically big.

‘Call me Marianne, child.’ The spirit insisted. ‘For the service you aid me in, I believe we are close enough for that.’

Marianne turned to her then, her dark eyes gleaming. Her kind face, rounded with wealth but gaunt with the weight she carried, shimmered into a grateful smile. Her faded, pearlesque form hummed.

(The spirits Hallow brought Rin were always more solid than not, their tales laden with tragedy and grief. Yet, for all that, the favors they asked of her were often so small and easy to give. In the end, we do really want for little.)

‘And… I do believe we can pretend for a night.’ Marianne allowed, her eyes yearning and sad. ‘An adventure, yes?’

Rin nodded, pushing her previous thoughts away and curling the box closer as if it were her own child.

“Like hide and go seek.” She agreed, her breath visible in the air. She turned to the woods, catching the beckoning form of Hallow and pointed to the being in question. “Or follow the leader? What do you think?”

Marianne considered Hallow in the way Rin knew better than the back of her hand. The being, the creature or force or essence or whatever Rin had known since birth, was one of stories. Legends, maybe- Rin couldn’t say for sure. They were a contradiction, one she might hear of in warning or in riddles: ‘What has no eyes but sees all’, ‘What has no arms but can catch you wherever you run’, ‘What speaks with no mouth and makes words the deaf cannot hear’.

Hallow was the one waiting in the shadows. Hallow was the one to warn you when you strayed too far from the beaten path. Hallow was the unnerving presence lining the alleyways, taking on whatever voice or form that struck its fancy.

Hallow was beyond human form, she's discovered. Hallow was dangerous, too- indescribably so- when angered.

(Hallow was also Rin’s first friend. They were her first protector. When her aunt and uncle decided she was too unnatural to be kept, Hallow provided for her. When Tom decided she was too otherworldly to be let go but too powerful to let live, it was Hallow who held her. Hallow was the one to keep her safe. Rin couldn't fear them if she tried.)

Hallow was also, as Rin had come to find out, something near reverent to the dead.

(Truefully, she had no idea why. What, exactly, Hallow was had been a mystery from the word go and at this point Rin was too scared to ask.)

‘It would be my honor,’ Marianne answered, bowing as if she stood at the feet of a fabled king.

Hallow, for their part, thrilled with the acknowledgement- sending a shiver through the air that had nothing to do with the cold. It was something just shy of a tangible sense, one just to the left of a true warning, one that soared Rin’s heart and reminded the red-haired girl she was alive. The woods dripped darker as Hallow rose- ink spilled on the backdrop and pearling over the edges. Darkened ash hovered in place of moonlight. A feeling of expectation sung, thrusting a sheet wind that tangled in her curls and caressed her frozen skin.

(It was the silent language Hallow spoke in: made up of thrills and sixth senses, impulses and feelings, stitched together with a barely-there itch in the back of your brain.)

(It was the first language Rin ever learned. It was her mother tongue.)

‘That way’ they crooned, ‘what you seek is that way.’

Rin did not question that Hallow would lead her to where she needed to go. What they were- wherever they existed- was a place of many, Rin often thought. In whatever manner they were connected, however Hallow was bound to her, Rin did not once take her friend for granted. Rin and Hallow were, she could comfortably admit, one and the same.

“Let’s get to your grave, Marianne.” Rin called, taking off to chase the moving entity with little thought.

(Hallow was the one thing on this earth that had all of Rin's unwavering trust.)

With that trust, she hadn’t thought to keep track of where she was on the property line. With that trust, she did not think to check before stepping on the road Hallow pointed to- nor think to listen to Marianne’s sudden cry. With that trust, Rin was once again slow to remember one of Hallow’s more unfortunate yet fundamental characteristics.

In a screech of tires and blinding headlights, in a desperate stretch to avoid the vehicle that came out of f*cking nowhere thank you very much- covered in ominous, ice covered, blackened armour and a very specificmammalian insignia carved into its side- Rin remembered:

Hallow was a little sh*t.

Chapter 10: We the Line Guard the Gates (if only we were allowed to shut the door)

Chapter Text

More often than not, Damian found himself grappling with the sudden, yet impossibly compelling impulse to strangle his own father. Needless to say he wouldn't- not only would Grayson never hear a word of it (which was, to be clear, blatantly hypocritical as Damian had heard Grayson make many violent promises towards Bruce when he thought no one was around to hear), but also because doing so would make his grandfather happy. Damian had no intention of making Ra's al Ghul happy. Doing anything to earn, even mistakenly, his grandfather's approval was- in layman's terms- ‘the worst’.

So, no: he would not act on said impulse. However… the yearning was there.

Often.

Oh so very often.

“Father!”

Being slammed against the side of the Batmobile while on the way back to the cave was not on his itinerary for the night, he’ll have you know. That's not to say there was an itinerary for the night- Damian knew better than anyone that to set expectations was to invite the unpredictable- but the connotation remained: he did not need this.

He was already admittedly… irritated thanks to Doctor Freeze deciding to enact some futile ‘grand scheme’. It failed, obviously, due to Batman and his own intervention, but the cold… It's not that Damian couldn't handle the cold- he was raised in the League of Assassins, trained by the very best, of course he could handle something so unnoteworthy (and for far longer, he might add)- he merely found it… distasteful.

Yes: distasteful.

Damian just wasn't in the mood.

He was not in the mood and he did not need this excessive stress.

Damian did not need to force his numbed limbs to move so soon after they just warmed up. He could, of course, but the prickling sensation wasn't one he enjoyed. He did not need to spend the extra energy to dodge his father’s asinine attempts at protection-

(And really: just what was a hand over his chest meant to do in the event of a motor vehicle accident? It's not as if his father's hand was any sturdier- bone was bone and Batman's gloves weren't any more armored than his chest plate. All his father would succeed in doing would be pinning his shattered metacarpals to his then shattered sternum. The restriction of movement thereafter would do neither of them any good so Damian would truely rather he’d not.)

-and he really did not need to be reminded that his father had once again let down his guard once they had gotten within a tangible proximity of the cave.

(Mother would've taken an arm for such an insult, if Damian dared to be so impertinent as to try.)

Batman let out a grunt as he jerked the steering wheel, fighting to keep the vehicle straight while avoiding the trees around them. The stress on the brakes unfurled into a piercing, shrieking sound that Damian used to hide his curses- all in Arabic, a childish habit he could never fully let go of. A flash of red fluttered across his window as his shoulder jammed.

(Mother had Damian trained in evasive auto mechanic maneuvering on far thinner stretches of road- and off-road, while being chased, in an ineffective vehicle- at age six. If Batman was going to be so unreasonable as to restrict Damian from driving on the basis of something so menial as age, then would it kill him to drive correctly? Damian did not have time to patch up the driveshaft. Again.)

The car skidded to an unstable stop, Batman giving him a cursory glance which Damian waved off- it was a simple dislocation, he was fine- before deploying the overhead hood and hopping out into the night. Damian, none too happy to be doing so, returned his shoulder to his socket and followed suit- a familiar itch darting across his skin.

(They were too close to the cave for complications like this… They could not be sighted in such proximity. How far of a leap would it be to figure out where their home was? Did Father understand how close they were to being found out?)

Needless to say: Damian did not like it.

Taking in the imbecile that his father almost ran over, Damian liked it even less.

The girl was unnatural. Of that, Damian was certain.

(If Grandfather was good for anything, it was instilling an instinct in Damian that could not be removed. It warned him of unnatural means, such as magic at work or when monsters deigned to play human.)

The girl had something about her he didn’t like.

Her eye color… Damain swallowed down a ‘tsk’, careful to arrange his shoulder so that the weakness could not be seen. Her eyes were too bright. Without a peeking moon to lighten their path, her face should have been shadowed and grayed out. Her iris should have sunk into the shade of her pupil. The coloring was wrong.

His father took a step forward.

Damain pushed aside his misgivings.

(As Robin, Damian could not afford any hesitation. He could not afford failure. His role was to support Batman and that was all.)

Robin began to categorize their opponent, just as he was taught: female, approximately aged 18 to 20. Five feet in height, estimated 100-110 pounds. Caucasian, guessed to be Celtic or Gaelic descent by facial structure and coloring. Red hair, green eyes, full lips, and a heart shaped face. Unarmed, aside from the metal container in her hands. The container measured 8 by 5, made of a metal alloy, approximately the size of a jewelry box. Aged mid to late 1800s by design. She wore modern day slip- a ‘nightgown’ as Greyson had once described. She was disheveled, her slip dirtied and hair tangled, looking up from where she was half crouched on the forest floor.

She appeared to be unharmed, aside from a minor adrenaline rush.

She appeared afraid.

“Are you alright?” Batman asked gently, kneeling down a few feet away from her. He hunched over in an effort to disguise his size, likely in a bid to get the girl to relax.

(To seem less like a giant and more like a man- it was a tactic Damain had seen his father employ more than once. Damian was of the opinion that it was futile effort- his father had a presence that could not be smothered even in civilian life, just like Mother- but allowed him to do as he pleased. It wasn't his place to question it.)

Damian took to scanning the forest for threats instead- or, more accurately, clues as to where the girl had come from. Given her lack of weaponry and improper clothing, he surmised it couldn't be far.

The backroad leading towards the cave looked to be undisturbed. No glint of metal or mechanical ticking was present to indicate the girl had set up a trap. Nothing in the air scent-wise pointed to a biological attack. There were no other people that he could see or sense, no one aside from the three of them, but they were certainly not alone.

Damian suppressed a shiver.

(There was something in the forest with them. Something… other.)

Given that the girl was equally wary, Damian allowed himself to entertain the idea that perhaps she was running away from something and… accidentally got in the way of their return. The assassin in him hissed at that unlikely scenario, but the vigilante Grayson was trying to raise made a point to consider it once more.

(Grayson often argued that- given that he assumed the worst in others naturally- then surely it wouldn't pose too much of an obstacle to also consider the opposite, yes? Wasn't it detrimental to any mission to not examine the situation from every angle? To consider all possibilities?)

(It was one of the few arguments from Grayson that actually made sense.)

“Miss?”

Batman's inquiry jolted the both of them, grounding them in the present. The girl, scrambling upright on unsteady feet, shot a fearful glance over her shoulder- quickly, so that maybe the movement may have been missed. Damian squinted, activating the visual mechanism in his mask.

The forest lit up in an array of colors, infrared overlapping a layer of thermal. A motion algorithm operated in the background, courtesy of Drake. No targets were identified. Inferred didn’t pick anything up other than the few animals hiding away, and although the thermal mode was operational- it was not as effective due to the temperature change.

Damian scowled.

There was nothing out there.

“I’m fine!” The girl assured quickly with a rough, scratchy tone. Her throat was likely sore due to too much time in the cold- a theory supported by her raw fingers and flushed skin. Her English was lightly accented, backing Damain's theory she was of foreign descent, but the accent wasn’t easily heard. If it weren’t for the fact that Damian had been trained to hear these things, as well as having spent an irritating amount of time learning to hide his own accent, no one would know.

“I just didn’t… ah, see you there?” The girl continued weakly.

The girl was distressed at their presence, Damain noted clinically. Her shallow breaths were blatantly visible, as well as her failing attempts to not look at their insignias.

Damian’s suspicion mounted. No one walked around in the woods at night, fearful of getting caught, doing nothing but good.

“What are you doing out here?” He demanded harshly, no longer content in keeping quiet. Batman shot him a look of reprimand for his tone, but Damian brushed it off. As far as he was concerned, he was being perfectly reasonable here.

The girl flinched, a firm shiver vibrating up her frame. Whether by choice or by reflex, she backed up a few paces, curling her left hand around the jewelry box in a tighter grip. With her right hand she began waving it behind her- Damian had tensed, prepared for an attack- but then he realized that it wasn't so much of a signal motion as a… shooing motion. Like one would use to brush away a bird or a dog. Damian turned to the forest once more, an uncomfortable feeling rising in his chest.

Again: nothing out there.

“I was… walking.” She answered slowly, repeating the motion with more intensity behind her back. The box made a tinkling sound as she jerked, as if it was filled with small bits of glass or metal bracelets. The manner in which she cradled the box was both possessive and protective- it reminded Damian of the way new mothers held their memento boxes in the compound after a stillbirth.

(It was the one moment of weakness a woman was permitted in the League of Assassins: a moment of exactly 28 minutes between losing the child and burning the box and corpse. It was viewed as an equal exchange by both his mother and grandfather- for the prize of encouraging the League's future, the agent was permitted that one failure and exactly 28 minutes of mourning.)

(28 minutes of emotion.)

(A full 28 minutes Damian envied in silence)

“Out here?”

The girl bit her lip at his tone- one Damian would not be apologizing for- and shuffled back with a nervous, hyper energy that Damain had likened to Doctor Harley Quinn. Her eyes flickered back and forth between the nothingness and Batman, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

The unnaturalness of the night intensified, curling around Damian's spine.

Another, slightly more distressing, possibility arose as Damian observed the girl's behavior: she was mentally unwell.

(Much to his father's chagrin: Batman had a… reputation amongst Gotham’s underground, one which was unfortunately counterproductive in allowing the mentally ill- who had not committed any crimes at that point- to ask for help. In Damain's opinion, the existence of Arkham likely did not help the situation.)

Batman appeared to have reached the same conclusion, going from kneeling to directly sitting on the ground.

“It’s a bit too cold for that,” He commented lightly, using his kid-gloves voice. It was soft and gentle and a bit gravelly- foreign to Damian when he first arrived in Gotham, but no longer unwelcome. “Why don’t we drive you back home? Your parents must be worried.”

Damian stiffened, an argument buried in the depths of his chest. So the girl was unwell and not malicious, that did not mean he wanted her in their car! Thankfully, she was of the same mind and more than willing to voice Damain's displeasure.

“Oh no! No! I’m good,” she rejected quickly, almost frantically, halfway pointing behind her in a direction that had Damian’s stomach dropping. “I can just-”

“You live at the Hillcrest House.” He concluded blankly, a black mood descending as he connected the information at hand: the girl's proximity, her state of dress, her unease at the prospect of an escort. She was too close. “It was recently bought.”

The girl paled in a similar misery, her coloring draining into nothing but sheet white. It was all the confirmation he needed.Batman took the new information in stride.

“We can drive you there.” He offered easily, as if it was nothing.

Damian turned sharply at him, a familiar impulse bubbling up.

Absolutely not!

The girl, capable of some rational thought at least- and sadly the most reasonable of his current company- shook her head slowly.

“Absolutely… not.” She declined firmly. Batman frowned at her response, rising to his feet slowly and reaching out a hand. The action seemed to reach the end of the girl's stability- the second his hand entered the space between them, she turned and bolted.

“Wait!”

Damian and Batman followed after her, leaping over gnarled roots and weaving between aged trunks, but in one sharp turn that had Damain's instinct screaming in warning- the girl was gone.

What?

Batman slowed to a stop beside him, glaring at the forest around him with a confused frown. Damian squinted trying to find her, but the mechanisms in his mask revealed nothing. It was as if she was never there in the first place.

Damian and his father shared a look of unease.

(A childish idea that the girl was a ghost came and went. Damian was far too old for such notions. He'd leave that to Grayson.)

After a moment of discontent, they turned towards the Batmobile in an unspoken agreement to look into their neighbor once back at the cave.

(As well as to double check their failsafes, but that might’ve been just Damain.)

While returning in his seat, Damian scowled at the interior- reminded once again of Batman's offer to allow the strange girl a ride. Grumbling to himself and- as Grayson instructed him nearly every night- supplimating his impulses, he pulled out his phone and opened the sibling chat.

  • Tell B and Lose the Game -

FROM: Animals are Better than People 4:37 AM

‘Father came within 2 inches of committing vehicular manslaughter while under the cowl tonight.’

FROM: Animals are Better than People 4:38 AM

‘In direct relation to that announcement, we met our neighbor.’

… 5 people are typing

Chapter 11: Man the Cannons, Raise your Spear (down a flask in a bid for courage, it's all we have)

Chapter Text

Hermione was, and would always be, the first person to support and promote a healthy, safe lifestyle. To anyone. Ever.

She would go out of her way to encourage that sh*t. She had gone out of her way to encourage that sh*t. She was the one to research, vet, and locate a handful of suitable therapists for her gaggle of warriors. She was the one that could, would, and did drag her lovely family- by their hair in one stubborn case- to their first appointment and the next five thereafter.

(Thankfully, the man-handling was no longer necessary: Hermione's point of ‘now that the war is over, we're all going to see a professional and no this is not optional’ finally got across. There were a few colorful threats in the process, many fights with a concerning amount of property destruction that just couldn't be helped- and she may or may have not had to stick her nose into the Justice League's database to find the right kind of psychologists for her people- but after a solid three months Hermione could proudly say they were all attending their therapy appointments of their own volition.)

She was that dedicated.

Were her heavy handed methods the most advisable course of action? Maybe. Probably not. Did her single minded determination often make her what was lovingly described as a ‘kill-joy'? Possibly. On occasion. Hermione was willing to take the loss. If nothing else, she understood the importance of someone in their hoard being somewhat responsible. (Honestly, she shuddered to think just what they would get up to without her guidance…)

Well.

With that preface completed… Hermione would also be the first person to admit that she had, more than once, seriously considered a future career as an alcoholic. (Especially when those days started with Luna and Rin in their finest form…)

“Is anyone going to explain the cookies?” Hermione complained quite loudly into her mixing bowl, doing her best to blink sleep away from her eyes. If her grip was just a tad too tight for such a leisure-like activity, she blamed the ghosts and the early morning hour.

(The fact that it was- according to the chromatic, cat themed, square shaped clock- 9:20 AM was neither here nor there. 9:20 was early enough in her book. Plenty early. Hermione was once again finding herself participating in something she couldn't quite remember agreeing to, and such things were meant to be done after the noon hour. Intrinsically.)

Across the countertop, Rin held her own bowl- her eyes half-lidded and heavy. Still dressed in her nightgown from the previous night, Hermione had the slow, sluggish mental image of a wood's witch: tangled, leaf ridden, fire touched hair- draped over wrinkled, torn, scuffed, light weighted cloth, framing paled skin, full lips- holding the beginnings of a death trap gingerbread house.

Except… no gingerbread.

(Hermione just wasn't made for this.)

“What's to explain?” Fred laughed, dodging Goerges' attempt to paint his face with all the sugary chipper of a bushy-tailed squirrel. Hermione watched it all with a growing glower: the shine on his cheeks, the healthy glow to his forehead, the small smears of cookie batter gracing his rounded chin.

“Yeah, Mi'Lord,” George followed up happily, scooping another volley of ammunition on his fingers. “They're cookies!”

Ginny- a woman of their own blood- nodded easily from her counter topped perch, as if this explanation was perfectly reasonable, a half-munched cookie hanging out of her mouth. Luna, half draped over Gin's lap, arranged their available cooling trays in neat, perfect lines.

(Smiling softly. Humming along to the flow of life. Just f*cking thriving in her flower ridden lane.)

Hermione fought the urge to scowl.

Rin's cookies.” Luna clarified clearly, examining the flat slab of checkered metal in front of her with a careful air. Hermione stared at her for a moment, tried to understand the clarification with rusted cogs, then turned to the clarification in question- in question.

Rin shrugged, equally as lost.

“Luna said we needed cookies by 10 this morning.” She grumbled roughly, the only one of their furry flock to be just as exhausted as Hermione and just as peeved. “I just work here.”

Hermione stared at her, waiting for the information to settle. When it didn't, she turned once again to Luna- in question.

Luna, the little coniving f*cker that she was, just flashed that serene smile. The smile that more often than not had Hermione cursing to kingdom-come: placid and peaceful like fresh winter's snow, usually with a disaster hidden underneath. The smile that spelled only trouble, much like prophecies proclaimed in the time of ancient Greece. The one that sent shivers down her spine and that Hermione just knew she did not have enough coffee for.

(It was, let it be clearly known, too early for this sh*t.)

“You don't work anywhere.” Hermione muttered snidely, her sensibilities slipping with each nock of the cat-clock.

(If Rin had worked somewhere, Hermione hissed to herself silently, then maybe she wouldn't have time to run off in the middle of the f*cking night on her own. If she had worked somewhere, then Hermione would have a way to track her for approximately 8 hours a day. If Rin had worked somewhere, Hermione might even get some time to sleep.)

“I'm working on it!” Rin snapped, slamming down her mixing bowl with a jerk. The resulting force vaulted the spoon within in a tailspin of sugar, flour, and other mixed powders and various liquids. Hermione wouldn't know the specifics. She didn't bake.

(It should be said that, in fact, Rin was working on it. Hermione knew she was because Hermione was the one to assist in her efforts. Covering the gaps in their collective education was a chore, no thanks to The Founding and their less than traditional upbringing, and it was no fault of Rin's that it was taking some time to cover the stretch. Online classes were registered, documentation was forged, and lies were immortalized on paper. It was all for the greater good- just… time consuming.)

Gin and Luna settled in to watch the impending catfight, the amused spectators that they were. Fred and George exchanged knowing grins, eyebrows wagging and wiggling and jiggling. Hermione wanted nothing more than to backhand them all.

(Neither Rin or Hermione were the best morning people, even less so during times of stress. Their tongues tended to get away from them, despite their best efforts, causing a long, recorded history of early hour hissy fits. And Hermione- it should be noted- was stressed.)

“Oh are you?” Hermione mocked, the question turning sharper and crueler without her say-so. “Here I thought you were working on being roadkill!”

“I said sorry!” Rin defended hotly, crossing her arms in a huff. Hermione clenched her jaw, dipping her chin to glare at her bowl instead of biting out whatever comment Rin didn't deserve.

Rin spoke the truth: she did, in fact, say sorry after stumbling into the house like the devil himself nipped at her heels. Hermione had ran downstairs at the sound of the door, as did the others, and- at the very threshold- Rin began making amends. She was heartful in her ensuing apology and sincere in her regret- Hermione could recognize that.

But.

It wasn't enough.

‘Sorry’ was not a solution to her current predicament, nor a balm to her frazzled soul. ‘Sorry’ could run for the hills as far as Hermione was concerned, because the ‘sorry’ came from Rin and Rin wasn't the problem here. ‘Sorry’ could go f*ck off with thier neighbor, and thier neighbor- as Hermione had just come to realize not even three hours pior- as well as his flying hoard of vigilantes could f*ck off.

(As with all things, Hermione had naively begun her research with simple, understood facts. The first fact? Batman was a man of means or in contact with one. Kevlar, the Batmobile, all those toys he threw around on a nightly basis- that sh*t cost money. Starting with the population of Gotham, Hermione had listed all the families with a net worth capable of withstanding such a drain. She then safely approached fact number two: Batman was a man with too much time on his hands or not many day-to-day obligations. He didn't have a nine-to-five- waging a war on anything took time; Hermione could attest to that. So she eliminated those who just simply did not have the time to fight crime every night and partake in Justice League missions and keep up with their job. After that, she then tackled the most important fact: Batman did not outsource. His policies on metas, his reputation, and his near obsessive possession of the city spoke to that front. After an extensive research session at 6 AM that broke a few privacy laws, Hermione could safely say that only a few old Gotham families fit the previous two premises- but only one of those families, however, had enough immediate members to fill up the Gotham hero/anti-hero membership roster and cover all three.)

And they, of f*cking course, lived next door.

So. Safe to say: Hermoine was not having a fun time.

(And she did, unfortunately, have an inkling as to why she was currently stirring cookie dough at 9:32 in the morning.)

“There's five other people in this godforsaken house,” she grumbled, jerking around her spoon in crooked circles, bitterness spilling out unhindered like an overflowing cup. “You couldn't have grabbed someone to go with you?”

In truth, Hermione's cup was less a bitter one and more one of exasperation. If Luna's role in Hermione's alcoholic journey was the annoyingly serene prophet, then Rin had an uncontested position as Hermione's loving, yet suicidal rogue. Rin, much to Hermione's eternal dismay, could sneak. Rin could sneak like the best of them. Rin had stealth in spades.

Hermione hated it. Hermione loathed it. That skill alone gave Hermione more gray hairs than should be possible for one as young as her. One day, Hermione was going to put a bell on that girl- even if Hallow kills her.

“Fred and George just got here,” Rin retorted a little more calmly, distracted by her efforts to remove the leftover leaves from her hair. “They needed rest from the jump. Besides, I had Marianne with me.”

Hermione turned to the ceiling and fought to breathe normally. Ahhh yes… Marianne: the spirit, the woman, the myth, the non-corporal legend. The sweet, cloying scent of cookies burned the back of Hermione's throat like a batch of napalm.

“Well,” Hermione bit out sharply, a migraine building behind her eyes. “No offense to Marianne, but she's dead. That's not exactly helpful!”

On the sidelines of their growing argument, Gin pursed her lips, shooting a concerned look at Luna. Luna shook her head knowingly, patting her hand.

“I was fine!” Rin snapped.

Hermione laughed at that, high-pitched and shrieking, alarm bells going off in her head at the pressure building around her limbs but being too far under to try and pull back.

Fine? Fine?! Rin did not know the meaning of the word!

“You were practically ran over!” She snarled, the tangled, suffocated feeling that had plagued her since four that morning coming to a head. It only took a fraction of a second for her meta to run away from her, just the barest of moments where her control slipped, but it was enough. The spoon in her hands crackled, imploding in on itself in a brittle crosshatch of sub-par wood.

“sh*t-!”

Swearing, Hermione all but threw the still structurally sound bowl on the countertop, took one good look at her now splinter ridden hand, and unceremoniously sank to the ground in a pathetic lump of folded limbs and hypertension. In an act of well rehearsed courtesy, the population of the kitchen as a whole stilled as she tried to get herself together.

Drawing deep breaths, Hermione ran her unharmed hand through her hair and started her personal version of a prayer.

F=GMm / r², she recited slowly, closing her eyes against the world around her and doing her best to build the sort of mental bubble her therapist recommended last session. ‘Sometimes, when life doesn't provide the space to relax and decompress,’ he had said, ‘we have to make them for ourselves.’

She liked to imagine herself on a beach. On vacation. In the Bahamas. Alone.

(Hermione shamelessly hung onto that man's every word.)

Newton's law of universal gravity. The force of gravity is that of the gravitational constant, multiplied by the mass of one object, the mass of another object, and then divided by the distance between those two objects.

Hermione didn't pull away when Rin's small fingers wrapped around her own, splaying her palms flat to get a better look at the obstructions. She didn't fight against her when Rin began working to pull out the splinters. Instead she spaced her breath in line with each syllable, drawing out the sentences at a nice, even pace.

Newton theorized that the force of gravity acting in between any one object was directly proportional to the mass of the earth, the mass of the object, and inversely proportional to the centers of distance between the two.

The wooden splinters tugged, alighting pain across Hermione's fingertips and grounding her in the current present.

She imagined it was sunny in her tropical paradise. With a nice breeze.

Newton maintained that the most important factors in regard to gravity were mass and distance.

A clink of metal indicated that tweezers were pulled out. The prickling sensation in Hermione's hand increased.

If the masses of the objects in question do not change, and the distance between the objects do not change, then the force between them must not change.

In the judgeless nation of her mental space, Hermione held a handle of whisky and had a wonderful, sinking warmth all the way down to her toes.

Back in reality, Hermione breathed deeply- ten more inhales, ten more exhales, and a slight wave of shame- and opened her eyes. The migraine, thankfully on its way to receding- as well as the previous constricting sensation she really shouldn't have ignored- emptied into a shallow, aching feeling Hermione knew well. In front of her, Rin cradled her palm with one hand and held a pair of tweezers in the other. A steady pile began to gather at the ground near her knee.

“Thanks…” Hermione sighed tiredly. A quick peek up at the countertop showed that someone had the presence of mind to whisk away the splinter contaminated bowl. Over Rin's shoulder, George caught Hermione's eye and wiggled his eyebrows in a joking fashion. Hermione shook her head softly.

“I'm sorry,” Rin said, the crease between her eyebrows deepening the more she focused on her task. “I didn't mean to snap at you like that.”

Hermione opened her palm wider to make it easier to dig around, sighing deeper and slumping in on herself.

“I'm the one who should apologize.” Hermione grumbled, glancing at the clock. 9:45 AM. Oh joy. “It wasn't right for me to take all my sh*t out on you. It's not your fault.”

From Rin's other side, Fred handed off a brand new package of bandaids they miraculously hadn't yet needed. Rin made quick work of the box, opening it and pulling out a handful.

“It's the morning curse.” Rin muttered, leaning down to inspect her work as she peeled off the outer layers and layed down the adhesive side. “It must be.”

Hermione nodded in solemn agreement. And resignation.

She turned to Luna.

“We're making cookies for the Waynes,” she commented flatly, “Aren't we?”

Luna gave her that damned smile again. (Hermione hadn't shared her vigilante discovery yet, but she knew the girl knew. Luna had to have known. She's just like that.)

“It's a housewarming gift.” Luna hummed. “They'll be out just in time.”

Gin popped an elbow on Luna's head with a cursory grunt while Fred and George threw the lined pans in the oven.

“Pretty sure the guests have to give the housewarming gifts, babe.” Ginny commented in amusem*nt.

Luna shrugged in complete ease, not too worried about the particulars. Finally taking stock of her general appearance, Rin looked down at her wood begotten clothes and squeaked in distress. Hermione waved her off, pointing upstairs.

“Go get dressed.” She ordered. “All of you. I'll do something about the kitchen.”

They nodded- or saluted in Fred and George's case- and raced up stairs like a hoard of gremlins. Still sitting on the floor, Hermione opened the cupboard nearest to her and pulled out the industrial coffee maker stashed in the back. Along with it she unearthed the mountain of assorted blends she used for her own personalized concoction- deciding that, for the f*ckery she was meant to endure, the passing guilt was so worth it.

(The mixture was an unholy union of cuban espresso, dark roast, and a nutty, earthy blend from the Liquid Death company. It was a monstrosity. The caffeine alone was enough to give a water buffalo a heart attack. It was not healthy.)

“It could always be meth,” she muttered into the empty kitchen, measuring out the ground beans with care. She glanced again at the clock with a swirling stomach.

9 minutes and counting.

f*ck she was such a hipocrite

“It could always be meth…”

Chapter 12: A Meeting of Two Sides (someone shot the messanger)

Chapter Text

Jason was, and would always be, the first person to point out when a proposed plan of action was complete and utter sh*t. Pretty much always. And especially when that plan of action was put forth by the band of rabid lunatics he was forced to acknowledge he actually knew.

So he wasn’t a big-brained, Einstein-like, supergenius like Timbers: he didn't need to be. He had a decent head still attached to his shoulders, a working pair of eyes, and an unmentionable number of years under the bat-bastard. The following instilled paranoia alone was enough to be able to recognize when sh*t was bound to go south. Jason practically developed a six sense for it.

However.

With that preface completed, he was also the first person to body-shove their way to a front row seat to watch the sh*t show go down. And- mark his words- if Jason didn't get at least a B-rated viewing here, he was going to be pissed. It was his right as a hostage to get some entertainment out of this f*ckfest.

By law.

Doing his best to act natural, Jason subtly eyed the gaps between the towering trees lining their merry group of weirdos and humored the beginnings of an escape plan. With enough bodily harm, he supposed he could make a break for it…

Dick, ever the annoying mind reader, clamped him by the shoulder before he could run away properly. The others followed suit, circling around them like he was a particularly unruly sheep dog still in training. Jason valiantly suppressed his urge to deck them all.

Honestly, his self control was amazing.

“Come’on Little Wing,” Dick chirped, “we’re doing this as a family!”

Jason scoffed at the notion. Shoving Dick’s hand away, he bitterly noted the clear absence of Duke. Cass was out of the country and Babs had the wheelchair excuse, but just what kind of magic did Thomas pull to earn a free pass? He actually lived in the Manor. This was his actual problem.

Jason barely stepped through the f*cking door, why was he here??

Family?” He repeated in disbelief.

As a true sign to how f*cked this entire plan was, the people in Jason’s corner were- and he could not believe this sentence was being carved into existence- Damian and Tim. Honestly, it was just obscene. (And that was without the rich brat wardrobe being taken to account. It was ten in the morning on a Saturday, just what kind of psychopaths went and dressed in a button up and slacks?)

“No one asked you to come, you know.” Steph grumbled. Clad in her signature pair of combat boots and layered apparel of purple hues, Jason couldn’t help but notice she was suspiciously comfortable weaving around the rugged terrain leading up to the Hillcrest house. She barely looked down when avoiding deep divots and hopping over large boulders. (Also, somewhere in between glaring at Bruce so fiercely Jason was surprised he didn't spontaneously combust and him being dragged out of his tea with Alfie like a seething ragdoll, she was apparently leading their unfortunate party. Jason sensed secrets.)

“No one asked me sh*t.” Jason snapped, peeking around the trees again. Dick's not so sneaky attempt at snagging his wrist was easily slapped away. Tim, with the hollow, glazed eyes of a dead fish, took it upon himself to take up the vanguard. Their pace slowed due to his gruffy-morning, sleep-deprived shuffle, but Jason wasn't about to comment. Not with those empty, soulless irises burning a hole in the back of his head saying ‘if I have to do this, so do you.’

(In any other circ*mstance, the threat would be cute at best. But this was pre-coffee Timbers. Pre-coffee Tim was like a zombie on a hair-trigger: generally harmless and unable to form a solid thought, but could turn lethal at the smallest movement. And pre-coffee, triggered Timbers was one ruthless motherf*cker.)

“Father, why are we doing this?” Damian complained, glaring at the emerging walking path with distaste.

He emphasized the why quite strongly, losing a bit of the iron-clad control he had on his accent in the process, but his hatred for now-defined trail was a little unfair in Jason's opinion. The small rocks it consisted of were neither perfectly smooth nor insultingly jagged. They varied in color: ranging from an off-white to an oxford gray, lying across a width of approximately three and a half yards. The effect was strong, but not overtly eye catching.

Jason wasn’t mad at it, actually.

“Come on Baby Bat,” Dick chippered, damn near skipping up the path like a crack-fueled Dorathy. “It’s only polite to greet new neighbors, right?”

Damian scowled at the man.

“Absolutely,” Jason agreed with a deadpan, tone flatter than flat, “but only if you run them over first. Without the near-death experience, it’s seen as too forward.”

Bruce sighed tiredly as every pair of eyes, even the furious ones of their de-facto guide, turned to him in accusation. Jason in particular made it a point to re-examine the possibilities of spontaneous combustion via way of eye contact.

(It wasn't successful.)

“That’s why we’re greeting them.” Bruce reminded them with a sulk. He'd never admit it was a ‘sulk’ of course, but between the man's haggard air and his ridiculously expensive three piece suit, he could've easily doubled as an overworked divorce lawyer. And that lawyer, it should be noted, just f*cking refused to be reduced to cinders.

Tim mumbled a fluid string of syllables, sounding as spiteful as Jason felt.

“So you f*ck up,” Tim articulated more clearly, a crease forming inbetween his brow. “And we have to play nice? How does that track?”

Family Timmy!”

“f*ck off Dick.”

“I hate this family...”

Breaking the treeline, Jason had to admit he was… actually impressed. Given the neighborhood, he was kind of expecting the perfect lines and clean-cut artificial aesthetic that came with being able to afford a landscaping company. But this…

Jason whistled lowly, taking in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ vibe with more than a little appreciation. The property did have a distinct sense of ‘that little house holds some shady sh*t’, what with the gothic romantic architecture and the clear disregard for polite faces, but it was Gotham. Shady sh*t was practically a living requirement.

Besides, Jason thought the ominous feel gave the building character.

Man, Pamela would lose her sh*t.

Damian clicked his tongue, looking over the yard with disapproval.

“It's disheveled.” He scorned.

Jason moved to smack him upside his head, dodging the following jab with a slight hop.

“Shut your mouth, brat.” Jason lectured. “It's natural. I know you know the difference.”

Damian scoffed, turning up his nose like the little rich brat he was.

(Honestly, Jason thought it would've been weirder for the Hillcrest House to be any other kind of ‘sheveled’. The place had been vacant since well before he was a brat- ever since the previous family, the Wagner's, were ‘Gotham Removed ™’. He vaguely remembered, somewhere in between being picked up like a stray and being Robin, that he used to sneak off to investigate the so-called ‘hauntings’ of the house. Spoiler alert: the house absolutely had some post-death f*ckery going on and only a nut case would spend a night in the place and think it was a great place to call home.)

Although, if the demon brat was to be believed, what they were tentatively calling Black’s sister- if nothing else, Damian was sure the girl in question was too old to be the guy’s daughter and too young to be his wife (or had better not been his wife)- was more than a little off. What brand of ‘off’, exactly, she had going on was still up in the air because all their deep dive into the newest Hillcrest victim/owner revealed was that Haydrian Black was one private, annoyingly guarded, stupidly rich motherf*cker.

He was from old money. Emphasis on old. Named the sole heir to the Black House inheritance after the previous Lord kicked the bucket, Haydrian had his hands on a literal fortune. Like, Bruce levels of fortune. The house was apparently old enough for honest-to-god lordships. Off the face of Scotland. And whoever he had on his payroll covering cybersecurity had either a permanent open offer at Wayne Enterprises or a lifelong place on Timmy’s and Bab’s sh*t-list. (Watching them both froth at the mouth again and again and again the more they were kicked out of the guy’s database was the highlight of Jason’s night. It almost made being unwilling available for this sh*t-show worth it.)

So: for the better, for worse, for Jason’s immense entertainment- the only thing they had on the new Black Lord was that the guy was only 20, young as sh*t, had his name on everything, and had a hand in every dark academia there was. Mortuary science, gothic literature, f*ck- even the honest-to-god occult had the Black stamp of approval.

It was some shady sh*t: some very ludacris, very gotham-like sh*t. In any other instance Jason might have had some respect for the man, but Jason had a bone to pick with whatever bastard that would let their mentally ill little sister run off into the woods in the middle of the goddamned night.

(As it was, there was another kind of Gotham greeting Jason was more than willing to participate in. Maybe if he was lucky he’d be able to accidentally marry the man to his fist.)

“Just behave.” Bruce ordered them all as they approached the door.

Almost as if in spite of that comment, the moment before Bruce pushed to the front of their group and raised his fist to knock, Steph squeezed past him and just- opened the door. The unlocked door.

(Just what dumbass leaves their door unlocked?)

“Stephan-!”

“Mama,” Steph yelled, stomping through the threshold like she owned the place and sending Jason a mischievous smirk over her shoulder, “I brought my hoard!”

Bruce gaped, absolutely scandalized over her behavior. Jason snickered, the fresh rush of vindication warming his heart. He knew it. He f*cking knew it! Secrets were sensed and secrets were there. Dick shot Jason a confused look, his brow creased. ‘Mama?’, he mouthed silently. Jason shrugged, waving him off.

It was Steph. Enough said.

Following behind the still lecturing B, whose dramatic soapbox emphatically went in one ear and out the other, Jason damn near crashed into Dick's back as the older male froze on the threshold. The curse Jason meant to dole out froze with him, melting into nothingness with the sweet, buttery scent bath-bombing them from the open doorway.

“Are those cookies???” Dick breathed, inhaling as deep as his body would let him. Jason, questioning his sanity with every step, subtly did the same. As they crossed the ornate, carved framework- hah, hemlock, how fitting- Tim twitched to life.

“I smell coffee.”

Damian scowled, marching to the front to chase after Steph.

“Brown!”

“Kitchen.” A young, female voice called from down the front hall. Jason didn’t know it, but Steph honed in on the sound and strode in with easy, comfortable steps. Like a line of chickens led to slaughter, the rest of them followed suit.

Jason didn't make it much of four steps.

“Oh wow…”

Hoolllllly sh*t…

Jason shook his head in wonder, craning his head this way and that. Forget Pamela, Selena was going to lose her sh*t.

The layout was the same as Jason remembered: large, open floor spaces with a high-rise ceiling, multiple stories interlocked with narrow halls and deep corners, teasing at secret rooms and curling passageways. While vacant, the contrast between the two designs made the place seem much more creepy- like the usual safety of being able to see the space in front of you meant nothing due to the monsters waiting in the shadows.

While occupied, the creepy vibe was fully eradicated.

While occupied by the apparent House of Black, the vibe went from eccentric goth to eclectic corvid.

Literally.

The walls were painted after a watercolor theme, starting with pastel pinks and peaches in varying layers, transitioning darker and darker the deeper you went. The furniture matched the color scheme: seamlessly morphing from tall, thick, ruby oak bookshelves to pearled-blue hanging shelves. Other furniture ranged from low sitting tables wrapped with finely knotted cord, tall ottomans cushioned in different states of fluff, and chandelier-esque pieces threaded with glinting stones, deeply colored bottle caps, and roughly cut bits of glass.

Every shelf was full. Every shelf. Each flat surface made something its home. Jason knew some of it at a glance- books, of course, in English and other languages he recognized. French, Mandarin, Arabic, Latin, Gaelic. Some tomes older than others. Some more loved, judging by the creases decorating each spine. Jason knew the stones as well- identifying tiger’s eye from jasper was child’s play.

Other items Jason had no clue. Not the slightest bit of an idea. It was like being in a back-alley knick-knack shop run by a madwoman you were only slightly sure wasn't going to drug you and try to eat your liver.

As they passed the living room, Jason could just feel Tim’s growing need to grab his camera.

The living room had a flat lounge of furniture, lined with long couches clearly meant to double as beds if needed. Where there would normally be throw pillows- you know, the small ones with embroidered phrases that no one in the history of anything ever actually needed- were actual pillows, buried under different blankets and fuzzy, soft looking throws. There was a large TV facing the space, books lining the shelves on the walls, and a large coffee table covered in an assortment of paints, hard candies, and spools of fish wire.

Before Jason could question it, they reached the kitchen.

And in that moment, Jason found himself- admittedly- a bit in love.

The kitchen was f*cking beautiful. Beautiful with a capital ‘B’. Beautiful with a capital ‘B’ that had no relation to the spite-filled ‘B’ Jason usually used. f*ck, it was beautiful enough to overlook the mess.

The countertops were a baked goods war-zone, yes. You'd be correct in that there was what looked to be flour and cookie dough splattered at odd angles on both the walls and the floor. Alfie would have fits if he ever saw such a sight, but Jason was more than flexible.

(And that flexibility was heavily aided by the nation's worth of free space available between the kitchen island, each shiney, new appliance, and the appliances themselves. They had a convection oven. They had an air fryer. They had a blender. They did, in fact, have an industrial grade coffee machine. They had an open stove top and a brick oven and flash freezer and Jason bet if he could just get a peek at their knife sets he just might start frothing at the mouth himself.)

(Idely, Jason wondered where Lord Black landed on the spectrum of adoption tendencies.)

“Where’s Rin?” Steph demanded, pulling Jason away from dreamland and back into focus. She threw her question at the kitchen's only other occupant: a girl, approximately Jason’s age, with brown eyes and a mop of messy curls wrapped in a bun. She leaned on her elbows heavily, hunched over a steaming cup of coffee and blinking at Steph in a very familiar, zombie-like fashion. One hand was plastered in cheap bandaids. Her eye bags had eye bags. And- as her attention strayed briefly to Bruce- Jason got the distinct sense she wanted nothing more than to jump off the roof of a forty-two story building.

It was a mood, really.

“Getting dressed.” The unknown commented dryly, turning back to Steph “They all are.”

The ‘all’ was given a distinctive stress, if not slightly foreign. Steph perked up, coming to life with undisclosed knowledge.

“The twins are in?” Steph asked with starry eyes.

The girl nodded, giving them a pointed and deliberate, expecting stare. She turned to Steph again. Waiting.

“Oh sh*t- sorry, forgot-”

Dick pushed forward.

“You know each other?” Dick asked curiously, looking between the girl and Steph. Tim butt in with a half coherent mumble, eyeing the coffee machine like a lion would its prey.

“Coffee?”

A snort pulled their attention to the archway behind the burnette. Standing there was another girl of approximately the same age, with straight ginger hair, brown eyes, and a mass of freckles. She wore a pair of faded jeans and a graphic T-shirt with big, bold letters saying ‘These Hands are Rated E for Everyone.’

Jason immediately found his favorite.

“That is not coffee,” She corrected easily, slipping in front of the other girl. “With the amount of caffeine Mini puts in that sh*t, it should be a regulated substance.”

She thrust out a hand to Bruce, sizing him up with zero fear.

“I’m Ginevera,” She introduced, “but for your own personal safety please call me Ginny or Gin. The undead one is Hermione. The others will be down soon. Can I interest you in a fresh baked cookie or a heart attack in a cup?”

Her English was a bit more thickly accented than Hermione’s, taking on a harsh quality around the end of each sentence. Bruce took the hand with his Brucie smile, shaking it with a flaunty air.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Gin.” He responded lightly, his tone taking on his ‘I'm an airheaded playboy’ character. “I’m Bruce, these are my children: Timothy, Damian, Stephanie, Jason and Dick. I have others, but they’re preoccupied at the moment. We live next door.”

Gin's answering expression veered just outside what could be considered ‘rude’. Hermione mirrored her- more particularly looking as if she was one shallow smile away from throwing her coffee cup at the man. (In Jason's experience, ‘Brucie Wayne’ had that effect on people.)

Bruce powered on.

“Is Lord Black home?” He asked, “I was hoping to meet him.”

“Meet him?” Gin parroted back blankly, her smile turning stiff. Behind her, Hermione stared.

A tense silence built up, raising Jason's earlier feelings of providing a traditional Gotham greeting to the man of the house. The hard, finality to Hermione's response didn't help matters any.

“He's not home.”

“Oh?”

Steph coughed into her fist, glaring at Bruce. Jason wasn't sure if the look was due to his deplorable manners or because his detective was starting to show. Either way, Tim took that moment to push to the front himself and hijack the conversation.

“I’ll take the heart attack.” Tim said, doing his best to herd Bruce back with his tiny body. “Four, actually.”

“Not four.” Dick interjected hurriedly. “One’s fine.”

Jason took that as his que to jump in.

“He wants four Dick. Let the man get what he asked for.”

Damian scoffed from the back, entering the fray out of pure spite.

“Drake is old enough to dictate his own health, Grayson,” he declared firmly. “It's none of our concern if he wishes to partake in suspicious substances.”

Tim nodded in complete agreement. Dick groaned at them both.

“We’d be happy to oblige-” A voice hummed happily, located at the archway and male in nature.

“ -if you waive your rights.” An identical voice finished.

Emerging from the depths behind Hermione, two copies of the same person loped in. They were both tall and gangly, at least six-foot five if measured, with ginger hair and brown eyes. They wore matching outfits- a pair of comfy sweatpants and an over the head sweater like sane people do on a Saturday morning- and identical devil-may-care grins. The facial structure of the two was similar to Gin on a familial level, likely they were biological siblings.

Jason was willing to go out on a limb and say these were ‘the twins’ Steph spoke of.

“After all,” They chimed in unison, snaking in front of Gin while she rolled her eyes. “We can't be liable.”

They both stuck out a hand in union, one offered on each side.

“I’m Gred-” Said the one on the right.
“And I’m Forge-” Said the one on the left.

“ -nice to meet you rich man.”

Damian looked at the two like they were the scum of the earth, the clear distaste in his expression doing nothing to try and hide away. Tim decided to abandon his luke-wam attempts at reaching a consensus. Instead, he turned to Hermione with pleading eyes. She waved him off with a nod, digging out a few coffee mugs and a handful of plates. Gin moved around to the oven, sliding on a pair of mitts laying on the countertop beside it and opening the oven door. The smell of cookies exploded.

Dick legitimately started drooling.

“Shake at your own risk,” Gin warned, tugging out the pans while Hermione started pouring coffee. “The Twins like to keep people on their toes.”

“Twins?” Steph prompted eagerly.

The two abandoned the handshake and turned to her, eyes gleaming.

“Why this must be the amazing-”

“The legendary-”

“The famed-”

“Steph we’ve heard so much about.” They finished with flourish, taking each hand and shaking it with vigor. Steph’s arms went up and down like a jackhammer, shaking her entire body. The size of her grin nearly split her face in two. Jason raised an eyebrow at her excitement.

Well, that tanked it- she knew someone in this house.

Hermione handed Tim the coffee and Dick a plate with four cookies on it, turning to Jason and Damian- ignoring Bruce entirely.

“Do you two want anything?” She asked pleasantly, pointedly not acknowledging B in any way, form, or fashion. The cold shoulder didn’t go unnoticed, but judging by Bruce’s grimace he wasn’t aware of whatever problem Hermione had with him. “We have normal things too: muffins, juice, tea and all that.”

Jason waved her off, amused by whatever grudge match the brunette had going on and absolutely not about to stop it.

“Nah, I’m just here for the carnage.”

Damian made no effort to answer her. Dick, cheeks bulging with hot baked goods, blinked from around his cookie.

“These are,” Dick breathed in awe, a few crumbs catching the side of his mouth, “so good. So very good. Guys, they’re Alfred good.”

“Bullsh*t.”

“No really!” Dick defended, fully aware of how high of an esteem Jason held Alfie and holding out one in offering. “Try it!”

Tim sneaked around Steph and the Twins and bleared up at Hermione in similar reverence. The questionable substance charading as coffee that once filled his mug had vanished.

“I need your exact recipe.” Tim ‘asked’. “Promptly.”

Bruce, finding himself at a loss with the flow of events, decided to focus on Steph.

“I’m sorry, you know each other?”

Steph turned back at him with a matching sh*t-eating grin.

“Pay attention Bruce,” she scolded, “we just met today.”

Any rebuttal Bruce could’ve had was cut off by Damian, his tone severe.

“Is that an owl?”

Jason started, his cookie halfway to his mouth. As one, the entirety of the kitchen turned to where the brat was looking. And, eyes bulging and mind whirling, Jason had to say, well, yes- perched on a horizontal support beam was, in fact, an owl. A snowy one, if Jason knew his species any. The bird, not exactly a common pick for a house pet, surveyed them all with sharp amber eyes- its delicate white feathers preened to perfection. It was perched on the over mast, judging them as only a bird could.

“Oh, that’s Hedwig.” Another voice interjected dreamily.

Jason turned to it, categorizing the two additions to their party. The first was a pale, tall blonde that honestly looked a bit like Lanora- Mr. Freeze’s wife. She wore a billowy, off-pink lounge dress with small sequins and… radishes? Small ornate radishes?

Jason blinked around his confusion, refocusing on the blond’s companion.

She was… small. Dude, small and cute. Tiny, actually. Jason tried to shake off the image of a Eurasion red squirrel. She had deep, ruby red hair reminiscent of garnet, pale skin and full lips, and a mess of curls. Her sweater, practically drowning her, was oversized and baggy. Her jeans were permanently splattered with paint.

“She’s Rin’s.” The paler girl hummed.

The other girl- Rin, Jason surmised- laughed, warm like a stoked fire on a cold winter’s night.

“If anything,” Rin corrected with a pretty smile, “I’m hers.”

Her eyes, brighter than Jason would’ve ever thought possible, flicked up- locking with his own.

Green spilled in his vision. Her green, yes, shining and vivid like gemstones and auras- but also an acidic, toxic green Jason knew too well. Fire erupted in his veins. His sense of the ‘here and now’ blurred, darkening like shadows during an eclipse.

The pit seethed at their newest arrival, baring its figurative teeth.

And something- Jason didn’t know what- bared back.

With a harsh exhale, Jason desperately grasped at his slipping consciousness. With a slamming force that threatened to leave him floating and empty, ink swallowed up the oncoming rage like a void. The pit, in a battle of unknowns, lost.

It shrunk in on itself.

Like a scared little girl.

Jason went rigid, the following hollow sensation leaving him blindsided. He had braced himself for tragedy. The lack of follow up was out of his purview.

Wobbling, with no plan of action, Jason did the only thing he could: he stuffed the cookie in his mouth.

“Hi, I’m Rin- and this is Luna.”

Jason nodded, as if nothing of note happened and as if everything was fine.

(… f*ck, it was a good cookie.)

Chapter 13: Harold of the Old, Hand of the King (had more than enough and jumped into the sea)

Chapter Text

George was well acquainted with courting chaos- especially with Fred as his brother. The tangled web of one masterplan colliding with another, tripping over the one before, and knotting with three others before that was a tapestry he knew better than no one else. Seeing the mess for what it was, being able to step back and see the whole picture, was one of the few things George had over Fred without question.

One might call it his own personal talent- and damn if George didn’t use it well.

In the walls of their sibling-filled home, George's talent for finding the eye in the storm enabled him to thrive. George felt it was only natural- the fact that ‘order’ was not a known word to any of his kin and Fred was usually the one to kick up their figurative winds only simplified matters.

In the halls of The Founding, when Fred’s mischievous nature was traded for Rin’s own natural hurricane, George took the shift in stride. When George's number of people grew from one- his twin, his brother, one half to his own whole- to actual double digits… well, George couldn't say he hated it. He was busier now, yes. He had to watch more closely to keep track of his kin, and it was true he had to keep further back to ensure he saw the entire whole.

But he didn't mind it. He quite enjoyed people-watching, trying to understand others as well as he knew Fred. And the ploys were never boring.

(George, let it be known, was by no means an unentertained man. If idleness was the devil's playground, then George had the set up of a saint. His attempts at keeping Hermione out of jail alone were enough to burn any free time he could have.)

(His, ah, ‘hobby’ also, somewhere along the way- likely while he isn't looking- put George in a position of considerable power.)

“It's nice to meet you Rin,” George's newest subject of interest introduced kindly, a smile tugging on his lips. “You as well, Luna. My name is Bruce.”

George grinned back, the familiar feeling of responsibility bubbling up in his gut.

You see, there was always a method to the madness. Their group had a system.

Fred, with his pair of keen eyes and even sharper mind, spearheaded their operations- both on and off the battlefield. Rin, privy to wonderous unknowns and fearless to the point of defiance, pointed the way: diving head-first into whatever problem lay across their path. Gin took up arms at the front lines, guarding them with only her fists and her strength. Hermione, ready to be their tank in the worst case scenario, spent most of her time looking forward- planning against the perceived. Luna spent her moments looking even further, planning arm-in-arm with the inevitable.

And George- standing steady in the present, working in tandem with Hermione on keeping their group somewhat level headed- somehow, during some meeting he likely wasn't invited to (if it happened at all) became both their chancellor, judge, and jury.

(Contrary to popular belief, George was the one with the final say in all things. He held the veto. George rarely had to use his position- what with Rin having the right idea more often than not and their lovely Warlord more than happy to take the reins- but that's not to say that ‘rarely’ was the same as ‘never’.)

Case and point: the way Hermione was staring this ‘Bruce’ down, how the depths of her brown eyes smoldered and the curve of her spine crouched over the countertop like a stalking jaguar, had George deciding that, impulsive friendliness aside, the Wayne’s needed to beat it.

Promptly.

“Nice to meet you Bruce,” Rin hummed, sliding in front of Luna and dipping into a slight curtsy. The varying tones in her hair glittered with the motion, lighting up as the kitchen overhead moved across each strand. “How can we help you?”

Over Steph's head, George and Fred shared a brief look of alarm. Hermione broke off her stare down with their visitors to quickly check over Rin, equally unnerved. Gin tried to swallow a grimace.

(Rin, may the gods save her, was not one George would ever describe as ‘put together’. He meant the sentiment with love, and of course he wouldn't have her any other way, but ‘poised’ was not in her vocabulary. Rin was- on the regular- a bit erratic, continuously frazzled, and almost always vibrating the frantic energy of the very last player in a game of hot potato… if the game was played with an active bomb. The only time, and Goerge meant the only time, Rin showed any amount of suave or grace- historically speaking- was either while under immense pressure or while downright panicking.)

And Rin, it should be said, stood in front of their current company with the finesse of a goddamn queen.

“I'm sure a busy man such as yourself has places to be.”

George, feeling a bit blindsided by the abrupt tonal change, tried to get a sense of the problem at hand.

Whatever had Hermione seething, he decided quite quickly, could take the backburner: George had every confidence she would fill him in at her earliest convenience. So long as he could keep her within socially acceptable levels of ‘f*ck it’, kept the coffee flowing, and ensured Bruce kept at least a ten foot distance from her…

Bruce chuckled at Rin, as good-natured as any other man.

George mirrored the man's mirth, painting on an air of ease like a mask in a mummer’s play. He was sure to match Fred’s enthusiasm, shaking Steph’s hand with the same vigor- at the same pace.

(He hid his sharp eyes under a friendly guise.)

Bruce Wayne’s smile, George noted with a curling stomach, was fake.

The airheadedness he projected, the loftiness of his tone, the shallowness of his gait- it was at odds with his eyes. They were aware, in a way George recognized in his own. The character he tried to sell didn’t match the calluses fused to his hands, matching each one of Steph’s. This Bruce was a charade, a foil to the man his ‘children’ followed- gathering around him not like sons but like soldiers.

George didn’t have anything against that, on its own.

Really, he didn't.

Truly: far be it for him to hold mislead impressions over someone’s head. As far as George was concerned, it was a natural instinct to put on a mask when in a place of danger. Just as how one wouldn’t be the person they were in front of their lover in front of their mother, Goerge wasn't offended, per say, that Bruce had taken to deception. If George wasn’t about to relax in front of these people, he couldn't realistically expect the Waynes to show anything but a face.

In truth, it was the intensity of the front that had George disgusted.

The man lacked subtlety.

(And taste.)

“Well, I was hoping to meet your brother if possible.” Bruce explained casually, as if the thought just came to him on one warm, summer's evening. “I think our operations could benefit from a partnership.”

Rin, preoccupied as she was, didn't catch on to the specific wording of Bruce's request in time to challenge their current trick. She was too distracted: taking the time to observe Steph's family, to take stock of Hedwig and the cleanliness of their kitchen, to wring her fingertips and smile prettily- basically anything and everything other than acknowledging the one Wayne hanging in back stuffing his face with her cookies.

(To George, the guy looked arguably normal. He was as tall as him and Fred, with a thick, muscular build and a rough demeanor. His blue eyes stayed far away from Rin, casually undergoing the very same preoccupation as the girl in question, framed under a mop of black hair streaked with one strip of white. George hadn't seen what happened between the two to make Rin panic, if there was history there or if the emotion went unprompted, but he was sure that he was on the right track subject-wise.)

George was also well aware as to why the Wayne's were under the impression Rin had a brother.

Like all things that made absolutely no sense: it began with tradition and pride. The Ancient House of Black, built on a long lineage of metas and amassed wealth, held value in two things: the purity of their blood and the power of their meta. The gender of their Lords never mattered much. Nor their age. In truth, when one value was pitted against the other, when all other alternative options were either imprisoned, excommunicated, or purged- as was the case with Rin when Sirius named her his successor- blood ties were also arguable. In the light of pure power, all that mattered was the inarguable station of ‘Lord Black’.

And that sentiment was reflected on every piece of paper regarding the Black estate. ‘Lord Black’ owned their house. ‘Lord Black’ was the heir to the house's fortune. ‘Lord Black’ stood at the head of the world's dark academia, holding an insane amount of power in her tiny, freckled hands.

To George's understanding, the wording was an actual, lawful stipulation in every heirship. He didn't know for sure. Rin never argued against it, but she also never talked about the inheritance ceremony all that much.

(George never expected her too, given how it came about.)

So yes, George could sympathize with the Waynes’ confusion. Unfortunately for them, now George knew who he spent his night evicting from Rin's business.

Fred snigg*red, pulling Bruce's attention.

“Do you always bring your kids to work proposals?” Fred asked, his playfulness carving into something less than friendly. Fred had caught George's eye beforehand, hearing what George needed without him having to say it outloud.

George's playful smile shifted into something more genuine.

Alright. Plan: Get the f*ck outta my house is a go.

Bruce paused, unsure of what to do with the new wave of veiled hostility thrown at him.

“Actually…” He hedged, his amiable face falling, “I thought we might say hello. As friends first.”

“You make friends with all your business partners?” George countered, his tone scathing. It was rude, yes, to talk to the man like that. The shift was abrupt. It was not how one thanks a man and his family for saying hello.

But it was final.

Gin hopped in, hearing the decree for what it was.

“I'd avoid the word ‘friends’ with that kind of smile, if I were you.” She advised simply, slipping next to Hermione and leaning back on her elbows. It took a full tilt of her neck to get a clear view of Bruce because of his height, but Ginny didn't let it trip her up. She was used to it. “Feels kind of predatory. Like you'll sell my soul for seven minutes with a prostitute.”

“Excuse you?”

The youngest brother's hiss was partially drowned out by the sudden sounds of choking: Jason, gasping around the cookie now lodged in his throat, and Tim, whose coffee most definitely went down the wrong pipe. Dick smacked Jason on the back, his cheeks pinched from biting down his own snort.

Bruce looked as if he was just backhanded.

“You're excused.” Gin responded, unimpressed.

Luna peeked from around Rin, looking between her and the Wayne's- a sigh on her lips.

“Oh dear…”

Hermione zeroed in on Steph, wolf staring her down from the rim of her mug. The ferocity there reminded George of his earlier musings, prodding him to return to the task at hand.

“Well,” He cut in, sure to pull back his bite and veer into more polite territory, “it was nice to meet you rich man, really, but we actually have things to do today. You’re gonna have to come back another time.”

Bruce narrowed his eyes, shedding off a bit of the play and doubling down. He watched them all carefully, observing every detail available, while a ghost of a grimace started carving itself into his skull.

(George wasn’t at a loss as to what kind of red flags the man may have spotted given his misconceptions, but that was just too damn bad. They weren’t Bruce's flags to worry about- and they weren't even there! )

“My apologies,” Bruce hummed, the tension building in his shoulders making him seem taller- more intimidating. “I didn’t mean to take up your Saturday. When might be a better time to meet Lord Black? I can leave him my number.”

Rin, returning to the conversation, frowned in confusion. She opened her mouth to ask, but the attempt was promptly smothered by Steph's sudden appearance and the purple draped appendages circling around her.

“Ohhhh Rin,” Steph moaned, overdramatic and loud. “I missed you! Just what am I to do with how little I see you? Lord Black spends too much time hiding you away!”

Rin returned the hug on reflex. Between bits of cloth, George could see her eyebrows pinch as she caught on to the bit- willing to go along with them on faith alone but not quite sure why they were lying in the first place. Luna reached around and patted Steph’s back in comfort, a soft ‘there, there’ on her lips.

“I’m not hidden away,” Rin argued from underneath Steph’s arms. “And you saw me, like, two days ago.”

Steph looked down at her severely, as if she had just uttered the filthiest of ideas.

“It’s not enough.”

Before anything could unravel completely, Hermione took the reigns- turning to address Bruce directly for the first time since the Wayne's crossed the threshold.

“You can leave your number on this,” Hermione offered, holding out a piece of paper and a pen she pulled from a side drawer. “We’ll make sure he gets it.”

Bruce smiled gratefully. The one known as Dick frowned, seemingly unhappy to be leaving so soon. The one called Damian still glared at Gin, no doubt still pissed at the prostitute comment.

“I’ll be sure to.” Bruce promised, taking the paper and starting to write. His handwriting was crisp and neat, reminding George of Percy's wannabe accountant font. “I’ll also let him know I was received by such lovely hosts. His…?”

Bruce left the sentence open, waiting for them to fill the gaps. And Gin, a sister of their own flesh and blood, seized the chance with both hands and auto completed with an unflappable sense of certainty that had Fred beaming.

“Bitches.” She finished with a deadpan.

(George, torn between a sense of pride and exasperation, could only sigh fondly. Their mother had always lamented that Gin was more like Fred than George. George was always a little more like Charlie, something she thanked the gods profusely for- always rambling on about heads on shoulders and common sense. Goerge's running theory was that Gin taking after Fred was the final straw and that's why she stopped at seven kids. Sadly, their mother never took the time to clarify.)

“What.”

“That’s a joke,” Rin corrected hastily, partially wrenching herself away from Steph and raising her palms in vague surrender. “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?”

That went unanswered, bypassed by Luna's firm reprimand.

“Gin,” Luna warned. “Please. There are children present.”

Gin slumped further against the counter, rolling her eyes. Damian, the inarguable child in question, took severe affront- crossing his arms and bristling like a threatened porcupine.

“I am not a child.” He seethed, jutting up his chin.

Hermione tsked, silently offering Tim another refill. Reviewing his memory, George was pleased to note that the refills had gone unnoticed during the chaos and Tim was, in fact, on his fourth cup. (Hermione brewed her coffee at a very particular temperature, after all: high enough to feel hot on the tongue, but cool enough to chug at a moment's notice.)

“Are you,” She asked, surveying the child like one would a grumpy, soaking wet kitten, “or are you not, younger than 18 years of age?”

Damian, obviously twelve at most, scoffed.

“Irrelevant.” He sniffed.

“Essential.” Hermione argued back.

Damian narrowed his eyes at her, his hackles raising.

“It is an arbitrary idea for the likes of fools.” He declared, his jaw clenched.

Hermione raised an eyebrow.

“It’s an arbitrary idea,” she volleyed back, calm as calm could be, “irreparably integrated to our functional view of society- to which you are a member, are you not?”

Damian frowned at her, his nose scrunching. George filled with sympathy. He knew better than most how hard it was to argue with Hermione. She made everything seem so reasonable.

The one named Jason eyed the hallway, looking more and more ready to bolt. Rin, catching Jason's eye for but a moment, did her best not to seem the same- but it was a near thing.

“A society,” Hermione continued, switching to glare a hole in the back of Gin’s head while the latter slumped under the weight of her judgment, “I must add, that frowns upon cursing in front of a particular age range.”

Gin averted her eyes, even though Hermione was at her back and couldn't see it.

“Sorry…” She muttered. “Though it’s not like the kid minded…”

The one named Tim stepped in to support her, looking almost alive with the amount of caffeine he ingested.

“We curse at home,” He informed them helpfully. “It’s all good.”

Bruce took the time to frown at Tim's full mug before handing Hermione the paper with his phone number on it.

“Damian’s quite mature for his age,” Bruce assured, “Here’s my number. Sorry if this was awkward, I wasn’t aware you and Stephanie were friends. If I knew, I would have arranged a more planned visit instead.”

Steph stuck her tongue out in retaliation and stooped down to stage-whisper to Rin.

“Bruce hates secrets.” She snigg*red into the red-head's ear.

Hermione glowered into the dredging remains of her coffee, glaring at her reflection as if she wanted nothing more than to boil the rest off with her rage alone. “I bet…” She hissed darkly.

Tim eyed her curiously for that statement.

“We can still do that!” Dick jumped in, bouncing eagerly. “We could do a movie night, or a dinner, or I know- we can-”

“We’ll ask Haydrian.” Luna promised solemnly, cutting in gently and inch by inch starting the collective motion of pushing them towards the door. “I’m sure he’d love for us to make friends.”

“He has my number.” Bruce reminded them, finally taking the hint and moving along with Luna.

“Of course.” Luna agreed.

Damian eyed Hedwig as they herded them out, his previous frown still painted across his face. Fred and George pushed to the front of the divide, using their taller frames as cattle prods. Fred handed a full plate of cookies to Dick before they crossed the living room. Hermione told Tim to take the coffee and mug with him.

“Recipe.” Tim prompted, chugging down the remains like a starved man as he walked. From the corner of his eye he watched Bruce carefully, as if he expected the man to magic away his coffee before he could finish.

“Come with Steph.” Hermione countered, politely shoving them towards the entryway. By that point the one called Jason had made use of his position nearest the back of their hoard and the first to the door. He was out of sight before Dick could even try to catch the hem of his shirt.

“Me too?” Dick asked eagerly, caught between the two movements. His neck craned backward to hear the response to his question, but one hand was still hovering in front of him: half waving goodbye to the trail of dust left behind by his fleeing brother.

“I'll think about it.” Hermione grumbled, turning back into the house with a snap of her heel.

George was quick to reassure Dick that he'd work on her, throwing in a few ‘we'll talk to her’ and ‘we'll set something up' in between the chorus of goodbyes he and Fred ping-ponged off each other in rapid succession. By the time they got the Waynes subtlety evicted to the driveway, even Luna had joined in: promising very seriously to Dick that ‘they would all be great friends one day’.

(George was sure to file that comment away for further examination. George had learned very quickly he could never be too attentive with Luna.)

They waved the family off.

Once his task was complete and the other family was out of sight, George couldn't help but sigh in relief. (For a few seconds there, he was a bit worried he'd have to pull Hermione off of Bruce, or keep her from imploding the guy's skull. Honestly, using his authority always gave George such anxiety!)

Returning to the house, George and the others made a beeline for the kitchen- joining Hermione at the countertop with no small amount of burning curiosity.

“Ok,” George asked, once they were all present and relatively centered, “ what was that?”

Rin tried to answer, but Hermione held up her hand- silently but firmly telling the smaller girl to shut it. Flipping over the paper with Bruce’s number on it, Hermione scrawled out a message in large letters and held it up for them all to see.

BUG SWEEP FIRST

You're sh*tting me.

Chapter 14: Pilgrimage to Seek the Prophet (mayhaps listen to your conscious first?)

Chapter Text

Roy Harper was well acquainted with the toxic love of an oncoming heart attack, thank you very much, and in his humble opinion- not that anyone would ever hear a word of it- a man of his age should not be so familiar with courting a coronary.

Should. Not.

For sucks sake: he wasn't even 30 yet! His heart was as healthy as a horse! He was in the prime of his life!

(Well… ok, maybe his heart wasn't as healthy as it could have been due to some less than stellar life choices in his youth, but he got clean and that's all that mattered! And yeah, ok, maybe he could possibly be described as a little old by rouge standards, but those standards were skewed looser than a bowstring strung with yarn! They were built on the assumption you were gonna die young. They didn't count!)

Honestly…

So, really, the point here was that Roy needed less near-heart attacks in his life.

Preferably zero.

(Although, realistically, he'd take a solid seven.)

“Jason.” He breathed, fist gripping whatever weapon he picked up on his way out- a quick glance told him it was Lian's Hello Kitty nylon baseball bat, hah, nice- doing his damndest to force his pulse back down to acceptable levels. “What the f*ck man.”

Jason blinked owlishly from where he was perched on Roy's couch- literally perched, like a goddamned gargoyle; folded knees and all- his larger frame partially illuminated in the glowing lights of Star City's nightlife. The lines of Roy's curtains only added to the effect, painting long stripes across his jaw line and shoulders.

“You weren't answering your phone.” Jason answered, the words sounding louder than they should despite his obvious attempt to whisper. Without a proper light source, Roy was forced to rely slightly on intuition, but his night vision wasn't that bad. He could see well enough, moreso due to Lian's latest insistance that a nightlight be used in the halls at all times.

And man… Jason, his best friend, Roy's number one compadre and primary pain in his ass- he looked like hell. Dark bags hung under his eyes, visible even without an overhead. His hair was chaotically disheveled- swept and pointed in various directions, as if he was pulling at every chance he got. The most telling, however, was that Jason wore his ‘summer house sweater’: an obscenely oversized, ruggedly gray, over-the-head sweater that he had once claimed up and down any old English madam being banished to the countryside for normal type sh*t should be allowed to wear.

Outside, a car horn blared, not nearly as muffled as Roy subconsciously expected. Roy turned to the cracked window, staring at it in vague disbelief while setting down his weapon.

Jason crawled through the window. Of-f*cking- course he did.

“You made me give you a key.” He huffed accusingly, reaching for the lightswitch. One soft ‘click’ later, Roy could see his living room clearly. “Why did you make me give you a key if you aren't going to use it?”

Jason, confirmed as one hell of a hot mess by way of proper lighting, shrugged- quickly peeking down the hall in concern.

“Lian's with Star,” Roy assured him easily, making his way over to the couch, “they're having a ‘girl's night out’ or something.”

Jason spun to him, alarmed, but Roy expanded before he could get his panties in a twist.

“Raven's there too.” He soothed. “She'll make sure Star doesn't do anything weird.”

Jason instantly relaxed.

(As much as they both loved Starfire- and make no mistake, both Roy and Jason would throw down for her in a heartbeat- sometimes being from another planet led to some situational misunderstandings no six year old should be near. Roy understood the anxiety there. Intimately.)

(Thankfully Raven had a plethora of common sense and excelled at Starfire wrangling.)

Taking a seat on the couch next to Jason, Roy returned to the matter at hand- deciding that ‘direct’ would be the best approach.

So.

“What chewed you up and spit you out?” He asked, amused. “You look worse than death.”

Jason, it should be said, did not argue at Roy's conclusion. He did nothing to defend his non-existent sense of bullsh*t serenity, as Roy would have expected. Instead, he rolled his eyes at Roy's semi-pun, running a rough hand over his face.

“Hah hah, asshole.” He grumbled, stretching out his legs. “Very funny. What happened to your phone?”

Roy shrugged.

“Swan dived into the toilet.” He explained, completely unconcerned. “Should have a new one by tomorrow- same number.”

Jason stuffed his hands in the summer house sweater's dress-sized front pocket, his face pinched.

“What if something happens to Lian?” He asked, eyes hooded in the usual shadow of the over-the-top paranoia Batman was so good at breeding. “Tonight.”

Roy leaned back, slumping into a relaxed lounge and throwing his legs over Jason's lap. Jason half-heartedly tried to smack them away, but Roy was relentless. Three equally lax kicks later, Roy had his footrest.

“Raven and Star got her.” He hummed, smug over his victory. Jason, scowling in between petty ventures that included pinching, poking, and lightly stabbing his shin with a pushpin he pulled out from f*cking nowhere, looked wholely unconvinced.

Roy snorted.

“Jason. My man.” He said, shaking his head fondly. “I'm as much of a super dad as the rest of ‘em- but if Lian ends up in some trouble, I'd much rather have the flying, laser powered, superwoman alien and the disaster level, thing of actual legends, half demon covering her six than my fragile, mushy, human ass. You know they got her.”

Roy punctuated the last part clearly, raising his eyebrows so Jason could hear his silent accusation as loud as humanly possible.

(To date, Jason had never had a problem with Lian being babysat by Star so long as someone with sense was around. Not once. And Raven was beyond the need for cellphones. With one wave of her hand, Roy could have some disturbingly creepy, horror movie-esque, shadow bird croaking at his bedside, asking if Lian was allowed ice cream after 11 PM.)

Can you say: hello heart attack number sixty seven?

Jason sighed, the air in his lungs scraping out in a rugged gruff. His head smacked the back of Roy's couch.

“Sorry…” Jason groaned, his alley accent flooding in. “Bein’ weird, ain't I?”

Roy agreed with a grin, any prettiness slipping away from his own sentence structure.

“Started with the break in,” he snigg*red, “but yeah: you really are. So. What up, zombie man?”

Jason stared at the ceiling for a long second, the quiet of night growing larger with every second that ticked by. Roy knew from experience that Jason would take his time, that given the choice he'd only do anything in his own time, so Roy got himself comfy.

Finally, Jason settled on his opening.

“Pit's been… weird.” he drew out, each word taking longer and longer to follow the one before.

Roy got less comfy, careful to hide any alarm.

“Ok.” He prompted, already hating where they were starting.

(Roy, to be clear, hated the Lazarus Pits. Hated them. Hated them with such a potent, inescapably intensity that some days Roy was floored that he was capable of such hatred. The Pit was something that haunted Jason in a way Roy had no power to help, dragging him down to a place he had no right to be.)

(Privately, Roy sometimes likened the pit's influence on Jason to himself on a high: with one, small lapse of self control, suddenly the worst he had to offer was on display- and everyone around him had to suffer for it.)

But you could get clean from drugs.

The Pit wasn't something you could just cold turkey and live without.

“A… bad weird?” Roy tried to clarify, poking Jason with his foot. Jason's head lolled to the side, his green eyes turning to him- lightly luminescent but not glowing.

For a moment Roy thought Jason was going to grab his ankle and, well, throw him into his coffee table or something- but he didn't. Instead he sighed, sulking like he got a particularly annoying hitman after his head.

“It's not bad,” he grumbled, expertly ignoring the staggering relief Roy couldn't quite squash, “I just don't get it.”

Oh thank god.

Roy nodded easily, both happily and joyously prepared for this brand of ‘problem’. He'd take an understanding issue over a Pit problem any day. (And everyone and their mother knew the Bats had a bitter relationship with ignorance. ‘Not knowing' was not an option.)

Roy had spent, like, almost half of his life around those grumpy geniuses. He had this in the bag.

But.

First things first.

The clock on Roy's TV stand blinked slowly, flashing the three numbers ‘2’, ‘2’, ‘9’ at them in even intervals. Laying around it were a few of Lian's toys- their glossy, plastic eyes gleaming. Roy patted his thighs, swinging around his legs with a ‘hup’ and hopping to his feet.

“Alright.” Roy cheered, smacking Jason's shoulder until the boulder of a man glared up at him with his usual glower. “So we're trouble shooting? Up mountain man. Up! Breaking into my house comes at a price. I'm not doing this sh*t without breakfast.”

Jason huffed and grumped and grumbled and groaned, but did- in fact- get up to join Roy.

“Why the f*ck you think I'm cookin?” Jason griped, ditching the sweater and throwing it on Roy's table. Roy herded him towards the kitchen without an ounce of sympathy.

“Because you broke in.”

“Could just poison ya…” Jason grumbled, even as he was pulling out eggs and other delights out of the fridge. He moved around Roy's kitchen like it was his, and- honest to god, right hand over his heart- it was.

Roy was just on the lease.

Roy danced around him to the coffee machine, flicking on the device.

“Nah.” Roy teased, “You love me too much for that.”

Jason flipped him off from over his shoulder.

“So.” Roy prompted, pulling out the glass pot and turning on the faucet. “What kind of weird are we working with here?”

Jason reached around him to pull out a large bowl from the top cabinet, cracking a few eggs with one hand. A deep frown marred his face as he worked, and when- after a few too many heartbeats to be comfortable- he didn't answer, Roy tried to poke fun.

“What,” Roy drawled, putting the pot under the drip and watching it fill up, “the thing turn pink?”

Jason gawfed, nearly choking on his own spit.

“Aw hell,” he snorted, whisking the egg whites with the yokes, “that'd be a sight. Can you imagine Ra's tryin to bathe in that sh*t?”

Roy laughed at the image, flicking off the faucet. Somehow his brain decided that the hypothetical needed a full-on Hello Kitty theme, and that just made it so much better. Pouring the pot of water in the coffee pot's side compartment, Roy couldn't help but present the possibility.

“We should totally try it one day.” He suggested- inadvisably, yes, but Jason knew better than to come to him for something like impulse control. “Think dye would work?”

Jason shook his head, still chuckling, looking lighter than Roy'd seen in awhile. As obviously tired as he was, Roy could see a discernible weight lifted off of him. A heavy one.

“Can't know until you try, yeah?”

Roy nodded, pulling out the ground coffee and the scoop, as well as the filters.

“Sounds like a date.”

Roy placed the filter down as Jason turned on the stove top- one coil for the eggs and one for the sausage he pulled from the fridge. He threw the pan for the sausage on, letting a few seconds pass so it heated up decently.

Roy prodded the conversation along.

“Sooooo… not pink, I take it?”

Jason shook his head.

“f*ck, I wish.” He sighed, laying the sausage in the pan and humming pleasantly at the hiss that came after. “No pink. But it's been quiet, man. Unnervingly quiet.”

Roy looked up from his scoop pouring, suddenly very interested in the current conversation- early hour be damned.

Jason had talked about the Pit with Roy in spurts, as much as he was able to. Some of it Roy wasn't able to truly understand, even as much as he tried to, but the one thing that impressed itself on Roy was that the Pit was always there in Jason. It was always whispering in his ear, always tempting him, always threatening to take him away and leave someone else in his place. It was a constant struggle of control for Jason. He never got an opportunity to rest. (Roy had thought of it like the temptation to use- time and practice may have made it easier to use that control, but the urge never truly died.)

“The Pit can be quiet?” Roy echoed, a bit gobsmacked.

Jason shrugged helplessly. He stared down at the sausage he was breaking down mournfully, and a bit hopefully if Roy was being honest, as if the pieces of slaughtered pig could give him all the answers. Suddenly, Roy understood why Jason ‘death before dishonor’ Todd was stooping so low as to actually ask for advice.

Anything miraculous enough to shut that thing up was worth discarding a bit of pride.

“It's news to me too.” Jason muttered miserably.

“How long?” Roy asked seriously, finished with pouring his scoops.

Jason huffed, peppering spices on the sausage as he mixed it with a spatula, sounding downright wistful.

Five days.”

Roy's heart damn near stopped.

Five days.

Roy tried to wrap his head around it- to put one word with the other and let the concept sink in. It was sinking about as well as a fly in honey.

Five days.

Well.”

The following words failed Roy, forcing him to clear his throat and try again.

“Well… sh*t.” Roy exclaimed, closing the lid and pushing the start button. “Nearly a whole week of nothing? Really?”

Jason nodded empathically, pulling out some spinach and mushrooms with a lot more energy than he had previously.

“Nothing.” He breathed, finally showing the relief those words gave him. “Not one smidge of rage anywhere.”

Jason pulled the browned sausage off the heat and drained it, talking with more animation than Roy'd seen in years- describing in vivid detail just how thoroughly over the last three days he tried to test how solid the ‘nothing’ was. Jason wasn't one Roy usually described as a rambler, that was more Dick's thing, but he went off like a firecracker: the words running into each other as he mixed the spinach, sausage, mushrooms, and eggs into another pan and set it on low.

(And f*ck if that mixture didn't smell heavenly. Roy almost drooled all over the mugs he pulled out.)

“- and that didn't work so I thought, well, if nothing else B can piss me off, he always does, so I called up Alfie and asked if he wanted some extra tea time since our last one got so rudely interrupted. I get there, right? Man you shoulda seen their faces- f*cking priceless!- and of course B is a complete dick with his judgy eyes and holier than thou hypocrisy-”

“As always.” Roy chimed in helpfully, staring at the dripping coffee with hearts in his eyes. Almost there… almost there…

“Always.” Jason agreed happily, “And you know what I got?”

“The urge to deck him?” Roy guessed, deciding close enough was close enough and pouring them two cups. The smell alone could've been Roy's own nirvana.

Jason pointed at him with the spatula, signaling Roy's victory.

Exactly!” He cried in joy. It was actual joy there- one Roy was proud to say he was privy to. Roy was also ecstatic to see it, helpless against joining in the younger man's happiness. “And that was it. No need to shoot him or kill him or rip off his head or skin him blood eagle style or any of that! Just decking. I coulda broke the asshole's nose and been happy about it!”

Roy grinned, cheering at both the announcement and the arrival of one bomb ass breakfast. He was quick to present Jason with two plates, who then started piling food on and sprinkling cheese on top.

“Dude, that's awesome! You know what got it to shut up?”

Jason returned the pan to the stove top, turning off the burner as Roy dug in.

“That's what's killing me,” he explained, washing his hands and drying them with strong, rough jerks. “'Cause, there was this girl-”

Girl?” Roy asked from a mouthful of egg, doubly interested, one eyebrow raised. Oh boy. This just kept getting better and better, didn't it?

Jason flushed all the way down to his neck.

“Shattup,” he sputtered, “it's not like that!”

Roy shot him a cheeky grin.

“Sorry, sorry,” he apologized around another mouthful, “P'eas’, co’tinue.”

Jason stared him down, scowling. Roy arranged his best ‘totally innocent’ expression, cheeks bulging with breakfasty goodness. The taller man didn't believe him for sh*t, as was his right, but nonetheless continued.

“So Dick dragged me out of Alfie's teatime to do some cutesy neighbor sh*t,” Jason narrated, taking the seat across from Roy, “the Hillcrest house got bought, you remember that one?”

Roy nodded around his shoveled eggs.

“Creepy mansion a little aways from yours,” He recalled. “Less caves, more bodies.”

Jason nodded, blinking down at his coffee a moment before standing back up and opening the fridge.

“That one. So he took the f*ckwad squad, mighta been B's idea, f*ck if I know…” He trialed off, caught short by the glaring absence of a particular plastic jug. “Ah… creamer?”

“Top shelf,” Roy informed him. “In the back. Had to move it from the door. Lian discovered the sh*t tastes sweet.”

Jason took the container, returning to the table with a crooked smile.

“Smart girl.”

Roy shook his head in awe.

“Always.”

Jason snorted at his plight.

“So we go over there,” Jason said, pouring his coffee creamer, “and this chick has cookie's going for some god awful reason-”

Roy raised his fork, pausing the story as something occurred to him.

“Wait a minute,” he said, waving the utensil around, “you got yourself a rich girl?”

Jason slammed the cream on the tabletop, grunting.

“I ain't got nothing.” He hissed, rising up and putting the creamer back in the fridge. “I said it ain't like that, asshole. You want the story or not?”

Roy reached for his coffee, compelled to raise a very specific point.

“What's so bad about cookies?” He asked. “They suck or something?”

Jason returned to the table.

“Oh god no, dude- the cookies were amazing. I might just have to fistfight the guy for the recipe. Dick showed Alfie and got actual approval.”

Roy whistled lowly.

“High praise.” He commented with no small amount of awe. “But I thought you said it was a chick?”

Jason waved him off.

“Guy owns the house, chick is the important one here.” He explained. “And it was 10 in the f*cking morning. Who needs cookies that early?”

“Lian would.” Roy countered.

“Lian's six.”

“Bet Dick liked it.”

“Basically the same thing, really.”

Roy laughed.

“Alright, alright.” He snigg*red, downing some coffee and getting them back on track. “So you're at this girl's house…?”

“Right. So we get in there and she has, like, five other people with her-”

“Living there?”

“That we could see.”

“All girls?”

Jason narrowed his eyes at him.

“Get ya mind outta the gutter, asshole. You're a dad.”

“Still human though.”

“You're the worst.”

“Cookie guy livin the dream, man.”

Dude.”

Roy snorted, drinking the rest of his coffee.

“Yeah, yeah.” Roy hummed, setting down his mug. “My bad for intruding on your delicate sensibilities, your highness. Please: continue.”

Jason scrunched his nose.

“Bastard…” He muttered. “Ungh, anyways, the other ones were normal. Completely noncommittal. Basically nobodies. But the minute this girl introduces herself, the pit goes nuts.”

Roy leaned forward, slowly.

“.... how nuts?”

Jason shook his head, both in wonder and clawing unease. Tension leaked back into his shoulders. Roy's stomach flipped.

“That pedophile ring last May took longer to go green…” Jason mumbled into his plate. “It was like just her existin’ pissed it off.”

Roy let out a long breath.

Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Well.”

“Yep.”

Damn.”

“Pretty much.”

Roy leaned back, taking that in.

“Ok.” Roy could only assume that no one important was dead if this was the conversation they were having, so-

“And then?”

Jason sighed, digging into his food.

“I have no clue man.” He grumbled. “The thing rises up with a f*cking fury, my vision gets washed out before I can even get a handle on it, and before the Pit does a damn thing it's like someone dumps a bucket of tar over my head. There's this- ah, f*ck- you know when Raven does her demon thing? That ‘oh f*ck something's here that can eat me’ vibe?”

Roy nodded in solemn agreement, knowing exactly what Jason was referring to.

(On her own, without any powers included, Raven had a way with igniting that little, millennia-old, caveman tingle in the back of your brain saying ‘sit up and shut up, something's here’. Whenever the demon aspect got included, that tingle easily graduated to a ‘ha-ha-ha, I'm in danger’ scream that had you itching for a campfire or flamethrower or something. Beastboy could do it too, depending on what animal he decided on.)

(Roy would deny it until his dying day, but some of the Bats had done it to him once or twice. Honestly, they appear out of nowhere!)

“That I do.”

That.” Jason emphasized . “It hits with the force of a f*cking sledgehammer, and- I swear, with no other word for it - the pit cowers. Like, full stop, hiding under the covers as far as it can go, forcefully still and not making a peep- cowers.”

Jason looked up from the remains of his food, his eyes bright.

“It's like it's terrified of whatever barked back at it.” He cheered, scraping the rest of his eggs on his fork. “And it's been hiding away for a week, man. A week!”

Roy finished his food and took his plate, taking Jason's too as he moved to the sink.

“And you think it was the chick?” Roy asked. “You think she got a Raven moment going on?”

Jason frowned in thought, slumping back.

“Nah…” He considered slowly, the crease between his brows deepening. “I don't think it was her really- more like something attached to her?”

Jason rapped the table with his knuckles, the pattern reminding Roy somewhat of a song- although he couldn't place for sure where he'd heard it.

“You ever had to deal with Klarion?” Jason asked.

Roy tried to place the name.

“The chaos brat with the cat?” Roy guessed.

Jason nodded.

“No, don't think so.”

Jason huffed, leaning against his fist.

“Figured. Well, if you ever get the pleasure, you can feel it when that cat stares at you, man. I got the same vibes from the girl's… whatever the f*ck it was.”

Roy rinsed off the plates.

“Something the Pit wants nothing to do with.” He prompted over the sound of running water.

Jason sighed dreamily, like a love-sick school girl.

Nothin.”

Roy considered that, tipping the plate in his hands over so the water ran off.

“The girl cute?” He asked, turning off the faucet.

Jason threw his hands up and groaned.

“For f*ck's sake I told you-”

Roy waved him off snippily, sliding the plates in the dishwasher.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He dismissed, “you're a dateless loser, I know. But if the chick herself is nice enough as company- and easy on the eyes- it can't be too much of a chore to hang around for a bit. You know: go out on a limb? Make friends?”

“Friends.” Jason parroted back flatly, whirling around to grace Roy with a proper glare. “With the demon pet.”

Roy rolled his eyes, turning to lean back on his counter.

“No, dumbass, the girl.”

“The girl with the demon pet.”

“That would be the one.”

Jason glowered, narrowing his eyes.

Roy stared him down, a teasing grin making its way to his face.

“You do know how to…?” He started to ask. Quick as lightning, Jason reached behind his back and threw Roy's salt shaker at his head. Roy ducked, snigg*ring as the saltshaker crashed in the sink.

“I know how to make friends, you bastard!” He argued, the earlier flush of his cheeks returning. “I just don't know nothin’ about her!”

Roy snorted.

(For a bunch of detectives, the Bats really could be dumb.)

“Maybe, but you want to, right?”

Roy's answer was Jason slumping into a reluctant sulk.

“There ya go.” Roy hummed. “So: make friends. Getting to know your neighbors isn't a crime so Bruce can't say sh*t, and if the ensuing meet and greet keeps the pit forever cornered by a seething demon pet- well, then that's just a happy accident. The girl seemed ok enough, right?”

Slowly, the sense must've sunk in because Jason scratched his chin in thought.

“Demon brat thinks she's unstable.” He threw out offhandedly, staring back at the table.

Roy deadpanned.

“Jason. My man. My bestie.”

Said bestie looked up.

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but he thinks you're unstable.”

Jason snorted.

“True enough…” Jason paused, contemplating the idea. “You know, one of the others- Hermione- had a beef goin’ on with B. Gave him the cold shoulder the entire visit.”

He leaned back, thinking it over more and more. Roy could see the exact moment Roy's plan of action began to have an appeal, Jason's eyes lighting up as a familiar pettiness caught fire.

“And there was this other red-head,” Jason mused, his grin growing. “Gin? Insulted the bastard to his face. She's a little firecracker, I can tell.”

Roy raised both eyebrows.

Other red-head?” He asked, a wave of smugness cascading over him with such a wonderful, spiteful warmth. “You mean the chick in question is a redhead?”

Jason hunched over, his grimace returning.

“Oh for f*cks sake Roy-”

“Because I do remember you mentioning something about your tastes-”

“Roy, I swear on my own grave-”

“She super tall? Cause I know you like it when can loom over them-”

“Harper!”

Chapter 15: Par for One, Par for the Course (par for the inevitable, par for the hearse)

Chapter Text

[T/W- brief descriptions of past child abuse, referance to past attempted SA, and Rin finally gets to hit some stuff]

In retrospect, Rin wasn't even surprised.

Wait- no, no that was wrong. She was surprised. Pleasantly surprised. The fact that her personal brand of universal f*ckery didn't start three steps out of the door, despite it being the first time in three weeks Rin went outside of the house, was a delightful gift Rin was determined to appreciate.

It was a good thing.

G.O.O.D.

Rin, against all odds, actually got to go on a walk.

f*ck- she finally got to breathe.

(And damn if that breath didn’t feel heavenly. Rin had been desperate to not to show the others how badly the confinement was grating on her, how much it felt as if the walls of their home were creeping closer to her- inch by dragging inch. She had reminded herself that she could live with the smothering feeling; that it wasn't going to kill her. All Hermione asked for was some prep time. Three weeks wasn't that long.)

Three weeks was more than Rin could handle

Even if ‘three weeks’ had started to sound like an improvised curse, Rin decided she was going to make it. She didn't care if she had to start chanting the mantra like a prayer, or if it felt as if her skin had exploded in a swarm of ants. If her room started feeling like the cupboard- just as sickeningly, bittersweet as the confined space of her memories and more present the longer and longer the days ran on- then only Rin had to know.

Rin didn't care if she went a bit stir-crazy, or if the discomfort had started to transcend to physical pain: she was going to keep her word.

(And it wasn't as if the cupboard was all bad. Yes: on one hand, it was hell. That door- nondescript, painted beige, always always locked- haunted Rin even a decade later. She could still feel the burn of the carpet as she was dragged there, the strong, brutish hands tangled in her hair. She could still feel her aunt’s accusing glare- as concentrated and searing as any laser. She could still feel the grinding of her splintered bones and the ache of the bruises Vernon branded across her skin.)

(Any time Rin was thrown in the cupboard, she knew she was being punished for Hallow. Something ‘freakish’ had happened, something her aunt couldn’t properly explain, and so Rin had to be punished. It didn’t matter if Petunia loved her any, or if Rin had previously behaved. Suddenly, Rin was the Lilith to Petunia’s Eden. Suddenly, Rin wasn’t human. She was demonic. She was unnatural. From one moment to the next, suddenly Rin was no longer her mother’s daughter and instead an abomination that would hurt her family and lead them all to ruin. When Rin was dragged to the cupboard, she was almost always in pain.)

But the other hand held safety. Once Rin was tossed to the floor, once Vernon decided she was properly reprimanded and the door slammed shut, Rin was safe. The punishment was over. Rin was the only one that lived in the cupboard. Vernon couldn’t physically fit. Petunia wouldn’t dare. In that small, shadowy space where Hallow had more power- once the lock clicked into place, Rin was finally allowed to weep.

(Rin had loved the cupboard as much as she hated it.)

Three weeks was nothing against ten years

Besides, if the fact that Rin had managed to live three solid weeks of a relatively boring life was anything to go by, Hermione’s logic of ‘you can’t get caught up in some bullsh*t if you don’t go outside’, was sound.

So.

Rin did her school work. She grumbled over math equations and threw a few pencils in her frustration. She decorated the house and spent far too much money on little knick knacks that had no other purpose other than making her happy. She stress baked an obscene amount of pastries the Twins assured her got properly donated and eaten. She cursed at the walls. She sung silly songs.

But most notably, Rin finally got caught up on the Black estate- learning about her particular piece of the Gotham pie- which only further solidified her belief that rich people, herself somehow now included, were insane.

Of course Rin’s Gotham legacy started out with the most common problem of the late millenia: the British wanted someone else's sh*t. Gotham, as Rin had learned, was originally founded by some Dutch settlers in 160-something. It took a handful of decades before the city flourished to its current gradeure in the early 18th century with the help of the Wayne, Kane, Elliot, and Cobblepot families. But, as mentioned, somewhere in between those two events- the precise date was still being argued over- the British took a peak at the growing stronghold and called ‘dibs’. In the subsequent British take over, fascinated by the possibilities of a new world, one Euron Black came with.

As thus: the ‘New’ branch of the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black began.

Euron Black, later described as the ‘Patron of the New World’, was an already wealthy and eccentric man- as all Blacks were prone to be- with an obsessive adoration of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Not even one step into the budding city and he was already starting to throw money left and right, financially backing anyone he thought had some worth- for a price. The terms and conditions varied on a case by case basis. The contracts were binding. They spanned generations. Rin had a feeling there were some under the table threats worked in there, but as it was: she was still digging through contracts.

But it worked. In a move that could only be described as both stunningly brilliant and stark-raving mad, Euron Black became the Godfather of a new generation. As did his successor, their successor, and the one after that. The tradition kept up through the years, usually leaning into the arts and a few notable instances of mad science, until the late Ilana Black died without any children and having named no successor. The following fight over the right to be the next Saint Black of Gotham annihilated any Blacks left in the city, forcing the Saint Godric Black of Metropolis- a descendant of the late Euron Black, having branched off in the search for greater wealth- to take over in the interim.

The Black’s of Metropolis, it should be noted, both then and now- both born, bred, funded, and backed- had zero interest in moving to Gotham to take over the vacancy. Absolutely none. They decreed- in writing- that the ‘obligations’ of Rin’s house could be fulfilled at a ‘reasonable distance’ until such a time where a member of the House of Black more ‘intrinsically suited’ for the position emerged.

(Rin still wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or insulted by the description.)

Either way, as a member of the old branch of the house but more importantly the Lord Black, Rin was immediately nominated for the job.

So. Here she was: Hadriyan ‘Rin’ Black, Lord of the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black, current patron Saint of Gotham, contractual owner of approximately 46% of the general populace in one way or another, the youngest billionaire on this side of the Atlantic- stuck in a holdup because of ice cream.

Honestly, she wasn't even surprised.

sh*t like this was why Hermione begged for prep time

“Nobody move!” The man yelled to the whole store, brandishing his weapon like one would a spear. “Anybody moves, th’ brat gets it!”

Staring down at the gun barrel shoved in her face, Rin had multiple thoughts come and go- scrambling over each other like a litter of excitable puppies.

First and foremost? An ice cream shop was not what Rin would’ve chosen as a prime robbery target. For f*cks sake: it's ice cream. Ice cream in a hole-in-the-wall shop off the side of a near crumbling road, visually and kinesthetically avoided by pretty much everyone Rin and Luna had come across. The net revenue couldn't have been that much.

Secondly, Rin was not a ‘brat’ thank you very much- yes, she was short, and maybe her choice of fit didn’t make it easy to tell she was beyond puberty, but she was not a child.

Thirdly, and perhaps a bit more spitefully, Rin desperately wished she managed to hit the asshole a little harder before he got the gun out. He deserved more than a broken, bloody nose for disturbing Rin's outing.

The cashier groaned at the display.

“Ah, com'on man…” the teenager grumbled, crossing his arms in defiance, “I just clocked in.”

The man grinned, showing off a row of crooked, yellowing teeth. The very top of his gums had started a slow, steady trickle of red. From where Rin's palm slammed into him, his lips swelled to the point of splitting.

A little more force would've broken off a tooth.

Hesitation breeds missed opportunities.

“Is watcha get for bein’ in the alley,” Their robber informed the kid snidely, jabbing the rifle. He emphasized the word ‘alley’, like it was a title rather than a noun.

Rin scowled, leaning away from the hazardous appendage.

(It should be said that Rin's current ground zero wasn't in an alley at all: the street outside was just as wide as any of the others- perpetually cramped due to the layout of the city. It was a stark change from the openness of the Founding, yes, but Rin thought that the close crosshatching of each street was fascinating- like the corridors of a labyrinth, just waiting to be explored.)

Idley, Rin allowed that maybe the title was because the area was a bit rough- like Knockturn in the Founding.

(Rin had taken immediate notice while following Luna's lead.)

When they were walking, Rin couldn't help but note that the residents had a hard look to them, one that reminded her of the Founding during the war. Their eyes were sharp, guarded, and weary. Every posture paraded a readiness to fight. Their hands were always hidden, shoved in one pocket or another, and they traveled around in packs- guarding each other's back from every angle.

Along the corners, a skinny kid desperately in need of more food hung out on every block. They usually had a pair of girls with them- dolled up and deadly, beautiful and threatening, like a courtesan trapped in the middle of a succession.

The area itself was old, dangerous, and loved. Signs of battle- bullet holes, ripped cloth, and old blood stains- painted each wall like a mural. The zig zagging fire escapes were barely clinging to the buildings. Pot holes the size of inverted mountains peppered the pavement.

The air smelled of metal, ozone, and iron. The landscape eroded to the flow of time. The people adapted, weaving around the cracks as easy as breathing, clinging to their home with a feral sense of pride. It was as if in the back corner of the dark city a coming storm came and settled on land, bringing several packs of human-shaped fox demons with it.

(Rin was immediately and hopelessly endeared.)

“f*ck off asshole!” The cashier snapped, “Go rob a bank!”

The guy snarled at the challenge, shoving the barrel more in Rin's face.

“Shattup,” he hissed, spitting specks of blood on Rin's cheek as his nose gushed over his chin, “or she gets it!”

Rin reached the end of her patience, her scowl deepening and disgust squirming across her neck. She hated when other people bled on her. Slowly, she reached up with one finger and pushed the metal cylinder to the side, bringing the guy's attention to her.

“Oi- brat-”

Rin's annoyance doubled.

“‘Stay where you are’, ‘nobody move’, ‘no funny business’, ‘don’t be a hero’,” she recited flatly, not at all amused and crossing her arms, “Yes, I know. Can you please just get on with it? I want my ice cream.”

Rin didn't pout. She didn't. She was above that. But she had earned ice cream.

For. Three. Weeks.

The guy glared at her defiance, shoving the barrel back to where it was and baring his red-stained teeth like a wounded animal. Heat flooded Rin's chest at the unspoken threat, bubbling up until her mouth was moving again.

“You can threaten me perfectly fine,” she snapped, “without shoving the stupid thing in my eye socket. Now: the robbing? My sister is going to wear my skinned flesh like a cape if I don’t get home by dark and I am going to get my treat before that happens. Move it.

The guy flushed, rearing back and stammering out a half-baked insult. Rin raised an eyebrow, making a show of looking over the man up and down, trying to turn his attention away from her true target. Behind him, the reflection of the glass storefront window gave Rin a treasure of important, if not infuriating, information.

There were five men in total, all taller than her by a foot and a half at least. They were broad and muscled, somewhere between mid-thirties to mid-forties, three armed with blades and two armed with a gun. Rin's man of the hour held a sort of rifle, long barreled and dark in color. The other firearm in question was a pistol, small and more portable. The blades were a type and shape that made it hard to decide if Rin was meant to call them ‘knives' or ‘swords’. The closest description she had on hand was ‘machete’, but even that was probably wrong.

(She'd ask Hermione when she got home.)

The floorplan was set in an ‘L’ shape, the smaller line starting at the door and moving to Rin's right, and the longer line starting at the door and reaching back. Around the front near the end of the small line were the tables, all either fused or bolted to the ground. The long line had the ice cream, some of the space hidden by a set of double, swinging doors. Rin was at the front, facing the guy and the door. Luna was behind her and to the side, near the crook of the L, herded together with a grumpy child too tall to be fourteen but too thin to be ten. He had scraggly hair and the same innocent, wry look to him that made everyone avoid Colin Creevy- like he could steal your car, blame you for it, and get away with it without breaking a sweat.

Thankfully, much to Rin's relief, they didn't have the other gun trained on them- instead they were pinned to the ground, threatened with the knife-sword. The sword-knife. The swife?

Sure. Swife. Why not?

Sadly, the privilege of gun number two was given to the woman behind the counter, just to the side of the cashier and another man behind the counter. The woman was older, with dark eyes, callused hands, leathered skin, and a motherly vibe. She glared sternly at the short, stout man next to her, trying her damndest to convey a message without using words.

The man, her husband if Rin had to guess, seemed to understand the message- but he wasn't happy about it. His thick mustache screwed with fury, his tan skin transitioning to a deep burgundy with each passing second. His fists stayed clenched under the countertop, circled around something Rin could vaguely make out in the glass.

(It should be said that at no point did the robber's demand they put their hands in the air. Their faces weren't covered, they had no restraints. From Rin's position, she couldn't see anything stationed outside that could be considered a ‘getaway’ car. Rin's day- and she did loathe to say this- was being complicated by amateurs.)

The husband's head turned, their reflections locking for half a breath, before he swiftly returned to scowling at the man with the sheer audacity to aim a pistol at his woman.

Toward the back of the long side of the L, two teenagers were herded alongside a woman and her kid, five years old at most, by the last two.

Rin's heart hammered.

Eight civilians. Five amateurs. Three swifes, two guns, and one Rin.

(How was it that Rin always ended up on the bad side of what felt like a mean math problem?)

At least Hallow was having a grand ol’ time

“No, no,” she cut in, shaking her head and forcing any ire to the bare bottom of her bottle. There were too many variables to fight against, and far too much space in between herself and each threat to subdue them all safely. Rin raised her hands in surrender, falling back on her tried and true method of distraction during hostile situations: kindness.

“No, you're right.” She continued on sweetly, smiling up at the guy as if he was an uncle- hah! Rin was so funny- just trying his best. “You're right. I'm sorry. I shouldn't insult you like that when it's your first time. Please: keep going.”

As expected, the guy faltered.

(Kindness was a good way to throw people off, Rin found, especially if they expected her to be angry or scared. Kindness was so out of left field that it made them trip.)

Kindness would clue Hallow in that they could not eat the man threatening her, no matter how much the thought appealed to her

Rin shoved that worry aside.

Hallow rarely went to such lengths without Rin's approval. It had happened exactly once, such a long time ago, but time did little to assuage the guilt Rin still carried.

(The victim- a predator by the name of Fenrir, chosen in a moment of pure panic and loss of control on Rin's part- was not one Rin had missed. He had been pulled into his own shadow like a sinkhole, screaming the entire way in guttural, squealing sobbs that lit Rin's nerves on fire, begging in between the dark tendrils pulling him under for Rin's mercy.)

She had told him, her body curled against cold stone and her hands gripping the tattered remains of her clothes closer, shaking so hard she could barely speak, that she had no mercy to give. Hallow had dragged him under, he never came back out, and Rin was more than happy to live with that. The children of the Founding were safer with him gone. The results were worth the discomfort.

But.

The boy that was imprisoned with her, so f*cking young, confined close enough to watch the event, still had nightmares about Hallow. He still feared his own shadow, looking at it like it was home to a monster. Since then, Rin was extra careful to make sure Hallow behaved in front of kids.

(She tried not to look at the five year old, hidden behind his mother.)

The man in front of her bristled, bushing up like a porcupine- making himself big and tall and more than a bit flustered in the effort.

“I-It's not!” He stammered, moving the barrel so it hit Rin's forehead. “Didn't I tell ya not to say anythin’?!”

Rin stared at him, blankly, carefully and thoroughly evaluating the chances of… sneakily allowing Hallow a snack.

Her conscious smacked her upside the head.

No- Bad Rin!

“You did not.” She informed him helpfully, her smile a tad strained. “You told me not to move.”

Luna saved her from breaking character, sighing fondly from her pinned position.

“Oh Rin,” Luna defended, “Don’s nervous.”

She looked up at them both, neither worried nor blinking at the swife digging into her neck or the full body flinch ‘Don’ gave hearing his name. His attention snapped to her, his earlier confidence swallowed up by wide, terrified eyes. Luna met his terror with soft, gentle encouragement, smiling at him like a mother would a son.

The sight of the blade at Luna’s neck had Rin seething

Hallow’s presence spilled around her like frosted poudrin, sparking goosebumps along her flesh.

“Go on,” Luna prompted warmly, her full focus on Don. “Just like you practiced.”

The color drained from Don’s face, souring to the pale chalkiness of expired milk. The other members of his entourage shuffled nervously, looking to him for guidance. Don focused on Rin, his eyes flickering back and forth between her and Luna.

“How-” He whispered to Rin, his voice low and near breaking, “How does she know my name?”

Rin beamed at him, showing more teeth than she really should’ve.

(In all seriousness: it was Hallow’s fault she was turning creepy. They knew Rin was terrible at keeping her face straight when under their influence, especially when she was out of practice. They knew she was helpless against their effects. When Hallow shuttered around her, when they loomed to the point that the ambient air cooled, and anyone- layman or not- could feel them, Rin felt powerful. Achingly, addictingly, and thrillingly powerful. Hallow had a way of lighting a shiver down her frame and filled her lungs with a crisp, lovely breath that reminded her of early winter and mint. They had a way of matching her heartbeat with theirs- a fascinating sensation seeing as Hallow didn’t have a heart to beat with, but rather was made of nothingness and too many souls to name. It was as if she stood under the aurora borealis in the throes of a blizzard- her pulse dancing to match each surge of wind and wave of light.)

It was easy to forget yourself under such power.

Rin fought to focus.

A part of her- an almost shamefully large part of her- desperately wanted there to be a fight.

She had felt so caged, so unsure and afraid for the past three weeks, that she was sure the sensation would start flaying her alive. Perhaps the feeling was irrational, but it was there. And the misery only intensified the more she fought herself. Wasn’t she responsible for uprooting her family? Didn’t they put themselves in danger because of her? Wasn’t compliance the least she could do?

Rin had gotten sick of feeling awful.

And now that she had something she knew, something she thrived on dangled in front of her… the blood splattered on her fist and Don's crooked nose sung to her with a siren's croon. An itch built up in her fingertips, in her toes. Rin mourned the urge to grab the barrel at her temple and shove it back in Don’s face, smashing it over and over to see if she could knock out a handful of teeth.

It would feel so wonderful.

The unimpressed expression of her therapist- a 50 year old, african american, war veteran named Marcus- flashed through Rin’s mind, quirked lips and all.

Too much time cooped up, she sighed internally, sliding back into the present and shaking off the fantasy. WAY too much time cooped up.

“I'm not sure what you mean,” she chirped, returning her attention to the man in front of her, “Something wrong, Don? Please- the robbing? Remember: you're on a time crunch.”

Rin could feel Hallow’s touch on her shoulders- curling around her frame in increasing agitation. A raspy, growling sound echoed that only Rin could hear, scraping up and down her hindbrain like a death rattle.

(Hallow wasn't the biggest fan of Rin being continuously threatened.)

Don shivered, uneasy at the general vibe and tangible temperature change. His companions looked around- feeling it too.

“I'm not on a time crunch.” Don argued, unsure.

Rin’s smile turned pained.

“Oh, Don…. I assure you: you really are.”

Don’s conspirators began to unsettle, sensing a loss of power. The one holding a swife to Luna, in particular, looked down at her with a vague sense of fear- as if being in her very proximity would allow her to divine his most closely guarded secrets. Rin caught a movement in the glass face, her eyes catching the husbands as he lifted the weapon out of its resting place- removed enough for her to see it at her angle, but not far enough for Don’s companion to see as well from his.

A gun.

Rin let out a soft breath.

Acceptable odds.

The older gentleman’s lips quirked a smidge, a righteous hunger leaking in his expression. His gaze flicked to gun bearer number two and back. Rin grinned at Don, hiding her nod by rocking on her feet like a little kid.

She was short. She could get away with it.

“So please,” she implored, adrenaline already spiking, “Don't let all your practice go to waste. You have us effectively threatened, what's next?”

Don, the poor man, searched around like the walls would give him the answers. With a brief pang of guilt, Rin noticed that Don was severely disheveled- his shirt old and wrinkled, his frame gaunt as the not-Colin boy near Luna. He had a pinched, withering look to his face under his most recent injuries, and a yellowing color taking over the whites of his eyes. The skin on his hands hung limply off his bones.

The man was sick- physically ill- and most likely not dipping his toe into the felony pool out of desire.

But desperation made for dangerous people, and Rin couldn’t afford to give him a chance and be wrong.

“The bag.” Luna stage whispered, sneaking her legs so they snaked in between the stance of the man pinning her. Rin was certain that with one twist Luna she could get him down. Rin had Don. The husband had gun number two.

But extra's four and five, along with the mother, teenagers, and child, were in the corner- too far away for Rin to reach. Rin zeroed in on their reflection. The mother had the child fully behind her, her chin stuck out in rebellion. The two teenagers had formed a line with her, doing their best to shield the kid. The child, likely under his mother’s direction, had two small hands over his eyes and his neck craned down.

Every set of eyes, save for the kid, was on the swifes brandished in front of them.

And it was a dark corner.

Hallow, my friend? Rin inquired, her smile melting into a grin. Have you ever seen an eagle scoop up a fish?

The cold feeling left her back, perked up like the ears of a kitten.

Don jolted, probably remembering the ‘plan’.

“Uh-” he started looking at them like a cornered animal, but continued on regardless, “-right. Right! Money in the bag!”

In one damning movement, Don turned to the cashier at the counter, breaking his line of sight and moving the barrel with him. Rin sent a silent apology to both Don and Macrus, nodding to the husband’s reflection. Almost as if they had it rehearsed, every victim broke into action.

Luna pushed up on her arms, twisting with all of her weight so that the man fell in a flail of limbs and lost his grip on the swife. Luna took the blade, straddling the man and jabbing the thing in his shoulder, unapologetic against his pained cry. (He'd make it- so long as he didn't try to wrench it out outside the expertise of a hospital. It was one of the finer moves Fred had drilled into their heads after Fenrir.)

The man at the counter whipped out a gun of his own, shooting gun number two in the leg and following up with a far reaching backhand that sent him flying. Little not-Colin took the gun as it clattered on the ground, backing away near the glass front.

The two extras, torn during the commotion and not aware enough to try and look up, were thrown upwards- slamming against the ceiling with a force that shook the walls and a sickening ‘crack’ that was loud enough to make Rin wince. Teenager one and two, confused as hell but willing to overlook the particulars, were quick to scoop up the swifes as they fell.

And Rin…

Well, Rin played out her fantasy- feeling just a little bit bad about it.

(But really, part of doing stupid sh*t- desperation or no- was accepting the consequences of what comes after.)

So.

Sorry, not-sorry Don.

Rin reached up and gripped the angled barrel, throwing all of her weight behind it. The butt of the gun was much larger than Rin’s tiny little palm, and far more sturdy, so she slammed it against the guy’s cheek with reckless abandon. Don fought against her, scrambling against her onslaught, but Rin knew how to make use of everything she had going for her.

And she had been waiting for this

The barrel slamming against her eyebrow, scraping against her skin- it was nothing compared to the exhilaration of finally being able to move. She pulled the barrel harshly, pairing the action with a nice crushing smash of Don’s instep, freeing the firearm from Don’s grip before he could rediscover the trigger. He tried to reach for it, trying to use his height and strength against her, but he didn’t get far. She slammed it up again- right on the poor guy’s throat. Don gagged, abandoning his attempts to reacquire the weapon. Rin dropped the gun, kicking it away to the cashier, and then gripped Don’s hand before he could make a fist. Don’s eyes widened as she found the grip she needed on his wrist, yelping as she threw him over her shoulder and into the floor-fused tables.

“Argh-!”

Rin straightened up, ecstatic and breathless.

(Every Black is just a little bit battle crazy, you know. They came by it honestly.)

Don groaned, scrambling to get up. Rin kicked his head into the nearest table, huffing at how his head snapped to the side.

“Don honey,” she offered helpfully, trying not to sound like she was having the time of her life, “stay down. I’d hate to stab you too. Can’t you see that your friend needs a doctor?”

Luna patted the head of the groaning man underneath her.

“No, no.” She hummed to him, moving his hands away as he unconsciously reached for the blade. “Keep it in, Jake. You’ll bleed out if you pull.”

Both Don and Jake stared at her in absolute terror. Don turned his unfocused eyes to Rin. Slowly.

Rin grinned, leaning over him.

“Please stay down?” She tried.

After many, many, many seconds- seconds in which Don looked through Rin, rather than at her- Don nodded his assent.

Rin beamed, feeling the best she’d had in months.

“Wonderful!”

The older woman took that as her que to come wandering over, a coil of rope in her hand. She looked Rin over carefully, as if weighing her worth.

“Ya know any knotwork?” She asked mildly, nodding over to the mess they made. Rin nodded, waving over to Luna.

“Luna knows the most.”

Luna hopped up, happy to oblige.

The following moments were spent in comfortable silence, aside from the soft assurances of the mother to her child. She had looked over to Rin once or twice, something caught at the tip of her tongue, but any chance of her breaching the space between them was shattered by the gentle ring of the door-chime.

Then- all at once- a new division of space emerged.

On one side: there was Rin.

Rin, who was dragging over Jake to their pile of bleeding, groaning men, assisted by not-Colin in keeping his shoulder stable. Rin, whose poor jeans had gone from blue to red, soaked in a myriad of blood sources- most of which weren’t hers. Rin, who had an arguable purple bruise blooming above her eye socket from where Don struggled and a pair of busted knuckles thanks to the asshole’s nose. Rin, who really just wanted to eat something sweet.

On the other side, in front of the newly opened door, was The Problem™.

The Problem, who Rin was not avoiding, thank you very much, she was just… giving him space. A lot of space, preferably without Rin in it. The Problem, whose mere existence sent Hallow in an absolute tizzy, in which Rin had been terrified that she was going to have to explain to Bruce-f*cking-Wayne why his son just got swallowed up by his own shadow. The Problem, she noted with a slight heady feeling, who looked good in a tank top? What?

Hallow thrilled, absolutely overjoyed that their toy decided to walk through the door.

Green met blue.

“Rin?”

Rin froze.

Well. Too late to run.

“Ohhhh, hhhheeeeeeey… Jason, right? You, uh, want some ice cream?”

Chapter 16: Dark Ink Lines the Mission Brief (did anyone mention no one speaks the language?)

Chapter Text

[A/N: Aside from one or two individual words, foreign languages will be formatted like [this]. English is all I got as far as fluency, google translate gets weird and with my luck I'll end up accidentally insulting someone's mother, and personally I think having to scroll down to the bottom notes again and again so you can read one paragraph is far too much work for someone just wanting to read some fanfic. So. Yeah. You're welcome 🫡]

Honest to god, Jason wasn't even surprised.

He wasn’t.

‘Surprise’ was akin to ‘ignorance’. Ignorance, it should be said, was a sin to those of his chosen profession. Ignorance was what got people killed. Even beyond the call of the hood, whether he was walking around as a civilian or a street rat, Jason couldn’t afford to be at the mercy of lack of intel. Jason was above such notions now. He had gone to lengths- great, lightyear worthy lengths- so he would never be subject to such a feeling ever, ever, again.

Jason had grown beyond that, and he was not, hand over his still beating heart, surprised.

Jason should also really do something about his jaw currently on the floor, something might fly in

“Ice cream.” He repeated dumbly, somehow making the word not sound like a question.

Rin Black, in stark contrast to the image of the controlled, simpering girl Jason remembered curtseying in front of B, laughed nervously- an argument could've been made for ‘manically’- trying and failing to not draw any attention to the limp body in her arms and the other four heads lolling at her feet. She was unwaveringly gentle in her motion to set the unconscious man down- forever mindful of his obvious injury.

She seemed less mindful of herself.

Taking in the absolute mess that was the smaller, red-headed girl, Jason couldn't help the wave of fury that washed over him. Maybe it was just the height, or that she was a girl and Jason was taught that you don't go hitting women unless they were also swinging some fists (something, he briefly considered, Rin may have been guilty of), or because she looked like a strong wind might knock her over. Maybe it was that her hair was tangled, that her blue jeans smeared red, or that the skin over her left eye was rapidly darkening.

(For all Jason knew it was because Rin always looked so damned small in those sweaters of hers. Regardless of the reason, Jason was not happy about it and the Pit was quick to take advantage of the unbalance- forcing him to grit his teeth against the new surge of verdiant, roaring, wrath.)

Blessedly, Jason didn't have to fight for long. Rin's demon pet, their presence more prominent than that first visit, solid enough to make the hairs on Jason's arm's raise and generous enough that Jason was seriously considering worshiping the damn thing, wasted no time in terrifying the Pit back into its figurative crawl space.

(Jason would deny it until his re-dying day, but he damn near cried.)

The reprieve had lasted exactly seven days.

Exactly.

It was the best seven days of Jason's second life, before the Pit slithered back in.

(The nightmares were the first to return. Almost as if the Pit was determined to make up for lost time, every time Jason closed his eyes: bam! He was a scrawny kid again. He was helpless, he was afraid, he hurt- oh f*ck he hurt Bruce please-)

Jason had seen enough of that stupid clown to last a thousand lifetimes. He had the creature memorized, from the nuclear-esque glaze of mania in its eyes to the marble cracking around its mouth. He could still remember each panel of its suit, how the cloth sliced the air with each swing of the crowbar. He still was haunted by that laugh.

(Of all the memories the Pit smeared and blurred, those went untouched. Jason could still remember it all- perfectly.)

That laugh…

Jason hated that laugh with words he could not describe.

It wasn't funny. It wasn't right. It was a masquerade of something safe and close- of something fond and light meant to make you feel good and happy- twisted and poisoned until you couldn't recognize it anymore. It was a parasite, never fully letting go of its host. It echoed in empty halls and creeped over his bedside. B didn't get it, but Jason could hear the Joker in every laugh since.

(Sometimes even his own.)

The rage, of course, was the next to come back- burning Jason's blood with each tease of release.

The paranoia closely followed.

The despair wouldn't be left behind

Admittedly, the moment Jason's personal hell re-rounded itself into a full set and it occurred to him that he had exactly one way out of it- he experienced a moment of uncontrolled panic.

Roy's earlier teasing… well, the asshole wasn't right of course, Jason could make friends just fine, but… he wasn't exactly wrong. After all, when was the last time Jason talked to a civilian that didn’t work for him? That wanted to talk to him again after? A girl, no less? Jason knew jack sh*t about girl stuff. He knew a lot about cars. He could give a college-level lecture on firearms and blades. He knew far too much about the nuances of drug trafficking. But girl sh*t? Rich girl sh*t?

While under the impression that the ‘foundation of friendship’ was supposed to be ‘commonality’ or ‘shared interests’ or some sh*t like that- and fully aware that he was somehow going to have to make friends with this girl one way or another- Jason could admit as of late he had been a tad… ah, apprehensive.

Taking in the aftermath of what Jason could only conclude as an attempted robbery that had epically failed- but more specifically the obviously exhilarated woman at its front, whose state of current health suggested that she was most definitely guilty of swinging a few fists- Jason felt a bit of that anxiety relax.

Maybe making friends wasn’t going to be as hard as I thought?

“Well. Yeah?” She offered with a wince, standing up on two mildly shaky legs. “We're in an ice cream shop?”

Rin's sister settled behind her, Luna, giggled at the questionable question- her pale fingers finishing off the tail end of a fascinating bit of knotwork that Jason could only describe as ‘crochet meets shibari meets 40's era doiley’. Once finished she shared a coy but amused look with Jason, like they were in on a secret no one else in the shop knew.

(Although, to be clear: if Jason shared a secret with the other girl, then no one told him about it. He was just as lost as anyone else.)

As a product of that, Jason stared at the two- dumbfounded.

And stared.

And stared some more.

(Probably stared a bit too long.)

Suddenly, all the life leaked out of Rin: pooling out like a creek stream clawed at its sides with a bulldozer.

“Please?” She mourned, looking at him like a drowned squirrel that just lost their stash in the following flash flood. For a terrifying beat, Jason thought she might actually start crying.

“I just want some ice cream…”

Jason was saved from swallowing his own foot by the force of nature that was Nonna Maria, her dark irises glaring at him reproachfully for his lack of response.

Nonna Maria was known by every runt in the Alley, past/present-Jason himself included. The older Italian woman, who could've been anywhere from late twenties to downright immortal, had been in Jason's life from well before Bruce’s bullsh*t and made no intentions of leaving. She was, and this could not be stressed enough, stubborn.

From the moment she stepped in the city, she took one look at the cracking ruins of the Alley and decided to make it her personal mission to grumpily take care of any kids that crossed her path- warnings, both verbal and symbolic, be damned. She would not be swayed. She could not be frightened. She had laughed- actually laughed- in the face of more than one waste of space that had the nerve to call themselves ‘parents’ when they came looking for their runts.

That kind of bravery and dedication in the Alley was the work of an imbecile in Jason's adult opinion, but damn if it didn't breed loyalty. It took all of ten years before Nonna became nigh untouchable, earning her fond moniker despite only having one son and no grandchildren to speak of.

(If the limp bodies on the floor knew what was good for them, they'd find a spot to lay low for the next century- or better yet, stay down and play dead. With little Swipe helping with the clean up- a scrawny, doe-lookin' kid of about twelve who managed to scrape up quite the reputation as an informant if Marco was to be believed- Jason would bet his left arm that the entire Alley would know of the incident by midnight.)

Here’s hoping they didn’t have any family to put out a hit on, Jason had enough work to do as it was

Although…

Now that Jason was thinking about ‘the incident’... another, very important question came to head:

What.

The actual f*ck.

Was Black doing.

In the Alley???????

“Of course you can piccolina,” Nonna assured, easily sweeping Rin away to the counters, waving her husband Giuseppe- ‘Just Beppe, eh? Full names are for old men!’ - into action. “It is why you are here, no? We have the best of the Alley! You will find no better!”

Rin followed along, if only partially confused why she was doing so, nodding rapidly to each flavor Nonna described in vivid detail- lest Nonna Maria discover you weren't paying attention.

Jason snigg*red, remembering fondly feeling the same the first time he encountered Nonna. It had been a colder winter then, frigid for even Gotham, and Jason had been, ah f*ck, toddler-ish? Annoyingly short, at the very least. Catherine had still been alive, he remembered. It was after one of her severe binges, and lil’ bitty Jay got it in his head that he should run away and that'd make everything better.

(If you couldn't tell, lil’ bitty Jay wasn't the brightest.)

Caught in an age where he was old enough to be bold but too young to know what he needed to survive, Jason predictably raced headfirst into a spectacular display of hypothermia. And the only thing saved him from becoming a Jay-cycle- the only thing- was Nonna. Nonna had found him on her front terrace, saved him from freezing to death by bodily dragging his sorry ass inside, and spent what had felt like an entire moon turn tutting and lecturing him about proper prep.

She warmed him up, treated his frostbite, insulted him six ways from Sunday for his stupidity, and then gave him ice cream.

(Because that made total sense.)

Jason was ripped out of his reverie by Nonna's scolding.

“Tontolone!” She snapped, glaring from above Rin's head. For once in her life, Nonna wasn't the shortest adult in the room. “Are you to stand there in my door all night? In! In! I am not a hostel!”

Jason dipped his head, walking in and grinning sheepishly.

“Sorry, Nonna.” He rumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

Without meaning to, Jason found himself just… staring at Rin- utterly captivated with how easily the smaller girl stood next to Nonna, fitting under the woman's arm as if that's where she spent her entire childhood. She leaned toward the glass without a blink towards the state of her clothes, or the groaning men piled behind her. She surveyed each flavor with wide, gleeful eyes, the injuries on her face being swept to the wayside. The girl leaning against the counter was a hard one for Jason to reconcile against whoever she was mimicking the first day they met, but Jason wasn't complaining.

For a rich girl, she looked almost… at home.

Like she belonged.

(B could bitch all he wanted that ‘Gotham was his city’, that he knew it better than anyone else and that outsiders weren't welcome- he could preach from the top of the watch tower for all Jason cared. B had Gotham. Gotham wasn't the Alley. The Alley was his, and Jason would shoot anyone who said otherwise.)

Besides: B wasn't built for the Alley. He was too scared of the violence, thought himself too good for the people. Even under protection of the cowl, B couldn't quite shake his silver spoon.

Naturally, there were fights about it.

Jason blamed the tone B used when talking about the Alley, like it was a human cesspool or an earthbound hellscape to be avoided. It wasn’t for the good- yes, Jason could agree on that- but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth something. That didn’t mean it wasn’t home. It could be better- damn if Jason hadn't made it better- but it was worth every battle.

Every battle.

So Bruce was too sheltered, too gradious to feel the community there- his f*cking loss. Dick was too good, too gullible to understand the intricacies of each group? Good riddance, he had no business bein’ in the Alley anyways. If Damian was too judgemental, too willing to write off the people as a lost cause, then that was his f*cking problem. Jason wasn't about to lose any sleep over it.

(Cass, may every god love her, didn't know sh*t about the Alley because she actually respected Jason's personal decision and territorial claim, and had never tried to cross the threshold.)

Jason f*cking loved Cass.

(Jason would also bet his remaining arm that Rin had never lived as a stereotypical rich girl a day in her life. In Jason’s experience, a street rat could play pretend and poof themselves up to fit in with peaco*cks for a time, but a peaco*ck couldn’t shave down, pass as a rat, and make it feel real. They were simply bred too fat.)

Jason blinked back into awareness, startled by the new presence hovering behind him. Turning, he saw Luna happily taking up the space near his elbow.

“I’m after you,” She called, pushing him towards Rin and lining up behind him. “Any ma’thai, sister?”

The foreign word caught Jason's immediate attention. The pronunciation had Irish Gaelic roots, trilling off the girl's tongue in a form of ‘maw-hee’, but the ending vowel was far too soft to fully embody an ‘e’ sound. If anything, the pronunciation could've been ‘maw-heh’.

Jason didn't know it.

Neither did Nonna, by the looks of it.

Rin smiled wryly at her, shaking her head with a small, breathless huff.

“And where would Gotham get any ma’thai, Luna?” She asked in amusem*nt, quirking a brow. “If you miss Neville that much, you can just call him you know.”

Luna hummed at the suggestion, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. Her eyes took on a familiar, misty, enamored glaze as she stared at the wall behind Beppe- one Jason had the misfortune of witnessing any and every time Dick mooned over Star. Jason turned away before he had to see her start smiling like some love-sick dope.

(He got enough of that already.)

Ma’thai?” He asked Rin, interested. His attention was taken briefly by the chime of the door bell, but it wasn't held for long. Jason knew every gang in his territory, and Jordan's crew was more recognizable than most due to their sheer bulk. One of the largest members, Shawn, nodded at Swipe as he stepped in- sealing the deal.

They'd come to take out the trash.

Rin turned to him, seriously having to crane her neck to get a good view.

(The angle alone was enough to endlessly amuse Jason, much like watching a meerkat scent the air. The fact that she was such a tiny little thing, f*ck Damain was probably taller, made it all that more awesome that she could beat people up.)

(...Aw hell, Jason was warming up to the idea of ‘friendship’ pretty fast here, wasn't he? Figures. The one moment Roy wasn't an absolute dumbass, and it had to be the one where Jason asked for help. The asshole would be insufferable now.)

“A fruit from our home,” she answered, nipping at her lip and doing nothing to temper Jason's now burning curiosity, “it isn't grown easily, but our friend is very good at it.”

Guss, one of the taller and stronger of Jordan's crew, let out a low whistle from his perch.

“This is some fine knotwork,” he commented, running his hand over the looping designs wrapped around one guy's back, “Didn't think these could be so pretty.”

Luna beamed, pride seen clear as day.

“Thank you,” she said, swaying with glee. “I made the designs myself. Oh, and do be careful with Jake, will you? If the blade comes loose without a doctor near, he won't make it.”

The Jake in question groaned appreciatively at her warning, his shoulder and neck deathly still from where a kukri impaled him. Jason had to admire the placement of the blade: just deep enough to get buried in the muscle tissue, just angled enough to avoid the collar bone, and just close enough to the jugular vein to threaten some serious damage at any sign of movement. It was a nice shank.

Guss saluted her with a crooked grin.

“You got it sweetcheeks.” He teased.

Luna flushed, likely both gratified and flummoxed at the choice of address, but no less pleased. Rin leaned back and stage whispered to Jason, her eyes glittering with mischief.

“Better them than me.” She confided coyly, pleased as punch and marching on as if she wasn't about to utter the most suggestive omission Jason had heard that week, “Luna takes forever to figure out a new design, and eventually I do really need to use my hands.”

Beppe froze from where he was scooping, his hand still halfway in the junk jug. The junk jug- affectionately named due to being composed of the previous day's leftovers and the running, muddy colored mess that always seemed to come after- stared back at him, as did the warning glower of his wife.

Jason found himself performing a similar scowl at Jordan's crew, all of whom had taken an unnecessary interest in Rin- leering like goddamn animals. Shawn caught the message, paled, and quickly dragged the others back to busying themselves with their task. Luna had to stop herself from laughing, her lips pursing and an eyebrow raised in challenge.

Jason scowled at her too.

‘Shut up’ Jason mouthed, turning back to Rin, a grumble building in his chest.

“Ever been told your mouth will be your undoing?” He muttered, rapping his knuckles against the plexi-glass separator to jerk Beppe back to work. Beppe finished scooping, pointedly not looking up the entire time.

“Only as often as I open it.” She threw back airily, moving down the line. Jason tilted his head in bemusem*nt, pleasantly startled at the dripping sass drowning each word. He nodded Beppe towards the Neapolitan for himself.

“Children shouldn't be so bold.” He quipped easily, sliding closer to make room for Luna. She surveyed the colors with interest, her eyes wide. “Might getcha into trouble.”

To the side, Jordan's crew finished wrapping up and started dragging the dumbasses away. Nonna Maria took the time to cross herself and send a prayer, shaking her head sadly at the limp, constricted bodies. A toddler in the far corner waved them goodbye.

“Trouble finds me regardless,” Rin replied with mirth, not at all offended by his dig at her height. “And not everyone can be so tall. Have any trouble with the weather up there, Goliath?”

Jason gauffed, peeking at and then deliberately turning away from the flavor monstrocity Luna was compiling. Beppe himself looked to be turning a little green when Luna asked him to put another scoop of mint chocolate chip on top of her orange sherbert.

“Jokes on you, Red.” Jason grinned. “I ain't Christian, and the weather's persine.”

Nonna, no stranger to Jason's usual blasphemy, shuffled around him- gracing him with the same disapproving stare she did when he was a runt that had Nonna ‘praying for his immortal soul' or some sh*t like that. Passing Rin, she fingered her rosary with a huff.

“This tontolone…” she muttered, turning to Rin. “He will see the weight of his sins, piccolina, mark my words. God waits for him!”

Rin giggled- the sound warm and light like a flock of mockingbirds stooped above an orchestra hall- biting her lip guiltily and shrugging at Nonna.

“I'm… pagan.” She admitted sheepishly, dipping her head.

Jason busted out laughing at Nonna's expression, her rapid fire Italian mixing with English in her building rant. He translated it easily, having had more than enough time to work on his Italian and being more than familiar with the famous Bernardi household squabbles. Swipe snigg*red as well, taking it as his que to head out.

Nonna barely noticed.

“Bah!” She cursed, thundering around the countertop. “I am surrounded by heathens! [Husband], Beppe! Tell me why you curse me with this city! [Scrawny godless children and buffons at every turn]... Did I not give you children? Have I not been a good wife?”

Beppe clicked his tongue, throwing random toppings on their bowls. He was smart enough not to bring up the fact that Maria had only given him one child, but it did not still his tongue completely.

“Whada want me to do about it, [my love]? The city is it's own. [You did not want to leave]-”

“[You offered Metropolis, idiot]! I will not bear such shame!”

“[I am only a man, woman!] I am no Superman-”

“[Do not defend yourself with that man! Have I asked you to be Superman? Have I?! You know I do not care]-”

“[Yet you blame me for the impossible]! What? What do you want? [Should I shove the entire city to the Vatican? Bless the harbor with holy water? The Holy Father could walk these streets himself ]-”

Rin watched the ensuing fight with the amused smile of someone well accustomed to loving shouting matches, Luna piping in additional flavors in between Italian insults. Jason leaned down, whispering so it couldn't be heard from outside Nonna's soapbox.

“So how’s the weather down there, heathen?” He asked her conspiratorially, “Burning up?”

A startled laugh ripped from Rin, her frame shaking. The beginning of it went high in her surprise, oscillating to the other end of a snort.

She squeaked. There was no other word for it. She f*cking squeaked.

“I'll let you know if anything catches fire.” She whispered back.

As they shuffled to the cashier station, Jason was very interested at the firm nod both the teenager behind the counter gave and the two teenagers in the back shot Rin before they followed Swipe out the door. Earning respect in the Alley wasn't a particularly complicated affair, especially while in the line of fire, but there was a fine line between having a backbone and playing the hero. Out of Jason's entire band of breathing headaches, Dick, specifically, was sh*t at treading that line.

(Jason was absolutely going to have to pull Nonna's surveillance tapes later.)

The cashier rung Rin up, bemused. Rin vibrated- literally vibrated- in excitement, her eyes glued to the frozen treat. In Italian, Beppe brought up Nonna's sister.

Jason winced. Bad move.

“[Don't you dare]-!"

“Add Luna’s and Jason’s to the tab, please.” She requested the kid over the newly increased volume. The kid blinked at the ‘please’- polite was a rare breed in the Alley- but nonetheless went to oblige. Jason grunted, resting an elbow on the girl's head. Rin must’ve been used to such treatment, because she didn’t move against it.

“I can pay for my own damn ice cream.” He grumbled, rocking her frame around like a bobblehead with a roll of his shoulder.

“I’m paying for it.” She argued, a stubborn frown forming on her face. The kid watched the both with growing amusem*nt, his eyes meeting Luna’s.

Jason scowled.

Just what was so damn funny?

“What? Think I can’t afford it?” Jason had quite a lot of money as a crime lord, actually. It was a point of pride for him.

“I don’t care what you can afford.” She rebuked, pulling out two twenties. The tab was only 15, but she shoved them both at the kid with little fanfare and zero room for argument. Jason quickly reached for it, but Rin elbowed him in his ribs with a surprising amount of force.

Jason suddenly had a little sympathy for the idiots.

I’m paying.” She declared, shoving the two bills at the kid.

“Learn how to read first, midget,” He said, pulling her hand back by the arm, using the other to try to get the money. “The little numbers on the machine say one-five-eight-nine.”

Rin played dirty, headbutting his chest and crushing his instep.

“Oof!”

“It’s for emotional damages!” She argued, smacking him away.

What?” Jason repeated, aghast, Rin's back and the countertop digging into his hip. “The f*ck it is! You weren’t the one to rob the place!”

Nonna took that moment to finally pay attention to them, interjecting and taking the cash with the lightning fast reflexes of an adolescent weasel.

“No, no tontolone-” She lectured, opening the machine and shoving the money inside, her earlier ire forgotten. “Godless piccolina wants to pay for damages? We say yes! She smacks the idiots, gives us money- good girl, she is a good girl.”

Rin flushed. Jason watched, fascinated as the color flooded her skin, traveling up her speckled neck. Contrary to the indisputable freckles running flowing streams across the bridge of her nose and cheeks, the discoloration along her neck wasn’t large enough for Jason to call them ‘freckles’, but it did give him the distinct image of gold dust. Perhaps on a treasure chest in the desert?

Jason averted his eyes before he was caught staring, grabbing his bowl. Rin and Luna followed suit. Before they could make their way to the side tables, the mother- her young toddler now scooped up and propped against her hip- approached them warily.

“I know when to count my blessin’s.” She started, focusing on Rin. She was a young mother, with brown wavy hair, tired eyes, and a- likely fake- silver cross hanging on her neck. If Jason had to guess, he'd say she had no intentions of having a kid as young as she did. But she loved the brat- you could see it in the way she held him as close as her body would let her.

“God fearing or no,” she said to Rin solemnly, dipping her head, “thank ya.”

Rin smiled at the woman, her expression tinged with an old sadness that had Jason's throat closing whether he liked it or not.

“No thanks needed.” She assured softly, as firm and feathery light as the low crackle of wood in an old bonfire. “Kids deserve safety.”

The clogging feeling intensified, and Jason for sure felt something in him go stupid.

From the back of his ears to the tops of his knees, a drunken heat erupted- splaying across his skin and turning his chest into an oven. His mouth went dry and a stinging, heady sensation built up behind his eyes. A squirming, fluttering thing made its home under his sternum. He gripped his ice cream a little harder than necessary, his train of thought momentarily becoming disjointed and messy.

Roy was onto something here, Jason was sure of it. Maybe the demon pet was kind of cute, like Goliath? Jason hadn’t had a pet before. Not a real one. What better place to start than something the Pit hated? Jason could give it a name. Jason would give it a bomb ass name. Jason was ace at names.

The mother nodded, taking her leave. Rin dug into her ice cream, a sigh of pure ecstasy on her lips the moment it touched her tongue.

The sound had Jason’s stomach flipping, his thoughts glitching like a videofeed without a proper connection.

That mouth's gonna get her in some serious sh*t one day, Jason thought dizzily, hastily gathering his own scoop and praying it would do something to cool him down, some serious, serious sh*t.

Blessedly, the sweet ice did wonders to push the odd sickness away. Under the healing powers of the best ice cream flavor in existence, Jason felt his mind focus- sharpening like a knife on a whetstone. The squirming sensation eased. Control returned.

Jason took the moment by the horns, surging to change the subject and get back to something somewhat comfortable.

“B’s been losing his sh*t,” He commented lightly, herding them out the door without remembering exactly when the decision was made. He and Rin waved goodbye to Nonna on their way out the door, Nonna's well wishes of ‘do not die before next visit’ seeing them out. Luna followed on light feet, her spoon dangling half-way out of her mouth.

“Pretty sure your brother's been avoiding him.”

Rin grimaced, shoveling her ice cream away at a pace that had to have given her brain freeze, but if it did she didn’t show it. Watching her hands grip her spoon, Jason noticed that movement pulled at the newly forming scabs dotting her knuckles. It was mesmerizing, in the way one might watch the push and pull of the tide.

“Right…” She mumbled sullenly. “That.”

Jason chuckled at her pouting, pausing to look around for some kind of vehicle. The Alley always had its fair share of street squatters: older cars, more often than not propped up on four planks of wood and missing all four tires, forced to live on the streetside because the owner couldn't afford a tow or just wrote it off as a lost cause. Anything functional was locked up tight, bland in color and nothing pawnable within eyeline. The street itself had one or two cars parked- all the usual Alley brand.

Jason frowned. He wasn't sure what Black rode, hopefully she wasn't so oblivious as to roll up in a Benz or something equally moronic, but he would've guessed it'd be more… obvious.

“Which is your ride?” He asked, turning.

Luna poked her head in between the two, sliding in front of Rin.

“We walked.” She informed him helpfully, taking a moment to steal some of Rin's ice cream. She then offered the last of hers, but Rin shook her head wildly- like a person with sense. Jason stared at them both, hard.

“You walked.” He repeated, flat. Luna nodded unapologetically. Sensing he wasn't about to get any remorse out of the girl, he leaned around her and turned his attention back to Rin. “What the f*ck? You got a death wish or somethin’?”

Rin hid behind her sister, defending herself with a paray of her spoon.

“I was just following her!” She cried, pointing to Luna. Luna hummed in complete agreement.

You walked.” Luna stated, finally finished with her walking sin of a desert. Jason shook his head in disbelief as she tossed her container in the nearest bin.

“That’s different, winter.” He bitched, taking off in long, strong strides. Luna followed, her eyes glittering in humor. “Very different.”

Rin had to run to catch up.

“I like it here.” Rin defended, expertly weaving around Cherry and Lola on the corner. The two working girls waved at Jason, giggling uncontrollably at the presence of the two girls at his side. He threw them a rude gesture, to which they only laughed. “Nonna was awesome, and it’s fun.”

Jason rolled his eyes. Nonna was awesome, obviously, but anyone who thought of the Alley as ‘fun’ had to have had a few screws loose. Suddenly, Jason remembered Damian's opinion of the girl.

She is unwell, the child had declared seriously, and likely psychotic.

Jason tossed the notion aside. It wasn't as if he had any room to talk.

“Fun.” He perroted flatly. “Sure.”

Rin scurried up beside him, taking an obscene amount of time to study his face. Jason slowed, unnerved by the scrutiny, his shoulders hunching on their own accord. Rin's full attention shot through him like a shot of adrenaline, bumping up his pulse rate to uncomfortable levels.

A sly grin slid on her face.

“You think it’s fun.” She declared, jeering.

Jason scowled.

“The f*ck I do.” He bit back.

“You do,” She insisted. “You love it here.”

Jason scoffed.

“The low altitude f*cking with your brain, red? You’re obviously seeing things.”

Rin grinned evilly.

Obviously,” she quipped, swallowing down the last of her treat, “being so far from sea level has left you delusional. Come down from the clouds, old man, there’s still hope.”

Jason skid to a stop and spun on his heel.

Old man?” He repeated, offended. “Old man?! Like hell!”

Rin laughed at him, halfway hiding her flushing cheeks behind her empty container.

“Sorry, sorry,” She giggled, gasping for breath. “Honestly, it’s the white streak.”

Jason grumbled, crossing his arms across his chest and pointing to Luna.

“And what does that make her?” He demanded hotly. “A crone?”

Luna shook her head, her snow white hair flying everywhere.

“I’m blonde,” she corrected smoothly. “Doesn’t count.”

Jason groaned.

“For f*cks sake…”

A cool prickling in his fingers reminded Jason of his own snack, slowly melting the more it was ignored. He hoofed it down in a similar fashion to Rin, not willing to let it go to waste. Brain freeze was nothing to him.

Rin held out her hand once he was finished, silently asking for the bowl. Jason passed it over. Watching her walk to the nearest bin, he was reminded of her current state of dress.

The sweater, once a unified deep green color and large enough for Timbers to crawl into, had a burgundy pool going from the front of her neck around the right side to the small of her back. The bottom of her jeans, loose enough to scrunch up at her knees if needed, had a similar predicament- staining all the way down to the laces of her sneakers. For the Alley, the outfit wasn't half bad. For the posh little rich neighborhood she lived in, however…

“You need new clothes before we getcha home.” He decided firmly.

Rin looked down at herself, her lips pursing.

“Yeah,” She agreed easily, pulling her sweater away and wincing at the state of her t-shirt underneath. “Can’t let Hermione see me like this.”

Jason looked down the street, scanning over the shopfaces until he zeroed in on Clara’s.

Technically speaking, Clara's was a convience store- slotted in between a bar that didn't give a damn if you were a minor so long as you had cash and kept your mouth shut, and a mom-and-pop shop no one acknowledged as a front. The walls were painted either a navy blue or a washed black depending on the light. The door looked perpetually closed. The windows had a set of stone, animalistic figures Clara commision herself: each peice somehow looking like three different animals at once. It was a long arguement in the Alley on which three animals they were fashoned after- Jason had sixty bucks on ‘bear’, ‘wolf’, and ‘american honey badger’.

Everyone in the Alley knew Clara's.

And everyone in the Alley knew Clara took more than money.

“Have any particular attachment to those?” He asked, nodding to her clothes. When Rin shook her head, Jason put a hand on her curls- offensively soft and fluffy as they were- and started leading her forward like a grab-claw.

“Clara trades,” He informed her as they walked, grabbing Luna's hand as an after thought. Something about Luna gave Jason the impression that she'd wander if he didn't keep track of her, like a fox with it's sights set on something shiney. She let it happen, hooking her fingers in his.

(Oddly enough, the contact didn't feel weird to Jason. Luna's hand was cool and slight, ridged with delicate raised lines hooking down to her wrist. She followed him at a easy pace, trailing behind with the silken grace of a cat. There wasn't any weird pressure there, any tingling electricity tracing his fingertips like his other hand. Holding hands with Luna felt… almost sisterly. Like holding hands with Cass.)

“Give up your sh*t,” Jason explained, opening the door, “she'll get ya somethin’ to wear.”

Clara was on them in an instant, with her usual charm.

“What?” She snapped, crossing her arms.

Clara ‘I don't give last names you little sh*t’ , had a very… special brand of charisma, it should be said. She was a tall woman, only an inch or two shorter to Jason's own height, with thick, rough muscles and a strong jaw. Her black hair, bottle dyed so long that there was no one alive able to tell you her natural color, was cropped short. Her wardrobe consisted of only tank tops and cargo pants. Her birthplace was a mystery to all. Her personality resembled that of a feral, three legged chihuahua: angry, impatient, snarling, too stubborn to die, and more than willing to have a go at anyone and anything should they stay still long enough.

Jason loved her.

Jason pushed Rin forward, grinning ear to ear.

“Some dumbasses went after Nonna Maria,” He informed Clara casually, jabbing at the smaller girl's shoulder, “and Rin here got the mess on her. Next stop’s a bit bougie. Trade?”

Clara scowled, glaring at Jason like he had the audacity to call her pretty. Her icy blue eyes, colder than the arctic, would've looked steller framed by some khol in Jason's opinion- true khol, not eyeliner- but suggesting it wasn't worth more than his life. Finally, she turned to Rin.

“Let me feel.” She demanded, already reaching for the inside of the sweater. She ran her hand over it, glowering at the texture. Clara hated soft things.

“It is warm and small,” She approved, for all her part sounding as if she was describing an amputation. “I will trade.”

Clara disappeared with a firm nod to herself, marching to the back and reappearing with a wad of fabric in hand.

“Here.” She said, shoving it at Rin and pointing to the bathroom. “Change and give the rest.”

Rin looked at Jason for assurance, cradling the wad of cloth almost as if she expected it to come to life and try to eat her. Jason joined Clara in pointing.

“You heard the woman.” He said, nodding to the door.

Rin huffed.

“I already have a boss…” she grumbled, making her way to the bathroom and shutting the door. Clara gave Luna's outfit- a thick, sturdy set of garden overalls pulled over a lacey, poofy top- a quick once over in the silence that followed.

“Trading too?” She barked, her teeth bared. Luna shook her head hastily, sliding to hide behind Jason as casually as possible.

“Sorry,” She said, running her hands over the overall's coarse fabric like one might rub an old engagement ring. “I’m attached.”

Clara sniffed.

“Fine.” She growled.

The bathroom door opened.

“Here.” Rin said, offering her bundle of clothing to Clara.

Jason should have been annoyed that the red-head decided to throw her shoes in the lot. He should've smacked her upside her head and asked if she went simple- maybe call her short for good measure. He should've snatched the shoes and forced them back on Rin's feet.

Honestly, Jason should've done a lot of things.

Instead, he gaped like a goddamn fish.

The dress Rin wore was obviously originally made for a kid: the fabric was a cream-color with small, delicate flowers embroidered up the skirt and flowing, nymph-like ripples draped over the top layer. Once upon a time the underlay might've been a true white, just as the top might've been a design of crunched, interlocked ribbons, but the original design had been likely sacrificed for sake of practicality. Whoever the dress had belonged to previously had ripped off everything from above the waist, taking the underskirt with it. A longer, looser stretch of dark lilac fabric was put in its place, sewn to attach the embroidered panel and cut wide so the sleeves fell off the shoulders.

The effect turned a cute, kiddie easter dress into some sort of hippie-wood fairy vibe. And it wasn't bad! Really! For a home-ec project, Jason would have given it two thumbs up. (If Jason had to guess, he'd say that the change had to happen to make room for the previous owner's newly growing breasts. Which was good! Because. Because Rin-)

Well…

Jason swallowed harshly, absolutly not staring, trying and failing to compute just where the f*ck Rin pulled out all those curves from. The dress was a smidge small for her, cinching the seams tightly at the waist, so it did nothing to save Jason from his current predicament. The vigilante portion of his brain was quick with its calculations, estimating her to be either a C or a D cup depending on the bra.

The civilian side of Jason's brain told him to shove it.

(Somehow, Jason had assumed Rin would be built like Cass…?)

“Thank you, Clara.” Rin smiled, handing over her bundle and remaining ever so polite. Jason kicked himself out of his stupor as Clara took the offering, sneering appreciatively at the additional shoes.

“Just get out.” Clara bitched.

Jason saluted, and out they went.

The moment they were at a safe distance from the door and outside of Clara's view, Rin grinned- dancing atop the cracked pavement like it was running water.

“I like her.” She laughed.

Jason rolled his eyes, both amused and dismayed.

“Yeah, yeah, little death wish,” He sighed, pulling out his phone. “Let’s just call you two a car before you get trafficked or somethin’.”

Rin hummed, almost looking amused at the challenge. Jason was quick to scroll through his contacts and call a cab. There were only a few people willing to go back and forth between the Alley and the rest of Gotham, and even fewer that Jason trusted to keep quiet about who was going when and where. Rapid Spanish on the other line answered and assured he was close.

Rin considered Jason carefully as he hung up, her stare just as focused as when they left Nonna's. Jason shoved any jitters down back into his grave where they belonged.

“They’re just around the corner.” He informed her, just a hair on the side of awkward, his chest tightening with something close to fear. It's not that Jason was scared of her- no, that would be ridiculous, who'd be afraid of her- it's just.

There was a distinct lack of hostility here that Jason wasn't sure how to address.

It was… unnerving to him, admittedly. Having to get to know someone not previously or currently out for his blood? Not even in a friendly ‘spar until the adults pull us apart’ kind of way? Jason shook his head, trying to free himself from his thoughts.

He was bein’ weird again. Must be getting sick…

Rin’s expression hardened, having come to a decision just as before.

“I like you too, Jason.” She declared, graciously ignoring his responding half-choked snort, as if she hadn't just pulled his very breath out from his lungs. Jason blinked at the small hand suddenly thrust in his face, momentarily considering the possibility he wasn't even awake. (Dreams could get quite odd when they weren't on a running theme of violent green and pain, after all.)

“Give me your phone.” She ‘asked’.

Jason raised an eyebrow, thumbing the device.

“Get your own, midget.” He threw back.

Luna started laughing at them both, her voice like windchimes out at sea. Rin huffed in exasperation, pushing closer to him, her hand still outstretched.

“Grow a brain, giant.” She grumbled, shamelessly reaching for the device. Jason raised it up higher, just because he could, and wheezed when the little squirrel honest to god started trying to climb him like a tree.

“Reach a little higher Red,” He teased, straightening his spine and pulling her up along with him. “I believe in you.”

Rin groaned against her grip on his shirt, her fists clenched around the strips of his tank top like a set of reins.

“Oh, f*ck you.” She panted, the profanity sounding delicious on her tongue. Glaring at Jason's responding grin, Rin dropped to the ground and threw her hands on her hips. “Do you want my number or not?”

Jason did, but he wasn't ready to let go just yet.

“I dunno, do I?” He asked rhetorically, waving the device in the air.

“You’re insufferable.” Rin hissed, her green eyes burning. Irritation was a good look on her, Jason mused, a really good look. “And to think- I was going to let you in on the joke we have going against your dad.”

Jason sucked in a breath.

Well.

(If that wasn't a surefire way to catch his attention, then he didn't know what was.)

“A joke on B?” He asked, alight with gleeful interest. Rin turned away, her arms crossed like a petulant toddler.

“Nah-uh,” she said, shaking her head, “you don’t want my number.”

“Never said I didn’t want it.” Jason argued, inching closer.

“You sure have a funny way of showing it.” She pouted, her lips billowing. There wasn't much Jason could offer to that other than unlocking and handing her the phone.

Rin took it, rightfully suspicious, but nonetheless opened his contacts and started typing in her number.

Perfectly timed, a cab crawled to a stop at their curb, the driver Carlos sending him a quick frightened, yet respectful, nod.

(Jason's trust in Carlos lied with the fact that Carlos was well aware he was affiliated with Hood- even if Carlos was under the false impression he was his own lover. Jason still had no idea where that rumor came from, and he'd sooner take a swan dive off the watchtower than let his headaches discover said, aforementioned rumor, but Jason wasn't one to waste leverage. The crux of the issue was that Carlos knew if he f*cked up Jason's request, then Hood would pay him a personal visit. That unspoken threat alone was enough to keep the two as safe as possible.)

Jason was thrown out of musings by a flash of metal spinning in the air. Jason caught his phone on reflex, refocusing on the two women crawling in the back of the cab. Luna got in first, shuffling to the other end and whispering the address to Carlos. Rin followed, one leg still halfway out the door.

She flashed him a sweet smile.

Jason leaned over her, one hand braced on the roof of the cab.

“Do I get to know the joke now?” He asked, his lips smeared with a smirk.

Rin made a show of her response, flipping her hair over her shoulder like a puffed up peaco*ck, the motion so fluid and smooth it had no business being anywhere near Jason's bird analogy. She looked at him- low through the fans of her lashes, her cheeks spreading to a pale peek. A quick flick of her tongue wetted her lips.

Jason swallowed a swear- f*ck, she was a damn good actress. He had no idea if should be hiding her away from Selena or throwing her at her-

“Next time.” Rin promised, the two words washing over him like a silken purr.

Jason stared at the back of the taxi as they drove off, those words on an endless loop.

Next time.

A grin slid on his face.

See? He knew how to make friends.

Get f*cked Roy

Chapter 17: Fear Not, the Door is Always Open (just never your shape or size)

Chapter Text

“You’re sure?” Ginny asked grimly, pitching her voice low so it couldn’t be heard from the other room. Hermione’s lecture drifted down the hall, mellowing like the thrum of a bass guitar. Fred and George, equally solemn and just as pissed, spared a glance at each other before nodding.

“I’m sure.” George sighed, leaning heavily against the wall. “Ron confirmed it.”

Ginny gritted her teeth.

They were camped out in the seashell cove: a small, diamond shaped space adjacent to the living room, painted in blooming shades of blue and decorated with sea glass and sea shells no one knew the origin of. As much as it wasn’t meant to be occupied by so many bodies, it hoarded sound, making the room ideal for private conversations.

“And what is he doing about it?” She demanded, clenching her fists. She wanted nothing more than to throw them at someone, to beat someone or something stupid, but she didn’t have the luxury. Something about ‘great power’ and ‘great responsibility’ according to Hermione.

“Tell me he’s doing something!”

Fred slid in front of the ancolve's opening, passively blocking her from the living room and beyond. It was only then that it occurred to Ginny that she had started moving, walking forward as if to march across the sea and slap everyone involved silly. Ron's face in particular flashed across her list of chosen targets.

(‘Brave in his own ways’ was the phrase Luna had whispered to Ginny more than once. Ginny had tried her damndest to envision the boy's brand of bravery, often torn by her love for her brother and a fury that burned down to the wick. He had a spotty history of courage in her opinion: brave enough to stand with them during the war but too scared to come with them when they left. To date, Gin hadn't been successful in seeing what Luna saw.)

“Ronniekins is doing what he can to field any questions, Gin,” Fred soothed in the soft tone he used only for her. “But you know that won’t last. We knew this would happen.”

Ginny hissed at him, the sound mirroring that of a rearing snake. He said it like Ginny should have understood. Like it was inevitable- permissible even!

(Gin and Hermione were very different people, it should be said- from their hobbies, to their temperaments, to their philosophies on life. But despite all this, there was one area they shared with reckless abandon: in the presence of a vat of mixed emotion, particularly one created due to something they loved, both Gin and Hermione defaulted to anger. Anger was easy to dance with. Fury was something Ginny knew well.)

“It wouldn’t have to happen if they just left well enough alone!” She argued hotly, the molten mess of anxiety, wrath, and fear burning through her veins. “They fought a f*cking war- we fought a f*cking war! We gave them peace! That should be enough!”

George pursed his lips, his eyes sad.

“They won’t let Hermione go so easily, Gin.” He whispered, careful of the girl in question overhearing. Hermione had a way of hearing everything, like no secret in the world was safe from her reach. “Not Hermione, not Luna, and certainly not Rin.”

Gin took the unspoken hint, fought to lower her voice, but all the effort did was beg her to start crying.

And f*ck did Ginny want to cry.

During the war, Ginny had laughed herself stupid at the irony of it all: centuries of keeping to themselves, generations of metas born and raised in the Founding- all for the sake of acceptance and to be able to defend themselves if need be- and not only did they end up having to defend themselves from each other, but the two strongest metas seen in the last millenia came out of the f*cking blue.

Hermione’s parents were dentists. Dentists! Two 100%, bonafide, everyday, human… dentists. Rin’s mom, Sirius had sworn, contrary to the neverending rumors swirling around the late Lord Potter’s whirlwind romance, had been as sharp as a whip but as human as human could be. Neither girl had stepped foot into the Founding until they were well past 10 years old, but both of them could wipe the floor with any Foundling- with one hand tied behind their back, blindfolded, and half f*cking dead.

(Rin and Hermione alone could be- and had been- their own army. Ginny could only guess at how unwilling anyone with a brain would be at giving up one of those.)

Ginny had finally surmised that the entire situation was cosmic retribution.

It had to be- for what she’d done.

(Ginny had been taught in the Founding, from the very day she was old enough to decipher the language and understand the tongue, that spilling the blood of a fellow meta was a grievous sin. She was told that they could only rely on each other, that outsiders would see them as dangerous, and the only thing she would know if she left would be fear. She was taught- with such an encompassing, devoted fervor that had Ginny praying for forgiveness where no one could see- that Foundlings, the people of her home, were all one of a whole. To betray that, to raise her hands against her brothers, cousins, mothers, and sisters, was to spit on the blood of each innocent that had died to ensure their haven.)

In the teachings of the Founding, Gin was the worst of the worst. She was a sin to her people. She, like her ancestor Antonette Wealsey ne Donovin, was a blood traitor- and all of her kin would bear that name in her dishonor.

(And as much as the thought made Ginny miserable… she was starting to think a part of her would always agree she deserved it.)

Hermione, Rin, and Ginny’s therapist Brawnwyn were quick to console her: slowly but surely putting the situation in perspective and assuring Ginny that the Founding’s teachings weren’t all there was in the world- but it’s not like that washed away the feelings. It’s not like it absolved her and her brothers of their guilt. It’s not like it made anything better.

It’s not like assurance could turn back time

And now, an ocean away and trapped in a mess of tangled logic Gin was desperately trying to unravel, she was not only a blood traitor- she would soon be branded a mudblood for her part in keeping Rin away. Fred and George would as well.

(Mudbloods were the lowest one could be in the Founding, a curse usually only reserved for those born of two humans with no meta ancestry and unwilling to learn their ways. A true born Foundling, even from the house of a blood traitor, had never been given the sentence. But with the Founding Council, the Wizengamot, naming Rin their druid in the days after the war… and Hermione their Algiz? They were the most revered positions within the Founding. The highest station available. They were sacred. Helping them run away from that… to actively keep her sisters from the Founding… Ginny was sure she would be one of the first exceptions.)

If she wasn't branded a mudblood already

But.

Ginny swallowed back the tidal wave of nausea that tried to crest, a toxic pool of bitterness turning her stomach like a flipping coin. She refused to allow her eyes to sting- she would not cry.

But.

Butbutbutbut-

Rin didn’t want to be their druid. She didn’t want to be the Founding's divine vessel, or a vessel of anything really. She wanted to put down roots, build a home, and live her life as happily as the cosmos would let her. And Hermione sure as sh*t didn’t want to shield the Founding from anything, not after they started an all-but-name witch hunt for any purist sympathizers, not even a day after peace had finally been achieved. Hermione wasn't in the business of contributing to endless cycles- especially ones that required her unwilling, inarguable submission.

(And that's nothing to be said for Luna, whose meta they all steadfastly did not acknowledge out loud, lest someone overhear. To see any part of the future… just who would let that go?)

A stone heavy enough to put the boulders of Stonehenge to shame nestled itself in Ginny’s chest. The obstruction was painful, as well as suffocating.

No one- that's who. Ginny knew as well as anyone that when people lusted for power, they weren’t so stupid as to let three of their best weapons just f*ck off.

Foundlings were usually lustful

And now: they knew.

They knew Rin had ran, that she wasn’t just- f*ck, parusing the country side in a journey to find herself? Cleansing her spirit in a vigil? Dabbling in hermit-hood? Honestly, Ginny wasn’t sure what lie Hermione had sold on their way out. She hadn’t taken the time to find out, fully trusting Hermione’s genius and too busy powering through her misgivings and soldiering on through any… feelings.

They all knew no lie could last forever

“What can we do?” She asked, her throat tight. “The Unspeakables-”

Ginny felt she could be forgiven if her voice broke.

(Hermione had once explained something called a ‘boogieman’ to Ginny- a mythical demonic figure that frightened children when the moon arose. With no face and no true name, the boogieman was a mystery that hid under beds and instilled an intrinsic fear to all who knew it. Even Hermione- brave, fierce Hermione- had been terrified in her youth, begging her parents to check any places the creature might hide before settling to bed.)

The Unspeakables weren’t demonic. Or, at least, Ginny didn’t think they were demonic. She was pretty sure they were just people, just like her, but they were powerful people. Mysterious people. People that instilled fear.

(People that only answered to the Wizengamot.)

George ran a soothing hand over her shoulder, his palm working small circles in the muscle. His usually languid presence held a particular tension, as if he, himself, was struggling to bury his own emotional strain. Fred turned to agitation.

The tapping of Fred's fingertips against his arm timed itself perfectly: rapidly joining Gin's own harsh inhales. He reminded her of a woodpecker then- tapping harder and harder the more their reality settled.

“How long do you reckon?” Fred asked George softly, casting a glance over his shoulder. Thankfully, the others hadn't seemed to notice Gin's outburst. The voices down the hall did not still.

“Before they start turning their heads this way?” Goerge asked back, a grimace clawing to take over his usual smile. He threw an arm over Ginny, pulling her into a half formed hug. “Ron says they've searched most of Europe… Can't be long.”

Ginny thumped her head against George's shoulder.

(Realistically, she supposed she should've been thankful it took this long. The Founding had never had the best relationship with technology- a necessity, it seemed, given how many metas f*cked with programming and shorted the sh*t out. Even Rin and the Twins still had their moments. So, given that the only thing hiding them was technological illiteracy, physical distance, and Batman-Bruce’s renowned issues, the fact that they made it a month was an inarguable miracle.)

Fred leaned against the entryway of the seacove, his own head braced against the plaster. With the way he glared at the tense space between them, Gin would’ve thought he was attempting some kind of Cyclops type sh*t. On another day, Ginny would’ve found it funny. Today, she found herself doing the same to the ceiling and biting back a scream.

“Wonderful.” Fred growled, his brows furrowed. “That’s just great.”

George sighed heavily, squeezing Ginny harder.

“We need to know more.” George said smartly. “We can’t be flying blind.”

Ginny froze, a horrible terror washing over her.

“You’re not-”

“No!” George assured quickly, shushing her and running a hand over her hair. His brown eyes held hers with wide sincerity, begging her to believe him. It was a nice gesture- seeing as her heart had decided to try and jackrabbit out of her ribcage and hobble out into the living room. “No, we’re not going to try to spy on the Unspeakables, Gin. We’re not that reckless.”

Fred wasted no time in jumping in.

“He’s right, Gin,” Fred agreed, still in that damnable soft tone. “We wouldn’t do that.”

Gin nodded, willing her heart to listen as well as her ears. Historical evidence was not on Ginny's side, but she trusted the twins not to lie to her. Not like this.

“But we do need more information.” George amended. He looked over to Fred with a hidden message, one he made no motion to share.

Fred nodded.

“We'll have to take a trip home.” He said.

Ginny huddled closer to George, a prickling anxiety blanketing her arms and stomach. She hated the determination in their expressions, how their jaws jutted out like her own did when she decided to be stubborn. She hated that she knew them as well as she did- knowing that no amount of pleading or cursing would move them.

With Lee.” She finished, glaring at them both.

Lee Jordan was a friend from the Founding, one Ginny had never particularly liked due to his obsessive interest in arachnids. While her distaste for the insects hadn't yet reached Ronald levels, there was only so many times you could have a tarantula thrown at you before you started having opinions on the subject. (And the person that threw them.)

But Lee was a friend. Ginny could trust him with her brothers. She could trust him to keep his f*cking mouth shut, and his meta would help them stay out of sight.

Ginny glowered, making it clear that her words were not a request.

The twins raised their hands in surrender.

“Of course, Gin.” Fred assured. “That goes without saying.”

It was only when George nodded with him that Ginny allowed herself to breathe.

“Half hour check-ins.” She demanded, clinging to them both. Fred and George laughed at her- the sound both a balm to her soul and so infuriating. “Every half hour.”

“Like clockwork,” George promised.

(Ginny willed herself to believe they would be fine. Fred and George were fearsome fighters. They were sneaky and coy, wily and clever- as shrewd and skilled as a mother fox. They could defend themselves. If Lee could keep them safe from Riddle, then he could keep them safe from the Wizengamot. From the Unspeakables. Even mysterious non-demons would shy away from becoming blood traitors… right?)

“In the meantime,” George continued, breaking Ginny away from her rumination, “you’ll need some help.”

Ginny looked up at him, curious.

“I think it’s high time we enlisted the neighbors.” George declared.

Ginny and Fred gaped at him.

“No sh*t?” Fred asked, a smile creeping on his face. Ginny was less thrilled- Hermione’s long-winded speech winding circles around her brain.

“Mini said we were absolutely not allowed to get them involved.” Gin reminded him pointedly, shivering at the memory.

Hermione had been very clear on the subject, making it known on no uncertain terms that she had no patience for nor no need for Batman's brand of vigilante nonsense. The lecture itself had lasted about 3 hours, she had made pamphlets of all things , and by the end of the first hour, Hemione had unfortunately pulled out the projector. After that came the table top debate, then the research paper, and then an educational video containing numerous media sources- including screenshots of newspaper clippings, CCTV video footage pulled from who-knows-where, and a PSA recorded with Superman of all people.

(By hour two, Ginny had been questioning her own reality. Why did Superman do PSA's? How? For what purpose? Didn't he have a missle to stop or a falling reporter to catch? How did the alien man not have better things to do?)

George smiled crookedly.

“Then Mini shouldn't have made me final say.” He chirped back with the easy grin of a man about to cause chaos but not about to stick around for the mess. Ginny groaned.

(Something told her she would be the one who'd have to explain.)

“Besides,” George continued, generally unaffected by her misery. “You really want to try and keep track of those three all on your own?”

Ginny threw her head in her hands.

“What?” She mumbled, peeking through her fingers. “Am I supposed to knock on their door? Being a plate of muffins? Say ‘excuse me, totally normal rich man I know nothing of, if you could pretty please be a voyeur, I'd really appreciate it’?”

Fred, like the devil he was, snigg*red.

“Maybe only say so much?” He offered peacefully, his olive branch at odds with the amusem*nt dancing in his eyes. “Let them ask the questions- they have a reputation for being curious little bastards.”

George patted her head as her misery doubled.

“Subtlety.” She surmised flatly, smacking George's hand away. “You want me to be subtle.”

Ginny put as much derision in her tone as she possibly could, making it clear just what she thought about that plan.

“Can’t Luna do it?” She asked desperately, “She’s good at getting people to do sh*t for her.”

Fred smothered a snort, raising one hand to cover his mouth.

“You really see ‘Mione letting those two out of her sight any time soon?” He teased cheerfully.

The low murmurs from the other room turned to lead in Ginny's legs. Her stomach sank, listless- like a flat, oval stone flung into a lazy river. Her shoulders slumped.

“f*ck.”

George patted her head like some kind of yippy pup.

“You'll figure it out, dearest sister.” He laughed, dodging her attempts to elbow his ribs. “Text your friend, make something up, keep us in the loop- Fred and I have a few jumps to make.”

Ginny dragged them both a bone-crushing hug.

“Be careful.” She begged, nuzzling in their arms. Although she didn't look up to see their responding grins, she didn't need to: she could feel them, like rays of sunlight peeking through an overcast sky.

“Always.” They promised in unison.

George whispered in her ear on their way out, after Gin had reluctantly released her grip on their arms.

“Tell Rin we’re taking the Chevy and the black card.”

Heading across the living room to peek at the ongoing lecture, Gin could only shake her head in disbelief. The Twins’ obsession with that Chevy was something else.

Fred and George liked cars- of course they did: Foundlings weren't allowed to use them, and everyone knows what happens when you tell two teenagers they weren't allowed to touch something. Ginny still thought of cars as bigger, stronger, more complicated bicycles, but apparently that was ‘sacrilege’ and there were actual differences between this car or that car. Ginny could tell the difference between the sedan and the Chevy- of course she could, the size and shapes were different- as well as the difference between a car and a motorcycle.

But everything that came after that was a language all on its own, one Ginny had no interest in learning.

(Really… ‘horsepower'? ‘Cylinders'? As far as Ginny could tell, cars had nothing to do with horses and very little of the machine was cylindrical in shape. Everything under the top part looked like a metal toy's chest cavity, complete with organ pipes and thick, rubber bands that were somehow named ‘belts’. Ginny understood none of it aside from making the damn thing go.)

Careful to peer around the corner without being seen, Ginny smiled fondly at the grating worry swimming in Hermione's voice. Gin thought Mini was cute like that, but she knew better than to ever say such outloud.

In the middle of the family room, the largest space on the ground floor more often than not used for movie nights and Hermione's moments, Rin and Luna sat side by side on the floor. Luna, of course, had her legs folded gracefully under her thighs, her mother's overalls bunching up near her ankles. Rin, still draped in her new dress, sat crisscrossed with her elbows against her knees and her chin on her knuckles.

Luna had started braiding Rin's hair, much to the annoyance of their attending authority.

Hermione, hands on her hips and a laser pointer clutched in on one palm, was the picture of exasperation: what with her frizzy hair, wild eyes, and violently colored powerpoint displayed behind her. The projector board had an enlarged map of Gotham pulled up with sections colored in red and large, italicized, simple, bold-faced title on top: DO NOT!. From what Gin had heard, Rin and Luna had earned their dressing down by sticking their nose in what was apparently Gotham Crime Central.

She could appreciate the directness.

And the ballsy.

Shaking her head, Ginny turned and headed to her room.

On the way there, she pulled three of the items lining the shelves: a bundle of dried herbs, still with the soft, velvety smell clinging to each leaf, wrapped in mistletoe, a circular silver coin stamped with the tree of life, and a raven’s feather. Ginny cradled them gently against her chest as she bounded up the stairs, careful of the raven’s feather in particular when opening her door.

Ginny’s room was, empirically speaking, the best.

The floor plan was hexagonal in nature: large, spacious, with a grand window covering the majority of one side. For once in her life, Ginny had an actual bathroom to herself with an actual bath, and the theme was shamelessly Victorian. She kept the colors to forest greens and royal reds, lined with glinting silvers and muted golds. Her furniture went with the old-royal vibe: including a vanity with a large mirror, a lounge couch complete with weighted throw blanket, and a giant bed with overhead curtains.

(Twin was a giver when it came to her money, swearing up and down it made her happy to provide for her family. Gin was inclined to believe her- given how excited she got when she paid for something, how much effort she was going through to ensure they all had an ongoing revenue, and how Rin would downright bodyslam any of them if they dared pay for something themselves. Maybe Ginny’s current accommodations were on Rin’s dime, but if Rin wanted to hand Ginny the room of her dreams- Ginny was sure as hell not about to deny her.)

So Ginny wanted to live like a princess.

f*cking sue her.

Before venturing to pull out her phone, Ginny crossed to the far side of the room. In the corner, braced against the back wall on the right side, a lopsided table stooped to about her knees. The top of the table was decorated with three, thick candles- each an opaque color ranging from muddied marron to faded rose.

(Sadly, Ginny wasn’t as skilled as her brothers when it came to craftsmanship. But she thought, back in the days when she was all of three years old, that if she was going to offer anything to the gods, then it was only polite that the altar be made with her own two hands. The log chosen for the table had been huge - far too tall for toddler Ginny- but Molly didn't raise quitters. Lopsided as it may be, Ginny did all that sh*t on her own.)

(She was getting better at making candles though. The first few were so horrid she couldn’t bring herself to burn them.)

Kneeling in front of the altar, Ginny placed the three offerings on the tabletop- carefully, so that the arrangement wasn't impeded by the uneven surface. She then lit up each candle, breathing deeply once the wick caught properly, and whispered a prayer to Lug with her head bowed.

If anyone would be able to bless her with the skill she needed right now, it would be Lug.

Once her prayer had finished, Gin took a deep breath- bracing herself and shoving any ‘what ifs’ under the floorboards- and pulled out her phone.

She opened her and Steph's messages.

She stared at the keyboard.

Her mind blanked.

f*ck, I’m not made for this… She cursed silently, adding another curse to Luna for good measure. Luna would know how to start this conversation, Gin was sure of it. Her thumb rubbed against the side of the device, snapping it lightly against her knee.

Candlelight reflected across the plated glass.

Ginny shook her head. Well. She had to start somewhere. Her fingertips tapped against the keyboard.

To: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 7:49 PM

‘Proposal’

Gin's stomach fluttered with nerves as the seconds ticked by. Given Steph's usual nightly activities, it shouldn't have been a bad sign she didn't respond right away. Steph was probably busy. She was probably suiting up or something, maybe wrangling her ex? She might've not had her phone on her. Really, Ginny needed to chill. Everything was fine.

Ginny's phone buzzed against her leg, causing her to flinch.

“f*ck-”

Steph's response greeted her.

From: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:02 PM

‘fun proposal?’

To: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:02 PM

‘Possibly’

From: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:03 PM

‘how possible?’

Ginny bit her lip, racking her brain for a response. She- ah, what had Fred advised? ‘Only say so much'? Yeah. Ginny didn't know how to do that. f*ck, Gin did not know how to do that…

To: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:04 PM

‘Itinerary includes sneaking around, secrets from the fam, an item from the Rin Protection Alliance, the sight of me maybe-sort-of begging, and the privilege of maybe-probably punching an arrogant asshole in the face.’

Gin swallowed against her turning stomach, a condition that only worsened the longer it took Steph to respond.

Everything Ginny had typed was honest. The fake backstory was a work in progress, of course- especially if Gin was going to avoid the entire Founding issue- but she figured if her and Steph's friendship was built on ‘blunt and direct’, then asking for a favor should start the same way.

Ginny bounced her leg in agitation, nearly knocking over the altar as her speed picked up. The flames above the candles moved with her: swaying back and forth like willows in the wind.

Ginny's phone vibrated in her hand.

From: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:14 PM

‘Batburger. 20 min? Can’t shake Dick and Tim?’

Gin let out a breath, her thoughts racing.

Dick and Tim. Nightwing and Red Robin. That… could be worse? Hermione's educational video gave Ginny the picture that they’d probably help… They had a reputation for sticking their necks out when they really didn't need to. Red Robin alone could provide her a stupid amount of surveillance, provided she got him on board and none of the twins shorted anything out.

The thought of the twins’ meta reminded Ginny of the coming storm, forcing a shiver down her spine.

To be clear: the Wizengamont wasn't a council of evil intentions. They were one of the Founding's best orders- steadfastly loyal to the betterment of the Founding and their people, composed of the oldest and wisest of Foundlings, and a generally effective body of legislation… during peacetime.

They were also passive, hypocritical, cowards.

The Wizengamot didn’t stick their nose into things. They didn’t fight in wars. They didn't offer any aid, despite having the Unspeakables at their beck and call, and always seemed to prefer advice over acknowledgement. Even when damn near every underage Foundling gathered in front of them and begged for assistance, the Wingsmont didn’t approve of any interference. They were determined to turn their head away from the growing discourse. They preferred to ignore Riddle, to pretend he’d settle down soon, rather than validate every Foundling's fear.

For war, the Wizengamot wouldn't lift a finger.

But for their druid?

Ginny tapped out a response.

To: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:15 PM

‘If they can keep their mouth shut they can come’

From: Girl Boss, Gaslight, Try Me 8:15 PM

‘bet.’

Ginny stood up, locking her phone and bowing to the altar.

“Thank you, Lug.” She whispered, leaning over to blow out the candles. Wisps of smoke followed, curling like weaved branches in the air. “Please: watch over me.”

Ginny raced down the stairs as quietly as possible, darting into the kitchen and opening the drawer with their note stash.

Taking blue card and bike, she scribbled quickly on the nearest scrap sheet available, have phone on me, will fill you in when I get back. ETA 2 hrs, subject to change, will use GC - deep breaths mini

She placed the paper on the island, turned to leave, then doubled back with a soft ‘sh*t’ on her lips.

F&G have the chevy and black card, she added to the last line, remembering her promise to George, ETA undetermined. Jumping.

She returned the slip of paper back to its position on the island, leaving the pen with it.

Running out as silently as she could, Ginny was quick to shift through Rin’s wallet, grab the card in question, and bound into the garage. The garage had a few cars available for taking: some once owned by the ghosts, some claimed by the Black estate, and some Fred and George… procured.

Ginny went to Sirius's bike, throwing on the helmet hanging on the handlebar and revving it up. She typed in BatBurger into Google- happy to see that the address immediately pulled up.

Then, Ginny peeled out the drive as fast as the pavement would let her.

(Man... Mini was going to be so pissed.)

In Ginny's pocket, her phone buzzed with what had better have been the Twin's first check in.

Should’ve kept the candles burning… She grumbled sullenly.

Chapter 18: Offer an Arm, Lend a Hand (does it have to be attached?)

Chapter Text

“You’re sure?” Dick asked, again.

Steph squashed the urge to reach around the seat and smack him. The steering wheel cover under her fingers made a god-awful squelching sound, like a rubber duck given the heimlich. In the reflection of the rearview mirror, Dick sat like an overgrown child- far too bright eyed and chipper for her tastes.

Steph had to remind herself firmly: she was behind the wheel. She was a responsible adult. If she crashed the car she stole from Bruce, then she’d never hear the end of it.

Beside Dick, Tim had his smug little victorious smirk still plastered across his face.

“Of course I’m not sure!” Steph bitched, turning into Batburger's parking lot a tad faster than she had originally intended. There weren't too many cars in her way- it was night now, so anyone with any sense of self preservation would be holed up in their house- but that didn't stop her from near-missing a Prius on her way in.

“Just who invited who here? Don't you people have a city to stalk or something?”

“Said the city stalker…” Tim mumbled, spiteful as ever. Steph glared at him from the rearview.

“We were curious!” Dick defended, his eyes wide and pleading like a young puppy begging for scraps. Steph thought it was an absolute travesty the man always managed to look so innocent: ask any asshole in Bludhaven, Dick Grayson- in and outside the mask- was a menace.

No,” She corrected, pulling into the first available parking space near the entrance and shifting the car into park. “You're nosy.”

The car itself was one of the more reasonable vehicles Bruce owned, one Steph was sure someone else convinced him to purchase. She of course tried to imagine it- Steph tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, she wasn't a monster- but no matter how she twisted it over in her head, she just couldn't see Bruce actually buying a Honda. Considering all the pretty things available in the garage he never stepped foot in, Steph thought she was being pretty gracious by stealing it.

“Go home!”

Dick opened his door, pouting.

“But Ginny said we could come!” He argued, climbing out of the vehicle before Steph could do something like lock him and Tim inside.

(And Steph totally could. With the click of a button! Traditional vehicles may have had child locks, but their vehicles had Damian locks: a stellar example of modern confinement, courtesy of Bruce's perfect parenting solutions. So your kid won't listen to your unreasonable orders to stay in the car? Never fear! Now, you can take away any and all control or choice they have in the matter, and lock them in with no way out! Or in, for anyone else! Cage them in like a dog, because that'll never backfire…)

And Bruce wonders why the brat bites back so much

Steph followed suit, turning off the engine and climbing out.

“After you invited yourselves!” She hissed pointedly. From the other side of the car, Tim climbed out. A wave of black hair peeped out from the roof, followed by two blue eyes lined with tired bruises.

“You can’t really blame us,” Tim said reasonably, shutting his door. Steph flipped the locks, scowling and unsympathetic. “With Black running circles around B, he’s about to lose it from all the unanswered questions. It’s been fun to watch- no question there- but we want to know too, you know?”

Dick nodded in agreement.

“And that proposal?” Dick chimed in, grinning. “You have to admit: that’s one hell of an opening line.”

Steph grumbled under her breath.

Ok, yeah, Steph couldn't argue: that text had her hook, line, and sinker. Ginny had a talent for opening lines- it was one of Steph's favorite qualities about her. It made her fun. But another quality about Gin that Steph adored was that she'd sooner backhand a bitch than whine about her circ*mstances, something very on brand for Steph's furry flockade. She didn't like that Gin used the word ‘begging’ in her proposal- beating around the bush be damned. Gin didn’t strike Steph as the begging type.

Hopefully everything's ok…

“Just behave.” Steph sighed, making her way inside.

Dick and Tim saluted from behind her.

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”

Once through the door, finding Gin was child’s play. Both Gin and the Twins had a particular shade of red hair: a coppery tone that leant more towards ‘ginger’ than ‘red’. Light caught the metallic undertones on fire, making the girl impossible to miss. Even without that, Gin herself had a fighter’s gait, standing tall and confident with little to no fanfare present. She stood out in a room. Not like a sore thumb, but like an immovable lighthouse erected in the sea.

“Gin!” Steph cheered.

Gin turned and smiled at her.

“Steph.”

Today Gin had her hair pulled up in a pony-tail, tied together with fly aways framing her forehead and neck. She wore a faded pair of jeans, an even more faded pair of converse shoes, and a baby blue graphic t-shirt decorated with a cartoon duck illustration holding a knife in its beak, displaying the words ‘Peace was Never an Option’ across her chest.

She looked uninjured, which soothed some of Steph’s worries, but closer inspection revealed that Gin was haggard. Her usual confidence wasn't draped over her shoulders like a cloak. Gin's natural glow dimmed to a worn flicker. She looked tired- weighed down by too much fraying stress.

“Do I need to punch someone?” Steph asked her seriously, taking Gin by the shoulders. The muscles underneath Steph's fingers were knotted and tense.

Gin sighed heavily, eyes darting to Dick, Tim, and Steph and back.

“Not this second,” Gin assured, though it hardly sounded convincing, “but it'd help immensely if that stayed an open offer.”

Steph grinned.

“I'm always open to punching someone,” She swore, dipping to give the shorter girl a hug. Gin returned it, like a doll. “Tim too- though you'd never know it with how scrawny he is.”

Tim sniffed in offense.

“I am not scrawny.” He grumbled, crossing his arms. Steph managed to drag him out in a mere long sleeved shirt and a pair of pants, refusing to humor his ‘professional’ wardrobe or whatever nonsense Janette Drake managed to plague him with. Fast food required no such niceties.

Dick snigg*red.

“Eh… you're a little scrawny,” Dick allowed, swinging in beside Tim to throw an arm over his shoulder. “Relatively speaking.”

Tim scowled, switching to Mandarin purely for the drama.

“[You'll see how scrawny I am when I push you off a roof next time we go out].” He promised spitefully.

Dick grinned, replying in the same tongue.

“[Is that a challenge, little brother]?”

Gin turned to Steph, a tired sigh on her lips.

“I don't speak whatever they're speaking.” Gin admitted sullenly. Steph laughed.

“I think that's the point,” She said. Turning Gin by the shoulders, Steph pointed their attention to the menu. “You ever been here, Gin?”

Ginny shook her head, squinting against the LED display.

“I saw it listed on Google,” she mused, “but some of the names of the food… ‘Jokerized Fries’ aren't going to kill me, right? The name feels like they'd kill me.”

Steph laughed at her.

“Nah,” Steph assured, “it won't poison you. They follow in name only.”

“But hold on to that suspicion,” Tim chimed in, throwing Dick off his person. “It'll only help you.”

The restaurant itself was largely abandoned, as Steph suspected, but that didn't mean empty. Three tables worth of teenagers zeroed in on their group, likely high as hell and way too interested at the sight of so many Wayne kids in one place in the company of a girl no one knew. Steph could have yelled at them: she could have told them to mind their own f*cking buisness and put a sock in those hanging mouths, but she didn't want to make anything worse. If cussing them out made their audience fixate on Gin, Gin probably wouldn't be amused by the fallout.

(Steph made a mental note to have the Celebrity Talk with Gin before she ended up in some no name newspaper, probably headlined “Richard Greyson's Insatiable Desire, Another Woman Walks On Scene”. It would happen eventually- they all knew it. Steph had learned the hard way that the media wasn't something one could control.)

(Hopefully time around Rin would make the transition relatively painless. Steph wasn't sure where Gin and the others came from and what kind of paparazzi the place had prowling around, but there couldn't have been too much of a difference, right? Fame is fame, and people are vicious.)

As if summoned by the thought, Dick surged forward- pointing to items on the menu from a much closer position than before.

“If you're a first timer,” he advised, “it's best to just get a number one. Hamburger, fries- you can't go wrong with a childhood staple.”

Gin frowned at the picture, perplexed.

“Must've had different childhoods…” she mumbled, likely thinking no one could hear or just not caring if anyone did. Steph grimaced, sharing a concerned look with Tim behind her. Dick, with all the grace of the main parental force behind their resident homicidal assassin child, took the comment in stride.

“Then we'll mix and match!” He decided helpfully. “We'll get four random meals, and then eat whatever looks good.”

Gin nodded to that, digging in her back pocket.

“Sounds good.” She said, pulling out a thin, black credit card. “I'll pay.”

Tim leaned forward, taking an obvious peek at the name imprinted across the surface.

“You mean Lord Black will pay?” He asked, both wry and accusing. Gin finally showed the ghost of a smile- her brown eyes glowing with humor.

“Lord Black insisted.” She hummed.

Dick tried to return her smile, but the act was a bit too tight and too tinged with bitterness to be qualified as ‘cheerful’. If nothing else, Tim was correct in that Lord Black wasn't just driving Bruce insane. The last few weeks had been the most amusing of Steph's life!

“Generous man.” He offered lightly, turning to the cashier and listing off a few meals. He avoided the Jokerized Fries, thank god, but the rest was up to fate.

Steph bit her lip to keep from laughing. Honestly, she wasn't sure how she managed to keep the whole ‘Lord Black’ under wraps for so long, but at this point Steph was in it for keeps. She wanted to see how long the secret could hold out.

(As it was, she'd already made a record.)

Tim noticed her struggle, his brows furrowing in suspicion. Steph quickly wiped the smile, taking the paper cup Dick offered her and passing Tim his. Tim's hand paused from where it rested on the container. His eyes burned a hole through Steph's skull with their intensity.

Opps. Might've jinxed it…

Steph giggled, turning away and pouring her drink. Gin joined her, mixing random brands until her cup was full. Together, they all picked a table- closest to the door, farthest from any other group- and sat down.

Dick held out a hand.

“I don't think we got a proper introduction last time,” he said, laying the charm on thick. “I'm Richard Grayson, but you can call me Dick. I liked your house.”

Gin took the hand carefully, as if it was a live bomb rather than a friendly gesture.

“Gin or Ginny,” she introduced, shaking his hand and taking a sip of her drink. “And, thanks. Luna and Rin worked hard on it.”

“Not Black?” Tim asked sharply, leaning forward. In regards to the Black Family Mystery, Steph was well aware that Tim was the one with the most investment. Babs was able to let go and move on when she was thwarted. Tim latched on like a dog with a bone.

“Rin and Luna are hard to argue with when they get together,” Gin said with amusem*nt. “The house is theirs.”

Tim hummed, his face still pinched. His eyes gleamed with obsessive zeal, carefully tucked away behind a mask of mild interest. For a moment, Steph was sure he was just going to outwight ask who Rin had running her cybersecurity.

Tim turned his attention to his drink.

“I suppose…” He mumbled.

After a notable pause and a reprimanding look from Dick, Tim introduced himself as well- but he didn’t offer a hand.

“Tim.” He stated flatly.

Gin raised an eyebrow.

“So I’ve heard.” She mused.

Tim turned to Steph, an accusing scowl twisting his face. Steph had always thought he looked cute like that: the way his lips smashed together, it always echoed the form of a pout. Like an offended kitten!

Steph graced him with a lopsided grin.

“Ignore everything she’s told you.” Tim begged.

Ginny shook her head with no small amount of pity.

“Sorry Tim, not likely.”

Overhead, a muffled voice called out their order number. Gin tried to stand up to help, but Dick waved her assistance off- saying something about chivalry and manners. When he returned with the food, Steph’s mouth watered.

Gin stared at the trays ominously. The food itself was packaged neater than usual, layered in slices of thin, colorful paper. The smell, of course, was divine. Steph decided to make the decision easy on her friend and shoved the nearest wrapped meal towards her.

“Try this one!” She cheered.

Gin took it, pulling back the paper slowly and carefully. Dick and Tim took no such efforts. They ripped into the nearest parcels like a pair of animals, shoveling the food down at a fascinating, yet disturbing, pace.

The way they act, you'd think Alfred never feeds them, Steph sighed fondly.

Gin finally took a bite, humming at the taste.

“Not bad.”

Dick made an offended noise at the description, but didn't argue against it. Neither did Steph. She didn't want to discourage Gin. It was one of Alfred's unspoken rules during meal time: food first, interrogation second.

They dug in.

Once all the food was gone, Steph took it upon herself to get the ball rolling.

“Sooooo…” She drawled, twirling her straw, “proposal?”

Beside her, Gin’s shoulders slumped. The crumpled wrapper being pulled apart by her fingertips crinkled in the moments that followed, like a cricket chirping in the dead of night. Ginny froze after noticing the noise.

“Right.” Gin sighed after a long pause, throwing the shredded paper on the nearest tray. “Sorry. Truthfully, it’s less a proposal and more like a request.”

She grimaced at her own words.

“Not the favor asking type?” Dick asked hesitantly, raising an eyebrow at how Ginny’s pallor was starting to transition to a distinct shade of green.

The table clattered with the amount of force Ginny used to slam her head against it. On reflex, Steph reached over to stabilize her drink. Gin groaned in pure misery.

“I’d rather gnaw off my own arm…” She muttered darkly.

Steph patted her head with her free hand.

“There, there,” She comforted. “I know, change is hard.”

“f*ck off blondie.”

“Funny way to start asking for a favor, ginger sister.”

Please f*ck off?”

“Sounds polite enough to me.” Tim weighed in, his cheek rested in his fist. Steph stuck her tongue out at him.

“Shut it, bean pole.” Steph sniffed.

“Bean pole???”

Steph turned to Ginny, gently pushing the curtain of rustic ruby away so she could look at her properly. Between their hard table and Gin's squished cheek, a pair of brown eyes studied Steph: uncomfortable and distrusting, like a shelter dog graced with a new litter of pups.

“What do you need?” Steph asked, slowly and deliberately, gentle as velvet, but firm in her resolve. Her approach relaxed Gin, melting her miserable expression into something more palatable- almost as if she was forced to swallow glass rather than birth it. Gin sat up with a low whine. A finger reached up to tap the table in agitation.

“Fred and George went on a trip,” Gin began, her accent thickening. “We think it might take awhile.”

Gin paused, looking sick. Underneath the table her leg started bouncing, racing to match the rhythm of her fingertips. Steph encouraged her to continue.

“I was wondering if you and your family would be willing to help me keep an eye on mine until they get back,” Gin blurted, her cheeks flushing in embarrassment. “Just. Until they get back.”

Steph blinked, exchanging a faster than lightning glance with her brothers.

“Your favor is… spying?” Steph asked, careful to not jump the gun. ‘Keep an eye on’ could have many meanings. She shouldn't assume.

(Tim beamed like Christmas came early, suddenly surging to life with a vigor only technology could produce.)

Gin nodded.

Without letting them know,” Gin added hastily, raising her hands in surrender. “Rin and Hermione, specifically.”

(Dick joined the Christmas party, his pearly whites gleaming.)

“Your favor is secret spying?” Dick asked, his voice filled with unconcealed glee. Already, Steph could see the wheels turning: how they would lay out the surveillance, how they could accidentally run into their targets as it pleased them, just what they could get away with now that they had a conspirator-!

All the money they'd win from the betting pool

(A tragedy, really, seeing as the bet was on who could unearth Lord Black first and Steph had already won- not that any of the sorry rodents knew it.)

Gin eyed them suspiciously.

“You're very into this.” She commented flatly, almost sounding vaguely amused. “Anything I should know?”

Dick laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck.

“No! No, nothing!” He averted his eyes to the window, searching for a distraction. “Ah, why do you need us to spy again? Everything ok?”

Steph knew instantly that was the wrong question to ask. Whatever cheer Gin had gathered up since sitting down crumpled, dragging her down like a pair of invisible barbells tied at the waist. Her face fell. Her eyes dimmed. The hand that had been trying to hide her brilliant smile instantly went to her pocket, pulling out her phone and anxiously swiping at the screen.

Steph leaned back as subtly as possible, peeking over the girl’s shoulder.

She was able to make out the words ‘check in 3’ before the screen went black.

“Gin?” Steph asked, suddenly worried all over again.

Ginny groaned. Putting the phone away, Gin started running her hands over her face. The tense, weighted energy circling around her reminded Steph of the same strangling vibe that came over Damian anytime Bruce forced him to a gala: the kind of struggle that came from being thrown, flailing, into the deep end of a pool you never evolved to tread.

"Gin?"

“We love our home.” Gin started firmly, her accent more prominent than ever. “And our people. That has never been a question.”

Steph, Dick, and Tim nodded- the concept itself was clear and concise enough.

“Ok.” Tim prompted.

Ginny grimaced.

“But it is traditional.” She went on, looking pained. “And not always kind.”

Dick gripped his thighs tightly under the table, careful to keep them tucked back far enough so Ginny wouldn’t be able to see. His expression transitioned to stone. Tim, too, officially joined the conversation- his vigilante slipping at a serious and irreversible pace.

Steph felt her blood damn near congeal.

Steph.

Steph did not like that phrasing.

Steph did not like that phrasing at all.

“Are you in danger?” She asked seriously, taking Gin’s hand in her own.

Ginny shook her head firmly, quick to dissuade that notion.

“They do not care for me,” She explained calmly, like that sentence was meant to make everything better and not permanently lodge Steph’s heart in her throat. “I’m not- well, the Twins and I- we’re not important-

Steph had to fight to keep her face steady. She could not and would not discourage Gin from sharing. She would not tighten her grip on her friend’s hand. She would not curse, she would not scowl, and she would not entertain the idea of innocently kidnapping the other girl under false pretenses.

Steph was bigger than that.

Steph was stronger than that.

Steph was the master of her own impulses.

“It is- a cultural issue.” Gin desperately tried to explain, feeding more flames to the fire. She caught Steph’s eyes, silently begging her to understand- ah, sh*t, they were at the ‘begging’ line already? Steph really should’ve brought a checklist- and to not make a big deal of the issue. Steph, like a goddamn liar, smiled and nodded like she wasn’t being smashed over the head with an epiphany from hell.

“My sisters had- well, actually, were given - positions of great honor there.” Gin said, just a hair away from reverent and a shade shy from acidically bitter. She eyed the windows and doors like she expected enemies to burst in at any moment. Already, her free hand slowly crept to her pocket, anxious to re-check her phone. “But. They do not want them. We fear- that is, George and Fred and I- that they will not be… ah, allowed to decline.”

Steph met the eyes of her brothers as casually as possible, confirming they were all on the same page. Dick nodded, grave.

“I didn’t want to get muggles- ah, f*ck- others involved in our problems,” Ginny admitted sadly, “but George thinks you may be willing to help. You’re the only people we know right now. I am… worried I won’t be enough while they’re gone.”

Steph imagined herself being carved out of ice. The isolated language sealed the deal.

Cult.

Steph’s ginger sister, as well as her cute little siblings, were escaping a f*cking cult.

In the corner of her eye, Tim jerked his head violently towards Gin and her rapidly falling expression, effectively pulling Steph’s head out of her ass. She pulled herself together in record time.

Of course we’ll help you,” Steph assured, giving the other girl’s hand a small, firm squeeze. “We’ll start spying immediately. Luna, Rin, and Hermione right? How long do you think the Twins will be gone?”

Gin’s earth-shattering relief was palatable, turning the poor girl’s body into putty.

“Fred and George didn’t say,” Ginny mumbled, slumping against the table. “They were going to get more information… Right now, we only have what Ron told us- my other brother- and he’s not exactly at Batman levels of detective-ness.”

Dick leaned in.

“Is he safe?” He asked, surmising that the ‘Ron’ mentioned was still on site.

(Judging by the way the mere mention of the boy’s name was enough to make Gin look like she swallowed a live frog, Steph would’ve guessed Dick was barking up the right tree. A part of her was hurt she didn’t know Gin had other brothers, but that feeling was easily ignored in favor of glaring revelation of culthood, what the actual f*ck-!)

“As safe as any of our family can be.” Gin non-answered, pulling back her hand. “He- he didn’t want to come.”

Catching the sheen of unshed tears f*ck f*ck f*ck she made her cry f*ck Steph gave into the urge to veer towards ahopefully less depressing subject.

“The Twins are the one’s checking in?” Steph asked seriously, internally praying.

“Every half hour.” Gin promised.

Thank god!

“Are you safe with Lord Black?” Dick questioned, stepping in.

“Very.”

Tim decided to take his turn, bracing his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers like a low-level mob boss.

“On a scale from Superman to Batman,” he asked, solemn as the grave, “where would you rate Lord Black’s views- and possible forgiveness- on breaking personal privacy laws?”

(For some reason Gin snorted so hard she choked.)

Chapter 19: An Eye for an Eye (will leave the whole world blind)

Chapter Text

Hermione didn't consider herself deluded. Sure, when she was younger she had trouble shaking off the child-like version of the world she knew- still seeing adults as dependable, still a firm believer in the dichotomy of good and evil, still thinking the world as a safe place- but those were normal growing pains. Those were standard. There wasn't a child in history that wanted to grow up fast, not if they knew what was good for them, so everyone experienced something like it at one time or another.

Really! Her therapist said so!

(Well… Sort of said so…? He may have described a set of slightly different milestones, but Hermione was sure the concept was still solid. She was learning not to get too hung up on the details.)

Nevertheless, Hermione thought herself to be rather self aware. She knew she could be an… uncompromised individual at times: too set in her ways, too rigid in nature to ‘go with the flow’. She knew she struggled to let go of prepared plans and past decisions- too stubborn to move for anything other than the unstoppable. She knew she took unexpected events way too hard.

Simply put: Hermione Granger was well aware she had some issues with control.

(Nevermind that she had to have control…)

No.

No, scratch that.

(The point here wasn't that every minute Hermione clawed her way to the middle of a tipping scale, she was providing a public service. It really didn't matter that the difference between changing the attractional force between two objects and the attractional force between two atoms was so f*cking negligible that Hermione felt sick with anxiety anytime she so much as thought of using her meta. That wasn't the point. A part of being self aware was being responsible for your own actions, and- as such- it really wouldn't do for Hermione to start going around and making excuses for herself.)

So: Hermione had control issues.

(And a bit of a temper.)

Hermione glared at the idle piece of paper disgracing their countertop, her teeth clenching. It was Gin's handwriting, of course, that stared back.

Hermione had already conducted a search of their house, verifying that the two parties in question were not present. She had pillaged through Rin's wallet, making sure the two credit cards weren't there. She'd counted the number of vehicles left in their garage. Hermione was, at that moment, extremely guilty of taking more than one god's name in vain.

(A part of Hermione whispered that she really should start breathing, that her chest was beginning to ache, but another, stronger part of her balked at the thought of obeying Gin's instructions. That part of Hermione was sitting pretty with another, another part of her: one decidedly more vindictive and just a smidge quieter than the middleman, saying under no uncertain terms that she should just break the kitchen. It wasn't as if Rin couldn't afford another.)

(Hermione resolved to ignore that last one.)

“Sister-”

One word, Luna,” Hermione gritted out, her palms rubbing bruising circles on her forehead, “and I swear I will implode our house. I swear it.”

Her tone was a seething, fiery thing: pointed and catching, dangerous and lithe. Luna, who had taken to trailing after Rin during their little scavenger hunt, smartly slid behind the other girl. A pair of blue, wide, blinking eyes hid as much as possible behind a trailing red braid.

Hermione threw her head in her hands, instantly feeling like utter sh*t.

“Go get her laptop.” Rin whispered to Luna, urging her away from the kitchen. “I've got this.”

Hermione could hear Luna's footsteps padding across their floor as her sister danced away. There was a shift of foreign fabric, the sound as light and airy as the dress itself, from where Rin took up the seat beside her. Hermione uselessly tried to shoo her away.

“I'm fine.” She hissed, reaching to crumple up the offending piece of paper. The paper itself was too small to properly force into a ball-like shape, so all Hermione ended up accomplishing was pulling the paper around like a kneaded eraser.

Rin graced her with an unconvinced expression as one of the sides ripped.

What?”

Over Hermione’s shoulder, Luna appeared and departed in the blink of an eye: dropping off her laptop on the countertop beside Rin. Hermione reached for it, her hand striking forward as volatile as a rearing snake, but Rin stopped her from claiming her prize. Instead, gentle fingers intertwined with her own.

“You don't have to be.” Rin reminded her firmly, keeping her grabbing hand pinned. Hermione fought to swallow back the harsh words gathering at the tip of her tongue, likely made of twisted feelings Rin did not deserve to bear.

(Hermione had read about post traumatic stress disorder. Of course she did. She’d read about separation anxiety and paranoia and night terrors- just like anyone in her situation should. She had gathered as much information as she could. But there was a stark difference between clinical terms printed on a rack of bound pages, and the flaying, feral need that screamed at her that Gin and the Twins weren’t at home. They weren’t with her where Hermione could protect them. All Hermione had was a note and it begged her to scream-)

“Just let me see where she is.” Hermione compromised, pleading with Rin to let her indulge just this once. Perhaps it wasn’t healthy. Perhaps her therapist would disapprove. But Hermione could work on that later! With smaller steps, maybe. “I promise I’ll leave it alone after.”

Rin studied her closely, weighing Hermione’s resolve. After a tense moment where Hermione was sure Rin would deny her, she then nodded- sliding the laptop to Hermione. Hermione opened it up with shaking fingers, typing her password and opening George's tracking program. Rin got up and offered her a glass of water while it loaded, deciding to approach the other elephant in the room.

“She doesn't know everything, you know.” Rin reminded her, somewhat scolding.

Hemione once again felt an immeasurable force of guilt slam her over the head. Luna knew more than most, courtesy of her meta, but Rin was correct: she didn't know everything. Luna couldn't see every future, and she wasn't responsible for the actions or feelings of others. Luna hadn’t known that Gin and the Twins would abscond.

(But she doesn’t share what she knows, Hermione’s less-than-helpful part accused. That was the part that wasted no time in reminding her that Luna only shared in ways that made no sense to anyone, always twirling around as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Just how was Hermione supposed to handle that? How was Hermione, whose shoulders seemed to feel permanently damaged by the weight they carried, supposed to deal with never knowing what kind of burden Luna could’ve relieved? How the f*ck does one approach that kind of issue?)

Hermione was starting to suspect she was having a bad day

Rin returned to her seat as Hermione furiously typed in Gin's code, watching the map triangulate and frowning deeply when Hermione did not acknowledge her statement.

“We don't blame each other for our metas.” Rin reminded her severely, fanning a hand over the computer screen. Hermione, now no longer able to see the fruits of her compromise, bit the bullet and turned to the girl- her expression crumpling. Rin matched Hermione’s shame with a firm reprimand.

You do not blame others for what they can't control,” Rin admonished, “and you especially do not blame them for something you can't prove. That's not you.”

The ‘and that's why you are not fine’ went unsaid.

Hermione nodded, her cheeks flushing.

“Sorry…” She whispered.

Under Rin's fingers, the computer sang a high-pitched, pretty chirp- signaling the program was complete. Rin removed her hand.

Two perpendicular lines intersected on a digital map of Gotham, settling near the metro area not too many miles away from Old Gotham. A quick google search of the coordinates came up with the (admittedly ridiculous) name of a Gotham fast food chain: Batburger. The description and tagged images were even more ridiculous, displaying underpaid teenagers clad in oversized, cheap costumes.

Hermione sucked in a deep breath.

Ginny squirreling away to check out the place without telling anyone to avoid embarrassment was… quite in character, actually. The Twins would've had a field day.

The pressure in Hermione's chest expanded, loosening like a Victorian corset at dusk.

“She'd use the emergency chat if something was wrong.” Rin comforted, her tone now considerably softer. “Or make one hell of a commotion.”

Hermione nodded in agreement, snorting to herself. If there was anyone who wouldn't know the meaning of ‘come quietly’, it was Ginevra Weasley. She'd sooner demolish a building than make an attacker's life easier.

Rin pulled out her phone, opening up the group chat.

“Here.”

Hermione did the same.

  • Valkyrie, Vanguard, Valhalla -

From: I See Dead People 9:32 PM

‘sound off’

A few responses were instantaneous, Luna typing her answer and Hermione adding hers. The others came just a second later, adding more questions than answers.

From: Wakspurts are Watching 9:32 PM

‘here’

From: Off the Clock Warlord 9:32 PM

‘seething’

From: Señoritas and Sangrias 9:33 PM

‘I can explain’

From: Thing 1, maybe Thing 2 9:33 PM

‘We can explain’

From: Choose Your Fighter 9:33 PM

‘We did nothing’

From: Thing 1, maybe Thing 2 9:34 PM

‘Fred…’

Rin bit down a smile at Fred's response, amused by the chaos like the tiny goblin she was. Hermione could only sigh. Her greatest wish was that George's trackers would work on all of her family, but tracking the Twins and Rin via technology was a pipe dream. Between Hallow and feedback from the time-space distortion, any bugs planted on those three were soon to be fried ones.

Hermione shot off an annoyed prompt.

From: Off the Clock Warlord 9:34 PM

‘George.’

George responded.

From: Thing 1, maybe Thing 2 9:34 PM

‘Call Ron.’

Hermione stared at her phone, not liking that explanation at all. She looked at Rin to see if the other girl knew something, but the frown Rin flashed her own phone vetoed that idea quickly. Whatever the problem was, Rin wasn’t in on it.

Hermione pursed her lips and tried to center herself. Her heart beat rapidly.

“Do you want me to stay?” Rin asked carefully, casting a casual side-eye. Hermione shook her head- like a goddamned liar- praying to the same gods she cursed that this conversation wouldn't derail.

(Despite Hermione's best efforts, that's all that her and Ron seemed to be doing as of late: arguing and spiraling off the rails.)

“No.” She said, already jittery with nerves. “Go. And tell Luna I said sorry, will you?”

Rin stood, unsure.

“I will.” She promised, pausing near the back of Hermione's chair. “I’ll check on you in a bit, ok?”

Hermione agreed, waving her off even as Rin exited the room. In the heartbeats that followed Hermione could only stare at the water cup resting on the counter, feeling her stomach sinking with a shuttering weight.

Well. Nothing else to do but call, right?

Hemione dialed Ron’s number and braced the phone near her ear. It took all of two rings.

“‘Mione?” a muffled voice answered, muted by the telephone line. As always, Hermione's treacherous heart leapt at the sound of his voice- pumping warm, fond love with each jump. And with each one, no matter how cruelly Hermione attempted to smother it, came a mournful, miserable cry: if-only, if-only, if-only.

If only they were right for each other

If only they could work things out

If only Ron could hear her

If only she understood

“George said I needed to call,” She said. The other end of the line stayed silent, save for the crackling breath ghosting the receiver. “Ron?”

“I’m here.” He replied. “I’m- yeah, he’s right.”

“Did something happen?” She asked.

Hesitation always had a different kind of sound to Hermione, one that grated on her nerves and begged her to grit her teeth. She wasn't stupid: she knew the problem had to have something to do with the Founding. There wasn't any other irritation present that would require the Twins to use their meta, and it was one of the few conflicts between her and Ron that had them at each other's throats.

Ron paused longer than she'd like.

“Ronald.” Hermione warned.

“Right. Sorry. Uh, well, there was a Wizengamot meeting…”

Hermione grimaced. Those meetings never bode well for her, historically speaking. Ron was proud he was able to attend now, as a war hero, but Hermoine found herself tired of the whole thing: the accusations, the expectations. Hermione hated how every eye had turned to her during the first and last one she attended. How the members of the Wizengamot all leaned back to watch her step up, lips curling with every move she made.

“What are they doing now?”

Ron stayed silent. He didn't answer.

If only if only

“Ronald!”

“Right. Well, they're kind of looking for you? You and Rin.”

Hermione scowled.

“Why?”

The pause there was telling.

“What do you mean ‘why', ‘Mione?” Ron echoed, dumbstruck. “You're far from home.”

Hermione turned the phone on speaker, placing it on the counter so she wouldn't be in danger of holding the thing too tightly. Or worse: throwing it. For the sake of her essential appliance, Hermione took a step back.

“That's not our home anymore, Ron.” She replied steadily, clenching and unclenching her hands. “We're not going back.”

Ron's nervous laugh filled the kitchen.

“You know you don't mean that ‘Mione.”

Hermione inhaled shakily.

As if summoned by the sound of Ron's voice and Hermione's building fury, Rin emerged from the back hall faster than a speeding bullet. She signed to Hermione as she glided in- her index fingers and thumbs curling in a loose ‘C’ shape, moving from the bottom of her shoulders to the middle of her chest while facing outwards. Rin's eyebrows stayed raised to indicate it was a question.

Stay? Rin asked in BSL.

Hermione jerkily nodded, reaching out her hand. Rin was instantly at her side, her fingers gripping her own and releasing not one sound to indicate she was there with her.(For all the gray hairs Rin's rouge-like tendencies gave her, Hermione could admit there were times where they came in handy.)

“Why do you think we don't mean it, Ron?” Hermione demanded, her throat tight. “Weren't we clear?”

“No!” He defended hastily. “No, I didn't mean it like that, ‘Mione. You know that. I just meant, well- you all wouldn't just leave. Not forever. Some time away-”

“‘Some time’?” Hermione parroted back hotly, gripping Rin's hand harder. “It's not ‘some time’, Ronald. I told you that when we left.”

The volume of their conversation summoned Luna, who quickly made her way to Hermione's other side. She took her hand gently, prying Hermione's arm away from her body just long enough to link it with her own- offering silent comfort, side by side. Blonde waves cascaded down Hermione's shoulder as Luna rested her cheek near Hermione's neck.

Hermione heavily leaned on them both.

If only

“I- I didn't mean it like that.” Ron said. “Really, you'll see-”

“See what?”

Less-than-helpful Hermione was quick to fill in the blanks. See that you're wrong, is what he meant. See that you're making a mistake. See that you belong with me.

Hermione bit down her first instinct to scream. As it was, her grievances were only conjecture. Ron hadn't said any of that, not explicitly, and it was likely that her emotions were getting the better of her. Hermione was making assumptions, blaming him without proof.

That's not you.

Rin's hand grounded her.

“We're getting off topic,” Hermione said instead, eager to see their conversation over and done with. “I assume the Wizengamot wants us back and that's why they're throwing a fit?”

Ron fed more fuel to the fire.

“Well. I mean. You are the Algiz…?”

“I’m not anything!” She snapped. “I am whatever I want to be.”

“Hermione,” Ron pleaded. He was using the ‘be reasonable’ tone, one of his favorites. Hermione hated it. She hated it!

“We can't just abandon them. After all we fought for, you can't just leave!”

“I am not required to give my life to them, Ronald! I will not give them anything more than I already have!”

No response was given to that, not immediately. Rin and Luna circled closer, likely sensing the impending train wreck. Ron's temper flared.

“So, what?” He demanded, his voice going rough. “You save us and walk away? Fight for us then run? This is our people we're talking about!”

“They are your people!” She shouted, yanking on Rin's hand. “Yours! My people are with me, right now-”

But not Gin and not Fred and not George

“-in our home. I will not sacrifice that for them!”

There was a stony silence, met only by Hermione's harsh pants.

“... Never thought I'd hear you being such a coward,” Ron replied emptily. “I thought you'd stand up for what was right.”

“That's what I'm doing.” Hermione hissed.

“They're already fighting again, you know.” Ron warned. “Shouting at meetings, blaming each other. They wanted to imprison Malfoy- said it was for the best.”

Rin shot Hermione an alarmed look at the new information, breaking away from their connection long enough to flip out her phone and send Draco a text. Hermione paid little attention to it- she could see the response bubble, so she continued on.

(As much as Hermione suspected Draco was being invited to Gotham, or offered one of Rin's other properties, she also suspected that Draco would sooner swallow his own tongue than accept the deal- so it was of little consequence.)

(Also of note: Draco's mother wasn't a woman you wanted to bet against. Narcissa Malfoy was born a Black by blood, and she was a regular killing perfection when it came to safeguarding the wellbeing of her son. If the Wizengamot really wanted to see Draco in the bowels of Azkaban, then Hermione would've really loved to see them try.)

“And what did you say to that, Ron?” She challenged, as cold as ice. “Did you say anything at all?”

“For Malfoy?”

Ron spoke the name as if it was absolute filth.

“So you said nothing.” She concluded, her eyes stinging.

“‘Mione, it's Malfoy. He's-”

“Just as much of a victim as the rest of us!” She finished, furious enough to spit fire.

If only if only if only why was it only if only

“Have you forgotten what side he was on, ‘Mione?” Ron spat back. “How he tried to kill us? He belongs in prison!”

It was then that Luna took it upon herself to save Hermione from responding, to save what little of the train that was left. She let go of Hermione's arm, walked up to the counter, and reached for the phone.

“Goodnight, Ron.” Luna sighed, ending the call.

Not even two seconds later Hermione ripped herself from Rin's grasp, snatched the glass of water, and threw it at the nearest wall with a choked sob on her lips. Glass exploded on impact. Hermoione's knees shook.

“Come'on,” Rin murmured, scooping her into a hug and pulling her up. “I've got you.”

As much as it turned her stomach, Hermione started crying.

Gods. Hermione hated crying.

“Why is he like this?” She choked, draping herself over the smaller girl and hiding her tears in Rin's shoulder. For someone so gods-damned tiny, Rin had no trouble keeping Hermione on her feet. Luna joined the group hug, curling around Hermione's back and keeping her safe from all sides.

“Too much distance…” Luna soothed, running her fingers through Hermione's curls. Hermione didn't know who decided to start swaying, but soon they were moving in sync- rocking like one would a toddler. “Ronald's never been a soldier.”

Hermione burrowed her face further, trying to force her breath to stabilize.

Ron wasn't a cruel person. Hermione knew that. He was right: Draco had tried to kill them while they were on opposing sides, during the war. And he was right in that Hermione was running away from the Founding. A part of her really did feel like a coward. But Hermione wasn't going to sign her life away. She refused.

Ron had the luxury of distance.

Hermione did not.

(Because Ron had spent most, if not all, of the war in the strategist's seat- he had no chance to see Draco on the battlefield. He wasn't forced to look the other side in the eye. He didn't understand how little any of them wanted to be there, how terrified they all were regardless of what side they were on. And no amount of crying on Hermione's part would be able to explain to him how every person on every side was just a small breeze away from shattering.)

Just how do you explain that everyone lost in war?

Hermione took Rin's new dress in a bruising grip.

(Hermione knew, most of all, that she had issues accepting that Ron couldn't see that. A part of her, one Hermione was terrified of, always took the time to whisper: what if he did? What if Ronsaw that the other side wasn't an enemy- what if he had understood all along... but then decided it was easier to close his eyes and turn away?)

Hermione couldn't see herself as someone able to forgive that.

(And just how would she reconcile her 'if-only's then?)

Chapter 20: Follow the Leader, Walk the Line (do a flip off the roof to pass the time)

Chapter Text

Marco Valdez didn't exactly consider himself deluded. No one did, f*ck- no one would want to. Deluded was a death sentence in the Alley and Marco had put far too much effort into this living sh*t to voluntarily dive off the deep end.

Actually, not to toot his own horn or anything like that, but Marco thought he was pretty clear headed… as far as henchmen went.

(Not that he was one- a henchman, that is. Nah, Marco was far too important to the operation for that particular brand. Red Hood would be lost without him, and the red-capped f*cker knew it. For all the obscene amount of time he spent keeping the asshole’s empire from imploding while Hood went out chasing that Jason guy, Marco was a regular hero.)

Not that he could say that explicitly without risking his insides becoming his outsides

The trouble with that, though, was that ‘lucidity’ and ‘realism’ had an unfortunate habit of walking hand-in-hand with ‘ I’m not f*cking blind, tonto’, which- in retrospect- was probably Marco’s entire problem to begin with.

(It was also, sadly, where Marco's entire peace of mind went to sh*t. Marco Valdez was paid to manage idiots, know when to bite his tongue, keep his feet behind whatever line Hood drew for the day, and notice details- respectively. On record, that last tidbit was probably going to be the death of him.)

“What the f*ck you staring at, asshole?”

In a last ditch effort to keep his head on his shoulders, Marco squinted at Hood, trying to see if he could- f*ck, unfocus the inkling away? Make the stars align? Unscrewify the screwed?

Marco had spent the last three days uselessly attempting to convince himself he was hallucinating. Really, it wasn’t like it couldn’t happen! He coulda got dosed or somethin’- getting drugged was always a possibility in Gotham, even more so when you spent a good chunk of your time putting out fires and linch-pinning an… intrusive industry. Scarecrow in particular had far too much of an interest in branching out in Marco's grumpy opinion, always trying his hand at creating this gas and that, and if Marco was being realistic: seein’ things was more likely than… whatever this was.

(Yet even Scarecrow hadn’t managed to mad-science his way to a concoction capable of creating a sight so disturbing.)

As thus: regrettably, Marco hadn’t been laced.

Which, much to his misfortune, meant he now had to bite the bullet.

Oh goody.

“You've been… cheery.” Marco accused shrewdly, leaning back in his chair.

The chair itself was a freak of nature: rickety on four legs, nearly shaved off into nothing. Whatever cushion the thing may have had packing had long since dissolved. The springs under Marco’s ass were malicious in nature, and evil in spirit. It’d been around since the last regime. It was unkillable.

And it was his.

Marco adored his chair.

Hood, standing in front of their ‘plan table’, scowled. (Or, probably scowled? Honestly, you couldn't really tell with the red cap obscuring everything, but Marco liked to think he’d gotten pretty good at guessing.)

Now: the ‘plan table’ Marco mentioned earlier? Yeah. On a long list of the most unfortunate clichés Marco had ever been forced to witness, that table was a travesty. Papers scattered across the surface, maps layered in between those like an office supply store’s baklava- all they needed was a cork board, some thumb tacks, and a pool of red string.

(Hood already had the crazy eyes and smoking habit down to pat. You didn't need to see the eyes to know. Marco could feel the crazy. In the air!)

Excuse you?” Hood growled, “Cheery?”

Marco peered from over the edge of his phone, careful to stay as straight faced as possible.

Framed by a nigh indestructible, silver colored cover, the device was a standard criminal issue- headaches already installed. Three messages from Swipe currently branded the screen, griping about idiots that didn't know how to stay in line and psychos that apparently found baiting the Big Red Boss Man fun. While it wasn’t the worst update Marco had gotten, he knew it didn’t actually matter what the messages said. If a blowtorch to the back panel didn’t fry the thing, nothing would.

As it was, there was no escape.

(Marco was pretty sure the phone would outlive his chair.)

And both would outlive him

But again: back to the bullet figuratively lodged in between Marco’s teeth.

So, Marco had worked for Hood for a long time, yeah? A stupid long time. Like, two to five years, maybe. (Honestly, Marco was floored that he lived this long. Time wasn't relative. Five years was ancient. Just work with him here, aight?)

So. He had a decent track record of keeping tabs on the guy. Longer than most- or basically everyone really, so- yeah; Marco knew what he was talking about.

And Red Hood, it should be said, had been positively giddy. Now, Hood got giddy- that wasn't weird. Anytime the big guy got to dismantle a kiddie ring or put a bullet in a walking piece of trash, Marco noticed Big Red rode the high for an hour or two.

Again: not weird. A touch of sadism was part of the trade in Marco's humble opinion- you don't become a crime lord without a few loosened bolts in the ol’ noggin'.

But.

(And this was a big ‘but’-!)

Nine days of a good mood was just excessive. It was unprecedented. It was grinding on Marco’s last goddamn nerve. And even worse? He had no idea what caused it!

Marco had lost sleep- valuable sleep- trying to figure it out, and he had nothing. Nothing! No real action had graced the Alley to Marco's knowledge, nothin’ Hood would give a damn about anyways, so just what in the ever loving f*ck had the guy dancing on flowers? Near as he could figure, Batman hadn't gotten a beatdown and the Joker was still kickin’- so what gives???

“Cheery.” Marco clarified, sidestepping whatever paranoia he could and focusing on responding to Swipe. It was a paltry effort, yes, but what can you do? Marco was but a mortal man, and Hood had a mean gaze. “What? Jason finally show ya somethin’ nice?”

The papers under Hood's gloves crumpled, folding under his immense, unnatural strength.

(Marco was still up in the air with what, exactly, Hood was: meta, force of nature, manifestation of the hell hole they called home… Hell, for all he knew the guy was a legitimate revenant or some sh*t like that. Marco tried not to think too hard on it. Either way, Marco’s gag order on Hood's obvious non-human status was working some serious overtime.)

“Like hell! Why you people think I'm screwing the guy anyways, huh?”

Hood’s modulated voice crackled when he hit a certain octave, popping like an AM radio set to the wrong station. Marco made it his life's mission to achieve that sound, hooked on it like a spoonful of glass. (So far, he was making it big at somewhere around 78.)

“Ya call on the guy like crazy for a civy.” Marco reminded him greedily, typing away.

“The f*ck I do.”

“Ya deny it every chance ya get.”

“Because it ain't true.”

“You'd never tell me if it was.”

Hood leaned heavily on the table, arching his back. The stare down that followed was one Marco knew well, though it lost some of its flavor because of the hood. Marco thought the hood was a tacky bit of workmanship, but hey- better than the traffic-light mess Batsy had his kids prancing around in. (At least the hood was functional.)

“If ya wanted me to shoot you,” Hood mused darkly, “you coulda just asked.”

“And let ya screw yourself over?” Marco scolded, a sly grin slipping on his face. Hood tilted his head, predatory and serpentine. “That wouldn’t be very ‘right hand man’ of me.”

“Maybe you feel too safe.” Hood challenged.

Marco raised an eyebrow and finished his response to Swipe. The brat was pretty obedient for an Alley rat, especially for that age range, but he had a nasty habit of crossing fences. Crossing over from one gang to the next was not recommended for informants, even more so without a minder. Marco was on a mission to reel the kid in for keeps- Swipe had an ear and agent on every street, despite being nothin’ but a pint-sized midget.

“Who'd replace me?” Marco threw back without a care in the world, pressing ‘send’. “Jordan?”

“Not the worst option.”

Marco snorted.

“That brute don’t know how to plan,” Marco scorned, propping his feet on the table. The action earned him a grouchy shrug- honestly, Hood could be such a mom sometimes- but Marco paid it no mind. “Jordan doesn't know what to do with a set of brains- he can only bark orders. Take Danny instead.”

Hood scoffed, slouching into his own seat and releasing his stationary victims.

“Danny?” Hood echoed, “Are you screwing with me? The guy's a power hungry shrew.”

“A planning power hungry shrew.” Marco clarified, raising a finger. “That coup he's been workin’ on has been gaining some serious traction, don't ya think?”

Hood snatched up a random paper and scribbled something on it, carving thick, hard lines on its surface.

“I thought you took care of that.” Hood growled, crossing out a line or two. Marco flipped to his messages with Lola, flicking through the newest reports with a practiced eye.

“I did.” Marco said, amused. “And then the f*cker went back to planning. I ain't responsible for double stupid, boss.”

“Yet you recommend him for your job?”

“Ain't no skin off of my bones if he bites off more than he can chew,” Marco reminded Hood helpfully. “As you may recall, I'd be dead.”

Hood huffed, switching out his papers.

“And I'd be back to square one.” He grumbled sullenly.

“That's the idea.” Marco sang.

Reaching over, Hood bodily shoved Marco’s foot off the table- nearly impaling Marco’s calf with the pen in his fist. Marco lost his shoe as his leg fell, his heel catching the table edge and the sneaker being ripped from his ankle. He watched impassively as it bounced along the warehouse floor.

Such is the sad fate of the off-white shoe...

“Whatever…” Hood muttered, returning to his paperwork. “Just take care of it. Danny's been pissing me off.”

Marco gave a co*cky salute and kicked off his other shoe.

“At your pleasure, boss.” Marco cheered.

(Ok, so maybe Marco had taken to using Hood’s weird mood swing to break any bad news as painlessly as possible- but he was only being adaptable! On any other day, that Danny omission would’ve earned him a broken finger! If anything, Marco was maintaining the natural order by swindling the man. It was his payment.)

“By the way,” Marco continued, “Lola says she's heard a rumor among the brats; it's a fun one, you’re gonna love it.”

Hood turned to him, slowly.

There was a finesse to it, one Marco had come to appreciate in their time together. Hood first started with a stalking stillness, like a leopard crouched in the treetops. He then stayed there for a beat- long enough to let the tension build and the sweat drip down the back of your neck. Then, when your heart rate was just starting to pick up speed, his neck started moving. It was a creeping, creaking thing: one that would make old hinges screech if it were on a door. Finally, once you were in his sights, the eyes narrowed like a vice.

Honestly, the damn thing was like art.

“Past evidence says you have no idea what I love.” Hood deadpanned.

Marco smirked.

“Nah,” he argued, “you'll love this one.”

“I hate it already.”

“I swear, it's actually fun.”

Hood motioned for him to continue.

“Rumor mill says Penguin's been stalking around more than usual,” Marco reported, scrolling to Lola’s last message. “Lola says a few of her clients were moanin’ about it, sayin’ they were lined up for a pilgrimage.”

Hood tilted his head, more interested now. Marco knew he would be, considering the subtext.

‘Pilgrimages’, as they so lovingly called them, were jobs that required traversing into unknown territory: the stone lined sewers buried under each street, the candy-coated underbelly of Metropolis, or- as was this case- the deranged indulgence that was Gotham’s Diamond District. They were usually big jobs, requiring more than just a handful of henchmen, and they paid well.

“She thinks it's the Gala?” Hood verified, intrigued.

Marco nodded.

“It's the soonest event,” Marco mused, “and whispers say that the targets will be worth somethin' big.”

Hood hummed, leaning back in his chair.

“I heard about that…” He said, bracing his hands behind the back of his hood. “Wayne’s making it a point to invite Black. Two billionaires at once, so close to home… I can see where Penguin's head is at- if Black shows.”

Marco nodded absently, as if he understood.

(Whether or not Black actually showed up to a fancy and useless party was the least of Marco’s worries, nor did Marco give a damn if Wayne and Black were robbed blind. His main hang up was whether or not Penguin would be able to keep away from the mess. As much as Marco disliked the impish ‘businessman’, he was useful in keeping the delicate balance of their industry relatively stable. If the asshole managed to get himself thrown in Arkham, again, then Marco would be forced to work around the Riddler. Marco ahbored working around that man.)

“Word on the street also says that Black's an open minded kind of guy,” Marco continued casually, not looking up. “One more willing to skirt around certain rules for the right reasons- and skilled enough to do it right.”

Hood considered that for a moment.

“I've… heard the same.” Hood admitted.

“Couldn't hurt to give your boy toy a friendly shove that way,” Marco threw out coyly, nearly hiding behind the indestructible silver cover in his grip. “He’s the dead Wayne brat, ain't he?”

Hood growled, finally sounding a little like his old self.

“Where’d you hear that?” He demanded.

Marco scoffed. (As if he would let his livelihood go chasing around some random guy without Marco first scoping him out.)

“Gotta keep my boss in one piece, don't I? This place will go to sh*t if you croak.”

“Nosy bastard.” Hood hissed.

Marco rolled his eyes.

“I prefer ‘careful’.” He amended.

Hood kicked Marco’s chair, like an actual child.

“The f*ck you do. Why go for Black anyways? Something wrong with your payroll?”

Marco knew better than to walk into that trap.

“I'm just sayin’,” Marco defended, scooting away as best as he could while still retaining some dignity. “It couldn't hurt to rub shoulders with a green man. You know: ‘powerful people in powerful places’ and all that jazz.”

“And go begging a stranger?” Hood bitched. “f*ck that! We don't need him.”

“No one said anythin’ about beggin’!” Marco said, hunching forward. A bit of cowering here and there did wonders in getting Hood to see sense, and Marco wasn't above ditching the dignity he just scraped up for his own profit. “Just think of it as having somethin’ pretty in your pocket, that's all.”

“You really think Jason can manage that?”

(Marco didn't walk into that trap either.)

“He manages you, don't he?”

Oh wait, he did

“Valdez, if you think I won't take a chance on Jordan and put a bullet through your skull-”

Marco straightened up, scrambling to return to the sensible conversation they somehow strayed from.

“I'm just sayin’ that it couldn't hurt to scope him out.” Marco returned reasonably. “Growl all you want, but Black's a new player. We won't be the only eyes turning that way.”

Hood glowered in his particular, ‘I'm going to remove your limbs’ fashion- the leather of his gloves closing around what Marco could only guess as a mental image of his throat.

“Don't go glaring at me cause I have a good idea,” Marco grumbled. “It's what you pay me for, yeah?”

“I don't pay you.”

Marco waved him off.

“You pay me, I pay myself- tomato, tomate, jefe. Just send your boy, let him have a look, get a good read, eat some of the food, and call it a day. Nothin’ says it has to go anywhere- f*ck, call it foreplay if you want.”

“I'll see your head on a pike, Valdez.”

“Don't ya mean a duffle bag?”

(There was a fine mesh of bravery and death wish that endeared one to Hood- much like the suicidal courage of a new born guinea pig. In Marco's experience the combination was most effective when mixed with a messy amount of spite. He liked to refer to the condition as ‘wish a motherf*cker would’.)

“Tch. Fine,” Hood snapped, throwing his pen on the table. “I'll send him that way. But I ain't f*cking the guy!”

Course not.”

Miraculously, Marco's tone didn't earn him a body slam. But just when Marco thought he was in the clear, Hood spoke up.

“Valdez.”

“Present.”

“You know how to start a conversation with a girl.”

It was not a question.

Marco froze.

“Uh. No hablo inglés.

“I speak Spanish, bastard.”

"Since f*ckingwhen?!"

Chapter 21: Prepare the Battlements, Raise the Stakes (ignore the voice saying it was all a mistake)

Chapter Text

[Quick A/N: ‘ Droailic ’ is the language of the Founding.]

If Rin had a nickel for everytime she was forced to question her own existential trajectory while standing in front of a polished mansion door, during which an overgrown fowl grazed in the grass behind her, she’d have two nickels. Which realistically wasn’t a lot- but it was kind of weird that it had happened twice.

(Distantly, Rin would admit to having questions. So many questions. Rin wasn’t sure why the Waynes had what looked to be an adolescent turkey just… chilling on their lawn. The bird was beautiful, don’t get her wrong about that- they were at a healthy weight and had a wonderfully rustic set of plumage. Rin had a stray thought that maybe Hedwig would like to make a friend the next time she visited, but most of her brain was already heavily preoccupied.)

So. The true question of the hour, running at the darling price of exactly ten cents?

What am I doing here?

Rin stared at the door, searching for answers in the gleaming wood. The effort alone had her vision unfocusing, blurring the small details into a muddied mess of ebony. She found more questions there: such as ‘what did they use to polish their wood’, ‘what the f*ck was up with the turkey’, ‘who did they have cleaning their house because wow did they have talent’, and- more glaringly- ‘why was Bat-Bruce so insistent she go to his godsdamn Gala’.
But no answers.

Really… Rin mourned, what the f*ck am I doing?

The Wayne Manor loomed over her like a giant, the windows glaring down like the disapproving sneer of a scornful father. Each inch of glass was spick and span, spotless from the top of the frame to the bottom corner of every panel. If there was even the smallest amount of sunshine peeking from the cloudbank, they would’ve been sparkling.

The setup felt like a trap. The building itself felt like a living predator. It all felt utterly absurd when combined with the presence of the turkey.

Honestly, Rin shouldn’t have been there at all. Nothing said Rin had to go to Bat-Bruce’s Gala. Nothing said there had to be a Gala. Rin, hand over her heart and sworn to the god of your choosing, had no vested interest attending any sort of party. She had no want or need to jump into the public view. As cute as everyone made the joke sound, Rin had been blissfully happy charading as ‘Rin, Lord Black’s sister’.

And then, like many things, the Wizengamot went and f*cked it up.

(Rin knew she couldn’t spend forever in her own shadow, no matter how cozy and homey it was. And she knew stepping out of that shadow would come with a distressing amount of attention, one she intrinsically wasn’t equipped for. But she also knew, as uncomfortable as the attention made her, that Rin would walk through fire for the sake of Sirius’s legacy. The Most Ancient and Noble House of Black was not going to fall with her, even if Rin had to carve a new empire from the ashes. And like hell was Rin going to let the Wizengamot- a collection of wrinkled, greedy, decrypt cowards- attempt to drag her back to the Founding before she made that a reality.)

In any case, Hermione had made a valid point: it’s harder to spirit away someone when everyone and their mother had their eye on them. The Gala was a sacrifice. Staying home was the goal. And any complication Rin could throw to the contrary, regardless of cost, was to be considered.

(Which, really, was probably the answer she was looking for.)

So. It was probably time to stop being a little bitch about it, huh?

Taking a deep breath, Rin raised her fist to knock and plastered a smile on her face. The sound that followed was deep and echoing, vibrating through the interior. It was as if the house growled in response, like a beast. The unknown turkey perked up at the noise, a large piece of gravel lodged in its beak.

(Rin hoped the poor thing wouldn’t try swallowing it. Avians, in her experience, ran on a dichotomy of intelligence: either they were so terrifyingly aware that it had you questioning your own position on the food chain, or so unbelievably stupid it was a wonder how natural selection had missed them. Hedwig, it should be noted, was of the former.)

Rin took a step back as the door swung inward, even if she wasn’t in the way. It was a reflex.

“Yes? How can I help you?”

Whatever response Rin had lined up died on her tongue.

In the doorway stood an older gentleman wearing a traditional butler’s uniform. The uniform was clean and pressed, with each seam as perfectly flat as the day the outfit was made. He had a cleanly groomed mustache and finely lined sides. His eyes, blue in color and as clear as the shores of Maldives, were sharp and kind.

It was Rin’s fault for making it weird.

(It wasn’t her decision to, not really. It wasn’t as if she thought to herself: ‘hey, let’s have a moment on the Wayne’s front porch, I’m sure some tears will really make them fond of us’ and then tried to squeeze a few out. If anything, Rin would’ve preferred not to have a moment at all. But, of course, when faced with the kind butler and the nostalgic swoop of his English accent, the moment arrived: resting on the wings of six words that had Rin utterly blindsided.)

Oh. Rin thought, her smile dropping and the realization gathering at a horrible, dragging pace. In between one blink and another, it was almost cruel with how easily she could imagine the man with another face. Remus would’ve looked like that.

If given the chance

Her throat clogged. Thankfully, the butler was kind enough to prod her away from any unsavory overthinking before Rin managed something truly embarrassing- like asking the man for a piece of chocolate and a hug.

“Miss?”

Rin forcefully threw her smile back on and prayed her voice didn’t squeak in her response.

She didn’t know why she bothered when her prayers were never answered

“Yes!” She said, blinking rapidly and clearing her throat to smooth away some of the shrillness that escaped. Perhaps later she and Hallow could find a nice, high cliff to jump off of, or maybe Rin could buy a deserted island to live on. Because this was- just. Just great.

Crying in front of a stranger.

For no reason.

Man, what a life.

“Hi!” She introduced, thankfully sounding a little more stable the second time around. “I’m Rin. Is Tim home?”

Rin’s phone burned a hole in her pocket, Gin’s message in particular feeling too warm for comfort. Rin wasn’t sure when, exactly, Gin had gotten close enough to Tim to know his schedule and familiar enough to volunteer him like this, but she was willing to accept that maybe they- like Gin and Steph- just clicked. It wasn’t impossible! When you took into account the past relationship between Steph and Tim, it was almost reasonable that the three of them would resonate so quickly!

‘Like a friendship love triangle or something’, is what Rin kept telling herself.

(Except… that wasn’t it. Rin didn’t know what it was, but something- something was up. Gin took to Tim like a moth to flame in the span of a few hours. Gin wanted to socialize with them suddenly- like her trip to Batburger gave her a bat-themed epiphany and now she wasn’t wary of their intrusive habits at all. When Rin commented on how much she texted them now the other night, Gin gave her the ‘if you love me, drop it’ look and actively hid from Hermione for a full five hours. Five hours! The last time Gin had gotten so weird out of the blue was when she and Blaise became ‘friends with benefits’ and was determined to keep the relationship a secret.)

Rin… really did not know what to do with that information. Rin did not want to know what she was to do with that information. At the moment, Rin had decided she was going to opt for the same ‘respectful and supportive’ stance she took with Blaise until Gin was gracious enough to clue her in- and, in the meantime, pray profusely that all parties involved were being responsible, proactive, consenting adults.

The butler smiled at Rin, unwittingly throwing another moment in her face.

Oh wonderful

They had the same laugh lines

What fun

“Of course.” He said kindly, as if his existence alone wasn’t reaching down Rin’s throat and crushing her heart into pulsing, miserable mush. “One moment, please.”

Rin let out a long, hard breath once the door closed.

sh*t, that was-

The door flew open suddenly, whipping a yelp out of Rin as she jumped out of the way. The person scowling back at her, unimpressed by Rin’s useless attempt at evading something not actually in danger of hitting her, was not Tim or the butler.

It was Damian.

(Rin was convinced the gods hated her.)

“What are you doing here?” He hissed, standing straight like a rearing snake. He wore a looser outfit than in their first interaction, likely meant for a workout or other physical activity. His fists clenched at his sides in a way Rin had seen before, opening and closing as if he yearned to see her neck in between them.

(Although, now that she was aware of his nightly hobby, Rin thought that perhaps what he yearned for was his blade. The current Robin was well known for his use of the katana, as well as his habit of being, ah, heavy handed when dealing with criminals. When Rin first attempted to reconcile the grumpy, glowering child with his vigilante role, her first instinct was to track down Bruce-Bat and backhand him for employing child soldiers. It was Marianne that convinced her otherwise, stating ‘The child is where he wants to be, little one. He wears the colors proudly. He grows beyond the call of his kin.’ Marianne had said it like it was a good thing, assuring Rin that there was more to the situation that met the eye, so Rin had put her assault plans on hold. For now.)

But it didn’t stop her from sending Hallow out to watch over Robin once the sun went down

Batman didn’t need to know.

Damian crossed his arms over his chest, doubly relaying his fury. His body was rigid and tense, as if he was preparing himself to physically bar her entry to his home. His feet were positioned in a solid stance. His glare could set fire to churches.

Honestly, Rin couldn't even be mad.

‘What was she doing here’ indeed.

In the interest of self-preservation, Rin made a bee-line towards the first topic of conversation that struck her as ‘safe’.

“I like your turkey.” She blurted, the words coming out slightly stilted as they fought to flow around her now steadying pulse. The plan, admittedly, was one of her best. The execution could’ve used some work. “What's their name?”

Damian narrowed his eyes at her, broadcasting ‘distrust’ louder than a tornado siren.

“That is not your purpose.” He accused, rightfully so.

(Rin couldn't be mad at that either. Honestly, her greatest wish was for both of them to be wrong. She would’ve loved for her entire purpose to be befriending the turkey. Rin had a good track record with befriending birds.)

Rin didn’t even try to lie to him.

“No,” she admitted a tad sullenly, “it's not.”

No thanks to your father…

“But,” she continued, circling back to the matter at hand that- now that answers were on the table- she was dying to know. “I would still like to know their name, if you're willing? They're a beautiful bird.”

Damian looked as if he’d sooner feed her to said bird than humor her interest, but did- in fact- spit out a name.

“Jerry.” He snapped, jutting out his chin in defiance. After a notable pause and what felt like a sort of internal struggle, he tacked on: “Hedwig… is also a fine specimen.”

Rin brightened considerably at the mention of her friend.

(Rin had never heard Hedwig described as a ‘specimen’ before, but she was running on the assumption Damian meant it like ‘thing’ or ‘animal’. Besides, they were on neutral ground now. If Damian wanted to hand her the opportunity to keep the ball rolling, just who was Rin to say ‘no’?)

“Isn't she?” Rin gushed, unable to bottle up her love for the fiercely loyal owl. Hedwig was one of Rin’s greatest joys in life, and Rin would never pretend otherwise. “She's also super smart! I swear she can understand me, but Hermione says I might be exaggerating and that she's ‘just an owl’.”

Rin made quotation marks with her fingers while she spoke, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

(Hermione, as much as Rin loved her, had a baffling sense of the ‘impossible’ that Rin couldn’t wrap her head around. Hallow, the non-corporal, sentient, shadow monster attached to Rin since infancy, was possible. Marianne, the spiritual visage of a dead woman brought to them by said shadow monster, was possible. Luna casually seeing the future was possible. But Hedwig being able to understand English and Droailic wasn’t? Like. How?)

Damain scoffed, offended on Hedwig's behalf.

“Obviously she is not well versed in the company of animals,” Damian sneered.

(Although his expression was plenty hostile, Rin didn’t feel any sense of cruelty. If anything, it was unnerving just how soft the boy was when dolling out insults- like a toddler mimicking the words of their mother. Rin was starting to think that Damian, like Draco, might’ve just had ‘bastard’ as his default setting.)

“They are plenty intelligent.” He declared.

Rin nodded eagerly, happy to have someone on her side.

“I know, right?” She cheered, her heels bouncing against the concrete of the porch. “I used to have a dog, Mr. Snuffles, and he was as smart as any man!”

(The fact that Mr. Snuffles was one of Sirius’s meta forms, and, as thus, was technically a man, went conveniently unmentioned.)

Rin was on a roll, here. No need to overcomplicate things.

Damian considered that comment with grave importance, his face pinching.

“Titus,” He said slowly, adorably confused as to why their conversation was happening at all, “my hound… is also quite intelligent. I maintain he exceeds the IQ of my family on a regular basis.”

Rin beamed.

“Really?” She asked, excited. “What kind of dog is he?”

Damian's response was rudely interrupted by the scrambling arrival of Timothy, who appeared over the boy’s shoulder and pulled the door open wider. He looked between his brother and Rin, his expression bouncing somewhere between confusion and relief, with his brow creased and an apology resting on his lips.

“Sorry that took so long,” he said, slightly out of breath as if he had run to the door. “You needed something?”

Damian turned to Tim, looking at the older male as if he was the scum under his shoe. The look had an arrogant tinge to it- one that Rin could compare to the looks that a few of the Foundling girls threw at her during the Yule Ball. It was an envious, disapproving thing, practically screaming ‘this person was chosen over me?’.

(Rin decided, in that moment, to mind her own f*cking business for once in her life. Damian and Tim, Red Robin and regular Robin, could figure it out- whatever the f*ck it was- on their own. They were literal geniuses. Surely they didn’t need Rin’s help to work out their personal problems?)

But as the uncanny parallels between Damian and Draco mounted, Rin elected to jump in before she could find out if Damian had Draco's stunning people skills as well.

“Yes!” She said, stepping forward. “I’m going to Bruce’s Gala-”

(Might as well seal her fate, right? Put the words out in the universe, make her reluctant stand…)

Block off any means of escape

“-but I’ve never been to one before?” She admitted sheepishly. “I’d love to, well, not make a fool of myself. Gin said you’ve gone to a lot of them, and might be willing to give me some advice?”

Tim, blessedly, did not look surprised at Rin’s request.

“Sure.” He said, stepping back into the home, ignoring Damian’s indignant protest, and waving her in. Rin followed him slowly, careful to keep a polite distance away from Damian. Once she was inside, Rin immediately took off her shoes in the entryway.

“You can just wipe your shoes on the mat,” Tim offered, raising a brow. “You don’t have to take them off.”

Rin shook her head in hidden horror, the image of her muddied lawn popping up like some sort of demented daisy.

“Thanks,” she said, lining her shoes together as perfectly as possible and setting them against the entryway wall, “but I want to.”

(The cold gazes of her aunt and uncle, although not there in person, guided Rin’s hand. Make a mess in someone else's home? Over a moment of laziness, no less? Rin did not have enough words to describe just how much she could not do that. Just. She couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Wasn’t capable.)

Tim nodded, thankfully letting the subject go.

“Anyone else we should expect?” He asked, rather reasonably in Rin’s opinion.

Rin winced.

“No,” She said. “The others are…”

Rin paused, trying to come up with an explanation that didn’t sound overly serious and didn’t betray Hermione’s confidence. Hermione didn’t like other people in her business, and given that she had already been very clear on her vigilante-oriented position, Rin was confident in her assumption that Hermione wouldn’t have wanted Tim and Damian to know anything.

In the end, Rin settled for simple.

“... busy.”

Tim tilted his head at that, obviously intrigued.

Once again, Rin was saved by the animal kingdom.

“Is that Titus?” Rin asked in awe, her attention now glued to the silhouette of a large, black dog she caught hovering around a distant corner.

Titus, standing at the mighty height of just a foot shorter than Rin’s entire body while on all four legs, was a beast. His front legs and chest were broad, refined with sleek muscle and a strong neck. His coat, colored a dusty, coal black, gleamed with a healthy sheen. His body tapered like that of a panther, narrowing at his ribs to a streamlined end.

He was giant. He was fearsome. He could’ve probably fit Rin’s entire head in his mouth without breaking a sweat and downed it in one gulp.

Rin immediately loved him.

Damian, obviously quite proud of his mini-monster, puffed out his chest smugly.

“It is.” He affirmed.

Tim began leading them both down the halls of the manor, listening to them chat as they walked.

Bruce’s home, Rin discovered, was more linear than her own. The halls were wide and straight, connecting to any adjoining rooms with crisp, easy to recognize corners. Each wall had either a tasteful painting hung in a thin, near invisible frame, or a family portrait surrounded by aged wood, carved with fine filigree. The ceiling came up quite high, decorated with proper chandeliers. The furniture, too, was proper- showcasing leather bound couches and flawlessly shaped throw pillows placed on both sides as they passed what looked to be a living room.

(Rin was hard-pressed to describe the place as boring, but she found that was hard to do when she knew what kind of bullsh*t the Waynes got up to when the lights went out. Something about describing Batman as ‘boring’ felt like a death flag. Rin had promised George to start avoiding those.)

Hallow took the time to twitter around, humming at each small interest they found.

“He's a Great Dane?” She guessed, keeping a close eye on Hallow as they crossed what looked to be a gaming room. Several, likely expensive, gaming systems rested on the front entertainment center, shining like a treasure trove of smooth plastic, fitted metal, and intricate internal systems Hallow had no business being near.

“Pure bred and properly trained.” Damian boasted. “Titus is a diligent pupil.”

Rin nodded seriously as they turned a corner. Sadly, Titus did not follow them.

“Titus is a good boy.” She determined in earnest.

Tim led them down to a sitting room, decorated on one side with several lines of couches and a blank wall on the other- save for a long, thin rectangle embedded in the drywall a few feet below the ceiling. To the corner was a small table, hooked with various wires and cables. Rin squinted at the shape inserted on the wall, unfamiliar with what it was. Tim shot an annoyed look at Damian, who still lingered in the entryway.

“Do you have anything against powerpoints?” Tim asked casually while attempting to silently signal something to Damian. Damian made no motion to indicate he understood the message. Rin desperately tried not to snort.

“That I do not,” She said.

Tim nodded at that, pulling a laptop out of nowhere. It was a similar shape to Hermione’s, though Rin couldn’t say what brand.

“Drake creates them with little regard to length,” Damian warned Rin like the sweet kid he was. “You will be here for hours.”

This time, Rin was less successful in smothering her amusem*nt.

If only I had experience with long powerpoints, she mused to herself, feeling a little slap-happy. Just what ever will I do?

Rin kindly assured the boy she’d be fine.

“I have time.” She promised, “The doctor's appointment won't be done for a while.”

“Doctor?” Tim echoed, turning quickly from where he was connecting the laptop to the table. “Someone sick?”

Rin fell back on one of the couches, mentally cursing to the moon and back for her loose, stupid tongue. Hopefully Hermione would be feeling forgiving when she returned.

“No one’s sick,” She swore truthfully, savoring the moment before she bulldozed her way through her first outright lie. “It’s just a routine appointment.”

Tim took that at face value, following up with a completely innocent, normal question.

“That’s good.” He hummed, returning to his wires. “Where at?”

Damian’s eyes burned a hole in her skull.

No where on land.

“The office is in the medical square off of 3rd.” Is what she responded with.

Which- to be clear- wasn’t wrong. Charles may have spent less than 40 hours in the building within the past year, but his office was in there.

Damian’s eyes narrowed. Rin tried not to sweat.

“Ah, what a coincidence.” Tim mused, his tone empty and stale. “Dick teaches gymnastics at the gym there.”

Rin’s mental cursing doubled in pace. He obviously knew she was lying, she thought miserably, matching his tone in resignation. He had to.

“Really? How funny.”

With the click of a button, Tim booted up his laptop.

However, instead of veering off into an impromptu interrogation session like Rin was expecting, he then procured a small, thin remote from the table drawer and pointed it to the empty wall. Pressing the largest button, an enormous projector board erupted from the thin rectangle Rin had been squinting at- lowering down slowly with a high-pitched mechanical whir. Unconsciously, Rin bid Hallow to stick close to her as the movie-like screen reached its final position.

She really didn’t want to accidentally fry something so fancy.

“I don’t suppose you still have the number of whoever installed that?” Rin asked dumbly, Hermione still on her mind. It would be a nice gift, she thought. And a nice bribe if it came down to it.

“Oh, I can install it.” Tim offered. Rin felt the beginnings of hope flourish like petals opening towards the sun.

“Really?” She cheered, beaming like a lunatic. “Would you? I’ll pay you for your time.”

Tim rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“You don’t need to pay me.” He asserted, flipping through different colored screens on his laptop. He was fast- typing away at breakneck pace Rin had only previously seen George perform. Damian took this as his time to offer his own two cents, as disapproving as they may be.

“Indeed,” Damian scolded. “If payment is to be remitted, then it should come from your brother.”

Rin’s smile dropped a bit at the word ‘brother’, with the first faces flashing through her mind being Ron and the Twins.

(Rin and Ron were… having a moment as of late. They all were with him, but for Rin and Hermione especially- it hit a bit harder. Rin maintained that Hermione had it the worst: torn between too many directions and not having enough safe space to let it all out. Thankfully, Charles, her therapist, was a decorated NAVY veteran with many powerful friends in many high places. They were on the sea right now, probably gaslighting some poor seaman into minding their own business and keeping their mouth shut about whatever they saw on the radar.)

“But I want to give it.” She argued weakly. “I’m the one asking.”

While she said this, Rin’s pocket vibrated. She pulled her phone out quickly, entering the passcode and flipping over to the group chat. After Gin let them know where the Twins were, they had started using the group chat for their check-ins.

  • Valkyrie, Vanguard, Valhalla -

From: Choose Your Fighter 4:14 PM

‘137, still alive!’

Tim tilted his head at that, thinking over the suggestion thoughtfully while the movie-board booted up and projected a stark, dark blue.

“I still haven’t gotten that coffee recipe.” He mused.

Rin perked up, firing off a response and opening her notes app.

From: I See Dead People 4:14 PM

‘Stay safe’

“I have that!” She said, scrolling through her notes.

(Rin compulsively kept multiple lists for the people in her life- with subjects ranging from ‘mentioned desires’ to ‘people to hate by poxy’. There were only a few subjects that had a note for everyone, but ‘self-care’ was one of the ones that Rin kept up religiously. Hermione’s note had, in chronological order- among other things- her favorite foods based off of mood, her favorite books based off of author, her favorite places based off of the time of year, Charles’s number and emergency contact information, a list of abandoned properties available for accidental demolition and subsequent purchase, and of course- her coffee recipes.)

“I can send it to you?” Rin said, open-ended.

Tim’s eyes gleamed with the obsessive sheen of a madman.

Please.”

He listed off his number, which Rin saved in her contacts as ‘Timothy Wayne’ for the moment. She then turned to Damian.

“If you want to give me your number too,” She offered hesitantly, “I can send you pictures of Hedwig? If you want.”

Damian glared at Rin, unamused and visibly offended at her proposition.

“I have no interest in conversing with you.” He insulted with a disgusted crunch of his nose. Rin had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. In that moment, more than ever, all Rin could see was an image of Draco at age 11- wrinkling his nose, flipping his hair, and sniffing at Rin as he declared that his ‘father will hear about this’.

Honestly, it was a struggle.

Tim hissed at Damian, looking horrified.

“Damian!”

Rin waved Tim off.

“That’s ok!” She assured, not offended in the slightest. “He doesn’t have to give me his number if he doesn’t want to.”

(Rin had more than enough experience with being forced to do things she didn’t want to do, and she had no intention of plaguing someone else with that feeling. Damian had no obligation to appease her. Rin had no right to demand him of anything he wasn’t willing to give. And the hostility, her memory of Draco aside, wasn’t something Rin could hate him for. If nothing else, Rin understood the hesitation and inherent distrust that came with wanting to keep your people safe. Damian wasn’t just Bruce Wayne’s son, after all: he was Robin of Gotham.)

But before giving up completely, Rin thought she’d try to compromise.

“If it’d make you more comfortable,” She bargained reasonably, “we can set conditions.”

Damian’s glare arguably lessened.

“Conditions?” He parroted back, suspicious.

“Conditions.” She agreed with a nod. “Like, for instance, we can say that we can only talk about animals with each other. Nothing else. There’s an American Goldfish nest a few meters from the house that I can see from my window- I’d love to be able to send you some pictures. I think you’d appreciate the chicks’ fluffiness.”

Damian’s lips pursed, obviously swayed by Rin’s offer. His brow pinched with the same confused expression as earlier.

“That…” He decided finally, visibly reluctant but obviously intrigued, “would be an acceptable condition.”

Rin flushed with the thrill of victory. Oh yeah, she was on a roll with this one.

“Sounds good!” She chirped, fishing quickly for a fair set of rules to add to their deal. “Let’s say… that, for now, if either one of us tries to break that condition without talking about it first, the other person is allowed to block their number. Immediately. And we can always change the condition later if you decide you do want to talk to me- or if you get tired of being sent pictures and want to add another subject.”

Damian’s malice evaporated into nothingness. Tim looked back and forth between them during the exchange like they were speaking a foreign language whilst completing a human sacrifice- intensely interested yet mildly disturbed.

“That is agreeable.” Damian said, sounding almost happy. “Would the discussion prior require a physical presence?”

Rin thought that over, then shook her head.

“We might not have the time for that.” She guessed. “I imagine you’re often busy.”

Damian hummed in abstract agreement. Between being Damian Wayne and being Robin, if nothing else the boy was busy.

“How about we agree on a phrase?” Rin proposed instead. “We can use it as a sort of indication that one of us wants to talk about the current condition. And then, the one that didn’t use the phrase can either agree or disagree. If they agree, we can start talking about the new rules the user wants to offer. If they disagree, we carry on as usual with whatever the last mutual agreement was. Sounds good?”

Damian nodded slowly.

“A logical proceeding.” He complimented, looking at her oddly. “I have decided the phrase shall be… triumvirate.”

Rin agreed without a fight, flipping out a new note for Damian and quickly typing up the agreement points.

“Sounds like we have a deal.” She cheered, closing out her notes app, swiping to her contacts and offering Damain the phone. The boy took it, expertly entering his number and returning the device without a fuss. For a moment he stood still in front of her, surveying Rin in fascination like she was a newly discovered species of frog.

“I will expect images of Hedwig by day's end.” He declared imperiously.

Rin saved his number as ‘Subject to Change’ with a dog and turkey emoji next to it, nodding seriously.

“It will be done.” She promised, trying to echo his proper tone. “In return, I shall expect pictures of Titus being the bestest boy.”

Damain scoffed.

“Titus is always the best.” He sniffed, highly offended. He then turned to Tim with a glare.

“Watch her.” He ordered.

He didn’t wait for Tim’s response. Instead, in a pompous display of drama and fluid grace, Damian spun on his heel and waltzed out. Rin watched him go, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from collapsing into laughter. If she compared Damian to Draco any more she was going to dissolve into fits, she was sure of it!

Tim turned to her, mystified.

“Did that just happen?” He asked, stumped.

Rin grinned with no small amount of cheek.

“Pretty sure it did.” She smirked.

(So she was a little smug… com’on, she deserved it! That interaction took some work, damnit!)

How???

Rin’s phone vibrated in her hand, catching her attention. For a moment she thought it was a message from Damain making a point- he seemed like the type- but instead it was from a number she didn’t recognize.

From: [unknown number] 4:22 PM

‘Feeling the weight of your sins yet, heathen? Nonna will be disappointed.’

Rin immediately grinned at the message, her face flushing and excitement zipping through her like a live-wire. It’d been so long since Rin had given Jason her number, she was starting to think he’d never use it! She saved the contact, responding quickly.

To: Grandpa Goliath 4:22 PM

‘Unfortunately for Nonna, I don't burn’

“No really,” Tim prodded, pulling Rin out of her victory celebration, “how? How did that happen?”

Rin looked up to realize that, somewhere in between responding to Jason and Damian’s departure, Tim had stalked over to her on the couch. He leaned over her with his palms bracing the back cushion, the light of the projector shadowing his face, and his eyes burning with a familiar craze. Rin shrunk into herself like a startled cat.

“We just agreed on some rules.” She responded blankly, leaning back as far as the furniture would allow. “You know, normal communication?”

Tim stared like she was speaking Mycenaean Greek: as if her words were somewhat familiar, but crafted in a dialect too old to be remembered. Rin frowned at him, thrown off by the flabbergasted awe in his face and more than a little unnerved by the manic energy he was projecting.

“Communication.” She repeated slowly, searching Tim’s face for any signs of recognition. “It’s- we just talked, Tim. Had a conversation? Made a deal?”

A blank stare was all she received back.

Rin’s eyebrows creased, weighed down now by more than a little concern.

“Are you ok?” She felt the need to ask. Tim flinched back, broken from whatever spell he was under.

“Fine.” He replied quickly, looking not at all fine and turning around to pull up the powerpoint.

The title ‘Gotham Social Scene’ displayed on the wall, written in bold font and paired with a picture of a man in a suit Rin didn’t recognize. Tim seemed to lean towards lighter colors than Hermione did, pairing the text with a cream-colored background rather than the navy blue Hermione used. He also seemed to stick to the program's default font, rather than the alternative font Hermione still used to help Ron’s dyslexia.

Rin’s phone buzzed.

From: Grandpa Goliath 4:23 PM

‘Nice talent to have, think you can teach me?’

Rin bit down a smile, typing a response. While she did so, she continued speaking to Tim's turned back.

“Are you sure?” She asked, pressing ‘send’. “I know we’re not close, but I’m here if you ever need me.”

To: Grandpa Goliath 4:24 PM

‘I dunno, old man- think you can learn?’

Tim's shoulders hunched marginally at the offer, worrying Rin further.

Maybe he's not a talker?

“I also have a book.” She added, silently reminding herself not to press too hard and leave Tim space to make his own choices. Rin had been told before that she was a hard person to say ‘no’ to. “Hermione made me read it- all about communication and, uh, active listening I think? I can bring it over if you’d like to borrow it. I think it has all the important things in it.”

Rin’s phone vibrated, displaying a message from Gin. Rin quickly switched message threads.

From: Twins til Fin 4:24 PM

‘Still chillin on the beach with Luna. Warlord’s on deck with C blowing off steam. Got a check in from him, says she should be landing about 6 PM. ETA for Gotham is still 7:30PM. You good over there?’

To: Twins til Fin 4:25 PM

‘All good over here. You were right, Tim was willing to help. HE USES POWERPOINTS!’

From: Twins til Fin 4:25 PM

‘Lug have mercy there’s two of them’

Rin smothered a laugh, grateful for the update.

Hermione had decided she didn’t want Rin with her when she saw Charles. Rin could understand that. She could respect that. Rin, too, hated having her loved one's see her when she was in a bad place.

(But that didn't exactly mean Rin had to like it. She just wanted to make sure Hermione was ok! After that conversation with Ron, Hermione had started dipping into her coffee at an alarming pace, crying at random intervals, forgoing any sort of food, and would not sleep. Rin didn't care how many times Hermione said she was fine, Rin wasn't buying it!)

(It was only after she started hallucinating that Rin called Charles and volen-told Hermione for an emergency therapy appointment. Charles, because he was an amazing example of human selflessness and dedication, instantly agreed.)

Tim shook his head.

“I’m good.” He declined, flipping to the first slide. “I can find it if I need it. You ready?”

Rin nodded, settling in and getting comfy. She fingered her phone, snorting at Jason’s response when it popped up.

From: Grandpa Goliath 4:26 PM

‘You’re an infuriating little thing, you know that right?’

To: Grandpa Goliath 4:26 PM

‘I’m aware’

“No phones.” Tim scolded. Rin winced, slipping the device in her pocket.

“Sorry.” She said, sitting up straighter and making an effort to appear attentive. Tim nodded in approval, sliding in front of the powerpoint table in a very familiar, professor-like fashion. Rin mentally prepared herself for the long haul.

“Alright,” Tim intoned, clicking the arrow button on his laptop. “Let’s begin.”

The slide switched over to what looked to be a historical overcap, beginning in 1867, titled ‘The beginning’. In the corner of the slide, in the tiniest of fonts, innocently sat an icon labeled ‘[1/374]’.

Rin stared at it, her stomach sinking.

To: Twins til Fin 5:07 PM

‘I thought you loved me’

From: Twins til Fin 5:12 PM

‘It was for the greater good’

To: Twins til Fin 5:53 PM

‘Gin. I will end you’

From: Twins til Fin 6:04 PM

‘You’ll try ❤️ ’

Chapter 22: Walk Three Paces, Turn at Four (aim for the heart to even the score)

Chapter Text

Tim stared at the peppered feed on his computer, a frown marring his pallored face as flickering, flashing lights speckled over his lashes. The audio hissed over his speakers, glitching in time with the dancing, fluorescent lines occasionally ripping through the black and white dots. His headphones, pinched as close to his eardrum as possible, offered no answers beyond the cry of offended technology.

His laptop groaned through its failing program.

(If Tim had a nickel for every piece of tech that just up and crashed after being placed in the Black Manor, he’d have an absurd amount of nickels. A depressing amount of nickels. It seemed as if no matter how many reconfigurations and adjustments Tim made to the devices, they were dead and gone the moment they entered the building.)

Tim’s first hypothesis had been swiftly shot down: it wasn’t an error in the hardware.

His next hypothesis had been significantly less logical, but had historical precedent.

The Hillcrest House, now known as Black Manor, was widely accepted as being ‘haunted’. Haunted places were widely accepted as ‘technology hotspots’, interfering with cell reception and corrupting audio left and right. So the next explanation behind Tim’s theoretical pile of nickels was ‘locale’.

(Tim had never been much of a believer in ghosts and the like, the position alone had always felt so… absurd in contrast to how Tim viewed himself as a person, but there was only so much delusion one could indulge in when working with the likes of Deadman and being routinely threatened by resurrected family members. Death wasn’t as solid as everyone might think, so what else could Tim do but entertain the notion that what came after was just as shifty? Tim had been to the Black Manor back when it was still the Hillcrest House- out of purely scientific inquest, of course. He hadn’t seen any ghosts, but his phone for sure sh*t itself after. If nothing else, Tim could work with empirical evidence.)

Now if only the loose ends to the second theory could be tied up as easily as the first.

Tim paused the video feed, zooming in on the timestamp lining the bottom right corner. 7:23 PM. Visual failed near the boundaries of Black Manor, like all the others. Eyebrows pinching closer, he then flipped to another feed, one displaying himself as he taught Rin the nuances of high society. He ran a diagnostic on the data, verifying no alterations or interruptions occurred. The footage was pristine.

5:23 PM, while still on their property.

Point one for locale theory.

Tim’s frown deepened, pushing the bud in his left ear farther in. He then switched programs, pulling up the recordings of the same device. Crackling, broken whispers played over his headphone’s speakers, spurting out sharp fragments of sound at unintelligible intervals. The audio survived roughly 15 seconds before dissolving into pure static. Tim double-checked that timestamp.

5:23 PM.

The audio corrupted before Rin even left their couch.

Point one against locale.

Tim switched back, rewinding the footage of Rin walking through the manor. Narrowed eyes carefully tracked her as she followed the digital Tim from room to room. It was becoming quite vexing just how behaved the girl was. No matter how many times he reviewed the feed, the pixelated form of Rin Black downright refused to become nefarious. Her hands stayed at her sides. She reached for no other device than her phone. Her focus didn’t stray.

Tim squinted at the screen, scowling and rewinding the footage again. Once again, Rin remained perfectly… amiable. She didn’t look at anything too closely. Her body language stayed open and friendly- only swaying towards concern and worry during conversation. Nothing of note.

It can’t only be the audio, Tim argued with himself silently, tapping the spacebar to pause the feed. There has to be something.

Tim rewound. He scowled. Paused. Rewound. Glowered.

Nothing.

Rinse and repeat.

Nothing.

Rinse and repeat.

Nothing.

Rinse and repea-

Tim crashed down on the spacebar with unrelenting force, the after image of something fluttering across the screen burning itself into his eyes. He rewound the feed only a few seconds, leaning closer and pressing play. Digital Tim and Rin were passing the gaming room, Rin’s attention solely focused on Damian- who flanked her side.

(Tim was still convinced the girl was an honest to god witch. The Black family had a notable finger in that pie, and nothing short of magic could’ve made that whole thing happen. Nothing! The little bastard didn’t even threaten her life!)

Tim pushed the thought away before it could distract him. He had seen something, but where?

He rewound again, farther this time, and pressed play. Digital Tim had just passed the entryway- there!

Tim slammed on the space bar.

Behind Digital Tim and a little ways away from Rin, a hooded shadow flickered across the entryway of the gaming room- starting near Rin’s shoulder and ending a foot or so out. It was wide and formless in nature, so opaque it could’ve been easily written off as a trick of the light.

Tim zoomed in on the frame, splitting his home screen between the still shot and his own rendering program. He first tried to enhance the image. Nothing. Just a blotch of space a tad darker than the rest of the frame.

Tim scowled. Well, when in Rome, right? Tim lowered the quality, degrading the feed to simple forms of negative and positive light. Hating himself for every second of it, Tim then threw the result in an algorithm he’d been toying with for Duke. The result was meant to mirror the workings of an old polaroid camera, stripping away the pixels without removing the digital aspect.

(The amount of clichés he was entertaining was just… disgusting. Disturbing. Evil. What was next? Salt circles, sage, and holy water?)

Tim repressed a shutter.

No, he’d track down Constantine before it came to that.

The image reloaded, deteriorating down to an abysmal quality Tim was sure they’d graduated from as a species. His and Rin’s faces blurred under the strain, the color concentration tanking to a washed-out charade of its former self. The shadowed form looming over Rin’s shoulder, leaning towards the gaming room, solidified. Tim sucked in a breath, leaning closer to his laptop.

The form didn’t have clear edges, even when factoring in the quality, but holy f*ck was it tall. It towered over them both, hunched at somewhere around 8 feet in height. The thought that something had been there, and had been watching Tim without him knowing, sent goosebumps up his arms. It was thin and spindly, with long limbs that evaporated once they neared the ground. It could’ve been just as humanoid as it wasn’t, leaning itself to a Slenderman-esque shape with disturbing ease. The head-like blob near the ceiling had nothing that could be described as cheekbones or eye sockets, yet the shape was clearly staring at the camera.

Tim got the distinct impression that the thing was looking at him through the screen

Tim slammed his laptop shut, repressing a shiver.

Cool.

Two points for ‘haunted sh*t hates technology’ theory.

That was.

That was cool.

Tim’s stomach squirmed, the inevitable stray thought of what if the thing hasn’t left burrowing in him like a parasite. Standing up abruptly and shaking the flickering black dots from his eyes, Tim gathered his things to chest. He ripped the headphones from his ears, wincing at the stark shift from deafening static to Dick’s elated shriek.

“You’re coming to the gala?!”

Tim froze, perplexed by the sheer joy in Dick’s voice. His surprise went as soon as it came, his ears picking up the gravely threats coming from Jason from the kitchen area. Jason had been at the manor much more frequently as of late, Tim noticed, mostly ignoring them all as much as humanly possible and catering to Alfred’s every waking whim. Tim filed the information away, determined to examine it later.

So.

Jason was coming to the gala.

That was… alarming, to say the least.

Tim turned the other direction, passing a frozen Bruce who no doubt heard the announcement.

(Bruce had become even more painfully awkward the longer Jason hung around, a feat Tim previously thought impossible. Dick, of course, was over the moon- but Bruce? Bruce needed to get it together. Now, Tim knew B usually turned to work to avoid his feelings and get his head on straight, but too bad for him: the streets of Gotham had been relatively tame. So B very healthily turned to Plan B: find something else to obsess about. And since the man would rather take on a world ending threat than actually sit down with his fiance and show her how much he loved her, that lovely, honored distinction went to the one and only Lord Black.)

Tim almost felt sorry for him.

Tim made his way to his room, checking his failsafes with a practiced eye. His door opened as needed, scraping above the pressure plate just on the other side of the door frame with little fanfare. The wiring lining the back was left undisturbed. The motion sensors still flickering around the room stayed in their blue, sleepy status. Tim hummed, pleased.

No one tried to break into his room today. Nice.

Reaching around the corner, snaking his arm through the purposely limited range of the sensors pointing from the bathroom, the closet, underneath his bed, three from the ceiling, and two from the vents, Tim hooked his finger under an unassuming book on his bookshelf. He caught the wire pooled under the pages with his nail, tugging lightly. Immediately, his phone vibrated- indicating his integration program connected.

Tim stepped inside, careful to avoid the pressure plate, and closed the door. His phone buzzed in his pocket: two short vibrations followed by three long ones. Every small light in the room flickered, signaling the requested recalibration was complete.

He could move freely now.

Immediately, Tim stowed away his laptop in a safe of his own design, shutting the case and priming the failsafes. He did the same with his headphones and back up SIM cards, all in separate locations. Then he found himself in front of one of his desk drawers, slipping a paperclip in between a crack nestled behind the sliding frame. The pressure triggered the floorboard underneath his knee, enabling it to slide away- as long as you pressed the trigger at the same time.

Tim slid the panel away with his knee, pinning the paperclip in place with one hand and rifling through the dusty space with the other. It was child’s play to find the wiring and camera he had in mind.

(Creepy ass shadow monsters weren’t the only ones forced to bow down to sh*tty, outdated technology, Tim found. While Ra’s al Ghul was an inarguable genius, both creative and tricky as an opponent in the field, he was arrogant. He assumed. He was confident that Tim would always throw his latest and greatest at any challenge Ra’s proposed- nothing more, and most definitely nothing less. Call it what you will, but Tim got an almost euphoric amount of satisfaction proving him wrong.)

So: let’s say Tim continued to entertain the ‘haunted’ angle. Between the Black Manor and the… thing, the most obvious starting point would be that Black Manor was haunted as hell and so was Rin. That was all well and good, but then why wasn’t Gin? Tim’s audio at Batburger wasn’t corrupted. He could review it just as easily as he did the files from his mask. The footage of Gin and Luna in the supermarket with Steph wasn’t corrupted either. The audio quality was muffled enough to make Tim cry, but it was still usable.

(The Black Manor, of course, was ground zero. Nothing of their meeting there made it out alive.)

Perhaps the thing could only attach to one person at a time?

(Tim wasn’t going to call it a shadow demon. He just wasn’t. Call it stubbornness, call it spite- he didn’t care. He was not going down that road. Unspeakable things happened at the end of that road. Things like Constantine.)

Tim nodded to himself, pulling out a shirt from his closet.

It was a nice theory, on its own. But where was the evidence? Tim pulled out his phone, a plan slowly forming in mind. Fred and George weren’t in town, so he couldn’t include them in the test just yet. But there was someone else he could hold against his theory.

To: Rin Black 1:14 PM

‘Did you still want me to install that projector for you? I have time today. However, there are different types, so it would be best to talk to the person that will use it the most before I get the supplies.’

Rin’s response was both positive and swift, a trait Tim couldn’t find himself offended by.

From: Rin Black 1:15 PM

‘Really?? That’s amazing! Yes please! Here, one sec, let me ask Hermione real quick’

Tim patiently waited, threading the wire through his shirt with a hollow needle and pulling out a matching pair of pants. There were a few bangs that sounded from downstairs as he dressed, ones that he ignored.

No one was screaming.

(No scream, no support- that was the rule.)

Tim’s phone vibrated on his bed.

From: Rin Black 1:17 PM

‘Mione says she’d love to. She’s asking if you can meet her at Herold’s coffee off of Dillard’s street in half an hour?’

Tim grinned at his screen, typing up a response. Hermione knew the importance of coffee. That alone made it all worth it.

To: Rin Black 1:18 PM

‘Sounds good.’

From: Rin Black 1:19 PM

‘Wonderful, I’ll let her know. Thank you so much for doing this btw. I sent Mione with my card, so please use it for anything you need!’

Tim shot off an affirmative text before gathering his wallet and keys and sneaking his way downstairs towards the garage.

(If nothing else, Tim was good at sneaking. He had spent years of his youth parading over rooftops with Batman himself none the wiser, so he had no trouble snaking through the house.The task was always made easier when no one cared to look. Dick barely noticed his presence as he swept past the kitchen, too occupied with defending himself to take note. Jason was too busy trying to throw Dick out a window to notice Tim either. Bruce was too dumbstruck to give a damn. Tim used this to his advantage, making his way to his car in record time.)

It was only as he was turning his key in the ignition that a familiar nagging feeling bubbled up, tugging at the memory of Gin in line at Batburger- a slated piece of plastic in her hands, branded with the simple words ‘Lord Black’.

‘My card’?

______________________________________

Tim really needed to learn how to listen to that nagging feeling more often.

(So maybe the thing got him in some sh*t- after all, it was the same nagging feeling that had him parading across the globe and back when Bruce was lost in the timestream, making enemies out of colleges and a… something out of Ra’s al Ghul. Tim tried not to think too hard on that tidbit. But it was right! It cost him his f*cking spleen, but it was right.)

“Do you want me to add more coffee?” Hermione asked, looking at Tim like he was an actual lunatic in need of his meds. It was a fair assumption in his opinion, given that he was doing his best not to look at the red colored card in her hands and lose his ever-loving sh*t in the middle of the one place that was still willing to turn a blind eye to his health in favor of his money. The girl at the counter, ‘Sue’ Tim remembered, paled at the suggestion but bit her tongue.

The fact that Hermione seemed to be one of his people was probably giving her feelings.

“Please.” He squeaked, voice strained.

Tim wracked his brain to remember just what in the f*ck made someone a lord. It was a title, he knew, one passed down the family line after it’d been bestowed. It meant… you owned sh*t? God, Tim had never felt more American in his life.

The Black family got their Lordship in Scotland, he remembered that. So point one for him not hallucinating. Down the family line. So far so good- Rin was a Black, it was in her last name. Easy enough. Did they have to use another title when the person in question was a girl? f*ck, was Rin a girl? Tim knew she used 'she/her' for her pronouns but what if she was non-binary? Or male? Was she male?

Tim was surprised he didn’t have smoke coming out of his ears with how hard his head was working. Humans were so convoluted… Technology never did this to Tim.

So what was the plan now?

Hermione nodded, motioning to Sue to add more shots to their drinks. They were at a really nice number now, one that would have Dick gaping and earn Tim one of Alfred’s judgemental eyebrows. Tim used the nearing bliss of caffeine goodness to try and straighten his head.

So.

Ok. So.

Hadriyan… That could feasibly be shortened to ‘Rin’, right? That was in the realm of possibility- logical, even. Easy-peasy. As for the research Tim did… well, nowhere did it ever explicitly say whether or not Lord Black was male. Or. Physically male? Male pronouns?

Tim suppressed the urge to groan. Maybe he could ask Hermione?

Tim considered that for a moment.

Maybe… maybe not. If Tim knew what pronouns to use already, then what, exactly, would he be asking? Rin’s gender? Not what was in her pants obviously, but what if she took it like that? What if she got pissed? Would Tim?

Tim tried to imagine that: a stranger calling him ‘him’ and ‘he’ for weeks and then abruptly asking if Tim was a guy or not. Tim would be… kinda peeved, honestly. There had to be a way to ask that without asking that.

f*ck, Tim was getting a headache.

Hermione offered Rin’s card, allowing Sue to swipe it through. Tim tried to speedrun his thought process.

Ok. So.

Hadriyan was Rin, and Rin was Hadriyan. Tim could vibe with that. The jump was short enough to be relatively painless.

Next up: Rin was Hadriyan, and Hadriyan was Lord Black. That… that one was tougher. Tim frowned against his pulsing head. Where… did he hear that Rin was the sister again? Damian was first, reporting in from the forest after B f*cked up and tried to run her over. But the demon brat himself admitted that his conclusion was speculative at best, based solely off of observation.

Where did Tim hear it spoken with confidence?

Tim aggressively shuffled through his memory, arriving at the culprit with a string of mental curses that would have Dick clutching his pearls.

What the sh*t Steph!

Sue offered the card back, pulling Tim from his mental spiral.

“Your drinks will be ready in a moment.” She said, looking a bit green.

Hermione thanked her politely, then led Tim to an empty corner booth facing the door. It was such a bat move, one Tim had been fully prepared to charade around and suffer through because civilians didn’t think like them, that Tim was then re-reminded of his time at Batburger- as well as their conversation with Gin. The epiphany took a moment register, only semi-sinking in.

Tim basically fell into his seat.

Lord Black, the black magic, shady ass billionaire… was a tiny, five foot nothing red haired girl (?) on the run from a cult.

Well.

That’s.

That’s fine.

Tim pulled out his phone and quickly shot off a text before shoving the device back in his pocket. He was going to kill Steph. Absolutely kill her!

Hermione stared him down from her seat, looking a little less dead than their first meeting. Her hair was down today, revealing she had just as curly hair as Rin.

As Lord Black.

As-

f*ck it, Tim was using Rin.

Hermione huffed, looking away.

“It’s kind of you to do this.” Hermione started, propping an elbow on the table. “You don’t have to.”

Tim nodded, grasping at the offered notion of familiarity with near-clawed hands.

(Tim had noticed that the members of the Black family seemed to be heavily preoccupied on the matter of choice. It was something he observed with Gin, who went out of her way to explain why she was asking for their help, and with Rin who bent over backwards to assure everyone involved that she wasn’t demanding them of anything. The consideration was strange, often installing an odd feeling that Tim wasn’t quite sure if he liked. But it was familiar.)

“It’s no biggie,” He said, watching the workers make their coffee and casting a quick visual sweep of the cafe. It was more occupied than he would’ve liked, but not packed. Four out of twelve tables remained empty. “Rin gave me your coffee recipe, so I’m paying her back.”

Hermione winced.

“I forgot about that.” She admitted, guilty.

Tim shrugged. He wasn’t too hung up about it.

“Order for Black.” Sue called out. There were more than a few cursory glances all round the room when the name was called, perking every head up from their phones. Those looks morphed into confusion when it was Tim that stood up and got the drinks. They then turned to Hermione, intrigued, before turning back to their phones when it was determined that the girl he was with couldn’t be Lord Black.

Tim took their drinks with a slight snigg*r.

(Alright, alright… Tim admitted it: the joke was kind of funny from the outside. He was still pissed though.)

Tim sat back down with their cups and offered Hermione hers. She took it, shotgunning the thing like it was water and she’d been stranded on a desert island for weeks. Now Tim understood why she went for cold coffee, despite the cooling weather.

Behind the counter, Sue shuttered.

Weak, Tim judged silently, savoring his own brew. He could feel his will to live increase with every scalding sip. The burns on his tongue were worth it. So f*cking worth it.

“So.” He started, leaning back so his feed would have a wide frame to work with and a proper distance for the audio. “What do you want to use the projector board for?”

Hermione was, in retrospect, the one of the greatest human beings Tim had ever had the pleasure of meeting.

She was quick in her explanation, refreshingly efficient and prepared as she listed- in order: the programs she planned on using, her desired dimensions for the board, the surrounding wall measurements, the wattage available for the intended outlet, her desired texture of material, how far away her projector was from the wall on average, the projector type and specs therein, and the kinds of media she usually displayed. And then, just in case Tim wasn’t already 100% onboard with whatever she wanted, Hermione then reached down and pulled out an actual diagram from the chair beside her.

Tim took the paper offered, a tad starry-eyed.

The diagram was drawn in perfectly straight lines, annotated with every measurement mentioned and portraying how each object related to one another. The layers were color coded, making it easy to discern what was a part of the foundation and what could be moved. Her handwriting was small and neat, tightly pinched but clearly legible.

The drawing as a whole showed a complex, yet linear thought process that accounted for multiple variables.

Tim’s own thought process started doing loopty-loops, turning wild at possible scenarios Tim could see Hermione excelling in.

Oh wow. This was. An architect’s wet dream. Wow. Did.

“Do you need a job?” Tim felt himself ask, the words slipping out about as gracefully as wet noodles. He could’ve been embarrassed, his mother was probably turning over in her grave at his sheer inadequacy, but he decided to forgo any sentiments in favor of accuracy.

Tim hadn’t lied.

Hermione paused her professional presentation- and by god was it professional, if Hermione wasn’t going to at least consider a career in project management, then Tim would be forced to resort to unsavory methods to ensure Rin used her properly- to blink at him, clearly caught off guard.

“At some point, yes.” She said slowly, lowering her hands from where they were gesturing animatedly. “But I am still getting my GED right now.”

Tim tried to let that new bit of information sink in.

It wasn’t going.

“We can work around that.” He offered. If he was being pushy about it then that was only because Tim was nearly swooning at the thought of Hermione as his secretary. Or his accountant. Or his organizer. Honestly, Tim felt the innate need to hand her a pile of documents, an Excel sheet, and let her enjoy herself to his benefit. “How long did this diagram take you?”

Hermione frowned, looking slightly distracted.

“Only 5 minutes.” She said, “But it’s incomplete.”

Tim nearly vibrated in his seat.

“Oh?” He asked, trying not to sound too eager. “How so?”

Hermione tsked, ripping the paper out of his hands, turning it upside down and pointing to the edge of the document.

“I didn’t have the time to draw out the powerlines! See, behind this portion of wall are a band of cables…”

Hermione then proceeded to explain every lacking aspect of the diagram. The measurements were still listed in meters despite her American audience. There was no notation of the electrical infrastructure, which could be damaged if Tim drilled in the wrong place. The wall thickness was not measured, which he may need in order to know what kind of screws to buy. She remembered to draw the dimensions of freespace on the wall, but not how far away the outlet would be from the actual mechanism. She hadn’t taken the age of the building into account when she calculated the wattages, something that only occurred to her after she’d left the home.

All and all, Hermione dubbed the paper, and the information she provided Tim, as sub-par.

Tim.

Tim might’ve been a little in love.

“The GED is no problem.” He declared in all seriousness, returning her paper and more than willing to burn Bruce’s hiring guidelines on the spot. “Consider it an open-ended offer. I’d give you the job today if I thought you’d agree.”

Hermione lips pursed, her expression thrumming with tension and distrust, confirming Tim’s guess that she wasn’t so stupid as to instantly agree. Her narrowed eyes roamed around his face, rightfully suspicious, searching for tells. She then turned to his body, carefully picking apart any sign of deception.

Tim was being perfectly honest in his offer.

But despite this, Hermione found something- something she didn’t like.

Her brown eyes flashed with a molten fury, igniting like slow-burning coals. The loose grip she had on her cup turned bruising, her knuckles flushing to a fish bellied white. Her breath caught behind gritted teeth, filling her from breast to brim.

But it was gone as quickly as it came.

Much like how Dick could tuck away his temper and shape it towards an achievable end, Tim watched- both fascinated and heavily alarmed- as Hermione faded from indescribably enraged to a simmering seethe. It took all of a heartbeat before her half empty plastic coffee container was released and her diagram carefully set aside. She purposefully exhaled through her nose, much like B when he was at his wits end, and leaned forward on the table- positioning herself for what felt like a very serious conversation.

Tim, now more than unnerved, attempted to do the same.

“I will admit Mr. Drake-”

“Tim.” He corrected without thinking. Hermione grimaced at the interruption, but did not offer further comment. Instead, she considered his request.

The Blacks were such an accommodating family.

“Tim.” She revised, looking disturbed as the sound passed her lips. Tim nodded in approval, despite the disquiet looming over them both.

Hermione examined him carefully.

“I don’t very much like you.” She admitted quietly, her eyes guarded. “You or your family.”

Tim blinked dumbly at that revelation. He had never considered any animosity between them other than her personal vendetta against Bruce, seeing as all of their interactions prior had been perfectly civil. Tim placed his coffee cup on the table.

“I wouldn’t have guessed.” He commented honestly, a tingle running down his spine.

Tim didn’t question that she was exaggerating. Fire aside, now that he was up close and looking, Tim could see something hostile waiting behind her eyes- as if she was a wading crocodile watching the shore bank for prey.

It.

It honestly reminded Tim a bit of Talia, when someone was suicidal enough to take a shot at Damian. Frigid, but controlled. Insatiable, yet focused.

It was kind of freaking him out

“I don’t suppose the issue is anything we can talk out?” Tim asked, slipping a bit into the persona he wore during business deals. It was confident, but approachable. Powerful, but understanding. Hermione’s now cold eyes glittered.

“I’m afraid the problem is intrinsic.” She said, folding her fingers together.

She was impossible to look away from. Her perfect posture, regal in that her cafe chair could’ve just as easily been a throne, reminded Tim of the nickname Steph mentioned: Warlord. He was reminded of the whispers surrounding the Black family, the ones that warned against crossing the mysterious lord. He was reminded that, as much as he could discern, this wasn’t a girl that grew up happily.

Tim shifted in his seat, suddenly feeling as if he was on the other end of one of Ra’s games.

“Hardly subject to change.” She added, leaning hard on her elbows.

Tim waded through a rush of adrenaline, dissecting her words as carefully as possible.

“My family and I have only approached yours with the best of intentions.” Tim appeased, setting his cup aside. “We’ve only offered friendship.”

Hermione was unamused.

“But that’s not all you bring,” Hermione accused softly, almost empathetic in the delivery. “Is it, Tim?”

The question had dangerous connotations, on multiple levels, although Tim- for the life of him- couldn’t figure out which level he’d unwittingly fallen on. Tim pushed aside the memory of Ra’s, only having emerged due to being delivered in the same tone.

Come now detective, did you think that was all?

Tim smiled, compartmentalizing the unease threatening pulling him under.

“We can’t help who we are, you know.” He said, blanketing his defense as wide as possible. Given that Tim still wasn’t sure of what Hermione was accusing them of, he could only tread carefully.

Hermione smiled back, the expression fake and plastic. He’d said the wrong thing.

“Oh, I’m well aware of that.” Hermione purred back cruelly. Then, in one single fluid motion, she popped off the top of her coffee container and poured the remains in Tim’s face.

“Hey-!”

The store went dead silent as they both stood: Tim flustered and sputtering, and Hermione as calm as a hurricane’s center. Whispers erupted like wildfire. Tim flinched, blinking away the liquid coating his lashes and splattering all over his shirt, cringing away from the sharp, electrical zap of the now fried wiring against his chest-

Tim froze, his mind flashing back to Hermione’s sudden turn to hostility.

Oh.

Oh.

He looked back up at Hermione, who now radiated cold fury that definitely reminded him of Talia. Or, at the very least, Damian.

“I’ll allow you to proceed with what we discussed if you wish,” Hermione announced softly, arranging her trash carefully and glaring at Tim as if he belonged with it. “As repayment for the fact that we’ll be in your building tomorrow night. But for that-”

She marched over to him, pushing her trash in his hands with a clear, unspoken order, before reaching up to rip away the connected wire in a fistful of cloth. Tim could feel the loose end fall near his stomach, caged in by his tucked-in shirt.

“You can pay for it yourself!”

Tim felt his cheeks flush at getting caught. To any of their audience, it likely looked as if she’d just yanked his collar. (Tim would give it a good 20 minutes before the internet was convinced he just had a breakup.)

“I will see you at the Gala, Mr. Drake.” Hermione hissed, pushing past him and gracefully marching out. Tim watched her leave, holding her empty cup and his mind running a marathon.

Well.

f*ck.

To: Royal Spoils 2:01 PM

‘WHAT THE HELL’

From: Royal Spoils 2:02 PM

‘gonna need some context’

From: Royal Spoils 2:07 PM

‘I mean, if you want me to guess I can give it a shot’

From: Royal Spoils 2:08 PM

‘you finally find the salmon stash?’

From: Royal Spoils 2:09 PM

‘Damian’s birthday gift?’

From: Royal Spoils 2:11 PM

‘the betting pool?’

From: Royal Spoils 2:24 PM

‘Uh, Tim? Problem there?’

To: Royal Spoils 2:29 PM

‘More than I thought I had’

From: Royal Spoils 2:30 PM

‘?’

Chapter 23: Walking Down the Highroad (stepping off the cliff)

Chapter Text

It’s almost time.

Luna stood in front of the mirror, humming a soothing song as she twirled in her dress, swaying this way and that. The catch of fabric and flutter of wind on her legs was much like her Mother’s embrace- warm and cool and freeing and soft. Luna had learnt from her mother that it was the little things that would keep her grounded, not the grand ends or bounding trumpets.

Luna made sure to listen- to take the time to hold flower petals and feel the love of the sun.

(The overlooked would be her anchor to the here and now, she learned. Her mother had been clear: grand ends were too unstable to fasten with.)

In time, Luna learned that too.

The future was an ever changing thing, branching off like spider webs and gleaming like raindrops under too many lights. One choice opened a new door. One thought moved mountains.

(Luna always thought it was funny how sometimes people couldn’t see how much they were worth. They thought, as one person, they could not change their fate. They were convinced they had no effect. They determined that they were insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and would forever be a slave to the end result. But really, new worlds were often built from the thought of one. New avenues. New paths. All it took was one to enact change.)

Luna smoothed her hair with her fingertips, waiting for the call of the others- signaling they could leave. She was nervous. So nervous. So much of her wanted to make the time shorter, to arrive by her next breath.

As if less time would clear her sight

(Bruce created a door when campaigning his Gala, converging forces in a quest to seek what he already knew. That would not go unanswered, but not by the adversary he was prepared to receive.)

Luna wrung her fingers. The image in the mirror shuttered to breathe.

(Gotham, itself, was at a crossroads. What would come after, would be up to one man.)

Luna couldn’t see

Luna ran her palms over any wrinkles, fighting to stand up tall and straight. She could not falter here. She could not overstep.

Rin’s call echoed through their home, coming from the area of the garage. Outside, the watchful eye of Rhiannon cast over Luna, facing as the bountiful queen. Luna drew on that strength. She prayed to Rhiannon, in all her forms, that she might be able to endure the night without breaking divine law.

(The night of the Gala had arrived, as well as everything that was to come with it.)

Luna readied herself, taking in a deep breath.

(So many roads. So many doors.)

In many ways, Gotham would celebrate tonight.

(But what would come after? Luna couldn’t see.)

Almost time.

Footsteps sounded as Rin poked her head in, dressed up as Lord Black.

“Luna?” Rin asked, looking just as radiant as the day Luna followed her into battle. She caught sight of Luna, immediately becoming concerned. Luna was quick to hide her misgivings away, in a box she imagined to be white, buried in a garden she’d never see.

(Luna had hoped, had feverantly and blissfully hoped, that the other might’ve been able to aid her. Luna had hoped to have a comrade to understand her, to share in her burden of knowing, and to have someone to lean on when divine law tied her tongue. But it was not meant to be. The other was an agent of light, not of time. The future spoke to him out of love for his benefactor, not for his nature. He could see, but he was blinded. Luna was on her own.)

“Luna, you coming?”

Luna nodded her head, savoring her reflection for one, last moment.

“All set.” She promised, turning to follow.

(Yes… all set. The stage was all set. The night of the Gala was ready, with every door ahead unlocked.)

Luna could only watch to see what script she was given.

Yet no matter the play, the catalyst was always the clown

Chapter 24: Retrospect, the Law of the Unspoken (retrograde, the curse of the lost)

Chapter Text

Almost time.

Bruce looked over the rim of the glass in his hands, trying not to grimace in the face of the chardonnay he'd have to mime drinking, swirling under the lights of his company's ballroom. Even indoors, the sensation of height was apparent- swaying the space in a mix of indulgent grandeur and stacked stories. The decor, of course, was impeccable: draping the walls with laced ivory and ordaining the high-vaulted ceiling with glittering jewels. In the blanket of the night, the ballroom shone like a northern star.

(Bruce wasn’t sure whose idea it was to host the event on the tenth floor, but he found himself both equal parts exasperated and grateful that the decision went through. On one hand the elevation offered comfort, appeasing the childish insistence that Bruce belonged on rooftops and nowhere else. On the other hand, the tenth story was not the ground floor nor the top suite. Fortifying a middling level often proved… difficult, especially while ensuring the safety of a large crowd.)

A crowd that would only be growing larger.

Past the loosely packed bodies of a few rude, chittering socialites- ones that inevitably did not care for the set times Bruce outlined on the invitations, nor for the sanctity of his space- the long, window paned glass reflected a version of himself that found such intrusions… funny. Loosening his grip on the glasses stem, Bruce had to remind himself: Brucie would be amused at his guests’ brazen intrusion. Brucie would think sticking to a schedule was for the bug-anal. Brucie wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest- instead he’d be ready and waiting, if not already slightly tipsy, for the next wave of guests.

The ones that could actually read.

Brucie Wayne was a mistake that haunted Bruce on the regular

(As it was, Bruce wasn't sure if he should be happy or frustrated that Lord Black was of the latter group. He had accepted the invitation, which was a victory- solidifying his assent in a flourished, stylized script that spoke of long lessons at the hand of an old teacher. The timeliness of Lord Black was appreciated. The inevitable publicity of their approaching meeting, now that the media was allowed entry and was already filing down the sides of the room…. decidedly less so.)

Bruce suppressed a shutter, already imagining the headlines.

Nothing got reporters more fired up than a mysterious figure with a generous amount of money.

Beyond the gleaming glass of the ballroom was the night’s smog- smudging each sharp corner of any adjacent buildings, rendering their room perfectly visible to any onlookers should they take the time. Muffled beyond their caged walls was the constant echo of emergency sirens, Gotham’s one and very own anthem every resident knew. Without having to squint or move, Bruce could see the rounding blue and red lights racing in between vague concrete shapes, rooted so far down.

No part of Gotham is safe, Bruce sighed to himself, tearing his eyes away from Brucie’s reflection. Least of all here.

(More than anything Bruce wished he had more eyes on the gala, ones not bound to maintain their public image. In a perfect world, Cass would’ve returned from Japan by now, available to watch for any emerging complications. That’s not to say that there would be complications- yes, chatter around Oswald had picked up when Bruce announced the event, but Oswald wasn’t one to keep quiet in the wake of any event. Bruce had the backlogs to prove it.)

But Batman wasn’t one to ignore possible threats.

Neither was Bruce.

(On any other night, one where most of his children were bound by their own obligations and there wasn’t a body to spare, Bruce would’ve taken the chance to ask Jason. The possibility of his son actually agreeing rather than creatively insulting him may have been minimal, but Bruce would’ve tried. Red Hood, although often out of control and in need of guidance, had been trained by Bruce himself. Red Hood would’ve gotten the job done.)

However, much to Bruce’s astonishment and to the terminal detriment of that plan… Jason was here.

In the building.

At the gala.

Willingly.

Bruce had half a mind to run through the bat-possession protocol, something clearly wasn’t right

Speaking of ‘not right’...

Bruce refocused on the young woman in front of him, clad in an eye-catching dress that dipped into a sharp ‘V’ down her chest, all the way down to her navel. Her blonde hair was curled and colored to perfection, shining under the white light of the chandeliers. Bright eyes and a flirty, extroverted demeanor were laid out in front of him, a familiar co*ck of her hip on full display.

The intent was far from subtle.

“-don't you think so too, Mr. Wayne? Media has changed these days, you know. Social media is the future.”

Bruce arranged his face into a pleasantly befuddled expression, one that didn't take as much energy as some of the other's he's had to pull off.

“I can't say I'd know,” he mused, swirling his glass absently. “My children do their best to educate me, but I just don't understand all these new platforms. I think I'd personally stick to newspapers.”

The woman fluttered her eyelashes, dipping to show her cleavage and letting out a delighted giggle.

(The existence of a fiancée did not deter anyone when it came to money, Bruce had sadly found, especially when Bruce, himself, created an entire character around sleeping around. It was one of his many youthful mistakes, one his children take great joy in pointing out. Bruce… Bruce had regrets on the matter, certainly.)

Brucie Wayne was a mistake

(Now, Dick? Dick had the right idea: find an interesting facet of your youth, like growing up in a circus and being able to swing from high places, and blow it up to unreal proportions. Eventually, it took over your entire persona. Eventually, it became the safest conversation starter. To think- Brucie could've been an eccentric coin collector. Bruce could've been standing in this ballroom, a non-alcoholic drink in his hands he didn't have to pretend to be drinking, flocked by every gold digger off the east coast with their breasts safely tucked away, armed with a cool fact about the 1944 Steel Wheat Penny.)

“Oh, those sites aren't all bad.” The woman purred. If Bruce had taken the time to review the guest list, he probably would’ve had a name to match with the face. As it was, his unfortunate company had committed more time to her seduction effort than to introductions. “I can show you a few, if you'd like?”

Bruce quickly flicked his eyes to the large clock hanging in the front of the ballroom, pleading for the hands to turn faster.

“Well, actually-”

Bruce’s lined up excuse, joyously interrupted by the blessed sound of shattering glass and crashing objects, was cut short. Already a head and shoulder taller than most of his guests, Bruce had little trouble finding the source: the shining figure of a mop-full of dark hair, hunched over by the refreshment table, rooting around on the ground.

The relief was immediate.

“Excuse me,” He said, carefully separating from the woman and trying his damnedest to not sound too eager, “I believe that was one of mine.”

The woman pouted as he departed, flashing him a disappointed wave. Bruce did not look back at her, feeling as if the very breath in his lungs was returned. He did not power walk away from her conversational clutches, hoping against all hope she’d find a far hallway after and just… stay there. He did not run across the dance floor like his life depended on it, praising the hellish gremlins he called his children with every step.

No.

No, Bruce walked- very calmly, with the utmost control, away.

Dick greeted him upon his arrival, a cheeky grin splattered across his face.

“We save you?” Dick asked, cheerful as a true spring’s morning. Rolling around at his feet in a crowded semicircle was a cabinet’s worth of cutlery- forks and spoons flung to the wayside, glasses turned on their side, and the shattered remains of at least one (thankfully empty) pitcher.

Crouching above the splinters with a thick cloth draped over his palm, Damian glared at Bruce as if it was his fault Dick resorted to such measures- somehow managing to embody the perfect picture of his mother: displaying seething ire and disappointment of Bruce as a person in equal measure. Damian had likely shooed Dick away from his dismal efforts at cleaning up, dissatisfied with the growing result. Damian was a particular child when it came to such things, Bruce knew.

Bruce took the time to survey the damage, taking particular note of the glass shards Damian was gathering and the sheer disarray of the remaining spread. Bruce’s employees had taken great pains to arrange the ballroom into something presentable, fighting against the expectations of more than one interested party. Already, a young man dressed in the waiting staff’s uniform had started rushing over to Damian’s side with his hands outstretched.

“That wasn't necessary.” Bruce scolded, ensuring Dick could see his disapproval.

Dick shrugged, dismissive.

“Yeah, yeah… You're welcome.” He said, emphasizing the last word while shooting a pointed look at the woman still stalking Bruce like he was a sturdily built elk.

Bruce grimaced.

(He… should have said ‘thank you’ first, Bruce realized, struggling under the familiar tidal wave of his inevitable faux pas. Glass breaking aside, Bruce had been saved. But… he couldn’t retract. Not with Dick. Now wasn’t the first time Bruce found himself in a social misstep- and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, that was hardly the problem- but admitting you were wrong with Dick tended to lead to a familiar fiasco of ‘give a man an inch and he takes a mile’. The last time Bruce retracted with his eldest… It took literal years to mitigate the damage. Years.)

“Where’s Jason?” Bruce asked instead, kind of proud of himself for finding a successful diversion.

The subject change instantly cheered Dick up, wiping away the anger from Dick’s eyes and returning to them to their usual sparkle.

(Although, like many other comments from Bruce, all it got him from Damian was a scowl and the silent connotation of ‘you’re an absolute imbecile, what did Mother ever see in you?’ as he handed over the broken pitcher. As much as Bruce had gotten the sense that perhaps he should talk with Damian about it- about something, about anything- Clark was always preaching on and on about taking the time to sit down with your kids, Bruce never knew how to approach his children. Never.)

Least of all his youngest

“Hiding.” Damian answered shamefully, straightening up with the last remains cradled in his hands. Dick laughed at his tone, throwing a hand over his shoulder and expertly evading the attack that followed.

“Come’on Dami,” Dick wheedled, dancing around Damian’s jabbing fist. “He showed up! That’s progress!”

Damian threw the wrapped pile of shattered glass into the nearest bin, signaling the returning employee to change out the bag with a nod of his head.

“If Todd insists on attending,” Damian scorned, swiftly herding them away from the proverbial crime scene and the ever-watchful eyes of their guests. “Then he could- at the very least- be useful. Even Drake is contributing.”

With that comment Bruce followed his son’s gaze across the dance floor, internally wincing at the partner cornering Tim. Ms. Thompson, while a perfectly lovely older lady with no malicious intentions at heart, was not one to acknowledge her age. She was a willing investor, yes. She was generous and kind. But she was in her early sixties… and preferred her men, ah, younger.

Thankfully for their income, Tim was a better actor than Bruce- always had been. To any layman wandering about the room, Tim and Ms. Thompson were the ideal portrait of fast-friends: huddled close and gossiping about this thing and that. Bruce liked to think that no one aside from himself or his family would be able to pick out the horror in Tim’s expression. No one would be able to see his innate discomfort.

It was a point of pride for Bruce, really.

(Bruce also liked to think that for all of Damian’s problems with Tim, Damian held respect for his brother- even if only for Tim’s willingness to take a few hits to complete the mission.)

“He has his own company, Dami.” Dick reminded the boy with a pat to his head. Damian, predictably, attempted to bite the offending appendage- bound and determined to destroy any peace of mind Bruce had left.

“A company irreversibly connected to our own.” Damian volleyed back, unaffected by his own display of savagery but plenty gutted over having to admit such a thing out loud. “Have you not seen the correlational reports?”

Considering the empty, blasé smile Dick flashed at him, Bruce would’ve guessed that answer to be a ‘no’. Bruce quickly tried to hide his own ineptitudes. With so much of his free time being funneled into the Black family investigation, Bruce hadn’t a moment to look over the week’s reports.

Damian caught it, as always.

Being scolded by a thirteen year old child will never get easier in Bruce’s book

“You’re a disgrace, Father.” Damian sniffed, hedging away from Dick’s reach. “It’s your company. Do you truly plan on jeopardizing my future revenue because you cannot remove your head from the clouds?”

Bruce took a sip of his champagne as he formulated his answer, his face pinching once the liquid glazed over his tongue. All that time miming rendered the beverage to a flat, lukewarm substance- grainy and sour in taste. Bruce never could understand the allure of alcohol…

“It’s on the agenda.” He settled on finally, setting the nearly full glass aside after subtly wiping off the rim.

Damian observed him, unimpressed.

“So when do we meet our new step-mother?” Dick joked, smirking past Bruce’s shoulder where the questionable woman inevitably still lurked.

Damian scoffed.

“After Kyle is done playing with her corpse.” He hissed.

Bruce turned his head to hide his amusem*nt so Damian wouldn’t become defensive.

(Damian wasn’t a fan of any woman in Bruce’s life, his own mother somewhat complexly included, but Selina made it farther than most. Which, according to Dick, wasn’t a surprise to anyone. Apparently any woman that could and would flip Bruce off a building at the slightest insult- unintended or otherwise- made it as far as anyone could get in Damian’s eyes.)

At least Selina humored the assaults.

So.

There’s that.

“Who’s corpse?” Steph asked, popping up behind Dick and dragging Tim behind her by the wrist. Tim, finally free of Ms. Thompson, looked no worse for wear under Bruce’s discerning eye- however, he did stick as close to Steph as his smaller frame would physically allow.

She probably got a thank you

Dick shrugged.

“Gold digger.” He wrote off sagely. Steph nodded, like those two words were all the explanation she needed.

Looking around the dancefloor, Steph let out an annoyed huff.

“Where’s Jay?” She asked, pulling Tim forward and scanning the faces lining the walls. “It’s gametime.”

Bruce checked the clock above them, almost sighing in relief. Yes. Yes it was.

On the other side of the ballroom, under a high arched entryway, two sets of greeters began escorting a new wave of guests in. They paired off, making their way with their partner on either arm- filtering in at sedate pace. Bruce- no, Brucie welcomed them all, flashing his trademark airheaded grin.

Bruce looked out for a stock of bright, red hair.

“Probably plotting our demise...” Tim mumbled, branching away from Steph with a haunted look.

“There’s Nolan.” Dick muttered, inching closer to the group and nodding to the hunched over figure in a three piece suit wandering in. Bruce narrowed his eyes, the familiar sensation of suspicion trickling down his neck.

Cedric Nolan, while not a particularly statuesque man- nor infamous, certainly not to the degree Oswald achieved- had an irritating talent of casting a long shadow whenever he took the time to come out of his usual cave. Perhaps he wasn’t immensely charismatic, perhaps he wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but Nolan was well connected among Gotham’s underground. The balding, slouched, middle aged alcoholic knew people: ones whose profession middled the line between ‘obscure’ and ‘criminal’.

And he knew how to cover his tracks.

(It was no mystery as to why he crawled out of the woodwork, either. Bruce was well aware that the return of the Black family was bound to attract some unsavory characters, all seeking to stake out the newest player in the game. But for every lowlife creeping into his gala, for every greedy sneer and buried hunger, there were two more guests attending with a tangible, fragile hope. The Saint of Gotham, back before Gotham truly went under and the last of Euron’s kin tore at each other like a pack of wild, starved dogs, used to be a position that did good. It was Ilana Black that funded the hospital Bruce’s father practiced in. It was thanks to Ilana’s great-grandfather that Bruce’s manor was built. It was no exaggeration to say that the entire city was holding its breath, waiting to see what kind of man now took up the title.)

“Todd found him.” Damian commented, watching another, much taller, figure stalk over to Nolan.

Steph tugged at the back of Bruce’s jacket, stretching on the tips of her toes to reach Bruce’s ear.

“Get it off your face, B.” Steph hissed, tightly gripping his arm. “We’re in public.”

Bruce blinked, quickly blanking his expression with a sharp nod, never tearing his eyes away from his son. The sight of Jason and someone like Nolan speaking… amiably burned something molten and clotted in Bruce’s gut- as if someone molded a hand-sized glob of magma and forced him to swallow it like a pill. The sight was a reminder to the kinds of people Jason worked with as Hood.

It was a reminder of what his son was now

“Nolan’s hardly the bottom of the barrel.” Dick placated, picking up a pastry and turning it over in his fingers before taking a bite. “It’s not like he’s Roman or anything.”

Bruce grunted.

(He couldn’t even begin to imagine how he’d handle Jason consorting with the likes of Black Mask…)

“He is an undisciplined coward.” Damian declared hotly.

(Bruce would be lying if claimed that he didn’t feel the same.)

Their conversation died off as Jason removed himself from Nolan and drifted over to them.

Jason, who looked so grown in his buttoned up dress shirt- clean, breathing, and alive. Jason, who Bruce still struggled to see as anything other than the disjointed, broken child he pulled from that warehouse, taken too suddenly- too soon. Jason, whose entire presence felt much like the cursed whisper of a crooning jin, dangling Bruce’s greatest desire in front of him- promising him that this time Jason would stay.

Bruce’s greatest failures always began with Jason

Just how long did Bruce have before he was ripped away?

“The f*ck you starin’ at, eh?” Jason grumbled, sliding beside Steph and shoving his hands in his pockets.

Time and death did nothing to temper his spirit, Bruce noted fondly, nearly sighing over the choppy sway of Jason’s forced alley accent. His son was perfectly capable of blending into any crowd, Gotham’s diamond district included. Jason’s natural accent, no effort added, wasn’t so thick.

Jason was just spiteful- incapable of staying his hand when the opportunity to insult ‘able, elitist pricks’ presented itself.

(Never let it be said that parenthood didn’t come with a few perks.)

“Nothing!” Dick denied quickly, shoving the rest of his desert in his mouth.

“You.”

Dick turned to Tim, betrayed, small crumbs still clinging to his bottom lip. Bruce expertly buried a sigh. If they managed to avoid making headlines over a fistfight again, then Bruce promised himself he’d cut them some slack over whatever did end up occurring.

Because something always occurred.

Almost as if to prove that very thought, Steph bounced in front of the group- nearly vibrating in excitement with two names on her lips.

“Rin!” Steph called, waving her hands in the air, “Gin!”

Bruce turned with the entirety of the ballroom, zeroing in on a familiar shade of sky-lit copper.

Rin Black, draped in a shorter green dress with her hair loose over her shoulders, waved back at Steph- a sister linked on each arm. To her left was Gin, wearing a two piece skirt and top set Bruce remembered seeing Steph in once, her ginger hair braided behind her. Gin’s other arm was occupied by Luna, who- if her costume-esque, Tudor England era, nigh authentic floor length dress was any indication- was a unique personality, to be sure. Linked on Rin’s right was Hermione, who abandoned the thought of a dress entirely and apparently selected a business-like pin suit to wear.

There were no men in their company, least of all one that appeared to be related to Rin.

Bruce frowned. Did Lord Black skip?

“Steph! Jason!” Rin cheered, lighting up with a grin and dragging her family with her. Both Jason and Tim stood up straighter as they neared, Tim in particular looking as if Rin was bearing the arrival of a radioactive, iron-wrought cannonball. Dick turned to Jason, eyebrows raised.

‘Jason’? Dick mouthed.

Jason shoved Dick by the shoulder, flushing.

“Shut up, asshole.” He grumbled, daring the other to say something else as the girls approached. Bruce watched his children as a whole, flummoxed.

(Was Bruce… missing something here?)

“Drake.” Hermione greeted, her voice far from the tired, hospitable groan Bruce remembered from what felt like so long ago. Instead, she charaded something akin to dry ice: frigid to the point of pain, sharpened and carved to a thin edge. Tim winced, offering a very flimsy wave from a safe distance.

“Heyyyyyy Hermione…”

Ooof!

Cameras flashed in their periphery, forever immortalizing the moment Steph broke off from Tim and body slammed Gin with a bear-hug. Gin, in a feat of upper body strength Bruce wouldn’t have expected given her muscle tone, unhooked from her sisters and caught Steph with zero effort- holding her up in what Bruce could only imagine the media describing as a ‘lover’s embrace’. Steph even oh so helpfully locked her legs around Gin’s waist, stradling the other girl without an ounce of shame.

(Really, she was practically spoon feeding those hyenas a scandal.)

Steph pulled herself up by Gin’s shoulders, towering over the crowd with a smug grin.

“Ya miss me?” Steph laughed.

“Forever and always.” Gin promised, beaming back.

Bruce, even if only for the sake of his own sanity, decided that his children could dissect that scene in his place. They were perfectly capable investigators. They had Kate’s number, if it came down to it.

Besides.

Bruce had other problems to tackle.

“Miss Black.” He greeted warmly, dipping his head at the small, red headed girl. “A pleasure to see you again.”

Hermione, apparently still cross with Bruce, abandoned her feud with Tim long enough to impart an adequate amount of hatred on his person.

(Honestly, Bruce wasn’t sure what he did to deserve such ire… 9 times out of 10 he’d been told he just didn’t ‘get people’, that he crossed some sort of line or something like that, but Bruce barely interacted with the girl! So Diana and Clark in particular were the most outspoken on the subject- dead set on educating him on the ways he could and could not ‘treat his friends’ or some other similar nonsense, so what? Even Bruce couldn’t offend someone before even meeting them.)

“You as well, Mr. Wayne.” Rin smiled. “It was very kind of you to invite us to your gala.”

Bruce took the segway for what it was.

“Happy to oblige,” he returned. “But I couldn’t help but notice your brother isn’t here. He accepted the invitation, did he not?”

Rin grimaced, her eyes flickering to the flashing cameras and back.

“Right.” She sighed. “Should probably get this over with…”

In the corner of Bruce’s eye, Tim and Steph both pulled out their phones in unison- propping the devices upright and selecting ‘record’- as if the motion had been meticulously choreographed.

Bruce, nobody's fool, took a step back.

(It was a Pavlovian response if he was honest, one outside of Bruce’s control and painfully learned. The last time those two started recording him out of the blue… well, let’s just say it took an embarrassingly long amount of time to look at Arthur the same way- and Bruce’s unease around chickens never did completely fade…)

Rin offered him her hand, the appendage barely reaching his solar plexus.

“Rin is short for Hadriyan.” She announced unceremoniously, looking him in the eye. “I am Lord Black.”

Bruce blinked at the tiny girl, internally cringing at the sound of ‘clicking’ in the background.

His response, he felt, was reasonable.

“I… beg your pardon?”

Rin, deadpanning with the air of someone who's heard the same line a thousand times a day, closed the distance between them.

“I am Lord Black.” She repeated blandly, openly shaking the hand offered as if to remind Bruce it was there. “As in: I, as you see now, am the head of my family. You invited me, I hold the lordship, I RSVP’d, and I arrived. Yes: I am, in fact, a girl. No, that is not a mistake. Yes, I am of legal age. Biologically, I am an only child. Gin, Hermione, and Luna are my sisters- not my bitches. We’ve been f*cking with you. Now: would you be so kind as to shake my hand, Brucie?”

Chapter 25: Come 'Round for Our Last Dance (the fiddle is in peices, the bard ran off)

Chapter Text

[t/w: depiction of flashback, also known as: look me in the eye and try to tell me all these kids don’t have some form of PTSD]

Perception was such an odd, fluctuating thing, Rin found- doubly so when attributed to one’s self.

Sometimes, Rin found herself exceeding her own expectations. Sometimes, she’d see herself leaping over obstacles that could eclipse the moon, left dizzy that she stuck the landing, wondering just how on earth she managed to not lose herself amongst the stars. Sometimes, she found herself with her arms outstretched: pushing away forces incomparable in nature, bewildered she still had hands. Sometimes, once the battle ended and the dust had all but settled- Rin saw herself in the reflection of gilded glass, unbreakable and untouchable, standing straight and strong like a ruler of old.

Other times, Rin found herself looking at the reflection of an actual child, shaking with grief and struggling under the weight of her own existence- despairing over how she was going to get through the moment, let alone the possibility of ‘tomorrow’.

Rin wasn’t a stranger to the dichotomy of seeing one thing and knowing another. She wasn’t.

(Nevertheless, Brucie was really starting to irritate the sh*t out of her.)

“Wayne.” She warned, her hand still dangling.

Rin could feel the flush of heat rushing to her cheeks, painting her growing frustration for everyone to see. Flashes of bright-washed white streaked across both her profile and Bruce’s, highlighting the icey blue lining his irises with each snap of the camera. Each flash tightened the smothering sense of confinement wrapping around Rin’s neck- reminding her over and over that she had an audience of some 70 or 80-something people and no escape.

Rin hoped Hallow screwed up every photo

Any day now, Brucie.” She grumbled, wiggling her fingers and flexing her wrist. “Really: whenever you’re ready.”

Dick swooped to her rescue, shoving Bruce out of the way with a sharp jab of his elbow. Bruce staggered, tripping over his shiny pair of Gucci loafers and ramming backwards into an unsuspecting table. That, too, was photographed.

If the gods were good, those would come out perfectly

“Holy sh*t!” Dick grinned, taking Rin’s hand and shaking it with enough vigor to send her entire body rocking. “I never would’ve guessed! You? Really?”

Rin tried to return his cheer, tried to take the comment with grace, but something about her skin felt too hot and too tight. A passing fancy begged her to dig her fingernails in the back of his hand- if only to put a spotlight to the insult still somehow flying over his head. Rin took the time to imagine it, trying to discern from the visual alone if it would grant her any gratification.

(Rin knew she didn’t exactly cut the picture of a conqueror, ok? She wasn’t blind. When someone was asked to imagine the esteemed, fabled Lord Black, Rin knew she wasn’t it. She wasn’t Sirius But really? ‘You’? What the f*ck was that supposed to mean?)

“The f*ck you sayin’ it like that for, dickhe*d?” Jason cut in, glaring at their joined hands. Over his shoulder, Hallow watched with interest. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with her.”

Rin’s frustration evaporated, flying away like cloud whips in the wind. She turned to him, flooded with gratitude, beaming brighter than a pair of floodlights in a dense fog.

(Jason, it should be noted, was Rin’s hero. Her actual hero. All of him, really: from the artfully curled tips of his hair to the pressed, sculpted lines of his chest- folded under neatly laid panels of crimson colored fabric. The formal button up and straight black slacks were a new look for him, one Rin wasn’t at all mad at, but something about the ensemble felt foreign when compared to the Jason she remembered from the Alley.)

(Rin liked to think that maybe she had a friend in her discomfort: someone who felt just as much of an actor as she did, breathing life into a lie for the sake of propriety.)

Dick, paling in horror, quickly backtracked.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!” He swore, his eyes wide and pleading. He had quite the puppy dog look to him, Rin thought, baring his considerable height. It reminded her of Fluffy.

(Which, now that the subject was on the table: just what was Bruce feeding his kids? Rin was used to being tiny, alright? She was used to craning her neck. She barely even noticed the digs at her own height nowadays- there wasn’t a joke in existence she hadn’t already heard. But this was getting ridiculous! Jason was a modern day giant. Dick towered over the room as a whole. Steph, too, was taller than average. Tim, although trapped on the lower curve of his family’s gargantuan spectrum, still stood stupidly tall. Even Damian, held back by his obvious youth, was well on his way to grow beyond 6 feet. Rin did the research: only Damian was biologically related to Bruce. Did Bat-Bruce just… have a sense for genetically tall children to adopt? Really: what gives?)

“Really!” Dick defended, turning slightly. “Timmy, back me up-”

Dick’s plea died mid-way, stopping short on the tip of his tongue. Rin watched, amused to the point of sympathy, as the reach of their conspiracy sunk in. Steph, as Rin would expect no less from, wore a devilish grin behind her aloft device- her aura bright with victory and eyes gleaming with a spiteful glee. In contrast to that, Tim stood beside her blank-faced: steady like stone with the detached, entertained air of a divine being considering an inevitable end. Staring Dick straight in the eye, he pressed a button on his phone, resulting in the tell-tale ‘click’ of the camera. Damian rounded on them both, his nostril’s flaring.

“You knew.” He hissed, specifically aiming his anger towards Tim. “You consorted with the enemy.”

‘Click’

“What of it?” Tim challenged, raising a brow.

Jason, thankfully, took the revelation with much more humor.

“You little sh*t!” He crowed, tossing an arm around Steph’s shoulders. The boyish grin he tossed at Rin then- filled to the brim with a beautiful, mischievous pride as he realized her role in their deception- almost blinded her. “You mastermind this?”

Steph only preened under him, just as cheeky.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Steph denied.

(Rin wasn’t so sure, if Jason deigned to hold her so closely, that she wouldn’t be doing the same. Jason had a way about him- a personal gravity, one might say. His presence alone enticed Rin to step outside of the lines, to take a risk and go on an adventure. His roguish smirk promised to get Rin into trouble. The glimmer of his eyes guaranteed one hell of a ride.)

Rin blinked against the sudden, inexplicable desire to have that arm around her- whisking her away to gods-know-where. She wanted to take Jason on an adventure, too, to show him a ride of her own.

Rin shook her head against the impulse.

Crowds, she sighed, side-eyeing the flashing lights. It must be the crowd.

In an effort to save face, Rin returned her attention to her still clasped hand.

“Dick.” She prompted, pointedly tapping against the back of his hand. His palm had a rough feel to it, mapped with weathered calluses and thickened skin, as did the curve of each finger. The texture was one of a craftsman: a physical embodiment of his life’s work.

(Rin wondered what Jason’s palm would feel like, if given the chance. How much of his past made its way on his skin? Would he be interested in her story, if she showed him her scars?)

Dick quickly apologized, dropping the appendage as if it was white-hot steel.

“Oh! Sorry!” He said, frowning slightly at the hand he just dropped.

Gin shimmied up beside Rin, taking the released arm back in the crook of her own. Rin nearly sighed in relief as soon as Gin’s body pressed against her. Even with no selves to her dress and her biceps left to the open air, Gin was still so much warmer than Rin. Rin’s dress was multi-layered: wrapping her in hidden, thermal folds under her corset, paired with long sleeves lined with a thicker material specifically chosen to retain heat. Yet, despite this, Rin was freezing.

(It was one of the more unfortunate side effects of her connection with Hallow: that inescapable, unending chill. Rin had been cold for as long as she could remember, always eagerly running to the nearest heat source in hopes it would thaw her out. On the days when Hallow was less active, stuck in the lazy space they retreated to when they couldn’t be bothered to deal with the outside world, Rin could almost ignore it. But here? Where Hallow was just overjoyed with their company and able to hover and twitter about? Rin could’ve been wrapped in enough insulation to survive an arctic winter and still be chilled to the bone.)

“‘Enemy’?” Gin laughed, leaning forward towards the youngest Wayne. “We going at it, little viper?”

Damian scowled, though not at the nickname if Rin had to guess.

(If their current agreement taught Rin anything, it was that Damian Wayne adored any and all animals- from the fluffiest of cats to the sleekest of snakes. Rin quite liked snakes herself, having befriended a few in her time in Petunia’s garden. They were simple creatures, ones with a keen intellect and full of plain pleasures. Rin had never found them fearful.)

“If so,” Gin continued with a teasing smirk, “you might want to let the other party know: it’ll get you a better fight out of the deal.”

Damian sneered at the thought.

You can fight?” He challenged hotly, making little to guess on how he felt about that idea.

Rin pulled away from Gin, silently mourning the loss of her heat source while leaving room for Gin to play as she pleased. Luna followed her example, letting go of Gin’s other arm and sliding silently beside her. Gin, to the surprise of absolutely no one, took the implied ultimatum with the elated eagerness of a juvenile cerberus given a horse femur.

Rin would know

(Rin also sent a quiet prayer to The Dagda as Gin danced to the front of their group, specifically his aspect as the Ruad Rofhessa- hoping a ‘lord of great knowledge’ might grant her the wisdom to survive whatever headline broke the next morning. Rin promised herself she would present an offering as soon as she got home… some tree bearing fruit perhaps? She was pretty sure they had apples in the fridge.)

“Depends,” Gin thrilled, baiting the naturally hostile child with a signature devil-may-care flare. “Is that an offer?”

Hermione cast her eyes to the ceiling, likely chasing her own prayer.

(Hermione amusingly liked to blame Rin for Gin’s violent tendencies: swearing up and down that Gin took one look at Rin- unintentionally, mind you- causing mayhem at age 11 and thought she found a role model. Hermione maintained that Gin only went looking for fights because Rin didn’t know how to back down from one, and that she was learning by example. Rin often argued back that Gin had plenty of violent tendencies before Rin came into the picture, often citing the Twins as a primary example. Rin was certain, to the point of bartering her soul on it if need be, that if Gin had any role model at all… it was Fred.)

(Then she and Hermione typically dissolved into some violent tendencies of their own, usually after Rin pointed out that one time Hermione set Snape on fire and the sheer hypocrisy she was obviously swimming in. Hermione loved to pretend that she was such a reasonable, level-headed person, but Rin knew better: her lovely successor was ruthless. Undoubtedly, inarguably ruthless.)

“It’s a figure of speech,” Bruce cut in, throwing his son a silent warning and tightening his grip on the boy’s shoulder. “Not literal.”

Hermione took a moment out of her personal feud with Tim to squint suspiciously at Damian.

“You don’t happen to have any ancestry across the pond, do you?” She questioned shrewdly, scrunching her nose. “Any proclivities for peaco*cks?”

Rin pressed a hand over her mouth to cover her snort.

Hermione saw it too!

Tim decided to try his luck and cut in.

“There’s a proclivity for fouls, that’s for sure.” He deadpanned.

Hermione turned on him, nearly snarling at Tim with a fury she had recently only reserved for Ron.

Did I ask you?” She snapped.

Rin winced at her volume, as well as the sudden flurry of soft ‘clicks’ from the sidelines.

(Rin was told there was a video on the internet of the two of them, from their coffee meet-up, but Rin hadn’t yet had the time to view it. Apparently, the Saint Blacks of Metropolis wanted to meet Rin. Within the week’s end. In person. So. She’d been busy- Hallow’s precarious relationship with technology notwithstanding.)

Tim hadn’t come over to install the projector either. Hermione had sworn it was perfectly fine, that he was dead to her and she’d sooner set the ‘nosey, scheming bastard’ on fire than allow him in their home, but thanked Rin for thinking of her. Gin was the one to gleefully inform Rin while she was getting ready for the gala that the video included Hermione throwing her coffee on Tim, baffling Rin to the point of stupidity.

Now, seeing the two firsthand, Rin found the notion less perplexing.

Still: Rin couldn’t help but wonder… just what did he do?

“I have no such proclivities.” Damian hissed, pulling against Bruce’s grip.

“Yeah,” Gin snarked, partnering with Damian in her choice of targets, “Stay in your lane, Bondface.”

Tim blanched at them both, betrayed.

“Dude!” He groaned, pointedly pleading with Gin. “What the hell?”

Dick quickly rose to Tim’s defense, joined by Steph. Gin pulled up beside Hermione, gently shifting Rin towards the back, taking up arms to her cause. Bruce hastily jumped in to pull Damian back from full retaliation, his own attempts at de-escalating the situation being drowned out by the growing clamor.

Above it all, Jason caught Rin’s eyes with his own, deliberately jerking his chin towards a back-lit corner- an impish, teasing proposal spreading through the space between them like a pot of poured ink.

Rin felt a flutter bloom in her stomach, taking flight like a bird at open sea.

Jason’s irises were such a beautiful shade of blue, she thought seriously, suddenly breathless. A beautiful shade of blue. It ricocheted between gray and green like winter’s water, slated in shaded tones that walked hand-in-hand with gun metal and an overcast sky. They were clear, like pearls in a riverbed. Bright, like set opal. Strong, like damascus steel.

Eyes like that would only get Rin in trouble.

And Rin was nothing if not a magnet for trouble

______

They somehow managed to sneak away, backing out at around the same moment where Gin started openly goading Damian into a brawl right on the dancefloor. The others, far too occupied with stopping him from accepting, did not notice their departure. No camera flashes followed as they both tucked into the smaller space- hidden by a partial arch, a thicker form of shrub planted in a wide pot, and a large, ornate vase displayed on a thin pedestal taller than Rin.

Jason reached down to fuss up Rin’s hair, not achieving a damn thing as it was all fussy, disobedient curls to begin with.

“Well, then,” He teased, pulling his hand back from where Rin attempted to slap it away. “Guess it’s nice to meet you, oh esteemed, majestic Lord Black?”

Rin huffed, her fingers running through the rat’s nest that followed in a futile attempt to smooth it back into something passable.

“I’d much rather stay Rin to you,” She answered honestly, gathering any loose locks and pulling them over one shoulder. Already, the ends were interlocking together, fusing her poor hair into a matted mess. “All this Lordship sh*t gets… old.”

Jason shifted more towards the wall of their hideout, opening up the space.

“Easy enough.” He hummed, watching her detangle a portion of particularly stubborn tresses knotting near her right ear. He was, of course, completely unrepentant to the chaos he’d caused. “You look more like a Rin to me.”

Rin pulled apart the last of the rat’s nest, gallantly ignoring the warming of her cheeks.

(Somehow, his choice of words didn’t erupt a well of irritation in her gut. Somehow, it didn’t feel like an insult- not when it came from Jason. Instead, it felt more like a mechanic stuffed in a tux: looking at her- seeing her- and shaking his head like ‘just how did we end up here, huh? You see this sh*t?. It felt less like judgment and more like the camaraderie of fast-friends, laughing in disbelief over being forced to play pretend.)

All of a sudden, the pressure of the waiting crowd didn’t feel so heavy to Rin. From this space between them, removed from her worries and hidden safely away, the thought of tackling the long line of strangers that undoubtably wanted to talk to Lord-f*cking-Black didn’t seem so daunting. Instead, it lightened- turning into something… playful. Like, instead of being tasked with wrapping herself up in a skin three sizes too small, Rin had to play a character- as if she had been dared to trick everyone in the room.

(Rin loved dares.)

“Thanks.” She said, fully meaning it. “I feel more like a Rin too.”

Jason shrugged, turning his head to the dance floor with a shallow cough.

“I heard the title is like a hand-me down,” he mused, absently fiddling with the end of his shirt cuffs. “One where you get to choose who comes next before you kick it and all that.”

Rin pushed her hair back behind her shoulders and sighed.

“It certainly is,” she agreed, a fresh wave of grief washing over her. Hallow noticed the change, emerging from the liquid, neutral state they had been relaxing in. They wrapped around her in comfort. “Siri was more suited for it, I think.”

Jason leaned against the wall, hooded by the shadow of the vase.

“Your dad?” He asked, not unkindly.

Rin shook her head.

“Godfather,” she corrected. “He was one of my dad’s closest friends.”

A growing murmur from the dance floor caught Rin’s attention, but with a peek she noted that no one was screaming, crying, begging for help or drawing blood- so she let it go. Jason looked down from where he had also been assessing the commotion.

“Sorry to hear that.” He offered, abandoning his cuffs. “Gonna guess your mom and pop haven’t been in the picture?”

Rin nodded, comfortable with her next admission.

“They’re dead,” she said.

(Rin had repeated those words so many times by now that they no longer held any pain. They were, instead, a fact: James and Lily were dead. Rin often thought that it was helpful that they had been killed while she was a baby. She had no memories to mourn- no sense of the future she had lost and nothing to be bitter over. Thanks to the efforts of her aunt and uncle, Rin had never experienced anything close to ‘tender, loving, care’. The thought of ‘parents’ was a distant, foreign concept. Rin couldn’t despair over what she didn’t know.)

Thankfully, Jason didn’t make a big deal of the revelation. He didn't offer a useless volley of I’m sorry for your loss or My condolences or I’m sure they’re watching over you. No, in a fashion that was unique to Jason, one Rin was coming to know and even faster coming to love, he responded with this:

“I bet that was a bitch and a half.”

Rin couldn’t help it, she laughed.

“It really was,” She admitted, snigg*ring. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Jason snorted, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“A little late for that, princess.” He said, nodding over to the tumultuous gathering of their trigger happy people. “Didn’t ya read about the old man’s condition? B goes pickin’ up pitiful orphans left and right. It’s a sickness, really.”

Rin nearly flinched.

She hadn’t meant to, hadn’t planned on it… but with one word, for one moment, Rin was somewhere different.

(The walls were covered in a muddy green wallpaper, decorated with thin, white stripes every two inches. Circular picture frames hung in perfect, straight lines on the farthest wall- receding in size as if they were created from a set of plates. The cats in each frame had no life to them, flat in every sense. The back of Rin’s hand had long since become icy and sticky. The lesson “hadn’t sunk in” yet.)

“Ungh,” She shuttered, shaking her head and shoving the memory away. “Nope. No ‘princess’. Don’t like that.”

Jason graced her with one of his lopsided grins.

“Aw, s’matter princess?” He teased, ignorant to the cold, clammy sensation blanketing down Rin’s neck and back. “Don’t like the pageantry?”

Saliva began pooling around Rin’s tongue as a tight, stinging sensation pinched between her bottom and top jaw. Rin, knowing those signs all too well, started digging around in the deep pocket she sewed on the side dress.

“I’m fine with pageantry,” she defended, trying to shake the horror from her bones and breathe through the moment. “When it’s fun. That’s not fun.”

Jason laughed in her face.

“Please, Jason?” She nearly begged, her stomach flipping. “Ditch the name.”

Her voice choked off as a wave of nausea crashed over her. Hidden by the folds of her dress’s skirt, the nigh-invisible letters carved in the back of her right hand circled around a small, plastic wrapped object Rin took with her everywhere she went.

The words weren’t legible unless Rin clenched her fist.

But Rin always knew they were there.

I must not tell lies.

(Only one person in Rin’s entire life attempted to call her princess. One. The word was always spoken with pity- dripped in sickeningly sweet honey, offered only in the backdrop of that office, only used after Rin refused to cry when her skin split open. These lessons are important, princess, Umbridge would say, her beady, toad-like eyes eagerly awaiting the next stroke. You will do well to learn.)

Jason’s laugh cut off abruptly, probably picking up on Rin’s distress.

Or maybe it was because Rin actually gagged, suddenly only being able to smell the suffocating mix of jasmine, lavender, cherry blossom, and basil incense Unbridge drenched her office in at all times

“Oh sh*t- f*ck, I’m sorry-”

Rin pulled out her piece of hard candy with shaking fingers- her pulse rate degenerating into an unstable, near-quivering rhythm- trying her damndest to open the stupid thing, reassure Jason, and not get physically sick all at the same time.

“No- it’s ok-”

“Like hell it is-”

The stinging in her jaw migrated to the corners of her eyes, threatening tears quite soon if Rin didn’t start making some progress with the f*cking sour candy wrapper.

“No, it’s fine,” She promised, abandoning proprietary and instead starting to bite at the plastic with her incisors as her stomach hinted at another convulsion. “It’s not you-”

Jason took the wrapper from her trembling grasp with gentle fingers like the literal angel he was, ripping the package open and not even blinking over the slopper covering the surface. He handed the candy back, not at all weirded out by Rin’s near frantic need to shove it in her mouth, his expression stormy and grim.

“It won’t happen again.” He promised solemnly, sliding the packaging in his pocket.

Rin turned the candy over her tongue- the tart, puckering taste hyperfocusing the utter bullsh*t that was her dysfunctional brain. Immediately, her stomach settled: slowly rolling over into something more manageable and rational. The overwhelming smell of artificial green apple blanketed over the imaginary imprint of flowers and herbs, slicing through the picture of Umbridge’s leer. Rin’s right hand still fought against a peppering of pins and needles, but it worked well enough to finger a thin ring she wore on her left middle finger- twisting it clockwise with each inhale and exhale.

Rin breathed carefully through her nose, inhaling there, exhaling through her mouth. She focused on the feel of the ring’s gem under her fingers, how each corner rubbed against her thumb with each rotation.

(Marcus was the one to encourage her to buy it, having heard she had never worn jewelry before. For one, apparently she was supposed to ‘treat herself’ on occasion and remember to love herself as much as she did everyone else. But more importantly he explained that the ring might work as an effective grounder, reminding her of where she was when her brain tried to hijack her over simple, innocuous things. Like all things Marcus suggested, the idea was genius.)

“There’s, uh, spit all over that.” She reminded him balefully, trying not to seem awkward like she didn’t just lose her collective sh*t, nodding towards his pocket.

Jason shrugged, unconcerned.

“Not my pants.” He countered, blessedly not demanding any explanation out of Rin for her sudden mood swing.

Rin blinked.

“You’re wearing someone else’s pants?” She asked, tucking the candy in the back of her cheek and leaning back to survey the condition of the pants in question. The material looked to be a form of stretch-knit rather than the usual stiff fabric of slacks, wrapping around his thighs in a tight, sinful embrace that made no effort to hide the firm muscle underneath.

Rin coughed against the sting of sour candy pooling at the back of her throat, crunching the rest between her teeth and ripping her eyes away.

“Are you sure?” She continued, absolutely not flushing and determined to be casual. “They fit… quite well.”

Jason smirked, leaning forward.

“Do they?” He teased, poking her foot with his own. “Do tell.

Rin stomped on his foot, not surprised in the least when the sole of her shoe met the durable barrier of a steel-toe boot.

“You’re awful.” She swore, crossing her arms over her chest and ducking her head. “You look fat.”

Jason gasped loudly, clutching at the buttons of his shirt like one would a string of pearls in a display as dramatic as it was obscenely false.

Fat?!” He echoed, feigning hurt and snickering like a madman. “That’s cruel Red, just cruel. I demand compensation for this offense!”

Rin shook her head, laughing.

“What makes you so sure I owe you?” She challenged, propping a hand on her hip.

Jason pointed to his pocket, eyebrows raised.

“Not your pants.” She snigg*red, parroting his earlier defense. “If anything, I owe whoever you stole those from.”

Jason scoffed, rolling his eyes.

“You don’t owe him anything,” Jason assured, waving a hand in the air. “The dickhe*d’s all squared away. I, however, have been severely slighted.”

“Oh?” Rin asked, intrigued. “How do you figure that?”

Jason spread his hands out in front of him, as if they were seated at a dealer’s table, face to face.

“Well, if you do so recall promising to bring me in on a subject of great importance-”

“‘Next time’,” Rin cut in stubbornly, her jaw set. “I said ‘next time’!

Jason powered on, unaffected by the factual reality that they were on ‘next time’ and- regardless of how the revelation came about- Jason was, in fact, let in on the joke.

“As well as the matter of fire-proofing-”

“I never agreed.” Rin argued, pouting when Jason made no motion to acknowledge her very valid point. (Also there was the fact that she wasn't actually fire-proof and he likely wouldn't be either.)“I only asked if you could learn.”

“I’ve been given some promises,” Jason lectured, not batting an eye. “Some promises that one might say you haven’t delivered on.”

Rin sulked, glaring at the taller man with a petulant sigh.

“You’re mean.” She declared plainly, re-crossing her arms. “You know that, right?”

Jason shrugged.

“It’s a talent.”

Against her will, Rin laughed- a wonderful, seeping warmth covering her from head to toe.

“Alright, alright…” She said, conceding to Jason’s charm. She was still right of course, but she was willing to concede… for now. “What would you ask for this insult, Mr. Jason Wayne?”

“Todd.” Jason corrected in amusem*nt, falling back on the wall. “It’s Jason ‘Todd’.”

Rin threw him a wry grin, feeling light and airy as if her back bore wings and the floor underneath was nothing but clouds. Just because, as if to argue against his previous pageantry comment and remap the events surrounding it, Rin then dipped into a picture perfect curtsy- courteous of the demanding teachings of one Narcissa Malfoy née Black.

“As you say,” She appeased, looking up at him through her lashes. “How might I reconcile this slight, Mr. Todd?”

Jason considered her carefully, like a ship captain set to select his crew.

“You make those cookies?” He asked, his irises a reflection of deeper waters.

Rin rose, her spine sliding back to a soldier-perfect straight.

“I may have.”

Jason tilted his head, his eyes gleaming.

“You know how to make anything else?”

Rin grinned, her teeth showing from ear to ear.

“Name your price, Gramps.”

Chaotic Good - Honorable Intentions, Questionable Methods - RaeBlack42 - Harry Potter (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rob Wisoky

Last Updated:

Views: 6321

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (48 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rob Wisoky

Birthday: 1994-09-30

Address: 5789 Michel Vista, West Domenic, OR 80464-9452

Phone: +97313824072371

Job: Education Orchestrator

Hobby: Lockpicking, Crocheting, Baton twirling, Video gaming, Jogging, Whittling, Model building

Introduction: My name is Rob Wisoky, I am a smiling, helpful, encouraging, zealous, energetic, faithful, fantastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.