“Hey, Cassie,” Tim said quietly. It had taken him over an hour to find her, sitting on the roof of the Tower with her knees drawn up, staring out at the view. He’d expected her to have gone home, or gone out looking for trouble, but instead she’d stayed at the Tower.
She didn’t even look around when he spoke. “How is he? Did the Fortress thing work?”
Tim sat down beside her. Cassie had no problem dangling her legs over the drop, while Tim preferred to straddle the parapet. Not that he was afraid of heights—no Robin was—but safety was not something to be ignored. Besides, this way he could look at her. “No, it didn’t. The Fortress’ diagnostics say there’s nothing wrong with him. Everything’s in perfect working order, it’s just not fueling any powers right now. Kryptonian science can’t tell why.”
“He’s gonna have to go to Zatanna. This is magic, and she knows more about it than anyone,” Cassie said dully.
“Yeah, but going to her means going to the League, and he’s still upset about that. He’s going to try something else, and if that doesn’t work I’ll start on him about the League.” Tim swung his feet idly, most of his weight balanced on his palms and seat bones, watching Cassie’s face.
After a moment she spoke again. “If you’ve come to tell me what a horrible girlfriend I am, save it. I already know.”
“You’re not a horrible girlfriend,” Tim told her.
Cassie turned to look at him sadly. “Oh yeah? Jason thinks I’m an insensitive cold-hearted witch.”
“Jason isn’t himself right now.”
She chuckled bitterly. “Yeah, tell me about it. Whatever else the magic did to him, it pretty much shoved his head so far up his butt I’m surprised he can walk.”
Taking a deep breath, Tim did his best to explain. This felt a little too much like telling Jason’s secrets, but it needed to be done. Cassie simply didn’t understand, and Jason was in no condition to tell her. Not coherently, anyway. “Look, Cassie … this is a huge deal to Jason.”
She sighed hard enough to blow wispy blonde curls away from her face. “I know. The powers always are. I mean, my mom could take away my powers anytime she wanted until I turned eighteen, and I hated that. But really, if it’s temporary it’s nothing to freak out about.” She paused, Tim waiting, and then added in a smaller voice, “And if it’s not temporary, well, freaking out won’t help.”
“This isn’t about the powers.” That got her full attention at last.
“What do you mean?” Cassie looked so sad, so lost and lonely, that Tim just wanted to hug her. But giving her information would be more worthwhile in the long run.
“Look, when Jason was a kid…” Tim trailed off, then decided to attack this from the science angle. “Jason and Kala are first-generation Kryptonian-human hybrids. Different species from different galaxies. There’s no way it even makes sense for them to exist. And obviously there are some problems with hybridization even in closely-related species. With them, the problems were magnified.”
Cassie’s brow furrowed. “What kind of problems? They’re both ridiculously healthy now. Jason’s never had so much as a cold the whole time I’ve known him, and his sister is always full of energy, too.”
“Yes, but that’s now. He told me how it was when they were little. Both twins were allergic to gluten, dairy, eggs, shellfish, nuts, a whole bunch of stuff. When they were little they pretty much lived on macrobiotic shakes and meat-and-leafy-greens burritos. Jason had asthma, they both had a bunch of nutritional issues, and both of them were on steroids at the age of six just to try to build some muscle and deal with some of the allergies. There were immune system issues, too. He’s showed me pictures from back then. Cassie … they were both so fragile. It’s a wonder Lois Lane managed to keep them alive.”
“What happened?” Her voice had dropped to a stunned whisper.
Tim continued the story with an angry curl of his lip for one of the principals. “When they were six, Lex Luthor figured out who their father is and kidnapped them. He was keeping them both on an island made of impure kryptonite—and neither of them is immune. The bastard almost killed them both just to get Superman in range. And then he almost killed Superman. If Kala hadn’t attacked him….”
“Wait, Kala attacked him? At six years old?” Cassie’s eyebrows went up in disbelief.
Nodding, Tim let himself smile again. “She’s a fighter, Cassie. According to Jason, she bit Luthor for threatening her dad. And Luthor threw her off the side of the island into the ocean. In November.”
Cassie looked stricken. “Oh my God.”
Tim let himself think, just for a moment, about what could’ve happened. The world could have lost Superman that day, as well as Superboy and the Blur. Tim could’ve lost his best friend, someone who understood all the geeky stuff he loved, before he even met Jason.
He shook off the dark thought before it could really sink in. “Lucky for us, Superman saved them both. He needed the sunlight for himself, to cure the kryptonite poisoning, and it worked on them, too. Somehow the sunlight kicked their powers into high gear, and both of them were in perfect health by the end of the month. Jason went from taking seven different drugs every day to not even needing cold medicine.”
“Oh,” she whispered, biting her lip.
Tim put one hand on her shoulder. “It’s not like it was for you, Cassie. Jason was never a normal human. For as much like a regular guy as he seems, he’s never really been one. And he’s scared out of his mind that his powers are gone for good, and that if they are, all those health problems will come back too.”
“Sweet mother of … he thinks he’s gonna die.” Cassie groaned, smacking her palm against her forehead. “And I’m so damn helpful. He must hate me.”
“He’s not gonna die. We both know that.” Tim left unspoken the fact that the two of them would do anything—including going behind Jason’s back and talking to the League—to make sure he got better.
He smiled and added, “And he doesn’t hate you, Cassie. He loves you and he’s freaking out because he can’t figure out how to fix this on his own. Give him time. He’ll get settled.”
She finally smiled back, and leaned in to hug him. “Thanks, Tim.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Just don’t tell him I told you.”
“Oh, I won’t. I’m not that horrible.” Her chuckle was weak, but it was there, and that was all Tim needed.
Jason Todd had crossed the border at Niagara Falls and felt American soil beneath his feet for the first time in way too long. It hadn’t been difficult. He had good papers; they’d been easy to get, there were lots of guys with his general build and coloring, and he had simply stolen a passport from someone who probably wouldn’t even look for it for a few days. All the things that made Jay so distinctive and so deadly were skills and attributes that weren’t easy to spot at a casual glance. He had upped his chances by taking an open slot in a tour group, so Customs had just waved him by with the rest of the herd, not even taking a second glance at him. Easy-peasy.
Home, back home, and within five minutes Jay had found a vendor selling chili dogs out of a cart on the sidewalk. He’d bought three, loaded up with chili, cheese, onions, and plenty of mustard. The actual hot dog meat was nothing to write home about, and the chili probably came out of a can, but the whole combination was somehow more delicious than any of the fancy high-priced meals Talia had ever ordered for him.
Her name brought a flare of anger. Trust no one. That was his motto from here on out, with one little addendum: especially not beautiful women who want to give you lots and lots of money.
Heh. Jay could bet she couldn’t walk across the U.S. border as easily he did. Then again, her old man was the granddaddy of all terrorists, wasn’t he? He made bin Laden and company look like small-timers.
Chowing down on the chili dogs, Jay had ambled with the crowd. He had accounts in Switzerland and the Grand Caymans, a couple grand in mixed bills and traveler’s checks, plus thirty thousand dollars in gold and diamonds secreted in his clothes and luggage. There were additional funds, weapons, and other assets—along with the toys he’d managed to bring along—waiting in P.O. boxes in four or five locations, sent before he’d even left Europe.
The new TSA rules made it a lot harder to fly armed, so he’d had to content himself with relying on the air marshals in case of trouble. Yeah, right. He’d been the most dangerous thing on the plane, and that was even true while he slept.
He’d brought the kriss, of course, and that had been a real challenge. Jay wasn’t about to let that knife out of his hands even for a few minutes. It was too damned useful. Properly honed, the thing would cut just about anything. Jay had no idea whether or not there was some kind of mystic al Ghul mumbo-jumbo attached to it; as far as he was concerned, it just worked. In the end he’d had to stash it where he couldn’t draw it quickly. It was still with him, and never out of his sight for more than three seconds.
Besides, he was more than capable of dealing with most threats with just his fists and feet. And brain, of course. The mind is the most powerful weapon of all. That was another al Ghul saying, one he’d heard first from Bruce.
His mind was full of plans and backups … and roadmaps. Jay needed to get back to Gotham, where the rest of his arsenal was cached. By now Bruce might’ve found some of it, but he’d been a busy little squirrel the last time he was in town, and there should’ve still been plenty of tasty nuts to see him through the winter.
Even if the worst had happened and the big bad Bat had stolen it all, Jay could be back in business pretty quick. It would take him less than a week to figure out which of the crooks in town had the best armory, and then just take their stuff. No trying to control the crime this time around, no negotiations, no taking kickbacks. He’d just kill the rottenest bastards he could find. And in Gotham, that would be a pretty tough competition, considering the average level of rot.
Of course, he still had the problem of getting to Gotham. Getting from Niagara to Buffalo had been easy; he’d just gotten on the convenient hotel shuttle with the rest of the tour group. Of course, Jay wasn’t going to stay in the tour’s hotel. Too bright, too crowded, too obvious. He slipped away to consider his options. With only one wheeled carry-on bag, he could step into any coffee shop and not look out of place while he perused his options.
Boosting a car was out. It was the simplest method of transportation, but a car would get reported stolen, and that might get him pulled over. Jay didn’t want to shoot an honest cop if he could help it. And out here, more of them were honest than in Gotham.
Greyhound bus was a no-go. Too crowded, no room to maneuver, he’d be antsy and paranoid the whole time. And flying was just plain dumb. If Bruce was looking for him to return, he’d be scoping the airport.
Now, train travel, that was a good compromise. A sleeper compartment for some privacy and room to stretch out, plus it was kind of under the radar. Most people didn’t even think about passenger trains anymore. Bruce did, of course, and he’d be watching the train terminal, but Jay wasn’t going to make it easy.
Jay had found no flaws with that plan, and the trip was quite luxurious—Buffalo to New York, and then switching trains to head southward. He’d actually bought a ticket to Charlotte, North Carolina, just to allay suspicions. And when he got off the train, it wasn’t in Gotham City. No, Jay hopped off in Metropolis and slipped away into the city.
So much different than Gotham, so much brighter and shinier, but Jay had a knack for finding the dark, gritty crevices of any city, and sliding into them like a long-lost home. Metropolis had them too, and two Franklins slipped across the motel desk to a shifty-eyed clerk got him a clean, comfy room—to his standards of clean and comfy—without having to show any ID or make any sort of record that he’d stayed there.
There was no real reason to stay a night in Metropolis, except that it broke his trail. Jay didn’t know if Talia still had people tracking him; he hadn’t seen any for days. It would be like her to let him run for a while, her bloodhounds carefully staying a week behind him, just to let him feel secure before she pounced.
Part of him hoped she’d send someone after him, just so he’d have a fight that really tested his skills. Most of him thought that was freaking stupid, she had the money and the manpower to hunt him for the rest of his life, so why give her any incentive to do so? He’d slipped his leash, what was between them was done, and maybe she’d seen that and let him go.
Jay thought Talia might be capable of doing that. Her father sure as hell wasn’t, and as jealous as he was over the damn Lazarus Pits, Jay ought to watch his back-trail to make sure Ra’s al Ghul wasn’t hunting him, too.
A night in Metropolis made no sense when his goal was Gotham—as everyone who knew anything about him would guess. And that was precisely why he did it. Jay was the wildcard, he knew when to be unpredictable, and more than once it had saved his life.
Tomorrow he’d research shipping schedules, and after nightfall he’d stow away on a truck bound for Gotham City. No track to follow, no ticket to trace, and no one would question the various items he’d retrieved and stashed in his luggage. Of course, that left him with a night to himself during which he had no plans except to keep an eye out for anyone trying to find him.
Time to be unpredictable again. Jay picked up a few items of clothing and some other accessories; with five minutes of effort he looked like the kind of person who pretended to be a punk, but was actually about as dangerous as a bunny slipper. And then he went cruising the club district. Lots of crowds there, but safe for him to roam—he was the only one armed, for one thing. Oh, some of the Goth kids might think they were being daring by carrying some kind of fancy dagger, but Jay had five throwing knives hidden on his person, the kriss lying against the nape of his neck, and a blackjack in his pocket. Any of which could’ve gotten him arrested, but if he got to the point where a cop was frisking him, he was already screwed.
Jay wandered, letting his mind idle, not looking for anything specific but just trying to pick up on patterns. People who didn’t flow with the crowd, maybe the same person spotted twice, or the sort of stance and gait that betrayed a lifetime of martial arts training. He saw a whole lot of nothing, just kids being kids. They were more or less his age, but none of them had a fraction of a clue about how the world really worked. All of them thought they were so edgy and cool. Jay chuckled under his breath. Had he ever been so painfully naïve?
Eventually he drifted into an alleyway and melted into the shadows, leaning against the wall of a club. No one came after him, not even when he handed them this perfect opportunity, and he began to relax a little.
That was when he noticed the music. Sure, the thumping bass transmitted perfectly well through the cinderblock wall, but he could hear guitars, too. Somewhere a door was open. Good vocal work, the guy singing could carry a tune, a nice roughness to his singing. Not Jay’s genre, but not bad. Not like the caterwauling he’d heard spilling forth from some of the places he’d passed.
And then another voice came in, a woman’s voice, with ringing purity that knifed him even out here. She didn’t need a microphone; whoever she was, she had a helluva set of lungs on her to project her voice that well without screaming.
“We have the force to fight!” rang out from the guy who’d been singing before, and the woman chimed in with “We have the blinding light!” Then both of them sang “We have the will to win, forever we’ll defend.”
The music roared, drowning out the next verse, but Jay listened, intrigued. A moment later he heard the voices again, singing in unison. “We have the force to fight, we have the blinding light! A war is more than heard, coming in louder than words! Louder … louder … coming in … louder than words!”
The crowd went nuts as they repeated the refrain, and to Jay’s surprise he was grinning. It might be some kind of goofy Goth-rock, but the singers sounded ferocious enough to please him.
He didn’t go inside, though. With his luck they’d both be classic American couch potatoes stuffed into too much leather and lace, and the woman’s golden voice would be matched to a face only a fanboy could love. Better to just listen.
And so thinking, Jay moved out of the alley and on with his life, past the marquee proclaiming that the Stone Chronicles were featured that night, and with no idea just who he’d been listening to.
Bonus [the original version of Kala and Sebast's duet here]