Between being left behind by Akaboshi and the explosion, Hayate spent two weirdly calm days holed up in the apartment with his sister. Nobody even died in earshot, which was a far cry from Akaboshi's apartment.

It was also on a different island, which probably had something to do with it.

Kei insisted Hayate take the sole bed to try and rework their screwed-up sleep schedules, but that didn't work. Not over two days. And despite their best efforts, Hayate ended up migrating to the couch with the blanket to nap against his sister's shoulder, just because getting used to a new bed was always a waiting game. It was one they'd basically lost before they started.

One of the hero-people dropped off a phone for Kei using a little buzzy device that flew, which Kei called a "drone." She set it up over the course of an hour, glaring down at an instruction manual, but the first thing she did afterward was get Hayate's number and place him at the top of her contacts list. Her finger hovered over Akaboshi's chosen picture when she saw it, mostly in confusion and annoyance, but she didn't copy it over while in Hayate's sight. Probably not after, either.

"Is it a tracking device?" Hayate had asked, when he realized that Kei wasn't using hers as much as he was. "Besides being a phone."

"Probably. I'll leave it here if we need to actually do something," was Kei's reply at the time.

Well, at least she wasn't completely trusting. But rather than leaving anything useful, the phone would probably go into a storage seal once Kei figured out what she wanted the kanji to look like. Just in case the tracking device part thought about being a problem.

But when there wasn't much else to do—which was often, since there was no space for sparring and neither of them left—Kei sat on either the bed or the couch with Hayate and used the internet to search for information. Hayate did too, but it was different, because Kei clearly had a goal more precise than "cute cat videos."

"And if you see this face, what should you do?" Kei had asked, pointing at a burlap sack crudely sewn over goggles and a breathing mask worthy of a Kiri-nin.

Hayate had rolled his eyes. "Laugh, probably?"

"Leave," Kei had corrected, "and let someone else deal with him."

"Just because he uses poison?" Hayate wasn't a genin. He knew better than to run directly into green clouds of gas that would gleefully melt his lungs.

"Poison that makes people hallucinate their worst fears and then probably die, yeah." Kei had sighed, like she was secretly forty and done with life. "A lot of the villains who work in this city specialize in manipulation, mind control, or massive attacks on civilians. It's not worth getting caught up in that."

"I'm better at dealing with those kinds of things than civilians would be," Hayate pointed out. He'd accepted the responsibility to act when he took his promotion. "I'd help stop the problem in Konoha."

And then Kei's frown got deeper, her chakra felt outright grim, and she just said, "We're not in Konoha. And here, my absolute highest priority is you. Nothing else comes close."

It was both comforting and a little unnerving to hear her actually say that sentence out loud. Everyone with a headband and a flak jacket knew that policy applied all the time; Kei was just antsy enough to admit it here. Hayate leaned into Kei's shoulder and let his weight rest on her, holding his phone up with another villain profile scrolling in time with his thumb. It was an idle gesture he hadn't developed before this mishap of a mission. He could feel her chakra bubbling in agitation alongside her heartbeat.

A little like a bottle of soda. Contents under pressure. Best not to shake it. "So, next?"

"Sure." Kei hit a button on Hayate's flat phone screen.

The next face was… It was terrible. Terrible in a way that was familiar and wrong in different ways than he'd been expecting. Foreign, to start with. The face was too angular, with a sharp nose and the jaw distended almost to a point, and the yellowed teeth were human-sharp behind red lips, instead of deceptively rounded white nubs. Laugh lines and frown lines of someone in their forties. The hair was still a dark green, but slicked back instead of spikes, but—

The eyes were red. Not yellow. They stared at the photo-taker with intensity that drilled right through everything, even though the rest of the face was wild.

"Is…? That can't be a Zetsu." Hayate hated the sound of his own voice when it cracked, and twice that when it cracked in fear.

"No, this is a local problem. They call him the Joker."

Kei scrolled down on his phone screen far enough to point out the kana. According to the webpage, no one knew what his real name was. The sack-wearing man had been "Crane" past all the artifice, complete with a mugshot, and Hayate wasn't sure if knowing the name was better or worse. The unknown wasn't ever comforting for a shinobi. What you didn't know usually had the best chance to kill you.

And the spike of wariness-resignation-revulsion in Kei's chakra was the worst of all. It shuddered like a huge beast under Hayate's scrutiny. "Oneesan?"

"One of the things it doesn't say here," Kei said, while resting her head against the top of his, "is that Akaboshi is using his old name." Red Hood. It sounded even worse all of a sudden. "Akaboshi" was silly, but it was so much friendlier than that. "There used to be a 'Red Hood' gang years and years ago, but it's dead and mostly forgotten. He's the one thing that got left behind."

"Do you think Akaboshi knew this?" Hayate asked, even as he felt the certainty like a solid foundation in Kei's chakra.

"Absolutely." Kei's certainty was as sharp and cold and hard as ice. "Even Tsunade-sama would call that a sucker's bet."

Well, if she was that sure. "And she'd win, and then there'd be trouble."

"Nothing good ever happens when the Joker is involved," Kei said firmly. That thread of revulsion in her voice and her chakra hadn't calmed since they started talking about this guy. "He's obsessed with Batman and morbid jokes where murder is the punchline. Stay the hell away from him."

The Joker's pasty face creeped Hayate out anyway, so making that promise was easy. Hayate didn't really plan to go to a meet-and-greet of Gotham's worst criminals just because he was in town. Most tourists wouldn't, he thought. And if he did happen to run into these people, Kei probably wouldn't complain if Hayate just…didn't get in the way if Akaboshi killed them. It sounded like she mostly wanted the least amount of trouble possible.

How that worked out when she also hadn't said anything (out loud) about banning Hayate from being around Akaboshi, Hayate didn't know.

The "who's-who of Gotham's evils" topic ended up being a recurring conversation. Over the two days they spent indoors, Kei explained every villain she thought might be an actual threat and left the rest for Hayate to think about in his ample free time. It wasn't like she stopped working on her fūinjutsu projects just because they were stuck in a foreign country.

And then Akaboshi blew something up in the middle of the city.

Finding Akaboshi wasn't that hard for someone who'd had the run of his territory for most of the month. Kei didn't let them go search immediately, though, which kind of ruined Hayate's speed record up until this point.

Instead, she sat down on the couch while Hayate geared up, placing a complex-looking talisman in the middle of the coffee table, surrounded by four auxiliaries. By the time Hayate finished pulling on his boots, Kei pressed her hand firmly to the seal and summoned up enough of Isobu's chakra to kill a normal person twice over. It wasn't filling the air with a burning rage so much as a lurking dread, like the ocean. With all that power, she deposited a cat-sized lump of pinkish coral on the table. Using her other hand and the baby talismans rising from the table, floating around her creation, Kei molded the mass into a shape that mostly resembled the Three-Tails.

"Are you planning on getting the deposit back?" Hayate asked, leaning over Kei's shoulder to watch closely as she worked.

"Again, we're not paying for this place. The Bats provided it." Coral folded in her hands as she tried to mold the spikes along the edges of the shell. Anyone else who touched it would need a chisel to get free. At best. So, Hayate kept his hands well out of the way. "I haven't seen a bill."

"Are they going to keep paying for it?" Hayate asked, crossing his arms in such a way that he leaned half his weight against her shoulder. She didn't seem to notice. "You're doing experiments on their furniture."

"Wouldn't be the first time." The last of the talismans disappeared into the coral body, and Kei pulled her hands back to assess her work. Then she made a couple of hand seals, ending on Snake, and poked the sculpture in its badly-defined face. "Robin didn't say anything about it."

"Pretty sure Robin has literally no idea what fūinjutsu is." Especially if Kei actively refused to help the learning process. Even more of her techniques were considered village secrets than Hayate's were.

Like someone sucking in their gut, the coral beast snapped into the actual correct shape. The shell turned green-gray, as did all of the armor plates, and red flooded across the ribbed underbelly a moment later. And as Hayate watched, yellow light glimmered in the only visible eye as the miniature bijū moved. Stretched, even, with all five limbs.

"Good morning," Hayate told him, like this happened every day.

It didn't. Hayate hadn't actually seen that face and that shell and that chakra's source since his sister's exhibition match with the Hokage. Looking at the bijū sitting on the table, a bunch of questions sprang to mind. Why had Kei been working on a Beast Clone fūinjutsu? Maybe the city really was that dangerous. If it wasn't, then it had still scared her, and that was actually worse.

And why was Isobu kinda cute? Like, in a pug dog way. Or maybe more in a "this thing that can totally kill me has kinda big eyes and a round shape" way. Hayate wasn't sure if Isobu kept his right eye shut because there was a problem with it or he was just quirky.

Isobu turned his fake head toward Hayate and nodded, which wasn't exactly a bow. He didn't owe Hayate one. "It is not morning."

"It's what I thought of first, okay?" It was super weird to see their other permanent roommate in the not-flesh like this and actually talk directly. Still, everything was weird lately. Hayate only had so much room in his head for more of it. "Is this a new look?"

"I do not think so," said Isobu, looking toward Kei for some details. "This is not truly my body, but I can move it. And I can feel some things. Thank you for the experience, I suppose."

"It's not totally free. You're going to have to distract some assassins by beating the crap out of them," Kei said, even as she ran her fingers carefully over his shell. To Hayate, she added, "Isobu-chan has enough power even in this puppet form to draw them all in like fish. Should give us plenty of time to get where we're going."

"Ah, exercise." All three of his tails—didn't wag, exactly, because he wasn't a dog—but they swayed. He angled himself upward on his little armored hands. "You know me so well."

"Try not to kill anyone," Kei said, exasperation already in her voice. "I'll even toss you off the big bridge if you want."

"I am interested," Isobu said immediately. His voice was more of a happy chirp than Hayate had ever heard it. "It is only disappointing that the local water quality is so terrible you cannot enjoy it."

Kei didn't even like swimming back home that much, where the lakes and rivers warmed up to a survivable temperature range in the summer. Even traditional onsen, scattered around Konoha, were more tolerated than actually enjoyed. Hayate was pretty sure her shake-off-water technique was the second Water Release technique she'd ever learned. She was pretty willing to accommodate other people's hatred of wet clothes, too.

"Well, if you find sunken treasure down there somewhere, at least it'll definitely be yours." Kei paused, thinking it over. With a sardonic twist to her mouth, she added, "It'll probably be mostly forty-year-old murder weapons."

"I'm not sure what I want to know what a bijū would do with a knife." Hayate squatted near the table and held his hands out, and was simultaneously gratified and a little intimidated when Isobu scooted into his grasp. He let Isobu's little hands grip his fingers, unable to resist poking his thumb against each blunt-tipped spike he could find. It felt a little like the plastic balls Akaboshi threw into the laundry machine. "Huh, even your joints feel like coral. Even your belly's all rough and gritty."

"This body did not change composition, only appearance." Isobu squirmed a little until Hayate finally turned him around, holding Isobu under his foreleg-arms like a very boxy toddler. Isobu's tails curled against Hayate's stomach and the two outer ones wrapped around his waist after a few seconds, which sort of felt like a hug back. But backwards. "Are we leaving soon?"

"If a certain someone doesn't take forever," Hayate complained. He was pretty sure Isobu groaned in unison with him.

Kei had gone into the kitchen area while Isobu was acting like a baby monkey. Now she came back, drying her hands on her pants. Fūinjutsu ink came off skin easier than cloth, due to blood being an ingredient, but it probably wouldn't be too bad if Kei left traces. Then she put on her shoes and gloves and hooked her katana to her belt instead of over her back, which was as much of a sign that she expected a fight as raised fists would've been.

Actually, the sword was probably worse.

"So, do I call you…?" Hayate began, angling his head to try and meet Isobu's gaze. His eye, staring back, was about the size of Hayate's fingernail and glowed a little. "Um…"

Isobu considered the question. "Address me as 'Isobu-chan' when I look like this, please."

"Gotcha."

Kei fitted her mask over her face last, then held out Hayate's. "Here."

"All right, fine." Hayate shifted Isobu to under one arm, allowing Kei's inner demon to climb up his jacket until he had his little hands fixed in Hayate's hoodie. Like a bijū backpack. His tails were still holding him in place as Hayate put the mask and the goggles on with both hands. "Just so you know, I don't really need these."

"It'll probably make Akaboshi-san feel better if you have an air filter," Kei said. Standing back and tilting her masked face a little, she admitted, "Especially in this town."

Hayate frowned behind his mask, even as Isobu climbed up far enough to peer over his shoulder. "I guess."

"I am growing impatient," Isobu growled in his little puppy voice. Meanwhile, Pakkun had an actual bass note he could use when angry, so the fact that Isobu didn't felt like the universe making fun of his current size.

Kei sighed and reached up to scratch behind Isobu's little head, past the spike crown and into the wrinkles on his neck. "Then we'll go. Do either of you need anything else from here before we leave?"

Hayate shook his head.

Isobu made a humming noise. "I need nothing for now."

Hayate hitched Isobu up on his back, and Isobu managed to grip the ends of two tails and actually turn himself into a weird backpack harness thing. Sure, his head ended up around the base of Hayate's neck, but Isobu didn't drool or anything, so that was fine. "You good, Isobu-chan?"

"Yes."

Kei took the time to leave her phone on the couch and mess with the security seals before they left, leaving Hayate sitting out on the metal staircase for a couple of minutes with Isobu. Once she was done, Hayate followed his sister down the side of the building and leaping for the next rooftop.

And the next.

And the next.

Once you jump off one building, you've jumped off…most of them. Maybe Hayate needed to explore the city more. The taller parts, specifically. Some of the really, really tall glass-faced buildings looked like they'd be way more fun than just running across the roofs of apartments and short businesses.

All complaints aside, it was still no worse than traversing the Forest of Death. There weren't any huge centipedes to worry about on the rooftops, unlike the canopy back home. Just occasional vigilantes and maybe someone shooting pointlessly at them.

They made it to one of the big steel-and-concrete wiry bridges in a couple of minutes, which Kei explained worked through suspending the "driving decks" from cables along the length. The really, really big cables held up those cables, and there were two roads underneath that were mostly empty at just after ten at night. While the wind ripped at all of them, like it always did a hundred meters out over water, Hayate set Isobu down on the painted metal frame of the first big support tower.

"I have decided what I need," Isobu said, keeping one tail wrapped around Hayate's wrist. Even when Hayate needed both hands, all Isobu did was shift his grip to Hayate's elbow.

Since he was probably the one being addressed, Hayate asked, "What's that?"

"I would like you to throw me as far as you can." Isobu's unoccupied tails curled a couple of times, like a person flexing their fists, and it sounded a little like snap-peas. Not that Hayate could hear him that well with the sheer volume of windy interference.

"Me?"

"Yes."

Hayate looked to Kei for a second opinion.

Kei noticed he was looking after a couple of seconds, then shrugged.

Hayate made a pouty face at her, even behind his full-face disguise, and pitched his chakra into a wordless complaint to make his point.

It took Kei a couple of minutes, because she was being annoying about it, but in the end she mimed grabbing Isobu's tails in a bunch, swinging around in a circle to build momentum, and then hurling Isobu into the void. Like that was an actual thing people were allowed to do to a bijū who could flood a whole town in five minutes.

Isobu watched her do it and didn't correct her, though. That seemed like permission.

In the end, while Hayate did try to follow their suggestion, Isobu had to curl up like a pillbug to avoid hitting the water belly-first. Or at least, that was what Kei said.

"I'm sure he's fine," was all the detail that was actually necessary.

Oh, and the little fact that nearly all of Isobu's chakra seemed to follow him. Kei's share of his power had retreated so far inside the seal on her chest that it was almost undetectable, even for Hayate.

He didn't even know what Kei's chakra suppression skills were like without that constant, low-level hum. Tonight seemed to be the time to find out, even if it made Hayate uncomfortable. Kei didn't need his permission to experiment on herself—she didn't even really need the Hokage's permission, though that didn't mean she just did stuff on the fly.

Gotham was bad for her, in a lot of different ways.

"I lost track of him really fast," Hayate admitted, rather than addressing that. He peered down into the black abyss, though Isobu was well out of sight. Not to mention his maximum sensor range. "Did you feel him hit the water?"

"It's more that he's telling me I'm a killjoy for not wanting to be down there with him." Kei paused, as though listening. It struck Hayate, not for the first time, how often she did that. "And…that next time he wants a ramp for a rolling start. Still, we're good to go meet your friend."

"Finally."


Upon returning to his closest safehouse, Jason performed his perimeter check, rearmed every single security device to withstand a siege, and only then retreated to the bathroom for the medkit. As he peeled his jacket and armor and underlayers away from the cut on his arm, the copper smell of blood and the tackiness of the would-be scab made themselves known. Jason angled the wound toward the mirror in the too-stark lighting, running water over it with a hiss.

Not lethal. Not even that deep; Miss Stabby had caught him mid-dodge instead of flatfooted, so he'd managed to turn with the blow. It had already mostly stopped bleeding, even after he ran a washcloth and peroxide over it to disinfect everything. Fresh blood welled up in the middle, but the edges were basically new scab.

Ditching this place wasn't mandatory —yet—but only because he'd never brought Hayate here. The kid couldn't be cajoled, bribed, or threatened into giving up what he didn't know.

The apartment was a different beast altogether. He'd deal with it after his arm wasn't a biohazard.

Jason dug into the medkit. Bandages, disinfectant, topical ointments, all check. On one side, there were the sterilized, hooked needles—well. It'd been a while since he was hurt worse than bruising, and he had plenty of that, too. He'd done this before, and it was an endurance match every time.

He might not require stitches. If he did, he could deal with it. There was topical numbing gel in the kit. The only thing he couldn't administer himself was a local anesthetic, because of the awkward angle, but he'd—

He'd have walked Hayate through it, if it came up before. In case the kid didn't already know. Before tonight.

It seemed like something a baby ninja should know, if he spent as much time in hospitals as he implied. For his own sake if nothing else. God knew the kid could use every self-preservation lesson Jason could cram into his skull. Hayate hadn't gotten hurt since Jason picked him off the ground that first night, and that was a record he—was proud of, a little. The kid was okay. Back in the smothering arms of his demon-possessed sister.

The kid wasn't his responsibility anymore.

Jason pushed the thought away. Getting himself stitched up wasn't pleasant, and was never going to be, but that just meant it required his focus. Nothing else did.

Not now.

With Hayate gone, it gave Jason more room to think and plan. He didn't need to constantly account for a shadow at his back, dark eyes tracking his every move as though searching for the right way to jump. There was no one to hide from.

That first night passed with a haze of pain and—something aching, in his chest. It lurked under Jason's thoughts like quicksand, ready to snatch and drown the unwary. Maybe it bubbled green like the Lazarus Pit; Jason didn't look. Instead, he caught snatches of sleep between nightmares punctuated by screams and laughter, and the sound of his own bones breaking under his skin. The noise was dull, but it didn't matter. He remembered.

He'd never forget.

Jason didn't patrol his territory that night. With the Bats flying in anxious circles, he didn't have to. Even the civilians kept their heads down; with power armored assassins running around, Jason appreciated how half the Alley battened down the fucking hatches the second they heard that there was trouble. It was all gang violence, but Black Mask had never been a careful operator and Jason's people were mostly trusted. The word got out, and only the Fearsome Hand of Four got carted away in the paddy wagon, to await whatever fate beckoned to assassins that failed that hard. Jason didn't even think a single two-bit street mugger made a peep until morning.

And when he did, two of the working girls flagged down one of Jason's men—a friend of Mike's—and dealt with the problem.

Instead, he snuck here and there in the Alley, checking up on his other safehouses in a daylight disguise. Nothing was out of place. Even the dust and grime on the windows was undisturbed. He only needed to throw out food that had gone past its date, which was routine.

Had been routine. Jason hadn't been visiting them as often while Hayate was waiting for him in the actual apartment. Maybe he should have dragged the kid along on a cleaning day, just once. Not that Hayate didn't clean anyway, but it would've been something to do during the actual day. Like people without totally Bat-fucked sleep schedules.

Jason had screaming nightmares again, the next time he slept, but having no one around to hear them…didn't help. Not exactly. But he could let his non-Red Hood time slip away a little easier when he was alone. Jason wasn't gonna judge himself at this point. He was past caring.

A quiet moment found Jason lying on his couch, holding his third burner phone up on his chest with one hand. His finger traced the screen, hovering over the little string of emojis that was the saved number for Hayate's phone. One of them was just a stop sign. Jason wasn't sure the kid had gotten the joke.

He could call the kid. Check in. Make sure his sister wasn't treating him like shit.

Jason dropped the phone flat onto his shirt. Locked the screen and left himself in the dark, behind blackout curtains. His stitches pinched on his bent arm, sending a low line of fire up his bicep.

No.

Better if the kid didn't hear from him again. Not until this was over, one way or another.

It took less than two days for that resolution to fly straight out the goddamn window, and it wasn't even Jason's fault.

He stayed the hell away from common points of interest besides the gang meetups, and even those Jason could operate mostly through a smartphone. He had useful people in place. They needed to be micromanaged less since the fight with the Fearsome Foursome. If he needed to order anything, it was to remind his people to lay low until the screaming stopped.

Or takeout, maybe. He had the cash.

And the security systems on his safehouses and his apartment were all unbroken. There was no sign of either Spike or Hayate all night, and the semi-frantic Bat patrols were being truncated by Gotham's persistent rain squalls. He avoided them easily, and got yet more night work done.

After getting his office forcibly remodeled via rocket launcher, Sionis had finally started putting out tendrils to Arkham. The Joker would be out within the week, and then the final act could begin.

All the pieces were in place. The players simply needed to give the performance of a lifetime.

And the night after kicking Black Mask in the figurative teeth again, Jason got two full, silent steps into his apartment before he registered the person perched at his counter.

In his defense, he was coming off a multi-hour enforcement patrol of his territory, which included two gunshots square into his body armor (that hurt like hell), and previously spent a solid month with this specific other person taking up place in his life. And the kitchen nook off to the left, at an angle where his helmet's design created a minor blind spot, hid the familiar teenage chaos gremlin from immediate view.

Oblivious to this furious rationalizing of Jason's heart rake spike, Hayate perked up like the past three nights hadn't happened, saying, "Welcome home!" while something fried was cooking up in a pan. Like usual.

"I'm home—" Reflex pushed Jason that far, but then he had to stop.

Because for some reason there was a teenager cooking post-patrol meals in his apartment again, as though he hadn't specifically ditched Hayate with his sister. They should have pranced off into the smog-covered sunset or whatever. "Hayate, what are you doing here?"

"You didn't actually say I wasn't welcome to come back," the kid said with a shrug. Because he was a brat, ninja training or not, he outright grinned and spread his arms in a "ta-dah!" motion. "So here I am!"

The kid had even tossed his borrowed mask and goggles on the counter, like Jason hadn't scolded him for that five times already. And the kid's shoes were by the front door, which was so perfectly mundane and consistent that Jason hadn't even realized it was weird that there were more pairs next to the mat than residents.

On one hand, yes, it was nice that Hayate apparently considered Jason's apartment a safe place while in Gotham. Jason's withered heart gave him a bit of a break, letting him enjoy about three seconds of pride and warmth. On the other… "I don't think smoke bombs and ditching you was that ambiguous."

"You also said I could come to you if I needed anything."

And wasn't Jason regretting that now, kept awake by adrenaline and bafflement. That open invite had been offered while Hayate had still been recovering from being shot. And even then, the kid was offered an inch and took a mile. Jason still didn't know how a tech-ignorant, magical, murder-cult survivor could constantly subvert his security without at least knowing what to sabotage first. Somehow,, that didn't stop it from happening.

"You can't tell me your sister isn't up to the job," Jason said, instead of his first few thoughts. He set his helmet on the counter by the door and tried peering around, in case Hayate had brought more stuff back from his custody dispute adventure.

There was a sound like a house settling in the small hours of the morning, but Jason had gone through every inch of the apartment to muffle most of that when he moved in, aware of his hair-trigger and nightmares forming an unholy alliance early on. The leftover noise was actually ignorable.

That was the couch's shitty springs creaking.

Hayate noticed Jason noticing, and added quickly, "I'm not the only one here."

"Obviously," Jason growled, his hand on his gun already. That he didn't draw it was a courtesy he was rapidly reconsidering in the face of Hayate's ignorant little kid act. He had to know Jason didn't want people around. "I'd have already told you that you can't bring friends over, but you don't have any."

"Rude! But my sister agreed with you on some stuff, and isn't a friend, so she said—"

"Hayate, I wanted you out of the way so you would be safe." Putting aside the demon-possessed sister problem, the kid would happily argue semantics for hours until Jason shut this shit down. He'd make a terrible but very persistent lawyer if he made a career out of this kind of quibbling. "So you could stay the hell out of range of what's happening next."

"I am, though!" Hayate insisted, getting to his feet and shoving the barstool to the side. He scooted around the counter as Jason hit the proper release for his helmet one-handed and removed it to glare at him. All Hayate did was let it wash over him, unaffected. "I'm not even getting into any fights without Oneesan's supervision. Because she's not supervising, and therefore I'm not allowed to do anything she doesn't approve of when she's not looking."

Jason turned that over in his head and blanched, though he hid it well. Hayate's understanding of the rules to running around Gotham wouldn't even keep a Roomba out of trouble. "And why isn't she supervising?"

"Because she's on the couch with a headache and a warm compress, and that means it's your turn." Hayate punctuated this with a sassy little "ta-dah" hand wave in the direction of the couch.

What.

Jason moved his hand from his gun almost without thinking, instead leaning over the back of the couch to find, indeed, someone dressed almost entirely in black with a damp kitchen towel over the top half of her head. Like Hayate, she'd ditched her shoes politely before sticking her feet on his furniture, but she had one arm flung up and keeping her compress in place. When Jason's weight warped the couch cushion to her back, she lifted it enough to see and cracked one eye open to glare at him.

Even from that bad angle, Jason noticed her resemblance to her brother instantly. She was a little darker, her face a little sharper, but the pair of them definitely looked more like each other than most siblings Jason had ever met.

"I should kick both of your asses out," Jason told her flatly, in English.

"Should. And won't." Spike rolled her eyes and put the cloth down again.

Running into a Gotham resident who didn't fear Red Hood was less and less common as time went on, for the very good reason that Jason put a lot of goddamn work into being terrifying. Ghosting around Crime Alley was a tall order even for a zombie, but in a way Jason's whole life story thus far had just refined the skills he'd already needed to survive. He'd been a child of Gotham since birth and was only further refined the longer he stayed. It gave him the crucial home field advantage needed to make shock and awe work for his burgeoning organization.

But he was also dangerous because he had the good judgment to not go around picking fights he couldn't win. Every op as Red Hood was meticulous. Jason never fought without at least three aces up his sleeve. And with metas out of his weight class, especially without some kind of equalizer, the math didn't usually work out.

Batman was human. Black Mask and the Joker and the Penguin were all human. Jason knew what resources each of them could bring, even if they thought they were going loaded for bear.

Whatever Spike was, she'd looked directly at Jason in the full Red Hood suit—on more than one occasion—and shoved him into the category of "not-threat." Between that little moment, the fight-ending encounter the other night, and Hayate's testimony, Jason could see the source of her confidence.

And the only sure tactic to level this playing field was to take advantage of Hayate's presence. The kid had followed Jason to the couch, humming, and stood well within reach as he adjusted the compress on his sister's face. Jason could just grab him. He'd be a hostage in a blink.

As soon as the thought came to mind, Jason swatted it away. Even if Jason could stomach putting a gun to Hayate's head, it'd be a great reason for Spike to shuffle him out of the "non-threat" box and maul Jason inside of his own apartment. He'd seen how two of the Fearsome Foursome crumpled under her attention. And those were the two with the most tech upgrades.

"Oneesan, lemme see." Hayate pulled the warm compress off his sister's face, made a judgey noise that got him a glare of his own, and added, "You'll be fine."

And he let it fall back onto her head with a damp thwap.

Spike waved an arm irritably and didn't fight back when Hayate caught her wrist and put her hand back over the compress. "Stop being a brat."

"Never."

"Gotham's been terrible for your attitude."

Hayate shrugged. "I like to think I'm learning local culture."

"Kill me now," was Spike's response.

"Not before we eat," Hayate told her, levering off the back of the couch and companionably smacking Jason's uninjured bicep. On his way back to the stove, he added, "Come on, it's stir-fry time. Just go wash up first."

Jason put down his helmet next to Spike's feet solely so he could smack both hands to his forehead. This was twenty thousand full fucking leagues away from what he'd expected from these two. In hindsight, he wasn't sure why. Hayate clearly had to get his irreverent tendencies from somewhere, and his parents weren't exactly around for the comparison.

Still, he made a detour to the bathroom and stripped off the domino mask. Washed his hands and changed into the spare clothes that Hayate apparently left on the towel rack, like it was a normal shitty night and the kid was just trying to usher Jason off to bed as fast as possible. Which was most of the nights before he'd started supervising Hayate's nighttime exploits.

They'd barely stopped doing that stuff.

By the time Jason emerged from the bathroom, with the Red Hood gear bundled up to go into its secure case and a bottle of over the counter painkillers, Hayate had dragged his sister to the counter and left her slumped grouchily in front of a plate of slightly scorched rice and vegetables. He'd set out three sets of tableware as though it was the actual routine.

Jason managed to hold himself back from boggling at the effortless way the kid maneuvered around both of them like he'd done it his whole life. Eying Spike's lump of a self, Jason had to wonder if it was exactly that. She didn't move even as Jason put all his gear into safe storage and headed to the kitchen with just the pills, grasped loosely in one hand.

"The headache started after we crossed the bridge, in case you were wondering," Hayate explained, which was as unhelpful as most of his attempts to elaborate on anything. "Which kind of sucks since I was going to have her take a look at your arm. Aniki, do you have painkillers?"

"If he runs a drug smuggling operation, I sure hope so," Spike muttered from under her elbow.

Jason groaned out loud. "Pushy as hell, aren't you?"

"Is that a no?" Hayate asked.

Instead of answering, Jason threw the bottle of ibuprofen at Spike's head.

She caught it without even looking up, unscrewed the childproof cap, and dispensed two pills for herself. Levering herself up on her elbows, she downed both pills and about a quarter of her glass of water in seconds before resealing the pill bottle. Then she curled back into her pathetic slouch and pulled her hood over her head. Protesting the kitchen light, maybe.

"Gotham's no good for her," Hayate said, once he'd piled the other two plates high with food and slid them in front of his own spot and in front of Jason's. After a second, he nudged Spike's plate until it touched her elbow. "She's been super stressed this whole time."

Jason didn't sympathize that much. Spike didn't have to worry about the same problems as people who couldn't put Killer Croc through a wall. And if Bats were dealing with her in any capacity, they were probably footing the bill. Maybe it wasn't living the high life, but there was definitely no danger of Spike starving or dying of exposure.

"I'm right here, you know," Spike said, groping for the fork until she picked it up and stuck it into the food. She lifted her head, putting her deeply shadowed eyes in clear view, and added, "Thanks for cooking, Hayate."

Hayate shrugged, leaning most of his weight against her without hesitation. "I'm probably better than you are at stir-fry by now. Lots of practice."

"At least one of us kept up," was the worn-out rejoinder. Spike rubbed at her eyes with her free hand, muttering something under her breath.

Jason waited for a while before beginning the interrogation. Specifically, he waited until Spike's painkillers fully kicked in, which meant that all three of them had a chance to eat Hayate's cooking and not talk in deference to her headache in the meantime.

It gave Jason time to think. Too much time, maybe.

How many times had he been in Hayate's position? Not well-fed and safe—hah—but playing caretaker to the adult with nominal responsibility. Keeping the world at bay by nerve and grit and pain, even as the only person who loved him slipped further out of reach.

Maudlin, Jason thought. He'd known almost from the first moment that Hayate didn't know what it was like to fight for such desperate scraps. He wasn't a Narrows kid at all. His scrappiness wasn't the same breed.

"Oneesan, you do have to eat," Hayate insisted while Jason pondered silently, shoving at his sister's shoulder when she took too long.

Spike sighed. "Nice to know every metabolic schedule I have is completely fucked, then."

Hayate was unbothered. "We can put off fixing it until we get home. Around here, only the night shift gets anything done."

"Ain't that the truth."

No, he'd been something else. A fighter from the start. But it was still putting hell in the hands of a child and letting the dice roll.

Sitting at his mother's—at Catherine's—side on the couch, trying to cajole her into eating just a little more of whatever he'd scrounged up that day, that week, that month. Phantom hands, rendered a paper-thin memory by time, curled around Jason's fingers as though he'd never grown. His mom's hands, always trembling, until toward the end when she couldn't lift them at all.

Jason flexed his own hands, which never felt like they'd held hers, and tried to focus on dinner even as it turned to ash in his mouth.

He couldn't remember her voice now. It was faint enough to be faded out, to only a silhouette. More shape than substance. Either taken by death or the Lazarus Pit or something between those moments, slithering into his brain and dragging long-lost feelings out of the morass only when he let his guard down. Or when a reminder was thrown in his face.

With the clink of a plate and silverware in front of him, Jason shook off the memories like cobwebs. He snatched the dishwashing job from Hayate, feeling the need to keep his hands busy more than anything. Maybe the kid could read his mood even with his face as impassive as he could get it, because Hayate let him.

Several minutes later and with his hands deep in the suds—unnecessarily so, since Hayate was about as neat while cooking as he was the rest of the time—Jason finally asked, "So, why the hell are you here actually?"

Hayate made an impressively unimpressed expression at him. "I already told you I wanted Oneesan to heal your arm."

Because Jason was totally going to let a magic medic with a migraine mangle his arm. "Kid, I'm healing fine."

"You got sliced and diced two days ago, so no, you're not." Hayate leaned forward like he was about to use the countertop as a pulpit.

Spike sighed, loud enough for both of them to pause. "Just let me take a look."

Somehow, Jason ended up with his arm stretched out on the counter, sitting next to Spike with his sleeve rolled up far enough for her to peel back the waterproof bandage. Which she did annoyingly slowly.

Though her eyebrows pinched together a little as she surveyed the neat row of stitches, Spike just stuck out one hand and let it hover over his injury. After a second or two, her hand started glowing very faintly blue.

"It's just a diagnostic technique," Spike said in English when Jason tried to jerk his arm away. Spike's other hand kept his wrist pinned to the table exactly long enough to warn him it was a bad move. Then she let go. "I'm not even doing anything to you yet."

"An X-ray is still a medical procedure. Same with ultrasound or whatever magic shit you're doing now."

"Then I'm sure Superman should know that he owes people lead aprons every time he scans anything in Metropolis." With that snappy comeback to exactly nobody out in the air, Spike sat back and added, "You need to ice the bruises. As for the arm, you're healing faster than a normal person would. Do you want me to try and cut down the recovery time a little more?"

"No thank you," Jason said, and barely accepted her help in applying another bandage. Still, the tension was more background noise than before. Even with Hayate stealing the dishwashing chore and clanking around, Spike came across as a mostly-harmless weirdo until she wasn't. "What do I call you, anyway?"

"If you use Hayate's name, you can use mine." Spike didn't look up from where she was manipulating his elbow, apparently out of an abundance of medical caution. "Most people call me 'Kei,' no honorific needed."

"I swear I already told you that, Aniki," said Hayate, which was an unusually accurate guess, for him. He had his phone out and was typing again.

"Forgive me for not thinking a person's name is a letter," Jason muttered with a roll of his eyes.

"It's actually 'Keisuke,' but our dad named me after his uncle and Mom let him," Kei explained, shrugging. She retreated out of arm's reach, apparently without thinking about it. "Thankfully, by the second kid, Mom put her foot down."

Jason didn't want to hear this. This—this family domesticity and in-joke onslaught. Like being trapped in a fucking sitcom where everyone knew the lines but him. It was off-kilter, like he'd turned on the TV and gotten sucked into a show instead of sitting right here and meeting two extremely off-kilter burglars. It was fucking terrible, as much for being exclusive as for being weirdly disarming. Noticing it cut the effect down by half.

Without Hayate as a moderating presence, knowing what Jason knew about Spike—about Kei, now, there'd have been a shouting match instead. Fists flying, weapons out, crashing through windows maybe at the end. Something nice and final for the end note, pure punctuation.

Going by the cold look on Kei's face as she settled back into her seat, the feeling was probably mutual.

Good.

"I think we have a few things to discuss," Kei said, leaning on her elbow with her gaze fixed on Jason. "Before the painkillers wear off."

Hayate put a hand against her bicep. "Oneesan, don't go into this with a bad attitude."

Kei glanced at him sidelong. Nothing in her expression invited debate. "Go sit on the couch. It's not a conversation for kids."

Wrong thing to say. Hayate stiffened in offense at the dismissal. "Hey—"

"Akaboshi-san and I need to talk, and you don't need to hear this."

"I have a phone, you know."

"And you won't be able to translate fast enough with it to keep up," said Jason, catching onto the concession Kei threw his way when it was shoved in his face.

While they could have shouted at each other on rooftops or even at the dives where Jason put gangsters to work, Kei didn't want the discussion—or rumor of it—to spread. It was the same reason Jason hated when Hayate followed him to strategy meetings. Being contradicted by a brat and not immediately shutting that shit down weakened his position in front of his men, and Red Hood relied on fear. Showing up in Jason's actual apartment was deeply unsettling and made him want to redo all his security ASAP—preferably after shaking both of them until they told him how the hell they kept getting in—but it didn't actively undermine his reputation.

They'd made a call he didn't fucking like, but it wasn't going to kill him. Today.

It wasn't the kind of concern Hayate seemed to have very often, given his persistent stalking. The kid's big sister clearly had her own opinions.

Hayate relocated to the couch only after making a show of sulking, flipping over the armrest and making all the springs screech when he landed square on his back. He then pulled out his phone and started playing some tinny J-Pop song that Jason neither recognized nor cared about.

Kei shook her head at her brother's antics. When she turned her attention back to Jason, something in her face and her body language sharpened.

It wasn't the same as her fear-projecting aura.

It was very human.

Jason matched her, leaning on the countertop and lacing his fingers together so he didn't get the urge to leap up and punch that icy face. "I've been listening, you know. To every single thing the kid let slip. And let me tell you, I've got some notes."

"Feeling's mutual, Hood."


Notes:

1. Some fears are culture-dependent rather than being universal. The most relevant result is Hayate doesn't have an automatic aversion toward clowns. But Kei sure does.
2. Stabby the Roomba vs. Isobu the Volleyball: Fight! (To the people who keep wondering if/when Kei will develop the capacity to give Isobu an RC car of a body, wonder no longer. Even if it is small.)
3. Using the clone technique that Kei did there essentially removes her automatic protection against Gotham sensory overload, and both she and Isobu knew that when they started. Hayate did and does not.
4. Depending on what canon you subscribe to, Jason does have a minor healing factor from his Lazarus Pit exposure. It's not that far above human baseline, but DC is a continuity where "peak human conditioning" is more akin to Captain America than anything we see in real life. And in the Rebirth continuity in particular, Jason has access to mystical flaming swords called the All-Blades. Studying with warrior monk cults (in this case, the All-Caste) can be a real roulette.