In hindsight, maybe covering the closing shift at a hole-in-the wall diner in this part of town was not her brightest move. Really, working at a hole-in-the-wall diner anywhere in this city at any time of day was probably not the best thing she could have done as a newcomer. But food and rent and fabric cost money, and despite holding the title of Guardian of the Miraculous, the position was vastly underpaid. Without a real job and with the income from her most recent commission having mostly been put toward her first six months of rent (what else was she going to do with that amount of money in the crime capital of the country?), food and furniture, money was becoming scarce. So here she was, two weeks into her job waiting and cleaning tables after the few stragglers in Miss Katie’s Diner, just a few blocks south of the worst part of town.
Miss Katie herself had looked dubious when Marinette had submitted her application, but upon noting that the frankly tiny French woman held not one but four blackbelts in various martial arts, the owner had shrugged and hired her on the spot. As a child, Marinette had had boundless energy, and before she’d turned three, her mother had placed her in gymnastics classes and begun what would become a life-long pursuit of self-defense in multiple martial arts. In the beginning, it had all been in the name of trying to exhaust the exuberant toddler into a nap and a full night’s sleep. It had gone on to serve her well in her time as Ladybug. But with the threat of emotional terrorism long gone from Paris, all that training now served as a way to ensure her survival in the brutal hellscape known as Gotham, New Jersey.
There were only two patrons left, their table littered with an appalling assortment of empties and several pizza pans. She found herself grateful that they hadn’t been the only ones at the table in the beginning. Two human beings would never survive ingesting that much alcohol, no matter the amount of pizza that had accompanied it. But their companions had left more than a half hour ago, and their tab had been paid. Sighing, Marinette glanced at her watch and groaned internally. Katie wanted the diner shut down and cleaned by 2am. It was 1:45, and this last table was, frankly, a disaster. She was going to have to kick them out if she were ever going to go home. It wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but thankfully, she’d mastered the glare and commanding voice she needed to use to clear a space when she was fifteen. She would only use it if she needed to.
“I’m sorry to say, gentleman,” her deceptively soft voice interrupted their own hushed conversation as she reached for a few of the empties, “that it’s about time to close up. Your tab has already been paid, and Miss Katie is pretty strict with closing time. I need you to gather any of your belongings and head home.”
They didn’t respond beyond the taller man on her left giving her a glance from the corner of his eye. She stifled yet another sigh and continued to gather empty glasses and bottles. Maybe when she returned to pick up the rest and clean the table, they’d get the hint and leave. She doubted it, but a girl could dream, right? With the first round of bottles disposed and the glassware in the dishwasher, Marinette squared her shoulders and approached the delinquent customers again, this time with no pretense of politeness.
“Sirs. The diner is closed, and I have a job to do. It is time for you to leave.”
Her change in demeanor and tone got their attention, and alarms rang in her head as the man on the left stood, placing his hand on her back. Even years after her stint as a hero had ended, Marinette’s reflexes were lightning fast. She stepped away from the tall stranger, and when he reached for her again, she twisted her arm over the offending appendage and jabbed at a pressure point in his lower back, stunning him, before striking his face twice in quick succession and kicking him away from her. As he slumped, unconscious, on the floor, his partner had risen from his chair. She spun and kicked him back into his seat, but he stood again quickly and swung at her. She dodged, swinging back and managed a glancing blow. The stockier figure retreated, only to pick up a nearby chair and fling it at her. She registered a deep satisfaction when she caught the leg of the chair, and her assailant’s eyes blew wide as she delivered one final kick to his stomach and he tumbled away, knocking his head on the corner of a nearby table and crumpled in a heap on the floor, unconscious as well. Marinette huffed a sigh and pulled her phone from her apron to call the police while clearing the table, only to hear the door to the little diner burst open and two sets of feet rush in.
It is too late for this bullshit.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” she bit out as she ended her call, not bothering to look at the newcomers. “Someone will be in around six to open again.”
She was met with silence, which meant the pair was staring and she would have to address them face on. Arms laden with a tray full of bottles, glasses, and the stack of pizza pans, she turned with her best scowl firmly in place, only the stop in her tracks and stare at the pair of vigilantes who were—as she had suspected—gawking between her and her now motionless would-be attackers.
“O-oh. Um…H-hi there.”
Ah, the stutter. She’d been so sure she’d grown out of that. But it seemed like surprises brought out her more embarrassing ticks. That thought foremost in her mind, Marinette point blank refused to move her feet. If eloquence had fled the building, that meant her balance was bound to abandon her as well and she had less than zero desire to clean broken glass from the floor that she had already swept and mopped.
“Miss, are you…all right?” The marginally shorter figure in black and blue asked in a gentle tenor voice.
She nodded, not trusting her voice to be steady. She really hated surprises, and her burst of adrenaline was quickly fading, meaning she was about to crash. She whipped her head around, hoping for a nearby chair and empty table for her tray of dishes. The taller of the two masked men
holy shoulders, Batman. How was that fair, or even possible? seemed to read her like a book, and approached her slowly, stance open and non-threatening. He pulled a chair from somewhere and gestured for her to sit, which she did without question. Neither did she protest when he gently tugged the pile of empties and dishes from her hands. Then he was squatting in front of her.
“Damn, Pixie Pop, that was impressive. I mean, we just caught the tail-end there, but that was…really something. You don’t look like you even have a scratch on you.” His voice was deep and friendly, and despite the frankly strange combination of a red domino mask and what could only be described as a similarly-colored muzzle covering most of his face, she thought he might be grinning at her. She managed a breathless giggle.
“Thanks. Kind of par for the course around here. But you’re right, I’m not hurt. I don’t even know what they wanted, but I don’t think I would have liked it much.” She glared at the prone figures, whose hands were now being zip tied behind them by the other vigilante.
Nightwing, her memory suddenly supplied. She’d done her research before coming here. Sure, she never intended to interact with the local crime stoppers in a heroic capacity. But it was a good practice to become familiar with any heroes in a new city. So, if the shorter one in blue was Nightwing, the broad one before her, giving her a curious head-tilt, was either one of the Robins or Red Hood. Given the distinct lack of traffic light colors and despite the current lack of a hood, she settled on Red Hood.
The man in question was peering at her, she imagined it was quizzically. It was rather disorienting to not be able to read his emotions with three quarters of his face covered. But then she saw the dark brow raise in an arc above the domino mask.
“You regularly get attacked in here?” He sounded like he was torn between being concerned and trying to joke. She appreciated the effort.
“I mean, we have our fair share of drunks who get a little too handsy. I can handle myself, obviously,” she gestured to the knocked-out pair at Nightwing’s feet, “but it’s not usually quite so violent. Or so goddamn late. I just wanted to go home; I really don’t think it was too much to ask.”
That earned her a snort from both vigilantes, and Nightwing spoke up again.
“I agree. But I doubt they were mad at you for kicking them out. We’ve been tracking their group for a few days and weren’t able to really catch up until tonight. What’d you do with the rest of them?”
Oh, now she had about a million questions.
“There were four others with them. They paid the tab and the other four left about an hour ago. I didn’t hear where they were going.”
Flashing lights and sirens distracted her for a moment, as a squad car pulled up outside the diner and an older man exited, dressed not in GCPD blue but a suit and trench coat. Nightwing greeted the man with a nod as he entered the diner.
“Nightwing.” Commissioner Gordon gave answering nod. “Just these two? I would have thought the trafficking ring would be bigger.”
She would have been sold to the highest bidder to do kwami only knew what. Bile rose in her throat and she suppressed the urge to gag. But the shudder that ran through her was impossible to miss, and Red Hood—who had yet to look away from her, like he was trying to uncover her many (too many!) secretes—definitely noticed. Slowly, tentatively, he reached for her shoulder, the warmth from his enormous hand seeping into her and making her feel comforted and safe somehow. She wanted to be alarmed by her reaction to the man, but she couldn’t find it in herself to distrust him. Some kind of magic, probably Trixx’s uncanny knack for reading people’s intentions, sparked in her chest and told her Red Hood was someone she could trust.
“I want a do-over,” she muttered to no one. “I should have punched harder.”
At that, Red Hood laughed out loud, the sound reverberating through her and making her smile in spite of herself. She hadn’t realized a vigilante, especially one with a reputation like Red Hood’s, could be filled with so much joy. Her smile widened at the idea that was suddenly coming together. Because she wanted to do something for him, to thank him for lightening the mood. She had to give her statement to the police commissioner, and she really should go to bed. But she suddenly wasn’t tired anymore, and she wanted to repay his kindness, his gentle demeanor in the face of the brutality of his city.
After the laughter had died down, Commissioner Gordon took her statement. She gave the story quietly and calmly, describing in detail—twice, because the older man simply couldn’t believe she’d been able to disable two men twice her size in a matter of minutes—all that had happened before Nightwing and Red Hood had made it into the diner.
“I’ll have to come by again tomorrow, to get the security footage from Katie as evidence,” Gordon mentioned apologetically, and Marinette simply nodded in response.
She didn’t mind. She wasn’t working tomorrow, so she wouldn’t be there. But she would have to text Katie to let her know what had happened. She stood and began collecting the pile of empties and dishes that had been discarded by Red Hood.
“And what do you think you’re doing, little lady?” Nightwing asked in surprise.
“I do have a job to do, sir,” she reminded him. “Elliot will be here in three and a half hours to get everything open by six. It wouldn’t be fair to make him finish what I started just because two idiots tried to attack me.”
Her soprano voice was too casual when she talked about being attacked. It was clear she’d had years of martial arts training, but it had also been clear she knew the ramifications of being abducted by human traffickers. A normal person would jump at the chance to go home and would have been halfway through breaking down by now. Especially someone new to Gotham, and if her heavily accented English were any indication, this tiny woman had come here from France—and she hadn’t been here long.
Not to mention, who in their right mind voluntarily moved to Gotham, New Jersey? It was essentially the crime capital of the country and ranked high on the list of the world’s most dangerous cities. Only someone who was running from something would come to Gotham on purpose. Most people who grew up there didn’t stay if they could help it. Hell, he’d left for several years—not of his own volition, at first, but coming back had been both a necessity and a burden—and he only remained out of his ingrained sense of protectiveness over his adoptive brothers. Especially the younger ones, even though he’d tried to kill Tim at first (out of misplaced rage, but it still happened) and Damian had had little to no tolerance for him when they’d first met (if he were honest, the kid had come a long way in the last eight years.). But he’d be damned if they didn’t get a chance at a semi-normal life, even with Bruce as their father. And Dick, too, although he’d deny any perceived need to be protected. Being a vigilante was dangerous, and Jason and Damian had both already died, Tim had nearly died, and Dick was doing double duty—cop by day, vigilante by night. They pretended they’d had a choice, but they hadn’t. And Jason just wanted them to be as happy as they could be. If there was anything he could do to keep them even marginally safe, he’d do it.
He recognized that same drive in the petite French—French-Chinese?—woman now cleaning the remaining parts of diner she hadn’t reached before being so rudely interrupted. He wasn’t sure how he’d seen it, exactly, but it was there in the way she spoke, the fire in her sapphire eyes
it should be illegal to have eyes that blue, Jesus…, the way she held herself as she moved. She’d faced trauma and loss like he had. Maybe that was how he’d known she’d needed to sit when all the fight had left her. Or maybe it was something else. Regardless, he could tell she’d come to Gotham to escape, although whether she was running from her past or a very real and present danger, he had no way of knowing.
He moved to help her, and she offered him a smile. It was small, but sweet and genuine, and it lit up her eyes in a way that was entirely unfair.
“You really don’t need to do that,” she murmured, her cheeks flushing an attractive pink.
He shrugged in response, and grinned at her--even though his masks made it unlikely she could read his expression—before pulling an armful of empty beer bottles from her grasp and dumping them in a nearly-full bin. Whistling cheerfully, he sought out the spray bottle full of cleaner and a cloth, both on top of a wire rack there was no way the pixie could reach, then headed out to wipe down the only remaining table, ignoring the woman’s spluttered protests, even as she continued to fill the dishwasher.
Nightwing finished loading the bastards into the back of Gordon’s car, and waved the commissioner away before joining him again inside the diner. Jason heard him explain the situation to Batman over the comms and silenced his own to avoid the echo. He was surprised when Nightwing silenced his comm after checking in.
“All right, Little Wing, we’re walking her home, yeah?”
Jason nodded. No way was he letting her find her way home alone after this, no matter how definitely not defenseless she was. She didn’t deserve to look over her shoulder the entire way.
“Red Hood, you’ve been cleaning the same table for five minutes. I think you got it.”
The mischief in her voice caught him by surprise, and he whipped around to face her, delighted at her willingness to interact with him. He was used to civilians being intimidated by or even frightened of him. But not the pixie. She was smirking at him
oh no and holding her hand out as though waiting for him to hand something over. Probably the cloth and cleaner.
“Gotta be thorough, Pixie Pop. Can’t let poor Elliot do all the work when he comes in.”
She giggled and rolled her eyes, and his heart soared at the sound. What the hell was the matter with him? It wasn’t like this was his first interaction with a gorgeous woman, although he didn’t often get to verbally spar with a woman who could probably also hand him his own ass. Maybe that was it. Gorgeous and strong. Almost his exact type—if she somehow ended up to not be clinically insane, he was doomed. Reluctantly, he handed over the spray bottle and cloth and watched her scale the wire shelf to put them away. Something about the way her body moved made heat creep up the back of his neck and spread over his cheeks. Nightwing nudged him with an elbow, and he scowled at his brother.
“Would you like us to walk you home, Miss?” Nightwing offered.
Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, but the smile that graced her face was almost blinding.
“Thank you, Nightwing. That would be lovely. Oh! I’m Marinette, by the way. Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Not that it matters, really. I mean, I’m sure you meet a ridiculous number of civilians during patrol, but how rude of me to not introduce myself. If you’re ever around here and not, you know, kicking ass and taking names, stop in and I’ll make you something on the house. Katie doesn’t seem to mind, I sent something home with Harley and Ivy the other day after they helped kick out some local gang members, and she was fine with it. Otherwise, if my place is on your patrol rout, I usually have cookies or pastries in the house. I could leave some out for you.”
She was speaking rapidly, and her face was bright red as though she knew she was babbling but couldn’t stop and was embarrassed by it. She had locked the door and was leading them down the sidewalk, chattering as they went. Jason was relieved they were headed in the opposite direction of Crime Alley, but if she lived within walking distance of Miss Katie’s she would still be awfully close to the worst part of town. In what seemed to be much too short a distance for her to live safely, they’d reached an apartment complex.
“You got a roommate, Pixie?” Jason asked hopefully.
He knew it was likely someone like her—beautiful and personable and strong—had someone else in her life. But no one had seemed to try to contact her since the diner had closed—and it was surely much later than she normally would be arriving home—and he was worried about her being alone.
“Nope,” she replied as she turned the key for the entrance. “Just me.”
She stopped just inside and stared dejectedly at the stairs ahead of her, Jason and Nightwing hovering behind her. A small groan escaped her, before she shook her head, then turned to smile at them.
“I’m all the way on the fifth floor. Thanks for walking me home. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than watch me make it all the way to my apartment.”
The smile she gave didn’t quite reach her eyes, and Jason realized she must be dreading the climb to the fifth floor. He grinned.
“I could swing you up to your balcony, if you’d like,” he offered, and saw Nightwing’s head snap around to stare at him, mouth hanging open in surprise.
Surprise, Dickie-bird, I can be a gentleman.
Marinette laughed lightly, like tinkling bells, and rested her hand on his forearm. The heat from her small hand seemed to settle into his bones.
“You look like you could just fucking launch me up there, and I could sleep on the chaise for a few hours,” she giggled. The profanity sounded shocking but delightful in her sweet, accented voice.
He laughed out loud in surprise. God, he hadn’t laughed like this in a while, not since he’d last seen Roy, and that had been months ago.
“That’s probably true, but also probably not the safest choice I would have ever made,” he agreed after a few minutes of cathartic laughter. He was rewarded with true laughter from the woman, and heat flushed through him again.
“No, probably not,” she conceded. “Stairs it is.”
But she made no move to go anywhere, like she was waiting for something, or unsure of how to make her exit. Nightwing cleared his throat and Jason rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m gonna finish up patrol. I’ll see you…later?” his brother stared at him, probably questioning his already-dubious sanity.
“Yeah, I’ll be around. Probably going home tonight, though.” His apartment, not the manor. He’d started getting restless there, it had been too long under the same roof as Bruce.
Nightwing nodded, mouth set in a suspicious line. Marinette stepped closer to his brother and stood on her toes to place a light kiss to his cheek.
“Thank you, Nightwing. Stay safe out there.”
Jason tried to suppress the sudden jealousy that flared within him at the gesture. There was nothing in her expression but kindness and concern. She truly meant what she’d said, she worried for his brother’s safety. She was bordering on perfect in Jason’s eyes. He was so fucked. How was she doing this to him after barely an hour together? He wanted her affection, too. He wanted…well. Things he probably couldn’t have. Marinette was well out of his league in multiple ways, not the least of which was that she was a civilian and no matter how capable she was of defending herself, she didn’t deserve to be pulled into the world of secret identities and double lives and danger around every corner. Even if he’d met her as Jason Todd-Wayne and not Red Hood, she would still be in danger of being kidnapped and held for ransom, not to mention being harassed by the media constantly. He didn’t want to think about subjecting her to that. But something about her was drawing him in, and he’d always been a bit reckless, so…
“Here,” he offered, turning slightly so his back was partially facing her. “Hop up, I’ll give you a lift to your place.”
He glanced over his shoulder to see her flush scarlet, darker than she had been before. That ready blush was doing things to him. He grinned roguishly at her, forgetting again that she couldn’t see it. He watched as she decided what her answer would be, seeing the determination fill her sapphire eyes as she took two steps back. He faced forward again, grin never faltering as she ran and jumped, landing squarely between his shoulder blades. It felt entirely natural to grip her legs behind her knees, even as her warmth soaked through his leather jacket and made him shiver as heat licked down his spine.