Looking out over Gotham, perched on the edge of a building, Tim couldn't help thinking that the city looked darker somehow. Grimmer.
It was a ridiculous thought. Gotham was no more or no less a criminal cesspit than it had been only a week ago. Still, the air seemed thicker in some way, seemed heavier. The city had always been on a knife's edge, a layer of blood and grime hanging over it like a dark cloud, just a little nudge to tipping over the periphery—but now its balance seemed even more precarious, and the darkness pressed close enough to feel suffocating.
It was almost like the city knew. Gotham had sensed her dark knight fall, and now she was crying out in despair.
Tim knew better, though. He knew the truth. Batman was alive, Tim knew he was.
He had to be.
The night air was icy against his bare face. The lack of a domino obscuring his eyes felt strange, felt wrong. The mask implanted a confidence, the kind that only came with anonymity; he'd forgotten how vulnerable it felt to be without one, how exposed.
He'd been Robin for so long. He'd forgotten how it felt to just be Tim Drake.
His chest felt hollowed out, like someone had taken a scalpel and scraped out his insides. There was an ache in the empty spaces between his ribs, an ache that resonated with the words you're not my protégé, Tim. Damian needs this now.
What about me, Dick? Tim had yelled back at him, chest tight with injustice and betrayal. What about what I need?
It was one of those sentences that Tim knew would echo in his head for years to come, along with the sound of his own jagged, broken voice.
His feet dangled over the edge of the building. The wind was strong up so high, and he shivered, pulling his jacket closer around him. It had been a long time since he'd been outside at night wearing his civvies—not since he was a little kid with a camera, ducking into alleys and scrambling up fire-escapes, hoping for just a glimpse of Gotham's dynamic duo.
It seemed so long ago now. A lifetime. He never imagined he would take up the mantle. He never imagined how empty and broken it would feel to have it snatched from him.
"Why, Dick?" Tim asked out loud now. The soft-spoken words got lost in the wind, echoed in his head. He wasn't even sure which why he was asking about. Why choose Damian? Why take Robin away? Why can't you just believe me?
Tim thought back to that moment—to seeing Damian in his suit with that smug grin, and realizing, like a kick to the teeth, that he'd been replaced—and he felt a sudden, unexpected surge of empathy for Jason. Was this how he had felt, Tim wondered, to fight his way out of his grave and watch somebody else wear his symbol, his colors? To watch someone else lay claim to a name they had no right to bear, no right to take?
Had it felt like this to him? Like everything was wrong wrong wrong, but he was the only one to see it?
Tim reached up to trace his fingers along the thin scar at his throat, remembering the feeling of the blade against his skin, of eyes searing into him, flaring with unbridled rage. Of the curl of Jason's lip, the hatred on his face, the spit of pretender like acid on his tongue.
But Tim didn't feel angry. He just felt numb.
Tim looked down, watched the city stories below him. It would be so easy to give himself a little push—to slip off the edge and let himself go. Gravity would take hold of him immediately; it would be over before he could blink.
Something inside him cringed away at the dark turn his thoughts had taken. He felt hopeless and depressed and exhausted, but that a part of him would truly consider ending it all—well, it was a scary thought. He hadn't realized he'd fallen that deep.
In the sky, Tim's eyes locked on to a sudden light in the distance. It was the Bat signal, shining up through the clouds.
He wondered how long it would take the new Batman and Robin to get there. He wondered if Gordon would notice the difference.
A sudden sound caused him to freeze. It was a very light sound, like a footstep, and normal ears would have never picked it up. But he was a Bat—or, Tim reminded himself painfully, he had been a Bat—and his senses honed in on it immediately.
He listened closely, not moving, not breathing. But the only noise he caught was silence. He began to believe he may have imagined it—paranoia, another side-effect of being trained by the Batman—but then he heard it again, the slightest sound of a footfall, so quiet it was nearly soundless; obviously someone trained well in the art of stealth.
Tim felt his muscles coil tightly, his body tensing up. In the Robin suit, he bore the warning do not approach like a neon sign. Sitting here as Timothy Drake, as a civilian, he was a prime target for all sorts of Gotham's scum.
He drew his legs up so he was crouching. There was a small movement—a shadow—in the periphery of his vision, and Tim shot to his feet, spinning around and lashing out with his foot—
The kick, which should have sent any guy sprawling, was avoided with expert ease. "Jesus! What'd I do?"
Tim stilled at the familiar voice. "Jason?"
The vigilante smirked. "Babybird," he greeted.
"Don't call me that," Tim snapped automatically, but he found his body was already relaxing, the tension seeping from his muscles.
Jason wasn't wearing his helmet—it was tucked under his arm—which was rare, and his face was concealed only by an average red domino mask. He was plenty feet away from Tim, but the younger boy could still count the heavy number of guns he was packing on him—around his waist, in the holsters at his ankles, the one tucked in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. Tim had yet to see Red Hood at a time when he wasn't armed to the teeth.
Precautionary measures, he supposed. Dying would do that to a person.
"What are you doing here, Hood?" he asked, when it became apparent Jason wasn't going to offer up the information himself. "No one's seen or heard from you in nearly a year."
It was true. Jason had made no attempt to hide his return from the family when he first returned to Gotham. He'd been purposefully loud and impossible to ignore, doing anything in his power to draw Batman's attention. He'd kidnapped the Joker from Arkham, taken Tim hostage, attacked him in Titan Tower and slit his throat—which, ow—but after that, Hood had gone radio silent. Not a peep had been heard, from or about him, since.
"I took a bit of a sabbatical," said Jason, with the sort of twisted grin that sent a shiver up Tim's spine.
"And now you're back?" Tim eyed him under long eyelashes. "Come and try to kill me again?"
The words were said casually, and Tim knew he should be more on guard; his predecessor had already tried to kill him twice. Still, Tim couldn't quite seem to muster up the right amount of vigilance—or any vigilance at all, really.
He was just so damned tired.
Jason's mouth twitched slightly. Tim couldn't see his eyes behind the white lenses of his mask, but for a moment he almost looked uncomfortable.
But then the careless set of his shoulders was back, the dismissive demeanor. "Get over yourself, replacement. You're barely a blip on my radar, I could care less about you."
Tim fought back the sting of his words—of that word. Replacement.
"Don't call me that either," he snapped.
Tim expected Jason to snap back at him—he'd certainly had a lot of nasty things to say on the previous times they'd encountered each other. But instead he pressed his lips together, taking a bracing breath.
"Look I didn't come here for a fight." Under Tim's narrowed glare, Jason held up his hands, proclaiming, "Scout's honor."
"You were never a Scout."
"How do you know?"
Because I used to stalk you as a kid, Tim thought, but found it best not to say that. He wanted to retain his dignity.
Instead, he just sighed and said, "Ok, I'll bite. If not to fight, then what are you doing here?"
Jason looked down, avoided eye contact. Where before he was confident, sure of himself, now he was hesitant. Uneasy, reluctant.
"I just… I heard about…" He let out a shaky breath. It was the most unsettled Tim had ever seen him. "I came to see if it was true. About.. about Bruce."
Bruce. The name hit Tim hard, settled heavy on his chest. Of course Jason had come about Bruce; Tim wondered where he had heard. The world still remained widely ignorant of the caped crusader's fate—supposed fate, Tim reminded himself—but he couldn't find it in himself to be surprised Hood had learned the information somehow.
He studied the man now, took in the little things he hadn't noticed at first. The mask covered the majority of his face, but Tim could still read the weariness there, the tight pinch of his mouth, the hardened set of his jaw. The way his fingers curled and uncurled around the helmet tucked under his arm.
It struck Tim then that the look on Jason's face was dread; dread of the words that would come out of the ex-Robin's mouth. And he realized that, in his own fucked-up way, Jason still cared for Bruce, still loved him, even if that love was now mixed with a bitter hate. He had spent years plotting his revenge on the man, relished in rubbing his failure in his face, but at the end of the day, Bruce was his father. He had wanted to hurt him, but he had never wanted him dead.
"Yes," said Tim. "It's true."
The lie tasted sour in his mouth. Because that's what it was to him—a lie. Dick may have been quick to dismiss the possibility, but in Tim's mind there was no doubt Bruce was alive.
He didn't tell Jason, though. He wasn't in the mood to once again be labeled crazy and delusional.
Jason didn't move, didn't breathe, just stood there so still he was a statue, absorbing the words. Accepting what they meant.
Batman, dead. Bruce Wayne, dead. Gone.
"Why come to me?" Tim asked, after a few heavy moments of quiet. "Why not Dick? Or, well, anyone else?"
Jason's smirk was humorless, brittle. "I'm not exactly welcome in the Batcave." He paused. "And, well, I wanted to talk to you."
He blinked. "Me? Why?"
Jason sighed, and walked to sit on the edge of the building where Tim had been. Warily, Tim lowered himself down next to him.
Jason didn't speak at first, just stared out at the skyline. Tim took the opportunity to observe his predecessor silently. This was the closest they'd ever been to each other when they weren't fighting, and there wasn't much time to admire a person when they were holding a knife to your throat. Now they were inches apart, and Tim allowed his eyes to slowly take in the details of the boy he'd spent his nights chasing over rooftops, of the hero he'd snapped pictures of and whose grave he'd cried over.
Tim's eyes traced over the sharpness of his face, how the night threw half of it in shadow, of the edges of the mask pressing into his skin, the shape of his lips, the small scar near the corner of his eyebrow. A lock of hair fell into his face, in front of the domino's white lenses. There was a bit of white near the end, from his dip in the Lazarus Pit, which still hadn't completely grown out.
For a moment, the sight stole the breath from Tim's lungs. For a moment, he was the most beautiful thing Tim had ever seen.
The thought was a fleeting one, which Tim was quick to force out. Jason Todd was quite possibly the worst person to hold an attraction toward, a lingering childhood crush that instead of fizzling out had only grown with time.
He must be a masochist. Why else would he fall for a person who so clearly hated his guts?
"I wanted to apologize to you." Jason's voice was quiet, and he wasn't looking at Tim. "You didn't deserve the way I treated you. I'm sorry."
If he hadn't seen Jason's mouth move, he wouldn't have believed the words came from him. He briefly entertained the idea he could be hearing things. Maybe everyone was right about him, maybe he was going crazy; seeing what he wanted to and not what was real.
But Jason was continuing now, and there could be no doubt of the words coming out of his mouth.
"Don't get me wrong, I was pissed—am pissed. Bruce just replaced me with—with some kid who had no right to be Robin, and B just handed the suit right over. Robin wasn't his to give, Robin was mine. Golden Boy gave up the suit on his own, but not me. I fucking died for that bastard, and he didn't even care—just another casualty, another victim, a good soldier."
Tim opened his mouth to protest, but Jason shook his head. "No, shut up. Let me say this.
"When I came back and—all I could see was that not only have I been fucking replaced, but that goddamn clown is still alive, still going around killing people, as if nothing happened, as if that fucking maniac hadn't beaten me to death and left me to die like a gift-wrapped present to Batman. But Bats didn't care. I remember thinking that if I died at least one good thing would come of it. At least Bruce would finally be convinced to take down the Joker. But even that wasn't enough; I wasn't enough. His precious code meant too much to him."
Jason stopped, took a breath. Tim kept his gaze locked on his face; he wished he could see Jason's face beneath his mask, that he could read the expression on his face.
"I hated Bruce for that." Jason's voice sounded much calmer now, much less angry. "I probably always will. But what I did to you—you may have taken my place as Robin, but it was Bruce who replaced me. Bruce cast me aside. My vendetta against him… you didn't have anything to do with it, but I dragged you in anyway. That was unfair."
Jason was silent, and Tim watched him carefully. This whole time he hadn't looked at Tim once, and even now he continued staring determinedly ahead.
"What changed?" Tim asked quietly. "Why are you saying this to me now?"
"The Pit, it… it messed my head up. Badly. But the longer I've been back, the more I've been starting to see things more clearly. And while I don't regret what happened with Bats and the Joker, I realize some of my other actions may have been a bit… drastic."
A snort escapes him at the severe understatement of the word. "Drastic? You slit my throat."
"I said I was sorry."
"A difficult feat for you, I'm sure."
Jason arched an eyebrow. "You're a real smartass, aren't you?"
Jason was frowning at him, which Tim only bothered to notice because instead of staring straight ahead, Jason had turned his head to finally look at him.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" Jason glanced him over. "And out of uniform? Isn't that breaking some kind of Bat rule?"
"You would know, you used to be one. Or did they take away your membership when you drank too much of the Kool-Aid?"
Jason's eyebrows raised at Tim's bitter tone, looking amused. "Someone's grumpy. No need to get snippy, replacement. Who pissed in your cornflakes?"
"I'm not," Tim snapped angrily. At Jason's confused frown, he elaborated, "I'm not your replacement. I'm not." His voice softened. "Not anymore, at least. So just—just knock it off, ok?"
Tim stared straight ahead at the skyline, trying to ignore the sudden prickling behind his eyes. Jason's appearance had provided a brief distraction, but now the memory hit him again with full force. He wasn't Robin. Dick had fired him. Dick thought he was losing it.
("We saw his body, Tim. We buried him. I'm sorry, but he's—"
"He's alive, I know it, Dick. If you'd just believe me—"
"You're grieving, you're not thinking. Tim, we can find someone to help you—"
"I'm not crazy—")
I'm not crazy, Tim thought. I'm not.
Jason was staring at him with undisguised shock. "What are you talkin' about, kid?"
"Dick fired me," said Tim. Despite his best efforts, his voice cracked tellingly over the words. "Damian's Robin now, not me."
Tim's eyes were burning. His breathing was shaky. He didn't dare glance at Jason, didn't want to read his thoughts displayed on his face.
Tim prided himself on his ability to read people, on being able to assess their motives from their body language, the expressions on their face. Ra's al Ghul had, on more than one occasion, proclaimed Tim was a better detective than the Batman himself—and that wasn't praise to be taken lightly. He wasn't being arrogant, but he knew what his strengths were, and how to use them.
But for all his great detective abilities, his careful skill of observation, Jason Todd remained a complete mystery to him. Tim had tried repeatedly to puzzle him out, but the pieces kept changing, and what once fit perfectly would change shape altogether. Red Hood was an element completely unknown, and try as he might, Tim could not predict him.
There were times when Tim finally thought he had the man figured out. Then he would go and do something that once again pulled the rug from right under Tim's feet.
Tim honestly didn't know how Jason would react to this news—previous experience told him that he would probably be smug. Laugh in Tim's face. But Jason was anything but predictable and he'd been known to surprise Tim before.
"I've been replaced," said Tim, with a bitter laugh. "By a killer rugrat, of all people. There, go on, laugh."
Jason didn't laugh. Tim finally turned to look at him. The expression on his face was inscrutable; Tim couldn't read him.
"Dick fired you? Dick?" said Jason, as if worried he'd misunderstood. "Why?"
Tim considered the question, and then decided there was no harm in telling Jason. He'd think Tim was crazy, sure, but it'd be hypocritical to judge him. Jason had already hopped aboard the crazy train a while ago.
"Bruce is still alive," he said bluntly. "That's what I believe anyway. Dick thinks I'm being delusional. He refused to believe me."
Jason frowned. "Why?"
Tim looked at him in surprise, and Jason rolled his eyes.
"Oh, come on. It's not like it's that farfetched. Probably at least half of the people we know have died and come back at least once. Dinah, Green Arrow, Superman—I heard even your dead girlfriend's up and kicking again. What was her name – Sophie?"
"Stephanie," Tim corrected, his lips thinning. "And she's not my girlfriend."
"Whatever. The point is, previous experience shows death is anything but permanent. Hell, look who you're talking to. If dead stayed dead, I'd be rotting six feet under now."
"Yeah," said Tim. "But I don't think Bruce came back to life. I just don't think he ever actually died. He could be trapped somewhere." Stuck. Alone.
"So… Goldie fired you because… what? He thinks you've gone off your rocker?"
Tim shrugged. "I guess. And also because Damian apparently needs Robin more than me now."
Jason snorted incredulously. "What that kid needs is a good therapist and a lifetime of anger management classes. Nightwing puts him out on the streets, he's gonna end up killing someone."
"It's Batman now," Tim corrected, and Jason made a face. Apparently the idea of addressing Dick as Batman was as weird to him as it was to Tim.
"He shouldn't have fired you." Tim was surprised to hear a tinge of anger in the older boy's voice. "That was a stupid ass move."
Tim concealed his surprise as he said, "I'm surprised you think so."
Jason sighed. "I'm not blind, Tim. You're a good Robin, even I can see that." His expression was tense, as though it physically pained him to admit it. "That's a large part of why I hated you so much. Not just because you replaced me, but because you were better. A better Robin than I ever was."
Tim shook his head, eyes wide. "That's not true." That was the farthest thing from true. He had tried—he had tried so hard—to be good enough. To be as good as Dick, as good as Jason. Bruce had chosen them to wear the suit; Tim had forced his way in. Tim was there because Batman needed a Robin, not because anyone needed him.
"I never could have been the Robin you were," he said. "Robin wasn't ever—it wasn't ever mine. I was just… I was someone to fill the role. I knew I'd have to give it up eventually." He looked down, picked at a hole in his jeans. "I just didn't… I didn't expect it to hurt this much."
"Of course it hurts," said Jason. "Robin… it's not just a costume. You put that suit on, even once… it becomes who you are. That mask will mold to your face. Eventually you can't take it off without removing some of your own skin."
Tim stared at him, his chest feeling tight, and wondered when exactly the Red Hood had become the one person Tim felt could understand. All his family, his friends, refused to believe him, to even consider what he was saying, but Jason accepted everything out of his mouth without hesitation.
When had Jason Todd become the one he could count on?
You can't take it off without removing some of your own skin.
Tim's eyes roamed over Jason's face, willing his fingers to stay still instead of reaching up like they wanted to. He ached to peel the mask away from Jason's face, to reveal his eyes, to read the intensity he felt behind his stare. He hadn't seen Jason without a mask since before he died; he wanted to trace over the features now, map out the panes of his face. What had changed between then and now? Were his eyes the same color Tim remembered?
"You're staring," he stated.
Tim jerked his head away, his face flushing. "Sorry."
"I'm gonna give you some advice," Jason said.
Tim looked at him, an eyebrow raised.
"Stop moping. Stop with the pity party and the woe-is-me attitude. Seriously, it's not attractive. You're not Robin. So what? Dick fired you? Fuck him. You want to find Bruce, sitting here feeling sorry for yourself isn't gonna do shit. Get up and find him, you don't need Nightwing for that. Do it yourself. You think Bruce is alive, go out and prove it."
Tim stared at him. There was a warmth blossoming in his chest, spreading throughout his bones. "You really think I can do it by myself?"
"I do. Do you?"
Tim looked at Jason. Jason looked back. The air between them was charged with something, hung heavy around them like a shroud. Their faces were no more than a couple inches apart. Unwittingly, Tim's eyes flickered down to Jason's lips.
Gunshots split the air from the alley below, and the moment broke. Jason cleared his throat awkwardly, and looked away. He stood up.
"Duty calls," he said with a twisted grin, as yelling and more shots erupted below. He looked down at Tim, then held out his hand.
Tim took it and pulled himself up. Jason's hand was warm against his; he dropped it reluctantly.
"Can you maybe not kill anyone this time?" he said, as Jason moved to the edge of the roof and readied his grapple.
The man flashed him that same chilling smile. "I can try."
Jason swooped down. Tim watched him go, a silhouette against the dark Gotham sky.
Two days later, a package showed up at the manor with Tim's name on it. Inside was a suit, black and red; some of the material appeared to be the same as the old Red Hood garb.
There was a note on the top, just three words.
Prove me right.
There was no signature. Tim didn't need one.
Smiling to himself, he picked up the package and returned inside. He had a lot of planning to do.