Tim should have told Bruce no. He should have just been honest about how he hadn't slept more than an hour in two whole days, and not much more the night previous to that. But like all the Bats, Tim was too stubborn to admit he needed a break. Besides, Batman needed all of them out there if they were going to find and disarm all the traps that Riddler claimed to have set throughout Gotham. Red Robin could still help, so Tim agreed to suit up and head out, downing a large coffee before hitting the rooftops.
By the time Tim realized that in his current state he was no match for the Riddler’s elaborate traps… it was far too late.
He'd gone off to track down a clue on the east side of Gotham, near the industrial district. He found Riddler’s signature “dungeon” entrance, but he was too slow to notice the trigger plate until his foot had already activated it, causing a heavy metal gate to drop down in front of the entrance, forcing him to continue inside.
At first, nothing else seemed to happen. So Tim cautiously continued through the maze, his mind jumping at every noise, real or imagined. He found that his heart was stuttering a bit, and he wondered if perhaps that last cup of coffee had been a bad idea. Because he wasn't afraid. No. Red Robin was not afraid of creepy dripping noises and footsteps behind him. And was that heavy breathing?
It was the sound of a blade being sharpened that finally made him snap. Tim lurched into a run, his irrational panic getting the better of his weakened judgement. Some distant part of him knew that any of this could be just a hallucination from his lack of sleep, but he couldn’t stop himself. He just wanted to get this maze over with as quickly as possible.
“What goes round in circles until it explodes?” came the recorded voice of Riddler from a hidden speaker above him.
Tim groaned. The guy’s nasally voice always gave him a headache, and he couldn’t even pull a single possible solution from his exhausted brain. He turned the next corner and realized too late the extremely obvious answer to the riddle:
The explosion sent him rocketing backwards, and he instinctively curled his arms over his head as he slammed into the collapsing wall. He fell, dazed, to the concrete floor, completely winded. The explosions continued, and then he realized that the entire building was collapsing! Dust filled his lungs in all the noise and chaos, and Tim gagged as he tried to push himself up. But his reflexes were slowed immensely by his lack of sleep, and he didn’t even realize the danger he was in until he was crushed under a falling steel girder and all went black.
“Ah,” said a pleasant yet oddly echoing voice. “Timothy Drake! I was wondering when we’d officially meet.”
Tim blinked into the darkness. All he felt was pain, but it was distant, somehow, like he was feeling it through someone else’s body. Nothing felt right. Maybe he was broken. Was that the right word? Malfunctioning? No. Dying. Yes, that was it. Oh wait…
“Well, I suppose I ought to introduce myself,” said the voice. “I’m Death. I’m glad to finally make your acquaintance, Tim.”
Tim shivered. “Um…”
“Come on, don’t be shy,” Death said. “Let me get a proper look at you!” Something metallic scraped nearby Tim’s head, and he jerked away. He found he couldn’t move much, due to being pinned by a freight train or something. How did this happen again? Did the Riddler actually drop a locomotive on his chest?
“Good luck,” Tim muttered, gasping a bit due to the pressure on his ribcage. Breathing was hard. Some ribs might be compromised. Maybe he could give up for now and try again later… wait. No.
“Thank you!” Death said, sounding like Tim had just given him a surprise birthday gift. “You know, we’ve narrowly missed each other a couple times before. But there was always something that got between us.”
“Yeah,” Tim said, wondering what he was doing, talking to a stranger in the dark. It wasn’t proper, and probably wasn’t wise. But what did he know. “I think that was Fate.”
“Ah yes, that rapscallion. He’s a bit of a bully sometimes. But I think today he’s working in my favor.”
Tim continued to assess his situation, trying to gauge how injured he actually was, but he kept finding his mind wandering. “I always liked Dr. Fate,” he said absently. “So powerful and yet… gentle.”
“I can be both of those things,” Death replied, sounding a bit indignant. Was that jealousy? “Just watch me work, and you’ll see.”
“Yeah,” Tim said. His leg hurt, he realized. Probably a broken circuit. No. The word was bone. He was probably bleeding a lot. That would explain the dizziness. If it wasn’t so dark, maybe he’d be able to see better. Well, duh. “Kinda hard to watch you work in this darkness. Could you maybe shed a little light on the situation?”
“Certainly,” Death said. “I come in many packages, including the version where I’m an angel of light.”
Huh. It actually did seem a little brighter, Tim thought. But was that just because the dust and rubble was settling, allowing the outdoor moonlight in through the cracks? No. That was flames. Something was on fire nearby. A distant part of him mused that there might be another explosion soon.
“So,” Death said cheerily. “You ready to go?”
Tim felt oddly at peace about this whole thing. He should probably have been more concerned about dying, but he was just… so… tired. “Can I say goodbye to my family first? I hate to leave…” he coughed, “…loose ends.” It was getting harder and harder to breath, and the pain in his ribs and leg was beginning to fade in favor of a cold numbness.
Death hummed, as if considering. “Probably not. We’ve got places to go, people to see. You’ve got a full afterlife, after all!”
“Somehow,” Tim murmured, his eyes fluttering closed. “I thought maybe I’d get to sleep a little in the afterlife. Since this side of things was so… what’s the word for… exhausting?”
Tim frowned. “Right.”
“Well, Timothy, you of all people should know that old habits die hard.” Death was closer now. Tim could hear his uneven footsteps through the rubble behind him. “Take your caffeine addiction, for instance. Did you think that would go away just because you’re dead? No, the afterlife has gallons of coffee waiting for you. You could even set up your own cafe if you wanted!”
Tim considered. “You know what,” he said finally, “you’re not half-bad.”
“No, I’m not, am I? I’m more like one-quarter bad.”
Tim chuckled, then winced as the movement made something shift above him. Gravel and dust sprinkled on his neck, and the steel girder moved a centimeter, digging heavier into his torso. He couldn’t take more than a shallow breath, and even that hurt. His heart struggled to keep beating, lurching a bit along the way. “I just wish…” he murmured, feeling his pain slip away as unconsciousness grabbed at him. “I could have said goodbye…”
Death was right next to him now. Beneath his heavy eyelids, Tim could see his dark hood, his pupil-less eyes, his hand raised to do the deed…
Tim choked on his own saliva as the blow shocked him out of his slow descent into darkness.
“Wake up, you imbecile, or I’ll slap you again!” Death’s voice had morphed into something higher and more haughty. An interesting turn of events. Tim’s vision had blurred so badly that he could hardly make out the dark shape that loomed above his head, silhouetted by the fires that had flared up somewhere nearby. Death continued, sounding angry. “And don’t you dare say goodbye. You’re not going to die, Drake!”
Tim blinked slowly. “I didn’t know Death had multiple personality disorder.”
Silence. Tim closed his eyes again, ready to drift off…
“Father, I’ve found Drake,” Death said in that annoyingly haughty voice. What had happened to the other version?
“Who…?” Tim coughed on the smoke that was building up around them. “Death, who is your father?”
He felt that chilling presence beside him again. “Time itself, young Timothy,” came the quiet reply. “For without Time, there is no Death.”
“What is life, then?” Tim asked curiously. “Your crazy aunt? Your baby sister?”
“What are you nattering about, Drake? Shut up and I’ll get you out of here!”
Tim frowned as the girder on his chest lightened a bit. Was someone moving it? But the pressure returned in a moment, just as bad as before. Perhaps worse, as he felt one of his ribs crack for certain. He whimpered, but didn’t have the energy to scream in pain. He forced his thoughts back to the conversation at hand to avoid thinking about the pain. “Life must be your mother,” Tim wheezed. “Because…” -wheeze- “Death also cannot exist without…” -gasp- “life.”
Death chuckled. “Life is not above me, Tim. I am more powerful, am I not? All life ends by my hand!”
“All life?” Tim could barely get the words out now. He was so tired. “All life defeated by Death?” It didn’t sound right to him, but he couldn’t think anymore. Everything was getting muddled in his mind.
“Drake!” Death sounded younger now. Worried, even. “Don’t you dare think about… about leaving. Stay with me!” Someone was patting his cheek over and over. It was annoying, but Tim couldn’t move his arm to bat them away. He choked on something. Blood? Saliva? He didn’t even care.
“You absolute idiot! When we get home I am going to ensure Pennyworth never allows you to drink caffeine again.”
Wait, what? That woke him up. “D-Damian?” he managed to get out. “What hap-happened to Death?”
Damian’s gloved hands were on his shoulders. The gentle pressure kept Tim from feeling too dizzy. He was grounded by the presence of his snotty little brother. Seemed about right. “You have been hallucinating,” Damian said at last, lacking his usual spiteful tone. Something must have spooked him, then.
Moments later, Batman was there, and soon the weight on Tim’s chest was gone. Someone carefully picked him up, trying to cradle him without jarring his broken ribs. Nightwing, maybe. Tim tried to look around for the shadowy figure of Death, but all he saw was the worried glance of Damian from beneath his Robin mask and hood. How much had his little brother heard and seen before the others arrived? Tim was sure that Death had been there, right beside him. Surely Damian would have seen him- But no, what was he thinking? Damian said he’d been hallucinating.
But then he heard the mild voice once more, right before he was carried out of the rubble:
“Until we meet again, Timothy…”