The Bat-Signal cuts through the dark and hazy clouds lingering above Gotham City, and for a split-second, Jason Todd has the urge to drop everything and race for the roof of the GCPD Headquarters. It’s hard to ignore the nervous jump of excitement in his stomach, the phantom sensation of a domino mask on his face and the heavy drag of a cape at his shoulders.
Which makes no sense, since it’s been at least five years since I even wore that shit.
Taking a drag of his cigarette, the smoke mixing with the familiar summer smog, Jason turns his back on Gotham’s literal beacon of hope and steels himself against nocturnal threats of his own. The city is for the caped crew—because apparently, the Bat has a posse now, he thinks with only a hint of a bitter sneer—and Jason has been fighting in a different arena for quite some time now.
He takes a final drag of the cigarette, and then grinds it beneath his boots, and shoves his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. It’s a weathered and worn thing that reminds him of one Willis Todd wore in one of the few memories Jason has of him that doesn’t involve alcohol or fists. He thinks it’s less pretentious looking than a trench coat and probably gives off fewer ‘creepy motherfucker’ vibes like the sartorial choices of certain other people. It’s also less likely to snag on things when he needs to make a quick exit while digging up graves.
Yeah, it’s a thing in his line of work.
Gotham Cemetery is a sprawling necropolis, as dark and forbidding now as it was the night he dug himself out of his own grave. Half a decade of Gotham-style tender, loving negligence has left the somber green hills overgrown and the majority of the old tombstones fallen or rotting.
You’d think in a city with the highest homicide rate in the country, the mayor would spring for better maintenance. Then again, it’s Gotham. The dead don’t pay taxes, so fuck ‘em.
Gotham and the world think Jason Todd-Wayne is dead and has been for five years now; in a way, it’s the truth. He’s no longer anything like the boy that was beaten to death by a psychotic clown, no longer the shrimp who fastidiously dyed his hair black and jumped into someone else’s cape and pixie boots just so he didn’t have to be his own screwup self anymore. He outgrew wanting to be Dick a long time ago, outgrew wanting to be Bruce, too, and embraced a whole new other set of skills to put him apart from them.
Most occultists and even homo magi need to put conscious effort and intent into calling up or even seeing a spirit. Ever since Jason died and then mysteriously got better, the dead appear to him as blatantly and a solid as the living.
John told him he was a fool to come back here.
“Someone with your gifts, they’ll drive you bloody mad,” his mentor warned him when he left London. “And I ain’t talking about the dead ones, neither.”
“You’re just saying that because Batman wouldn’t hold your hand that one time,” Jason retorted, shrugging off the concern. He is Gotham born and bred, his blood is in those streets, and he has always wanted to come home, even if it wasn’t necessarily to a stately manor or its inhabitants.
He clenches his fists.
Inhabitants that wasted no time in replacing him after he died. Jason was rotting away in fucking Arkham, and Bruce was shoving another kid into the tights.
If it didn’t involve seeing him, I would hunt him down and break his jaw.
He surveys the graveyard proper. The everyday observer considers cemeteries to be places of peace and eternal rest; quiet, if a little bit spooky. To Jason, they’re as gruesome as any major battlefield.
Spirits pack the way before him; some of them look relatively normal if dated by their clothes; many others are disfigured and bloody from whatever killed them, whether natural or unnatural. They clamor and crowd, eternally shouting to be heard, or screaming as they relive their deaths in their own personal purgatories.
In the beginning, that din almost drove Jason insane. Bruce’s teachings kept him rational as long as it could in the months after he woke up, and then John’s training helped him temper his own awareness further. By now, he can function almost normally, automatically filtering the voices out as he goes about his daily business; it’s only in places like this, where the dead outnumber the living, where it’s harder.
Jason reaches up, adjusting the noise filters in his ears—mechanical devices that need regular winding but are still more reliable than anything running on electricity of batteries. They’re like steampunk hearing aids, only instead of magnifying sound, they drown out the constant moan of the ghosts when he can’t do it himself. Just one of many methods of protection he’s learned over the years. Some are physical, like the prayer beads wrapped around his wrist or the bottle of holy water in his pocket; others—spells and symbols and mantras—are carved all over his body in tattoos and blood writing. Anything to keep the otherworld away.
“Personal space is a key to a medium’s sanity,” John told him once. “That and a good bottle of single malt scotch.”
Jason ignores the moss-covered path that winds through the larger and more prominent mausoleums. He deliberately doesn’t search out the one in the distance bearing the Wayne crest—
(Still remembers the feel of his fingernails splitting against the wood of the coffin, choking on clumps of soil and insects.)
—and instead seeks a small structure much farther away. It’s in the furthest part of the cemetery, the shabby section almost hidden by overgrown willows. Half of the name above the doorway is obscured by vines, but it’s easy for him to make out the name etched into the stone with bold letters.
According to the public record, Sheila Haywood’s body was returned to Gotham at the same time as Jason Todd’s. Bruce paid for her funeral and internment, which was just as well since she had no other family, and then she was promptly forgotten about.
By everyone except Jason, it seems.
It took some doing and a few weeks tracking down everyone that had worked at the same refugee camp as his mother, but he’d finally managed to collect what possessions she left behind. A colleague of hers had put them aside when there appeared to be nothing of actual monetary value in them.
A gold coin, small bone carvings of stylized animals, dainty trinkets of garnets, amber and lapis lazuli, a compact mirror, some seashells, a decorative fan, quartz paperweight, and a brightly colored feather. There was a picture of Willis in there, too, young and almost Jason’s double. No picture of Jason, though, but he hadn’t expected it.
He kept the picture but left the rest in the small wooden box, which he now removes from his messenger bag and sets down in front of the stone bearing his mother’s name. He follows that with various tools and ingredients. Black candles arranged in a star shape around the box, a chalice, a jar of detritus—teff seeds, driftwood and soil, all from the place where she died—that he sprinkles around in a circle, a handful of smooth obsidian stones to mark a pentagram joining the candles, the dagger John gave him for his last birthday, vials of oil and holy water.
Murmuring a few protection oaths, he shrugs off his jacket, leaving his arms bare, and then digs out a pack of matches to light the candles; flickering shadows dance across the mausoleum walls. He takes up the chalice to combine the water and oil, and then reaches for the dagger.
Hate this part.
Training to ignore pain doesn’t mean it goes away, and he grits his teeth a little as he draws his blade across his forearm, not deep enough to nick anything vital, but enough that the blood runs easily into the chalice. Without bothering to bandage the wound, Jason holds up the chalice in front of him and centers himself.
“Phantasma inrequietum, te voco,” he intones. “Eloguiorum mei audi: Sheila Haywood, te nominas!“ The stagnant air in the mausoleum starts to pick up. “In nominee creatricis, te impero, hic locum decede.” Hand over the top of the chalice, he swirls the liquid within, and then tips it into the open keepsake box. “Per sanguinem hominis et per sanguinem filii tui, non remane et apage! ”He strikes a match and lobs it into the box, not even flinching as the whole thing flares into flame; he intends to watch it until it burns to nothing.
“That’s not going to work, you know.”
“Jesus fuck!” Jason explodes, whirling to the right and glaring at the interrupter. “What did I say about sneaking up on me? Or just—showing up around me in general?”
The apparition in front of him doesn’t look impressed.
Sheila is still beautiful—or, at least, the side of her body that isn’t covered with third-degree burns and sections of pulverized bone—and still sharp. Cold, untouchable and self-interested.
But unlike the way she was before, she’s all-too present in Jason’s life now.
“Goddamn it,” he snarls, and against every lesson John has ever given him, lashes out and knocks the candles and detritus hard enough to send it skidding across the floor. “What the hell. I’ve done everything. You had last rites, your body was cremated, I just torched the things that had any value to you, why the hell won’t you just move on?”
“You’re asking the wrong questions,” Sheila replies, as always.
Jason scowls. “And of course, you can’t just tell me.”
She gazes at him balefully, and he runs a frustrated hand through his hair.
“Sheila, we’ve been over this. You can’t stay here. One, you know spirits that stick around past their time go Dark Side, and I really don’t want to have to exorcise your spectral ass. Two, it’s fucking creepy for a twenty-year-old guy to be followed around by his mother wherever he goes. What the hell is keeping you here? What more do you want from me?”
“Your forgiveness,” she tells him patiently.
“I already forgave you. Years ago.”
“You still call me Sheila.”
“That’s your name.”
“I’m your mother.”
“Who sold me out and got me murdered.”
“See? You haven’t forgiven me.”
“I have. I’m just stating a fact, Jesus…”
“Apparently the cosmic balance doesn’t agree enough to let me move on,” the ghost says dryly. “And to think, I used to be an atheist.”
“This is total bullshit,” Jason snaps, grabbing his jacket and stalking out of the mausoleum in frustration.
Three years of this mediumship crap, and neither he nor John have ever been able to figure out why the ghost of Jason’s dead mother won’t stop haunting him. Wards and sutras that keep even the nastiest spirits away from Jason don’t even phase her, and she’s inexplicably coherent.
As Jason stalks back through the cemetery, he can sense her in his periphery, gliding along beside him, unconcerned with his irritation.
“Can you just…stay away from me? Like you did in the beginning?” he grumbles.
“You were just learning how to communicate without going insane. I wasn’t about to disrupt that.”
“How considerate of you.”
“Look, I’ve had enough of the ghost-stalker thing for today. I went out of my way for this, you know. I didn’t even want to come back here. And now I’m back to the fucking drawing board.”
“It may not have been a waste of a trip,” she replies and vanishes.
“Oh, you can fuck off when it’s convenient for you,” he grumbles, though he already senses what she was speaking of.
Several yards away, a small boy, maybe eight, is clinging forlornly to an angel headstone. Translucent tears stream down his cheeks, but every now and again his face shifts, like a television caught between two channels, and his mouth widens into an unnatural smile.
Jason could have gone the rest of his life without seeing that smile again.
Still, he sighs and heads toward the kid.
“Hey,” he says, keeping his voice low and maintaining a safe distance from the boy, whose head whips up to stare at Jason in sudden fear.
“Who are you?” he asks, voice thick with tears.
“I’m Jason. You okay, kid?”
“I can’t find my mom,” the boy murmurs, wiping at his face. “I keep going looking, but I forget the way home. And then…I always end up back here.”
He sounds on the verge of tears again; it’s something Jason can understand.
With the puzzling exception of Sheila, who appears to come and go as she pleases, most ghosts are stuck in certain patterns and paths when they die, frozen in an infinite loop until they break themselves out of it or until some arbitrary higher power decides they’ve suffered enough. And for some reason, Jason can break them out of it.
“You could always try again,” he suggests. “I think you’ll manage it this time.”
The boy shudders. “There’s scary people here.”
No arguing with that.
“I know. I see them, too.” Jason glances at the headstone, scanning the name and dates. “Your name’s Cole?”
“If you’re missing, there are probably people looking for you. They might have posted something online about it. I’ll check it out, but it could take a bit.” He holds up his phone, glad to see it’s at full charge and bars; that’s hit or miss around so many ghosts. “Can you hang around here until I’m done?”
The boy nods, silent, face flicking back and forth between sadness and the unnatural smile.
Jason does a quick search of the kid’s name, pulling up obituaries in the Gotham Gazette in the past year. It doesn’t take long for an article to pop up concerning the Joker’s latest escape and a list of the dead.
He narrows his eyes, startling the kid.
“It’s fine,” he lies. “The internet is just really slow.”
“Or our phone is really bad,” Cole tells him with the blunt honesty of a kid that grew up constantly surrounded by functional technology.
“Everyone’s a critic…”
Another quick search for the parents, phone lists and social media, and he’s got an address. Crime Alley, of course. He brings it up on his map and enables a view of the street, holding the phone out to the boy. “Is this your house?”
Relief settles and settles over his face. “Yeah.”
“What if I helped you find your way home?”
Cole makes a suspicious face. “I’m not supposed to go anywhere with strangers.”
“Which is really smart. But you see, I’m not really a stranger.”
“Oh yeah? Why not?”
“Well, I’ll let you in on a secret.” Jason bends down, conspiratorial, and Cole’s eyes gleam the way any kid gets when hearing a secret. “When I was a little older than you…I was Robin.”
The boy gapes. “Like…Batman and Robin?”
“Way,” Jason smirks, crossing his arms. “And I’ll tell you all about it on the way to your house. Including the time that I stole the wheels off the Batmobile.”
Despite his scandalized disbelief, the kid is obviously hooked.
Jason’s heart clenches a bit at the open curiosity on Cole’s face, the reality hitting him that this boy will never have a chance to do anything mischievous or fun ever again.
From one dead boy to another, this sucks…
As he leads him out of the cemetery, Jason starts to tell the little ghost about his life. He edits out the less pleasant bits, like dying and returning to life half brain dead with the ability to see and hear ghosts.
He figures a good story is the least he can do for the boy.
To Be Continued
My Latin is so, sooooo rusty, so what I said in the story probably doesn’t resemble what I wanted it to say because declensions and me are not friends. Anyway, this was what I was going for, so please, if you know better, either suspend your disbelief or help me rewrite it properly:
O, restless spirit of this house, I summon thee. Hear my words: Sheila Haywood, I name you, and in the name of the Creatrix, I command you to leave this place. By the blood of Man, be not and be gone.
Next chapter, Timmy!
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Chapter 2: II.
Author's Note(s): Enter Tim. And Tim's investigation. And Tim's tendency to make bad decisions.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Red Robin crouches on a rooftop in the Bowery, watching the thief he was just interrogating scramble from the alley. He was a bit harsher than usual tonight—the full ‘hang ‘em by the feet’ routine that’s more Batman’s thing than his, but he’s getting frustrated now.
Dante’s been missing for a week now, and in this town, that’s never a good sign. And if no one’s seen him…
His gut and five years of stalking the night as a vigilante are telling him he shouldn’t get his hopes up about finding his friend, but he can’t work up the courage to stop. To just, pack up and head back to California.
Things between him and the Family are…tense.
Bruce hasn’t quite been able to look at him without suspicion since the whole incident with Captain Boomerang and Freeze. Dick’s as focussed on Damian as ever, and whatever attention he has left over has been going to mentoring Duke. Steph and Tim are in another extended “off” period of their on-and-off-again relationship, Damian’s…Damian. And Cass isn’t around often enough to mitigate any of that.
As much as Alfred assures him it’s not the case, Tim’s been feeling more and more like Gotham doesn’t have anything for him any longer.
He never thought he’d ever feel like that.
Gotham is dank and dark and terrifying, but it’s home. It’s flying through the air and running across rooftops and diving into trouble at the last second to save the day. It’s everything he wanted when he was a kid, secretly following Batman and Robin around with a camera almost as big as he was.
But every year now, it feels like the city is a little danker, a little darker, a little more terrifying. A lot more hopeless.
Part of him thinks that hopelessness started growing following Jason Todd’s murder. Tim did his best to be there for him, but it’s been an uphill battle. And every year, the fight for Gotham’s soul becomes an even bloodier war of attrition, consuming more and more innocents.
Reminded of his goal tonight, Tim decides to involve himself more directly.
He rappels down to the alley floor and resigns himself to several hours of canvassing a hostile neighborhood. Though fear is an excellent motivator for some, for others a different approach is needed.
People are unlikely to tell a stranger—even a rich stranger—anything worthwhile. Especially here in the Alley, where throwing money at problems get people’s backs up. There’s a sense of pride down here, and an us-versus-them mentality that even the most destitute ascribe to.
And vigilantes are pretty firmly in the ‘them’ column.
Tim has better luck than most here; Red Robin has been frequenting this place a lot over the years, almost from the moment he put on the cape and tights. The other capes never bothered much with it—except for Jason, who when he was Robin made a point of ending his patrols with a quick check of his former home. Tim sometimes thinks that maybe his tendency to come here is an homage to that, a way of keeping his predecessor’s legacy alive.
Of course, he’s never said anything like that to anyone in the family. Even years later, the grief is still too raw. If he’s asked, Tim maintains that he’s cultivated a careful network of informants and contacts in the Alley, and nothing more.
I mean, it’s not like I can go wandering around Crime Alley in the middle of the day.
Tim Drake-Wayne’s face is too recognizable, causes too much trouble. People are desperate here, might try to grab him and use him to extort money from Bruce—and he’d have to let him because he’s not supposed to be able to handle himself. Bruce would come, of course, or whoever’s nearest that Oracle can get on the comms, but it would mean interrupting actual crimes in progress, with actual people who are in danger.
A worse alternative would be if whoever has Dante—and Tim’s sure someone has him because the kid wouldn’t just vanish on his own—they might harm him. Because Tim is the adopted son of the man funding Batman, and if they think he might cause them trouble, most people willing to kidnap are also willing to murder.
All of which assumes that they haven’t murdered him yet.
Tim’s plan of approached hinges on the locals actually being in a helpful mood tonight, but he soon discovers that’s not the case. No one’s feeling talkative tonight, even when he ramps up the intimidation a little.
Either there’s someone out there they’re more afraid of, or they really don’t know.
It’s only in the early hours of the morning when he’s considering returning to his Park Row apartment in defeat, that one of the working girls finally takes pity on him.
“Watchin’ you go back and forth is makin’ me dizzy,” Rhonda says. She’s been working the corner of Park Row and Fifth since before Tim’s time, and though she rarely goes out of her way to get involved with the capes, she does tend to be bluntly honest if the situation is right. “Who you lookin’ for?”
“This kid. Or anyone who’s seen him,” he says, pitching his voice into his approximation of Bruce’s Batman growl. He holds out the glossy picture he’s been flashing around all night; he took it off a security camera and increased the size of. “He was working at the bodega on the corner of Parker and Main just outside the Alley.”
“A bit weird for a cape to give a shit about some kid from ‘round here. Don’t you freaks normally deal with the bigger freaks?”
“Have you seen him or not?” Tim insists, ignoring the jab.
“Who’s he to you, sugar?” she asks, glancing at the picture Tim brandishes. “And don’t give me no bullshit.”
Tim sighs, knowing better than to test her; she’s got Alfred levels of talent when it comes to lies.
“He’s a friend of sorts,” he explains. “Sort of…a protégé. I’ve been looking out for him the past few months.”
Which is sort of true, though not in the way he’s implying.
During WE’s years board meeting to examine the various applications for the Scholarship Program, Tim took note of an applicant whose overall qualifications were outstanding and whose even on paper looked like a major boon to the company.
But the Board of Directors took one look at Dante Garcia’s prior assault conviction at age twelve and decided to toss his application. Without even reading the excellent essay the kid wrote to explain the reasons he had been fighting (to defend a friend from a police officer with a grudge). Or how the experience made him want to become an advocate for those who couldn’t afford it.
It was a brave move, being upfront about the criminal record, but likely Dante knew it wasn’t exactly something he could hide. His record wouldn’t be sealed until he was eighteen.
Tim tried to argue that one mistake made for good reasons shouldn’t deny a bright kid the opportunity and that Dante was clearly of the same caliber as Tim, just without the last name to help him.
(He hadn’t mentioned that Dante reminded him of another boy from long ago, given a second chance and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.)
He was still outvoted.
From the way the old bastards were looking at him, Tim felt sure it was more because of who he was than who Dante was.
The petty bastards never did get over the fact they have a teenager for a boss.
In spite of the Board not agreeing with his vote, Tim already decided he intended to help Dante. He tracked him down to speak to him in person and get a better measure of him.
He was immediately impressed upon their first meeting, especially when he discovered how easy it was to converse with him. He has an intelligence that reminds him of Duke, but his attitude put him in mind of everything he knew about the second Robin.
“I’m going to figure out a way to get you a scholarship,” he told him two weeks into their acquaintanceship. “Even if it’s not from the Foundation, we’ll figure it out. I’d be willing to hire you on at the Neon Knights if you’re interested. Criminal records aren’t exactly a deal-breaker there.”
(Especially since most of the people working there were once part of or are in the process of escaping gangs.)
“That sort of thing will look good on a resume and open doors for you, including getting you into events and putting your name out there,” Tim continued. “The Knights also sponsors educational initiatives, so you can get your general credits out of the way and eventually transfer into a college program of your choice.”
Dante stared at him, suspicious. “Why you doing this, man? You don’t know me from Adam.”
“Because I was taken in by a man who didn’t think someone’s last name or financial background should be an obstacle to greatness,” Tim replied honestly. “My brothers and sister came from harsh backgrounds, but he didn’t let that stop him from taking them in and trying to help them achieve their potential. They’re all good kids that could have gone a very different way if he didn’t get involved. Because he had the ability to do so. Having influence means nothing if you don’t use it to do good.”
“So what’s the price of this?”
“That you’ll be expected to pay it forward. And you’re already going to be doing that when you get your degree and start helping people. You’ll have the influence. Just keep your nose clean and away from the gangs, and you have a real shot, kid.”
“Excuse you, white boy, you’re my age. None of that ‘kid’ shit with me.”
It had still taken time after that to convince Dante that Tim’s offer was legit, but once he decided he was trustworthy, they’d started hanging out more. What started with Tim sponsoring a kid with huge potential turned into an actual friendship—and he didn’t have many of those with people who weren’t in the caped community. There was something about that he wanted to protect.
When Dante’s mother called him one day in tears, explaining that Dante had never come home from work and the police wouldn’t let her file a missing person’s report until 48 hours had passed, Tim didn’t hesitate to get involved.
At first, he’d worried that Dante’s disappearance was related to Tim—had someone discovered his identity and then decided to use his friend as leverage? The likelihood of that was low, however; anyone who did know his identity would come at him more directly, or at least have contacted him with some kind of threat.
Which meant what happened to Dante wasn’t vigilante related, but simply bad luck.
That doesn’t make Tim any less intent on figuring out what happened.
His thoughts must be projecting through his body language somehow because Rhonda’s usually sharp eyes soften a bit and she sighs. Looking around, she ensures there’s no one nearby, and then says, “You need to talk to Salvatore.”
“He’s a pimp, hangs out down the corner. He hooks, too, which is fucking weird. Does it because he likes it,” she says, making a disgusted face. “He tends to be the guy that’s always the last person to see someone before they go missin’, if you know what I mean?”
“You think he’s involved?”
“Nah, he’s too paranoid to do that. Likes to keep his hands clean, or pretend to. But he’s right near where your friend disappeared. And…” She hesitates here, sizing Tim up, and then nods to herself, “He’s got a rep. Lures new boys on the street into the business. He’s got a scary success rate at it, too.” She shivers. “Makes sense, he’s a scary motherfucker. Lots of his kids go missin’, but he always had some excuse. Letters and texts and shit provin’ they left the city or somethin’. No one knows how he does it, so you get him to talk, you’ll find out what you want to know. But I don’t see it happenin’.”
“Still. Thanks for the information,” Tim says and digs into his belt for a wad of cash. To his surprise, Rhonda shakes her head.
“Anyone sees me takin’ that from you right before you go after Salvatore, they’ll know I talked. No one’ll think I’d be stupid enough to give anything up for free. You come back a few days after you deal with that bastard, I’ll take it then.”
“That’s oddly trusting for someone like you.”
“Honey, you’ve been watchin’ these streets long enough I know you’re good for it. And catch me or anyone else ever telling you jack shit ever again if you stiff me.”
Tim snorts. “Fair enough. What’s this guy look like so I can find him?”
“Trust me, you’ll know him when you see him. Just don’t tell that creep anything ‘bout me sendin’ you in his direction.”
She doesn’t wait for his answer before sashaying away, returning to her activities for the night.
Tim keeps to the shadows as he heads to the corner Rhonda indicated, thinking he might have to wait around for a few hours—or even return the next night—if he’s going to find his next suspect.
It turns out he doesn’t need to.
A man who can only be Salvatore is leaning against the wall at the mouth of an alley, fiddling with his very expensive looking phone.
He is a tall, muscular, almost impossibly good-looking man with high cheekbones, intense blue eyes, and a full, cruel mouth. There’s something in a way that mouth lifts at the corners that makes Tim’s stomach thud, memories of a similar grin and devil-may-care laugh he only ever got to see through the lens of a camera or across a crowded ballroom.
But this isn’t him. This guy looks more like a crocodile than a robin.
“Well, hello there, handsome,” the man purrs when Tim materializes beside him, eyes flicking up and down Tim’s form with a look that does nothing to dispel the predatory image. “Looking for a pick-me-up after a hard night’s work?”
Tim ignores the innuendo dripping in the man’s voice.
“I’ve been given the impression you’ve seen this boy,” Tim says coolly, holding up his photo. “That you were the last one to see him. I need to know what you know.”
“I’m sure you do, baby, but I don’t come cheap, and neither does anything that comes out of my mouth,” Salvatore drawls.
Tim shrugs; if it’s money he wants, that’s not a problem. “I’m sure we could come to an arrangement.”
“Oh, I know we can,” Salvatore chuckles. “But not here.” His eyes flick around like he’s scoping out someone watching; his irises flicker strangely in the dim streetlight. “Not where someone might see us talking. I could lose customers for talking to a mask—and I’m all about discretion.”
“They’re already seeing us talking.”
“And as far as they know, you’re just asking about the price of the goods,” Salvatore purrs, moving so slowly as to telegraph his moves and stroking his fingers across Tim’s chest plate, and down. “Can’t imagine seeking justice satisfies all your urges, does it, little bird?”
Tim’s hand snaps upward, clamping around Salvatore’s wrist and exerting just enough pressure to earn and choked gasp of pain. “I am here for information. Nothing more, nothing less. Either you tell me what I want to know, and I compensate you, or you tell me what I want to know and leave here with a bunch of bruises that will definitely affect your bottom line. Assuming I don’t drag you to the nearest precinct in handcuffs.”
“Baby, I’m almost tempted to take you up on that,” Salvatore says, licking his lips. “But I also know there’s worse on the streets than me. Who knows what your friend might have stumbled into?”
Tim’s jaw clenches. “Meaning?”
“Meaning we’re doing this little info exchange my way, and that involves not being out in the open. This is private business, after all.”
This time Tim’s nose curls, sensing an implication there. Either this guy’s not too bright, practically broadcasting his intentions to a vigilante, or he knows something important enough he thinks Tim will do anything for it.
Tim considers him, trying to evaluate how he wants to play this. Obviously, he doesn’t trust Salvatore, but he needs information even if it’s the vaguest of statements.
Salvatore’s clearly unarmed—no weapon’s hiding anywhere with that little clothing. And Tim was trained by Batman and Lady Shiva.
Buddy, aren’t you in for a surprise.
“Fine,” Tim says. “Lead the way.”
Salvatore’s pupils dilate, once again catching the dim light in a manner that makes them seem like they reflect.
Then he jerks his head toward the dark, shadowy alley behind him.
Against every instinct of self-preservation that managed to survive the brilliant idea of a twelve-year-old becoming a vigilante, Tim follows.
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Chapter 3: III
Author's Note(s): Bit of a shorter chapter today because I have stuff to do later so I'm updating early.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s another two hours before Jason returns to the East End. It had taken all of his concentration to keep Cole’s ghost focussed on him and his stories, instead of whatever unnamed force might tempt him back to gravesite. After the boy vanishes in the gradual, whispering way spirits do when their unfinished business if met, Jason doubled over at the sudden migraine.
He much prefers when unfinished business can be completed in one place instead of having to carry a phantom passenger with him.
Being tired—and now that he thinks about it, hungry—does not help his bad mood.
Another kid. Another victim of the fucking Joker.
Just how many more kids was the nutcase going to take out? How many more Robins? Because Jason’s seen pictures of the new kid—blurry and imprecise as anything to be found in a Gotham tabloid, but enough for someone with an eye for it to judge some facts—and he’s fucking tiny. It doesn’t matter that the girls in the Bowery where Jason lives say he’s meaner and more dangerous than any of the others. He’s smaller than Jason’s replacement—smaller than that girl even. What the hell is Bruce thinking?
Again, the temptation rises within him to hightail it over to the manor without warning and rip Bruce a series of new ones while he’s too busy gaping in shock to defend himself.
He doesn’t, though.
Knowing Bruce, he’d think it was a trick and beat the snot out of Jason, then stick him in a cell somewhere until he could confirm his identity. Jason’s been behind the door of enough cells to last him a lifetime, and that alone holds him back.
And who’s to say he doesn’t blame me for getting myself killed in the first place?
He knows that’s not likely, somewhere deeply buried inside, but it’s hard to shake the idea. Old insecurities return in full, memories of pity and concern and frustration, and his final moment waiting for his dad to save him and being disappointed.
And then being disappointed again when his wits returned to him and he discovered the Joker was still breathing. That Bruce didn’t deal with it—didn’t kill the fucker that killed Jason and shot Barbara.
He remembers that horrible week, wondering if she was going to live or die, and then being told she’d never walk again. Vibrant, ass-kicking and beautiful Batgirl with her wings forever clipped. In a way, he thinks he’s angrier about Barbara than himself. As Robin, he was always going to be a direct target of the Joker; Barbara wasn’t shot and tortured because she was Batgirl—she was shot and tortured because she was Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.
And after all that, Bruce just put the bastard back in Arkham, where he could have a taxpayer-paid vacation then break himself out again whenever he felt like it.
Something needs to be done about him, and B’s sure as fuck not going to do it.
With every step, Jason finds himself getting a little angrier. It’s a cool rage, different from the volatile mess of hormones and emotions he was as a kid, but it’s still there. Say what you want for the brain damage, but he was so out of it that it’s probably why John’s meditation techniques took when Bruce’s didn’t, tempering him.
He’s still prone to rash action, of course, but for something like this—something as serious as the Joker—he’s going to have to think it through. Somehow, he doubts it’s just going to be as easy as walking into the asylum and shivving the guy. And Jason’s not exactly keen on getting arrested, not after he worked his ass off to set himself up with an identity and a job and everything here in Gotham.
It bears thinking about, and he can’t do anything immediate about it now, so he’ll sleep on it. Something will come to him.
Jason turns the corner, intending to do just that as he heads for his apartment.
Well, it’s not really an apartment. It’s more office space over a bar on the border of Crime Alley and the Bowery. It’s just cheaper to rent an office than an apartment these days; with housing costs soaring, even property in the worst parts of Gotham are wildly out of his price range.
(He’s not a billionaire’s son anymore.)
Might stay out of my price range for a while. PIs don’t make much, to begin with, and my niche is kind of…specific.
Mediumship isn’t exactly a lucrative business, nor is paranormal investigation. Both jobs attract the crazies, but he knows from experience the ones who are legit will pay good money for his services.
Still, the whole set-up isn’t so bad.
He’s been getting his food from the local bodegas and the bar downstairs, and he’s sure after a bit of saving he’ll even be able to go out to the occasional sit-down restaurant when he gets a craving for something gourmet-ish (He doesn’t think about how Alfred could whip up a do that would put the cordon bleu to shame).
Jason sprung for a decent quality sleeper sofa, so it’s not like he’s kipping on the floor and the office even has a bathroom with a shower, which was a big plus when his landlady, Trista, showed it to him. The ambulance chaser who occupied the space before him said he used to work a lot and needed to be able to shower between jobs. He’d also said if he hadn’t been so keyed into his job, he’d have noticed his life falling apart around him and not shot himself three months ago.
Yeah, that was a fun one…
Since helping the previous owner move on and then taking up residence in the cramped office space, Jason’s made a point of warding the entire office against any other wandering spirits.
I happen to have very strict office hours, ta very much.
He pauses on the street leading to his place, his stomach growling again, and decides he’ll head into the bar for a pick-me-up beforehand. Trista, who also owns that place, doesn’t offer a lot in the way of food, but what she does is pretty good. Hers is the only place he’s been so far that can make decent fish and chips.
As he heads in that direction, he notices a familiar face standing on the corner across the street. He decides to make a quick detour.
“Rhonda,” he says with a grin, “you’re lookin’ especially gorgeous tonight.”
“Boy, I don’t need you to tell me shit I already know,” the woman tells him with a sniff. “And if you’re cruisin’ for a lay, I’ll tell you what I always tell you—you too young.”
“You’ve been tellin’ me that since I was twelve,” he grins.
Rhonda is the only person here in Gotham that knows he’s back, and that’s only because recognized him one night while he was heading back from a job. When he first landed himself on the streets as a kid, Rhonda was one of the girls who looked out for him and whatever other orphan was wandering around here at the time. After he was adopted by Bruce, he made a point of checking up on her as Robin, chasing off johns that tried to get over her time (even though she was already pretty good at managing that herself) and buying her food whenever he could. He never expected her to still be here when he got back, but she’d taken one look at him and cursed.
“I knew that story about you bein’ dead was bullshit,” she informed him as she took a drag of a cigarette. “What you do, run off on the rich man or some shit? He been tellin’ everyone you’re dead for years now.”
“To him, I am dead,” he’d replied, not wanting to go into it. “And everyone else better keep thinkin’ that too.”
“Ain’t gonna hear it from me,” she’d shrugged. “But why the fuck did you come back to this shithole?”
“Home’s home,” he had shrugged, and she’d nodded because she knew exactly what he was talking about.
Now, she sizes him up and considers his face. “Rough night, it looks like. You gettin’ in trouble again?”
“Nah, just exorcisin’ some…personal demons. Quiet night for you?”
“Mostly. There was a cape around couple minutes ago, though, so keep an eye out.”
She knows he tends to avoid them.
Jason raises an eyebrow. “Which one?”
Christ, I hope it wasn’t Batman or Robin. Don’t think I could take seeing either of them tonight.
“It was Red. Came through to ask some questions.”
It takes him a moment to connect the name to the roster of vigilante’s he made himself memorize before coming back here. Red Robin is the one he suspects used to be his replacement, probably got graduated or replaced himself when the newest brat was put in the boots.
“He came here?” Jason asks. “Why?”
“Usual mask thing, comin’ down here to talk to the little people who might’ve seen somethin’.”
Jason makes a thoughtful noise, a bit impressed. He was always the only one who bothered coming down here; even Bruce avoided the minor crooks of the Alley after he started getting more invested in Gotham’s rogues.
“Red’s good people,” Rhonda says then, looking like she’s considering something. “He’s the only one that tries with us. Pays good money, buys food—sorta like Robin used to. And you know he’s doin’ it on purpose, ‘cause when he’s around the city, he usually sticks to Chinatown or Tricorner. That’s what the news say, anyway.”
Jason is again surprised. “Definitely goin’ out of his way then.”
He thinks about it a further minute and then shrugs. “Anything else interesting happening tonight? You need anything?”
“Yeah, for you to get off my corner so I can get to work,” Rhonda retorts. “Unlike you, I don’t like livin’ off bar food. Gotta be careful what you put in the temple, you know?”
“I dunno, give me a chili dog any day…”
Jason chuckles as she shoes him away, and then continues on his way to the bar. Maybe he’ll pick up something to go—
Just as he’s about to step into Trista’s bar, the hair on the back of his neck stands on end, and he feels a minor flicker of vertigo.
Turning back to the street, he casts his eyes about, looking for anything out of ordinary to explain the sudden unease. Something nags at him, something that feels…hungry almost.
Since his senses are only attuned to the spirit of the dead, a hungry presence is never a good sign. Ghosts can sometimes become so enraged over their deaths, so tied to the mortal realm, that they become psychic vampires, attaching themselves to the living and feeding off of them like a parasite until they drop from exhaustion.
Fuck. Can’t leave one of those wandering around, if that’s what this is.
He gives an irritated groan and walks away from the bar, turning his focus on tracking the sensation. It’s not exactly calling out to him personally, but it’s still present enough for him to notice.
Jason digs into his pocket, winding his prayer beads around his wrist and checking if he’s still got any iron on him. Nothing big enough to make much difference, but for distraction if it comes to it.
As he reaches the end of the block, Jason catches sight of the cape first.
Damn, I don’t miss the days of having to wear gear like that.
Because that cowl thing the vigilante is sporting is almost as much a tragedy as the green leotard Jason used to sport (they weren’t panties, fuck you very much, they just looked that way—as if Alfred would allow someone to go outside the house in just their underwear). And the cape is so thick it gives him no idea as to the stature or body behind it.
At least this Red Robin guy is smart enough to have a full body-armor suit instead of pixie-boots and a t-shirt.
Might be the only thing he’s smart about, judging by his company.
The too-perfect-looking young man that beckons the vigilante to follow him into the alleyway is all cold blue eyes, sharp smile, and sleek movement. And even if Jason couldn’t read the malevolent aura emanating from the direction of the two men (and that’s a doozy, especially if it’s coming from only one individual), he’s seen that look before in eyes just as cold.
He knows the tactics of an incubus seeking its next meal, and this one seems to have decided it has a taste for vigilante tonight.
This isn’t really Jason’s thing—incubi are low-level demons, more John’s area of expertise than his. Getting involved would mean willingly crossing paths with one of Gotham’s masks, which he’s been taking pains not to do since returning.
But he’s also not allowing any kind of unrestrained feeding and killing to happen on his turf. And these darkest, dingiest parts of Gotham have always been his. Even when he was trailing after the big Bat.
Plus, this guy is Red Robin.
Jason hasn’t had any particular interest in the growing number of masks cropping up in Gotham over the years, but this guy’s obviously a bird. Which means Jason has a kind of personal connection to him. Call it brothers-in-arms or something poetic like that, even if they’ve never met.
Also, the way incubi feed…no one deserves to have that happen to them, especially in a filthy alley like this one. Jason’s always had concern over consent issues, and with incubi, the way they get that consent literally straddles the line far too closely for his taste. This Red Robin might be Bat-trained, but unless he’s taken a master class in the occult (doubtful, considering Bruce’s distrust of anything resembling magic), he’s being led away like a lamb to the slaughter.
Probably he’s already been ensnared by the thing’s powers and doesn’t even realize it. Like a baby bird in front of a snake.
Jason sighs in defeat and rolls his shoulders in preparation for what he knows is going to be an unpleasant interlude.
“Time to be a hero,” he mutters to himself and stalks toward the shadowy alley where the two figures have disappeared.
To Be Continued
Next chapter, life saving and the big meet-cute.
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Tim may have miscalculated.
Under normal circumstances, his plan would be no big deal for him to recalibrate; thinking on one’s feet is part of being a Bat, after all. And it’s not like he doesn’t have assets.
The alleyway, though dark, is broad and not filled with cumbersome obstacles that would impede fighting in close quarters. There’s enough shadow for him to disappear into if need be, and if he were unable to reach for the tools in his utility belt or bandolier, he would easily find makeshift weapons—shards of glass from a broken mirror or loose bricks.
He’s just having a little trouble concentrating.
Actually, he’s having a lot of trouble concentrating and worse, trying to get his body to do anything he wants it to right now.
Almost the minute he stepped into the alleyway Tim felt a heaviness settled into his bones.
He’d shaken it off as a random bout of exhaustion—the kind that creeps up on him frequently, especially when he hasn’t slept properly in a few nights—but this one didn’t go away. He can’t seem to push it back or ignore it just enough to regain his wits.
And now Salvatore is moving directly into his personal space, too close for comfort, Tim should be lashing out to stop his advance. A blow to the chest, a twist of his wrist to bring him down to his knees.
But he finds he can’t.
Tim’s arms and legs are like lead weights by his side, too heavy to maneuver.
Then Salvatore is reaching out to him, tipping two fingers under his chin and stroking the skin there. Tim shivers, in disgust and at how cold the other man’s skin is.
“There now, isn’t this cozy?” the other man purrs.
Tim’s heart begins to beat faster, and he thinks it’s adrenaline at first, a reaction to his immobility and the danger of the situation. But the way his cheeks flood with warmth and the way his suit suddenly feels too tight tell him it’s something else.
“It could be cozier,” Salvatore continues thoughtfully, tracing Tim’s jaw. “What do you say, baby? Take off that ugly hood and show off the pretty cheekbones I know you have.”
“What…are you doing…to me?” Tim growls as he struggles against the immediate compulsion to do as the other man says. He can’t keep his hands from moving toward his face, though they do so slowly, trembling as he tries to hold back.
“Not anything you don’t want me to, I’m sure.”
“That’s because you don’t know what you’re missing. Now, let me see what I have to work with.”
The cowl is off, hanging heavily against his back. Tim is barely able to keep himself from releasing his domino mask as well, if only because Salvatore didn’t specifically ask for it. Whatever this compulsion is caused by, it allows for loopholes—though he doesn’t know how much longer that’s going to last.
How is he doing this? He barely suggested it and Tim’s completely susceptible to him, to the point where his training is like a distant memory. The entire situation reminds him of being under the influence of Poison Ivy’s concoctions, but somehow different. Where hers focus on achieving biochemical responses or altering hormones, this is different; it feels like something is being drawn out of him on a deeper level.
“Oh, I was right. You Bats all look so edible from a distance. It’s even better up close.”
Tim’s brain scrambles for a plan, trying to buy himself time. If he could just make the smallest movement, he could activate his comm to call for help.
His fingers remain stiff and uncooperating.
“Metahuman,” he accuses.
Salvatore pauses, looking offended for a moment. “I’m no such thing. Nothing so new and crude.”
“Is this…what you did to Dante?”
“Who? Oh. The one in the picture. No, I didn’t play with your little friend. He wasn’t really my type. Too…pure. But you?” His uncanny eyes rake over Tim again. “Mmmm.”
“But you know…who did…take him?”
“No idea. I already told you there are worse things than me out there. At least I’m just acting according to my nature—the real monsters out there are the ones that make themselves.” He grins, and it somehow seems like he has too many teeth. “Now stop asking me questions, pretty boy, and behave yourself.” His hand slithers up Tim’s arm and over his shoulder. “I promise to make it good for you—it just tastes so much better when willingly given.”
And it’s like Tim’s protests die in his throat, the fight draining out of him with every passing second and every inch closer that Salvatore moves. He casts his eyes around, trying to find anything he might use for a weapon if he could just reach for it—
Instead, he catches sight of movement. For a moment feels a burst of hope, until he understands it’s just Salvatore’s reflection on the broken mirror. That disappointment morphs quickly into horror when he realizes he’s not seeing the enticing young man in front of him reflected there.
Instead, a hairless, gray and vaguely humanoid shape leans over Tim’s reflection. Its facial features are inhuman, cold black eyes with a reflective tint and an open, gaping mouth like a Sarlacc pit.
It takes every bit of effort he has to try to pull backward, away from the approaching…thing. Even as he knows there’s no stopping him, that he can’t even twitch his fingers enough to engage the taster in his suit.
He’s going to have to wait until the creature comes into actual physical contact with him, press him up against the electric panel in his chest to throw him off.
Bile rises in his throat at that thought
As Salvatore leans into him, lowering his mouth to Tim and bringing an overwhelming scent of sickly-sweet rot, his consciousness begins to ebb away, lulled into a dreamy haze
Maybe…maybe it won’t be so…bad
“You know, usually I avoid your kind, since I’m not so great with the fleshy side of ugly,” a voice declares from the mouth of the cave, shattering the overwhelming tension, “but there’s someone big and brooding goin’ to take exception to this guy going missing or dead.”
And then suddenly Salvatore is being hauled off of him, sending Tim falling to his knees when the creature’s compulsion no longer able to hold him up. Salvatore reacts like an angry cat, hissing violently at the newcomer.
Tim has the impression of red hair and a leather jacket, but that’s it as he struggles to regain control of his faculties; the hazy sensation is slow to ebb away. The quick withdrawal of whatever was keeping him in thrall retracts as abruptly as a snapping elastic, forcing a kind of whiplash feeling.
Immediately, his stomach revolts and he can’t hold back from vomiting on the ground.
“I get you’re just doing what you do, and all,” the stranger continues to talk, a taunting edge in his voice, “but there are a lot of people out there with self-esteem issues and no self-respect who’d be more than happy to give you what you want. This guy? Doesn’t look as into it as you are. I mean, you had to pull the mojo out on him right away…”
“Maldito hijo de puta,” Salvatore spits.
The stranger snorts. “That’s a bit personal, don’t you think?”
“Take a hike, filth,” Salvatore snarls. “I don’t care what you think you know, you’re not ready to tangle with me.”
“Oh, well, now I’ve got to stay.”
“I won’t waste my time with foreplay, then.”
And Salvatore takes a running leap at Leather Jacket, hauling his hand back as if to punch him. Except his fingers are open and curled and sharpening—
Leather Jacket swears as he ducks backward, the creature’s claws raking down the front of his chest. He staggers backward.
“You want to walk away,” Salvatore orders coldly. “Walk into traffic.”
Leather Jacket falters a moment and then laughs. “You really think I’d have come at you if I didn’t have protection against your stupid hypno-crap?”
Salvatore makes a shocked noise, which is cut off when a fist hits his face. He reels backward a few feet.
Wiping his mouth, Tim tugs his cowl back up over his face with trembling hands, needing to regain that sense of anonymity and disguise the effect all this has had on him. It’s all he can manage at the moment, his legs still wobbling like jelly. There’s no way he can get up right now and throw himself into the fray.
The stranger pulls something out from beneath his jacket pocket as Salvatore recovers and goes to make another move. Tim recognizes the shape of a gun.
“You know that won’t kill me,” Salvatore sneers.
“Do I?” the man replies and pulls the trigger.
“No!” Tim cries; too late.
Bullets tear through Salvatore’s shoulder, making him snarl in pain and fury as his body jerks backward with the force of it. But instead of falling to the ground, blood spurting from the wounds, he remains standing; the wound begins to smoke.
“You’re right, it won’t kill you,” Leather Jacket agrees as Salvatore gnashes his teeth. “But it will take you a few hours to heal. Who knows what I could do to you in that time?”
Salvatore growls and lunges forward again, and Leather Jackey fires two more precise shots, this time to his knees. Now it’s Salvatore on his knees, panting in pain.
“That was warning number two,” Leather Jacket tells him coolly. “Want to go for a third?”
Tim senses the exact moment when the fight goes out of Salvatore’s body. The next time he moves, it’s angling his body away from Leather Jacket, using a wall to pull himself upward.
“Now, bugger off while I’m feeling merciful,” Leather Jacket growls. “And stay the hell out of Crime Alley. Try the Diamond District for your hunting grounds—you’ll fit right in.”
The injured Salvatore gives another hiss, cradling his wounded shoulder, but thinks better of taking another run at his opponent. Instead, he turns about and limps off at a run.
Leather Jacket snorts at the sight, shaking his head.
Tim still needs to lean against the wall to steady himself, his stomach continuing to swoop angrily. As the haze in his head retreats, it’s with a swirling, withdrawing sensation that has him seeing spots.
He should probably thank the guy who saved him, even if it’s embarrassing, he needed to be saved, but he can’t unstick his tongue.
“Is this a new thing for you lot?” the stranger asks. “Coming down here to work the streets, getting picked up and almost eaten by suspicious strangers? I mean, it’s a step down from tangling with the Joker, ain’t it?” The sardonic tone falters slightly on the name, a hard cold seeping in. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
Well, if Tim was going to thank him, now he’s not. He deals with enough entitlement from the old fogies in the WE boardroom, he doesn’t have the patience to deal with it during his night job. Instead, he tries to unpack everything that just happened.
“How did you know?” he asks, tongue still heavy in his mouth. He’s not sure if he’s asking about how he knew to come down here, how he knew what Salvatore was trying to do—how he knew how to fight the creature off.
“Seen his kind around. Didn’t always know what they were, but once you’ve tangled with one incubus, the rest is pretty easy.”
Tim finally manages to straighten up under his own power, but still can’t see the man’s face. The way he’s standing, the light from the road behind them casts dark shadows across his features.
“Who are you?”
“None of your business.” The man digs into his pocket for something and hauls out a carton of cigarettes. He considers them a moment, then holds one out. “Need something to ground you?”
He shrugs, lights up; the spark of the flame isn’t enough to uncover his features, but Tim senses a judgemental glance being thrown his way. “You sure you should be wearin’ that cape if you can’t take care of yourself?”
Tim scowls at that. “I’m having an off day.”
“That’s puttin’ it lightly.”
Tim’s head is finally starting to clear, his focus returning; he catalogs what he can about the stranger
Tall and muscular; built like Bruce, though thicker in the thighs than the shoulders; scarred hands—a fighter—boots scuffed with black earth; that’s rare in the city. Wandering around somewhere with lots of soil and earth? And the way he speaks…Tim detects a foreign lilt on the edges of his words. Non-rhotic postvocalic consonants.
At first, it sounds like he’s from around here, except…it blends with something else. Sort of sounds like when Alfred goes full-on-West London when he talks to anyone from England.
So this guy probably spent some time there.
Squinting he notes the cigarette package as it disappears into the man’s pocket.
Silk Cut. Definitely spent time in Britain then.
And whatever he just fought; it wasn’t human—but not a meta. Which by process of elimination usually means magic.
Tim flips through his mental catalog, trying to narrow down which major player this guy could be working with, rogue or hero; the cigarette brand triggers something from a file memorized years ago, quirks and data about enemies, allies, and undecideds. One name stands out.
“Constantine,” he says after a moment. “You work with Constantine.”
The man is pretty good at hiding his surprise, but Tim senses the minute stiffening of his shoulders. It’s gone a beat later, smoothed into the man’s deceptively languid posture. “Guess I owe him a pint; I didn’t think he’d made much of an impression when he was last here.”
“You shouldn’t be in Gotham,” Tim growls, trying to regain some kind of imposing authority following tonight’s fiasco. “And you definitely shouldn’t be interrupting my interrogation.”
“Interrogation? More like succumbin’ to a supernatural roofie. What were you going to do, snore at it?”
Tim clenches his fists.
“I had it under control. If he got close enough, the chest panel in my suit is equipped with a taser. It activates if my vitals experience a sudden, sharp change.”
“Then you seriously don’t understand what you were up against if you think your little Bat-issue toys were going to do anythin’. That was an incubus that had you, and you were gonna get a lot less information and a lot more dead if I hadn’t stepped in. So. Again…you’re welcome.”
“Because of you I lost my best lead tonight,” Tim shoots back.
“Right. Mission comes first, even at the expense of your own life,” the stranger deadpans. “How could I forget that.”
And that sentence should be Tim’s first clue that all is not what it seems to be, but his brain is still rebooting from whatever Salvatore did to it and he’s fighting off growing frustration.
Not only did he screw up his investigation, but a civilian—typical or not—had to jump in and save him.
Tim straightens up.
Fixing the most unimpressed glare he can muster from beneath his cowl, he faces the interloper, ready to deliver a cool quip before he grapples away.
(Drama is not just for Bruce Wayne if the occasion calls for it.)
But when he finally gets a good look at his savior, every word in every language he has ever known vanishes.
Because Tim knows that face.
Even if it’s a little harder now, stubbled and scarred, and lacking the unblemished, boyish roundness of childhood, Tim Drake could never forget the face of Jason Todd.
To Be Continued
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Tim isn’t entirely sure he’s not unconscious or experiencing a concussion induced hallucination. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Except, he’s in too much discomfort to be unconscious; too much new information assaults his senses. His stomach is still heaving and his eyes water from the noxious fumes of the back-alley mixed with the other man’s cigarette. Clear eyes survey him judgementally, an arrogant smirk playing on his lips, and Tim’s seen that expression before, has several pictures of it in fact—
He has to mentally shutter his runaway thoughts and focus on the impossibility of the situation.
The man in front of him is as tall as Bruce, perhaps an inch’s difference and his hair is the natural red Tim knows Jason had before he started dyeing it to look like Dick.
(There are pictures of him from his first few weeks at the manor before he took up the mantle, hidden away in the drawers of Bruce’s desk. A scowling kid with tan skin and freckles, showing his utter distrust and contempt for the camera.)
Now that hair is a shade too long in a way that works with the cut of his jaw and shape of his chin; a streak of white sprouts from a what looks like a scar in his hairline. He’s unshaven in a way that isn’t scruffy, and there are piercings up both his ear, as well as a ball of metal resting between his lower lip and chin. Dressed in a leather jacket and heavy boots, he could easily be muscle for any of Gotham’s rogues.
But it’s definitely him. No question.
At last, Tim manages to speak.
The name comes out half-tremulous, half-reverent.
And instantly, the older man’s expression closes off, replaced with the same cold and dangerous edge as when he spoke the Joker’s name. It’s not entirely Bruce’s stone-faced façade, but something darker, something haunted.
“You got me confused with someone else,” he says, tone a deceptive shade of neutral.
“No, I don’t,” Tim replies, summoning up his strength and trying to force down the manic, counterintuitive excitement that has begun to overtake his shock. “You’re B—Bruce Wayne’s son, and you used to be—but you died. How are you here? Does B—?”
Tim can’t stop himself from taking a step forward. Before he can react or even blink, the gun used on Salvatore is against his forehead and Jason staring down at him like he’s a cockroach or an irritating reporter.
“This probably won’t kill you,” he says conversationally, “since it’s just rock salt, but it’ll still hurt like fuck if you take it between the eyes. Definitely won’t be swinging from any rooftops anytime soon.” Tim freezes, his entire body locking, preparing to spring for safety if he must. “Now. Let’s try this again. You and I have never met, and I have personal space issues, so let’s keep a respectable distance, yeah?”
Tim inclines head slightly, a tight nod, and Jason steps back, lowering but not holstering the gun. Its presence between them is heavy, a reminder that whoever he is and however he came to be here, this Jason is not the same one whose uniform Tim has studied from behind a case of glass.
Maybe it’s amnesia? Or an alternate universe situation? Take it slow…
“I don’t want any trouble. I just want to talk.”
“First rule of the streets is don’t talk to strangers.”
“We’re not—I know you.”
“The hell you do.”
“No, I do, because I’m Robin—”
“More like Doctor Mid-Nite.”
“Well, I was Robin until recently,” Tim amends, trying not to clench his jaw at the still painful wound. The way Jason’s eyes narrow slightly suggests he noticed the tic; observation skills never really go away. “I was the one after you—after you…died.”
There, he managed to say it this time.
Jason continues to look speculative, and then something alights in his eyes, something hopefully close to recognition.
“Right,” he says at last, and finally he does holster the gun; his shoulders are still tense, though, like he’s expecting an attack. “The tiny one, right? Before the blonde chick? You haven’t grown much since then, judgin’ by the pictures I’ve seen of you.” He squints at Tim’s feet. “You wearin’ lifts or something?”
“What? No, I—wait. You knew about me?” It’s embarrassing the unexpected thrill he gets at the notion.
“Vaguely. Knew I’d been replaced. Thanks for waiting for my grave to go cold first, kid.”
“That’s not—I had to—I’m not a kid.” Instantly Tim wants the ground to swallow him up. Shaking his head, he has to order himself to prioritize, to reign in his disbelief and focus on the matter at hand. So, he clears his throat, pitching his voice a little rougher, a little more serious. “Never mind that. How are you alive?”
The redheaded man snorts. “You’re asking a lot for someone I still don’t know.”
“We’ve met before,” Tim returns. “A long time ago. You probably don’t remember because you were always too busy trying to sneak out of those parties. Not that you ever managed it, with A there being all stiff and disapproving.”
Something in Jason’s confidence falters—whether it’s at the mention of Alfred or the idea of a stranger knowing this much about him, Tim doesn’t know.
But apparently, Tim doesn’t know a lot of things.
Because somehow, Jason Todd is alive.
It’s hard to believe what his eyes are telling him. In all the whimsical daydreams he entertained as a kid, where he imagined Jason being one of those lucky few that sometimes returned from the dead, it was always as the bright-eyed boy with the cocky grin, gangly but muscular, with scarred knuckles and a confident swagger.
The swagger is still there, but now…
Jason’s grown into everything, and it’s intimidating.
Oh, god, that’s so not what I should be thinking right now.
“Whatever,” the man says now, a wall of blankness settling over his face. Classic Bruce-style emotional shutdown. “I’m over it. And over this. I’ve got my own shit to do, and I was doing it before I had to come over and save your ass, so…” He gives a dismissive, two-fingered salute and turns away. “See ya, kid.”
But the other man doesn’t even turn around. It’s a clear dismissal, and somehow Tim knows if he follows right now, it won’t go well. He’s not sure for whom.
Best give the man some breathing room. In the meantime, the turned back is the perfect opportunity to plant a tracer on him.
With concerning ease, too. Maybe some skills do go soft.
Tim watches him round the corner and disappear, and tries to come up with his next plan of action.
But there again—for what reason? So he can follow Jason? Find him? And then what?
Tim knows he should tell Bruce, should tell everyone. Except…except Jason didn’t say anything about any of them. He didn’t ask to know how anyone was doing, and other than the snarky comments appeared utterly uninterested in anything related to the Family.
What if it’s not him? Or what if it’s him, his body at least, and someone’s taken over? Stranger things have happened.
And of course, there’s the all-encompassing, billion-dollar question that he’s been chewing over in his head since setting eyes on the other man.
How can he be alive?
No, Tim can’t go to Bruce with this. Not yet. Not until he knows more and isn’t bringing him something that could be a lie. Bruce was so broken after Jason’s death; it’s taken him years to come to terms with it—and he still can’t say his name without shutting down.
Tim decides to do what any self-respecting Bat would do—investigate himself. Pulling out his grapnel, he shoots a line and swings up onto the roof, checking his wrist computer to pinpoint the tracer. Jason isn’t making a run for it—in fact, only appears to have settled inside one of the buildings nearby.
A second check shows it to be a bar.
No going in as Red Robin then unless I want to invite a fight. I mean, Jason might still pick a fight, but I think he’s less likely to without a mask.
Tim’s bike is still stashed in an alley a few blocks away, along with the civvies he always carries with him in a secret compartment. It takes no time at all to leap across the buildings and get to the bike, slip into his jeans, t-shirt and a dark red Henley. A quick spray of dissolvent and the domino’s gone as well; after a moment, he decides to don the thick-rimmed glasses in his case as well. They make him look older, which he hopes will keep him from being turned away at the door.
When Tim enters the bar, it’s slow and casual, checking the exits and counting the customers. There aren’t that many, so it’s easy to find Jason at the other end of the room, occupying the stool the farthest from everyone.
The bar itself is an old-style pub, with a few television screens on mute broadcasting the Knights game, a pool table, and dartboard in the corner. The bartender is a woman, late twenties or early thirties, with dyed orange hair and a nose ring. Her gray eyes narrow on Tim as he takes a few steps in, and he does his best to look like he belongs, despite knowing he doesn’t look old enough to be here.
Squaring his shoulders, he makes a beeline for Jason, approaching slowly so as not to spook him, but prepared to make a move if the guy tries to take a swing at him.
Jason doesn’t even glance up as Tim takes the seat next to him; he just drinks his beer and snorts. “Of course, you had civvies stashed somewhere. Standard fucking protocol.” He sounds more irritated than impressed. “You must not be too bright if you’re breaking B’s rule on secret ide—”
His word cuts off as he looks up at Tim, eyes widening a bit as they rove over him.
Tim tries not to shift nervously under that gaze—somehow it feels more appraising coming from him than it did from the thing that was trying to seduce and murder him.
Tim wonders what exactly the older man is seeing because this is Jason Todd, his predecessor, his Robin, his childhood crush. This was the boy Tim got to see starting out, that he would have given anything to get to know better than through the lens of a camera or across a reception room when he was little.
And he’s staring at Tim right now like he’s cataloging every imperfection. It takes every bit of willpower not to shift uncomfortably beneath that stare.
Then as quickly as the intense staring came on, it’s gone; Jason turns away, deliberate in his dismissal, and mutters, “Let me guess: tracker in my pocket.”
“Jacket collar,” Tim corrects.
The older man smirks into his drink, and from this angle, Tim thinks he looks mildly impressed this time. “How’d you manage that?”
“I have excellent aim.”
Jason’s gaze flicks to him again, an unreadable gleam in his eyes as he says, “I bet you do.”
Tim can’t quite interpret the tone, and his imagination is providing him with impossible interpretations that even thinking about makes his cheeks warm.
“So, uh,” he begins, wanting to change the subject, and then pausing. He’s not sure how to go about introducing himself to his former idol.
He should be using an alias when he’s out in semi-disguise, but it feels wrong to use something as contrived as Alvin Draper here. This is a fellow Robin, and besides Jason knows the identities of pretty much every mask in Gotham that’s affiliated with Batman; a simple internet search and he can probably figure out who Red Robin is.
He settles on, “I’m Tim.”
He decides to leave off either last name. Given the way Jason spoke about him earlier having replaced him, he might be touchy about another boy taking the name ‘Wayne’, if he doesn’t already know.
Jason grunts in reply, and Tim isn’t sure whether it’s in encouragement or dismissal. He chooses to take it as the former, and lingers in the seat beside Jason, trying to think up something to say. Trying not to, once again, blurt out the impossibility of his being alive.
After several minutes of awkward silence, Jason sighs. “Would you order something, so you don’t look so conspicuous?”
“I’m not old enough to drink yet.”
This time the response is a groan.
“Sure, advertise that even more…” Jason tilts his empty beer. “Hey, Tris, can I get another? And a Shirley Temple for Junior here.”
Tim goes cold all over, his back stiffening. “Don’t call me that.”
“What, too on the nose?” Jason shoots back with a smirk.
He must see something on Tim’s face, though, because the expression vanishes a moment later. He almost looks like he wants to ask, and so Tim forcibly composes himself and shoots the bartender a charming smile. “Actually, I’ll have a cold brew coffee, if you’ve got it.”
The woman raises an eyebrow, shoots a quick glance at Jason, shrugs, and goes off to make the drinks.
Jason busies himself with finishing the last of his beer, while Tim continues to get himself under control.
That time with the Joker and Harley…it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He’d only been there three days before the Family found him—Bruce had cut a swath through Gotham’s underworld with Oracle’s help, and Dick had returned from New York and Cass from Hong Kong. They even called in Connor in the end.
(Tim swallows the lump in his throat, thinking about Connor.)
But he had been there long enough that he still gets nightmares, memories of the shock therapy and endless drug cocktails and be a good boy for Daddy, Junior!
He had been so close to breaking, the point he hoped he ended up like Jason, just so the pain would end.
“What are you staring at?”
Tim realizes he’s been eyeing Jason’s forehead, the white streak, and the scar from which is sprouts and looks away quickly. Then he peeks back.
“Is that where…?”
“This?” Jason points at his forehead. “Yeah, that’s where the Joker beat my skull in. Nice keepsake, huh?”
At least he didn’t try to lobotomize you, Tim thinks but doesn’t say. He doesn’t believe they’re at that level of sharing yet.
“So, that thing in the alley,” he says instead. “You called a…”
“Incubus,” Jason replies. “A literal sexual predator. It’s a kind of shapeshifter that feeds on human vitality—I’m sure you can guess their preferred way of doing that.”
Tim shifts in discomfort.
He’s a bit out of his depth here. Granted, he’s been aware of the existence of the occult since becoming a vigilante—guessed at it before, considering the wide variety of Gotham’s rogues—but none of that really touches him here in Gotham. Everything here is all too gritty and human, with the occasional metahuman thrown in for variety.
In a way, as corrupt and decaying as Gotham is, it’s a city that is simpler than other places by the simple fact that Batman (and by extension Tim and the others) have made it so. Hell, it was years before Bruce even allowed for a metahuman member of the Family, and even then, it’s only because Duke’s indomitable will impressed him before any of them even knew he was a meta.
That, and his photokinetic vision makes him extremely helpful when investigating cold cases. Tim would be working with him on his case if he knew the exact location where Dante disappeared.
“Where did you see one of those before that you knew what it was?” Tim asks.
“See a lot of things when you work with Constantine. Assuming you live through the experience, of course.”
“And you’ve already been dead,” Tim suggests, watching Jason’s expression shrewdly.
How did you come back? I’d think maybe you were never dead—maybe you faked it, like Steph did—except I’ve seen your autopsy report. I went to your funeral.
“But you’re not anymore. And now you’re…back in Gotham.”
How long have you been alive? Where have you been all this time? Why didn’t Constantine tell us? Why didn’t you come back here when you came back? Bruce needed you.
“Looks that way.”
Tim frowns at the noncommittal answers, a hint of frustration and anger hitting him at Jason’s lack of cooperation.
“You should come back with me,” he says after a beat. “To the manor. Everyone will want to know you’re back. They’re all still hurting from losing you. Bruce and Dick—”
“Oh, yeah, I can see that they missed me,” Jason laughs, the sound bitter. “They were so broken up about it that the son of a bitch who did it’s still alive and kicking. And then there’s the assembly line of kids that he’s been sticking in capes over the years. High turnover rate, is it?” Tim grits his teeth at that, wanting to argue it and struggling. Jason notices. “Oh, you’re not happy with them either, are you, babybird? I had noticed the lack of overbearing disapproval showing up the minute you recognized me. You’ve got your comm muted, don’t you? Don’t want the rest of the brood swooping down on you until you want them to.”
Tim is silent in the face of that too-true assessment and still stuck on the casual nickname and the way his stomach absolutely should not have flipped when he heard it. He tries to concentrate on Jason, noting the other man watching him with a somewhat intrigued expression. Probably over the perceived distance from the family.
“You don’t know anything about me,” he says firmly. “You’re not the only one that’s been through hell.”
“Well, somehow I doubt that, but alright, I’ll bite.” Jason settles back, leaning his arm on the counter and looking expectant. “Make this worth my while. Explain how you got into this gig and maybe, if it doesn’t sound like too much bullshit, I might answer one of your questions.”
“That’s not exactly an equal exchange of information, is it?” Tim points out.
“You’re the one who wants to know my story so bad. I’ll still sleep well tonight even if I don’t know more about you.”
That’s an obvious lie if the way Jason is focussing on him now with a laser intent is anything to go by. But Tim knows how stubborn Jason can be, if only by reputation and observing old training videos of him. The former Robin would prefer not to know just to show how curious he’s not.
To Be Continued
In case it's not clear, in this universe Tim did not become Joker Jr. He was saved after three days instead three weeks, which is why he's still functional (though he is still dealing with the trauma of it).
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Chapter 6: VI
Cue bonding and info-dumping and low-key being flustered by each other!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jason is lying through his fucking teeth.
Because the truth is, he is immensely curious about the puzzle that has plonked itself down beside him. Of course, he’d sensed it before he even saw the vigilante—that lingering void, that something with its own gravity field.
Back in the alley, he thought it was the incubus, but the cloying darkness didn’t disappear when the slimy coward went running. Instead, it clung to Red Robin—to Tim—like a shroud.
He’s never felt this sort of thing coming off a living person before, and it was jarring; it was one of the reasons he’d skipped out on him and headed straight for the bar for a stiff drink.
Because clearly something has attached itself to Tim and knowing Jason’s luck, he’s going to be dragged into fixing it, either now or later. And once you’re involved with one Bat, you’re involved with them all.
And then there’s the other thing.
The fact this kid—because he can’t be more than eighteen with those smooth cheeks and full lips—is fucking gorgeous. Jason hadn’t even intended to look up, to acknowledge him at all, but then he did and something in his chest just fucking lurched.
Thick black hair, eyes like the underside of a glacier, slimmer build than the body armor and cape would suggest; more muscular than his elaborately casual Henley and jeans hint at. And there’s a delicate flush of color moving across the bridge of his nose.
No. Not going there.
The reason Jason’s still sitting there and didn’t just get up to leave the minute Tim sat down is that he wants to find out what kind of spook decided to attach itself to him. And then decide if and when he has to do something about it.
Jason startles when Trista appears again, he’s so caught up in his thoughts. Her eyes linger on Tim with undisguised suspicions—probably in part because of his drink choice—before cutting to Jason in question. He can almost hear the question—is this guy okay, or do I punt him through the door?
She could do it, too.
Jason gives a minute shake of his head; one a normal person wouldn’t be able to discern. To someone with sharper senses, or who’s bat-trained, it might as well have been broadcasted.
Tim glances at the bartender as well, as if suddenly recalling that they’re in public and that anything he’s about to say isn’t just for anyone’s ears. Jason can practically see him quickly replaying everything he’s said so far to ensure there’s nothing incriminating.
Is this a delayed reaction from nearly becoming dinner? Or is he that shook about me being alive? What’s he expect I’m going to do, beat the crap out of him and then dangle his lifeless body somewhere for B to see?
“Trista’s cool with it all,” he tells the kid in an effort to get the wary expression of his face. He doesn’t succeed until he adds, “She used to date Constantine.”
She snorts. “Biggest mistake of my life.”
But she sounds fond, the same as anyone who knows what Constantine is and isn’t.
As she wanders away to close a tab, Jason nods his head after her. “Believe it or not, she’s one of his exes that don’t hate him. Which is an amazing feat, believe me.”
“Sure…” Tim seems uncertain.
“Anyway,” Jason tips back the beer, takes a generous swig, and wipes his mouth, “time’s a-wastin’, Replacement.”
Tim frowns, looking like he’s trying to decide what he wants to start with—what to say and what to hold back. That’s to be expected, considering the vigilante relationship with the truth.
What he does come out with, Jay was definitely not expecting. He leans a bit closer to Jason, glancing around the bar one last time, and then in a quiet voice tells him, “I figured out who Batman and Robin were when I was nine.”
Jason chokes. “You’re shittin’ me.”
Tim shakes his head.
“No. It was completely by chance. When I was three, my parents took me to the circus. It was the night the Flying Graysons were killed.”
Not a childhood memory anyone wants to have.
“I watched their son do a quadruple somersault,” Tim continues. “Six years later, I saw footage of Robin doing the same move. It’s one only a Flying Grayson could do. So, you can guess what conclusion I drew, and the connections I made afterward.
“And you were nine?”
Tim shrugs. “My parents said I was precocious.”
“That’s one way of puttin’ it,” Jason mumbles. “Still, a pretty flimsy connection to make.”
“I know. That’s why I started following Batman and Robin around. I wanted to prove to myself—”
“You what?” Jason demands, both impressed and horrified—mostly on the part of Bruce’s observational skills. “And you didn’t get caught?”
“I never went too close. And I read a bunch about effective observation techniques on the Internet. It took some practice,” Tim admits, “and a lot of scrapes and bruises, but eventually I got the hang of it. And be always had a subconscious pattern or patrol routes back then. He changed things up a lot after you…”
Tim trails off, clearly having trouble with the word.
“And your folks were just…okay with this?” Jason wonders.
“They didn’t know.”
“You show up with gashes and bruises and they don't notice?”
“They weren’t really home a lot. Work trips and stuff. I had a housekeeper,” Tim adds quickly when he sees Jason’s eyes narrow. “But she didn’t stay late all the time, so I didn’t have to worry about her finding out.”
Jason processes this.
The kid comes from money, to have a housekeeper and the way he talks is the same as the upper crust of Gotham that Jason always hated. But it sounds like his home life wasn’t much better than Jason’s growing up. He knows you don’t have to hit a kid to hurt him.
“Anyway, I’d gotten pretty good at following Batman and Robin around, so I knew pretty fast when the second one came on the scene. I mean, he was shorter, for one thing—”
“Fuck you, I was malnourished.”
“—and had a very different fighting style. And then B suddenly had this new kid he adopted, so it was easy from there.”
“You knew all this and just, sat on it?”
“What else would I have done with it?” Tim sounds genuinely curious like he can’t imagine any other way to act.
There’s no way he’s that innocent about the ways of the world. Could be he’s just a decent person…but that dark shadow attached to him makes an argument against it.
“And then…Robin was gone,” Tim says then, bringing Jason back out of his thoughts. “I remember watching the news when it talked about your…” He shudders. “I knew it was a cover story, but there was no way of finding out what really happened.”
“To Gotham cover-ups,” Jason deadpans, tipping his beer.
“Or so I thought,” Tim continues. “I watched B for a few months after he lost you and…it was bad. He was losing it. Going out at night and just beating the criminals to hell. And not the way you’re imagining right now, not his way. It was more…brutal. Merciless. It could be a pickpocket or a murderer, it stopped mattering to him.” Tim’s fists clench at the memory. “He was so close to crossing the line, I knew something had to be done. He needs a partner. To keep him grounded.”
“And you volunteered?”
“No. I went to N.”
Okay, that was unexpected. Though Jason’s not sure why he thought it would be. Naturally teeny-bopper Tim would know that Robin went on to become Nightwing.
Guess I just expected him to be as gung-ho about putting on the cape right away like Dickie and I were.
“He was in Bludhaven,” Tim says. “He and B were in the middle of another falling out.”
Jason remembers those fights; they were epic and upsetting to everyone involved. He never told anyone, but it reminded his parents' fights, just without the physical and verbal abuse. He thinks Alfred might have guessed, though, because whenever he witnessed those fights, somehow that night Alfred served his favorite dinner or dessert, and didn’t twit him about elbows on the table.
“I thought, maybe if I explained the situation…” Tim shakes his head. It didn’t work out too well. And then something happened when I got back, I had no choice. I had to stop him somehow before he did something he’d never recover from. So I put on the cape and started helping him.”
“Can’t imagine he was happy about that.”
“No. He tried to stop me. I think it was half-hearted, though; if he’d really wanted me to stop, he’d have contacted my parents or found a way to keep me from going out somehow. But he was still recovering, and lonely. So I just…became a habit with him, I guess.”
Jason frowns at that because people don’t become a habit with Bruce Wayne. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have fought so hard to keep Jason after social services took him away that time.
Tim goes on to relate everything that happened in the years following Jason’s death. Bane breaking Bruce’s back, the Clench—
“I remember that,” Jason says. “Ebola, right?”
“Yes. Hundreds of thousands died. They still don’t have the exact figures.”
Jason nods, thoughtfully.
He’d finally started to recover his sanity and had wanted to go home. John had argued against it, in his way—hadn’t outright told him not to go, because he knew Jason would be obstinate about it—but had explained it in relation to his new gift.
“That many ghosts mulling about, reliving their agonizing deaths? I didn’t spend this much bloody time fixing your loaf so you can go bollocks it up the first time you get homesick. You’ve got some practice yet before you go anywhere near that hellhole. Unless you fancy another trip to the nuthouse, well then, by all means.”
The implication had been enough to stop Jason in his traps. He’d agreed to wait until it calmed down again—not everyone who dies has unfinished business, and not every ghost takes centuries to move on themselves.
He’d just need to wait. But—
“Then there was that earthquake right after, yeah?” Jason asks.
He and John had just returned from a trip to Thailand and the news was on every channel.
“It was like hell on earth here,” Tim confirms. “And I’m not trying to sound dramatic, it…Gotham was carved up, the criminals were running the show, people died in the quake and then in the chaos afterward. Batman and everyone was hanging on by a thread to keep it together. Sometimes I think I dreamed that we all survived it. And then after that there was…”
And this is where he goes quiet for a moment.
Something in his face shifts, the same haunted expression Jason noticed earlier when he called the kid Junior. Like someone’s stuck their hands into his abdomen and started to play with his insides.
(An experience Jason does not recommend; some ghosts are dicks.)
There’s that same sharp, sickening flare in the presence around him. Then, just as quickly as it came, the expression vanishes from Tim’s face; he gives himself a small shake and continues his story in a business-like tone.
He goes over Bruce being framed for murder, the incident with Hush (both of which sound like they were stressful, but not—Jason suspects—at all related to his apparent flashback), the other Robins after him (and oh, yeah, Bruce apparently had a kid with Talia al-Ghul of all people, and the brat is just as homicidal as that side of the family), Black Mask and the gang wars in Gotham (he pauses, here again, another pulse of his aura, but less violent than the first one), Bruce’s death-but-not-actual-death, Tim’s search when no one believed him, the death and resurrection of Bruce's kid, Gotham’s apparently secret society of owls and then the Joker’s last breakout—
Again, there’s that shudder in his aura. It’s the same as the first time.
Related to the Joker, then.
Jason is intensely curious as to what happened, but he also knows if it’s the Joker, it’s nothing good. That kind of shit you don’t pry about unless you’re okay with getting a fist in your face for your trouble. So instead he asks, “Where were your parents through all this?”
Hard to believe they didn’t notice their kid was going through something; then again, from what little Tim’s let slip, Jason gets the idea they probably weren’t very present in his life.
“Mom died before the Cataclysm.” Looks like I was right. “And Dad died after…after the gang wars."
Jason peers at Tim as he speaks, noting the forced neutrality of his expression. Like it still hurts, but he needs to keep that hidden.
Classic Bruce moved. Christ, what else has he been teaching you?
Throughout the course of the tale, he also noticed that the kid doesn’t say very much about himself. Everything he relates is in connection to something the Family or someone among them has done. As if he’s just a supporting character in the drama that is the vigilante scene in Gotham. Yet Jason gets the feeling he’s not really downplaying his involvement on purpose, he just…doesn’t seem to think he’s important.
He also gives away more than he thinks.
The miasma that surrounds Tim flares with his emotions even when the rest of him stays utterly still and trained to conceal. Because the thing is, Batman’s training doesn’t include the mystical arts and you can’t really train your aura unless you acknowledge it’s there.
There are certain parts of Tim’s story while he was telling it that made the darkness ripple—Black Mask, the Clench, Hush, the bat brat, Dick of all people. Like those things affected him on a more personal level than he wants to admit; and, of course, the violent burst when he mentions or alludes to the Joker.
It’s intriguing in a way Jason wishes it wasn’t because he’s becoming curious, becoming interested, and he can’t do that. Getting interested in anything bat-related is not in his plans. And yet he still asks, “What were you doing in Crime Alley tonight?”
“Working a case. A friend of mine went missing, so I was canvassing until I…wasn’t,” Tim hesitates, and then in a somewhat grudging voice says, "Thanks.”
“Oh, I get the thank you now?”
“I was a little caught off guard before,” Tim replies defensively. “You were the last person I would have expected to show up just then, because, well…you… “ He takes a breath, and settles on one word, intent and emotional: “How?”
Jason debates saying nothing.
Just because he said he would answer one of the kid’s questions doesn’t mean he’s bound to do it. But Tim has been surprisingly candid for someone supposedly bat-trained and has given Jason a bunch of answers to questions he hadn’t even thought of.
And then there’s his open, beseeching expression, curious for his own sake and not because of some Bat agenda or determining it Jason is likely to pose a future threat that needs neutralizing.
“No idea,” he settles on. Tim’s face twists into annoyance, and Jason quickly says, “No, seriously, I have no fuckin' idea. I died, I came back to life. Woke up in my coffin and had to dig myself out.”
Tim’s already pale skin gets even whiter, if possible.
“No,” he whispers, horrified.
“Don’t remember anything about it. Apparently, I collapsed somewhere once I got out. I was far enough away from the graveyard they didn’t know I’d just come back from the dead. I mean, heh, who would, yeah? So I ended up in a hospital.”
It is Jason's turn to hesitate now, not entirely sure what he wants to share. He has a sudden understanding of Tim’s earlier hesitation, not wanting to make his words too personal. And when it comes down to it, he really doesn’t know this guy.
“I was there for a while,” Jason ends up saying, glossing over the gritty details. “Then Constantine found me and took me out of Gotham.”
“Why didn’t he say anything?” Tim demands, his horror becoming anger in a quick second. “He should have told B—!”
“He didn’t know who the fuck I was. I didn’t even remember my own name for a while,” Jason defends. “How the hell was he supposed to make the link between me and a dead bird?”
And there’s not really anything Tim can say to argue or parse that, because it’s true. He turns back to his untouched drink, scowling in a way Jason suspects means he’s thinking furiously. It’s several minutes of this tense silence, before he sighs, and relaxes his shoulders.
“None of that’s really my area,” he admits. “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t, you know, Superman, that came back from the dead. And I don’t get a lot of interaction with the occult. I mean…I met a werewolf once, but I don’t think it counts.”
Tim shrugs sheepishly here.
Holy shit, you are low-key adorable. Fuck, I need to get out of here…
“Probably more than once,” Jason says absently as he gestures for Trista to close his tab, and snorts when she shoots him an irritated glare. Tim doesn’t appear to understand what’s funny about that, which is just as well.
It’s not Jason’s story to tell.
“And there was one case in Metropolis, where everyone thought it was a vampire but was just a dramatic serial killer,” Tim adds, thoughtful.
“Everyone always thinks it’s vampires,” Jason snorts. “The movies have a lot to answer for. In my experience, usually, it’s some pervert that wants to be a real-life Norman Bates. Or a demonic possession.”
Tim tilts his head to one side, considering Jason. “So is that what you do now? Fight demons, like Constantine?”
His eyes flick to Jason’s jacket, and the shape of the gun he has hidden there; no doubt, remembering having it pulled on him. Jason feels a bit guilty about that now, but hey, he wasn’t expecting some random kid in a mask whose brains were still drowning in incubus pheromones to recognize him.
“Somethin' like that,” he says at least. “Different specialties, though. I leave the Hell stuff to him.”
“You’ve been doing this a while, then?”
“And at some point, you obviously remembered who you were,” Tim points out, and Jason realizes too quickly what direction the conversation is about to take. Sneaky little shit. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? Or come back?”
Jason scowls at him. “My own reasons.”
“What reasons could be good enough not to tell your family you were alive?”
He sidesteps the question. “Why the fuck do you care? It meant you got to step into the job of a lifetime—got to be a hero, and B’s new golden boy, for however long he needed you around.”
Tim recoils at this, visibly flinching even as the aura around him roils. Direct hit, then.
And that’s my cue.
“Whatever, babybird. I’m shared out,” Jason says, and gets to his feet. Tim starts to move, but Jason jabs a finger in his face. “You better not follow me this time, or I won’t be so nice.”
Tim’s lips thin, eyes flicking to the bartender and handful of patrons lurking in the distant corners, as well as the exits. Appears to be considering whether it’s worth it to try to stop Jason by force, and then relaxes and nods.
It’s that pause, that evaluation that has Jason pause in his departure, study Tim—and his darkness—with a calculation of his own. Then he sighs, and digs into his pocket for one of the new business cards he had printed up on the weekend. He shoves it toward the kid.
“This is in case you get in trouble with another incubus—not for a booty call.”
Tim sputters. “Wh-what?!”
“And I’d better get at least another week to settle in here before the other Family finds out I’m here, capiche?"
Tim gapes at him for a moment before something clicks behind that thinking face of his, and he nods.
“I won’t say anything," he promises. For some reason, Jason completely believes him
As he leaves the bar and purposefully does not look back, he wonders what the hell he’s thinking.
To Be Continued
Also, sidenote, in this universe Kon and Bart haven't come back from the dead. For plot reasons. Tim is still part of the Titans, but the roster's obviously a bit different.
Follow me on tumblr (violetsmoak) for news regarding updates--or just to drop me a line :)
Chapter 7: VII
Author's Note: Apologies for the wait. If you followed me on tumblr, you know I had an adventure with my dropbox wherein I backed up all my files because I had to restore my laptop, and all of the files ended up mixed up in the wrong folders and I've been tracking down files one by one for the past week. I hate technology. I mean, I guess I should be happy the files didn't get deleted, but it's still a pain in the ass to re-organize manually.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tim stares at the business card in his hand long after Jason disappears, thumbing over the false name and phone number with a reverence once reserved for clandestinely captured photographs.
Victor Shelley, Paranormal Investigator.
He wonders if Jason was trying to be funny choosing that name. Given what Tim’s heard about him in the few instances where Dick or Alfred talk about him, and what he saw for himself in the past, he thinks it’s entirely likely.
God, Dick and Alfred.
He knows they’re going to be just as blindsided about this as Bruce when they find out.
If they find out.
Guilt flickers through him now at the promise he made to Jason.
Why the hell would he promise a man he doesn’t really know—a man he’s spent a grand total of an hour and twenty-three minutes in conversation with—that he won’t let his adopted father knows he’s not dead.
That he hasn’t been dead for years.
That he’s in Gotham right now.
Tim wishes he could say it was one hundred percent his shock at Jason being alive, but that would be lying to himself. His mind flashes back to Jason’s face, his slow smirk and the smooth, deep voice, and he swears, letting his head fall against the counter.
Apparently, I promised him because he’s pretty.
It’s a new feeling for Tim. He’s never been easily swayed by looks, but something about Jason is attractive enough to put him off-guard, or at least loosen his lips more than normal.
I thought I was over this…
“I know that face.”
Tim startles and glances up at the bartender—Trista—who he had forgotten was there. He’d forgotten he was sitting in a bar, to be honest.
“Judging by the ass on that man, I can guess what it’s about,” she continues in a wry tone. Then she’s sliding a shot of amber liquid toward him. “Here. To steady your nerves.”
Tim stares at the alcohol in numb confusion.
“That’s on the house, but only because he talked more with you tonight than I’ve seen him do with anyone since he got here,” she goes on. “We’ll both pretend I don’t know you’re underage.”
Tim is too flustered by everything she’s just said to do anything other than accept the shot under her knowing gaze. Then, he beats a hasty retreat from the bar as fast as humanly possible without it looking like he’s running away.
Distracted, he returns to his apartment in the Theater District, trying to parse the events of the night from an objective viewpoint. He’s not entirely sure he didn’t dream it all up, considering whatever that incubus did to him, and so he runs tox-screens on his blood and gives himself a full physical just to make sure.
Other than spikes in several hormone levels—adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin—his results are normal. Nothing that would really alter his perceptions of reality, the way Scarecrow or Poison Ivy’s concoctions tend to do.
That confirmed, he should be able to leave the matter alone for now. There are more pressing matters to deal with—Dante’s continued disappearance being one of them.
But thoughts of Jason continue to assault Tim’s thoughts.
Something has been bothering him since his conversation with Jason, something he wondered before but couldn’t ask because Jason got skittish and made a run for it
How the hell did Constantine cross paths with Jason anyway?
Aside from his inexplicable presence in Gotham at some point in the past five years without attracting the attention of Batman, what would interest him in a teenaged John Doe with no identity or memory?
Sliding into the chair in front of the computer in the Nest, Tim calls up the autopsy report, even though he doesn’t really need to see it. He memorized it years ago. Still, if he’s going to investigate this, he needs concrete facts, not just his memory.
It’s not difficult to create a timeline of events, between Jason’s official death and now. Or to search a list of John Does at various hospitals in Gotham within the last five to ten years, whose condition upon admittance matches the description of Jason’s injuries at death.
He finds the information he’s looking for within twenty minutes.
As it turns out, things didn’t happen quite as neatly or quickly as Jason’s story suggested. His stay at Gotham General was a lot longer than he let on, and Tim’s stomach twists as he reads the medical reports.
Various physicians left their comments on the patient, a young man of about fifteen or sixteen, severely beaten and malnourished, picked up several miles from the hospital.
The file includes a mugshot of a heavily bandaged youth, head shaved from what records indicate were several procedures to repair brain bleeds, skull, and facial fractures. Bruises and swelling make his features almost unrecognizable, except to someone who has memorized pictures of that face since he was ten years old. Someone who knows the cut of that jaw and the color of those eyes, however bleary and vacant they are as they stare into the camera.
Tim reads over the doctors’ notes that span the course of a year, cataloging how well the boy is healing considering the heavy damage he sustained, and how he would be considered a miracle patient but for the fact whatever happened to him caused significant brain damage.
Clear psychological damage, hearing voices, incapable of speech, easily upset.
On several occasions, the boy became unaccountably terrified, screaming and yelling and trying to claw out his own eyes. Sometimes it even became violent, and in his struggles, he put three doctors, a nurse and two orderlies in the emergency room.
I’m surprised it was only that many people. Considering his training, he could have done a lot more damage.
Eventually, he always had to be drugged and restrained.
Demonic possession, maybe?
It’s not the first thing Tim would think of, but if Constantine’s involved in all this, it would make sense. And coming back from the dead like Jason says he did, it had to have side effects.
Except, there’s no mention of anything superhuman or beyond the realm of possibility regarding Jason’s strength. Surely the doctors would have made note of anything beyond the abilities of a normal, scared teenager—especially in Gotham, where strange behavior was a sad norm.
No mention of anything resembling supernatural or metahuman abilities anywhere here.
Jason was eventually placed permanently in the psych ward and likely would have stayed there for the rest of his days, except the hospital’s budget was cut in his eighth month there. Space issues required moving patients to other hospitals, and—
“Oh, no. No-no-no, tell me they didn’t,” Tim murmurs, heart sinking as he scrolls down the page of the report, knowing exactly what he’s going to find.
They sent him to Arkham.
If Tim was horrified before by the notion of Jason’s resurrection and his condition afterward, it’s nothing to how sick he feels to learn that his predecessor was sent to the cesspool that is Arkham Asylum.
He needs to turn away from his computer for a few seconds and breathe, close his eyes and concentrate on not hearing the lilting, singsong voice and tinny voice in his head.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
Ever since his kidnapping, it’s the one place in Gotham Tim won’t venture—he’s not sure what would happen if he did. Whether he’d suffer a crippling attack of flashbacks, or march into the high security ward and slit the Joker’s throat with one of his birdarangs.
If Bruce realized Tim honestly can’t decide which would be the worse outcome, he knows he’d be benched for the rest of his life. He might not be Robin anymore, but the Family would find a way.
It’s fear of that more than anything else that helps him get a handle on his panic, tethers him back to reality better than anything else. Tim takes another series of deep, grounding breaths, before he feels confident enough to be able to get back to his research into Jason.
At least they didn’t put him anywhere near the Joker, it seems, he notices as he goes through the room assignments and Arkham floorplans. That’s about the only good thing about it, though.
Jason’s ward was for the non-communitive patients, the ones the experts considered untreatable. The ones that get forgotten about in the mayhem of the monthly outbreaks and pandemonium.
Tim’s stomach clenches tight again as he remembers incidents and dates over the years where Batman visited inmates at Arkham to interrogate them on the latest escapes or crimes happening in the city, or just to test the security there. Based on the location of Jason’s cell and Batman’s usual route, there are times when the two were only a floor apart
Tim’s heart aches for them both.
They were so close to each other! If only they’d known—!
And just as suddenly as Jason was transferred to Arkham, all records of him vanish. There’s no information about patient transfers or deaths or releases; instead, like many a nameless patient to be lost to the asylum over the years, he just vanishes.
People don’t just vanish. And in this case, I know he didn’t.
Tim goes on to cross-reference the potential dates of Jason’s disappearance with any visitors to the asylum. It doesn’t take much to identify the only visitor to the asylum for a span of weeks as a certain Chandler Ravenscar—names which another quick search link to aliases used by John Constantine in the past.
That brings Tim to a whole other avenue of research, refocusing him investigation on Constantine himself and his movements over the past years. He tends to keep to the UK, but every now and again travels to various mystical hotspots around the world.
There’s a backlog of security footage to weed through, occultist forums discussing the man and his exploits. Half of what’s written about him online is clearly conspiracy theories, a quarter of it related to some punk rock band called Mucous Membrane and something to do with the Reagan assassination. Those who have actually worked with him either seem too terrified or pissed off to say much about him.
Even harder is finding a video of the man; cameras and other surveillance devices appear to stop working around him. It’s even more of a challenge to catch a glimpse of the teenaged assistant that starts being mentioned several months after Jason’s disappearance from Arkham.
A chance freeze-frame from an airport in Beijing, however, is all Tim needs to confirm it’s Jason.
It’s hours later when Tim sits back, exhausted but now having at least a general timeline of what happened.
One thing is for damn sure—I can’t take this to Bruce.
The story is too painful, too unbelievable. If it doesn’t break him all over, it will have him lashing out at Tim for making up stories about a touchy subject. There’s enough tension between them both right now that he’s likely to question anything suspect Tim brings to him.
Or he would insist it was a trick, that someone had faked all of this. He wouldn’t take Tim’s word for it, would investigate himself, prepare himself for an interrogation when what Jason needs is to have a face to face with his adopted father and mentor.
And Jason’s story still has too many holes in it for Tim to tell it, begging more questions than answers.
Like why Constantine took you from Arkham in the first place. And also…there’s one other thing that doesn’t make sense.
Well, a lot of things don’t make sense, but this stands out.
Tim goes back to the hospital records, scanning for the section where he remembers reading the information.
John Doe’s injuries in the medical files are all consistent with those in Jason’s autopsy, with every scar and broken bone accounted for and described.
Except for an autopsy scar.
That would have been the first thing medical professionals remarked upon when Jason was admitted, but it’s not mentioned anywhere. Which must mean that somehow, Jason no longer has it.
So why did that heal and nothing else did? Could it have something to do with what brought him back?
There’s a sudden dull, clunk in the background and the slide of elevator doors, and Tim glances up to watch Stephanie Brown stride into his base of operations.
“I was on the way out and Babs sent me to check on you,” she tells him. “Apparently someone missed work today without calling in and isn’t answering their phone.”
Tim startles at that, glances at the clock in the corner of his screen and swears when he realizes she’s right. He was supposed to be at Wayne Enterprises an hour ago. When he glances at his cellphone, he sees twelve text messages and three missed calls from Lucius, Dick and Bruce.
“I didn’t even notice,” he groans. He was so caught up in finding out more about Jason that he lost track of time. He quickly taps out a group message reassuring them he’s fine and will be in soon.
“At least being flaky is characteristic of billionaire teenagers,” Steph says as she wanders over.
Tim quickly minimizes his search and swivels around in his seat to face her. “Why are you even awake this early?”
Given the way she spends her nights, Steph made a point of having all of her classes in the afternoon. She’s possibly less of a morning person than Tim is, to the point where even coffee doesn’t make her a little more human.
“Blame my new roommate,” she grumbles, and that earns a surprised look because it’s the first time he’s heard of this. “Right, I didn’t tell you, did I? So, a couple of weeks ago this cat shows up on the fire-escape outside my window. And I didn’t mean to feed it, but it looked so sad and pathetic and I had to, so now it won’t leave me alone. What am I supposed to do? I don’t have time to be a pet owner.”
“Cat’s don’t actually take that much care.”
“That’s what they want you to think. And then one cat becomes two, and two becomes three and the next thing I know, I’m going to be the crazy cat lady on the block,” Steph complains. “And not to cool, sexy, Selina kind of cat lady but the sad, single shut-in.”
“You could never be a shut-in. No four walls can keep your raw joie de vivre inside,” Tim says in a flat tone.
“You’re just saying that because you’re my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend.” She frowns in confusion. “Are we in an on-again or an off-again right now? I forget.”
Tim remembers Jason’s cocky grin and muscular thighs and his mouth goes dry. “Off. Definitely off.”
Steph’s eyebrows disappear into her hairline. “That was weirdly assertive. Am I sensing a pretty girl behind that sentiment? Do I need to give a shovel talk?” Something occurs to her and she scowls. “It’s not that Lynx chick, is it? Trust me when I say that would be a bad idea.”
“There’s no girl,” Tim mumbles. “Trust me.”
“Okay,” she allows, slow and still somewhat dubious. “But you’d tell me, right? If you were seeing someone? Only so I don’t go crossing lines or causing jealous rage or something.”
“There’s nothing going on, yes I would tell you, can we please move on?” Tim huffs. “Tell me about your cat.”
“He’s not my cat.”
“You fed him, he’s your cat.”
“Stop changing the subject. You’re being evasive—there so is a girl.”
“There’s no girl!” Tim groans, half tempted to tug at his hair. “Who could look at another woman after being with you?”
“I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or as an insinuation I was so horrible that I turned you off women for good,” Steph says, eyes narrowed in suspicion. A beat later, she tilts her head to one side as if something has occurred to her. “Wait. That’s it, isn’t it? It’s a guy. This someone’s a guy. You know you can tell me, right? That would totally be okay—would actually explain a lot, actually—you know, you liking guys—”
“One guy does not equate guys.”
“Oh my god! There is! There’s a guy!” Steph squeals. “Who is it? It’s that friend of yours, that went missing, isn’t it? Dante something? That’s why you’ve been so obsessed with finding him!”
“I’m determined to find him because he’s my friend,” Tim counters, a bit irritated. “The same way I’d be determined to find Ives or Bernard or anyone I cared about. And I’d be doing that right now if someone wasn’t distracting me.”
Two someones, but she doesn’t need to know about Jason’s role in it.
“And I’d believe that if you weren’t looking at me like you wanted to jump out of your skin. There’s something going on here, Ex-Boy Wonder.”
“There’s nothing going on.”
“For something to be going on, you have to actually spend more than an hour with someone. You have to have known them for more than an hour.”
“Not if you have chemistry,” Steph points out. “Sometimes, it’s just like. Bang.” She grins. “And then you have to bang.”
Tim rolls his eyes.
“Do I need to give you the safe sex talk?” Steph asks with concern that’s only half teasing. “The gay-sex safe sex talk? Because to be honest, I don’t think I’d be able to do it with a straight face.”
“Steph, that was awful. As a former Robin, you should be ashamed.”
“And as a former Robin, you should be better at lying. So, spill. What’s going on?”
Tim studies her, chewing on his tongue; he knows she won’t let it go unless he gives her something. “Okay. Fine.”
“Hah! I knew it!”
“Not that. This is…something else,” he says. “Sort of.”
“What would you do if…say you found out something really important to a person you care about. But you promised someone else you wouldn’t tell anyone about that something because of…reasons. Personal reasons.”
Steph crosses her arms. “Is this about me?”
“Not everything is about you.”
“Then it’s about Mystery Boy.”
“It’s not about—” Tim gives up, and then sighs, because it’s just easier to give her that one. “Fine. It’s Mystery Boy. He asked me not to say something that’s really important. I figure it’s because he wants to say himself in his own time. Except. Except it’s a huge thing.”
“Starbucks discontinuing pumpkin spice lattes’ huge, or ‘Hush trying to destroy B’ huge?”
“Closer to the second. Not dangerous like that,” he adds quickly when he sees her face. “It’s just…serious stuff that could hurt if it’s not handled the right way. Or if certain parties found out later and thought they were having stuff kept from them.”
“Well, now I’m curious…”
“I’m not telling you.”
“I know that. I’m just saying.” Steph sticks out her tongue at him, but then becomes contemplative. “I guess I’d keep my mouth shut. Or try to, at least. Stuff like that always tends to come out eventually. But if you’re worried it could hurt someone, maybe you can convince Mystery Boy it’s in his best interest to tell someone.”
“Yeah, that didn’t go over too well.”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t get into your micromanaging, control-freak headspace,” she tells him. “That’s one of the things that torpedoed you and me, and if you want things to work out with this guy, you should respect his wishes.”
“I never said anything about wanting anything to work out with anyone,” Tim protests. “I just met the guy.”
“And somehow he got you to promise not to tell something that’s apparently really important. Which means you already value him somehow, and that only happens to you when you really like someone. Also, you might be able to straight-up bluff Batman or Ra’s al Ghul, but I know how you look when you like someone and don’t want anyone to know it.” There’s a beeping noise and Steph digs out her cellphone. “And with those pearls of wisdom, I have to get going. My mom found the cat and she’s having a conniption.”
She turns to leave, pauses once she enters the elevator and turns back around, jabbing a finger at him.
“Shower, eat, go to work, stop obsessing about stuff you can’t control—and don’t try to control stuff that’s not your business.”
Tim bristles. “Yes, Mother.”
“Oh, you did not just go there,” she growls as the elevator doors close and Tim grins until she’s gone.
He knows that Steph’s right, to a certain extent. This whole Jason thing isn’t his business—he was only ever an outside observer, a legacy after the fact. And even if it was his business, it’s not his predecessor’s sensibilities he should be protecting.
Ill-advised crush aside, he doesn’t have any connection loyalty to Jason Todd. He does owe Bruce—he should be going straight to him about this.
Except, Tim really doesn’t want to be added to the list of people who betrayed Jason’s trust. Especially given how fragile it is given their short acquaintance.
Tim groans and leans back against his chair, wishing for an easy solution. He’s usually able to figure out what to do, even when it comes down to the hard choices.
“Stop obsessing about stuff you can’t control—and don’t try to control stuff that’s not your business.”
He’ll do as Jason asked.
Or, at least he’ll give it a week.
If he hasn't figured out any other way to deal with the situation, he'll go to Bruce.
In the meantime—he has an investigation to get back to.
Next chapter...Jason's week is up :P
Chapter 8: VIII
To CasualOtaku, for awesome knowledge of Monty Python and the timing of dropping a reference :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jason is actually surprised when his office isn’t immediately descended upon by bats or birds or other nasty little creatures of the night.
It makes him like Red Robin—Tim—a little more.
(Not that he didn’t already.)
It may or may not have been one of the reasons he had to bail so fast the other night. The combination of not wanting to discuss his avoidance of Gotham, and the pained, earnest expression on Tim’s face when he asked about it. The one that made Jason feel guilty about it—which, why should he feel guilty, he doesn’t even know the kid—and sent him peeling out of the bar as fast as possible.
Of course, he doesn’t really think he’s going to be able to avoid Tim forever. There’s still that dark presence attached to him; one he needs to find out more about before he can do anything about it.
Still, it’s not an imminent threat, and he’s not sure how to broach that conversation.
By the way, you have this kind of shadow following you? It’s bigger than I’ve ever seen on anyone before. Might want to do something about that. Oh, how do I know? Yeah, I happen to see ghosts.
Tim might be used to all kinds of weird shit since he’s from Gotham, but admitting that you see dead people is something even established occultists don’t do on the regular. Either you end up being solicited for all kinds of ridiculous requests about the afterlife or have someone get offended and angry because they think you’re lying to them.
Or, you know, thrown into an asylum for talking to people no one can see.
In his experience, none of those things are fun.
And then there’s the other thing.
The small but strong, smooth voice, and the slightly too-long hair and the eyes that look as deep and dangerous as the Atlantic—Tim apparently checks all of Jason’s boxes and they’ve only met the one time.
Or more than one time, as it turns out. He just wasn’t aware of it.
“You know, you might be talented in other ways, but those fries aren’t going to burst into flame if you keep glaring at them.”
Jason glances up to where Trista is doing her weekly inventory; the pub is empty but for Jason, who was feeling too lazy to walk a few blocks to the local grocery for an actual healthy lunch.
“Who says I’m trying?”
“Oh, no, you see, that was my clever way of initiating a conversation without it seeming out of the blue. You’ve obviously got something on your mind.”
“I have a lot on my mind. Constantly. Most of it related to the sad sacks milling around waiting for me to solve their problems.”
“But that’s not what that is this time,” she points out. “This time I think it’s got something to do with the pretty boy who came in here the other night.”
“You’ve been sampling your own product.”
“Shut up, you know I’m a teetotaler. And I’ve seen you beat people up for less than looking at one of the girls out there the way you were looking at Blue Eyes. He can’t be older than the kids that run for the mafia.”
“He’s almost eighteen,” Jason says defensively, and then feels the blood rush from his face, because oh god, I’m trying to justify it what is wrong with me?
That earns a raised eyebrow from the bartender. “And how do you know that? Did you Face-Stalk him the minute you noped out of here?”
“Did I…what?” Jason asks, staring at her in puzzlement. He knows what the words mean individually, but the meaning behind what she’s suggested is lost on him.
Trista sighs. “How do I know more millennial slang than you do? You’re like ten years younger than me.”
“Because I was dead and you’re forever young at heart?”
“Smooth. You’re still paying for your fries.”
Jason makes a face at her but is relieved when she leaves the subject alone. Trista might tease and caution, but she doesn’t pry; just waits for the story to tumble out on its own.
Must be some kind of barkeep skill. But it’s not going to work today.
He tosses a twenty on the table—well beyond what the chips are actually worth—and heads back to his office.
Settling back at his desk, behind the clunky computer that looks like it might be as old as Jason, he scowls at the screen.
He might not know what ‘Face-Stalk’ means, but he can guess. And it hits a little too close to home.
Jason may or may not have spent the morning after his little interview with Tim doing research on his replacement, learning whatever he could about Timothy Jackson Drake-Wayne.
And doesn’t that complicate things. The little shit neglected to mention that little tidbit.
Jason never bothered learning much about the Robins who came after him; it was too painful a reminder of a life that was no longer his. Of a family that moved on so easily following his death that they stuck another kid in the suit like Jason had never worn it.
Because of how often the world is in some kind of peril, he was never completely ignorant of them. He’s seen broadcasts of big showdowns in California and other places where Capes get together and get their hero on. He had watched his replacement and Nightwing joking and laughing, closer than Jason and Dick had ever been and decided he didn’t want to know anything more.
He’s starting to see why that might have been an oversight on his part.
It seems Tim Drake lived a few estates down from Wayne manor. They were goddamn neighbors and Jason never knew.
Which is a shame.
He could have used actual friends as the newly adopted son of Bruce Wayne; it might have made the transition easier. If he’d had someone to fall back on, someone outside of the Mission to talk to about what he was feeling, maybe he might not have been so determined to go to Ethiopia.
“Well, now, that’s not true,” Sheila says, making Jason jump as she suddenly materializes in thin air. “You were going to come looking for me no matter what.” He shoots her a glare. “You realize you’re talking out loud, right?”
“And you realize most people give a warning before they walk into another person’s living space?” he retorts. “I could have been doing anything in here.”
Sheila pretends to examine the water damage in the corner of the office. “As if you’re that interesting.”
“Is there something you need?”
“To move on.”
“Please, be my guest.”
She glares at him. “I would if you weren’t so thick.”
“If you’re going to start with that shit again, you can go back to wherever you go when you’re not here,” he grumbles. “I’m not in the mood for this argument again.”
“That’s not actually why I’m here,” Sheila replies.
“Oh, really? Imagine that.”
She ignores that. “The boy is dangerous. You should stay away from him.”
“Of course he’s dangerous, he was trained by B.”
“Not for that reason. You know what I’m talking about.” She shivers—if ghosts can actually shiver. “That shadow that’s attached to him. It’s feeding. On him. On others. You should stay away.”
Jason raises an eyebrow. “On a normal person, that might actually sound like motherly concern. But we both know that’s not your thing.”
“You’re right. If that thing decides to make a meal out of the stubborn little medium, I’m stuck here for all eternity.”
“And there it is.”
“Self-preservation is not a sin,” Sheila informs him, before vanishing.
“Having selfish motives is,” Jason mutters to himself, as he goes back to his work.
But the fact is, if Sheila’s uneasy about the aura Tim’s giving off, that’s a bigger problem than he thought. For the most part, ghosts and spirits don’t interact with one another. They need a human conduit or emotion to use as grounding. If a malevolent presence is strong enough to disturb the personal sphere of other ghosts as well as the living, then that suggests a growing nexus of negative energy.
And any number of bad things can come from that.
Jason’s research has so far confirmed what Tim had said about his parents’ deaths—the potential reason the kid’s aura got disturbed in the first place. Negative energy needs some kind of disruption or inciting incident to thrive, and that’s probably what kicked it off. Both of them were murdered—one poisoned in a voodoo ritual, the other butchered by Captain Boomerang a few years later.
And that’s not the last time Death took someone from you, is it?
As a vigilante, he lost teammates—the Super kid and the tiny speedster. Bruce’s death, however temporary, still happened, still hurt. And then there’s the entire year and a half where the newest Robin, Bruce’s son, doesn’t appear anywhere. Tim mentioned it was because he was dead, and whatever his personal feelings are toward the kid, he couldn’t have not been affected by the death of an eleven-year-old that for all intents and purposes is his little brother. More recently, the public record notes the death of Tim’s stepmother from an apparent suicide in a psychiatric facility.
All that trauma and death happening to him so close together would explain a dark presence clinging to him, at least to some degree. But it shouldn’t be as dense as it is. Negative energy like that is supposed to dissipate as a person deals with whatever is causing it—in this case, grief.
So either he’s not dealing with it—which is possible considering his mentor and considering how most Capes like to brush the emotional shit under the rug—or something about him is actively drawing it to him. To it.
It sort of reminds him of something John told him he encountered in Japan, but he can’t remember the specifics.
Jason thinks the catalyst might be related to something Tim didn’t mention, the part of the story he obviously skipped over when it looked like he was reliving something traumatic.
Somehow he doubts Tim will be as forthcoming with that experience as he was giving the rundown of the year Jason missed. If only there was a way to start that conversation in an inconspicuous way…
Of course, that would mean starting a conversation first. Which depends on whether he calls me or not.
Reflexively, he digs his phone out to check if there have been any missed calls and then shoves it away when he realizes what he’s doing.
He is not waiting by the phone for him to call. If this were an imminent problem, he could easily get in contact with Tim—he highly doubts the number to Wayne Manor has changed, and even if it has, it’s just a matter of calling the company line at WE and finding someone to let him speak to Tim Wayne.
(And yes, he might have found out where he worked. But that’s public record, and not an indication of any other untoward interest.)
But it’s not an imminent problem, and he’s not getting involved unless Tim asks him to, and even then he’ll probably stay out of it because he promised himself when he came back to Gotham he would avoid any drama related to the Bats.
Even if one of them is really hot.
Jailbait, he reminds himself doggedly. Jailbait, jailbait, jailbait-with-Batman-as-a-stand-in-father. Just an all-around bad idea.
And so, Jason dutifully closes down the webpages and ridiculous amount of open tabs on his browser and prepares himself to do some actual work related to his job.
The low-paying, barely acceptable job…
He spends a few days building up his business, putting the word out about his services and specialties. He makes rounds to suppliers that John told him about, stocks up on the usual staples like candles and holy water takes on the occasional haunting (and is forced to desecrate a grave or two in the process when the spooks get nasty).
Things are actually going well for a while, enough so that he (almost) forgets about Tim and his shadowy parasite, doesn’t have to deal with anymore cryptic warning visits from Sheila and even starts to relax into an honest-to-goodness routine.
Of course, it’s too much to expect that the brief lull can continue in peace. Tim’s promise not to say anything or not, it’s only a matter of time before Batman cottons on to Jason’s presence. Red Robin might be on the outs with him and the rest of the family for whatever reason, but he doubts anything would be bad enough to keep the former Boy Wonder from sharing such a juicy tidbit as Jason’s resurrection and return to Gotham.
Considering his background, the kid probably feels too much of an obligation to Bruce not to say anything. And buried beneath layers of denial and his own naïve plans, Jason knows there was never a scenario where he could stay under Bruce’s radar for the rest of his life.
Not as long as he decided to stay in Gotham.
But because this is Jason, so of course everything whatever he’s involved in always goes to shit, he doesn’t wake up in his office-cum-bedroom one night with the lights cut and Bruce looming over him in the dark.
Instead, he gets attacked while in the middle of burning remains in a graveyard.
Or, about to burn some remains.
One minute, he’s standing over the freshly dug grave with his lighter and accelerant, surgical mask and visor on because that shit burns—the next, he’s being hauled backward and knocked into a headstone, tools going flying.
When he looks up, his breath gets stuck in his throat.
Five years later, and he still feels like a snot-nosed kid staring up at the Bat in stunned amazement. Even though he’s long since caught up to him in height (there might be an inch or two difference, but he’s not sure how much of that is from the cowl) and musculature, he feels like a colt beside a stallion.
And beyond the mask, and the cape and the only face Gotham’s underbelly knows, he can sense the steely blue gaze of the man who put him on his life’s path.
The only father that ever really mattered to him, when it came down to it.
“Damn. I didn’t even hear you,” he remarks as he struggles to his feet, surprised his voice remains level. “I forgot you can be freakishly quiet.”
He blames not hearing the approach because of the noise filters in his ears—blocking ghosts has the nasty side-effect of blocking some of the living, too. He’s trained himself to listen for a normal person sneaking up on him—not too hard, considering most night watchmen or security guards make more noise than they realize—but Bruce isn’t exactly normal.
“There have been seven grave desecrations in the past month,” he growls at him in full Batman voice, and Jason swallows.
Not from fear, but because he had forgotten. How had he forgotten what that sounds like?
“The GCPD wants to know why. I don’t care. I want it to stop.”
There’s an implicit threat--an ultimatum there.
And it hits Jason, then: Bruce doesn’t recognize him.
He has no idea who he is, and it’s not just because his face is covered.
Tim really didn’t say anything to him.
Jason’s not sure what he’s more surprised about, that his replacement kept his word or that Bruce didn’t just jump him from behind and tie him up.
From what Jason remembers, he only ever went for the dramatic entrance on nights when he was looking for a fight.
Which, if that’s the case…shit.
“Okay, chill,” Jason says slowly. “Believe it or not, I’m past the need to do things the violent way first.
Batman looms, exuding menace. “And yet you have no problem violating graves.”
“I’d ask you to let me explain, but we both know you won’t believe a word I say. So…actions speak louder than words, right? I’m just going to take off my gear—”
Immediately, a batarang slices into the hand Jason moves, and it’s only training that turns it into a flesh wound instead of a worse injury. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Jason narrows his eyes.
And there’s the inflexibility. How much I didn’t miss that.
He forgot how sometimes, the only way to make Bruce listen to something was to grab his attention in other ways.
“Okay, you paranoid son of a bitch,” he mutters and rolls his shoulders. “Now it’s on, just on principle.” He shifts his stance. “Let’s boogie.”
If the words throw Bruce off, there’s no outward indication. He charges forward with intent, and without hesitation; Jason meets him the same way.
The older man’s body twists, bringing momentum to the downward punch meant to knock Jason out with one blow, but he braces, is surprised to catch it before it connects.
If Batman is surprised, he doesn’t show it; he’s already moving, left knee jerking up to hit him in the chest—Jason moves back enough to avoid that, but not the snap of the foot that catches him in the chest, sending him flying backward.
Jason doesn’t linger on the ground to recover, instead rolls forward and to his feet, then charges, vaults over a headstone to achieve lift, and aims a kick to the side of Batman’s head. The vigilante avoids it, and when Jason tries to follow up with an overhand hammer fist, he catches that, too.
Realistically, he knows he doesn’t have a chance in Hell of beating Batman. Maybe in another life, if he kept training like his mentor, he likes to imagine he would have surpassed Bruce. Jason always had a raw strength to him, forged in the streets that no billionaire’s coddled son could have, no matter how many martial arts he studied and how many masters he learned from.
But Jason didn’t get that life, he got this one, and he’s learned to roll with the punches—literally.
They fight, trading blows and blocks. Jason is surprised that despite being a little rusty when it comes to close combat, he’s still able to keep up—still able to meet each blow and to even take a hit that he’s seen down a man twice his size.
Either I’m better than I thought, or he’s slowed down over the years.
Both options are as equally unlikely as the other.
The two men grapple for a bit, and Jason can’t help running his mouth, because that’s how he always fought.
And because he’s suddenly angry.
“It has to be beyond thought,” he bites out as Batman gets his hand free and tries to hit Jason’s face. “Well past instinct.” He avoids the attack, jerking his head to one side. The momentary lag in Batman’s movements is the only clue he recognizes the words he once spoke to him. “You simply act—”
Batman has hold of their joined hands and tries to use his weight to lever Jason backward, but he moves with it, bending and jumping, using the momentum to flip around in a backflip and free himself.
“—a finely tuned instrument—"
Years of unspoken resentment, feelings he tamped down because they were irrational, nights he woke up sobbing—
Why didn’t you come for me why didn’t you look for me why didn’t you imagine I could be alive why didn’t you get there in time?
They trade more blows for a few minutes before Jason is sent backward again, rolling into another headstone and back to feet.
“—a body trained to perfection—”
He charges forward again.
“—techniques honed and mastered—”
Batman has another batarang in hand, is trying to plunge it into a part of Jason’s body that’s both non-lethal but capable of neutralizing him at the same time.
“—and expensive toys to wield against the “malignant scum that ravage this city,” Jason sneers, narrowly avoiding the sharp edges as he shoves the blows off-course. “So what the hell are you doing here?”
“Who are you.”
It’s not a question, more a demand, and Jason ignores it.
Batman varies his approach then, giving up on the batarang and trying to use the sharp edges of his gauntlets to hobble him. Sometimes he comes from beneath, sometimes from above or the side.
There’s no anticipating the move, only reacting to it as it comes.
And taking advantage of an opening when you see one.
Jason moves then, lands a blow with the heel of his hand to the unprotected curve of jaw. While Batman staggers, Jason jumps up and twists around, slamming a kick to his side that sends him flying into a headstone this time.
Anyone who’s ever fought the Bat knows you don’t give him a chance to recover, and so Jason is already darting forward, bending and jumping with his knee forward, slamming it into Batman’s chest as he gets to his feet. The blow sends vibrations of pain up through Jason’s leg and around to his spine because of the damn armor, but it still has Batman doubling over as the headstone behind him crumbles.
“Grave robbing cases aren’t really your thing,” Jason points out even as the vigilante is up and ready again, raining down blows on him with all the vigor of a second wind. “Even the Commish wouldn’t expect you to look into this. Not with all the other freaks in the night!” He curses and ducks back when a gauntleted fist nearly busts his jaw. “So why go all out here on some petty crime?”
Jason flips him, but Batman only skids back a few paces before retaking his stance.
“Could it be, maybe you’ve got a personal stake in it?” he taunts. “This graveyard…the resting of your first great failure…”
The growl Batman emits is almost animal then, and Jason barely has time to brace himself for it as a vicelike grip seizes him around the throat.
“Who. Are. You.”
Jason gasps for breath, his own hands wrapping around the gauntlet in an effort to hold himself up, to keep breathing. He gasps out, “Not your last though, was it?”
As expected, the comment pisses Batman off enough that he has to let him go or risk collapsing his throat. Jason finds himself sailing back through the air again, landing on his back.
He coughs, trying to draw in air as the caped figure approaches.
“Heard all about the past few years,” he bites out. “Replacement-bird filled me in.” He swallows painfully. “Kind of surprised he didn’t fill you in.”
Batman moves then, barrels forward in what Jason recognizes as a crippling blow to the solar plexus. He rolls away just in time, clambers to his feet again to exchange blows.
It should be harder now. He’s amazed it doesn’t feel like it.
Lack of oxygen maybe. Starting to get punch drunk.
“Just what did you do to piss him off, B?” Jason challenges.
“I won’t ask the question a third time.”
“You won’t believe me ‘til you figure it out yourself.”
In the split second where he tries to parse the comment, Jason grabs hold of Batman in a move he learned from him long ago and perfected at Dick’s side, flipping him over his back in a punishing suplex.
There’s a muffled thump of a body hitting the ground, and Jason backs away, panting.
Batman’s already getting to his feet.
Goddamn him and his insane stamina…
“What would you do if I told you that grave over there—the most recent one in the family mausoleum? If I told you it’s empty,” Jason asks, still breathless. “That it’s been empty for five years.”
Batman snarls and is on him again.
“No body there while you went on training your bevy of child soldiers.”
They trade blows, fists and knees and kicks and blocks.
“That you being here tonight is just a pointless exercise in guilt to continue your damned mission.”
They have each other in a tight grapple hold now, and the vigilante’s face is inches from Jason’s.
“You cannot possibly imagine that I believe this…this ruse,” he grunts.
“Yeah, I think you do,” Jason wheezes back. “I think you feel it in your gut. You know whose arm you’re trying to break right now.”
“No, it really is—”
And then Bruce gets his free hand on his face, fingers punishing against the bones and muscles. Jason jerks backward, feels elastics snap against his head as the surgical mask is ripped off, and then he’s reeling backward.
He lands in a crouch, looking up as Bruce starts toward him.
And then freezes.
The cowl might hide his features, but Jason knows how Batman’s body language changes when he’s trying not to betray shock.
“Hey, B,” Jason smirks.
There is no universe where Jason doesn't pick a fight with Bruce when he comes back, reasons or not. Some of the dialogue was from Under the Red Hood, just adapted to this timeline/'verse. Tune in next time for more emotionally stunted reunions!