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Limbo

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The call is unexpected in more ways than one.

On Tim's insistence, Jason's gotten better about interacting with his classmates—though he has to admit that a lot of the time he only does it to get the ghost to stop making sad eyes at him—but if they contact him it's usually about school assignments and almost always over text. Since Jason's untimely death and return, Dick's gotten a lot better about keeping in touch and living up to his position as a big brother, but that's always to Jason's cellphone as well, or via email.

In short, no one calls the manor looking for Jason, so when Alfred answers one day, listens to the caller and then hands the phone over with a, "For you, young master," he isn't sure what to expect.

"Hello?"

"Jason Todd? This isn't normal procedure, but the agents on the case made it clear that if there was any change in the situation, you should be treated as the equivalent of the incarcerated's next of kin," the person on the other end of the line says.

"I'm sorry, what's this about?" he asks, his heart speeding up. Incarcerated? Could it be—? But no, it can't be his dad. Willis Todd is long gone, he's sure of it. Bruce told him ages ago of what Two Face did, and after everything that happened with Sheila, he'd never lie to Jason about that. Still... "Is this—is my dad...?"

"I have no knowledge of your father, son. My name is Carl Prompto, I'm the warden over at Belle Reve and I'm calling to inform you that one Janet Drake, aka Jacqueline Vibora, aka—"

"Wait, this is about Janet? Why're you calling me about Janet?"

"What?" Tim demands, crowding in close. "What is it? Has she escaped? Jason, if she's escaped—"

"As I said, the agents in charge of the case put you down as the next of kin for Drake. I guess when Superman himself personally asks you to do something in regards to an inmate, you kinda gotta sit up and listen," the warden says.

"Jason, what's going on? What's happening?" Tim demands, looking far too anxious as Jason hisses at him to be quiet.

"Right. So, uh. What happened? Did she escape?"

"No, quite the opposite. She died," the warden says. "Looks to be from old age. Note on file says she's to be cremated as soon as possible, but since you're next of kin, you're in your rights to see the body before that and receive the ashes after."

"Oh," Jason says, more than a little stunned. Janet Drake had looked to be in her late forties when he saw her at the trial, but he supposes she must be much older than that, from the different things Tim and the investigating agents turned up. Apparently it's hard to maintain one's youthful appearance when one doesn't have a steady stream of dead kids to suck the life out of. "Um. Just a minute, I need to talk to my... associate about this."

"What is it?" Tim demands.

"She's dead," Jason tells him, covering the mouthpiece of the receiver with his hand. "She died and the prison wants to know if we—well, me, but it would be both of us, obviously—want to see the body before they cremate it. You don't, right?"

"Actually," Tim starts to say, then stops, looking thoughtful.

"Actually?"

"Actually, I think it would be a good thing. It would give me a lot of closure to see that she's really gone. Can we watch the cremation, too? Just to make sure they really do it?"

"Uh, I'll ask." It sounds pretty gruesome, but Jason figures Tim deserves get as much closure as possible, considering what Janet did to him. Gulping, he uncovers the receiver. "Sorry about that, Mr. Prompto. I'm not actually Janet's next of kin, I just act as the representative for him. We're definitely interested in viewing the body, and we're wondering if you might let us do a little more...?"

 


 

Tim isn't sure what he's expecting when Mr. Prompto leads them to the prison morgue to view the body, but somehow he isn't surprised to see the faint form hovering over the corpse on the slab.

Beside him, Jason stiffens, his eyes going wide—and no wonder, Tim's pretty sure this is the first time he has seen any ghost other than Tim himself. "Is that...?"

"Janet's spirit? Yeah," Tim says, vibrating with a kind of weird anticipation. "She died less than a week ago, so she's still forming, but yeah, it's her. Uh. I think. Probably? I mean, this is a morgue so there might be other spirits here too, but a lot of ghosts stick to the place where they died. Janet rebound herself to her body so many times to cheat death that it's probably really hard for her to separate."

"Something the matter, Jay-lad?" Bruce asks gently, and Jason grins up at him. Tim isn't sure how he feels about Batman being here for this, but Jason's a minor and there are formalities to observe. Plus, having Bruce Wayne with you apparently helps to open doors that even Superman might have problems with.

"Janet's ghost is here."

"What's that? A ghost? Seems a little far-fetched, don't you think?" Mr. Prompto says, laughing in a not unkind way.

Jason fixes him with a glare. "If you know what Janet was in for, what she did— She was a witch and a necromancer and she killed a bunch of kids, a lot of them her own. The only reason she ever got caught and stopped was because her dead son asked me to help him get justice for himself and his friends. Ghosts are very, very real, Mr. Prompto, and you're standing in a room with two of them right now."

"I'm sorry, did you just say two ghosts?"

Tim and Jason exchange a look and, with a sneaky smile, Tim slides his arm into Mr. Prompto's and reaches up, gently tweaking the man's nose before sliding out again.

"Two. Janet and her next of kin, Timothy Drake. Speaking of, I think Tim wants to have a few minutes alone with his mother, now that they can have a proper conversation again." Jason winces at that, because he hates reminding Tim of that connection, but he also knows the shock of it can do a lot to get people to agree to things they otherwise wouldn't. "Could we wait out in the hall? He's the one who wanted to come here, after all."

"I'd suggest we do as Jason says," Bruce says, and Tim dances out of the way as he reaches over to slap the warden on the back. "I've shared a home with Tim for over a year now, and I can tell you that while he's a ghost who rarely speaks up, he always has a good reason when he finally asks for something."

Mr. Prompto is still staring at his hand, shaking it and staring some more. It takes Bruce's slap to remind him of the rest of the room, and he nearly falls over with a start when he does. "Ghosts?! Mr. Wayne, don't tell me you believe—!"

"Carl—I can call you Carl, right? Grand, and you must call me Brucie. Carl, I buried my son and mourned him, then had him return to me a few months later, alive and whole and fit as fiddle once more. I've since learned that there are a lot of things in this world that we don't fully understand, even when we're confronted with the impossible every day at a place like Belle Reve," Bruce says, guiding the man out the door.

Jason gives Tim a wave and a worried look before the door closes behind them, and then that's it, they're gone. And Tim is alone with the body and soul of the woman who called herself Janet Drake.

 


 

Tim is pretty sure Janet can't hurt him now any more than she could have when he last encountered her, but that doesn't make it any easier to cross the room to her.

"Janet? Do you remember me?" It feels like a stupid thing to ask, especially after what he did to her back in Metropolis—except he remembers what Jack was like, that night in the basement, only dead a few weeks and still pulling together after being scattered by the trauma of death. Few souls are like Tim, already living with one foot on the other side even before death.

The spirit glances up from the corpse it's hovering over and, after what feels like ages but is likely only a few moments, pulls itself into something more solid, more real. Which... isn't wholly surprising either, considering her own ties to the dead and dying. "Do I know you?" she demands, sounding just as proud as he remembers her being during life.

A shiver runs down Tim's spine, but only just the one, and then his fear is past. He's been doing this longer than she has, is more sure, more confident, and certainly more practiced. Plus, thanks to Janet and her cronies, he's also more powerful. "Yes, Janet. It's me, Tim."

She squints at him, leaning forward in a freakishly long, uncanny way before snapping back to her previous position. "I'm sorry, I don't know any Tims."

Tim clenches his teeth, takes in a deep, calming breath, then lets it out again. He doesn't actually need to breathe, but Dr. Toby recommended the technique to Jason for when he's feeling angry and frustrated, like his life is spiraling out of control. Since things could go so much worse if a powerful spirit loses control of his temper, Tim's been trying to adopt the practice as well.

"I didn't look like this, last time we met," he reminds her. "I was riding Superman, then."

That clearly catches her attention, and he's not surprised. It's easy to forget one dead child among so many, but it's probably a lot harder to forget being beat up by the Man of Steel. Especially if it results in your arrest and eventual death.

"You," she snaps, looking much more aware of herself than she has up until now. "You little snot! What are you still doing on this plane, you deceitful little traitor? Are you lingering just to rub my nose in your victory? Some victory for you, hah! You're still just as dead as you were then, and now you've lost the one person who might've possibly taken pity on you and brought you back."

"What, you?" Tim laughs. "The only time you've ever done something for someone other than yourself was when you tried to bring Jack back. You were never going to help me, don't even try to pretend otherwise."

"My precious Jack! He should have come back—he would have come back, if you hadn't interfered!" Her face falls and then turns absolutely vicious as she lunges at him, her fingers curled and nails bared like claws. But Janet's still learning how to handle this form, still gathering her strength, and it's easy enough to dodge out of the way.

"News flash, Janet—Jack was never going to come back, not after you messed up that first time. See, I was pretty angry about being dead, and wasn't about to go down without some kind of fight." Tim grins at her, sharp and vicious as he tweaks a little bit of power, twisting it so the grin grows and sharpens, turns into something terrifyingly unnatural. "Next time you decide to off a kid, maybe make sure he hasn't been reading exorcism books along with the necromancy books, huh? Especially when one of the best ways of getting rid of a nasty spirit is to get another spirit to banish it."

Janet freezes in the middle of gathering to spring at him a second time. "No," she whispers. "You didn't—you couldn't have! I tested his body before I tried a second time—there was still a soul! He hadn't left!"

"Just because there was soul attached doesn't mean it was his," Tim hisses. "After all, his wasn't the only life that was ever bound to that rotten old corpse, was it? Really, you should be thankful you didn't succeed, because if you'd brought back that body, you can be sure I wouldn't have made your life easy after that. Just like I don't intend for your afterlife to be a pleasant one now." Raising his hands, he begins the incantation for the banishing spell.

"Now—now, Timothy," she says, raising her hands and backing away, as if that will do anything at all to protect her. As if anything can save her now. "You must really think this through, mustn't you? This is quite serious magic you're dealing with, and you're just an untrained boy—you hardly know what you're doing! It could go very, very wrong. Also, you're hardly the one who should be making this kind of judgement, now, are you?"

"It worked perfectly fine last time I did it," he says, hands pausing briefly. "As for whether I'm the person to do it, well. I have it on pretty good authority that spirits generally end up where they're supposed to be. And you ended up here, in this room. With me."

"But is this really what you want to do? I understand—you were angry before, and that's understandable! Everything was so scary and new and different, you were afraid! There's no reason to be afraid now, Timothy—Mommy's here." Janet smiles and, impossibly, spreads her arms as if to accept him into a hug.

Five years ago, Tim would have run into those arms, so desperate for any kind of physical contact, any kind of normalcy to his life. Now, he knows better. "You are not, nor you have never been, my 'mommy,'" he snaps.

"I don't—what happened?" she demands. "You used to be such a good boy. So eager to please your parents, your teachers, your heroes... What would Batman think of this atrocious behavior, Timothy? What would Robin think?"

He hesitates then, for one brief moment—Janet in life never cared enough about her son's passions or interests to know what he loved and cared about. But this isn't that Janet, and she's no longer limited to only those things that one could know in life. Hardening his heart, Tim's hands resume the gestures of the banishment. "That's where you and Jack and Robin and Batman all went wrong, Janet," he says as he moves closer and closer, then finally flings the spell he's woven. "You made the mistake of assuming I'm a good person."

Janet's screams fill the room as the spell tears her soul to pieces.

 


 

Jason glances up as the door creaks slowly open to reveal Tim, looking very alone and smaller than ever. "Hey," he says, touching Bruce's arm and interrupting some ridiculous story about Dick, a state senator, and chocolate-mousse cake. "I think he's done."

Tim comes over, more drifting than walking, which is odd enough considering how often he tries to cling to the trappings of life. "I don't need to stay for the cremation," he says, his voice barely a whisper. "I made—I mean. Janet isn't going to hurt anyone ever again."

"Oh," Jason says, not entirely sure he wants to know what happened while they waited in the hall. He has his suspicions—he remembers what Tim told him about Jack Drake's soul, that he got rid of it as thoroughly as possible in a burst of rage following his death. Tim seemed pretty calm and together on their way to Belle Reve, but he also remembers the catalog of injuries Janet suffered while at the hands of Tim-as-Superman.

Jason has a lot of feelings about Willis and Sheila, but hasn't ever wished them dead or worse, not even when Willis would smack his mom around, or when Sheila gave him up to the Joker. At the same time, as awful as they both were, neither one killed him in cold blood, and he supposes that can do a lot to foment distrust and anger in a family.

"Everything okay there, champ?" Bruce asks, his hand falling Jason's shoulder and squeezing it reassuringly when Jason suppresses a shiver.

"Yeah. Just thinking about how now we've got one more orphan for the manor," he says, smiling back at Tim and holding out a hand even though he knows the ghost will never take it. "C'mon, let's go home. We haven't got any more unfinished business here."

Tim's quiet on the way from the prison to the airport, but that makes sense, considering everything he might have—must have—had to deal with in the morgue. Jason wants nothing more than to reach out and give him a hug, or at least squeeze his hand, but he can't. All he can do is give Tim space for as long as he needs it, retreating to the other side of the cabin to read a book beside Bruce for the entirety of the flight.

They should probably talk—though he's not sure if he means him and Tim, him and Bruce, or both—about what happened, but it can wait for now. If nothing else, any conversation that's had is probably one that would do best with a bit more privacy.

 


 

When the plane lands and they all disembark, Tim lingers behind the others. Jason glances back to him once before climbing into the waiting car, and Tim forces a smile for him, waving that he should go on ahead, though he has no plan of following. Instead, he lifts up into the air, flying through the familiar canyons of the city until, at last, he comes to rest in front of a lonely, solitary stone.

After all, with all his business finished, he can finally move on to what lies ahead.

Tim shudders, wrapping his arms around himself so he won’t be tempted to try and touch the name etched on that stone. He has a pretty good idea of what awaits him in the afterlife, and he's far from eager to meet it if he doesn't have to. With some reluctance, he releases his grasp and raises his hands, taking in a deep, unnecessary breath as he readies himself to speak the banishing spell one final time.

"Are you sure that's really a decision you should be making right now?"

Stumbling, Tim whirls around to face the direction of the unexpected comment, trying to figure out how anyone managed to sneak up on him without his noticing. "Oh," he says, blinking at the pale, black-haired woman, the silver ankh around her neck reflecting the slowly emerging stars overhead. "It's you."

"It's me," she agrees, strolling over and taking his hands in hers. "C'mon, Timmy, leave off already. It's not like it's going to work anyway—you can't banish a soul if some of it's missing, after all."

"No, I fixed it. The bit that was tied to Jack's corpse—I got it back when the body was destroyed," Tim insists, not meeting her eyes as his fingers curl reflexively in her hands.

"We both know that was only a tiny bit compared to what you left elsewhere," she says gently, squeezing his hands. "You try that banishing spell now, it could backfire very badly. Living souls aren't nearly as malleable as those of the dead, and it's particularly hard to disentangle something that's been woven in so tightly."

"I never meant to," he whispers softly, because he's suspected this for a long time, ever since that moment on the steps of Wayne Manor. "I just wanted to help."

"I know, hon. That's why I'm telling you now—this habit you have of erasing souls? Really not a healthy pastime."

Tim shuffles his feet, trying and failing to take his hands back. "I just. I wanted to make sure they didn't hurt anyone else. The badness they did during life—all the books said that sometimes that stays with a soul forever, even going into future lifetimes. If I hadn't—if I'd let them go, they might've done the same thing again, over and over again."

"It was very noble of you to take on the responsibility of making sure that didn't happen," she says, squeezing his hands one last time before allowing him to pull free. "But while it makes sense for souls steeped so thoroughly in the magics of Life and Death, it's not something I recommend as a solution going forward—for yourself or anyone else you happen to run across, hanging out with those two." She glances out into the rising darkness, towards where Batman and Robin are no doubt suiting up before heading out for the night.

"No, I... Batman doesn't believe he has the right to kill people. He says everyone deserves a fair trial, a chance to do better going forward," Tim says. "What I did—it's like killing, isn't it? Only worse, because there's absolutely no coming back. No second chance."

"Philosophy really isn't my gig, that's more the domain of my brothers," she says as she takes his arm and guides him away from the stone. "But if it makes you feel any better, the torments they would have suffered in the afterlife that awaited them were much worse than the brief pain they felt because of you. And anyway, considering how many times they snatched themselves away from me, I'd say they'd already had and squandered their second chances, along third and fourth chances as well."

"But still... I wasn't really the person to make that kind of choice, was I? I haven't got any kind of authority, or permission, or—"

"Kiddo, considering how long you existed as a patchwork made of the souls of their victims, I think it's safe to say you're just about the only one who had the authority to pass judgement on them. If you're questioning that, then you're a lot worse off than I thought. What you need," she says, "is a reminder of what got you into this predicament in the first place." Grabbing Tim's hand, she pulls him to his feet and away from the tombstone.

"I know what got me here," he grumbles, trying and failing to resist her tug. "Janet killed me."

She pauses, staring at him long and hard. "You and I both know that's not what it was, Tim."

"She killed me, I'm dead, I'm not doing whatever I would've been doing otherwise." He bites his lip and looks away. Tries not to think that even if Janet hadn't killed him, he'd still be in this cemetery, one way or another. "If that doesn't count as a 'predicament,' I don't know what does."

She snorts and shakes her head. "Sure, kid. Keep telling yourself that. C'mon, there's something I want to show you." Tugging him along, she starts forward.

They're just walking, but somehow between one step and the next they go from Gotham Cemetery to a misty field, stretching out around them in all directions. "W-wait," Tim gasps, glancing back behind them, panic rising in his throat when he sees nothing familiar there. "Where are we going? I can't—morning's in a few hours, Jason'll notice if I'm not there, I have to—"

"Didn't seem too concerned about that earlier," she says, still pulling him along. Around them, the landscape continues to change, bushes popping up here and there, then trees, and finally the land itself rising in gently sloping hills.

"That was different," Tim insists, feeling flustered. Not being there when Jason wakes up because he's ceased to be is completely different than being AWOL just because some personification of a primordial universal force has dragged him off to who knows where. He stumbles slightly, and looking down sees they've progressed to a path, one that leads to an immense fortress, suddenly rising out of the mist in front of them. "What's that?"

"My brother's place. Don't worry, I don't expect you'll even see him, since we'll just be visiting someone who lives there," she says and steps forward, putting them at the front of impressive gates that were leagues away only moments before.

"I don't... How did we get here? We were just... over..." Tim trails off, finding it difficult to remember words, let alone how to speak them in the face of the huge creatures guarding the gates before them. Creatures he's only ever seen before as drawings in the bestiaries in the Drakes' small library—a hippogriff, a wyvern, and a gryphon.

"Good day, my lady," the wyvern says, his growl shaking the earth and causing small stones to work loose and tumble down the hill.

"Hello," she says, bright and cheerful like this isn't a huge, terrifying beast that could eat both of them in a single bite. "Is Lucien in? I've brought him a visitor."

"Lucien is your brother?" Tim asks, half-hiding behind her.

"No, his librarian," she whispers back. "But dreamers visit the library all the time, so I'm sure it's fine for you to see it too."

"My lady, this is most unusual," the winged horse says, flexing his wings as he leans forward to examine Tim. "If I'm not mistaken, this is no dreamer you have with you."

"Dreamer, dead, they're not so different in the end," she says, waving a hand. "This little ghost is one of mine and I think it would do him good to spend some time with books he can actually hold."

"He doesn't smell like any ghost I've seen before," the gryphon says, digging his talons into the rock so he can lean forward as well, his huge beak less than an inch from Tim's face.

He's already dead, so nothing should be able to hurt him, but that doesn't stop him from feeling more terrified than he has in ages.

"Oh, and I suppose you've met a lot of ghosts, guarding this place all the time," she says, glaring up at him until he backs off.

"A fair number. The dead are not unknown in the dreamlands," the hippogriff says.

"Great, then Tim here shouldn't be a problem."

"Harrumph," grumbles the wyvern, but he twitches his tail aside and the great double doors slowly swing open. "Very well. Follow the path, it will lead you to the library. Please do not stray, we cannot guarantee—"

"—our safety if we do. Yeah, yeah, I've heard the spiel before." Giving Tim's hand a squeeze, she leads him through the doors and into castle of the lord of dreams.

The trip from the gates to the library is not one Tim will forget in the near future, but also not one he ever wishes to spend much time dwelling on. There are strange things in the shadows that lurk on either side of the path they follow. Things that send shivers down his spine and make his heart crawl up his throat. He rarely had pleasant dreams when he was alive, and it is far from comforting to know that all those past nightmares may still exist in some distant place between worlds—or in a shadow only a few feet away.

The man who opens the door when they eventually arrive at their destination is tall and thin, with big round glasses and ears just as pointed as his nose. "Ah, madam, here to borrow another book? I've set aside a nice little stack that I think you'll find particularly—"

"Maybe later, Lucien," she says, smiling up at him as she gently pries Tim away from where he's clinging to her and pushes him forward. "Today I was wondering if my friend Tim here might be allowed a chance to take a look at his own books? He's feeling a bit down and it's awfully hard for him to read much of anything at all in the waking world."

"I can read! I'm getting really good at turning the pages," he insists. She doesn't need to know how hard it is for him to pull the books down off the shelves to start with.

Lucien leans forward, peering at him through his big glasses. "Yes, the wyvern mentioned you had a peculiar sort of ghost with you. 'Tim,' you say...?"

"Timothy Jackson D-drake," he offers, stumbling slightly over the surname. He's not sure if he wants it anymore, not when it's just one more thing to tie him back to Jack and Janet. But in some ways it's more his name than it ever was either of theirs, so perhaps there's nothing wrong with him keeping it. "Of Gotham."

"Ah, yes. I know exactly which wing to find you in. Ripping good adventure stories," Lucien says, turning on his heel and starting off down an apparently random aisle.

Tim pauses, glancing back at the woman who brought him here. "Go on, best to follow Lucien before he disappears," she says, making shooing motions with her hands. "He and my brother are probably the only ones who never get lost in here."

"You're not coming? But how will I get back?"

"Oh, I think you'll find your way when you're ready. The Dreaming is for the living, the only dead things it holds onto are its permanent residents, and who knows how many of them can be said to have ever truly lived in the first place?"

Tim wants to ask what she means, but he makes the mistake of glancing away momentarily, and when he looks back she's gone like she was never there in the first place. Gulping, he hurries off after the librarian. He's not sure how great these books can possibly be if he wrote them, but he can't help but be a little bit curious.

When he finally catches up, they don't seem to walk for very long before Lucien comes to a stop before a tall bookshelf and takes several volumes down so he can stack them on a nearby reading table. "Here you go. The collected nonexistent works of Timothy Jackson Drake, lately of Gotham."

"Nonexistent? But they're right there?" Tim pokes at a book and feels a thrill of excitement course through him when it's solid and real and his finger doesn't just pass through it.

"They only exist here, in the Dreaming. After all, you never got around to writing any of these when you were ali—ah, awake," Lucien says, pulling out a chair from the table. "Since you are a guest of my lord's most esteemed sister, I am sure I can depend on you to treat the works of this library with the utmost respect and dignity." He narrows his eyes and leans in, his beaky nose only inches from Tim's face. "That means no doodling in the margins, young man. I'll know if a single mark sullies the pages of these books."

"I'm not going to write in library books. I'm not a child," Tim grumbles, sliding into the chair and taking the top volume off the stack. I Save Robin and Batman Says I'm a Hero is splashed across the cover in bright colors and bold type above a stylized illustration of Dick in his old Robin costume, exchanging a high five with a much shorter boy, this one in a red hoodie and a black domino mask. "Oh," he says in awe, tracing the domino. "I didn't realize..."

"Mm, yes. I'll just leave you to it, then," Lucien says, but Tim isn't even paying attention to him, he's already halfway through the first page of the book.

 


 

I Save Robin and Batman Says I'm a Hero is a quick read, more a novelization of a comic or a TV show than a true book. It also reads like something written by an eight year old, which isn't that surprising since Tim's pretty sure he wasn't much older than that when he dreamt it up. When he finishes it, he sets it aside and spreads out the rest of the stack, trying to decide what he should read next.

The other books are pretty much in the same vein as the first—Robin Lets Me Drive the Batmobile and We Get Ice Cream, Batman and Robin Stop Them and Save the Day—right up until they aren't. He nearly drops I'm Not a Coward and Man Up and Tell Him Why They Died when he realizes just what it's about.

The final volume is small and simple, all red with a title in white carefully painted on the cloth cover. They Love Me.

The chair clatters to the floor as Tim scrambles to vacate it, to get as far away from that slim red book as possible. It's not like he's ever denied wondering what it might be like. But after everything they did—everything he's done, it feels wrong that this snapshot of a one-time daydream still exists, even in a state of nonexistence.

His stomach twists and his earlier elation at reading the exploits of Batman and Robin and the small, nameless boy who helped them save the day is gone. The bookcases loom all around him, the shadows in their recesses creeping ever closer, and he hugs himself tightly. Somehow, he's only just now realizing how alone and insignificant he is, here amongst all these maybes and might-have-beens.

Tim isn't sure how long he's been here for, but it feels like it's been hours. She said he'd find his way back to Gotham when he was ready, but he isn't even sure how to find his way out of the library, let alone the land of dreams. Still, if he starts walking maybe he'll come across Lucien, or even the mysterious master of the castle. Steeling himself, he sets off down an aisle.

He wanders for a bit, getting himself so thoroughly mixed up that he can't even find his way back to the table and its scattered books. He thought he recalled the twists and turns Lucien took through the stacks, but it's becoming increasingly clear that either he didn't or the bookshelves have since rearranged themselves. Or both.

After what feels like ages, Tim turns a corner and abruptly finds himself nearly walking into a door. It isn't the one he entered the library through—that one had a curved top, while this one is a squared-off rectangle, solid wood with carefully carved decoration, a brass knob just waiting to be turned. It reminds him of something, but he can't think of what.

The wyvern said not to stray off the path, but that was in the castle halls, and this is still the library. In all likelihood, this door just leads to another section of the same wing. Surely there's no harm in seeing what lies on the other side?

With only a slight feeling of trepidation, Tim turns the knob and steps through the door—

 


 

—and he's swinging through the air, cold biting at his bare cheeks as he hangs to the end of a line like he's done it all his life, too surprised to do anything more than gasp as stumbles to a stop on a rooftop, slipping slightly on the gravel there.

"Careful, Robin. We don't want you getting benched with a twisted ankle," someone says as a huge, black shape lands gracefully beside him.

"Batman!" Tim feels like he should be more surprised by this turn of events, but in a land of dreams and what-ifs, it seems somehow fitting that he should stumble into one of the stories he's just been reading.

Batman turns to face him and stops, frowning. "You're not Robin."

Glancing down, Tim sees he's still wearing the hoodie and blue jeans he's had on since that night in the basement, over a year and a half ago. "No," he admits, heart sinking in his chest as he realizes that this must be someone else's dream he's stumbled into. After all, it can't be his—the dead don't dream. "I'm—I'm Tim."

"Oh, Tim," Batman says, pushing back his cowl and crouching down in front of him. "You are, aren't you? I should have recognized your voice."

It's a funny thing for him to say, since Batman has only heard Tim speak the one time, over a horrible, static-y phone connection. "It's okay. I don't mind," Tim mumbles. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude on your dream."

"Ah, a dream. That would explain why I can see and hear you." Batman nods, a thoughtful look on his face. "Tim," he says, suddenly looking him straight on as he rests a hand on each of Tim's shoulders, "I'm so sorry."

"What? Why? You've been great, I'm the one who should be apologizing, just showing up out of the blue and hanging around, lingering and all that," Tim says, his ears turning red. It's not exactly fair to Batman or Mr. Pennyworth that Tim decided to stick with Jason after Janet and the rest were caught.

"If I'd know what the coven was up to, if I'd found you sooner—you would still be alive," Batman says, shaking his head. "I let you down."

"Seriously, it's okay. You have an entire city to look after, and I was just one kid. Not anything important."

"Tim, you were—are important. Every child, every person is—for the potential good they can do, the discoveries they might make, the lives they touch. Just because your—Jack and Janet had ulterior motives when they had you doesn't make you any less important or deserving of a full and complete life." Batman's hands tighten on his shoulders and he pulls Tim closer, wrapping both arms around him.

A hug. Tim hasn't had a hug since—since...

Well. It's not something he really thinks about, these days, if he can help it. For now, he tentatively leans into this one, pressing his cheek into Batman's solid, armored shoulder. "Still, I'm dead. I shouldn't be haunting Jason, or you, or—or anyone." Any of the people accidentally hurt by his silence when he was alive.

"Is that why you're here? To say goodbye before you pass on to the next life? I hope you're visiting Jason's dreams as well, he'll be very put out otherwise."

Tim swallows, squeezing his eyes shut and trying not to think about Jason, who's only ever thought the best of him, even though he's known of some of Tim's worst transgressions. He never planned to say goodbye to Jason. That's a luxury he doesn't deserve. "I was just... looking for a way out. I never meant to come here," he admits. "I never meant to meet you, to force my way in."

"Something tells me we're not talking about my dreams now." Batman loosens his hold somewhat, leaning back to look down at Tim's face. "Are you still looking for a way out, Tim? Instead of a way forward?"

"Sometimes forward is worse than anything else," Tim whispers. "Not everyone gets a happy ending any more than they get a happy life."

"Don't I know it. Though I'm sad to hear you haven't enjoyed yourself with us. I was under the impression you and Jason had become quite close friends."

"Oh, well, Jason is... Jason." Tim shrugs, not sure how else to explain. He had friends when he was alive, of course—the children of other members of the coven, all of them thrown together by their parents' greedy desire for power and complete lack of scruples when it came to how they acquired it. All of those friends were the product of happenstance, nothing like Jason. Someone who befriended a scared and lonely boy just because he could, not because he didn't have any other options. "It's easy to be friends with him."

"Ah, but what if I told you he had problems making friends with his peers before you came along?" Batman asks. "Adults, sure, no problem—once you get past the rough edges, Jason is the kind of child most adults dream of meeting. Polite, good-hearted, eager-to-please, infinitely curious and willing to learn. All of those same qualities make it difficult for him to befriend other children, so many of them take him to be a spy for 'the enemy'—that is to say, their parents."

"But Jason is—why would anyone not want to be friends with Jason? He's funny and smart and strong and—and amazing!"

"All of which is fine for Robin, but not so great for a teenage boy when all his peers are rebelling against authority and striking out to find out who they are. Which, granted, Jason has done his fair share of as well, but never in ways that he can share with his classmates."

"But he talks to his classmates and hangs out with those other young heroes and—"

"Something that's only started happening since you showed up," Batman says, and, inexplicably, hugs him even tighter. "Thank you, Tim. For helping my son."

"O-oh." Tim blinks several times and tentatively returns the embrace. "I was just... He seemed lonely? It's not a good idea to hang out with a dead person all the time, and—and Superboy and Impulse, they needed friends too? Jason, I guess he's not completely normal anymore, but he's more normal than both of them and—"

"—and it still helped to have someone come and give him that extra little nudge forward."

"You think so? Really?"

"Really," Batman says. "It's been a great help, having you around."

"It's just, I mean, Jack and Janet, they're both gone now, so I should be too, right?" Tim mumbles. "All my unfinished business is done, time for me to move on."

"Is that what you want? To move on? Jason would be pretty put out if you left, but I'm sure if that's what you want, he'd understand."

"I mean, you want him making friends and, it's like you said—when you said you wanted him hanging with with his peers, you didn't mean dead people."

Batman makes a frustrated noise and hugs him tighter. "That was... I'm so sorry, Tim. I said that before I knew you, but still I never should have said it in the first place."

"But you didn't know I wasn't a bad ghost, or even real, so it was—"

"Still very rude and inconsiderate of me. You needed help and I wasn't listening when I should have been. Good thing Jason is a better person than me."

"You're a good person too, Mr. Batman," Tim says, tentatively patting his back. "You took in Jason—and Dick Grayson! And you help people all over Gotham every night! It's a really noble thing that you're doing."

"You're a good person, too, Tim. If you want to stick around to help us with supernatural cases—or even just be Jason's friend, that's alright also. The manor is certainly big enough for one more person, particularly if that person doesn't even take up any actual space," Batman says.

"You and Mr. Pennyworth, you really wouldn't mind?" Tim pulls away a bit, staring at him.

"We just flew out to Louisiana so you could make sure Janet Drake was really gone. Thought that made it pretty clear that I don't mind doing things for you, having you around."

"Thank you, for that. I know you don't like reminding people about... about what happened to Jason. Or connecting Bruce Wayne to stuff like crimes, and Belle Reve, and—"

"And the connection was already there, so that particularly ship had already set sail. It's fine, Tim. I'm glad I could do something to help put your mind at ease on the whole matter. Too little, too late, but something."

Too little, too late sounds weirdly like a summary of Tim's life. Less than 24 hours ago, he was telling Janet that everyone made a mistake, thinking him a good person. Only here's Batman, telling him he's doing good just by being Jason's friend, when Tim always figured that Jason being friends with him was hurting more than helping.

"I was going to... move on," he says as he shakes off the embrace and steps away so he can glance out over the skyline. It doesn't look like the city he's flown over beside Robin—it's somehow lighter, cleaner. At the same time, it's unmistakably Gotham down to the very bones. Gotham as it could be, as it maybe was, once upon a time, during a childhood that was more carefree and joyful than anything Tim ever had a chance to experience. "After Janet. Not because I wanted to, but because I thought I should."

"And now?"

"Maybe I can stick around a little longer. Since you've got the space anyway."

"I'm glad to hear that," Batman says, tugging his cowl back into place as he stands and holds out a hand. "You ready to go home?"

With more than a little trepidation, Tim rests his hand in that big, gloved one just as the sun starts to peek above the distant, hazy horizon. "Yeah, I think so," he says as the world blurs and fades away all around them, leaving only the gloomy, stately darkness of Bruce Wayne's bedroom at the manor.

The man in the bed stirs and blinks awake. "Tim...?" He should be hazy and half-asleep, but Batman never does anything by halves so beyond a hint of vague confusion, he sounds just alert as always. "Thank you. For letting me apologize. It's far from enough to make up for what happened to you, but I suppose I'll never get a chance for something better."

The woman in the cemetery had said that Tim would find his own way back when he was ready. While he's pretty sure this isn't what she had in mind when she left him in a library of never-beens, this is somehow much better than anything he could have imagined.

Standing beside the bed, he reaches down to slip his hand into Batman's, squeezing it into a fist since he can't exactly hold it anymore. "Thank you," he whispers, though there's no way the man can hear him now. "For believing in me." Then he slips out and floats away, still uneasy about being inside anyone living for too long after what happened with Superman.

"Tim?" he says when Tim is halfway across the room. "I don't really remember what we talked about anymore. Still, don't feel like you have to leave before you're good and ready to. I know Constantine was a bit nervous about the way you operate, but he's also seen more of the bad side of humanity than most. And everyone should be allowed a chance to be something more than what they came from."

Tim isn't sure how to respond to that, so for now he glides through the door, leaving Batman behind. In the hall he hesitates, wondering what he should do, where he should go next. Somewhere, a clock chimes twelve times before returning the big house to silence. Without even thinking, he finds himself starting down the hall towards Jason's room. If it's noon, it's definitely past time for lazy sleepy heads to be getting up and facing the day.