Jason has to stop himself from rubbing his eyes to make sure he isn’t seeing things. He still has to blink several times just to be sure, but despite that, the sight doesn’t change.
That’s definitely a child hanging upside-down off of a rickety old Bowery fire escape. He's dressed in clothes that are much too fancy for the area, the type that are thick and warm but pretty simple otherwise, with a camera hanging off his neck like an open invitation in what’s only just marginally not the worst part of Gotham. Dangling off a fire escape. Upside down.
“What the fuck.”
The kid flinches - good, at least he’s not completely ignorant of the danger here - but Jason is too bewildered to even try to rob the kid.
“Uh, hi,” the kid says.
“What the fuck are ya’ doin’ kid?” he asks after a second.
Upside-down and growing red from the blood flow, the kid’s indignant glare comes across more like a pouting duck. “I’m not a kid!” he says, in true kid fashion.
“Uh-uh, sure,” Jason says. He raises an eyebrow, just to be sure that the thick sarcasm he’s dripping isn’t being missed. “A’m sure y’er not stuck, either.”
The kid huffs. He’s got spirit, at least. “I’ve got this handled”.
This kid… no self-preservation whatsoever. He’s going to die out here, Jason is sure.
“Good, then. No need for me ta' stick around an’ help ya’ out,” he says instead.
The kid grumbles. Jason grins.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I said, can you give me a hand?”
He’s. Maybe having too much fun teasing the kid, but this shit doesn’t happen every day, and Jason can’t be blamed for taking what little fun he can where he finds it. Besides, it isn’t like he was actually gonna leave the kid here.
He steps closer anyway, letting the biting grin on his face settle into something a little more friendly. He doesn’t know who the kid is, walking around these parts in fancy clothes and waiting to be robbed, but he’s definitely younger than Jason by a few years at least, and even scrawnier, despite Jason’s own malnourishment.
“Sure, kid. Just hang on and le’me take a look.”
He pushes a dumpster up to the fire escape and climbs up, trying to inspect the spot where the kid seems to be stuck. It's hard to pinpoint; Gotham street lights are barely functional on main streets, if you aren't in the rich areas. A small alleyway like this gets basically no artificial light, so visibility is as low as it gets.
The kid stills. "Uh-oh? Don't say uh-oh. Uh-oh is bad. Please don't say that."
"I mean. It ain' good, kid. Y'er clothes all tangled in the broken railing 'ere." Kid's honestly lucky that only his clothes got nicked, and he didn't cut himself in the long-rusted structure. Then again, maybe it's fine either way. He probably has his tetanus shot already - that sounds like something rich people would do, right? Have shots like that done just because?
"No way I can lift ya' to get them free, kid. I'm gonna have to cut ya' off."
"What?" The kid shrieks. "No, you can't just - I'll die! I'll fall all the way down and break my neck and then I'll die! You can't cut me off!"
"Calm down, kid." Jason barely restrains an eye-roll. Only just. "We'll figure it out."
He jumps off the dumpster, already turning to look at the kid for the next part, his smile maybe just a bit too gleeful as he reveals his plan. "I'm gonna roll the dumpster under ya'. That way, the trash'll block y'er fall."
The kid's face contorts into a grimace that will brighten Jason's day for weeks. He bursts into laughter - the type of full belly laugh he hasn't had a reason for in years, and the shift from disgust to disgruntled frustration only sends him into a new fit.
"Haha, y'er - ya' should see y'er face - hahahaha, kid y'er - ah, that was too - hahaha, ya' were perfect!"
Rich kid like that, told he has to go dumpster diving? Oh yeah, Jason can imagine what went through the kid's head.
"Are you done?"
Jason isn't, but it can wait for later. A laugh like that is worth savoring, after all, and the kid is looking too red around the edges, so he should really get down soon.
"I wasn't kiddin' though. I got no other way ta get ya' down."
The kid's nose is scrunched hilariously, and it looks like the very thought pains him deeply, but he nods a tortured assent, and Jason gets to work. He opens the top of the dumpster to make sure it's full enough to cushion the fall, and finds it relievingly full. He needs his whole body weight to push it the rest of the way, but that's done soon enough. Climbing on the thin edges of the now-open dumpster to reach the much higher points where the clothes are stuck, and cutting them up with a shitty pocket knife while trying not to fall off is a tough balancing act. Not one he can risk fucking up, either, because if he gets cut up in that broken railing, he's fucked. None of the doctors who would treat a street rat like him without calling in CPS would give him the shot for free, and he's fresh out of money. It occurs to Jason just how much of a colossally awful idea this whole thing has been.
"Ok kid, I'mma need ya' ta' grip the railing real right. If ya' jerk when the cloth comes apart then we're both fucked, got it?"
The kid doesn't answer verbally, but the frantic nods and the death-grip on the railing is answer enough.
"Ok. Good. Ok, here goes."
It's a slow process. His knife pocket is as far from sharpened as it can get while still calling itself a knife, so he has to jerk the fabric a fair bit to get it to rip, and each time, the kid grunts with the effort of holding on. He can tell the kid is struggling when he starts holding his breath, but Jason is going as fast as he can. It still takes too long, and by the time it looks mostly done, his arms are screaming at the effort of being up and working for so long.
"Ok, almost done, kid. Just a couple more rips and ya' can let go. Try ta shield y'er face when ya' let go. Ok, here goes - three, two, one-" a jerk, a rip and it comes apart.
The kid falls. He screams. The bags rustle, and something cracks, but there's no more screaming so it probably wasn't a bone.
Jason waits a second. Then -
"Ewww! Ugh, gross, god this stinks So Bad!"
There's gagging sounds. Jason laughs.
"Be thankful y'er ok, kid. Anyone else would'a found ya, they'da just taken y'er camera and left ya' for dead."
The kid picks his way out of the dumpster. His face is such a perfect blend of disgust and disgruntlement that Jason can't hold it together. He laughs until his belly aches, and it's such a good feeling, being able to genuinely laugh at something, just a few seconds of joy with no bitter feelings attached to drag it down, it's the best type of ache.
The kid just sighs, and lets Jason do his thing as he brushes disgustedly at his clothes, as if that would get the smell off.
"Sorry kid, but y'er gonna be takin' that fresh street rat scent back home with ya'".
"It's Tim. My name," he says. "Since you saved me and all."
"Yea? Well, then, you can call me Jay. It's good ta meet ya', kid."
When he visits the same alley again the next night, it's only because he happened to be in the area. No other reason. Still, he's only customarily surprised to find Tim there again.
This time he's standing on top of the dumpsters, looking up as if he's considering scaling the building, holy fuck, that kid.
"Really?" He snaps, just to startle the kid. It works. Tim jumps like a spooked kitten, and it would be funny if Jason wasn't too busy trying to be pissed.
"Yesterday wasn't enough for ya'?" He goes on.
"Jay? What are you doing here?"
Jason… can't. Deal with this. "What am I… I'm makin' sure ya' don't end up in another dumpster, apparently. Why are ya' here again, kid?"
Tim has the gall to roll his eyes. "I know what I'm doing," he says, and Jason has to fight the sudden urge to punch the kid. "I do this every day, ok? I'm fine."
"What the Fuck, kid? Don't ya' have like, parents or shit, ta tell ya' ta stay home?"
"I don't need my parents to watch me all the time. I'm not a baby."
"Kid, y'er like, five."
Jesus Christ. Jason had been on the streets already at that age, sure, but he was a born-and-bred crime alley rat, and he's had these streets in his veins since he first started going out to help his mom with expenses. Tim is some rich kid from the fancy parts, going around with a big sign around his neck asking to be mugged. He's gonna get himself killed. "Exactly!" He snaps. "What the Fuck are ya' even doin' around these parts?"
Tim gestures at his camera with the driest look Jason has seen since Willis last tried to hustle some sharks into extending his loan deadline.
"And ya' can't do that shit at home? Or at least at day, so ya' don't get knifed in a dark alley somewhere?"
"I'm not - I'll be fine!" Tim flushes. "I just like night time photography, ok? Why is it even a problem for you?"
… Why is it a problem for Jason? He could just turn around and leave the kid to his idiotic hobbies, to get mugged on his own time, but… well, if he died, Jason would feel a bit bad. He would have died on the streets, too, in his first year, if one of the older kids wasn't nice enough to give him some tips. It's not exactly the same, but still. Tim is completely clueless, and Jason wouldn't want a kid to die, no matter how much it was his own fault, so now Jason feels responsible for him.
He doesn't say that.
He scoffs, instead. "What are ya' even photographin' at night? The stars?" He asks, gesturing widely to the barren, smog-covered sky.
Tim considers him for a moment.
"Help me get to the roof, and I'll show you."
"I don't wanna know that much."
Tim shrugs. "Fine then." Then he turns away, still on top of the dumpster, and Jason is quickly feeling the discussion slip out of his control. That looks like a dismissal, and Jason doesn't like that
Tim looks back.
"Fuck, ok. Whatever. I'll do it."
The kid's smile is entirely too smug.
They sit down together then, and Tim shows him some of his pictures. They're just pictures of Gotham, of the city at night, but… it's Gotham in a way Jason's never seen it before.
Stuck on its filthiest streets, in the dirt and trash and smog, there's not much to appreciate beyond the small comfort of familiarity.
The Gotham he sees in Tim's pictures is something else. Large and looming, sure, but alive with lights that Jason can't always see from down looking up, sprawling and open in a way that he never noticed, stuck between buildings on every side.
There's even a few capturing the city's resident vigilantes, flying between buildings as if nothing's holding them down, free and untethered, yet so encompassed by the sprawling city all around. On the ground, the Bat always looks like a huge, looming presence. The distance forms a different picture. Jason would like to see them like this, some day.
Gotham from the sky looks… different. Good different.
It's a tough pill to swallow, when he finds out about them. Even Willis at his most abusive never would have thought that it was ok to willingly leave a child to fend for himself for weeks. If he ever did that, it wasn't by choice - getting carted to prison might have been his fault, but at least the intent of abandoning Jason was never there, for all it was worth.
Worse is that Tim seems so used to it, so convinced that his experience is normal, that Jason can't get through to him. Tim is so good at deflecting, at taking the conversation and turning it somewhere else, Jason never even realises that he failed to convince the kid until they're both long gone for the night.
He's sharp like that, despite his age, Jason realises pretty fast. Quick wit and a wicked tongue and a dry humor that sends Jason into hysterics several times.
At least he brings Jason snacks. After the second night, he starts carrying them in his camera bag, and he's always sharing them with Jason without bringing attention to it. Jason is grateful.
And they talk. While Tim is sitting on certain buildings, taking panning shots of cityscapes, or close-ups of things he finds interesting around Gotham, they shift through topics as easily as breathing. Tim complains about his homework once, and Jason feels longing like a physical pain in his chest, but he pushes it down in favour of ranting about Tim's school reading.
He starts working the kid through his literature homework more often than not, because Tim is hopeless at reading comprehension, and… it’s a good excuse to start hitting the library more often. Even if Tim’s teacher is an imbecile who never seems to talk about anything past the most superficial level.
It drives Jason mad, hearing about it from Tim. He rants for a full hour one evening, while Tim is smiling indulgently at him, about all the subtext that the teacher missed again, even just from Jason’s limited understanding.
The next day, Tim gifts him his own copy of "A Wrinkle in Time", and Jason decidedly does not cry.
It's one of the few possessions he has with him when Batman picks him off the streets a few weeks later.
He dies before he gets another chance
Red Hood’s taunting voice is following him, carefree and vicious, walking along at a sedate pace as if that’s all he needs to keep up with Tim in his state.
He scrambles around the corner, burning pain searing with every step, and wants to sob at the sight of the hallway - it’s so long, the distance to the next corner might as well be miles on his broken body, and his leg feels like agony every time he steps on it and he can’t do that anymore, but he can’t crawl with his shoulder as it is-
“What’s wrong, little birdie? I don’t hear you running,” Hood teases. He’s right around the corner, and Tim can’t take another step. His body won’t move.
He couldn’t even defend himself. Red Hood showed up out of nowhere, and Tim was down for the count before he even knew it, as useless at defending himself as he was at defending his team when it counted. He messed up the mission, and now he's messing this up, and he's going to die, because he thought he could pick up Jason's legacy despite clearly not being ready, and he's going to meet Jason in the afterlife and have to tell his friend that he couldn't even live up to him, that he'd failed.
Bruce told him no but Tim kept pushing, insisted until the man broke, and now he's paying the price.
"Shouldn't you show me what a good little Robin you are, birdie? I thought you were so much better than the former one, but that one at least tried to crawl when he was dying, you know?"
Tim's blood turns to ice.
Hood's voice is cruel and gleeful, his boots heavy with every step he takes closer. The hallways smells of Tim's blood. Tim doesn't care.
"Don't fucking speak about him!" He shouts.
The footsteps stop. Hood is right there, looming over Tim, taller and stronger and more prepared, but he brought up Jason. Tim is smarter than this, should know better, but all his priorities get shifted to the side at that moment - Jason was good, Jason was his first friend, and Tim will defend him to his dying breath.
He plants his bo staff, holds his body up, and glares with all the ice building inside him. Every priority his mind has in a fight is reordered to make room, to allow for this new factor as he stands his ground against an adversary he should by all logic avoid.
"You don't know anything about him!" He snarls.
Hood only scoffs. It's hard to tell, with the modulator, but by his body language, Tim would say he's amused, and the ice in his veins grows colder.
"Oh, and you know everything about him, do you, replacement?"
He focuses on Hood's face and misses the physical cue. It's a rookie mistake, but one that costs Tim. Hood shoots out. A steel-toed boot meets his good ankle with a sickening crunch - his bo staff is useless to hold him up when both his legs crumple, and he hits the ground screaming. Every part of him feels like liquid fire, so at odds with the ice in his veins that it cuts his breath.
"Heard all the cautionary tales, did you? All about the robin who didn't listen, right? The one who got himself killed, the one who got replaced."
"Fuck you," Tim rasps. "He's not just a tale."
That only makes Hood angrier. He growls, and Tim is tumbling over before he registers the kick to his gut - pain erupts and Tim chokes on his breath and coughs up blood and he can't breathe.
"You don't know shit, replacement. Stop talking out of your ass."
He's walking over again - oh no, Tim needs to get away, he has to crawl, he should-
His shoulder screams in agony. Tim falls, only just diverting from his cracked ribs, but it doesn't matter. A second later, Hood's kick meets his ribs, and something cracks. Tim screams again.
"What's wrong, replacement? Not gonna defend yourself? I thought you were supposed to be the good Robin," Hood taunts.
Tim braces himself for another kick, that never comes. Hood crouches next to him instead, and Tim tries not to panic at the gun held loosely in his hand - if Hood wanted to kill him quickly, he would have already. He wants to drag this out, which gives time for his Team to maybe step in, if Tim can just buy a bit more.
He has to force every breath into his lungs. Every expansion hurts, and there's tears splotching his face. Tim's never been in this much pain.
He grits his teeth through it, already working through his next reply, when Hood takes off his helmet and Tim's world comes to a screeching halt.
He's older, taller, angrier - white in his hair where there was none before, and his domino is red where it used to be black, but that's-
That's Jason's face.
That's his friend from all those years ago. The friend who Tim tracked through a camera lens for years still, who he watched grow up at a distance. That's who Jason would be if he'd been allowed to keep growing up.
His voice cracks.
"Surprised to see me, replacement?"
The smirk he wears is cruel, but it has that same crooked slant that all of his grins used to, and it's such a small thing, but that's what hits Tim. He's choking on a sob, suddenly, because that's Jason's smirk, and Tim's mind is usually so busy - always hoarding information, and making plans, and lists, and calculations, but suddenly it's all blank. Only Jason Jason Jason in a litany.
He moves before he knows it, before he consciously decides to. His ribs protest the movement, but he ignores them. That's Jason, that's Robin, his friend, the boy he never thought he'd see again after he'd been put into the ground, too far away for Tim to ever reach, even in death. And now he's here.
Tim hugs him before he can think. Jason must be startled, because he flinches back, tense like a spring. The gun is still in his hand. Tim should be worried about the gun, but Jason saved Tim. Jason gave Tim a friend and company when Tim was all alone, and Robin gave him hope and a dream when he had nothing other than an empty house.
"Jason," he chokes instead. "I didn't - you were dead, what-"
"Replacement, you have 3 seconds to get off me before I blow your brains out."
Tim hugs tighter. "I never thought I'd see you again, asshole, I get all th' hugs I want..."
He can feel Jason shifting, hears the muttered "What the Fuck". But Jason is big, and he's warm, and everything hurts so much, Tim just wants to let himself go.
Jason pushes him away. His hands are on Tim's shoulder, though, and he's so warm. "Ok, start explaining now, or I'm gonna start shooting, replacement."
Clearly, Jason doesn't know. That's… fine. It's been a lot more years for Jason than for Tim, who kept watching his friend from a distance, and Tim did look very different at 10. It hurts, a bit, but Tim can handle it. At least Jason didn't attack him while knowing.
"Wait, why d'ya attack me?" Uh-oh. He's slurring words. Not good.
Jason growls. "I'm asking the questions here, birdie. What the Fuck did you mean by 'again'? Spill."
He's still holding Tim's shoulders, and it hurts a little, but Tim is pretty sure it's the only thing keeping him up, so overall, net positive. He's jerking Tim around now, though, which is less great, because everything goes a bit fuzzy when he does.
He tries to form words anyway. "When we were little. I was tak'n pictures. Jay helped."
Jason freezes. Good. It's still hazy, but his head hurts less now that he isn't being jostled. His eyes are heavy, so heavy, but Jason isn't finished, and Tim needs to hear him, so he should stay awake.
"What the Fuck do you mean, taking pictures?" His voice is choked, and it's the weakest it's sounded since he came here. Here in the tower? How did he get in the tower anyway? Did they ever disable his codes? He'll have to check that, if his brain ever feels ok again.
"Pictures of Gotham. Jay helped. Made me fall n'th' trash." the words feel clumsy on his tongue, a few of the vowels much too hard to form, but he manages to force just two more words out. "Missed you."
Jason is silent for a second.
"Fuck," he says, softly. Some part of Tim recognises that moment as important, so he keeps awake. "Shit," Jason continues, more frantic. "Replace- Tim, Tim look at me. Come on kid, big eyes."
Were the lights in the hallways always this strong? They feel like they're stabbing through his eyes straight into his brain. He does as he's told though, with effort, opens his eyes wide and looks at Jason.
"Goddamn it. You're concussed. Of course. Ok kid, we need to get you to the medbay and fix you up, ok? Come on, don't fall asleep on me kid."
His hands feel discordantly gentle as they hold Tim close, and pick him up like he weighs nothing. Maybe he doesn't - Jason is really big now. Tim smiles. "You got big," he says.
"And you're still a runt," Jason says, but he doesn't sound mean, or angry. All the vitriol from earlier is gone.
He rests his head on Jason's shoulder, and feels him exhale deeply. "It's ok baby bird, we'll patch you right up. Just don't fall asleep yet, ok? Soon."
He nods sagely, just as they enter the med-bay. The lights are even worse here - his brain hurts, and he winces, but then Jason shifts him, and he's on a bed, and he forgets the problem.
"Shh, it's alright. Just relax, baby bird. You can go to sleep now."
That's easy to do. There's something heavy in his head, something that pulls him down and drags every second into minutes, every blink into long, slow seconds. The bed is soft though, and the heaviness settles.
He feels the prick of a needle in his arm at one point, but he's too sleepy to look over, and then he starts to feel even more numb. From there, sleep is just a step away.
As soon as he does, his eyes shoot open.
It's only long experience that prevents him from sitting up just as fast and getting the mother of all headaches.
"Finally up, kid?"
He tenses. That voice - a stranger in the tower, attacking Tim, taunting him - Jason's face and a cloud of confusion. A concussion, and a stranger wearing Jason's face, and Tim, putty in his arms.
This is so bad - Tim fucked up bad, he's made mistakes before but never this big. The tower's compromised, Tim is too. The Team - the team is down for the count, he's on his own with an unknown and no idea how to contain this, because his body is numb now but he remembers the agony in all his limbs, and fuck, he can't breathe, there was definitely a broken rib, what if it pierces his lung, he has to breathe-
"Oh, shit! Hey, come on baby bird, breathe," that voice says, so much softer than it was when the man was beating Tim. There's a hand on his back, big and warm, rubbing soothingly at his shoulder blades and far away from his rib. "Come on, there you go. Breathe with me, ok? Four in. Come on. One, two, three, four-"
Tim chokes on the breath - coughs, splutters.
"It's ok, try again, there you go kid, four in - good, now hold. Hold. Three. Four. Five. There you go. Out-"
The air rushes out. Tim inhales sharply, coughs, and tries again. It goes better.
The stranger is working him through it, all soft and patient where there was nothing but cruel and taunting before, but it works, and Tim comes back to himself soon.
"There you are."
Tim keeps gazing at the bed. He should probably look at the man, talk, try to fix this somehow, but.
But he looks like Jason. So, Tim stalls.
"Why are you here?" He asks, instead of the dozens of other questions. Who are you? Why do you look like him? Why are you here, wearing his face? How?
The stranger freezes. That should worry him.
"No good reason, baby bird. Leave it at that."
Tim nods. That's fair. The beating he got was a pretty clear signal, after all.
"Look, kid, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have… I don't know what I was thinking. I shouldn't have done that."
Tim is trying to turn on his mental filters, to work through all his injuries. It's difficult, considering he can't actually feel most of his body, and the last part of the confrontation is a bit of a haze. He's going through contingencies, planning and discarding ideas in seconds, but nothing works out. Only about 30% of his brain is on the conversation, stalling, but there might be no help coming.
He doesn't have enough information.
"What happened to the Team?"
At the corner of his vision, the stranger winces. "I knocked them out. Sorry, kid. They'll be up at some point."
Right. No way to tell when. Time to wake up and face the songbirds, or however that goes. Tim lets out a deep breath. He's out of ideas, and he has no clue how much danger the others are still in. The stranger's grudge seems to be with Robin, but that's not a guarantee for their safety. Better, then, for Tim to keep the attention on himself.
He stills his fingers, which have been fiddling idly with the bedsheets, a nervous tell he shouldn't have allowed. The stranger is looking at him, sat right next to his bed, but he isn't doing anything, so Tim can take advantage of this odd stillness, for now. His heart gives a pitiful pang when he finally looks up - looks onto that face so familiar yet so strange, even more so without the domino to obscure his gaze.
The white streak is distinctive enough to distract, but only for a second. Without the anger from earlier, the lines of his face look even more familiar, softer in the rough-around-the-edges way Jason had always been, but it's his eyes that really stall Tim.
Not the deep, ocean blue Tim used to know. They're green, sharp and artificial, a color that has alarms blaring in Tim's head with no way to pinpoint the source other than he knows that color, but from where?
The man runs a hand through his hair, averts his gaze first when Tim fails to say anything. "I'm sorry," he says again. "That was fucked up."
Despite himself, Tim can't hold back a bitter snort. "Yeah, that's one word for it." Great going, Timmothy. Taunt the crazy guy with the guns and anaesthetics. "I can think of a few more."
The guy draws back. His shoulders don't hunch, quite, but the face he makes, the slight squinting, the way his nose scrunches - there's so much of Jason in that expression, the face he always made when he made a mistake and didn't want to admit it -
when his "imbecile of an English teacher" brought up irony in classic lit, and Jason missed the most obvious examples while ranting at Tim that same night
"Why do you look like him!"
It's an accusation, not a question. The man feels it too, by the look on his face, as if he's been slapped.
"You heard me," Tim says. "Jason is dead. He's- why are you walking around with a dead boy's face? How?" His voice is a growl, and it hurts his already strained throat, but it's better than sobbing.
The stranger sighs. "I was dead, yeah. Then I got better."
Tim glares harder.
"Please, as if resurrection is the weirdest thing to happen in our field of work. Actually on that note, I have a bone to pick, baby bird. What the Fuck are you doing in the green tights?" Green flickers in his eyes, some part of Tim takes note. "Wasn't one dead kid enough for Bruce? Had to go and stick you in the spotlight next?"
The green is growing brighter with every word, and his voice grows angrier.
Tim knows that color - the brighter it gets, the more his lungs seize.
He doesn't want to consider it, but-
"The lazarus pit."
The words leave him on a breath, unwilling but unable to take them back once they're out.
Jason blinks. He looks down at his palms, then mumbles something under his breath, green receding even before he squeezes his eyes shut, but Tim can't give that too much thought. He knows what the lazarus pit does - what it does to the psyche of someone who was thrown in even for only injuries. To cure death, he can't imagine the toll it took.
"You're - Jason?"
For the first time since he woke up, the name comes with hope in his chest, even if it's soured by the horrifying truth.
Jason isn't meeting his eyes though, and when he speaks, it's grumbled and strained. "Don't look at me like that, kid. It wasn't the pit - that came later. That's not the problem right now, though. I'm gonna fucking murder Bruce - what was he thinking, putting you in the cape? And what the fuck were you thinking, kid?"
Tim should look away. He should try and contact someone. He should find a response to diffuse the situation.
But all he can do is look at Jason, take in his face, his body, bigger than anyone thought he'd ever grow, older and angrier but still every inch his childhood friend.
"I missed you," he says, instead of answering any questions.
Anger flashes on Jason's face - his eyes flicker, but he blinks, hard, and they go back. He schools his expression into something softer, something almost amused, and Tim gives him the time he needs.
"Yeah, that's another thing. I had no clue you were living like, one house away from me, but you definitely knew, kid. Why the fuck didn't you say anything all that time?"
Tim shrugs. "Lots of reasons, really. You might have done something about my parents, if you knew everything. You were already so mad about them, and back then, I… I didn't want to go away."
Jason's eyebrow raises. He clearly knows that's not everything, and Tim concedes. "And, you were Robin. If you found out I knew… I had to keep the secret. I didn't want Batman to know."
He says it easily, now, all these years later, but Jason looks stunned. "What do you mean, you knew?"
"I figured it out when I was nine," he explains. It's not a secret anymore, Bruce and Dick both know, so there's no reason to keep it from Jason. "About Bruce, and Dick. Then Bruce adopted you, and then there was a new Robin, so like, yeah," he shrugs, "I knew."
Someone could have hit Jason in the face with a dead fish, and he wouldn't have looked as stunned.
"Jesus Christ. I knew you were smart, baby bird, but that's something else." He shakes his head. There's familiar anger bleeding back into his posture, though, and Tim tenses.
Jason is unstable - magical rage-enhanced anger issues aren't something he wants to test out, not when he's already been left bleeding and broken because of one fit, but he's stuck here, couldn't move if he wanted to, and Jason's moods are fluctuating faster than he can keep up.
"Is that how he got you? Made you Robin to keep the secret hush-hush?"
The tone is tightly controlled, but Tim knows Jason, and Tim is trained. He can hear the tremble, the undercurrent of rage. Jason is pissed.
"What? No!" He says, both because it seems to be the right thing to not piss off Jason worse, and because it's true. "He didn't even want to take me! I had to blackmail him to make me Robin," he explains, rushes the words as fast as he can because Jason's face is shifting, turning to something unreadable, and he needs to clear out the air.
"Jason, after you - After your death, he was destroyed. Didn't want to let anyone else out on the streets, but he was running himself ragged. He almost killed himself, trying to do everything alone so nobody else would end up like you. I think - I think part of him wanted that. To die for the mission." Whatever anger Jason had was clearly centered on Bruce, because there's so much feeling on his face now, Tim can't even parse it all. Based on the name Hood had been calling him -Replacement-, Tim can hazard a guess on what's been going through his head.
"Jason, he never got over you. I put on a suit and went out without his permission because the hole you left behind was gonna take Bruce and Gotham down with it. I couldn't let that be your legacy, Jay."
The nickname slips, unbidden, but it feels right. It is right. The jason in front of him now may be different, may be rougher, but it's still Jason, who pushed down pit madness as soon as he recognised Tim, and patched him up despite whatever rage tried to break free inside of him.
"Fuck," Jason curses, softly. His face falls into his hands just as his shoulders slump, all tension draining out of him, but Tim catches the conflicted expression a second before it's covered.
"Yeah," he manages eventually, "well, he clearly didn't care enough to put the damn clown in the ground before history could repeat itself." It's bitter, and heavy.
"Save it, baby bird. I get it - good-ol' Bats is too good to stop so low, no matter what the clown does, or what he's risking." His eyes settle heavily on Tim's prone form, and the intent behind those words crushes Tim with its weight.
He stands up, then, before Tim can recover and reply, and fumbles around the medicine cabinets on the other of the room.
"Whatever. I'm here to do what Batman can't, anyway. If he's not gonna do it, well…"
He doesn't finish. Doesn't need to.
Tim knows what the Red Hood has been doing around Gotham - the lives he's been taking. He's carefully kept that knowledge separate from Jason in his mind, but it's out there, now. He's not sure what to do with it.
"Are you coming home?" He asks instead.
Jason's laugh is bitter, broken. "Kid, you know what I've been up to these years. There's no way daddy bats is gonna be ok with it, and we're never going to agree on how things should be done. Nah, there's no place for me at the manor."
Tim can't accept that. "They missed you, Jason."
"Not enough to kill the damn clown. I'm not coming back, baby bird."
He's returning, now, holding some kind of vial in his hand, but Tim can't make out what it is.
It doesn't matter now, anyway. Tim has a new mission, and his mind is already working through solutions.
'Bring Jason back into the family'. It means bridging whatever cliff is between him and Batman, now. It means convincing Jason that he's wanted. It means bringing Dick on board. That's ok. Tim is a planner. He can make it work.
"Oh, no. I know that look," Jason says as soon as he's back. "Whatever schemes you're brewing, stop it."
Tim grins innocently. Jason groans.
That's ok. He'll thank Tim eventually.
"No, hurt baby birds don't get to scheme and plan. You need to rest, kid, stop causing trouble."
"Who, me? Trouble?" He grins. "Never."
Jason huffs. "Yeah, right. Sure. Like I don't know you at all," he says, reaching out a hand to flick Tim over the forehead.
He reaches for the IV bag. Tim has a bad feeling about that, but his muscles are still liquid, so there's not much he can do.
"Go to bed, Timmy," he says. "You can scheme once you're all healed up. I'll make sure you're safe."
There's something heavy in the last words, something Tim can't quite work out. The numbness spreads through him again, soft and blurry. His limbs relax. As his head grows fuzzy, eyelids heavy, he feels Jason's fingers in his hair, stroking him softly and working out the tangles there. That's nice. He hasn't been pet like that since before Jason died, and Jason's hand is so warm, so gentle on his scalp. A small comfort that he wants to nuzzle closer into.
The last thing he sees is Jay's soft smile. The last of his worries slip away.