It wasn't often Tim got nostalgic. How could he, when there was so little in his past to reminisce fondly over? It still happened occasionally, though. When he heard a particular song playing as a car passed him by, one Jack Drake used to sing under his breath. During a slow night on patrol when the air was clear and he could see the stars, and he remembered a younger Nightwing pointing out constellations until he realized Tim already knew them all, and then started making up new and increasingly ridiculous ones on the spot. When he saw Damian in full Robin gear bound into the car, impatiently waiting for Batman to join him so they could go out and protect Gotham together, and wished he could have had that for just one more night before it was taken from him.
But the one thing that never failed, that always pulled him in to lose himself in memories, was the box.
He'd never been without it, save for those few months he was out searching for Bruce. It had been with him in the house he was born in, and followed him to the Brownstone. It had come with him to the manor, and his first apartment, and the series of apartments and safe houses that followed. It stopped off briefly on the top shelf of a little used linen closet in a penthouse suite in Wayne Tower, before finally coming to rest under the bed of a small, cozy apartment in a neighborhood which straddled the line between uptown and low class.
Tim had never been looking for the box when he found it, unless it was to pack up for a move. It was always something else he was searching for, something that was forgotten the moment his fingers brushed the tattered cardboard edges; the moment he felt the uncontrollable urge to open it and look.
Tonight, he'd been searching for a sock.
His fingers trembled slightly as he opened it, never quite sure which picture would be on top despite his near-eidetic memory. It was the one thing he could never remember, where he last stopped the memories. Would it be something he remembered fondly? Or would it be one of the many that could only be tragic, in hindsight?
He smiled as he picked up the first picture. Something he remembered fondly, then, because how could a smiling, teenage Dick Grayson be anything but a happy memory? It was one of the older pictures, before Tim quite got the hang of following his idols around. Off center and a bit blurry, but in a rare moment of stillness from the excitable first Robin. He remembered taking it, like he remembered taking all of them. Remembered the tightness in his chest when Dick looked right at him. The terror and secret hope of discovery. The relief and disappointment when the lenses of Robin's mask slid right over the small boy hidden in the shadows of an alleyway.
His smile dimmed a bit with the next picture, but that was only because he had his own experiences with the Scarecrow now, and he couldn't quite take the same enjoyment from seeing Robin string him up to a lamppost by one leg, grinning at a stern-faced Batman. Crane had been in similar positions too many times since, and he'd always come back, always caused more chaos and fear and death.
His smile was gone completely twenty minutes later, as he held another picture, so similar to the first, of a Robin grinning almost directly into the camera. It was different, though. So different. Because this was Jason.
Tim never smiled at pictures of Jason as Robin.
Because he remembered. He remembered seeing Jason stealing tires from the Batmobile. He remembered the indigent rage he'd felt, that some little street kid would dare mess with Batman's car. What if he came running, needing it to chase some criminal or save some innocent person? What if someone got hurt because this little punk took Batman's tires? If Jason had been a little younger, and if Tim had been a little braver, he knew he probably would have ran at him, tried to stop him. He remembered grinning at the vindictive satisfaction of seeing Batman catching the boy in the act, of waiting to see the kid wet his pants. He remembered the confusion when Batman laughed, laughed, and talked to the boy. The bafflement when he let him go without even a warning or a stern bat-glare. He remembered following Batman to Jason's “home”. Of feeling a pang of regret and shame as he heard Jason talk about his parents and his upbringing, so defiant and defensive and insistent that it didn't bother him because he was Jason Todd, and nothing could get to someone as tough and street-smart as him. But Tim recognized the look in his eyes, the one Jason let slip when he thought the Batman wasn't looking. He knew it well. He saw it in the mirror every time he woke up to an empty, echoing mansion. Every night when his parents breezed past him on the way to some gala or charity ball without even a perfunctory “goodnight, son”. He recognized it, and he knew.
But he also remembered the Batman taking Jason away from that ratty little apartment. He remembered seeing him playing on the grounds of Wayne Manor. He remembered the way his smiles became more carefree, less cynical. He remembered the way the look had gradually faded from his eyes, and was finally gone completely by the time Tim first saw him call Bruce “dad” through a telephoto lens.
He remembered the new Robin, the one who tried so hard to be Dick, to fit in. The one who succeeded. The one who grinned so bright and laughed so loud Tim could hear it half a block away. The one who made Tim's heart flutter every time he smiled.
And yes, he remembered the anger too. The rage at the world and the people in it who chose to harm others instead of embracing them. He remembered broken bones and stern lectures. He remembered pouts and glares and arguments.
But those fights never lasted long. Because Jason's anger was quick. Quick to flare up. Quick to burn out. And Bruce wasn't nearly so unforgiving, back then.
Tim stared down at the next picture. He hated this picture. Hated it more than anything in the world. Because he remembered when he took this one, too. He remembered seeing the tense, furious frown on his face. The one that didn't quite hide the terror and the longing. He remembered the way Jason sat on that rooftop for hours, staring at nothing. He remembered staring back through his camera after taking that single shot, and watching silently until Jason wiped violently at his eyes and disappeared over the edge.
The next time Tim saw Jason was at his funeral, hiding in the treeline as his body was laid to rest.
And there were no pictures of that.
Which was Tim's saving grace, because this one was hard enough to look at, knowing exactly what came after. Knowing what kind of pain and torture and horror that boy was about to go through. More than anything Tim wished he could go back to when he was young. He wished he could throw his camera down and run up to the roof of that building. He wished he could grab Jason—grab his Robin—and pull him into a hug, and tell him that it was all going to be okay. That he didn't have to go. That people here cared about him. That Bruce cared about him. That Dick cared about him.
That Tim cared about him.
And if Jason insisted on being stubborn, if he insisted on going anyway to find a woman who was about to betray him? Then Tim would only hug him harder, and tell him that it was still all going to be okay. That he would hurt, and he would die, and he would come back and hate so much, but in the end everything would work out. He'd get his father and his older brother back. Different from before, but still with so much love to give him. He'd get a younger brother too, who was arrogant and abrasive and barely tolerable on the best of days, but who would come to view Jason as a comrade, and then, after so much had happened that only they could understand, family.
And he'd get Tim. Who would never stop waiting for the day when Jason would walk into a room and smile when he saw him.
And that's why Tim hated that picture. Because it showed a Jason who didn't know. Not just what he was about to walk into, but what would come after. That one day he'd tell Tim everything that happened to him, from the moment he was born to the moment he finally came home to his family, was all worth it in the end.
“Hey babe, you ready?”
Tim blinked away the tears in his eyes.
“Be there in a minute,” he called back.
He shoved the pictures he'd been looking at back in the box, saving that one for last. He debated briefly, then placed right on top of the messy pile. In a few months or years, he'd forget it was there, and when he opened the box it would be the first thing he'd see and every single one of these feelings and memories and regrets would come back—
But that was okay. Because Tim could use a reminder to appreciate everything he has, and not take for granted the life they'd made for themselves.
He pushed the box back under the bed and walked into the living room, barefoot but otherwise dressed for their night out, and holding a single sock in his hand.
Jason looked at it, and smirked. “Is that my anniversary gift babybird? Because I gotta tell ya, you did a lot better last year.”
Tim opened his mouth, a comeback on the tip of his tongue, but that was as far as it got. Instead, he dropped the sock, rushed over and pulled Jason into a hug.
Jason, who was no longer his Robin, or his secret crush, or his enemy.
“Not that I'm complaining,” Jason said as he slid his arms around Tim's waist, “but what's this for?”
Tim buried his face in Jason's neck, and laughed. It was a small laugh, quiet and thick with emotion he didn't care to hold back. And it might not have echoed halfway down the block, but the person who needed to hear it still did regardless.
“Nothing,” Tim whispered. “You just looked like you needed a hug.”
Tim nodded. “Yep. Always have, actually.”
And I'm never going to miss another opportunity to give you one. Not for the rest of my life.