Tim stumbles into his apartment at a quarter past midnight, grimacing with every pull of the gunshot in his arm. Blood dribbles down his side, staining the carpet in little drips as he crosses the threshold. He’ll clean it up in the morning. Or never. Whichever comes first.
Tim kicks the front door shut and leaves his gear in a pile on the floor to be picked up later. “How was work today, dear?” he mutters to himself. “Oh, it was fine. Just got fucking shot. What’s for dinner?”
Tim unlatches his Red Hood helmet and makes his way to his poor excuse for a kitchen. It’s nothing compared to the one at Wayne Manor, but then again, neither is the rest of his apartment. He’s down to his last burner safehouse after all the others were either compromised or accidentally set on fire after Tim forgot to turn the stove off.
(That, and he’s not always responsible with his grenades. What can he say? It’s hard to keep track of one’s stuff when you’ve been brainwashed and driven insane by a psychopathic clown, died, came back via a toxic pool that causes even more insanity, and were then brainwashed for an additional two years by Ra’s al-fucking-Ghul.)
But hey—he’s got a kitten calendar hanging on the wall, so that must mean he’s doing great, right?
Tim turns on the creaking gas stove, a blue flame clicking on the front burner. He opens the silverware drawer and roots around for a butter knife, flicking aside soy sauce packets and what is either a deformed candy bar or a dead roach carcass.
Something creaks behind him.
Before Tim has time to think, his body moves on autopilot. In one movement he’s grabbing a fork and hurling it in the direction of the noise, aimed to kill.
Stephanie catches the fork less than a foot from her nose. She arches an eyebrow. “Careful. You could take someone’s eye out like that.”
Tim’s mouth goes dry. “Steph.” She’s parked in the section of the apartment that barely qualifies as a living room, half-hidden in shadow. Tim doesn’t know how he missed her when he came in. There is a marble peninsula separating them, but Tim still feels claustrophobic. He steps back as far as the small kitchen will allow him.
She’s different from the last time they saw each other. God, how long ago was that? (You know exactly how long, his mind supplies. She was there that night. She watched you die.)
Stephanie has grown up from the uncertain teenager she used to be, just as Tim has. Her blonde hair is shorter now, trimmed into a bob that ends at her chin. She has more scars, has lost that youthful innocence that Tim himself used to match, back when the world was still a place worth living in.
The wheelchair is new.
Steph lowers the fork with an almost-smile. “Hi, Tim.”
“How did you know where I live?”
“I have my ways.” She twirls the fork between her fingers like a batarang. “It took a while to get through your security system, so I’ll give you that. And the flying silverware was a nice touch. Very innovative.”
She tosses the fork back. Tim catches it before it can clatter on the countertop. It’s hard enough keeping his cool without something startling him into a mindset he really doesn’t want to be in. “Why are you here?” he asks.
Steph looks at Tim: the scars on his face, the streak of white threaded through his black hair, the pigment of his skin—a shade lighter than what could be considered natural. “I wanted to see for myself.”
“See what, that I lost my mind like everyone said so you can drag me to Bruce with a clear conscience?”
“Bruce has no idea I’m here.”
Tim snorts. Still, his body loses most of its tension at that. “That was stupid of you. Haven’t you heard? I’m a threat now.”
Steph shrugs. “Then threaten me. Give me a reason to be afraid of you.”
“You’ve already seen the news. You know the things I’ve done, how many of B’s codes I’ve broken.” It would be impossible for her not to. From what Tim has gathered, Steph has been operating as the eyes and ears of the superhero community. She’s come a long way from that fourteen-year-old girl who ran around in a hand-made costume, trying to be a hero.
“Maybe Batman’s rules don’t always need to be followed. I know that better than anyone.”
Tim rolls his eyes.”Because you’re such a rebel.” He peels off his jacket, wincing as the fabric pulls away from the sticky wound. He already dug the bullet out on the way here, thankfully. One less problem to be dealt with. The wound is small, just a shallow hole in his bicep, but it hurts like hell.
“How’d that happen?” Steph asks with what could be concern, could be a lame attempt at keeping the conversation going.
Tim soaks a dishrag in the sink and wipes the blood from his arm, careful to avoid the wound itself. Then he picks up a knife from the drawer and holds it over the stove, heating up the blade. “Just some business.”
For the record, it was the other guy’s fault. If he didn’t want the Red Hood thinning his numbers, he shouldn’t have been recruiting minors for his weapons operations. It isn’t Tim’s fault that some people can’t follow basic orders, and isn’t that what the Red Hood is for? Bringing order to the chaos?
“If you have a suture kit, I can help you out with that,” Steph offers.
“I don’t need your help. Not with this, not with anything.” Tim turns off the stove and presses the flat of the blade to his arm, cauterizing the wound with a nauseating sizzle. Steph yelps. Tim ignores her. He holds the blade against his skin for as long as he can bear, biting down on his tongue until blood coats his teeth. Finally, he lifts the knife away with a shaking hand and drops it back onto the counter.
Steph looks horrified, her hands covering her mouth. “Are you insane?”
“Yeah.” You’d think she would have figured that out already. Tim goes digging in the cabinets for first-aid supplies.
“You couldn’t have stitched it like a normal person?”
“This was easier to do one-handed. And if you don’t like it, then maybe you shouldn’t be breaking into other people’s fucking homes.”
Steph’s eyes narrow. “Right, because I’m the worst criminal in this room. You’ve committed more felonies than Ted Bundy.”
“Then you’ve seen why it’s a dumb idea getting on my bad side.” Tim dabs antiseptic on the burn with a grimace.
“So this is your life now, then? Making people afraid of you? Controlling the criminals from the inside? That’s how you plan to clean up Gotham?”
“Isn’t that how Bruce does it?”
“At least he doesn’t do it for revenge.”
Tim unravels a roll of gauze, tearing a strip with his teeth. “What makes you think it’s for revenge? Maybe I’m just a psycho with nothing better to do.”
“You don’t know me anymore.”
Steph crosses her arms. “Apparently not. What happened to the kid who joined up because he wanted to help people? The Tim Drake I knew would never take a life.”
“Sorry to break it to you, Steph, but the Tim Drake you knew is dead. There was a funeral and everything.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Then you’ve missed a lot in the past three years.” Not that Steph hasn’t endured changes of her own. Everyone’s lost something, it seems. Circle of life. Tim gestures to the chair with his chin as he secures the gauze around his arm. “How long ago?”
Steph’s nose wrinkles. If she didn’t want Tim being insensitive, she shouldn’t have invited herself here in the first place. “Two years.”
“It wasn’t the clown, was it?” Tim doesn’t say his name. Not when he can still feel J.J. bubbling at the back of his subconscious, waiting for a chink in the armor to appear. He can’t risk a meltdown with Steph here, right in the line of fire.
“Black Mask, actually. I started a gang war after Bruce fired me, and Sionis wanted to get out on top.” Steph tugs up the hem of her shirt, showing off a scarred-over bullet hole a few inches above her old C-section scar. “He tortured me for info on Batman, and when I tried to escape, he shot me through the spine.” She drops the shirt.
“I’m sorry.” It’s not enough.
Steph shrugs. “I’m a big girl. Once your boyfriend gets brainwashed and kills himself right in front of you, everything else seems minor.”
Steph drums her fingers on her unmoving, unfeeling legs. “But this? Yeah, it sucked. It still sucks. But people like us, we’re never knocked down for long, right?”
“I didn’t know when I went after him.” In all fairness, Tim didn’t know much of anything when he first came back to Gotham and started targeting everything that moved. His mind was a sloshing bucket of Lazarus water and Joker venom. Still is, in some ways.
“You couldn’t have.”
“If I had known, I would’ve killed him.” With a meat cleaver. And fire. And maybe some cheese graters.
Steph rolls her eyes. “Because you’re an edgelord now, got it.”
The familiar sarcasm is so surprising that Tim laughs—a real laugh, not the forced Jokerized cackles that he can’t stop once they’ve started.
Steph doesn’t laugh with him. “You might think you’re fixing Gotham, but you’re just making it worse. Playing puppet master is only going to get you so far.”
“So? It’s farther than Batman has gotten.”
“Because Batman doesn’t kill people.”
“And it’s for that reason that Gotham is still a shithole. Bruce can’t see the big picture like I do. None of you can.” Tim steps out around the counter and takes a seat on the ratty sofa, keeping some space between himself and Stephanie. If Steph gets edgy from having him so close, she doesn’t show it. “Stopping muggings, tracking down first-offense killers, it’s cute and all, but what is it actually accomplishing? Nothing. At least my way gets the job done.”
“And when the criminals don’t feel like being controlled anymore? What then?”
“Then it’s one less criminal alive in Gotham. Either way, the good guys win.”
Steph’s expression reminds Tim of Bruce in the middle of a lecture, forehead pinched and mouth locked in a scowl. The resemblance is eerie. “At the expense of human lives.”
“At the expense of the bad guys. Murderers, drug dealers, rapists. Don’t tell me the world wouldn’t be better off.”
“That’s not for us to decide, Tim! You’re the one who told me that, back when I first became Spoiler. Remember that?”
Tim waves a hand. “I was a kid. I was naïve.”
“And what about the rest of it, huh? What about justice? What about family? Do you even care about Bruce anymore?”
“Why should I? He doesn’t give a shit about me, so why should I owe him anything? My body wasn’t even cold before he went and picked up the new kid. He couldn’t have cared less that he was recruiting a child for a suicide mission.”
“Jason made himself Robin, same as you did.”
Tim scoffs. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“It’s true. Bruce didn’t even tell Jason that he was Batman at first. Jason figured it out on his own after a week living at the manor.”
“And that gives him a free pass to make the kid a soldier?” No matter how you spin it, Bruce still replaced his dead child with a fresh edition. He doesn’t deserve to be defended.
“For the record,” Steph says, “Jason is the one who took the suit for a joyride. Bruce only let him keep it because we all knew he was going to be out there, whether we liked it or not. Letting Jason be Robin was Bruce’s way of protecting him.”
“He was supposed to protect me!” Tim snaps, slamming a hand on the coffee table. Steph doesn’t flinch. “And he couldn’t even do that. No, he went and picked up the first replacement he could find. He didn’t even have the guts to kill the fucking Joker after it happened.”
There’s a lump in Tim’s throat, but he won’t let himself cry. Not here. Not now. If he starts crying, he's not sure if he'll ever be able to stop. So instead he takes a deep breath, forces a smile that’s cracked at the edges. “But who cares, right? He’s moved on. So have I."
Steph’s eyes contain nothing but sympathy. “Come home, Tim. Please.”
“I don’t have a home anymore.”
“Yes, you do. With Bruce and Alfred and your brothers.”
“The same people who let me die? Who left me with him long enough that I convinced myself you all had to be dead, because it was the only reason you wouldn’t have come for me?”
Tim remembers it like it all happened yesterday. That first day, he took every brand of torture the Joker dealt out, so certain that any minute Batman would come bursting through the door to set him free. He endured for as long as he could, but those hours of waiting for a rescue turned into days. Weeks. Until Tim eventually gave up on fighting altogether.
Steph’s eyes shimmer with guilt. “We tried, Tim. We spent every day trying to find you, but he had you hidden too well.”
Tim snorts, but there’s no humor in it. “A whole family of detectives, and you couldn’t find one person. Great job. Give yourself a fucking pat on the back.”
Steph grips the arm of her wheelchair so tightly her knuckles turn white. She takes a deep breath, and Tim has to admire her for keeping her cool this long. “I didn’t come here to argue with you.”
“You’re doing a great job of showing it.”
“Let me take you back to the manor. Please. It isn’t too late for things to go back to the way they were." Steph reaches out and takes Tim’s hand, her warmth seeping into his eternally cold skin. "You don’t have to be alone.”
Tim hates that he lets himself imagine it—going back home and being welcomed with open arms. Tasting Alfred’s cooking again. Smelling Bruce’s cologne as he’s pulled in for a hug. Hanging out with Duke, who stepped up to be a big brother to Tim when Damian wouldn’t. Sparring with Cass, who Tim had only just gotten to know before he’d been ripped away from the family like an old band-aid. He could go home.
Right. Home to the people who threw him away. Who replaced him without a second thought. Who let Tim be taken in the first place and couldn’t be bothered to look for him until he was already too far gone to be saved. What kind of a family does that? And to someone they claimed to love?
They never loved you, a voice whispers in Tim's mind.
They lied. They threw him away. They buried Tim and dusted off their hands, moving on to the next thing without a hitch. They didn’t care. They never cared. Look at Damian—he hated Tim from the very beginning, telling Tim that he would never make a worthy Robin, that he should quit before he gets killed, and Damian got his wish. He got rid of him. They all did.
The warmth on Tim’s hand vanishes. “Tim? Are you okay?”
It’s only when Tim sees the startled expression on Steph’s face that he realizes he’s giggling. The giggles grow louder and more forceful until Tim shudders and doubles over, laughing so hard his sides ache. He scrambles for a pillow and tries to smother the awful sound, tears stabbing at his eyes.
Steph’s hands hover like she’s not sure whether or not to touch him. “Tim…”
“L-Leave,” Tim gets out, shaking. “Get out of here.”
Steph gives up on her internal battle and touches his arm. “Are you—”
Steph snatches her hand away, and Tim almost feels guilty for the harshness. He'd apologize if he could speak. After a tense moment filled with the sound of Tim's grating hysterics, Stephanie sighs and releases the brake on her chair.
She makes it almost to the door before she stops and looks back at Tim, still choking back laughter with tears streaming down his face. “I’m not giving up on you. Things might have changed, but you’re still Tim.”
She closes the door behind her, leaving Tim with no company but his own laughter.