Jason waited until one in the morning for the Bat to leave his territory. He was sniffing around more than usual – which meant that Jason had probably been noticed tailing Robin – the Replacement around the city.
The World’s Greatest Detective. Jason was never going to hide from him for long.
But the point wasn’t to hide from him. The point was to make it exceedingly, obviously clear that Batman didn’t get to have a Robin. Not anymore. And Jason was going to make that point by piling dead masks in front of his front door.
Starting with the Replacement.
Batman finally left when the Bat signal shone into the sky, and Jason left Crime Alley to go Robin hunting. He’d been planning on extending this particular murder – Bruce had replaced him, yes, but this kid had took up his uniform before his body had even been cold in the grave and Jason would not be satisfied with a quick and clean headshot.
No, he planned stalking, ominous lurking on rooftops, and finally a slow, satisfying, and gruesome death.
But if the Bat had begun to figure it out, Jason didn’t have much time left. He headed straight for Robin’s patrol route – perhaps not today, but the baby bird’s days were numbered. Who knows – maybe he could loom out of the darkness when the kid was mid-swing, startle him enough to botch the landing and break a couple of bones.
The only problem was that Robin was nowhere to be seen. Jason scowled behind the helmet, prowling around a couple of rooftops as if the caped sidekick would magically appear, but nothing.
Had Robin changed his patrol route? Had the Bat taken him to deal with whatever the GCPD was calling for? Had he never made it out on patrol in the first place?
Now severely pissed off, Jason growled and took off to backtrack through the rest of Robin’s route. The Pit did not help with patience and he had the itching desire to break some bones. If they were bird bones, all the better.
Zip. Zilch. Nada. Jason stopped a mugging by shooting the would-be mugger and still no righteous caped crusader came swinging from the darkness.
Exceedingly irritated, Jason stomped his way to a gang hideout that had been getting quite active over the past few days. Leaving a warehouse full of bodies would both make him feel better and piss off Batman. Win-win.
He was skulking around near one of the entrances, watching for any sign of movement, when he heard the scream.
Heard a kid’s scream.
Jason checked his ammunition with slow care as he made his way to the warehouse, silent and thrumming with rage. There was a skylight on the roof – when would these idiot criminals learn – and Jason was carefully prying one open when he heard the scream again.
Desperate, pained, terrified.
And then the laughter.
The ha-ha-HA that still haunted his nightmares and every other waking moment, the electric green smile and crazed eyes and he should’ve killed him when he had the chance –
Jason froze, half in the skylight, and choked down the sob. It wasn’t real. The Joker was in Arkham, his mind was playing tricks on him, and he needed to get the kid out and destroy this gang before Batman found him wandering somewhere that wasn’t Crime Alley.
Jason dropped onto the skywalk and headed for the center of the warehouse, where a light was swinging above a – above –
Jason stared as a man in a purple suit swung a crowbar. It connected with a sickening crack and the boy tried to suppress a scream.
“You know, the other one was stronger,” the Joker laughed – ha-ha-HA – leaning the crowbar against one shoulder. “He never cried.”
The boy wasn’t struggling. His arms were twisted behind him and his legs looked wrong. The cape had been ripped off.
“But maybe you’re smarter,” the Joker grinned, ear to ear, and Jason couldn’t suppress his shudder. “Maybe you’ll find your way out!”
There was a bomb. There was always a bomb. This was Jason’s nightmare and there was always a bomb.
The timer blinked at him. Five minutes.
“Break a leg!” the Joker laughed and the crowbar swung down.
Another snap – an agonizing scream that died to choked whimpers. “See you in the next life, birdie!”
The warehouse door slammed shut with an echoing thud.
Jason couldn’t move. Jason couldn’t breathe.
Four minutes, the timer blinked.
The whimpering had faded to soft, hitched sobs. The boy was trying to move, trying to inch towards the door, but he hissed and shuddered with every little movement.
The door was too far away. The boy had several broken bones. He was never going to make it.
This was a dream. A nightmare. This wasn’t real. Jason was going to open his eyes and he’d be back in his safehouse and there would be no Joker and no bomb and no Robin desperately clawing their way to the door –
The boy let out a strangled scream as he accidentally put too much pressure on his broken legs. He tried to curl up, but the ropes had no give. He lay there, shuddering, for a long moment before he tried again.
And again. And again, out of desperation that Jason could feel, that Jason knew – the last, panicked instinct to survive, pushing past searing pain and fiery agony in a frantic hope that he could reach the door, that he could get out, that…
That Batman would come.
But Batman wasn’t coming. Batman was nowhere in sight and there were only two minutes left on the clock. Robin – the Replacement – Robin had only managed to move about ten feet.
Jason was terrified. Jason was furious. Jason was not going to watch another Robin die in another warehouse, beaten and bloody, their life snuffed out in a flash of searing agony.
He should’ve killed the Joker when he had the chance.
Jason moved on instinct, rappelling down to the warehouse floor. Robin flinched at the thud, trying to twist around as Jason spared a second to check out the bomb – the many-wired thing was beyond his ability to defuse.
One and a half minutes left.
“Who’s – who’s there?” the kid said, his tone utterly failing to hide his terror. “Batman?”
“Not the Batman,” Jason growled, scooping up the kid and trying his best to ignore the way the bones shifted. The Replacement cut off a startled shriek, his eyes squeezing shut as he inhaled shakily, tears dripping down his face.
Jason aimed the grapple gun at the rooftop and swung up, trying to jostle the kid as little as he could. Despite his best efforts, the kid was breathing harshly by the time they made it out, his face pinched and pale behind the domino mask.
The Replacement squinted his eyes when he felt the fresh air, and promptly turned two shades whiter when he caught sight of Jason’s helmet.
“Who are you?” the kid breathed out, eyes wide.
“Take a wild fucking guess, Replacement,” Jason snarled, already leaping for the next rooftop. The kid suppressed a whimper at the movement, but blinked up at Jason with confused eyes.
“What?” he asked, clearly disoriented, but Jason wasn’t answering any more questions. The kid stifled a scream as Jason misjudged the landing on the next roof – the kid was thinner and taller than Jason had expected – and he dropped them into a crouch, curling over the kid as his internal timer wound down to zero.
Behind them, the warehouse exploded in a sudden, fiery blast.
Jason tried to tell himself that he was imagining the laughter, the smoke filling his lungs, the fire burning every part of him that wasn’t broken, the ringing in his eyes, the laughter –
The kid moaned and Jason tightened his grip. They needed to get out of here before Batman came looking.
Tim hazily blinked open his eyes, confused to see faded wallpaper and a scuffed coffee table, but not yet sure why he was confused. There was humming coming from somewhere nearby, and the smell of something garlicky simmering on the stove. He felt cocooned in warmth, like a dream of being tucked into bed by his parents.
Something was aching. Several somethings were aching. And Alfred would’ve never left the coffee table in such a condition.
The patrol. The trap. The Joker.
Tim bolted upright and bit down on the scream as the throbbing aches flared into sudden agony. The Joker had – he – there was a bomb – someone – red? He remembered red –
“Whoa there, baby bird.” Hands enveloped his shoulders and pushed him back on something soft. Tim was too weak to resist the strong grip. “You’re going to undo all my hard work.”
Tim’s legs were throbbing, little spasms of agony, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight as he remembered the crowbar crashing down – remembered feeling it crack inside of him – remembered the searing pain as he tried to drag himself to the door –
But he hadn’t made it to the door. Someone had come – someone – Batman?
“Not the Batman.” And the voice had sounded furious, like it was an accusation.
He wasn’t safe, he didn’t know where he was – Tim lashed out and screamed when the punch connected, his broken arm shrieking in agony. Someone caught his arm and Tim shuddered at the too-tight grip, he was being pressed back, pinned down, he was –
“Calm down, Replacement –”
Who – what was he being called? Tim squinted up, catching light glinting off a…red helmet.
The Red Hood. Who’d gotten into an altercation with Batman that had actually left the man shaken. Who Bruce had very specifically and very firmly warned Tim to stay away from. Who left a bloody trail of bodies behind as he stalked through Crime Alley.
“Get off of me, get off, stop –” Tim accidentally knocked the side of his own head and froze.
He didn’t have his mask on. He didn’t have his mask on.
Hood used the moment to grab his other hand and push him back against the couch.
“I’m not attacking you, stay still!”
Tim stared blankly, stuck somewhere between shock and horror. The mask wasn’t supposed to come off. Bruce had assured him. The glue was a special formula. The mask wasn’t supposed to come off. The Red Hood knew who he was. The mask wasn’t supposed to come off.
Tim’s cover was blown. He was done. Robin was done.
“Holy shit, kid, breathe! I’m not attacking you!”
Tim couldn’t breathe. There was no air in the room. How could he breathe there was no air Hood knew who he was Robin was over Robin was done Tim was done –
A heavy hand on his ribs, pressing down firmly and Tim squeaked as the pain built up. “Breathe,” a voice growled in his ear and Tim tried to obey, stuttering on an inhale as Hood grabbed his other hand.
His hand pressed against a hard chest, a heartbeat thrumming against his fingers with the steady pressure of expansion and contraction.
Once Tim’s shuddering breaths had returned to something approaching stability, Hood let go and stepped back. Tim tried to curl away, pressing back further into the couch and covering his face with his hand as he peered at the Red Hood between his fingers.
The man was wearing dark jeans and a hoodie and was standing at apparent ease in the apartment. If it hadn’t been for the helmet, Tim would not have pegged this guy as a villain.
“What are you doing?” Hood asked, sounding bemused.
“You – you saw my face,” Tim stuttered. He needed to get out of here. He needed to tell Batman. He needed to – Tim scrambled for his comms and realized with dawning horror that the Red Hood had gotten rid of the majority of his costume. The mask, the suit, the boots, the comms – all Tim was left with was an unfamiliar button-up sweater over the dark leggings he wore under the suit.
“I don’t care who you are, Replacement,” Hood scoffed, shaking his head and heading to where the garlicky smell was coming from.
Tim must’ve made a sound to indicate his incredulity, because the Hood paused mid-step before slowly turning back to him. Tim flinched and attempted to hide under the blanket.
“What was that?” Hood’s voice was flat and toneless and Tim couldn’t help the shiver down his spine.
“You – you’re going to tell someone,” Tim said, unsure of how to stop him. His chest was seizing painfully with every breath and fire was blooming in his legs. It hurt, it hurt so much but Tim was losing Robin and that hurt even more.
Tim shuddered, remembering the Joker, the crowbar, that awful laugh and the chilling certainty that had dropped into the pit of his stomach when he’d seen the timer.
He remembered wondering if this was how Jason had died – alone and hurting and so, so scared.
He remembered the awful terror that this was what was going to break Batman, that Tim’s stupid insistence on being Robin was going to get him killed the same way Jason had, and there was no one to bring Batman back this time.
But he was alive but he lost Robin but –
“Who do you think I’m going to tell?” Hood drawled, stepping closer. Tim stayed very still, tracking Hood’s movements – the man was built like a tank and Tim could see the coiled danger in his limbs. “The Black Mask? The Penguin? The Joker?” His voice hit a particular note on the name, twisting somewhere in between rage and fear. “I’ve got a bullet to pick with every villain in this godforsaken city, baby bird, so who am I going to tell?”
Tim had not failed to notice that the carnage that the Red Hood left in his wake had been directed at very particular targets – but it was difficult to reconcile the idea of a vigilante with the sheer number of bodies Hood left behind.
“A reporter?” Tim squeaked out.
Hood laughed, rusty and hoarse. “What about this getup makes you think I’m looking for fame?” he asked, gesturing to the concealing helmet and the dark clothes.
Tim had noticed the distinct lack of grandstanding from Crime Alley’s resident vigilante-villain – until Bruce had an actual encounter with the man, Tim had been half-convinced he wasn’t real. The Red Hood didn’t leave a whole lot of witnesses behind.
“Then why did you take off my mask?”
The Red Hood motioned around the visor of his helmet. Tom copied the movement, confused, and winced as he felt the edges of an impressive set of black eyes. The mask would’ve cut painfully into the swelling.
“You’re welcome,” Hood said, the tone distinctly sardonic.
“Thank you,” Tim responded automatically to the bite – and he didn’t remember much beyond panicked terror and pain and awful, curling dread, but the Red Hood had gotten him out. “I mean – thank you. For rescuing me.”
Hood made a soft scoffing noise again and turned away, disappearing into the other room.
Tim swallowed against a dry throat and catalogued his injuries. His legs felt like they were being stabbed with splinters and his broken arm was still angry about the earlier punch, but his wounds had been wrapped and his broken bones splinted. He wasn’t tied or chained or restrained as far as he could see.
There was a window ten steps from the couch and the Gotham skyline beyond it. It was getting dark out – Tim had lost nearly an entire day – and if he could make it to the rooftop, then maybe Batman would find him.
Tim couldn’t make it back home by himself. His legs protested at the thought of bearing his weight and his arms weren’t too happy about his plan either, but they held, trembling as Tim eased off of the couch, trying not to make a single sound.
His arm – the broken one – slipped as he tried to carefully lower himself down and Tim fell the remaining two inches with a painful thud. Tim bit down on the scream, his eyes watering, and waited, frozen still, for any sign of movement.
There was nothing but the sound of sauce burbling and a narrow-eyed scan confirmed that Hood hadn’t come out of the kitchen.
Tim clenched his jaw and eased forward on the carpet. It was slow, painful going – made worse as pressure ground into his definitely-broken ribs and caught every time his toes snagged on the carpet.
But Tim persevered. He just had to get to the window. There was no bomb this time, so Tim could move slowly, carefully, pushing back the panic to clutch desperately to logic. Once he got to the roof, he could figure out where he was. He didn’t have his comms, but he could figure out something. He could. He had to.
Tim clawed forward another inch, nearly to the windowsill, and froze at the prickling sensation running down his spine.
He choked down the sob and twisted enough to aim a glare in the right direction.
Hood was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, watching him silently. He had made no attempt to approach but Tim curled up defensively anyway. “What are you doing?” Tim snapped as the silence stretched.
“Wondering if you actually believe you can reach the window, or if you’re stupid enough to try anyway.”
Tim gritted his teeth as his eyes burned at the casual, dismissive tone. “Did you expect me to stay like a good little abductee?” he retorted.
Hood didn’t shift as far as Tim could track, but his posture was definitely radiating more fury. “Thank you for rescuing me,” Hood mocked in a high-pitched voice and Tim winced.
“You kidnapped me!” Tim said, feeling a burn in his lungs as panic began to claw back control.
“Would you rather I left you in that warehouse?” Hood growled.
“That’s not an excuse for abducting me!”
“I didn’t abduct you, Replacement,” Hood snapped, “And I’m certainly not keeping you here. If you want to leave, go.” He flicked his fingers in the approximation of a shoo.
Tim’s breath caught in his throat. Leave. He was well-familiar with it. He’d seen it from his parents every time he dared to get too close. He’d seen it flicker on Batman’s face when he first put on the suit to take to the skies – and with decreasing frequency after, but the expression still crossed his face whenever he turned to Robin and remembered that it was Tim behind the mask.
Tim turned away from Hood, ignoring the obstruction in his throat and the burning wetness in his eyes and the prickling down his spine, and clawed forward another inch. He set his jaw and inched forward a little more, until his fingers could brush the wall.
Just a little further. Tim pushed himself forward until he was curled up under the window and reached out one trembling, shaking hand to grasp the windowsill.
His first attempt resulted in shrieking agony as the movement pulled at his broken ribs and Tim hissed as he readjusted his grip and braced his broken arm against his chest before he tried again.
The second attempt went better as Tim’s white-knuckled grip on the sill held as he did a one-armed pull-up, shifting his grasp as he rested his chin on the sill. Both his legs were shooting prickling, warning spasms as he tested the splints, trying to reach for the latch on the window –
His left leg gave a sudden, searing wrench and Tim lost his grip – his broken arm slammed against the wall and Tim wasn’t entirely able to strangle the scream as he had a painful reintroduction with the floor.
“Okay, this is getting physically painful to watch,” Hood said from somewhere near him and Tim choked on a sob as strong arms encircled him, careful not to jostle his injuries.
He was deposited back on the couch and Tim buried his face in the blanket as he tried to suppress the hitched sobs. He wasn’t going to cry. Not here. Not in front of the Red Hood.
Batman needed a Robin. Needed him. And Tim couldn’t even manage to get out the window. He knew he’d forced his way into the suit, knew he wasn’t as good as Dick, as good as Jason, but nothing had hammered the point home quite as well as this.
Tim dropped the blanket and ignored the suspicious wet patch – Hood had disappeared back into the kitchen and Tim raised his voice to be heard over the sound of something sizzling. “Can I get a phone?”
“No,” was the brusque and not entirely unexpected reply.
“Please?” Tim cleared his throat, “I can call someone and get out of your way.” No response. “You said you weren’t keeping me here!”
The Red Hood appeared in the doorway. “Do I look like an idiot? You’re not getting your hands on my phone.” He went back inside the kitchen.
“My comms –”
“And your tracker? No.”
“You can get a burner if you’re worried about –”
“Please, I just want to call –”
“Who?” Hood reappeared in the doorway, coiled up like he was ready to lunge. “Call who, Replacement? The Big, Bad Bat?” There had been rage when he’d talked about the Joker but this? This was hate. “I. Said. No.”
Tim swallowed and dared to speak, “But Batman –”
Hood started forward so violently that Tim flinched back, banging his head on the arm of the couch as he tried to get away. The man was furious and Tim pressed back further as Hood stalked forward and curled a tight fist into the sweater collar.
“Listen to me and listen to me well, baby bird,” Hood said, seething rage and pain and hurt all tangled up in vicious hate, “Batman isn’t going to save you. Get that through your thick skull before you end up just like –”
Hood cut off abruptly. Tim stared up at him, his heart pounding – just like who? Like the previous Robin?
Hood let go and stomped away, every motion bleeding stark, thrumming fury. Tim watched him leave, feeling the edges of a puzzle swimming tantalizingly just out of reach.
Who was the Red Hood?
Because Tim could’ve sworn he was going to end that statement ‘just like me.’