The desert night was cool, with a breeze that shifted the sand beneath Tim’s feet like waves. The stars gleamed overhead, and for a second he was caught up in how clear the sky was. It had been years since he’d seen stars without a haze of light pollution around them.
Owens and Z were in front of him, his babysitters for the night. Pru was off to his left, fiddling with the safety on her gun. The ride here had been as light-hearted as was possible, given the circumstances, but that jovial tone had ended quickly. Their off-roader had died on them maybe half an hour before, and the small group was still huddled around the machine, waiting as Z checked the engine. Every few seconds, Pru glared at Tim, as if blaming him for the hold up. Though the others had made it very clear that this was a fool’s errand, Tim knew that Bruce was here, somewhere. He had to be, or Tim had thrown everything away for nothing.
That was the issue, wasn’t it? Tim might be the world’s greatest detective, now that Bruce was… out of commission. But his hunches could still be wrong. What if- no. He couldn’t afford to think like that. He would bring Bruce back, he had to.
“Hey, Drake, are you done brooding yet?” Pru’s voice echoed over the empty land. Tim huffed noncommittally and looked up to see the bald assassin twirling her gun on her finger.
“I’m a Bat. We’re never done brooding,” he quipped, before fiddling with the little radio receiver he had brought along. It didn’t do more than give off static when it was on, but having something to do with his hands helped.
Rolling her eyes, Pru gestured over to a precariously balanced pile of rocks. “Wanna see if I can hit the top one off without knocking over the others?”
Tim sighed heavily and dragged himself over to her, Owens trailing behind. Out of the corner of his eye, he even saw Z peek out from behind the hood to watch.
Squaring off, Pru brought up her gun and fired off a shot. To no one’s surprise, the top rock went flying and the others remained still, albeit with a slight wobble.
“Fuck yeah! Z, did you see…” She trailed off, her face blanching. Tim followed suit, only to be greeted with Z on the ground, chest bleeding in a way his medical training told him was too much. His brown eyes were already glassy, and his chest wasn’t moving anymore. It was then that the rest of the image came into focus, and Tim’s eyes finally latched onto the cloaked man holding two bloody swords.
“I am the Widower,” the man said, his voice low and bone-chilling. “And here I was, thinking you’d put up a fight.”
Tim drew his bo staff, eyes tracking Pru and Owens as they rushed toward the Widower, guns at the ready. He had barely taken a step, but they were already on the ground, Pru bleeding from a large gash in her neck and Owens trying in vain to keep pressure on the wound in between his ribs.
Quick--what were his weaknesses? No visible limps or injuries, no issues handling the weapons. He moved like a snake through grass, smooth and precise.
The Widower’s blades gleamed in the moonlight, and Pru’s blood dripped onto the sand. Tim lashed out with his staff, catching one of the swords right as it flew toward his throat.
“I guess dead birdies tell no tales,” Widower whispered as he drove the second sword, the one Tim had forgotten about, into Tim’s stomach.
The vigilante staggered back, and fell to his knees, clutching his abdomen. The blade slid out and even through the gloves of his suit, Tim could feel his blood, warm and sticky. Was this how he was going to die? Mission incomplete, estranged from his family, bleeding out into the desert sand? He had never assumed he would survive in this job, but he’d at least thought he’d die as Robin. Oh god, he was never going to be Robin again.
The ground rushed up to greet him, sand in his mouth and eyes and hair. He supposed that it didn’t matter--it’s not like corpses care anyway. With his last ounces of strength, he rolled onto his back. Somewhere, some last shred of knowledge told him that this would keep him from bleeding out, but deep down he knew it was too late. Tim just wanted the stars to be the last thing he saw.
As darkness encroached on the corners of his vision, his mind drifted back to Bruce. This was it. The only father figure he’d ever had, or at least the only one who liked him as he was, would be doomed to never return. And it was all Tim’s fault.
The afterlife was dark. And cold. Tim had never been religious, aside from that year of Hebrew school his parents insisted he take in middle school, but even he knew that this wasn’t right. It took a second, but the cold and dark sharpened into something Tim knew well, his kitchen at home. Well, at Drake Manor.
The marble countertops gleamed, as did the floors, and Tim recalled tiptoeing around in his early childhood, so not to dirty them. The kitchen--really, the whole house--had always felt like a mausoleum. Cold, impersonable. Lonely. In some ways, a lot like Tim.
He drifted through the house, looking pointedly away from the family portrait that hung above the fireplace. It had been painted a few months before his mom was killed, right after he became Robin. They all looked so stiff, like actors playing a family in a movie. Actually, actors would probably do a better job than they did. That portrait had been the first thing Tim had put in storage when his dad died.
The curtains were drawn, letting in the gray sunlight Gotham was so well-known for. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his lawn, except… not. Gravestones dotted the otherwise pristine lawn, some new and some old and worn. He hesitated at the door, fingertips just brushing the doorknob. He was dead, it wasn’t like he could get hurt. Maybe this was some kind of purgatory that he had to deal with before he could move on. He pushed against the door, anticipating the old hitch in the hinges that had been around for years.
The air held the same chill as the house, pulling at Tim’s breath. Front and center, practically in the doorway, was Bruce’s grave, the one they’d buried him in just over a month ago. But now the death date was scratched out, in its place a sticker like the ones Tim used to put on his skateboard. It read: Eternally Damned To Disappointment. It’d sound like the name of a band Tim might’ve listened to, if he didn’t know that the disappointment was in him.
The next grave was older, cracked and crumbly. The ground in front of it was disturbed, and dried blood streaks marked the bottom of the headstone. Here lies Jason Todd. Well, that didn’t last long. And unlike Jason, Tim knew he wasn’t coming back. He wasn’t that lucky.
Next was Steph, or at least the grave she pretended to fill. It was covered in flowers, some of them bouquets Tim had left himself. Tim had spent hours in front of it, telling her how much he missed her and loved her, praying for the first and last times. When she came back… well, they were more distant than he would’ve liked. That wasn’t Steph’s fault, at least not entirely, but it did make him wonder. What if he never took back the mantle? Would this have been easier? He could’ve been a semi-normal teenager, living with his dad and stepmom, mourning his girlfriend and being blissfully unaware of the shitshow that was heroism. But he wouldn’t have been happy.
And speak of the devil, there’s his parents’ graves, right next to each other. It was almost funny how they were closer in death than in life. A boomerang was lodged in his father’s gravestone, with an old flip phone opened at the base. It listed Tim’s number as the last call. His mother’s had a sticky substance that a voice deep inside Tim told him not to touch. He lingered at these graves for a moment, breath caught in his throat. It’s not that he didn’t miss his parents--he did. But he had only known a piece of them, only just deeper than surface level. They weren’t parents as much as guardians with high expectations. And for the most part, he had met or exceeded every goal they gave him. But it never was enough. There was always another class to ace or language to learn or party to schmooze at. Worst of all, they were cold. If Tim was the chill night air, his parents were Antarctica.
The next grave stopped him in his tracks. Bart. One of his best friends, his ally in all things. Gone, but not in the way Bruce or Steph were. Bart wasn’t coming back. There would be no more Hawaiian pizza and donuts shared over a comic book, or sleepovers on the floor of Mount Justice. No more Wendy the Werewolf Stalker Marathons. There was no more Bart, and it stung in a way that Tim didn’t have a name for.
He turned around, expecting that to be the end of it, but there it was. Conner. All at once, the weight of the world fell on Tim’s shoulders, like his own personal Kryptonite. His best friend, someone he had been more than a little in love with once upon a time. He knew Conner was safe now, alive and saving people once again. Without Tim. Conner’s death had been the one that broke him, more than any of the others. Because if Conner Kent, Superboy and heartbreaker extraordinaire, hadn’t made it, what chance did Tim have? Well, obviously not much. How was Conner going to take this? He wasn’t like Tim, this was the first time he’d be alone.
Aren’t you tired of losing the ones you love? Aren’t you tired of being the one left behind? A quiet voice murmured in the back of his skull.
Yes. No. Yes. A sob tore from Tim’s chest, and his hand flew to his mouth. This was so stupid. He had dealt with loss before. Hell, the past year had been one unending funeral. Of course he was tired, who wouldn’t be?
This had to be Hell, but that felt like even more of a betrayal. Even Jason had made it to Heaven. Was this his punishment for toeing the line? Had he not suffered enough?
Biting back another sob, Tim ran blindly toward the door, slamming it shut behind him in a way that would’ve made his mother shriek. When he opened his eyes, he wasn’t in his living room anymore, but the Batcave. Even with his eyes full of tears, he would know it anywhere. And there was Dick in the Batsuit. And the demon in his Robin gear.
Tim opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Dick looked up, expression weary.
“Tim, I already told you. Bruce isn’t coming back. I’m Batman now, and that means I get to choose the Robin. It’s about time you accept that.” It sure sounded like Dick.
“Besides, it’s not like you were doing a great job anyway. You let Batman be killed on the job.” Damian sneered, leaning against Dick’s chair like a bully in a high school rom com.
“That-That’s not my fault!” Tim cried, heart pounding in his ears.
“Look, there’s an heir and a spare. There’s a new Robin now, you can be whatever you’re calling yourself now. Go do whatever you have to on this suicide mission, but leave Gotham out of it.”
Damian smiled like a demonic cherub. “Yes, Drake. Not even Grayson wants you anymore, if he ever did.”
Tim stood in shocked silence, unable to find words. Sure, Dick was focused on Damian, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t care anymore. After all, they were brothers, right?
He’s taken the only thing you had left. Don’t you want revenge? He took your mantle, you should take it back. The voice sounded like Tim, but contorted--like it would on a recording.
Tim--no, not Tim, something else--reached back for the bo staff. As his hand gripped the metal, something flew toward him, hitting him directly in the stomach where he had been stabbed. It clattered to the floor, and through his pain, Tim realized it was a Batarang.
Don’t you want more, Timothy Drake-Wayne? It coaxed.
The new Timothy Drake-Wayne took his first breaths in a cave deep in the Iraqi desert, hundreds of miles away from the house and the graves that had haunted his dream. It was cold here, nearly as cold as that dream had been. If he was in Hell, it would be hotter, wouldn’t it?
Tim swallowed hard and pushed himself up. His stomach, where he was pretty sure he had just been stabbed, was free of wounds or scarring. If anything, he felt stronger than he had before. As his feet touched the stone cold floor, he took note of the ninjas scattered around the room. Okay, so he was back at the League. They must have…
The prior strength he had felt disappeared as his legs gave out. Normally he would have rolled or caught himself or something, but his gaze was fixed on the other side of the room, where a glowing green pit resided.
No weapons, outnumbered, barely able to stand. The disadvantages stacked up before his eyes, screaming that there was no hope of him getting out of this one. Not to mention that he was probably already on his way to insanity. Fuck, the last time he’d seen Jason, the former Robin had almost killed him. Would Tim end up like that, homicidal and cruel?
He struggled to his feet, clutching the stone table for support. He could take out two, maybe three, if he just stopped thinking. He was trained for this, he could--
“Hello there, Detective,” a cold voice purred, quiet but deafening in the silent room. A chill hovered under Tim’s skin. It had been a long time since he’d last heard that voice.
Detective? Isn’t that what he calls your mentor? There was the voice again, the only remaining fragment of the dream.
Ra’s al Ghul was one of those people who intimidated you just by existing in the same space. He reminded Tim of every strict teacher and cruel board member and snotty dinner party guest all rolled up into one. Oh, and he was the leader of the world’s largest assassin guild. That was important too.
“Did you find what you were looking for, Timothy?” Ra’s said in the same tone.
The teenager opened his mouth, then closed it again, searching for words. “No,” he managed to force out. “No, I didn’t.”
Are you sure?
Ra’s smiled, like a predator that had just gone for the killing blow. “Well, I suppose that you will have more than enough time to complete your quest during your stay with us.” And just like that, he turned, a group of ninjas peeling off to escort him back to whatever pit of Hell he’d crawled from. “If you need anything, ask for the White Ghost. Welcome to the Cradle, Detective.” And just like that, he was gone.
Tim was only alone with his thoughts for a minute before a tall man with alabaster skin and medieval-style chainmail entered the cavern.
Okay, so this was the White Ghost impersonator. The League wouldn’t kill someone they’d just resurrected, so maybe once he was alone he could escape? Go back to Gotham and see Dick and Sebastian and Zoanne one last time before he truly went insane, then start going to that therapist Dick recommended. He could make it through this, he wouldn’t end up like Jason--
And then in walked Tam Fox, looking terrified but for the most part unharmed. And all of Tim’s plans came crashing down.
Tam was a civilian, and a Wayne Enterprises employee to boot. Her life, and his identity, were in danger now. He was both her only savior and her greatest danger.
New plan: listen to this knockoff White Ghost, do whatever it takes to gain their trust, then make it out with Tam at the first possible chance. And do it all without going off the deep end.
“I am the White Ghost,” the shitty cosplayer said, his chainmail clinking as he moved.
“Isn’t he dead?” Tim murmured under his breath. He’d definitely seen Dusan die. But if Tim was still alive, then maybe…
“There has always been a White Ghost,” the older man responded, as if that answered anything. “Now, it is time you and your guest retired to your quarters.”
Tam looked over at Tim, big brown eyes wide with fear. He nodded once, tried to conjure a press conference smile, and allowed them to be led to lavish bedchambers. They looked like beautiful, windowless prisons.
The next few weeks blended into their own lethal monotony. Tam stayed in her room all day and Tim went to meetings with various members of the League’s regime. It was a little like working at Drake Industries or Wayne Enterprises, just with more murder. A lot more murder. But the meetings were easy enough, and Tim soon found himself getting to know the people he once despised. He didn’t like them by any means, but he wasn’t terrified anymore.
He kept looking for Bruce. The desert gave no answers.
Tam didn’t ask questions. She didn’t push too hard. She had to know everyone’s identities by now, didn’t she? Tim was just one Robin-shaped piece of the puzzle. Here he was, in the desert, yet another failed Robin. His whole tenure, he’d been trying to live up to Jason Todd, and now in a sick way he had. Wearing Jason’s uniform, having been resurrected the same way, he now dreaded catching up to the boy who had once been his hero.
On nights when he cried silently into the silk sheets, trying to forget the way Jason had looked when he first came back to Gotham, the voice soothed: You can be greater than he ever was. You can outshine all of the others. You will be remembered when they are dust.
The desert was cold. There was no comfort here.
His bedchamber was nice enough. There was a large bed with silk sheets and gold accents and an ensuite bathroom. A large mirror took up the space where a window might have once been, like some sort of philosophical conundrum that Tim was too tired to try to unpack. There was a small passageway between his room and Tam’s, and if Tim was just a little more naive he would have believed that the League forgot about it when they placed him in this room. But he knew better. The League never forgot a thing.
Sometimes Tim caught himself in the mirror and for a second he swore his blue eyes looked green. Tam came in the next morning to glass littering the floor and cuts covering Tim’s hands. She said nothing while she helped him wrap up his knuckles.
Tim had always been adaptable. It’s easier than the constant push and shove of rebellion. When his parents told him to take those classes and join these clubs, he did. When he was instructed to give impromptu speeches at galas, he did. He put in the effort, he always had. He was never the best fighter and never would be, but he was smart and quick and brave. That had to mean something, right?
Maybe that’s why Ra’s al Ghul liked him so much.
The first time Ra’s al Ghul asked for a private meeting with Tim, the ground seemed to tilt under him. The well-trained vigilante tried not to show the fear in his eyes as his vision blurred and his heart thundered in his chest. But he went, because one did not say no to the Demon’s Head.
“Detective,” Ra’s began as he sat down at a large, stately desk that seemed out of place in the rest of the Cradle. The voices--he had taken to calling them whispers--that had been clogging Tim’s thoughts preened at the nickname, ignoring its former bearer.
“Tell me what you know about my grandson,” the assassin drawled, his fingers tapping on the desk rhythmically.
“Don’t you have spies for that?” Tim responded, not quite a retort but not an innocent question either. He’d seen enough of the League’s intel that it was clear how much they truly knew about the world outside the Cradle.
“Yes, but I’d prefer to hear it from someone… familiar with him. My eyes can only do so much from afar.”
Tim had no doubt that Ra’s knew everything about Damian: from the route he took to school to the cereal he ate for breakfast to how many times he pet Titus when he got home from school.
“He’s a brat.” Tim’s chagrin even took him by surprise, like it wasn’t really him talking. “He’s rude and inconsistent and incredibly immature. He’s aggressive and undisciplined. A sorry excuse for a Robin.”
And there it was, the green monster of jealousy rearing its head again. Yes, Damian had taken Robin from him unfairly, and yes, he was all of those things. But why did Ra’s care?
“I see. Would you describe him as a leader?”
“No. If anything, he’s a bully and a mama’s boy. Leaders need to be able to listen to others.” Where was he getting this? Damian was a kid, he could learn. He still had time.
“Interesting.” Ra’s rose from his chair and paced the edge of the room. Tim refused to look back and follow his movements. That would be a show of weakness, a drop of blood in a shark tank. “Detective, what do you have in Gotham? What do you have there that keeps you from dedicating yourself to your cause?”
Tim stifled a gasp as he thought of the instant response. Dick and Damian didn’t need him. Stephanie hadn’t called in months, even before Bruce died. Jason had tried to kill him, last they’d spoken. The Teen Titans were getting along just fine without him. Truthfully, the whispers were right. There was nothing left for him in Gotham. If there was, he would have stayed.
“Nothing.” The anymore went unsaid.
“Then I may have a proposal for you.” Ra’s eyes glowed a dangerous green. A pit formed in Tim’s stomach, as the last few vestiges of him that hadn’t sided with the voices screamed at him to just escape.
“Oh?” Tim responded, mouth bone-dry.
And Tim’s world crumpled.
“Learn under my agents. Train to become better than you are. Continue your quest with my resources behind you. All you have to do is stay and work for me,” Ra’s smiled like a hunter who had just shot big game.
This was a terrible idea. Tim didn’t kill people, he refused. He was supposed to help people, not hurt them. But he couldn’t deny that feeling like he belonged again was incredibly enticing.
Tim opened his mouth, but Ra’s cut him off. “Your friend will not be harmed. I won’t even think about putting you on an assignment until you’re up to par with my best ninjas. I will not make this offer again.”
The voice that responded was not Tim’s own.
Tim thought that six months of training with Bruce was brutal. Ha hadn’t known brutal until now.
His first day of training, he showed up in his Red Robin suit, now patched and reinforced where he had been stabbed.
The tall ninja that seemed to be in charge scoffed, then sent him away. Not fifteen minutes later, a tailor descended on Tim’s quarters with a tape measure and a face made of solid stone.
“Can’t have you looking like a target, all in red. What was Batman thinking?”
Maybe he wants them to be targets, Tim and the whispers thought in tandem. He balked at the thought, but the tailor’s firm hands kept him in place. What was he doing? Bruce had loved him, did love him. He had taken care of Tim when no one else would. Bile crawled through the back of Tim’s throat, but he swallowed it down.
The tailor finished her measurements and scanned Tim up and down.
“It will have to be black, of course. Reinforced joints, kevlar, the whole nine yards,” she stated in a lilting accent. “Maybe some green accents, dark ones. Classy. Half-mask, no more cowls or dominos.”
Red, yellow, and black were his colors and had been for years. A tribute to a boy he loved and lost then loved some more. But Conner was back now. And Tim was tired of mourning, especially when no one was dead. Well, except him.
“Green,” he agreed, swallowing thickly. He wasn’t Red Robin anymore, not really. And he could always wear the suit again. This wasn’t a finale, just a hiatus.
She nodded once and then swept away, leaving a teenager clutching the last thing he had of his old life. Tim folded the suit, the way Alfred had always chastised him for, and gingerly placed it in the bottom drawer of his wardrobe. He wouldn’t need it anytime soon.
The next day, a precisely wrapped package sat outside Tim’s door bearing no signature. He knew exactly what it was.
Upon peeling back the paper, he saw the full glory of the new suit. It was midnight black, with dark green stitches that were beautiful up close, but would be near-invisible from far away. It looked like a cross between the ninjas’ garb and body armor--sleek and sure of itself. A hood was attached to the back of the neck, with the green stitching spelling out something Tim couldn’t discern. A half-mask with built in air filters covered the rest of the face. As he patted the suit down, he felt where all the separate compartments were for weapons and utilities. It reminded him a little of the costumes from high-tech spy movies.
Sitting on the floor with his new suit in his lap, Tim added another item to the long lists of debts he owed Ra’s al Ghul.
His first real day of training, Tim was beaten so badly he could hardly drag himself to his room.
It wasn’t that they had intended to hurt him, but he had gone almost a month without training. Bruises laced up his cheekbone like their own little domino mask, a little memento of times gone by. His joints screamed out in pain as he collapsed onto his bed. At least he hadn’t broken any bones. Or been stabbed. Or died.
Tim only had a few minutes to contemplate the stuntman funniest fails video that was his life when a gentle knock came from the door.
“Come in,” he groaned, flopping over onto his side so he could see his company. His mother would have scolded him for not standing up to greet a guest, but she didn’t have much sway from six feet under.
A girl with olive-tan skin and a brunette bun stepped into the threshold, her smile the gentlest thing he’d seen in a long time.
“Hello, my name is Aminta. I figured you could use some help with your wounds.” Her voice was lower than he expected, but pretty nonetheless. A dark, untraceable accent threaded through her words.
He peered up at her, frowning.
“Is this a hazing thing? Am I being hazed?”
She chuckled, then sat on the ottoman at the edge of his bed.
“Not hazing. The new recruits tend to help each other through the first few months. Safety in numbers and all that. I thought you might want some assistance.”
“So, you’re all friends?” That didn’t sound right.
“No,” she hesitated for a moment, “not exactly. Friends is too... common. We are assassins, but we have honor. When we need to, we take care of our own.”
Ah, so he was one of them now. For some indescribable reason, that didn’t fill him with as much dread as he thought it would.
You have no friends. You never did. Just those who you will rule and those who you will crush, the whispers added.
Tim smiled, the shy grin he used when he wanted teachers and Wayne Enterprises board members to underestimate him.
“Thank you, Aminta. I’d appreciate that. My name is Tim.”
She winked at him, clearly a joke.
“Believe me, I know.”
The League had a mole.
Or at least, they were going to. Tim had known enough corrupt businessmen in his time in Gotham’s upper echelon that he was well versed in the signs of someone double-dipping. At first it was little things: missing pieces of inventory, strange new guard shifts, incorrect mission intel. By the time it escalated to money being skimmed off the top of jobs, Ra’s was furious.
When he called Tim in for a meeting, something that was becoming increasingly normal these days, Tim was expecting fiery rage. Instead, there was steel-sharp cunning. It was a little like looking in a funhouse mirror.
“Detective, it appears that we have a liability in our ranks,” Ra’s began, his fingertips caressing a blade. “I assume you’ve read the data I sent to your quarters, and I’d like your thoughts.”
Tim cleared his throat. He had spent the night before reading the reports, putting together the pieces. If this was a test, it was a wicked one.
“The incidents began shortly after the attacks by the Widower. It’s a piece of misdirection intended to frame either Pru or I as a mole. However, neither of us has any reason for betrayal. Pru is, and has always been, loyal to the League. And you are well aware that I have nothing left for me in Gotham, nor would I be stupid enough to allow myself to get caught.” His voice was smooth, the prince of Gotham giving yet another speech.
“There is someone who has means, motive, and opportunity. After reading your files, it is incredibly clear. He has a family of his own that he is loyal to, and during my resurrection, he was not in the Cradle. His computer prowess would allow him to mess with the system in a way few others could. It would have been a very clean job, if he had spread it out over months or years instead of a few weeks.”
Ra’s stroked his goatee.
“You mean the Expediter.”
“Very well,” Ra’s rose from the desk and clasped his hands behind his back. “Now that we’ve established the perpetrator, it is time to establish the punishment.”
Ah, so here was the test. Ra’s wanted to see how ruthless Tim could be. It was a very good thing that Tim never failed an exam.
“Kill him. It will send a message to our other agents and whoever he worked for that we are not to be trifled with.” Tim’s hands shook, but his voice was full of conviction. He had always been a good actor, but it wasn’t clear how much was truth now.
“And his daughters?”
“Bring them to the Cradle. They’re young enough that they likely won’t remember him, and we’ll be able to shape their childhood. Perhaps one will become just as intelligent as her father, and wiser as well.” The whispers hissed wordlessly in disappointment, but it was worth it. Tim refused to order the execution of a child, no matter how loud the shrieking in his skull became.
There was a beat of dead silence, then Ra’s nodded sagely.
“Wise choice, Detective. I’ll put those orders into effect at once.” He smiled, his teeth gleaming as his dagger had. “I’m looking forward to the rest of our partnership.”
Oh, how the whispers laughed.
Life in the Cradle was, well, nice. Tim was training harder than he ever had, under much more strenuous conditions, yet he felt better than he ever had. He was stronger, for one thing, but for the first time since he’d discovered Batman and Robin’s identities, he was able to rest. He didn’t need to be up until dawn chasing people across rooftops or finishing reports or writing an essay for English class because he’d been too busy on patrol. Even in a den of killers, Tim felt almost safe.
That said, he refused to let his guard down. He’d sat in on meetings with the inner circle of the Cradle for months now, trying to use his famous brain for something important. Which for his purposes, meant destroying the League as best as possible.
That was the only reason he’d stayed, or at least that’s what he told himself during nights where he twisted and turned trying to justify his choices. He’d exploit the League’s generosity to train himself and find Bruce, then take it down. Bruce would have to be proud of him after that, they all would. Maybe he’d even be Robin again.
He’d already taken out the Expediter, Ra’s’ guy in the chair. The guy confessed to the mistake of having a family and trying to work for the League at the same time. Good thing Tim didn’t have to worry about that anymore.
This is good, but it is not enough. You crave more. Do not be a coward, take it.
Now Tim was the techie for an international assassin guild, which would look moderately impressive on a college resume. Maybe it could count as an internship. Ra’s seemed like the guy who would make a relatively okay reference when Harvard came calling.
It always felt strange when he had lunch with Ra’s. It was eerily similar to the fancy lunches his mom used to drag him to, or the etiquette classes he was forced to take where he learned how to properly use a melon baller. Of course, it wasn’t like he was going to be killed for using a melon baller wrong then. Now, he knew that any wrong move could result in death.
Not his own death, of course. There was no point in Ra’s bringing back Tim, just to kill him again. Tam, however, was expendable. And that made the marrow in Tim’s bones shiver.
This particular lunch was more focused on memory lane than shop talk.
“So, Detective, tell me: what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Tim swallowed hard around his tea sandwich, his throat suddenly painfully dry.
“When I was little, I wanted to be a clown. Not a great career path in Gotham,” he began, attempting to keep his voice light. Ra’s looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.
“Then, I wanted to be a photographer. Then, my father said I would be a CEO or I’d be disowned, so I wanted to be a CEO. I could always do photography on the side, you know?
“And then I became Robin.” He let the weight of that sentence sink over the pair.
“So? What happened after that?”
Tim resisted the urge to stare at his sandwich, instead choosing to meet Ra’s’ bright green eyes.
“Then, I stopped thinking I would grow up.” There it was, the thing everyone had been trying to pry out of him for years.
“I mean, Dick barely made it out. Jason died, came back, went crazy, and now murders people for shits and giggles. Stephanie died, but only kinda. Damian’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide. In the wild, robins live for a year, maybe two if they’re lucky. I don’t think anyone realized how similar we all are to those stupid birds.” Tears pricked at the backs of his eyes, but he didn’t need to cry. All that pain was gone now, replaced by something else. He couldn’t name it, but it kept all the sadness away.
Tim had been sad for his whole life. It was a relief when the roiling ocean inside him froze over. Numbness was an improvement.
Ra’s leaned across the table, his face barely a foot from Tim’s.
“You know, Detective, you remind me of myself. Not when I was young, of course, but when I had just begun to build my empire. All your life you have been told to quiet down and listen instead of speaking. You’re a fine leader because of it. You adapt when others are stubborn. You make plans while they push through without a second thought. You are a snake lying in wait, anticipating the right time to strike. I admire that.”
The air hung in silence as Ra’s stared directly into Tim’s soul.
“You know,” Ra’s finally said, “I think you could be truly great one day.”
Tim barely breathed as he nodded his thanks. When Ra’s finally leaned away, his first breath felt like the first gasp of air from a drowning victim.
“Before our lunch concludes, and I do so enjoy our lunches, I have a query for you.” This wasn’t out of the ordinary, Ra’s liked to give him riddles to keep him on his toes.
“Some of our ninjas, though I will not say who, have gone rogue. A year or so ago, they got themselves caught up in some nasty business. My current intel places them here, in this compound, where they’re using innocents as collateral, should they not get what they request.”
“What do they want?”
“My head on a platter.” Ra’s’ smile was bloodchilling. “Oh, Detective? I feel it’s important to note: international news stations are currently reporting you and Ms. Fox as having been kidnapped by these rogues. Any advice on how to fix that?”
So this was the second test. Another chance to prove his loyalty. Let Ra’s’ enemies go free, or kill them and forfeit his old life for good in return.
“I assume extraction is not possible?”
“I’m afraid that those deserters are incredibly well trained. The special units from any nation’s army wouldn’t even make it into the compound. My ninjas could make it in, but there’s no way they could take out the traitors and save the civilians.”
Tim nodded, pretending to contemplate. He already knew his answer.
“Bomb the compound, kill everyone inside. It’s better to cut off the rot now than give it the chance to spread.”
Ra’s did not smile, but his eyes glimmered with pride.
“My thoughts exactly, Detective.”
And just like that, the death warrant was signed.
Tam was waiting in his chambers when Tim got home from a long day of training, his body littered in bruises and cuts that would sting tomorrow. Her crossed arms functioned as a hug, like she was the only thing keeping herself together.
“Tim,” she whispered when he came into view, the word like a prayer.
He glided across the room wordlessly, and she wrapped him in a tight embrace.
“I managed to get someone to sneak me a newspaper. Th-They think we’re dead, Tim,” she said into his shoulder, words slightly muffled by the fabric.
His hand came up to stroke her hair, the way he used to comfort Cass after a particularly long day. Tim didn’t respond, and instead let her tears soak into his shirt.
Good. Now you have the element of surprise.
The Council of Spiders had a worthy namesake, as they were just as quick and deadly as any arachnid. Somehow they had crept past the League’s defenses, disabling the ninjas that got in their way. True to form, the assassins’ deaths were just as silent as they were--shadows fading out as dusk began to form.
Tim was preparing for another day of strategy and mind games when Aminta burst into the room.
“The Spiders are here. They managed to sneak in--no one knows how. You’re needed,” she gasped, as if she’d ran a marathon to deliver this message. Judging from her state of disarray, maybe she had.
“I’ll protect her. Go!”
Tim didn’t have time to question these motives or worry about much more than tugging on his cowl and pulling out his bo staff. He sprinted out the door and into the madness, moving in a dangerous dance with the assassins he had trained alongside for the past few months. The League was good, great even. But with the element of surprise, the Spiders were better.
He couldn’t afford to think about what could happen if they lost. Failure was not an option, not anymore.
A shadow glided toward one of the empty hallways and away from the rest of the frenzy, a sword glinting in its hand. Something that had dug its claws deep in Tim’s bones pulled him toward the figure, urging him to follow. To finish the job.
If others saw red when enraged, Tim saw green.
The figure purposefully stalked toward the large office Tim had started to spend increasing amounts of time in. The footsteps were near-silent, but in his mind they echoed almost deafeningly loud.
The shadow had to know he was there. It had to. Tim was good, but a few months of training could never rival lifetimes.
The shadow glanced over its shoulder, a feline-esque smile on its face. It said something, probably a witty yet scathing remark, but it was drowned out by the cacophony of whispers in Tim’s mind.
Finish the job.
Show them who you are, who you can be.
You are not a bird, you are not a bat.
You are a demon, and you do not know weakness.
Not a Robin, not Red.
You are Green, Green, Green.
Become who you were always destined to be, Detective.
Tim struck out with his bo staff, right into the shadow’s skull. It faltered, just for a millisecond, and that creature that was both Tim and not lashed out, quicker than it had any right to be. A dagger in his hand, sharpened to a razor-thin edge. He did not remember doing that. That same dagger, buried into deep tan flesh.
Then he was across the room, bones aching from being thrown into the stone wall. If he was still human, still able to rein in whatever was drowning out his senses, he would know to expect pain tomorrow. But he didn’t, and all he felt was the adrenaline rushing through his veins.
And he was up again, throwing himself at the shadow with the conviction of a greek hero who knew that this fight would be his last. A fist full of rings connected with his cheek, and he could feel the skin tear beneath the metal. Maybe it would even scar.
The shadow leaned heavily to one side, though whether it was from the stab placed between its ribs or a prior injury, Tim didn’t know. It lurched toward him, and he stabbed it again, this time twisting the dagger until he felt the give of a lung. The shadow was down now, and deep down Tim knew that he never should have beaten it, never should have landed a single blow. In a logical world, Tim would have lost ten times over. But in a logical world, Tim would have been dead for the past six months.
As if time was in slow motion but he was at normal speed, Tim glided through the seconds, pushing pressure points with the tip of his blade. The shadow’s sword lay across the hall, too far out of reach for retaliation. This wasn’t torture, but it was revenge--for pain and sacrifice and nights spent clawing at his own skin, wishing it still felt like his. Payback for months of sins he never would have committed, for the green that clouded his vision. But most of all, it was a promise.
After minutes that held years of heartwrenching pain, Tim delivered the killing blow, straight under the shadow’s chin and into its brain. He was covered in blood, tacky and rust-toned, but where a past Tim--a lesser Tim--would have balked or vomited at the sight, this Tim stood, cleaned off his blade, and hefted the cooling corpse onto his shoulder.
They can try to revive it with the Lazarus Pit. You cannot allow that to happen. You cannot fail, the whispers urged, but he no longer needed them. They were him and he was them. Green in every breath and thought.
Tim escaped into the desert and finished the job, just as he had always been taught to do. Ra’s would have been proud. Bruce would have been proud.
That night, after the Spiders had been exterminated and the mess cleaned up, Tim sat at the foot of his bed, staring at his hands. The ninjas had looked at him with what could be called pride when he staggered back into the fray, his face bruised and bloody and sporting a wound on his thigh. His silky clothes brushed past the injuries every few seconds, but he couldn’t muster the energy to wince, even though he knew he should.
Tam had managed to hide during the clash, and Aminta had kept her promise. Tim liked people who followed through.
After being given the all clear, he stumbled back to his room to wash out his wounds and scrub the smell of smoke off his skin.
He had only just changed into his silky clothes when a knock came at the door. Without waiting for a response, the White Ghost was in Tim’s room, staring down at the teenager with an unnameable expression on his face.
“Timothy Drake,” the man said by way of greeting.
Tim glanced at him and blinked owlishly, but did not respond.
“Ra’s al Ghul is dead.”
This gripped Tim’s attention, and he finally made eye contact with the assassin, his brow creasing in concern.
“You’re going to revive him, right? He told me that you have more Lazarus Pits near here, he can use one of those. How did he die?” A million scenarios raced through Tim’s head, films of the death of the Demon.
“They burned him on a pyre and left him in his study. No trace of cause of death, and we can’t revive him. Any DNA has been destroyed.”
Tim stared blankly, processing. The Demon’s Head, the invincible Ra’s al Ghul, was dead. Gone forever.
“Ra’s made plans, should he die,” the White Ghost continued. “Those plans include a new leader of the League of Shadows. And that leader is you.”
Tim sputtered, “What? You can’t be serious. I’m seventeen years old. Why not you? Or Talia or Nyssa? Or Damian?”
“I do not make light of these things. He said you, so it is you. I am the White ghost. He had not contacted his daughters in years, and his grandson is too unpredictable to be suited to the position. You are the Demon’s Head, Timothy Drake.”
Tim stared back numbly. He was the Demon’s Head. The Cradle was his, these assassins were his, the world was his. He wanted power, and now it had fallen into his lap.
The White Ghost kneeled before him and bowed his head. “I will serve you, Timothy Drake, in whatever way you see fit. I will be your eyes and ears and hands. I will obey you and carry out your orders. I pledge my allegiance to you, and only to you.” Satisfied with his vow, he rose to his full height.
Tim swallowed hard, then looked back up. “I accept your vow and thank you for your loyalty.” Then, “When… When will the rest know?”
“Tomorrow, at noon. I thought it might be best for everyone to rest, and for you to know first. We can discuss further details tomorrow morning, but for now, know who you are.”
Tim nodded stiffly and pushed himself to his feet, straightening his spine the way his mother had taught him to. He had been raised to become a prince of Gotham, one of the pretty boys that graced magazine covers and made headlines at charity events. Now, he was a king of assassins, an emperor of the underworld. If only she could see him now. Maybe she’d even be proud of him, for once.
“Thank you, White Ghost. We will speak again tomorrow. Should there be any issues during the night, I would like for you to inform me immediately.” He may be clad in silk pyjamas, but there was leadership in every fiber of his being. The whispers hissed in agreement.
“Fadir Nasser. My name is Fadir Nasser. Long live the Demon’s Head,” the White Ghost--Fadir--said as he left the room, the last remark stinging with a hint of a joke.
The door locked shut behind him, and Tim flopped backward onto the bed, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. His gaze fell to the closet, where his suit was stuffed in the corner, smelling of smoke and burning flesh and the irony tang of blood. The whispers quickly supplied a description of the events, but Tim could picture them clear as day--carrying Ra’s to the desert, building and lighting a pyre, then bringing the body back and placing it in Ra’s’ study for someone to find. It was incredibly simple, almost too simple for no one to have done before. But Tim was Green, Greener than anyone had ever been before. And no one would ever know.
He’d need to invest in a new suit befitting his new role, maybe bring back some green accents. He no longer needed to mourn Conner. He no longer needed to mourn at all. He was the Demon’s Head, and he would never die.
The whispers laughed cruelly, like the audience of a poorly-written tragedy.
The transition of power wasn’t smooth, but it was quick. Assassins weren’t particularly known for their loyalty, and Fadir made it clear that any dissenters wouldn’t even make it to the door. They only had to clean blood off the stone floors once before that lesson sunk in.
As far as coups go, it was pretty successful. The whispers had quieted, just a little. Tim could sometimes make it hours without the hissing in the back of his mind, reminding him that he couldn’t rest. With power comes paranoia, and Tim was intimately familiar with both.
Now to rid himself of liabilities.
It had been a particularly lucid day, and Tim’s near-silent footsteps were the only hint of noise in the hallway. Tam had been given the option to move her room closer to his, but had refused. He didn’t blame her, it was hard being the civilian favorite of the assassin king. Tim knew this well.
Tim knocked on the wooden door, two quick raps. Somewhere deep in his memory, he wondered if this would have been his life, had everything been different; maybe he’d be knocking on Tam’s door before picking her up for a date. Instead, he straightened his shoulders, put on the shy smile Tam thought was his true one, and waited for her.
Shuffling on the other side of the door, then a creak as it swung open. Tim glided in, and Tam looked at him with those big brown eyes, her expression tainted with a touch of fear. He didn’t remember her ever being afraid of him before.
“Do you want to go home?” Tim asked. No preamble, just his soft question in the quiet room.
Tam didn’t even think about it first.
Tim nodded, then drew out a one-way ticket to Archie Goodwin International Airport, leaving tomorrow night. He held it out to her, that soft smile on his face and a promise in his eyes.
Tam tentatively took it, but kept looking at him. “Are you serious?”
“You’re not a prisoner. I’m sorry I couldn’t let you leave earlier, I just wanted to make sure the League was stable first. My intention was always to get you home.”
“Thank you, Tim.”
Tim slipped his hands in his pockets. “You’re my friend. I just want you to be happy.”
Tam pulled him into a hug, and for a second it felt so nice it almost hurt. Then it was over, and he could be comfortably numb again.
“Aminta will be coming with you, just to make sure you get home safe. Once you’re with your family, you won’t have to see any of my… agents ever again.”
Tam nodded, her face screwed up in an effort to keep from crying. He turned to leave and give her privacy, then paused.
“Tam? Thank you. For being my friend.”
Then the king of shadows disappeared into the night, yet again.
Tim frowned at the wall, a small comms unit tucked in his ear. He hadn’t moved from this room in a day, not since Tam and Aminta left.
“Okay, Aminta, I need you to keep close. You said that it’s just Batman and Robin? No Batgirl?”
“Just Batman and Robin. They haven’t spotted me yet. Robin’s really fallen behind since leaving us.”
Tim growled under his breath and carded a hand through his hair. It was getting long again. Who did Ra’s go to for haircuts? Did he just do it himself?
The facts were these: Tam had been contacted by Batman and Robin immediately after Lucius Fox gave word that she was home safe. Tim had been expecting this, and Aminta was sent to follow Tam and ensure that the interaction went favorably. Which is to say that no one killed Tam because of what she knew. Aminta was currently hidden on the same rooftop as Gotham’s favorite heroes, listening in on their rendez-vous.
“What’s happening? Report.”
“She’s telling them--why don’t I just play their conversation? I have the capability.”
A crackling came over Tim’s comm unit for a few brief seconds before it shifted to three familiar voices.
“It’s okay, Tam. Just tell us everything. From the beginning.” That was Dick. He sounded the exact same way he had when Tim left, tired and a little pained. Serves him right.
“Yeah, okay,” there was Tam’s voice, slightly higher pitched than normal. “So my dad sent me to find out where Tim Drake was. And I managed to track him down to Iraq. So I’m in my hotel room one night, and I wake up to someone putting a cloth on my nose. Then everything went black, and the next thing I knew I was in this cold stone room. Then this albino guy tells me to stand up and we walk into this big hallway and there’s Tim. And he’s all sweaty and looks super freaked out. Then they brought us to these bedrooms and told us that we’d be staying a while.”
“Why would they take you?” A third voice asked, the snobby tone immediately registering as Damian. The brat.
“I’m not sure. Maybe my search for Tim sent up some flags? No one ever told me.” Her voice cracked a little, and maybe once upon a time, Tim would have felt sorry for her. Not anymore.
“It’s okay, Tam. After you moved into the Cradle, what happened?”
“Tim spent a lot of time training or with Ra’s. He couldn’t tell me much, but apparently Ra’s took a liking to him. One of the inner circle guys turned out to be a traitor, so Tim took his job. I didn’t see him a lot.”
“Who was the traitor?” Damian again, with a hint of anger in his voice. Or was that fear?
“Some computer guy. The Executioner or something.”
“The Expeditor?” It was definitely fear in Damian’s voice. He sounded like a child when he was scared.
“Yeah, him. I just hung around for the most part. They had books. They gave me makeup and nail polish when I asked for it. I was bored, but never threatened.” Tim snorted. Tam knew more than anyone that just because she didn’t have a knife to her neck didn’t mean she wasn’t in danger every moment of the day.
Dick cleared his throat, then spoke again, “Why did Ra’s let you leave?”
Tam went quiet, just for a second.
“Ra’s al Ghul is dead.”
A beat of silence. Tim would have paid millions to watch them right now.
“How?” Damian, his voice filled with fear, and maybe a little pain.
“I-I don’t know. There was an attack by the Council of Spiders. Tim had them lock me in my room with a guard. Some of the girls I talked to said that Ra’s was burned afterward so they couldn’t revive him. No one knew until the day after.” Tam’s voice was shaking now.
“Then where’s Tim?” Dick asked, finally caring about his younger brother after all this time. What a joke.
Tam stuttered a few times, but eventually got the words out. “Tim… Tim’s the new leader. Ra’s named him his heir before he died.”
A hiss sounded over the comms. That had to be Damian.
“Thank you, Tam. I appreciate you answering our questions. You know where to find us if you remember anything else.”
Some shuffling obscured any new words, then Aminta’s voice appeared. “They’re leaving, do you want me to follow them?”
“Yes,” Tim responded, massaging his temples. The whispers were getting louder now, to a point where it was impossible to understand any one message. It was hard when they got like this, harder than when they teamed up. At least then he didn’t feel like a helpless teacher in a rowdy classroom.
Maybe a minute ticked by before Aminta was back. “They just went a few rooftops away. Robin’s clutching Batman’s cape and crying, but it’s like angry crying. He’s mumbling something, but I can’t understand it. Batman’s rubbing his back, but he looks miserable too. Less angry, more sad.”
“That’ll be all, Aminta, thank you. You can return home tomorrow,” Tim sighed. “Our dear friend Tam has done us a favor, so we should be ready for the consequences.”
“What favor? Telling them everything?”
“Not everything. We still have an ace up our sleeve.”
“What advantage could we possibly have, other than knowing that they know?”
“Tam didn’t tell them about my little swim.”
Somewhere, there was a universe where Timothy Drake-Wayne woke up on the morning of his 18th birthday and put on a suit, ready for a day of meetings at whatever company he was interning for before he started college. Maybe he had a party with his family or a date that night. This is what Tim thought about as he busied himself getting ready. He had never been one for birthdays. Jack and Janet were rarely home, and even when they were in Gotham, they had better things to do than celebrate a child. He didn’t blame them. Before he came to the Cradle, he wasn’t worth celebrating.
The ornate mirror in his bathroom showcased his attire: a loose-fitting white shirt, tailored brown silk pants, and a dark green cape that almost resembled snakeskin. Dark circles rimmed his eyes, but he left them. They made the blue stand out. Here was the heir Ra’s had craved so badly. The old Tim would have made a joke about how he looked like a dark prince from a young adult novel, but not anymore. He was the Demon’s Head now. No, not just its head. He was its hands and heart as well. Tim Drake was a demon through and through.
His guests had landed in Iraq the day before, and he had it on good authority that he could expect them that evening.
Tim drifted around the room, preparing for the meeting as one would prepare for battle. His fingertips lingered on the rings he had inherited from his predecessor, and with a deliberate movement he chose the signet ring Ra’s used to wear. He slipped it on and smiled to himself, a snake poised to strike.
Carefully, he patted his wrists, hips, and ankles to ensure his knives were still there. He had always favored batarangs, but he was no longer a bat or a bird. He had left them behind, just as they had left him.
The White Ghost was waiting at his door, ready to escort him to his study. As they walked, Tim absentmindedly ran his thumb over his knuckles. The whispers hissed inaudibly in his ear, wailing for attention.
“Has the room been secured?” He asked, face neutral.
“Yes. I have placed ninjas along the walls and at every access point. Any familiar with the al Ghul child have been sent on missions abroad, though they remain loyal to you.”
“They leave here alive. If they attempt to attack, I want them subdued but not killed.”
“That’s not wise. It will be seen as a show of weakne-”
“Do you think I am weak?” Tim’s voice was as ice cold as he felt.
“No, of course not,” Fadir backpedaled. “But how can you justify it?”
“By the time I’m done, there will be no need to kill them. This is just a courtesy call, a reminder that my prior allegiances are no longer viable.”
Tim swept into the study, his back straight and his jaw square just the way he had always been taught. From birth, he had been raised to be a prince of Gotham, one of the many pretty boys in suits who graced Forbes covers before they could legally drink. He had been bred for greatness, and he achieved it in his own way. Here, no one would ever best him. He was finally free.
Soon you will have everything. All you have to do is make one order.
Tim’s hands shook slightly, but he tightened his grip on his fountain pen as he sat down. The day was full of reports, requests for missions, and invoices. He had been doing most of this paperwork anyway when he was just a lackey, so it wasn’t an inconvenience. It was methodical in its ruthlessness. $750k for a political assassination in France, 40% taken for the League, the rest wired to a private bank account in the Cayman Islands. $25k to kill a cheating spouse in South Africa, the same 40%, and this time headed for a Swiss bank account. A request for a league member to “take care of” an abuser, which Tim set aside. An invoice for new training blades, as the older ones had been dulled. A new Lazarus Pit that was discovered in Iceland.
The sun began to sink outside of his window, and Tim collected himself, drawing the last shards of who he used to be away from the surface. That Tim was dead and gone, and in his place was someone who was finally worthy. If the old Tim was a bleeding heart, this Tim was the knife that stabbed it.
Fadir knocked on the large oak door to signal that their guests had arrived. Tim pushed himself out from behind the desk, pulled back his shoulders, and stalked out of the room, refusing to look back. It wasn’t that he couldn’t show any weakness--it was that he wasn’t weak at all. Not anymore.
Tim walked down the now-familiar hallways, the whispers humming in happiness as others averted their eyes respectfully as he passed by. Aminta stood at the left hand of the large stone throne in the formal hall, and dipped her head in greeting when he approached. Tim took his place on the throne, relaxing into the smooth stone. Fadir took the right-hand side, his hand on his sword’s pommel at all times.
Ninjas lined the walls, all ready for battle at a moment’s notice. Most had been training for decades, long before Tim was even a thought. And now they served him.
One lone ninja entered the room, first bowing to Tim and then scurrying up to the throne.
“They have arrived, sir.”
Tim grinned darkly.
“Bring them in.”
Dick looked older than he had eight months ago. His cowl was pulled up to hide his face, but Tim could see it in the set of his jaw. For a man in his late twenties, Dick looked positively weary.
Serves him right.
Damian was stiff, both an heir and a stranger in a child’s body. He glanced at the ninjas placed around the edge of the room, as if searching for a familiar face. He wouldn’t find one.
Tim did not smile when the man he had once considered his brother approached.
“Hello Dick. Damian.” His voice was colder than he ever thought it could be. “You can remove your masks, everyone here knows who you are.” Or they did now.
Dick hesitated for a fraction of a second, then pulled off the cowl. Damian followed suit with a grumble, peeling off his domino.
Satisfied, Tim smoothed a neutral expression onto his face.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” He asked, the words pleasant but the tone as sharp as a blade.
“Is this where you’ve been all this time?” Dick burst out without preamble. It was a shame that he couldn’t exchange pleasantries, even after all of Alfred’s lessons.
“Not exactly. I was in Paris for a bit, caught up with some old friends.” An old friend, one who probably hadn’t even noticed he was gone. None of them had.
You are powerful because you are alone. Others would betray you. You can trust no one. The whispers chimed in, though they were merely repeating what he already knew to be true.
Damian hissed his displeasure, which earned him an evil look from Dick. Look, he’d already been replaced.
“Tim,” Dick began in a gentle voice, the one he used for scared kids. “Come home. We can figure this out. We’ll get you help, maybe even try that therapist I told you about. Or we can shop around, it doesn’t matter. I miss you. I miss my little brother.”
“Oh, I believe you misunderstood. This is a business meeting, not an intervention,” Tim hummed, examining his fingernails. The cold steel of the knives tucked in his sleeves was a delicious reminder of who he was, who he had always been destined to become.
“In that case, I believe some clarification is in order. Following the death of Ra’s al Ghul, I became the head of the League of Shadows, a position I am very proud of. I will not be returning to Gotham, unless it is for League business, and I will certainly never fight at your side again.
“In truth, Dick, I have not thought about you or your brat once since coming to stay at the League. I understand that our previous relationship may have led you to believe that I would be a naive fool forever, but that is not the case. I have found meaning now more than you could ever dream of achieving.
“Here is my proposition: I will cease training of any assassins younger than age sixteen immediately. I am also currently updating how the League accepts jobs to minimize the amount of innocent casualties. I will waive all rights to Wayne Enterprises, though anything Bruce willed to me will remain mine. In exchange, you leave me and my assassins alone. You will not contact me unless seeking my services. You can keep your Robin, but he lost his birthright a year ago. These are my conditions, and they are non-negotiable.”
The chatty Dick Grayson was speechless. Instead, it was Damian who spoke.
“You stole my birthright.” For a child, he sounded downright murderous.
Tim smiled. “And you stole mine. I believe that makes us even.”
The child nodded, then drew his sword. Along the walls, ninjas drew theirs as well.
“Damian, no!” Dick hissed, glaring at his brother-ward. “Tim, you can’t be serious. We’re family. This is insane!”
Tim’s expression did not display the glee that bubbled in his chest.
“We were family. But you know what they say, the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” He dismissed Dick’s other accusations with a wave of his hand.
“I have given you my terms. You have forty-eight hours to make your decision. Until then, I believe you have overstayed your welcome. You should leave.”
Green pulled at the corners of his vision as the whispers shrieked, begging him to go ahead and kill them. He couldn’t, of course, that would just invite more prying eyes to the League. But he could think about it, and that was enough.
Dick and Damian were almost at the doors when Dick stopped and turned to face Tim, his posture teenagerishly defiant.
“I don’t know who you are anymore,” he spat, as if Dick Grayson had ever truly known Timothy Drake.
Instead, Tim smiled. “I’m the Demon. And you should leave before I make you see Hell.”
A second later, they were gone. Watching them go felt like getting an injection--the pinch lasted for a second, but afterward there was no pain at all.
Demon Demon Demon Demon Demon Demon Demon, the whispers howled as Tim’s blood sang, welcome to your kingdom come.
His hands had always been cold. Ariana used to comment on it all the time--how his touch was borderline freezing. At the time, it had been a running joke: Tim Drake, the boy made of snow, with eyes made of ice and snow-pale skin. It seemed now that even in the heat of the desert, his heart had frozen too.
Nighttime was comfortable in the desert, at least for someone accustomed to Gotham’s climate. Still, the breeze that danced across Tim’s skin left goosebumps in its wake. He couldn’t remember when he’d come out here, let alone what for. He barely even noticed how he gripped the banister of the balcony until his knuckles went stark white.
A little prickle of emotion prodded at his subconscious, but he couldn’t identify it even if he wanted to. There was no room for feelings anymore, if there had ever been. If anything, feelings had gotten him into more messes than out of them.
He had become a vigilante because he felt that Batman needed a Robin. He worshiped the ground Bruce walked on because he felt like Bruce saw him as a son. He broke the rules for Stephanie because he felt as if she could love him. He wanted to be with Conner because he felt that someone finally saw him for who he was. He rejected power time and time again because he felt that it was the right thing to do.
But feelings meant nothing. All that truly mattered was knowledge and wanting. And Tim knew more than ever. And he wanted it all.
Once, he had considered them his family. They had loved him, maybe, but they had never known him. He used to believe in a future spent fighting by their side, but he knew that was a child’s dream now--the same child who believed that he wouldn’t live to see twenty-one. Tim had no such concerns now.
He wasn’t foolish enough to believe that the League was his new family, nor did he need one. But they would not underestimate him or take him for granted. Here, he had respect and power, and that was enough.
The lights of the nearest city glimmered far on the horizon, promising happiness and gaiety somewhere in the night. He smiled, a secret only for him.
One day, you will rule it all, the whispers promised. One day, you will be king. And you will destroy any who stand in your way.
Long live the Demon.