AN: Still don't know how I feel about this one, but I've held onto it long enough.
Chapter Eight: Things from the Past
It's like receiving a jolt from a defibrillator, Tim's chest jerking forward, and instantly, he's breathing new air.
He's somewhere else now, left staring at the pavement that's suddenly beneath him. The cement's relatively new, nothing interesting, but it's all Tim's eyes can focus on, because it's the only thing that's processing lucidly right now. Everything else—every noise, sight, touch—is coming blurred, a camera that can't focus. The vague sounds swirling about catch his attention still, because Tim knows they're important somehow, like someone's calling for him through a layer of water and he can't quite break the surface. A voice is there, though. It is. But as much as he knows it's important, Tim is also aware that he doesn't want to hear it.
"Tim!" the name finally arrives, and it's like he's been shocked again.
Everything clears with a nauseating clarity the moment Tim reopens his eyes. Four digits are instantly visible, screams are audible, and the panic—The panic is tangible. The numbers on the timer are shrinking; nines turn to eights and eights turn to sevens. But the wires and vials don't simplify, instead seeming more complicated with every change of the clock.
It's the only thing Tim's ever been afraid of. And here it is, staring him right in the face.
Tim's specialized in explosives. He can do everything from ballistics to arsons; analyzing rubble and the remains of blasts are cakewalks. But at the end of the day, live-wire bombs—Those go to bomb squad because he's a detective, and as much as Tim knows how to deactivate them, anything from the most complicated bomb to the simplest IED, he wishes explosives were the last thing he was familiar with.
Because when Tim saw the timer, he knew there wasn't enough time to call for bomb squad.
And when he saw the bomb, he knew there wasn't enough time.
"Can you do it?" comes the voice again, and Tim turns to see the face of his best friend, a seriousness in Conner's eyes that only makes it more apparent that they're here in New Troy, the heart of Metropolis, with an explosive a foot in front of them.
Tim can't do more than look at him, memorizing his face with that terrifying accuracy that comes when "tomorrow" is a question instead of a guarantee. Conner is the spitting image of Clark, so much so that it's scary, but Bart always said he and Tim were the ones who looked alike, focused on the shared blue eyes, black hair, and pale skin that never seems to age. "Are you sure you're not brothers?" Bart would ask with faked scrutiny, earning him a headshake from Cass and a smirk from Conner. They didn't look that similar, truly, but if Tim had to pick a person to be brothers with, it still stands that it would be Conner.
That's what hits Tim in the moment it costs him to take in every piece of his best friend's face. The nostalgia strengthens when his eyes drift over Conner's shoulder to the street behind him. 1938 Sullivan Place is that way, the apartment Clark and Lois share, and the Daily Planet building where Lois works is just visible over the skyline. It's all a painful reminder of how close to home this whole situation is.
"Tim," Conner repeats.
It reels Tim's attention back in. Only one second has ticked by in the instant it took for all those thoughts to process, like time itself has slowed down, but even then, time is still against them; it doesn't help solve the problem sitting a foot away.
There's only one thing they can do to solve that very problem. Tim knows it, and Conner must too. Tim can already see the idea in his friend's eyes, that grim determination Tim would trade his soul to remove. What comes next is something Tim would rather never hear, never face. But Connor says it, the words sharp in the mesh of someone screaming about the bomb and people panicking: "How far out is the harbor?"
You can't. It—Connor, you…
The harbor's close enough. If one of them drove fast, it could work, but...
You won't come back.
Tim whirls back, and suddenly, Conner's gone. Vanished from where he was and—No. No, that's not right. The bomb's still there, all four digits suddenly changed to urgent zeroes, and Tim is alone, the buildings bending over him like a cage as he kneels there. He can't move, some invisible force caught around his legs, and the timer's beeping angrily, a spark of light and fire and noise.
It's like Tim can feel the shrapnel, a sharp pain that spikes along his spine like fire, as he's tossed backward onto the mattress.
He blinks once, just to make sure it's real and… He's back in his apartment in Gotham, the familiar cracked ceiling of his bedroom staring down at him while his legs are caught up in a bedsheet. Lightning's flashing outside, thunder booming, and all the things from his dream are translating. The family upstairs is fighting again, yelling about something that's probably not important, and the bedsprings are digging into his back like bits of molten metal.
There's still a distant ringing, though. It's an impulsive thought, the kind that's kin to superstition, but Tim sits up anyway, ignoring the uncomfortable way his sweat-soaked hair is sticking to his neck, and scans the room.
The sound's still going.
He rips off the blanket from around his legs and leaps to look under the bed, a bundle of leftover adrenaline and panic.
It's 6 o'clock.
Time to get up.
That's what his phone is telling him, having fallen through the crack between his bed and the wall. Tim spends a moment registering the sight and the normalcy of it all. A weary sigh leaves before he's maneuvering his arm to inch the device out. When the alarm's been turned off, it's all Tim can do to fall back onto the floor, too exhausted to stand.
That dream again…
He tugs his damp hair out of his eyes in tired frustration, trying to calm the rapid way his chest is moving to take in oxygen. Another flash of lightning flickers, and it's only then that Tim realizes it's pouring outside, rain pelting the window and slipping through the shattered pane. A patch of carpet is growing wet beside him.
It's a rough neighborhood out here, and Tim thinks the crack in the window is from a stray bullet. He'll have to fix that, he thinks, but he can't bring himself to sit up. There's the scratchy carpet beneath him, the threads sitting coarse against his skin, and the family upstairs is still going at it, the walls and ceilings thin enough that he's certain the whole complex can hear them. He knows he can, every word audible against his best efforts to tune them out.
After a moment, Tim runs his hands up his face where his fingers settle in his hair, stifling a sigh.
Just seven more weeks of this.
He can make it.
A small gust of post-rain wind filters through the window screen. It's stirring memories of last night's storm, one that's since died down to nothing more than the smell of soaked concrete and damp leaves, and the cold exhorts Tim to hunker down behind a mound of stilled files. (He'd made a point to buy paperweights the other day.)
It's been two weeks and the Robinson case hasn't shown any signs of breaking. That doesn't mean work has stalled; everything from homicides to robberies is piling up on each desk in Himalayan fashion. Even with Tim taking on some of the load, everyone's still exhausted, sometimes pulling twenty-hour days, and coffee has since become everyone's best friend.
That caffeine-based alliance has encouraged Dick to appear in front of the pair, empty mug in hand and continuously warm smile on his face. "Want me to get you some more coffee?"
"Pass," comes Jason's reply. It's not rude; he's just busy, too absorbed in whatever case file he's looking at now (the questionable suicide of a "Felipe Garzonasa").
Dick takes the refusal for what it is and turns innocently to Tim, silently extending the same offer.
"I'm fine," Tim manages with something close to a smile. The expression is something he's not used to, but he's been finding is easier over the past few weeks of being back in a police station. He didn't know how much he missed it, getting lost in mysteries instead of dreams. And Wayne's unit—Mystery is something these people are filled with.
Dick's vanished by then, leaving Tim with the file in front of him. It's just one that's getting finalized, a report that's already been wrapped up but has gotten caught up in the transfer. Tim eyes it for a few minutes, scribbling out some notes half-heartedly before he slides it into a separate pile. He can hear Jason doing the same behind him, the scratch-scratch of pen making it hard to focus, and Tim's thinking about their last (and only) trip to Alfred's. There's something more there; Jason's been especially uneasy ever since then.
Ever since "Red"...
A pair of eyes whirl in Tim's direction. It's another thing with Jason: He always responds lightning-fast, borderline skittish. It's something that's become more evident this past week, but no one else at the office seems to think much of how quickly Jason is to whip around at the slightest disturbance, hand always on his gun and smoothed-over panic always on his face.
It's a mystery.
Jason's raised a bored eyebrow, reminding Tim to say something. To be honest, Tim didn't really have anything in mind, and it's unsettling how little they really know about each other, the two textbook strangers. It almost feels too late to remedy that.
After a moment of Tim struggling to come up with something, Jason must figure the silence has gone far enough, his disinterest obvious. "You just like saying my name or something?"
"No, I—" An idea. "I just...was wondering why you stay in Gotham, that's all. You grew up here, right?"
If Jason could look more uninterested, Tim's guessing he would be. The man offers something close to a shrug, though, and Tim's surprised to see that Jason's at least considering the question. (So Gotham isn't the thing that's got him on edge. Not something from childhood either. What's bothering him then?)
The gears of Jason's chair groan as he reclines in thought. "Yeah, I grew up here," he starts. "And this city's a pit. I don't deny that. Curb appeal's a joke, and everything stinks to high heaven. Still, home is home, so here I am. Sometimes you just fit somewhere—even if it feels like you shouldn't." A hand waves. "Not like I expect you to know anything about that, considering how fast you were to jump ship to Metro."
Tim hates how he flinches a bit at that.
"You're my best friend, I guess, so if we're both here and you fit, then it's kinda like I do too."
"Yeah," Tim mutters, suddenly quiet. "I guess I wouldn't know what that's like."
Silence reinvades, present enough that the faint air from this morning's storm sounds. It's continuing to drift in through the window, kissing the edges of the papers in sharp crackles. The quiet stretches long enough that Tim makes to turn back.
Tim's head snaps back to find Jason still there, eyes analytical and calm, but Tim can spot the tick Jason has that gives him away: Jason probably doesn't even know, but whenever he's grown uncomfortable, he holds his pen differently. It's always trapped between his thumb and index finger, the tip facing downward.
It's the same way he holds a cigarette.
Jason's eyes trail Tim's before he shakes his head with a snort. "Forget it. There's stuff to do."
Tim's not sure if he'd have been able to work up the courage to dig further, because a stack files begin sledding down the mountain of paperwork on Tim's desk and he's left scrambling to catch them. Jason's right: Work first, he self-reprimands.
However, the next folder that finds its way in front of Tim only elicits listless interest. He's still thinking about why Jason's always so on edge, almost like he's—
Like he's paranoid.
Why that is, Tim has no clue. But regardless of why, it still stands that Jason's that way a lot: anxious, tense, like he's got a skeleton in the closet that he's determined not to let loose. It has Tim wondering if Jason's always like this or if it's just with him. Maybe his last partner (Roy, was it?) was better at handling him. They sound close from what Dick's said, and Tim still doesn't know why Roy ever left. Could be part of the reason Jason's so untrusting—or a part of whatever "Red" means.
Dick would probably know, and Tim's curious.
A small breath eases out before Tim pushes himself up using his desk. "I think I'm gonna take Dick up on his offer, actually. Coffee sounds like a good idea."
"Don't have to explain it to me," Jason comments to his paperwork, pen still locked between his fingers.
Tim doesn't reply, just watches Jason for another moment like the second-long gaze will yield another clue. It doesn't, and an instant later, Tim's out the door with his empty mug in hand. He's well acquainted with the lounge by now, so it doesn't take him long to find it.
"Having second thoughts, I see," Dick laughs when Tim comes in. The man's still orbiting the coffee machine while stirring sugar into his mug, and he looks as chipper as he usually does. It's just the way Dick is, Tim's learned, an open book so long as you take the time to read him. The two of them have accumulated an impressive number of conversations here in the lounge, everything from life growing up (Tim didn't have much to say on that one.) to favorite colors. Even Dick talking about his parents didn't make the man flinch—surprising considering how tragic the incident on the trapeze was—but Dick seemed to focus more on how grateful he was that he met Bruce, the one in charge of the case, instead of the overall tragedy. It's that omnipresent optimism and forthcoming-ness that makes Tim hopeful Dick will be open to what he wants to ask right now.
"You just gonna stand in the back all day?" Dick teases with a grin. "I thought we were past that phase by now." Tim offers a hopeful smile, half-way to apologizing before Dick rips open another sugar packet and asks, "What's on your mind?"
Tim's smile falters a bit at that. Although Tim never really talks, Dick picks up on dreary thoughts like a hound, always willing to listen if it'll help. It's a nice sentiment that Tim doesn't indulge in. He simply moves further into the room and leans himself against the kitchenette counter, eying the crumpled sugar packets littering the place. Dick's been using them by the truckload it looks like.
Tim holds up one of the wads in a gesture of "think you have enough?"
"Not all of us can handle our coffee straight-up, Tim," the man laughs, completely oblivious to the fact that even normal sugar-addicts don't put seven packets in their morning joe. Tim's calculating how long he'd have to run to burn all that off—probably around ten minutes, he's guessing.
"So," Dick transitions, stretching the vowel, "what's up?"
Tim's still not sure how to broach the topic, opting for playing with the wrapper in his hands until he gets the phrasing right. Dick's patient as usual, maybe a bit taken aback by the serious look on Tim's face. It takes a short exhale before Tim decides to toss his question out bluntly: "…Jason's nickname. How did he get it?"
Dick pauses tellingly, time elastic until he sets his stir stick down with a small clink. "Should've guessed you'd want to know about that one," he snorts with an air of comic defeat. "Red's the one you mean, right?"
Tim nods, a bit surprised to see Dick so uncomfortable. It's a first for him.
"Yeah," the man exhales, raking a hand through the back part of his hair, "that's the one I gave him when we met. Well, I don't know if it was so much we 'met,' but Jay definitely made sure Bruce and I knew who he was."
Tim leans forward, trying to get a better view of Dick's face. "What'd he do?"
"Nothing criminal if that's what you're asking," Dick chuckles. "He was in his teens back then. Caught Bruce and I as we were coming out of the station, wearing this gaudy red sweatshirt of all things with the hood pulled up like he owned the place. I'll never forget it: Jay looked Bruce dead in the eye—uh, well, as much as he could with the height difference, anyway—and he said, 'Bruce Wayne, my name's Jason Todd. You'd better remember that, cause one day, I'm gonna be the best officer Gotham's ever seen—even better than you.'
"I didn't even know what to say to that one," Dick whistles, "but Bruce looked this kid straight back with that look he gets, the one that could scare death straight out of its skin, and Jason met him head-on." Dick pulls a few more sugar packets out of the holder as he continues, "Bruce must've respected that. He doesn't look it, but he's got a bleeding heart in there somewhere, enough that he offered to pay this snarky kid's academy tuition on the spot."
Tim can't hide the surprise on his face. He wouldn't have thought Bruce would be that generous, but he guesses he still has a lot to learn about the people here.
"It's the truth," Dick affirms, dumping packet after packet in. (By this point, Tim's waiting for the coffee to saturate.) "Jay's a genius with a pistol—never misses a shot, so they bumped him up pretty fast once he got through his probation period. Cass transferred in a while later, and when Jay took to calling me 'Goldie,' I decided nicknames wouldn't be too bad to liven the team up a bit. We already had "Black" and "Speedy," so Jay was really the only one left. Of course, my first thought for him was 'Red Hood.' It had a good ring to it, and I thought it would be funny at the time: Bats and his Color Trifecta of Gold, Black, and Red—Plus Speeds, of course.
"Naturally, Jason didn't take. You know how he is. For a long time, I thought he was just being stubborn, but then I started to realize why Jason, with all his thick skin, was getting so offended. And it was because I was being a bit of a jerk, although I didn't know it at the time…."
Dick tears open the last packet before reclaiming his stir stick, a contemplative expression on his face. "Jason doesn't talk about his past. Cass and I have our suspicions, but Bruce… Bruce is the only who knows for sure. I probably shouldn't tell you, but it's just a theory—nothing solid, so I guess it's alright to share it."
Dick pauses as he continues to mix his coffee, watching the beverage like it's debating with him over whether or not he should keep talking. He must win, as he continues.
"I think he lived on the streets. Probably for a while, since he's familiar with every stretch of the rougher neighborhoods. Bruce, Cass, and I, we learned those things over the years, but Jason? He came in with that knowledge like it's common sense… Took a while for me to figure out, but I think that sweatshirt he owned—It was probably the only clothing he had at the time."
Dick eyes the countertop pensively, and although it must be years since then, he still looks a little guilty. "I dropped the nickname fast, as you could probably guess. Didn't have the heart to give him a new one, so he's just 'Jay' now."
Dick picks up his mug and turns to lean against the countertop. He casts a dreary look in Tim's direction, mouth pulled to the side as if he's trying to smile but can't manage one.
The whole thing—It's a sad story. It really is.
But it's been over a week since their breakfast at Alfred's and Jason continues to look fidgety, haunted. No doubt the memories are bad, but… Tim can't fight off the feeling that "Red Hood" goes deeper than just a bad childhood on the streets. And Tim's already here, asking about something he probably shouldn't be, so he might as well get the full story if he can.
"There's…something else, though," he presses lightly, not looking away from Dick, "Red Hood. There's more to that name than you're telling me, isn't there?"
Dick finally manages his smile, although it's a plaintive one. "You're a better detective than people give you credit for, Tim. But the rest of that story—It's just not mine to tell." The man begins cleaning up the wrappers, and Tim knows their conversation is pretty much done. "Jason'll tell you when he's ready, so be easy on him. Until then, just…don't use that name, okay?"
Tim nods, a little disappointed, but he gets it. He wouldn't want Jason digging around in his past either.
"Good," Dick perks up, and he moves to leave, pausing at the door. "You have a good day, alright, Tim? Or, as good of one as you can with all this work we've got. In the meantime…." The man holds up his caffeine-filled cup with a wink, a gesture that makes Tim crack a smile. And then Dick is gone, leaving Tim alone with the floor to meet his eyes and the tick of a clock.