Summary: Nobody else was there.
Series note: Playing around in the universe of The Red and the Black
. Takes place after 'As well as once green'.
Notes: Riffing on, and thought-stealing from, Te's shiny brain. Blame me for the bad bits, credit her for the good bits.
Superman's the first one to tell her. He looks younger when he furrows his brow, the worry-creases endearing in a way which makes Babs wish she could be disgusted with herself for melting a little at the sight.
Superman says that Batman's been to visit him.
"He wanted to talk about death. More specifically, what happens when death -"
"Doesn't quite take?" Babs cuts in. Superman nods.
"Who?" she asks. There are so many it could be.
"I think... Jason," Superman says, but he doesn't say it like he thinks it. He says it like he knows.
Babs' mouth curls up into what she can feel is a crooked smile.
"Of course," she says. "Why should he be any better at leaving it behind than the rest of us?"
Several months later -- eventful months, but no moreso than they ever are -- she's reading reports of Harvey Dent's murder scene and her coffee's going cold in the mug beside her keyboard.
It's easy to imagine what Jason would have looked like as he fired the killing shot. She can still remember the only night she worked beside him, the way his face went from fury-red to blank and cold in a heartbeat. It's no effort to impose that on the dry language of the homicide report.
No, it's not the final wound which gives her pause and puzzlement. It's the aim-to-hurt ones.
Anyone who's ever operated in Gotham knows how the big names work. Even without a perfect memory, Babs could tell a knot tied by an Ivy-controlled minion from one done by a Scarecrow victim. There are quirks to look for.
Jason shoots just like he always did, and he's got a friend who fires like Harley Quinn.
The call comes almost two weeks after the Riddler's body turns up with a hole through its heart.
The connection's bounced through a few relay points, enough that it takes her almost thirty seconds to fix on his location. He stays quiet as she does so.
"It's nice to have an opponent who makes an effort to challenge my intelligence," Babs says when she's locked the address in.
"Opponent? Makes it all sound so damn civil. Like we're sparring."
She can hear him tap a key. Her tracking software jitters for a moment before reasserting itself.
"Aren't we?" She smiles, and shuts his system down. He swears.
"It's times like that that I wonder why you didn't pick Cock-Blocker as a name. Forget this 'Oracle' bullshit."
"What do you want?"
"Can't it be that I just wanted to hear your melodious tones? We never did have that sleepover I promised. Though, if we're talking specific requests, I would like to put a vote in for not getting the shit beat out of me by Canary or Huntress. I'm making this call on the faith that that won't happen."
Jason sighs. He still sounds like an annoying little brother. "I need your help."
"I can't give you information. That's not how this whole hero-villain thing works."
"No, not that," he snaps. "You
. Black's... there's this kid, and he needs checking out, and I know you can do it. I'm saying truce, okay? It's important."
He's no better at keeping petulance out of his voice than he ever was. Babs wonders if everyone he's spoken to has done what she's doing, comparing who he is with who he used to be.
"When I'm joking, it's funnier than this. Come on, would I have contacted you if I could think of any other possible option? We'll go wherever you want."
Babs pinches the bridge of her nose. Her Very Bad Idea detector pings loudly. "Okay. I'll come to you."
Babs is fairly sure that she's used up every single one of her little-white-lie points with her team long ago, but nobody questions it when she says she has personal business in Gotham. Zinda drives her to the almost absurdly nondescript, cookie-cutter town house Jason gave her the address for.
If Babs tried to explain her reasons, she knows they would sound insane. The city's criminals, costumed and otherwise, are vanishing at an alarming rate. Communication between the heroes -- those who are speaking at all, that is -- is little more than a jumble of hearsay and confused recollection. To meet Jason on his own turf is not merely stupid; it's lunacy.
But nobody else was there. None of the others have ever known what it's like to hear the world end with a laugh.
There's a Batgirl now, and a Robin, and a Barbara, and even a Jason, but even with all the pieces present, there're things which were stolen. And he's the one who knows.
He's waiting by the front door. There aren't any steps leading up to it, which Babs is glad of. Just because she's ignoring her better judgement and trusting him doesn't mean she's in any hurry to show weakness where he can see.
Jason's in street clothes, and looks just like an ordinary kid. A smarmy, smirking one with something hard and ugly in the twist of his mouth, but still a kid. No older than Cassandra, and he's still got those damned baby-blue eyes.
"Long time no see," he says lazily, and she wants to ask if it really was for him. "I need to explain some stuff before you come in."
"I'll be in the car, Skipper," Zinda says, touching Babs' shoulder. "You need me, you holler, got it?"
When they're alone in the relative quiet of the empty street -- the neighbourhood is gentrified enough that to seem lived-in would spoil the effect -- Jason leans against the door into the house.
"He's a Timmy. From somewhere pretty different to here. Well, as different as this shithole of a place ever gets. Or maybe he's not all Timmy. There's a lot of other stuff in there too." He pushes a hand through his hair and shakes his head. "There was a thing in his neck. A mind warp implant chip, or whatever the name for shit like that is. I've checked him over a bunch of times for other ones, but I can't pick up subcutaneous ones, or nanotech, or anything like that just by looking and prodding.
"I picked you for the job because I think he misses you a lot."
"He's never even met me," Babs points out, her voice gentle enough to surprise herself.
"His Babs. Whatever. You know what I mean." Jason shrugs helplessly. "They were friends. He doesn't exactly have an abundance of those anymore."
She wants to ask 'so why do you care?', but maybe the answer to that's to be found in his own words. Killing the wicked in Gotham City greatly reduces the number of people who will call you an ally, on either side of the coin.
"I figured you'd understand him pretty well, too. I hope you will," Jason adds as he opens the door for her. "I'll be out here."
Either he's a much better liar than he used to be, or he's basically telling the truth, so Babs plays the gamble and goes inside. The building's all but totally unfurnished; a pair of boots and some candy wrappers are the only hint that anyone's been inside at all. There's a layer of dust over the floorboards, thick enough that her chair leaves visible tracks behind it as she moves.
"He's set up a bunch of stuff in here," a voice calls to her from deeper inside the small house. If the Tim she knows got doped up on nitrous, brought down by shock, and didn't sleep for a week, he might sound like that.
This Tim's sitting on the edge of a chipped, cheap dining table. Various pieces of medical testing equipment, chosen seemingly at random, dot the floor and any other flat surfaces.
Jason looked like he belonged in his jeans and shirt, but this Tim is obviously just wearing the clothes he'll tolerate until it's time for him to really dress. The threadbare t-shirt hangs off him like one day he'll vanish inside it entirely. The cuffs of his jeans pool over the tops of his bare feet. Even his toes are heavily scarred. The skin of his arms isn't a roadmap of markings so much as it's an abstract rendering of the surface of hell.
"You've got grafts too," he says, his nightmare-carnival voice sounding surprised. He points to the faint, fading scars on her arms. "I knew about the wheelchair, but not that."
She glances down, then nods. "I had a little run-in with Brainiac. Not unlike what happened to you, I hear."
Among the older tears on his forearm, there's a new, still-stitched gash. Tim flicks at the black knots of surgical thread with his thumb and forefinger as he answers. "Guess some things stay predictable, even when everything else is crazy. I don't think I have any more chips in me. Red got freaked out when we were out. Passing through a metal detector made me -" his mouth twitches, a sound like a high sob or laugh escaping his throat between words. "- go a little funny. But I don't think it was chips."
She can't ask. She can't hear his answer, even though she already knows what turned him into this.
She remembers the horrible, sick hours she and the others spent believing their own Tim was dead, when Joker unleashed his serum on the villain population. She remembers, with nauseating clarity, how much she wanted Joker to die then. She remembers it now because she feels it again.
"He had a camera," Tim says, like he knows what she's thinking. He sounds like he's talking about something he watched in a movie. "Some days I think that was the worst bit. Some days I don't."
She covers her eyes with her palm.
"Sorry. I shouldn't -" another almost-laugh derails his words momentarily. "- shouldn't, shouldn't say that stuff to you."
"It's all right." How close was she to becoming this? There was more than one day... more than fifty, when she felt like she was going crazy. How near to that edge did she wander?
"This is from Zsasz," he tells her, obviously deciding a change of subject's in order. God
, she thinks. Even his smile is scars.
He's still fiddling with the new cut on his arm. "I thought that was funny. That he got the chance to put a tally-mark for his own death. I want to hug you so much right now but I think you probably hate me."
His tone doesn't shift between the topics, so it takes her a few seconds to catch up on what's been said. Then, wordlessly, she opens her arms.
He all but throws himself at her, clinging like he'll die if he doesn't hold on with all his might, broken-doll face buried against her neck. Babs imagines that this is what her Tim would be, if all his defences and filters were stripped away from him.
"Joker should be dead. He needs to be," she says, and means it as deeply as she ever has.
"In my world, I..." Another gust of shaky, unwell laughter puffs damply against her skin. "Shot him. In the heart. He said it wasn't funny, but I can't stop..."
The laughter's almost a scream this time, his slight body shaking with the force of it. Babs can't tell when, exactly, it tips over into sobs, but they go on for a long time. She holds him.
"I'm glad it was one of us," she whispers. He'll understand. He's working with Jason.
"Batgirl," Tim says, choked, and holds her tight enough that she knows she'll bruise. This time, his tears sound less like nothing will ever be right again.
Eventually, she does scan him as best she can with the available equipment. It seems that, physically, Tim is as intact as he'll ever be.
"Will I ever play the piano again?" he asks as she finishes. "Or the tuba? Or the theremin?"
Robins. She'll never be free of them.
When she gets outside, Jason's sitting in the car with Zinda, talking animatedly.
"... and the band played 'sounds of silence'. You know it, right? Or was that after your time?"
"That story's getting on to five years old," Babs says as she pulls one of the back-seat doors open. Zinda hurries around from her own seat to help Babs in, and Jason chooses to be endlessly difficult and slide out the window. He's agile, for someone with his bulk.
"It holds up as a modern classic," Jason retorts.
Babs resists an urge to roll her eyes. "He's fine," she tells him instead. "No nanobots in his bloodstream, no irregular electrical activity. He suggested I should give your brainwaves a look."
Jason shakes his head. "Some other time. It's not important."
"How long's our truce lasting?" She can't condone what he's doing, but she won't condemn it either. Not while her collar's still bearing the signs of Tim's messy crying fit.
"If the Birds stay out of my way, I'll stay out of theirs," he answers.
She nods. It'll do for now.
There's nothing else to say, so Jason goes inside and Zinda drives away.
As they reach the end of the street, Babs wonders if Jason and Tim chose that house to meet her at because it was wheelchair-friendly.
"I liked him," Zinda volunteers in the quiet. "He's funny. Reminds me of the guys I knew back in the day. Was he ever a soldier?"
"Some would say so," Babs answers, and watches the world go past outside her window.