"Have you heard?"
"Sue Dibny's dead."
Tim nearly drops the phone. "What?"
"It's been all over the news."
Craning his head around the doorframe, Tim sneaks a peek into the living room. His father and Dana are still watching an old movie. He hopes they don't change the channel until he's elsewhere. "What happened?"
"Murder. I don't know the specifics. Can we meet at the diner?"
"Sure. See you soon, Steph."
Tim presses the off button on the cordless handset and returns it to the receiver, heading into the living room. "That was Steph. She just got her GED results and she wants to celebrate how good her scores were. Can I go meet her for ice cream?"
After a moment his father nods. "Don't be out too late."
Steph's in the corner booth, dressed in black jeans and the oversized dark blue hoodie she only wears when she's feeling extra-lousy. She stands when she sees Tim approach and hugs him tight. He can feel a new hardness of muscle in her arms even though it's only three days since they last met up. He wonders if his own limbs feel soft and weak to her.
"I wish they hadn't ditched the TV over the counter here," Steph says, her voice a little thick. "Mom was still watching when I left. I could tell she was gearing herself up to another big Talk about me. With me. Whatever."
"Does she know...?"
Steph shakes her head. "No."
They don't talk about it if they can help it. He's only seen her in the costume once, on the night five weeks ago when she came to his window and bit the bright lipstick off her lip to keep from crying.
Tim stroked the pressure point on the lefthand side of the mask, just below the corner of the eye, sliding the lenses back from Steph's eyes. She blinked, surprise fading quickly into understanding as like recognized like.
"He's doing it again," she'd said shakily. "Telling me to quit. I don't know... I mean, how..."
"Shhh," Tim smoothed her wind-knotted hair with his palm. "It's okay, Robin."
There were catches and clasps on her armor that were different from what he'd worn. They both trembled as their hands found skin, and hardly made a sound between them. Perhaps they'd been unsure what names to whisper.
"It didn't work the other thousand times he tried it, why should this be any different?" she'd said the second time they'd talked about it. They were in Tim's room again, so Steph could use his computer to look at the files she'd copied from the Cave's mainframe and Tim could pretend to have no idea what she was up to. "Maybe he'll clue in some day that firing me isn't getting the point through."
"Hmm." Tim was looking at his history textbook and thinking about how Steph tasted.
"Have you seen these? They're, like, war plans... or war games, I can't tell. D'you think, if I pulled one off, he'd take me back?"
Tim looked up and raised his eyebrows.
"Okay, okay." Steph ejected the disc and moved on to the next one. "Learn to spot a joke when you see one in the wild, hey?"
Tim put his textbook aside and sat up. "Have you been contacted yet?"
"You mean, have I been cornered and scolded and had the Robin suit confiscated? Nope."
"Ixnay on the Obinray," Tim shushed her. His Dad and Dana were out, but Tim wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm sure your parents can crack your intricate code there," Steph retorted. "No, I haven't. I saw Cass night before last, and I'm sure she saw me, but she's obviously not telling. Same with Oracle, I guess. It seems to me like this is all another stupid screwy test. I want to know how many he'll put me through before he gets over himself."
"Don't hold your breath," suggested Tim.
Now, they clasp hands across the table.
"When I was a kid," Steph whispers. "I'd make my friend Stacy be the girl in peril in all our games. I was Superman, or Green Lantern, or the Flash, or, yeah, even Elongated Man a few times. And Stacy was in danger, and I'd save her. That's how the game worked."
He wants to tell her things will be fine.
"I know," Tim says.
When Tim gets home from talking to Steph at the diner, his Dad hugs him tight and calls him son and offers thanks to God that Tim's out of 'all that'.
He wants to call Kansas. He's reached for the phone at least two dozen times over the past couple of days.
Kon will be busy. He won't have time to listen to well-meaning platitudes from someone no longer relevant.
Tim wants to call Dick. He wants to call Bruce.
When the evening news has a special report about a second attack, Tim calls Cissie.
"Hey. It's Tim."
"Tim!" Cissie sounds extremely surprised and very pleased. "Cassie told me what happened. I'm glad to hear from you. Mostly the only times I hear from the old crowd are Conner's periodic calls to bitch me out for giving him no excuse to call. He's got some issues."
"Don't we all. Cis, I called because... there's been another attack. Jean Loring."
Her gasp comes down the line as a burst of static. "Oh... is she alive? Is she okay... Oh, I can't..."
"She's alive. The news said she's stable. I thought you deserved to hear it from a friend."
"Thanks. I'm... I can't believe it."
Tim knows there are not many women Cissie has known whom she actually trusts. Dr Money is dead, Bonnie is unstable at best. Jean had fought to keep Cissie in the only home the girl had ever known and, though the attempt had proved unsuccessful, Cissie had not forgotten Jean's effort.
"Cassie will be able to give you more information," Tim reminds Cissie.
"Do you want me to tell her you called?"
He wants to say yes so much that his throat hurts.
"Best if you don't," he answers.
Time crawls. It feels like breakfast takes an hour. School is a century. After classes are done for the day, Bernard and Darla drag him out for ice cream sodas.
"You look like someone's just told you that Star Wars isn't really real, my man," Bernard says.
"Blasphemy," Tim replies, and orders a Sprite with no ice.
"I'm gonna go choose some tunes." Bernard brandishes a coin and heads for the jukebox on the far wall.
"I'm sorry I hit on you," Darla says when they're alone. "I should have believed you when you said you had a girlfriend."
"Oh?" Tim hazards.
"Wanna know why I believe you now?"
Tim wonders if he's allowed to answer no. "Hmm?"
Darla leans in, conspiratorial. "Girls can tell when a guy's done it."
"Oh?" Tim says again, and wonders if he'll spontaneously turn invisible any time soon. He's wishing pretty hard for it, after all.
"It's okay. I've got my eye elsewhere." Darla nods toward the jukebox. Tim turns just in time to see the lingering look Bernard gives the waiter bringing their drinks over, and does his absolute best not to splutter with laughter. Luckily, his face doesn't do any more than smirk.
"Guess who I caught, cuffed, and carcerated this evening?"
Tim leans his head to one side so he can hold the phone against his shoulder as he helps Dana chop vegetables for dinner.
"It means the same thing as incarcerated. Like flammable and inflammable, duh."
"That's... right, okay, fine. Who?"
"Captain Boomerang! Is that cool or what? He had tons of concealed weapons and everything. I rock."
"I wonder why he was in Gotham," Tim muses. Dana stills his hand and turns the carrot he's chopping so that he's slicing a different way.
"Who cares? Maybe he's hoping a spot'll open up in Arkham."
"Hang on a sec." Tim holds the mouthpiece against his shirt. "Can I invite Steph for dinner?"
"It's fine with me, but you'd better check with your Dad. It'll be ready in a little over an hour."
Tim nods, and goes into where his Dad's watching TV. It seems like they've had the news on nonstop for the past few days.
"...witnesses claim the arrest was made by Robin, Gotham's fabled teen vigilante. Contrary to the usual Robin rumors, bystanders claim that this masked do-gooder was a young, blonde woman. Back to you in the studio, Laura."
Tim backs out of the room very quietly. "I'll meet you at the diner soon," he says to Steph, taking the stairs two at a time. "Wait for me if I'm late."
"Sure, but what's -"
Her words are cut off as Tim switches the phone off and tosses it onto his bed. He knows there's nothing incriminating in his room, but initiates a wipe on his hard-drive and checks under his bed anyway.
"Hi Dad, what's up?" His smile feels too broad and fake, but he leaves it on anyway.
"Is your girlfriend one of those people?"
"What people, Dad?" Tim lets his smile fade and a line of confusion appear between his brows.
"Don't play that game with me. Is. She. Robin?"
"Huh? Dad, I was Robin. I stopped. I promised, remember? Why would I hang out with a new one? Why would Batman take a new one?"
Tim's Dad doesn't look placated. "The news said Robin's a woman with long blonde hair."
Tim makes himself laugh. "Well, there you go. Steph cut her hair, remember? You said it made her look sophisticated."
"She hasn't... grown it back?"
"Dad, you saw her a fortnight ago." Tim prays his father's habitual obliviousness is still in peak condition. When his Dad's expression shifts from angry to unsure, Tim grabs the lifeline and goes with it. "Actually, I was just talking to Steph before you came in. She borrowed a CD off me and it belongs to Bernard at school. You remember Bernard, right? And Bernard wants it back tomorrow, so I was going to bike down to the diner to see see Steph. I'll be back for dinner, I promise."
"You've been spending a lot of time with her. I'm not sure -"
"I'll tell her you said hi. She's always saying how cool you guys are. She has a lot of respect for the way you've brought me up."
It's a little white lie. Tim's told much bigger ones with a straight face. His father smiles.
"Oh. Well. Yes, go. Be back for dinner."
"Thanks, Dad." Tim allows himself to be hugged before he escapes from the room.
Steph's playing with the sugar dispenser and humming to herself when Tim arrives. She grins broadly and stands to kiss him on the cheek.
"My mom's on late shift if you want to come by tonight. I went to the drugstore and bought extra condoms."
Steph has taken to claiming that it's been so long since the last time she had sex before these last weeks that her virginity grew back, but Tim's just glad that at least one of them can think about it without getting flustered.
"I'd like that," he manages now, settling into his seat and pointedly not thinking about what a limited view of the room its position provides him with. "It might be kinda late. My Dad's... you know."
Steph nods. "'kay. I'm still pepped up from taking down... well, not a big name, but at least as big as the Cluemaster ever was."
"I remember what it's like."
"Yeah? So how come I never got lucky after you bagged a big one?" The teasing is gentle; Steph knows the wounds are still tender. "How was your day?"
Tim grimaces. "Long. Boring. Frustrating. Embarrassing."
"I'll make it allll better." Steph's smirk is as good as a promise. Then her face changes to surprise and no small amount of fear, gaze fixed on the door into the diner.
Tim turns to see what's going on, and does his best not to react with jaw-dropped shock.
Bruce is approaching their table.
Steph puts the strap of her bag over her shoulder, preparing for a quick exit. Tim, irrationally, glances around to make sure that his father hasn't slipped in unannounced.
"It's all right, Stephanie. Sit down," Bruce says as she stands to leave. "I trust my files made interesting study?"
He sits down next to Tim, who thanks a lifetime of dedicated mental compartmentalization for the easy switch from thinking about sex to thinking about the mission.
Steph glares and crosses her arms over her chest. "If this was all an elaborate scheme to get me to do homework, I'm selling your secrets to the tabloids."
Tim wonders for a moment how she can let the past go so easily, before he remembers that this is hardly the first time Robin or Steph has forgiven Batman for this sort of situation.
"No, that wasn't the reason," Bruce assures her. Tim does his best to get a good look at Bruce's face without obviously staring, which isn't easy when they're on the same bench in a small diner booth.
Even without seeing the expression for confirmation, the tone in Bruce's voice is eerily familiar. Tim remembers it from the earliest days of his own training.
Don't be Jason, that tone says. Please.
"I was reminded of concerns I harbored," Bruce goes on. "Concerns which you have since given me ample reason to set aside."
"Caught the news, huh?" Steph unfolds her arms and gives them both a fierce smile. "Like I was saying to Tim, I rock."
Bruce turns to Tim. Tim swallows and offers a shaky grin. "Hi. How is -" Everyone. The life I used to have. "How're you?"
"I've rarely felt the lack of an assistant more than these past few days, let's put it that way." The voice is jokey and light, but the look Bruce gives them both is sharp and honest.
"Wish I could help you out," Tim says ruefully. "But I hear the new girl rocks, so that's all right."
Bruce turns, speaking mostly to Tim. "These recent times have reminded me of how risky it is for people like me to form outside ties -"
Tim looks down at the table and begins to fiddle with the same sugar dispenser Steph was playing with.
"- and how important those ties can be in making life worthwhile," Bruce continues. "I will never ask you to go against your father's wishes, or your own, but -"
Tim looks up again. "Lucky for you, Dad's yet to master the concept of email. Drop me a line any time you like." He checks his watch. "I better get home now, though, or Dana will grow claws and fangs. Stepmothers do that if you skip dinner. Strange but true."
Bruce stands to let Tim slide out of the booth. Steph stands too, and clasps Tim's hand for a few seconds. "See you later?"
He nods. "Like I said, I might be late."
"Yeah, well, me too." Steph looks up at Bruce. "I think I'm busy for at least the next few hours."
Bruce gives a small nod. Steph's smile is so bright Tim finds he has to turn away from it. Then he steels himself, and turns back. "Tell everyone I said hi." He hesitates. "And... I miss them."
Steph squeezes his hand again. Bruce rests a hand on his shoulder.
Tim knows he has to go home. Dinner'll be ready soon, and his Dad will be watching the TV and getting worried, and there's a trig test tomorrow.
But for now, he just stays where he is.