After the explosion they crouch on top of Perez Incorporated and watch some guy in an unfamiliar blue suit help Batman take down the last of Tinker Toy’s GigantoFemBots™.
The first one was theirs, exploding head and all. Nightwing provided the diversion, Robin the detonator, and it was all downhill from there, for the bot, anyway.
Batman took out bot number two without too much property damage (which ought to make the city council and the commish happy) and now it looks like new blue guy’s arms just turned into weapons of mass destruction. The final bot shivers, expands and contracts before melting into a heap of steaming silver slag.
“That’s something you don’t see every day,” says Nightwing.
“Yep,” Robin replies. “Schway beam cannons,” he adds, and cocks his head to look at her. “Should we get down there?”
Nightwing taps her throat mic. “Until B says otherwise, we sit tight. You know he hates improv.”
“No kidding,” Robin mutters, but it’s just as well. The boss is sure to ask if they scoped out new blue dude for weak points, so it’s good for them that Batman and the newbie have the situation under control.
Robin adjusts his focus, zeroing in on blue dude—the HUD feed should be giving the old man all the detail he could ever want. Okay, no, not ever, static excellence isn’t part of Bruce’s paradigm, but the new imaging feeds are pretty close to ever, if not completely there. They’re good enough for now, and right now they’re giving him an amazingly clear close-up of Blue.
“Is it just me,” says Nightwing, her forehead wrinkling, “or does he look like a giant bug?”
“It’s never just you,” Robin assures her. “Also, nice wings.”
“We have wings.”
“Not like those. What’s he supposed to be, some kind of moth?”
“Try a beetle. Check out his back when he comes around. See that? His suit’s put together like a carapace.”
Robin shrugs. Bugs that run on organics instead of nanotech aren’t really his speed. “You thinking meta?”
Her domino hides her eyebrows, but Robin knows she’s frowning. He can tell from the kink in her mask and the way her mouth just flattened out. “Maybe, maybe not,” she says. “The suit could be like ours, but it looks almost organic. I’m guessing biomorphic nanotech exoskeleton. The interface is probably an implant—for that kind of control, it would have to feed directly into the nervous system.”
She’s probably right. She usually is when it comes to any kind of tech. Robin shrugs again. “Guess it doesn’t matter. B’s still going to frag.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I will if you will,” Batman says over the comm and Robin’s stomach still jumps a little when that happens, but Nightwing just laughs.
“Who’s your friend?” she says.
“He says he’s Blue Beetle.”
“Told you.” Nightwing is grinning at Robin. Robin shoves her shoulder, and then the boss says, “Head in,” and Batman groans as the line clicks.
“I am so dead.”
“Fyi,” Nightwing says, uncurling from her crouch and stretching, “I’m gonna say I told you so later. A lot.”
Robin starts laughing and Batman says, “I hate you both so much,” and then his thrusters fire and he’s an orange-red-black blip on the skyline.
Beetle already left. Robin knows because he was watching. It’s what they do when they’re not kicking bad guy butt. Sometimes they even do both at the same time.
“Come on, twip,” Nightwing says. “You heard the man.”
“Yeah,” Robin mutters. Nightwing’s thrusters fire and he watches her dive, blue black and perfect. “He’s all I ever hear.” But he’s already following her down.
Batman (one of them, anyway) is gone by the time they get to the cave. It’s Terry who’s kneeling beside Bruce’s chair, cowl discarded, giving Ace a thorough ear scratching, and it’s Terry who looks up at them, grins like he’s trying for most annoying older brother of the year and says, “Take a look. Robin got some good shots.”
Behind him the screen is full of close-ups of the new guy in flight, hovering, taking down the bot. Max drops her domino on the console and leans on it with both hands, frowning at the images. “You heard of this guy before, B?”
Bruce sits back in his chair, steepling his hands. “The last Blue Beetle operated out of Chicago fifty years ago,” he says, and that’s all he says, leaving the usual gaping hole in their available need to know.
“So what happened to him?” Matt prods. (Asking obvious questions is kind of his job. It goes with the R.) He chucks his domino and his belt at the evidence table, grabs two batarangs and a sonic pack and starts juggling.
“He died,” Bruce says, and Matt fumbles the sonic. He catches it before it drops, saving them from busted eardrums and killer migraines, and Max says, “A little detail wouldn’t hurt, boss.”
“Tell me you don’t have a file on him,” Terry sticks in. “I dare you.” He gives Ace one last pat and pushes to his feet.
Bruce turns the chair around and looks at him.
Terry raises his hands. “Okay, fine. Dropping the subject now. We should probably call the League, though,” he says on a yawn. “See if they know anything.”
“No,” Bruce says. “Not yet.”
Max shrugs. “Your call.”
“It is. You all have work or class in the morning.” He turns back to the console. “Clean up and go home.”
Max snorts and pushes away from the console. “News flash, two of us already live here, and so do you.” She’s still wearing her gauntlets; the blue finger stripes are bright against the black of Bruce’s chair, curled over the top when she leans down and kisses his cheek. “If you’re not upstairs in an hour,” she murmurs, “Ace is gonna drag you there.”
Bruce raises an eyebrow, totally ‘Ace and what meta army?’ but Max crosses her arms and smirks and Ace pricks his ears and looks interested. And things would probably go downhill from there except that Terry catches Max’s neck in the crook of his elbow and drags her away.
“Come on, Gibson,” he says. “How ‘bout I interest you in a shower?”
Max says, “How about you go soak your head,” but she goes with him, digging her elbow into his side, making him yelp before hooking her arm around his waist and her thumb into his belt.
Matt rolls his eyes, tosses the ‘rangs and the pack down beside his belt and starts to follow. Bruce says, “Matthew.”
He half turns, turning his yawn into: “Yeah?”
“Your sims scores are down. I want you here after school tomorrow.”
It says a lot about the last three years that he says, “Okay,” before he sticks his tongue out at the back of Bruce’s chair.
It says a lot about Bruce that he doesn’t say anything and doesn’t turn around and Matt still knows he saw him do it.
He’s thirteen when he figures out his brother is Batman, and then the world ends.
It’s a couple more years before he figures that second part out.
Bruce isn’t really a sadist. He’s a masochist who thinks everyone else should share his masochistic tendencies.
He does something to the controls that makes them and him hum in a way that is the exact opposite of reassuring and says, “Ninety-eight point eight. Better.”
Robin stays where he is, crouched down, batarang ready to throw. He can hear himself panting. Sweat slides shivers down his spine, pools in the waistband of his suit, but he moved first last time and he’s not that stupid anymore.
“This is the part where he tells you you can do better than that,” Max says from somewhere behind him.
“Duh,” Robin says, trying to watch Bruce’s hands on the console and keep an eye on the training course at the same time.
Bruce looks up and over Robin’s head, both eyebrows raised. “Well?”
“Stan’s back,” Max says, sounding like she’s trying not to laugh. Robin doesn’t even try.
“Did pet licensing fees go up again?” he asks when he stops snorting.
“Nope,” she says, “but apparently library fines did.”
Robin covers another laugh with a cough and Bruce says, “Let me guess. The downtown branch?”
“Got it in one,” Max agrees cheerfully. “I’m heading over there now in case anyone wants to tag along.” Her voice retreats with her, trailing off on her suggestion, and Robin wants to go but… yeah. Not stupid.
Not stupid, not stupid, really, really not. Really.
He wants to go so bad he can taste the napalm already.
Bruce hits something else on the console. It beeps and sinks down into the floor and the course sighs around Robin, powering down.
“Go,” Bruce says, and Robin doesn’t need to be told twice. He was moving before the word was out of Bruce’s mouth.
“Robin,” Bruce calls after him. He skids to a stop, looking back over his shoulder.
“Again tomorrow,” Bruce says, and smiles. And no, there’s no cowl there, but Robin knows for a fact that Bruce smiling is a thousand times scarier than Robin and Nightwing and Batman smiling combined will ever be.
He says, “Gotcha,” and then he runs because Bruce is still back there. There might be something coming after him.
He ducks and rolls, ow, concrete, broken brick, crushed soda tube, ow, curls himself up until he’s occupying the least amount of space possible and the grenade sails over him with maybe foot of air to spare.
Something explodes. He stays down, protecting his head from raining stone debris with his arms, and says, “Tell me that was the third gargoyle from the right.”
“The second,” Nightwing says in his ear.
“Way unschway,” Robin says, “That was my favorite.”
“You have a favorite gargoyle?”
“Hold up a second.” He slithers back over to the edge of the roof and looks down. Stan is still down there, laughing maniacally.
“No more government kickbacks! No more tax and spend! I’m shredding this red tape for good, man!”
Robin rolls his eyes. “I guess it’s good he didn’t set up inside, anyway.”
“Heck,” Nightwing says, “I’m just glad he waited until after closing. Okay, done. You’re good to go.”
“Finally,” Robin says, and dives. Stan sees him coming and throws another grenade.
Robin says, “Shit.” He changes trajectory midair and the suit protects him from impact, but landing hard on hard concrete still hurts a lot.
He’d like to get Stan back for that (and maybe say some really bad words) but he’s Robin so he says, “Can we talk about this?” while he bellies across the roof to crouch behind a jut of air duct.
“You capes always want to talk,” Stan scoffs. “That’s what happens when you follow the establishment’s rules. Talk all the time and get nothing done. You’re infected, Robin, just like the rest of them. They’ve brainwashed you into thinking the way they want you to think.” He taps the side of his head. “But I got your cure right here, man.” He grins and holds up a detonator.
“Guess that’s a no,” Robin mutters. “Also, holy hand grenades, Batman, he wired his own freaking roof.”
He knows he’s not going to get there in time but he launches himself at Stan because if he only goes with what he knows all the time he might as well take off the suit now and walk away. And he didn’t know Nightwing would say, “Got you covered,” but he feels a hand grip the back of his suit and then he’s airborne for real and not surprised at all.
The look on Stan’s face right before Beetle grabs him too is almost enough to make up for the roof exploding behind them.
Robin tilts his head back. Beetle smiles nervously down at him, or at least as close to nervous as someone who looks like a big blue bug can look. “Okay?”
“Never better,” Robin says and grins back. Dangling from Beetle’s other hand, Stan is shouting something about government stooges. Nightwing is waving to them from the library roof. She cups her hands around her mouth.
“Bring him up, I’ll cuff him for you.”
“Which one,” Beetle calls back, and Robin says, “Yeah, you’re real funny,” and wow, Beetle should never, ever laugh. Ever.
Beetle spreads his wings and swoops, skimming up the side of the building, and Robin yelps, “Watch it, I like my legs attached!”
“Sorry,” Beetle replies, “I’ve never carried anyone before,” and then he’s setting Robin down next to Nightwing. He hovers, effortlessly holding Stan (still struggling) out for her to cuff, which is sort of surprising. Now that Robin’s seen him up close with Stan for size comparison, he’s realizing the Beetle isn’t much taller than he is, if at all, and Beetle’s holding on to Stan like he’s not even an issue. His suit’s enhanced strength capabilities must be—
“Robin,” Nightwing says, and Robin stops staring at Beetle’s wingspan and stares at her.
Her smile flashes briefly. “Space case. Beetle’s taking Stan over to Central, okay?”
“Cool with me.” He looks back up at Beetle. “Thanks for the save.”
“No problem,” Beetle says. He hoists Stan up, making him squawk, and rises higher in the air. “See you around?”
“Yeah,” Robin says, although Beetle probably can’t hear him over Stan. He waves instead and Beetle half smiles and waves back, then he turns and sails away on his moth wings.
“Think that’s his real voice?” Nightwing says.
“Jeeze, I hope not,” Robin says, because who wants to sound like a cross between Firefly and a mosquito? Still, he’s pretty sure there’s something close to a human voice underneath all the buzzing. There’s something almost familiar about it, but he can’t—
“Guys,” Batman’s voice comes in over the comm, “we’ve got a situation. The Howl and the Ts at Timm’s Station, and I don’t think we’re looking at hot chocolate and a sing-along.”
“On our way,” Nightwing says. Robin shelves his déjà vu for later and echoes, “What she said,” and then they’re in the air.
The next several hours are full of laser fire and scorched body parts and all the other stupid things that happen when gangs happen to each other. At least no bystanders are injured.
That’s what they always tell themselves when it’s over, anyway. It doesn’t actually help, it’s just what you have to tell yourself.
It’s a long night. Twenty-four hours is twenty-four hours, but sometimes ten hours can feel like forty-eight. The sky’s starting to get light when he crawls through his window. He has enough time to be grateful Mom’s dead to the world, knocked out by a combination of work and working on her thesis, before he does a face plant on his bed and passes out without stopping to think about anything.
When he’s eight his dad dies and the world doesn’t end. He just thinks it does.
He slides into AP calc on the wrong side of the bell and grins at Capitelli on his way past her desk. She gives him a hard look then she shakes her head and says, “As I was saying, those of you who haven’t already sent your homework in do it now, then set your readers to page one-eighteen. Does that work for you, Mr. McGinnis?”
Matt mumbles something he hopes sounds noncommittal and scuttles up the steps to the back row keeping his head down, thankful for a lab partner who always saves him a space. “Thanks, man,” he says as he drops into the seat Diaz just slid his pack off of. He slumps down, digging in his own pack for his laptop, covering his yawn with his hand, and catches Diaz looking at him sideways as he sets the laptop down and opens it.
“Long night?” Diaz says.
Matt snorts. “You could say that.”
“Gentlemen,” says Capitelli, “since you’re so interested in discussion, maybe one of you would like to answer the question.”
She’s glaring at them from the front of the room, arms crossed.
“Shit,” Matt mutters, but Diaz just gives him this half smile then turns toward Capitelli and says, “Yes, ma’am, in this case the differential is—”
Matt mouths, “I owe you,” and tunes gratefully out.
The rest of the day goes pretty much the same, half-awake answers and annoyed teachers interrupted by lunch and physio. Geo’s yapping keeps him semi-conscious through lunch and he wakes the rest of the way up to beat Yin’s lap time then autopilots his way through history. It’s a relief to get back on his bike and head for the manor, even though he knows Bruce is going to take one look at him and crank the danger level way past ten.
He’s still yawning when he parks his bike in the automotive museum Bruce calls a garage and wanders down to the main cave.
Terry, Max and Bruce are in a tense huddle in front of the main computer console. Terry and Max are suited up most of the way—they don’t have their masks on yet. “Yo,” Matt says. Nobody looks around. “Who is it this time,” he asks, dumping his pack beside Terry’s and wandering over to get a look at the screen.
That question gets him a reaction. Terry glances at him and says, “Shriek. He got out yesterday but they didn’t notify the cops until an hour ago.”
Matt groans, “What are they, stupid?” and Bruce says, “Yes.”
“That was a rhetorical question,” Terry says. “I think.” He leans in next to Max; her fingers are a blur on the control pad. “Anything?” he says.
She bites her lip, staring up at the screen. “Maybe. It’s…” She types something else and a street grid ripples across a montage of Shriek doing his thing. There’s a dot flashing in the northeast quarter. “There,” Max says, pointing. “The sonic fluctuations are coming from the Narrows. They’re nothing like his usual MO, though.”
She presses a key and data starts scrolling. Bruce narrows his eyes. “Pause it.” She does and his frown deepens. “That’s not anyone’s MO. I’ve never seen a frequency pattern like that.”
Max’s eyebrows go up. “Wow. Something you’ve never seen?”
“Sure,” Terry says. “Once every thirty years.” He sighs and reaches for his cowl. “Guess we’d better get over there before someone gets hurt.”
“Yeah,” Matt says. “Us.”
They leave the car and the bikes on top of WayneTech.
“You don’t want them closer, trust me,” Batman says. “This guy’s turned so many cars into collateral damage it’s not even funny.”
“Try half a city’s worth,” Nightwing says. She frowns at Robin. “You’ve never actually gone up against him outside the sims, have you?”
Robin pulls out an exploding batarang. He says, “First time for everything,” and then there’s a flash of blue overhead and Batman says, “What’s he doing here?”
“Let’s find out,” Robin says, and launches himself into the sky.
Batman says, “Robin,” and Nightwing says, “What are you doing, twip?” but Robin fires his thrusters, jetting up until he’s riding parallel to Beetle.
“Hey,” he says, keeping his speed even with Beetle’s. “Any chance you’re not here for what I think you’re here for?”
Beetle glances at him. “My, um, armor picked up some anomalies in the sound vibration in this area.”
“Yeah,” Batman says, appearing on the other side of Beetle. Robin looks down: Nightwing grins up at him. “Ever heard of Shriek?” Batman asks Beetle.
Beetle looks warily at him. “Yes?”
“Well, that’s who’s down there and he’s not happy about a lot of things, so you might want to—”
“I can see them,” Beetle interrupts.
“See what?” Batman snaps.
“The vibrational frequencies. The armor picks up on them and I—” he pauses and something about his expression makes Robin think he’s listening, “I can neutralize them.”
“Sure about that?” Nightwing says from below. “Because we’re almost there.”
Beetle hesitates again and there’s that listening look and then he nods. “I’m sure,” he says. He looks at Batman. “Let me try.”
“Let him,” Bruce says over the comm.
Batman doesn’t look happy but he says, “Okay. But if this goes south—”
“It won’t,” Beetle says.
“Right,” Batman says. “I haven’t heard that before.”
“Why do bad guys always pick abandoned warehouses? You’d think it was part of their genetic make-up or something. You know, do evil, automatically find a warehouse to hole up in after.”
“Sometimes it’s sewers,” Nightwing offers.
“Or toxic waste dumps,” Batman puts in.
“Abandoned chemical factories,” Bruce says.
“Remind me to never ask you guys what you do with your days off,” Robin says. “Whup, there he goes.”
“Did I already mention how this is a bad idea?” Batman says.
“Yes,” Bruce says in Robin’s favorite ‘your opinion has been noted and rejected’ voice.
“Look,” Batman says, “he’s not your new science project.”
“No,” Bruce says, “he’s just wearing an extremely powerful exosuit we know almost nothing about.”
Nightwing makes this really annoyed noise and says, “Would you guys shut up, I think something’s—”
It’s all the warning they get before the shockwave hits.
It knocks them off the ledge they’re perched on, sends them spinning through the air, and Robin hasn’t been this nauseated since the Turbo Whirl at Sixteen Flags. He gulps air and shoves the bile back down his throat through sheer will, and then he gets himself straightened out because some dreg with crazy sonics does not get to do this to him.
“Get above it,” Batman shouts and hits his jets. Robin is right behind him and he can hear Nightwing over the roar in his ears, cursing Bruce and Shriek and Beetle and maybe a few gods, too.
“Keep going,” she yells, “Beetle’s doing something,” and Robin can’t help it: he looks down in time to see Beetle do something with his hands before stiffening and going limp, and then—
And Robin is diving.
The bug suit is gone. It takes Robin a second to realize that and then he’s even more freaked than he was because the body hurtling toward the ground in front of him is naked, not even the suit for protection, and if Beetle hits like that—
He’s going to hit. Robin isn’t going to make it. Batman and Nightwing aren’t going to make it either, they’re behind him, not by much, but Robin can hear them both, Nightwing’s, “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” and Batman’s, “Not again not again this is not happening again,” piped directly into his brain through the comm and over the sound of his heartbeat.
Not going to make it, his brain, his suit, his gut, all of them are telling him that, but it—it doesn’t matter because there’s something rising up from the ground, coming up to meet them; a reddish whirlwind that reaches up and catches Beetle, whirls him away.
It spins him gently down the funnel and there’s someone down there in the middle of it waiting to catch him. And they do. Catch him.
Robin pulls up at the last second, using his jets to keep from crashing into the ground. He hears Batman and Nightwing doing the same thing somewhere behind him, but he’s too busy looking at the guy holding what looks like a kid not much older than Robin to care.
“Hey Bats,” says the Flash, “I think you dropped this.”
There’s a long moment of silence. Bruce says, “Is that who it sounds like.”
“Uh-huh,” says Batman.
“You got it,” says Robin.
“You know,” says Nightwing, “for a guy in his, what, seventies? He still looks awesome in tights.”
Flash grins and says, “I’ve still got a few miles left on these babies.” He sticks out a foot covered in a boot that screams ‘Bruce Wayne designed me but oh man it almost killed him to do it in this color’. “Can’t let Impulse have all the fun.”
“Tell him to bring the boy here now,” Bruce says. “And shut up.”
“Him or us?” says Robin.
“Both,” Bruce says and the line clicks.
“Uh, guys?” Flash says. “You want to clue me in here? Because the kid’s twitching and I don’t think it’s the good, waking up kind.”
“Go ahead and take him to the… cave,” Nightwing finishes. “That was fast.”
“Well yeah,” Robin says. “He’s the Flash.”
They find Shriek inside the warehouse, passed out cold next to some dodgy looking sound equipment.
Batman picks him up, hefting him over his shoulder. “You guys go ahead, I’ll drop him off at Central. Uh.” He looks as uncomfortable as Batman can. “It’s… probably a good idea to get over there now.”
Nightwing says, “Schway. I’ve always wanted to find out if B could actually kill me with his brain.”
“Yeah,” Robin agrees. “’Cause that’s pretty much what’s gonna happen if we get between him and Flash.”
They’re in the infirmary, arguing.
Well, Flash is arguing. Bruce is being Bruce.
“You could have commed me,” Flash is saying, sounding a little hurt and also like he’s been saying the same thing fifty different ways for the last five minutes while being deliberately ignored. “You knew I was coming.”
“Do you have your piece in?”
“…No.” Bruce stares at him. “And I’m gonna just shut up now,” he says.
“Move him over there when I tell you and don’t touch anything,” Bruce says and limps toward a counter full of ominous looking equipment that may or may not have medical applications. Matt really doesn’t need to know. He shares a look with Max that says something along those lines and she rolls her eyes and pushes away from the wall they’re leaning against and goes to see what Bruce is doing.
In the main cave the car’s backwash sends bats screeching off in all directions; a minute and several weird beeps from Bruce’s equipment later Terry wanders in. He settles next to Matt against the wall and tugs at his cowl. “So what’s the deal?”
“Now,” Bruce says from the corner.
“Brave new world,” Flash says sadly as he scoops the kid up. “Same old Bats.” He sets him down gently, folds his arms and leans his hip against the bed.
Terry pulls the cowl off all the way; he’s grinning underneath it. “Did I just get slammed?”
Flash says, “Huh? Oh, hey, no, I was talking about Br—oh. Sorry about that.” He’s sliding sideways away from the bed and Terry is laughing, distracted, so Matt peels off his domino and goes over to get a look at the new kid. He gets as much of a surprise as he can anymore. Couple of New Year’s Eves out on Gotham’s mean streets, nothing is going to surprise him.
Except for stuff like this.
He says, “I know him. His name’s Miguel Diaz and he’s in most of my AP classes—he’s my lab partner for chem.”
Bruce says, “What.”
And Terry says, “What?”
And Max starts laughing and Flash is looking at them like they’re all zombified and then Terry glances at Bruce and says to Matt, “You sure?”
Matt crosses his arms and says, “He was sitting next to me today in pre-calc. Yeah, I’m sure.”
Terry and Bruce stop staring at him to eyeball each other and Max says, “This is karmic justice, you know that right?”
Flash keeps looking from Bruce to Terry and back again and he’s blurring around the edges, he’s doing it that fast. “Could someone please tell me what’s going on? Because I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”
Terry looks at Bruce. Bruce lifts one eyebrow and Terry shrugs and says, “I pulled him out of a fire back when I first put on the suit.” He holds up his cowl. “I had to take this off to get him to come with me.”
Okay. Okay, that.
“You mean that kid,” Matt points to Diaz. “That kid knew you were Batman from day one.”
“Not day one, but the first few months, sure. I thought he’d forgotten my face, though.”
Bruce makes an extremely derisive noise. Matt stares at Diaz and works really hard on not killing Terry, and Max walks over to the bed and leans in, resting her hand on Diaz’s forehead. “My suit says his vitals are normal,” she says. “Human normal, anyway. What happened to him? Was he always this… blue whatever inside?”
“Not unless he was born with that,” Bruce says and Matt turns, following the pointing line of his cane. Bruce is standing in front of a lit-up screen with a bunch of x-rays on it and it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. There’s something welded to Diaz’s spine. Something shaped like—
“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Max says.
It’s a voice Matt knows. It’s usually talking to him about assignments and math lab and the periodic table, but he recognized it through the bug suit’s buzz and he recognizes it now when it’s tired and scratchy but overall human.
“It’s a scarab,” Diaz says. “Really.” He sounds apologetic and Matt turns around to tell him that’s messed up but Max gets there first with something else that means basically the same thing.
“No big deal,” she says. “Hey, careful—Bruce, should he be sitting up?”
“I’m not an MD,” Bruce says and Flash says mostly under his breath, “Tell that to all those bones you set yourself. Like mine.”
Diaz pulls his sheets higher around him. His smile looks kind of shaky. “I’m sorry,” he says, glancing around at all of them, but when he speaks he looks at Matt. “I really am, McGinnis. I just, I didn’t know how to…”
He holds his hands up and out as if to say, How could I explain this?
And Matt feels himself relax and he lets himself grin. He lets himself say, “It’s all good, Diaz.”
Because it is, because if anyone knows how Diaz feels it’s a bunch people in tech-powered skinsuits who spend most of their time hanging out in a cave when they’re not running around Gotham hurting people.
He’s fifteen when he puts on the R for real. He never really takes it off again.
“It belonged to my great uncle,” Diaz says. “He found it in the desert outside El Paso when he was a kid. He had it for almost fifty years before he gave it to me but this,” he looks down at himself, at the clothes that just appeared on him (“You don’t want to know how, trust me”), “nothing like this ever happened to him.”
“Did you ask?” Max says.
Diaz shifts uneasily. “I asked my aunt—my uncle’s wife.”
Bruce narrows his eyes. “Why your aunt?”
“She’s, um, Traci Thirteen.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Flash says, waving his hands. “You mean Jaime’s your uncle?”
Diaz’s eyes look like they’re about to pop out of his head. “You know him?”
“Sure,” Flash says. “That year Traci was with the League—Bats, you remember that?—anyway they were dating back then. Heh, Jaime Reyes. Good guy.” He shakes his head, grinning. “Never would’ve picked him for magical gadgets, though, even with Traci.”
“It’s not,” Diaz says. He clears his throat when they all stare at him. “Magical, I mean. Aunt Traci thinks it’s alien technology, but she’s not sure.”
Bruce says, “She might be right. The first Blue Beetle thought it was magic. The second didn’t.” He pauses. “He was a brilliant scientist and presumably in a position to know.”
Flash folds his arms. He’s shaking his head again. “See, I knew you were holding out on us.” He leans toward Diaz. “Old, bad habits are really hard to break.”
“Hold on,” Matt says, “what I want to know is, how’d this—”
“Scarab,” Diaz fills in. “It’s not really a good translation, but…” he shrugs.
Matt says, “Yeah, okay, this scarab. How’d it get to El Paso in the first place? And if these other guys,” he points at the images on the screen, “if these other Blue Beetles had the scarab, why didn’t they have the bug suit, too?” He looks at Diaz. “What’s different about you and your uncle?”
Diaz says slowly, “My uncle found it when he was camping with friends. I think he was sixteen. He forgot about it afterward and my aunt didn’t know about it until I asked.” He half smiles. “Uncle Jaime was using it as a paperweight. I asked him about it and he gave it to me. That’s all I know.”
He looks around at them. “It really is.”
“Well,” Max says after a few seconds, “your aunt’s a magic user, right?” Diaz nods. “Okay,” Max says. “Magic affects our tech—we know that. So why not this? Maybe being around constant magic use suppressed the normal functions.”
“Or maybe something that has nothing to do with any of this triggered it,” Terry says. “Point is, we don’t know. We’re taking shots in the dark, here.”
“Good point,” Flash says. “Still, the kid’s got a point, too. I mean, why El Paso? I think the last Beetle was based somewhere on the East Coast.”
“Kord died during the Crisis,” Bruce says. “I’m surprised the scarab surfaced at all.”
Flash jerks so hard he almost falls over. “Kord? Beetle was Ted Kord? You’re kidding.”
Bruce looks at him.
“Sorry, forgot who I was talking to,” Flash mumbles.
Bruce turns back to Diaz. “Did the scarab attach itself to you while you were in El Paso?” he asks.
Diaz shakes his head. “I brought it back with me,” he says. “The day after I got home I woke up seeing blue writing and speaking a language I’d never heard before. After that…” He shrugs and for some reason it looks helpless. “You’ve seen what happens. And I thought… I thought that now I could… help you. Like you helped me.” He says it to his lap.
They’re all silent. Matt doesn’t know about anybody else, but he just has no idea what to do with any of that. He thinks the rest of them probably feel the same way.
Then Bruce says, “I’d like to run some tests.”
“I was kind of waiting for that,” says Flash.
Flash leaves, To put my city to bed, but I’ll be back. There’s a suspicious blur around Bruce and Matt thinks his own hair just got ruffled, but you know, Flash. It’s not like he’s ever going to be sure.
Once Flash is gone Terry and Max leave to go back out on patrol. Terry says, Why don’t you come with, but Matt is not leaving Diaz alone with Bruce. That’s just cruel and unusual punishment.
So he sticks around and talks to Diaz about stupid stuff, plays verbal chess with him, introduces him to Ace and just generally tries to keep both their minds off all the weird stuff Bruce is doing in the background.
Somewhere in there he changes out of his suit and goes to get them something to eat. Max and Terry come back and head upstairs, taking Ace with them. Flash is probably back too but who can tell?
Diaz looks mostly asleep.
Matt checks his chrono: it’s six in the morning. “Okay,” he says, “it’s not Friday anymore. We need to crash, Bruce, I’m serious.”
Bruce says without looking away from his screen, “No one is stopping you.”
“Gee, thanks for telling me,” Matt drawls. “You couldn’t have said something while Diaz was still mostly, I don’t know, alive?”
Bruce turns in his seat. His gaze rests briefly on Diaz. “He can sleep here,” he finally says. “I’ll call his mother. Take him upstairs and find him a room.” He turns back to the console without waiting to see if they follow through.
Matt salutes, says, “Jawohl, mein Kommandant,” and grins at the infinitesimal pause in typing. He nudges Diaz in the ribs; Diaz blinks at him. “The boss has spoken. Come on.”
“But,” Diaz starts to say. Mat grabs him by the shirt (or whatever really gross bodily secretion it is) and pulls.
“You might as well,” he says. “You’ll just end up doing it anyway.”
“But he doesn’t have my code,” Diaz protests as Matt drags him toward the stairs.
“Please,” Matt says. “He’s Batman.”
“Oh,” Diaz says. “I forgot.”
Matt’s laugh sounds like disbelief to his own ears because seriously, how does that even happen?
Walking through the clock into the library is usually jarring after the concentrated shadows of the cave, but it’s worse than normal this morning because the sun is starting to rise, orange-pink light flooding in through half a wall of glass and nearly taking out his eyeballs in the process.
Diaz shields his eyes with his hand. “Sorry about that,” Matt says. “Forgot to warn you.”
Diaz shakes his head, but he doesn’t say anything. He follows Matt out of the room and up the stairs.
The house is quiet, Terry and Max off in their separate rooms (or together in one of their rooms, but Matt is really not going to think about that). They make it to the second floor without sibling interference or attacking ninja and Matt pauses in the hall before deciding he’s too tired to try and figure out where Bruce would put Diaz and opens the door to the room across from the one he always uses.
He pokes his head in and looks around; there are no dust covers or musty smell and the bed looks okay. “This should work,” he says. “Bathroom’s two doors down that way.” He points. “I’m over there,” he jerks his thumb at his own door, “but unless we’re at defcon one or you can’t find the can, go bug Terry.”
Diaz’s mouth twitches like he wants to smile but doesn’t at the same time. “Thanks. I’m sure I can figure it out.”
Matt nods, yawning, and starts to turn away, but Diaz hesitates in front of the open door. “I meant it, McGinnis,” he says. “When I said thank you.”
“Dude,” Matt yawns again. “It’s too early for true confessions. You’ll feel better after sleep and caffeine, believe me. Lots and lots of caffeine.”
He shuffles off to his own room and his own perfectly enormous, perfectly perfect bed and if he grins a little when Diaz laughs softly and says, “Night, Robin,” well, he’s the only one who knows.
The hands on the grandfather clock in the hall (not the clock, just another one of Bruce’s five million other ancient museum pieces) are way past twelve and his eyes are maybe a quarter of the way open when he wanders into the kitchen and heads for the coffee machine which is, and this is the important part, on.
“Afternoon,” Flash waves a spatula at him. “What do you want in your—”
“No,” Matt says. He pours a cup of coffee and carries it over to the stools set around the island.
“Are you sure you should be drinking that?” Flash says from somewhere around the stove. “You’re what, sixteen? I think it’s supposed stunt your—whoa, hey, I guess not,” he finishes when Matt hunches protectively over his cup and growls.
Flash goes away or shuts up or something. Matt doesn’t care. He’s drinking his coffee. His eyes may or may not be halfway open when Flash comes back, sets something down in front of him then wanders a few stools down the island and sits.
Matt blinks at the plate. It looks like an omelet and it smells like something very schway. “Thanks,” he says and pulls it towards him.
Flash is eating a similar omelet and Matt decides it’s probably safe to take a bite. They chew together in silence for a minute. The omelet has mushrooms and onions and cheese in it, among other things Matt isn’t sure of, and it is extremely schway.
Flash says, “You sure you’re not related to Bats?”
“That’s Bruce’s robe,” Matt says without looking up from his plate.
“Okay then,” Flash says, and then Max walks in with Diaz riding her heels like a lost puppy and says, “Honey, you cooked. Where’s mine?”
Grinning, Flash points his fork at the stove and Max zeros in on the pan sitting there like a heat-seeking missile. “Grab a seat, kid,” she calls over her shoulder, and Diaz stops hovering in the doorway.
He walks over to the island and pulls out the chair next to Matt’s, smiling like he’s not sure if he should be. Matt waves his fork (his mouth is full) and Diaz’s gaze drifts down from his face to his plate. “Do you always eat breakfast at three o’clock in the afternoon?”
“Only when we don’t go to sleep until six in the morning,” Max says behind him. “Here you go,” but she stops before she puts the plate down in front of him. “You allergic to anything?”
“Raisins?” Diaz says tentatively.
Max looks at the plate. “Yeah, I think you’ll be okay. Aside from potential clogged arteries.” She sets it down in front of him and takes the seat across from Matt, digging into her own food immediately. “God,” she moans, “when are you gonna come live here for good? Terry almost poisoned us last week.”
Flash says, “I’m not suicidal. At least,” he scratches his nose contemplatively, “I don’t think I am.”
“Don’t think,” Bruce says from the doorway. “It took a week to clean up the fallout last time.” He limps in the direction of the fridge, Ace trailing after him.
“I’d tell you you’re a real jerk," Flash says, "but they’d never find my body. So I won’t.”
“Good call,” Max says, then ducks her head out of the line of fire when Bruce looks her way.
Ace wanders over to his bowl and sniffs a couple of times before he starts chowing down. Bruce gets one of his weird energy drinks out, closes the fridge and goes to sit on the end of the island as far away from the rest of them as he can get. He has a reader tucked under his arm and he sets it down and turns it on and frowns at the screen. “Miguel.”
Diaz jumps. “Sir?”
“Do you have any martial arts experience?”
Diaz’s fork clinks against his plate; Matt can see his hand shaking. “Just a year of karate at school, sir,” he says.
“Hmn,” Bruce says.
Max throws up her hands. “Stop torturing the kid and get it over with.”
Diaz looks bewildered. “Don’t worry about it,” Flash says. “With Bats, it’s always for your own good. I think.”
“Bad idea,” Bruce murmurs.
Matt swallows the last of his omelet, pushes his plate away and reaches for his coffee. “Here's what's up,” he says. “You get caught without your suit, you’re screwed if you don’t know some hand to hand.”
Diaz folds his hands in his lap and frowns down at them. “I’d never thought of it that way.”
“Yeah, well,” Matt says, “it’s not like we don’t train every day anyway. You won't be interrupting anything.”
“Okay,” Diaz says. Bruce looks at him over his screen.
“Is that a yes?”
Diaz swallows hard, and Matt isn’t surprised. He knows what it feels like to be the focus of Bruce’s attention. Eventually Diaz says, “Yes,” and then Flash says, “HeyBrucethinkfast.”
Flash is the Flash. You don’t see him move. You don’t see him reach for the orange and you definitely don’t see him throw it. What you do see is Bruce’s arm whipping out and the orange smacking into his palm.
He doesn’t even look at it. He just starts peeling it.
Terry walks in, yawning and scratching his stomach. “What’s for breakfast,” he says, and they all stare at him, except for Bruce, who’s reading and peeling his orange.
He stares back, sort of, but he's still half asleep and it doesn't work all that well. “Did I miss something?”
Matt watches his hand reach out and grab an orange. “Hey, Terry,” he says.
Terry’s reflexes are sluggish in the morning. Afternoon. Whatever. It takes him a few seconds to turn his blinky eyes in Matt’s direction and then he’s yawning again because he’s really not all that awake yet. “What?” he says.
Max covers her face with her hand. Bruce peels off a section of orange and frowns at his screen. Flash is snickering into his oj, Diaz is concentrating on his plate like his life depends on it, and Matt, Matt just grins and says, “Think fast.”
“That is so totally creepy,” he says.
Terry swallows his mouthful of water and shrugs. “It’s Bruce. What else did you expect?”
Matt is shaking his head. “Not Bruce, Beetle. He’s just…” he shifts his grip on the bars and lifts himself into a one-handed handstand, “letting him tell him what to do like he’s god or something. It’s creepy.”
“Like I said,” Terry says. “Bruce.”
They watch Max take down Diaz again. Watch Diaz drag himself back up, watch him look to Bruce for direction, then nod at whatever Bruce says to him. He immediately gets back into position opposite Max. His focus is so absolute it’s scary.
“You may have a point,” Terry says. Thankfully, the console starts buzzing.
“On screen,” Bruce says and it lights up and a jumble of police chatter and news reports tumbles out of the mics.
The screen is all purple and green and white and red and Max says, “I was starting to wonder why they were so quiet.”
Matt flips himself down off the bars. Terry sets his water down on the mat and straightens. “There goes the rest of the day,” he says and Matt’s always known they were fucked up but the relief he’s feeling matches what he hears in Terry’s voice and that is amazingly wrong and also so right he just might throw up.
“Suit up,” Bruce says. Terry and Max are already jogging toward the lockers. Matt pauses by the tumbling mats.
He says, “You coming?”
Diaz doesn’t smile but his eyes are lit from inside. The light behind them is blue. “Yes,” he says. “Yes I am.”
Max calls it necessary therapy. Terry calls it scraping Gotham off his skin.
Matt calls it taking a shower because one, necessary therapy is what happens to other people after Batman or Nightwing or Robin happen to them, two, Terry’s spizzing, they’ve got Gotham built into their DNA, and three, taking a shower is totally what he’s doing.
Standing under a heavy, hot stream of water, letting it pound the rest of the stuffing out of him after Terry and Max pounded most of it out first. Or.
Getting the blood off his skin when he’s been stupid enough to catch one.
And. Squinting his eyes shut against the soap he’s scrubbing into his hair while Diaz does the same thing one showerhead down from him.
Terry’s done and the stall is Max’s by default. It’s just the two of them so he says, “It’s cool.”
Diaz flicks soap and water away from his eyes and blinks at him. “What is?”
“You being here,” Matt says. “It’s good, you know?” He rinses the last of his own soap off and steps out of the stream. Diaz copies his actions and the water shuts off.
“I… think I do,” Diaz says softly.
Matt thinks back to what it felt like to be eight years old, stuck in a cage by some whacko hunter freak, then to have Batman come for him; he thinks about what it was like to watch him take down a bad guy just for him. He thinks about eight years of knowing and never saying anything, and Terry isn’t even Diaz’s brother.
He says, “I think you do too,” and grabs two towels, tossing one to Diaz. He’s mostly dry, wringing the water out of his hair when he realizes Diaz hasn’t moved.
Matt says, “Hey man, you okay?” and Diaz drops the towel and turns his head and the rest of the words in Matt’s mouth dry up.
He’s seen Diaz in most of the stages between human and beetle but he’s never seen him with freaky blue writing scrolling down his face. He’s never seen the scarab pulsing beneath the skin on his back, making his spine a glowing blue road and turning his eyes incandescently, completely inhuman.
Matt says, “Miguel,” and steps toward him, and Diaz drops his towel and backs away. Blue swirls over him, rivers spreading into pools, into oceans, solidifying on top of his skin.
“I’m… I’m okay,” he says. “The scarab’s just kind of freaked right now.”
“Why?” Matt says, and it’s hard to keep his voice steady because now he’s starting to get freaked.
Diaz shakes his head, less like he’s saying no than like he’s shaking something off. “I have to go,” he says, voice breaking up around the vowels like he’s not sure how to pronounce them anymore. “I have to—hngh!”
“Diaz.” Matt drops down beside him where he’s crouched, clutching his head, but when he reaches for his shoulder Diaz throws himself away, wings snapping wide.
“Sorry,” he pants, “Have to—” his skin, suit, whatever it is ripples like blue-black water. Diaz launches himself through the door. “See you,” he calls back over his shoulder, and then he’s gone.
See you, Diaz says, like he really will, like he expects it to happen.
Here’s the problem with that: Matt doesn’t.
For reasons he doesn’t even to try to parse, Matt doesn’t mention Diaz’s little meltdown and following panicked exit to Bruce. He’s still trying to decide if that was a stupid decision or not when the alien invasion happens.
It’s Monday after school—which Diaz wasn’t there for—and Matt stares at the combox screen and thinks: Totally should have seen this coming
“Blue Monday is what they’re calling it, and not just after the old song. The Reach are the new big bad blue in town, but don’t worry, they come in peace and they’re here to save us from ourselves. Hello, I’m Sable Ryder-Gleeson for WB.net, your best source for breaking news, and here in Washington it’s not just breaking, it’s coming down. Today, in what is sure to be the first in a series of historic talks, President Ferris met with the Negotiator—”
The screen freezes on Gleeson’s pretty, pouty face.
“We were watching that,” Max says as Bruce sets down the remote.
Bruce says, “No, you weren’t.” He glares at the image frozen on the screen. “Look at them. What do you see?”
“Um,” Terry says. “Blue paranoia for a new age? Really bad fashion sense?”
“John Lennon shades are so early Superboy,” Max says.
“Beetle,” Matt says. “I see Beetle.”
Max makes a choked sound. Terry says, “Oh my god.”
Bruce says, “Very good, Mr. McGinnis.” He raises the remote again and turns off the screen. “We have work to do.”
“Why do they have to be the enemy?” Matt says. “Why can’t they be what they say they are?”
Bruce looks at him for a moment. He says, “Where is Miguel?”
“I told you,” Matt says. “He took off. He said the scarab—”
“That’s why,” Bruce says when Matt can’t make himself finish.
“You think the scarab is theirs.” Terry waves at the satellite images of Reach ships hovering over earth. There aren’t many, mostly because the ships aren’t there most of the time. Which is another good argument for something being wrong, as if Diaz wasn’t enough of one already.
“I think the timing’s a little too perfect for anything else,” Max says, and turns to look up at Bruce. “I’ve got the frequency Shriek used isolated,” she says. “Not sure what good it’s gonna do us, but—”
“It disrupted the scarab’s systems,” Bruce says. “If the technology is comparable…”
“Yeah,” Max sighs, “I figured it was something like that.”
Matt stops chewing on his lip and stares at the screen. “What about Diaz? This isn’t his fault. What if—”
The comm beeps, interrupting him. Max answers it and the screen fuzzes for a second and then it clears and Green Lantern is looking seriously at them (not that GL ever looks anything but serious, but still).
“I have been in contact with Oa,” he says. “The Reach are classified as a level ten threat. They are not to be trusted. The Lanterns aren’t authorized to move against them until they move to cause harm, but I am alerting all Justice League affiliates to the situation.”
“Thanks, GL,” Terry says. “We appreciate that.” Green Lantern nods and the screen goes dark.
Max blows out a breath. “Well, I guess we’ve got one more cliché for the bad sci-fi collection. Alien invasion.”
“Sure, why not,” Matt says. “Pretty soon we’ll have the whole set and then we can send the product codes in for our bonus Armageddon. Whoopee.”
“Knock it off, guys,” Terry says. “Bruce was right, but so what? He usually is. We know we’ve got a problem. What do we do with it?”
“Right now,” Bruce says, “we do nothing. We wait.”
On Tuesday someone knocks on the front door.
Matt’s the only one in the house (he came up to see if there’s anything resembling junk food left in the fridge after Flash got done with it this weekend) and he answers the door cautiously because no one ever comes here much less knocks on the door. And yeah, Bruce must’ve buzzed them through, but—yeah. What the hell?
He opens the door a couple of inches, puts his eye to the crack and says, “Hello?”
The lady outside blinks at him. She’s pretty, with long dark hair, and Matt is beginning to think she looks a little familiar when she says, “I’m Elena Diaz, Miguel’s mother.”
Oh. Guess that’s why Bruce buzzed her in.
Matt pushes the door wide. “Come on in.”
“His note said to give you this if he wasn’t back by today,” Elena Diaz says, gesturing with the envelope in her hand. “I also brought his compad, if that helps.”
She holds them out and Bruce takes them, hands the compad to Max and pulls a tight fold of paper out of the envelope. He looks back up at Elena Diaz.
“He told you.”
“He is my son, Mr. Wayne. If he did not feel he could tell me something like this I would be a poor parent.” She smiles. “He told me about his beetle rock. He did not tell me about you. That I guessed for myself ten minutes ago.”
She meets his eyes, her face quiet and calm, and Bruce looks away first, frowning down at the paper.
He unfolds it carefully, like he’s expecting it to blow up in his face. And Matt could be wrong but he’s been watching Bruce for a few years and he’s pretty sure he knows what Bruce’s danger, danger, Will Robinson face looks like by now.
Max is reading around Bruce’s shoulder. She says, “Is that what I think it is?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce says. “Do you think it’s the baseline operating code for dimensionally shifted alien technology?”
Bruce looks down at her. “Then yes.”
“Cool,” Max says and snatches the paper out of his hand. “You gentlemen take a load off,” she says, already on her way out of the room. “I’ve got this.”
“You know what really sucks?” Matt says to Diaz’s dazed looking mom. “She probably does.”
Bruce says, “Go,” raising a meaningful eyebrow at Matt and Terry, before turning back to Diaz’s mom. “Mrs. Diaz—”
“Ms. Diaz,” she says, emphasizing the Ms. Bruce smiles at her, hits her with some major megawatts, and she smiles back, more dazed than before. “Please call me Elena.”
“My pleasure, Elena,” Bruce says. “I’m Bruce. I believe we spoke once over the phone?”
“Here we go again,” Terry mutters as he follows Matt through the door. “God, he has no shame.”
“Tell me about it. He did the same thing to Mom way back when, remember?”
Terry groans. “Don’t remind me.”
Matt smirks at him. “Too late.”
“Terry,” Max says. “You need to see this.”
“See what?” Terry says, but Matt is in front of him and he sees it first.
“Is that… are those from Diaz?” he says, staring at the screen.
“Uh-huh,” Max says. “There are more on his pad. A lot more.”
Terry grabs the back of the chair, like he needs something to hold on to. “That’s—that one’s from six years ago,” he says. He sounds and looks shellshocked, but Matt guesses that happens when you find out the kid who saw you without your cowl when he was eight has been stalking you since then.
“He’s got all of us on here,” Max says. “He’s been doing this a long time.”
“God,” Terry says. “He was just a kid!”
“So were you, cowboy.” She half turns to look at him and her smile makes Matt want to tell them to get a room, jeeze.
Instead he says, “I did the same thing.”
“You we caught,” Terry says. He glances at Matt. “This kid’s been stalking us for years and we didn’t know.”
“Getting caught was the point,” Matt huffs. “And so what? He’s not going to screw us over now.”
“You’re right,” Max says. “He’s going to screw himself over.”
“What are you talking about?” Terry says.
“Watch.” She hits a key. The massed images of Batman, Nightwing and Robin vanish and a 3D image of earth takes their place. “Check this out,” Max points. “These are WayneTech satellites. They’re all over the place up there. And in approximately ten minutes I’m going to have them broadcast a signal that’s going to take the Reach ships out of commission for long enough for Beetle to waste them.”
“By himself.” Matt is having a hard time with that part.
“By himself,” Bruce echoes. His cane taps rhythmically across the floor of the cave, footstep, cane, footstep, cane, and he’s standing next to Max, still seated at the console. He tips his head back, studying the screen. “He sent the letter so they couldn’t pick up a transmission and realize what he was doing.”
Matt’s hands are clenched so tight he’s going to have bloody half-moons all over his palms. “So we’re—what? Just going to sit here and wait for him to get himself killed?”
Terry’s hand settles on Matt’s shoulder and squeezes. Bruce turns to him, face blank. His eyes… “If you have a better idea,” he says, “I’ll listen.”
His throat hurts from holding in shouts that wouldn’t do anything but scare a few bats. “He’s my friend.”
“Ted Kord was my friend,” Bruce says, and turns back to the screen.
“That doesn’t make it right.” Matt shrugs Terry’s hand off and steps toward Bruce. “Just because you didn’t do anything then—”
“There isn’t anything you can do.” A muscle flicks in Bruce’s jaw. He turns his head and his eyes bore into Matt’s, silver light and heavy as lead. “Gibson,” Bruce says. “What’s the count?”
“One minute fifty-four seconds.”
Bruce says, “Can you get into space, to a ship you can’t see in that amount of time?” He looks at Matt, looks at him and looks at him, and it has to be less than a minute now. “I didn’t think so,” Bruce says. “Go suit up.”
Terry’s hand is back on Matt’s shoulder, pulling him away. “Come on,” he says. “Maybe this is what we can do.”
Maybe. Or maybe he’s not thinking fast enough, hard enough, and maybe Diaz should’ve fucking asked for his help.
His hands feel awkward in the gauntlets, and that’s never happened before, not even the first time he put on the suit. He fumbles his domino; it slips and he swears and Batman says, “Hold it, twip,” and picks it up.
He smoothes it into place on Robin’s face, says, “I know.” His hand drops and he walks out of the lockers without saying anything else and Robin hasn’t been so grateful for anything since the first time he stood in the cave and Bruce didn’t kick him out.
He follows Batman up the stairs and Bruce is in the chair, Max bent over the console in front of him. Elena Diaz is standing beside him. Both of them are looking up at the screen. There are four new dots there.
Robin can barely hear his own voice over the dizzy buzz in his head. “It worked.”
“Not just for the ships, either.” Max’s fingers fly over the touchpad and four areas on the earth holo stand out, glowing red. “See those?” she says. “They’re stations of some kind, Reach built.”
Batman shifts forward to get a better look. “What are they for?”
“Nothing good,” Max says. “You can bet on that.”
“Why is that doing that?” Elena says, pointing. One of the ship dots is blinking. It flashes for a few seconds then disappears.
“One down,” Max says. Her voice is hoarse, like she’s been screaming or crying for hours. Her cheeks are dry.
Robin swallows hard. He says, “He’s really up there.” He doesn’t say, How’s he going to get back down?
“What’s that?” Batman says suddenly. There’s a new energy signature showing up, miniscule dots popping into existence right above—
Max straightens slowly, picking her domino up off the console. “Looks like we’ve got incoming.”
Bruce says, “I’ll finish here. Go.”
There aren’t a lot of them, but they’re fast and heavily armed, mounted on speeders that look like a nineteen-fifties style flying saucer had really messed up sex with a clam shell.
Robin looks into their faces, alien and familiar; he looks for something that might be Beetle, but he can’t find him.
He sees anger and disbelief and maybe even some curiosity. One of them says something scratchy and a little screechy and his brain translates it as, “How?”
He says, “Because you messed with the wrong planet, dude,” and throws a batarang. The Reach guy goes down hard and Robin ducks; the speeder sails over his head and crashes into a tree.
He doesn’t need Bruce’s terse, “It’s done,” to tell him the mothership just went. The falling debris is a rain of distant fireworks, burning up in the atmosphere.
The Reach soldiers stop fighting immediately, their dismay obvious. “You dregs just killed my friend,” Robin tells the guy on the ground in front of him. “If I was you I’d get out while I still can.”
The translation loop must go all the way around. The guy on the ground stares at him for a second, mouth open, and then he’s scrambling to his feet. One of his buddies who’s still got his speeder swoops in to pick him up; they head straight up along with the rest of the speeders. When they hit a certain altitude, each speeder disappears. In less than a minute they’re all gone.
Teleportation. Cool. He’s never done it himself but Batman says the League uses that kind of tech all the time. He’d like to try it sometime. Some other time when aliens aren’t invading and his best friend isn’t…
Robin pushes his sweaty hair off his forehead and looks around. He can’t see Nightwing anywhere but Batman is in the air, waving at him.
“Robin,” Batman says into the comm. “I gotta go check on Max. You okay?”
He says, “Yeah,” because what else is he supposed to say? He’s beat up but he’s in one piece. Not like—
Batman’s thrusters fire and Robin blinks. He swipes a hand over his domino, but his lenses are fine. It’s the air that’s the problem. It’s doing this weird, rippling thing, getting brighter, expanding—
Turning into a bubble of light and energy.
The bubble ripples again. A hole forms in the center of it and grows, wide enough for a scruffy looking guy in a black t-shirt to lean through and say, “Would you happen to be missing one slightly banged-up blue bug?”
“Uh,” Robin says intelligently. The guy grins.
“I thought so.”
The guy pulls back inside. The hole closes up. And then something hums and a ramp lowers from the side of the bubble and Beetle stumbles out and stands there, swaying.
“Uh,” Robin says again. The ramp pulls back in and the bubble gets transparent; the scruffy guy is inside, sitting behind a bank of complicated looking controls. He gives Robin this weird smirk and a half-assed salute and then there’s a strange hollow pop and for a second Robin thinks his eardrums are going to burst, and then the bubble is gone. There’s no sign that it was ever there except for Beetle, in front of him in his bug suit, a tentative smile on his face.
All Robin can think of to say is, “I can’t believe you told your mom you’re the Blue Beetle.”
Beetle looks at him like he’s nuts. “Of course I told her,” he says. Then his eyes widen and it looks freaky because what the fuck yellow, and he says, “You mean yours doesn’t know?”
Robin can’t decide if he should punch him in the face or laugh hysterically. He settles for saying, “Shut up,” and punching his shoulder. “Come on, your mom’s hanging at the house and B probably wants to debrief you.”
Beetle’s grin is slow and wide and very white against the blue.
“What?” Robin says.
“Heh. You said debrief.”
“God, just shut up.”
“Beetle!” Nightwing calls; she’s coming up behind Beetle, waving like crazy. “You’re okay!” She jets to a stop next to them and turns him around, her smile fading. “You are okay, right?”
Robin notices then that Beetle’s smile is looking kind of weird and his eyes are glassier than normal.
“I’m… okay,” Beetle says. “Just need to sit down for a—”
Batman gets there just in time to catch him before he falls over.
“I know, pretty schway armor, huh?”
“He’s fine, Elena. He just needs rest.”
“May I… sit with him?”
“Of course. Everyone else out.”
They’re in the cave in front of the main screen watching the Reach mothership explode for the third time when Flash shows up.
“Look who missed the party,” Terry says without looking away.
“Snooze you lose,” Max says, biting a hunk off her energy bar.
“Yeah and what’s up with that?” Matt says. “Fastest feet this side of the Speed Force, not.”
Flash shakes his head at Bruce. “Man, your kids are evil.” He sounds admiring.
“I know,” Bruce says, and smiles.
Talk about evil.
Matt’s sixteen when he tells his mom he’s Robin.
She nods and says, “Yes.”
And maybe the world shifts a few degrees up or down or back or forward or something, and maybe he’s way off balance for a couple of hours or a few millennia. But eventually the hours and/or millennia shuffle back down to minutes and he gets his feet back under him and suddenly a lot of things make a lot more sense.
He tells Bruce later that day, “Mom’s known about this for a while. Years probably.”
Bruce laughs until he chokes. Matt calls the paramedics out of spite. The call gets rerouted, of course, and the commish comes by instead. When she starts laughing, Matt decides he’s not ever mentioning this to Terry or Max or Diaz, and then he goes out on patrol and kicks an entire Jokerz pack’s collective ass all by himself. Because he’s Robin and he can.
“And here I was thinking B was the creepiest thing on two legs,” Nightwing says. “Learn something new every day.”
Robin nods because he knows what she means. Bruce is eighty something years old. (He thinks. It’s better not to know for sure because there might be more that he doesn’t already know, so he stops thinking about bats and fangs and blood and sunlight because he already knows more than he wants to.) Bruce lives in a cave under the corpse of his dead father’s house and spends most of his waking moments thinking up ways to kill bad people without actually killing them. And Terry’s beyond excellent, Terry rips, but Bruce is Batman.
He is something not human living in an ancient human body and most weekends his boyfriend makes omelets or crepes or pancakes for breakfast and wanders around Bruce’s dead mansion wearing his bathrobe and also happens to be the fastest man alive, and it’s all so fucking horrifying Robin wants to crawl out of his skin and into his suit for good because most days he can’t tell the difference between them.
Every day he walks around with the cave’s shadows whispering to his daylight brain, and he knows he’s just marking time until the sun sets. Bruce has lived like that for almost eighty years. When Robin looks at it from that angle, the wrongness isn’t even an option. Everything about Bruce has to be spine-crawlingly wrong, more so because everything about him is also brain-bendingly awesome.
But if Robin’s learned anything from Bruce it’s that even if he thinks he’s seen the worst that can happen he hasn’t. There’s always something worse. So it’s not too surprising that even Bruce’s awesome wrongness is eclipsed by the wrong that is Blue Beetle arguing with his… beetle. The one embedded in his spine.
“No, nothing lethal. No, that’s—actually that one sounds okay.”
“Hey Beetle,” Nightwing says. “Any chance on getting a consensus sometime soon? Those Jokerz aren’t getting any friendlier.”
“Sorry,” Beetle says, giving her an apologetic look. “He still goes a little overboard sometimes.”
“You get it all straightened out?”
“I think so.”
“What’s he got for you?” Robin asks.
“Crowd suppression,” Beetle says, then shrugs when they stare at him. “I didn’t ask. I don’t want to know.”
“Schway,” Nightwing says. “I don’t think I want to know either.”
“Guys,” Batman says over the comm. “Any time now.”
“I’m on it,” Nightwing says. She stands, backing away until she’s on the edge of the roof, grinning. She says, “Let’s do this,” and steps backward off the roof.
Nightwing is always the decoy because one, she’s got way more experience with the hero stuff and two, Robin doesn’t need Mr. Grayson to tell him she’s a born flyer. She owns the air, maybe more even than Beetle, who’s watching her freefall acrobatic show with the same stupid grin Robin can feel on his own face.
“So,” Robin says, “you ready to suppress some Jokerz butt?”
Beetle grins wider. “Always.”