It seemed completely pointless to drive home from classes. Or, rather, to drive to the apartment with Bart and Kon's names on the lease. The apartment with cockroaches the size of Bart's feet, no air conditioning, no shops within a half-hour walk and a fridge that harboured career ambitions as an oven.
It would be easier to walk a few blocks from campus, suit up and fly over to their real home, the Tower. Unfortunately, Clark had proudly presented Kon with the beat-up old Ford and Kon felt a certain amount of family pressure so they shelled out extra money every month to keep it in a secure parking garage.
Bart would have complained but, if Wally ever gave him a car, he'd do exactly the same. Not that Wally ever would.
"Did the engine just cut out again?" Bart asked.
Kon cleared his throat and kept his eyes fixed on the road. "No. It's just quiet."
"So you're not using your TK to keep it moving?" Bart nodded and gazed out the window. "Good to know. But you're still in first and, no matter what the speedometer says, we're doing about thirty."
Kon wrenched the car into fourth. "Trust Clark to give me a stick shift. Happy?"
"Me?" Bart did his best to look innocent. "I was always happy. I was just worried about the engine not being happy." Kon glared at him but his mouth was twitching, so Bart settled back against the window. "Can we go a little faster?"
Kon didn't say anything but the car eased towards forty.
It seemed forever till they pulled into the privacy of the parking garage. It took less than a second for Kon to strip off jeans and t-shirt in favour of the sleek suit underneath. Bart, already changed and leaning against the wall to watch, couldn't decide if Kon was too slow, because he was keeping them from the Tower, or too quick, because Bart really did like watching Kon take his clothes off. Even if there were more clothes underneath.
Kon's look made it perfectly obvious that he knew what Bart was thinking but all he said was, "Race you to the Tower?"
Bart was running before Kon had finished speaking and was leaning against the door to the Tower when Kon caught up to him. "I win. I get the chocolate fudge ripple ice cream."
"Keep on eating it all and you'll grow out of your suit. Again." Kon punched in the security code, submitted to the retinal and fingerprint scans and the doors finally slid open.
Bart followed him into the Tower, rolling his shoulders against the fabric of the suit. "Nearly have anyway. Can we stop off at the Fortress this evening for me to get a new one?"
Kon frowned thoughtfully. "Already? You only got a new one a few months ago."
"Six. Well, five. Almost five."
"And how tall are you now?"
Kon raised an eyebrow.
"Six-one. And a bit. But I'm mostly growing out, not up. And not my belly, before you say anything."
"Wasn't going to say a word," Kon said, voice filled with innocence. "Have you spoken to Wally?"
"I tried. He just said that he was still growing when he was my age. I think he was trying to reassure me. Or he might have been trying to get rid of me. It's hard to tell, sometimes, with Wally."
"It would have been more reassuring if he was actually related to you in any way involving genetics. Oh, yes, and if he'd been born with a hyper-accelerated metabolism, rather than being hit in the head with chemicals and lightning."
"You sound like you care!"
Bart was suddenly pinned against the wall while Kon kissed him. Eventually Kon pulled away. "Damn right, I care," he muttered.
Bart turned his face into Kon's shoulder. "You can go faster, you know."
"You mean you don't like being swept off in my arms, just like Lois Lane?"
Bart raspberried Kon's neck, which made him shiver, so Bart did it again.
"We're not joining the Mile High Club. Well, not over..." Bart felt Kon twist slightly as he looked below. "I've got no idea but there are a lot of lights down there."
"Go faster and they wouldn't be able to see us."
"If you don't stop complaining, I'll make you run."
"No, you won't. I'm not supposed to know where the Fortress is."
"I'll just make you run around in circles for a few days." Kon's arms briefly tightened around Bart.
"I know the stars around there. I could figure it out really easy."
"And Clark could easily kick both of us round the world a couple of times."
Bart snuggled in closer. "I'm bored."
The rush of air grew harder as Kon accelerated. "That better?"
"It'll do." After a moment, Bart wriggled in Kon's grip. "Kon?"
"Are we there yet?"
Bart had visited the Fortress so often that it should have been familiar but he was still slightly freaked out by it. It was big and strange and alien and he wasn't sure he liked being reminded that Kon was so totally different from him. It was always a relief to reach the annexe Clark had built for Superboy because that was pretty much any teenager's bedroom/study thing. Although a disturbingly tidy one, thanks to the AI.
But it was pretty normal to stand there while the AI scanned him and flashed up a picture of the Kid Flash suit.
"Please confirm request for Kid Flash suits," the AI said.
"Why'd it say it like that?" Bart demanded.
"Scans suggest a physical age of nineteen years. Knowledge of the culture of the United States of America suggests the term 'kid' is not usually applied to humans of that age."
The AI could sound so condescending at times that it was automatic to snap back that he was quite happy being Kid Flash. Only...
Maybe if Grandpa Barry was Flash. Or even Jay. But the prickles with Wally had just got worse over the years, as Bart did more and more and people started to forget there had been a Kid Flash before him. And it was a little ridiculous being a sidekick to somebody when you couldn't spend five minutes in the same room as them without arguing. Besides, he'd thought it was a stupid name when he'd first heard it and he might have gotten used to it after four years but it was still stupid.
The AI had a point.
Kon shrugged. "It's got a point."
"Yeah, I know." Bart frowned. "So maybe I should quit being Kid Flash."
"At least the suit isn't horribly embarrassing. You could be running round in panties and fairy boots."
Bart sniggered. "I can't believe it took Nightwing so long to change." He whipped round to stare at Kon, eyes wide. "Do you think the kids are saying that about me?"
"Nah. They just laugh at your little wings."
Bart's hand flew to one of his wings. "Hey! I like my wings! They're part of my Flash heritage."
"I know." Kon's smile was more in his eyes than his mouth. "Makes me so glad I just have to worry about the 'S'."
"I'm keeping them."
Kon shrugged. "Thought you would. But what about the rest? If you do change, what are you going to call yourself?"
"I guess - something that's a synonym of Flash? Do you have a thesaurus?"
Kon tapped Bart's head. "Haven't you got a library in there?"
"My thesaurus is four years out of date," Bart said.
"The AI'll have, like, twenty."
"There are nine hundred and seventy six thesauri currently on record."
Kon made a face. "Show-off."
"Please advise which thesaurus would be suitable for your needs."
Kon looked blank, so Bart said, "Your most recent Roget."
The screen showed the cover of the thesaurus. "Please confirm search for synonyms of 'flash'."
"There are one hundred and forty nine entries found for 'flash'."
Bart blinked. "That's... impressive. Can you stick them all on a disc for me?" A moment later a drive containing a mini-CD slid smoothly out of the wall, making Bart jump. "Was that drive there before?" he asked Kon suspiciously but Kon just shrugged. "Your AI likes creeping me out. I'm sure."
"Probably, yeah," Kon agreed. "Want to head back to the Tower?"
Bart glared at the smooth wall where the drive had been. "Yeah."
It was Kon's turn to cook so Bart perched on one of the worktops with his disc-reader. "There are some fantastic words that are synonyms of Flash and Impulse."
"You are not swapping to a black leather outfit with a whip." Kon considered. "Well, not in public."
"Spoilsport. I take it Lust is out too?"
Kon choked. "Why does your family end up with such pervy names?"
"It's all Jay's fault. He started the whole thing. There.s Spur. I could go for a whole cowboy theme."
"We may live in SF but you're not turning into a one-man Village People."
"Sounds like a Japanese accountant hero."
"She was a supermodel, Bart."
"Are you saying I'm not cute enough to be a supermodel?"
"I'm saying your breasts aren't big enough to model bras. Next."
Bart leaned towards Kon and made his voice breathy. "Desire."
Kon took a deep breath. "I'm cooking."
"No you're not. You're putting spaghetti sauce in the microwave."
"It's the nearest you're getting to cooking."
"How about... Thrust. Stroke."
"Do you actually want to eat tonight?"
Bart considered. "Yeah."
"Then stop distracting me."
Bart was silent for, for him, a long time. "Kon," he said, "I think we're turning into an old married couple. I actually chose food over sex."
"My food too."
"The kitchen table's nice and solid."
The spaghetti had boiled away to mush by the time they got around to eating, so they ordered pizza instead.
"Surge," Bart said, through a mouthful of pepperoni and onion.
"Sounds like a laundry detergent."
"You're not an Arrow. Although that would have been a much better sidekick name than Speedy."
"Disturbing imagery, though. Those long, hard arrows sliding into the pliant, willing quiv-"
"Shut up! Or I'll never be able to talk to Roy or Mia again."
Bart forwarded through the disc. "Bolt. Flit. Flaunt."
"Flaunt? No, no and no."
"It was easy for you. You were a boy, you were super - Superboy!"
"How did you get Impulse?"
Bart giggled. "Batman named me."
There was a long pause. "I- I don't think I want to know."
"Should I give him a call an-"
"We've got Robin's number. I'm sure he wouldn't mind-"
Grinning, Bart turned back to the thesaurus. "Blaze. Dazzle."
"Are you trying to be the world's gayest superhero?"
"I could have a rainbow sui- Oh, no. One of Flash's enemies was the Rainbow Raider."
Kon choked on his pizza. "Can't you warn a guy? The Rainbow Raider? Jeez, Clark fights the President, Batman deals with Joker and Wally takes on the Rainbow Raider."
"I could wear sequins. A little star headband and glitter in my hair. It would be very pretty."
"I refuse to be Twinkle's boyfriend."
"But I could grow my hair. Put it back with sparkly barrettes."
"You're just trying to make me so nauseous that you get my share of pizza."
"Drat, you've foiled my cunning plan." Bart stared at his disc-reader. "Oh."
"How about Streak?"
"The Streak?" There was a pause. "I think it's the best of the suggestions so far. But do you really want to run round named after a public indecency?"
"I'm not doing that as Kid Flash?"
"I've been trying not to think about that for the past three years."
Bart grinned. "So, what do you think? Should I be the Streak?"
Kon chewed his pizza meditatively. "I like it. What about Wally?"
Bart blew a raspberry. "I'll tell him after I've changed. Can we go up to the Fortress in the morning for me to get a new suit? I want to show it off to the kids."
"That's going to involve getting up early."
"Pleasepleaseplease?" Bart gazed soulfully at Kon.
Kon groaned. "I'm going to lose."
At five to six, Bart was awake. Kon wasn't, so Bart just lay for a while and watched him. He liked it when Kon was asleep and his usual half-frown was smoothed away. It made Bart feel like they were still back in Young Justice and nothing too awful could happen. Being an adult meant you were actually pulled into the front line when the earth was under attack. It meant you got to watch the Green Lantern Corps be decimated by strange aliens who, according to every telepath and empath around, really weren't aggressive. It meant you got to choose between blowing up a ship packed with billions of apparently peaceful little purple dudes or watching them blow up the earth.
And it meant that, on top of everything else, you got to worry about the fact your boyfriend was at an even fronter front line than yours.
Bart smoothed Kon's eyebrow and smiled when Kon mumbled.
Well, the little purple dudes had been zapped into another dimension - nearly taking Bart with them - and most of his friends had survived and things were almost back to normal now. And that weird Green Lantern with the tentacles and tusks and BO had promised that his planet would be able to either give Vic a new body or fix up his cyborg bits, so Vic would be back. Eventually.
Cassie was still alive, even if she had somebody else's face now because her old one had been burned off. She might even come back from Themyscira one day, although Diana had warned him it was unlikely. He missed Cassie.
But Kon had survived and Bart always felt kind of guilty about thinking that was the important thing.
If they were going to get to the Fortress and back before class, though, Bart was going to have to run the risk of waking Kon up. Which meant being armed and, seeing as Bart wasn't entirely happy about wielding a kryptonite bazooka, that meant coffee and croissants. Which meant getting out of bed.
He ran his finger down Kon's nose and grinned as Kon's nostrils flared.
Coffee. Croissants. Up.
Bart fed his plans into the AI and kicked his heels against the bench while he waited for the new suit to be produced. "This is easier than having to make them myself," he said, staring at the figures flashing past on the screen. They were almost too fast for even him to read.
"I got Aunt Martha to make mine," Kon said smugly. "Before Clark gave me access to the AI."
"All you had to worry about then was getting the logo printed on a t-shirt," Bart pointed out. "And after a while you didn't even have to worry about that - you just picked up merchandise."
Kon grinned. "Damn right. It's called planning."
"It's called lazy uniform design."
"Initial suit prepared. Please confirm," the AI interrupted.
Bart made a face. "You need to lighten up, AI. You don't have to be all formal just because you're a computer. I've known lots of computers and some of them were really friendly and relaxed."
The AI was silent for a moment. "Yo, dude," it said in a painfully rigid tone. "Yo' new threads is ready. Yo' dig?"
"Formal's good," Bart said. "I like formal. So where's my suit?" A drawer slid open next to him and Bart jumped. "That drawer wasn't there! I know it wasn't because I checked. You do this on purpose, AI."
"Please confirm suit is correct."
Bart stuck his tongue out and zipped into the suit. "The fit's perfect."
"The scans are correct to within one hundredth of a millimetre," the AI told him.
"And what's the fabric? It's even better than the Kid Flash suit."
"The fabric is a modified form of that used for Superboy's uniform. It has been altered to improve protection. This has resulted in a 2.3569% increase in friction, which should be negated by your natural anti-friction shield."
"Cool. Do you have a mirror?" One wall seemed to melt into a mirror. "Thank you." Bart smoothed the already perfect fabric down his thigh. "What do you think, Kon?"
"I like it." Kon sounded reserved and Bart turned to look at him. Kon shrugged. "Well, it's very similar to the Flash suit. Do you think Wally would mind?"
Bart frowned into the mirror. "It's not that similar, is it? I mean, it's the same colour. And it's got the same cowl. And the symbol. But I've got lightning streaks running down my legs and arms, rather than around my waist. So it... Yeah. It's almost exactly the same."
"Maybe in a different colour? Yellow, like your Kid Flash suit?"
"A yellow Flash is the Reverse Flash." Bart shook his head. "Uh-uh."
Bart made a face. "Kinda tacky. I don't want something more attention-grabbing than Wally's."
"Or he'll bitch," Kon said.
"Vocabulary study suggests the phrase 'blue streak'," the AI interrupted helpfully. "Definitions are: One, something moving very fast. Two, a rapid and seemingly interminable stream of words."
Kon turned away to hide a grin and Bart stuck his tongue out at him.
"Blue. I like blue. And Max went by Blue Streak for a while. Thank you, AI. Could you give me a spectrum of blues to choose from?" The mirror melted away and was replaced by a sliding scale of blues. Bart pointed to a medium steel blue. "That one. And could I have silver lightning, please?"
"Confirmed. Please return rejected suit to bin for recycling."
In moments, the drawer slid out again, this time with the blue suit. Bart beamed. "I like it."
Getting home from college seemed to take even longer on a Friday night. "Why did we agree to this again?" Bart asked.
"Because Kory asked you."
Bart shook his head sharply. "Nope. Because I was saying no to Kory and then Superman asked you and you went all goofy and said, 'Sure!'."
"I did not go all goofy."
"You did. He pulled that, 'I'm asking you because I trust you' crap and you ate it right up and-"
"-and you did the same thing," Kon interrupted. "And now we're stuck as babysitters."
"Yeah." Bart pressed his nose against the car window and tried to will the traffic light to change. It had been stuck at red for ever even though there was nothing coming the other way. "They make me feel sorry for Reddie."
"We were never that bad," Kon protested. He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel for a moment. "Well, maybe we were but we weren't so rude about it."
"I think we're getting old," Bart said.
"Never." Kon hit the gas - which was completely pointless because the engine had cut out while they were waiting - and ran the red light.
Inevitably, the first to arrive was Robin. Bart had never been able to get the story on the current version. He seemed to be about fourteen, had blond hair, called Oracle 'Mom' and was way too cheerful to be a Robin.
Bart ran up to the rooftop when the Batjet was reported approaching and waved cheerfully. As soon as the cockpit cracked, he yelled a hello. And fought back a grin when Batman actually got out of the jet, rather than dropping Robin over the side and beating a hasty retreat.
"Hiya, Bats. Batman."
"New suit," Batman said, with what was probably a raised eyebrow.
"Superman's AI pointed out that I wasn't a kid any more."
There was a certain amount of sarcasm but Bart ignored it, as he always did. "So now I'm Streak."
"Oracle will inform those who need to know."
"Cool." Bart tilted his head. "So what does Oracle think of the new look?"
That was a smile! It was only a tiny little smile and it was a grim smile but Bart kept a list of every single time he'd managed to make Batman smile. Although, actually, it was probably Oracle who'd made him smile. "Oracle approves."
Bart waved at where he thought the visual pick-up was. "Thank you, Oracle."
"Apparently, you're welcome. And if you two have finished using me as a relay...?" Oracle must have said something because Batman's eyes narrowed. "Bart. What protection do you have in that suit?"
"It's some kind of Kryptonian poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide. The AI didn't tell me too much about it."
"I'll send you samples of a new form of Kevlar I've had developed."
Bart was about to say that it wasn't necessary because chances were the Kryptonian stuff was better than anything Bats could come up with. But then he realised that the Bat-Kevlar wasn't actually meant for him. It was just that the stick up Batman's ass was too rigid for him to actually give it to Tim himself. So, instead, Bart nodded and said he'd look out for it. And he didn't like it when Batman gave him one of those looks that could make you swear the guy had X-ray vision but then Batman was settling back into the Batjet and sealing the cockpit, so Bart grabbed Robin's ear and, despite howls of protest, dragged him downstairs to the den.
Kon was sprawled on the sofa. "Hey, Bart." He stretched languorously and turned on a sultry smile. "We got time before the rest of the brats turn up?"
"Natural form, Switch. Now."
"Spoilsport." 'Kon' melted into an aggressively plain girl of around sixteen, with light brown plaits and braces. "How did you know this time?"
"Because Kon bleached his hair green last night."
"He did?" Switch wavered into a version of Kon with bright green hair. "Like that?"
"Darker green," Bart told her. "And a bit more blue-ish."
"Perfect. If I hadn't been making it up."
Switch flickered back to natural and stuck her tongue out. "I'll get you one day. Nice suit, by the way."
"Thank you. Did you come with Green?"
"Yeah. Him and Firewall are in the kitchen." She rolled on to her stomach as Robin shot through to the kitchen. "Any word yet on finding any K'l- Kil'. I can't pronounce it. Any of whatever Green is to take him in?"
Bart shook his head. "The only Kl-thingie we can find records of is his dad." Who was one of the many Green Lanterns killed saving Earth and Bart didn't want to think about that again because it made him feel sick. "GL got in touch with the Guardians to see what they can find out but, until then, he's stuck living with Kory and Gar. How's he holding up?"
"Hard to tell. He doesn't seem to realise he's allowed to be something other than pointlessly cheerful and bouncy."
Bart sighed. "Oh well. Hopefully he won't grow out of it."
The kids were training when Bart headed up to the kitchen for a snack. Kon was already there, shuffling through take-out menus. "What do you want for dinner?" Kon asked.
"I was thinking Thai."
Kon looked up from the menus and grinned.
"I think other students have to learn to cook," Bart said. "And live on a budget. And stuff."
"Other students don't get nice fat salaries and spend their weekends saving the world."
"Good point." Bart tossed six slices of bread at Kon and Kon obediently used his heat-vision to toast them. "Did Firewall eat all the peanut butter again?"
"There's more in the cupboard." Kon waited until Bart was halfway through his second slice of toast to say, "So, how long are you going to keep this suit?"
Bart shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, I thought I'd keep the last one until I became Flash. But Wally just keeps getting faster and more Speed Force-y and I don't think he's ever going to retire."
"I didn't mean the design. I meant the actual suit." Kon raised an eyebrow. "This whole growing thing? I haven't forgotten, even if you have."
"Oh. That." Bart chewed his toast. "I don't know."
"Can't you talk to somebody about it? Jay or somebody?"
"Wally's probably right. I mean, it's probably just a growth spurt. You had one."
"I grew an inch in a year. You've grown nearly two inches in four months, and that's not even mentioning the bulking up." Kon folded his arms and Bart realised with a jolt that Kon's 'determined' expression looked more like Lex Luthor than Superman. "Go talk to Jay."
"The kids are training," Bart said weakly.
Kon's eyes didn't actually flare red but Bart was somehow reminded that they could. "Now."
"I'll go after dinner."
And Kon was back to being just Kon, which was a relief. "Okay. After dinner."
It felt weird knocking on the door of somewhere you'd lived, even if it was only for a couple of years. But then Joan opened the door and Bart was wrapped in a warm hug and Jay was beaming over Joan's shoulder and Bart felt a sudden burst of home.
"Good to see you, son," Jay said, clapping Bart's shoulder. "I heard about the new look. About time."
"You think?" Bart said with relief. "I probably should have talked to Wally first but I needed a new suit anyway and the AI was being sarcastic and it kind of happened." Bart gave a rueful smile. "Whoops?"
Jay smiled and there was something about Jay's smile that was incredibly honest and made Bart feel safe. "Come on through. And what are you here for?"
"That obvious, huh?"
"If you can't come home when you need help, where can you go?"
And that. That felt good. "It's related to the new name, sort of. I'm growing. Fast."
"How fast?" Jay asked.
"I grew out of the last suit in less than five months. More like four."
Jay whistled. "That is fast. Have you spoken to Wally?"
Bart shrugged. "He just said he was still growing when he was my age. And, well, you know me and Wally."
"You didn't push it," Jay interpreted. "Did you explain just how fast you were growing?"
Bart shook his head. "I was hoping you'd be able to help. Do you think it's my metabolism coming back?"
"Son, I wish I could help. But for speed force problems, you really do need to speak to Wally."
Bart sighed and pushed his cowl back. "I thought you'd say that."
Jay's hand was back on his shoulder and Bart looked up. "I tell you what. I'll give him a call and get him to come over here. He'll probably take it more seriously if I bring it up."
Bart made absent small talk with Joan while trying to make out the soft murmur of Jay talking to Wally. Finally, Jay walked back into the living room. "He'll be here in a few momen-" Jay was interrupted by a loud knocking at the door. "Right on cue."
Wally was in jeans but there was still that speed force glow about him that made Bart wonder how he managed to keep his identity secret. Despite his best efforts, Bart shrank back into the sofa a little. Because, yeah, Superman was probably more intimidating. But at least Superman actually liked Kon. Kon didn't get impatient glares whenever he dared to ask for advice and he got praise for trying to live up to his name, instead of being shot down all the time.
"What did the kid do now?" Wally asked.
"He's not a kid any more," Jay pointed out with a warm smile at Bart.
"Yeah, I heard about that. Via Oracle. It would have been nicer to hear it from Bart. What is it now, 'Streak'?"
Bart nodded. "I wanted something that was a synonym of Flash and Impulse."
"There wasn't something that wasn't a public misdemeanour?"
Bart grinned a little and, even though he knew it would just piss Wally off, said, "I was following in the Flash tradition."
And he really shouldn't have because Jay and Joan were smiling but Wally's face had shut right down.
"You'd rather I'd gone for Twinkle? Glitter?"
Wally shuddered slightly. "Okay, fine. Streak. Jay said you had a problem."
Bart glanced at Jay who nodded reassuringly. "I'm growing. Fast."
"You're going through a final growth spurt. It happens a lot."
"Listen to him, Wally," Jay said.
"I grew out of my last suit in just over four months," Bart said. "I went up just under two inches and my chest measurement went up by five inches." He shrugged. "Roughly translated from whatever Kryptonian measurements Superman's AI uses."
"The AI's been measuring you?" Wally demanded.
"It makes my suits. It keeps a record of what size they are."
Wally blinked. "Really? I didn't know that." If Bart concentrated, he could see Wally as more than a pacing blur. "Five inches is a lot but not unheard of. Have you been working out more?"
Bart shook his head.
"Any particular change in lifestyle?"
"Just taking on the new Titans. Which might explain my waistline because they never stop eating. But the AI says my fat levels haven't changed."
Wally frowned. "I wish we knew more about your metabolism." He glanced at Jay. "I take it you think that's the problem?"
"That's what Bart thinks," Jay said.
Wally studied Bart for a moment, then nodded sharply. "I'll think about it and get in touch with you."
"Do you know when?" Bart asked. He bit his lower lip. "Because Kon. He's a bit worried."
Wally narrowed his eyes. "Are you eating more?"
"Hot all the time?"
"Kon has to wear sweaters around the Tower."
Wally looked confused for a moment, then nodded sharply. "Oh, because you have the a/c up so high. Got it. I'm going to go and think. I'll be back in five minutes."
Bart had barely had time to eat the sandwich Joan had made for him before Wally was back.
"Have you had any bad injuries lately?"
Bart shook his head.
"Encountered any strange rays?"
Bart shook his head again.
"Not quite true," Jay said. "During the invasion, didn't you get caught up in the dimensional beam?"
Bart blinked. "Oh, yeah. But that was ages ago."
"Six months," Jay said drily.
"How did you manage that?" Wally asked, voice filled with irritation.
"He was saving a kid," Jay said and squeezed Bart's shoulder. "Green?" Bart shuffled his feet and tried not to think of Green clinging to his dad's body as the beam built up around them.
Wally glanced at his hands. "Oh. So, you have been hit by something that could have knocked off your connection to the speed force?"
Bart shrugged. "I guess so."
"Right, then. It looks as though your connection to the speed force is at the root of the trouble."
Bart very carefully didn't say something along the lines of, No shit, Sherlock. "So what do we do?"
"Two possibilities. Last time we stabilised your metabolism by pushing you past your limit." Wally actually sounded thoughtful. "I don't know what your limit is right now. Do you?"
"No idea. But I've been close to light speed without trouble."
"I'm guessing that's not going to work then. Unless - have you been up to that speed recently?"
"Last week," Bart said, without bothering to explain that it was while the Titans were fighting off a magical three-headed dude who kept blinking out of one fight and reappearing on the other side of the world. Wally wouldn't be interested.
"So, if you haven't noticed any slowing down, that suggests your metabolism's hyper-accelerating again to compensate for the deterioration of your connection to the speed force."
Bart considered that and was surprised to discover it actually made sense. "So I need to re-establish my connection," he said. "Which means going into the speed force." He looked at Jay. "Oh."
Wally looked between Bart and Jay. "Oh?"
Bart took a deep breath. "I've tried to go into the speed force before."
"I know. That business with Max. You did it."
"Since then." Bart shrugged and studied his boots. "I needed to talk to Max so I tried to get into the speed force."
"You idiot!" Wally said, eyes wide. "You could have gotten stuck there!"
"That wasn't the problem," Bart said and kicked the couch a couple of times. "I couldn't get in. I couldn't get the vibrations right." He sighed at Wally's blank expression. "When I went in before, Dr Morlo identified the frequency I needed to vibrate at to get in. But when I tried last time - it just didn't work." He shrugged. "I figured you'd changed the frequencies somehow when you..." He made a vague gesture to indicate Wally's whole I-absorbed-the-speed-force-and-now-we're-one-and-the-same! thing. "You know. So I don't know how to get in."
"Wait a moment," Jay said. "If I understand right, Wally's now a part of the speed force, rather than just channelling it. Right?"
"Pretty much," Wally said, before amending it to, "Well, sort of." He sighed. "Try thinking of the speed as water. You and Bart turn on a tap when you need the speed and it flows into you. When you don't need the speed, you turn the tap off. I- I have a stream constantly flowing into me. If I don't use the speed, it pools up in me."
"So..." Jay narrowed his eyes in thought. "Couldn't you connect Bart to the speed force?"
Wally dropped into an armchair and rested his chin on his hands. His glow flared for a moment. "That's... possible. But there's also the possibility he'd end up tied into my speed."
"So I'd be getting my speed from you, rather than the speed force?" Bart said, and shook his head. "Nuh-uh. Not a chance."
"That was my thought too," Wally said dryly. "I don't think we'd do well, sharing a connection."
"So we're left with trying to get Bart into the speed force." Jay shrugged. "I guess you'll have to take him in, Wally."
"No," Bart said, too quickly. "Not yet," he amended.
Wally raised an eyebrow.
"I can do this myself. I know I can. I just need to figure it out."
Wally's snort was disbelieving. "Bart, it's probably going to be easiest if I take you in."
"But how do we know that'd work?" Bart looked around. "I mean, Wally is the speed force, right? So if he takes me in, won't I just end up tied to him? Which takes us back to the sharing a connection thing. So I've got to go in on my own."
Jay frowned and rested his chin on his hand. "Okay. Wally, what does it feel like when you go into the speed force?"
"Like nothing on earth," Wally said softly and an opaque, golden sheen flowed over his eyes.
Wally cleared his throat and the sheen darted back. "The first time, I didn't have any choice. When I've gone in deliberately? You just have to listen to the speed. Let it tell you what it wants from you." He lifted one hand in an abortive gesture, then dropped it. "I don't know how to explain it."
"Listen to the speed. Right." Wally was supposed to be a mechanic but he still came out with all this pseudo-spiritual rubbish. Like they were meant to worship the speed force. Bart had been born with the speed running through his veins, thank you very much. He didn't need to worship it.
"Boys." Jay's tone warned them to play nicely. "I think you're going to have to go running together. See if you can explain it that way."
Wally sighed and then the golden sheen flowed right over him and for a moment it was like there was an Oscar statuette sitting in Jay's front room, until the gold burned into red, leaving just the bottom of Wally's face with the shifting, liquid sheen. "Ready to go?" he said and it was weird to the see the liquid even inside Wally's mouth.
Bart stood up. "Sure."
Wally nodded sharply and the liquid around his jaw rippled for a moment. "See if you can keep up."
And then he was gone and Bart was chasing after him and he hated this, hated it when Wally shoved his nose in the fact that he was the fastest. But Wally's trail, golden footprints shimmering in the air, was easy to follow and he had to work for it but then he was running alongside Wally and Wally turned to look at him, eyes shining gold behind the cowl.
"Listen to the speed," he said and his voice buzzed slightly.
Listen to the speed. Yeah, right. But Max had said the same kind of thing so Bart tried to clear his mind of everything but the feel of the speed flowing through him and weaving itself around him and, for a moment, he heard it. A sharp whistle that made him miss a stride and nearly fall and then it was gone. He slowed to a stop and bent over, hands on his thighs as he breathed heavily.
"You heard it?" Wally said eagerly.
"A whistle?" Bart said. "It was kind of painful."
"You weren't at the right vibration. It modulates, turns into a..." Wally scrubbed his face with his hand and, for a single fraction of a second, Bart could see the bare skin underneath the speed. "I can't describe it. It's the most perfect sound you could ever imagine."
Bart thought of the sounds Kon made when he came and fought back a grin.
"And it's everywhere, surrounding you, touching you." Wally shook his head, wonder on his face. "But you know what you're looking for now?"
"Yeah." Bart shook his head to get the ringing out of his ears. It didn't work. "So we don't have to work together any more, right?"
Wally rested his hand on Bart's shoulder and the speed trickled down his back, making him shiver. "Not unless you want to."
Bart looked at him in confusion and the speed quickly flowed back into Wally's hand.
"No." Wally nodded briefly. "Good luck."
Bart watched the golden blur vanish, then shook his head. Wally was weird.
Kon was in bed, waiting up for him. Bart had expected it. "Well?" Kon asked.
Bart held up the ziplock bag Joan had given him. "Cookies. Chocolate chip, coconut and fudge."
"Hand 'em over. Now answer the question."
Bart smiled and hoped it didn't look as false as it felt. "Neither Jay nor Wally thinks it's anything serious. Wally's going to look into it and let me know." Bart didn't like lying. But he preferred it to having Kon worried sick about him.
Kon stared at him. "Jay doesn't think it's serious but he still called Wally in?"
"I guess he was worried about me." Bart shrugged. "But it'll all be okay. It probably isn't anything to do with my metabolism anyway." He kicked off his suit and draped it over the back of the chair. "Oh, yeah. Is there any way I can speak to your AI from here?"
"Superman's AI," Kon corrected him automatically. "Yeah. Why?"
"Wally had a couple of questions about the fabric, that's all. Wondered if it was something the AI would be willing to share with STAR." And if there was a possibility the AI could be persuaded to crank the protection down and the anti-friction up on one of Bart's suits, that'd probably help with the speed force. Bart settled on top of the sheets and curled up.
Kon draped one arm over Bart and pulled him closer. "You're burning hot and you expect me to believe it's nothing to do with your metabolism? Don't lie to me, Bart." Kon rubbed Bart's chest. "If you don't tell me what's going on, I come to my own conclusions and the truth can't possibly be as scary as what I'm thinking."
"What are you thinking?"
"That I might be living with a fifty-year-old sooner than I'd planned."
Bart shut his eyes for a moment and shook his head. "Nope. It's just that my connection to the speed force got knocked around a bit by the dimensional beam thingie. Wally's going to head into the speed force and kick it straight." Kon shouldn't worry about him.
Kon's arm tightened briefly around his chest. "And your metabolism?"
"Compensating for the difficulties with the speed force. As long as I don't rush around too much, it won't cause any lasting harm." Bart bit his lower lip and wondered when lying had gotten so easy.
Perhaps it wasn't that easy because Kon sounded suspicious. "Absolutely certain," Bart said. "There's nothing to worry about. Other than Wally kicking my ass if I don't speak to the AI."
"Drop it an email. It'll tell you what you need to know."
"The AI has an email address?"
"Course. Changes it every five days, though - hates the spam."
Bart was still smiling when he fell asleep.
Dear AI, I've got to go into the speed force. I don't know how much you know
about it but it's difficult to get to and even more difficult to leave. I
think it will be easier to judge if my suit has less friction than it does
at the moment, because then I won't be wasting energy on my anti-friction
shield thingy. Is there anything you'd be able to do about that? Love,
I've got to go into the speed force. I don't know how much you know about it but it's difficult to get to and even more difficult to leave. I think it will be easier to judge if my suit has less friction than it does at the moment, because then I won't be wasting energy on my anti-friction shield thingy.
Is there anything you'd be able to do about that?
He'd hit 'send' before realising that 'love' probably wasn't too appropriate.
Oh well. It was about time the AI got a bit of affection into its existence. If 30th century AIs could learn to love, then stupidly-advanced Kryptonian ones could too.
He'd barely had a chance to finish the thought before his computer flashed a reply.
It is possible to decrease the friction of your suit, though it will involve removing the shielding. This is unlikely to present a difficulty if the suit is used purely for the mission you outlined. Please advise when you will be visiting to collect the refined suit.
Bart shut down his computer and pushed his chair away from the desk. Today was Saturday, which meant dealing with the kids all day - and no time to think about the speed force. He was going to have to persuade Kon to take him up to the Fortress soon, though.
Spare suits. It would make sense to have more than one suit actually here, even if the AI's fabric didn't really get torn or dirty or anything.
Lying was getting horribly easy.
Kon was sitting on one of the worksurfaces in the kitchen when Bart showed up. "You know," Kon said quietly, "I'm starting to wish they'd develop some arch-enemies. Just small ones. Easy to deal with. Because at least it'd give them something to do other than drive me up the wall."
Switch, in her favourite red-haired sex kitten guise, was leaning against the wall and making it clear that the wall was lucky; Firewall, this weekend sporting pink hair with green streaks, was staring at Switch and probably envying the wall; and Robin was chasing Green round the kitchen to get some of the milk.
Bart plucked the milk out of Green's hands and handed it to Kon. "I hereby appoint you Guardian of the Milk. Use your position wisely." He grinned as he turned to Green and Robin. "And if you two have got so much energy - gym!"
"Wheeee!" Green dopplered past Bart and down the hallway.
Robin groaned. "No fair. Bats had me training, like, all day yesterday."
"Poor baby. The Robin I was in YJ with wouldn't have complained."
"I'm not that Robin!"
Bart blinked. "Um, okay." And, damn, this was what he and Kon were meant to be here for. But he wasn't any good at it. "You want to talk?" he asked, steering Robin out of the kitchen.
"Nah. Just tired of it - always being compared to the other Robins, y'know? Actually, you probably do. But at least you didn't have four of them to be compared to." Robin scrubbed at his hair. "Wish I could change my ID but..."
"Can you imagine telling Bats? And even if I survived that, I'd have to explain to Nightwing and Mom and probably Alfred." He sighed and picked at the edges of his mask. "And I'm tired of having to sleep in this thing. I want to be a real person to you guys, not just 'Robin'. I know Firewall is Casey and Switch is Elizabeth and Green is - well, I can't pronounce it but I recognise it if I hear it. I even know who you two are - and Bats says he thinks that's a real breach of security, by the way. But I'm stuck being Robin. Not even Robin - Robin Five, because there's been so many of them." Robin heaved a sigh. "It sucks."
"You could tell me your name? In private? And I won't tell anybody?"
Robin grinned ruefully. "I've seen you try to lie to Batman. He'd know as soon as you said hello."
"Yeah," Bart admitted after a moment. "He probably would. It took a weird magic thing with alternate dimensions before he'd let Tim tell us his name."
"I don't think he'd let me even after that. But - you know Tim, right?"
Bart considered. He had known Tim but he wasn't so sure how well he knew Tim right now. "Well, yeah. Pretty much."
Robin chewed his lower lip and stared at the floor. "Do you know what happened with him and Batman? Because if I even mention his name, Batman goes all stony and grim."
"How can you tell?"
Robin's grin was small but it was there. "There are different levels of grim. You learn them after a while. But, Tim?"
Bart was having to think way too much lately. He needed some mindless time with Kon. "I know a little bit of what happened." He raised a hand to forestall Robin. "But I can't tell you. It's not my story to tell. What I can do is drop Tim a line and see if he's willing to come over here and talk to you."
"Do you think he will?"
Bart shrugged. "I don't know. He's pretty busy in Blüdhaven at the moment but I think he'll try." Or at least, the old Tim would try. Bart wasn't really sure about the new Tim. Kon had always known Tim better and probably still did. "I'll see what I can do. Now, we'd better get down to the gym before Green wrecks it."
"What do you think?" Bart asked. "Will he come?"
Kon rubbed his chin. "I don't know. It's not just that he's busy, it's that... He's tried to put the whole Robin thing behind him."
"By partnering up with Nightwing. Sheesh. Does anybody stop being Robin without wanting to rip Batman's head off?"
"Nightwing seems to have gotten over it."
"After about a decade."
Kon snorted. "Okay, I'll give Tim a call and see what he says."
Bart paused at the doorway. "I guess this is one of those 'old team vs. new team' conflicts that Gar warned us about."
"Which would mean that we're finally becoming a team."
"Huh. Yeah." Bart grinned. "I like that."
Kon had the team training, which meant Bart had half an hour of free time. And, for a speedster, half an hour was practically forever.
Listen to the speed, he told himself in Max's voice. But then Max's voice turned into Wally's. Feel it.
Feel it wreathed around your legs, your chest, your arms. Feel it flowing through your muscles, pushing you on. Feel it in every bloodcell, in every molecule of oxygen that lets you move.
Listen to it. Listen to it telling you to move faster, more liquid. Listen to it hissing at you, humming at you, singing at you.
Feel it wrapping round you, holding you like Kon does when you're dying from the pleasure and you never want the moment to end.
The song exploded into a symphony and the air was golden around him, speed trickling over him, tendrils exploring his mouth and nose and he was breathing actual speed and he panicked and fell and skidded for what must have been a couple of miles over the surface of the Pacific.
He got to his feet before he could sink and ran in place for a moment, thinking. Wally hadn't warned him about that. So maybe it shouldn't have happened.
Or perhaps it should and Wally just hadn't bothered to mention it because he thought it was totally normal and shouldn't worry anybody.
Bart sighed and started jogging back to the Tower.
It probably was normal now. The speed force had changed since Wally went in there the last time.
Tim set the Pequod on top of the Tower just as the sun finished setting. "He's supposed to be to be putting aside his Battiness and he's still nocturnal," Bart said quietly. "He's never going to be un-Batty."
"He isn't trying to be un-Batty," Kon said. "He's trying to be un-Robin. Hi, T- Um, Goshawk."
Tim had the lenses active on his mask but Bart had been reading Tim through masks for years now and he could spot the tension around his mouth. Tim nodded sharply. "Superboy. Streak."
"Everybody here knows who we are," Bart pointed out. "You don't need to be all secretive about us."
"If we keep completely to codenames, you're less likely to let my ID slip," Tim said.
Bart shrugged. "Makes sense. If you're anally obsessive about secrecy. Goshawk. Can I call you Gosh?"
"How do you put up with him, Superboy?"
Kon rested his hand on the back of Bart's neck and squeezed gently. "I got used to him."
"How long did it take you to come up with a new ID?" Bart asked. "Because it took me ages and I think it's going to take me even longer to get used to not being Kid Flash. And how did you choose Goshawk?"
Tim shrugged. "Goshawks are aggressive, protective and currently doing well in urban areas."
"So nothing to do with the fact that they've been known to kill bats?"
Tim's mouth twitched. "Have they really? I never knew that."
Bart shrugged. "I grew out of Kid Flash. And..." He beamed. "Downstairs, we have a kid who is trying to grow into Robin and is ripping his head apart in the process."
"So I guess you don't need me to explain what's going on, huh?"
"No." Tim was silent for a moment. "I think it would be best if Robin explained."
"He's a good kid," Bart said.
"Apart from the uncontrollable hormones," Kon added.
"Doesn't remind me of anybody," Tim said.
"And he isn't helped by the fact that Switch is a manipulative little minx who thoroughly enjoys making his hormones explode. His and Firewall's. And Green's, if she could figure out what turns him on."
"And you and Superboy?"
Bart glanced at Kon and they shared a smile. "She tries," Kon said. "Hasn't succeeded yet. She's currently trying hardest to get to Bart."
"I meant to ask you if you knew why she'd suddenly shifted from you."
"Oh, she was trying to pass for you. I told her she was almost right but her dick wasn't big enough."
Bart choked. "Kon!"
"Is that a smile I see, Goshawk?"
Tim flicked his lenses off. "I think I've missed you two."
"Come on up for a chat when you're done with Robin," Kon said.
"Yeah." Tim flicked his lenses back on. "I can't stop long but - yeah, I will."
With the exception of Robin, the kids were safely tucked away in bed so Kon and Bart were taking advantage of the peace to take over the den. Bart lay sprawled with his head on Kon's lap, absently watching the sitcom on the TV but paying more attention to Kon's hand stroking his hair.
Bart wriggled round to wave to Tim. "Hey. Grab a seat. Grab popcorn. Grab a Zesti. Make yourself at home. Can we call you Tim now everybody's in bed?"
Tim settled himself in one of the spare chairs and snaffled a handful of popcorn. "Since you already did, I guess so."
"How did it go with Robin?" Kon asked.
Tim shrugged. "So-so. He's a strange choice but I think he'll shape up well. He's just having a bit of trouble with constantly being compared to his predecessors, which I can understand."
"That's the problem with this team," Bart said. "Me and Kon are the only ones who are following in others' footsteps. Green, Switch, Firewall - they're all completely new identities, with nobody to be compared to. It's good for them but it does make it a bit tricky for Robin. But that's enough shop talk - how's your love life?"
Tim very slowly ate a piece of popcorn. "It's a good thing I'm used to you. I'm currently sleeping on Nightwing's sofa, so my love life is non-existent."
"You haven't got your own apartment yet?"
"With what? I need to get a job first. And finding something that pays enough for the kind of privacy I need, without actually needing a lot of commitment in return... Well, about the only option is prostitution and the hours clash."
Kon frowned. "I though the Outsiders paid."
"I'm not in the Outsiders."
"But the Pequod...?"
"Tim..." Kon cleared his throat. "You do know that you've got a standing invitation to rejoin the Titans? Free room and board and access to lots of toys."
"And we get paid now," Bart added brightly.
Tim's smile was weary. "I know. And thanks but - I don't want to start slipping back. I'm Goshawk now."
"I'm Streak now. And Robin's Robin now. What better way to make it plain you're not Robin than to hang around with the kid who is?"
"I know, I know." Tim was frowning slightly behind his mask. "I can't really explain it."
"I know what it is," Kon said. "If you spend too much time around Robin, he will start telling Batman what you're up to. And you're still too mad at him to want even that much contact."
"When did you get to be Mr Perceptive?" Bart demanded.
"When you weren't looking. Now shut up a minute." Bart wriggled down in Kon's lap and did as he was told. "What did happen with you two?"
"Long story," Tim said shortly.
"I like long stories," Bart said.
Tim just shook his head, then rubbed the corner of his mask. "I'd better get back, before Arsenal starts complaining about me having the Pequod for too long. But - thanks."
"Poor Tim," Bart said as he wriggled into bed and wrapped his arm round Kon. "I have my problems with Wally but at least they're not as bad as Tim's."
"He's got Nightwing, which is something," Kon said. "But I tell you, I'm starting to realise just how lucky I am with Clark."
"Yeah." Bart shut his eyes. "Clark's a lot like you, so he's really something." He could feel Kon laughing.
"Love you, Bart."
Bart squeezed Kon and drifted off to sleep.
Sunday was spent patrolling San Francisco. Green caught a mugger, which made him bounce with excitement and start jabbering away in Kl-thingian until Kon caught up with him and held him down.
Switch disappeared into a bar and Bart was the only one the bouncer would allow in to retrieve her. "I'm eight years old," Bart said when he emerged, Switch in tow. "How come I'm the only one he thinks is old enough?"
Robin skulked in the shadows and complained that he was a Bat and Bats didn't do daytime, so they really shouldn't have woken him up so early because it wasn't fair on a nocturnal hero. Kon told him to stop whining and start doing his job. Robin pointed out his job was to be a schoolkid and he should probably go back to Gotham and do his homework. Oh, and did Kon know that Robin had access to a kryptonite ring? Kon threatened to rip Robin's mask off.
Bart intervened and sent Robin and Firewall off to keep an eye on some suspected drug dealers. Kon and Green went off to look for more muggers. Which left Bart with Switch.
"Alone at last," she said.
Bart glared. "Really not in the mood."
Switch shrugged. "Then let's go find some bad guys to beat up."
"You find them," Bart said. "I've got other things to do."
Bart burst into Wally's house without bothering to knock and skidded to a halt at the sight of Wally, fully golden, kissing Linda. "OhmanI'msorryI'llbebacklater!"
He ran round the city a few times before changing into civilian clothes and knocking nervously at Wally's door. Linda let him in, grinning, and with a few specks of gold in her hair.
"Sorry," Bart said immediately.
Linda ruffled his hair. "It's okay." She nodded behind her. "But I think Wally wants to spitroast you."
"He can burst in on me and Kon if he wants?" Bart offered.
"I... I don't think he'd want to." She stepped back. "Come on in. Did you come to see Wally?"
"Yeah." Bart pushed the door shut behind him. "I'm having some trouble with the speed force and stuff."
"He mentioned it." Linda's smile was warm and Bart wondered, yet again, how she'd managed to wind up with Wally when she was way too good for him. "Wally! Stop sulking and get down here."
Wally appeared and Bart tried not to stare at the flecks of gold still spotted on his skin, almost like mercury. "What do you want?" Wally said, his voice was flat and unfriendly.
"I've got a question about the speed force." Wally didn't say anything and Bart shifted uncomfortably. "Because the sound went all beautiful like you said it would and then the speed force started trying to crawl up my nose and into my mouth and I freaked. Is it meant to do that?"
Wally sharpened instantly. "It did that? You're not making it up?"
"Why would I make it up?" Bart demanded.
Wally shook his head. "It doesn't matter. But that's how it started with me, the last time. When I joined with the speed force. It sounds like..." He chewed briefly on the side of his thumb and when he spoke, he sounded honestly confused. "Sounds like the same thing's happening to you."
"I'm going to get my own personal connection?" Bart beamed. "Cool!"
"Maybe." Wally frowned and the gold flowed over his hands. He looked down and shook his them sharply. The gold pooled around his fingernails then sank back under his skin. "Look, I don't want you to tell anybody about this just yet. It's nothing to worry about but you know how over-protective Jay can be."
"But I don't need to worry about inhaling it or swallowing it?"
Wally rested his hand on Bart's shoulder and, this time, the gold crept up Bart's neck, brushing against the sensitive spot where Kon always licked him. Bart shivered. "It's speed," Wally said softly. "It's already inside you. Part of you."
Bart stepped away quickly. "Okay," he said. "Oh, yeah, Superman's AI says it can make me a suit with less friction. Do you think that'd help? With feeling out the vibrations, I mean?"
"Will the suit be thinner?"
"I guess so. There's going to be less protection, as a trade-off."
"Then yes." The gold shimmered in Wally's eyes and he swallowed. "It'll help you feel your way."
"They're gone, right?" Bart said, sprawled flat on a lounge chair by the pool. "And they're not coming back until Friday?"
"That's what they said." Kon was sitting on the edge of the pool, staring at the water. "But you can't always believe what people say."
Bart lifted his head to look at Kon. "Well, no."
"Because you say Wally's going into the speed force to sort you out but then the AI contacts me and says your new, extra-special, custom-designed-for-going-into-the-speed-force suit is ready." Kon looked up. "And what am I supposed to think?"
"Oh." Bart bit his lower lip.
"If it's something you don't trust me with, you can just say that, Bart. I mean, I know that you have speedster stuff I can't know about, same as I have stuff you can't know about. Life's like that. But you could just say."
"It's not that," Bart said quickly and now he was sitting next to Kon, legs dangling in the pool. "It's... It's dangerous, okay?" He took a deep breath. "There's a chance I won't be coming back. And even if I do come back, I might be... different."
"And you weren't going to tell me? You were just going to go?"
"Well. Yeah." Bart tried to smile. "Because I wanted the next few days to be normal. And, yeah, okay, that sounds really selfish. Is really selfish." He rested his hand on Kon's shoulder but Kon stayed tensed against him. "I was going to tell you. Just... nearer the time."
"And when is the time?"
"I'm not sure. Whenever it works."
"You've been trying to go already?"
"No! Not really. Just - feeling it out. Like Wally said I should." Bart shrugged uneasily. "I mean, I'm getting there but it's going to take me a couple more days at least."
"A couple of days." Kon seemed to absorb it. "What happens if you don't go?"
Bart shrugged again. "No idea. Most likely, my metabolism spirals back out of control, like when I first showed up here. And then I die."
Kon thought about that. "I get the not coming back," he said eventually. "I mean, speed force is like heaven for speedsters, right?"
Bart squinted. "I'm not sure. Because Wally says he's felt Grandpa Barry in the force but Green Arrow says he used to hang out with him when he was dead. And I'm pretty certain Green Arrow wasn't in the speed force. So maybe part of you goes to the speed force and part of you goes somewhere else." He shrugged. "I don't know."
"Okay." Kon rubbed his temples. "I'll take that as a 'sort of'. But you said you might come back different. What's that mean?"
Bart fidgeted. "I can't say," he finally said. "Wally said I couldn't tell anybody."
"You're not going to come back, like, evil or something?"
Bart grinned and rested his head on Kon's shoulder. "Not evil. Just... faster. Extra powers."
"You'll still be you?"
"I'm always going to be me."
Kon grinned and twisted round to press a kiss against the top of Bart's head. "That shouldn't be as comforting as it is."
Bart glared impatiently at the centrifuge and tried to ignore the fact that Kon was waiting outside the lab. Why was the centrifuge so slow? He considered speeding it up a little but that would probably screw with his results and this counted towards his final grade and why was everything so slow? He started to tap his fingers on the desk but he tapped so quickly that he accidentally vibrated his hands into the desk. He glanced around guiltily, hoping nobody had noticed.
But, finally, his results were recorded and plotted and he was free.
"You said six," Kon said, lounging with the sole of one foot planted against the wall.
Bart scowled. "Why did I choose biochem? It's all so slow."
Kon grinned. "Then let's get some speed now. Fortress?"
"Yes." Bart held out his arms. "Carry me."
"Idiot." Kon shoved Bart. "I'm not walking through campus with you in my arms."
"Hey, it's not like people don't already know," Bart said, following Kon.
"They know I can haul you around without breaking a sweat?"
"Oh. That." Bart grinned. "I forgot. I could carry you."
Kon glanced at him. "Can you get us out of here quickly enough that nobody would see?"
Bart looked slightly offended. "You know I can."
"Then let's go."
In a relative second, Kon was folded over Bart's shoulder and Bart was accelerating rapidly north.
Kon let Bart run them up to Alaska, then took over, ignoring Bart's usual grumbles. "Clark's not very happy about me taking you there at all. Never mind if I let you run us there."
"The gigantic key isn't exactly difficult to miss."
"Oh, shut up," Kon said affectionately.
Bart snuggled into Kon's shoulder. "I'm booored. Can't you go faster?"
"No. Why don't you learn Wally's trick of lending me some speed?"
"Oh." Bart lifted his head. "That would be useful, wouldn't it? Wally picked it up after going into the speed force the first time - I wonder if I will."
"Guess we'll find out in a couple of days."
"Yeah." Bart swallowed hard. "Guess we will."
It wasn't very long at all.
"I'm worried about Wally."
And maybe there was something in his voice because Kon didn't make any jokes. "Why?"
"Since he got back, the last time, he hasn't been himself." Bart chewed his bottom lip for a moment. "He can't really control the speed. It crawls all over him, like insects. Little, biting insects. And when he touches me, it crawls over me. The speed touches me."
"Okay, this is going to sound stupid but... bad touch."
Sure, he waited for Kon to say. You're getting felt up by the speed force. But Kon just hummed. "Why are you bringing this up?" he said. "Are you having second thoughts about going into the speed force?"
Second, third, fourth and fifth. "No. I think Wally and Jay are right in saying it's the only way to fix me. It's... It's a warning. If I come back like Wally? Watch me."
"Watch you." Kon held him tighter for a moment. "I always watch you."
"Hello, AI," Bart said brightly.
"Greetings, Bart." A drawer slid open. "Your suit is prepared."
"It's even shinier!" Bart picked it up and it instantly slipped through his fingers. He tried again. "You weren't kidding about the friction." On the third try, he wrapped the sleeve around his fist and managed to pick it up. "Wow. That's seriously cool." He slid his free hand over the suit. "It just... I can only tell it's there because my hand slips off it so quickly. Thank you very much, AI."
"Please note, the suit's protection has been very much reduced. It is strongly advised that you do not wear this suit for normal usage."
Bart nodded solemnly. "I promise. Just for going into the speed force."
"The AI likes you," Kon said. "It doesn't fuss over me like that."
"Your Kryptonian heritage renders you invulnerable to most Earth dangers, Kon-El," the AI said.
"I think it just told you off," Bart said.
Kon smiled. "Are you going to try the suit on? The AI hasn't measured you for a couple of days, after all."
"I won't have grown in a couple of days."
Kon tilted his head. "I still think you should try it on. Slowly."
Bart blinked. "Oh. You mean..."
Kon's smile grew wider.
"Here? With the AI watching?"
There was a significant-sounding beep and a couple of lights went out.
"I don't think the AI's watching," Kon said.
"I suppose I should try it on," Bart said. "Just in case. Don't want to have to come back just to get the suit altered."
Kon's hands were cold but the kiss was anything but.
Bart hadn't meant to wake up early but he had and now he was watching Kon sleep. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of it.
Neither of them had said anything but they both knew they were going to skip classes until this thing had been fixed. If they only had a few days together, they were damn well spending them together.
Bart nudged the new suit with his foot and it slithered on to the floor.
Perhaps he should just test it. See what it felt like to run with even less friction than normal.
It was difficult to get the suit on, especially without waking up Kon. It kept slinking out of his hands and wouldn't stay where it was put until it was fastened into place. Even then, it glided over his skin like it was caressing him.
It was even more difficult to keep lying to himself, once he'd slipped out of Kon's annexe. "AI?" he said quietly.
"I'm. I think I'm going to the speed force now." He was sweating under the new suit. "If I. I mean. Tell him I love him and I'm sorry."
"Thanks." Bart paused at the entrance to the Fortress and let the blast of icy air cool him down. "And tell him. I don't know. I don't want to do this. But I can't wait around." He bit his lower lip hard enough that he tasted blood. "I don't have the words." And the cut in his lip was healed now.
Bart took a deep breath and started running.
Feel the speed. Listen to the speed.
Listen to the whistle of the wind. Listen to the crunch of snow under him, melted by the heat of his footprints. Listen to the speed crawling over his body, pushing against him, through him, round him.
There was a taste. Metal and sand and something else. Bart narrowed his eyes and forced his way on, through the screeching whistle that slid down to a hum, a continous vibrating hum that made it hard for him to keep upright.
He didn't know how fast he was moving and that scared him because he always knew that. It was like he'd lost a sense. Another sense because now the hum was too loud for him to register it.
So he concentrated on sight, on the air melting golden around him and if he looked at his hands, he saw the golden speed gathering on him, lifting him up and pulling him on.
The hum split, harmonised, promised him more if he just kept running, if he opened his mouth to the fingers smoothing across his lips.
Wally had told him it was safe.
He had to trust Wally.
But Wally was full of the golden insects that creeped and caressed and promised, always promised, and Bart clenched his mouth shut, took a deep breath and held his nose, shut his eyes and kept on running until the hum fractured and splintered and fell back around him and the world was steady again.
Cautiously, Bart opened his eyes.
He'd been here. He'd been here with Max. But now...
The bubble of the speed force was ill. Pulsating weakly and pouring off heat and there were golden veins streaked through it and he didn't dare touch it, even though he could see faces on the other side, faces he knew and they were screaming with pain.
Max. He could see Max and Max was saying something, telling him something. Telling him to-
Bart whipped round and Wally, pure gold Wally, shimmering with heat, was standing there.
"You're sick," Bart said and Wally stepped towards him. Except it wasn't Wally because Wally was probably screaming with pain, just like everybody else, but Wally was trapped in his own body and that had to be worse.
Wally's body snarled and flecks of golden speed flew from his mouth, spattered on Bart's suit and slid right off.
"Wally!" If he could get to Wally, Wally could fight it off. Because he didn't like Wally but Wally could do anything. Wally was the Flash.
Bart had to step back and he was burning alive because there was heat everywhere and now he was too close to the bubble. Close enough for a hand to push through and grab his ankle.
Bart screamed, fought until he was on his back on the floor, kicking wildly, but the hand held on and it suddenly hit him that his ankle was cold. And when he looked back at the bubble, it was Max holding him and Grandpa Barry holding Max and somebody holding Grandpa Barry and their faces all had the same expression, the same determination to do whatever they had to.
Even though the gold was appearing on Max in spots like burning celluloid.
He looked back down at his ankle and... Silver. Silver flowing up him and over him and it was moving faster, up to his waist, his chest, over his shoulders and down his arms and up over his face and, oh god, it was going to fill him and choke him the way the gold had caught Wally and he didn't want that, couldn't do that!
The silver hesitated, then sent narrow tendrils over his face, leaving his nose, mouth and eyes clear and he could breathe again.
Max let go and Bart was standing upright and, as he watched, the silver froze into blue and he was himself again, he wasn't some sort of avatar. Himself with extra power.
And if he could just get to Wally...
He stepped forward and the not-Wally snarled again, crouched, and spat at him. Where a fleck of gold landed, his suit shivered and the blue rippled silver before absorbing the gold into itself.
He stepped forward again and the not-Wally lunged, aimed a dripping fist at him and Bart just had time to duck and now he was fighting and he'd never been more grateful for Tim's training because the not-Wally was faster and more agile and it was only drilled reflexes that blocked and kicked and punched without conscious thought that kept Bart standing.
And then he wasn't standing and the not-Wally was towering over him, dripping gold and it was all Bart could do to grab the not-Wally's ankle and pull.
The not-Wally wailed, a high, trembling note that made the silver shiver and curl, that made Bart want to run far, far away.
But then he realised that the silver was curving its way over the not-Wally's leg, lapping ever upwards.
The not-Wally wailed again and tried to pull away but Bart held on tight, even pulled it closer to him, wrapped his arms around its calf. The heat was terrifying and it was impossible to breath but he had to hold on. It was all he knew.
Another wail, and it might be because everything was turning black but it seemed fainter, weaker.
Hold on. He had to hold on.
(Wail quavering to nothing.)
(Heat turning to coolness, to comfort)
He came to standing upright. Wally was curled at his feet, his suit scorched and burned. Bart didn't know how he was standing up until he took a step and his own suit, now rippling blue and silver, supported him, caressed him, held him.
He touched his mouth and the silver peeled back from his fingers, let him touch skin to skin and reassure himself that the silver was just around him, not inside him.
And then the bubble. Max was there, looking tired but proud and Bart took a step towards him.
Bart licked his lips and lifted his hand, ordered the silver to peel back further, and let his naked hand rest less than millimetre from the bubble. He could feel the speed buzzing through him and his eyes were filling with tears. This was what his whole life had been about. He'd defeated whatever it was and now he could sleep, could rest.
He took a deep breath and prepared to step forwar-
Max. Max was screaming at him.
He couldn't hear, and he didn't know if he was deaf or if the place was actually silent or if it was just that the noise was too loud to hear, but he knew that look on Max's face. He was too familiar with the 'Bart, don't you dare!' look and he paused. "Max?" He couldn't even hear his own voice.
Max rested his hand on the other side of the field and deliberately shook his head.
"But - Max. It's..." What could he say? Max knew.
"Home," Max mouthed.
Home? What was home compared to this? Home was college and finals and studying and training with the Titans and lounging in front of the TV with pizza. Bart lowered his hand.
Home was Kon. And was he really thinking of leaving Kon?
Max was smiling now.
Bart stared at his feet. "You're right, Max." He finally looked up. "What about this?" The silver shivered and crested, an ocean surrounding him. "I don't want it."
And Max reached through again. Just his hand and then Bart was clinging to Max and the silver was flowing away, crawling up Max's arm, leaving Bart too weak to stand. He collapsed and Max knelt next to him, separated only by the bubble.
"Here," Max mouthed and Bart screamed because now the speed force was on fire around him and he'd been cheated! Max had lied because this had to be the gold!
But this was lightning, crackling over him, filling him, and Bart threw his head back and screamed some more but Max was there for him and as long as he could hang on to Max, he would survive the lightning.
When he was able to think again, he was kneeling and Max was kneeling opposite him and he was still holding Max's hand. He didn't want to let go but Max wasn't holding him anymore.
"Why?" Bart asked and now he could hear himself, talking from a thousand miles away.
"It's not your time." Max's voice was muffled and Bart had to listen hard to make out the words. "There's too much holding you to earth. There's no reason for you to leave it behind."
Max didn't smile because Max didn't but he briefly squeezed Bart's hand. "I know, Bart. I'm proud of you."
Bart had to shut his eyes again because he was going to cry. "I miss you."
"You've got to go now." Another brief squeeze and Max was pulling away. It was all Bart could do to stop himself clinging on and hauling Max through.
"I'll get your body back, Max. I promise."
A final touch of fingertips before Max pulled back behind the field. "Don't waste your life, Bart. I'm... I'm here. I've been trying to get here for centuries."
Bart didn't say anything for a long time. "I love you."
"I know. Now go and play video games."
Max faded and Bart was left staring after him. But he knew where he was going now.
He knelt next to Wally and checked his pulse. It was there. Faint but there. Bart slung Wally over his shoulder, turned his back on the speed force and gathered himself to fight his way through the storm. Fight his way home.
And, he thought smugly, he was never going to let Wally forget this.
The switch from speed to snow was so gradual that Bart didn't even realise it had happened until the cold hit him and then he stopped so suddenly that he half-expected to go flying. But instead, there was an electricity that crackled around him and held him up and kept Wally on his shoulder.
For a panicked moment, he was afraid he was still in relative time and that he'd never be able to go at Kon's speed again. It was difficult to judge speed when there was nothing around but snow and ice, and the stars looking further away than ever before.
Stars. He could find his way to the Fortress. Although he didn't know how long he'd been gone and whether Kon would still be there. Maybe Kon was an old man by now. But he didn't think people normally spent more than half an hour in the speed force and Kon was probably still asleep, because Kon could sleep through anything.
The navigation calculations seemed to slide through his head and it was only a matter of moments before he was vibrating through the door of the Fortress.
"AI?" Bart said softly and the lights grew brighter. "Is he still here?"
"Kon-El is sleeping. He has been since you left."
Bart smiled a little. Typical Kon. "Oh, this is the Flash. I think he needs medical care."
"Please describe the events surrounding his condition."
"I think he was possessed by an evil speed force. For about six months or so. And then I beat him up and I think the evil speed force probably burned him as it left."
The AI didn't miss a beat. "Thank you. Please place him on the trolley."
Bart did so. "He will be okay, won't he? Because he can be a jerk but he is family."
There were some beeps and lights from the trolley. "Preliminary scans suggest he is severely dehydrated and is suffering first degree burns over approximately thirty percent of his body. These are not serious conditions."
Bart grinned. "Cool. And could you let Superman know he's here? Because the JLA might be worried about him."
"Thanks. N'night, AI."
Once Bart reached Kon's annexe, he undressed quietly and slipped into bed. Kon mumbled a little and pulled him close. Bart closed his eyes and was just getting ready to sleep when Kon's noises turned into words.
Bart looked at the ceiling. "Yeah."
After a moment, Kon said, "Have you been outside?"
"Yeah." Bart closed his eyes again. "Go back to sleep, Kon."
"Why did you go outside?" Another pause. "And why do you feel different?"
"You feel all... Buzzy. Tingly. Electric."
Kon shot upright, dragging the covers with him. "You went!" Bart could only just see him in the darkness of the room. "You went early!"
Bart yanked at the covers until he had his share back and tried to think of what to say. "I'm... I'm sorry?"
"Jeez, Bart." He knew that sound - Kon was rubbing his hand over his hair. "You- You just went. After everything you said - you just went."
"I had to." Kon's forearm was warm under his hand and Bart thought he might be squeezing too tight but it wasn't as though he could actually hurt Kon. "I couldn't just sit and wait, not knowing. Not when I was ready to go and everything."
"Couldn't you have at least woken me up? Let me say goodbye?"
Bart's voice sounded small when he said, "No."
There was a 'whoof' of air as Kon thudded back down on to the bed. "At least you're honest about it." Bart couldn't identify what was in his voice.
"I saved Wally," Bart offered. "He'd been possessed by an evil speed force so Max covered me with this silver goop to beat Wally's gold goop. And I froze him. And now he's in the Fortress' medical bay and the AI says he's going to be fine. And then Max zapped me with lightning. Which I think has probably given me more powers but I'm not sure what they are yet."
"Are you sure you weren't sleepwalking? Because that sounds more like a dream than anyth- What am I saying?" Kon sighed and wrapped his arm around Bart. "It sounds like a perfectly normal evening."
"If I have to go again," Bart said quietly, "I'll tell you."
"That's the thing," Kon said plaintively. "You won't. Not if you think I'd be better off not knowing."
"Not better off." Bart stroked Kon's wrist. "Just that... If I'd said goodbye to you, it would have been an end of a sort. And you can't end anything before going in. You just have to go. Or it's too easy not to come back."
There was a long pause and Kon said quietly, "Last month? Clark suggested I think about changing my name because he says I'm not a boy any more."
"Oh." Bart thought about it. "What did you say?"
"I said I still felt like a boy." He kissed the nape of Bart's neck. "I don't any more."