It’s the sounds of explosions drifting from the living room that wake him up. Slowly at first, but then a muffled scream rings clear and cutting through the haze, and Tim is up and out of bed in a second. He throws his bedroom door open, skidding into the living room, batarang ready and-
“Crap.” Conner fumbles with the TV remote, turning the volume down, and oh, it was a movie, “did I wake you? Shit, man, sorry.”
“When did you get here?” Tim blinks, bewildered, heart beating wildly, “Jesus. I almost shot you.”
“With a bat-thingy. That doesn’t count.” Conner shrugs, floating up the couch and over to Tim, “last night, by the way. You really should hide your spare key better.”
Now that the adrenaline is leaving his system, Tim can feel his ribs protesting every time he breathes in, and his ankle is throbbing in a way that makes his skin crawl, feeling too much like when he broke his leg last year and-- let’s not dwell on that. “That’s not. Batarang, it’s called a batarang. And first of all, my key was buried inside Mrs.Torres flower pot and if you hurt her sunflowers, she’ll be out for blood and I’m not hiding you here. Second, and more alarming, I designed the security system myself and it should have warned me you were breaking in- shit , I knew that motion sensor was going to glitch, maybe I should just rewire the whole thing. Yeah, I’ll update the system while I’m in the mainframe, so I can add-”
“Woah, dude. Dude . No working with broken ribs,” Conner tries to sound stern, herding him back to the bedroom, and thankfully not mentioning how Tim is leaning most of his weight on him just to stay upright, “healing first, hacking later. Also, I think your security system let me in? I mean, nothing tried to kill me, so.”
“What.” Tim closes his eyes. He hadn’t added Conner to the approved list yet. For someone to hack into his systems- “okay, who snitched me to Ba- Batgirl?”
“Uh,” Conner scratched the back of his neck, “I don’t know? I just got a text from a private number saying to stop you from dying of being an idiot? It was a little more creatively put, though.”
That doesn’t sound like Babs. A group effort then. He’ll deal with them all later. You know, when he’s not having a babysitter forced on him. He scowls. “And what, don’t you have better things to do?”
But Conner doesn’t take the bait, waits patiently for Tim to get comfortable on his bed again, shrugging, “school is pretty boring, and there’s not much to do in Metropolis. At least here your internet is faster.
Tim downs the pills he found on his bedside table, figuring it’s probably pain killers. Conner would probably have stopped him if they weren’t. And maybe it’s just a placebo effect, or the fact he’s no longer straining his injuries, but he does feel a little better. Enough for him to give in and settle for enjoying the company, “right, how’s high school going?”
“It’s not high school,” Conner corrects him, “I’m just getting my GED. And it’s so boring. Sometimes I think I’m going to die of boredom. ”
“See? Just like high school.”
Conner rolls his eyes, “great. I’m really enjoying the all-american experience here.”
Tim laughs but makes space for him on the bed, Netflix already loading on his laptop. Conner toes off his boots and lays on top of the covers, silently judging Tim’s choices in TV shows.
They settle for Buffy, because they already finished Wendy twice between Metropolis and Gotham and Smallville and hours of Skype and passing out on desks. And they only half watch the show, pointing out stupid mistakes and bad stunts and going on tangents from there, until the pills start kicking in and Tim feels his eyelids growing heavier with each blink, the world blurring at the edges and he is sinking in the warmth beside him.
He’s almost asleep when Conner huffs, says, “you really should take better care of yourself.”
Tim pokes what he vaguely suspects is the general area ribs should be at, “it’s just this Colony business. Somethin’ not right.”
“Sleep,” Conner shifts, Tim settles comfortably, “you’ll figure it out later.”
The whole mess starts with Jason, as all clusterfucks usually do, and Tim will dump all the blame on him until the end of his days.
It goes like this:
Tim is at the Batcave, and it’s late at night for people who don’t run around in masks and capes but almost early for vigilantes. Which is why he finds it odd when Jason drops in the chair beside him.
The fact he never heard his bike or the clock opening upstairs are also alarming, but he blames it on stress.
Jason slouches on his chair, pats his pockets down until he produces a pen and paper. “Hey there, Replacement.” He says pleasantly, without looking up from his writing, “where’s Bats?” He slides him the note.
Tim frowns, but nods. “Busting Two-Face’s trade-off by the docks. Big weapons shipment coming in.”
“Is he running it by the Penguin again?” Jason passes him another paper.
Warehouse compromised. Stay out.
Alarm bells ring on his head, the times he walked around inside without a mask flashing in front of his eyes, and a dozen of contingency plans are beginning to roll around in his brain, but Jason kicks him in the shin, glaring pointedly, “uh, yes, I think so, at least. It did look like Penguin, but Two-Face seemed more urgent.”
Stay the fuck out. I got it. “I might pay him a visit soon. It’s always good to blow his shit up every once in a while, just so he doesn’t get too cozy. Heard he’s got a boat now.”
Tim snatches the pen from his hand, scribbling on the back of the paper, since when? Out loud, he hums agreeably, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Plausible deniability and all.”
Don’t know. Name’s not issue. “Sure thing, Timbo. Now, how come you’re here and not out flying around?”
You sure? Can help if needed , “I’m trying to figure out where Luthor’s Kryptonite went. It disappeared somewhere in Gotham, but I can’t find any trace of it.”
Back off and keep it on the DL. Let you know when it’s over. “Still? You gotta learn to let things go.”
Call if you need. “I can’t, there was too much of it down there, what if it falls on the wrong hands? And hey, Dr.Thompkins told me to take a day off every other week. I might as well make the most of it.”
Jason reads the note, nods, and then pulls a lighter out of another pocket, burning all the papers down to ashes, and man, paranoia really does run in the family, “I’m going out on a limb here and say this is not what she had in mind for your accumulated vacation days.”
“Then she should’ve been more specific. This is important and it’s bad enough it’s taking us this long.”
“Oh right, and you’re emotionally invested on this now.” Jason smirks, “what, with your very own kryptonian.”
If Tim hadn’t been reeling with all the new, alarming, information, he probably would’ve come up with something better than a glare, but since it’s all he has at the moment, he commits to it and stares Jason down with the best withering look he can manage, “did you have a reason to come here, Jason?”
“Nah, just some intel to run by the Big Brooding Bat,” his brother shrugs, “no need to get your feathers in a bunch, Baby Bird. See ya when I see ya, do try not to get yourself killed, that’s still my gig, you know?”
“ Goodbye, Jason. ”
And honestly, that’s how everything started, okay?
Because the next day he got a call from Dr. Thompkins to let him know exactly how she feels about his way of spending his days off, and now she’s got Alfred on her side and they’re both threatening to sic Dick on him if he tries to go behind their backs.
Jason hadn’t even bothered hiding he had been the one to tell on him to Alfred.
Which is how, two weeks later he found himself with nothing to do for the day in a too empty apartment.
It’s a Thursday, and he wakes up later than usual, because there’s nothing pressing to do and all his meetings have been rescheduled. He makes coffee, eats the leftovers from the last time he ordered Thai, and turns on the TV.
At first it’s only the news playing, because waking up late means waking up around noon,and Tim grows tired of the anchor’s increasingly inaccurate way of relaying the facts, but when Vick Vale is mentioned he gives up and turns it off entirely.
He considers texting Conner, but it’s still school hours and Tim knows that even if he’s always complaining about classes, Conner takes it seriously. Or, well, as seriously as he can.
The last he heard of Dick, his brother had been on his way to help Wally move in, but after that something happened that Tim decided not to look into because Gotham is trouble enough without being dragged into the Titans’ messes, and the missing Kryptonite is still nagging at him. So, Dick is also a no go.
He could try Cass, but she’s probably with Harper or Stephanie, and that would just be awkward for everyone involved.
Then, there’s Jason, but Jason is busy with his own problems and Tim has a suspicion it’s connected to whatever had been going on with Bizarro. He’s not stupid, he’s heard about it, seen the footage, of the time the Outlaws clashed with Batwoman and the others, and he has no idea how Jason managed to reverse Bizarro’s degradation. Tim half regrets not asking directly about it, but he doubts he would have gotten an answer out of the three of them.
His brain feel like it’s about to explode out of sheer boredom when he has an idea.
Batman is probably going to kill him later, but. They wanted him to take the day off, right?
It’s 2pm sharp when he pulls up by Metropolis Community College, and he catches the fading sound of the bell ringing. Students slowly shuffle outside, a few of them giving him wide-eyed looks and Tim is sure there’s been a few cameras out.
It takes a few minutes for Conner to appear, exiting one of the buildings, but it isn’t difficult to spot Tim waiting by his bike, sunglasses hanging low, a smirk on his lips and a dozen of people loitering around pretending not to be openly staring. Different emotions flit through Conner’s eyes in quick succession as he takes on the scene, and he probably goes through the five stages of grief before settling somewhere between disbelief and aggravated.
It’s all very entertaining to watch, and Tim feels a lot better about his off day already.
“Oh my god, what are you doing here?” Conner hisses, as soon as he’s close enough that the people nearby won’t listen, “are you out of your mind? Ba- he ’s gonna kill you and then me , and then probably half of the campus’ population because witnesses. ”
“Relax,” Tim says, because yeah, Bruce is going to shake his head and sigh in that tired way he does a lot when he sees what Vick Vale will come up after this, but Brucie Wayne is also frequently starring Gotham’s headlines in a wide range of subjects, so. They’re fine, this is fine. “If anyone asks, we met when you tagged along with Clark to some Gala.” Then louder, throwing him a helmet, “now, are we going to stand here all day or what?”
“If this devolves into some sort of media circus and I end up in tomorrow’s paper,” Conner huffs, but shoves his books inside his backpack and puts on the helmet, “I’m throwing you to the wolves and blaming it all on you.”
That’s fair. Tim snorts, grinning to a flashing camera before putting on his own helmet.
“So, in conclusion,” Conner says, as they wait for their orders, “your doctor is forcing you to take a day off every now and then like a normal person, so you ran to Metropolis?”
“That is a very shortened version of things and as all adaptations it’s entirely missing the point and lacking of any compelling plot developments.” Tim glares, starts tearing his napkin into small bits, “I should’ve gone to San Francisco instead. At least Damian’s insults are expected.”
“True, but,” he snorts, “they also come with a sword to the throat.”
“As I said, he’s a work in progress-- thank you,” Tim grins at the blushing waitress placing their burgers, raising an eyebrow when all Conner does is frown at his milkshake, “besides, it would help my research.”
“You honest-to-god has no idea what day off means, do you?”
“I did watch the 90s movie, but I’m afraid there’s no parade today for us to crash.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Conner shakes his head, “but as your best friend it’s my sacred duty to teach you the holy arts of chillaxing.”
“Seriously? You never heard of Ferris Bueller’s day off but you know how to use that disgrace to the English language?”
“You’re deflecting, but it won’t work,” Conner flicks a pickle at his head, “now eat up, we have a lot to do.”
“I definitely should’ve gone to San Fran.” Tim says forlornly, staring down at his burger.
“Do you have a point with this?” Tim asks, because this is a nightmare. A bright colored nightmare, that smells like cotton candy and popcorn.
“Yes, I do,” Conner says patiently, “it’s called having fun.”
“At a carnival? Really?”
“A fair ,” he corrects, “no clowns. Just good food, terrible music, and a few shitty games.”
“You’re really selling it to me here, I’m impressed.” Tim deadpans, but he lets himself be tugged further down the stands, past the popcorn machine and the corn maze, because it’s surprisingly sweet that Conner actually thought about it and took into consideration how Tim would react to clowns running around. “Why is there a fair in Metropolis anyway?”
“Beats me.” Conner shrugs, “But I’ve been alive for less than two years, so what do I know, right? Hey, would it be suspicious if we won every game here?”
“Yes, yes, it would be incredibly suspicious if you, the allegedly high school drop out, and I, the spoiled rich kid, won every, most definitely rigged, game in this, very suspicious now that I think about it because come on, it’s not even halloween, what’s it even doing here, fair.”
“But we’re still gonna do it right?”
“Are you kidding me?” Tim is the one doing the tugging this time, eyes set on the game stands ahead, “you get the Strength-O-Meter while I’ll get Shoot the Star. I’m not Jason, but hell if some cheap tricks are going to beat me.”
“That’s. Just, damn, I forgot how competitive you are.” Conner sighs, “at least try to have fun? Please?”
“I’ll have fun after I beat the system.” Tim says haughtily, and laughs when Conner facepalms beside him, “we’re superheroes, we can’t let this treachery stand.”
But the air still smells like cotton candy and the speakers are playing some terrible country music Tim bets Conner knows, and this fair shouldn’t be here but is. And with Conner gaping as he shoots the star clean off the wrinkled paper, it feels like speeding down an empty road at night, going as fast as his engine allows, and it feels like the moment right after he dives down a building, before the tug of his grappling line, when the world is rushing past him and gravity is pulling him down, and it feels something exhilarating and new and familiar.
There’s a moment, when Conner is buying the goddamn cotton candy and Tim is trying to figure out what to do with the increasing amount of stuffed toys they’re both carrying, because Conner is definitely going to get sugar on his Wonder Woman plushie and Tim really wants to salvage at least the four Green Lanterns so he can hide them around the Batcave later, but anyways, there’s a moment when Tim turns to say he’s paying this one, they’re there because of him after all, but Conner is laughing at the music drifting from the speakers, something about it being terrible but it’s always playing on the radio when they visit Smallville, and he has that bright grin where his whole face lights up and the whole sun seems to be shining through, and Tim can’t get the words out, chokes on his own heart beating up his throat and it takes all his years of training to bring his heartbeat down.
He’s confused for a second, before shoving it viciously to the back of his mind, hidden, buried, so he doesn’t have to look at it, doesn’t have to understand, and more importantly, doesn’t have to acknowledge it.
Tim’s a soldier, he’s been fighting this war on the streets of his city since he was a little kid clutching a camera in a dirty alley, he’s a soldier, so he does what he’s been taught, what he grilled into himself, what he’s best at, he compartmentalizes and carries on.
He tells himself it’s just a trick of the light and the buzzing of his veins is just a sugar high he needs to ride out.
They decide on splitting the cargo. Tim straps the four Green Lanterns plushies, the Batman pillow, the Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth, the Robin plushie, Dick’s version, of course, because the world seems to think Dick’s ridiculous old uniform is the one who should be plastered everywhere, on his bike and it looks like it might survive the ride to Gotham.
Conner shoves an assortment of toys inside his backpack, and gathers the rest with his TTK, grinning at the little Superman plushie he’s sure Jon’s going to love along with, surprisingly, Damian’s version of a stuffed Robin doll. He gives Tim another brilliant smile, tells him to stop by more times, and Tim can only nod mutely as he takes off towards the city line.
See? Totally Jason’s fault.
There are times in his life that Tim wonders how normal his life would be without, say, a hundred and one brothers that seem to insist in forcing themselves into his life. And he longs for it. And he regrets that one fateful night when his nine-years-old self thought hey? you know what would be really swell? wandering around after Batman in Gotham at night! There is absolutely no way this could possibly go wrong!
He was a fool and this is his punishment.
“I’m just saying, Timmy,” Dick says, voice slightly distorted by the phone but still managing to sound like the nicest jerk around, “ it sounds a lot like a date to me.”
“Stop calling me that,” Tim frowns, transfering the call to his comm. system as he finishes suiting up, “and it wasn’t a date. Everything’s a date for you.”
“That’s because it usually is,” Dick laughs, “but seriously, Baby Bird, how is that not a date?”
“Well, for one, he stole my unicorn plushie,” the engine of his bike roars to life and drowns out his brother’s laughter, “and, get this, because I think this is the key point on this conversation, it wasn’t a date. ”
“Fine, fine, I hear you,” Dick agrees with him, in the way he agrees with Damian when he thinks the little demon is being unreasonable but there’s no hope in changing his mind and it’s best to just humor him. Tim resents that. He resents that a lot, “but I think you should know Robin has been very loud about how much he wants to murder you because apparently it’s all your fault Superboy has been pestering him with a Robin plushie.”
“How is that even my fault?” Tim snorts, “he just wants a reason to kill me.”
“He doesn’t want to kill you, per se-”
“No, no, I know. We all put our homicidal tendencies in the past as a family. The brat just wants to cause severe bodily harm.”
“You can’t see but I’m giving you the world’s biggest eye roll right now.” Dick says, “but anyway, Robin says it’s your fault because Superboy got it from his brother after his date with you.”
Tim might admit under duress that he could possibly have swerved the bike a little, but he was about to park here so it’s kind of justified, specially if you adopt a loose take on the laws of traffic as Tim does. “Excuse me for not really taking in consideration the input of the thirteen-years-old who thought it would be a good idea to start his own team by kidnapping half a dozen of superheroes across the States and chaining them to his basement like the little psychopath he is.”
“He didn’t chain them! It wasn’t his proudest moment, I’ll give you that,” his brother says diplomatically, and a dull thud sounds on the other end of the line, followed by the sound of metal on steel. Dick’s probably on his own patrol, then. “But it’s something to keep in mind. You know, since you’re gonna be so repressed about this.”
“I’m not. Repressed. I just don’t agree with you. It happens more often than you think,” Tim hides his bike on the alley, firing his grappling gun to climb all the way to the roof, “and hey, are you fighting ninjas? Without me?”
“You’re spending way too much time with Red Hood, it shows, ” Dick sounds a little breathless, and Tim could swear he heard the tell tale whoosh of Wally running on the background, “sorry, kiddo. It was kind of last minute, but we can call Hood and Robin next time, make it a family thing.”
“Sounds fun, ruining Ra’s plans is always fun,” he sets his surveillance equipment, binoculars focusing on the apartment right across the street, “but then Batman would know where you are. Shaking him off your tail again would be harder. His left eye twitches every time he remembers it. Sometimes he has the cowl on, but I can tell.”
“Dang it, you have a point,” now there’s definitely Wally coughing in the background, “I guess I’ll just have to kick ninja ass on my own, then. On that note, have you seen Hood lately?”
Tim blinks, stops what he’s doing, and tries to remember the last time he saw Jason. “No? It’s been a couple of months. He’s busy with his team, I think.”
“Yeah, really tall, really grumpy Amazon? Weirdly big, weirdly genius clone of Superman? Completely incapable of subtlety as a whole? You know them, you worked together that one time.” Tim frowns, “if I were you, I’d just wait it out. He always comes back to Gotham in the end. Unless it’s urgent?”
“Right, yeah, that team. No, no, I just thought I saw- nevermind. Listen, I gotta go, Baby Bird, I’ll see you Sunday?”
“Like any of us could escape brunch. Call me that again and I’ll hack every one of your aliases and burn them. ”
Tim hangs up.
The first Green Lantern doll is found by the end of may, one evening when Bruce tries to get the old edition of Hamlet from the Manor’s library to give it to Cass and the plushie falls by his feet.
Tim isn’t there to see it, but Cass is.
She reports back to him, and when she tells him how the little doll shot a terribly bright green light from its little ring the moment Bruce picked it up and how it went straight to his eyes, startling him into dropping it again, Cass laughs freely and it feels like a mission accomplished.
Tim can withstand a lot of things.
Like, he was literally trained by Lady Shiva. He’s though. He fights Batman’s Rogues in a somewhat-daily basis.
He is a fighter and a survivor. He’s Red motherfucking Robin.
This conversation is what’s going to kill him.
Predictably, it starts with Bruce.
Conner had just left for Metropolis not even ten minutes ago when the man lands on the roof beside Tim, quiet and taciturn and brooding. Business as usual. He stands at the edge of the building and gazes upon his city or whatever shit he does in these occasions.
Then, he says, “if Conner wants to visit you, he can take the bus or drive here like everyone else.”
Which, fine. Jerk move, but whatever, they can roll with it. And Tim tells him exactly that.
And in his head it’s the end of it. Right? Good talk, conversation over, let’s do it again sometime, maybe never? But no. Of course not. Bruce stares at the distance for a long, uncomfortable moment, before continuing, “is there something you wish to tell me?”
At this point, alarm bells start ringing on his head, but at a low level. Keep paranoia at a minimum, but don’t let your guard down. “No? Is there something you want to tell me?”
Bruce twitches. Like, the I’m trying to express emotion but I think I might be having a stroke instead and honestly that sounds a lot preferable right now twitch. “No. But know that whenever you are ready, you can tell me anything. ”
And then. He. This is where Tim starts freaking out, like, DEFCON 1 levels, shut all windows, lock all doors level. Because then, Bruce turns and rests a hand on Tim’s shoulders and, no kidding, these are the words that come out of his mouth: “there is nothing that would make me think less of you, as Red Robin or yourself. You can love whoever your heart wishes. I may have a few reservations when it comes to Metahumans, and we will definitely have to talk about safety at some point, but the fact that he is a male makes no difference to me.”
Tim’s brain has shut itself down at this point.
There is just so much to unpack there. Like, for starters, why, oh why, did Bruce decide to have this conversation here, on top of some building with no warning whatsoever? Fine, maybe Tim hasn’t really been stopping by the Manor that much lately, but. Really? An ambush?
And, a bit more importantly, where the hell did Bruce get the idea Tim and Conner are a couple? Because he’s talking about Conner, right? Tim doesn’t want to think who else he might be referring to. Just. No. And come on , Tim has been doing so great at ignoring this thing whatever it is. Temporary madness. Allergies. Flu season, more likely.
Third, but no less pressing. They are so not having this conversation right now.
“We are so not having this conversation right now.” Tim says, out loud, hoping for Arkham to suddenly open its doors. Or aliens invade Earth. Anything at all to make this conversation stop happening, he’s not picky. “Oh my god. We are so not having this conversation right now.”
Bruce smiles and says, serenely , “of course. Whenever you’re ready.”
Tim looks down. Maybe jumping off the roof might do the trick. Death sounds great right about now. Instead, because life is a nightmare and his brain-to-mouth filter is currently none , he blurts out, “Conner and I aren’t dating.”
“Oh yes. Dating now is for old people like me, right Chum?” Jesus Christ, is Tim the one having a stroke because what even . “But I won’t pry, don’t worry. All I want is for you to know that, I may not be very good at showing it, you are my son and I love you. And I’m very proud of you.” And then, as an afterthought, he adds, “but Conner still cannot use his powers here.”
Oh sure, since Tim will not be able to use his brain anymore after he finishes bleaching it because why are they still talking about this? The worst part is. Bruce is clearly out of his depth here, but he’s trying his best. And Tim is not going to be an asshole and lie and say he didn’t want to hear that since forever, but this is just too much.
So, you know, for the sake of his sanity, Tim jumps off the building.
Because Conner is still his best friend, and because that conversation was just too freaky to keep it to himself, Tim calls him as soon as he gets home from patrol.
“And then, I shit you not,” Tim tells him, gesturing wildly around his empty kitchen while he reheats his tacos on the microwave, “he goes all you’re my son, Tim. I love you no matter what, Tim. I’m proud of you, Tim. And then, this is the freakiest part, he smiled. I didn’t know his face could even do that.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line, and Tim briefly wonders if Conner fell back asleep or maybe went into shock. This is pretty shocking news, to be fair. But then, “hold on, hold on, hold on. So you just came out to the freakin’ Batman?” A pause, “ because you’re not straight?”
“What?” Tim frowns, taking a bite from his semi frozen taco, “you didn’t know? Oh right, shit, no, I’m bi.”
The leftovers from his Mexican takeout are cold and kinda soggy and definitely tasteless after three days sitting on his fridge, but Tim eats it mechanically, hoping it would bury the bubble of anxiety weighting like lead on his stomach.
“Cool. Cool, same. I guess.” Conner says, trailing off at the end, and Tim chokes on his food because holy shit. “So, you, uh, were saying?”
He clears his throat. “Anyway, the point is, that was the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had and I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture because there’s no way anyone will ever believe me Batman smiles.”
Conner hums in agreement. “But hey, silver linings, at least now you know he’s fine with it.”
“No, yeah, that’s. I didn’t know I was worried about it until now, but, cat’s out of the bag, so. There’s that.”
“And, trust me, you’ve got it easy, ” Conner snorts, “Clark tried to give me The Talk yesterday. Yes, it was as uncomfortable as you‘re imagining. Worse, probably.”
Tim laughs, leaning back on his chair and stretching his legs under the table, “Superman talking about the birds and the bees. Do you think they like, talked about it before? Because the timing is weirdly close.”
“Ah yes, maybe they have a ‘how to raise teenagers’ club meetings.” Even through the phone Tim can hear Conner yawning. He looks up at his clock, it blinks back 3:45am.
“Okay, I feel less like I’m in a Twilight Zone episode now, and it’s ridiculously late, so I’ll let you go back to sleep.”
“What’s a Twilight Zone?”
“You’ve never seen Twilight Zone? Oh my god, I take it all back, this is the best day of my life, we’re so having a marathon asap.” He grins, “it’s going to be so great.”
“Sure, I suppose. It’s another one of your weird TV shows, isn’t it? Fine, but I was in Gotham tonight, last night? Anyway, it’s your turn to make the trip.”
“Deal.” Tim’s smile turns softer, “good night, Conner.”
“Wait, hang on!” He rushes, sounding almost nervous, “I was thinking, maybe. When you do come here, we could. I don’t know. Get something to eat first?”
“Sounds good, same diner?”
“Yeah, that’s. Yeah. Wednesday?”
Tim shakes his head, “sorry, I’m meeting with Batgirl to look into my missing kryptonite case.”
“Yeah,” he sighs tiredly, “whoever stole it is really good at covering their tracks, military levels. I thought Colony maybe, but Batwoman swears up and down it’s not them and, well. It all checks out. But I’m hoping a fresh pair of eyes can help. Sorry.”
“No, no, I get it. It’s cool.”
“But I can do Friday!” Tim suggests, “if it’s okay with you?”
“Friday it is! See you at the diner then? For lunch?”
“I’ll text you when I get there. Good night, Conner.”
They hang up, and Tim stares at his phone, watches the screen fade to black after a few seconds. His heart beats wildly on his chest, possibly on his throat. A warm, hopeful, feeling unfurls on his chest, wrapping itself around his bones, taking root somewhere on his lungs.
He doesn’t make it to Friday.
Wednesday, Ulysses rises as the General and Tim is lost somewhere in the back of his own mind.
It hurts like nothing before. The memories burn into his skin, down to the marrow of his bones, like acid corroding everything, eating away all that he was. Is.
He’s being burned alive, turned inside out, twisted into something old, into something familiar, into something new.
Tim watches everyone die, watches the blood oozing into a pool under lifeless corpses, watches monsters hatch from familiar faces.
He watches the future unfold behind his eyelids.
How do you run from fate? How do you change what’s written in stone?
Tim is alone in a nightmarish world of harsh lights and brittle bones and blackened souls. So he wraps his pain and anger and hopelessness and indignation, sews them into a cape and a cowl, and calls it justice.
He looks at the end of the world, and finds he’d rather burn half of it down, than watch it crumble.
It’s Stephanie’s voice that first cuts through the haze of hurt anger pain victory pain.
Her words reach him like a lifeline when he didn’t even know he was drowning.
And he takes it, holds on to it until he can see the world with his own eyes, without Brother Eye’s filter. He watches history play in front of his eyes, and oh god.
Brother Eye showed him smoke and mirrors and Tim fell for it and Gotham almost paid for it.
His family almost paid for it.
But… what if he can change it? Make a different call? Now that he knows this, what if it can turn out differently?
He feels sick.
It takes everything in him to piece back a semblent of consciousness, of himself, long enough to avoid the Omac nanos, to listen to Steph.
Please, he wants to say, don’t trust me with this, don’t let me make the wrong choice.
Steph is stubborn, and her eyes shine with a renewed light he doesn’t think he’s ever seen, even through the sadness, and worry, and fear, she looks stronger. The General offers him a chance to change it, to build the utopia he dreamed of, wraps everything up with a bow on top for him, but Steph refuses to sugar coat things, gives him the truth even if it feels like a brick to his face.
Is this the future you want? She asks, Cass is out there now, with Bruce, trying to fight them off, and Conner is dying, Tim. All this Kryptonite is killing him, but he refuses to leave you here. Is this the future you would choose?
There’s a war going on inside his head, and Tim has never been more terrified of choosing.
And I know he’s going to make the right call.
He stands in the rubble of what was the Belfry, and he holds onto Kate, and he mourns his dream all over again.
Then, he lets go.
The first thing he notices when he wakes up is that he’s at the Manor.
The second thing is that he’s not alone.
At his bedside, sitting in what looks like a chair dragged from the dining room, Conner sleeps, snoring softly, head pillowed by his arms, resting on the bed. There’s bruises and cuts all over his arms, and how is that possible?
“Hey, how’re you feeling?”
Tim blinks, looking up. Steph is curled up on his bean bag chair, looking like she just woke up herself, but gets to her feet once she sees he’s awake. She steps into the beam of sunlight coming through the curtains, and he recognizes the purple of her Spoiler costume.
The memories hit him all at once, painful and overwhelming; guilt and regret and shame follow soon after, and Tim barely has time to grab the trash can thankfully beside his bed before he empties his stomach.
Steph gently takes it from his hands, helping him lay back down on his bed. Conner shifts in his sleep, murmuring low something incoherent, but doesn’t wake up.
“I’m so sorry, Steph.” He says, and means it, because he never wanted to be the reason she picked up the cape again. She deserves the normal life she wants, and he hates she had to be pulled back into this life for him. “You shouldn’t have had to do that.”
She comes to gingerly sit on the edge of his bed, huffing an annoyed breath, but with eyes soft and fond. “It wasn’t just for you, dummy. I can’t very well go to college if there’s no city anymore, can I?” She sees the guilt and the apology before any word spills from his lips, “and that’s not all your fault. Ulysses manipulated you. He’s the son of a bitch to blame here. Don’t go all martyr on me now, hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tim smiles weakly, not really believing her, not dissuading the knot of guilt on his chest, but it’s a start. He hesitates, biting his lip until he tastes blood on his tongue, “what happened?”
He doesn’t have to specify, she knows what he means, picks up on the blanks of his memory without him having to spell it out. “I wasn’t there, but Cass told me Bruce arrived at the Cave right after you left. Then, this one,” she gestures Conner with a small, dry, smile, “appeared looking for you. It was fine for a bit, he tore through a lot of ‘em, but you know all that missing Kryptonite you were looking for?”
No. Of course. Of course it was Ulysses.
“The nanos carried and updated it into the suits’ weapons. I think that’s why it took Ulysses so long to make his move, he was trying to find a way to weaponize all that Kryptonite, a way to stop Conner. It was… he was in pretty bad shape when they came to me for help.” Steph notices the way his hands curl into white-knuckled fists, offers him a sympathetic, knowing, look, eases them open again, “we tried to get him to go back to Metropolis, but not even B’s patented Batglare got him to budge. He’s a good man, Tim, I’m glad you’ve got him. But where was I? Oh right. We infiltrated the Belfry, bugged the system, got an entire timeline worth of information, knocked a megalomaniac out. You know, a regular Wednesday for us, wouldn’t you say?”
Tim can’t help but laugh at that, feeling glad she’s there with him. Anyone else might have deflected his question, sugar coated it, painted it in a easier light. But not Steph. She delivers, tells him as it is, knows he’d rather hear the truth now, than a white, kinder, lie. “Timeline?” He asks, choosing to stir the conversation to hopefully less somber themes.
And it works, because her eyes light up, “holy shit, yes. I think he meant to discourage me and Cass, but are you kidding me? Knowing that there’s an universe out there where Cass and I, we got to be Batgirls? Tim, can you believe it? I was Robin and then Batgirl . Imagine all I can do here . ‘Twas a very stupid move of him, because I never felt more alive .”
He tries to imagine Steph as Robin, with the red and green and yellow costume, and all the bloodied history and legacy woven into it. Tries to picture her working alongside Bruce, swinging through rooftops. He doesn’t think Bruce would’ve been able to stay sane, to keep up with her. But as Batgirl, it fits her better, he thinks. Barbara probably would’ve loved her, and he can see Steph patrolling Burnside, independent but still family . “Yeah, yeah, I really can.”
She pats his hand, smiling. “Robin and Batgirl, uh?”
“God , you would’ve driven me crazy,” he snorts, and it makes his entire chest hurt, but he hides his wince, “and Cass?”
“I’m not sure what name she went by, but she had the bat symbol, so that’s all it matters, isn’t it?”
“Not really.” Tim says, “she doesn’t need the bat to be family. Neither do you. You know that, right?”
Steph shakes her head, but her smile hadn’t faded yet, and Tim feels a lot better now than when he first woke up. He missed this, the easy conversations, the banter, Steph. He might not be in love with her, but he has no doubt he’s always going to love her.
“Tim?” Conner asks, voice hoarse and strained, “shit, I was so worried.” His chair topples over when he stumbles to his feet and throws his arms around him, but it sounds far away, unimportant. All that matters is the warmth radiating from Conner’s skin, the drumming of his heart, the way he clings to Tim like he’s afraid Tim might disappear if he lets go.
Steph winks at him, giggling. He doesn’t have the willpower to glare back.
Conner eventually pulls back, rescuing his chair from the floor, wide eyes brimming with relief, “how do you feel?”
“Like an evil system tried to hack my brain and take over the city,” Tim deadpans, but his lips pull up in a wry smile, “and a little hungry, to be honest.”
“D’you want something to eat? I can get it in the kitchen, I mean, this place is huge but it can’t be that hard to find the kitchen-”
“Pancakes do sound great-”
“No way,” Steph interrupts him, pushing Conner back into his chair and pointing a finger in Tim’s direction, “he’s gross, he just threw up, and he’s an idiot. Alfred will kill us if we don’t call him first.”
This time, Tim glares, about to call her a dictator, when the past day catches up to his brain, and he bites back the joke, quietly choking on the words. Instead, he turns to Conner, unsure if he’s allowed to touch, to take his hand, “how did you know I was in trouble?”
Scratching the back of his neck, his friend says, sheepishly, “I’m always kinda listening in for your heartbeat? Like, just in case, in an emergency? And yesterday it went uh, bananas?” He glances at Steph, who nods, proudly. They must have talked while Tim was knocked out. It’s nice, he decides, even if it probably means they’re so gonna gang up on him in the future. “Yeah, bananas. Like, through the roof, how-are-you-still-alive bananas. So I, uh, rushed here and, well.”
“Oh.” Tim blinks, looking down at his hands, not knowing what else to say. He can feel Steph rolling her eyes at his silence, even as she gets up to leave.
“Okay, I’ll go call Alfred, so brace yourselves, boys.” She grins crookedly, “everyone’s about to get in here.”
She leaves, and when Tim pictures his entire family in one room, with Conner, his fingers itch for an old camera forgotten in some box in his attic.
Tim doesn’t remember much of what happened when he was under Brother Eye, before Kate, before Steph, before Conner.
Sometimes there’s a flash of red against white before his eyes and he thinks it might be Kate’s hair fanning over her cracked mask and then it flickers and it’s not, it’s blood, thick and dark, pooling on white tiles and splashing over white walls and then it flickers again and it’s not, it’s red lights bathing the room until it’s all shades of the same sickening red , and then it flickers and it’s not, it’s blood again, covering his hands, staining his skin and dripping to the floor and then-
Sometimes he closes his eyes and there’s blue painted behind his eyelids and it’s the armors of the soldiers he forced into a war that he forced into existence and it’s blue like the bird on the Nightwing suit with a burnt hole on the side from a gun he pulled the trigger, and it’s blue like the cold steel on Stephanie’s eyes when she looked at him through all the layers of armor and kevlar and hurt with fear and so much pain, in a way Tim never, ever, wanted her to look at him, in a way that makes him sick to his stomach, to his core, that makes him dry heave on a bathroom floor, and it’s blue like the clear Smallville sky always reflected on Conner’s eyes slowly being fogged by desperation and anger and sadness until it’s a raging storm with lightning and thunder, until he smells the ozone and it makes his skin itch and his chest collapse, cave in itself, and his ribs and heart and lungs are all half digested and he can’t breathe without acid searing into tissue and muscle and brittle bones.
Tim can’t remember it all play by play because the human brain is like a computer and it knows better than to leave memories like these lying around on his consciousness. It buries them deep, on the farthest corner it can find, and it buries them in unmarked graves in a graveyard it carves out of scar tissue.
Tim can’t remember it all, but sometimes.
Sometimes he dreams. He falls asleep with the TV on, and he’s suddenly in the Manor, staring at the portrait, at The Portrait , he’s looking at Martha and Thomas Wayne, and it’s night but the light catches in Martha’s pearls until it looks almost bloodied. He’s looking at the portrait and the grandfather clock strikes midnight, maybe, or perhaps 2am, he’s not sure, and it swings open, silently, slowly, until all he sees is the darkness. There’s no light, and the entrance to the Cave looks like a wide, gaping mouth waiting to swallow Tim whole, bones and skin and all, if he’s not careful. But Tim’s careful, right? He’s the detective. He’s the one always prepared, always thinking, always calculating, always planning. Just like Bruce, right? A contingency for everything. Right? But when the ground starts to crumble, starts to melt, starts to turn into quicksand, starts to pull him into the darkness, he’s paralyzed. Frozen, as the darkness coats his vision, and the grandfather clock slams closed, and he falls. And falls. And falls. And falls. There’s nothing to hold on to, there’s nothing to fire his grapple gun at, there’s no line or wall or anything solid. He’s falling into nothing and he’s been falling for so long, he wonders, he knows , the landing is going to kill him and-
And he wakes up with a scream dying on his throat.
And those are the better ones. Those dreams of falling, of drowning, of freezing in place as the world burns around him. Those are the better ones. He doesn’t call those nightmares. Those are just bad dreams.
The nightmares are worse.
They are worse because it’s not Tim that gets to burn down along with the Manor. It’s not Tim that falls. It’s not Tim that drowns. It never is. It always start with Tim, maybe at the Manor, maybe at his apartment, maybe at Jason’s safehouse. He’s fine, eating cereal, watching TV, reading a book. But then, they appear. Sometimes it’s Kate, mask broken and blood everywhere, until her costume is more red than black. Or it’s Stephanie, pale and coughing up blood even as the gunshot wound on her stomach oozes almost black. A few times it’s Bruce or Dick or Jason or even Cass, all beaten until bones cracked through skin and ribs pierced through lungs and bruises paint them all black and purple and blue. And sometimes, it’s Conner, sickly pale, almost tinted green, screaming in agony and curling into himself even as his body begins to fail, to collapse. And then there’s always Tim, holding the murder weapon. It’s Clue, and he just keeps winning every round. Timothy Drake, in the living room, with the Batsuit of Tomorrow. Timothy Drake, in the Belfry, with the gun that killed Bruce’s parents. Timothy Drake, in the Belfry, with his fists and boots and righteous anger. Timothy Drake, in the Belfry, with the Kryptonite that Ulysses stole from Lex Luthor right under their noses. It’s a rigged game, he figures. Always ends with him standing over a dead body, blood on his hands, stains he can’t wash off, can’t scrub clean.
Always ends with him waking up with a start and scrambling for the bathroom to empty his stomach in the toilet.
Tim doesn’t remember much of what happened, except, well, sometimes.
It takes two weeks and three days for him to crack.
He swings a leg over his Redbird and runs, speeding until the road and the fields are blurring past him shapeless, colorless, meaningless. He’s not thinking, doesn’t have a destiny in mind, but his bike still takes him to their diner in Metropolis.
Tim’s not surprised.
He orders fries, milkshakes and burgers and waits, fingers drumming a restless rythm on the table as he watches the sunset through the window.
Conner slides into the seat in front of him just as their food arrives. He smiles with his eyes, hands covering Tim’s, stilling it, and Tim turns his around, entwining their fingers. If Conner’s surprised by any of it, he doesn’t show.
“Figured it was time for that lunch I owed you.” Tim says, feeling calmer, safer, grounded.
“Kinda late for lunch, but I’ll take it,” Conner grins, squeezes his hand.
They eat in silence after that, and Tim is grateful, knows Conner gets it. And when he says follow me and takes off, Tim tugs down his helmet, and does.
He leads them past the city limit, back to the open road and into one of the fields that stretch over miles of land between Gotham and Metropolis.
“Nice view, uh?” Conner asks, grinning, when he lands beside Tim.
And Tim has to agree. This far from the artificial lights the stars stand out brighter against the night sky, and it doesn’t feel oppressive like the last time Tim had been under these skies. Instead, it eases the itch beneath his skin, the anxiety rattling his bones, quiets the whispers at the back of his mind. “Thank you.”
Conner bumps his shoulder. “Anytime.”
“Sorry I keep dropping by surprise.” Tim says quietly, softly, “it’s just. Everyone’s walking on eggshells around me back home and it’s driving me up the wall, you know?”
He stays silent, mulling over his words before answering, “the first few months I lived with Clark, it was a nightmare. Lois was overly nice because she didn’t know how to act around me so she felt the need to overcompensate. Clark spent as much time away as he could, barely talked to me. And Jon kept asking so many questions that no one knew how to answer and throwing tantrums.” Conner turns to him, and Tim mirrors him, giving in the urge to touch him, reaching for his face, and feeling his heart fluttering when Conner leans into his hand, “you were the first person to treat me like a normal human being, you don’t need to thank me for doing the same.”
It feels like so long ago when Tim had been sitting alone in his kitchen, wondering if they were going on a date or not. It feels like a lifetime ago, and Tim is tired of denying this. He’s come this far, risked this much, taking the final step and kissing Conner is almost easy.
They kiss until it feels like stars are being forged under their skin.
Five weeks later;
“You know it’s past three in the morning, right?”
Conner’s voice startles him, but only for a moment, Tim had been kind of expecting him to show up at some point. He smiles a little tiredly, lets his boyfriend perch himself at the arm of his chair and press a kiss to his head. “You know I’m a Bat, right?”
He gets an eye-roll. “Are you working again? Because I’m sure that scary butler of yours has like, a veto on any work-related stuff until your ribs heal properly.”
“Dude, I can’t believe you would rat me out to Alfred.” Tim elbows him lightly, halfheartedly attempting to dislodge him from the chair, “but no. Actually, it’s good you’re here, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.”
Tim shifts in his seat, turning to look properly at him, “do you see these people?”
His boyfriend squints, eyeing the screen. “Yeah, what’s the deal with them?”
“The ginger on the left, Bart Allen, age 17. He’s meta-human, a speedster, claims he came from the future. The Flash-- Barry Allen, not Wally-- says his hyper-accelerated metabolism isn’t a problem anymore but Bart has been living with Max Mercury in Alabama ever since he popped in our century.”
“Why are there so many speedsters? Like, there are literally two Flashes right now and a Kid Flash. This is just impractical.” Conner shakes his head, “and the girl?”
“Right. That’s Cassandra Sandsmark, age 18. She’s been. Let’s go with a little harder to track down. There’s not much about her backstory, but I’ve picked up a lot of chatter on the underworld about a new Wonder Girl and, well, honestly? All we need to know is that she is vaguely related to the Amazons and a hell of a warrior. I tried asking Artemis about her but that’s like pulling teeth if the teeth actively fought back with a giant axe.”
“A what now? Nope. Don’t wanna know. Okay, so, you have a speedster and an Amazon, why? Do you think they’re gonna be a threat to Gotham, or something?”
“Cassandra has quite a reputation as a thief, but no, not really.” Tim stops, looking at the screen of his computer. Two grainy pictures of Bart Allen and Wonder Girl stare back at him, “I’ve been thinking, Dick’s generation had their Teen Titans, now Damian is forming his own. Jason’s got the Outlaw thing going on. But what about us? Where does that leave us?”
“That research you mentioned a few times, this is it, isn’t it?” Conner asks, hovering beside him.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this for some time, even before, you know. The whole Knights disaster.” He pauses, refusing to let those memories bring his mood down, “What if we form our own team?”
“Wait, hold on,” Conner says, still blinking in surprise, “you mean like the Justice League?”
“Definitely younger,” he snorts, “young, just us. Do you think it’s crazy?”
Conner is silent for a moment, and Tim bites his lip, fighting the urge to backtrack, take everything back. The little voice in the back of his mind whispering maybe this isn’t such a good idea, maybe it’s just him getting too obsessed again, maybe-
“Nah, I don’t think this is crazy at all, Rob,” Kon is looking at him with a smile, and Tim grins back, llets relief wash over him, “it’s just. I don’t even have a name.”
“It’s okay, there’s still time, we can find you an alias until then, or, you know, there’s already two Flashes out there, they set the precedent, it wouldn’t be weird to have two Superboys. Or Supermen.” Tim takes his hand, intertwining their fingers, “besides, whatever happens, we’ll figure it out.”
Kissing his best friend is still a little surreal, and Tim doesn’t think it will ever fail to make his stomach flutter and his chest to feel coated with molten gold.
Tim pulls back, smiling, “I told Bruce I’m going to college tomorrow. You’re done with your GED.”
“What do you have in mind?” Conner fights off a grin, looking at him suspiciously, “and will it end up with Batman wanting to kill me?”
“How do you feel about a road trip?” He opens a file on his computer, pulling up a US map, “sure, we could always pick one of the jets, but driving is more fun.”
“A road trip. To find Bart and Cassandra?”
“Yeah, among others. There’s also a new archer in Star City, but I’m not sure she’s ready. Maybe ask Cass once Batgirl gives the go-ahead. These two, though.” Tim shrugs, “I’m sure about them.”
“It feels right, I think.” Conner agrees, “I should go pack, then. Seems we have a big day tomorrow.”
“Right, gotta stop by the Manor to pick up a few things,” there’s a box of his belongings he spent last weekend sorting through with Dick and Jason sitting on his old room. It’s filled with stupid shit, like Dick’s old Bludhaven Police Academy hoodie that either Tim or Jason nicked off him at some point, or Tim’s old photograph album, or Jason’s ridiculously soft blanket. Tim thinks, along with Conner’s old leather jacket he keeps leaving around and the sunglasses he always forgets on the bedside table, it might make his apartment feel less like a safehouse, more like home. “Then, it’s off to college.”
Conner shakes his head, grinning and helping him up,“you’re a terrible influence.”
“You joke, but I’m pretty sure Clark is convinced I’ve corrupted you.” Tim snorts at the memory, but it dies out as he wraps his arms around his boyfriend, presses kisses to his throat, the sharp line of his jaw.
“I don’t know,” Conner smirks, kissing him and biting down his lower lip. “Think I could do with more corrupting.”
Tim laughs, and tugs him upstairs. Tomorrow’s a new day, and they’re definitely gonna have to stop by a convenience store before hitting the road to buy as much snacks as it fits in his car, but it feels like the beginning of something great.