Tim’s awake before he opens his eyes. It’s a trick he’s learned from Batman and Nightwing. One that’s paid off more than a few times since he’s been doing the Robin gig, and he’s learned to do it almost automatically now. Keep breathing evenly. Listen. Stay relaxed. Wait.
If the bad guys think you’re still unconscious, you’re likely to learn something and less likely to get a boot to the head that’ll send you back to dreamland with a concussion. An unconscious partner’s nothing but a liability, and Tim doesn’t want to be Robin the Boy Hostage if he can help it. It really doesn’t matter that Dick says it happens to everyone, even Batman. Tim still hates it when it’s him.
But Tim’s lying in his own bed where he lay down for a nap when he got home from school—too many late nights, too few hours of sleep lately, and he’s got to be ready to hit the streets tonight. Joker’s out of Arkham again, and God only knows what kind of sick joke he’s got planned for them this time.
So, Tim can’t figure out what woke him up. Or why his bed seems to be vibrating.
He shifts under the old quilt he dragged out of the linen closet, and wraps one hand around the batarang under his pillow—more comforting than any stuffed animal ever was—and lets his eyes slit open. There’s a yellow-and-red figure, slightly out-of-focus, perched on the foot of his bed. It takes Tim a second to realize the blurriness isn’t because he’s just woken up. It’s Kid Flash, and he’s vibrating enough to shake Tim’s whole bed.
“Jeez, Bart,” Tim whispers, sitting up and dropping his batarang into his lap. “What are you doing here?” Tim doesn’t think anybody else’s home yet, but there’s no point taking chances, and he really doesn’t want to have to explain why he’s got a costumed super-powered teenager in his bedroom. They don’t even like it when he plays his music too loud, so he’s pretty sure red-and-yellow spandex and a mask would require an explanation he’s not prepared to give.
There’s a blur and Bart’s right beside him, picking the batarang out of his lap and examining it. “You sleep with a batarang? Is this one of the exploding ones? Isn’t that sort of dangerous? What if—”
“Bart.” Tim grabs the batarang and tucks it into his pocket. He knows he’s not going to be getting any more sleep now, and there’s no way he wants his dad or Dana finding a batarang under his pillow. He already gets enough grief about not getting enough sleep. If they had any idea what he was doing most nights, he knows they’d pack him up and move him as far away from Bruce as they could. Tim can’t let that happen. Being Robin is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He finally feels like he’s found a home. A purpose.
“What are you doing in bed at five in the afternoon?” Bart asks suddenly, and Tim shakes his head and tries to focus. Bart’s one of his best friends, but there are still times he’d like to gag him. It’s like spending time with an ADD kid who’s sold his Ritalin and traded up to speed. Except more so.
Bart slaps a warm, still-vibrating hand on Tim’s forehead and looks at him with concern. “Are you sick? Should I get a doctor? Batman? Chicken soup?”
And Tim remembers why he routinely stops himself from strangling Bart. Because Bart’s just about the sweetest guy there is, and he cares with all his heart. He really can’t help the talking thing; it’s a speedster trait. Bart’s cousin Wally’s the same way, and Batman hasn’t killed him yet, so Tim figures he at least has to make an effort. He brushes Bart’s hand away gently.
“I’m not sick. I was just trying to catch a nap before patrol tonight. If I fall asleep in Trig class one more time, my dad’s going to ground me for a month.”
‘That would suck,” Bart says. “But, hey—good that you’re not sick.”
There’s a blur and Tim’s staring at an empty space beside him. He sighs. He’s pretty much gotten used to Bart moving at lightning speed, but he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to Bart investigating his stuff like a rampaging four-year-old. There’s a reason he has a code-lock on his room at the Titans Tower. He sees his CD collection being man-handled, and then there’s grinding bass guitar and heavy percussion pulsing from the speakers. Two seconds later, it’s classical music, and Tim needs to stop this before Bart finds the Frank Sinatra single Dick got him as a joke. He’s not sure he’ll survive “The Girl from Ipanema” blasting from his stereo. It still brings up bad memories of wearing a bra and getting hit on by that med student. He’s not asking Batman for any more undercover assignments again. Ever.
“Bart! Bart, just sit down a minute. What are you doing here?” Tim’s thankful when Bart stops and turns around, leaving Wagner playing in the background. The stereo remote’s on his nightstand, and he turns it down about thirty decibels to a respectable level. “And why are you vibrating?”
Bart shrugs and flops back down on Tim’s bed, sending a ripple of energy through the whole structure. Tim’s really glad his headboard’s secured to the wall, otherwise his dad and Dana might wonder what the hell’s going on in here. It's pretty clear they're not home, and he's grateful for that. Trying to maintain a secret identity when you're a teenager living at home really sucks.
“I—I vibrate when I’m upset. Or happy. Or … well, there are lots of reasons, really. There was this one time—”
Tim rolls his eyes. “I know why you vibrate, Bart. I’m trying to figure out which it is today.”
“Huh?” There’s a quick, confused smile and then Bart seems to get what Tim’s asking. “Oh, upset, I guess. I don’t really know. Maybe just surprised.”
Tim lays a hand on Bart’s chest and looks at him carefully. “I know it’s tough, but just breathe, okay? I need you to tell me what’s going on, and you can’t do that if you’re bouncing off the walls.” He’s using his best grown-up voice. The one he pulls out when he’s Robin and there are frightened civilians around. No one wants to listen to a teenage boy at the best of times, even one in a mask and cape, but if they think he’s just a stunted adult, he’s found it works better, although he knows he’s going to hurt the first goon that calls him the “Short Wonder.” And he’ll enjoy it. It might even get a smile out of Batman.
Bart’s chest is rising and falling under his hand. They’ve practiced this at the Tower—him and Kon and Bart. Getting Bart to focus when the world’s overwhelming, and running around the globe only leaves him more wound up. Getting Kon to stop setting things on fire when he’s angry enough he can’t see straight, and flying to the moon doesn’t make his eyes burn any less. And even Tim knows he needs this too, a way to calm himself. Batman says to never fight when you’re angry, but it’s hard when someone’s hurting your friends, your family, torturing people for no reason at all, and he’s the only one who’s had to learn to not be silent. They’ve had to teach him how to talk. How to let things out.
So it seems really strange that Bart’s the one who’s here now, and doesn’t want to talk. Or at least, he can’t talk about it yet—whatever it is—and Tim just keeps rubbing slow circles on Bart’s chest and telling him to breathe. Tim wonders when they all became so comfortable with each other. Vulnerable to each other. Maybe dealing with life and death every day does that to you. Makes you closer than you thought you could be.
The vibrations die down, and even Wagner slips into something more like an adagio. It seems fitting. The whole world’s slowing down so Bart can deal. Tim thinks the world owes it to them sometimes, considering how often they save the damn thing—even when it doesn’t deserve saving.
“You want to tell me?” Tim asks. Bart opens his mouth, and Tim puts two fingers gently over Bart’s lips. “Slowly. I’ve got time.”
Bart nods and takes another breath. And another. Tim pulls his fingers away and waits.
“I went to Central City to see Wally, and--”
Another breath, and Tim has time to wonder what’s wrong. Wally West. The Flash. Fastest Man Alive, and Tim forces himself to keep his own breathing even. If something’s happened to Wally … no, somebody would’ve called him, told him. Dick. Bruce. They’re both close to Wally, and everyone’s been more than a little paranoid since that whole thing with the Justice Lords from the parallel dimension. Batman wouldn’t tell him exactly what went on over there, but Tim got the impression it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all.
“Is Flash okay?” Tim asks. He’s known Wally a few years now, even got his help on a thing with the Riddler once, but he’s always been closer to Bart, which only makes sense ‘cause Wally’s old. Well, older than Dick, anyway, and that’s enough for Tim. Sure, Wally’s still one of the coolest adults around—with his toys and games and the fact that he’ll take you for pizza or ice-cream any time you want—but he’s definitely an adult. Wally pulls rank on Bart all the time, just like Dick does to Tim, and Clark does to Kon. They think they’re doing them a favour, protecting them or something, but most of the time it just feels like they don’t trust them. Tim gets it, but he doesn’t like it. None of them does.
Bart gives Tim a strange smile and kind of tries to shrug and shake his head all at the same time. All he ends up doing is getting one of his lightning bolts stuck in the edge of the quilt, and Tim gives an exasperated sigh and tugs it loose.
“Just spill, Bart. Seriously. You’re freaking me out.”
“Sorry.” Bart sits up and tugs off the mask, running a hand through his hair. “I’m a little freaked myself.”
Deep breath, and Bart looks him straight in the eye. “Did you know Wally’s gay?”
“What?” Tim wants to laugh, but he doesn’t think that would be the appropriate reaction given the serious flushed face in front of him. At least no one’s dead or kidnapped, and Wally liking guys is not much of a surprise since Wally flirts with everything that moves. Male or female.
Bart bounces off the bed, ignoring Tim’s grab for his arm, and starts pacing as only a speedster can pace. Tim doesn’t know how he’s going to explain a worn groove in the hardwood floor of his room. He throws himself into Bart’s path, and gets mowed down for his trouble. The two of them tumble to the ground with a thump that has Tim praying there’s no one else home. He barely catches the lamp on his way down, and he hears Bart swearing softly under his breath as Tim manages to shove the lamp back onto the nightstand and still pin him to the ground.
“Bart, there’s nothing wrong with Wally being gay. What’s the matter with you?”
“I didn’t know, okay? It seems like kind of an important thing to mention.”
Bart’s vibrating again, and Tim’s thinking this isn’t the best position to be having this conversation since he can feel the ripples of movement in every part of his body. Every part. He stands up hurriedly and hauls Bart to his feet.
“Sit,” he tells him, and pushes him onto the bed. Tim grabs a chair and pulls it up beside him. “Okay, so Wally should’ve told you, but is it that much of a surprise? I mean, really?”
Bart just stares at him and shakes his head as if Tim’s missing the entire point of this conversation, but Tim isn’t even sure what that is. So Wally’s gay. Big deal. He can think of half a dozen heroes he knows who are for sure, and twice that many who probably are. Tim’s always thought the tight spandex and the vibrant colours were sort of a shout out to the gay community anyway. Especially—
“He wasn’t alone.”
Tim knows he’s making that face that Bart hates, the one where he creases his brow and raises his eyebrow at the same time. Bart says he looks like a transporter accident between Spock and Freud when he does that. Tim isn’t sure he can disagree, but he doesn’t think he can stop doing it either. It’s a patented Robin look.
“You walked in on him?” Tim holds back a shudder. He doesn’t like to think about the people in his life having sex. It’s bad enough he suspects they’re doing it, he doesn’t need it confirmed. His dad and Dana are happy and all that, but he doesn’t want to know what they’re doing when they close the bedroom door. It’s why he’s got a Discman, and he’s already accepted that slight hearing loss may be the result, but as long as he’s oblivious to what’s going on down the hall, he’s happy. And even those days when Dick shows up at the Cave looking all glowy and pleased with himself, Tim ignores it and pretends Dick didn’t spend the night at the Clocktower. He just doesn’t need to know.
“No! Not exactly.” Bart’s flustered and his breathing is coming in short gasps and the bed’s starting to shake again. Tim lays both hands on Bart’s shoulders and squeezes. “I went by Wally’s apartment. Thought we’d grab a burger or six, and maybe some ice-cream. There’s this little place that’s got the best cappuccino ice-cream in Central City …” Tim decides there’s no point interrupting. Besides, ice-cream’s not a bad topic of conversation at this point.
Bart gets his focus back. “Yeah, well, anyway, I went to his apartment ‘cause Wally’s always told me to drop by if I’m in the neighbourhood, or lonely, or just want to hang out. He’s good that way. I can’t complain. Even when he’s giving me heck for doing something stupid, I know he cares, but I just didn’t expect to—I mean, the place smelled like wet dog and ocean—”
“Ew. That’s gross.” Tim wrinkles his nose involuntarily. There are a lot of reasons not to be a superhero, and the things you end up trying to get out in the wash make up a bunch of them.
“Sinking ship in the harbour this afternoon. Saw it on the news. But yeah, it was pretty gross. I once rescued this Pomeranian puppy from—”
“Yeah, well, I let myself in ‘cause Wally gave me a key, and I didn’t think he was there at first, but then I heard the shower going. I was just going to hang out on the couch and wait for him—he usually takes pretty fast showers—but then I heard two voices, and—” Bart’s face is getting redder as he talks and sometimes Tim forgets Bart’s not like the rest of them. He’s read every book in the library, but his life experience just doesn’t add up to everything he knows in theory. It’s as if he’s still finding out everything for the first time, and sometimes that’s hard.
“—I was going to leave right away, really.” Bart’s blushing to the roots of his hair, and Tim can feel his own face growing hot. He can’t believe they’re sitting in his bedroom discussing Wally’s sex life. Jeez, he didn’t even want to know Wally had a sex life. “It’s just, there were clothes strewn in the hallway. The Flash uniform and other things—shirt and pants, really nice shirt, too, looked like silk—and I thought maybe something was wrong.”
Tim looks at him, unconvinced. The eyebrow goes up again.
“Stop that!” Bart says. “Okay, I was kind of curious, but then I felt stupid and I just ran. I mean, how could I not know? Why didn’t he tell me? And they were obviously doing it, pretty damn loudly too. I think I heard some of the tiles shatter, and what exactly do you have to do to make tile shatter?”
Tim doesn’t know how to answer that, and he’s not sure he should answer even if he did have some experience in that area. Which he really, really doesn’t. Crap. Where’s Dick when he needs him? Dick would wrap an arm around Bart’s shoulders, explain the finer points of the birds and the bees, tell him everything’s fine and normal, and send him off with a cappuccino shake. The best Tim can offer is a red face and a grip that’s likely to leave bruises on Bart’s shoulders. He lets him go.
“So, Wally has a boyfriend,” Tim says.
“Looks that way.” Bart lies back on the bed and pulls his knees up to his chest. “And I don’t even care about that. I mean, the gay part, but I really think he should’ve told me. He treats me like a kid, Tim. I just want him to start taking me seriously.” Bart’s rocking back and forth like a wary armadillo. “You know what I mean?”
Tim nods. He does know. He was thirteen when he tried to convince Bruce he needed a Robin. He’s had to work to prove himself every step of the way, and he knows it’s not because they don’t trust him. They’re just scared of letting him go out there without being ready. Tim knows it’s because they care, but knowing doesn’t make it any better when Dick’s explaining to him how he left himself open for an attack, or when Bruce gives him that silent headshake that tells him he’s being pulled off the streets until he practices whatever move he fucked-up tonight. Tim knows exactly how much Bart is hurting right now.
“It’s really not the gay thing,” Bart says again, rolling back to a sitting position. His amber eyes are bright against his pale skin, and the setting sun is turning his hair more red than brown. “Or bi, or whatever. I just—”
“Wish he would’ve trusted you with it,” Tim finishes.
“Yeah. That’s it.” Bart nods and looks away. “I left as soon as I realized I was interrupting.”
“So, you don’t know who it was?” Now that it’s out in the open, Tim can admit he’s kind of curious. He always thought Wally had kind of a thing for Hawkgirl, or maybe even Green Lantern. Tim shakes his head. That’s not an image he needs in his head. He’s never going to survive the next Justice League BBQ if he’s got to picture Green Lantern and Flash making out.
“No idea. But he had nice stuff, and kind of a deep voice. It was hard to tell since there weren’t actually a whole lot of words—”
“Too much information,” Tim says, waving his hands in the air. Bart just grins at him and Tim can’t help but grin back. It suddenly feels like the earth’s slipped back into its axis, and things are turning smoothly again. Bart’s stopped vibrating.
There’s a click when the CD shuts off, but Tim can’t be bothered to get up and change it. He figures Bart will do it anyway, but Bart’s just sitting there looking at him with interest. The kind of interest one gives to a particularly exotic animal trapped behind a wall of glass.
“What?” Tim shifts uncomfortably.
“Have you ever … you know?” Bart’s blushing again, but he’s not looking away and the mask is still lying on the bed beside him. Tim wishes he had the Robin mask on. This might be easier. But probably not.
He takes a moment and considers lying, but decides there’s no point. It’s Bart, and he does enough lying in the rest of his life. He’s going to be as honest with his friends as he can be.
“No, I haven’t. You?”
“No.” Bart’s eyes dart towards the ceiling as if asking for divine intervention, and then he blurts out a sentence so fast, Tim isn’t sure he’s heard him right. Except he must have because Bart’s just staring at him expectantly, and Tim doesn’t want to ask him to repeat the question.
He says “um” and tries to figure out what to say.
“You don’t have to answer if you’re uncomfortable. I mean, I was just curious.”
Tim’s pretty sure that line about curiosity and cats should also be applied to speedsters because Bart has a bad habit of asking him stuff no one else ever would—except maybe Dick, and he’d only ask to embarrass the hell out of Tim. Not for any other reason. Tim’s afraid Bart’s got another reason for asking.
“Tell me the question again.” Tim’s trying to buy time, or at least hoping maybe he misheard him the first time.
“It’s okay, Tim. It’s cool.” And Tim knows it’s not anything like cool. Not at all. “I just figured I’d ask. Since we were on the topic.” Bart looks at him again. “And ‘cause, I’ve thought about it. Sometimes.”
Tim swallows, and wishes he’d left the batarang on the bed because it’s digging into his thigh in a really uncomfortable way and he doesn’t want to squirm in his chair because … well, that might give Bart the wrong idea, and he doesn’t think Bart needs any more ideas at this point. It’s been a big day already. Tim’s not sure either of them can take any more revelations.
“Bart, I don’t know what to say.” It’s the truth, and yet it’s not the whole truth, and Tim thinks Bart knows it, but it’s okay. Bart’s been his friend for a while now, and sometimes it’s enough to say half of something. He’ll figure out the rest.
Tim hears a door open downstairs, and his dad calling his name. He stands up and looks at Bart helplessly. This conversation isn’t over by a long shot, but there’s nothing more to say. They both know it.
“I’m sorry,” Tim says. He means it. Just once he’d like his real life to not interfere with his secret life, but he’s learned that’s not the way these things work. There’s always a cost involved.
“It’s okay. You helped. Really.” Bart’s already at the window, and Tim knows he’s going to run. Maybe Keystone City. Maybe Central City. Maybe even all the way to Canada. He did that once when he was bored. Said there were lots of trees and open spaces and he even saw a moose. At least, Bart thought it was a moose, but he really wasn’t sure.
There are footsteps on the stairs, and Tim figures they’ve got about thirty seconds before his dad knocks on the door. He doesn’t know what to do. Bart looks at him sympathetically and tugs on his mask.
“Sometimes I think about it too,” Tim blurts out, wondering when his sanity left him. Bart stops with one foot on the edge outside Tim’s window. “I don’t know what that means. But yeah, I’ve thought about it.” His eyes dart towards the door, then back to Bart.
In the space of a blink, Tim can feel hands on his shoulders and there’s the brief press of lips against his. He doesn’t even have a chance to close his eyes, and the kiss is something he’ll always remember as a blur of cat-coloured eyes and warm skin and lips that made him shiver, even if it was only for a fraction of a moment.
“Tim, are you home?” There’s a light knock at the door, and even as the door opens, Tim catches the wave Bart gives him as he disappears out the window. There’s a flutter of papers, and Tim’s trig homework floats to the floor.
“Ah, working on your homework, I see.” Tim’s dad reaches for one of the sheets. “Sorry about that. Must’ve created a draft when I opened the door.”
“Yeah,” Tim says, taking the paper from his dad’s hand. For the second time this afternoon, there’s a hand against his forehead.
“You all right, Tim? You seem a bit flushed.”
“Fine, Dad. Just fine.” He glances towards the window. Nothing but blue sky and a soft breeze floating in. Bart’s probably already halfway to Kansas by now. If that’s where he’s going.
“Well, just take it easy. You’ve been working pretty hard on things lately. Maybe take a break and come down to supper. You can tell me about your day.”
Tim drops the pages onto his desk and leans into his dad’s arm around his shoulder. He’ll tell him about the quiz he aced in English, and maybe even about correcting Mr. Balfour’s algorithms in computer class. He might even tell him about the red-haired girl that sits behind him in History Class and asked if he was going to the dance. She’s pretty and kind of nice, and Tim isn’t sure how he feels about her.
Or about the other almost red-head who made his lips tremble this afternoon. But he definitely isn’t going to tell his dad about that one. No. Definitely not. He needs to think about that one a lot more before he says anything to anyone. ‘Cause he’s thought about it before--being with a guy. Not a lot, but enough to make him wonder if the closeness he feels to Kon and Bart isn’t more than wanting to be friends.
He tunes back in to what his dad’s saying. Something about the ball game on television and Dana having to work late this evening. Tim nods and starts pulling food out of the fridge for sandwiches. They work in silence for a few moments, and it’s nice having this time. Tim likes Dana, but this is nice too. It makes him feel like a normal kid. He needs that some days.
His dad pops open a Corona, and looks at him fondly.
“I’m proud of you, Timmy,” he says unexpectedly, then goes back to spreading mayonnaise on the bread. “You’re a good boy.”
Tim smiles, and puts on his Robin face. The one that never says how he’s feeling. He hopes his dad’s always going to be proud of him. Proud of what he’s doing as Robin. Proud of whatever choices he makes. Even if Tim's been lying to him for years.
“Let’s go watch that game.” His dad ruffles his hair as he passes by with the plate of sandwiches. Maybe it’s okay to have an ordinary day once in a while, watching the game with his dad. Eating sandwiches on TV trays in the living room. Paper napkins instead of those linen ones Dana likes. His dad’s drinking straight from the bottle instead of grabbing a glass.
He wonders if this is what it feels like to be ordinary. To be worried about Trig homework and red-heads and kisses. To be more confused than he’s ever been in his life. To be maybe a little in love with his two best friends.
Yeah, maybe he’s not so different after all.
He smiles and reaches for a sandwich.