Originally posted 10-06-2007
Generally speaking, Bart's problem was not that he didn't think, but that he had trouble concentrating. He was thinking all the time, but it was about everything. All at once, too much, everything. Concentration meant that he should have been thinking about one thing, two at most, at a time.
He wasn't sure if this was, actually, a problem per se. It was a problem for other people -- Jay and Wally, mostly, and sometimes Linda -- but not really for him.
Except when it was. A problem, that is.
The sun was almost finished setting on Sunday night, but he was still out on the path near Kory's garden, skating hard.
Skating helped him concentrate; it was just about the only thing that did. It wasn't like running, which took him over and left no space beyond motion. It was slower than running; he had to focus on turns and flips, lest he fall.
He had a lot -- too much -- to concentrate on, to think all the way through, lately.
Bart knew it wasn't fair, how he still couldn't think of the Titans as a real team. As his team. Cassie and Kon and Tim, they were his team. So while Kory and Vic were really nice, Gar was as weird as he ever was and Raven just plain scared him.
It just wasn't the same. Not like how it was.
Thinking like this just made him feel crummy. He wasn't being fair to any of the new people, to the Titans legacy, to anyone.
In the back of his mind, he could hear Max's voice saying, "Whoever said life was fair?" and he grinned.
That wasn't what Max had meant, of course, but Bart was willing to take it. Even if the Tim-face in his mind's eye was glowering at him. Besides, Tim had been gone for going on two weekends now. Maybe three, if he counted this weekend as over.
At any rate, there wasn't anyone to look at him funny for thinking selfishly.
In the old days, Cassie would have, but she wasn't in charge any more. And his last several conversations with her, when he tried to talk to her about these crummy feelings, had gone really creepily. "Look, Bart, I've got a lot on my mind, okay? Can this wait?" she would usually say, then wrap that weird lasso around her hand before going back to whatever sparring dummy she was currently destroying.
Kon! He could see if Kon was still around and talk to him. Kon would never yell at him for being selfish. Plus, like Bart, Kon tended to linger around the Tower on Sunday nights until the last possible moment.
Bart kicked his board up into his hand and ran up the side of the Tower. On the way, he peeked into Kon's window, but the room was empty and dark. He ran faster until he hit the roof.
Just like he'd hoped, Kon was there. Sitting on the edge of the roof, kicking his heels against a strut and staring out over the Bay. From the back, he looked huge, made up of shoulders and nothing else.
"Hey!" Bart dropped his board and ran across to join Kon. "You're still here, I was hoping you'd be, but I've got crummy luck lately, so --"
"Bart," Kon said flatly.
He didn't turn to look at Bart, or even rock over to knock against Bart's shoulder like he used to.
That would be just a part of the crummy luck that Barded been having lately.
"Kon," Bart replied, keeping his voice as cheerful as he could. "Staying late?"
"Looks that way," Kon said. "How about you?"
Bart pulled one knee up and planted his chin on it. The wind off the Bay was chilly. "Not sure." He had the week off from school, but he had no idea how he was going to survive the quiet of five days in the Garricks' house. "Keystone, I guess."
Neither of them said anything for a while.
Bart's calves were jittering; he couldn't tell if that was from the cold or the need to run. Just in case, he buzzed down to his room and yanked a pair of long-johns on under his cargo shorts.
When Bart returned to the roof, Kon hadn't moved. He eyed Bart, then recrossed his arms. "My school's out for a week, so..."
Bart couldn't believe his luck. "Your school's in Kansas, too?"
"What?" Kon pulled in his shoulders. "I didn't say that!"
Bart grinned. "Everybody's off. Statewide teachers' development week. I think it has something to do with evolution and all that, but nobody will go on record to confirm or deny." He tugged the cuffs of his sweatshirt over his hands and knocked Kon's shoulder with his own. Kon was immovable, though, like a rock. "This is so cool! You want to hang out?"
Kon's smile moved a lot slower these days, but at least he was smiling now. "Yeah, that'd be good."
"Cool." It wasn't that Bart was glad that Tim wasn't around -- it really wasn't that, he missed Tim a heck of a lot -- but if it meant that Kon's available for hanging like he used to be, then it was like a silver lining.
"I don't necessarily live in Kansas, you know," Kon muttered.
"Of course not," Bart said quickly. "Maybe you go to that school in Florida. The one that fell into the sinkhole."
Kon lifted his chin. "Maybe I do."
"Could be anywhere," Bart added, in case Kon needed even more reassurance. "So. What do you want to do? We could go to that rave you were always -- hee. Raving about."
"Can't. Shut down," Kon said. "A while ago."
"Oh. Hey, I know! We could go to Tokyo! To Akihabara! I really want to try some pachinko, some of them have betting operations, we could make a ton of money --"
Kon smiled at that, but his eyes still looked sad. "We could, but --"
Bart slumped a little. "We'd probably get in trouble."
It was weird, now that Bart thought about it, how possibilities kept contracting now that they were getting older. Most people wanted to grow up so they have more freedom, but it was the opposite for them.
"Hey, I know! We could go to DC, to the Library of Congress, and --"
Kon threw his arm across Bart's chest like he was a passenger in a car about to crash. "If you say anything that remotely involves reading in any way whatsoever, I will hit you."
Bart leaned back. "Just an idea."
"I'm a geek five days out of every week," Kon said darkly. "Not on my vacation. No way."
"Reading doesn't make you a geek!" Bart ducked preemptively, then ran to the opposite corner of the roof. When he was out of range, he added, "Does it?"
On his feet now, looking at Bart like he was an alien, Kon just shook his head. "Usually, yeah."
"Oh." Bart lapped the roof several times, then stopped short, spraying the gravel as he skidded. "But so what?"
Frowning, Kon crossed his arms. "Whaddaya mean, 'so what'?"
"There's a lot worse things than being a geek," Bart said. He tried to be as patient as possible. "You could be, you could be -- Deathstroke. Or in the League of Assassins! Mirror Master --"
Kon snorted. "Mirror Master's a geek."
Jogging in place, Bart tried to process that. "Is he?"
Grinning, Kon spread his arms. "Class-A geek. All the Rogues are."
Kon nodded sagely. He kind of looked like Tim when he did that, only goofy. "Uh-huh."
"What about Captain Cold? He's pretty hardcore --"
Kon snorted, fake-punching Bart's shoulder. "Hardcore geek, maybe. Guy wears a baby-blue parka, Bart."
Hands on his hips, Bart circled Kon. "Fine. You could be...um. Luthor. That's way worse, a million-gazillion times worse, than being a geek."
Kon's arms dropped to his sides as he backed up against the door.
He looked at Bart for -- Bart was pretty sure it was a really, really long time, however you measured it. Finally, Kon's expression kind of slid together and crumpled. He slipped down the wall until he was lying spread out on the roof. Knocking his head against the gravel, one arm covering his eyes, he started to chant, "I hate my life. I hate my life. I. Hate. My. Li-ife."
While the chanting went on and on and on, Bart circled Kon at a safe distance.
Hesitantly, he nudged Kon's leg with the toe of his sneaker. "Is this, um. Teenaged angst?"
Scissoring open his fingers, Kon peeked at him. "Shut up, Bart."
"It looks like angst." Bart dropped down to one knee. "Don't worry, though. Most people your -- your apparent age, they go through it. Everything seems hopeless and pointless and stuff like that, but it's just the hormones, so --"
"Shut up. Seriously." That tone Kon used, it had to be something else he borrowed from Tim. Dark and flat, full of warning, it wasn't anything like Kon's usual voice.
Bart's phone sounded, beeping out the theme from "A Summer Place". Groaning, Kon rolled over onto his stomach.
After checking the screen, Bart whooped and shook Kon's arm. "Hey! It's Lagoon Boy!"
As he pawed the gravel out of his hair and sat up, Kon frowned slightly. "You still keep in touch with him?"
"Sure I do. He was doing an exchange program out in the Marianas Trench last year, really cool stuff, full of --" Bart stopped, biting his lip when he realized that Kon was circling his hand, urging him to get to the point. "Anyway! He's back now and he wants to hang out. Wanna hang out?"
He wanted to urge Kon to say yes, but you couldn't push Kon. It wasn't just the TTK and Superman-big body, it was Kon's whole rebel, free-spirit thing. And lately, especially, he was just so crabby all the time. Push him too hard and he might haul off and kick Bart halfway across the Bay.
Settling for (attempted) telepathy, Bart beamed a big Vegas-neon sign that said YES in bright red script towards Kon.
Kon rubbed his face. "Don't do that."
"Do what?" Bart asked carefully. While it would be amazing if the telepathy actually worked, he wasn't so sure he wanted Kon being able to read all his thoughts. Especially the ones about Cassie. Not to mention other stuff.
"Big calf eyes." Kon pointed at him and sighed. "It's creepy without your goggles."
Blinking hard, Bart touched his face. How'd Kon know what a calf's eyes looked like, anyway? He shook himself and tried to focus. "Oh. Sorry. So! You want to go?"
Lagoon Boy wouldn't tell them where they were going. He just told them to head south. He promised that they'd love it, and also that they wouldn't get in trouble. So after quick phone-calls home -- Bart tried not to notice that Kon dialed a Kansas area code -- they were off.
Down the Pacific, Kon carrying Lagoon Boy while Bart ran just below them over the water. The night sky, this far from land, was filled with stars. Funny how ancient light could look so new and sharp.
Carried by Kon, Lagoon Boy kept twisting around to talk to him as they flew south. Skimming the waves with his toes, Bart was halfway-listening, half-commenting, all the way enjoying.
"So then the Land Lovers broke up, because Sheeva got interested in alternative humpback music, started following the Grateful Kelp around, and then Blubber's family moved to Sub Diego, so it was just me and having meetings by myself got a little boring, so --"
Salt-spray kept getting in Bart's nose and eyes, but he figured that was all part of the atmosphere and tried not to sneeze too hard.
"Blubber has parents?" Kon asked. "That robot-whale guy?"
"Sure he does!" Lagoon Boy said. He was bigger than Bart remembered him being. His head-fin was much spikier, his limbs thicker with muscle. Everyone was changing. "His mom's a baleen and his dad's a --"
"Chevy?" Kon said.
"Ha! Good one!" Laughing, Bart kicked up a good wave that soaked Kon's jeans to the knee.
"Watch it, speedy --" Wrapping one arm around LB's waist, Kon shook his fist at Bart.
LB hooted nasally. "This is so cool, guys! Sucks that Robin couldn't come, but --"
Without replying, Kon broke left and rose in the air, looking over his shoulder and daring Bart to follow.
Bart started to give chase, but all of a sudden found himself running aground on a rocky outcropping he hadn't noticed. With a yelp, he stumbled to a stop, knees dragging in sharp gravel, water burning his eyes.
"Smooth move, Ex Lax." Kon hovered a foot above him, smirking, offering his hand.
"We're here!" Lagoon Boy called. "It's just around this cove --"
"Ow," Bart said. He ignored Kon's offer of help and pulled himself up to his feet. "Where are we?"
The beach he'd crashed into was hardly a beach at all. It was really just ten feet of broken shells and black sand that curved up to a narrow stand of wind-twisted trees. Far to the right, the night sky was a little paler, a wavering patch of dark blue and deep rose.
Kon held a finger to his lips and gestured at Bart to be quiet.
From the same direction as the patch of lit sky, music tinkled, then strengthened.
Together, they turned to Lagoon Boy.
He gestured widely, his webbed fingers outspread and head-fin trembling erect as he beamed at them.
"It's Cabaret on the Half-Shell!" he crowed. "A-Number One gathering spot for land-dwellers and aquatic citizens alike! If you love music, you'll love the cabaret! C'mon, it's just getting started!"
They followed him up the rocky beach, through the trees, and down a shorter rise to a nicer beach. Soft sand, pink and gold in the light from bonfires and lanterns, embraced a small cove. Land-dwellers danced on the sand while aquatic creatures -- fish-people and Atlantean maidens and spiny sentient urchins that Bart had only read about, never seen -- milled in the water.
Kon tugged at his shirt and combed his hair back with his fingers. "Ex-cellent," he breathed when a nacreous-skinned selkie waitress offered him a flagon of something. "I like, LB. I like."
"El-bee, ha!" Bart said. His palms were still a little raw, and he was pretty sure that his hair was a mess, but it wasn't like anyone would notice. Not when he was standing next to Kon. He knocked Lagoon Boy in the ribs. "Elbow! Get it?"
Lagoon Boy grimaced. "Like I haven't heard that one before."
"Right, well," Kon announced. "I'll leave you two youngsters now so I can..." He licked his lips as he gazed around the crowd. "Make some new friends."
LB. cocked his head interrogatively, so Bart stage-whispered, "He means girls."
"Oh, right," LB. said. "There's lots of girls here."
Kon strode away. Bart watched him move through the crowd, cocky and tall. He knew that -- as Kon frequently pointed out -- he could probably learn a lot.
Mostly, however, he just wanted to laugh. It wasn't that Kon wasn't handsome and confident -- he was all of that plus, like, chips and drippy nacho cheese -- but that he knew he was. So Bart narrated Kon's flirtation to LB. in his best Ricardo Montalban accent, complete with gropey, grabby hand gestures. Pretty soon they were rolling around on the sand and getting in trouble with the waitresses.
They played in the water for a while, but it wasn't much fun having hold-your-breath contests against a guy with gills. Bart tried to get Lagoon Boy to play Walker, Texas Ranger, but there were too many people in the crowd, and they kept hushing Bart whenever he shouted. There was tons of free food, however, so he took some consolation from that.
When a dark-haired Atlantean slapped Kon's cheek for some remark -- Bart was too far away to hear what it was, but he figured it was Kon's usual come-hither grossness -- Kon returned to Bart's side.
"Women," he said.
"Women," Bart echoed. He tried to make it sound world-weary and knowing. When Kon snorted with laughter, though, that meant he'd failed.
"Sorry, man," Kon said and stole the bowl of kelp chips from Bart's lap. "Where's our green buddy?"
Bart straightened up, scanning the crowd for Lagoon Boy. "He's around here somewhere..."
Down in the water, someone started to sing. The voice was kind of scratchy, but melodic all the same, and the singer --.
"Whoa," Kon said under his breath. "Hot time in the waves tonight."
"She's pretty!" Bart said before he could stop himself. Surrounded by the pink-lit waves, a golden mermaid was singing as she bobbed. Her hair looked like cornsilk and autumn leaves, curling off her face and down her neck; under the water, her tail moved like a carp in a monastery pond, slow and intent.
"I think she's a he," Kon whispered.
Bart ran around the crowd, down the short pier, and squinted at the mermaid. The breeze of his wake blew back her hair, off her chest, and, yes, she was a guy. A very pretty guy, though, with kohl around his eyes and a wide, smiling mouth.
"He's pretty!" Bart said, dropping back down beside Kon. "What's that song?"
"Dunno." Kon cocked his head and made a thinky face. "Bowie? Maybe?"
"He's a glammaid! No, a, a --. A merglam."
When he grinned, Kon's teeth looked like seashells in the low light. "Andro-mer? Mersparkle. Merdude."
Bart started giggling and couldn't stop. Kon tickled him, right under his hairline at the back of his neck, and then Bart really laughed, rolling around in the sea grass and wriggling.
He hadn't had this much fun in an eon and a half, it felt like. If Tim suddenly popped up in the cove, the night would be perfect.
It might happen. It could. There was probably a whole fleet of Bat-subs.
Bart was starting to shiver again. He'd gotten wet and dried out several times over by the time the cabaret broke up and Lagoon Boy gallumphed over to them.
"Did you like it? Did you have a good time? I'm having a great time, how about that music, I loved it! I had no idea my friends were so talented! So! What did you think?"
"I think..." Kon tossed his head, the move he once used to move the S-curl off his forehead, except his hair was too short now to shift, let alone curl. "I think you talk almost as fast as Bart."
Lagoon Boy's fangs shone as he hooted. "Thanks!"
Bart grabbed Lagoon Boy's dorsal fin with both hands and shook to get his attention. "Do you know the mermaid-who's-not-a-maid?"
LB's eyelids moved upward as he blinked. "Who, Devon?"
"Can we meet him, please-please?" Bart bounced on his toes and tried telepathy again.
"Yeah," Kon said. "Let's."
As LB led them through the crowd, Bart tugged on the back of Kon's shirt. "You like girls, right?"
Kon slung his arm around Bart's shoulders and pulled him in. "I like people, young padawan."
Bart stopped short. "Did you get into the seahorse sperm?"
Kon tilted his head and smiled. With the flush on his cheeks and glitter to his eyes, it seemed entirely possible that Kon had partaken of the Atlantean aphrodisiac.
"Nah," Kon said finally and pulled Bart along. "Stuff tastes like -- well, it tastes like sperm."
"Gross," Bart agreed and Kon messed up his hair. "But do you like guys? You're acting like --"
"Gender's irrelevant," Kon announced airily. "You'll learn that if you ever hit puberty."
"I hit it! I --" Bart clamped his mouth shut as they bumped up against LB, who was talking excitedly to an eel-woman with scary black eyes the size of Bart's fists.
"Let 'em in, Morae," the merman called. Between Kon's bulk, LB's quivering fin, and the eel-woman, Bart could only make out the glints of moonlight on Devon's long hair. "Are they cool?"
"Devon!" LB pushed past the eel and caught Kon by the elbow. "Haven't seen you in a whale's age!"
The merman floated back on his elbows, tail swishing under the water, as he checked them out from under heavy-lidded eyes. "LB," he said, his voice a slow California drawl, "I thought you'd given up groupie-ing."
LB blew out a series of giggles from his gills and shook his head. "I did, I just wanted you to meet my friends. This is Kon --"
"-- Conner," Kon put in hastily and clamped his hand down on Bart's shoulder. "We're, uh. Big fans. Hi."
Unless he vibrated, which wasn't an option, what with secret identities and everything, Bart couldn't move out from under Kon's grip. He waved his hand. "Hi, I'm Bart!" At the name, Kon dug his fingers into Bart's shoulder. "What?" Bart whispered. "It's my name."
Kon just shook his head and sat down on the pier. "Don't pay any attention to Bart," he said to Devon. "It's way past his bedtime."
"Hey!" Bart protested, but LB grinned, showing his fangs, and feinted left, knocking Bart into the water. And he'd just started to dry out, too. When he surfaced, spitting out salt water and shaking his head like a dog, he saw Kon leaning forward, chin in hand, talking to Devon intently. He looked around for LB and found him floating next to Devon, chittering and hooting.
Bart tread water for a bit, growing more bored by the millisecond, and he was just about to dive again and go find something else to do when Devon slapped him lightly with his tail and crooked his finger, beckoning him in.
"What's your story, short stuff?" he asked as his tail curved around the back of Bart's knees and dragged him closer. The scales tickled against Bart's skin, but pleasantly, like the wind did at the end of a good long run. "You always hang around ruffians and jocks?"
"I'm not a jock," Kon said, but Devon, with his arm around Bart's shoulders, waved him off.
"He really isn't," Bart said. This close, crowded up against Devon's side, he could see every detail of Devon's face -- the long lashes dark with water, the kohl around his lids, a bit of sunburn right at the tip of his long nose. "He just gets obnoxious when he's --" Bart chuckled. "I was going to say when he's flirting, but really it's when he's awake."
Behind him, Kon growled, while LB giggled. Devon, however, just looked intently at Bart as a slow, wide smile scrolled over his face. "Interesting," he said, though his tone said it was anything but. "But I asked about you..."
He trailed off, one corner of his lips tilting up as he tipped his head. Bart blinked; the sting of ocean water intensified, then vanished, and his chest was asthmatically tight. Even though he was floating in the shallows, back against one of the beams supporting the pier, snugly supported by Devon, he felt suddenly weightless, then heavy as a boulder, and the whoosh of vertigo rocked him hard.
He hadn't felt this woozy and strange since he took Cissie to the Valentine's Day dance, since he kissed Carol, since he saw Tim kissing Spoiler. He thought that maybe he wanted to kiss Devon -- his mouth was very pretty, plump and pink as some of his tail's scales -- but when he moved in, he heard himself talking instead.
"What's it like being a mermaid? Merman? What's the correct term? Do you prefer mer-person? It looks like fun, but I guess there's a kind of tragic element to it, right? Because you're caught between two worlds and you don't really fit in either and --"
Devon started laughing when Kon did, and ducked Bart under the water, then pulled him back by the hair.
"What was that for?" Bart sneezed and Kon thumped him on the back.
"Suave, Bart, real suave." Kon's voice sounded light and full of laughter, the way it always used to, and after Bart bit back a stream of complaints, he realized that a little dunking was well worth it if it made Kon sound like that.
"Dude," Devon said to Bart. "Dude, what are you on?"
Bart looked around. "Water?"
He wasn't sure he wanted to kiss Devon any more. Not with the way he was laughing, high-fiving Kon over Bart's head, telling LB that his friends were mega-rad. Devon was very pretty, but it was starting to occur to Bart that he was also kind of...flighty. This was all pretty confusing.
To work off the confusion, thoughts firing from about forty-eight different directions, Bart swam around the small island twice and ran over the water once he was out of sight. On his way back, he grabbed a nearly-full bowl of snacks from the empty bar before rejoining the group at the pier.
Devon had one arm folded behind his head, his hair floating like golden kelp on the surface, as he stared up at the sky. He was telling a story, and there didn't seem to be any chance of getting laughed at, so Bart dropped cross-legged next to Kon and listened as he munched the popped coral corn.
"...me and Oz, we're living on this houseboat, right near Long Beach," Devon was saying.
"Who's Oz?" Bart whispered to Kon, but Kon hushed him.
Devon's eyes fluttered open. "My guy. Oz." He said the name as if its import was self-evident, so Bart just nodded, the way he'd do when Vic delivered insanely-complicated training regimens.
"Anyway, we've got it pretty sweet there, and we're getting another band together, just living the good life. This chick comes to stay with us. some friend of a friend of Oz's, pale little skank. Albino, almost, she was whiter than --" He grinned and pointed at Kon. "You. So, okay, crowded quarters, but mi boatcasa es su boatcasa, you know?"
"Sure," Bart said; it was the verbal equivalent of his I don't follow nod, but since Devon seemed to be performing and expecting audience participation, it was only polite. "I don't think boatcasa is a word --"
Kon elbowed him sharply in the ribs and said to Devon, "Go on. Pay no attention to the smartass beside me."
Bart tossed a handful of coral corn at him for that, but Kon just opened his mouth and used a little TTK to draw the kernels onto his tongue. Devon didn't seem to notice; his voice had dropped again and his face tightened.
"It's all chill, me and Oz and Vampira or whoever, until the day she went -- loco. Mucho loco --" As Devon drew himself up, frowning and shaking his head at the memory, Kon elbowed Bart before he could correct the Spanglish again. "Crazycookies, she was just -- ha! Batshit. And that's when it all went to hell."
He broke off, his head down, hair hanging over his face.
"Dude," Kon said, gently, like he was coaxing a cat out of a tree. "What happened?"
Devon tossed back his hair, water arcing off it and spattering LB's intent face. Even his head fin had gone still. "Yeah, what happened?"
"Look, it wasn't my fault," Devon said.
"What wasn't?" LB put in. He sounded breathless.
Bart rocked back and forth, kicking out his legs and letting them dangle over the edge of the pier. No one was saying anything; a gloomy hush had descended over everyone, and finally he couldn't stand it. "This is taking forever!" Kon shoved him into the water. "Ow --bbble!"
When Bart surfaced, Devon had his head in his hands. "I get the munchies, you know?" he said mournfully. "All I wanted was some freakin' Cheetos. Even Cheez-Its. Hell, Goldfish."
Kon and LB were leaning in even more closely than before.
"And...so I got some." Devon pinched the bridge of his nose. "Share and share alike, right?"
"Sharing is care--" Bart started to say, but when Kon raised his fist, he ducked under the water reflexively.
"-- went looking in her trunk, I knew she had a stash of snacks that she hid from me, and Oz, Oz is some kind of fucking saint, he's all 'shouldn't steal, Devon' and I was fucking hungry --"
"Like Les Miz," LB said. "When you're hungry, you need food."
"Exactly." Devon smiled for the first time in what felt like forever, but the expression was still sad, his eyes still downcast. "So there I am, hand in her box --" He grinned, then winced. "Of crackers. Don't tell Oz I said that. Anyway, she comes home right then, of course, earlier than she ever had, because I have the worst fucking luck in the multiverse, and --"
The word hung in the air, which suddenly felt very cold on Bart's wet skin, especially the back of his neck. Devon put his face in his hands again and it sounded like he sobbed several times. Bart looked at LB, who had nacreous blue tears spilling over his third eyelid, then at Kon, whose shoulders were up around his ears. Kon's jaw was set as he stared helplessly at Devon.
No one was moving, and everyone was getting more upset. Moving slowly so he didn't make any waves, Bart swam over to Devon and patted his shoulder. His own hand looked small and pale against Devon's golden tan. "I --" Bart said, and swallowed. "It's okay. I get the munchies, too."
The silence pulsed for another moment, and then, all at once, Kon was laughing as Devon looked up and met Bart's eyes. Hoarsely, he asked, "Really?"
"All the time," Bart said, trying to focus on consoling Devon while also blocking out Kon's guffaws and LB's puzzled face. "Pretty much always."
Kon banged his fist against the pier so hard that splinters flew in every direction. Hiccuping laughter, he crowed, "Bart Allen, miniature pothead!"
LB and Devon were laughing now, too, and Bart grinned. He didn't know what the joke was; this was another time when his thoughts moved too fast to make any sense. He pictured the big pot that Helen used to make spaghetti in, melded with his own head -- then the frying pan to the skull in Throw Momma From the Train, one of his favorite movies -- then Alton Brown and cilantro and a big chopping board.
"Bro, I feel you, believe me." Devon put his arm around Bart again, pulling him close and resting his cheek against Bart's shoulder. The embrace felt wonderful, the water warm and Devon's body -- the human torso, anyway -- even warmer. Bart moved past the nonsensical confusion and sighed happily, petting the tangled curls on Devon's neck. Devon smelled really nice, salty and sparkly all at once; the only comparison that came to mind was the crunch of seaweed around an avocado roll. Bart still refused to try real sushi, but he was a connoisseur of what both Tim and Kon derided as crappy fusion.
Bart threaded his fingers through some of Devon's curls and untangled them gently. "So what happened when she caught you?"
Devon squinted up at the sky. "She went apeshit, seriously, freaking out like it was the end of the world, and, you know, I've been to a couple ends of the world, and this wasn't it, this was just me eating some goddamn Goldfish crackers -- and they were stale, too, they didn't even taste good --"
"The girl?" Kon asked. He was lying on his stomach, chin digging into his folded arms. "What'd she do?"
"Okay, so she's yelling and screaming like I just ate her puppy, and Oz is standing there, shaking his head like he always does, and -- long story short --"
"This is short?" Bart asked. Kon reached over and slapped him on the side of the head, but at least LB had an intact sense of humor and grinned quickly.
Reliving the trauma, Devon raked his fingers through his hair, getting it all tangled again. "Chick cursed me! Totally fucking cursed me, said if I wanted Goldfish so bad, I oughta -- and Oz goes wolf and howls at her -- and she's suddenly some kind of batgirl and -- when I woke up, I'm a fathom down and I'm a fucking goldfish." His tail whacked against the surface several times. "Haven't seen or heard from Oz since."
As he went quiet, the froth on the water broke apart, dispersed, finally vanished entirely. Bart blinked. He blinked 18,736 times. Kon just gaped, mouth all the way open like a dog panting for water. LB tilted his head at 649 different angles. Kon gaped wider.
The waves murmured softly around them.
Bart tried to say something, but he couldn't remember ever being so confused in his life. He'd been caught up in the story, and now it was over, Devon had released him and sunk into the water all the way up to his chin, and somebody needed to say something, anything, and soon.
"They can help!" LB said at last, bouncing in and out of the water, the fin on his head erect and waving madly. "Kon and Bart, they're Teen --"
"Detectives!" Kon shouted to drown out LB's gulped Titans. In his normal tone, he quickly added, "teen detectives. We're kind of detectives."
"We are?" Bart gazed at him and Kon widened his eyes. "We are! Totally!" He grabbed Devon's hand from under the water and squeezed it as hard as he could. "We'll find your friend, Devon, and fix everything.
Devon's eyes were red around the edges, the kohl finally smudging away, and his voice was choked. "You can do that?"
Bart nodded vigorously. "It's what we do!"
That much, at least, was true. The kernel of truth was wrapped up in all sorts of secret-identity fibs and misdirections, but it persisted nonetheless. Heroes helped people and fixed problems; Bart didn't know any other way to put it.
Fixing problems usually meant -- in Bart's not inconsiderable experience with these things -- bickering a lot first.
This time was no exception. He was a little surprised, since he and Kon were usually on the same side against Robin and Cassie, ever since Young Justice, and more recently against Vic and Kory in addition to the first two. Kon butted heads with anyone who argued for strategy and finesse over sheer power; when he'd come up against Cassie, who also liked to hit first and think later, the arguments centered on what to hit and in what order.
Bart usually ran around, picking up information along the way. He liked to think that he'd carved out a nice niche for himself on any team; it would take Batman-level genius to argue against information-gathering.
By the next afternoon, he and Kon had been arguing for nearly ten hours straight. Longer, if you counted the millennia it took for Bart to get all the sand out of his shorts when they first returned to the Tower. Although the argument had paused occasionally -- for food, on which they always agreed that more was better, for Kon to return to wherever he lived for "nothing like chores, but I'll be back", for some PS2 battles to work off energy -- this was still the longest that Bart had ever argued with anybody. It was worthy of an entry in the Flash museum, if only to fill out what they were still calling the Impulse Nook.
He wished that Lagoon Boy could have hung around longer; he suspected that LB would have been on his side in this. Even if he weren't, the extra company would have offset Kon's stubborn grumpiness at least a little. But LB had midterms coming up in trench studies and human-aquatic relations; the trip to the cabaret had been his last blowout before getting serious and hitting the kelp-books.
To Bart, the first step toward solving this was obvious. Devon said that he was cursed by Batgirl, so clearly they needed to go to Gotham and bring her in for questioning.
They were in the lounge of the Tower, the big-screen TV on mute, showing reruns of MTV's Spring Break coverage, three empty pizza boxes scattered on the floor before them. Bart threw a gnawed crust at Kon, clocking him in the temple, and mentioned Gotham one more time.
"No," Kon said for the gazillionth time. "No way. Not her."
"We have to at least rule her out!"
"I ruled her out," Kon said and smirked at him, hands behind his head as he floated upward out of Bart's reach. "Just waiting on you, little buddy."
"Batgirl. Bat. Girl. He said --"
"I know what he said."
"So let's go!" Bart jumped up to grab Kon's ankle, but missed. When he tried three more times, he was starting to feel like Kon was a particularly thick pinata. "Come on! Next stop, Gotham!"
"Because she didn't do it."
Bart shook his head and spoke as slowly, as patiently, as he could stand. "You don't know that."
"Uh, yeah, Bart, I do." From up against the ceiling, Kon smirked at him.
"How? How do you know that? Were you there? Were you in disguise?" Bart narrowed his eyes. "Did you steal her costume and curse Devon?"
"I know her," Kon said. "That's all."
"So? That doesn't mean anything. That means less than nothing, which might not be logically possible, but emotionally, it's true."
"I know her, so I know she wouldn't do something like that."
"She -- she -- she -- argh!" Bart fell backward onto the couch. "Are you in love with her or something? Are you protecting her? Is this like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity?"
Bart rolled his eyes. "Fred MacMurray? Big-time actor in noir and domestic dramas and Disney movies. Later famous as the father of My Three Sons, Steve Douglas. Born 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois..."
"Shut up, ImpulseMDB. ImpDB. IMDB, where the I's for Impulse --"
"It's Kid Flash, dummy."
Kon snorted. "Kid Ass, more like."
"Super-Jerk. Dork-El. The Meanie of Steel, the clone who couldn't think..." Bart batted his eyelashes. "I've got a million. Don't try me. Dumber-Boy, star of When Superman was a boy and stupid."
Kon was laughing by the time Bart finished. He had fibbed -- he had far fewer than a million plays on Kon's various names -- so the laughter couldn't have come at a better time. Kon bobbed down through the air and landed next to Bart on the couch.
"Anyway, you can't just 'bring her in'," he said and helpfully provided inverted commas with his index fingers. "That girl's like a ninja."
"Does she have nunchuks? Throwing stars?" Bart asked and Kon shook his head. "The mysterious death of a beloved but stern mentor which must be avenged, no matter the personal cost?"
"Does she have a sword at least?"
Bart shrugged. "Then she's not a ninja. I can totally bring her in."
"Heh," Kon said. "Not."
Kon covered his face with his hands and heaved a melodramatic sigh. "Bart, man, look -- we're not going to Gotham."
"We gotta!" Bart was bouncing on the cushions so hard that the couch's frame squeaked; when Kon tried to hold him down, he vibrated free and bounced harder. "We gotta!"
"What are you, three?"
"So? You're two, Super-Baby."
"Two and seven-eighths! Technically."
"Exactly." Bart nodded decisively before hopping up and speeding to his room to grab his knapsack and a trench-coat. Back in the lounge, he found Kon still sprawled across the couch. "Okay, we're going. Ready?"
"No," Kon said flatly. He was using the Robin-command voice again, but this time Bart was ready for it.
Bart pointed at Kon, then over to the window. "Yes."
"No, Bart. En-Noh, no."
Bart tossed his knapsack at Kon's chest. "Race you!"
He didn't look back as he ran down the side of the Tower, but he allowed himself a victorious fistpump when he heard Kon mutter, just before the whoosh of going airborne, "Damn it."
Gotham glittered in the late-afternoon sun, its gnarled, Gothic skyline piercing the few clouds that huddled on the horizon. Bart lapped Robinson Park three times, pausing to salute the site where they'd brought down that plantgirl during No Man's Land. After changing into civilian dress, he ate a frozen custard and two roasted cobs of corn while he waited for Kon to catch up.
He was just finishing off a bratwurst with all the toppings when Kon finally appeared, his face red with exertion. He'd landed in the woods, in a thick briar patch by the looks of it, and he was picking the brambles out of his shirt while cursing the whole time. When he saw Bart, he threw the knapsack back at him. "You are in for such an asskicking, man. Doomsday got off light compared to how you're going to feel when I'm through with you."
Bart sprinted backwards, wiping the mustard from his mouth and slinging the knapsack over one shoulder. Over Kon's shoulder, a narrow gravel path curved around a pile of boulders. In the slanting sun, he thought he saw a wink of dark hair, the line of one skinny arm.
"Oh my god!" Bart ran forward, keeping to a human pace, his heart knocking up against his sinuses. "Oh my god, it's Tim!"
Kon froze like one of the statues in the grove on the far side of the park. "What?"
Bart shoved past him and bolted up the path. Tim was crouched behind the largest boulder, tapping something out on his Blackberry. He rocked back on his heels as Bart zoomed into him, one arm around Tim's neck, the other around his waist; he got Tim in the air and spun around as fast as he dared.
"You left! I should clobber you, you know that? I can't believe you just left and didn't call or answer my email or that registered package I sent you, did you get it? I borrowed your shirt from the laundry room and then when you didn't come back, I thought maybe you were mad at me, so I sent it, like, mega-fast FedEx. I asked Wally to deliver it but he told me to leave you alone, and I didn't want to, but then Joan gave me twenty dollars for my birthday and I spent it on the package --"
Tim lifted one arm free, twisted at the waist, and freed himself. Stepping away, he shook his hair out of his eyes. "Hi, Bart."
Bart grabbed at Kon for balance, but Kon was out of reach and he stumbled a little. "Tim."
"What are you doing here?" Tim asked. He was out of uniform, too, wearing a plain white shirt and dark khaki pants. He looked a lot smaller, about as small as Bart usually felt, without the red and green.
Kon snorted. "What are we doing? What are you doing spying on us?"
Tim lifted his chin and gazed at Kon with narrowed eyes. "Answer the question."
"You first," Kon said. He had his legs apart, hands on his hips, and it seemed to Bart as if he'd grown another couple inches on the flight east.
Tim's gaze remained steady. "I have...sensors. For metahuman activity."
"Really?" Bart asked. He paced around Tim, taking in every detail he could. "Cool!"
Tim nodded. He didn't quite smile or anything, but it looked like he wanted to, which, with him, was pretty good.
Kon shook his head, folding his arms over his chest and grinding one heel into the gravel. "You're a civilian now," he said, spitting the last word like the worst kind of cuss. "What are you doing with sensors?"
Bart wondered if this was what the audience at a duel back in the eighteenth century felt like -- every gesture, every word, was leaded with significance and spite, and as a cloud passed over the sun, the boulders darkened and grew, but Tim and Kon stared each other down, their profiles sharp against the dusk.
"We're all civilians," Bart said brightly, desperation making his voice high and false, like he always sounded when trying to cheer Preston up back in Manchester. He reached for Tim's arm and gestured at Kon. "Right, guys? Civilians, like anyone else."
"Tim's gone full-time," Kon said. He sounded like he was announcing Tim's death.
Bart's hand dropped back to his side, well before he ever touched Tim. Of all of them, Tim was the most dedicated -- to what Jay called good works and Tim himself referred to as the mission. Bart and Kon didn't have much choice in the matter, since they were both born -- created -- out of joint and full of weird powers, but Tim was the one who'd always shown them how to do good. How, and why.
Tim as a civilian made about as much sense as Wally becoming a college professor.
He didn't know how much time passed after Kon's announcement. He needed to sit down, but when he did, he landed on a jagged piece of rock and ripped a hole in the back of his pants. The pain cleared his head, at least temporarily, but in that clarity, a new thought surfaced: Kon knew all this time that Tim was retiring, and he hadn't bothered to tell Bart.
Why should he? Everyone believed that Bart was an overgrown child who needed protection from the real world.
He kicked at a clod of dirt, wishing it was Kon's head, and grinned when it exploded under his toe.
Tim stepped over Bart's leg, right up to Kon, and said in that patented boss-voice, "What. Are you. Doing. Here?"
Kon cracked his knuckles and Tim's stance shifted. Mad as he was, sad as he was, Bart couldn't let them fight. He jostled in between them and locked his knees, so he couldn't be tossed aside. "We have a case, Tim!"
Tim frowned, looking skeptical. Then Kon reached around Bart -- Bart had neglected to factor in his greater size and armspan -- and shoved Tim. Bart ducked, Tim shoved back, and Bart ran up the nearest tree. The branch shook underneath him as he shouted at them to stop.
Tim got in a good karate chop to Kon's kidneys, but then Kon wrapped him in a headlock. As Tim writhed, Kon called, "Let the big kids talk."
Bart wished for a rock to throw. He took his knapsack and lobbed it at Kon's back, hard enough that Kon went off-balance and Tim wrestled free. "Screw you, Kon!"
Tim's shirt was pulled over his head and he was down on his knees and one hand. "Give us a moment, Bart? Please?"
"Fine," Bart said and swung to the next tree, then the one after that. He could stop them, if he really tried and kept Kon confused enough to drop the TTK while also dodging Tim's scary martial-arts skills. He could, but just now, he didn't feel like helping either one of them, let alone making peace. If they wanted to treat him like a little kid, that was their own irony to deal with; he wasn't the one rubbing Tim's face in the dirt or flipping Kon down to the grass.
Violence should never be your first option: Max had taught him that, but Bart had already known it, just not in those particular words. Maybe it was in the VR programming, maybe it was just his personality -- that's what Grandma Iris and Helen both said -- but the fact was just obvious to Bart.
Tim and Kon reached a stand-off, which suggested that Tim carried kryptonite around in his bookbag, and now they were standing on opposite sides of the clearing, yelling at each other. Bart moved to the next farthest tree, then another, but their words -- traitor and asshole and much worse -- followed him wherever he went. The words snagged in his ears, pummeled his face; his stomach rolled sickly and his eyes burned and stung. Before he could do anything -- puke or cry or both -- Bart did what he did best. He ran away.
They probably didn't even notice he'd gone.
[continued from part 1]
This was probably how Devon felt when he lost Oz. Without his friends, he was at loose ends, much more than merely sad. Bart ran around Gotham as twilight fell, up and down the island, cris-crossing from the Tricorner Yards up to the Kane Memorial Bridge, from the entrance to the Brown railroad tubes over to Port Adams. Heedless of any more Bat-sensors, he was looking to get lost, but the maps in his memory were far too accurate for that.
He snuck into the main branch of the Gotham Public Library through the loading dock and up into its archives. He read the entire manuscript collection, the Wayne family papers and the Kane Judaica collection after he taught himself the Hebrew alphabet, then seven floors of the circulating collection. It was well and truly night by the time he took a break and climbed through the air ducts to the roof. He didn't feel any better, but he did have lots of new facts to occupy him and drown out the sick lonely feeling creepy-crawling under his skin. He was trying to decide what to have for dinner -- Nepalese momos or Sephardi falafel were the leading contenders -- as he paced the edge of the roof and worked out the kinks in his neck and shoulders.
At the southwest corner, behind an especially fearsome gargoyle clutching the book of life in its talons, he bumped into Kon. Bart tried to move around him, pretending that Kon was just another ugly stupid architectural flourish, but Kon grabbed his elbow and yanked him to a stop.
"Jerk," Bart muttered, staring down at his toes. "What do you want?"
Kon didn't say anything for a long moment. "Looking for you."
When Kon's grip relaxed, Bart moved aside and jammed his hands into his pockets. "Why? I've got a curfew now or something? You're my babysitter?"
"Bart --" Kon shrugged and looked out over the city. "C'mon."
"You should get hazard pay, having to look after a big hyperactive baby like me," Bart said. His mouth was sticky-dry and tasted sour; he wanted to spit, but there wasn't enough saliva. "Sucks to be you."
Kon's hesitant smile turned down at the corners. "Totally sucks to be me."
"Stuck with a little kid," Bart added, in case he hadn't been clear. "Betrayed by your real friend."
Kon's expression twisted like something unraveling and he hunched his shoulders. "Bart. I --. You're my friend, too."
"Yeah, right. 'Let the big kids talk, Bart'. 'Go away, Bart'. 'Hit puberty, Bart'. 'Finish your spinach, Bart'."
"I hate spinach," Kon said. "What're you talking about?"
"Nothing, I just got caught up in it." When Kon started to grin, Bart pointed at him. "Don't laugh at me! I'm still mad and it's the principle of the thing, you patronizing me like, like --" Kon nodded and looked away; trailing off, Bart jogged in place for several moments. When he could think again, he added, "You are such a jackass, you know that?"
"You're not the first to say it," Kon said, glancing at Bart and giving him another hesitant smile. "I'm sorry."
Bart slowed his jog and shrugged as he turned away. "Thanks."
"Besides," Kon said, joining him and elbowing him gently, "what about our case?"
"Also," Bart said and raised his voice to make sure that Kon was listening, "real friends don't keep secrets from each other."
Beside him, Kon sighed deeply and didn't reply. Bart let his point sink in -- just long enough for Kon to realize he was serious, but not so long that Kon's attention would wander -- and then straightened up. He squared his shoulders and said, "What's wrong with Tim, anyway?"
Snorting with laughter -- humorless laughter, sarcastic and mean -- Kon bumped his shoulder into Bart's. "He's happy."
Bart frowned, trying, and failing, to work that out. "Really?"
Kon rose a yard up into the air and kicked Bart's butt. "He says so."
"But he lies," Bart pointed out.
Sighing again, Kon turned a slow somersault before landing on his toes. "He sure does."
"You should've told me he quit."
Kon looked at him, apparently about to sigh again, but then he put his arm around Bart's shoulders instead. As always, his embrace was warmer than any human's, and snugger, too, and Bart was the one who sighed then, breathing out the worst of his nausea.
"Yeah," Kon said, releasing Bart. "I should have."
"We should get dinner, then go back to work --" Perched on the gargoyle's flat head, Bart looked back at Kon. "Dumplings or deep-fried balls?"
Kon's laugh now was the opposite of humorless; delighted and immature all at once, it was totally Kon -- even better, it was the laugh Bart remembered from before Kon ever got his name, when he was just Kid and happy about it. Bart sped down the building feeling lighter than helium.
Bart finished off seventeen momos and a full order of rice noodles while Kon demolished a respectable ten momos and beef curry.
When his plate was clean, Kon tapped his chopsticks against the rim and said, without looking up, "I'm really sorry, you know."
Bart patted his stomach. "It's all right now."
When they were paying, Kon handed Bart an extra wet-wipe and gestured for him to wipe his face. "You're so gross when you eat."
Bart poked him in the chest, right where the crest was on his pseudo-costume. "You're gross when you breathe."
Kon didn't protest. He let Bart take the lead through the city. Having consulted at the library the microfiche of the three daily papers and bound volumes of both Gotham Living and its upstart competitor, The Big Stink for any reports of Batgirl, Bart thought he had a pretty good idea of her usual patrol routes.
Atop the Beaux-Arts edifice of Gotham Light and Power, which looked from the street like a giant wedding cake melting in the sun, Bart told Kon to listen for her while he ran the two most likely routes.
He returned, empty-handed, to find Kon sitting in the middle of the roof, arms around his knees and head cocked like a bird's.
"This must be weird for you," Bart said lowly as he sat down. "Being here, is it weird for you? Revisiting a lost love and all?"
Kon tilted his head the other way, frowning. Eventually, he said absently, "Why, 'cause of Tim?"
"Him, too," Bart said, impressed that Kon was cool and mature enough to admit he loved Tim. "But I meant seeing Batgirl again. Do you still have a crush on her?"
"I never..." Kon shook his head. "Yeah, okay. It's a little weird."
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Huh?" Kon finally looked at him. "I'll be fine." He put his hand on Bart's shoulder and squeezed. "Thanks for asking."
"No problem!" Bart patted Kon's knee before scrambling back to his feet. "I'm going to check some other routes."
Neither of the first three of the seven hypothetical routes were successful.
"Anything?" Bart asked Kon back on the roof.
Bart didn't want to admit that his calculations could use work, so he ran parallel to each of the seven routes on both sides.
Finally, he triangulated the top three routes and ran them in a blanket stitch. He stopped two muggings and helped an old man, bent nearly perpendicular with age, with his bag of beer from a corner bodega. When he came back to the roof, Kon was right where he'd left him, but now he had his chin in his hand and his eyes closed.
"Jeez, Bart, no. She's really quiet --"
Bart nodded and scooted along the tar paper to lean against Kon's back. "Bats are really stealthy! Remember that time Tim --"
Bart clapped his hand over his mouth. As quietly as he could -- to himself, he always called this channeling his inner Tim, but he suspected Kon wouldn't appreciate that right now -- he snuck around the roof before sitting next to Kon again. He tried to be patient; he recited the Hebrew alphabet backwards, translated part of his grandmother's biography of his grandpa into Russian, then Yiddish, and watched Kon. Watching was pretty interesting, as it turned out; when he was listening, Kon's eyes got this faraway look and his whole face softened until he looked younger, like he used to, and --.
"Back for more pain, dumbass?"
Kon jumped four feet in the air, but Bart couldn't move. Crouched on top of a soot-grimed stone lily on the corner of the building, a girl had materialized. Her hands were on her hips, her smirk turned on Kon, as she repeated the question. She was blonde, and masked, and she was --.
"Robin?" Bart asked, finishing his sputtering chain of thought aloud.
She grinned at him, but addressed Kon. "Your friend's a lot smarter than you, huh?"
She was Robin, and Bart had to counsel himself very sternly against sexist assumptions as he took in her costume. It was pure Robin, only her tunic was a skirt and her hair was long and she was really pretty. Tim wasn't pretty; he was good-looking -- all the Bats were, and Nightwing probably would have counted as pretty if he didn't have so much muscle -- but not like this.
She and Kon were circling each other, each staring the other down, and Bart got a huge whoosh of deja vu. Apparently Superboy and any Robin had a weird hostility-slash-magnetism going on.
Bart searched for something to say, anything to dispel the tension pumping and crackling between them, even as he swallowed another surge of resentment at the fact that Kon didn't even tell him there was a new Robin. He was about to open his mouth when the darkness to Robin's left shifted. All of a sudden, a second figure appeared. It was all black, cowled and slight, like a shadow come to life, faceless and wraith-like.
Bart moved behind Kon, just in case.
"Hey, Batgirl," Kon said and cleared his throat. "Um. 'sup?"
"That's Batgirl?" Bart whispered. He was talking to Kon, but Robin laughed and Batgirl tilted its -- her -- head. Bart made sure Kon was fully in front of him before he added, helplessly, "You don't look like the -- red-haired one."
"No," Batgirl said. Her voice was quiet and grave; Tim sounded like that, deliberately, but Bart sensed that she sounded like that all the time.
Obvious statements taken care of, silence descended. The edgy tension still arced between Kon and Robin, but Batgirl's presence sharpened everything, making it quieter, somehow more dangerous.
Robin scuffed the toe of her boot against a loose flap of tar paper and broke the eerie silence. "What're you doing here? Again?"
"We have a case!" Bart said, grateful for the chance to speak, at the same time that Kon muttered, "Nothing."
Batgirl certainly looked like a witch, but Bart knew better than to use such flimsy evidence. He wished, not for the first time, that he had Wonder Woman's lasso; it would have come in handy more times than he could count. All he'd have to do would get it around Batgirl and tug it magisterially before beginning the interrogation.
Instead, he hovered behind Kon and didn't breathe. Finally, Batgirl touched Robin's wrist with two fingers while tilting her head at a different angle. Robin glanced at Kon, then shrugged. "Fine, have it your way. You --" She pointed at Bart. "Kid, c'mere."
"I'm not --" A kid, Bart started to protest, but Kon pushed him toward Robin. He skidded right up to her. "Hi."
"So." Bart looked around; Batgirl and Kon had retired to the shadow cast by the largest lily on the roof. "Um."
"You're the Flash?" Robin asked.
"Kid Flash. The Flash is --"
"A lot taller?" She was mean, but it was a funny kind of mean, like Linda, sarcastic but not cruel, so Bart grinned.
"I, uh, used to know --" He rubbed the side of his fist against his forehead, unsure of how much anyone here knew about anyone else. That was the cool thing about having friends, like Oz with Devon or him with Kon; secrets were unusual. Trust meant that you didn't have to edit and revise your words on pain of, like, death. "Another Robin. He was a lot --"
Robin's smile was wide and toothy. "Quieter?"
Bart giggled. "Flatter."
Still grinning, she dropped one shoulder and punched his arm. Bart punched back and danced away; she came after him, laughing, kicking and chopping. Before he knew it, they were sparring. She was good, too, a lot looser than Tim-Robin, which maybe wasn't all that Bat-y, but it made the spar a lot more enjoyable.
When Robin trapped him in a headlock, Bart vibrated away and sped around her, kicking up enough of a breeze to flip up her skirt. Even though she wore tights beneath, the sight made Bart laugh hard enough that he slowed down and she was able to catch him off-balance and trip him.
"Oof! Good one!" Bart rolled back to his feet and bounced in place while she got her breath back. "Do you train a lot? You must train a lot, all the time. Is Batman crazy-hard on you? He was really hard on me, this one time when we teamed up to bring down the Joker, and I had to do everything he said -- Batman, not the Joker -- and I wasn't allowed to improvise or wing it or anything --"
Robin was still grinning at him, like she'd never stop. The warmth of her smile traveled right down through Bart, all the way to his bones. He got so warm that his cheeks started to hurt and he finally shut up.
"Batman?" Robin used the command voice, then added in her normal tone, "He's actually pretty cool."
As she fixed her hair, smoothing it back and tightening the band, she asked, "You really took down Joker?"
Bart listened for doubt in her tone, but all he heard was sincere admiration. "I helped," he admitted. "It was mostly Batman's plan."
"Still," Robin said, "that's awesome."
Bart grinned back. "It really was!"
Batgirl and Kon had yet to emerge from their shadow; Bart sighed impatiently and slid down to sit cross-legged. Robin dropped beside him and said, after glancing over at what Bart'd decided was the world's oddest odd couple, "You buddies with the Super kid?"
"Yup!" Bart ripped at the tar paper. "You don't like him, huh?"
"Eh." Robin blew a raspberry. "I used to think he was the coolest. Had his poster and everything, but --"
"Which one? The beach scene, topless and just the leggings, with the crest painted on his chest with suntan lotion? Or the hands-on-hips pose with the leather jacket?"
She looked taken aback, but Bart didn't know why. He wasn't just a fan, after all; he was Kon's friend. It behooved him to know as much as he could about the guy.
"The...leather jacket one," she said slowly and shook her head.
"I miss the jacket," Bart said. "I do!" That earned him another odd look, but she softened it by rocking against him, bumping shoulders. "Anyway, what about Batgirl?"
If Kon was going to cut him off from interrogating the suspect herself, Bart figured he could do worse than question her associates. Besides, he didn't want to know what gross, obnoxious thing Kon must have said to earn Robin's enmity. She was tough as any hero their age he'd met, so it had to be really bad.
"What about her?" Robin asked. "She's cool."
"Are you close?"
She cut another suspicious glance his way, then shrugged and grinned. "I think so. Hard to tell sometimes with her."
Bart steepled his fingers under his chin and nodded slowly. "I see. And would you say that you know her well?"
Robin jabbed him with her elbow and grabbed him around the neck with her other arm, ruffling up his hair before he wriggled free. "Are you questioning me?"
Bart slapped his hair down. "Do you think I'm questioning you?"
Her mouth opened, but for a moment, no sound came out. Then she howled with laughter, rolling onto her side and kicking his leg.
"What?" Bart demanded. "What's so funny?"
She took her time sobering up, swiping the tears that ran from under the edge of her mask and swallowing hiccups. "Sorry, man. I hate it when people laugh at me --"
"It's the worst."
"-- it really is. It's just...you sounded like a cop at first, then like, I don't know, a therapist or something."
Bart considered that carefully, but couldn't decide whether he'd earned her hilarity or not. "A therapist like Freud or more like Barbra Streisand in Prince of Tides?"
Robin hiccuped again. "Freud, definitely."
"Okay, then," he said. "It's just, see -- I need to know what Batgirl was up to a couple months ago. So I'm starting with her --" Associates didn't sound very nice. "Her friends."
"She's in trouble?"
"I don't know," Bart said. "So I'm asking around. You know --" He spread his arms. "Casually."
Robin's eyebrows went up under the mask, wrinkling her forehead. "Uh-huh."
"I was just wondering. You don't have to be --"
"Nah, just gimme a sec. Two months ago?" Robin bit her bottom lip; she was taking him seriously, and Bart stayed very still, lest he hug her or shake her hand in gratitude, somehow ruin everything. "I barely remember what I was doing two months ago. Um." While she thought, her hand went to her hair, twisting a lock around her index finger and tugging at it. "The thirteenth was my birthday and BG and I went out to dinner. Then --"
Bart bit his cheek to keep from saying anything. The thirteenth was the date in question, but he needed to play his cards a lot closer to his chest than he had been.
"Then we went to a movie," Robin continued. "The arthouse was having a whole Steve McQueen retrospective, and there was a double bill. Reivers and Bullitt." She ducked her head and smiled to herself. "She really liked the chase scene."
Curiosity swayed Bart and he threw caution to the winds. "How'd she see through the hood?"
"Did you get weird looks in the restaurant, too?"
Robin pursed her lips and looked like she was trying to hold back her laughter. "We went in civvies. Got really dressed up, made it a whole girl's night out...." When she shook her head, her hair blew over her face. "My boyfriend forgot the date, but BG showed up right before I headed out to beat him down."
"Oh, wow," Bart breathed. "It's just like Sixteen Candles, except kind of gay."
She tackled him, knocking him onto his back and wrestling him halfway across the roof until Bart could make himself heard. "It was a compliment! A good thing! Ow!" Breathless, Robin sat up, though Bart was still pinned, when Kon appeared behind her and dragged her off.
"Dead end," he said to Bart, holding out his hand, extending the TTK in an aura from his palm, helping Bart to his feet. Bart brushed himself off and shook off Kon's help.
"Yeah," Bart said. "It wasn't the Batgirl."
Batgirl nodded a single time at that, then tapped Robin's shoulder before melting into the dark.
"Have a good night!" Robin called over her shoulder as she shot out a grapple line and sailed away.
Kon shook his fist at the space where she'd been, and even though his cheek and ribs still ached a little from her punches, Bart couldn't help laughing.
"C'mon, chuckles," Kon said, wrapping his arm around Bart's waist and flying in the opposite direction. "Let's blow this stupid town."
"Gotham sucks." Bart hooked his arm around Kon's neck and squirmed until he was more comfortable. "It'd be faster if I ran."
"Sure, but you like the cuddling," Kon said and tickled Bart's armpit.
Even as he swung free, dangling hundreds of feet over the East End, Bart giggled helplessly. He had to agree.
The next day, Bart waited anxiously for Kon to return to the Tower from whatever it was he had to do each morning. He'd claimed repeatedly that he didn't have "chores", although Bart had never spoken the term, yet he returned smelling like mown grass and, well, manure.
After their second breakfast and several rounds of Magnetik-Boy on Gar's vintage Dreamcast, Bart announced his plans for the next stage of the investigation.
"I'm going to read all the books on magic I can find," he said as he melted butter in the frying pan for some more French toast. "And that way, I'll know what kind of witch can turn into a bat."
"How long's that going to take?" Kon added more cinnamon to the beaten eggs before Bart could stop him. "And what am I supposed to do?"
"You can talk to Devon again. Maybe he remembered something else."
Kon's brow wrinkled as he pondered that. "Or," he said slowly, "or, I could go see how Cassie's doing..."
Bart spanked him with the spatula. "This is a case. We have to take this seriously."
"Says the guy with egg in his hair and cinnamon down his shorts."
"I whisk fast, okay? Not my fault." Bart flipped the bread and wondered how wrong it would be to dose Kon with a little kryptonite. Not enough to hurt, just enough to tranq him. "And I don't have -- HEY!"
Kon let Bart's waistband snap back and flew out of reach. "Now you've got the cinnamon."
Bart visited Jason Blood, the Batcave (though he couldn't get in there and got shocked eight times when he tried), WayneTech's corporate headquarters (where Bruce Wayne's secretary gave him, after he waited for sixteen endless minutes, a note to access Wayne's private library), Star City's Magicks and Occult Ephemera collection, two sorcerers in Prague, a fakir in the capital of Kerala, two different shamans in the favelas of Sao Paulo, and a really nice British librarian in the Cotswolds.
He got back to the Tower in time for dinner, head stuffed with more mystical factoids than he'd ever thought possible.
"How's it going?" Vic asked, passing the pot roast.
"I can make a little golem and transfigure lead into ghee," Bart replied. "I can also perform numerological calculations that will tell you when you're going to die and how, but not where, and I translated a rune that's baffled archaeologists since 1842."
Vic wore that fond, proud-papa expression that he got when they managed to run through their training exercises without causing grievous bodily harm or any significant property damage. "Sounds good, buddy."
Bart stabbed his fork into his vegetables. "Sure, if I'm some kind of amateur dabbler in arcana. But nobody's ever heard of a bat-woman with a mystic pendant."
"Batwoman retired and bought a circus," Vic said gently.
"Not the Gotham bat-people, jeez!" Bart slumped in his chair; it was fewer than twenty-four hours since he'd made the same mistake, so he really shouldn't take it out on Vic. "Sorry. How was your day? Where's Gar?"
"The circuitry on the updated nano-satellites is being a bitch." Vic extended his roboarm and cleared the table in one swoop. Under his breath, he added, "As is Mister Logan."
Attempting to make up for his sulky snappishness, Bart joined Vic in the kitchen to wash up. But, like everything in the Tower, Vic had the dishes taken care of with computerized machinery. He retired back to his suite with three technical manuals in one hand and a can of PBR in the other.
Bart was left alone again. Kon had yet to return from his Devon-errand; Bart speculated gloomily that they were at some other cool aquatic cabaret, being awesome and making new friends and flirting while he paced the Tower's hallways with his hands in his pockets and chin digging into his chest. When he grew bored of being angsty, he wandered down to Vic's control room and tried to log on to the Tower mainframe.
Over sixty thousand log-in attempts later, he finally made it. It was a long shot, but he left a message for the mysterious Oracle with the details of the case and a request for information. Worried that the Oracle might delete his note as spam, he made sure to sign it Bartholomew Allen II, fka 'Impulse', currently 'Kid Flash', charter member of Young Justice and current Teen Titan.
No sooner had he hit enter on the note did the screen go green and a giant pointy face appear. Bart leapt backward with an embarrassing falsetto shriek and the face smiled tightly.
"I know who you are, Bart," it said.
"Is that a good thing?" He wrapped his arms around his chest and tried to breathe normally.
"I have no record of an albino witch with the power of animal transfiguration," it continued.
"Join the freaking club," he muttered.
"I do, however, see that four hours after the incident in question, a freighter bound for the big island of Hawaii out of Long Beach reported a sighting of a giant dog."
"A wolf? It turned Oz into a wolf, so that could be it and then we'd have to go to Hawaii, I don't know how Kon's going to feel about that, there's a lot of baggage for him related to that and --"
Its eyelids closed briefly before it replied, "Perhaps it was a wolf. I suggest you find the crew on that freighter and interview them. I'm sending the details to your email."
"Wow, thanks, Oracle!"
"Is your Hotmail account still active? 'ImpulsiveAllen' is not the best username, you know."
He waved his hand. "Nah, I'm on Gmail now. 'MaxLives' or 'Yo-dot-Bart', either one's good."
Without saying more, the face shrank down to a dot and vanished and the monitor screen returned to normal.
By midnight, Kon still hadn't returned, so Bart turned in.
"I say we forget it," Kon said the next morning. Bart met him on the roof and made sure not to mention the pieces of hay stuck in Kon's hair, nor the faint scent of turned earth emanating from him. "We're not detectives, Bart."
"We are detectives! We're detecting, so ipso facto, we qualify as detectives."
Kon grimaced at the Latin. "We suck at detecting. Ipso facto OED."
"QED, you mean."
"Whatever. What I mean is, we suck."
Bart jogged down the stairs behind Kon. "We don't suck. I just need your notes on your meeting with Devon, and then we can get started."
Kon took a hard right into the dormitory area; in his room, he stripped off his jeans and t-shirt and sniffed his armpits. "I need a shower. What say we forget about all this Magnum, PI bullshit and just kick back the rest of the week?"
Bart bounced a couple of times on Kon's unmade bed. "I don't know --"
"Come on." Naked now, Kon snapped his towel across Bart's legs and grinned widely. "It'll be like old times. We'll get some Trivial Pursuit going, set up the ping-pong table, just be --" As he paused, he rolled his shoulders, then slumped a little. "Just be us."
"I dunno," Bart said again. It sounded like a lot of fun, truth be told, and it wasn't like he was getting offers to socialize right and left.
"I'm gonna shower and you...." Kon stuck his head back out from the bathroom. "You do whatever it is you do."
Bart stuck his tongue out before he remembered that the gesture was infantile; guys their (apparent) age didn't do that. They flipped each other off instead. Same message, different body-parts.
He couldn't think with the noise of Kon's horrible, off-key rendition of "I Touch Myself" coming from the shower, so he ran up and down the hallway. On one hand, he hadn't just plain hung out with Kon in nearly forever -- at least since Young Justice disbanded. How many times had he missed their games and wrestling matches in the Poconos headquarters? For a while there, Kon was as good a friend as Preston and Carol; Bart was as close to him as anyone in Manchester.
On the other hand, there was the case to think about. They'd made a promise to Devon, and via him, to that poor guy Oz, and it would be intensely rude and cruel to go back on their word. Besides, the problems that the case posed had pretty much ensnared Bart. He didn't believe he could rest until he succeeded in making sense of the various questions -- not just who the batgirl who wasn't Batgirl was, but how to get Devon back to his human form, how to save Oz from being trapped in a wolf's body, and how to reunite them all while bringing the batgirl-who-wasn't to justice.
On the other tentacle, though -- everything had changed so much. They'd somehow reached the point where Tim and Kon could hit each other, where a blonde girl was Robin and Bart hadn't heard from Preston in six months. Maybe a couple days of bonding with Kon, case or no case, was just what he needed.
There were loads of books in every library about emotional development, but nothing Bart had ever read could help with this.
By the time the shower spray had receded to a trickle and Kon was floating bare-assed against the light fixture in his room looking for a clean pair of socks -- "bird's eye view, dude, nothing like it" -- Bart had yet to make up his mind.
Nothing said he couldn't have everything, did it? He was fast and Kon was strong; they could do it all.
"We should do both," Bart said while Kon turned a sideways, counter-clockwise somersault, struggling to pull on his jeans over wet skin.
"Fuck shit sodomize a goat -- what?"
"Both." Bart handed Kon a dry, if none too clean, towel. "Hang out like we used to and solve the case."
"I told you, we suck." Kon finally turned right-side up and pawed at his wet hair.
"No, we really don't! Listen, I got the crew list and contact details for a freighter that saw the Oz-wolf -- all we have to do now is interview them, compare the accounts to what you talked about with Devon yesterday, and we'll know exactly what to do next."
Kon turned around to rustle in his closet for a shirt. He passed over the sixteen extra black Superboy tees, muttered something under his breath, and finally dug out a crumpled baseball jersey from the bottom of the mess on the floor.
When he was fully dressed, he turned back around. "What, now I get the silent treatment?"
"I --" Bart cocked his head. "No. Why?"
"I said I was sorry." Kon folded his arms and tried to frown, but he just ended up looking sad.
Bart reviewed the past couple minutes. He'd been watching Kon, arguing for the case, and also making mental notes to run down to Manchester and check up on Preston. He'd missed something important; the longer he didn't say anything, the sadder Kon looked.
"Why should you be sorry?" he asked carefully. "Explain?"
"Jesus, Bart!" Kon threw up his hands and flew over to the window. "I already apologized."
Kon's temper had always been hair-trigger, but Bart was used to that. He didn't enjoy being yelled at, but the cause was usually fairly obvious. Not so this time. He needed to calm Kon down, make peace like he always did, and then they could get back on track.
"I accept your apology." Bart crossed his fingers behind his back, but it had to be said. For Kon's sake. "Thanks. So, about the case --"
"There's no case!" Kon banged his fist against the window. It was tempered safety glass, a mix of compounds developed by Mr. Terrific and imported from New Genesis; it was supposed to be able to withstand hurricanes, nuclear explosions, Apokoliptian parademons, and Doomsday.
All the same, the glass trembled and spider-cracked under Kon's blow.
"Sure there is," Bart said smoothly after waiting for the cracks to stop spreading. "Tell me about Devon and --"
"I didn't talk to him, okay? I suck and you don't need me!" Kon drew back his foot to kick the window and Bart realized he had a choice.
Not about the kicking -- he had to stop that, so he sped over and pulled as hard as he could on Kon's bare ankle -- but about what counted. He could make peace, soothe whatever was pissing off Kon, and go with the flow. Or he could do something a lot scarier.
Kon crashed down to the floor, cursing as he landed on a pile of unread textbooks and CD cases. Bart stepped back, all the way back to the doorway, and took a deep breath.
"You don't suck," he said and Kon snorted derisively. "But you should've kept your word." Kon snorted again and banged a loose fist against the floorboards. "I'm going to go talk to Devon. I'll see you later."
Before he could reconsider, Bart twisted around, reaching for the spangled anxiety of the Speed Force, and disappeared into its flow.
Devon met him in an inlet of the Salish Sea, south of Vancouver; a flock of merpeople visited the Salish in the autumn, just in time to see the Spirit Bears gorging themselves on salmon before retiring into hibernation.
"There's some hoodoo mystic shit about the bears and the mers," Devon said, "some eternal bond, that kind of crap."
Bart emerged from the fern grove where he'd left his clothes and, cupping himself with his left hand, stepped into the water.
"Dude after my own heart," Devon said, slapping his tail against Bart's legs. "Naked is the best."
"Clothes suck, totally."
The water was much warmer than he'd expected, and the current was far more gentle than the one at the cabaret. Soon he was floating next to Devon in the shadow of an overhanging tree, the sun hot on his knees. Everything was green, a trillion shades of green, from the moss on the rocks to the glints off the water to Devon's eyes to the seaweed waving deep below.
"You don't believe them?" Bart asked eventually. "About the bears?"
"Whatever. I grew up in the vampire capital of California." Devon flipped over to float on his stomach, his tail sinking into the shadowy depths. "Can't faze me."
"Oh," Bart said, for lack of anything better to say. He couldn't claim to know Devon very well at all, but in the short time they'd talked, Devon had seemed fazed by a heck of a lot.
Devon lifted his head and smirked. "Total bullshit, by the way. That's Oz. I'm a little more...what's the fucking word?"
"Sure," Devon said. "Takes some good-ass weed or red algae flakes to chill me down."
Bart really didn't want to say oh again, but nothing else was coming to mind.
Luckily, Devon talked almost as much as Bart did. He tapped Bart's chest lightly and said, "Speaking of which, you carrying?"
"I'm naked," Bart reminded him. Just for emphasis, he spread his limbs like a starfish or a snow angel and floated a little bit away. "Carrying what? Red algae?"
Devon sighed long and deep. "That shit is good."
"About Oz..." Bart bit his lip and floated back to Devon's side.
"You totally reminded me of him," Devon said, sliding his tail around Bart's knee, keeping him in place. "Then you opened your mouth."
Bart knit his fingers together and looked away. "I'm still trying to figure out what happened. I'm really sorry."
"Aww, he'll wander back eventually," Devon said as he tied a length of seaweed around Bart's head. "He always does."
Bart blinked the water out of his eyes and brushed the seaweed back behind his ear. "He's done this before?"
"Couple times?" Devon dove into the depths, twin streams of bubbles rising behind him. When he surfaced, he was sucking on a twig of driftwood. "Maybe five. No, six." He shrugged. "Hate math. Worst was a couple years ago. He was gone for three years."
"Jeez," Bart breathed. He tried to imagine not seeing Tim or Cassie, Cissie or Preston, for that long, but it was impossible. Even Kon, because there was no way, even as angry as Bart still was, that he could go three weeks, let alone years, without talking to big blockhead. He tried, and all he could imagine was that dark void behind the Speed Force, the one that his grandfather's and Max's voices emanated from. "Wow."
Devon bit the twig in two and spat out one piece. "After that, I was ready to marry the bastard. Anything, you know?"
Bart could only nod. Nod and float and try to suppress the urge to hug Devon.
They floated about a mile away from the inlet, arms linked, through patches of cool shade and hot sun, before Devon shook Bart's shoulder gently. "You passed out."
"Did not." Bart knuckled his eyes. "I just --" Didn't know what to say. "How'd you deal? When he was gone?"
Devon reached out to the bank and snagged a handful of low-hanging berries from a bush. He picked through the bunch and offered them to Bart. "Dunno. I'm not, like --" He looked at Bart and smiled, and it was like he was on stage, flirting with an entire crowd at once, and Bart shivered even though he was simultaneously really warm. "Advice man. Ask Oz, he'd know what to tell you."
"Right," Bart said and didn't point out that he couldn't ask Oz, because Oz was missing, that was the whole point. "Want to swim back?"
As they neared the cove, Devon stopped, holding a finger to his lips. "You hear that or is my spinal fluid as fucked up as they say?"
He sounded sincerely curious and this time, Bart did hug him. "It's my phone. Be right back."
He jumped out of the water and turned on the speed to make it to his phone before it went to voice-mail. He'd explain to Devon later, if Devon even noticed -- he was kind of a stoner, Bart was pretty sure, and oblivious to the max.
"Don't hang up!" Kon said as Bart answered.
"Why shouldn't I?" The rocks on the beach were cold from the shade and Bart couldn't get comfortable. Out of the water, being naked was something of a drawback. "Jerk."
"Dork," Kon replied automatically. "I got a weird IM from something called Oracle and --"
"It's a person," Bart said. "Or an organization acting as a single entity, I'm not sure."
"Fascinating. It's got, like, length measurements or something?" Kon was speaking quickly, and, back in the water, Devon had started singing, so Bart stuck a finger in his free ear and listened as hard as he could. "Wait. Maybe it's time? This says minutes."
"Read it to me?" Bart suggested.
"Temperature, it's temperature. And time. What is this?"
"I don't know," Bart said. "Just read it to me."
"Okay, boy genius, make sense of this if you dare: 20 degrees -- that's the little circle, right? -- and 18 feet and then 138 degrees -- is that even possible? That's like boiling -- and 14 feet."
"Kon," Bart said. "It's latitude and longitude. Does it say N and W or S and E or what?"
"20 N and 138 W. So, what, it's somewhere hot?"
"Not degrees of temperature, Kon!" Bart took a deep breath. "It's somewhere near Hawaii." Bart tried to sound calm, but he wanted to run there right away and stop to box Kon's ears and, actually, now that he thought about it, maybe get something to eat.
"Yeah, but --"
"Rad, we're going to the big island! Meet you there! Race --"
"No, wait!" Bart shouted, but the connection had already closed.
He dressed quickly, shouting to Devon all the while that he had a lead in the middle of the Pacific and he'd be in touch.
"Dude, I'll just swim over," Devon said from the middle of the inlet. His hair was drying in long waves. Bart paused in lacing his sneakers to admire the sight; Devon really did make a good mermaid, but hopefully he wouldn't have to stay one for long. Devon caught his eye and preened a little. "I'd offer to swim you over, but looks like you can take care of yourself, speedy."
"Speedy's someone else -- oh." Bart wiped his palms on his shirt-hem. "Right. Um, don't tell anyone, okay?"
"Already forgotten," Devon said and winked. The thing was, Bart believed him.
Running west, Bart escaped the dusk gathering over the coast and entered the full, late-afternoon warmth. He'd jerry-rigged up a GPS with a compass, Big Gulp straw, and some odds and ends in his pockets, and as he neared his destination, he started to worry. He was still a few hundred miles from Hawaii with no land in sight. Maybe the coordinates referred to a shipwreck, and if they did, he'd have to return to San Francisco for scuba gear. Maybe submarine like they used to photograph the Titanic.
On the horizon, a small spot glowed red against a narrow stripe of dark. Bart checked the GPS in time to slow down before he overran the tiny atoll. The coordinates were right, but no map he'd ever seen listed this place.
"Welcome to the Wild Lands," an all-too-familiar voice said to his left.
Bart paced slowly up a dune and then, when he saw Tim sitting with someone else -- around Tim's height, with weird dyed hair and lots of piercings -- he ran and slid all the way, almost into their small campfire.
"Bart," Tim said. He was wearing a Gotham Knights baseball cap, cut-off shorts, and a garish Hawaiian shirt with palms and parrots and hula dancers. "Long time no see."
"I saw you the day before yesterday! Are you going to hit or can I hug you or should I just keep a respectful, respectable mature distance without any infantile expressions of oh-my-god joy and glee?"
"Hug," Tim said after a moment and it did feel like forever since Bart had gotten to do this. Gotham didn't count, he decided. It never happened. Tim was a little stiff, like always, in Bart's embrace, but he patted Bart's shoulder-blades enthusiastically and didn't pull away as soon as he tended to do. "Bart, this is Oz."
The small, pale guy was poking at the fire with a stick. He glanced up. "Hey."
Bart let Tim go and dropped down onto one knee. Not quite believing his eyes, he poked Oz in the shoulder. "You're not a wolf!"
Oz frowned briefly, as if he needed to ascertain that fact on his own. "Not at present, no."
"Devon really misses you," Bart said as he squirmed in between Tim and Oz on the log they were using as a bench. He gripped Oz's knee, which was almost as bony as his own, and let himself babble. "He's such a cool guy, you know? And it's like, to him, you hung the moon, and I didn't know what to do, and I tried and tried --"
"Well, Great Scott, Holy Hannah, Good Heavens, and By Rao's Eternal Name," Kon said as he arrived, in flight, blocking out the sun dwindling on the horizon. He planted his fists on his hips and gazed inland. "Haven't been here since, like, forever."
"Where are we?" Bart stage-whispered to Tim. Oz must have had great hearing, because he chuckled. Once, and warmly, so Bart didn't mind.
"You want to explain, SB?" Tim asked, gazing up. "This is your place, after all."
Kon floated down, a far-away look still in his eyes as he greeted Tim with a manly punch to the shoulder and "no hard feelings, Timmo?" Bart introduced him to Oz, whose entire vocabulary consisted of "hey" and "cool". That wasn't a criticism, actually; Bart figured both he and Kon could use some lessons in plain, economic speech. Then again, they'd known Tim forever and he hadn't really rubbed off yet, so it was probably a lost cause.
When Kon was halfway through his story -- something about this island being occupied by sentient, speaking animals, ruled by a tiger-king and a bat-queen -- the sound of singing, out on the water, reached them. Night was almost completely fallen, the fire had died to cherry-red embers, and Bart couldn't remember being this happy.
He took the singing for birds, or maybe whales, or some of the animals in Kon's story, but when it grew louder, lyrics became audible.
"That'd be my cue," Oz said -- it was the first thing he'd said since hey to Kon and I'm a werewolf by way of explanation for where he'd been -- and got to his feet. "Back in a..." He scratched his jaw. "Well, it's Dev, so this could take awhile."
He loped up over the dune and out of sight.
"He's really a werewolf?" Kon asked Tim.
Tim shrugged. "Don't look at me. It's your case."
"It's my case," Bart said. To his surprise, Kon ducked his head and looked embarrassed. "Okay, our case."
Kon looked at him, eyes almost purple in the low light, and grinned as wide as the horizon. "So it was Nosferata on the houseboat?"
"Who's Nosferata?" Bart asked at the same time that Tim said, "Signs point to yes."
"The bat-slash-woman queen here," Kon said impatiently. "I told you."
"Excuse me," Bart said. He could feel anxiety pulsing up his back and constricting his throat. "I would remember that. You should've remembered that."
Kon stared at the fire, his face gone Halloween-eerie with deep shadows. "Yeah," he said finally. "I should've. Man, I should see how the adventurers are doing..."
"Band of talking animals he travelled with," Tim told Bart quietly before Bart could ask.
They sat in the dark, huddled on the log, and when Bart shivered, Kon put his arm around him.
Tim cleared his throat after a long period of silence and Bart jabbed his finger at him. "Don't you dare say you have to go."
Tim blinked. "I was just going to say there are sleeping bags in the sub."
"You have a sub?" Kon shook Tim by the shoulder. "You never mentioned a sub!"
"It's Batman's," Tim said quietly. "Nightwing let me..."
He didn't finish; he stood up, brushing off the seat of his shorts, and moving down to the shore. When he returned, he carried three sleeping bags, a kerosene lantern, and a canteen of water.
"No food?" Bart and Kon asked simultaneously.
Bart lost the rock-paper-scissors match against Kon to decide who'd run to Hawaii for food. He didn't really mind; he could go so much faster than Kon that he'd be back in the time it would have taken Kon to make one leg of the trip.
Before he left, though, he stood on the other side of the fire and cleared his throat. "You'll be here when I get back, right?"
"Dude, of course," Kon said as he shook out one sleeping bag.
"Yes," Tim said as he built up the fire.
"You have to promise," Bart said loudly, making sure they were listening to him. "Don't just run off, either of you."
Kon glanced at Tim, and then Tim squared his shoulders and met Bart's gaze. "We promise. Cross our hearts and --"
Bart held up his hand. "Don't tempt fate, Tim! Just promising's enough."
The sand melted to glass under his soles, he took off so fast. Even with their solemn promises, Bart wasn't about to leave anything to chance. The Pacific steamed beneath him as he ran with a garbage bag full of snacks and provisions back to the Wild Lands, enough to feed a herd of elephants for a week, or himself and Kon for a couple days.
He thought he saw Devon's tail, the gleam of gold under water, and Oz's sharp, pale face as he passed -- they were kissing, or hugging, or something -- but Bart knew they were going to be okay. They were out of his hands now; now, he had to go back to his friends. He couldn't think about anything else.