And let them swallow you
by Te
September 21, 2004

Disclaimers: If they were mine, I'd be all atwitter.

Spoilers: Vague ones for a few old storylines, in
a distinctly AU way.

Summary: The best thing he can offer them is his

Ratings Note/Warnings: NC-17. Content some
readers may find disturbing.

Author's Note: Sixth in The Angels You Need
series. Takes place a few weeks after the end of
"Burn Black," and won't make a lick of sense if you
don't read the others first. More notes at the end
of the story.

Acknowledgments: To Jack, Mary, and LC for
audiencing, encouragement, hand-holding, and
countless helpful suggestions.


Jason doesn't know what he's doing.

In the beginning, when Tim had gotten his first good,
up-close look at him, that had been a statement he'd
swallowed back as best as he could. There was still a
great *deal* Jason could teach him, and anyway,
there was a lot he'd needed to believe -- or at least
tell himself -- to keep from having to curl into a ball
and hide.

Later, as they'd taken their minor victories and run
with them, it had just been a simple fact of life --
Jason didn't *know* what he was doing, but it was
clear to *him* that the first Batman had treasured
Jason's instincts just as much as *he* did.

Now... well, now it's a new kind of fear entirely. An
irrational one, a tangled ball of something he can't
swallow past or sick up. Jason doesn't *know*
what he's doing, with all of them, but maybe that isn't
the point. Or...

Well, irrational is the word.

Once, some weekend or another when his father was
taking time off work and it was raining too much to
get in a few holes of golf, they'd had lunch together
out on the terrace. His father had been "indulging
himself" -- that's how he always put it -- with the
Op-Ed pages of the Gazette, and, abruptly, he'd
started to laugh. Quietly, but still honestly amused.

When Tim had asked him what the joke was, he'd
said, "Son, the true definition of an idiot is a man
who isn't just ignorant, but who has no idea how
ignorant he *is*."

Over the years, the statement has gained quite a
*bit* of resonance, in all sorts of ways Tim mostly
doesn't like to think about, but there are some
good connotations.

Right now, Helena -- she tends to give Tim *looks*
when he calls her Huntress and they aren't on the
street -- is working with Jason, doing her best to
teach him some of the slightly *less* nasty
hand-to-hand techniques she'd picked up from the
Asaro family back in Sicily.

They're all very useful things, but she's being
hampered, somewhat, both by the fact that she'd
almost never used them herself -- as near as Tim
can tell, she'd made a semi-conscious decision
somewhere along the way to focus on her
weapons training, perhaps because of frustration
with the fact that she'd never managed to get her
upper body strength up to what she'd wished --
and by the fact that the fighting style required has
little to do with the ones Jason uses.

Though Tim suspects he'll pick them up quickly
enough once --

"Basta! You'd think you *weren't* a street-fighter!"

Tim doesn't have to turn around. He can *feel*
things falling into place for Jason. It's not a difficult
leap to make, within his own mind -- Jason has
spent most of the past year doing his level best to
use the techniques he remembers from Bruce, as
opposed to the ones he'd used as a child, and the
ones Bruce had encouraged him to develop as

That part, at least, isn't deduction at all, because
Jason always answers his questions, and
sometimes gives much, much more than an


"Better, *better*," Helena says. "Remember,
you're --"

"Playing dirty. I get you," Jason says, and then
the only sounds are bare feet on the mats and the
occasional grunt.

It's obvious that having Helena here, having
Helena *teaching* them is soothing for all of
them, in various ways.

And it's obvious that, for Jason at least, it has
everything to do with permission to view his life
as Robin as something other than a failure.

It's also obvious that he, himself, had done little
enough to help with *that*.

Tim bites his lip and opens one of his secured
e-mail accounts. In all honesty, it would be
perfectly safe to do this from home. He's taught
himself as much as he could about computer
security, using his personal system as something
between a runner and a staked-out goat.

No one has yet managed to get closer than four
layers of security away from *him* on his little test
runs, and he'd learned rather a lot from the person
who'd done *that*. He knows everything there is
to know about Edward "Stalk3r" Binns now, and
Binns knows *that*. The combination of terror and
Jason-approved bribes had been more than enough
to turn the kid into an ally...

Even if he has no idea *whose* ally he really is.

Doing this from home would also just *feel* better.

He's not an idiot, either, and he knows...


He doesn't have to look over his shoulder, but he
does it, anyway. Steph smiles at him absently from
halfway down the stairs. Helena and Jason are still
circling. Jason is favoring his left leg in that way he
has of making it look as though he's just using his
hips more than is strictly necessary for anyone who
isn't... advertising.


("I get some interesting looks from the teachers,
man, I'll tell you that much.")

He'd learned what it meant fairly early, as had

He isn't sure --

Helena fakes a hit to Jason's right shoulder, and
Jason goes for it enough to dodge. Helena strikes
down, and, from this angle, Tim can see the rather
sharp smile on her face.

She knows it, too.

And *he* knows...

He's almost sure none of them would precisely
approve of this.

At the very least, they'd almost certainly argue
against it.

That isn't why he's hesitating, or why it would be
easier to do this from home.

It's the 'almosts' which make it hard.

Because... what if they didn't?

Batgirl's gauntlet only seems like the same green as
his own in the dark, or if you don't look closely.
Here, like this -- he catches it before it can smack
him in the face -- it's abundantly clear that the color
is deeper, richer. More... something.

Her hands are actually somewhat larger than his

"You okay over there, freakboy? You look spaced."

He tosses the gauntlet back and makes himself
smile at her, even though she's only halfway into the
rest of her uniform. She trains in uniform as much
as possible, which is entirely practical. He's pretty
sure that isn't why she does. "I'm fine," he says.
"Just thinking."

"What *else* is new," Jason says, laughing, and
the smile is a little easier on his face as he turns
around again.

*Nothing* about it is new.

While he's better than any of them at the things
Helena has to teach them ("I'd say something
about you having missed your calling, but
considering the fact that you've just murdered
that practice dummy in six different nasty ways,
the sentiment seems a little misplaced."), the fact
is that the best he can offer this... family is his

His upper body strength may eventually surpass
Helena's, and even, possibly, Stephanie's.

It's entirely possible that he'll eventually be taller
than Stephanie.

He's fast, and he's... adaptable.

None of that is enough, in and of itself.

The e-mail from Victor Stone -- he's another
who'd rather not go by his work name, according
to Jason -- is entirely to the point:

The equipment is ready.

"I'm going to be unavailable this weekend, Jason."
Casual, even. Excessively casual, of the sort to
make Jason pause -- just as he's doing right
now -- and, perhaps, think of what he does and
doesn't know about Tim's family situation.

"All right. Keep me posted."

"Of course."

If everything goes according to plan, that won't
ever be a problem again.

Tim sends, "I'll be there Friday evening," and
shuts the e-mail program down.

And breathes.


Patrol is something of a walk. Jason has him out
with Batgirl, since they're working near the docks.
Correction, since they're focusing on the

Technically, it's something he could (should) be
doing alone. Not that Jason had *said* that, not
in any way that would... well.

It's just one of the things that was handled by
Robin, because prostitutes tended to respond
better to Robin than to Batman. The concept isn't
at all a difficult one. Batman has been, for quite
some time, a symbol of authority in Gotham.
While the average Gotham resident doesn't
believe Batman exists, there have always been
certain sub-communities with extensive reason to
know the truth -- or close to it.

There are entire neighborhoods full of people
who could, if asked, describe every fold of
Batman's cape.

Well, if they were asked by the right kind of

Robin is supposed to be the right kind of person.

As it is...

Tim folds *his* cape around himself and slips
further back into shadow. Batgirl is surrounded
by several women in clothes impractical for both
safety and the weather. Impractical for everything,
really, except for their line of work.

Most of them assume Stephanie has extensive
facial scarring under the cowl, and, perhaps,
assume they know why. Especially since Stephanie
can -- and has -- recommended Leslie's services
with the voice of experience. Never authority.

He has yet to manage that, himself. He knows
precisely how convincing he *isn't* at not
sounding like just a short and oddly-dressed

He lets himself pay a little more attention to
specifics and... she's getting some good
information out of them. More than *he* ever
managed without having to follow some of the
women back to wherever they're squatting.
Without having to *work* for it.

Some of the newer girls respond well to him,
and the ones who are desperate for help, but...

Both groups would likely *also* respond to a helpful
police officer.

He hasn't been efficient, with this. He hasn't been
*useful*. And, in truth, he's only here *now* to
give Stephanie backup, and to provide whatever
detection skills may or may not prove necessary,
given the information Stephanie receives.

"... so... I mean. What's up with *him*?"

"Who, Robin?" Stephanie laughs, and her voice is
light and blameless. "Don't mind him. He just wasn't,
you know, raised by *people*."

The prostitutes laugh, too, and for a moment it's
wonderfully, terribly easy to see how most of them
aren't much older than Stephanie *or* himself.

"Lucky *him*," one of them says, and another --
the one with hair a shade of red which manages to
be quite attractive despite being entirely unnatural --
eyes him speculatively for a long moment.

And maybe that's the secret. There are all sorts of
studies which talk about how people use humor in
order to connect with one another. Of course, he's
never really sure how to make people laugh.

Not on purpose, anyway.

He watches Stephanie hand out condoms and
keychain-sized canisters of pepper spray -- the kind
which isn't precisely legal, but which was developed
by Alfred and the former Batman to be *effective* --
and pulls his grapple gun.

Whatever Stephanie has to tell him, it won't be down
here, where they can be heard.

She nods at him, and they head for the rooftops.

"What do we have?"

"The pimps are getting active, probably getting more
involved in the drug trade. Most of the girls who were
being used as runners have been relocated to a few of
the SROs down by the fish market. Others are
missing." She frowns, but Tim's almost sure she isn't
thinking about the same things *he* is.

"Any of the pimps get replaced?"

"What? No, not according to the girls."

He waits for a moment, but Stephanie only looks
impatient. "The pimps are already part of the Burnley
Town Massive," he says, and Stephanie blinks.

"Oh... but then, if they *are* getting more involved..."
She frowns. "Aren't they setting themselves up to get
smacked down by Crown? Or... I thought the fish
markets were run by the Italians."

Tim nods. "Unless, of course, the Massive is simply

"I... damn. So we check out the fish market?"

Tim pulls his grapple again. "And see which
merchants are moving more than trout."

Before he can shoot, she puts his hand on shoulder,
squeezing hard enough that it's easy to feel even
through the cape and the tunic.


She's frowning again. "And the *girls*, Robin. We
have to see --"

Her cowl hides nearly everything about her
expression -- most of the time. This close, with the
moon this high, he can see not only the distinct
outline of her frown, but the way her brows are
drawing in. She's honestly worried.

She honestly believes that he would *forget*.

"We're far more likely to find out what happened to
them once we get closer to whoever's running this
operation, Batgirl." I'm not that much of a freak. I'm
not --

"Oh," she says, and her expression shifts too quickly
to read before she lets go. "Yeah, you're right."

It's close enough that he doesn't bother calling for
one of the cars, and it's an excellent way to look
over Batgirl's form.

Which is something...

When she's working with Jason, or they both are,
she tends to put the kind of flourish on her flights
and landings that's both unnecessary and potentially
dangerous. This, however...

Well, it's a confirmation.

With him, she's nothing but professional, moving
fast and easily. She sees no reason to play. He
isn't sure why he finds that troubling,
considering --

"You on?"

"Yes," he says. Always, he doesn't bother to say.

She laughs, quietly and easily -- even though
they've done three square miles tonight, she isn't
at all breathless -- in his ear. "Right. Look..."

A sigh in his ear, this time, and Tim can't guess
what she's thinking.

"You don't think we'll find them alive, do you?
The girls."

"I think they got wind of whatever's going on,
and either objected too strenuously or just...
got in the way." He frankly isn't sure if they'll find
the *bodies*.

Another sigh. "You're probably right. Damn."

Stephanie almost certainly knows at least some of
their names. Not prostitutes, not women. The

Tim swallows, and doesn't know what to say.


He frankly isn't sure about the mechanism of his
parents' little... arrangement, and it *almost*
certainly didn't come down to, "fine, you take the
kid, *I* get Mrs. Mac," but...


It's easier than ever to slip in, even though it's
already almost light enough that he has a moment
of horrible exposure between the tree closest to
the house and his window.

Of course, he only has the *neighbors* to worry
about, at this point.

He closes the window behind himself and thinks,
for a moment quite seriously, about not bothering
to strip down and stash his uniform.

He keeps an extra here, of course -- for
emergencies, and there are a lot of reasons why
he doesn't like to think about what happened at
Jason's school -- but the only reason he's still in
uniform *now* is that he and Stephanie hadn't
managed to find anything useful at the market.

His cape has a faint but unmistakable odor of fish.

He'd kept them there long after they should've
gone back to the Cave to plan a better attack


Anything would've been better than nothing, even
if 'anything' had turned out to be something
disgusting which used to be human stuffed in a
salt barrel. They didn't even have enough
information to start interrogating the employees.
Almost certainly, very few of them were the sort
of people who deserved a visit from Batgirl and

He'd kept them there because he could *feel*
how important this was. Missing persons the
police were almost surely completely ignorant
of, assuming their cases got assigned to cops
who would care.


And certainly, Stephanie hadn't objected.

Stephanie had... just given him an admirably
*blank* look when the sun was just under the
horizon, and he'd ordered the search called off.

The Massive is moving. Doing *something*
drug-related, and that something will surely be
awful for a large number of people. Within the
next hour, before Jason leaves for school, Jason
will listen to the preliminary report that had,
assuming his modifications worked correctly,
begun auto-recording as soon as Tim had made
contact with the Cave's computers.

Chances are, Jason will keep them on this right
up until they need more muscle. *If* they do.

And Tim knows his strengths, and he knows this
is one of them -- he'll find out what's happening,
and both he and Stephanie will get the
opportunity to inflict harm on a large number of
people for the purpose of keeping Gotham's
streets slightly less dangerous than they could

It's entirely possible that, in the process, they'll
learn something about the missing prostitutes.

The *girls*, and he can hear it in Stephanie's
voice. The way she'd said it, and the way it was
a rebuke... whether or not she'd meant it that
way. It won't be enough for her even if they
*do* find the bodies.

Not that it should be.

He isn't... good at this.

Not at this sort of thing, anyway. After all, he
wasn't raised by *people*.

Stephanie had laughed, and not just for... for
the *girls*. She'd meant it as a joke, and, while
he knows just how little Jason has told her
about Tim's family...

It wouldn't really make much difference if he'd
said everything. Would it?

He looks at his door -- closed, just the way he'd
left it when he'd retired after dinner to 'do his

His room is also perfect. Untouched and neat,
just the way he'd left it.

His mother would never...


It's Gotham, so the only birds which have anything
to say in the mornings are the crows, pigeons,
and the occasional hawk looking for pigeons to
*eat*. The crows make a raucous, impossible to
ignore racket from somewhere not far enough
away from his window. He never sleeps here in
the mornings, anymore. That's for the Manor,
and ("Maybe you know you're safe.") thick
curtains and big beds which don't belong to any
of them, and so have no... obligation of comfort.

He feels his face twist into something like a
smile. Sleep would probably be a *good* idea,
but not here. Not until the afternoon, anyway.

Or maybe he'll just go to the Manor earlier than
usual. It doesn't make a difference. Not these

'These days' may just be a particularly optimistic
turn of phrase. He stares at his closed door again
and strips. The Robin suit folds and rolls into
something barely large enough to be noticeable
beneath the 'hidden' panel at the bottom of his
backpack. He needs a shower before he changes
into his school clothes, but he can live with
putting a robe on.

He opens the door, and the hall is dark. Quiet
only until he gets closer to his mother's bedroom,
at which point the soft (sodden) snores are, at
best, difficult to ignore.

On the one hand, it's a good sign that she hadn't
just stayed in the family room (how long,
precisely, had that designation been a joke?)
again. On the other...

His mother has become something of a drunk.

One with good taste, judging by the bottles in
the recycle bin. One with a strong liver, judging
by the bottles which get -- accidentally, of
course -- smashed so that the remains wind up
in the trash, instead.

Keeping up appearances, naturally.

He's spent quite a bit more time with his mother
while she's been unconscious than otherwise in
the past two weeks.

It's... easier.

Perhaps for both of them.

There are a few things he'd like to ask, and
chances are that the fact that he hasn't seen
her sober in... in a while would make it easier to
get honest answers.

He isn't sure he wants honest answers.

She doesn't wake up until he brushes the hair off
her forehead, and, in the gloom, he can hardly
tell at all that her eyes are bloodshot. That the
flush on her face almost certainly has nothing to
do with the warmth of the room.

"Tim," she says.

She never mistakes him for his father. This is
both unsurprising and something of a relief.

She frowns, and turns to look at the clock. "Early
for school," she says. Slowly, carefully. She
almost never slurs.

"I couldn't sleep," he says with a shrug, and his
mother hums to herself.

Probably more of a reflex, at this point, than
anything like an indicator of thought.

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm going
away for the weekend. It's on the calendar." And
I know you wouldn't look at that if I didn't
mention it ahead of time.


Tim nods, and waits.

"Visiting... friends."

She doesn't know who those 'friends' might be. She
never did. It makes things... easier. Tim nods, and
she hums again, soft and sleepy.

"Be careful." She covers her mouth when she
yawns, and Tim almost can't smell the gin. "You
know to call if you need anything."

He nods, and then says "Yes," when he sees that
her eyes are closed again.

And then he goes to shower.

His mother's schedule is irregular, in ways which
would be disturbing if she wasn't... if she wasn't.
As it is, his father had given her a very fair price
for her shares of Drake Industries, and has been
paying alimony since the week after he'd moved
out, despite the fact that the divorce papers have
yet to be finalized, judging by the information
he'd picked up from the lawyers' computer

It's all very civilized, and she doesn't work.

She's shown no signs of *looking* for work,
though he has a number of suggestions should

Maybe eventually. Everyone needs a transition...

He wastes a lot of soap. An unconscionable
amount of soap, really, and he'd feel guilty about
it if he didn't have reason.

The fact is, new bars of soap are more likely to
shoot from your hand and, eventually, hit the
floor -- from where they can be retrieved -- than
they are to, like this one, become rather obviously

He scrubs his hands together and soaps himself
up, then focuses on washing the rest of the
residue off his fingers.

Later, he'll pour boiling water down the drain to
keep it from clogging, collect the leftover bits
from the floor, dispose of them with whatever
bottle got broken last night for the sake of his
mother's reputation, and...

And something.

The water pressure is better in the Cave.

Hotter, and he probably wouldn't have to be
alone, and  --


What is he going to do about bathing after the

Granted, the likelihood of his mother noticing --
much less *questioning* -- a supply of plastic
bags and rubber bands in his bathroom is
extremely low, but...

He shakes it off. If all it took to make Stone
malfunction was the application of warm, soapy
water, he wouldn't be especially effective as a
Titan. If *he* were a supervillain, it would
definitely be the first thing *he'd* try.

Still, considering the number of meals Jason
consumes by the Cave computers, Tim would
certainly like to know exactly what Stone had
developed to keep things water-proof.

He'll ask.



The Tower has been rebuilt and redesigned since the
last time he'd been able to get up here on the
off-chance he'd get to see Dick. He's reasonably sure
the philosophy behind *this* redesign has as much to
do with the fact that Dick's dead as... as a lot of
things in his life. As targets go, he can't think of many
more obvious and tempting than the T-shaped
monstrosity everyone *knows* houses anywhere
from a handful to a dozen super-powered young
people at any given time.

Which is why it's gratifying to find that most of the
important equipment well below ground, as well as
most of the *official* living quarters.

Still, most of the Titans spend much of their time in the
upper levels. Which, while perfectly natural and
unsurprising for humans -- or people born that way --
still isn't the safest possible choice.

It's Friday evening, and so it's also unsurprising that
the Tower is nearly entirely empty.

He'd planned it that way.

Stone finds him before he makes it through the first
sub-basement. He isn't pointing a weapon, but his
artificial eye has the faint glow Bruce's files had
suggested as a sign that the man was scanning

Very useful, though it would perhaps be better if it
could be managed without any glow at all. Perhaps
he'll suggest it. For now, he simply raises an
eyebrow. "Did I trip an alarm?"

Stone smiles at him, and it seems surprisingly --
enviably, in some respects -- warm. "Just the
motion detectors upstairs, Robin."

Tim nods. "When do we start?"

The smile on Stone's face slips, a little, and Tim
braces himself internally. They've had this
conversation, but he didn't really expect to get
through this without having to have it again.

However, after a long moment in which Stone
scans him in a way that has nothing to do with
his implants, Stone just nods, curtly, and turns
back toward the elevators.

"Come on."

Tim follows.

Stone moves surprisingly quietly for a man at least
sixty -- and probably more like seventy, at this
point -- percent made of metal.

Which isn't, actually, quiet at all.

He could never do the sort of work *they* do,
and it's something to remember.

Tim isn't getting very much done this weekend
when held against all the options *available* to
him, and there will always be limits to what he
*can* do, and still be... effective.

Victor punches the button for the second to lowest
level and leans casually back against the wall of
the elevator. "How much does Jason know about


It can be hard to remember that Jason was
something of an auxiliary member of the Titans
before he'd gotten injured, and that they
wouldn't -- *he* wouldn't -- have had these
contacts in the first place if Jason hadn't been.

Jason had delegated the role of Titans liaison to
him with the kind of haste a different sort of person
might call unseemly.

Tim can guess why he'd done it, and... Stone is still
looking at him. The elevator is surprisingly slow.

He could lie. Easily.

"Nothing," he says, and Stone nods with a curiously
unhappy-looking brand of satisfaction.

The doors open into an operating theater most
hospitals would envy. Tim nods, approvingly, and
Stone gestures to the eastern and southern walls.
"Backup generators." To the north, and "'Secret'
entrance. World War III could be going on upstairs
and we could stay down here getting people
healthy enough to keep fighting."

"Useful. Could you --"

"I'll send you the plans."

"I'll send you any suggestions I can come up with."

Stone smiles again. "Of course you will." He points.
"That bed is yours, and you can change in there.
For what we're doing today, you can keep your
mask on."

Tim pauses. "What about the optics?"

Stone shakes his head and begins checking over
the computers -- which had already been booted
up. "I vetoed it. We're doing enough neurosurgery
on you as it is. Assuming everything goes well,
you can come back in a couple of weeks."

Which isn't optimal, but... but. Tim nods, mostly
to himself, and goes into the changing room.

"Actually -- how *much* computer equipment is
in that mask?"

"The camera is off, and I disabled the feed."

"Yeah, okay, that's fine." Stone sounds distracted,
and Tim is surprised to discover that his heart is

He does two of the breathing exercises Jason had
taught him and finishes stripping. The hospital
gown is made of a material somewhere between
paper and terry cloth. It could, if necessary, soak
up a great deal of blood.

Almost certainly useful. Considering.

When he comes out, the bed Stone had designated
as his own is surrounded by a handful of robotic
arms. Stone himself is standing almost casually
behind the bank of computers.

Or, he'd *look* casual if you somehow managed to
ignore the jack plugged in behind his ear and the
row of lights -- all green -- on the backs of his
hands. Stone waggles his fingers in a very
*precise* way, and the robotic arms wave.


"Short of emergency, I'll be doing everything with
these," he says, and the arms dip toward the bed
and rise again. "Infinitely more exact."

His tone is still distracted, and he isn't focused on
anything *in* the room. And... hm. "How much of
your brain is interfaced right now?"

"Seventy-two point four percent. I'll be going up
to ninety once you're under."

Tim nods and climbs on the bed. "Back or

"Back. I'll flip you over when I need to."

Tim lies back and resists the urge to cross his arms
over his chest. Interestingly, the light over the bed
is actually quite dim. Dim enough that it isn't
remotely uncomfortable to look up at it. Of course,
Stone won't be using it. Short of emergency.

"I'll be applying the general with this." The second
arm on the left waves at him. "After that, I'll be
cutting your right forearm open and inserting your
remote battery pack. It'll probably be somewhat
difficult to do accurate readings without the optics,
so try not to let it get beneath fifteen percent."


"After that, I'll move on to your left hand. The laser
has been redesigned dramatically since I got the
first of my own, so I'll only be removing your pinky
to just before the first knuckle." The third arm on
the left makes a short, slashing gesture which may
be entirely unconscious. As unconscious as a
computer can be.

"I did read your description, Victor --"

"The prosthetic irises open beneath the artificial
fingernail, and will be connected to the rest of your
finger via the simskin-sleeve. It was grown using
your own epithelial cells, but you'll almost certainly
develop secondary infections while your body
adjusts, no matter what." A surprisingly
philosophical gesture from the first arm on the
right. "Keep it clean, anyway."

"I -- all right." It's difficult to remain still,
because... because he's impatient.

"By the time I'm finished, there will be
approximately forty-five minutes worth of general
left in your system. At that point, I plan on taking
a break. You'll have to be awake for everything
else, after all."

Tim closes his eyes.

"The arms will help you turn over onto your
stomach -- you *will* be groggy. After that, I'll
shave the back of your neck, give you several
shots of local anesthetics, slice free a square flap
of skin, and remove as little tissue as possible
before inserting the seed port."


"After that, it's just a matter of letting the seed
'sprout.' The filaments probably won't damage
anything permanently, but you never know. I'll need
you to be aware enough to tell me if anything is
going wrong, since I'll be busy hijacking your central
nervous system. The communicator in your ear *is*
the one you plan on using, correct?"

Tim blinks. He'd forgotten all about it. "Yes --"

"Not that it matters. I have several extras for when
you burn that one out. Your hearing in that ear will
change. Along with the enhancement, there'll be a
shift in perception that will probably require some
time to get used to. You're going to need someone
to help you test the communicator, as well, since
every time you receive broadcasts, you'll be
integrating them in several new ways.

"All of these connections will be making themselves
while the seed embeds itself in your cervical spine.
Chances are, the local will be of only limited
assistance with those sensations."

Breathe. Just keep breathing.

"The seed will inform me when it's completed its
work, at which point I'll lay the skin-flap back down
and measure you for the ring. The ring itself has no
real function beyond keeping the skin in that area
from being chafed and irritated every time you jack
in. The ring will cause you a great deal of pain over
the next several weeks, probably more than
anything else."

He's tempted -- honestly tempted -- to ask why. He

He waits.

After a minute of silence, all of the arms at once
shift up and back simultaneously, save for the
second one on the right, from which a needle
abruptly protrudes.

Tim slowly, deliberately, turns his arm over until
his knuckles rest flat on the bed.


"I'm ready," he says, with every ounce of
certainty he can muster.

The needle descends.

The light above the bed almost immediately starts
growing fuzzy. He'd heard that. How people are
always surprised by how *quickly* the general
anesthetic begins working.

"Good luck," Stone says, which is interesting



All told, he doesn't really *feel* awake, no matter
what his senses are telling him, until he feels/hears
the seed sprouting.

At first, it's just a matter of a strange, half-silent
clicking he can feel in his molars. And then the sole
of his left foot starts to itch.

And then he's absolutely certain he can *smell* the
itch. Or perhaps just the brown of Stone's skin. It's
the only thing that color in the room, and --


Tim blinks, slowly. "Synaesthesia," he says, and
tries to come up with words within his own mind
to describe the taste of cold. "And I still feel a
little anesthetized."

"All normal, so far."

"I figured."

There's a louder click, and something like a creak.
His mind wants him to know that it's the sound of
his spine being thoroughly breached for an
unnatural invader. Then again, it also wants him to
know that his left pinky tastes like his late
grandmother's gravy.

It was terrible gravy, but he supposes it's better
than the phantom pain that he almost certainly
*should* be feeling. "Did everything go according
to spec?"

Stone laughs softly. "You asked that already, but
considering the fact that you were stoned at the
time, I can forgive you. Yeah, it did, kid.
Congratulations, you're a cyborg."

Tim blinks again. "I... it hardly seems... I don't
have all *that* much metal."

"Only a little more than one percent of your body,
it's true. Still, there aren't exactly any hard and
fast rules for defining this sort of thing."

"I suppose not." There's another creak, and this
one tastes so much like fouled water that he has
to catch himself to keep from spitting

Stone hadn't exactly *told* him to stay as still as
possible, but it seems like a reasonable

And then the water starts to choke him. He can't
breathe, he can't -- no.

No, he's breathing perfectly fine. He just hurts
so bad he wants to vomit.

He swallows.

"Your vitals just spiked, Robin. What --"

"Pain. I. I'm fine."

"Hmm. A little ahead of schedule, but all of your
readings are good. I'd offer you a Tylenol, but it
won't actually help."

"N-noted." He *doesn't* stammer. He narrows
his eyes against it, swallows, and says, "Thank

"You don't have to be brave for *me*, kid. I'm
fucking with your *spine*. I bet you've never
even had a lumbar puncture."

"Also. Noted." The itch in his foot is just an itch.
The pain in the part of his finger that only *looks*
like it exists -- the stitches are small and nearly
invisible -- is just pain. The pain in his... his neck.
It starts with his neck and flows halfway down his
back like water, like nettles in his muscles. Like...
It's just pain. "Synaesthesia has passed."

"Also ahead of schedule. Hm." It's an entirely
non-committal sound. "Keep talking."

"Is there something to worry about?"

"Nope, but it might distract you from the pain."

Which... makes perfect sense. "How many times
have you done this?"

"On other people? None."

Tim blinks. "Really?"

Stone laughs softly, and he can hear the clanks of
the man shifting. "I know you'll find it shocking,
but very few people volunteer for neurosurgery.
Though occasionally I get e-mail from people in
mental institutions. Also shockingly, I don't

"I... oh. But what about prostheses? It's hard to
believe..." The pain spikes *hard*, blindingly so,
and when he comes back to himself he's chewing
on the leather covering the part of the bed that's
cushioning his face. "Ow."

"I'm almost sure that's the worst of it."

Tim breathes. "Good to know. I was saying... uh.
I was definitely saying something."

Stone sighs. "Prostheses. I've actually offered my
services to several hospitals. After all, I've built
more arms and legs for *myself* over the
years... anyway, it's an insurance thing. I don't
actually *have* a medical degree, after all. I was
told, discreetly, that less scrupulous medical
institutions would be, well, less scrupulous.

Tim resists the urge to nod. "Got it."

"Still, if any of *us* want my services..."

Smiling doesn't actually hurt at all, though he
wouldn't lay money on what it *looks* like right
now. Luckily, only the floor can see him. The
cushion cradles the sides of his face like the
world's most comfortable vise. "If I lose a limb,
I'll definitely call you."

Stone snorts. "It doesn't count if you make me
cut it *off*, kid."

"I suppose not."

"Hunh. This really is interesting to watch. I was
never precisely *conscious* when I've done it to

"Can I see?"

"Mm-hm. Gimme a sec."

He can hear Stone moving, and for a moment it's
kind of viscerally terrifying -- how long *is* that
cable connecting him to the computers?

But then he remembers that the vast majority of
the surgery is actually complete, and relaxes as
much as he can, despite the small, insistent
voice in his mind screaming about his spine.

Despite the pain.

"Just keep looking down... there."

The floor is abruptly washed with red and black,
and, when he focuses, he can see... his own

The seed squats like a large insect at the base of
his skull, which appears grey and ghostly on the
projection. The black is the seed, and its... legs.

Its *moving* legs.

Its moving, *growing* legs.

"I could magnify the projection, but you might
lose some of the detail."

While he watches, one of the legs abruptly
begins making a beeline for his ear. For some
reason, the sight makes him angry, horribly,
*terribly* angry. He could --

"You're probably going to have some emotional
shifts right about now."

"*Fuck* you. I mean -- *shit*."

Stone chuckles. "Looks like the process has
slowed down. You're back on schedule."

"Christ. *Christ*. I -- I --"

"Let it out, kid."

No. He won't. He *won't*. He tastes blood and,
for a second, wonders if the synaesthesia is back,
but then some of it patters onto the projection
and he realizes he's just chewing his lip.

"Uh, huh. Listen, you're going to be in enough
pain without turning your lips to hamburger --"

"Shut the *fuck* up! I'm not some -- some --
I'm not a goddamned *freak*!"

"Mm-hmm." It sounds like a laugh. "Says the kid
who *asked* me to fuck around with his brain."

"It's *necessary*! We're not good enough. I'm
not -- I'm not --" He's enough himself to be
shocked and more than a little horrified by the
sobs that fall out of his mouth, but he can't stop
them. "I'm not good enough. I'll never... oh
God, what if it isn't *enough*?"

"Easy --"

The filament keeps moving. "I only... oh God,
Victor, I need to be useful, I need --" He cuts
himself off with a gasp. The numbness is as
shocking as a dive into deep, cold water, and it
takes a *long* moment to realize that he's
actually still in some degree of pain.

The numbness is only inside him.


"You okay?"

He isn't at all sure that's the right word,
considering just how *much* he'd just said.
Perhaps he'll be worried about it later. "Yes."

Stone sighs, deep and gusty. His lungs are still
entirely organic, of course. "I could say
something about how I wish you'd said a little
of *that* while we were negotiating, but I
suppose that was never possible."

The filament angling toward his ear pauses, and
now all of them are still. "Hmm, no, it really
wasn't. After all, if you'd had any idea about
how much emotional upheaval I'm going
through at any given time, you almost certainly
wouldn't have agreed to this."

"You don't say."

There's a great deal of *emotion* (buried, lost,
he can't --) in Stone's voice, though he honestly
couldn't say what it might be. Though he can
hazard a guess. "I'm sorry if you feel deceived."

Stone's snort is humorless. "Not right now you

"No, but assuming my emotions come back
online, I almost certainly will be."

"Good to know." Stone's voice is gruff and low.
He's... angry?

He thinks about it. Thinking is actually much
easier now than it's been since before he went
under. It's not that the pain is any milder, it's
just that it matters less. This is probably why
people with certain chronic disorders are
sometimes given psychotropic medication.

He makes a mental note to look it up, when he
gets a chance, and files it away.

The files on Stone didn't offer much,
psychologically, beyond his rather intense
need for relationships and... yes.

He hadn't chosen to be a cyborg -- to be
*Cyborg* -- at all.

"It bothers you that I wanted this."

Stone doesn't say anything.

"That I... does it seem gratuitous?"

"Let it go, kid."

'Kid.' That's... that's actually kind of hilarious.
Surprisingly, inappropriately so, and he focuses
and... yes. The filament is moving again.

He swallows back the urge to giggle.

"You think I'm some... some kind of dilettante."
That last comes out high-pitched, choked with
the effort not to laugh hard enough to knock
his brand new not-finger clear off.

Oh God, not laughing *hurts*.

"You think... you think I'm just a *kid*, playing
some kind of -- ahahaha oh fuck I can't
stop --"

"I could help," Stone says, and his voice is very,
very dry.

"You sound like *Alfred*," he says, before he
can stop himself, and snickers at the complete
loss of control.

"Tell you what, Robin. Because this is all pretty
familiar to me after my last upgrade, I'm just
going to assume you aren't *trying* to be an
asshole and wait this out."

"You -- you *do* that -- And... and take
detailed... notes --"

"For later. I got you." Stone sounds very, very
tired. "Christ, I wish I could make that damned
filament hurry up."

Tim snickers, helpless and breathless. "No one...
no one *ever* wants to spend extended periods
of time with *me*."


"Yeah -- hee. Okay."

"You... you don't think this will help with *that*,
do you?"

"Oh, *God*, no, Victor. Nothing will." He knows
exactly how idiotic the grin on his face is, and
the knowledge is, he thinks, something of a

It's still funny, though.

It doesn't actually *stop* being funny, even
when it's easy not to laugh.

Even when his ear starts itching from the inside.

Even after, when Stone is bent over the back of
his neck and surgically applying the world's most
useful piece of body art.

It's entirely possible it won't *ever* stop being


He wakes up thinking of his mother, and spends
a good deal of time trying to remember what the
dream was.

And then he remembers that he'd just had yet
another dream about Batman falling off the edge
of a roof and not being strong enough to pull him
up, and realizes that he's thinking about his
mother because he feels distinctly hungover.

At least, he *thinks* this is what hangovers feel

Maybe Stephanie would know.

The 'guest room' he's sleeping in is, actually, just
a regular Titans bedroom that isn't actually
being used, at the moment. One of the
belowground ones, and it was as perfectly ready
for habitation as a hotel room.

The clock on the nightstand tells him, in gleaming
red letters -- which make him very glad indeed
Stone had decided against the optics, because
his head is *screaming* with pain -- that it's a
little after six in the morning.

He's no longer sure exactly how long the surgery
took, but he's *also* very glad that Victor had
talked him into taking a sedative afterward.

He had no right to even *hope* that the surgery
wouldn't disrupt his schedule, but thanks to
Victor's little blue pill, he's fine.

Mostly fine.

The part of his neck which isn't exactly as sore
as it should be is cramped from the fact that
he'd slept on his stomach.

The tip of his left pinky itches so badly that he --
well. He's rubbing it on the sheets. He hadn't
realized that.

He really needs to *stop* that, before he breaks
the stitches -- bandages or no.

Especially since the tip of his pinky is, actually,
in a jar in the mini-fridge.

His right arm is sore, but really no more so than
the time he'd got thrown through that plate glass
window. He won't want to use it for any punches
for a few days, but it probably won't even be a
serious scar.

Stone is as adept at stitching torn flesh as Alfred.

It's probably ridiculous how much of a pleasant
surprise that is, considering the fact the amount
of time and effort he put in to getting the man
to agree to *neurosurgery*.

Like this, in the very-much-a-morning-after, it's
a lot easier to have thoughts like that. It's...

Some part of him was clearly *anxious* about
this, about whether or not it would happen and
whether or not it would work without *killing*
him. Anxious enough that now, with everything

He feels light enough to float away.

Possibly that just residual Valium.

Time to get up. This may not be the Manor, but
it's a superhero residence, and it's morning.
Somewhere, there's coffee.

Of course, getting up is actually somewhat tricky.

There's nothing especially wrong with his left
hand -- not wrong enough that he can't, at least,
support his weight on the right *side* of the
hand -- but it's still a little queasy-making to do

Just like Stone had said, the 'fingertip' is only
connected to his body by the simskin. The laser
is packed in tightly enough with various fibers
he's not well-versed enough in chemistry to be
able to completely *understand*, but it still feels
extremely... *loose*.

One good snap and it'll rip right off.

His right arm is both more and *less* problematic.
It *feels* less serious, and it *is* less serious, but
he won't be able to put a significant amount of
weight on it until tomorrow, at least.

And he *could* just use his legs and inch off the
bed like some kind of spastic worm, but... that
feels like cheating.

He breathes, and grits his teeth, and plants the
heel and thumb of his left hand against the
mattress, and does a push-up.

And *stops*, because... that really felt *wrong*.

In his *head*.

Like... like...


Like there's *more* inside his skull than there
was yesterday.

Which is absolutely the case, though it shouldn't
be enough...

No. Surgery is *always* traumatic, even when
the trauma is entirely illogical.

If it would cause serious damage to joggle his
head a little bit, then *Stone* wouldn't be able
to do *anything*.

He makes it out of bed, heads for the bathroom,
and vomits saliva and bile. The sound echoes off
the tile and within his own head.

He brushes his teeth with a brand-new
toothbrush and a brand-new tube of toothpaste.
Twice. That echoes, too. Only...

He isn't sure echo is the word.

It's a bit like a rhythmic tapping against a
surface within his head he wasn't aware he'd
had. It isn't unpleasant so much as distracting.

He washes his mouth out with just a bit too
much of the contents of a brand-new bottle of

And then he begins thinking seriously about
getting dressed.

He's still pondering the matter when Stone comes
in with a blessedly large mug of coffee and a
clipboard. The smell is horrifyingly intense until
his body remembers that he's developed a
healthily unhealthy caffeine addiction, at which
point it trips over to wonderful. He reaches out
with his left hand, pauses, and continues.

Stone raises his eyebrow. "You sure?"

Tim nods once, winces, and stops. "Yes. Just...
don't let go until I give you the go-ahead."


His hand feels distinctly, dangerously unbalanced
around the mug, but Tim *looks* at it until he
can make his mind work well enough to
recognize the essential irrationality of the

He's missing the tip of his *pinky*, not his
thumb or anything.

"Okay, you can let go now."

Stone does so, eyes him, and says, "Good." And
marks something on the clipboard.

It seems... just a little bizarre.

"I know, it's ridiculously low-tech, but I forgot to
have a computer system set up in here last
night, and I don't think you're ready for a trip
to my lab...?"

Tim winces again and focuses on the coffee.

"Didn't think so. There's nothing in it, by the
way. Somehow you just seemed like the type to
take your coffee black."

"Mm," he says, and takes a sip. "Like my

Stone chokes on a laugh.

"I... choose to believe I'm still hungover. That's
the only possible reason I said that out loud."

"Uh, *huh*," Stone says, and makes another
mark on the clipboard.

"What was that one for? Punchiness?"

"Exactly. Rate your pain on a scale from one to
ten, ten being the highest."

Tim thinks about it. "What... what are the

"I've only worked with people in our business,
Robin. Just go with what seems right."

Which makes sense. "Overall, six and a half.
Closer to eight at the site of the port."

Stone nods and makes another few checks.
"Which means you won't be any good without
a mild painkiller, but that you'll fight me tooth
and nail about taking it."

It isn't a question, so he doesn't bother to


"Lots of... echoes. I can feel them. It isn't
particularly unpleasant. Though considering the
depth of your voice, I imagine it would rapidly
get... interesting. If you were speaking much
louder. And. Wait. You're whispering, aren't

Stone's smile is small and tight, though not
entirely humorless. "Not *quite* whispering, no,
though most people would ask me to speak up.
You're doing the same, by the way."

"I." The possibilities are suddenly very, very
large. And very...

No, the *realities* are, because there's absolutely
a reason why Stone didn't put him in one of the
empty rooms *upstairs*.

And Stone is looking at him, and... his expression
is hard, but not really *cruel*. If he's angry at
anyone right now, it's himself.

Tim takes a breath, and forces himself to focus.
"How do -- how did *you* compensate?"

"I forgot to tell you to bring a book with you, but
I have a number of things you can borrow,
and... anyway. Read aloud -- emphasis on loud --
until you've become accustomed to your own
voice at 'normal' levels. I can help you calibrate
that later. You're going to want to do that
every night for at least a week. You're also
going to want to avoid people with shrill or
high-pitched voices -- as much as you can --
until you can walk around on a city street for at
least an hour at a time without wanting to stuff
cotton in your ears."

"Not deep ones?"

"This is a test sentence. I'm speaking at a
'normal' volume. How do you feel?"

"I'm... salivating." Tim blinks. "And I feel like
someone hit me with a tuning fork. But..." He
swallows, and swallows. "It's not a *bad* thing,
per se."

"Exactly. Too much of that and you'll feel like
you're one good cough from spitting out your
teeth, but... in terms of regular, everyday levels
of sound? The lower registers are mostly
benign. And even... pleasant."

"I'll keep it in mind."

Stone nods and makes another few marks.
"Phantom pains in the finger?"

"Just itching, so far."

He makes another mark. "You're going to prefer
the pain, after a while. There's nothing I can
give you for that, and no real suggestions,
either, beyond whatever meditation techniques
you've picked up."

"Noted. How much pressure will the finger be
able to stand, once the stitches heal?"

"Difficult call. I've never done *that* before,
even to myself. Still, if it breaks off, it's easy
enough to replace. I'd actually recommend
gradually increasing the amount of stress you
put on it -- *after* I say you can have the
stitches removed -- until you break it off mostly
on purpose. That way..."

"I'll know. Got it." Still. He might have to try
something more permanent, later.

"How's the right arm?"

"Somewhat heavy-feeling, but not as intense as the
*full* feeling in my head. Mostly it just feels like
when I sliced my arm open on some glass."

Another nod, another few marks on the board.
"That's about right. You know how to help a
wound like that heal, and I can't tell you any
more than that. *However*, if you take a blow
directly over the battery pack, and it's hard
enough to knock it against the bone, you
should expect to be weakened somewhat more
than usual."

"Makes sense," he says, and takes another
swallow of coffee. "Good coffee."

"You learn, in this business," is all that Stone
says -- though he does sound pleased. It's
amazingly easy to *hear* the pleasure. "All
right. You said your head feels 'full?'"

Tim nods, slowly and deliberately. "Sort of like
my skull might explode from the pressure if I
get too high above sea level. It feels..." He
frowns. "I know exactly how irrational the idea
of 'feeling' anything in my brain is. Still."

"It's normal. When I scanned you, I saw that
you've got a couple of your wisdom teeth in.
Try to imagine what your mouth would feel like
if they'd grown in all at once, instead of

And that's... "That's... useful. Thank you."

"Also, I scanned you again about ten minutes
before I got here. Everything is fine. No swelling,
no bleeding."

And that's good to *hear*, but... "How...?"

This time, Stone's smile *is* just a little cruel.
"You don't really think I'd let you leave the
infirmary if I couldn't monitor you constantly,
do you?"

He hadn't, actually, given the matter much
thought last night. Between the endorphins and
the Valium... but *still*. "I --"

"Don't worry. You'll be able to shut the
connection off remotely whenever you wish to
do so. I'm just not going to *tell* you how to
do it until I'm satisfied that you're healed."

After a moment, he nods again. "That makes
sense." And he can figure out how to do it on
his own. If he has to.

Stone raises his eyebrow *exactly* as though
he'd heard everything Tim hadn't said aloud.
Of course, Stone was entirely familiar with both
Dick and Jason, so maybe he had. "You do
realize that I can only monitor your physical
*health*, right?"

Tim smiles ruefully and takes another swallow
of coffee.

"Right. I'd like to test the port, and I imagine
you would, too, but..."

It takes an effort not to wince at the thought,
even though, when he *thinks* about it, the
vast majority of the pain is beyond the ring.
It's just that the thought of anything touching
that skin, however lightly, or even *shifting*
it a little...

"Uh, huh. It can wait. You don't plan on getting
out of here until late tomorrow, right?"

He can't actually imagine letting anyone near
the back of his neck... ever.

Then again, he absolutely *doesn't* want to
leave here without getting the port thoroughly
tested -- and making sure it's functional.

He knows that's irrational, too.

"I wouldn't, actually, fight you about a painkiller
for this."

Stone shakes his head. "Except that I need you
entirely alert for this. I couldn't give you
anything stronger than a couple of shots of
Lidocaine, and that'll hurt at least as much as
the jack. Probably more."

"Do it."

Another head-shake. "I'm shocked. Really. And
I'm doing nothing of the kind unless you can
walk to my lab under your own power."

Tim finishes his coffee and stands up.

He takes a moment to marvel about the visceral
profundity of deep-tissue wounds, another to tell
himself that he isn't, really, lighter on his left
side -- not enough to make it reasonable to feel
like he's *tilting*, anyway -- and still another to
give his brain the first of what will undoubtedly
be several reminders that the handful of
microfilaments are, in fact, very, very small.

And won't break his skull open from the inside.

Stone is eyeing him with silent critique. He doesn't
have to turn around -- he knows what that looks

From the inside.

The first step is hard.

The next is... not any easier.

And... well. Stone had just said he had to *walk*
there under his own power. No indication that
anything would be wrong if he vomited *while*

Besides, he has to get *used* to this.

And... distraction.

"How long did it take? For you."

"Which part?"

Tim reaches the door with his left hand, pauses,
and keeps doing it. The bandages make the way
he's holding his pinky look less bizarre, but he has
to be careful with that, too.

He pauses again, and deliberately bends his finger.
The phantom fingertip screams.

But it's just a fingertip. "The extra metal in your
brain," he says when he can breathe again.

"Hmm. Hard to say. By the time I regained
consciousness, my body had already started
growing accustomed to... everything. And I had a
great deal to... consider."

Not by choice. Not... like this. And it all comes back
in a rush. Everything he'd said while the filaments
were growing. *Everything*. He pauses just outside
the door, and listens to the hum of machinery. He
thinks he could point to where the generators are.

He *knows* he can feel them.

And he can't *forget* what he'd said.

"Are you about to fall down? Because if you break
my stitches, I'm gonna be unhappy."

"No. I'm just." It's difficult to turn his head and look
up for entirely sensible reasons. It's still worth it.
"I'm sorry. About... what I said. And what I didn't
say, before."

Stone narrows his eye and just stares for a long
moment. There's... quite a bit of expression on the
human parts of his face, but it's nothing Tim feels
comfortable reading.

So he waits.

"You really are, aren't you?"

"I *said* I would be. I'm not --" Tim bites his lip.
His control is... he needs to work on it. He needs
to be entirely sober. "I'm not that," he finishes,
weakly. The only reason he's not looking at the
floor is that it would hurt.

He can't actually meet Stone's eye anymore,

Not the human one.

After a moment, Stone sighs and rests his hand
on Tim's shoulder. It's cool and hard and heavy.

Heavier than it could be. He knows exactly how
lightly Stone can touch when he wants to. Stone
is... making a point.

He looks back at Stone's eye reflexively, even
though he knows he won't be able to read
whatever's there. Or trust it. Or --

"I know you aren't," Stone says. "And I think I'd
like to hit whoever..." He sighs. "Of course, it's
never a good idea to punch yourself in the face,"
he says, and smiles ruefully.

After a small and very deliberate beat, Stone
squeezes his shoulder. And it's... it's very good.
It's always good when people... but. "I know I'm...
very good at giving... a certain impression. I *use*

Stone nods. "And that's all on you, kid. Never forget
it. But the fact that we *let* you use it? Isn't on
*you*, at all. Don't forget that, either."

"I... oh."

"Yeah, 'oh.' Now keep going. It's going to take you
at least another twenty minutes to get to the lab,
and that's assuming you *don't* just pass out and
bleed all over my floor."

The pat between his shoulderblades is *very*

Which is something he's entirely grateful for.

And, in the end, it only takes him *seventeen*
minutes to get to the lab, but a) he's willing to
admit that his body is far more stressed from the
surgery than he could have easily predicted (he'll
know *now*), and b) he's too exhausted to
actually crow about it.

Stone makes him sit in *his* chair -- after
adjusting it for Tim's height -- and it feels
wonderful. The head-rest probably wouldn't be
broad enough to do more than brush behind
Stone's ears, but it *holds* Tim's head.

He can feel Stone tightening it.

The back of his neck is almost entirely exposed.

The cushioning muffles sound -- he can *feel* it
muffling sound -- but Stone's voice is still
perfectly clear when he says, "Remember I told
you these needles hurt, okay?"


They do. It feels less like an injection than a
calculated stab wound.

"I... don't remember this."

"You were still feeling the effects of the general,"
Stone says, and pulls the second needle out much
too slowly.

Or possibly too fast. "Got it," he says, through
gritted teeth.

The numbness spreads quickly, and somehow
*incompletely*. He could've sworn the needles
were long enough to punch out through the front
of his throat if Stone had moved wrong, but just
beyond the wall of vague and vaguely disturbing
numbness (is this what he feels all the time?) is
all the pain he'd woken up with.

More intense for its disconnection from the rest
of it.

Which probably means that this is as good as it's
going to get before he heals.

"Do it."

"Way ahead of you. The port isn't as small as it
could be -- there *will* be times when you need
to connect to something that isn't USB-capable,
though in a few years it'll probably be practical
to make adjustments. For now, I'll be using this
adapter," and he holds it in front of Tim's face.

"That isn't standard."

"Nope, home-made," Stone says, and moves it
out of sight again. "The standard ones, amazingly
enough, aren't designed to be inserted into the
human body."

Something else he hadn't thought about. "Makes
sense. Will you --"

"Send you the specs? Of course. I look forward
to your suggestions for improvement."

There's laughter in Stone's voice, and he *wants*
to respond to it, he *knows* it would feel good,

His heart is pounding again.

"Okay. I'm not going to tell you not to move,
because that would be pretty pointless. And I'm
not going to tell you what sensations to expect,
because I need you to tell *me* that. However,
if it's too much --"

"Got it, just --"

"Breathe, Robin. On three."

Three, two, one --

He hears the click, but only feels it with the
strange new-to-him surface of his skull. Face.
Something. It's. It's not enough. But this is only
the beginning.

"So far, so good," he says, and forces himself
to keep his breathing steady.

"All right. Let's start small."

Small, whatever it means -- whatever it --

He hears himself making a sound, and he'd
really like to know what it *is*, but... but --

Nothing. Absolutely nothing --

He -- his --

How could he ever think there were no nerve
endings in the brain? The idea is ridiculous.
Crim --

Criminal --

"nnn -- nnnnnn -- nnnnnnn --"


"Nnnn --" He cuts himself off with a gasp. "No,
*there*. It's... there's a... lag?" His heart is still
pounding. He's...

He sincerely wishes he was wearing pants,
instead of just the johnny he'd slept in. No, he
can keep control. He's...

He's fine. The inside of his neck hurts. His arm
hurts. His pinky is... elsewhere, at the moment.
He's fine. "Is there a lag?"

"Hmm?" Somewhere behind him and to the
right, Stone is typing. "No, just the time it takes
for your conscious mind to accept the sudden
intrusion of information. Of course, that's just
a *theory*... In any event, assuming everything
goes well, you'll get used to that, and the time
between a finished download and integration
will become small enough to be unnoticeable
to most people."

"All right. So... what --"

"Ah ah ah. That's *my* question. Anything
new in your head?"

"I'm... I'm not --"

"Don't think about it." Stone is still typing.
"What's the first thing that popped into your
mind when I asked the question?"

"Well... 'The Complete Works of William
Shakespeare.' And... publishing information." He

"Uh, huh. Turn the page."

He does his best to visualize a book, but the
image keeps slipping away from him. "I don't
think... hmm." He visualizes a screen, instead.
And scrolls down. "Oh."

In truth, it's nothing *like* visualizing. Or
maybe it's just that he's doing a bad *job* of
visualizing in precisely the right way.

Either way, the words are right there in his
mind. Or the... it takes a moment for him to
*make* them words.


"'If you can read this, Batman has slightly
*less* reason to want me dead.'"

"All *right*!"

It's honestly a shout, enough that, even with
the muffling, his mouth fills with spit and his...

He feels like laughing, too. And he would, if it
wouldn't make his spine vibrate in a bad way.

"Did we do it? Are we...?"

"As You Like It, act two, scene three, line four."

"'Of old Sir Rowland, why, what make you
here?'" It comes fast, and easy. Before he's even
*aware* that he needs to translate it from raw
data to language. And he's tempted to ask why
Stone had picked *that* speech, but. It's not
as important as the fact...  "We did it. *You* did

"Not so fast, Robin. We've still only vetted you on
*text*. There's a lot more we should try."

Tim smiles, helpless against the *excitement* in
Stone's voice. "You know, you're doing a terrible
job of pretending you're not excited."

"And when *you* successfully upload the complete
works of Shakespeare into someone else's head
and fail to be just a little jazzed, *you* can

Tim grins a little wider. "I'll keep you posted."

Stone snorts and types a bit more. "Okay, let's
try images."

"Wait -- how *much* memory do I have to play
with, here?"

"Good question. But remember -- every time
we, as a species, make a notable upgrade to
computers, we're making them *more* like the
human mind."

And... there's a lot there which would probably
be a good idea to consider, at some point,
but... "How much memory are *you* using?"

"Two point four terabytes of storage, no sign
of strain. It seems to be the equivalent of
uploading a grocery list to your brand new
80-gig hard drive. I haven't actually figured out
*how* to calculate the dimensions of my
consciousness. I... spoke to a mathematician
about it once." Stone's voice is thoughtful.
Quiet again. Only 'quiet' doesn't seem like quite
the right word.


"He said, 'there's a point at which higher math
becomes higher *power*;' and that he wasn't
sure he was ready to cross that line."

There's an unspoken question, there, but Tim
isn't at all sure whether it's supposed to be 'are
you?' or 'am I?' He'd... he wishes it was spoken.
Not because he has an *answer*, but just...

"Anyway. Are you --"

"I like. I like talking. To you," Tim says, and
blushes hard. "And yes, I'm ready --"

The hand on his shoulder is heavy again, cool and
hard and still so very alive. That same,
*deliberate* half-beat, and then Stone squeezes
his shoulder again. "Thank you. And... well. Us
cyborgs have to stick together, right?"

Tim swallows hard. It would be easier if he could
just nod, except for all the real, physical ways in
which it absolutely wouldn't. "I... yes."

Another squeeze, and then Stone moves away

"Ready," Tim says.

"Uh, huh. This time, try to pay a little more
attention to the sensations. I... heh. I've got a
pretty fair *idea* of what it feels like --"

"Is it really a *feeling*? I mean..." He trails off,
and has the urge to wave one of his hands in
a vague way, except for the fact that it would
be very painful.

"Look at it this way -- every standard, non-meta
human being experiences sensation in the way
our brains *tell* us. I'm just cutting out the
middle-man. Which, lemme tell you, has been
extremely comforting at certain points of my

And that... "Oh. Oh, wow --"

"But I'm *not* gonna cut off your dick, kid, so
don't even ask."

Tim snorts. "Noted."


"Robin to Batman."

He has the volume on the comm tuned to its
lowest possible setting, but Jason's, "I'm here"
is still loud enough to make him wince.

Or... not loud so much as...

Jason's voice *isn't* as deep as Stone's, but
depth has absolutely nothing against...
familiarity. According to Stone, the visual
enhancements lead to far less intensity of
*feeling* -- 'sensation' isn't a large enough
concept for it, not by a long road -- and the
olfactory enhancements lead to far *more*,


Jason's voice in his ear is far, far more than a
voice. It's Batman, and it's *friendship*, and
it's... well. It's *sex*.


"Sorry, distracted." *Extremely* so.
*Distressingly* -- "Just checking in. Am I

Jason laughs, softly, not soft enough, not
*enough* -- Tim's very glad he's sitting down.
He isn't sure his kneecaps are entirely solid.
"If you'd asked that question oh, say... two
hours ago, I would've been screaming at you to
get your ass back down here."

*That* brings his focus back. "What --"

"Ease it back, man. We're good. Slightly *less*
than two hours ago we figured out how to solve
the problem."

Which is... good. "Which was?"

"The contractor rebuilding Arkham after that
Bane business was dirty. Had his guys putting
in secret passageways and shit. Luckily, he was
also *greedy*. Huntress and I got wind of an
auction of the blueprints going down, nabbed
our boy *and* the plans, and got to beat the
shit out of a few henchmen."

The happiness in Jason's voice is a new sort of
echo, an infectious throb somewhere in Tim's
throat. "A good night," he says, and he hopes
Jason hears the smile in *his* voice.

"Yep. Best of all? We're about to run all this by
Essen. Tell me not to look too smug. Go on."

Tim shifts in Stone's chair and smiles. "Don't
look too smug."

"*Fuck* you, because we have *so* earned
smug. I'm going to be smug for me, and
Batgirl, *and* you, and you can't stop me."

"So there?"

"With a side of in your *face*. Man. I'd

Jason's sigh is quiet, but still more than enough

If Jason were here, right now, or if he were
*there*.... Tim bites his lip and wonders if
there's any remotely reasonable way to ask
Jason to sigh again.

Probably not.

"Anyway. What's up by you?"

And it's his turn to sigh -- to swallow a sigh
*back*, reflexively -- because the guarded tone
in Jason's voice is even more obvious now than
it used to be. And even more... affecting, now
that he can feel it.

It makes it seem like his ear is trying to curl in
on itself, even though he's almost entirely sure
that the tone has more to do with the questions
Jason wants to ask about Tim's parents than
with anything else. And... he needs to say

"Nothing. Everything is going... according to

"Uh, huh. And you're going to *tell* me about
this plan when, exactly?"

"Monday. When I get back to the Cave."

Jason doesn't say anything. He isn't even
*breathing*. And right now, like this, Tim
would be able to hear it if he were.

It's actually more than a little disturbing, even
though he knows, intellectually, that Jason can
hold his breath far, far longer than this.

"No, I'm here. I... I went by your parents' last
night. *Both* of their places."

That's... unexpected. He can't think of anything
to say.

"*You* know you weren't there, and *I* know
you weren't there, and I *don't* know where
you were. Or *are*."

The injuries Jason's throat took in the explosion
are, usually, not noticeable at all. According to
Jason, they make it easier to do a Batman voice,
and the rest of the time...

Right now, Jason's voice is a low, hoarse *rasp*,
and it doesn't help at all to know that his body's
reaction to it is, at the moment, even more
inappropriate than its reaction to Jason's regular

Tim grits his teeth -- and immediately stops.
The sound/sense of it is awful, more intense
and wrong than chewing on metal.

Apparently, he *doesn't* have to worry about
that little habit becoming problematic in the

Laughter would be inappropriate as well --

"*Robin* --"

"Don't --" Shout. Growl. Not when I can't -- "I'm.
I'm in New York. And I was going to tell you --"

"You let me think you were dealing with *family*
crap -- no, Huntress, everything is fine. Gimme a
minute here."

"Ah, the proper care and handling of a Boy
Wonder. Remind me to never get a sidekick of
my own."

It's fascinating. Huntress' voice should be a
wordless whisper -- he *knows* this, and his
*body* knows it. It just also knows that it
absolutely isn't.

"Look, Robin -- it's not that I don't trust you,
because I absolutely do. I trust your judgment
*and* your ability to handle yourself."

The image, in his mind, is of someone stroking
a cat or a small dog with loving attention while
simultaneously berating it. Tim swallows back
spit and laughter and tries to *focus*.

"But you can't -- Tim, you can't *pull* this crap.
Not with me."

For a moment, Tim's emotions flare for an entirely
different reason -- that old, familiar terror of
names -- *real* names -- being used while one
person is out of the Cave, where *anyone* could
hear. But then he realizes Jason is whispering --

"Are you *listening*?"

Which is absolutely confirmed by the sibilant --
*seductive* -- hiss of that last word. "Yes," he
says, and knows it's as shaky as he feels. "I know.
And I'm going to explain everything."

Jason's sigh makes him tense, hard enough that
the back of Tim's neck screams loudly enough
that, for a moment at least, he isn't aroused at

"I promise," he says.

"Yeah, okay, whatever." Another sigh.

Don't. Don't --

"Next time, just try to tell me everything *before*
running off to New York or Tibet or wherever the
hell else your *plans* take you."

A part of him is doing nothing more useful than...
than *wallowing* in Jason's voice, and wondering,
idly, if Pavlov's dogs felt anything like this visceral,
irrational *satisfaction*. With every part of the
rest of him, Tim says, "Noted."

"Uh, huh. Now, before I get back on track with
Operation Piss Essen Off, are you going to tell me
why *you're* whispering? I can barely *hear*

"I... later."

"Monday. Right. Put it in your fucking day-planner,
Robin. Batman out."

He'd thought the process of closing a connection
over the communicator was silent. It isn't, at all.

It's not a 'click' so much as an abrupt *absence*
of every sound beyond the new radius of his

He's going to have to think seriously about how
best to measure that.

For now, though...

There are other reasons why he needed to be out
of Gotham.

He reaches back and gingerly disconnects himself
from Stone's systems. The Titans' files are now his
own, and he's made a good start on flagging the
ones which he'll probably be able to delete as
redundant to Bruce's old files, as well as the ones
which will undoubtedly prove to be wonderful

While he isn't as... invested in the idea of Bruce's
competence as Jason very obviously still is, the
fact remains that the man had been the world's
greatest detective. If his files have a weakness,
it's that very few of them include the sort of
*emotional* detail which always turns out to be
valuable -- if only to save one from being
unpleasantly surprised.

Stone's files -- *especially* the ones he'd worked
on himself -- have nothing remotely close to that

There are many kinds of satisfaction.

And the best part is that the integration of the
new information is...

Tim frowns to himself as he works out a method
of standing up which will be neither excruciatingly
painful nor excruciatingly obvious about the pain.
'Seamless,' isn't the word.

It's all very similar to knowing there's a
fully-stocked library behind *that* door, but not
being able to see any of the books until one,
well. *Accesses* them.

At which point the concept of 'seeing' the book
becomes laughably limited. He *knows* now,
so very many things, so very many dangerous,
important people and things. All of it belongs to him,
now, and the only question *he* has left is whether
or not he'll be able to access all of it reflexively.


Which is another reason to keep moving.

It's easier once he's upright. He doesn't have to
move his *upper* body very much while walking --
at least, not in the ways which make him wince --
and everything else is well-rested and fine.

And no one here (judging by the surveillance footage)
is familiar enough with his gait to make any
uncomfortable observations -- especially after he
retrieves his cape.

Which is somewhat less painful to wear than he
was expecting. Something about how the tightness
of the collars of his cape and tunic compresses the
pain into something contained and knowable,

He heads toward the secondary elevator -- the one
which *isn't* convenient to most of the Tower --
punches the button for the doors to open, and --


"Robin," Stone says with a wry smile on his face.
"This may not be a hospital, but it hasn't even
been thirty-six *hours*. Where are you going?"

Tim narrows his eyes. "Not far. And I thought you
were only monitoring my physical health?"

"'Not far.' Uh, huh. Part of monitoring your body is
knowing where that body *is*, kid. Now tell me
why I'm not marching you back to your room. Or
the lab. Or, hell, at least my office has a *chair*."

Tim looks at Stone.

Stone looks back, punching the button to keep the
doors to the elevator open, leaning back against
the wall, and folding his arms. "The longer you
make me wait, kid, the more boring, painful, and
*lengthy* tests I can think up to do on you before
I call you street-ready."

It's nothing but the truth. Stone may have never
wanted to be a cyborg, or any of the things which
go along *with* it, but he's certainly taken to the
cyberneurological aspects of it all.


"There's a... contact I need to meet with." It's
entirely true.

"Uh, *huh*. And you *honestly* think you're up
to that?"

Tim smiles wryly. "I wouldn't be for anything but
*this* contact." Which is also entirely true. He
hopes. He keeps looking at Stone.

After a moment, Stone sighs and scrubs his hand
back over his hair. "How far is 'not far?'"

"What's the range of your... monitoring

Stone narrows his human eye. The other flares,
briefly. "Do you always answer a question with

Tim smiles a little wider. "Are you honestly not
used to that?"

Stone rolls his eyes. Both of them, which is
fascinating to watch. "Fine. I'm confident I'd be
able to scan you in detail up to about half a mile
from the Tower. More than that..." A shrug.

"It won't be more than that."

The look he gets is both critical and thorough,
and then Stone snorts. "I *know* that, kid. You
heal fast in general, according to your records,
and you'll heal fast from *this*, but, judging by
your vitals..." Stone tilts his head, slightly. "If
you *took* any painkillers in the last two hours,
they sure as hell ain't doin' the job."

It's not a question, so Tim simply raises an

"Right. Let's go. I'll get you to the surface without
being seen -- which is, I assume, what you
*want* -- and then you can do your spooky little
Bat thing. You've got two hours."

He won't need it. But. "You'll be monitoring me
the whole time."

"Two hours," Stone repeats, and makes a
come-on gesture.

Tim steps into the elevator and settles his cape
around himself. Carefully.

"After that, I send Donna after your ass. And I'll
tell her you need a great, big hug. A *tight*

Tim winces. "You don't have to sound quite so
enthused about the prospect."

"Yeah, I do. I really, really do."


It isn't quite night, yet, but it's one of the best times
 of the day to move around a *city* in costume.
The streetlights aren't on and the light is, at best,

He likes patrolling at twilight, though mostly they
wait until much later. And anyway, he had to be
home around then for dinner.

Correction: he *used* to have to be home around

He's tempted -- more than a little -- to just go
straight to the Manor from school on Monday, and
stay the night (how would Jason sound up close?),
and go to school from there. And go home...

That's the thing. He's a lot less worried about his
mother noticing a prolonged absence in more than
just the vaguest of ways than he is about the
fact -- and he knows it's a fact -- that the longer
he waits, the harder it'll be to ever go home.

He shoots his grapple and flies, and the pain shocks
the breath out of him. He'd forgotten just how
*many* of the muscles in his shoulders and upper
back are necessary for this, and trying to
simultaneously compensate for his left hand and
right arm is, at best, *complicated*, but --

He needs this.

Being Robin. Being *Jason's* Robin, even if he
can't ever figure out, with any consistency, how
to be Jason's Tim. He needs the flights, even
when it almost seems like it would be less painful,
in the long run, to just let go.

He needs all of it.

Even when it's more than a little terrifying.

"Superman," he says, in a voice deliberately loud
enough to be painful to use. "It's Robin, and we
need to talk about the Joker."

The rooftop he'd chosen isn't optimal -- the
complete lack of a balustrade leaves him feeling
painfully bright and *exposed* -- but he doesn't
really feel up to moving any further.

Especially considering the trip back he'll have to

That he hopes he'll --

The red and blue blur at the edge of his vision
resolves into Superman *just* slowly enough that
he turns before he can think.

He bites back the wince.

"Are you all right, Robin?"

Not enough of the wince. "I'm fine. I needed to
talk to you --"

"About Joker. Yes, I heard you." It's painfully
obvious to read the... *emotion* in Superman's
voice. Guilt, worry, sadness. A dozen other things.
("More human than human, in many respects,"
according to Bruce's *extremely* thorough file
on the man.) It was obvious *before*, even to

Now it's... it's a lot like something drawn by an
obsessive with primary-colored markers. Difficult
to read as sincere, as opposed to as a childish
effort to make Tim *believe* he's being sincere.

He manages to fight back the simultaneous urges
to shake his head like a dog and to reach for a --
*useless* -- birdarang, but the effort makes him

And tensing makes him *wince*.

"You *are* injured. What -- where's Batman?"

"Not here, and it isn't --"

Well. *That's* fascinating. There are no visual
cues that Superman is using his X-ray vision, but
that strange, insistent *surface* beneath the skin
of his face wants him to know that something
very strange is happening to the world around

Inside him. This time, he has the choice of reaching
for a birdarang or allowing himself to panic.


"What --" Superman's expression is stamped with
that brand of confusion Tim has often seen
described as 'endearing.' There is no rational
reason whatsoever for the fact that he finds it
disturbing, even the questionable rationality of
having good instincts.

He doesn't.

Superman takes a step forward, reaching out.

Tim doesn't manage to keep himself from
compensating with a step back.

The frown on Superman's face would actually be
comforting if it wasn't so blatantly *sad*. "Who
did this to you, Robin?"

And... oh. He backtracks, somewhat. Regroups.
The question makes sense. Considering. "The
surgery was elective. Right now, it's also

Superman looks like he's been slapped. The effort
he makes to adjust his expression is as obvious
as anything else. "I suppose I deserved that. No.
I know I did."

Tim has never been more *aware* of himself as
being in a strike-position than he is right now.
The awareness has more to do with the fact
that the tension makes him feel every millimeter
of the ring on his neck than it does with any of
his new abilities. He watches Superman stare at
the surface of the roof and waits.

"It's funny. I'd like to ask you about how the
others -- your family -- are doing. And about
your parents. I'd *like* to ask you what, exactly,
made... what you did to yourself into something
that seemed like a good choice... but..."

Guilt in Superman's voice. *Pain*. Demanding
some sort of *response*, and he... he doesn't --
no. There are important things. *Deadly*
important things. "I just need to know precisely
what you did. And why."

Superman nods. "All right," he says, quietly --

He hasn't been speaking in a normal tone of
voice since he'd done his scan.

"I turned the Joker's head to the side, closed my
left eye, and used the right to burn holes through
most of his forebrain, via his ear canal."

Which would explain the Joker's behavior -- or
rather the lack of it, judging by the reports they
intercept from Arkham.

That *he* intercepts, because he'd volunteered.
Only Stephanie has less emotional... investment
in the lives of the people at Arkham, and she has
other duties. As far as Tim knows, none of the
others have any idea that the Joker has become
a diapered vegetable.

They haven't even needed to replace the man's
straitjacket since Superman had brought him in.
Not once.

It also explains the confusion in those reports.
It's... doubtful any of the doctors at Arkham had
thought to give the man a thorough ear exam.
One small, precise, pupil-sized burn scar deep
within the Joker's ear...

Perhaps right on that spot within Tim's own
head that tells him so much about other people's
voices without giving him any idea on how to
*use* the information. Tim resists the urge to
nod to himself. "I wasn't aware you could do
that. Not with any degree of exactitude."

Superman's sigh is so heartfelt that not even the
quiet of it can't make it anything less than
viscerally terrifying. "You're wondering... you
think..." Another sigh. "I'd never done it before.
Any... *exactitude* I managed was entirely

"But you weren't trying to kill him."

"If I had been, he'd be dead."

This time, Superman's voice is toneless and flat.
It's oddly comforting. "All right. Why did you do

"There are a lot of reasons I could give you,
including the ones I've been giving myself." When
Superman looks up, his eyes are very blue and
strangely *young*. "The only true one is that I
didn't want to take the responsibility -- the
*consequences* -- of simply killing him."

Tim thinks about that for a moment, allowing
himself to tilt his head only because of the
possibility that the stretch might ease the pain.
It doesn't, but... "You're referring to Batman's

Something sparks behind Superman's eyes. The
air doesn't change and Tim remains alive -- not
the heat vision.

He nods, once, for Superman's benefit. "He
doesn't know yet."

Superman raises an eyebrow. "I gathered." His
tone isn't entirely without humor. A fast recovery.

Not a suspicious one.

"May I ask you something, Robin?"


"What had you -- your family -- planned to do
about the fact that Joker was aware of, at the
very least, Batman's identity?"

There isn't even a hint of rebuke in Superman's
tone. Impressive. And... admirably honest. "If
it had been me, and I'd had the chance, the
Joker would've been dead before you arrived.

"Correction -- I never would've called *you* in
the first place."

Superman's expression hardens quite a bit --
dramatically enough to make Tim think 'alien'
out of more than just reflex -- but he isn't
looking at *him*. Abruptly, Tim's mind is full
of a report he can hear spoken in Stone's
voice -- literally, if he wanted to -- but it's
nothing precisely relevant.

He's willing to bet that everyone in this
business who *keeps* reports has something
written down along the lines of how it's
always disturbingly surprising when you're
forced to remember that Superman isn't just
a metahuman. Tim shakes it off as the
distraction it is and waits.

After a long moment, Superman says, "Because
he knew the secret?"

Tim blinks. "There's no other reason."

This time, the hardness in Superman's expression
*is* for him, and Tim focuses on his breathing to
fight the fear.

And watches Superman... startle. Like an animal.

"You're honestly afraid of me. That I'd... *hurt*

"You lobotomized a man with your eyes. With
*one* eye."

"And you just admitted that you would've killed
that same man in cold blood." Another wry smile.

"You're not a man --" He cuts himself off, but it's
already too late. He bites the inside of his lip
*hard*. "I'm sorry."

"I'm *not*," Superman says, and... it's abundantly
clear that he isn't talking about Tim's rudeness.

"All right."

Superman turns, and stares off into the distance.
It's full dark, now, and it's New York. Somewhere,
someone is undoubtedly doing something terrible
to someone else.

If he cares to, Superman could hear it. He could
stop it in the time it took Tim to access Stone's
files on, say, Raven. Perhaps a little more.

"I didn't do it because of the secret, Robin.
*That*, for me, was only the excuse."

And... that's funny. He's almost positive it would
be funny to more people than just himself, even.
Because, right now, Superman is thinking of
*him* as dangerous. And if he opens his mouth
for any response whatsoever, he'll laugh so hard
he'll choke. And possibly break some of Stone's

"I have another question for you."

Two for two? "Yes?"

"What if it was *only* your secret? If you knew
there was no possibility of endangering anyone

"I wasn't aware it ever worked that way,

Superman's smile -- the part of it Tim can see --
is old and somewhat strange. As if it's meant for
someone who isn't there. "Humor me."

"All right. If it was only a matter of my own
protection..." What kind of person would he be,
without Jason? What sort of... "It would be a
great deal more complicated."

"Funny how that works, isn't it? You'd think it
would be the other way around..." Superman
shakes his head. "I should go. Unless there's
anything else...?"

("What is in your *head*?" "Right now?" "*Yes*.
And every other damned time, too, freakboy. In
fact, just pretend I'm *always* asking you that

Tim stares down at the roof and hears, faintly,
the sound of Superman's boots leaving the
surface. It isn't as important as the ghost of
Jason's voice in his head, even though it
clearly *is*. And he can also hear the man's
cape flapping in the light wind.

Knowing you should say *something* is the
most useless knowledge in the world. There's
never a suggestion, or even a *hint*...

But he has to try.

"I wasn't..." Planning to tell Jason. It's absolutely
true, and it's absolutely irrelevant. Sooner or
later, Jason will find out.

And Superman doesn't need *his* help with...
anything. He looks up, and Superman's eyes
are in shadow. He looks more like a statue
than a man.

"Thank you."

"I..." Superman's sigh, this time, is no more
distracting than the wind. "I don't think anyone
wants to be thanked for --"

"For protecting my family."

Nothing. Utter stillness -- except for the cape.

"And for agreeing to... this."

"Robin..." Superman turns his head, looking east
for a long moment.

Tim still can't see his face, and so the only cue
he has is the tense, low thrum which may or
may not be, at this point, an honest physical
reaction to Superman's presence. If nothing
else, the man's sudden, sharp laugh is enough
to rock him on his feet.

"I always will, Robin. Both."

Superman's tone is a mind-breaking mix of black
humor, fatalism, grief, and... something that his
body is insisting is almost exactly like *joy*.

By the time he remembers that it doesn't,
actually, matter that the mask hides much of
his confusion, Superman is just a primary-colored
spot in the distance.

It's time to get back to the Tower.

He doesn't make it three blocks before his
communicator is abruptly *alive* with a queerly
muffled rush of air.

He clenches his left fist around the jumpline in
shock. The tip of his pinky itches so much it

"And Robin...?"

Superman. The muffling isn't strange, at all -- he's
undoubtedly covering his ear to keep the
wind-sounds from being too intense for Tim's
new senses.

Just like he'd undoubtedly sped-flipped through
every potential channel until he'd found Tim's

Tim lands in the park opposite the Tower and...
it's all just a little too horrifying *not* to smile.
Isn't it?

"Yes, Superman?"

"I told you to call me Clark."

Tim snorts, helplessly, and only stops because it
hurts. "Noted," he says. "Robin out."


The note from Tim's 'mother' couldn't have been
more letter-perfect if Alfred had done the forgery.
He doesn't even have to show the scar on his
right arm. Without so much as a suggestion from
*him*, the gym teacher assumes he'd broken his
pinky very badly and sends him to the library after
a few token laps.

And, while it would be infinitely more convenient
if he'd gotten sent someplace where noise would
be noticeable, it's still a perfect time to do a
*few* of the tests Stone hadn't managed to get
to before Tim escaped.

"'Thirty-seven F,'" Stone says in his ear and...

This one is somewhat complicated. Admirably so.

He's supposed to search for a file where the phrase
appears, access it, *and* send the man enough
information to prove he'd done it. None of which
is the complicated part.

Managing to do it silently, on the other hand...

And really, it's frustrating in a way that makes him
feel almost feverish. The information was digitized
in the *first* place, and the communicators they
all use only *look* like especially tiny radios.

And while that's exactly how most of them *use*

"No go. You're still sending me far, far more than
what I asked for."

Tim winces. He'd asked, the first time, exactly
what that meant. The fact that Stone had *told*
him -- and hadn't stopped with the word 'Jason'
*or* the word 'shower' -- makes him wish they
were doing more practice on how to safely
*delete* files.

Stone laughs in his ear, deep and *deeply*
amused. "Don't worry, we will."

"Remind me," he says, quietly and deliberately,
"why this is important. We rarely work with the

"You think Roy will let that last? You think
*Jason* will?"


"No, actually," and Stone's voice is absolutely
serious. "The *point* is that I let my inability
to interface properly with anything but my own
computer systems make me, among other
things, *vulnerable*.

"We're not the only ones who fuck around with
computers too much for our own good, Robin.
We're just the only ones who do it for a *good*

Noted, he thinks, as clearly as he can.

Stone whistles, soft and low. "Well, how 'bout that.
But you don't have to shout."

Tim blinks. Communication. This is all about...

"That's right."

He'd been trying to do the equivalent of leaving
the dinner table, going to the attic, warming up
his father's ancient Smith-Corona, typing a
message to pass the salt, placing it an envelope,
and --

"Mailing it to your father -- and you apparently
have more issues with your father than *I* do,
but that isn't a criticism -- via Timbuktu."

When all Stone is really doing is asking him what
he remembers about --

"Sarah Simms."

Dick, he thinks, before he can stop himself. He
thinks a lot more than 'Dick.' The genially dry
phrases of Stone's report on the kidnapping,
and everything all of them (*Dick*) had done

Everything else.

By the time he can fumble something *like* the
ability to stop, he's reasonably sure he'd even
managed to send --

"Not all of it," Stone says, quietly. "It's a beautiful

The quality is probably better than the original,
at this point. Those are my parents. And his.

"I thought so. Listen, we *could* work on
something else today. I think it's pretty clear that
the only reason I got as much as I did this time is

You struck a nerve.

"We all have them," Stone says. "Listen..."

I have. Another seventeen minutes before math

"Uh, huh. Somewhere in here I have all of your class
schedules since first grade. But I was just..."

And there's *something* there. Faint. No, not faint.
Buried in the mass of unintegrated memory. Tim
blinks, and then he can hear it:

*Let's try this the other way.*

"Oh." And also *oh*. This is... it's... horrifying.
Fascinating. The possibility of psychic
communication *created* with cybernetics --

*Psychics don't have to worry about sunspots.

You know *exactly* what I mean, Tim thinks, and
pauses to keep from 'shouting.' I understand why
you haven't done this surgery on a million other
people, but at the very least you could publish a
*paper*. And... Stone's digitized amusement
actually feels a great deal like inhaling a
carbonated beverage, without the pain.

*Interesting metaphor. And I probably will publish
a paper... as soon as I get a test subject without a
secret identity.*

And that's... another good point. The abrupt
frustration is surprisingly intense. And, presumably,
wordless, because Stone is silent... or possibly just
'silent' for a very long time.

*Sorry. It's not clear. You're... frustrated?*

Absolutely fascinating, and more than a little
disturbing. Why does Stone's laughter translate,
while his own frustration doesn't? Is it something
about the nature of the emotions themselves, or
just his own? *Can* human emotion truly be
digitized? What would that suggest for the concept
of the soul?

*Do you -really- want to ask those questions?*

Tim blinks. It *is* his emotions. He --

*Christ, no. I didn't mean to make you even more
disturbingly insecure than you already are -- or,
actually, think that out loud.*

I have every reason to be insecure. I know sixteen
ways to disable a man with the first two fingers on
either hand, but it's become abundantly clear that
I'm no good whatsoever at the negotiation of
human relationships. Emotion is just a part of it.

Silence, on every level.

Stone...? I mean... *Victor*.

*Again, you don't have to shout. And...*

The amusement, this time, is powerful enough that
Tim sneezes reflexively. And winces at the pain.

*Sorry about that. What I was trying to say is this:
you're a Bat. You're probably the Battest of the
bunch of you. And I never knew a Bat who
wouldn't wind up *less* traumatized, overall, by
being forced to dance naked on the six o'clock
news than they would by spending any serious
amount of time contemplating the nature of the
human soul as it related to their own damned

Which is... true, now that he thinks about it. The
patina of intellectualism is, in the end, just that.
Still. It's a weakness, Victor.

*I've been to Gotham, kid. It's a damned
-coping mechanism-. Don't knock it.*

Another good point.


He'd like it, just once, if he could laugh with
someone, and *know* it. Down deep, in here,
where no one can lie.

Not even him.

*Robin --*

Could you cut the connection, Victor? I'd like some
time alone.

*Bat to the core. Cyborg out.* "And Cyborg *out*,"
he says, aloud.

But Victor leaves his faint, cautious worry behind.

It makes Tim's hard palate feel faintly chafed.


When he gets home from school, his mother is in
the kitchen, eating sashimi and humming along to
a song on the radio. It's the Classic Rock station,
and, even though her plate is nearly empty, she's
still eating with what could only be described as

For a long moment, he can't decide whether to be
terrified or happy.

And then he takes another step into the kitchen,
and the light from the window catches the glitter of
a handful of forgotten glass shards on the

And the bottle of wine -- no, sake -- beside her is
nearly as empty as the plate.

He tamps it down. He tamps *everything* down,
pastes a smile on his face, and walks the rest of
the way into the kitchen, sitting opposite her at
the table.

His father's place.

"Hey, Mom."

She jumps, and... lurches. Nearly off the chair. He
steadies her with his right hand, and tries to focus
on the fact that it doesn't hurt very much, despite
the fact that he's supporting at least half of her

He'll be healthy enough for light patrols in a week.

He *will*.

It's just that, in the meantime...

"Kiddo!" She smiles, and it's a loose sort of thing.
Like she isn't quite using enough of the muscles in
her face.

He gestures at the plate. "Anything leftover for

She nods. "Bento box in the fridge. Your father
brought enough for both of us. Good of him, don't
you think?"

The *sly* smile looks even worse than the happy

He knows what that one is *supposed* to look
like. But...

"Dad came over?"

"Uh, huh. Take-out sushi and a stack of papers for
me to sign. He left the tramp in the car."

"I... oh."

The narrow look she gives him is almost perfect.
"*Please* don't tell me you were harboring some...
some kind of *hope*."

The piece of yellowtail she'd forgotten in her
chopsticks goes flying when she waves her hand
in the air. He didn't quite catch its trajectory, but
the maid service will be here again in a couple of
days. It won't have time to decompose too badly
if he can't find it.


His molars thrum with the force of her anger. Of
her *demand*. He reminds himself that it isn't
really about him, and says, "I thought it would
take another few weeks."

"Hmm. Well. I decided to let your father have the
yacht. I'm sure he'll teach you how to sail, if you
want to learn."

Tim swallows, and watches his mother eat. It's
fascinating in the same way Japanese thrillers
tend to be. Every few moments, like clockwork,
her hand moves toward the half-empty glass --
she's using a simple and rather larger wine glass --
of sake.

Every few-plus-one moments, her hand slips back
under the table.

She never drinks in front of him unless it's her

Or unless there's a degree of plausible deniability
*about* it being her first. A part of him seriously
considers just... staying here.

Right here.

He'll ask her questions about the day, and how
his father had looked, and whether she could see
the Winters woman from the window, and how
old was she, again?

He'll stay, and wait, and get to see...

Everything he already knows. Tim stares at the

His absent fingertip is telling him, in no uncertain
terms, that if he just rubbed it vigorously against
a cheese grater for ten minutes -- certainly no
more than fifteen -- he'd feel infinitely better.

The chopsticks beat an unsteady tattoo against the

"I'm going out," he says, and stands. "I'll be back
late, so you don't have to wait up."

And now she'll say something about his 'friends,' or
possibly about how he knows to call if he *needs*
anything, or some other utter *bullshit*.

He stares at the top of her head -- she'd found
the time to fix her hair, and it's perfect save for
the few strands which show grey at the roots --
and waits for it.

"You don't think you can stay for dinner?"

There's nothing remotely routine about the
question. Nothing neutral, slurred, or even
slow-to-avoid-slurring. It's so deeply, honestly
*plaintive* that he feels the left side of his face
twitch and wonders if his mother's sad, sodden
loneliness is enough to give him a stroke.

And he knows that if she looks up -- if he stands
here long enough to *let* her look up -- he'll be
lucky if he only punches her in the face.

He might actually *say* something.

"No," he says, turns, and starts to walk. "I can't."

Forty-seven paces away and halfway out the door,
he hears, "You have fun now, Timmy."

He doesn't slam the door.


He makes it down eighteen steps before the bats
screech with one, desperately painful voice. He
stumbles down the next four -- five -- before his
body remembers that it knows how to avoid falling
down stairs.

He stands on the twenty-third step and breathes in
the stink of his own fresh fear-sweat and listens to
his heart pound.

The clock thuds closed behind him with all the
gentleness of a mallet to the spine.

The bats screech again and he manages -- barely --
not to jump.

The flinch is painful enough.

He doesn't start walking again until he can hear the
screeches without flinching, and, quite frankly, he's
glad to be here early.

He doesn't want to think about how the others
would look at him if they could see him vibrating
like some kind of *rabbit*.

By the time he's all the way down, he can't quite
credit the fact that his ears aren't bleeding, despite
the utter irrationality of the idea. But he *is* all
the way down, and they *aren't* bleeding, and
how the *hell* had he forgotten that he spends
most of his fucking waking *life* in a place full of
shrill voices?

He laughs to himself and it feels so good that he
thinks about not stopping until he can leave the

And then he thinks about the Joker, and he
doesn't want to laugh at all.

Did it still smell like barbecue when you were
burning brains?

Probably not. And he doesn't think Superman
would appreciate the question.

Even if he *did* call him Clark when he asked.

"Robin, it's --"

"Victor. I'm just a bit more than half a mile away
from you right now."

"Half a mile for deep scans, Boy Wonder. You'd
have to be further away than Gotham for me
*not* to get accurate readings on your vitals.
Which are insane, by the way, so stop being a
paranoid little birdboy and tell me why."

Tim snorts and flexes his fists. One, then the
other. That pain, at least, is entirely normal.
"Because Bats live in caves, Victor. With *actual*
bats." And because --

"Because *what*?"

Fuck. The open line. Tim sighs and flexes his fists
again. The other, then one. "Because I had a bad
day and the bats were an unpleasant surprise."

"I can hear them. Robin --"

"Unless you have any suggestions, I need to make
a start on getting used to the damned things."

Victor grunts in his ear, and it doesn't matter that
the frustration -- the *irritation* -- is as plain as
whatever's he's helpless filling Victor's brain with
right now. It's deep, and gruff, and human, and
*exactly* like getting a deep-tissue massage
from someone who really likes you.

Another grunt, and a rush of amusement, and
Tim sniffs back a sneeze.

"You know, I could just talk at you while you wait
for the rest of your crew. You don't *always*
have to go straight for the deep end, kid."

Tempting. So very, very tempting.

"Robin --"

You can call me Tim, you know. There's no point...
you know.

"All right, *Tim* --"

But I still have to do it. This time. This is my home.

"Fine. Then my suggestion is bat poison, and lots of
it. Cyborg out."

It's an excellent idea. Assuming he can figure out
how to do it anything like efficiently. He's never
even *seen* the insects the bats are, presumably
eating to survive here, and Alfred isn't home to
offer any suggestions of his own. Tim's *early*.

And, for a while, there's nothing but the steady
hum of the generators and the quieter but equally
steady hum of the computers. He wonders if he
should hum back. Maybe try to establish...

He blinks. The adapters are all in his backpack.
Well, except for the one he'd sealed by itself in
plastic so he could keep it in his pocket.

He could, conceivably, upload *everything*.
Starting *now*.

And he's moving for the computers when the bats
screech again. He doesn't stagger and he doesn't
curse, but he wants to. Quite, quite badly.

But he *needs* to start getting used to the
things -- at least until he gets the go-ahead to
commit bat-genocide, and who knows *what*
Jason would feel some sort of deep, emotional
attachment to -- and he won't do that if he's busy
coming in his pants with the addition of Bruce's
files to his memory.

The nice thing about being alone is that there's
no one to call you a freak just because you're
staring longingly at a CPU.

He moves to the mats and slips off his shoes and
backpack before sitting down.

The bats screech.


He hears Jason coming, of course. Down the steps
two at a time and singing to himself. He doesn't
know the song. It doesn't matter. It's rough and
low and only incomprehensible because it feels
too good to *think*.

He hears the exact moment when Jason notices
his presence. Jason's pace doesn't change and he
doesn't stop singing, but he misses on the beats
he's tapping out on his... thigh. It would be his

That's the sound of skin slapping on denim.

His lips feel cool, abruptly, and Tim realizes he's
licking them.

It takes a moment to stop.

"Man, did you actually find a meditation technique
that *isn't* painfully boring? The last time I saw
you look that happy I'd let you drive the freaking

Words. More *words*. And Jason's voice... it
*also* takes a moment to translate the sentence
away from wordless satisfaction. Tim opens his
eyes and doesn't bother to try to stop smiling.
"I'm not meditating."

"No...?" Jason is looking at him curiously. And...
openly. He doesn't think 'openly' is exactly the
right word, but it feels close enough. Like a
willingness to share a joke.

He wishes he actually had one. "No," he says.
"Say..." Something else. Anything. "Tell me
about your day."

Jason raises both eyebrows and blinks at him.
"Uh... okay. I slept through English. I cut up a
frog. I slept through History -- don't say it, I
*know* I'm gonna fail if I don't deal. Lunch
made me want to cry. The guidance counselor
pulled me out of gym class and tried to have a
long heart-to-heart with me about how the
bruises made it obvious that Alfred was beating
the crap out of me every night. I told her he only
does that when I don't put out, and you're not
actually listening to a word I'm saying, are you?"

Tim picks up *enough* of that  beyond the
visceral, incomprehensible -- Jason's so *close*.
He can't smell him -- he's not *that* close -- but
he thinks he can *taste* him, down deep below
wherever 'taste' gets its simple, shallow meaning.
He... Tim hears enough to know that he should
probably be smiling ruefully, but --

Jason's hand on his face makes him gasp and
shudder. The pain is irrelevant to the whispery
rasp of his calluses against Tim's skin. Warmth,
sound... and.

Jason is pulling up his eyelids and checking his

"Man, what is *up* with you today? You win the
freakboy lottery or something?"

Tim rolls to his knees and reaches for Jason's fly.
"Yes," he says, and hopes it's something close to
the right response for whatever Jason had actually
asked. He knew it was a *question* -- the amused
curiosity had been like snorting a very *particular*
sort of carbonated beverage -- but beyond that --

"Hey, whoa, whoa --" Jason closes his hands
around Tim's wrists and the rasp of his calluses
over the flannel of Tim's shirt is different and

"Jason --"

"You were gonna tell me what you *did* this
weekend. And -- *fuck*. Including whatever the
hell you did to your *hand*. Tim, what --"

Jason. *Jason*. "I need to suck you off. Right

The breath Jason takes is sharp, shocked and
ragged-sounding, and Tim's dick flexes in his
boxers. And does it again when Jason drags his
thumbs over Tim's palms, slow and...

Rough, harsh, *sound*.

Skin on skin. Calluses on --

"Please, Jason --"

"*Fuck* --"

Tim's boxers are wet and his neck *hurts* and
none of it matters against the noise of Jason
releasing his wrists and unbuttoning his jeans.
It doesn't take a second for the zipper to go
down, but every nanosecond of it is the best
kind of jagged.

Wooden roller coasters and bouncing
mattresses --

"Jason," he says again, and it's little more than
moan. Less when the slide of his tongue over the
head of Jason's dick makes *Jason* moan.

"God, you're -- oh *fuck*, yes --"

Thick, solid weight of Jason on his tongue and
the faint, thundering slap of the head against the
inside of his cheek. The bats are screeching,
but suddenly it's just counterpoint or...

He doesn't know music, but he *wants* to.
Because it has to be like this, it *has* to, and
Jason's hand slides through his hair like --

A dozen sheets in a stiff breeze. Fields of wheat
snapping under --

"Suck it. *Suck* me --"

A moment, an hour to *understand* that, another
to realize that he's just holding his mouth open
to let Jason's dick *move*, and another to make
himself actually *do* it, because by then Jason
is growling.

His name, curses, or maybe just *growls*, and
Tim comes in his pants, shouts around Jason's
dick, aches and needs and *sucks*.

And it's easier to focus. A little.

The sounds are just as wonderful, but he won't
be hard again for --

*Never*, because the rough slide of Jason's
fingers over his port hurts so much he *chokes*.


And the only reason he isn't ripping himself away
is that Jason's still *touching* it, and it would
hurt just as much to move, right now.

"What the *fuck* is that?"

The touch probably only *feels* as hard as a
nerve-strike. Tim groans around Jason's dick and
shudders, hard.

It isn't from the pain. Not really.

"Holy -- what the fuck did you *do* to yourself?"

It isn't from the pain at all, because Jason is
softening rapidly in --

His voice sounds like --

It feels like *disgust*.

Tim squeezes his eyes shut and pulls back until he
can close his mouth. And shudders again.

"Please stop touching me there, Jason. It's still...
very sore."

Jason snatches his hand away like he's been burnt,
and Tim listens to him stutter-step back.

Away from him.

Tim listens to him doing up his pants, and listens
to him very deliberately steadying his breathing.

And... his hair. He's scrubbing his hand back --

"Open... open your eyes, Tim."

He does. Jason's face is still and set and his eyes
are wild with... he isn't sure. At all.

But he can guess.

Tim feels his expression twisting in on itself and
feels -- pain. A lot of pain. He looks down and
sees that he's clenching his fists. He can't make
them relax, so he looks back up at Jason.

"Talk *now*, Tim."


The thing is, he was right.

He was *always* right, because Jason is nearly
always a very practical person, and it was, of
course, a fait accompli. He'd taken the modified
communicators from Tim, and handed them out
to the others.

And, when they went out on patrol without him --
Helena alone and Stephanie breaking off from
Jason to keep digging into the missing prostitute
case after the first two hours -- he was able to
follow them perfectly on the street maps he'd
uploaded after they'd left.

When Helena wound up with just a few too many
gunmen after her, he was able to tell Stephanie
that Jason could get there faster, and he was able
to tell Jason *how*.

When Stephanie described the man whose
expression when he looked at the prostitutes --
the *girls* -- was 'wrong,' he was able to tell her
immediately the man's name, priors, and address.

When Jason went to check out the address, he'd

He found enough.

The cheap charm bracelet and the wristwatch of
surprisingly high-quality were both listed in the
effects of two of the missing girls.

The fact that the missing persons report hadn't yet
been fully processed was easily remedied.

Within the next twenty minutes, Judge Hartwell
will be issuing the warrant for Martin Maxwell's
arrest. Until the police are allowed to pick the man
up, Stephanie will be hitting him, and possibly
finding out more in terms of whether the man
*had* been working for the Massive, or was just
another... independent.

He was able to tell Helena precisely where to lead
the waiting officers so that they'll only hear enough
of what Stephanie is doing to sympathize, as
opposed to feeling the need to intervene.

Bruce's reports on the range of human, non-enhanced
senses are as exquisitely thorough as everything

The best part of it is that, save -- *perhaps* -- for
the expedited missing-persons report, he could have
done all of the above while *also* on patrol.

He was right.

And he doesn't need to see Jason's face to know that,
for him, it doesn't matter.

He can hear it in Jason's breathing, and in the rapid,
irregular rhythm of his pulse and pace.

Tim shuts the monitor down and stares at the black
screen, instead. There's nothing that could be on the
monitor which isn't already in his head, after all.

Jason doesn't stop pacing.

"Will. Will you tell me why you're angry?"

Everything stops except for Jason's heartbeat. "You
*mutilated* yourself."

There are a few things he can say to that. Most of
the time, when that happens, Tim tends to savor it.
It's so rare to have *any* idea how to respond to
emotional statements.

However, he's not at all sure how Jason would
react to either "I prefer to think of it as body
modification" or "you haven't seen a fraction of
what I can do, now," and he isn't sure he wants to
think about it.

Instead, he just says, "You know why I did it."

"Yes, I fucking know why you *did* it, you --" Jason
cuts himself off and starts pacing again.

Freak. You *freak*. So why not just say it? Why
cut it off *now*? Tim bites his lip and breathes
through his nose until he has control of himself
again. It's irrelevant, after all.

It takes much too long to convince himself of that.

"If you know why I did it, then why --"

Jason spins the chair around, fast and sudden, and it
makes Tim's head jerk to the side. He cries out at
the pain before he can stop himself.

Before he can squeeze his eyes shut again, he has
to watch Jason's face twist into something ugly and
conflicted and strange.

He wonders if Jason ever wanted to punch his
mother in the face. He's smart enough not to say
that out loud. Not now, at least.

Probably not ever. Not...

"It was. The wrong thing."

Tim keeps his eyes shut. It's funny how even the
rage, even the sickness and sickly, threaded *guilt*
sounds so good in Jason's voice. He doesn't think
'funny' is the right word.

"Are you listening to me?"

"Yes --"

"I know exactly why you did it, and I know *exactly*
how fucking *efficiently* it worked -- and you better
believe we're going to use it from now on. It was
still the wrong. Fucking. *Call*."

Just like they're going to use the fact that the Joker
now has all the faculties of a retarded toddler.

*Just* like that, and the thought is horrifying enough
to make him open his eyes. Because... because one
day Jason *is* going to find out what Superman
had done, and he's going to look at Superman the
same way he's looking at Tim right now, and...

And there's nothing he can do about it.

Warning Superman won't make any difference,
because Superman had already known what Tim's
just figuring out right now. Reactions,
consequences. The real meaning of 'ends,' when
considered in conjunction with 'means.'

Tim blinks, much too rapidly and obviously and --

"What? What is it? Are you -- did something --"

"I'm fine," Tim says, and stands. "I. I have to. I." I
wanted to stay here tonight, with you. I wanted to
see what your heartbeat felt like after you went to
sleep. He blinks at the floor, helpless and stiff
and something like paralyzed.

"Tim --"

The screech of the bats makes them both jump.

"*Jesus*, I hate that --"

Luckily, it makes *him* jump toward his backpack,
filled and zipped and ready to go over his shoulders,
especially since he hadn't bothered to change
anything but his underwear, tonight. "I'll see you
tomorrow," he says to the floor, and listens to Jason
sigh while he heads for the stairs.

"Fuck. Wait."

He does.

"You *are* going home this time, right? Like, to
*one* of your parents' houses?"

This is my home, he doesn't say.


"Yes," he says. "To my mother's."

And walks up the stairs.


End note: Just another note that I'm fully aware I've
fragged another timeline in this -- Victor's,
specifically. Um... sorry?

Additionally, I would just like to point out that this
is all Livia's fault. Don't listen to her when she
denies it -- she lies like a bastard.