The Glass Onion Text too small or too big? You can change it! Ctrl+ (bigger), Ctrl- (smaller)
or click on View in your browser and look for font or text size settings.

Home/Quicksearch  +   Random  +   Upload  +   Search  +   Contact  +   GO List

And let them swallow you

by Te

[Story Headers]

And let them swallow you
by Te
September 21, 2004

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

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

Summary: The best thing he can offer them is his mind.

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

Author's Note: Sixth in <a href="http://robin.oscillating.net/fanfic.html#angels">The Angels You Need</a> 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 Robin.

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

However...

"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...

Well.

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.

Something.

("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 Steph.

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 own.

"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 mind.

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 prostitutes.

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 person.

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 cop.

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 expanding."

"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.

"What?"

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 'girls.'

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...

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 because...

Because.

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 Robin.

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.

Girls.

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 be.

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 homework.'

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

His mother would never...

Well.

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 days.

'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. "Yes."

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.

"Oh?"

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 systems.

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 she...

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 crushed.

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 --

And.

What is he going to do about bathing after the surgery?

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.

After.

*

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 you.

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 this?"

Jason.

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 pounding.

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.

Fascinating.

"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 stomach?"

"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."

"Noted."

"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."

"Yes."

"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 won't.

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.

"Robin..."

"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 considering...

Considering...

*

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 --

"Anything?"

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 convulsively.

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

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."

"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 answer."

"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. But..."

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 myself."

"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 brain.

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.

"I."

"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 aren't."

"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."

"Breathe."

"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 sign.

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 funny.

*

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 like.

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 over...

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 it.

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...

Well.

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 mouthwash.

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."

"Right."

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 feeling.

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 neurosurgeons."

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 averages?"

"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 answer.

"Sounds?"

"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 you?"

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 gradually."

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. Carefully.

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 like.

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 walking.

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, though.

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 it."

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 light.

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?"

"Yes."

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, but...

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 --"

"There."

"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 blinks.

"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.

"Well?"

"'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... well.

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 it."

"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 criticize."

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.

"Oh?"

"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 again.

"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 life."

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, but...

But.

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.

"Robin...?"

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

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 forgotten..."

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

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 something.

"Nothing. Everything is going... according to plan."

"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. "Batman?"

"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 voice.

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 future.

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 all.

"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 you."

"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 hearing.

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 additions.

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 lack.

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.

Thoughtlessly.

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, perhaps.

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 -- pauses.

"Victor."

"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.

"Well?"

"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 capabilities?"

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

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 eyebrow.

"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 hug."

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, iffy.

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 then.

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 make.

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 him.

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 tense.

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 him.

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

More.

"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 irrelevant."

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 -- no.

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 accidental."

"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 it?"

"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 reaction."

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. Although...

Not a suspicious one.

"May I ask you something, Robin?"

"Yes."

"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."

"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 stitches.

"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 else."

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

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 question.")

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 burns.

"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 own.

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 them...

"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 Titans."

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

"Point."

"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 reason."

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 and...

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 photograph."

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 that..."

You struck a nerve.

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

I have. Another seventeen minutes before math class.

"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. Generally.

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 emotions.*

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.

But...

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 enthusiasm.

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 countertop.

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 weight.

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 me?"

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 one.

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.

"Well?"

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 first.

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 table.

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 plate.

"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 Cave.

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 thigh.

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 Batmobile."

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 pupils.

"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 wonderful.

"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 now."

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.

"What..."

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 found...

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 else.

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.

Right?

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

And walks up the stairs.

end.

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.

Please post a comment on this story.









Fandom:  Batman
Title:  And let them swallow you
Series Name:  The Angels You Need
Author:  Te   [email]   [website]
Details:  Series  |  NC-17  |  *slash*  |  117k  |  09/21/04
Characters:  Tim, Vic, Jason, others
Pairings:  Tim/Jason
Summary:  The best thing he can offer them is his mind.
Notes:  Disturbing content.

[top of page]

Home/QuickSearch  +   Random  +   Upload  +   Search  +   Contact  +   GO List