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Bart can’t work out what the worst part is. The fact he was woken by Joan? The fact she had this expression that would have been understanding and sympathetic if it weren’t for the fact she was obviously trying not to laugh? Or that the beautiful damsel in distress he’d been saving was, in fact, Tim?

Last one won hands down, of course, but he’s not quite ready to deal with that just yet, so he draws his knees up and tries not to blush too hard and accepts the bowl of cereal. It’s nice getting breakfast in bed sometimes. Except not now.

On the way to school, still trying very hard not to think about it and yet still thinking in circles around it, he figures he probably hit puberty, really hit it, while he was reading. Some of the top shelf books had produced some interesting reactions that he’d had to look up in the biology textbooks. He’d had more important things on his mind during most of that year, or for those nanoseconds anyway, so he’d been able to ignore things for the most part. Kon had commented later that his voice had changed, which he hadn’t actually noticed. But then, he’d spent a year and a half, in his mind if in no one else’s, not speaking, so it could just have been lack of practise.

It almost made him glad he didn’t really have any friends at school, after that weekend. It would have been hard to answer questions. Except, now... Well, it would have been nice to have someone to confide in, possibly. Bart was sure that if he had friends here they’d be the open-minded type who wouldn’t mind who he was dreaming about, especially if they didn’t know the person in question.

There were advantages to subjective time, but for some reason he couldn’t go fast enough to escape this, to get it over with. He was leaving for San Francisco that night, and he couldn’t stop thinking about kissing Tim, who would be there. So maybe he could have stretched each lesson out over several subjective years, but that just gave him more time to think about it, and if he fidgeted, as he tended to, people were really going to notice. ‘Normal’ people don’t usually doodle so quickly they set the paper alight.

So suddenly the day seems to be going by really quickly, a subjective thing that’s never happened to him before, and it’s time to go to Titans Tower and he isn’t sure he wants to. He’s dawdling in his room, finding stuff to do to put off going a little longer. Need to change the decorations, he decides, since this stuff is just too kiddy. And besides, he’d die of embarrassment if Kon ever found out he actually had a Superboy poster. He only got it because Cassie had one (lie) and because he kinda missed seeing the others when they weren’t around (true). He had a Wondergirl poster too, but he hadn’t been able to find space for that.

Bart was suddenly very glad he didn’t have a Robin poster. That they didn’t make Robin posters.

So... so. Carol. Rose. Think about that. About them. Or not. Bart found himself sitting on his bed with his arms wrapped around himself missing Carol more than he’d imagined possible, and Max as well, because he’d have been able to talk to Max about this. He wanted to talk so badly. He had this idea that older people were more conservative, and more conservative people were probably less open minded about sudden lusting after close same sex friends, and besides the thought of talking about sex stuff with Jay or Joan just made his insides shrivel. And, well, he knew Wally would probably be fine about it because wasn’t Piper gay (not that he was meant to know that but did people really think he was deaf or something?) and Wally was fine with that, wasn’t he? Except he was still Wally, and Bart wasn’t sure he wanted his opinion anyway. He kinda wished he knew Piper well enough to ask him, but he didn’t even know how to get hold of him except through Wally and that would lead to questions.

And besides, he wasn’t gay.

He kept that in his mind as he spoke to Kon and chatted to Cassie and tried not to jitter around the tower too much. He was working out a way to stay out of the way without being obvious. Everyone would know something was wrong. He just knew it. But he wasn’t gay, so nothing had changed, so nothing was wrong.

Only, only... what if nothing had really changed? Because it wasn’t Gar, or Vic, or even Kon. It was Tim, and he’d always liked Tim. Admired him. Tim was strong, and smart, and really really cool. Bart had always known he’d never be just like Tim, no matter what he tried, but as long as he had Tim that didn’t matter. Except Tim had been justifiably distant right now, what with everyone he knew and cared about dying suddenly and horribly in what, even to Bart, seemed like a very short space of time for these things to be happening.

There! An explanation! He was just worried about Tim. Right, crisis sorted.

Training went well, Saturday morning. Got thrown around by Wondergirl a bit, who was tag teaming with Superboy which was totally not fair because they both had superstrength and he only had Beastboy on his side. Gar was alright, but he was no Robin, who had teamed with Cyborg. Still, Bart managed to land a few hits on Starfire and wrestled with Superboy. He likes wrestling with Kon, because it’s just fun, and right now strengthens his conviction that he can’t possibly be gay, because surely no gay guy would be able to roll around in a sweaty heap on the floor with Kon and not get all ‘het up’. Het. Bart giggles to himself, too quickly to earn any of the odd looks he knows he deserves.

But oh, the showers. The communal showers. And Bart can’t quite bring himself to look straight at Tim yet, no matter how hard he tries. But somehow, he’s ended up standing next to him, and his eyes are moving too fast for anyone to see, and Tim’s got so many scars and he’s muscular in a completely different way to Kon and he’s showering with his mask on which is just so weird and so cool and so hot and oh shit.

Bart finishes his shower at top speed before anyone can see what certain parts of his body are doing and probably sprays everyone with his dirty water but he doesn’t care because he has to get out of there now. He slips several times, landing on his butt twice, before he makes it, but he doesn’t think anyone really sees much. Just a Bart blob blur and gone.

Later, Tim comes into his room. Bart sees him, not quite a statue, more like a plant. Moves, definitely moves, but you can’t watch it, only see it after it’s already happened. Tim obviously wants to talk to him, but he can’t do that right now. He can’t let Tim see him because Tim is smart and Tim is an uber-detective and Tim will know immediately.

He’s reading up on sexuality. He’s coming to hate psychologists and psychiatrists and most particularly Freud, though now he’s kinda grateful for his screwed up childhood. With all the time-travelling he seems to do, maybe one day he’ll actually end up in early twentieth century Austria, where he can describe the childhoods of himself and Kon and see what Freud makes of that. But right now he just needs people to agree, somewhere, somehow. Whether it’s biological or behavioural, whether it’s normal or abnormal, whether it’s Right or Wrong. The religious texts would be screwing him up badly right now, but he figures he was never that religious anyway and most of them suggest he’s screwed for that as it is. What’s really screwing him up right now, though, is material that suggests this is a perfectly normal reaction to someone who saves your life regularly and the other material that tells him he’s obviously entirely gay and has been repressing for years. He’s really mad at the guys who suggest he has a choice, because he would not have chosen this. The feminists who start talking about ‘lesbian continuums’ are kinda interesting. Those people who talk about how everyone is actually bisexual seemed cool enough, until they get into how all relationships are sexual which grosses Bart out and brings him back to Freud again.

Tim’s still standing there, but he’s got a sad face now, as far as Bart can tell. It’s hard, with the mask, and Tim tends to keep his mouth completely immobile, but there’s this air of melancholy, and Bart knows he’s hurt one of his best friends badly. It almost makes him stop, but he still can’t explain his actions to himself, let alone someone else. His body is totally doing this without his permission, and it wouldn’t be so bad if he could find a reason, somewhere in there, but it looks like no one knows. It’s kind of scary to think that maybe all of these people went through this. His stomach hurts and his chest aches and his brain is going even faster than usual, and he wants to curl up in a cupboard where it’s dark and warm and safe (and full of food, because nothing will distract a speedster from his stomach) and no one will ever make him feel like this again.

Tim’s gone by the time Bart’s reread everything again, just in case there was some ‘YOU FEEL LIKE THIS BECAUSE: __’ that he’d failed to notice first time round which will solve all his problems. And now he feels even worse, but he knows he isn’t going to sort this out before Sunday and that means he’s got to avoid Tim all weekend. He suspects that if Tim decides to find him he’s got no hope, but maybe Tim will have taken the hint by now.

Bart supposes, on Sunday evening, that he’s never been so grateful that there were no attacks on San Francisco. He did actually spend some time curled up in one of the kitchen cabinets, eating everything in it so he’d fit. Flour was not particularly appetising, and he suspected it must have made him look kinda weird because Kon thought he was rabid at first. He didn’t feel any better in the cupboard, and worse, he couldn’t explain why he was there to Kon and found himself avoiding him too. And Cassie, because Kon would have talked to Cassie about it. And okay, maybe they’d just dismiss it as Bart being Bart, but that just made him feel worse in ways he couldn’t quite define. It was the same as Kon and Cassie getting together, and Tim quitting Robin (and everything else that had happened in Tim’s life), and no one ever telling him these things until long after the event. He was just Impulse. He’d always be Impulse. And, to be fair, Impulse didn’t have to deal with hard-ons when he thought about his friends and all the different opinions professionals might express about such, but it just reminds Bart that he couldn’t be Impulse if he tried any more. Some days it seems like Tim’s the only one who has really acknowledged how much Bart has changed and Bart wonders if that’s why he likes Tim so much just now.

It’s Sunday night and he’s staring at a full plate with Jay and Joan giving him really worried looks. Maybe it’s the flour (and sugar, and salt, and baking soda) or maybe it’s Tim, but Bart doesn’t really feel like eating. His stomach’s still all unsettled.

“Can I go to bed?” he asks, which sounded better in his head. He pauses, and adds, “Would you put this in the fridge for me?”

Joan presses the back of her hand to his forehead, which he tolerates, then takes his plate over to the fridge to cool. Bart zips upstairs before either of them can ask any questions and throws himself onto his bed. He kicks off his shoes and lies there, curtains open but lights off, hoping he’ll fall asleep.

He’s not sure when he manages it, but he’s woken up at about two o’clock in the morning by the volume of his stomach. He wanders downstairs and eats the meal cold, gravy sludgy and congealed. He helps himself to a few cookies, but now he’s wide awake and feeling restless. He turns the X-box on and mutes the television, but his mind keeps wandering despite the added difficultly the silence adds. He’s read everything in the house a hundred times over already. Television at this time of night is sorta amusing, especially muted, until he stumbled across a film the TV Guide identifies as ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ and found himself turning the volume on without thinking. Evidence is mounting up for him being gay.

He turns it off and sits in the dark for a while, or what feels like a while, but he still can’t think himself out of this mess. He counts the seconds on the clock, watching the minute go by and playing with subjective time to make each second a different length. When he’s done, having sat there for hours in his time, he’s still wide awake and his foot is tapping at a pitched buzz. The counting helped distract him, but he knows what he wants to do. What he always wants to do, to some extent or another.

Kid Flash runs. He runs around North America, Canadian snow still on his boots when he reaches Mexico. He runs around South America, pausing only to halt an illegal logging operation in Brazil. He’d run around Europe, and Asia, and Africa, but he finds the Atlantic Ocean insanely dull and he doesn’t watch where he’s going closely enough in the Pacific to avoid typhoons. It’s cutting close to morning, or it is back in Keystone anyway, but he’s still not feeling right. Better, but not right. He’s beginning to suspect it will never be right again.

He’s back before school, but Jay is already up and looking a little harried. Bart remembers intending to leave a note, but he also remembers intending to be back before anyone else got up. Jay doesn’t seem too irritated, just patting Bart on his head and saying he’s glad they’ll have this chance to talk.

Bart is getting better at listening. He still prefers stuff written down, but he can remember things said to him if he tries.

“...perfectly normal for someone your age. Well, physically your age. Chronologically it would be extremely unlikely, though not unheard of. I suppose that might be why you’re having a little trouble adapting.” He pauses, apparently trying to recover his brain from wherever it happens to be heading of its own accord. “If there’s anything you want to talk about, just ask.”

Bart suspects Jay really really doesn’t want to be asked, and Bart’s not sure what he’s meant to be asking anyway, so he just shakes his head and smiles like Jay has just solved all of his problems. The smile’s a little shaky, and Jay obviously notices this because he ruffles Bart’s hair and squeezes his shoulder firmly in what’s obviously meant to be a reassuring manly ‘you’re-an-adult-too-now’ way. It’s one step away from that weird back slapping diagonal hug guys on TV do, which Kon seems to be slowly picking up but Bart’s determined not to give in. Bart will always hug like he did as a child, with his whole body behind it burying himself in the other person. He hugs Jay like that before he leaves for school, reminding himself that that’s who he is and no matter who he dreams about that’s who he’ll always be.

This is puberty. This is adolescence. This is the hell everyone goes through, sooner or later, except a certain Super-clone Bart really wants to kill right now. It’s Wednesday and Kon’s sitting in the frame of his window, smirking at the Superboy poster.

“What happened to detention?”

Kon blinks. “I skipped it to drop by. Why are you so late?”

“Detention.”

“What for?”

“Cheating. If it happens one more time they’ll suspend me.” Bart sighs heavily and chucks his bag at the wall. “I’m not cheating!”

“Dude, no one said you were,” Kon says holding his hands up in mock surrender.

“Principal thinks I am,” Bart sulks. “Doesn’t believe I’m an eidetiker.”

“Uh?”

“I have a photographic memory,” Bart says. He throws himself onto the bed and debates repeating Sunday night’s performance, except it’s still far too light and going without dinner isn’t something he wants to repeat. “Why’re you here?”

Kon kicks his feet against the wall until he remembers where he is, but he’s still not looking at Bart now the subject’s been raised and Bart knows precisely why he’s there.

“Dude, you’re hiding from all of us. What’s up?” Kon eventually mumbles.

“I’m not.” Bart decides to go for all out lying. “I’m just here.”

“Well, yeah, but you live here.”

“If I was avoiding you I’d have left before you knew I was here,” Bart points out.

“You spent Sunday in a kitchen closet!” Kon bursts out.

“Not all of it,” Bart protests.

“And what happened in the showers?” Kon demands. “You were weird all weekend.”

“I just... I had a weird week,” Bart offers weakly.

“A weird week.” Kon pronounces each word like a separate sentence. Bart curls in on himself.

“I just... It doesn’t matter. I don’t really want to talk about it. Besides, you know me.” Bart hates every word of it. “It’s Bart. I’ll be over whatever it is in a matter of days. Don’t have the patience to be any particular kind of weird for long. Too flightly.” He’s beginning to sound bitter, unfortunately, and bites back anything else. Hopefully Kon’s got the message.

And then Kon’s stretched out next to him on the bed, one large hand stroking his hair and back and just generally petting him. And it’s something he would do to Impulse, but Bart realises it also means he knows that Bart’s not Impulse, but still Bart.

Bart roles onto his side and studies Kon carefully. He’s sure his original assessment was right - you couldn’t be gay and not into Kon - but he’s still not getting anything like what he gets around Tim. Even though Kon obviously does get the Kid Flash thing, which surely means Bart ought to be madly attracted to him.

There goes another theory. Whoosh, out the window.

He knows he has to say something to placate Kon. Something at least partly true, because he doesn’t actually want to lie to his friends. Only saying it out loud is far too real, and even though he knows, intellectually, that Kon will be cool with it and totally supportive he’s still absolutely fucking terrified.

“Bart?” Kon prompts.

“I... I fellinlove,” Bart says, surprised and frightened by the words coming out of his mouth. His eyes are huge and he’s shaking with shock and trying desperately to tell himself that he didn’t mean it and only said it to put Kon off the scent. Only, only it’s something... it’s something. He can’t get his head around what it might mean, that he said that, and tries to forget.

Bart wonders belatedly what Kon thinks of the terror on his face. Kon probably thinks Bart fell for him.

Bart swallows heavily. “I... I mean, I mean not actually in love, because I’m probably too young for that, and it’s probably not actually falling, because I’m pretty certain I’ve always liked this person this much.” Is the gender neutral too obvious? “I just... I like someone, you see? And, uh, it’s been making me think about Carol. Yeah.”

Kon’s smiling slightly and Bart wants to run. He’s rolling over and swinging his feet towards the floor but suddenly he’s frozen. Kon’s got him with his TTK and isn’t letting go. Bart can feel Kon’s hand on his hip.

“Who?” Kon asks simply.

Bart shakes his head so fast the bed shakes and all the sheets ruck up.

“Come on, Bart, you can tell me. Even if it’s Cassie.” The tone is light and teasing and Bart finds himself wishing it was Cassie, because Kon would just make a joke of it and they’d talk about how hot she is (which Bart still thinks she is, only confusing him further). Or Kory, or Cissie, or anyone.

“Bart?”

Kon’s using his TTK to turn Bart over, which is totally unfair. Bart struggles and fights but only succeeds in making a worse mess of the bed. Kon’s looking kinda serious now and worried, and Bart feels bad for making him feel like that. He knows there’s no way he could say it was someone at school. In fact, he can see Kon putting things together, especially the shower, and Bart’s just staring at him with huge aching eyes praying he won’t actually be sick on Kon, because right now it really kinda feels like he will.

“It’s one of the guys, isn’t it?” Kon says, and there’s something about the way he says it that tells Bart he thinks it’s him. Bart doesn’t want things to be super-mega-awkward with both of his best friends, and that means convincing Kon that it’s not him, which means, in all probability, telling him the whole truth.

He’s breathing so fast it feels like he’s not breathing at all. If anyone else’s heart was going like this the paramedics would be panicking. And he really does think he’s going to throw up if something doesn’t change soon.

“Tim!” he blurts, and flees to the bathroom before Kon can hold him down.

Grandma Joan finds him in there, still retching so hard it hurts, and brings him tissues and a glass of water and a thermometer, because she’s still convinced from Sunday night that he’s sick. Bart doesn’t mind, especially if he gets to stay off school and watch cartoons. He’s not sure if a Freudian slip and a name count as ‘talking about it’, but whatever that conversation counted as, he doesn’t feel any better for it.

Kon’s gone when Joan walks him back to his room, and he’s not surprised. The list of ways this week could get worse is short and still shrinking, as he racks up one source of guilt and shame after another.

He manages to spend the rest of the week in bed, practising his pathetic look. Even Wally looks sympathetic when he drops by, though he does make a pointed comment about how speedsters generally don’t get ill. Luckily, Bart already has a precedent, though he admits it was probably something like meningitis that left him with a few days of flu symptoms. He even manages to time the recovery well enough that there’s only a little fussing before Joan and Jay let him go to San Francisco. If he’s honest with himself he’d rather curl up in bed some more, but he has a duty. Wally will probably think he was just faking to get off school, and went to the Titans to see his friends, but Bart has to content himself with the knowledge that he’d rather have gone to school and skipped the Titans. Maybe one day Wally will learn to have a little faith in him, but Bart still hasn’t worked out how to go about earning it, which apparently he needs to. What was the saying? You never get a second chance at a first impression.

Bart lets Vic know he’s arrived before dashing up to the roof. It’s raining heavily, but he can watch the others arrive from here and, if he picks his spot well, do it without being observed. He’s still never worked out how Robin gets to San Francisco, but he doubts it’s by Batmobile now, if it ever was. A Batjet would be too obvious, but maybe he gets Kon to bring him or something.

That thought sends Bart into that pit of sick terror he’s been living in recently. He doesn’t think he’s sick, or dirty, or anything (or not after having months of subjective time to think about it while curled up in bed), and he doesn’t think any of his friends would, but still... If anyone had told Rose about his crush on her he’d have been just as embarrassed, though maybe he’d have gotten over it faster back then. He wonders how he will feel if Kon’s told Tim. How will Tim react? Probably a bit awkward. He might try and pretend he doesn’t know, or he might try and have a Serious Talk with Bart about it. The Talk... he’d probably say he was very flattered, but not interested, and he hopes they’ll still be friends. And he’ll worry about hurting Bart’s feelings a lot, but not actually say it out loud, just say it in the spaces between the words.

Those spaces are what Bart listens to, most of the time. He found a volume on body language and inflections in speech and he realised that he’d never noticed the difference between sarcasm and solemn, or teasing and mocking, or praising and patronising. It’s all in those spaces, really. Long space could have a whole bunch of meanings, depending on the person and what they were saying, but Bart could stretch one of those spaces out for the hours it might take him to work out what it meant. He feels it might be kinda cheating, but it’s certainly cutting down on the number of misunderstandings these days.

And Tim’s standing next to him, staring across the bay and picking at the hem of one gauntlet. Rain is dripping off his nose. Tim doesn’t fidget, and Bart knows that this is culmination. He can’t work out if Kon’s said anything, if Tim’s even seen Kon, but questions are going to be asked and Bart’s going to have to be truthful. And he can always comfort himself with the knowledge that no matter how sharp Tim’s reactions are he could never stop Bart in time if he throws himself off the building. Except Tim’s lost enough people right now, and the guilt holds Bart in place. He feels bad for feeling like this when it’s probably the worst possible timing for Tim. At least he’ll be able to prove that just because he like likes Tim he isn’t going to die. He can provide Tim with some stability.

“Bart?”

“Yeah?”

“Um.”

Of course, Tim isn’t really the type to start asking questions. He’s not great around people. Well, it’s not that he’s not great... he’s just not Tim, really. Robin is good with people, a good leader, a good interrogator; but Tim is this dorky kid who wouldn’t dream of holding a conversation like this, who avoids people when he’s not sure what to say or do and hopes it goes away in its own time, and would just internalise and stress and worry and that just makes Bart‘s heart swell. It occurs to Bart that he’s probably spent all week feeling as bad as Bart, trying to work it out. At least Kon asked, and spared himself that. Go Kon.

“Bart?”

“Yeah?”

“Uh.”

Bart turns his head to look at Tim, smiling slightly to tease him. Tim knows precisely how he sounds just now, and there’s a pink tinge to the wet skin below the mask. It makes Bart’s heart flutter.

“Bart-”

“Ye-” Bart realises that wasn’t another stop, only a space, too late.

“-I was wondering, um, if, I mean, did I...” Tim trails off. He’s even pinker now, and Bart finds himself sliding closer unthinkingly. He just wants to touch Tim. There’s so little exposed skin and Bart wants to touch every inch of it. He wants to run his hands up and down Tim’s goosebumped arms. He wants to stroke the skin around the mask. Most of all, he wants to kiss Tim. Like, now.

“Um,” Bart says. Tim thinks he’s being mocked, but Bart’s really lost for words.

Tim takes a deep breath and lets it out. He turns so he’s facing Bart, one hand on the rail to steady himself. Bart’s leaning all his weight on it, and he realises now how close he’s slipped. He wonders if Tim can hear his heart from this distance. Bart can barely hear Tim over it.

“Bart. Bart. Bart, if there’s something wrong, you have to tell me.” It comes out in a bit of a rush, but that’s good for Bart because it’s closer to the speed he’s going right now. It seems that now Tim’s started it’s all got easier, because he keeps going. “I need to know if I, or anyone else, did something to hurt you. We can’t function as a team if one member can’t look at any of the others. Or just one of the others. And... and, Bart, and you’re my friend. I need to know because you’re my friend.”

Bart wants to kiss him so badly he can’t focus any more.

“Bart, did I do something?” Tim sounds pained. Bart tries to concentrate on that. He’s hurting his (kissable) friend.

“N-n-no,” Bart remembers to say eventually. Tim looks unconvinced. Bart’s very tempted to just say ‘ask Kon’ and put off the inevitable a little longer. “I... Tim. I.” It turns out he’s having just as hard a time as Tim at this, which makes him suspect Tim has already worked something out. Bart blinks at Tim with huge gold eyes.

Bart blinks at Tim and realises he can’t see Tim’s eyes, and suddenly that’s the most important thing ever. He’s watched Tim flip the lenses up on his mask enough times to have some idea where the switch is. He moves too fast for Tim to stop him, but Tim does flinch back almost immediately. Tim has mega fast reaction times like that, which is mega cool. Bart’s stomach is flip-flopping again. He’s staring into Tim’s huge blue eyes. Tim.

“I think I like boys,” Bart says quietly. He’s not going to surprise himself again, like he did with Kon. Calm words, quiet words, words he’s in control of. “I’ve been having a bit of a weird time dealing with it.”

“You... oh,” Tim says. There are raindrops on his eyelashes now. He looks kinda ethereal.

“It’s weird because it never even occurred to me before that it wasn’t the same for everyone,” Bart continues. “I didn’t know what sexuality was. I liked who I liked. Most of the time it never even went further than that. I was just happy liking. And... and then I read a lot, and suddenly I found out that it wasn’t normal, or ‘normal’ mathematically anyway, and there were all these related things and no one can agree on anything and if there’s a Hell I might go there just for who I like but maybe I am the normal one and everyone else is weird because they’ve been fed all this nonsense from an early age and they only think they’ve got it right and...”

And Tim’s touching him. It’s just a gauntleted hand on a clothed shoulder, but it’s shut down every coherent thought in Bart’s brain.

“It’s okay, Bart,” Tim says. He’s being reassuring. Bart wants to hug him. “It’s... I think you’re right. You’re the normal one.”

“Thank you,” Bart breathes. He knows he’s getting closer again. He can feel Tim’s breath on his face. Tim’s squeezing his shoulder awkwardly, and looks kinda like he wants to back away, but he’s got nowhere to go.

“I’m glad you felt you could tell me,” Tim says, and Bart realises that he really, really is. And Bart realises that there’s nothing wrong with hugging someone. He’s always hugged people. He’s probably hugged Tim loads of times before. He just hopes Tim hasn’t booby-trapped his clothes again. And maybe it does feel a bit weird, like this, but he needs to hug Tim. He’s got his face in Tim’s shoulder and his arms around his chest as tight as he dares and he feels kinda like he might cry. It takes Tim a long moment to respond, but he does, and it’s warm and snug and he’s got his nose in Bart’s hair and Bart stretches out every second as long as he possibly can because it’s quite possibly the best thing ever.

Again, he wants to kiss Tim, but he’s keeping a lid on it. Instead he just feels Tim breathe and closes his eyes and floats.

“Bart?”

“Hmm?”

Tim laughs quickly and tries to ruffle Bart’s hair, but it’s too wet to do more than just stand up in spikes. “This has been bothering you really badly, hasn’t it?”

“Not just that,” Bart admits. God, he’s so warm and relaxed and he might just fall asleep like this. He nuzzles Tim’s neck and tells himself that he’s not allowed to lick the water droplets off it.

“Not just that?” And Tim is trying not to tense, Bart can feel it, and it’s time to let go and finish what he’s started, even if he never gets another hug like this ever again. He squeezes Tim tightly one last brief time for luck, then pulls back enough so they’re face to face again. Tim’s arms drop immediately, bringing a little lump of disappointment to Bart’s throat.

“I...” Bart stares at the ‘R’ on Tim’s chest. “I kinda realised that I’m... well, I guess I’m bisexual, or pansexual, or omnisexual, or whatever... Anyway, I realised I liked boys like... like I like girls, I guess... I realised that because I kinda had a dream, and realised that perhaps there’s someone-” Bart stops himself. He’s making a mess of this, he knows he is, but he’s not going to start that ambiguous crap again. Tim still looks understanding, and better yet still hasn’t put the lenses back.

“I like a lot of people,” Bart tells Tim. “I just... I just do. Maybe I’m really friendly or something. And that doesn’t mean I’m attracted to everyone, I think, because I like Kon a lot and I’m not attracted to him. But I like Cassie and I am attracted to her, but it’s still not the same as, well, as when I liked Carol, you know? Because I used to believe there was just one kind of ‘like’. There was a different kind of crush ‘like’, but that didn’t really happen very often and never lasted very long. Maybe I should have figured it out with Carol, but I think she was right when she said I wasn’t emotionally mature enough for it yet.

“I've always liked you, Tim. A lot. Like, I always liked you more than I really liked most other people. And that was okay, then, because you were Robin and I was Impulse and you were just so cool. You still are. You always will be, I guess. Like Carol. And... and it never occurred to me that liking you so much might have... implications. Because it does. I... I like you a lot, Tim.”

Tim’s breathing heavily and sort of shaking. Bart had seen him working it out as he talked, long before he actually said anything, and that’s probably a good thing because Tim will have figured out that Bart hasn’t quite managed to get the words quite right towards the end. He hasn’t quite managed to say just how strong this ‘like’ is. Stronger than ‘a lot’. Strong enough to lean in now, while Tim’s still trying to get his head around it and work out what to say that will make it all go away and put everything back where it was before last weekend, to lean in and press a very nervous kiss to Tim’s lips.

It’s not like it was in the dream. For a start, Bart initiated it, whereas in the dream it was Tim. And Tim’s kinda not doing anything, just staring at him with huge blue eyes and trembling. And maybe Bart’s just screwed up years of friendship, and maybe he’s just created something better, because Tim’s eyes are closing and his lips are beginning to move and there’s a gauntleted hand in the small of Bart’s back pulling him closer and Tim’s very very apprehensively opening his mouth, ever so slightly.

Bart pulls back then, because he’s not sure what to do and he’s scared he’ll do too much. His brain is whirling. He never thought, never imagined, never drea- okay, he dreamed. That’s what started this whole mess. And he’s the one shaking now. Tim’s opened his eyes and they’re just staring at each other.

Tim sneezes.

Bart giggles.

He’s never been so happy that someone sneezed. All the tension is just going away, and it’s funny, and they’re standing in the rain on the roof and Bart just kissed Tim and it would be too surreal to believe if Tim hadn’t just sneezed.

“We better go inside. Can’t have you catching cold,” Bart continues to giggle. “Perhaps you should let me warm you up?” He can’t leer, but he has a go and only makes himself laugh more. He wonders if this is what it’s like being drunk. He’ll never really know, with his metabolism, but it would explain why people did it.

“You’re making jokes?” Tim sounds incredulous, and angry. Bart’s not laughing. “After everything that just happened you make jokes? Did any of what you just said mean anything?”

It’s not like Tim, and it’s scaring Bart. He’s used to Tim getting quiet when he’s angry, getting cold and cruel. For the first time in his life he thinks Tim might hit him. Bart’s stepping backwards and raising his arms defensively.

“I just... it was funny,” he protests.

“Was it all funny? Was it all a joke?”

Before Bart can answer Tim’s gone, in the special Bat way. Bart could probably have watched him, have chased him, have stopped him and babbled incomprehensibly because he has no idea what to say. He’s just standing in the rain hurting because he did something wrong and he isn’t even sure what.

He realises it’s getting dark, though with all the clouds it’s dark already. He also realises he’s crying a bit, which makes him glad for the rain. On the other hand, he can’t remember if the tower has a lightning conductor and he’s really exposed up here. And he’s getting hungry.

Gar finds him sitting in the dark kitchen, crosslegged on the table, chewing on a loaf of stale bread. Bart knows he looks miserable, but he hadn’t realised it was so bad until Gar turns into a kitten and starts purring and nuzzling him. Bart picks the emerald cat up and cuddles it. After a while Gar turns back into himself, leading to an awkward moment sitting in Bart’s lap with his nose to Bart’s.

Gar pulls back, out of Bart’s lap but not off the table. Their legs are tangled together. Bart’s still wet from the rain and his hair is drooping over his face, dripping sporadically. Gar’s got a large damp imprint on his front.

“You going to tell me what’s up, kid?” Gar asked softly.

“I made Tim mad at me,” Bart says, choosing partial truth as the best course of action just now. He doesn’t really know Gar well enough to open up properly, but he does need to talk.

“Whaddya do?” Gar asks, cocking his head to one side. Bart wonders if he’d turn into a puppy if Bart asked.

“Don’t really know,” Bart admits. “We were being all serious and then he sneezed and it was funny and he got mad at me. I’ve never seen him mad like that. I don’t think I’ve really seen him mad at all, except at, you know, injustice and stuff.”

“Ouch.”

“Have you seen him?” Bart asks tentatively.

“Nope. He’s probably in his room, as miserable as you.”

Bart sniffs.

“Okay, maybe not quite as miserable as you, because I don’t think anyone could be that miserable. You’re breaking my heart here, you know?” Gar reaches over and pets Bart. “Come on, kid, it’s not the end of the world. You two will have sorted it out before the weekend’s over.”

Gar hugs Bart, which makes Bart start crying again, which makes Gar all awkward because he’s got a soggy tearful teenager in his arms and he’s beginning to form some suspicions of his own about what they might have been seriously talking about. Luckily, he’s saved by Kon.

“Bart! Bart, what’s wrong?”

Kon’s on the table next to them, aura shivering around Bart. Bart detaches himself from a relieved Gar and scrubs at his eyes with a balled fist. Kon’s already reaching over to pull him close, but Bart shakes his head firmly and concentrates on breathing normally. It’s an hour subjectively, but it’s a matter of moments to Kon before Bart’s smiling and dry eyed again. Which appears to kinda freak Kon out. Whoops.

“I had a fight with Tim,” Bart explains.

He remembers that he never really resolved anything with Kon, but apparently concern overran any awkwardness that might have happened. Gar slips away unobtrusively, but not before Bart can catch his eye and smile thank you at him. Gar smiles back.

“What a- You told him, didn’t you?” Kon guesses. He sits next to Bart and swings his legs over the side of the table. Unlike Bart, his feet touch the ground. “I never figured him for the kinda guy to be an ass about it,” Kon says.

“He wasn’t,” Bart tells him. “I just screwed up, somehow. Made him mad.”

Kon wraps an arm around Bart’s shoulders. Bart’s determined not to start crying again, but it’s getting hard. This doesn’t feel like the kind of fight that just gets resolved. For a start, it’s a fight with Tim.

“I guess with everything he’s gone through he’s on edge right now,” Kon says. “You probably reminded him of Spoiler and that other girl, and because he’s Tim he didn’t get sad, he got angry.”

“Does that sound like Tim to you? Getting angry?” Bart asks sceptically, though he’s grateful for the pragmatic opinion. He remembers belatedly trying to keep Tim’s recent bereavements in mind.

“Well, no,” Kon admits, “but grief does funny stuff to people. I don’t think he’s dealing well.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Bart sighs.

“No, I think you were right to.” Bart suspects that Kon doesn’t think anything of the sort, but it’s a nice comforting lie. “He was determined to ask you what was going on, and you can’t lie to him.” Kon grimaces. “I tried, and he was so completely unimpressed.”

Bart turns to look at him. “Did you tell him?” he asks, voice squeaking slightly.

“No! No. I tried to pretend I hadn’t been to ask you, but he even knew when I went, and for how long. So I just told him to ask you himself.”

“I think he thought I was mad at him,” Bart says. “He was definitely nervous.”

“And now you think he’s mad at you.”

“He is,” Bart insists. “He was yelling and I thought he was gonna punch me. He just kept asking really loud questions that I didn’t know how to answer properly. I tried, and he just got madder.”

“He’s probably calmed down now,” Kon offers. “Maybe tomorrow morning the two of you can talk. If you want, I could be there.”

Bart gives him a wan smile. “Thanks,” he says. He’s still kinda scared from before, so having Kon there probably will help. And Kon will be able to stop him before he puts his foot in his mouth and upsets Tim again. And... and it feels right. He knows Kon and Tim have a secret, and he hates the way it makes him feel, and so he’s determined not to have any secrets shared with only one of them. They’re meant to be together, the three of them. Young, just us. Just the three of them.

The next morning Tim doesn’t appear for breakfast, or for training. It’s Cassie who braves his room, and emerges with a note saying Batman called him back to Gotham because he was needed more urgently there. Bart doesn’t believe a word of it. Word has got round about their ‘fight’, and the others aren’t exactly trusting of the note either. Tim has run. Bart thinks it’s unfair, since he’s the speedster, but it’s Tim who’s run away and Bart who made a point of staying where he’s meant to be.

So Bart decides to go to Gotham. If Tim is telling the truth, maybe he’ll be able to help. And if he isn’t, then Bart will just have to corner him. Bart barely slept and there are rings under his eyes, but he’s feeling energised. Tim ran away. Bart’s pretty sure that means he’s not mad any more, but scared and sick and feeling like Bart’s been feeling for the past week. Bart tells the others, even tells them why, and while Kon thinks that he ought to wait, Raven tells him he’s doing the right thing and Bart thinks that Raven is a good person to accept advice from in a situation like this. An emotional situation. Though Kon does have experience with members of the Bat clan. And Tim probably would want to be alone just now. Only, Bart knows he’s already gone too fast, which is why Tim ran away, and he has to deal with his mistakes now before they begin to fester.

It’s strange, all this advice. Even Vic has some, and Gar keeps going off into these long anecdotes that don’t seem to have any relevance at all. Cassie just keeps saying how cute it is, and how much she hopes it’ll work out. Kon is trying to second guess Tim and come up with a bunch of possible scenarios. It’s all making Bart think that none of them know Tim as well as they’d like to think, but perhaps he knows Tim best of all, because he knows that the only way to find out what’s going on is to see him and ask. Tim won’t give a straight answer, or maybe any answer at all, but that will tell Bart the answer in itself.

Or maybe they’re right, and Bart knows Tim worst of all, and the person he really, really likes doesn’t even exist. That’s kinda the most terrifying thing he can imagine, more frightening than losing Carol to the future or having his knee shot or the idea that Max might never come back. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t fit with Carol any more, the way they used to, but if the Tim he wants to be with doesn’t exist then he can’t call himself Tim’s friend, which makes him wonder if he’s really Kon’s friend, or Cassie’s, or anyone’s. As if school wasn’t lonely enough.

Bart runs around Gotham. He checks every dark alley and every gothic tower. He darts into shops and cafes and anywhere else Tim might conceivably be at lunch time. No Tim yet. He checks every school, even the University (because Tim is super smart). He resorts to looking in windows, every window in the city. Still no Tim. Quick circuit around the sewers, and racing the train, and inspecting every car and bus and bicycle. It’s getting dark. Where is Tim?

And so he finds himself scuffing his boots in front of Batman, who is deeply unimpressed with his mere presence in Gotham, let alone the fact he’s basically spent the day exercising his talent as a Peeping Tom.

“I’m worried about T- Robin,” Bart explains quickly. “He ran aw- left the Tower last night. He left a note saying you called him back, but I don’t think....” He trails off and wishes he could learn to keep his mouth shut. He’d been so certain Batman hadn’t called Tim back, but now he was about to accuse Tim of lying to Batman’s face and probably land him in a whole heap of trouble.

“I didn’t,” Batman confirms.

“Didn’t think so,” Bart admits. “I... I kinda upset him and I want to apologise and couldyoutellmewhereImightfindhimplease?”

Batman stares at him for a long moment. Bart wonders if he’s mad, or if he’s just trying to understand what Bart said. Bart knows he’s sped up and is about to vibrate himself back into the sewers, but it’s still a long pause.

“I’m worried about him,” Bart repeats miserably.

“Bludhaven.”

“Bludhaven? Thankyou!” Bart’s about to run off, eternally grateful, but Batman has him by the back of his uniform. He turns back, determined to go even if Batman forbids him. Instead, Batman lets go to write down an address, which he holds up for Bart to see. He then burns it. Bart wishes his teachers were like Batman, and believed he really did have a photographic memory. Plus, Batman teachers would be totally cool, and no one would dare be mean or obnoxious or disruptive and Bart would probably be allowed to do work that interested him and Batman would be able to teach him things he hadn’t actually learnt yet. And he’d spend most of eternity in detention, if he was honest. Bat-teachers probably wouldn’t be such a good idea, in reality.

“In the name of preserving the privacy of the innocent people of Bludhaven,” Batman says solemnly.

Bart nods, smiles, thanks him and runs. Halfway to Bludhaven it occurs to him that Batman might have been making a joke. Bart hasn’t heard many good things about Bludhaven.

He has to stop to buy a map to tell him where Robin’s Nest is, and grabs a newspaper while he does so. It seems the locals have noticed it’s Robin and not Nightwing patrolling their city. Bart wonders why he didn’t already know this. He bets Kon knows. The whole ‘don’t know them well enough to be friends’ thing is rearing its dark head again. Bart knows that not telling him was probably unintentional, or having other people know was unintentional, one way or the other. Still...

He’s running up the side of the building before he can think any more. He’s scared, and not in the good way he gets sometimes during a battle, or before he kissed Carol. He knows that easiest access will be through the roof, maybe the only access, because that’s how Robin works. If there was ever someone who deserved the power of flight it was him.

Bart trips over a wire and has to vibrate straight through the roof to avoid the poisoned dart. He wonders what would have happened if he had tried to open the door.

Robin looks pissed.

Bart keeps vibrating, just in case Tim has a few more weapons at his disposal. He’s already got a Batarang in his hand.

“I came to say sorry and to ask what I was saying sorry for,” Bart tells him.

The Batarang would have clipped his shoulder if he’d been standing still, but instead it imbeds itself in the wall behind him. Meant to injure, meant to scare him away. At least Tim doesn’t want him dead. Tim’s staring at the Batarang with that suddenly lost look he’s been getting recently. Bart knows that look.

“This isn’t like you,” Bart tells him, hoping desperately he’s right.

Tim looks at him.

“It’s not like you, either,” he accuses.

Bart gives him a blank look. “What, looking for my friends when they disappear all upset and making sure they’re okay?” He’d like to think it was like him. Now he’s got that to worry about too.

“Being deliberately cruel,” Tim says.

“Deliberately cruel?” Bart knows his eyebrows must be visible above his mask. “I’ve never... I wouldn’t, Tim. Because ‘Deliberately’ means I did it on purpose, which means I knew what I was doing, and I still don’t know why you got all upset except maybe you really aren’t cool with me liking you and you never said you were but I guess I kinda assumed because you were kissing me back.”

Bart wonders whether he said any of that slow enough for Tim to understand.

“I...” Tim looks confused for a moment, but then he’s angry again. “You treated it like a joke,” he tells Bart.

Bart blinks at him.

“Bart, I know you’re young and there’s a lot you don’t understand about this world yet, but you can’t jerk people about like that,” Tim continues, and he’s definitely really angry, but now he’s back to that old cold anger Bart recognises. “I don’t know if you thought you were trying to cheer me up or something, but it wasn’t funny. You can’t play with people’s feelings like that.”

“Like what?”

Wrong thing to say. Tim is so right about not him understanding stuff.

“Do you know about Spoiler?” Tim asks. “Did it not occur to you that after my girlfriend died I might not want to participate in practical jokes pertaining to relationships?”

Bart remembers very nervous talking. He remembers kissing. He remembers Tim sneezing.

Bart remembers laughing.

“I lost my girlfriend, a close friend and my father,” Tim tells him before he can explain his revelation. “Do you think that’s funny?”

And Bart’s getting a bit angry too now. Because Tim isn’t being fair on him. It’s like Tim doesn’t even know him. Bart has no worries about how well Tim actually does know him, because it’s Tim, which makes it worse right now.

“Do you think I’m the sort of person who would?” Bart snaps.

“I can’t think of any other explanation,” Tim says frostily.

“Yes you can!”

“Bart, I’m willing to concede you may have meant well-”

“It wasn’t a joke!” Bart’s staring at him like he sprouted horns. He’s desperately trying to explain this to himself. It’s like they brought back Evil Tim Batman Jerk from the future instead of the guy he knows. He tells Tim that.

“Maybe I was like that because I was badly hurt,” Tim says, each word cold, angry and a long way apart. Bart can hear the spaces, filled with accusations and blame. The idea that it might be his fault Tim turned out that way... “Pain can cause people to change.”

“I know that!” Bart stamps impatiently. “Stuff hurts. Makes you do weird stuff and act weird.”

“I’m not talking about moving away from your friends, Bart,” Tim says. “I've lost so many people recently.”

“You haven't lost them, they died, Tim,” Bart blurts before he can stop himself. “I lose people. At least you don't have to worry about them coming back.”

Bart realises what he's said and flushes scarlet. Now he feels like he deserves Tim’s rage.

“I mean... I mean it hurts. At least when people die you know they're okay and they're not somewhere being hurt and somewhere you can’t get to them and help them and they're definitely not going to come back and hurt you again. Because it really really hurts. Again,” Bart finishes lamely.

“You never said anything,” Tim accuses. His anger seems to have drained out of him. Bart can’t summon the emotion to be relieved.

“There wasn't anything to say,” Bart says miserably. “It was back then. I cried when I was sad, I smiled when I was happy and when I wasn't sure how I felt I ignored it and made it go away. That was a lot.”

For once, he isn’t bitter about it. Sometimes he misses it, sometimes he wishes he hadn’t been like that because it’s the reason why people treat him like an impulsive idiot, but always he’s been bitter about changing. Because he can see things like that now. Maybe sometimes his feelings got a bit hurt by Wally or Batman or even his friends, but he hadn’t known enough to care. Now it hurts a lot, both because he’s changed and they haven’t noticed and because he knows he would have deserved it.

A lot of things hurt right now. People not being there. Other people not noticing how much he’s changed. Tim being mad. Bart wonders if he’s going to change, like Tim. Change again, for the worse.

“We never knew.”

“No, you didn't. I didn't. I... just trust me, Tim, it's easier when people die. I keep hoping Max will come back. I'm almost certain he won't, but Carol did. And that just... I don't want to feel like that again. I just felt too much. I never even worked out if it was good or bad feeling. And it's really really bad, but I sometimes wish Carol hadn't come back. I wish I had never felt like that. I definitely wish it hadn't introduced all this doubt. ‘Cause... ’cause I really miss Max.” Bart swiped a tear away. His breath is hitching in his chest. He swipes at another tear, rubbing his gauntlet against his eye to squeeze out any more that might be already there and soak them up before he actually cries them.

Tim’s just standing there. His shoulders have gone all limp. Bart can tell he’s kinda scared, because he doesn’t know what to do and isn’t in control. He can’t make Bart feel better, any more than Bart can make Tim feel better. It is scary.

“You sneezed,” Bart says, remembering why he’s there. “I laughed because you sneezed and it was... I needed to laugh.”

Tim stares at him. Bart bets he’s frowning under the mask, maybe blinking. Maybe he’s crying a bit too.

Bart swallows. He needs to blow his nose. “It was really really tense, Tim. I couldn’t cope with that. I’ve been all tense all week, and it was there. I’d told you, I’d kissed you, and it was over and I was still tense and I can’t live like that.” He forces a small smile. “Joan’s worried ‘cause I’m not eating properly, and I almost threw up on Kon.”

A very small smile flashes on and off on Tim’s mouth.

“None of it was a joke,” Bart forces himself to continue. He’s tense again. His stomach hurts. He never thought he’d have to do this twice. “I was serious all the way through. I like you a lot, Tim, as more than a friend.”

“I don’t know what to do with that,” Tim whispers.

“That’s okay.”

Tim still looks sort of limp, like someone tied a piece of string from his spine to the ceiling but didn’t make sure it was tight enough. Bart kinda wants to feel like that, because the tension has made his back muscles knot. He wishes Tim did know what to do, but he knows how hard it was for himself to work out what to do with the new information in his brain and he’s not expecting Tim to just work everything out on the spot.

They’re too far apart. They’ve been having this whole super important mega emotional conversation from opposite sides of the room. Last time they were so close Bart had felt Tim’s every breath. Last time had gone rather better than this time, too, not including the bit where Tim had stormed off.

Bart is very careful to walk at a ‘normal’ speed. Each thunk of his boots on the floor is distinct. There are even gaps between them. The distance seems like miles. He feels kinda like he’s gliding, which is weird, because he’s placing his feet more firmly on the floor than he ever does when he runs. Tim raises his head when he’s about half way across, and looks at him. And then steps towards Bart.

Bart wraps his arms around Tim and wishes he was taller. He wants to embrace Tim completely, gather Tim to his chest rather than the other way around. Bart’s used to being short, but he’s not so used to having his nose squashed against someone’s collarbone. At least his hair is shorter, so it’s not tickling Tim. Bart really doesn’t want anyone to sneeze ever again.

They sort of cuddle, standing up, which makes Bart wonder if it’s really just hugging, since he always associated cuddling with at least sitting down. But it feels like cuddling, especially when Tim’s arms move and he begins to stroke Bart’s back. Bart returns the favour, which makes Tim shiver against him in a really good way. Bart tilts his head back to look at Tim, and they’re so close, and Tim seems to think Bart wants to kiss. Which he does, and they do, but Bart worries a little that perhaps they’re not ready to try kissing again yet. He can’t even tell if Tim feels for him the same way he feels for Tim, and he doesn’t want to push Tim into any kind of decision on the subject. But the kissing is really nice, and perhaps Tim thinks so too, since he doesn’t seem to have any problem initiating it.

Bart’s neck begins to hurt, so he takes one of Tim’s hands and leads him over to the old sofa tucked in one corner, facing a television. Tim switches on a twenty four hour local news channel. Bart cuddles up against him, and Tim kisses him again, but then Tim’s distracted by the news and Bart just tries to content himself with curling up by Tim’s side. He’s bored, very bored, but he’s with Tim and he’s determined to sit still. It’s pretty much Sunday morning now, and he guesses Tim’s already patrolled, or whatever the Bats call it. Bart never sleeps for long periods, or even that often, but he finds himself dozing off against Tim’s shoulder. There’s nothing else to do.

It’s mid morning when he wakes up. Tim’s checking emails. Bart doesn’t quite dare go and see what they’re about and hover over his shoulder, so he focuses on the news as best he can and tries to stay quiet. When Tim goes to the bathroom he nips back to the Tower to tell the others that he’s found him, and he’s staying there with Tim unless he’s needed. He showers and changes while he’s there, since he’s not sure what facilities the Robin’s Nest has. Then, despite his own wishes, he collects his homework and runs back, doing most of it in the time Tim takes to walk back from the bathroom to join him. Tim looks kinda wistful when he notices the paper and books spread across his floor.

“Anything you need help with?” he asks.

“Not really,” Bart says, wishing fervently there was. “It’s all mostly done now. Got a history essay to write, which sucks, but I can do that Monday morning.”

“I’ll help, if you want to do it now.”

Bart really doesn’t want to, but he thinks Tim does. If Bart quit school the last things he’d want to do was other people’s homework, but Tim’s always been different. Plus, he has all these ultra-cool resources Bart can use, so he’ll get a passing grade. Before long the news has been muted and there’s a globe and these really old books and one of the computers is bringing up all this stuff from all these museums’ private vaults. Bart keeps forgetting what era they’re meant to be doing, but that’s okay because there’s all this really cool stuff he’s learning instead. Tim keeps trying to explain essay technique, but it’s not sinking in. Bart doesn’t want it to sink in; he wants Tim to explain it over and over so Bart can look at him and imagine what it would be like if Tim’s mouth was moving like that against his cheek, or his ear, or his stomach, or...

Somehow, the work gets done. There’s this big pile of notes and research on one side, and a careful list in Tim’s handwriting about essay techniques on the other, and Bart lies in the middle with his pen in his mouth and a blank sheet of paper, because no matter how thoroughly an essay is prepared for the first sentence is always the hardest. Tim sits beside him, watching with the patience Bart characteristically lacks. He reaches out and strokes Bart’s back. Bart squirms. Tim slips his hand under Bart’s t-shirt and begins to rub small circles in the small of Bart’s back. Bart’s beginning to suspect that now they’ve done all this work Tim’s no longer interested, and wants to move on to something else. Bart has absolutely no objections whatsoever.

Bart rolls over and looks at Tim, who looks back. Tim’s sort of smiling, in a way that would be scary if one of them was someone else. He puts a hand on either side of Bart’s head and leans down like he’s doing push-ups, but with his legs twisted to one side of Bart’s body. The kiss lasts a long time, and not just for Bart. Tim’s shoulders start to shake from muscle fatigue, and without warning he drops down on top of Bart, making Bart squeal happily. Tim slips one arm under Bart’s neck and rests his head on Bart’s shoulder, his other hand toying with the hem of Bart’s t-shirt. He’s sort of lying right across Bart’s body, practically cutting off circulation to Bart’s legs, and Bart has a moment of panic that he might get hard, and Tim will feel it.

Bart knows that Tim knows that Bart is very inexperienced. Bart suspects Tim isn’t anywhere near as inexperienced. But Tim has also been through hell, so perhaps taking it really slowly is good for both of them. He seems to just really appreciate being touched by Bart. Bart feels guilty for being so happy about this, but with all the stress and the tension he’s still winding down, and until Tim actually says something about how he feels, instead of just going along with what Bart is doing, he’s determined not to let anything progress past what he did with Carol. It seems like a good benchmark, and despite how strongly he feels for Tim, Bart doesn’t want to commit to anything new without knowing for certain that everything’s reciprocated.

If he’s honest? Bart’s confused as hell, and he know Tim has to be ten times worse. He presses his nose to Tim’s shoulder and squeezes him, enjoying the warmth and comfort and Tim smell. Tim’s breath is kinda hitching in his chest, and Bart knows why, and hugs him a little harder.

This is probably all way too soon, and Tim’s just going along with it because it makes him feel better (though he won’t know that’s why he’s doing it) and in a few months time Tim will realise that he has no feelings for Bart and they’ll have to end it, and it will hurt and they’ll still have to work together and everyone will know. Or he’ll ‘lose’ Tim, because this is a dangerous business and it happens a lot to people who associate with time travelling speedsters and Tim, being all hurty and stuff, will just go along with it. Or Tim will remember that’s he’s straight, and likes girls like Spoiler, and Bart knows there’s a new girl coming to the Tower and Tim will probably fall for her and Bart will be alone again because everyone will have a girlfriend and a best friend except for him, who has neither. He’ll be left behind again, somehow.

Bart’s crying too, great heaving sobs into Tim’s shoulder and he knows he’s scaring Tim. Tim’s still sniffling, a bit, and obviously trying not to cry, but Bart doesn’t really understand why he’d fight it.

Bart wants to run away, badly.

Bart wants to have never initiated this. He pulls away from Tim and sits up, burying his head in his knees and wrapping his arms around his legs. What was he thinking? He remembers watching Carol leave. He remembers Rose’s complete indifference. He remembers never knowing how to tell people what he felt and not knowing how to work out what they felt.

“Bart?”

Bart shakes his head and tries to calm himself down, or failing that, speed himself up.

Tim slips his arms around Bart’s waist and sits next to him, chin resting on Bart’s hunched shoulder.

“Bart?” he asks again, more softly.

“I... I’m okay,” Bart lies. Tim squeezes him a little tighter. “I’m scared,” Bart admits.

“That’s okay,” Tim tells him. “We can take this slowly. I’m a little scared too.”

Bart shakes his head and turns it to look at Tim. “No, I mean... I don’t know.” His shoulders sag. “Just don’t go anywhere, ‘kay?”

Tim smiles and kisses his cheek. “’Kay.”

The sun is setting outside, so Bart feels perhaps he ought to clarify this.

“You can leave for bat patrol, though. If you have to.”

Tim chuckles. “Do you want to come too?” he asks.

“I thought Batman didn’t like metahumans in Gotham,” Bart says, temporarily surprised.

”We’re in Bludhaven,” Tim reminds him. “I’d appreciate your company. Unless... You have to go home, don’t you?” He looks disappointed.

“I’ll go later,” Bart promises airily. “This is gonna be so cool.”

Tim smiles lopsidedly. “Yeah.”

And it was cool, Bart thinks, lying next to Tim in bed. They got back at about three in the morning, judging by the stars, though the smog obscured most of the stars Bart had read about. Tim had been tired, and Bart felt a little bad for keeping him up the previous night. Tim was exhausted physically, Bart emotionally. It had seemed sensible that Bart stay the night, and twice as sensible that he shared the double bed Tim was dwarfed by.

Bart knows, the next morning, that he ought to go home, tell Jay and Joan where he’s been and apologise for making them worry. He knows, especially, that he ought to go to school. He never had finished the essay, and he doesn’t want to spend the rest of the week in detention, because then he won’t get to see Tim at all. In fact, he doesn’t want to leave Tim now.

He vibrates out of the bed so as not to wake Tim. He dresses and runs home, grabs his bag for school, leaves a note for Jay and Joan explaining about being in Bludhaven after fighting with Tim and sets off for school. And somehow he ends up back in Bludhaven, back in Tim’s bed. And... and it works. ’Cause Jay and Joan think he’s at school, and Tim thinks he must have permission and stuff, and school, well, school probably thinks he is ill or something. There are hundreds of students, they won’t notice.

Tim is helping with the essay, actually the essay this time, and Bart is enjoying it. He’s learning more than he ever would at school, he rationalises, and the guilt is slightly assuaged.

There’s a series of explosions and twangs on the roof, and the Flash drops down between them with a look of terror on his face. Batman opens the main door.

Bart freaks.Wally has him before he can escape, arms wrapped tightly around Bart’s chest. It doesn’t stop Bart from kicking and panicking, and he’s not thinking at all. Tim is staring at Batman like the four horsemen of the apocalypse just walked in, and Bart gets that completely.

Then Jay is in front of him, blocking his view of Tim, and that just panics Bart more. He can’t understand why everyone’s here and he’s thinking too fast to even know what he is thinking. It’s like coming out of the AI for the first time and living entirely on instinct. Jay is holding his arms and Wally’s relaxing his grip a little. Both are talking quickly, but Bart is still going too fast to understand. Wally shakes him, and Jay frowns at Wally over his shoulder. Bart takes advantage of the distraction to duck around Jay and see what’s going on with Tim and Batman. Batman hasn’t even finished taking his first step into the room. Bart throws himself in front of Batman and concentrates on slowing down enough to make sense of what’s going on.

“What’sgoingon?” he asks.

“I got a call from your school today, Bart,” Jay says solemnly. Bart’s feels like his stomach has just vibrated through the floor without him. “You’re suspended until further notice for playing hooky.”

It doesn’t make sense to Bart. They tell him not to come to school because he wasn’t coming to school? And why all the rush to tell him this? It can’t make much difference. And Kon never seems to get in trouble for skipping. Which Bart blurts out.

“Superboy regularly plays truant?” Batman asks.

Bart and Tim exchange looks. Bart feels even worse, because he can tell he’s got Tim in trouble and now he’s landed Kon in it too.

“He told us that Superman allows it,” Tim says hesitantly. Bart tries not to feel bitter that Kon hadn’t told him this.

“Look,” Bart says, shifting from foot to foot, “I’m really really sorry I skipped, okay? And that I worried people. I won’t ever do it again.” He widens his eyes in what he hopes is an innocent and beguiling look and adds, “First offence?”

Jay sighs, and looks like he’s going to relent, but Wally jumps in.

“So he’s copying Superboy? I think we need to talk to Superman about this,” he says to Batman, over Bart’s head. Bart fumes.

“Agreed,” Batman says, and he murmurs a few words into apparently nothing. Tim and Bart look at each other again. Bart swallows and looks away. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he gets Tim in trouble too.

Wally is looking at Jay, and Bart sees a muscle in his cheek twitch. Something else is bothering Wally, he realises. Tim had been lying next to Bart, arm around him. Maybe Wally has guessed? Please don’t let Wally have guessed!

“I think you should ground Bart for this,” Wally says in measured terms. “No computer games, obviously.”

Jay glances at Bart. “A week,” he says. “You can tell he’s regretting it, aren’t you, Bart?”

Bart nods furiously.

“I don’t think that’s harsh enough,” Wally says, standing stiffly in the centre of the room, surrounded by drifts of paper and notes. “Maybe keeping him from the Teen Titans for a few weeks would be best. After all, if he’s so eager to abandon his duties for the better part of the weekend...”

“I’d have gone back if something happened!” Bart objects. “I’d have been there as soon as they called, you know that! This isn’t fair!”

“I’m sure Robin will receive equal punishment,” Wally says, entirely failing to sound placating.

Bart blinked at him. “Why? I mean, I know he ran away, but that was totally my fault. He wouldn’t do that again, right?” He glanced over at Tim, who nodded. “And it’s not like he’s skipping school or anything.”

Wally looks at him like he said something funny for a second, then realisation dawns. He looks over at Batman, who nods tersely. Wally looks like he wants to say something, but can’t quite manage it. Bart understands that: he’d feel the same if he were about to tell Batman he was doing something wrong.

Superman arrives with an ashamed looking Kon in tow. Superman seems to know how to get in, but Tim’s face tells Bart that he probably shouldn’t. As Batman and Wally turn on him, Kon, Tim and Bart converge in a corner of the room.

“What’s going on?” Kon hisses.

Bart frowns at him. “Shouldn’t you be in class?” he asks.

Kon shrugs. “Cl- Superman doesn’t mind, if I skip occasionally. I was helping on the farm, actually.”

“Unfortunately,” Tim explains, “you may not have that freedom much longer. Bart’s school called his guardians to tell them he skipped classes this morning, and now the Flash and Batman think you’ve been a bad influence.”

“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble, I really didn’t,” Bart says miserably. He sits on the floor, knees drawn up to his chest. Tim sits cross-legged next to him, leans against his shoulder and puts an arm around Bart’s waist. Kon looks at them, and grins.

“Nah, that’s okay,” he says, sitting sideways in front of them. “I take it you two worked your stuff out?”

Kon’s got one knee drawn close to his chest and the other leg stretched out a little, still bent. One arm rests on the floor next to Bart, while his foot nudges Tim’s socked toes. It’s protective, and Bart appreciates that. It’s the three of them, together. Three was always a powerful number, right? Stable. Structural integrity. No matter what the future looked like, they weren’t going to change. Bart cuddles Tim with one arm and rests his other hand over Kon’s.

“Things are good,” Bart confirms. “Except for the whole me being really dumb and skipping school and getting us all in trouble bit. They’re suspending me.”

Kon looks surprised for a second, then says, “Oh, the school, you mean?”

“The Flash wants him suspended from the Titans for a while as well,” Tim tells him. “I think he’d like me out of it too.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

Across the room Superman has finished calmly defending his position to a fuming Wally and is now taking up Wally’s case against Batman. Bart kinda figured Tim wasn’t at school any more, and he guessed that Batman almost certainly knew, but it hadn’t occurred to him that the rest of the JLA might frown on this. Superman is frowning deeply and Batman is barely saying a word. Bart can’t really tell what Wally’s doing, but he figures Wally’s probably trying to hide the fact he was scared to bring this up alone. Jay is supporting Superman too, and Bart is willing to bet he’s doing it better than Wally. Jay catches him looking and excuses himself.

Jay walks over to them and Bart wonders what he thinks of all the arms around each other and hands joined and stuff. He’s scared, but he’s kinda proud, too. This is standing up for what you believe in, right? He believes he ought to be Tim’s boyfriend. He hopes Tim believes the same. He hopes Jay will tolerate that belief, even if he doesn’t like it, because Bart is running out of people to live with and as much as he admires Tim’s independence he doesn’t want it for himself.

“This is a nice collection of revelations, isn’t it?” Jay remarks, though he sounds more amused than cross. “I know you are all in difficult situations, but it seems to me none of you are thinking of your futures.” His eyes rest on Kon as he adds, “Perhaps you should, instead of simply taking for granted any freedoms that come your way.” The words are serious, but he doesn’t sound judgemental. It’s kinda like when he scolded Wally for telling Bart that he’d always hated school too. Bart can see ‘Superman did it too’ on Kon’s lips, and is relieved when he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t think that would take him far with Jay.

“I really am sorry if I worried you,” Bart says to Jay, and he really means it. “I just... I didn’t want to go to school.”

Jay purses his lips, then sighs. “You really aren’t happy there, are you?” he asks rhetorically. “Well, I can’t promise you anything, Bart, but I’ll see what I can do. There just aren’t a lot of options around us.”

“I could run back to Manchester,” Bart offers.

“And have everyone wonder why you aren’t living there?” Jay asks. Bart squirms uncomfortably. He doesn’t want to make Jay and Joan feel bad, especially as they’ve sacrificed a lot and took him in when they really didn’t have the time or money for it. He tries to be as helpful as he can, but he knows he’s still more of a burden than an aid.

Tim has moved away, just a little. Bart tries not to feel abandoned, and almost succeeds in being grateful for Tim’s tact. Kon squeezes his hand, which helps, though now Bart is wondering what Jay might be thinking about the three of them. It would just be so much easier to simply tell him what is going on.

“Jay?” Bart says. “Um, Tim and- Robin and I are, we, well, we’re, um.”

Maybe telling isn’t as easy as Bart had thought.

Jay grimaces, and nods. Bart knows he’s understood. He looks very uncomfortable about it, and Bart knows a Talk is imminent, but Bart guesses he probably appreciates being told. It’s the sort of ‘standing up for yourself’ and ‘being honest’ that he tries to encourage. Everything’s gone kinda awkward. Bart risks a glance at Tim, and is surprised to see just how flushed he is. He realises Batman, if he hasn’t been listening all along, will have at least recorded this conversation. Bart trusts Jay to be okay about it, but the idea of Batman knowing terrifies him. He can’t imagine how disturbed Tim must be feeling right now.

“I think,” Jay says, in the measured tones of a deliberate subject change, “that we ought to wrap this up and send the three of you back to school as soon as possible.”

Bart opens his mouth to point out again that Tim isn’t at school, but Jay cuts him off.

“Robin will be starting a new school as soon as can be arranged,” he tells them. “None of you can afford to neglect your educations.”

Bart and Kon both look at Tim. He looks a little shellshocked, but Bart guesses that fact it’s an entirely new school probably helps him keep from freaking out. Jay would be arguing against sending Tim to school if it was going to be a constant reminder of the deaths of those close to him. Bart’s glad he lives with another superhero.

Parting is neither sweet nor sorrowful, since it’s only a few days ‘til they all meet again, but Bart still doesn’t want to go. He kinda hopes Wally will try and put his foot down over this suspension thing, because it’ll give him an excuse to say everything he’s ever wanted to and know that there are no worse repercussions. Also, he figures, if something happens in San Francisco no one’s going to be mad if he runs out there to help. Keeping him locked up would be like punishing other people. On the other hand, if Bart keeps his mouth shut and knuckles under maybe Wally will relent of his own accord and he’ll be able to spend all weekend at the tower with Tim, rather than a few brief moments in battle. Such a hard decision.

Bart’s really worried about Tim going back to school. He managed to find time to insist Tim phone him as soon as he got home, or the Nest, or Batman’s home, or wherever, but he still wishes he had argued harder on Tim’s behalf against the decision. He knows Tim won’t say anything but he’ll be freaking out inside. He knows Tim won’t break down, or cry, or start a fight, or generally lose it, but Bart can’t help but think it might be better if he did. Because Tim will pretend and pretend he’s fine until either he really and truly snaps or he starts believing it and begins turning into Batman. Bart thinks of Two-face’s coin and shudders.

It’s Tuesday and Bart is sitting next to the phone in the entrance hall, willing it to ring. Joan brought him some cookies earlier and has been very sympathetic. Bart wonders if Jay has told her about him and Tim. Jay hasn’t summoned him for The Talk yet, but he keeps approaching Bart then veering off, into the lounge or kitchen or up the stairs, like he hasn’t quite worked out the right words yet. Because Bart can tell he’s wondering just how well he knows his foster son. It did seem to come out of nowhere, and perhaps he’s wondering if Bart’s been hiding it, or acting on it in secret, or doesn’t even know what all the fuss is about. Jay always seems to know just what to say to any one, at any moment, and this indecision makes Bart wish he’d just told Jay, the moment he realised.

Bart feels kinda sick, staring at the home baked cookie in his hand. Has he betrayed Jay and Joan somehow? He could just have made more of an effort to rekindle things with Carol. And... and he does still like Rose a lot. And he thinks Starfire is really hot, like everyone other male - heterosexual male? - in the country. It’s not as though he couldn’t fit in if he wanted to. It would be so easy to keep liking girls, since he does like girls. He just likes Tim too. And he doesn’t want to pretend that he doesn’t, which means admitting out loud, to everyone, that he does. Including Jay and Joan. Even including Wally. Including anyone at school who might ask, and including all the Titans and all of the ex-Young Justice members and really, including everyone in the superhero community.

Including Bart, too. There’s this part of him, which, if he admits it, is more of a Kid Flash part than an Impulse part, which really wants to shake his head and ignore liking boys and please people. Impulse didn’t really care what people thought, not because he was inconsiderate but because it often didn’t occur to him they might think differently. Or sometimes think at all, especially during the time when he’d just left the AI environment. But Kid Flash is very concerned about people’s opinions, if Bart’s honest with himself. He wants people to like him, to admire him, and most of all to respect him. He’s scared that this might affect that, in some people’s eyes.

Jay has stopped opposite him. Bart holds the uneaten cookie out, mouth twitching into a smile. Jay smiles back and accepts it.

“Perhaps he called before you got back. He is in a different time zone,” Jay says, chewing on cranberry and oatmeal. Wally had taken Bart into school earlier, just at precisely the wrong time as far as Bart was concerned, to discuss the suspension and Bart’s unwillingness to attend. Bart had sat and listened to other people discussing issues that they really ought to have been discussing with him, instead of over him, and felt just as belittled and patronised as he always did. Wally had even assumed Bart wanted to go into science.

“I didn’t think of that,” Bart says, leaping up to check the answering machine. It still flashes zero, just as it had when he’d run through the front door to check it, just in case. “I bet he did, though. But I don’t know why he’d wait. He wouldn’t know that I had to meet with the Principal.” He sits down again, frowning.

“He is... He’s very... important... to you, isn’t he?” Jay says haltingly.

Bart bites his lip and nods.

“Bart?”

“Yeah, he is.” Bart looks up at Jay. “I... I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry it wasn’t Cassie or Cissie or someone.” He can feel his heart hammering against his rib cage. “I don’t want, I mean, I want, I... I don’t know.” Bart shrugs miserably. “I don’t know what I want, I guess.”

“Most people don’t,” Jay says.

“I’m scared he’s not going to call,” Bart confides in a small voice. “What if he doesn’t like me as much as I like him? He’s always been kind enough to humour me in the past.”

Jay sits down next to him. He’s got a strange smile on his face, and he isn’t really focussing on anything.

“Bart, I think anyone would be hard put to dislike you for any substantial reason. You do everything so earnestly, and with your whole heart.” Jay puts an arm around Bart. “Don’t be scared, Bart.”

Bart appreciates that Jay hasn’t just said “of course he’ll call” or even “perhaps it will be better this way”.

“You told the truth, Bart, a truth not everyone is going to be happy to hear. I’m very proud of you.” Proud, not pleased with, but it’s still enough to make Bart feel elated.

“I don’t want people to not like me. Even for an unsubstantial reason,” Bart tells him. “What if I’ve forfeited Wal- people’s respect?”

“You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people never,” Jay replies with a snort of laughter. “But the people who do like and respect you, Bart, will respect you even more for not being afraid or influenced by those who don’t. You have to be scared first to be brave.”

Bart slips an arm behind Jay’s back and gives him a sort of half hug, resting his head against Jay’s shoulder. He really appreciates the security he has with the Garricks, maybe more than he did with Max because he now knows not to take it for granted. He appreciates the way they treat him: with respect and responsibility, but never forgetting that he’s still a child. He appreciates that he’s not living with Wally, really appreciates it, but what with all this being honest with himself he has to admit he’s a bit hurt, too. He’ll never quite understand why Wally doesn’t want him, and it’s hard to pretend that he doesn’t want to be wanted.

Bart opens his mouth to tell Jay this, in the spirit of telling Jay everything and not making him worry that Bart’s a stranger in his home, when the phone rings. He moves so fast that the first time to tries to pick it up his hand goes straight through and fries the circuits. He’s raised the phone in Jay and Joan’s bedroom halfway to his mouth before it occurs to him that he ought to have asked permission before he used it. He thinks an apology really hard.

“Tim!”

“Hello, Bart,” Tim replies, and Bart can hear the smile. He settles down on the bed, kicking his shoes off, and grins at the receiver.

“Hi, Tim.”

They talk for what feels like hours, and when Bart looks at the clock on the bedside table he realises that’s because they actually have. And Tim did most of it. Bart feels like a good boyfriend, and feels even better for thinking the word ‘boyfriend’ to himself. Even after Tim absolutely insists he has to hang up, because he has work, Bart stays on the bed, staring at the ceiling and smiling to himself. It’s the most utterly brilliant thing ever.

When he sits up he catches a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns his head and realises he left the door open. He wonders who was watching him, if anyone was. It could have been Dox for all he knows.

At dinner Bart suspects Jay has told Joan about his new relationship. Joan keeps looking at him, and occasionally frowning, and sometimes smiling. She seems relieved that he’s got his appetite back, though.

“So,” she says in the middle of dessert, “are we going to have this Timothy to visit?”

Bart almost chokes.

“From what I hear he’s gone through a rough time recently. I’m sure he’d appreciate some homemade food.”

Bart manages to nod.

“How about Friday? He can come over after school.”

Bart wonders madly if Jay forgot to mention that ‘Timothy’ is actually Robin. How would he even get to Keystone?

For that matter, how did he get to San Francisco? Bart frowns at the fruit tart. If Tim were to come on Friday, then they could continue on to Titans Tower together. Joan won’t have forgotten about the Titans. Unless she thinks he wasn’t going. Or she knows Tim was Robin and thought they could go together.

“This Friday?” he asks.

“Yes, I think so,” Joan says. “I would like to meet him, Bart.” She sounds much more serious than usual, and Bart wonders what she’s thinking. “I know you have strong feelings for this young man and I want to make sure he’s suitable,” she says. Bart’s eyes bug out. “I’m sure if he’s as important to you as you are to us, he’ll be a wonderful young man,” she adds, trying to take the shell-shocked look off Bart’s face. “I’d say the same of any girlfriend. I don’t want you getting yourself into any trouble, Bart. I’m not just talking about STDs, either. You‘re young, Bart, and still so inexperienced. I don‘t want to make assumptions about this Timothy before I meet him, but I find it hard to believe anyone who associates with Batman could retain quite that innocence.”

The only thought bouncing around in Bart’s head is that Batman wouldn’t let Tim get AIDs, just through sheer weight of disapproval.

Wow. Bat-disapproval. Like condoms, in a way.

A really creepy way

Celibacy. There’s a nice thought. Cheerful, happy celibacy. Chaste kisses and hugs. No Bat-condoms at all.

Bart thinks he remembers Tim mentioning Bat-lube once.

The next morning Bart wakes up with a strange blank in his memory. It seems to be self-inflicted. He wonders what happened last night that he’s protecting himself from. He dreamt about bats.

Being suspended is really, really boring. Even more boring when he can’t play any of his games or watch television. He’s read every book in the house over and over. He’s taken Dox for so many walks the poor dog is hiding his leash and whimpers every time the door opens. Bart has cleaned all the windows, dusted all the shelves and polished all the ornaments. He’s learnt to cook five different meals, knit thirteen different patterns, and take apart, clean and reassemble four different combustion engines and seven different types of firearm (though he’s not telling anyone who taught him).

It’s Friday, just after lunch, and he’s testing different carpet cleaners on different stains. If they don’t come out with the cleaners, he reasons, he can vibrate them out. Joan kept coming up with things he could do, but even with the work school had sent home he ran out of options. He bites on a raspberry jam filled cookie he made earlier and studies the cream carpet intently. He has spoken to Tim once more since Tuesday, which for Tim, Bart figures, is probably a lot of contact. They talked about whether Wally would let Bart go to Titans Tower that weekend. They talked about whether there was anyway to make sure he would. Bart misses him every moment he’s not talking to him, and even then he misses not seeing him.

Bart glances up and spots Wally through the front window. He’s dressed casually and he’s walking slowly. Bart knows that this is crunch time.

Bart answers the door before Wally has a chance to knock.

“Saw you coming,” Bart explains quickly.

“Ah, good,” Wally says, already knocked off balance. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“I’ve been good,” Bart tells him. “Obeyed all the rules of my punishment. Do I get out on parole?” He sees no reason to dance around the point.

“That’s... that’s something I will discuss with Jay,” Wally evades him. Bart fumes silently.

“So what did you want to talk to me about?” Bart asks, leading him into the lounge.

“Robin.”

“Thought so,” Bart says before he can stop himself.

Wally sighs and sits down, gesturing for Bart to do the same. Jay looks around the door and the two older speedsters nod to each other. Jay disappears again.

“Bart, I’ve been where you are now,” Wally begins. Bart tries not to squirm and for a brief, insane moment wonders if he actually means Robin, instead of just relationships in general. “Your first relationship.”

“No,” Bart interrupts before Wally can continue blustering on. “That was Carol. Carol was my first girlfriend. My first kiss and everything.”

Wally wobbles for a moment, but finds his balance again. “Okay, yes. Carol. But we’re talking about Robin.”

Bart nods, willing to let it go for the second to find out what this is really about.

“He’s a boy.”

Bart nods solemnly. He can’t help but laugh, and Wally grins back at him.

“Okay, sorry. But it’s still something you have to think about.”

“I have,” Bart says, a little offended that once again, Wally’s still thinking of him as Impulse. “I have been thinking about it constantly. I’ve been ill thinking about it. I completely freaked out about it,” he insists.

“Really?”

Bart finds it hard to hide his anger at that.

“Yes, really! And I get why everyone else is, okay? I’m not an idiot.”

Wally raises his hands in surrender. Bart can see judgments changing behind his face. He guesses Wally had been making up all sorts of reasons for Bart dating a boy, none of which involved Bart liking boys.

“Have you thought about that fact he’s a fellow superhero?”

Bart realises he hasn’t. So he does, and can’t see a problem with it.

“I speak from experience, Bart, when I say that dating within the community can cause a lot of problems. You won’t see much of each other, and there’s the constant risk that you’ll lose the other person. When you break up you’ll be forced to work together in situations that would give even the closest of friends a cause for stress. If you fail to work together, people might die.” Wally watches Bart, and Bart tries to make the most appropriate ‘I’m taking this in and considering it intently’ face. “A lot of young superheroes date their... ‘colleagues’, I suppose. Certainly, I have. You know that. And now, you’ll see, I’m married to Linda. There’s... there’s a level of trust, dating someone who has to accept your dual life. And security, of course. I understand that at your age you might not be looking for that, but it’s important.”

“I did date someone outside the community: Carol,” Bart tells him loudly. “I really liked her. You should know that, or you would if you ever spent any time with me.”

That came out more bitterly than he’d meant it to. Not quite the right emphasis, either.

“Okay, yes. Yes, I understand that.”

Bart’s beginning to wonder what books Wally has read recently, or maybe talk shows he’s watched. He sounds like a councillor from one of those early afternoon nineties high school shows. Jay had made an executive decision about the TV ban, especially early afternoon when Bart had finished the washing up but couldn’t start dinner for a few hours, and had already walked Dox and finished his school work and discovered, practised and got bored with a new hobby. Unfortunately, TV between two and four in the afternoon was dull.

“Course you do,” Bart mutters.

“Look,” Wally says, patience finally running out, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to date Robin, alright?”

“Well I don’t think you get to make that decision,” Bart snaps.

“As your legal guardian-”

“I thought Jay and Joan were my guardians!”

“No, I am, legally.”

“So why don’t I live with you?”

“Because! Because.” Wally stands up and shakes his head, crunching his hair with one hand in frustration. “Look, Bart, it just wasn’t convenient.”

Bart can feel his eyes burning and his nose blocking up. “Wasn’t convenient inconvenient?” he echoes, voice wavering. “Thanks! If I’m so inconvenient why did you even bother come over? Why do you pretend to care at all?”

And he’s upstairs, locked in his bedroom, before Wally can respond.

Wally follows, but Jay stops him on the stairs. Bart can hear them talking. Wally sounds upset. Bart can't hear the individual words, but he recognises the tone of voice. He’s heard it from Jay a few times. It calms him down, and Bart would do anything to hear it directed at him right now, but Wally just sounds more and more agitated.

“...hurt him,” Bart hears.

“No.” Jay sounds very authoritative. “Wally, back off.”

Bart rubs at his eyes and tries to ignore how disproportionately upset he must appear. He knows what the situation was like when he first arrived, and he knows that Wally wouldn’t have been able to handle him. Probably couldn’t handle him now, as this little spat shows. But Bart also knows this has been coming for some time now. In a fit of jealousy Bart sobs loudly, hoping they’ll hear. It’ll hurt Wally, which he wants, and hopefully Jay will come running. He wants Jay to use the calming voice on him. He wants Jay to tell him that Wally didn’t mean it, and even if he did he and Joan will be there. He wants the doorbell to stop ringing, too, because otherwise Jay will go and answer it and Wally will come up and bother him.

Jay does go and answer it, but Wally doesn’t come up. Bart can only hear the most muffled tones from the front door, but he recognises one voice immediately.

Bart’s downstairs and hanging around the corner in the hall before the tears have dried. He sees Tim and grins. Tim smiles at seeing him, then suddenly looks worried. Bart rubs at his eyes and realises he must look a state. He mouths ‘Wally’ and nods his head at the offender. Jay’s got his hand clamped on Wally’s shoulder and he’s still using his stern voice. He and Wally move back and Tim enters, followed by a person previously obscured by the speedsters. Bart feels a dark pang of resentment as Nightwing, out of uniform but still recognisable, enters. Is everyone ganging up on him and Tim?

Jay guides Wally and Nightwing into the lounge, but catches Tim’s eye and lets Tim go to Bart.

“What’s wrong? What did he say?” Tim asks, standing awkwardly in front of Bart. Anyone else would have put their arms around Bart immediately, but Bart knows Tim still needs an invitation. He wraps himself around his boyfriend (what a wonderful word!) and nuzzles his neck. Tim isn’t in uniform yet, any more than Nightwing is, and Bart tightens his arms and appreciates that.

“Wally was just being a dick again,” Bart tells him, pulling back. He can’t entirely explain to himself why Tim looks particularly amused at that. “I asked him why he never took me in, and he said it wasn’t convenient, and... and I kinda overreacted,” Bart admits.

Tim shakes his head. “No, you didn’t. You acted as you felt. Wally needs to know when what he says hurts you.” It’s a little cheesy, but Bart loves Tim for it. “He can’t keep treating you like a toddler who doesn’t understand what he’s saying. You’re not a child, you’re not an adult, you’re not him and you’re not Impulse.”

“I’m your boyfriend,” Bart says, blushing as he says it. Tim blushes too. And smiles. And Bart beams at him.

“Look, I do care about him,” Bart hears Wally say. “Would I be here if I didn’t? Can we take it as read that Bart is like a son to me?”

Bart shakes his head and Tim snickers, and looks a little guilty. Bart smiles at him to convince him it’s okay. He doesn’t want to be Wally’s son. Nephew, yes, ward even, but not son.

“It’s because I care that I don’t think they should do this,” Wally says firmly.

“On what basis?” Nightwing challenges him.

Bart frowns at Tim, who shrugs.

“Dick, we both know...” Wally sounds strained, and breaks off. It occurs to Bart that ‘Dick’ must be Nightwing’s name. He’s just heard the real name of one of the Bat-clan. How long had it taken Tim to tell them?

It’s all gone silent in there. Bart and Tim can hear feet shuffling and someone coughs.

“Look, I’m going to leave the room,” Jay says eventually. “Whatever it is you boys have to say to each other, it’s obvious it’s not something you want to say in front of me. However, whatever you decide in here, I want you both to know that I support Bart’s right to make his own decisions, and if he wishes to date Robin then no matter what either of you think about it you will not be allowed to interfere.”

“He’ll make the same mistakes again!” Wally almost shouts.

“What mistakes?” Jay asks, voice level. Unless he’s whispering, Wally isn’t replying.

Jay comes out of the room and sees Bart and Tim standing together, obviously eavesdropping. He frowns, and Bart opens his mouth to apologise, but Jay walks straight past them into the kitchen.

“Implicit permission,” Tim murmurs in Bart’s ear. It makes Bart shiver and he grabs Tim’s shoulders to keep his knees from melting. He doesn’t care what reasons Wally might have to split them up, how sensible and rational and bloody wonderful they are, nothing in the world could convince him to give this up.

“Wally,” they hear Nightwing say, “can we be honest with each other?”

Wally doesn’t reply, though perhaps he nods. Bart thinks he would nod, if someone asked him that question in that voice.

Tim is moving to sit down, or maybe crouch, and he tugs on Bart’s shirt to pull him down too. Tim sits on the floor with his legs bent but open, and manoeuvres Bart so that he’s sitting between him, his back to Tim’s front. Tim wraps his arms around Bart and holds him there. Bart buzzes.

“They’re not us,” Nightwing says. Every implication of the statement rains down on Bart’s head and his jaw drops. “I know... I know that it looks the same. I remember how great it was too, Wally. And how much more it hurt because of it. But they’re not us. There’s no guarantee it will turn out the same way.”

“It is the same,” Wally says, voice thick with emotion. “Dick, look at them. Every little thing is the same. Even the misunderstandings.”

You never told anyone,” Dick says, voice also low. Bart imagines him looking at the ground, looking hurt and angry. Looking a lot like Tim.

“Do you think Bart would have?” Wally asks.

Bart nods firmly, hoping Tim understands. He knows that he couldn’t have kept it a secret, and he’s glad he didn’t try. Tim squeezes him a little tighter.

“Is this about Bart, or is this about you?” Nightwing demands. “Wally, I know I hurt you. I know watching them together must hurt you.”

“You don’t know anything,” Wally rejects him. “I’m worried about Bart. He’s not as stable as I was then. He’s - what is he now? - he’s four, or something like that. He’s not ready for any relationship. Do you want to see Robin hurt?”

“He’s been hurt. I know that there’s nothing I can do to stop that for him, or anyone else. His girlfriend died.”

“And you think he’s ready to jump into another relationship so soon?” Wally asks, triumph on the cusp of his tone.

“That’s up to him,” Nightwing says.

There’s a pause, like the breather between rounds in a fight. Bart feels kinda sick. He suspects Tim feels the same way. He twists in Tim’s arms, and catches him staring at the opposite wall with a vacant and predominantly sad expression. It’s strange having all his fears voiced by their predecessors, Bart thinks, and wonders how many of the potential issues had occurred to Tim prior to this.

“It was a long time ago,” Wally begins again.

Bart’s still looking at Tim, and hardly listening. Tim’s looking at him now, and he quivers like he’s nervous, like he’s about to run. Bart tries to recall all the happy feelings he’d felt only minutes ago, when Tim arrived. He can’t quite, but he recognises something in them that he still feels now, and has felt for some time without realising. Something that underlies every other emotion, happy or sad.

“I love you,” Bart says, very quietly.

Tim blinks at him and his bottom lip begins to shake. Bart turns around completely and gathers Tim in as close as he can, kneeling up on his shins so he’s taller than Tim. He keeps repeating what he said and stroking Tim’s hair.

“I love you, Tim, I do, I love you. Don’t run away, please. I love you. You don’t have to say anything, you don’t, but I love you and I want to tell you that and I want to know you know it. So I love you. I love you. Tim, I love you.”

“It’s the same situation, the same pressures. It’s not just you and me, Dick, it’s everyone. I’ve seen it with everyone. Roy and Donna. Me and Donna. You and Starfire. All the evidence suggests it just can’t work.”

“That’s not the point, Wally. They have to find that out for themselves. They have to make their own mistakes, even if it means repeating ours.” Dick sighs. “Wally, what if they make it?”

“What do you mean: ‘what if’? Of course they’re won’t.” So deriding it makes Bart tense, and Tim slips his arms around Bart’s waist and pulls him down so he’s sitting on his thighs and their heads are level.

“Are you scared that they might, Wally? Are you scared that they’ll get it right where we got it wrong? It hurts me to see them together too, you know. Reminds me of too much.”

“You haven’t seen them together!” Wally tells him.

“I’ve heard Tim on the phone. Almost exactly the same conversations we had. And I can’t decide which would hurt more - seeing them break up or seeing them succeed. At least you’re married, Wally. You have a wife that loves you. I don’t.”

Silence again. Bart looks at Tim and Tim looks at Bart. Bart brushes a thumb along Tim’s cheekbone, just where the mask would rest. Tim looks unhappy, and Bart is terrified, but he’s said everything he can now. There is no other argument he can offer to counter Wally’s.

Tim moves, and Bart realises he wants to stand up. Bart moves back and lets him. Taking Tim by the hand, he leads him up to his bedroom.

The curtains are still open. In Gotham, Bart supposes, the sun would be beginning to set. Normally he’d be getting home from school now. Getting ready to go to the Titans. He doesn’t know what the decision on that is, but he intends to go anyway. He knows he’ll have Jay’s support. Bart resolves to do something for Jay, something really nice. Save up to give him and Joan a weekend away somewhere, maybe. It will take months, maybe even years, but Bart knows every time his patience is stretched he will only have to remind himself of how great his foster parents are being.

The Superboy poster is still up, and there’s a batman plushie balanced on top of the computer. Tim picks it up and squeezes its chubby little hands. Bart sits on the bed and kicks the school work idly, sending a flurry of paper across the floor.

“Bart,” Tim sighs, bending to pick them up.

“Leave it,” Bart tells him. “I can tidy it up again before we go. If, I mean, we are going. To the Tower. I’m going to, even if Wally does say no.”

Tim offers him a wan smile. “I’m going too.”

“Good. After all, it’s a duty, not a privilege,” Bart says, quoting something Jay had said to Wally after they got home on Monday.

“Yeah.”

Tim sort of hovers in the middle of the room, holding a few sheets of paper and generally giving a better impression of mess than the scatter of essays and algebra. He’s holding the essay they did together. Bart hasn’t had a chance to hand it in yet, and suspects that he won’t be allowed to now, since everyone else will be getting theirs back.

Bart pats the bed beside him. Slowly, Tim moves to sit down. He sort of perches, barely touching the bed, knees jutting out and hands curling in his lap, crumpling the sides of the paper.

“You going to say anything?” Bart asks.

Tim sighs and stares down at the essay. “Bart,” he says, and sighs again. “Bart.”

“Yes?”

“Bart, I... I care about you. You know that, right? And, and recently, you’ve shown me that maybe, maybe I care as more than... than a friend. I don’t really know.” Tim’s voice is strained, and Bart hates that it’s hurting him so much just to say this. “You’ve always been very, uh, dear to me, Bart. I’ve always liked you a lot. Like you said, back... back last week, actually, last Friday, it seemed perfectly normal, because you were Impulse and I was Robin and that’s how it was. You said it never occurred to you, and it never occurred to me either, and...” Tim swallows hard. “And I wish it never had.”

Bart doesn’t want to hear anything else, but he has to ask, “Why?”

“I lost Ste- Spoi- Steph, recently. I know you understand that, with Carol.”

“It’s not the same,” Bart admits. “Carol and Steph, not the same.”

“I can’t be hurt like that again,” Tim says. “I think maybe they're right downstairs. We shouldn't do this. It could all go so badly wrong.”

“Did you hear what Dick said to Wally?” Bart says, forcing himself to sound casual. “He said they had to let us make our own mistakes, even if it means repeating theirs. And I agree with that.”

“Bart, I don't want to hurt you.”

“If they’re right, you're going to no matter how this goes,” Bart tells him. “Why can't we have at least some good stuff first?” He squeezes Tim's hand. “I'll take full responsibility,” he says. “I'll never blame you. We'll never stop being friends, Tim, even if for a while it is weird and awkward. I'm not going to let us stop being friends.”

Tim looks down at their joined hands. “I wonder what their mistakes were,” he says quietly.

“I don't know. I don't think Wally would tell me, so I guess you'll have to ask Dick.”

“I think... I think I'd rather not know,” Tim says, looking up into Bart's eyes. “I want them to be our mistakes.”

“Me too.”

Tim leans over, like he wants to kiss Bart but doesn’t have the nerve, and Bart closes the distance, but just presses his forehead to Tim’s. Tim smiles nervously, and Bart returns it.

“They’re wrong,” Bart murmurs. “We both know they’re wrong.”

“We... we’ll make mistakes.”

“Yeah, we will. But we’ll make up, too.”

Tim kisses Bart, all nervousness gone. Bart kisses back, and it’s just like his dream.