Chapter Three: Bygone Skies
"I don't think I can do this," Tim admits, watching a string of Kansas hills pass by on the horizon through the window. The mesa look blue as forget-me-nots from this far away, and there's an irony in that thought that tastes bitter on Tim's tongue.
Out here, the farmland stretches on for miles until it hits those ridges, but the sky is wider still, bending around the rest of the world in a way that would make any person feel small. Tim doesn't mind, though. He's trying to commit it all to memory as he watches it slip by. He's already missing it, missing the way the sun makes the grain blush gold in the morning and the way the hay smells. They're silly things to miss, he knows, but he can't help it. It'll be gone soon.
The truck jolts forward, and Tim shoots a glare at Clark, because he's certain the man hit the pothole on purpose.
"You'll be fine," Clark chuckles, and he rights the wheel. "You're just overthinking things."
Tim's not so sure.
He remembers how Gotham looks from childhood, the buildings wheezing smoke from every orifice like it's all liable to collapse and die. Clark thinks it will be a good change ("Get you back to your roots," he said.), and maybe he's right, but Tim's roots aren't ones he wants to revisit. It's not that he's hostile toward the city—not necessarily, but it's not where he belongs and Tim knows it.
And yet he's here, sitting shotgun in a rusty pickup and trying to remember where things went so wrong. He already knows, of course, but he can't keep himself from reliving it anyway. Life on the Kent's farm was supposed to help with that, but it hadn't. Not really.
"Put down your window," Clark suggests after glancing at his passenger, "the air's nice today."
Without complaint, Tim's complying, rolling it down with the manual crank until there's a soft wind easing in. The air's nice everyday out here, nothing but grass and wheat and trees, and although the summer sun is hot, there are clouds out to provide shade. They're the white, fluffy kind that crown the earth in rings and bleed red in sunsets. Tim's trading them in for smog, he thinks, and he can't hide the grimace that follows.
"I know it's nerve-wracking," his driver sympathizes, guiding the truck onto another dirt road, "but it's for the best, I promise. You need something different, and I've worked with Bruce for a long time. He'll take good care of you. They're like family over there."
Tim doesn't bother telling him that he's already got a family on the Kent's farm; he's only half-listening, busy trying to capture the way the Kansas wind feels in his hair through the window. He wishes he could bottle it up and take it with him, but he can't.
The drive goes by faster than Tim would like. It feels as though he only just said goodbye to everyone at the farm, and the truck's already pulling up to the train station. Clark jumps out first, spry for his age, and starts unloading Tim's things from the bed.
"Ginger snaps from Ma," Clark says, a warning in his eyes as he hands him a tin of sweets. They both know Martha Kent's cooking is addictive, and it's the first time Tim's smiled since they pulled out of the driveway an hour back. But then, the smile's gone, easy as it came.
Always the boy scout, Clark helps Tim carry his sparse belongings to the platform, chatting with him until it's almost time. The nostalgia hits them both hard when the whirring of an engine becomes audible in the distance, and before Tim's realized it, he's being pulled into a bone-crushing hug, the kind only the Kents can pull off, and Tim's tempted into thinking that's what "home" feels like.
"Call us when you get there," Clark chides, voice suspiciously teary, "and come back for Thanksgiving and Christmas and—"
"Clark, I'm gonna miss my train," Tim half-laughs, wiggling free from the superhuman grip.
"Right, right," and Clark's handing him the few worldly possessions Tim owns, the man struggling to hide the red around his eyes, and the train doors snap closed.
It's all coming back to Tim as he stands in front of Detective Todd's desk, feeling drained from the trip and life in general. He just wants this to work out, just so he can call the Kents later and tell them as much.
Of course, it doesn't.
"I think there's been a mistake," Todd says, and he looks a bit cagey as he sets down his pen.
There has been a mistake, Tim agrees before he can stop himself. He should be in Kansas or Delaware or anywhere other than the Jersey coast, anywhere other than Gotham where he is now.*
"There's no mistake," Tim breathes, "I'm the explosives expert your office requested last week."
It's the simplified version of events, Tim understands. It's been kept under wraps, but Tim's a detective and he's smart enough to know Clark pulled a lot of strings to get him here. The GCPD has its own experts that can handle these kinds of cases (It was the first argument Tim made against coming.), but Tim's especially good—or at least…he was—and Clark said they respect that professionalism over here.
Professionalism flies out the window when Todd jumps up and is whipping open an office door. Tim's followed, more because he's not sure what else to do and he's pulled in by the drama of it all.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Todd's barking at the poor soul who's probably in there. Tim's curious who it is, just so he can have a name to go with the other character in the soap opera that's suddenly playing out before his eyes. He cringes when he spies the plaque outside the door.
Lt. Bruce Wayne C.D.S.
"They're like family over there," Clark said, and the words ring in Tim's ears right then because that's exactly what he's been afraid of. Growing up, family always meant absences and arguments and misunderstandings. It's why Tim escaped to the Kent's for holiday breaks when he was in school. They were more than happy to have him, and his parents… They were more than happy not to.
Standing in the doorway brings all those feelings back, seeing Todd pick a fight with his superior from the office entrance. It's an image Tim saw plenty when he was young, trapped in a house watching his parents tear into each other, and it's the same now, in a way, because he's trapped here too.
All that's left is Tim, waiting in front of the office and wanting to sink straight down into the floor, because he'd give anything to be just a little more invisible than he already is.
The name breaks the air, and instantly, he's standing there as evident as everyone else. Tim takes a hesitant step into the room, his shoes falling heavy on the hard floors.
"Yes, sir?" he answers, because the response has been drilled into him and it's all he can think to say.
The lieutenant's looking him over silently from his place behind his desk. Tim can barely make out if the man's hair is black or brown in the dark room, the blinds notably flicked closed, and books are imperiously stacked on tables and shelves like bricks. There's a computer monitor on the desk—one on each side, actually—but by all the papers, Tim guesses the lieutenant must be a hard-copy kind of cop. If nothing else, it adds a serious component to the already dreary room.
After a moment of watching Tim, Wayne hums in a way that's tired and thoughtful, the sound rumbling in his throat, before settling back in his chair and pulling a file up to meet his eyes. "Clark tells me you're a hard worker," he says, gleaning the insides of the folder. It's probably Tim's personal file, and the realization makes his stomach churn. "I'm going to expect twice as much from you in that regard. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," comes the jaded reply.
Wayne nods, apparently satisfied, as he lays the file back on his desk. "Jason here can set you up with a uniform tomorrow—" Tim fights back a puzzled look, because uniforms are typically for officers, not detectives. At least, that's how they do it in Metro… "—and you'll be on his team for the next two months of your liaison period. He'll show you the ropes and get you reacquainted with the streets here."
There's a lengthy pause in which Tim can feel Todd beside him, radiating spite like whatever row the two just had isn't going to blow over anytime soon. Tim can already tell the man's temperamental and brash, and although he doesn't really know him, he can't help noticing Todd always has a hand on his gun holster. The observation strikes him hard.
Todd's still scowling, but Wayne's absorbing it all like death glares are sunshine to him. He hasn't looked at either of them since he opened his mouth last, a pen in his hand as he jots something down, likely a signature by the haste of it. "That is all," he finally breaks, both voice and eyes undisturbed as he remains focused on his paperwork.
Todd storms out the second the sentence arrives; it's just Tim and Wayne left.
"Thank you for the opportunity, Lieutenant," Tim murmurs with a polite dip of his head. The words are dripping with exhaustion, but he's too tired to hide it. He turns to leave too when a voice catches him.
"Just Bruce will do, Detective."
Tim glances back over his shoulder, mildly surprised, because Bruce Wayne is the last person he was expecting to be on a first-name basis with. The casualness reminds him of Clark, in a weird way, and it has him aching for Kansas all over again.
"Get some rest," Bruce speaks once more, attention still fixed to the files littering his desk, "I'll be seeing you tomorrow."
It's glaringly empty.
There's only one bedroom (more like a closet, really), one bathroom, and a kitchen with a sorry seating area crammed in front of the entryway. The apartment shouldn't feel vacant with so little space, but evidently, that's exactly the vibe it gives off.
Tim sighs, easing down onto the squeaky couch where his things are sitting. Both bags are eying him dolefully as if to ask why there are so few, but Tim ignores them, letting his eyes roam his new home.
The apartment's a cheap place he's renting, stuffed into one of the shoddy complexes lining the streets. It's the best he could find on such short notice, and Tim keeps reminding himself he's only here for two months. Just two. Then, he can be back in Metropolis and the MPD to pick up the pieces of his life.
He can't go back to the Kent's, and it's not like they wouldn't welcome him, but… No. Despite the help he gave handling the chores, he's been a fixture in their house long enough. He'll visit maybe, but he won't inconvenience them any more than that.
It doesn't mean he doesn't wish he were there, though, surrounded by friendly faces who give him love and a purpose. The homesickness (Is that what this is?) is worse than he was expecting, rearing its head when he takes in the chipping white paint on the walls, grayed from time and neglect, and when he flicks on the stove light in the kitchen, it only highlights the fact there's no one there.
It all feels that way. The apartment's barren compared to what he's used to and depressingly dark, neither of the two windows in the place facing east or west to catch the sun. That doesn't really matter; it's nighttime by now anyway.
But Tim's already thinking of waking up without the familiar morning sunshine slipping through the curtains of his old bedroom. He used to split it with someone else, that room on the second floor of the Kent's farm house, but it's just his now. Tim tries not to think about that.
He exhales and unzips one of his bags, the noise a long shriek in the quiet, to start unpacking. It doesn't take long for him to find the ginger snaps Clark gave him when he left, and Tim decides to set the tin on the coffee table, popping the lid just enough to allow the sugary smell to escape and prowl the insides of the apartment. He's had the sweets all day but hasn't touched a single one. He's been told that's a thing with him.
"You're always like this," Tim's last partner said, "good things happen and you just let them get all stale because you're afraid they'll vanish if you enjoy them."
It's true. But Tim's always been like that. There are still unwrapped toys in the attic of his parents' house—He's certain of it—wasting away in plastic wrap because God forbid he took them out and played with them; they might break that way. And so, they decay instead.
To be honest, the Kents are the only good thing he hasn't thoroughly messed up in his life, and even then…
Tim slides off the couch and onto the floor where, sadly, it's more comfortable. He promised Clark he'd call, and he really should. He's staring down his contact list, phone in hand, and it'd be so easy to tap the screen.
But, today's been awful: hours sitting stiff on a train only to find trouble the moment he tried to do something right for himself—tried to do something right for the Kents, because they want this to work out for him. They really do.
Tim can't make the call in the end. Instead, his head slips between his knees, and he shoves the phone onto the coffee table. It's been a failure of a day. That sinks in when he spies the cigarette burns on the carpet beneath him, black tar marks that splotch the once-white threads.
He sighs and resigns himself to remaining there, low on the floor by himself, while he's crowded by empty furniture.
Tim doesn't want a new partner, doesn't need one. That's all he can think, because it's the truth.
Because no one can replace Conner.
*Metropolis is set in Delaware (However, some comics state it as being in New York.) while Gotham is in New Jersey.