Snow crunches underfoot.
Bruce has never seen Gotham this deserted, the winter unsullied, almost blinding. It's colder, too, the kind that sticks to bones. He breathes it in and wonders, idly, if this isn't some form of memory. It feels familiar enough that it could be yet uncanny enough that J'onn's words return.
"We all wear masks, Batman. The consciousness is no different, altering apropos of who it encounters."
"That's why only one person should go in at a time," Impulse concluded, fidgeting like he needed to run off the thoughts racing through him. He was the antithesis of Superboy, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. An unreadable expression was on the older teen's face.
"I'll do it."
"No," Bruce said. Superboy's gaze sharpened. "I've known Robin the longest. I'll be the one to do it."
"Maybe that's true," Superboy replied, pushing himself off the wall. "But do you know him half as well as you think you do?"
Of course, Bruce thought. Two years of working together, night after night of ducking knives and hurtling bullets. He knows Tim like the back of his hand.
But it still stands: This was not what Bruce expected when he entered Tim's mind.
The man shields his eyes against a sudden icy gust. It already feels like he's been here forever, turning corner after corner like all of Downtown is one big maze. Luckily, there are still the usual landmarks: Wayne Tower looms to the south, City Hall to the east.
"Robin!" Bruce calls. "Where are you?"
His head swivels once from where he stands on the sidewalk, searching for change.
Heaving a sigh, Bruce yanks out his grapnel and pulls himself up to the rooftops. The horizon shines silver in the overcast night, and it's even colder up here, a burst of wind pummeling him right in the face around his mask so intense that Bruce thinks it might bowl him clean over. He questions, then, if that's not what it's trying to do.
"Robin!" Bruce bellows, loud enough that his throat bleeds but not enough to be audible. The storm is twisting like a curtain, stabbing satin; the din shrieks like a never-ending gunshot.
"Robin!" Bruce ducks his head through the bedlam. His feet are giving way, the treads grinding against the rooftop. It's going to toss him off at this rate. "Tim!"
Like the shock of a thunderclap, the blizzard stills.
Bruce pants in it, lowering his cape from where it'd been shielding him. The remaining quiet is beautiful, the air saturated with crystal-ice that glitters into snowflakes. Everything is monochrome, clear cut, and Bruce gulps it down while he catches his breath.
"Where are you?" he whispers.
The snow crunches.
Startled, Bruce's focus flicks downward. Footsteps are appearing one by one on the ground. It's surreal to find no one making them, but then again, that seems to be a pattern. Bruce follows.
"You have one hour," J'onn said, placing one hand on Bruce's shoulder and another on Tim's. "Any longer than that and your minds might meld, especially given his current state."
Everyone's attention fell to Tim. The boy was breathing shallowly, face tight in unvoiced pain. It dredged up sharp thoughts: Children clutching tears in ligaments, promising they weren't injured; boys caught in flames, lungs so thick with smoke that they couldn't speak at all.
Bruce's eye twitched, his only tell.
"But…he's gonna be OK, though, right?" Impulse shifted between his feet. "I mean, he's just gotta be…"
"He will," Bruce assured gruffly, and with a determined nod to J'onn, the world disappeared.
Bruce tries to gauge how much time's passed since then, shadowing each footstep as they appear. Surely, J'onn would break the connection if too much passed, and with each snowflake that gathers on the street, Bruce is anticipating that will happen any instant now, expecting his consciousness to untether and regather in reality.
That turmoil contrasts starkly with the peace here. Bruce is still struggling to decode it. As J'onn said, mindscapes form depending upon who the person encounters, and Bruce wants to understand, to turn Tim's thoughts over in his hands like a puzzle. This is the version of himself that Tim shows to Bruce. It has a fragile beauty, but...it's mature. Guarded. By the time the footprints have stopped, the man feels no closer to piecing things together.
Bruce glances around. He's on the sidewalk again, surrounded by a dream-white rendition of the Financial District. That and the only vehicle he's observed thus far.
Bruce squints at the bus. It's your run-of-the-mill transport, an advertisement plastered along the side with jumbled English and Rorschach shapes. Exhaust is curling out of the pipes.
Bruce alights the stairs soundlessly as he enters. No one's in the driver's seat, and just about every other place is open except one.
"Tim," Bruce says. The boy doesn't respond from where he's sitting in the back-most row, hair askew like it always is and backpack in his lap as if he's on his way to nowhere. His focus is glued to the frosted window.
"Tim," Bruce repeats, hovering in the aisle. "Let's go."
The teen doesn't move.
Furrowing his brow, Bruce steps closer and puts a hand on his shoulder. "Come on," he coaxes. "You're safe now. It's time to go home."
Mechanically, Tim turns his head. His gaze is blank when he opens his mouth, lips moving to form what Bruce recognizes as his name only nothing comes out, just a puff of hot vapor in the cold.
"Do you know him half as well as you think you do?"
Bruce's heart is pulsing louder than normal as he vets his partner, his student, a dear friend. He lowers himself into the adjacent seat. Tim's not dressed for this kind of weather in a T-shirt and basketball shorts, and goosebumps and discoloration dust his flesh. Tentatively, Bruce removes his cape and drapes it over the boy's lap.
"What is it?" Bruce asks when Tim does nothing more than inhale with that empty expression.
…Tired, Tim mouths, lips barely moving. I think I…want to sleep.
Bruce gently cups his chin, trying to get the teen to focus. "I know," he says after a moment. "Impulse told me what happened. Sounds like you had a rough day."
Tim nods blearily, probably not knowing what he's agreeing to. He's growing more lethargic with every passing second, and Bruce's chest clenches at that, witnessing his partner wilt in slow motion.
"Stay with me?" Bruce asks.
Tim nods again, and Bruce allows himself the unfamiliar comfort of resting an arm around the boy while he appraises the situation. The bus has yet to move, stuck between two unnamed places in the toneless night. Wind bays and claws at metal.
"I miss you," Bruce admits, feeling that he's understood what's happening. "Every time you go with the Titans, I do."
Tim stirs, the smallest curl of his shoulders but enough to encourage.
"I'm proud to see you doing so much good for people. You're clever and capable, and I rest easier knowing you and Dick are out in the world. But..."
Life reanimates in Tim's attention, a spark.
"But I find myself wishing, when you're away, that time could move faster. Just until you come home."
Tim shudders, voice throatless. "I don't…I don't know how."
"You're a Robin," Bruce says, still looking forward. "You'll find a way."
"I…" Tim's eyes blow wide, and Bruce feels like someone has snatched the loose threads of his brain, the frays where his and Tim's are intertwined, popping open each and every stitch.
"Bruce, wait!" Tim shouts. His fingers stretch out to connect, frantic, but the moment Bruce reaches out in turn is the one in which the earth condenses and expands and he's shoved backwards.
J'onn catches him by his arm, lowering him to the floor of Titans Tower.
"Is he OK?" Impulse is chattering. Bruce can't tell if it's Tim or himself the speedster's inquiring after; the man's just trying to get his senses back in order, the plasticky, medical smell of wires and an ECG beep curdling in his stomach.
"I talked to him," Bruce clarifies once his tongue unsticks from the roof of his mouth. He cradles his forehead to clear the haze. "Up to him now."
Impulse's shoes click on the floor as he shuffles. "Nothing else? There has to be something else."
J'onn shakes his head, and the teenager looks the worse for it. "You should rest," the Martian says. "You and Superboy have both done all you can."
The speedster rubs his elbow, blinking too quickly before he surrenders with a sad, "OK," and vanishes; upon pushing himself to a stand, Bruce finds that Superboy is nowhere to be found.
"You should recover as well," J'onn prescribes, red eyes tracing the sway of Bruce's stance. "You were gone for quite a while."
"I'm used to digging around in people's skulls. Part of my job."
J'onn tilts his head. "Is it? And what did you uncover?"
They watch one another until, finally, Bruce looks away.
"I imagine, were Robin conscious, he would request that you attempt to sleep," J'onn reiterates, cryptic and unreadable as ever, before he phases through the floor.
Exhaling, Bruce finally allows his own stoicism to drop, easing himself down on the edge of Tim's mattress. It's not the first time he's seen the boy sleep, but he's rarely taken the time to just see him. There's always a crisis: the Clench, Bane, Jason. In the grand scheme of it all, Bruce has waited by Tim's bedside far too little, he realizes. There was almost always a permanent question mark over Tim ever waking up again, and he can barely recall the shade of his irises. He remembers Dick's, a patient clear-blue, and the chipped-brown in Jason's aqua green. But Tim's are... He doesn't think...
Bruce lifts his hand, hesitating, contact a luxury he can't allow himself. The hand falls.
Silently, Bruce looks around. Really looks. Tim's room here is different from the one at the Manor. There are vintage rock and roll posters, sports equipment, and clothes on the back of his desk chair. For someone who's forced to be secretive about his identity, it's easy to see how the Titans feel attached to him; Tim bleeds who he is out of every pore.
Bruce sweeps a knit sweater off the floor, holding it up to consider the design. It has some tacky fish emblazoned on the front, undoubtedly a gag gift that his teammates understand. It means nothing to Bruce.
Bruce doesn't turn.
"Don't tell me you've never heard of it," Superboy drawls from where he floats outside the window. He has his head tipped back, overly casual while he works a toothpick between his top incisors. He sighs a moment later. "Forget it. I didn't come here to pick a fight."
Bruce uses his foot to pull the laundry hamper closer, dumping the sweater in. "What did you come here for?"
Superboy squints at the noon San Francisco sky. It's a cloudy day today, punctured by that salt-dry heat only Californians know. An ocean breeze is tousling the young man's hair and playing with the window sheers. "Rob all right?"
Another shirt falls into the hamper. "We'll see. The ball's in his court right now."
"So he'll be fine."
Bruce stops mid-way through collecting a pair of socks. Superboy is admiring his toothpick.
"Don't act surprised. You're the one who trained him."
"He loves you a lot, you know."
Carefully, Bruce picks up the socks. They're striped and hideous and foil to the professionalism Tim is so quick to exhibit. "How can you tell?"
"Because he loves us too." Superboy flicks his toothpick into the trash bin by Tim's desk, still levitating outside the window. It spears a crumpled ball of paper. "Maybe I don't know his name, but I know Rob in ways you don't. If you do wrong by him, he's got people here who will care about him the way he needs to be."
Bruce observes the socks for another minute, then nods, depositing them atop the sweater. "I'm glad," he says. Superboy flinches a look at him, torn between studying and glaring. Bruce doesn't say anything more, though, and the teen turns back.
"So long as you understand," Superboy murmurs. The sheers rustle then, and there's nothing outside but seagulls and crashing waves.
Gingerly, Bruce removes his cape again, trying to recall the scenery of Tim's mind—the version he lets Bruce view, and lays the fabric over someone he considers to be one his own. Bruce can only recall the ghost of Tim's irises, more grey than blue, like a torrent of the unexpected, a storm. Those eyes are twitching beneath the lids, a sign that Tim is back, just dreaming.
Tomorrow, the man tells himself. Tomorrow he will learn Tim the way he should.