Catching Up

May 30, 2018:

Tim and Barbara, both taking brief breaks from their night jobs, finally have the chance to catch up.

The Clocktower

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Nightwing

Plot:

Mood Music: [* None.]


Fade In…

It's a quiet night in Gotham, relatively speaking. That is, while crime is still rampant, most of it's being taken care of by the actual GCPD. Most of it, just at this moment, isn't the sort that requires the attention of Gotham City's specialists.

It means that, while Oracle is still monitoring the activities of the city, much of her attention is being taken by a large screen laid out with equations, diagrams, sketches, and scrawled notes. Whatever it is, it's closer to dimensional physics than crime fighting.

Long ago, back when Barbara was much younger and Batman was a relatively new phenomenon, she would draw what she imagined to be the perfect Batcave. Some of what she included was more practical than the rest: the secret garage door ended up being an actual prediction, but the air-pressure tubes that sent takeout Chinese to the Batcave probably would not have worked. And while Barbara still doesn't have anything quite so amazing funneled to her door, even though she's way too paranoid to actually get delivery here (or indeed anywhere nearby), she has nevertheless acquired a magnificent bowl of tonkatsu udon. She sips the broth and gazes up at her work, a little wrinkle between her eyes.

It's probably not surprising that Barbara was not the only one of them to sketch out their own idea of the 'perfect Batcave'. Somewhere there's a whole sketchbook, in fact, with concepts and ideas that evolved over Tim Drake's years as the Boy Wonder, filled with the sort of concepts, the sort of vastness of ideas that could only come from a teenaged genius who doesn't sleep getting immersed in a life of crimefighting and having access to a theoretically unlimited budget.

Some of those ideas, simplified and streamlined, found their way to life in the Nest, Red Robin's own secret hideout. Some of the more grandiose ideas - such as the Mud Room - instead manifested in the refurbished Titans Tower. But the core idea, the idea of a more centralised base for the protectors of Gotham to work out of, has never quite left the back rooms of his imagination.

When operating in Gotham, the Red Knight keeps to the heavier suit he first adopted when he took up the mantle of Red Robin: The cape, the cowl, kevlar and leather and a look designed to intimidate in the night, adopting the same fearsome theatricality as his mentor. Lately, he's been wearing his lighter Titans gear far more, but in his city, his home, he wears what's better adapted to his environment. It's unlikely that he'd be able to get into the Clocktower unnoticed even if he was trying to, and the effort it would take to even have a chance at defeating Oracle's security and surveillance just isn't worth keeping up his cred as someone who can come and go invisibly. Instead, he makes absolutely sure the former Batgirl knows who's coming to join her in her office, and when he does - after making sure there's nobody else around - the doffs his cowl, letting it settle at his shoulders like a hood and scrubbing a gauntleted hand through his dark hair. Longer than when he was Robin, though still short enough that he can spike it up in his other costume. Tim Drake, after all, wears his hair down.

"Barb," he says, dark blue eyes looking almost immediately to the computer screen. "A little light reading, huh?"

Tim certainly knows there's no chance of him escaping Barbara's notice if he comes skulking about the Clocktower. Even if he parachuted down or tried something else clever, there's few places more heavily surveilled than this particular block of Gotham City. There's no surprise, then, when her guest arrives.

"A side project," she agrees. "A friend of a friend seems to be stuck between dimensions. My knowledge is clearly only theoretical, but…" She doesn't need to say 'but I'm a genius, so having me work on it doesn't hurt'.

Turning in her chair, she gives Tim a warm and welcoming smile. She sets her bowl aside and reaches out to clasp his hands. "You're looking well," she says. "I hear about your new team sometimes. They seem like a really promising bunch. Not to mention devoted to their leader."

Time had, in its way, not been kind to Tim Drake at all. Tragedy had only truly crawled its way into his life after he'd joined the Dark Knight's crusade, and events had stripped away the more cheerful, more optimistic boy to reveal something harder, something colder, something more like, well, the Bat. It had been at its worst during the period in which the Batman had been absent, when Tim's tendency towards obsessive behaviour drove him to dangerous and self-destructive lengths, and while it was better these days, thanks to the influence of old friends and newer ones (particularly a certain backwards-talking witch), it was still there.

But there were a few people who could cut through that, who could drag out some proof of life of the person he'd once been.

Barbara Gordon was one of those.

Maybe it's the big sister routine: She gives him that warm smile, and he can't help but flash a boyish grin in return, his teeth clipping lightly into his bottom lip, while his gauntleted hands are caught and clasped.

"Thanks," he says, and he means it, before he adds somewhat self-deprecatingly: "It's like herding cats. Except all the cats have godlike powers. It's fun."

The worst part is, he means that, too.

And that's the thing with the family. Bruce is certainly the patriarch, gruff but caring, not exactly a fount of warmth. Barbara? She's been there longer than anyone except Dick and Bruce themselves. She's fought alongside them, trained them, but she's also talked to them over warm mugs of cocoa and soothed their nightmares. She's not quite Wendy to the Lost Boys, but she's been not just a caring sister: she's been part of what earths the Bats to reality, to the world. Someone who reminds them that they're still people.

"It sounds like fun. I know from experience; I'm not exactly in charge of the Justice League, but I deal with a lot of their little problems. Like when you have a thunder god who keeps burning out his earpiece because while he can withstand a direct bolt of lightning, delicate electronics have a somewhat harder time."

Wheeling away from the console, she starts heading for the round table near the little kitchenette: "Come here; take a load off." Turning a little, she extends her arms again. Whoooo wants a hug where there's no one to see?

"I had to build Impulse's comm rig into his suit so he wouldn't end up messing with it," Tim confides after the anecdote about a certain thunder god. "Wonder Girl's was a trial too… But you know, quasi-invulnerable people don't always realise everything else isn't just as invulnerable as them." Maybe that's why they needed somebody like him around, somebody who had the mortal perspective they might lack. Often, it's what Tim's told himself. Somebody to keep the others grounded.

Which is pretty funny, considering he built himself that whole flying costume.

He starts to follow Barbara towards the kitchenette, when of course she turns towards him, and is holding out her arms in a distinctive gesture. A universal one, at least to people who grew up in anything remotely resembling a normal family. Tim's expression veers towards the rueful.

But he does, after a moment's pause, lean down to give the redhead that hug. One of the subtle effects of a group like theirs is this: It's not all that weird to hug somebody in a carefully armored costume.

"What about you, though? Aside from trying to solve somebody being stranded between dimensions, I mean."

She holds the hug for as long as Tim will let her, but she'll release him at last with a little shoulder-squeeze. It's gone far beyond normal to hug an armored man; besides that, it's just an immense relief to be with someone she can be almost totally open with.

Barbara's still smiling — almost smirking — when she releases Tim. "Problems we never really had to deal with. Even if some of us did go through more training dummies in less time than would be expected." There's a knowing smile attached to that statement. Another part of being in the family: the stories that never die.

"As for me? Had dinner with Thor and accidentally broke into Stark Enterprises' systems. That was embarrassing, but it ended well enough."

"How do you accidentally break into Stark's computer system?" wonders Tim Drake, an individual who has 'accidentally' broken into the Justice League's systems on more than one occasion, but in fairness he knows a lot of the passwords and backdoors thanks to certain individuals. "Was it while you were having dinner with Thor? Were you distracted by his general Thor-ness and hacked the wrong thing?"

Even Tim is well aware that the God of Thunder is a stud, just look at the dude. It's enough to give a guy bicep envy, and this from someone who has the whole 'peak human performance' thing going for him.

"Actually I've been trying to keep an eye on Stark since what happened in the winter," Tim confides. "Especially since he's trying to figure out ways of tracking speedsters, and got Impulse to volunteer."

He's babysitting, is what he means. Babysitting, and trying to figure out if he needs to sabotage Tony's speedster project.

"By following the trail of something nasty that came from inside it. Luckily, he'd already taken care of it, but before it got wiped out it tried to breach my systems, and we weren't going to have any of that. They didn't have STARK written all over them; if they had, it would have given me the clue. I doubt the method I used will work twice; I think it only worked that time because so much of his internal system had been compromised. It was fun, though. We get along. Of course, he has no idea who I really am; that goes without saying. Nor does Thor, of course." Barbara's true identity is a secret even within the League. She set up their security (and gave keys to Tim, because of course she did, and there aren't many people she'd trust in case something happened to her), but they don't need to know anything more than that their head of ITt is a damn smart lady.

"Thor's all right. Charming. Very sweet. Tells some of the better stories I've ever heard. Tracking speedsters, though, you say?" Barbara's mouth twists slightly. "I'm not sure how actively he's working on it, but he's a multitasker, is Stark. That may not be the biggest news going, though, and I may put my own team on the new one. Once I'm sure it's not going to get them killed straight off."

Secret identities are tricky things, but of course vitally important among the Family. It was simply too dangerous: If one thread was left loose, someone with sufficient skill could pull on it to figure out all their identities, and unravel the whole thing.

Which is, of course, what had happened years ago, when a nine year old Tim Drake had deduced who the Dynamic Duo actually were.

Even among the Titans, the 'new hires' don't know who he actually is, for hte most part. Only those who had known his identity before, one way or another. It's tricky sometimes.

"Was it the evil magic computer virus?" Tim wonders, because the evil magic computer virus was an awful lot of trouble for pretty much everyone. Besides which, he doesn't want to even start to imagine what else might be gestating in Tony Stark's computer systems that might start poking around at other people's. It's the danger of an interconnected world: Compromised systems can easily wind up compromising others, like a digital plague.

There's a faint grunt of agreement from Tim at the mention of Stark's abilities as a multitasker - grudgingly, he has to admit he's not sure he knows anyone who multitasks better than Tony Stark - and of course it's clearly not the forefront of things going on, but with the growing conflict over metahumans, well. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you or your friends, right?

Right.

"What're you worried about killing your team, then? I'm guessing this isn't Justice League work."

"It was the evil magic computer virus," Barbara confirms. "It slimed itself on my firewalls and was smart enough not to keep bashing itself against security it couldn't breach. I traced its tracks back to Stark, but I didn't put two and two together until I was faced with one of his AIs. We've worked together a little here and there since then. If one of us has a problem, say. When he respects you, he's actually quite pleasant to work with. Enthusiastic and as easily distracted as a kitten, but not without a brain."

She lets out a breath and settles her elbows on the table, reaching out to grab a coffee spoon. It's stuffed in a coffee mug along with several others, and a Batarang. Presumably in case someone attacks during her coffee break — or in case something needs cutting open.

"You may not have heard of the Birds of Prey," she replies, a little smile touching her face. "Several women. Young, some of them. Older than me, some of them. Each with their own special talents. Metahumans, generally, but not exclusively. Looser than the family but tighter than the League. A team. I'm immensely proud of them. But I've been hearing rumors about collars for mutants, and while that's a nut I really want to crack, I'm worried that anyone with the resources to put something like that together could make life very unpleasant for them."

"Yeah I was in his building helping out with the speedster thing. Keeping him focused seems like a real job of work, I don't envy Miss Potts," Tim says, consideringly. "He was collaborating with someone else, though. Owen Mercer, the son of Captain Boomerang." The son of the man who murdered Tim's father and stepmother. And, he's learned recently, apparently the half-brother of Bart Allen… But that's not a secret he's about to spill carelessly, even to Barbara.

He shouldn't hold that against Mercer, of course. It's not his fault who his father is, right?

Besides, there's plenty of things to hold against Owen on his own.

"Mercer's also, uh, getting up to shenanigans with Harley Quinn. I haven't really been updating Batcomputer files promptly…" But, well, he's had a pretty full plate.

She tells him about the Birds of Prey, and Tim nods at that. There aren't that many metahumans in Gotham outside of the small mutant enclave, and the ones you usually find in the City of Yesterday tend to be, well, bad guys. So honestly, he's impressed she's been able to wrangle enough to make a team.

"Girl power, I can dig it," he says, only half jokingly - a mild bit of teasing directed at the mysterious Oracle. "If you need backup, there's always the Titans. Besides, those collars sound like something we might want to get our hands on a couple anyway. Figure out what makes them tick. Maybe find a way to disable them remotely or en masse?"

A sharp exhale at the mention of Mercer. Or, well, specifically of Captain Boomerang.

"That… would be a tense team," Barbara murmurs. "I'm glad you handled it well." Because she assumes he did. She grimaces at the mention of him and Harley, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I'll keep an eye out for that. And I'll be… reasonably gentle with them if they make too much of a mess." There's things she's willing to put up with, and then there's the sort of thing Harley tends to get up to, and she'd just rather not, all things considered. And what a pair: the son of the murderer of Tim's parents and the erstwhile girlfriend of the man who crippled Barbara. It's not all about the Bats, but does the world really have to be like that?

A bright little smile at the 'girl power', and a very gentle shoulder-shove. "Say that to Big Barda and I'll hide and watch. I felt that some women would prefer to work with a female leader, and it's nice for them to be something other than a sidekick. Women collaborate well. Natural born team players. Even the ones who aren't seem to have found some real comfort in this team. And you and yours would be very appreciated, particularly for training purposes."

The smile turns innocent as the dawn: "I think there's one in particular who would do well from some advanced teaching. She's already proven herself quite adept on Gotham's rooftops, and without our training."

Already, Tim had little choice but to disrupt some of those shenanigans, when the combination of Owen and Harley had been in the process of defacing billboards for Gotham's new tourism program. It had been clear, even then, that Mercer didn't want to fight him… But it was also clear that the Son of Boomerang was making some next-level bad choices hanging around with the likes of Harley Quinn.

And probably other stuff, but, ew, he doesn't want to even think about thinking about that.

There's a dubious look from Tim at the shoulder shove and mention of Big Barda, who just by context clues is probably not the sort of person he wants to see irate. The look only gets more dubious as Barbara discusses the advantages of a team entirely composed of women, though he definitely agrees on the positive effects of getting the chance to be something other than a sidekick - several of the Titans got their start as sidekicks or something like it, especially the original group from years past.

Dubiousness gives way to outright suspicion at that innocent smile.

"I'm not training anyone else," Tim says, although that isn't strictly true - a few of his new teammates are benefitting from combat and general physical training on his part. "Tried that before. Then I spent a couple years believing I got Steph killed."

"I'm not asking you to be a permanent mentor. Actually, I'd like to do some co-training between the teams, if you're interested. Barda has some fighting techniques I've never seen; they're especially good for the extremely strong, and I know you have a few of those in the Titans. Red Sparrow and Raven are young, as young as some of the other Titans, and I think it would do them good to work in an extended team system. I'm just making the offer; I'm not making any promises for them. Or to them."

Barbara takes a deep breath: "And beyond that… I think it would benefit you. Not just the Titans. I've seen you fail before, but I've never seen a misstep really affect you like this."

The names, of course, he continues to file away. Most don't seem to be well-known among the vigilante community in Gotham, but there's one name she mentions that gets his attention immediately.

"Raven I know," Tim says. "Met her hanging around on a rooftop in the Fashion District. I had no idea she was working with anyone else, so I figured I should give her some connections to other spooky types. Her and Zatanna got along…" Badly. Almost violently. It wasn't great. "…Interestingly. I'm not gonna poach any of your teammates though."

He doesn't mention what else he learned about Raven, of course. He doesn't mention why she'd noticed him immediately, or the revelations about her background. Those weren't his secrets to share, even with family.

But that was another change about him, too. The secretiveness, even with the Family. Operating out of his own base instead of the Batcave.

Perhaps it was just part of growing up.

The deep breath before plunging in is body language he recognises immediately. The concern about him, though, he hadn't anticipated. It puts him off-balance for a moment, leaves him wrong footed, dark blue eyes blinking owlishly.

"You know why, Barb. Steph was… You know, we had an argument, must've been a year ago now? About me doing things without giving anyone else a heads up, and I pointed out how she'd faked her death, how she'd vanished. I didn't want her in this life, but she felt she had to lie to even me to get out of it. I asked her if being with me had been so bad that she needed to fake her death to get away from me. It was and it wasn't, she said." He sighs, a slow exhalation, scrubbing one gauntleted hand through his hair, brushing it back, though it won't stay out of his face for long. "I'll talk to the rest of the Titans, though. Joint exercises could be good."

"It's an intense life," Barbara murmurs. "It isn't for everyone. Some of us come to terms with the fact — either that this is who we are and always will be, or that this isn't who we are and this isn't a life we can maintain. Tim, you're one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. When it comes to being a detective, a computer and security expert, you're equal to our mentor. Someday, if there comes a day I can't manage the network anymore, I hope you'll take my place — or find someone who can. But that doesn't mean you're going to be perfect at everything you try straight away. You're like me: if you try it once and you aren't good at it, there's a huge temptation to decide it's just not something you can do. Especially when you fall down really, really hard. But you can't lay that entirely on your shoulders. And if you do? You can't carry that burden forever. Your chosen load is heavy enough."

She reaches out to give Tim's hand a squeeze. Even if it is through an armored gauntlet. "But don't let me lecture you. Come on. What else is going on in your life? We'll sort out those exercises, let me do a little more research on those collars. But I want to know if Tim Drake's up to anything. Red Robin's always busy, but what about Tim?"

He can see what she's doing. Buttering him up with her appraisal of his abilities, not duplicitously really but in an attempt to bolster his confidence about one thing so she can bolster it about other things. It's a good leadership strategy, Tim knows. He's used it himself on others more than once - though admittedly his application of it tends to be more brusque, more like the Dark Knight's.

But the truth is, as he sees it, that he simply shouldn't have been teaching anyone at that age. He'd still been learning the ropes himself, how arrogant was he to think that he could pass on things he'd only just learned? And yet if he hadn't, the Spoiler would've just hared off on her own anyway and gotten herself killed. There was no winning.

The look he gives Barbara when she squeezes his hand through his gauntlet is wry, but fond. But of course she asks him about something else that's difficult to answer: What about Tim, instead of Red Robin?

"Well there was school, but finals are over for the semester… Um, there's the Neon Knights stuff, although Tiffany Fox does a lot of the real work for that, I just give 'em the old adopted Wayne charm and get people to sign checks. I was supposed to go to a party, but then I forgot to go. You know, typical stuff."

She'd agree, too: he took on too much too quickly. Even if he'd been capable, it was too early. But what Steph wanted to learn, Barbara couldn't teach anymore, and Tim was the one she'd trusted. There was no right answer. Too often, there isn't. That, perhaps, was the most important lesson for any of them to learn. Tim, particularly among all Batman's brethren, saw the world in black and white as much as Bruce did. It was hard coming to terms with a no-win situation, with mitigating the damage rather than preventing it entirely.

But Barbara leaves that aside. She's still asking the tough questions. "Not a lot of time for friends," she confirms. "Or fun. But you never were much one for fun. No special someone? Girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend?" But she knows how this is, too. Since when does she spend time with someone who isn't at least tangentially attached to this life?

The toughest questions.

The sorts of questions that leave Tim wishing they were still talking about serious life or death stuff instead. Serious life or death stuff is easy! He can do serious life or death stuff all day! And usually does, often with little to no sleep. His mouth presses into a firm line, though, because…

"I have fun. I do… Fun things. I watch movies, or play video games, or hang out with my friends…" The friends he still has, anyway. The ones outside of the superheroics business have really been whittled down to a bare one, the long-suffering Sebastian Ives, although he gets along well enough with the Fox sisters (when they aren't justifiably angry at him, which is a lot of the time, let's be fair). "And I do have friends, there's Conner and Bart and Cassie, and Zee these days… But, uh, no, nobody 'special'." Unless you want to count the woman whose soul he's carrying around, crashing on the proverbial couch of his existence. Or his unrequited feelings for a certain reverse-talking witch.

Naturally, he counts neither of those things.

Barbara nods. Is she satisfied? Does she think he's telling her everything there is to know? Does she think that this is a particularly healthy life for a young man with so much ahead of him?

She's not a hypocrite, though, either.

"You know I worry," she admits, but she leaves it at that.

A moment to let them both get their bearings. Barbara takes a moment to be guiltily grateful that nobody asks her these questions. It's easier to sleep.

"So. Beyond Mercer and Quinn's little dalliance, Stark's speedster studies, and the metahuman collars… not much going on?"

He doubts Barbara is satisfied because of course he knows what he'd be doing if their positions were reversed. He'd be trying to figure out more about her personal life through other parties, to see what he wasn't being told. Perhaps it's for the best then that he doesn't ask the same questions of her, though. Maybe he just doesn't want to know what she's doing having dinner with Thor of Asgard!

Though that doesn't mean he might not let that slip to Dick Grayson. You know, for laughs.

So, a moment of silence where they both regain their footing. So, a return to safer topics of conversation: Murder and mayhem.

"Did you see on the news, about the explosion at Titans Tower?" he wonders. It's mostly rhetorical, Barbara would've seen it, and she forgets as few things as he does. "We rescued some metahuman who seemed like their powers were going out of control, some kind of heat generation. It turns out it was technological, extremely advanced nanomachines, and whoever did it to him overloaded him. He blew up, and took the forensics lab with him. I had to cut off his hand to get Zatanna out of there," he adds, more quietly, more solemnly. Not because he had to maim someone to save a life, but because there was a life he couldn't save. "Still gathering what clues we can about it. Whoever they are, they're good at covering their tracks, but I'm going to find them."

Barbara's bright eyes narrow at this news. "I knew about the explosion, but not about the cause. It rings a bell: I'm sure I've heard about someone else just exploding in the middle of the street. Might be related. If it's metahumans… that's a weird pattern. I wonder if it has any tie to these collars. Perhaps some concentrated effort to control the metas through the collars and the rest of us through fear. But… I don't know, that seems almost clumsy."

Then again, what doesn't to people who are so used to complicated schemes-within-schemes?

"You're welcome, of course, to use my labs if you need. But I'm sure the Tower still has excellent resources. It's a funny thing. I'm here on surveillance, and I end up more or less everywhere. You're in New York with the Titans. We've really drifted beyond our original moorings."

"There's nothing to suggest it's targeted yet," Tim says, pensively. "It has the feel of something else… Letting human bombs out onto the streets might terrorise people, but nobody's claiming responsibility, or even trying to nudge it towards the idea that these are some out-of-control metas who've just started blowing up. Some of the others had the same thought about it being an attempt on the Titans directly, but it's too sloppy for that. No guarantee we'd show up specifically, or that we'd take him somewhere vulnerable. It is clumsy. Maybe even accidental."

The possibility that it was a directed attack he can't dismiss out of hand, of course, just like he can't dismiss Barbara's positing about a potential connection between the suppression collars and this. It's not enough information to go on, and definitely not enough information to rule anything out.

"Huh?" he says, tugged out of reverie by what Barbara says about labs. "Oh. Well if there's anything I can't handle elsewhere, I'll bring it here," the young man assures the redhead. "I've still got the Nest, too," which is a response, really, to both the lab and their original moorings. "Gotham's still my home, after all. Once this place gets in you, you're never really at home anywhere else." The Drake residence, that had belonged to his parents, had neighbored the lands of stately Wayne Manor; it was gone now. He'd spent a few years living at Wayne Manor itself, of course, before moving out into the townhouse that was now his main residence, but Gotham was still his home, even if there was Titans Tower, and the penthouse he'd bought in Manhattan.

Well, a rich guy is supposed to have more than one residence, right?

It's his turn, now, to lightly squeeze Barbara's hand. Reassurance, maybe, in that particular Family way, delivered by a gauntleted hand.

"That's why we've all got each other, right Barb? So we don't drift away."

He doesn't just mean physically.

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