"Okay, now spring the trap!" Steph cried out, sure Tim was a sufficient distance away from Arkham for the explosion not to affect him. "Hit the radio detonator or something! He's still holding the explosives!"
Tim kept on walking, the tip of the knife scraping against the wall, trailing a pale line through the age-darkened plaster. "There is no radio detonator, you stupid twat. They're timer-activated."
"And… how long ago did you set the timers?"
"I didn't set the timers, Stephanie."
"So…" Steph began, backing up. "Why'd you give him the explosives?"
"Just seemed like a good idea at the time." He thrust the blade out at Steph, who caught it, fingers wrapping around Tim's and trying to pry the knife away from him. Tim pressed into her and they spun for a moment before he slammed Steph backwards into the wall, the knife hovering inches from her back, him forcing it closer and closer to her.
"Too bad for you that human sexual dimorphism favors males. Greater body mass equals more muscle mass."
"Tell that to your crotch." With that, Steph kneed him in the groin. Tim fell back, groaning. Steph quickly undid his utility belt and pulled it away. "Ha! Got your belt!" She whipped him across the face with it and ran for it, but he grabbed her cape, yanking her to a stop like a dog on the end of a leash.
"I wear an athletic cup, you stupid…"
"Yes, yes, twat, I heard you the first time!"
She hit the clasp on her cape and it went into memory fabric mode, contorting as an electrical current passed through it and wrapping around Tim like a straitjacket. Tim howled like a coyote and flapped down on his back. Steph looked away from him to see Arkham holding up an explosive from the bag.
"I'm going to put this one in your baby's stroller," he said in that nowhere voice of his.
"You're going to have a hard time doing that after I shove it up your ass!" Steph threatened, pulling a Robin dart from her belt. Just then she heard the sound of fabric tearing and looked down to see that Tim was slashing out of his private cocoon with the point of his own dagger-like Robin dart.
Steph ran for it.
"Steph! Come out come out wherever you are…"
Steph tried to ignore Tim's wild shouts and frustrated ventings on whatever was in his line of sight as she picked through his utility belt. She was in the boiler room, a small corridor between two cold furnaces. Directly across from the corridor's opening was the boiler, ancient and corroded but still burning, patched together by Arkham with some sort of weird web-like residue that Steph didn't want to think about.
As for the utility belt, she was still on probationary status and Batman hadn't let her use any of the real cool stuff. Maybe Tim had something she could use… She opened a compartment and a batch of useless regurgitant pills spilled out on the floor. Great. She could vomit him to death. She looked up, listening for Tim.
"Steph, it's alright. I'm feeling much better! Really I am! Come on out, let's talk about this! I'm not going to hurt you! I'm not going to… oh God, you don't believe me, do you? I wouldn't believe me either!"
He hadn't heard her, but his footfalls were getting closer. She moved to the next compartment over and tried to open it, but it caught on something and made a loud whining noise, steadily escalating in volume.
"Oh… shit." She threw the utility belt away and it exploded in a cascading sequence, like a string of Chinese firecrackers. The light from the miniature explosions revealed Tim standing not four feet away from her, eyes bloodshot beneath his mask, smile plastered on his face.
"Pottymouth," he said chidingly in a sing-song tone.
Steph stood up slowly, watching Tim's hands for signs of aggression. "Don't come any closer, Tim. I don't want to hurt you but I will if I have to."
"Hurt me!?" Tim said incredulously, his gestures wild and theatrical. "Hurt me like dumping me and taking my job, that kind of hurt? Or the more physical kind?"
"I didn't dump you."
"Spare me. You dumped me just like you dumped your kid."
"Fight this!" Steph implored him. "This isn't you!"
"You don't know me!" Tim cried. "You never wanted to know me! All you ever wanted to know was this," he finished, pointing to his mask.
"That's not true."
"Oh?" Lunging at Steph, Tim pinned her against the left furnace. "Then how come you broke up with me as soon as you got your own cape and pixie boots?"
Steph headbutted him viciously and shoved him back. Roaring with rage, Tim kicked against the floor at an angle to halt his backwards motion, then grabbed Steph by the hair and swung her around.
"You know why military regulations say that everyone needs to be clean-shaven and have short hair?" He dragged her along with him, battering her head against the furnaces as he went. "It's because back in the old days," he dented the furnace on his right with her skull, "when people fought with knives," he kneed her in the stomach and threw her to the ground, her head rebounding off the concrete floor, "you could get grabbed by the hair and have your head sliced off." He crouched down and picked her head up by the hair. "What I'm getting at is that it's a really fucking stupid idea to have long hair in a combat situation. By the way, you ripped your stitches. I warned you about that."
Steph moaned. The world spun around her and she tried to focus on Tim, but his face swam in and out of clarity, his eyes never gaining any light. He rolled her over, taking a grim appreciation in the blood covering one side of her face, and began unbuttoning her vest stitches.
"Steph, I'm shocked! Are you thinking of taking advantage of me sexually while I'm mentally incapacitated? That's sexual abuse in the second degree, a class A misdemeanor."
"Tim," Steph said, forcing out the words, trying to ignore how cold her blood fell as it soaked into her hair. "There's something you should know."
Tim bent down closer to her, his smile growing brobdingnagian in the dim light. "What? You got some sort of crotch rot from getting knocked up by that asshole boyfriend of yours?"
"No… I added more than a skirt to the costume. Parsimonious gourmund, motherfucker."
Looking around, Tim waited for something to happen. "Do you mean 'gourmand', a cross between a glutton and a gourmet?"
"Yeah, that. Parsimonious gourmand."
A thousand-volt electric charge ran through the suit, electrocuting Tim. He tried to pull away, as the charge was designed to do, but Steph grabbed onto him with her insulated gloves and held onto him, holding him until the voltage had stopped his heart. He dropped down to the floor beside her, dead.
Pulling off her much-abused wig, Steph sat up and cracked her neck, then straddled Tim. "Alright, that zap all the demons out of you? Time to come back to life."
Just as she'd been trained, she began performing CPR on him. Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life. Check for pulse. No pulse. Thirty pumps between the nipples, a hundred per minute. Check for pulse. No pulse.
"Alright, Drake, now you're starting to worry me."
Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life. There was blood coming out of his mouth. Wipe the blood away, check for pulse. No pulse. Thirty pumps between the nipples and there's more blood and his eyes won't open, why won't they open? Still no pulse.
Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life. His chest is rising and falling, but he's not breathing. Doesn't make any sense. What kind of logic says he doesn't have a pulse? Thirty pumps between the nipples and okay, now he's just being stubborn, because there's still no pulse and he's dead.
He can't be dead.
Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life. Thirty pumps between the nipples. Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life. Thirty pumps between the nipples and still no pulse. Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life, thirty pumps…
"C'mon, Tim, you can't be dead. You promised, remember? I trust you, okay? I trust you, so you can't be dead…"
Pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life, thirty pumps, pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of life, thirty pumps, pinch the nose, tilt the head back, kiss of…
And suddenly Steph felt hands reaching up and cupping her face, fingers running through her hair and pulling her down, pulling her against him…
No, not pulling. Pushing. And then suddenly pulling her up and…
"Did you miss me?"
Steph could see her reflection in the knife. "Just tell me one thing. One thing. Why us? Why me and him? Why not Nightwing or Huntress or Batman or any of the others?"
Arkham looked at her, eyes bright beneath his slouch hat. "Because you're my children. I love you. Batman and all the others, they're all mad enough, certainly, but they have a root cause, a raison d'etre, a tragedy in their past to motivate them. But you two, you follow him because you choose to. That kind of insanity has to be paid special attention. Now then, it's far past time for us to conclude our business."
All Steph could see was the blade coming towards her. She squeezed her eyes shut… and opened them a moment later to see the knife halted an inch from her eye, a green-gloved hand wrapped around the wrist of the arm holding it.
"She's with me," Tim said before he threw his first punch.
Arkham staggered backwards and Tim stalked forward. "Steph, get the boilers!" he yelled without looking with her as Arkham lanced forward, knife gleaming. Tim pulled his stomach in, the knife catching nothing but air, and slammed Arkham again in the face, driving him back. The punches kept coming, one-two, one-two, rapid combos that kept driving Arkham backwards until the heels of their boots were clanking on the metal grating of a catwalk.
Steph could see an array of levers by the boiler, right next to a bunch of gauges. There gauges all had red at the far ends, where the needles weren't supposed to go.
Didn't take a genius to figure that one out.
Tim bit back a scream as the knife dug a trench in his shoulder. Arkham followed through with a deadly thrust, intent on impaling Tim through the heart, but the boy drifted to the side and used Arkham's outstretched arm as a high bar, lifting himself up and delivering a knee to the side of Arkham's face.
Arkham went crashing against the tarnished safety railing, knocking loose a cloud of rust flakes. Tim kicked the knife so hard it flew out of his hands, flying past a length of hanging chain and sticking into the opposite wall like a dart.
The opposite wall was rock. The quake had ripped apart this part of the foundation, opening up everything below the catwalk into what might well be a bottomless pit.
And far behind them, the pressure kept rising as Steph figured out by trial and error which levers would send the boilers towards catastrophe.
Jumping up to deliver a side kick to Arkham's chest, Tim was shocked when the madman moved like quicksilver, grabbing Tim's foot by the ankle and slamming him down against the catwalk like a sack of potatoes. The entire catwalk groaned and shifted. Arkham kicked Tim, a kick that sent him sliding ten feet across the catwalk.
Tim was still getting up as Arkham steamrolled towards him, hands bunched together to deliver the final blow, when the rivets on a pipe next to them blew. They popped not all at once, but one by one, top to bottom, the miniature cannon blasts separating Tim and Arkham for the moment.
"You can't win."
"I know," Tim said as a blown rivet ripped through the safety railing like a bullet. "But I can make damn sure you can't either."
With that, he ran through the field of rivets and tackled Arkham off the catwalk.
Steph backed away from the boiler as all the needles slammed into the red, the room transforming into a hell of hissing steam.
Tim had grabbed onto one chain, hanging from the ceiling. Arkham had grabbed onto another. They swung towards each other like knights jousting. Arkham won. Tim was knocked from his perch by the impact, barely managing to grab onto one of the roiling chains as he fell. As it happened, it was Arkham's chain. The maniac let go and dropped down, landing on Tim with lethal effect. Tim was knocked further down and snagged the end of the chain. Above him, Arkham laughed and prepared to repeat the attack.
"Looks like you're at the end of your rope."
He only caught Steph falling past him out the corner of his eye. But he managed to see with crystal clarity the Batarang she threw as it cut through the chain, sending him into freefall.
Steph grabbed onto Tim and threw out another grappling line. It caught just as the falling Arkham reached for them, hands clutching at air as they swung away.
"Brace yourself!" Steph said. "We're gonna need to do a number six!"
Steph and Tim held out their legs as the abyss' wall rushed up to meet them. Both sets of legs absorbed the impact. Above them, the first of many explosions tore through the asylum and the deteriorated catwalk creaked free, falling past them like a bomb.
"Cave!" Tim yelled. They rappelled towards it, throwing themselves inside just as the entire thing collapsed. An entire cross-section of the abandoned asylum cascaded past them, plugging the abyss and burying Arkham alive. Tim held onto Steph, covering her head until the rumbling stopped.
They didn't make it out. How could they have? No one knew where they were, so there couldn't be a rescue. The cave didn't lead anywhere. They stayed in that cave until they starved to death and if you looked in there now, you would see two tiny teenage skeletons, huddled together, waiting for Batman to rescue them.
That's the only way it could've ended.
Anything else would be crazy.
"Lucky for us this leads into an old subway tunnel," Steph said as she crawled out of the passageway. Her entire uniform was dirty and tarnished from the seemingly miles-long trek, but the air here was relatively fresher.
She helped Tim get out and he looked around. And started laughing.
"We didn't make it out. I didn't make it out…"
Steph stepped closer to him. "What are you talking about? What's so funny?"
"It's all so funny!" he yelled, laughing hysterically. "Can't you see that! It's all so funny… funny…"
His laughter turned into loud sobs as he sunk to his knees, repeating "funny… funny…" like a broken record until he was pounding the floor with his fists, knuckles bloodying and breaking, and everything was red and black and broken and nothing would ever be okay again nothing nothing.
Steph lifted his head up slowly. She peeled off his domino mask. His eyes were bloodshot and raw beneath the blank white eyelenses. "It's okay. I'll catch you."
Gradually, Tim's hands stopped shaking. He stroked her face with his hand and it came away with blood on it. "I can't be with you. I can't be with anyone. I'm too dangerous…"
"Silly boy," Steph said as she pressed a kiss to his grimy forehead, leaving a little lip-shaped mark of not-so-dirty skin. "I'm dangerous too."
The walk back to Cass' cave was long and arduous and when they finally got there their limbs were tired and aching and Tim just collapsed on the red sofa, congruous amongst the flowstones and helictites.
Steph fell on top of him. They smiled at each other and she produced a moist towelette from somewhere and began wiping off his face and kissing the parts she cleaned and washing off his neck and kissing the parts she cleaned and pulling his uniform off and kissing the parts she cleaned…
"What are you doing?" Tim asked.
"I'm fucking you. In the non-metaphorical way." She handed him some wipes and he began cleaning off her face, discarding them onto the cave floor as litter when they became as black as charcoal.
His palm scraped against dried blood as he stroked her face, but underneath her uniform her skin was clean and goddamn if it didn't even smell sweet… "I don't… I had a condom, but I lost it in the whole asylum-blowing up, going crazy thing."
"S'alright. I have a diaphragm."
"I don't even know what that is. I don't want to know what that is. Is that like a… not get pregnant thing?"
"Yeah, Tim. It's a not get pregnant thing."
"Where do you keep it?"
"In my utility belt, next to the Batarangs." Steph paused at Tim's reaction. "What's so funny?"
Sometime in between lovemaking they had moved to the guest bedroom "upstairs," as they called it like it wasn't aboveground and the cave wasn't below ground. Steph woke to see that the only light was coming from the bathroom. The door was open and she got up, wrapping the bedsheet around her because the only thing to put on was the Robin costume and that all bloody and gunky and shit.
Inside, Tim was sitting on the toilet, holding a razor to his wrist.
"You want to talk about it?" Steph asked matter-of-factly.
"Well… the sex wasn't that bad, was it?"
Tim shook his head slowly. "It's not that."
"Tim? Can you put the razor away? It's making me nervous." Steph's voice was very small as she knew Tim wouldn't go for it.
"Why put the razor away? For one thing, if you're planning on using it to commit suicide…"
"I am," Tim said, offering up an awkward, comforting smile.
"Well, no Robin should die by slashing their wrists with the razor I use for shaving my legs."
"Doesn't matter. You see, this isn't real. None of this is real. I'm still in the asylum. I'm still inside my head, where Arkham put me. I never left. This is all one big ruse."
Steph took a step closer, letting the sheet fall away, bare feet padding on the rug over the cold tile floor. "That's not true. You're out here, with me."
Tim shook his head. "I'm out there, doing God knows what. I could be hurting people. I could be hurting you. I have to make sure that I can't hurt anyone else. I have to cut down, not across. Sever all the arteries, slash so deep I get the tendons. Otherwise it may not take"
Steph sat down on the edge of the bathtub and offered up her hand. "Alright. Do me first."
"If this isn't real, then kill me first. Run a test case first. See if this is a good way to die." Steph shook her hand. "C'mon. Do it."
"I can't do that. I can't take the chance that you're real…"
"What does it matter if I'm real!?" Steph shouted, standing up. "It's not like I've got that much to live for if you're dead. Tim, I want to go find my baby. I want you to teach me how to be Robin. I want a lot of things but most of all I want a life with you. None of that can happen if you don't put down the razor."
Tim stared at her. "It's not you saying this. It's the hallucination. It's trying to trick me…"
Steph slapped him. They stood there, stockstill, for a few moments as Tim's cheek burned red. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare tell me that I'm just a figment of your imagination. That all I've worked for, all I've dreamed about, all my hopes and fears and my… my love for you is all something you just dreamed up. Don't you dare."
Tim bent down and slowly, gently, set the razor down on the floor. Steph kicked it behind the toilet and took him by the hands, pulling him to his feet.
"Come back to bed. Things'll seem better in the morning."
And they did.