Tim's memories of the following days were foggy, fading in and out of focus with all the discontinuity of a dream. If he was awake, if he was asleep, it was all the same, all blended together.
There was water—that was the one constant through it all—enveloping him. Sometimes he was floating in that void, that nothingness of sound and space, where he'd met Dick and everything seemed simpler, happier. More frequently there were rock walls rising up on every side, like one of the little underwater niches Dick had showed him. Watery light filtered in through tiny chinks in the rough stone ceiling overhead, keeping it one shade shy of dark. He lay curled in a rounded-out depression, watching the little streams of light flicker in and out as shadows swept by somewhere on the surface. All of it, everything he could see, had a distorted, rainbow sheen. Like the foam of bubbles that completely coated his legs, membrane thick, and squelched away as he shifted restlessly.
There were bubbles everywhere, sticky bubbles that didn't pop or float away to the surface, but clung like webbing between his fingers and crusted the surrounding rock, like someone had gathered all the sea foam together. Tim turned his face into that layer of foam, into the darkness.
It must have been a dream, because surely he would have drowned otherwise. Or maybe he was already dead. That would make sense, because he remembered drowning—little unpleasant pieces of pain and people that stuck to his memories. Someone's hands were wrapped around his throat, or no, they were arms holding him bar-like under the water. There was no more air and he was sucking in seawater, or no, he was gasping up into a large mouth pressed down crushingly against his own, claiming his death.
Sometimes Dick was there, lying on the rocks, head propped up on his hands, smiling patiently, watching. Sometimes it was Jason, sitting slouched against cold walls, arms crossed, feigning indifference. Sometimes he thought there was someone else just out of sight, blending with the shadows.
Their faces were distorted, like someone had placed rippled glass between them or a bent lens. Maybe it was the bubbles again, or just the distortion of dreams.
Sometimes he thought he heard voices, bits of meaningless conversation in the darkness.
"The boats stopped."
"What do you know, he actually did something useful."
Dreaming or dead or awake, it didn't matter. He lay unmoving, crushed in place by the weight of memories. They mixed in with the darkness so that sometimes Tim thought he was still there, still watching Dick bleed out, still holding the incriminating knife in his hand, still unable to stop it. Sometimes he could still feel the vines coiling tighter around him, crushing him. Sometimes it was everything since then that seemed like the dream. Was there anything to go back to? Anything to wake up for? He curled up tighter, scrunching his face up under the bridge of one arm.
The voices in the darkness whispered back and forth.
"Just checking in on the kid."
"Let him be."
Until finally, one day, the darkness wouldn't come. He lay curled in the bubbles again, in that underwater niche he always seemed to come back to. For a minute, he watched the way the foam stuck between his curled fingers, clinging and slipping away like soap when he lifted his hand. He stretched then, enjoying the pull of muscles kept too long still and the way the bubbles squirmed and shifted, somehow managing to cover him from the waist down despite his stretching. It was for the best, because it was in the midst of that stretch that he realized someone had removed his clothes. That didn't bother him as much as it should have—everything felt gray, overcast, drowned out by the dark memories chewing at him.
Restless, he propped himself up, watching expressionlessly as the rainbow sheen tinting the world swirled slowly across his vision. It was a film in the water, a thin slick, like oil, close enough he thought he could touch it. If he reached out… there was something there, his fingers could skim it, watch the rainbows ripple all around him. Frowning, he pushed a little and watched it give, breaking around his arm like the surface tension of water. If he pulled back, it instantly reknit, coming together seamlessly.
For a few minutes he let curiosity win out, running his fingers through it again and again, just feeling the sensation of it sliding over his skin, then mapping the curve of it, up, over, and around. Like a bubble.
Suddenly determined, he clawed at it, pushing first his arm through and then scrunching up his face as the thin tension broke over it. There was a chuckle from the shadows beyond, a deep rumble, and then his wavering free hand suddenly landed in someone else's—someone's much larger. It was so unexpected, he jerked back, but the larger hand closed around his, completely enfolding it, swallowing it whole, and it kept him from retreating. He pulled back as far as the length of his arm would allow, tugging faintly at the grip on his hand, but he was effectively stuck.
"None of that. There's nothing to be afraid of." The thin streams of light from the ceiling fell on thick arms, but cast the rest of the voice's owner into dark shadow. Tim hesitated, caught half in a half out, until the grip on his arm gently tugged him forward. With no other choice, he pushed his other arm through. There was something wrong with his legs, but when he turned to look, an equally large hand—the match of the first—caught his chin, tilting it up, turning his face toward the light for inspection. The large fingers nearly swallowing his jaw were surprisingly gentle, brushing away stray strands of hair that floated about his face. Tim knelt, mostly freed, in the foam of bubbles, tolerating the inspection while blinking curiously into the shadows.
"Come here. Let me see you." Both hands released him, coming up under his arms instead, lifting him past the light into the darkness beyond. And at last the shadows thinned and Tim could see something of the man who held him aloft. Only his skin was pale. The rest of the man was black, from the inky tips of his hair to the glittering obsidian of his tail, fanning out into smoky fins that drifted like a shroud along the floor. He blended right into the shadows. Not an easy feat considering his frame. The man was large—broad in a well-built way that left Tim dwarfed in his shadow, especially held up before him.
Tim could only stare. He knew this man. Or rather, from the little bits Dick had mentioned, there was only one logical person it could be.
"Bruce." He had never felt quite as small as he did then—never quite so aware that the large hands holding him aloft could have wrapped clean around his waist. Where they sprawled for support against well-built forearms, his fingers looked tiny. Looking into those dark blue eyes, assessing him, appraising him, he felt tiny. He squirmed, scrunching up his toes, only…
He looked down.
Now that he was out of the bubbles, he could see. Where his legs should have been, there was a tail, covered in shimmering, scarlet scales, with fins like the finest gauze. Tim went still all at once, sucking in a deep breath—a breath dragged from thick water, and he didn't want to think about that because he was abruptly sure that this was not a dream, and those were fins—he had fins—and this was real.
Perhaps sensing the impending panic, Bruce's hands tightened. When Tim didn't make any move after that initial hunch into stillness, the man eyed him cautiously.
"Both Dick and Jason approved of you," he said. Tim had silvery marks on both shoulders now to prove it—the thought made him shiver. Bruce continued. "They were quite insistent." That didn't make any sense at all. Even amidst the chaotic tumble of his thoughts—they'd changed him, they'd changed him—that stood out.
"I hurt them." He was grateful suddenly for Bruce's tight hold on him, grounding him. The man's deep voice was a calming undercurrent to the panic. "Why?"
"Dick thinks of you as a… brother. As one of us. That isn't conditional."
What about you? Had Bruce forgiven him so easily? But maybe he already had the answer to that.
"The third mark," he said instead. "You…" He didn't need confirmation. Bruce nodded anyway.
"We don't interfere in the affairs of the land-dwellers. But I couldn't very well waste all that willingness to break the rules they demonstrated when it came to rescuing you." For a brief moment he looked like a much-put-upon father, and for the first time since waking up Tim felt a sense of camaraderie with the man. This wasn't some cold, ruthless, master of the seas he was meeting; this was a father trying to protect his family. A father who was holding the child of the man responsible for hunting them. "My sons aside, I'm not yet convinced this was the right solution."
"You changed me." The words leaked through his attempt to control them, dry and desperate. Despite everything, he'd ended up one of them anyway. Tim reached down, pressing cautious fingertips to scarlet scales.
Somehow touching it made it real, and then he was flexing the muscles he could feel just below the crust of scales, feeling out the movement. Curiosity helped alleviate the alarm. Bruce eased his hold then, pulling Tim down onto his lap, one large arm wrapping around him, awkwardly comforting.
"It was the only way to save you."
Tim nodded, biting his lip. Jason had done what he had to. Tim had been lucky, really—lucky Jason hadn't left him to his fate after everything, lucky to have friends who could help, lucky Bruce had decided he was worth saving. "Thank you." He hugged the man, feeling inadequate, especially when his arms could only reach Bruce's sides. The fond pat on his back nearly knocked him loose.
He had barely just drawn back when an excited shout had him whipping around.
"Tim!" There was a bright flash of blue out of the corner of his eye, and then he was knocked through the water, drawn into another hug, crushingly tight. "We thought you'd never wake up!"
"Mmf." Tim squirmed uncomfortably, trying to extricate himself from Dick's clutches, and just that quickly the older boy's grip changed, holding him up at arm's length instead so brilliant blue eyes could look him up and down.
"Oh, no! This is terrible! Tim, how could you?" Dick's voice lowered to a scandalized hush. "You took after Jason's coloring!"
"Um…" Tim blinked, tail curling self-consciously.
"Don't listen to him. He's jealous." Jason had joined them. Tim had been so wrapped up by Dick he hadn't noticed.
Dick scoffed, and watching their friendly bickering, Tim felt a great swell of shame, because they were acting like nothing had happened. They were being considerate, and it only made the shame worse. There was a scar pale against Dick's abdomen, a thick line matching the width of a knife. How could they act like it was nothing when the reminder was right there?
Tim reached out suddenly, brushing fingertips over the silvering scar.
"Dick. I'm sorry, I…" But Dick clamped a hand over his mouth before he could get any further.
"No apology needed. It wasn't your fault. It was Ivy's. She was using you, but she's gone now and she'll never use anyone again. I'm just glad we got you back alright." When Tim tried to protest, Dick shook his head. "No. I don't want to hear another word about it. There are more important matters to deal with."
"Your father's been worried sick about you," Bruce said. "He waits on the beach for hours."
"Father?" Tim repeated blankly, then disbelievingly. "Dad's been by the water?"
"The one and only," Jason replied.
"You should go with him."
"Tell him we didn't kill you. Before he gets any ideas."
"Can't I…" Tim looked around at the three of them, meeting eyes, because it felt like an end, like they were telling him to go away. "Can't I come back?"
"Of course!" Dick hugged him.
Bruce put a hand on his shoulder. "You're always welcome here, but you still have a home with your family. If you stay, your time will stop. You'll never get older."
"Jeez, grow up while you can, kid." Jason crossed his arms, aloof, until Dick decided that just wouldn't do, eyeing him warningly. "No," Jason said, seeing it coming and starting to back up. "No. Don't even think about… Oof." Dick caught him before he could escape, jerking him into the hug, crushing them all together. Tim laughed breathlessly, unable to escape Dick any more than Jason, not really wanting to.
"No evading your older-brother duties," Dick declared.
"What older-brother…" Jason asked, finally pushing Dick off him, only to stop mid-sentence, having caught some indication from the other merman. "Oh."
If Tim had ever had older brothers before, he might have been concerned. As it was, he didn't, so it wasn't until Dick caught one arm at the same time Jason caught the other, framing him, trapping him, that he thought to worry.
"Tim…" Dick shared a look with Jason, amused, knowing. "Let's teach you how to swim."
"I can't do this." Tim swallowed, hovering behind one of the rocks that jutted up out of the water. His stomach twisted tighter in nervous knots. On the shore, Jack hovered by the waterline, face drawn with worry as he scanned the waves.
"He's waiting for you." Dick's hand was reassuring, a warm weight on his shoulder. Not reassuring enough though.
"I can't face him." Tim sunk down a little deeper in the water.
"Your dad's still alive, kid." Jason tousled his hair. "You should enjoy it while you can."
But Tim only shook his head frantically, wide-eyed. Dick and Jason shared a look, conspiratorial, and then their hands were on his waist, catching him before he could dart away.
"No, no, no…" But Jason and Dick weren't hearing any of it. They pushed him up, out of the water, onto the rock. Tim gasped, sucking in air. He tried to backpedal, digging white-knuckled fingers into the crags, but there were still hands there keeping him from retreating.
It was too late anyway.
He shivered as the water ran off him, back into the bay—shivered at the sensation of his tail dissolving, falling away with the water in glittering rivulets. It trickled off him like so much sand. He half expected it to tint the water ruby red, but the swells lapped clear as ever. Then it was gone, the last of the shimmering scales sloughing away, leaving only two legs ending in bare feet—leaving only a human boy bare on the black rocks.
He curled up, drawing his new legs up to his chest protectively, not wanting to turn, not wanting to see what his father thought of it. If it was revulsion painted across those familiar features, he didn't know what he'd do. But someone was splashing out into the water, and the fear melted a little when he looked up… and found nothing but relief.
"Tim!" Then his father was there, wrapping his coat around his shoulders, long enough to fall to his knees, and there were arms around him, lifting him up, holding him tight.
"Dad." Tim squirmed in the embrace, feet lifted completely off the rock and dangling helplessly in the air. Crushed against his father's chest, he thought Jack might never let him go. Part of him didn't want him to. Part of him was blushing, aware that Dick and Jason were still right there, watching.
The water dripped from his toes.
"You're just like… like Janet. Always drawn to the sea." Jack's hold became tighter if that were possible, possessively parental, and he had to swallow before continuing. "I don't know what I would have done if it had taken you from me too."
"You're not…" Tim pushed away a bit to look his father in the eyes. "You're not still going to hurt my friends, are you?"
"No," Jack said, and Tim relaxed a little. "No more hunting parties. No more boats. I promise."
"We'll hold you to that." Dick and Jason had surfaced, bobbing in the swells, looking every bit the exotic and dangerous creatures they were—like Tim was now. Jack nodded to them over Tim's shoulder.
"Thank you for bringing my son back to me."
"Don't lose him again." That was Jason.
Tim turned around as best he could in his father's hold, considering the man wasn't letting go anytime soon, facing his friends.
"I'll come back soon," he promised as Jack started to carry him away, trudging through the waves in his shoes.
"Not too soon." Dick grinned, starting to slip back into the water. "Don't forget to grow up."
"Never!" Tim waved until they disappeared, then turned his attention to the little eddies kicked up as Jack carried him safely across to the dry beach. Jack didn't set him down when they reached the shore though. He didn't set him down until they were halfway back up to the house, and Tim couldn't help but fidget a little nervously, feeling like a child dragged back home by his parents for punishment. He stepped lightly when he was finally let down, the smooth rock steps of the path hot on his feet, and shrugged the long coat more firmly around his shoulders.
"Am I still banned from going near the bay?"
"I don't see how it would do any good." Jack looked suddenly worried. "You, uh… don't need a certain amount of water or something, do you?"
Tim grinned. He considered lying for all of a second, just to make sure Jack didn't try banning him again, but he'd nearly gotten his father killed not so many days ago. He shook his head. "They're my friends. I'd like to visit them."
"I think I'd like to come too." Jack muttered something about fishing boats, running a hand through his hair agitatedly, and Tim laughed, skipping a little to keep up, because he'd just given his father a whole new set of worries. The warm sun beat against his face.
"I'd like that."
Tim held perfectly still in the shadows beneath the dock, one hand pressed to the stinging gash along his side where the harpoon had nicked him. It trailed a faint red film. He should have been more careful. Brilliant red scales stuck out something awful in the water, and he hadn't yet mastered Dick and Jason's trick of hiding in plain sight.
He could hear Jack's angry shouts from somewhere above, muffled by the weight of water. It was the sound of an angry father protecting his son.
Tim would have used Jack's distraction to swim away, only…
Blue eyes stared down at him intently, not moving one bit from where he lay, flat out against the rocks at the bottom. He couldn't get the little girl to go away. She was watching him, eyes fastened to his hiding spot, leaning so far over the dock the ends of her platinum hair trailed in the water. Tim tried not to twitch.
She was going to fall in if she kept leaning over like that and… too late.
No one heard it over all the shouting and the groaning of boats tethered in place. No one but Tim, floating below.
He hovered uncertainly in the shadows of the dock, watching the little blond girl valiantly trying to dog-paddle her head above water. It was technically his fault. She'd seen something, a shimmer of red in the water—Tim knew exactly what it must have looked like—and she'd had to get a closer look.
He waited another minute, hesitating, hoping half-heartedly that someone would see, that someone would come rescue her. Then one of the waves knocked her into a pillar and Tim couldn't wait any longer. The water was too cold and her sopping wet coat and boots were only dragging her down. He darted forward, catching her in his arms just as she slipped beneath the surface for the third time. Then he pushed her back up, choking and gasping and drenched, onto the dock. And finally, finally, someone noticed. There were hurried footsteps rattling the wooden boards of the dock, voices calling out.
"Stephanie! What happened?"
Tim hid, dropping back into deeper waters before anyone else could see him. Not like the damage hadn't already been done. It didn't surprise him when strong arms wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him farther back.
"I think you made an impression," Dick said, looking up. Above them, back on the dock, the little girl was already searching the water again from the safety of her father's arms, looking for her rescuer even as she was carried off.
"Bruce is going to kill me." He'd been seen by a human, nearly been the cause of her drowning, and gone back to save her. He wasn't even really supposed to be there. The longer he stayed in the water, where time hung suspended, the greater the gap between his actual age and his physical appearance. But he hadn't been able to stay out of the bay completely—it was an itch under thin skin where he could still feel the phantom plating of scales, a restlessness turning his head toward the sound of the ocean, the pounding of the waves.
Tim groaned. He was so screwed. Dick laughed, a pleasant ring in the depths.
"And so it starts."
Author Notes: And so we meet Stephanie… for point 3 seconds. Blame the beta fish for the bubble nest (well, that and an image I ran across of the Australian shoreline buried in some eight feet of foam—Google sea foam images, you'll find it). I had this image so clear in my mind, I almost wanted to draw it: Tim, curled in the bubbles, Dick and Jason watching, one on his stomach, head propped up on his hands, the other half turned away into the darkness. But alas, my drawing skills are not up to the task.
I hope there's nothing too strange in this chapter. My beta wasn't able to read it in time (my fault, I didn't get it to her enough in advance), and she's the one who usually points out when my ideas have gotten too crazy or when something happens too abruptly or doesn't make sense.
I'm also posting the first chapter of that Vamp AU I mentioned earlier, though my beta has convinced me to try an experiment and post it under the Young Justice cartoons category even though it's almost completely centered around the batfamily. Since it's AU no matter where I put it, and since I'm getting vibes that the bat-fans seem to be largely adverse to Fantasy AUs, I figured I might as well put it in with the rest of the AUs in YJ. This could be an absolutely terrible idea, but I'm about to find out.
Thanks to everyone for the support. Even the people who just read it and stared at me funny, but especially the reviewers. I appreciate it.