A/N: This story is current through Robin 125 including all YJ issues through Young Justice 55. As usual, I own absolutely nothing. I've taken some (very slight) liberties with certain elements of canon, so it would probably be safe to peg this a light AU. I realize the tabbing is shot in some places. FFN is mangling it. Thanks to VirtualFaerie for Beta-reading. Feedback, especially constructive criticism, is welcome and appreciated. Enjoy.

            Gotham is beautiful at night.

            As he swung through the warm May night, jumpline wound around his fist, black cape with yellow lining snapping in the wind, Tim Drake, Robin the Third, had to acknowledge the truth in the old saying. Gotham wasn't going to win any architectural awards, but there was something about its dark, angular buildings, structures that violated every modern rule of aesthetics, that demanded respect. There was a promise there: I am Gotham. I am proud. I shall remain.

            Perching on a gargoyle and pulling his cape around himself to block out the wind, Tim had to admit the illusion had one fatal flaw: the moment you looked down, it all shattered. On street level, Gotham's unusual profile did nothing to hide the truth: the city was a hellhole. Oracle once called it "Satan's septic tank." If it was villainous, illegal, or just plain dirty, it made its home here.

            Funny then, the masked teen thought idly, his mouth falling into a thin line, how much I gave up so I could be right back in the middle of it all. Suddenly, his ears picked up the sound of a distant scream, his head jerking on instinct towards the latest note in the symphony of the damned. A woman. No more than a mile away, near the convention center. He frowned for an instant, before sending out a line and swinging into the air once more. As gravity took him, the corners of his mouth twitched up, a determined smile flashing across his face. Somebody had to make sure the promise was kept.

            Dana Drake peered through the open window over her kitchen sink, scanning the void, then looked at her watch. 3:30 AM. She sighed. He's late. Hands slightly shaking, she smoothed out the wrinkles in her shirt, hitched her jeans up a little higher, and even fiddled with her raven hair. Need to be presentable when he does get here. She moved to the oven, the floor like ice against her bare feet. Her eyes fell on two trays of rising sugar cookies. Need to take them out soon. He likes them browned, not burned.

            She pulled a stool over to the oven so she could keep a better eye on the sweets. This would be so much easier if I used the timer. But that would be breaking the rules of the game. A buzzer might wake her sleeping husband and send him running in with baseball bat--or firearm--in hand. She scowled. When did everything go so wrong?

            The rules, of course, were just a show--like so much else that went on in her house. Jack wasn't sleeping so much as lying in bed brooding, pretending not to notice she had snuck out of the room, dressed in the guest bathroom, and crept down to the kitchen. Pretending not to smell the treats she was baking for Tim, not to hear any snippets of conversation that might float upstairs when Gotham's youngest knight finally arrived. She had no doubt Tim would eventually show up. He has to.

When morning came, Jack would ask no questions--not about the dirty footprints on the tile floor, not about any left over cookies, or sand tarts, or whatever she'd managed to coax into being with her meager culinary skills, and certainly not about anything she might have heard from his son. And she would abide him, acting just as oblivious. Where did it all go wrong?

            I can't think like that, she brought her hands to her temples, rubbing gently, it's not wrong. Not completely right either. Somewhere in the middle. After all, she thought, a sudden wave of bitter pride crashing over her, Tim's a hero. A living legend who risks his life fighting lunatics and pulling babies from burning buildings every night, who's helped save the world more than once, and God knows what else. She sighed. A hero--a boy--who doesn't feel welcome in his own house, and hasn't even seen his father in almost a year. Her mind drifted back nearly eight months, when it had all come crashing down.

Tim had been absolutely listless for nearly a month. He came home from school, did homework, ate, slept, and, come the next morning morning, did it all again. Like a perfect little zombie.

She turned the oven off, still deep in thought. Tim was miserable, and Jack's trust in him seemed to have hit a brand new low. But trying to interfere only made Tim sulkier, and Jack--who was determined to shut her out of his latest disciplinary power trip--angrier. She had never told either of them, but by the night it all came to a head, she was seriously considering leaving. She loved Jack, considered Tim her own son, but living in the middle of her husband's happy family farce was getting to be too much. Thankfully, it never came to that. The night a bloodied, battered girl in a trashed Robin suit burst into their house screaming for Tim--begging for his help--changed everything.

"Dana? You okay?" The voice was soft, concerned.
            Dana sprang up and spun on her heels, her heartbeat like a bass drum between her ears, a familiar blend of ecstasy and terror churning in the pit of her stomach.

"Tim!" Wonderful. I let him see me zone out. Get it together, Dane... "Sorry. Coffee makes me jumpy, I guess." Oh, that's lame. She swept her eyes over him.

Her stepson--her sweet, brilliant, too-damned-noble-for-his-own-good stepson--was perched on the counter next to the sink. The window was closed, the thick red curtain drawn tightly shut. For an instant, she wondered how he'd managed to get in without making a sound, but answered herself just as quickly. He's Robin.

He sat with his hands in his lap, dangling his black-booted feet over the counter's edge. His cape hung open, the golden R over his heart sparkling in the light, the muscles in his arms and legs like pistons as they moved. His mask was gone; sparkling blue eyes watched her intently from underneath twin locks of dark hair. But all that was beside the point. He was in one piece. Thank God. She moved forward almost without thinking, pulling him into a tight hug, only slightly surprised when he returned the gesture without hesitation. "It's good to see you, Tim."

He grinned. "You too, Dana. Sorry I'm late."

She smiled. "No problem." You only scared the hell out of me. "I assume you ran into some last minute ... excitement."

He tilted his head, suddenly looking embarrassed. "Actually, I got stuck in a nasty traffic jam. Overturned big rig. Sealed up the Kane Tunnel for nearly an hour and dumped a few tons of unprocessed fertilizer. Came up to the bottom of the car door." He frowned deeply.

Unprocessed fert--oh. "Ew."

Tim smiled thinly. "No kidding. I couldn't tell if Harold was going to cry or try to beat my head in with a pipe. But I did manage to convince him to entrust me with a motorcycle, so here I am."

Harold? Oh! The car guy. She frowned slightly. Do you have to be so morbid, Tim? Then again, as long as you can joke about it, I guess nothing too terrible happened tonight...

"So," he said suddenly, a grin playing across his lips, "what smells so good?"

It was obvious he knew--he had that I-can't-believe-you-went-through-all-that-trouble look on his face, even though he was doing his best to hide it. She smiled. Might as well play along. "I thought you might like some cookies, honey." The patted an empty spot on the island in the middle of the kitchen. "Grab a stool... I'll get you some milk as soon as I get these out." She grinned. "And don't even think about trying to help. Just relax."

"Dana," he said, "you don't have to do all this. I know it must be hard enough getting yourself up in the middle of the night just to meet me."

She rolled her eyes before she could stop herself. God. How can you be so modest? "You make it sound like some sort of chore. It's never been a chore, Tim." She sat the trays on the island, and knelt in front of him, squeezing his shoulders. His body armor felt smooth and almost rubbery, with something harder underneath. Blunt trauma plating. For repelling bladed weapons. She suddenly found herself fighting hard not to cackle at just how surreal it all was. She took a deep breath. If I'm going to say this... "The night things ... went bad--the night Stephanie came, and your father made you chose ... I remember it like it was yesterday." He nodded silently, his eyes glowing with an intensity she knew belonged more to Robin than Tim, just like all his most sincere emotions.

"I was thunderstruck. Here was this girl--this vigilante that wasn't even supposed to exist--wounded and scared and crying, begging you to help her save Batman and the others from Two-Face. Telling you that you had to 'be Robin again,' because she didn't know what else to do. I don't think I've ever seen you look so horrified. Your father was off to the side, looking--I'm still not sure what to call that expression. For an instant, I was convinced she was totally and completely insane, but then I heard your voice."

She smiled again, looking into his rapt blue eyes. Can't stop now. "I remember staring at her, wondering just what the hell we were supposed to do with this lunatic, and then you spoke. 'Calm down.' You sounded ... more alive than you had in a month. But there was something else, a tone I had never heard before. It was as if you had changed in an instant, into someone else who was completely different but exactly the same. I knew she was telling the truth. Your father started trembling and--Tim, I may not be Batman's student, but I'm not a dunce--your lethargy, the way Jack was suddenly obsessed with controlling your every move, the despondent look you'd get every time some particularly nasty bit of crime reporting showed up on the news, all the times you had disappeared for days on end over the years--it all clicked. I realized you'd been Robin for years, right under both our noses, up until your father found out and obviously shut you down. I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to stop and rationalize it and convince myself it wasn't true, but I couldn't."

"Dana," Tim whispered, a pained look in his eyes. She knew this was nothing new to him. He was the primary player in the melodrama, after all.

She shook her head. "Let me finish. I want you to know exactly how I feel, just so you don't get any more bizarre notions in that genius head of yours about why I'm doing this. I had no choice to accept the truth, at least for the time being. I was scared and amazed and even a little angry, but more than that, I was proud. If even half the things I'd heard about Robin were true, well, we wouldn't even be having this conversation if it weren't for you and your ... friends, would we? I saw this look in your eyes, determination and compassion like I've never seen anywhere else. Whatever made you want to do what you do, it was more than simple thrill seeking; it was--is--some sense of purpose I still can't quite get. It's a part of who you are, and no one can change that. And I knew, standing there that night, you were going, and nothing was going to stop you."

Tim was staring at the floor now. "Dad," he breathed, and Dana had to strain to hear him, "didn't understand that." He snapped his head back up, his blue eyes brimming with tears, looking far more like a sad kid in a Halloween costume than anything else. She wanted nothing more than to hug him and tell him it would all be fine, but Tim cut her off. "Did he really think I would let them die, Dana? Did he really think I could do that? He may think Bruce is solely responsible for all this," he gestured at himself, "hell, I won't pretend to have any idea what he thinks anymore, but I learned everything I know about right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, from him." He looked up at the ceiling, and Dana felt her heart wrench in her chest. "Why did he make me choose, Dana?"

Oh, God. Why'd I have to open my big mouth? Should have just given him the cookies and told him not to worry about it. "Tim, your father loves you more than anyone else on this earth--including me. He's also one of the most stubborn men I've ever met. I won't try to guess what goes on in his mind, just like I don't pretend to understand how you think." I'm not sure I'd want to. "Jack wants what any good father wants: a completely safe, perfectly happy son. Unfortunately, it looks like fate made those two things mutually exclusive for you. I think he realized that the night Stephanie showed up. He panicked. And ... you know the rest." Can't believe I'm making excuses ... damn it, Jack!

He nodded. "I do."

"Just remember something for me," she tilted his head up, wiping his cheeks and giving him her best smile, "your father loves you unconditionally. And I know, deep down, he's proud of you. But what you do terrifies him even more than it does me. He knows he can't protect you anymore, and that eats at him. He feels like he doesn't have a place in your life anymore. Like you rejected him."

Tim narrowed his eyes. "It's not that simple!" he hissed. "I need Robin." She saw a hand moving underneath his cape, heard a click, and the next thing she knew he was holding a green mask in his lap, staring at it bemusedly. "It's a part of me. Bruce was kind enough to give me a place to stay after Dad ... kicked me out, and I love him and all the others like family, but Dad, he's my father. No one will replace him, ever. Doesn't he know that?"

She squeezed his shoulders. "He knows, honey." I think. "But his world got rocked, hard. He's still trying to adjust to all this. Just give him time. Until then, I'll be here every Friday night so long as you want to meet me, because you are part of this family, and I want to be part of your life." Enough drama. We'll both need Xanax at this rate. She smirked. "Also, being your step-mother, I am perfectly within my rights to shower you with sugary treats whenever and however I so choose."

Tim looked up at her, a watery grin on his face. "Thanks, Dana. Hearing you say all that ... really means a lot. Have I told you lately you're the best?"

Whew. Crisis averted, for now. "Yes, actually. However, if you feel like repeating yourself..." She moved for the refrigerator, pulling out a milk jug and a pair of chilled glasses. "Now, get those gloves off. I think I'm safe in assuming pounding bad-guy face isn't very sanitary."

Tim laughed, the sound like music to her ears. "Yes ma'am."

"So, how was your week?"

He sighed. "How much detail do you want?" He poured himself a glass of milk, and started in on the cookies.

There was that sick lurch again, but it was becoming frighteningly easy to ignore. "I'll tell you what. I want to hear about what you did this week, costumed or otherwise, but you don't have to get ... overly detailed. Whatever you want to tell me would be great, Tim."

He nodded, looking thoughtful. "Well, I might as well start with last Saturday, then. I ended up getting rooked into baby-sitting with Anita and Cissie. I mentioned them before ..."

Dana giggled in spite of herself. I wish I could've seen this. "You're kidding, right? You really couldn't get her off?"

Tim grinned, wolfing down another cookie, chasing it with half a glass of milk. He really seemed to be enjoying them. "It wasn't that simple," he said finally, "there's a difference between being able to remove someone, especially a kid, and actually doing it. As annoying as it was having a seventy-pound talking weight wrapped around my leg, I didn't think it justified a judo throw. Prying her off with my staff was out. The parents are usually pretty good about disentangling them ... usually motivated by fear of me. Unfortunately, this one's mother actually paid enough attention to know I was one of the good guys. Don't get me wrong--I normally appreciate that--but having her stand there and giggle at me really wasn't helping."

Dana grinned. Tim had a habit of ending his weekly highlight reel with some particularly cutesy or embarrassing Robin anecdote. On one hand, she knew he was trying to distract her from thinking about just how many people had tried to shoot, stab, smash, explode, or otherwise kill him. But at the same time, the stories he picked were almost always amusing, in a dark, twisted sort of way, and the way his eyes shined with accomplishment just made her even more convinced he was doing the right thing with his life--as much as she hated to admit it.

This vignette involved a ten-year-old trapped in a burning building, but it was impossible not to appreciate the cuteness of the aftermath. "You managed to get here, though, so I assume you eventually got yourself ... disengaged." She blinked. Urban legends should not have milk mustaches.

"Actually, she decided to let go all on her own." He smirked. "It turns out she had bigger plans than just melding with my flesh."

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" I think I'm going to like this. She took a sip of coffee.

"Sure. I mean, you can't ask someone out on a date with your face buried in his thigh, now can you?"

She sputtered, and felt a burning sensation as very hot Columbian Blend spewed out of her nose. Damn it! When she opened her eyes, Tim was looking thoroughly amused, his now drenched cape held tightly over his face and torso. Oh, this isn't over, Timmy. "You can," she said simply, "but not at that age."

Tim paled slightly, but managed not to send any projectiles in her direction. "Touche."

"So," she pressed, "what did the little lady want of her knight in shining spandex?"

Tim smiled brightly. "She wanted to know if I would like to see the new Harry Potter movie."

Dana suddenly found herself covering her mouth. Maniac grins did not good impressions make. "I think I like her. You let her down easy, I hope."

One of Tim's eyebrows quirked up. "Of course. I just told her the truth: as flattered as I was, I'd already seen the movie with my girlfriend. Twice."

Dana's eyes widened, but she quickly regained her composure. That's new. "You have a girlfriend?" About time. Ten months since you and Steph fizzled.

Tim blinked, then turned the color of Superman's cape, making a show of banging the side of his fist into his forehead. "Crap. Crap, crap crap." He inhaled deeply. "Uh ... yes." He put his face in his hands, but she didn't miss his smile. "Surprise?"

Dana knew she wasn't supposed to enjoy seeing him squirm, but it was so cute. "First I've heard of it," she smiled wickedly. "How long?" Much to her chagrin, he seemed to recover rather quickly. Oh, well. Beaming is better.

"We've known each other for years, actually. I like to think we've always been very good friends ... even though I've really stepped in it on occasion." Something that might have been regret flashed in his eyes, but it was gone just as quickly. "We really started seeing a lot of each other about six months ago, after a mutual friend decided to play matchmaker. About six weeks later, it occurred to me that we were, according to most standard definitions, going steady. She's really sweet, and thoughtful, and smart and ... there's no one else quite like her." He snatched another cookie. His grin faltered for a moment. "I haven't mentioned her before 'cause, well, she's kind of shy."

Shy enough to not mention for six months? Dana felt a frown coming on. "She won't mind that you slipped, will she?"

Tim shook his head. "Nah. I've told her about you, and she sort of figured I'd let it slip sooner or later. She just wants to make a good impression when you finally do meet her, I think."

There was something wrong with that explanation, but she let it slide. For now. "Well, from the way you're grinning, I'd say she's already made a pretty good impression on you. So, does this mystery girl live nearby?" I'm not prying. Standard questions shouldn't raise any alarms.

Tim looked ready to smack himself again. "You need a name, don't you? Sorry. Her name is Greta. She goes to St. Elias." His eyes sparkled brightly.

She munched thoughtfully on a particularly malformed star. "St. Elias, the boarding school? That's a bit out of the way for you, isn't it?"

His grin was impish. "Not when you've got access to the JLA teleporter network, one of the most powerful sports cars on the planet, and three very good friends capable of breaking the sound barrier at will. That last one's a bit of an emergency option. Bringing Kid Flash, Superboy, or Wonder Girl along does not a good date make."

And he's so not joking. Not fair. "You could have just said no. So she knows about your ... night job?" Oz is nice in the summer.

He nodded slowly. "Yes."

Dana considered, deciding she had the right to ask, at least. "Is she, you know..." she tapped the green domino mask sitting on the counter.

His face was unreadable, but he responded without hesitation. "No."

"Ah." And that would be a nerve.

But Tim continued, grin returning, as though she'd never said anything. Which meant the subject was closed. "It'll be a bit simpler for the next couple months. We're both out of school. Oracle owes me a favor, so I got Greta put up in the Hyperion a few days ago. Between school and ... everything else, we haven't gotten to spend as much time together as we've wanted lately." He grinned. "We're looking forward to it."

"What about her parents? They don't mind her spending her vacation away from them?" The contentment on his face shattered, and she knew she'd screwed up. Oh, hell.

Tim sighed, and when he spoke again his voice held an edge that sent a chill down her spine. "Dana, I ... I shouldn't be telling you this, but I can't afford lying to you. Just, when you do meet her, no pity. She doesn't need that."

Oh, boy. "Of course." What'd I just agree to?

He was fiddling with his mask, now, stormy eyes locked with hers. "Her father is dead, and her mother ... her mother is too medicated to recognize her most of the time."

Shit. "Oh." Nice job, Dane. She got the now-familiar hunch that wasn't the whole story, but there was no way she was going to force the issue. The hard, brooding look in Tim's eyes was far more interesting. Suddenly a rather bizarre, frightening thought flashed through her mind: she hoped no one ever hurt this Greta. Tim dealt with many horrible things as Robin. His range of emotions when discussing them was both amazing and excruciating. But this was the closest she'd ever seen him get to looking really furious.

"Yeah." The darkness receded a bit from Tim's eyes, but he still seemed stuck in the middle of some private, bitter thought he had no desire to share. She meant to change the subject, but never got the chance, a faint ringing noise filling the air. Tim snapped out of his reverie, pulling something small and black from his belt.

Interruption. Yes. "Bit late for a social call, isn't it?"

Tim looked concerned, and glanced at his gloves and mask. "Yeah, it is." He looked at the little display on the front of the phone, frowning. "Aw, man."

"What is it?" But the phone was already pressed against his ear.

"Greta?" he asked softly. "What are you doing up?" He started nodding and making little understanding noises. "Bother me? Never."

Dana didn't like this. She didn't like seeing him looking fierce and ready to beat things into the ground, either, but right now he just looked worried. Worried for his traumatized girlfriend. There was so much in his life that didn't involve Robin. Things he would need his parents for. But he wouldn't ask, not anymore.

"The same one? ... Oh." He was looking tired now, for the first time since he had arrived. She didn't think it had a thing to do with the hour.

She had a nightmare? Dana thought. Wonder if Tim's the only one she could call. Poor thing. She tried to convince herself it was only sympathy she was feeling.

"Do you want some company? We can talk about it if you want. Or not," he said. "I'm done with patrol, and even if I wasn't... Dana? She won't mind, I'm sure." He looked at her.

Wha--oh! "Go on," she whispered, "sounds like she needs you."

Tim smiled thinly, mouthing a thank-you. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Leave a window open for me?" A pause. "Love you too." Another beat, and the phone was closed, on its way back to his belt. He sighed. "Damn it."

Dana blinked. "Tim?"

"She ... hasn't been sleeping well lately. At all. I probably wouldn't know if I hadn't tried to surprise her after finals. Showed up at her window at St. Elias, got ready to do the whole Romeo thing, then I heard this thrashing noise, and screaming, and, well, she ended up getting a new window. Scared one of her roommates to death. The other two were either highly amused or extremely pissed. I was never quite sure."

Oh, man. "I see." Wait a minute...how does Greta explain an amorous vigilante to her roommates...?

"I don't know how to fix this sort of thing, Dana." He seemed to deflate, just a little. "Crazed maniacs and thugs I can deal with, but this..."

Now this I can handle. Maybe. "Sometimes, you just have to ride out the storm. It helps people to know they're not alone, but you probably know that."

There was that determined look again, and she felt a fresh wave of pride. "Yeah. I ... I'd better go." He stood, and wrapped his arms around her before she really knew what was going on. "I love you, Dana."

She smiled. "I love you too, honey. Same time next week?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the end of the world." He pressed the mask over his eyes. Tim Drake left the building, and a few seconds later, Robin left the house.

            Robin touched down on the roof of an office building--a fifty story black glass, grey steel monstrosity that looked like it was wearing a cathedral for a hat--and recoiled his jumpline. Even as he gazed across the street, finding an open window on the thirty-fifth floor of the Hyperion, his mind drifted back to Dana.

"Damn it," he growled, launching a pebble across the roof with a swift kick. It soared through the air, disappearing over the edge. He found himself hoping it didn't hit anyone on the head. Only an idiot would be out this late. He blinked, staring at his hands. Only an idiot. He'd taken it slow on the way to the hotel--slower than he should have--but he wouldn't be any good to Greta if he was completely bent out of shape when he got there. Dana tried to help him by saying what she did, and he had meant it when he thanked her, but he couldn't help questioning how much of what she said was truth, and how much was just damage control. Never mind all that stuff about wanting to leave his father that he wasn't supposed to know about--if he stopped and thought about that now, he'd never make it to the Hyperion.

Is Dad really proud of me? He felt he could say, without being too egotistical, that it had to be true on some level. What sort of man could know that his son saved innocent lives and not be proud? That didn't make him feel any better, though--he'd never tried to be a hero, and playing with people's lives just to get a few gold stars from his father would be completely and utterly wrong. Just thinking about it made him slightly nauseous.

But that wasn't the issue, not really. At the very least, he felt comfortable assuming his father was not ashamed of him, and that would have to do. That leaves the other question: Did I reject him?

Robin wanted to say no, but knew that wasn't completely right. He hadn't lied to Dana when he said no one could replace his father. He would love him no matter what. But loving someone and rejecting them from your life were two entirely different things. And that was the key. My life. Mine now, mine forever ... even after he's gone. His father had forced him to abandon his chosen path in life--one of his reasons for being, he had come to realize--for what? So he could live in an oversized brownstone and get lorded over by a man wearing a fake smile that said, quite plainly, I own you. And his father had dared make him choose between just existing like a prize in some power game and saving his friends' lives? Between being a prisoner in his own home, cut off from almost all his real friends, and doing what he could to make the world just a bit more bearable for the innocents who had to live in it?

And that, Robin realized, was the worst part of the whole thing. His father actually thought there was a choice. Nothing Dana could say would change that. He would love his father so long as he breathed, but if escaping from his dictatorship meant rejecting him, well... It's already done.

He took a deep breath, doing his best to gather up all his troubled thoughts and shove them aside. He eyed the Hyperion. Enough. She needs me.

            Robin slipped through the window, hitting the ground just hard enough to make the barest noise. If Greta was anywhere close, she would hear it, know it was him. After a particularly bad nightmare, completely surprising her was not a good idea. He waited, looking around the well-furnished penthouse, with its Berber carpet, white leather furniture, and ultramodern accruements, hearing nothing. Not in here. After closing the window, he swept past the kitchen, finding it deserted, smiling thinly when he saw an empty Twix ice-cream carton sticking out of the trashcan. Bedroom, then. On his way there he looked at the door that led to the rest of the hotel, frowning. Five kinds of locks, all thrown. Only in Gotham.

            The bedroom door was cracked open just slightly, a sliver of dim, pulsating light from the television falling across the floor. He heard a low rumble coming from the speakers that sounded a lot like--he blinked--CNBC, specifically Breyer's International Market Report. Bruce kept the financial news channel on at least one screen in the Cave at all hours, and the mansion, too, when Alfred let him get away with it. So that meant--his eyes widened--She's acting like Bruce.

            Filled with a renewed sense of urgency Tim knocked lightly on the bedroom door, opening it just a little wider. "Hey, Greta," he whispered, "can I come in?"

            "Tim!" Her head whipped around, short-cropped, bushy blond hair bouncing just below the nape of her neck. "You're here!" She grinned brightly, her small frame lost in midnight blue pajamas and folds of 800 thread-count fabric. She grabbed a remote off a nightstand, and the late night captain of industry fell silent, a glowing "MUTE" tag obscuring the Nikei Exchange ticker at the bottom of the screen.

The prettiest pair of sapphire blue eyes he'd ever seen stared up at him from a mass of sheet and comforter, and he wondered, not for the first time, how she could do this to him--make his insides melt with the slightest glance. Not that he minded. Not in the least.

In the two or three seconds it took him to consider this, she slipped out of bed and started walking towards him. He smiled, opening his arms and stepping forward. Almost there. His fingers brushed her shoulders, and his grin cranked up a few notches. "Gotcha!"

"Wha--?" But Tim already had his hands under her arms, and in the next instant he was twirling her around, giggles like porcelain wind chimes filling the room. He stopped, kissing her lightly on the nose as she wrapped her arms around his neck, dimples plainly visible on her flushed face. "Why'd you stop?" she breathed.

Tim made no move to put her down. "I noticed the empty ice-cream carton in the trash. Alfred just cleaned this suit. He'll be pissed if it gets spewed on, even by one so lovely as yourself. Pissed Alfred is scary. Scarier than Batman."

She lowered her face, eyes disappearing behind her bangs. "Oh," she mumbled.

Tim frowned. Aw, man. Smooth, nimrod. "Greta? I was just kid--" But he never got to finish the sentence. Small, full, impossibly soft lips pressed against his. The scent of chocolate and caramel and her hair--ripe strawberries--consumed him, and all thought died a swift, painless death. Which was fortunate; his mouth slipped open, and his tongue suddenly had much less room to move. What was left of his higher brain functions flew the coop. He felt her fingers pulling at the edges of his mask, and managed to raise a hand to help her, pressing the mask into a compartment in his belt after a swift tug. His gloves fell on the ground a few seconds later.

When they finally did part (Damn you, lungs!), Tim inhaled deeply, struggling to find something to say to the fiercely blushing girl in his arms. Right, Timbo. Like you're not the color of a tomato. "Wow." He finally managed.

"Yeah," she whispered slowly. "Wow."

"You know," he said flatly, the corners of his mouth twitching up as he lowered her to the ground, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say you just set me up."

She grinned wickedly, blue eyes dancing. "You really were trained by the World's Greatest Detective."

            Tim feigned shock, clapping a hand over the R on his chest and stepping back. "You ... Kon's ... contaminated you!" He wrung his hands theatrically. "No! I am undone!"

            She giggled, taking his hands. "Goof."

            Whatever makes you smile. "At least you think I'm funny."

            "Extremely cute, at the very least. As for Superboy, what can I say? He spends as much time as you do at our dorm. Between you two and Bart, I'm surprised we haven't been kicked out yet."

            He chuckled. "Are you kidding? I'm surprised Reddy hasn't come after us for corrupting his daughter." He shook his head. "Cissie and Bart. Do you ever find yourself wondering how that works?"

            She smirked. "I try not to think about it. It gives me a bit of a headache. But they're happy, and that's what matters, right?"

            Tim returned the look, giving her hands a squeeze. "Right." One of the only things. "Do you mind if I shed a few layers? I've been in costume since 9:45." It's getting hot in here.

            Greta blinked. "Why are you asking me for permission?"

            He shrugged. "It'd be sort of rude of me to start stripping in front of you without warning, wouldn't it?"

She blushed, eyes bulging a little. "Flirt." She failed to sound properly accusatory, in his opinion. "Permission granted."

"Aye, aye, pretty lady." Tim unclasped his cape, laying the heavy garment over a chair, and started to pull his armored tunic over his head. "So, anything interesting happen this evening?" He idly wondered if she'd bring up the dream as he laid it over the cape.

"Not really," she mused. "I finished reading Jane Eyre--I don't know why you don't like it, Tim--and tried a couple movies."

He tugged the wrinkles out of his tank top. "Oh? Anything good?"

"Robin Hood was pretty cool, but the other one..." she blushed. "I think I read the title wrong. It was animated, Japanese with subtitles, the music was awful, no one seemed to be able to keep their clothes on for more than five minutes, and there was an octopus..." Greta shuddered.

Tim was on one foot, in the process of pulling off a boot, and he just barely managed to catch himself before toppling. "You rented hentai? Cartoon smut?" His mind was trying to reconcile Greta and porn in the same general area, but all he got was a jumble of images, most of them Kon drawing inappropriate doodles of Wonder Woman while making, as Bart called them, "arty French noises."

She threw a pillow at him, not seeming to mind when it didn't connect. "I didn't know that at the time! It was horrible, Tim--I thought it was some sort of romance--it was called Sea of Passion, so I thought it'd be like The Love Boat, you know? But then people started getting naked, and before I could turn it off the octopus--oh, God, Tim, the octopus..."

Tim frowned, trying very hard not to laugh. "I'm ... uh ... sorry you had to see that, Greta. I'm hoping you ate dinner before the movie." He sat down next to her, putting a hand around her neck, rubbing gently with his fingers.

Greta nodded, relaxing into his hand with a sigh. "Yeah. But afterwards, I ended up downing a whole carton of Twix ice cream to try and cleanse myself." She paused. "Ate it so fast I don't even remember tasting it. What a waste..." she trailed off, turning to look at him, sweeping her gaze over him much like Dana. Apparently finding everything in order, she smiled. "So, how was your night?"

"Pretty slow, actually. Just the usual drunken, idiotic creeps and purse-snatchers. There was a major jewelry robbery downtown, but Batman and Batgirl were first on the scene ... all the good punching bags were already unconscious when I got there. Not that I'm complaining. The less people shooting at me, the better."

She nodded, brows furrowing. "Definitely."

He grinned. She never was too eager to hear about his patrols. He supposed that meant she trusted him to take care of himself. She'd also seen enough battle and strife to last a lifetime--he didn't mean to dump any more of his on her shoulders than he absolutely had to. It also meant she wouldn't ask him about his visit with Dana, at least not tonight. "I talked to Bruce," he said finally.

            Her neck muscles tensed under his fingers. "And?"

            Amazing how that kills the mood. Almost not worth it. "He considered my ... our ... request." He kept his tone flat, staring at the muted television.


            "He doesn't want my training to slack off," he said slowly. "Says I'm too close to reaching 'the next level.' I'm not sure what that means--except for the fact I managed to pin Dick the other day without using anything from my utility belt." Glad he didn't tell Bruce he slipped on my cape.

            She bowed her head. "Oh."

            "He also said he understands your place in my life, and for that reason, I am now free to skip patrols however often I see fit for the rest of your stay in Gotham, barring any emergencies." He finished speaking in the same flat tone, managing with some difficulty not to grin--until he felt a pair of small, thin fingers thump the back of his head. "Ow!"

            "That was cruel, Tim." She had her arms folded now, trying to look angry and failing miserably. The smile threatening to split her face was not helping matters.

            "Any crueler than making me think you were about to burst out crying?"

            "No," she shook her head. "Not really. This is wonderful news, though. I was starting to get a bit jealous of all those ten-year-old leg-huggers." She relaxed back into his side, his fingers moving back to their place on her neck. "He's really not so bad, is he? Batman, I mean."

            Tim shook his head. "No, he's not. But it's hard for him to show he cares ... he's ... more insecure than you might think." Understatement of the year. "I'm also pretty sure Alfred threatened to stop feeding him if he didn't say yes."

            She made a face. "You make it sound like Alfred runs your lives."

            "It's a benevolent dictatorship." She yawned, leaning her head into his shoulder, the hair tickling his neck and chin sending little sparks jumping up and down his spine. "Sleepy?"

            She tensed again, and not just in her neck and shoulders. "Sleep can wait."

            He felt a weight settle in the pit of his stomach. Here we go. "Wait too much longer, and the sun'll be up."

            She closed her eyes. "Tim ... don't ..."

            He frowned. So we're back to the phone call. This is going to be unpleasant. "You shouldn't bottle these kinds of things up, Greta. It just makes them fester."

            She narrowed suddenly shimmering eyes at him. "How would you know, Tim? When was the last time you woke up in a cold sweat, trying to figure out where you were, thanking God none of it was real?" She blinked. "Oh, God, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

            Third time this week. Shit. "Shh ... I know." He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her towards his chest. When he felt her head relax into the pillow of muscle and skin over his heart, he spoke again. "Before my father discovered Robin, when I was really pulling the wool over his eyes, I'd go days without sleeping well. I had a couple of really bad nightmares, but most of the time it was just bizarre stuff about Dad and all my secrets. The worst part, Greta, was having no one to talk about it with. I didn't feel comfortable enough bringing it up with the others.

"I remember feeling so isolated ... eventually it started consuming me, even when I was awake. It was always there, this gremlin of doubt and anxiety and fear that colored everything. By the time it all crashed, I felt like twine being pulled on at both ends, an instant from snapping." He ran a hand through her hair. "I don't want you to ever feel like that." Again, he thought suddenly, a flash of self-loathing filling his consciousness before being violently beaten down.

There was silence, save the sound of their breathing--his slow and steady, hers in hot, quick bursts. "Are you sure? You've ... you've got your own problems."

He smiled down at her. "And they'll still be there in the morning. You're the best thing in my life right now. The best thing in ever. If we have to work through rough spots every once in a while, so be it." She made a noise he couldn't identify. "If you were in my place, what would you do?"

She didn't say anything, then, "It ... it was Mommy."

Oh, God. Greta... "What happened?"

"I was at ... the mental hospital ... it was a visitation day." She started speaking faster, as if afraid the words would stop if she didn't get them out. "I was in one of the little rooms where they usually bring her wheelchair, waiting. I had on that purple sweater she likes. I even brought one of my old stuffed animals, to help her recognize me. Then one of the doctors found me, told me there was a breakthrough with her treatment, that she was almost completely recovered ... he was even talking about releasing her, Tim. Forever."

Tim frowned lightly, glad she couldn't see him. Sounds like a great dream. Those don't just go bad, he held her tighter, they go nuclear. He frowned. And she has such vivid dreams.

Greta continued. "Then she came in, walking, and they didn't have her in a straight-jacket anymore. I was so excited. But ... but ... she just looked at me and--she looked so angry, Tim. I don't ever remember her looking that angry. She started yelling, telling me she was glad she could think straight again, so she could remember what ... what I did." He felt a splash of something wet and warm through his shirt. "She said everything was my fault. Daddy dying, her getting sick ... Billy ..."

Damn. He brushed his fingers over her cheeks. "Greta, it was just a dream..." He started rocking her, slowly.

"I was crying, begging her to stop, but she wouldn't. She said I destroyed their lives, that if it weren't for me Billy wouldn't have done all those horrible things, and Daddy wouldn't have k-k-killed himself. That I did nothing but bring pain and misery." She looked at him, tears rolling down her cheeks, and for the first time he noticed how red her eyes were. "She said she hated me, Tim."

He popped a compartment on his belt, pulling out a tissue and carefully swabbing at her cheeks. God, you don't deserve this. "Now, that's not true," he said gently. "You know that's not true."

"I," she sniffled, "I ... I've thought about it sometimes. When she's ... having a good day, when she recognizes me and doesn't think I'm a hallucination, she's always so happy to see me, but it's always like ... like she doesn't really understand how I'm in the room with her. And there's stuff she doesn't remember. I know she's not all there, Tim. What if there's a part of her that resents me--that hates me--but her mind's too jumbled up to realize it? What if--?" But she fell silent, Tim's thumb sliding over her mouth.

"It was just a nightmare. None of what happened to your family--not to Billy, not to your father, and certainly not to your mother--is your fault. Your mother is very sick, but I've been with you when she's lucid. I've seen the way she looks at you. The love in her eyes. No matter how fractured her mind is, there's no way she could ever hate you, not ever. She's your mother, Greta, and," he felt a lump form in his throat, but pushed it back down, "parents love their children absolutely, forever."

She shifted against him. "You ... really believe that?"

I have to. "Yeah."

She yawned, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I'm sleepy, Tim."

He leaned against the pillows as she curled into a ball against him, shutting her eyes. He draped an arm over her. "I'm not going anywhere." He started humming an old lullaby he remembered his mother singing years ago, the words long since lost to memory. Her breathing slowed, and before he finished the chorus, she was gone. Tim lay there, watching her breathe, keeping vigil with the chocolate, the caramel, and the strawberries.

Tim awakened with a jolt, but kept his eyes closed. Something's wrong. A soft, warm mass steadily rose and fell on his chest. Greta. Still asleep. He carefully kept his own breathing regular, his body still. The television glowed faintly through his eyelids. But it was the slight breeze on his face that tipped him off. Window open. Closed when I fell asleep. Someone here. He ignored the panic rising in his gut, trying not to think about the fact he was unmasked with a nearly defenseless girl sleeping on his chest, half his clothes and equipment strewn across the room. Stay calm. He concentrated, straining his ears, until he could make out a third set of breaths. Perfectly regulated. Deep. Familiar. Realization struck, and his eyes snapped open. "Batman," he hissed. Greta shifted on his chest, mumbling something about "chunky monkeys." At least she sleeps hard.

"Robin." The Dark Knight gazed down at them, a shadow of a smirk on his face. "You look comfortable."

Tim blushed. He'd done his best to cover them up after Greta had fallen asleep, but everything was still pretty strewn, and they were both less than completely dressed. "I'm still wearing pants."

The non-smirk ratcheted up a notch, leaving Tim feeling like he'd just played into his mentor's hands. "That's good." His blank, emotionless gaze fell on Greta. "Another one?" The trace of concern in his whisper was almost imperceptible, but Tim appreciated it nonetheless.

Tim felt his own mouth drop into a frown. "Yeah," he whispered, "a nasty one." She could give you a run for you money.

Batman nodded slightly. When he spoke again, Tim could hear a shade of Bruce. "Has she considered ... talking to someone? A professional?"

This from a man who dresses as a flying rodent every night. The teen shook his head. "After seeing how they treat her mother, she's a bit weary of that sort of 'professional.'"

Another almost invisible nod. "Understandable. Can you handle it?"

"I'm doing my best."

"She's lucky to have you, Tim."

Tim quirked an eyebrow. "Thanks ... Bruce." First name and a sincere complement? He wants something. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 5:45. "Is something up? I figured you would've turned in by now."

"We have a problem," Batman said, the gravel back in his voice.

Crud. "The sun'll be up in thirty minutes ... can't the morning crew deal with it?" Then his eyes widened, and realized he must have tensed. Greta tightened her grip on him, and her head was moving in the crook of his neck. He forced himself to relax, rubbing her back lightly until her breathing slowed again. Not waking you up if I can help it, beautiful. "Arkham? Did one of them get out?" Please, not the clown. Not while she's here.

"No." Batman frowned. Upon hearing this, every alarm in Tim's mind went off. Normally there was a note of reassurance when Batman announced they weren't dealing with an Arkhamite, but not tonight. I'm not going to like this. "Superman has received word from Orion. Darkseid," Tim's eyes flashed, and he held Greta tighter, "has amassed an armada, and is believed to be preparing an attack on several undefended star systems in an attempt to expand his territory. Such an expansion would destabilize the balance of power in the region and increase the likelihood of Darkseid completing the Anti-Life Equation. New Genesis is in the midst of reconstituting its forces in the wake of their last skirmish with Apokolips and has requested our aid."

Tim narrowed his eyes. Great. Just great. "'Our' meaning who, exactly?" He saw flashes of a battle on a distant hellish planet ... trapped with his friends fighting an unending horde of cackling parademons ... watching his teammates fall one by one ... seeing Lobo's dead, smoldering body sink into the mud ... hearing Greta scream in pain and rage as those creatures surrounded her ...

If any of these memories registered on his face, Batman didn't acknowledge them. "Given the magnitude of the treat, they have requested we send anyone we can spare." The frown deepened. "The JLA, including myself, the JSA, and Outsiders will be departing in three hours. Time of return unknown. Likely no sooner than two weeks."

Shit. "They talked you into going?" He tried to sound casual. "Must be expecting it to get nasty." It occurred to him to ask why the Titans weren't being mobilized, but he found he didn't mind sitting this one out.


Wait a minute. "Where does that leave Gotham and Bludhaven? And Earth, for that matter?" He suddenly realized the likelihood of him sitting anything out had just dropped to somewhere near absolute zero.

Batman turned, staring out the open window. "I am aware of the agreement we just made regarding your ... off-time, Tim, but I believe this qualifies as an emergency circumstance. The other Titans are being informed of the situation as we speak. In the event of a crisis the authorities cannot handle, you will be expected to render aid."

Tim nodded. He rarely stopped to think about it, but there was a definite chain of authority in their self-styled hero community. The Justice League and Justice Society had precedence, then the Outsiders, followed by the Teen Titans, and finally the dozens of fly-by-night groups composed of local and regional individuals that just didn't rate too high on the power-and-respect scale. Well, at least we haven't scraped the bottom of the barrel yet. And he had his confidence. Even with Starfire currently AWOL for some family function on New Tamaran, he felt they should be able to handle anything that came their way. If they were really lucky, nothing would come up at all.

"As for Gotham," Batman continued, "I did agree to let you patrol at your discretion, and I am prepared to stick to that, with a slight modification. Oracle will be in charge. Batgirl and Huntress are capable, but if Barbara decides you're needed, be prepared to respond." There was a pause, and then that trace of Bruce he'd heard earlier was back. "That's the best I can do. Dick feels Bludhaven can weather a couple of weeks without Nightwing, but Gotham can't go undefended."

Tim frowned. That's ... remarkably considerate. For Bruce. Still sucks. "Understood." He felt himself smirk. "Sure you don't want to stay around for a while and help me explain this when Greta wakes up? She likes you, you know." For now.

Tim heard a dry noise that could have easily been a chuckle. "I'll leave her in your ... capable hands. I have full confidence in you."

Smart ass. "Any idea how heavy this'll get?"

Batman turned towards him, gaze impassive. "It's Darkseid."

Tim nodded. "It'll be hell, then." His lips fell into a thin line. "Be careful, Bruce. And tell Dick to watch his back."

"I'll see that he gets the message." Tim blinked, and Batman was gone.

The Urban Legend looked at the peaceful girl on his chest, running a hand through her hair. She cooed. Sorry. At least you slept through that. This ... news ... can wait. He readjusted the pillow behind his head and closed his eyes, but the darkness didn't come. Instead his entire conversation with Bruce played itself back, including the flippant way they discussed Darkseid, one of the most evil, powerful beings in the universe, occasional star of Greta's nightmares and his own. He opened his eyes, the realization that sleep would not return feeling a lot like sipping spoiled milk.

Reaching for the remote, he turned the muted television to CNN, reading talking-head lips and watching his girlfriend sleep.

            Several hundred miles away, in a far less reputable hotel where the rooms were much smaller, the rates much lower, and the sheets much less likely to be clean, a young man sat scowling at his own ancient and battered television. He was tall, with dark hazel eyes, a long, angular nose, and a positively ripped physique. Thick obsidian hair hung between his shoulder blades. He wore black leather pants with matching jacket, and a scowl. The sound of cars passing along a freeway could be heard through an open window. A number of empty beer bottles littered the old shag floor.

            Cooped up in a sanctuary for adulterers and whores. Pathetic. He stood, stalking towards the decrepit little television, upon which was playing some cable network's lame excuse for erotic drama--a supposedly engrossing tale of totally immoral, possibly sadistic plastic surgeons working in a city whose inhabitants fell into one of two categories: rich, seductive harlot or scheming oversexed manbeast. It didn't help that every single actor and actress seemed to have attended the William Shatner School of Acting.

            Absolutely pathetic. I am meant for greater things. Suddenly overcome with frustration, he roared, grabbing the television and throwing it through the window, taking what comfort he could in the sound of shattered glass tinkling to the floor. It didn't amount to much. He looked towards the room's small desk, where a large crystal orb sat on a simple silver stand, pulsating with green light, a sneer twisting his face. Suspended in the center of the sphere was a small lock of thick, almost curled blonde hair. At least tonight wasn't a total wash, eh Sis?

            "Irascible as ever, I see." A titter. "And taking it out on the poor, defenseless appliances."

            The teenager whirled towards the feminine, bemused voice at the window, his fists clenching at his sides. "Who the hell are you?" he hissed. He felt no panic, only the slightest bit of anger that he'd been snuck up on. The woman looked young, no older than twenty-five, with pale skin, crimson hair that reached past her tailbone, and shining, yellow eyes. Not human. No matter. Neither am I. "How did you get in here?" His voice dropped to a growl. "And what makes you think I won't kill you where you stand?"

            A giggle. "Me? I'm whoever you want me to be, William. Or should I call you ... Harm?" She smirked. "And I can be far more useful to you if you don't run me through with that oh-so-deadly broadsword under the bed."

            How does she know...? He locked eyes with her, pale yellow eyes shining with malevolence. Interesting. He could bolt over the bed, pull his sword from under the mattress, and slice her head off in approximately five seconds, but for some reason he couldn't quite explain, he felt no threat from this being. Speaks as though she knows me. Knows my real name. How is that possible? "Harm will suffice," he said, in what he felt was an appropriately condescending voice. "Very well. You seem to know a great deal about me, demon. Let's skip the more mundane questions, then. What do you want?" He frowned. "And don't turn my question back at me, if you please."

            She shrugged. "I'm afraid I'll have to, Harms-a-lot. You see, I want exactly what you want."

            He raised an eyebrow. "And you think you know what that is?"

            She laughed, a deep, throaty sound. "I wouldn't be much of an empath if I didn't, now would I?" He narrowed his eyes. "Oh, relax. I can't read your mind, just your feelings. Desires. Fears--of which there are remarkably few, I might add. I can sense your frustration, Harm. I don't have to read your thoughts to know you're wondering where it all went wrong." She sat on the edge of the table, staring at the pulsating crystal ball. "Haunting her dreams now? Are you bored, or what?"

            She snapped her attention back to him. "But I digress. You're undoubtedly wondering how you came to this. You, who went so far in your quest for power as to condemn your only sister to a demon's playpen for eternity--never mind that she didn't stay completely dead. You, who gained so great a power that death itself proved a mere inconvenience. You, who made a vow to become the greatest force of darkness history has ever known. You--well, I think that's enough flattery."

She smiled. "You're wondering how you've ended up here, in Chicago's marvelous red-light district, rooming with roaches and prostitutes and not doing something truly interesting--like carving Superman's bones into jewelry. Does that sound about right?"

He felt himself smirk. "More or less." Curiouser and curiouser. "But what's the point? What's that got to do with you?"

The girl with irises like glowing pus--which he found quite mesmerizing, much to his chagrin--snapped her fingers, looking triumphant. "Aha! That is the million-dollar question, Pain King. I'll tell you the truth. You've hit a rough spot in the road of life, to be sure. But it's not meant to last forever. Trust me, I'm an expert on things involving time."

Realization blossomed in his mind. What she knew, the way she talked--it all made sense. "You're a time traveler."

She grinned, clapping her hands. "Bingo! And Harm, let me tell you--and you can believe me--your time will come. Couple decades from now, hell, you'll be running the place. But," the glow in her eyes intensified and for the first time he noticed her fangs, "why wait? Why take over tomorrow what you can conquer today?" She got up, walking forward until they were inches apart. "What if I could help you become one of the most influential, feared beings on this planet practically overnight?"

He frowned, considering. It was all a little too convenient. Why would this person just show up? If she was telling the truth, it would make sense, but she could just as easily be part of some sort of trap, and there was no way to know for sure. But if what she's saying is even remotely true, how could I pass this up? The answer was obvious, and he smiled. "I would say you have my full attention, Miss ..."

She bounced on her feet. "Pandellion's the name, but my friends call me Pansy. And I think you've just realized how beneficial being my friend could be." She crossed her arms. "Now, another question. I want you to think back on all your battles. Wins and losses. Do you notice a pattern there?"

Harm frowned. He'd spent countless hours thinking about that very thing. "I mostly concern myself with dominating costumed do-gooders in my own age bracket--for training purposes. Alone, or in small groups, they're no match for me." He growled. "But certain allied individuals have proven most ... resilient to my advances."

            "Ah, yes," Pansy purred. "I do believe they used to call themselves Young Justice. I believe most of them are members of the Teen Titans now. An even more formidable team. You've yet to attempt fighting them, correct?" Harm punched a hole in the wall. "Right. See, it's not that they're better than you, not by any means."

            This is becoming annoying. "What is it, then?"

            "Secrets, Harm-a-licious. All of them, even the ones with no dual identity, have their roles as heroes," she scrunched up her nose, as though smelling something foul, "and another, private dimension of life, where they go to relax and recuperate. They are resilient precisely because they can withdrawal from the game at will and return only when ready. Tear down the barriers, Harm, and you destroy that advantage. And remember, the world's mightiest defenders--the people you'll have to deal with one day if you truly wish to ascend in power--care for them. Decimate their proteges, and you will deal them mortal blows."

            Harm felt a smile creep across his face, bigger than any he'd felt in months. You are an angel. "And you want to help me do this, Pansy? Why?" Stupid name, though.

            She frowned for the first time since he'd seen her. "Let's just say, in the course of your battles with Earth's champions over the next couple decades, a great many of my interests will be ... compromised. It'll be much better for the both of us if we cripple them now."

            An opportunist after all. Good. Altruists make me sick. "And how exactly do you plan to go about that?"

            She smiled again. "I have an interest in seeing your desires are fulfilled, Harm. All of them. I will see to it that the Teen Titans and their allies are delivered into your waiting hands. I don't really care what you do with them, but Robin--nice snarl, Captain Kill--well, personally I've always thought his head would look rather good on a pike. I've seen him get incinerated, and to be honest it was a bit of a letdown. Over far too quickly, if you know what I mean." She stepped closer to him, and when she spoke again, it was in the light, willowy voice of a small girl with short-cropped, bushy blond hair and sapphire blue eyes, sleeping happily in the arms of a young, half-clothed vigilante several states away. "As for your other desires, I can help with those too."

            Harm smiled. "Do tell."