The night was quiet, and bitterly cold. Why on earth it had dropped into sub-freezing temperatures on the eve of spring was anyone's guess, but if Dick Grayson were to take a shot, he'd put his money on it just being Mother Nature's way of wishing him a happy birthday. A bone-numbing gust of wind that tore across the rooftops of Blüdhaven just as the digital thermometer in the Bank of America sign hit midnight solidified the hypothesis.
"What I wouldn't give to have Flash run over some coffee…" he muttered to himself as he hunkered down against the wind. He was currently on stakeout as Nightwing, and Nightwing was currently perched on a rooftop overlooking the bank, following up a tip that one of the many local gangs was going to try and pull a heist tonight.
"Since it's my birthday he'd probably do it, too," Dick lamented. Flash was off-planet right now, along with the rest of the JLA, fighting Darkseid, Darth Vader, Dick Clark, or whatever-the-hell alien menace currently threatening to rip the fabric of space-time off its cosmic loom and spell the eternal doom of the universe this time. To the tired vigilante now idly wondering if the heist would happen before he became a Nightwingsicle, the only relevant fact was that his buddy wouldn't be able to run to that all-night Starbucks in Seattle for him unless GL lent him the ring, and while the thought was good for a laugh it certainly wasn't possible.
Besides, he would have to call Oracle and have her place the call through the cosmos, and Dick could just picture the look on her face as she tried not to laugh too loudly through the com-link.
Well, that and she was probably busy right now. If she wasn't then surely she would have radioed in and wished him a happy birthday at precisely the stroke of twelve, as she's done for every past year of her reign as Oracle.
It was 12:04. She was probably talking to Huntress or Black Canary, or Robin and Batgirl who were covering Gotham for Batman. Thankfully all of Gotham's rogues were currently biding their time in Arkham, so at least he didn't have to worry about them being on their own for the time being too terribly much.
Ten past midnight. Oracle was busy. She'd call when she was ready. After all, it's not like she'd have forgotten. She's Oracle!
Well, at least he'd be having dinner at the manor in roughly eighteen hours' time. Barbara would be there to wish him a happy birthday in person, and Alfred was going to cook his favorite birthday treats. Dick felt a little warmer for thinking about it. Alfred never forgot anyone's birthday. How could he, when he signed most of everyone's birthday cards in Bruce's name when the Batman was too preoccupied with the fight to keep straight what day it was.
Leslie would be there too, and she'd bring the sweater she'd managed to knit for him since Christmas. Dick smiled at the thought; he has a closet full of birthday sweaters from Leslie, and not the kind people are ashamed to wear in public, either. In fact, he'd only just started deeding to Tim the ones that hadn't fit for years but that he'd been too stubborn to turn over to goodwill.
Ah, Tim. Last year the kid saved up his allowance for two months straight and scored sweet tickets to a Gotham Knights game. Dick had to ask him privately whether or not Robin had let a bookie off easy in exchange for the good seats. If it was true then at least Tim had the presence of mind to sound offended at the question.
Dinner with Alfred, Leslie, Tim, Cass, and Barbara. It almost made up for the fact that Bruce would be missing his birthday, again. Dick adamantly shoved that thought into the back of his mind. After all, it's not like the past few years have been exactly conducive to… such trivial things. Instead he focused on the lovely card he received from the Kents this morning, and on the message Wally left on his answering machine last week promising that his hand-delivered birthday present would be delivered when he got back planet-side.
Yes, things wouldn't be so bad this year. Finally, after a seemingly endless string of less than stellar birthdays (last year's having happened during No-Man's Land, having to ignore the day in favor of stopping a gang-war while filling in as Batman the year before that, the aftermath of Jason's death the year before that, his fight to free the Titans from Deathstroke and HIVE the year before that…), there finally seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, a happy birthday!
SKKKKKT—ick! Dick, SKK—ease! Please Dick, I need y—SKKNNTTT—pen your—SKKKKKT!
Nightwing was frantically fiddling with his communicator, trying to clear up the sudden static on the line as another icy blast ripped across the rooftops.
"Oracle! Oracle, do you copy?"
"There you are! Dammit, FBW, I've been trying to raise you for the last five minutes!"
"Sorry. Must have been some atmospheric disturbance. You're coming through loud and clear now though."
"Good. Now get your ass back to Gotham A—SAP!"
"Huntress never reported in last night. Batgirl was investigating but I haven't heard from her for several hours and I'm sure as hell not sending Tim to track them down without backup!"
Nightwing's face instantly set into grim lines; unexpressed concern was hidden beneath determination. "ETA fifty minutes," he responded, his voice all business. "Nightwing out."
Dick dove off the roof without a second's thought. He fired his jump line mind-plunge and it secured tightly around the fire escape of a nearby building. Dick allowed his swing to rotate around in a wide arc and time seemed to slow down. He heard the wind rushing past his ears as his body rounded the corner of the building. Smooth and graceful as though moving through water, Dick executing his patented quadruple somersault and landed in a crouch not ten feet from where he'd stashed his motorcycle. As he stood, the slow motion ended and time harshly snapped back into place. Half a second later and the bike's engine roared to life.
Nightwing's flight back to Gotham had begun.
Belatedly, with fluid grace even at speeds topping 120 miles per hour, Dick remembered to strap the helmet to his head.
The wind rushing by chilled him even as he sped along, but Dick didn't really care about the cold right now. He was NOT going to let bat-family tragedies spoil his birthday AGAIN!
The ride from Blüdhaven to Gotham took a little over an hour and a half if one obeyed the traffic laws. Nightwing beat out his own estimate and arrived in just over forty-five minutes. He slowed to normal speeds after crossing the bridge, relieved that the strange hissing sound in his ears had finally abated. He would have to look into getting a new helmet, he decided, after this particular mess was resolved.
"Nightwing's in Gotham," he spoke into the communicator.
SKKNNNT—od! Oh D—SKKK—you've got to fi—SKNNNKT!
"Oracle! Oracle do you copy? I said I'm I Gotham!"
"Damn that was fast!" Oracle's voice chimed in loud and clear this time. "How long have you been trying to contact me?"
"Thank God. I'm not having any luck compensating for the atmospheric disturbances wreaking havoc with my com lines. Robin called me from a payphone just now."
"What's the situation," Dick asked, cutting straight to the chase. He noted that Barbara sounded a bit calmer this time, which hopefully meant that things had improved since last they'd spoken.
"Robin's found the trail that Batgirl left him. Apparently the disturbance prevented her from relaying her position, so she put the detective training to use and left clues for us to find as she went after Huntress."
"Good girl!" Dick praised. "Where is she?"
"Robin's at the docks on Canal Street waiting for backup."
"An unknown number of relatively well-dressed men toting heavy firepower currently guarding several warehouses."
"That was Robin's guess as well. He can give you better details so high-tail your butt over there."
Dick couldn't resist the half-hearted grin.
"I'm at the docks already. Nightwing out."
To anyone else, there was nothing unusual about the shadows between two loading crates at pier four. However, Dick Grayson wasn't just 'anyone else.' He was Nightwing, world's second-best detective, and he passed his spot-check with flying colors.
Keeping to the shadows, Nightwing made his way to Robin's hideout.
"About time you showed up."
"Oh, you know how traffic is at this time of night. Got here as fast as I could." The playful banter, if you could call it that, ended there. "Report."
By now Tim wasn't surprised at how Bat-like his in-every-way-that-counts big brother could in times of duress. "I've counted twelve different goons. They patrol the perimeters of pier four's two abandoned warehouses in groups of two and three. I'm guessing you've already figured out that they sweep this area once every three minutes."
"Batgirl and Huntress?"
"Batgirl's trail left off here. She put her money on warehouse number two and I agree with her."
"Good. Number one it is then."
"Right — no, wait — huh?" Tim babbled in confusion as he grabbed Dick's arm to prevent him from leading the way just yet.
Dick merely grinned. "Trust me."
"Last time you smiled and said, that Stephanie didn't speak to me for a week."
"Well I'm better at fighting bad guys than wooing women."
"God I hope so."
"Watch it, kid. I know where you live."
Tim merely snickered and Dick found himself momentarily joining in. Then the lighthearted moment passed as quickly as it came; entirely Nightwing's fault.
"Let's go. We'll take the roof."
Tim nodded, immediately serious, and followed Dick out of the hiding place. Swiftly and efficiently they slunk from shadow to shadow, no more discernable to prying eyes than ghosts in the morning fog. Finally in the shadows at the side of the building, Dick nodded to Tim, who nodded back. Two jump lines fired and attached themselves to the roof with a barely discernable CHINK. Then the two heroes grabbed their respective lines and scaled the wall with an ease and grace that made it appear as though they were running 'up'.
Now they crouched on the warehouse roof together, out of the view of the patrols down on the street. Swiftly and silently they made their way over to the nearest skylight. As they leaned over and peered through the dirty glass at the warehouse below only Dick was successful at covering his gasp.
"If we get Cass and Helena out of this alive," Tim said in a very small voice, "remind me to thank Oracle for insisting that I wait for backup."
Below them they counted twenty-three men, all dressed in business suits and toting automatic weapons. There were crates everywhere inside the warehouse — probably drugs waiting to be loaded onto cargo ships. Criminals and their poison in abundance, but no signs of Batgirl or Huntress.
They both took a fair bit of time assessing the situation. Well, Nightwing took a fair bit of time assessing and formulating a plan. Robin was mainly focused on memorizing as many details as he could while he waited for Nightwing to give instruction.
Where's Roy? We need him here!
"Arsenal's in California," Dick said, answering Tim's question.
"What?" Tim asked, confused.
Dick faced his younger partner and blinked, sharing in the confusion. He could have sworn… Then his face lit in a grin. Somehow his subconscious had provided him with the key to their situation!
"Please tell me you're packing explosive birdarangs."
"Of course," Tim assured, hoping that he was catching on. "I never leave the cave without them."
"Well then I hope you've got good aim, because we're gonna need them all…"
Nightwing stood poised and ready to spring into action. Robin had every birdarang in his position lined and ready to be thrown. Finally Dick nodded, and Robin let the first one fly.
They both followed its trail with bated breath. Then—
Two silent cheers of YES!
Wait for it… wait for it…
The crates in the far corner of the warehouse exploded in a smoky ball of fire.
That was Nightwing's cue. He jumped through the open skylight feet-first and allowed the two startled thugs he landed on to break his fall—
—just as another stack of crates flew apart from Robin's second exploding birdarang. Two down, twenty-one to go. Then of course there were the twelve or so guards outside that surely would have heard the two—
—three explosions. And come running.
Nightwing was already on his feet. He dispatched two more thugs before the shock wave of the third explosion had a chance to finish reverberating in his ears.
Nightwing abandoned hand-to-hand now for his Escrima sticks. He dove, bounced, and wove his way between and amongst the thugs, hitting them fast and hard to be sure they stayed down. The exploding crates had sent the criminals into chaotic disarray. Many of them were too busy trying to salvage their shipment — or at the very least, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on — to notice the costumed vigilante moving amongst them.
Well, until the automatic weapons' fire drew their attention, that is.
Nightwing dove out of the way of the gunfire, ducking quickly behind crates that hadn't exploded yet.
BEEP… BEEP… BEEP…
Nightwing dove out from behind the crates just as—
—Robin's fourth exploding birdarang sent the crates to Hell the hard way. The force of the blast sent Nightwing careening towards the wall, but the world's greatest acrobat managed to pivot his body mid-air to hit that wall feet first. His knees cushioned the impact as he shot forward into a somersault. Nightwing came up standing, battered but un-bruised, just in time to find himself staring down the barrel of an AK-47.
He didn't have time to react.
Thankfully he didn't have to. An ordinary birdarang knocked the gun out of the thug's hand just as he pulled the trigger. The shot went wild, and Nightwing dove left out of the way just to be sure. He put a reflexive hand to his chest, taking a split-second to realize that his ribs were probably bruised from the force of the earlier blast wave just as he was sure he heard Tim shout:
Don't you dare go dying on your birthday!
Dick grinned. That must have come through the com-link.
By now the thugs were well aware of his presence and had abandoned their burning drug crates in favor of making the vigilante interloper pay dearly. Nightwing had blazed a trail over some thugs and through others as he made his way to where one of his Escrima sticks had fallen. He picked it up and twirled it over his wrist reflexively as he surveyed the… twenty-eight bad guys now forming a circle around him.
So, the reinforcements had arrived.
Normally Nightwing would be beginning to get nervous right about now. However, he knew something that his opponents surely didn't.
Robin wasn't out of birdarangs.
A shower of sparks erupted from the circuit breaker on the wall. Some of the thugs looked over just in time for the lights to blink out.
Another shower of sparks from somewhere else in the warehouse. Robin had already taken care of the emergency lighting. When the sparks died out, the only light in the warehouse came from the smoldering crate fires, which provided a stark contrast to the faint crimson-tinted silver glow of defused moonlight that shown down through the skylight and highlighted Robin's silhouette as he held his remaining birdarangs at the ready.
The plan was simple. After the first explosion Nightwing drops in, after the second, Robin takes out the power to the emergency lights, after the third he radios Oracle to call the police, and after the fourth he cuts the main power.
In the shape-shifting shadows cast by the fires Nightwing had managed to subdue four more criminals as he made his way over to his other Escrima stick. Now with both sticks in hand he prepared for the fight of his life. Hopefully he and Robin could stick to the final part of the plan: the current Boy Wonder uses the rest of his birdarangs to try and keep the former Boy Wonder from getting shot as Nightwing the takes out as many thugs as he can before Robin runs out of ammo and joins him on the ground.
Nightwing grit his teeth and launched himself into action. He heard bursts of gunfire all around him, but Robin had his back and he trusted the kid to make sure that the guns with chances of hitting him were knocked away.
Nightwing was at his aerialist best as he flipped over, around, between, and even under the thugs, causing them to shoot each other in the shoulders or legs — some birthday miracle ensuring that none of the bullet wounds were fatal. However, Nightwing didn't have time to ponder miracles as he took out the thugs with as much force as he dared without killing them. They could live with broken clavicles and femurs, and he didn't have the luxury of playing nice.
Suddenly a searing pain hit his shoulder and only the years of training prevented him from dropping the stick he held as he spun protectively away.
Oh my God! He's bleeding!
Dick couldn't place the voice that suddenly screamed in his ear. For some reason it sounded like Roy, but that just couldn't be right. No… no it had to have been Tim! Tim, who was on the floor of the warehouse now, his staff whirling and twirling about his person as he tripped some thugs and bashed others over the head and into unconsciousness.
"You okay?" he called out.
"Only a graze," Dick shouted back.
The two vigilantes were standing roughly back-to back now. Gunfire still flared but miraculously managed not to him either of them as they used their selected weapons to incapacitate their foes.
And so the battle raged.
Every so often, on an inaudible cue, Nightwing and Robin would separate, knock a few heads in, and reconvene in a different spot. This caused the thugs to take each other out as they struggled to shoot the seemingly bulletproof vigilantes.
Then finally the sound of sirens.
"COPS!" was screamed by several criminals. Some of them went scattering.
Tim looked up and saw that Dick had somehow led them back beneath the skylight. "You can't be serious…"
"Get ready," was all Nightwing said in response.
The sirens grew louder and more thugs went running for the exits. Then, finally: "THIS IS POLICE COMMISSIONER GORDON! WE'VE GOT THE PLACE SURROUNDED! GIVE YOURSELVES UP!"
Nightwing managed to smile through grit teeth as he gave the word. "Go!"
They fired jump lines. The criminals were in a panic and Nightwing was sure that a police standoff was about to ensue. Babs would probably kill him, but he had complete faith in her father and the GCPD. They could hold the fort while he and Robin searched the other warehouse for Batgirl and Huntress.
"Relax, Oracle," Nightwing spoke into his communicator once he and Robin were safely on the roof. "The boys in blue can handle this for a few minutes while Robin and I search."
"I hope you're right, FBW," was Oracle's less than happy reply.
Dick sighed as he killed the com-link. He knew she wouldn't be happy with his plan, which was mostly why he didn't tell her about it beforehand.
"How's your shoulder?"
Dick turned to see Tim's concerned face regarding him intently.
"Bullet grazed the Kevlar. Hurt like hell at the time but it's barely a scratch. Let me see your head."
Tim tried to shy away. He had a mother of a gash in his temple that Dick was intent on inspecting.
"I didn't feel it as it happened. Only noticed it as we were flying out."
Dick had removed his gloves and was pressing his fingers gently around the cut, which was still bleeding freely as head wounds often do. Dick grabbed an overlarge band-aid from Tim's utility belt without asking.
"Shut up and hold still."
Dick secured the band-aid in place and Tim winced slightly as the built-in antiseptic began to do its job.
Have you got that bleeding stopped?
Dick blinked, hard, and he shivered slightly. He could have sworn he heard…
Tim's hand was on his good shoulder, now. When did that get there?
"Damn cold up here."
"Dick, its fifty degrees out. Are you sure you're not sick or something?"
Dick ignored the question. "Let's go. Hopefully we can jump to the other warehouse without those gun-toting maniacs seeing us."
Tim nodded, swallowing his concern for now in light of their current mission. In the distance he heard Gordon's shouts through the bullhorn and the reactionary fire from the criminals.
Nightwing backed up a few paces and took a running leap. He pushed off against the roof and went sailing across the wide alleyway between the two warehouses. The distance was too great for him to reach the opposite roof, but Nightwing knew that and therefore the roof was not his aim. Rather he landed on the fire escape landing three quarters of the way up and smiled, for some reason overly pleased with himself that he had made the jump.
He looked back to Robin and beckoned the current Boy Wonder over. Tim seemed to shake his head in incredulous resignation before he momentarily backed out of sight. A few seconds later and he too sailed across the alleyway to come to land beside his partner. He landed squarely but on slightly unsteady legs and Nightwing grabbed his arm to steady him.
"Great technique, but I'm afraid the judges are going to deduct for the landing."
And so the two vigilantes climbed the ladder up to the roof of the warehouse. When they reached the skylight and peered inside, they saw lots of crates but alas no signs of Batgirl or Huntress. They also didn't see any thugs, and that's when they knew Dick's plan was a success.
"What I tell ya? If they're in there, we'll find them uninterrupted."
"You know bro, one of these days you're going to be wrong, and if it isn't a life and death situation I so totally wanna be there to see it."
"You already have. Well, at least according to Stephanie."
"Let's just go," Tim dismissed with a growl, not quite deep enough to be Bat, but at least it proved he was learning.
Twenty seconds later and Dick had soundlessly removed a pane of glass from the skylight. Weapons' fire and indiscernible shouts could still be heard in the distance.
A quick glance to Tim and Dick jumped through the open skylight. Only after he was in freefall did he quickly launch the jump line. It caught around one of the roof support beams and slowed his decent just enough to prevent him from breaking his legs when he landed in a crouch. He looked back up to Tim, and smiled.
Tim scowled in return.
Almost as if to prove a point, the current Boy Wonder climbed through the open skylight and hung in by his fingertips. After a few good kicks with his legs he had a decent swing going. Then, at precisely the right moment, Tim let go. He completed a wide double flip that made great hang time before finally reaching out with both hands and grabbing Dick's jump line. Tim slid down the line and came to stand beside Dick, a smug look on his face that his mask couldn't hide.
"Not bad," Dick appraised, nodding slightly.
Tim shrugged. "Had a good teacher."
Once again the business at hand killed whatever lightheartedness that might have tried to break through. On silent signal they split up and began their search.
SKKKNNNTT—ck! Dick! Don—SKKK—eave m—SKKTTT—ight!
"Nightwing calling Oracle," Dick spoke in low tones into his communicator.
"Oracle, do you copy?"
"Robin, can you get through to Oracle?"
"No," he heard Robin answer. "With whatever bug ate her system we probably won't be able to while we're here. Just wait 'til we get back outside."
Dick suppressed a chuckle. "When did you get so smart all of a sudden?"
"What all of a sudden? I'm the Boy Wonder!"
"Only the next link in the chain."
"It gets better as it goes along."
Behind every empty crate. Inside every sealed one. Nightwing and Robin searched the warehouse for a clue, a trail, even a hint of Batgirl or Huntress. Now they were running out of crates. The outlook was grim.
More shots and shouts from the world outside.
Inside, Nightwing couldn't help the terrible feeling of desperation. It was imperative that they find them — their lives depended on it! And time was running out…
Nightwing shook the uncharacteristic panic from his mind with one fell swoop. He blinked again to clear his vision of whatever unseen menace had enticed those feelings. Birthday jitters, he supposed.
Dick's head snapped around.
"Robin?" he questioned into his communicator. He could have sworn he'd heard Tim's voice, slightly distorted and metallic-y.
"Over here!" Tim called out suddenly. If he had somehow managed to get his communicator to work, he suddenly abandoned it.
Dick didn't stop to question it. He sprinted in the direction of the voice.
He skidded to a stop in front of a giant crate in the back corner of the warehouse. The front wall had been pried off by Robin's bo-staff. Robin was inside the crate, kneeling between the prone forms of Batgirl and Huntress, both of whom were lying in oozing puddles of their own blood.
Tim's glove was on the ground beside him. Slowly retracted his bare hand from the pulse-point on Huntress's neck.
His fingers came away red.
Dick felt his chest constrict as Tim looked to him. Robin was white as a sheet, his lips parted slightly in shock as he shook his head.
Before Dick knew it, he was on his knees.
The world tilted violently around him.
Then a voice, shouting like a drill sergeant inside his head. His inner Bat, sounding for all the world like Bruce, sprung up from years of training.
Don't you dare give up, son!
And then warmth, spreading through him like liquid fire. He felt his heart rate increase. The world snapped into place again.
Nightwing regained his feet.
"Alive. But she's hurt bad."
Dick breathed a sigh of relief.
"What do we do?" Youth and insecurity echoed in Robin's voice. In that moment Dick couldn't seem to recall a time when he ever was that young.
"Take her," Dick ordered, stooping down himself to pick up Huntress's body. "Rendezvous at Leslie's clinic."
Tim nodded, allowing himself to be galvanized by necessity. Gingerly, almost reverently, he scooped Batgirl into his arms and followed Dick out of the back door of the warehouse.
Dick managed to sprint through the shadows, wholly unnoticed by neither the drug dealers nor the GCPD during their standoff. An occasional shot was fired, followed by indiscernible shouting. He wished Commissioner Gordon luck as he somehow managed to balance Helena's body in front of him on the bike. Then sped away, trusting that Tim would be making his own way.
Helena's body was leaning back against his own. She felt colder than the air that rushed by, and already the stiffness of rigger mortis was setting in. Her blood leeched through her costume and onto Dick's, and then through to his skin. It was cold, a chilling dark stain that burned somehow.
Helena's body was still. An aching silence as she reclined against his chest.
He could not feel her heartbeat.
As he rode, and the searing winds numbed his face, he thought back to another time and place. Her warm body sprawled across his chest. Feeling her hot breath on his neck. Feeling her heartbeat through the stillness in the room…
Now that stillness was something else. Something vile and horribly cursed. Helena's head lolled to the side at an unnatural angle and Dick had to knock it away with his chin as he drove. Her hair, those long midnight tresses he remembered getting lost in one desperate, lonely night… now stank of drying blood, and all the filth and grime of the shipyards; a tangible testimony of her final hours.
Dick ignored it as he sped on, through the cold and the stillness and the wild injustice of it all. Headed for Leslie's clinic.
The night was deceptively quiet when he parked his bike behind the clinic. He scooped Helena's body into his arms and marched stoically towards the back door, the one the Bat-family had used for years. He heard static on his communicator but he ignored it. He'd call Barbara later. Right now… well, now he was slightly taken aback as he realized that he had no idea what to do with a dead body at Leslie's.
Carrying Helena, somehow Dick managed to open the door. He entered the glowingly fluorescent-lit hallway and blinked as the brightness stung his eyes. On the wall he saw an LCD panel light up, silently announcing that his entrance had been registered. He kept walking. There was a gurney just ahead…
Leslie came running around the corner just as he backed off from easing Helena down. He stood up straight and turned to face his longtime friend and surrogate grandmother, his look conveying something between shock and despair.
Leslie saw the dark blotchy stains on his costume and gasped.
Dick nodded towards the gurney.
Leslie's head snapped around, following his gaze.
Already the white sheets of the gurney were stained red. Leslie was at Helena's side in an instant, hastily checking for a pulse…
She sighed and closed her eyes briefly as she brought that hand away. Like Tim's, her fingers were stained with blood. Her sad, concerned eyes drifted to Dick, who returned her gaze through cold, unforgiving Starlite lenses. Yet before either of them could speak—
Tim kicked through the door, Batgirl in his arms. Leslie rushed over while Dick backed out of the way.
"This way!" Leslie directed. She turned and began running down the hall. Tim followed. "Hurry!"
Dick found himself standing alone in the back hallway of the clinic. The brightness of the fluorescent bulbs burned his eyes and he squinted them shut. Slowly, his back braced against the wall — which for some reason felt rather soft and comforting to him now — he allowed his body to slink to the floor in exhaustion. His eyes still stung from the brightness, yet for some reason he felt oddly comfortable, even if he was shivering from the cold.
SKKKNNT—ay wit—SKKK ck—SKKNNN—ortant tha—SKKTTT—Dick!
The vigilante in question blinked back to awareness. Tim was squatting in front of him, looking concerned.
"Leslie's with her now. They just went to X-ray."
Dick nodded dumbly. Tim stood and proffered a hand, and Dick was hoisted to his feet.
"Are you okay?"
Dick shot him a glare and Tim dropped his gaze to the floor. Almost reflexively, he pulled his arms in tight protectively around himself. He looked up again when he felt Dick's hand on his shoulder.
"I'm fine, Tim," Dick said sincerely, apologizing.
Breathlessly, Tim nodded. "G-good," he stuttered. "Good."
"I should call Barbara…"
Tim seemed to flinch slightly; then he shook his head. "I'll do it."
Dick couldn't respond, and only barely managed to nod as he watched the current Boy Wonder plod heavily down the hallway to the payphone. Dick found that he could only watch, expressionless, as Tim placed the call. After a few seconds he was able to listen in on this side of the conversation.
"Oracle… No, Nightwing and I are fine… … Yeah… Leslie's treating Batgirl now… We don't know yet… … … No…. No as in 'negative.' She didn't make it…. At Leslie's………. Understood."
Tim glanced back to Dick, his expression pained. For some reason, Dick couldn't formulate the words to thank him.
Just then Leslie came around the corner.
"Doc!" Dick cried, rushing over. "How is she?"
"It could have been worse," The doctor answered bluntly. "When you brought the Huntress in I feared the worst, but all of her injuries are treatable."
"Thank God," Tim breathed.
Dick stood up a little straighter, absorbing the information with a careful nod. "But?" he prompted, having done this dance too many times to not realize when Leslie was holding back.
The good doctor sighed in response. "But she took a nasty blow to the back of the head. The signs all point towards — at best — a severe concussion. We're taking an MRI now."
"At best?" Tim asked, confused. Behind him and out of sight, Dick gave Leslie a warning glance, shaking his head.
"I'm a little worried about possible brain damage," Leslie confessed, pointedly ignoring Dick, who bit his lip in silent cursing.
Tim gasped. "Brain damage!"
"She means Cass may not wake up, Tim," Dick clarified sadly. After all, he'd heard it all before. "And if she does… she might not be the girl we know."
Tim looked frantically from Dick to Leslie.
Leslie blinked slowly, but met his eyes unwaveringly. Tim saw all the truth he needed to in those sad gray eyes of hers. He bit down on his bottom lip to keep it from trembling even as his two hands balled into fists. Dick recognized the signs and grabbed Leslie by the arm. He backed her safely out of the way as an inhuman roar found its way out of Tim's lungs. Quicker, it seemed, than the human eye could see, Tim had punched his fist cleanly through the wall to the point where his fingers were whisking at air on the other side. Plaster dust flew and then lingered in the sudden stillness that followed. The only sound was Tim's ragged panting.
"Feel better?" Dick asked, failing utterly at sounding blasé.
Tim shuddered from where he was, staring dumbly at where his arm was buried in the wall up to the elbow. "I… I thought that there were cinderblocks under here…"
"Just drywall," Leslie informed him, shaking herself out of the momentary state of surprise. "If it was concrete you would have broken your hand."
"C'mon, Tim. Let's…" But Dick's voice trailed, failing him. He put a shaky hand on Tim's equally shaky shoulder. He squeezed slightly, and then slowly, urged Tim to remove his hand from the wall.
Slowly, inch by inch, Tim's hand found its way back out the path it forged. When it was clear, he reflexively curled his fingers into a loose fist, making sure they still worked. "What do we do now?" he asked eventually, looking up from his seemingly uninjured hand first to Dick and then to Leslie.
Dick didn't know how to begin to answer him.
Fortunately Leslie did. "Alfred is on his way."
Dick sighed tiredly, accepting and not at all surprised. He managed a brief nod.
"He'll help me treat Cassandra," the doctor continued. "Her wounds are many but none are immediately life-threatening."
"What about Huntress?" Tim asked.
Dick winced, that familiar pain constricting in his chest again.
Leslie looked to him first for clarification, but seeing the pained look on his face quickly abandoned the thought. She reached out and touched his arm, startling him back to alertness.
Dick? he could have sworn he heard her say, but her lips were silent.
He nodded to her absently in reassurance.
Tim looked back and forth between them, confused only because, by this point, his brain was just refusing to process sensory input as it came along.
"Batman left instruction," Leslie informed them. "I'll change Helena out of her costume and give it to you. I have spare clothes here to be tagged as hers for when she was brought in. It'll look like — like a random mugging." Leslie tasted the bile of her words even as she spoke them.
"No," Dick protested. "No, she wouldn't want that." His eyes drifted back to the forgotten gurney where Helena Bertinelli lay, seeming to all the outside world only to be resting peacefully. "There's nothing about her that connects her to… us. She'd want the world to know that she died… as she lived. As Huntress. The costume and the mission meant more to her than her civilian name did."
Leslie slowly nodded, in understanding and acceptance. Nightwing had been the closest to Huntress. If anyone would know her final wishes…
"All right then. I'll wait a few hours… long enough for us to tend to Cassandra. Then I'll… I'll leave a message for Commissioner Gordon."
Dick nodded, accepting that.
Tim's eyes were fixed on Helena. A few scant tears did not escape the hold of his eye mask.
"I… I don't think we should leave her in the hallway…"
"We'll wheel the gurney—"
"No," Dick cut off Leslie's suggestion. "No I—" his voice caught in his throat momentarily. "I'll carry her."
Neither Tim nor Leslie protested.
Dick walked back over to the gurney, scooped Helena into his arms for the third time, and slowly walked with her down the long, empty hallway. Leslie and Tim just stared after him, knowing that it was best to give him his final moments alone with someone whom he obviously cared deeply for.
They saw him turn into an empty exam room and disappear from view.
"I wish you could have come to dinner tonight, Helena," he said sadly as he laid her down on the examination table. "You would have loved Alfred's cake…" He brushed a few strands of hair away from her face with slightly unsteady fingers. "We would have invited you eventually… as soon as I could convince Bruce to trust you. Whatever else you may do… I know you would have never betrayed us."
He stood back from her then, almost admiring how even in death, she was still beautiful. He knew in his heart, of course, that nothing would have ever come to last between them, but that hadn't stopped him from caring deeply for her, perhaps more so than any other member of the Bat clan did.
Now he sensed Robin's presence in the doorway.
He didn't care.
His fingers fumbled around her neck… removed the cross pendant… wound the cord about his fist and clenched it tight, as thought it were a lifeline.
"The Huntress died a hero," Dick spoke, though Tim couldn't tell if he was speaking to him or to the body. "I'll never let anyone think differently." Then, whispered: "I promise, Helena."
Finally Tim walked into the room and stood beside him. "Alfred's here. He and Leslie are with Cass."
Dick nodded stiffly but didn't turn.
"He wants us to head back to the cave. Wants us to rest. He said he'd join us as soon as he could, with news."
"What about your dad?"
"He thinks I'm at a friend's house. It's covered."
Dick nodded. He thought about turning to go. His chest burned and his eyes were moist behind the mask, but he stood stock still, and simply continued to stare, the muscles of his forearm tensing as he clutched the cross tighter.
A tearing sound off to his right.
Finally he turned his head to fully regard Robin, who had grabbed a hold of the remains of Huntress's purple cape and ripped off a long, narrow swatch of it. Dick finally ceased the tensing of his forearm when Tim wrapped the purple band around his upper arm and tied it off. A ghost of a smile finally found its way to his lips as he watched Tim do the same thing to himself.
"Let's go," he said at last, and Tim nodded. Together they left the exam room and Helena's body to its rest.
They left the clinic in silence and found where they had stashed their respective motorcycles. Then, Robin leading and Nightwing trailing behind, they rode in formation back to the cave.
"What time is it?" Tim groaned when they both removed their helmets.
Dick checked the chronometer in his gauntlet. "Ten of three," he answered tiredly.
Tim snorted a laugh. "It's early yet."
Dick didn't answer.
"Right. I'm—I'm gonna go shower."
In the heavy silence after Tim's departure to the locker rooms, Dick plodded heavily over to the Bat-computer. He logged in and gained access to the police network. Apparently the standoff ended a little while ago, with medium casualties. Thankfully though, Gordon was fine.
Maybe Barbara would forgive him.
For some reason, Dick felt inexplicably cold. He thought of Helena, lying dead across town, and of Barbara, sitting crippled in her clock tower. He thought of Donna, dead again, and of Kory. Every woman that he has chanced to love has suffered horribly, and he has been powerless to prevent it. They've been hurt. They've been killed. And Dick could do nothing to protect them. Maybe Bruce was right…
"Happy birthday…" he muttered to himself in the dark solitude of the cave.
Some time later he heard Tim approach behind him. Not that Tim was trying to sneak up on him, though. In fact, far from it.
"None from Alfred," Dick replied without turning around. "The GCPD has arrested the drug dealers, though." He sensed that Tim was hovering, maybe five feet behind him. He guessed that Tim could see him shivering and was hesitant with what to say.
"You wanna grab a shower or something?"
Dick marveled at how casual Tim managed to sound. "Why? Do I stink?"
"I didn't say it…"
A breathy chuckle. Some tension siphoned
"I just… wanted to wait for word. Before taking the mask off."
Tim shifted uncomfortably on his feet, unsure of what to say. Dick still hadn't turned around.
"Well… would Alfred approve of you waiting down here in the cave?"
Dick thought to retort with 'it's what Bruce would do,' but the truth was that fact scared him into silence. He nodded absently and pushed himself out of the chair, turning to face Tim at last.
"I don't suppose you know how to cook…"
Tim grinned. "No, but I know a twenty-four hour diner that delivers."
Dick finally, barely, returned the grin. "Great. Raid the emergency cash and order me a sandwich."
And Tim turned on his heels and left the cave.
Now… Now Dick was truly alone. He had to admit that, even after all these years, being in the cave by himself was still… well, 'daunting' wasn't right, but it was the first word he thought of. Another word was 'lonely,' which was only exemplified by the fact that Bruce was off-world and Alfred was with Leslie.
Dick shuddered, reminding himself that the cave was also cold.
Since there was nothing else for it, he went back to the locker room to take a shower. Tiredly he peeled off the mask, wincing more than usual as the spirit gum gave way. Ripping it always hurt more so than dissolving it, but the mask really didn't like the latter, so ripping was the custom.
Dick took a good, long look at himself in the mirror. The skin around his eyes was slightly puffy, but that would go away with the shower — along with any residual spirit gum. His ice blue eyes seemed frozen, haunted even, even to himself. He shivered when he realized that he looked two days dead, and again when he acknowledged that his face felt almost naked without the mask.
Tearing his eyes away from the stranger in the mirror, Dick stripped out of his costume. He hissed in pain when the material peeled off of his skin — only to stare in bewilderment at the absence of so much as a bruise in those areas. For some reason his chest pained him all over, with his ribs feeling like they'd just gone three rounds with Killer Croc.
Dick shrugged it off and stepped into one of the cave's two shower stalls, the one that he always labeled 'his.' Bruce had installed it when he first began flying as Robin so that there wouldn't be a line when they got back to the cave. He hoped that a long, hot shower would relax his chest muscles and solve his problem.
He was wrong.
The water steamed and fogged the bathroom, and pelted him with the usual excessive water pressure, but Dick didn't feel the invigoration that he was hoping for.
The water pummeled him mercilessly, causing his chest to scream in pain with every needle-like sledgehammer blow. The water temperature was turned all the way up to the point where it should have scalded him, but Dick couldn't feel the heat. Instead, the water felt as cold as the Gotham river in February.
Dick sputtered and tried to scream, but the water was relentless, finding its way down his throat and choking him, forcing him to cough and spit and nearly making him black out.
It was the combination of cold and pain that kept him conscious.
Blindly Dick thrashed his arms out. Each time he struck the hard, unforgiving walls of the shower stall. Never once did he find the glass shower door, which would have pushed open had he hit it. No, he struck out against the walls of the stall, thrashing in pain, shivering cold, panicked and nearly drowning.
He heard muffled sounds, indiscernible because of the water rushing in and over his ears. He thought it sounded like shouting, but at that time he didn't really care. His chest hurt to the point of tears and just when he thought he really was about to up and die in the shower—
—he smacked the glass door open and tumbled out onto the floor.
For the longest time, Dick just lay there. The concrete floor was smooth, cold, and reassuring somehow. He felt that cold through his back and let it seep into his lungs. He coughed a few times, which hurt like hell in the moment but made him feel better afterwards.
After lying still on the cold concrete floor, as the pain faded from his flesh and into memory…
Dick realized that he actually felt better than before he'd stepped in the shower.
After a few moments taken to gather his wits, Dick sat up and then pushed himself to standing. He realized that he had mostly dried off in the time he spent on the floor, so he toweled himself down quickly and then reached into the giant metal cabinet to grab a pair of sweats. When he looked at his face in the mirror again, he realized that he looked a bit more like himself.
Finally he found his way out of the cave and back into the manor proper. He resealed the entrance and reset the grandfather clock to display the correct time before heading off to find Tim, who hopefully by now had received their dinner delivery.
He found Tim in the kitchen, rummaging.
"What are you looking for?"
"Ketchup. The orders came with fries."
"Well good luck. Alfred doesn't stock any outside of barbecue season."
Tim frowned and shut the last of the cabinet doors. "Is that why I haven't seen any barbecue sauce, either?"
"You might find some honey mustard. Bruce puts that on his salad on occasion."
Tim blinked. "Honey mustard? On fries?"
Dick shrugged. "You could always eat them plain…"
Without thinking, Dick bent down to grab the plastic bag that once held their takeout orders that Tim had carelessly discarded onto the floor. He'd lived too many years under the same roof as Alfred to not hear a British voice inside his head chastising him for such wanton acts of slobbery in the manor.
Then he noticed that the bag felt a bit heavy.
"Or you could use the ketchup packets they gave us," he amended, tossing the handful he found at the bottom of the bag onto the table.
Tim stared at the packets in disbelief. "It's been a long day…" he muttered in his defense as he came back to the table.
The two heroes sat down and opened the Styrofoam takeout containers that held their respective dinners. As it turned out, Tim had ordered a burger for himself and a chicken sandwich for Dick. Dick nodded once in approval before digging in, and the two ate their dinners in silence, splitting the ketchup packets between them.
When they were finished, Dick gathered up the remains and deposited them in the trash.
"We should probably get to bed," he heard Tim say.
Absently he nodded. "Yeah…"
And the two walked through the manor in silence to the grand staircase and up to the second floor. Tim wordlessly walked passed the door to Dick's room, and Dick glanced askance at him. Whenever he stayed over at the manor Dick had given permission for him to crash in his room. Now Tim found his way to one of the guest rooms, as though nothing bizarre was occurring.
Dick stood at the threshold of his room, watching Tim. The first door he tried was locked, and Dick winced. Tim backed up a step, blinking in confusion.
"Jay's room," Dick informed him quietly.
Tim looked down to the floor for a moment, almost in apology.
"You can take mine," Dick continued. "I'm gonna put real clothes on and go see Babs."
Tim wavered only a moment. "I'll join you."
They both entered Dick's room. Tim kept some spare clothes in the bottom drawer of Dick's dresser and changed into a set of those. Dick, meanwhile, disappeared into the walk-in closet and reemerged fully dressed.
"Uh… Do you think we should call her first? It'll look weird for Dick Grayson and Tim Drake to climb up her drainpipe and knock on the window."
Dick shook his head. "Babs gave me keys."
Tim grinned at him.
Dick rolled his eyes. "You're still in that hormonal stage, aren't you," he lamented.
"Last I checked so were you," Tim retorted.
Dick snorted a laugh and left the bedroom, Tim following close behind.
There was no traffic at four a.m., and Dick made good time across town as he drove them in Bruce's BMW Roadster. When Tim saw the car he practically begged Dick to let him drive, but Dick pointed out that Tim had only been a licensed driver for less than half a year. Tim argued that he could probably fly a COBRA gunship blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back by now, so a simple stick shift would be cake. Maturely, Dick stuck his tongue out at Tim and told him that 'rank hath its privileges.'
As they cruised along, Dick was reminded of exactly why he chose this car. It kept begging him to violate all of Gotham's speed laws. Not only that, but he could feel every nuance of the road beneath them. His entire body was in tune with the engine, which was in tune with the streets of Gotham. It relaxed him, almost like a state of hypnosis, and just was what he needed right now.
Beside him, Tim was fiddling with the radio. Unfortunately, all they could pick up was static, a harsh, intermittent hissing, random clicking, and a few odd beeps.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say this car can pick up coded signals from the navy or something."
Dick laughed. "The only civilian car that can do that is the Jag."
Tim flipped off the radio. "I wonder if this has anything to do with Oracle's problems."
"It might," Dick conceded. "But what could be big enough to affect the entire area and good enough that she can't find it?"
Then, as if in direct response to Dick's question, a giant flash lit up the sky. It started as a pinprick of light that grew incredibly fast only to suddenly reverse and collapse in on itself as night became brighter than day in one of the brightest explosions of light ever seen. In the gradually returning dark, faint ripples could be seen in the sky, extending outward as though someone had tossed a large stone into the heavens that plopped and sank beneath the stars.
Dick had swerved off the road and slammed to a halt. As his eyesight recovered from the great flash of light he began to try to get his breathing back under control. Yea Gods! He could have sworn he felt his heart stop and then start again!
"Whoa… Di — did the Justice League, uh, just destroy the Death Star, or something?" Tim looked to Dick, his face twisted into a funny grin for lack of what to do or say next. If he was hoping for a return joke, however, he didn't get one. He saw Dick's hands suddenly tighten around the steering wheel until his knuckles flashed white, which matched the color that his face had turned. The grin was replaced by a look of concern.
Tim's jaw dropped in the same instant that his stomach did flip-flops. "You don't think—"
"Oracle," Dick cut him off, his voice dropping into Bat-levels of forced neutrality. "Oracle will know." With that, Dick pulled back onto the road and drove the rest of the way to the clock tower, this time obeying the whims of the sports car. Tim sat in tense silence beside him.
When they reached the clock tower they easily saw the lights on in her apartment.
"Well, at least she's still awake…" Tim observed.
Dick nodded and led the way. He had key access to her building, as well as all of the civilian security codes memorized — a privilege shared only by her father. All of her other visitors either had to be rung in or didn't bother with the front door.
When they reached her apartment, Dick at least had the courtesy to knock before unlocking her door. "Babs?" he called out, glancing around for her as they entered.
"In here," came the disembodied reply.
Where else would she be?
"Did you see it?" Tim asked, the words tumbling out of his mouth as soon as he saw her at her post.
"Do you know what happened?" Dick followed immediately thereafter.
"Patience, Boys Wonder," Barbara Gordon directed. Obviously she was in the middle of something, most likely to do with the answer to their questions. Finally she sighed, and you didn't have to be Cassandra to read from her body language that she had just learned something dreadful.
"No…" Tim breathed, his voice drifting back into younger octaves.
"I hacked the feeds from a passing French defense satellite," said the Oracle. "It recorded nearly four seconds of footage before passing out of range."
Dick saw the tears well up in her eyes and the world began to haze to white. He blinked hard, feeling the salty sting of his own tears, and reflexively clutched at his chest as that old pain returned. Suddenly it felt as though an arctic chill blazed through the room.
"Did it… see any escape pods?" he heard Tim ask. "Javelins?"
The world righted itself again, but the pain didn't go away.
Barbara shook her head slightly as a single tear escaped her control. "But that doesn't mean there weren't any," she clarified. "It's possible quite a few of them weren't… home… when it happened. Or the brightness of the blast could have obscured any pod jettisons, especially if they were on the other side…"
"Bruce…" Dick breathed. "Wally… He was supposed to bring me my birthday present. Like he always does…"
Barbara lost it then. A hand flew to her eyes as the tears flowed freely. Her shoulders shook in silent sobs. The faraway look in Dick's eyes signaled to Tim that he probably hadn't even noticed.
"Come on guys," Tim's voice suddenly intruded on their respective moments. "We've got to keep it together. If the JLA survived the blast then they're probably gonna need our help — especially if they only managed to make it to escape pods and not a javelin." Then he swallowed hard, and when he spoke again, his voice was considerably quieter. "If they didn't survive, then we have to figure out what threat was powerful enough to do that without warning."
"There might have been warning," Barbara hedged. "With our communications systems down, they might have been trying to warn us for hours and we didn't even know it."
"If it was that important, Superman would have flown in to make contact," Dick observed.
"Unless he couldn't get away…" Tim pointed out.
"Unless there was Kryptonite in that explosion then Superman should have survived," Barbara said suddenly, newfound hope in her voice.
"And even if they couldn't get to the pods in time, GL might have been able to bubble them with his lantern energy," Dick added.
"J'onn could have fazed at the last minute," Tim chimed in. "Hell, we don't even know if they made it back from off-world yet!"
"There's a good chance that some if not all of them are alive up there, waiting for our help," Dick concluded. This thought galvanized him, kicked his inner Bat into high gear and helped to push the emotions aside in order to deal with the situation.
"Even if we assume that," he heard Barbara say, "we also have to assume that until contact is made, there were no survivors of that explosion. With the current roster on board, that leaves you in command, Nightwing."
Dick blinked. He had almost forgotten about that.
"What do we do?" Tim asked him. "How do we help?"
No sooner than had he finished speaking did the Oracle's landline telephone ring. It startled them all enough to make them jump. On the second ring Barbara had pivoted her chair around, and had answered the phone by the third.
"Tell me you're with the JLA," she prayed into the receiver.
"Will you settle for the Titans, the Outsiders, and the Star City bowling league?"
At Barbara's exclamation Dick jumped forward and activated the speakerphone. "Roy?"
"Have you heard—"
"And saw, man. We had a great view of the lightshow from the Tower."
"Please tell us you have good news."
"All I can say is that Cyborg puts MacGyver to shame with how he's jury-rigged our communications system. We should be able to transmit audio-only from the T-ship."
"You guys are launching?" Tim asked.
"Hey, is that the kid?"
"We're a table for three here in the clock tower," Barbara answered.
"Well good for you. And yeah, the Titans are scrambling as we speak. We're leaving Argent to watch the Tower. Everyone else is going up in every available ship in case there's the need for air support as well as rescuing."
Dick visibly closed his eyes and sent his thanks to God.
"We'd offer to pick you up, but we can't afford the detour."
"Understood, Arsenal. Keep us apprised as best you can."
"Roger that, Nightwing. Oh, and Oracle? Do you think you could call the Canary for me and warn her that she may be watching Lian for a bit longer than the weekend?"
"Of course," Barbara replied, unable to help the grin.
"Thanks. We'll begin transmitting as soon as we have something worthwhile to transmit. Titans launch in T-minus seven minutes. Arsenal out." Roy Harper's voice was suddenly replaced by a dial tone. Barbara reached over and hung up the speakerphone.
"Titans together…" Dick and Tim murmured in sterep. Then they quickly exchanged glances as Barbara raised an eyebrow.
"Ok…" Tim segued. "What now?"
"Well for the next… six minutes and twenty seconds," Barbara answered. "We wait."
The seconds ticked by… the minutes ticked by… the hands on the clock face moved in exaggerated slow motion, subtly changing the shadows in the room as if in some Hitchcockian cartoon. Barbara tried to kill time by fiddling with her communications array, again. Tim sat on the couch, tapping his foot softly.
Dick was pacing, a terribly Bat-like expression on his face.
Finally, after six minutes and thirty-four seconds—
"Titan 1 away," Kory's voice.
"Titan 2 away," Victor's voice.
"Titan 3 away," Roy's voice.
Dick, Barbara, and Tim cheered them on.
"We read you loud and clear," Barbara spoke, transmitting Oracle's computerized voice. "Good luck, Titans."
"And now," Dick said, "we wait some more."
Radio silence until the three Titans starships broke free of Earth's atmosphere.
"Your coms should be open," they heard Arsenal say. "Report in."
"This is Koriand'r and Jesse in Titan 1."
"Victor and Garfield in Titan 2."
"Arsenal and Gill Head in Titan 3."
Laughter through the com line.
"Oracle, Nightwing, and Robin read you loud and clear."
"Holy shit…" –Victor.
"There's lots of debris up here," –Roy.
"I don't see any signs of escape pods," –Kory.
"Any life readings?" –Oracle.
"None over here," –Victor.
"Hey, you guys see that?" –Garfield.
"See what?" –Roy.
"Hang on. I see it, too. Four o'clock low." –Garth.
"What? What is it?" –Dick.
"Jesus! It's an armada!" –Victor.
"I can't get a reading…" –Jesse.
"Stand by" –Roy.
SKKKKNNNTTT—IT SHIT SHIT!
"Roy! Roy what the hell is going on?" Dick screamed.
"Kory! Dodge left! Left dammit!"
"Jesse report!" –Roy.
"We've lost th—SKKNNNNTTT—and we—SKNNT—but—SKNNNTTT—AHHHHHHHH!"
Tim, Dick, and Barbara were wide-eyed in disbelief.
Then it seemed someone repressed the pause button.
"Cy can you see them? Did they eject?" –Roy.
"No… No I can't see—SKKKKKKT"
"They're coming back!" –Garth.
"I see 'em, I see 'em!" –Victor.
"Dammit, what's going on up there?" –Dick.
"Pull up, Victor! Pull—WHOOOOOOM!"
"Neptune almighty…" –Garth.
"Roy! Garth! Vic! Will somebody tell me—"
"It's an invasion force! Repeat: an invasion—" SKKKNNNNT
Once again, dead silence in the clock tower.
"Oracle to Titans," Barbara's voice was raspy. "Come in, Titans!"
"Titans, respond!" she demanded, and even the electronic distortion couldn't keep the panic from her voice.
Then suddenly, the sound of weak static, followed by an eerily calm voice.
"SKKKT—an, Dick. For Lian…. SKKKKNNNNNNTTTTTT"
"ROY!" Dick screamed — or tried to, anyway. His throat was suspiciously tight.
Static answered him. It blipped a few times, blinking in and out. Then the silence returned, and the three listeners knew in their hearts that it would be the last anyone would ever hear from the Titans.
Their own silence stretched painfully.
"Huntress… Batgirl… The entire JLA… The Titans…" Dick couldn't get his mind around it. It refused to compute. He was shaking, and his vision was fading in and out. Over the sounds of rushing wind past his ears he vaguely caught the muffled sounds of sobbing, though he couldn't tell whether or not it was Tim or Barbara.
He heard someone call his name, but he couldn't respond.
He just shook his head, blinking hard, trying to stop the shivering.
Suddenly the world snapped to right again. His eyes flew open and the searing pain in his chest — which he hadn't even realized this time — began to fade away.
That's when he saw that he was on his knees. Tim was kneeling to one side, and Barbara had wheeled herself in front of him.
"Dick, Dick what do we do?" Tim was practically begging. "It's War of the Fucking Worlds up there and the JLA and the Titans are gone. Oh Christ, Dick, what do we do?"
Dick blinked again, forcing his emotions back. For the first time in her life, Barbara rejoiced at seeing him become a younger version of the Bat.
"We're not alone," was the first thing he said. "We need a way to contact Argent in the Tower. And at least Black Canary is left of the League, but she's in Cali with Titans West. Supergirl is still in Smallville, I think. Tim, what about Young Justice?"
"I — I don't know," he stammered. "I haven't tried—"
"If we can get a hold of Bart, he can deliver messages to the world's leaders," Barbara cut him off. "He can tell them to… prepare."
"Who else?" Dick asked.
"The League reserves," Barbara offered. "The Justice Society."
Dick snapped his fingers. "Jay Garrick! If you can't get Bart, get Jay!"
Barbara nodded. "Right. I'm going to go put some coffee on. You boys busy yourselves with the phone directories. We'll need to call these people by landline."
"Right," Tim echoed, grabbing a chair and dragging it over to Oracle's mainframe. Barbara wheeled herself out of the way, and Dick hovered over Tim's shoulder.
"Let's just hope we have enough time before Independence Day happens," Tim murmured as he busied himself with Oracle's systems. He pulled up the list of every hero on the radar whose secret identity was known to them. He then directed the computers to search for their contact information, which would hopefully lead to a working phone number.
Barbara was in the kitchen. Tim was at the computer. Dick moved to stand by the window. He let his unseeing gaze fall over the city of Gotham as he mentally braced himself for the continuing ordeal ahead. Right now, he had to be cold. He had to be unfeeling. Right now, he was in charge. Not only that, but right now, he was the Bat. The first promotion he accepted willingly, the second only out of necessity. The Bat could handle this. The Bat could take charge, and lead until the fight was over and the battle was won. After that, Nightwing — Dick Grayson — could drop the mantle and allow himself to feel again.
"Should we call Alfred?"
Tim's question broke his reverie. He turned back and saw the current Boy Wonder standing beside him. He hadn't heard him move, for which he silently both praised Robin and berated himself. Of course, tonight of all nights, he had the right to be distracted.
"Do you want to be the one to tell him?" he asked candidly. Tim didn't answer, suddenly favoring his sneakers over the view out the window.
"It'll be dawn soon," he said at length.
Dick nodded. "Let's just hope we live to see the next one."
There wasn't much Tim could say to that, so he didn't say anything at all.
"I take it the computer's doing its thing?" Dick asked at length.
"It's searching for names and numbers. Hopefully when I turn back around, I'll have a list for us to start on."
Dick nodded again. "Where's Dr. Fate?" he found himself asking aloud. "Something this big… he should have warned us."
Tim shrugged. "Maybe he didn't know?"
Dick spared him a sidelong glance, but then he sighed. "Or maybe he couldn't. Maybe whoever it was took him out first."
"If GL's dead, won't the Corps notice?" Tim asked, suddenly curious. "Won't they send someone to investigate?"
"I hope so. An army of Lanterns would be a big help right now."
"I don't care what army they send, so long as they're on our side."
"My question is, how did Cyborg manage to compensate for the disturbance? I mean, it's a no-brainer that the aliens up there are jamming all our com systems."
"Yeah." Tim sighed. He could have kept the conversation going, but some silences weren't meant to be broken. And one look at Dick had him convinced that this was one of them.
Well, until he had something important to break it with.
"Uh, Dick? My question is, what's that red flashing?" Tim pointed out the window up at the night sky. A bright red dot was streaking across the far Gotham skyline, and getting bigger before their eyes.
All the way back to Blüdhaven.
Time seemed to slow down. Dick could have sworn that he screamed, but the voice didn't sound like his. There was no time to think. No time to cry out a warning. Just barely enough time for one free action, and Dick chose on reflex without thinking.
Dick grabbed Tim by the front of his shirt and dove forward. Glass shattered around them in eerily slow motion, the sound distorted and warped as wind rushed forth to greet them. Then they were falling.
Falling towards the streets below.
A surreal moment when Dick realized that he wasn't in costume. He didn't have any means of slowing their descent… not that it appeared that they could fall any slower if they tried.
Dick's grip on Tim's arm was probably strong enough to elicit tears. He twisted around and positioned himself beneath Tim in the vain hopes that he would somehow break his brother's fall.
The wind rushed past his ears and the world hazed out to white. The rushing sounded like the whispers of a thousand voices, and the chill in the air seized him by the heart and constricted tightly. Dick seriously thought that he would die before even hitting the pavement below.
An off sound in the night, soft yet recognizable. Tim's legs, wrapping around his waist, bending his body at an awkward angle and sending jolts of electric pain through his entire frame. Then a voice — should have been Tim's, didn't quite sound it — and suddenly they weren't falling anymore.
Tim, eternally proving that Boy Wonders were more prepared than boy scouts, had somehow, for some reason, managed to stow a grappling launch into his pocket. They were swinging out across the street, up away from the pavement and out from the clock tower, just in time for an air-to-ground hellseeker missile to impact the clock face. The bright orange ball of smoke and flame engulfed the building like a giant maw, and the subsequent explosions obliterated all other sound. The brightness of the fireball caused Dick's world to once again haze to white as the searing heat singed the hairs off his arms yet didn't serve to warm the deathly chill that had gripped him right before consciousness fled.
He didn't notice when the heat melted through the decel cable and snapped the line, nor when the blast wave pushed them up and out until they landed, hard, singed, but miraculously alive on a lower rooftop two blocks away — a whole nine seconds after Tim had first voiced his question.
Dick! Dick please! You have to wake up Dick! I don't want to do this without you! I can't! Please Dick! Wake up!
Dick's eyes snapped open. He blinked rapidly and saw the sooty face of Tim floating before him. He groaned and blinked again.
"It wasn't supposed to be real…"
Tim didn't have an answer to that. "Can you move?" he asked instead.
"Yeah," Dick groaned. "Everything hurts too much for any of it to be serious."
Tim couldn't help but laugh as he helped Dick into a sitting position.
That's when the brightness of the fires caught Dick's attention. "Babs…" He closed his eyes against the tears. They stung him anyway, and then rolled freely down his cheeks, carving tracks in the soot and grime.
He felt Tim's hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," he offered, knowing full well how lame it sounded.
"Something tells me I should never have left Blüdhaven tonight…"
When Dick looked back to Tim he nearly fell over again as his breath suddenly left him. For half a heartbeat, there sitting in Tim's place, was Jason Todd, scraggly black-dyed hair and all, yet no sooner had Dick noticed this that suddenly it was Tim again.
That's when Dick lost it. He turned away quickly and he wretched there on the rooftop, not caring at all that he shamed himself in front of Tim; only grateful that mercifully Tim was still alive to witness it.
Finally he recovered and wiped his mouth unceremoniously on the back of his hand.
"Jason," Dick blurted. "For a second there, you looked like Jason."
Tim blinked, nonplussed, and tried to reach for Dick's chin, intent on tipping Dick's head back to study his eyes for signs of possible head injury. Dick shrugged him off though, and wouldn't let him get a word in edgewise.
"I guess it was the explosion, what with everything else that's happened tonight."
Tim sighed — and wondered what it said about his life that Dick's explanation of post-traumatic stress actually had him relaxing a bit. "That's ok. For a second there, when you stood by the clock tower window, you looked to me like Bruce."
"Hey I complimented you. There's no need to get insulting."
Somewhere, somehow, Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder and punster extraordinaire bubbled to the surface and exploded with a lopsided grin. It was just what Tim needed, and he laughed at the audacity. Then the laughter settled into silence as the two of them surveyed the smoldering shell that used to be the clock tower.
Behind them, to the east, dawn started to chase the stars away.
Not that they noticed in the brightness of the spectacle before them.
Finally, as if on some unspoken cue, they both stood up, Dick a bit more shakily than Tim.
"That was no alien weapon," Dick announced.
Dick nodded. "Or a Maverick. Either way, U.S. government-issue."
"Luthor," Tim sneered.
"C'mon. Let's see if the car survived."
"Where are we going?"
"New York. Hopefully Argent is still in Titans' Tower. That will be our new base… if they haven't taken it out, too."
"Optimism, Dick. Optimism."
"Cass is in a coma, Helena, the JLA, Oracle, and most of the Titans are dead in what looks like a government sanctioned alien invasion." The words were low and clipped in that distinctive Bat-patented tone that whispered on a scream.
Tim's lips parted in shock — it was one thing to see Nightwing channel the boss, but this was Dick, sans costume. The congitive dissonance was staggering.
Then he swallowed thickly. "I don't have faith," he said candidly. "And we don't have much hope. Optimism is all there is left, foolish as it is. It's all I have left."
The Bat left Dick's eyes, and the big brother returned. Then suddenly the big brother enveloped the little brother in a bear hug.
"We have each other, bro. We've never failed when we're together and I don't intend for us to start now." Then they separated in that awkward, masculine way. "Promise me you'll stay alive and I'll be as optimistic as you want."
Tim smiled the first genuine smile that Dick could honestly remember seeing from him since this whole ordeal began.
Together they made their way down the side of the building and back towards the burning, crumbling shell of a clock tower. GCPD, fire crews, and rescue workers were already on the scene (though Dick noted how weird it was that he hadn't heard any sirens until now). They practiced their stealth as they made their way over to where they had left the BMW; neither of them wanted to see the look on Jim Gordon's face.
Unfortunately the car was buried beneath a ton of rubble.
"What now?" Tim asked.
Dick's eyes swept over the road in both directions. Then suddenly he smiled. We improvise." He suddenly took off in a run.
"The hell?" Tim ran to catch up.
"Oh you've got to be kidding!"
Dick had just shoved his elbow through one of the many rear windows of a VW bus. He flashed his patented thousand-watt grin and then reached around and popped open the driver's door. Tim rolled his eyes and jogged over to the passenger's side in time for Dick to let him in.
"A half a tank. Not bad."
"You do realize this is stealing, right?"
"Nuh-uh — borrowing," Dick corrected with a pointed finger. "You wanna walk all the way back to the cave so that we can grab something else?"
Tim frowned, his look growing even more serious than before.
"No," he replied. "I don't want to know yet if they've hit that, too."
Dick nodded solemnly.
Ten seconds later and he had hotwired the engine.
They managed to make it into the state of New York on that one half tank. Dick was astounded at the gas mileage they got, but decided to not question it and accept the gift of fortune as it was.
All the while they kept trying the radio, but only intermittent static came through, the same as before. The beeping, hissing, whirring, skipping, and electronic white noise was grating to the ears, but they kept trying, hoping and praying that something would get through to give them hope, or at the very least, information.
All Dick thought he heard though was the Bank of America jingle, which only served to remind him of how much he deeply, truly, regretted ever leaving Blüdhaven. Surely if he had just stayed staked out on that blasted rooftop then none of this would have happened.
"We need gas," he informed Tim, who was failing miserably in his attempt to sleep.
"There's a service station up here," Tim said, pointing. Dick nodded and headed in that direction.
"Uh, I'll fill up. You run to the convenience store across the street and get us something to eat," Tim directed as he too got out of the car. "And maybe some hand sanitizer, or something."
"You do know how to pump gas, right?"
"No, I pull the R-cycle into the full-service Mobil on Tanner Drive," Tim bit back sarcastically.
"Fine," Dick agreed with half a grin. "Have fun."
Dick spent down to his last dime and bought three two-liter bottles of highly sugared, highly caffeinated soda, a jug of water, a roll of paper towels, several bags of potato chips, some instant hand sanitizer, and large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol. He paid the clerk, who gave him funny looks for his appearance but thanked him for his business anyway, and left the store.
From across the street, through passing cars he saw Tim standing patiently by the car, gas pump in hand. The bright early morning sun hurt his eyes as it reflected off of blacktop, steel, and chrome that was the city at rush hour.
There wasn't a cloud in the sky.
Tim smiled when he saw Dick approaching, but then the pump shut off automatically and his attention was drawn away.
Dick waited patiently for a light to change somewhere to stop the flow of traffic long enough for him to cross the street.
He waited patiently…
A few birds chirped in a nearby tree.
A dog barked in some nearby yard.
A car horn blared as someone's road rage got the best of them.
The cars finally started to dwindle. Dick muttered a curse about how long that took as he stepped off the curb—
—and the entire gas station erupted in a giant ball of fire. Dick was nearly lofted off his feet from the blast.
"TIM!" he screamed as the sky rolled back to night and the sun failed.
"TIM, NO!" he screamed as the sky began to fall. Red molten hail pelted down from the heavens — fallout finally reaching Earth from the climactic battle in orbit. The cause of the explosion.
"NOOOOOOOO!" Dick screamed into Hell.
The heat was scorching. The light was blinding. Everywhere stank of burning tar, melting metal, searing flesh, exploding fuel. The sounds of the crackling and sizzling of countless fires. The smoke stung his crying eyes. His keening wail joined with the screams of the terrified, the burning, the dying. The damned.
Somehow, with some wealth of hidden strength, Dick found the courage to pick himself up off the battered pavement. His eyes frantically scanned the area as the meteor shower continued to rain around him, missing him by inches numerable times, though he failed to notice that.
He was searching for the source of that voice.
There! A boy on a motorcycle!
There was no reason. There was no hope, no optimism. There was no thought, no ideal, no plan. There was nothing, except a lone, desperate, out-of-costume vigilante, whose final capacity for rational thought had just evaporated in the heat of Armageddon. He was as Don Quixote chasing windmills, ignoring the begging and the beckoning of the injured and the dying as he ran passed them.
The world was ending. He could not save them.
He could, however, grab a Harley from where its rider had fallen — struck dead by the molten shower — and take off after that boy on the smaller, zippier bike.
For all the world Dick did not care that somehow he was able to match pace with him.
The sky fell. Still he followed.
The sun was hidden behind starless night. Still he pursued.
His breaths were coming in halting, ragged gasps. Yet he did not give up.
His chest felt like it was going to explode and all the fires of Hell could not serve to keep out the aching chill.
It mattered little as he followed the boy on the crotch rocket.
Voices were screaming in his ears. He didn't listen to him. He knew they weren't real.
Or maybe, he knew they were and that this reality was the real illusion.
He didn't care which. All he cared about was not losing sight of that boy. That boy with Jason's voice. That voice which either served as his last tether to sanity, or severed it completely.
Either or, really.
He trailed Jason/not-Jason all the way back around the Gotham beltway. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Time could not be counted. Dick wasn't sure if he was even aware of it as he continued to follow. Everything was numb, all he could feel was cold and ache, all he could hear were whispered disembodied shouts, and all he could see — all he allowed himself to see — was the boy on the motorcycle ten car-lengths ahead of him.
In the end Dick followed the boy…
Right below the Bank of America digital clock and thermometer.
The temperature flashed fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit… eleven Celsius…
The time rolled over… to midnight.
What the hell?
Dick got off the motorcycle and looked frantically around. He didn't see any signs of the other bike, or its rider.
It was cold. So terribly cold. Dick shivered, and hugged himself.
The temperature was fifty-one degrees…
Suddenly panicked, Dick threw his head back and beheld the sky. The stars twinkled brightly overhead, and the nearly full moon shone brightly.
There was no rain of fire. There was no scorching stench or pitiful crying. Indeed, there was not even a shred of evidence that The End was nigh.
"Wait — I've been here — I was here before!"
"No wonder you're the world's second best detective."
Dick whirled around and came face to face with the boy standing next to a Bat-modified motorcycle.
"You were beginning to worry me. I'd given up hope that you'd figure it out on your own, so I swiped the bike and decided to show you."
Dick figured he was probably gaping like a stuck piranha. The image of Jason Todd snickered.
Dick blinked, and pulled himself together enough to ask: "show me what?" He was impressed — his voice was almost steady.
"You said it yourself. You wished you never left your perch by the bank, because then none of it would have ever happened."
"What? How… How is this possible?"
Jason smirked. "How is what possible? How did we just bend time? How are you standing there talking to your dead brother? How in God's name were you dense enough to not solve the damn riddle?"
"Yes! Any! Either! Jay, what is all of this? Why—"
The image of Jason had a devilish grin on its face as Dick suddenly had to double over. He hit his knees, and his hands flew up to over his ears. He heard shouting voices — many of them. There was a child crying—
For Lian, Dick. Come back for Lian.
The rushing wind… The static… The cold…
Dick! Dick you can't die on us now! Not on your birthday!
Bruce's. Cassandra's. Alfred's. Leslie's. Barbara's. Roy's. Tim's. One great cacophony of sound finally emerging from the wind in his ears — only to blink out into nothingness when suddenly Dick stood up and found himself standing on the rooftop again. That very same rooftop where he first took Oracle's static-y call for help.
It came back to him in flashes, like his mind was juggling knives and dropping them at intervals.
"Happy Birthday, FBW."
"Midnight on the dot. Thanks, Oracle."
"And how does a costumed vigilante celebrate his birthday?"
"Well right now, he swings into action to stop a bunch of bank robbers!"
"I was here! It all happened before!"
"Like I said — world's second best detective."
Dick whirled around again to see Jason Todd, again. This time though the specter's smile was genuine.
"What's happening? What did I just live through?"
The smile faded. The image of Jason was as solemn as Dick has ever seen him. "Your death," he deadpanned, and Dick's eyes widened. "If you don't snap out of it soon."
"What do you mean?"
Jason inclined his head, barely half a nod. "You know."
And just like that Dick's world erupted in pain. Stars danced before his eyes as his vision hazed to white. It felt like Superman had just rammed a sledgehammer into the back of his skull.
With that sensation, the familiar static returned.
A wave of nausea and the static cleared a bit.
A wave of pain and it cleared some more.
Dick grabbed his temples and screamed—
Dick's eyes widened to saucers. That sound — that horrible, damning, interference that served to prelude every ghastly, gory event of the previous evening. That noise, the one Dick ran into every time he turned around—
—was the sound of a jump line, snapping.
"I fell…" he mumbled, the pain receding on the same ebb tide that swept away the rushing in his ears.
"Yep," Jason admitted, matter-of-factly. "Your decel cable snapped. Freak accident, really. Though if I were you, I'd see if Jinx was in the area or not."
"Then this whole evening... That — that nightmare—"
"Your mind's attempt to keep your body from dying. Neat trick, if you ask me. I'm sorry I didn't stick around you Bats long enough to learn it."
Ghost-Jason held up a hand for silence. "Listen, bro. Your time's running out. When you fell, you landed in that dumpster over there. It broke your fall enough for you to live through it, but you cracked three ribs and eventually punctured a lung simply by breathing — not that you knew that, of course, what with the mother of all concussions you got in the deal."
Dick visibly cringed. "I'm lying in that dumpster?"
"Well you were, until Batg — Oracle — got worried and radioed for help. It's a good thing your friend Roy decided to surprise you with help patrolling your city for your birthday. He found you in time and brought you straight to Leslie's." Jason paused a moment, thoughtful. "You know, I always liked him."
"And that's where I am now? Leslie's?"
"That's where you currently lie dying, yeah."
"Wait — why am I dying? A concussion, broken ribs, and a punctured lung massively suck, but they don't have to be fatal."
"Well that's the sad irony here, bro. When you hit your head, it was damn near hard enough to put your lights out but permanently. Your subconscious didn't take too kindly to that, and so in that instant it sorta rebooted itself, took you back to the moment before you noticed the robbers."
Dick gasped. "The moment before Babs called!"
"Exactly! It erased your equipment failure, thus erasing your fall and those massive injuries. However, as soon as you were found, whatever part of your brain was still functioning realized that you were out of danger. That's when your little bubble reality started collapsing in on itself."
"That's when people started dying!"
"You see? I knew there was a reason why I doubted I could ever fill your shoes."
"But why? Why didn't I just wake up?"
"Well off-hand I'd say its cuz you're more stubborn than the old man, but the truth? I honestly haven't a clue. I guess that while your subconscious wanted you to wake up, your conscious mind didn't. It fought to keep your dream world alive, and so compensated for every attempt to draw you out of it. This whole thing has been a great war between two different sides of your head, and up 'til I got fed up with your blowing every shot I gave you to escape, your conscious mind had been the stronger."
Dick blinked. "Wait? You've been helping me all along?"
Jason rolled his eyes — an achingly familiar gesture. "Of course! After you nearly booked a one-way ticket to the pearly gates — you remember, your mind turned that long tunnel of light into the Watchtower explosion? — well let's just say that it's a good thing Hal Jordan always liked you, man. I decided I couldn't just sit back and watch as you followed me to our eternal reward or whatever, so I conjured up the image of the Maverick. I'd hoped that a government attack on top of an alien encounter would make all the other gaping plotholes in your little fantasy all the more obvious, but then again you were off fighting aliens before even hitting puberty, so I guess you wouldn't have ever discounted such a possibility out of hand.
"As an added bonus I threw in a replay of a decel cable snapping. Unfortunately you chose to not be conscious at the time — HA! Only you could figure out how to not be conscious in the world of your subconscious mind! Damn bro, if I was still alive this whole thing would be giving me headaches!"
Dick's eyes suddenly widened. "And then you superimposed yourself over Tim!"
Jason's lower lip curled into a slight grimace. "Heh, guilty. Though I was hoping it would give you pause, not make you think you were having some sort of demented flashback."
Even though some distant part of him was still reeling, the rest of Dick's mind was currently occupied with watching all the missing puzzle pieces snap into place. Yet not all of those pictures were pleasant.
"Did you make the meteor shower, too?"
Jason shook his head. "Sorry, bro. You take the credit for that one yourself."
"Well you'd been clinically dead for nearly a minute that time, and your brain was starting to die. Unfortunately there were no more Watchtowers to blow out of the sky to confuse you away from going towards the light, so you brought in your own apocalypse. Heh, didn't know you had such a morbid imagination."
"Then you, on the bike…"
Suddenly Jason dropped his gaze and became very interested in his shoes. "I had to give you a reason to want to live," he confessed, carefully nonchalant. "Seeing as you'd just killed your last one."
Dick nodded. "I couldn't die yet. I had to see if it was really you."
Jason tossed an arm in laconic gesture to their surroundings. "So I led you right back here. I hit you with the biggest damn clue-by-four yet, and thank God you actually felt it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I'm here now to answer your questions." Jason sighed dramatically, though no air moved through his ghost-lungs. "Hal will probably have me on Brimstone duty until the next ice age for interfering like this."
Dick blinked in surprise. "Brimstone duty?"
"Yeah. You know Heaven and Hell don't exactly clean themselves."
Dick had to laugh at that — at all of it.
Belatedly Jason snickered alongside him. "You'd better get the hell outta here, bro. I've bought you all the time I can."
Jason's eyes were solemn as his gaze shifted slowly from Dick down to the dumpster. "You already know," he answered. "You've been here before."
Dick smirked at him. "I'm the world's second best detective."
More slight laughter, though this time there was sadness in it.
"Hey bro, thank me by pitching your ass off this building already!" Jason winked, and then his imaged blinked…
And was gone.
The sky above exploded into a whirlwind of bright, shimmering lights.
The buildings, the streets, the skyline — all began to dissolve and melt upwards to meet oblivion. A temperate breeze blew everything in sparking circles up… up… up into nothingness.
Dick took a running leap and fell down… down… down away from the vacuum of heaven. Wind rushed in his ears. His head screamed in protest. His ribs gave up on the concept and took it out on his lungs.
Brightness exploded outwards.
Noise imploded inwards.
Pain enveloped him in a reverse cocoon until—
—the moment of impact.
A bright light.
Dick groaned, feebly trying to escape it.
A sudden shriek.
Dick winced at the noise.
A disembodied voice, shouting something.
Dick groaned again. There were too many of them, muttering unintelligible things.
The light was back again. God what he wouldn't give to have the strength to smash the bulb in!
A hand slipping into one of his… small, dainty, manicured…
Dick barely managed a smile through the relentless pain.
Another hand, enveloping his… large, sure, calloused…
This time, Dick succeeded in smiling.
He felt fuzzy and the pain began to recede.
Those voices… some of them were crying. He made a note to ask about it later, just before unconsciousness claimed him.
"Leslie! Leslie he's waking up!"
Dick blinked. That sounds like Tim, but where is he?
"Dick? Can you hear me?"
Leslie? Are you that strange blob in the center of my vision? Dick blinked a few more times.
"Come on, my boy. Show us a sign. You can do it!"
Alfred? When did he get here? Ugh… why do I feel like I lost an argument with a trash compactor?
"Dick, I know you're in there. Blink if you can hear me."
Didn't I already blink for you Leslie? Hmm… Lemme try that again…
"Please Dick. You've come this far…"
Babs? Wait — what? Why do you sound like you're crying? You know I can't stand to hear you cry…
"Blink Dicky, please. Wiggle your toes. Roll your eyes!"
Again Leslie? Sheesh you must not be paying very good attention.
"You heard the woman, Dick. Now is soooo not the time to be disobeying a woman's orders!"
Wait? ROY? Now what in the HELL is HE doing here?
"Is Unca Dick waking up now, daddy?"
Oh. Right. Roy brought Lian.
Wait — huh?
"He tensed! I see! I see it! Look!"
Cass? Who's tense? Dammit — why the hell won't these funny blobs take shape?
"If she says she saw it…"
"That's not good enough. Come on Dicky, please! Show me you're still in there."
Gee, Leslie sounds really worried. I wish I could tell them not to worry about me. After all, according to that funny dream I had I've got Jay and one very irate Spectre/Hal Jordan—
"—looking after me…"
Ok… Now they're cheering…
Wait, Babs is crying again! I can hear it! Hey — whose hand—
"We're looking after you son. Just rest."
Hey, it's not every day the man gives me a night off…
"…Tim? Nnng, stop the world, I wanna get off…"
Silence… a sniffle.
Footsteps… Five sets of them… A squeak — Barbara's wheels on the cave floor.
Wait! The cave?
Dick blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. "Who's there?"
"Awake at last, I see!"
"Hi Alfred…" Dick managed weakly as the elderly gentleman he thought of as a grandfather came into view, though he didn't remember him as having quite so many white hairs.
"Unca Dick!" Lian came bounding forward, only to be snagged at the last minute by Roy, whose smile could have shamed the sun.
"You gave us quite a scare, young man." Leslie's voice was firm but there was a hint of something softer in the sparkle of her eyes.
"Sorry…" Dick mumbled.
"You'd better be."
Barbara's voice. Dick weakly turned his head. He saw her wheeling forward, allowing herself to be maneuvered by Bruce of all people.
Dick managed to shift his gaze around the cave's infirmary. Idly he wondered when he'd been moved from Leslie's — didn't Jay say he was at Leslie's?
That question wasn't given much thought, however. Dick saw Leslie and Alfred, hovering over him and tag-teaming to get his vitals. Roy was standing by his side, holding Lian. She was smiling and toying with Barbara's stuffed Nightwing doll. Tim stood behind his head, out of sight, but Dick still knew he was there —he could hear him trying to control his sniffling. Bruce had just wheeled Barbara to his other side, and she reached forward to take his hand.
Dick's gaze drifted lackadaisically up to Bruce — who was down in the cave without wearing his costume — who favored him with a slight Bruce Wayne smile. Not that overzealous playboy image smile, but the softer, subtler one he donned in those rare moments when he was truly happy.
Cassandra stood in the background, awe and wonder shining in her eyes and a grin on her face as she listened to everyone talking with someone who was supposed to be dead.
Talking with someone who was supposed to be dead…
"Do you remember what happened?" Leslie asked him.
Dick's face contorted into something between a smirk and a frown. "My jump line snapped and I took a header into a dumpster. I cracked three ribs, belatedly punctured a lung, and — I think— gave myself a hell of concussion." Almost as if to help him prove his point, Dick stomach suddenly rebelled. Leslie and Alfred helped to hold him, but it was obvious that there was nothing in his stomach now to expel.
"World's second greatest detective," he heard Roy mutter.
Even through the pain of the aftermath of dry heaving, Dick just had to smirk. He was about to retort to the comment when Lian turned and faced him with tired, serene eyes.
For Lian, Dick.
Suddenly his breath hitched. In a rush, he lived it all again. Helena dying and Cassandra being in a coma, the Watchtower getting blown out of the sky, the death of all of Titans East, Barbara perishing in a ball of fire, Tim disintegrating in a rain of Armageddon…
Explosions. Explosions everywhere.
Thank you, Jason!
Dick took a shuddering breath, and everyone noticed with considerable alarm how he had suddenly paled. They saw him close his eyes.
"What's wrong, son?" Bruce asked gently.
"Nothing," Dick answered, opening tear-bright eyes. "This is just the best birthday I've ever had."
"But Unca Dick, your birfday was last week!"
Dick barely restrained the sob as he closed his eyes against the sting of those tears. Then suddenly he felt Barbara's arms slip around him. He opened his eyes and saw that Tim had picked her up out of the chair and was holding her as she held him.
"Babs… You know your birthday present to me?" he managed with a shaky voice.
She nodded, confused but willing to be led.
The look he fixed her with was all Bat. "Take it back. Invest in a missile defense system for the clock tower."