While I was scanning through my live journal, the follow came up:

"Hey look, there's a new meme. Hypothetical AUs sound like fun and it'll be a good way to get the creative juices flowing so I can work on some of my other stories!"

(Three challenges later)

"…Well, damn."

So I just wrote the darn thing, and maybe now the idea will leave me alone for a while.

Disclaimer/claimer: I am a college student. I own nothing.

Knowing, Watching, Late

Tim had been dead for a little over a year, and he was finally starting to get used to the idea.

He wasn't completely sure when the inevitability of his situation finally set it. Maybe it had been the first time he woke up in his 'new' apartment - a run-down but reasonably-sized little place that was technically still under lease to a small-time hood named Louis "The Louse" McConnell - without feeling sick as he remembered how he'd taken the Louse's soul just before he'd been dumped in the Gotham River.

Or maybe it had been the time he'd been caught in a three-way shoot-out between two rival drug runners and a car full of cops, gotten riddled full of bullets and sat back up as soon as the coast was clear enough to avoid suspicion. It had hurt like a bitch for a few days afterwards, be he was still mostly in one piece.

Or maybe - just maybe - it was the day when he reaped a young policewoman just in time to save her soul the pain of her horrible, terrible, degrading death and lead her to an open sky that was suddenly filled with a thousand beautiful butterflies of light. She had turned to him with a grateful smile and said "Thank you."

Whatever it had been, his afterlife had a kind of routine now, and he was almost used to it.

Every morning, Tim would wake up late after a long night - some habits just never went away - and got dressed while trying to ignore how much he missed the Kevlar. Then he'd climb out the window onto the fire escape, slip down into the alley and swipe his dirt bike from the front without running into the landlord. Finally, he stopped off at the nearest gas station to buy - but not read, yet - a copy of that morning's Gotham Gazette and Daily Planet before heading off for his daily meeting.

Now, just like every other morning for the past year, he had settled into a booth against the back wall of a small Gotham diner known for corn beef and cheese steaks, nursing a cup of tar-black coffee and thumbing through his papers for the news of the day.

"Hey-ya, Tim-boy."

Tim glanced up over the top of his coffee mug and flipped his open page of the Planet. "Good morning, Tris."

The young woman grinned at him with sparkling blue eyes, sliding into the booth across from him. Her green eyes sparkled as she ran a hand through her barely inch-long red hair, jangling the bracelets on her wrist and the multiple earrings in her cartilage. Her other hand reached across the table, her red-painted nails clicking together as she pulled a napkin out of the holder with two fingers. "Anything interesting in the 'lines today?"

"Mm. The usual," Tim shrugged, setting his mug down. "Where's Lia?"

Tris growled in the annoyed, about-to-go-for-your-throat way that Tim guessed she'd picked up in a mosh pit somewhere. "Stopped in the bathroom on the way in. Probably to powder her pretty little nose."

Tim sighed, recognizing the signs. "Bad morning?"

"Little Miss Princess decided we needed a bit more 'natural' light in our room, so she pulled all the curtains off the windows."

"Well, that's not so bad…"

"At five in the goddamn morning!"

Tim shook his head slightly and looked up at Tris. She had shredded the napkin into tiny little pieces, which were being scattered across the table. "And how long has it been like this?"

"For fucking ever!"

"Then why don't you just move out?"

"Because it's my house!"

"He-lloooo!"

Tris growled again and Tim sighed, closing the Planet up as the other female roommate of the pair appeared, her perfect blonde hair bouncing against her shoulders, her perfect white teeth gleaming behind her perfectly done make-up, bright blue eyes flashing even in the dim light of the restaurant. "Hello, Lia."

"Timmy!" Lia cheered, sliding into the booth beside him. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him against her perfectly fashionable purple blouse, mussing his hair with both hands. "Don't you look absolutely darling today?"

Tim groaned. "You say that every day, Lia."

"That's because it's true!"

Thankfully, for Tim at least, the last two of their little quintet chose that moment to make an appearance. Borya glanced at Lia from behind shaggy black hair, his icy, serious blue eyes narrowed in an expression that always reminded Tim of Bruce. "Let the boy breathe, Devushka. Just because he is dead does not mean he does not need it."

Lia let go obediently. Tim sat up, rubbing the resulting crick out of his neck, and glanced at their final member. "Ohayoo, Ten."

"Ohayoo

," Tengu mumbled with a nod, sliding into the booth next to Tris. Borya gave Lia a Look, so the model squished closer to Tim to give their 'section leader' a place to sit down.

A second later, their server turned up, looking flustered. "What can I get for you folks today?"

"Strawberry pancakes," Lia giggled, going into instant flirt mode even though their sever was, as usual, female. "No butter, low-fat syrup, extra strawberries and don't skip on the cream, darling."

Tris scowled at her roommate. "You buying?"

"You know that I can't. I just spent my very last scent on this fab manicure," Lia giggled and spread her fingers out in front of her to show off her gleaming purple polish.

"Then pick something' else," Tris scowled, shoving the menu at the blonde. "Strawberries are seasonal and I ain't payin' extra for your crap."

"But I need the strawberries, it's…"

Tim sighed, rubbing his temple and trying to block out his coworker's bickering. The server glanced his way sympathetically. "More coffee, hun?"

"Please," Tim pushed his mug at her and flipped open the Gazette, losing his mind in the headlines as Borya stepped in to break up the girls' spats.

The Gazette wasn't as big on superhero news as the Planet, which was nice sometimes. It had been a few months since a story about the Titans - or the Flash or Wonder Girl or any of the others - had stopped sending him into fits of rage, sadness, frustration or all of the above, but he still didn't like being reminded of what he couldn't be anymore.

He flipped through the main section of the Gazette, scanning the headlines. Wayne Enterprise's stock was on the steady rise yet again, thanks to the expert handling of Mr. Fox. There was a ribbon cutting being hosted for yet another new skyscraper, and oh look, three new scabs had washed in with the morning tide, Tengu was as efficient as ever.

"…Is that all?" The server asked, finally getting the last of their orders. "Anything for you, hun?"

"Just the coffee," Tim shrugged. "Leave the pot."

Lia clicked her tongue at Tim as the server left. "Timmy, Timmy, too much caffeine will stunt your growth."

Tris rolled her eyes and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her jeans. "It's a little late for that."

"Don't call me Timmy," Tim added, closing his newspaper because he saw Borya reaching for something as well - the thick day planner wrapped in worn leather.

Borya flipped the planner to that day's date, revealing a full page of yellow post-it notes. He pulled them off one by one, distributing them around the table methodically. "One for you, an' you, and be early this time, you've been cutting it too close."

"Ain't my fault," Tris sniffed, glancing at her note as though it were a bug. "Damn idiots keep throwing around stupid names, can't keep anybody straight."

Tengu took his note without complaint, contemplating it with an assassin's eye. He'd never seemed to have an issue with the 'bringing death' aspect of their job. It was just a job to him. Tim was almost jealous of that.

"This is at fifty thousand feet," Lin point out with a dramatic sigh. "Another wannabe Cooper?"

Borya shrugged. "Could be. It's not for us to know."

"How come she always gets the cool reaps?" Tris demanded.

"Because Lia can fly," Borya said simply and Lia drew herself up proudly.

"So? I could jump with 'em," Tris scowled, tapping a cigarette from her pack. "An' I'd do it, too."

"Isn't that how you got into this?" Tim asked, taking note of his E.T.D. and slipping the post-it into his pocket.

"Hey, I wasn't the one jumping that time," Tris jabbed her cigarette at him personably. "I save the fucker's life and he pushes me off instead. What kinda gratitude to yeah call that?"

Tim smirked to himself as their orders came, taking his coffee with satisfaction. There had to be worse afterlives than being the runt of a Reaper litter. If nothing else, his youth meant that nearly everybody tended to trust him enough to tell him things. He knew that, despite their perpetual twenty-something-hood and her relative immaturity even then, Lia was actually much older than Tris - Tris had been part of an 80's punk bad until she'd gotten in the way of her drummer's suicide, while Lia had been an early metahuman unable to save herself from a warehouse fire in the late 60's. Tengu didn't speak much English, but Tim was pretty sure that he'd hailed from post-World War 2 Japan, and Borya was…well, Russian. That was all Tim really had to go on there.

He let his secret grin fade away as his coworkers dug into their respective meals, flipping to the society section of the Gazette. In the next fifteen minutes, Lia and Tris had three more arguments, two of which Borya had to break up, and Tengu left without excusing himself. Just as usual.

"Well," Lia finally sniffed, drawing herself up haughtily. "I don't need to stand for any more of this! Borya, let me out."

Borya narrowed his gaze at her again. "Only if you promise one thing."

"And what would that be, mon cap-i-tan?"

"Don't screw up."

Lia made a little noise like an offended mouse. "Really, don't you have any more faith in me than that? Just because I live with a fuck-up doesn't mean it's rubbed off on me!"

"Who're you calling a fuck-up, you little…"

"Enough, the both of you," Borya snapped. "Your fighting could wear down all the ice in Siberia. It is unbearable. If you cannot learn to keep the peace with one another, then you should not be speaking at all."

Despite the lecture and the glare, he moved just enough to let Lia climb out. The blonde took a deep breath, letting it out with a heavy, over-dramatic sigh. "Thank you, Borya. And you're right, I needed that. I shall do what I can to support peace and tranquility for the rest of the day, in spite of the…corrupting…outside influences."

Tris flipped her off. Lia pretended not notice, raising her nose a few inches higher. "I need to go now. Bye-bye, Timmy. Borya - davshidvanian."

"Dasvidanya

," Borya corrected, but she had already gone.

Tris yawned, popping her unlit cigarette into her mouth and stretching out over the now-free bench. "I better get goin', too. Gonna need a ride to your reap, kiddo?"

There was an expectant silence, but nothing to fill it. Tris frowned at Tim, who was still looking at the paper, and waved her hand in front of his eyes. "Hello? Earth to Tim-bo."

"Huh?" Tim jerked his head up. "I'm sorry, what?"

Tris quirked an interested eyebrow, reaching for his page. "What's caught your eye, kiddo?"

"It's nothing," Tim tried to close the section up, but Tris had already yanked the page away.

She unfolded it where she could see, holding it up to the light. "Hm… 'Wayne Enterprises C.E.O. returns from year abroad.' Not exactly the headlining story of the year, Boy Wonder."

But Borya had heard, and now his gaze had narrowed to Tim. "You can not go see them."

"I know," Tim muttered, not meeting his eyes.

"They have moved on, and you should, too."

"I know."

"They may not see 'you,' but you can not risk being…"

"Borya, I know!" Tim snapped, and regretted it instantly as the Russian's glare became even harder. Losing his temper did nothing but make Borya more suspicious…just like Bruce. "I…I know, okay? I'm dead, I get that. I can't go back. And…I won't."

Borya's gaze never let up, and now Tris had joined in as well. Tim pointedly did not shift - he was trained by Batman, master of glares, he could put up with anything that these guys sent his way - and finished off his coffee as calmly as though nothing had happened. "I need to go. I have to get to my part-time job. And to answer your question, Tris: No, I don't need a ride. Thank you."

"If you say so, kiddo," Tris shrugged and twisted in her seat, practically leaping from the booth. As she disappeared, Borya dug into his pocket for a tip, standing as he deposited the bills on the table and giving Tim another of his Looks.

"Remember, Timothy," he warned calmly, his accent emphasizing every syllable as though they were being tolled by the proverbial bell. "There is only the now. There is no going back to what was. Dwelling on past mistakes will only be the cause of pain - for you and for them."

Tim nodded, folding up the newspapers and adding his own spare change to the tip. He threw the papers away on his way out, not letting Borya see that he had folded the article about Bruce and Dick into his pocket, along with the accompanying picture.

He may have adjusted to his afterlife, but he wasn't ready to let go just yet.

( - )

Reapers didn't really get paid for their services.

There was a part of Tim's mind that felt the idea should have been obvious. After all, Secret had never gotten any benefits when she'd been acting as a portal between the living and the dead. But when he considered that this little fact was the reason that he - a relatively young, newly-dead reaper who had not been quite old enough, at the time of his death, to receive total emancipation - was squatting in a run-down apartment and working a crappy tech job at a Vietnamese electronics store, it just didn't seem fair.

Of course some reapers - like Tris and Lia - would steal what they needed for their 'living' from the dead, but that just didn't sit right with Tim. So he tried not to complain, even though no one was around to hear it as he stumbled out of Tek-noa-hao's House of Tech-Know How well after the sun had set, his head still ringing with the annoying screech of customers who just couldn't understand why their Windows-only game software couldn't work on their Apple desktops.

As he walked past the shop window, he took just a moment to glance at the display of camcorders and hi-def TVs in the window. One of the cameras was pointed out the window itself, showing the passerby on one of the flat plasma screens.

Tim paused a moment to look at the boy on the screen. He smiled a sort of sad smile and the boy returned it. "Hello, David."

'David' mouthed the words back to him without a sound. His face was longer than Tim's and stretched slightly like a horse, his cheek bones slightly more prominent, his skin holding the barest hint of olive in its tone. In some ways he almost - just almost - looked like Tim, but with a second glance, the similarities disappeared. Just the way they were supposed to.

"This is how we look to the living," Borya had said the first time he'd shown the face to Tim. Just hours later - after an obnoxiously long wait at the DMV of all places - the not-Tim had been given a name: David Cross.

It was a strange feeling, walking through Gotham - the town he had lived in since he'd been born - as a completely different person. Once, while on a reap, he'd run straight into Harvey Bullock and the cop hadn't batted an eye - just told 'the punk' that he'd book him if he was caught hanging around a murder scene again.

And speaking of reaps…

Tim dug the post-it out of his pocket, unfolding it and taking care not to smudge the ink too badly. The information was simple and straightforward, like always:

C. Nauck

23rd and Avenue B

E.T.D. - 8:47 P.M.

Avenue B wasn't far from the shop, and getting to 23rd would be easy enough. He could bike it easily enough, wouldn't even need a ride on the subway, and thank god for that - he couldn't afford another subway run until his next paycheck came in.

Some irony, he had to think as he unlocked his bike from the rack. After a lifetime of relative wealth, he had to adjust to an afterlife of living from paycheck to paycheck. It was almost funny to think about, especially when he was pointedly not thinking about Bruce and Dick, who were probably in the cave, suiting up right now…

Tim shoved the thought out of his mind and swung his leg over the bike. It was ten to eight now, and he needed to get to Avenue B. Death waited for no man, and it certainly couldn't afford to be late.

He kicked off and worked his bike into a good pace as he took off down the street. Just a fifteen minute ride, an early appointment, and he could got to bed without think or seeing or dreaming about Bruce or Cass or Dick…

( - )

"Dick?"

Nightwing shook himself out of his daze, pulling his eyes from the case - the new case, with the new costume and the new plaque and the all-new meaning - to look at the petite Asian girl who was staring at him with her too-intense gaze. "Hm? Yeah, Cass?"

"Are you all right?" Bargirl asked, sounding out every syllable of her carefully-learned language with utmost care. She quirked her head to the side, keeping the rest of her body effectively skill. "With this?"

Dick sighed, running a hand through his hair. The protective polymer mix of gloves caught a few strands and pulled them lose, but he almost felt that he deserved the sting. "I'm fine. You know that."

Cass said nothing, but her eyes made it clear - she knew that he was lying. She took a step forward and rested both of her gloved hands on his bicep. Without a sound, her brown eyes trailed to the case as well, the red and green and yellow reflecting in the depths of her impossibly dark pupils.

"I miss Tim."

Nightwing swallowed the heavy lump that had risen in his throat and closed his eyes to fight down the tears that had threatened to rise in them. "Yeah…Me too, Cass."

The girl pressed her hands a bit harder against the muscles of his arm, a tiny kind of hug. "Not your fault."

"I know it's not," Dick whispered, placing his hand over hers. "Trust me, I know. It's just…It's not going to be the same, going out there without him,"

"I know."

"He deserved better than what he got. But he wouldn't want us to…dwell…on him forever."

"I know."

Dick squeezed Cass's hand, seeking whatever little comfort she could give. "I'm only staying until Bruce finds another…until a new Robin is ready. I don't think I could stand longer than that."

Cass squeeze his arm again and rested her forehead against his shoulder. "I know."

Dick smiled a sad little smile - it made his cheeks ache a bit - and rested his head against hers. "Watch out for Bruce tonight? I think I need to fly solo for a bit."

"Okay," Cass nuzzled his forehead with her own. "Check in before bed?"

"Whatever you say, Cass," Nightwing chuckled and pulled out of their little half-embrace to grab his mask. "Let's roll."

( - )

Tim shifted his stance, sighed, check his watch for the time, and sighed again. A Gotham fog was blowing in off the harbor, filling the streets with thick, bone-chilling mist, and there was still no one in sight on the corner of 23rd and Avenue B, least of all a C. Nauck.

It was times like this that made Tim just a bit annoyed with his particular lot in the afterlife. He'd been told that Reapers were assigned to particular divisions of death, usually based on the way that they themselves died. In his case, the division was 'Outside Influences' - murder, suicide, etcetera. Except that, given the unusual manner of his death and the particular skills he'd gained in life, he'd been shifted into a special sub-division - Heroic and/or Villainous Deaths.

In Gotham, that usually meant a low-level crook getting offed by their boss or a police officer unfortunate enough to run afoul of gangs packing cop-killers, but he knew better than anyone that 'The Capes' weren't immune to death either.

There was a part of Tim that was still sickened by it all. He was supposed to be helping these people, catching the killers and stopping the crime, not snatching a soul as he passed by. But over the past year, Borya had taken great pains to make the facts of his new existence very clear to him: Reapers were to be observers, the fly on the wall, never drawing attention, never interacting and, most importantly, never interfering. That was just the way that the job worked, and if the job didn't work, the balance of everything was thrown off…

A jaunty, out-of-tune whistling hit his ears then, shaking him out of his thoughts. There was a man coming up the sidewalk on the other side of the road. He was unshaven and dirty looking, wearing a thick knit cap to hide his filthy hair, and seemed a bit too cocky for your average citizen out in Gotham this late. His hands were shoved down into the big, deep pockets of his cargo jacket, hiding - though not very well - the fact that he had several bags of white powder shoved into each of them.

He wandered to the corner that Tim had been watching so carefully and stood under the streetlamp. Tim checked his watch - 8:40. This had to be the guy, or at the very least, the reason that C. Nauck would be in the right place at the wrong time.

Tim took one last glance down Avenue C to make sure that his bike was still locked up safe - which it was - then pulled the ball cap he wore down over his eyes and crossed the street. "Nauck?"

"Hmm?" The dealer raised an eyebrow at him and smirked. "You lookin' for a gram, kid?"

"Maybe," Tim steppe into the light, but kept a bit of distance between them. "Are you Nauck? Somebody told me he was the guy to meet."

"Oh yeah? Which somebody?"

"Some suit," Tim shrugged, resisting the annoyed twitch that flowed through his body. He just wanted to get this over with already. "So, are you him or not?"

The man grinned. "Sure am. But you're gonna hafta hold on 'til I talk to…"

"Hey, Nauck!"

Shit

.

Five rather wild-looking teens wearing the same gang colors came pounding up the street in a pack. Time tried to back off and slink into the shadows, but he still wasn't quite used to hiding without his cape, and he got pulled into the mess as the gang surrounded Nauck. The drug dealer did a remarkably good job of hiding his fear from the teens, keeping his hands in his pockets the entire time. "Hello boys. What can I do for you today?"

"Don't give us that shit, you bastard!" The leader of the pinks snapped. "We've already gotten more than enough shit outta you!"

"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about…"

"Then how 'bout we remind yeh?" the thugs were suddenly armed with switchblade, box cutters, metal pipes… "That shit yeh sold us last week wasn't what yeh said it was. Our boss ain't to happy with yeh 'bout that."

Tim shifted just slightly, trying to reach out and brush Nauck's arm before any of the gang noticed him, but the drug dealer was yanked out of his reach by an insistent hand.

"I don't know what the issue is," Nauck said simply, and Tim was beginning to suspect that he had to be sampling his own product to stay that calm. "I gave you what you paid for."

"Paid for! You gave use fucking crushed aspirin in a fucking plastic bag!"

Nauck grinned at them - he was definitely tripping. "That's what you paid for, gentlemen."

"You son of a…!"

"If you have any complaints, I'm sure that my employer would be more than happy to address them," Nauck patted the arm that was holding him slightly aloft in a way that could almost be called chummy. "Just bring it up with Mr. Copplepot…"

"How 'bout you bring it up with me?"

Tim jumped at the familiar voice as though it had woken him from a nightmare, and the reaction put him just out of the range of attack as Nightwing dropped from a fire escape into the center of the bunch. In an instant, the gang turned their attention from Nauck to Nightwing, throwing the drug dealer into a wall in their haste to get their weapons on the costumed vigilante.

Tim pressed his back against the wall beside Nauck, forgetting about his reap for a moment. He was too caught up in watching Dick…Nightwing…Dick…move around and through the gangsters like some kind of ultra-violent ballet. It had been so long…too long… since he'd watched Dick move, since he'd been able to watch Dick move, and…and…

Shit, he wasn't even supposed to be here! He couldn't be here, not now, he wasn't supposed to be anywhere near Dick! He was dead, he couldn't go back, he shouldn't even be watching this…

It suddenly dawned on him that Nauck had gone deathly pale from the moment he hit the wall, which he was currently pressed flush against as though he couldn't support himself otherwise as he panted and wheezed. Sweat poured from his forehead and his breathing came in ragged, pained grunts that were getting shorter and more choked-off with each inhale.

Tim didn't know what the dealer was on at that moment, but he'd been a detective and a reaper long enough to know what it looked like when a drug took someone too far.

He reached out to Nauck, running his hand from the man's cheek, down his neck and across his shoulder. A familiar prickle of static chill ran up his arm as the soul slipped out of its shell. Nauck drew in one last wheezing, hacking breath as his eyes rolled back in his head, then he sank lifelessly to the ground.

Tim took a glance at his watch. It was 8:47 exactly.

In that same moment, he realized that the sounds of battle had come to a stop. He looked up to find Nightwing zip-strapping the last of the gangsters with an almost ruthless efficiency that didn't really suit him. The hero glanced up and gave Tim a kind of dark smile from behind his hair.

"You okay, kid?" he asked, but his eyes fell on Nauck before he'd gotten an answer. "Oh, hell. Is that guy…?"

Tim could suddenly hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears as adrenaline rushed into his veins. Dick, it was really Dick, right in front of him, but he couldn't be here, he wasn't supposed to be here, he…

"Hey, kid!" Nightwing shouted as the strange boy turned on his heels and bolted. "Hold on!"

Tim ran, ducking into the nearest ally and leaping for the fire escape. He couldn't stay here, he had to get away, and to get away, you went up. The rooftops were home, they were his territory, their territory, flying open and free, and suddenly he was there again, in the air, his feet pounding against the heavy tarpaper of the rooftop.

"Kid!" Nightwing shouted again from just behind him. "Kid, wait…!"

There, the edge of the roof, Tim could make that jump in his sleep. He pushed some extra force into his legs, upping his speed and throwing himself forward until…

A pair of gloved hands wrapped around his waist at the last moment, dragging him back and down. The touch brought Tim back to himself - god, it felt so familiar! - and the feeling of skin being torn from his palm, yet instantly healed, brought the rest of him down, too.

Tim knelt on the roof, Nightwing's arms still around his waist, and forced himself to slow down. Breathe. In and out. Nice and slow. Focus. Concentrate. Don't lose yourself. Don't lose cover…

"Jesus, kid," Dick gasped in his ear, sounding frustrated and exhilarated at the same time. "Scared the hell out of me there. I thought I was gonna be scraping you off the pavement."

Tim forced the little grin to stay internal, letting out a long, measured breath. "S-Sorry. I just got a little…freaked, is all."

"I hear you," Nightwing chuckled, and Tim could feel the smile. "Fight or flight is a natural instinct. You were just following your inner jackrabbit."

The vigilante untangled himself from the smaller boy, but remained in a low crouch. He rocked back on his heels, brushing hair back out of his eyes with a boyish little, pained grin. "You okay now?"

"Yeah…" Tim sat up and folded his legs Indian-style, taking care to show just the right amount of exhaustion. "I'm just fine, considering…"

"Yeah, that was pretty nuts," Nightwing grinned again, and Tim had to fight down the urge to tease him about getting out of shape. "You got a name?"

You know my name…

"David."

"Nice to meet'cha," Nightwing stood and offered him assistance for the same. "So, what were you doing down there, David?"

Tim shrugged, exaggerating how casual the motion was, and ignored the hand to climb to his feet himself. "Just looking for a fix. Thought the guy could help."

Nightwing scrutinized him. "You don't look like much of a junkie."

"Figured I'd give it a try," another shrugged and he scuffed the toe of his shoe against the ground. "You know…first time for everything."

"Not for this," Nightwing crossed his arms over his chest seriously. "Trust me, kid, you want to skip this first run-around. It's not a world you want to get too far into."

Tim forced out a humorless little chuckle. "Yeah, I kinda figured that when the switch blades came out."

"At least something came out of it," Nightwing grinned again, and the darkness it held in place of its former light made Tim want to scream. "Can you get home okay?"

"Sure I can," Tim forced a smirk into place, and it really hurt. "After all that, what could happen?"

Nightwing shook his head with a clicking noise, thinking the boy was too cocky for his own good, but pulled a grapple out of his belt anyway and moved to the edge of the roof. "Okay then. Take care of yourself."

Tim wanted to say, "You too," but the words died in his throat. He watched until Nightwing was little more than a gleaming black spot fading into the dull Gotham grey, before he finally found the discipline to tear his eyes away and climb back down the same fire escape.

C. Nauck was waiting for him in the alley, looking very confused as he tried, repeatedly, to grip the bar of the ladder, only to have his hand pass through it again and again. He blinked at Tim, and his hazel eyes were crystal clear without the drugs to cloud them over. "Hey…kid. Am I like, dead?"

"'Fraid so," Tim glanced at the body still sagging against the wall. "Sorry."

Nauck stared at him again, then blinked at the body as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He probably couldn't. "Are you just gonna leave me there?"

"Yeah, but not for too long. The police are already on their way for the punks."

"Oh, man," Nauck reeled a bit, giving Tim the chance to grab his ghostly arm and lead him away. "That's…That's really messed up, kid."

Tim sighed, his mid shifting again to the graceful black as it flew over the foggy grey. The spot he should have been following, chasing, helping…

"You're telling me…c'mon, let's get you where you're going…"

( - )

By the time Dick finally came in from patrol, Cass and Bruce had already been home for at least the previous hour. He could tell because Bruce's mug of cocoa, which had been prepared by Alfred but pointedly ignored like most of the rest of the nights in Bruce's life, was still a few degrees above room temperature.

Dick took a moment to fill out a couple of reports on the computers - noting, with mixed feelings, that Bruce was actively tracking Jason's activities, which probably meant he was going to engage him again soon - before he headed upstairs. As promised, he checked in on Cass, who had waited up like a good little sister just to make sure that big brother got in okay. He wished her a good night, then did the same for Alfred, and decided it was wiser to just forget Bruce existed for a while before he finally retired to his room.

He stayed up for another hour after that, pretending to meditate even though he was really listening to everyone else as they settled in for the night. He took extra care to make sure that Bruce had finally settled down for the last time before he moved again - this time, to the desk that had been sitting next to the window in this very room since he'd been in elementary school.

Dick loved his family, he really did. The bonds that he, Bruce and Cassandra had reformed and solidified during their pilgrimage together were things that he wouldn't trade for the world. But there were some things - some rituals - that he just had to do alone.

He opened the bottom drawer of the desk and flipped the secret latch at the very back. The bottom of the drawer popped open, revealing its hidden contents - a simple wooden box that appeared, at first glance, to have been made to hold cigars, until you realized that its intricate carvings were meant to hide things infinitely more precious.

Dick set the box on his desk, resting both of his hands on the lid just to feel the familiar wood beneath his fingers. He took a few deep breaths, listening to the silence just a moment longer before he finally opened the lid.

His fingers searched through the contents, pulling them out each precious piece at the time and setting them in an orderly line on the tabletop: A five-inch scrap of yellow and black cloth. A miniature glass Zesti bottle that had been carefully washed out and saved. Several photographs of varying ages. A bird carved in stone. A mask.

Dick paused when he got to the mask, lifting it out with both hands. The green plastic of the little domino was slightly melted and distorted, its once-white lenses singed black, and it still smelled faintly of blood and smoke and burning flesh…

Dick finally let his eyes fill with his tears as he pulled the mask in closer, holding it against one cheek as he spoke oh-so-very softly. "Hey there, little bro…"

"I know it's been a while since we've talked, but I…well, you probably already know what we've been up to. It was good - the trip, I mean. It was good for Cass, and for Bruce and…for all of us.

"Anyway, Gotham didn't fall apart without us, which is saying something good…I guess. We went out tonight. The first time since…you know. But it just wasn't the same…It wasn't quite right without you.

"You should have been there too, Tim. But you weren't. You can't be. And I am so, so sorry…"

( - )

He shouldn't be here.

He knows that he shouldn't be here, that he doesn't belong anymore. He knows how badly things have gone wrong, how absolutely absurd it is for him to want this. He knows that nothing good can come out of this, that it won't change anything.

He knows all of that. But he's still here.

Here, hiding in the boughs of an ancient oak that has grown alongside the Wayne Manor for generations, peaking into the windows of a home he doesn't belong in anymore. He pulls his knees in and holds them close, as thought curling into the tightest ball will somehow hide him from the wrongness of his being here, and watches.

He watches as Dick pulls the objects from their hiding place one by one, memories both bitter and sweet flickering across his face. Reads Dick's lips to understand the words spoken to the mask - no, through the mask, to him, but not really, because he can't hear them. Sees as tears drift silently from blue eyes down dark cheeks - god, Dick is crying, after all this time - and he never even notices the tears in his own eyes until its too late to stop their flow.

When Dick finally stops talking, praying, apologizing, he puts the mask to his lips and kisses it, whispering a loving goodnight. Then it goes back into the box with everything else and Dick hides it all away again. He dries his eyes and finally climbs into bed, never even looking to the window as he turns out the lights and unknowingly leaves Tim alone in the dark.

The shadows seem to twist around Tim, melding together with his memories to taunt him, remind him why…why…

He sees the ruins of a once-great city, set aflame as dozens of figures dart across it like warring ants. Sees Deathstroke on the ground, defeated, with Batman and Nightwing standing over him in a victory without triumph. Sees the villain that they did not, floating above the battle and leveling his strange, unearthly weapon at Nightwing's unsuspecting back. Sees himself shout a voiceless warning, push in front of the blast, burn, fall…

Tim sees it all, over and over again, and it never gets any easier. Nothing ever gets any easier.

He stays where he is until first light, just watching his brother - his precious, loving, heroic big brother - sleep. It takes the ringing bell of the paperboy on his bike to stir him from his vigil, climbing down from the tree and trekking back down the driveway to unchain his bike from the Manor gates.

For a moment, he considers lingering long enough to be caught by Alfred as the old butler tends to his morning rounds, but quickly dismisses the idea. It's a long ride to the Diner from here, and he's late enough as it is.