Knowing, Watching, Late was technically supposed to be a one-shot, and this is technically supposed to be its sequel. However, since it is much easier for me to just keep everything in this little universe together for the sake of , I've decided to do just that. Hope you enjoy the next installment.
Disclaimer: I own nothing even vaguely related to DC Comics or Dead Like Me, and you can pretty much bet that it's going to stay that way. Enjoy the show.
Seeing Through The Void
Tim leaned against an old, moss-covered brick wall, his hands buried deep in his pockets, chewing away on a stick of bubble gum. The nauseating pure sweetness of the slimy pink mess made his stomach twist, and every bite reminded him just why he really didn't like the stuff, but the idea of smoking appealed even less and he needed something to keep up his causal cover.
Manipulating the gum with his tongue, he was just starting to blow a small bubble when a perky, far-too-cheerful voice interrupted him. "Timmy! Oh, Timmy, just look at this!"
Tim sighed and turned his head to glance, without much interest, at the rather hideous pink-and-purple sundress that his partner was gushing over. Lia had her hands clasped in front of her face, hardly able to contain her excitement as she cooed over the horrible, shapeless thing on display in the designer boutique window. "Isn't it just fab? Oh, it would go perfectly with that amazing scarf I bought last week!"
Tim narrowed his eyes over the pink bubble in his mouth, hoping to seem, for all intents and purposes, absolutely disinterested, because that's exactly what he was. He did feel the slight urge to point out that (a) there was no way in hell that a scarf would be the proper accessory for a sundress of all things, and (b) it was the middle of October, so Lia wouldn't be able to wear the darn thing even if she bought it. But he knew that starting a conversation would only encourage her more, so he kept quiet.
"Oh, I just knew you'd agree, Timmy," Lia sighed, clutching her hands together and leaning her cheek against her knuckles. "I'll have to come by and pick it up next week, after my paycheck comes in."
Tim made a non-committal noise and blew a little more air into the bubble, letting it pop without too much mess and drawing the entire mess back into his mouth. Lia gave him a somewhat sickened look as she leaned against the wall next to him. "That's a such nasty habit, you know."
"Better than smoking," Tim responded, moving the gum around with his tongue. "Least gum doesn't stink."
Lia hummed the same non-committal hum that Tim had given her before. She pulled a pair of rose-tinted sunglasses out of her purse and slipped them on. She surveyed the busy row of small, individually-owned shops the same way that she might have surveyed a display of sensible shoes. "So…where do you think this is gonna go down?"
Tim glanced at the two yellow slips of paper he had palmed in his left hand, identical to Lia's in date and time but differing in the names. "Robbery."
"And a shoot-out with the police. That's rather obvious," Lia nodded, pushing her glasses down to peer over them meaningfully. "But where is it all going to start? Certainly not that trashy little antique shop. I bet the art gallery's the target."
"No way. They've got Monroe on display," Tim wrinkled his nose. "He's a local artist, not even that well-known in Gotham, and I doubt they could even convince someone to steal one of his paintings."
Lia shrugged, indicating that she had to agree he was right but sure as hell wasn't going to say that out loud. "So, where then? That cute little coffee shop?"
"Too mundane, unless they're planning on taking hostages."
"Oooh, a hostage situation might be fun. What about those designer boutiques?"
"When was the last time you reaped a criminal who knew the first thing about fashion?"
"Point taken." Lia hummed to herself again and brushed a lock of bleached-blonde hair out of her face with a little shake that made two passing men stop and stare. "So, we're up in the air, then?"
"Looks like it," Tim sighed, and blew another lazy bubble. A group of teenage girls, most of them pretty and all of them in school uniforms, giggled at him as they walked past. He slipped a bit of hair down to cover one eye and hide them from his view, which only made them all giggle more.
Lia grinned. "Looks like you're pretty popular, Timmy. Did you get that many sweethearts when you were alive?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Tim muttered sourly, checking his watch. "We've got two minutes."
"Oh, foo," Lia pouted. "And we still haven't found a single lead. What do you think is keeping the little…"
The piercing howl of excitement echoed through the little market street, accompanied by the roar of motorcycle engines that were not very well maintained. Seconds later, three dirty-looking Hell's Angels in dirty, stained leather jackets came roaring around the corner, scattering the crowds of pedestrians in all directions in their wake. None of them were wearing helmets.
"Yeah, you just try to catch us, coppers!" One of them hooted, looking behind him at the police car struggling not to hit any of the passerby. "There's no way you're taking us in, not in a million years!"
While the crowd rushed back from the road, Tim and Lia stepped to the edge of the sidewalk. As the bikers shot past, they stuck out their hands and touched their targets – Tim reaping the first and third biker, Lia catching the one in the middle – for the briefest of seconds.
Moments later, the front wheel of the second bike suddenly exploded, sending the bike skidding off in one direction as its rider flew forward. He crashed, head-first, into the leader of the pack, knocking them both off the bikes head-firsts and ripping the exposed fuel line off of the bike. The entire mess – two broken bikes and their two broken riders – flew crashed into an old-fashioned fruit cart, which toppled over and promptly burst into flames.
The third biker panicked wildly at the sight of his dead cohorts, veered to the right and disappeared down a short, cramped alleyway that ended in an abrupt, appropriately-titled dead end.
The once-quiet street was now full of putrid black smoke and frantic passerby half-crazed with fear. Tim wrinkled his nose and spat out his gum, sticking out his tongue in a futile attempt to get the taste of soot and burning flesh out of his mouth. He wrapped the now-putrid piece of pink mess in a tissue and tossed it in the nearest trash can with a grimace. "Bleh."
"I told you it was a nasty habit," Lisa said, making a light tch-tch sound with her tongue. From the alley, a crash and a few window-shattering explosions echoed through the air, followed by the strangled final gasps of someone who didn't have a prayer. "And that would be that. I'll go fetch the stragglers. You wait here, okie-dokie?"
"Sure," Tim nodded, and Lia flitted away.
Tim sighed to himself, slipping a new piece of gum into his mouth and taking a glance around at the gathered crowd. His trained peace-keeper's eye made note of all the possible dangers and civilian injuries. The crowd was mostly unharmed, though obviously sickened by what they had just witnessed, and a few unlucky asthmatics were suffering from the smoke, but it all seemed to be under control. There was nothing for him to worry about…
He choked, nearly swallowing the not-quite-chewed stick of gum, and forced himself not to turn around. A second later, a small hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around anyway, the voice attached to it gasping. "Oh my god, is it really…? It is you! Tim!"
Tim swallowed his gum, ignoring the way that it stuck to and pulled at the skin of his throat. He was too occupied with the sight of Greta Hayes – her blonde hair pushed back out of her eyes by a black velvet headband, which matched her grey-and-white Elias Girls' School uniform – holding onto his arms with both hands and staring up at him with big, familiar, knowing blue eyes.
"Oh my god," she gasped again, eh voice shaking with each word as though she couldn't believe that what she was saying was true. "It really is you…my god, Tim! Tim!"
No. No, no, this couldn't be happening, this was wrong…
Tim found that his voice had completely abandoned him, leaving him gasping at the girl like a fish pulled fresh from the barrel. He took a step back, rather stupidly trying to tug his arm out of her grip, and floundered for any spare syllables that he could find. "Ah…I…ah, er…"
Greta frowned at him, her lips pouting cutely and her forehead creasing into the same little wrinkle it had always formed when she was confused about something. It was almost funny-looking on her now – after all, they weren't in the awkward not-cute, not-pretty, just plain weird teenage years anymore – but it did make Tim's heart jump straight up into his sinus cavity. "Tim, what's the matter with you? What are you doing here, and why are you?"
Tim's heart dropped out of his mouth, bounced off the bottom of his stomach and rubber-banded back into its proper place. Cissie King-Jones – also in her school uniform, with her hair swept up into a glamorous pony tail – came rushing around the corner. "Greta, there you are! What on earth…"
"Cissie, look!" Greta gasped, yanking Tim back the step he had taken. "It's Tim!"
Cissie stopped and frowned, her eyes narrowing in confusion. Tim swallowed heavily as she scrutinized his every feature, as though she were trying to remember where on earth she had seen him before. "Tim…?"
"Tim Drake! Our friend!" Greta insisted, turning her eyes back to Tim's face with unrestricted adoration. "Our Robin. Cis, it's really him, he's back…"
Tim swallowed hard again, the small bubble of air scraping painfully against his sand-paper dry throat. His eyes darted around, desperate for something else to look at, and landed on the display window of the electronics store. The television still reflected David's face back to him, now with Greta hanging on to David's arm. The spell, or whatever it was that kept Reapers hidden, was still in place. So why was this happening…?
Cissie's face softened into an expression of understanding. "Greta…" She sighed, reaching out to carefully pull the girl's hands from Tim's arm. "Come on, you're just freaked out. It's been a long day, let's go back to the hotel and relax…"
"But Cissie!" Greta insisted, struggling against her friend's grip. "It's really him! It's Tim! Aren't you happy to see him?"
"Greta, Tim is…gone. You know that."
"But…But he's right here," Greta twisted out of Cissie's gasp, as though she were once more made of smoke, and turned her wide, pleading eyes to Tim again. "Tim…tell her."
Tim swallowed heavily for a third time and felt his gum sloshing around in the pit of his stomach. "I…I'm sorry, b-but you've got the wrong person…"
Greta's face fell as though someone had just told her that her puppy had died. Cissie sighed again, placing a hand on her friend's shoulder and looking to Tim with an apologetic shrug. "I'm so sorry about this. I don't know what's gotten into her."
"Eh…no problem," Tim shrugged back, forcing a grin. "When stuff like…that accident…happens, you can't really expect everyone to act normally, you know?"
The hurt, almost betrayed, expression that flickered over Greta's face in that moment yanked at Tim's heart more than his carefully-constructed mask was willing to show. He hated causing this kind of pain to his friends, hate this hiding, this lying…
"All righty then, all done! Now we just have to ship these fellas off to…oh," Lia stopped in mid-sentence, blinking at the two strange blonde girls with a baffled expression. She recovered quickly, like the star that she was, and tossed her own blonde mane over her shoulder with a bright little giggle. "My my, David, aren't you popular? Who are your friends?"
"Oh, we're not really friends," Cissie corrected in a hurry, gripping Greta's shoulder with one hand and rubbing her head with the other. She was grinning awkwardly, the same way that she had when she had accidentally walked in on Cissie and Kon, or Anita and Lobo. "We're really sorry to bother you."
"Not at all, dear," Lia said with another cute giggle, looping her arm around Tim's shoulders. "I think you'd better be heading back to your group now. Looks like your teacher's starting to get a little worried."
"Right, right," Cissie nodded several times and started to pull her friend back to the field trip group. "C'mon, Greta…let's go."
Greta, who was still glaring in Tim's direction with a smoldering, hurt expression, allowed herself to be led away without a fight. Tim felt another pang of guilt hit him right in the heart as they disappeared from sight.
"Well," Lia sighed, lifting her arm from Tim's shoulders. "That was certainly odd. Do you know those girls, Timmy?"
"…I used to."
Lia raised one slim eyebrow, but didn't say another word. Tim started after the two girls with a distant, pensive expression, before sighing and moving away to take care of the souls that they had gathered.
( - )
Timmy was distracted.
Lia was not, in general, a very observant person, but even she could pick that up. Normally, Tim's natural leader instincts would have come to the forefront immediately, and he would have herded their gathered souls to their Light in the same manner as a kindly sheepdog. This time, he trailed along behind her in a daze and only barely responded to anything that either she or the spirits said.
After that job had been taken care of, the two of them had driven back to the Diner in Lia's shiny red sports car with three words being spoken between them. Now they were waiting in the Reaper's usual booth in the same state of total silence. The only noise was that of ice clinking against the glass of Tim's soda as he stirred it idly with his straw. Lia was starting to lose her patience.
"Hellooooo," she called, clearing her throat several times and waving a hand in front of his eyes. "Earth to Timmy."
Tim just ignored her, shifting the weight of his head against his hand, and began to stir counter-clockwise.
Lia huffed and sank back in her booth, pouting. There was a rumble outside the window as Tris's motorcycle – a refurbished classic that seemed to be made of nothing but smooth black and chrome – pulled up into her usual space. A few minutes later, Tris herself appearance in the diner, pulling her helmet off and shaking out her short red hair. She glanced at Tim and raised her eyebrow curiously. "What's with him?"
"I have no idea," Lia sniffed, tossing a section of bangs back over the top of her head irritably. "We went out to lunch, saw some amazing deals, reaped a couple of troublemakers on motorbikes and had a lovely chat with a couple of Catholic school girls. Next thing I know, he's acting all mopey."
Tim moved his eyes, but not his head, to glare at her sullenly. "They weren't Catholic."
"What's this about Catholics?" Borya asked, appearing at Tris's side with Tengu only a few steps behind. Tim was starting to wonder if Tengu actually had a mode of transportation of his own, or if her just tagged along wherever Borya's shiny black Bentley went.
"We weren't talking about Catholics, Borya," said Lia flippantly. "Just school girls. You know, the kind in those cute little uniforms with lots of blue plaid to tie it all together?"
Borya raised one bushy black eyebrow in an expression that looked remarkably like Bruce Wayne on a bad day. "And…why, exactly, where you speaking of school girls?"
"Because Timmy's made some new friends!" Lia beamed, a tiny spark in the depths of her blue eyes indicating her own malicious intent of getting back at Tim for ignoring her. "Isn't that right, Timmy?"
Tim stopped stirring his soda and glowered at Lia with the most well-developed Bat Glower that he could muster. Lia just smiled at him, because by now Borya had turned his attention to the youngest reaper and was scrutinizing his every move. "What kind of 'friends'?"
"They're not 'friends,'" Tim muttered, spitting out the lie like it tasted foul and averting his eyes to the window once again. "They were just some girls freaked out by the accident. One of them confused me for somebody else."
"They got'cha awfully hot and bothered, though," Lia cooed with the same kind of fake sweetness created by artificial sugar substitute. "Does little Timmy have a fetish?"
"Auw, leave the kiddo alone," Tris retorted, slamming her helmet on the tabletop and sliding into the booth to sling one arm around Tim's shoulders. "He's a healthy, undead teenager after all. He probably thought they were cute."
Tim's scowl deepened, but he couldn't see the point in arguing with someone who was essentially standing up for him, so he kept quiet.
"But it's just so cute to see him all flustered…"
"That's enough of that," Borya cut Lia off, sending the young woman into another of her superstar pouts but effectively ending the conversation-that-wasn't without a fight. "We've got a lot of business to attend to."
"Already?" Tris groaned, banging her head on the seat behind her. "Borya, I haven't even eaten yet!"
"Don't you want to sit down, Ten?" Tim asked the only Reaper who was left standing.
Tengu shook his head once with a single, "Uun," and continued to stand stock-still at the end of the table. Tim was reminded, of the guard at the head of a president's coffin after an assassination. It was morbidly appropriate.
Borya flipped open his planner with one hand and started going through his post-its. One was slapped unceremoniously in front of both Lia and Tris, the latter of whom growled low in her throat like a rabid wolf. Three were tossed in Tengu's direction, who caught them easily and disappeared without another word. Borya himself pocketed the last one, leaving Tim with nothing.
Tim raised an eyebrow – long weekends were always busy for them ,especially in Gotham, and nights were always the worst. "No job?"
"Not for you," Borya quipped, motioning for the waitress to hurry up with his usual ultra-black coffee.
"I'll give you my job, if you really want one," Tris said, holding out her post-it with a hopeful expression.
Borya smack the hand that she had resting against the table. "No trading."
"Besides," Tim stole a glance at the hand-written address. "I couldn't get in there. That's a 21-and-up-only swinger's club. "
Tris groaned again, messaging her temples. "God, this is gonna be such a headache…Burger, and a big one, with extra cheese and chili, cooked as rare as you can get it legally."
The waitress jotted down the order with a series of understanding nods, glancing to Tim, who still had his menu but hadn't ordered past his beverage. "Figured out what you want, sugar?"
"Yeah: Nothing," Tim sighed, handing the menu over. "Thanks, but I've decided not to stay. Tris, let me out."
"Hell no," Tris retorted. "Where the hell are you going?"
"Out," Tim insisted, and suddenly slipped down under the table. Next thing and of the others knew, he had rolled out from between their feet and popped up where Tengu had been standing minutes before. "Borya, you sure you don't need me tonight?"
"Ja," the man nodded, sipping his too-thick, bottom-of-the-pot coffee with an edge of satisfaction.
"Good. I'm out of here."
With that, Tim turned on his heels and exited the dinner at a rapid stride, disappearing from sight before anyone at the booth could stop him.
He stepped out the front door with a light sigh of relief, only to find Tengu standing beside his bike. Tim had left the rickety, second-hand thing chained out front of the diner this morning, because he knew that it was the one place he was bound to come back to eventually. Tengu was standing in front of the bike rack, staring down at Tim's bike with a pointedly black expression, as though he had never seen such a device in his life.
Too tired to think and too exasperated to really care, Tim reached for his bike lock with another heavy sigh. "Hey, Ten. What's up?"
Tengu looked at Tim with dark brown eyes that somehow managed to be remarkably bright, especially when they were wide and blinking the way that they were now. Though the eyes themselves were rather small, the irises were especially large and, when situated at the top of Tengu's rather long nose, gave him the appearance of a vicious bird.
"Looks like you've got a handful tonight," Tim continued breezily, nodding to the three post-its that Tengu was still holding in one hand. "Another gang fight, I bet."
Tengu blinked and nodded once, to indicate that he concurred. Tim finally got the third-hand lock to come loose. He pocketed it and pulled his bike loose so he could mount it. "Well, I better get going. Catch you later, Ten."
Tim hit the brakes so hard that his wheels shrieked, even though he'd only been able to push it for one full pedal. He turned around, more than a little surprised – Tengu had never called him by name before, not ever, not in the entire year that they'd been working together – and responded slowly. "Yeah…?"
Tengu blinked once, twice. Then he pushed a smile onto his face so slowly that it almost looked like it hurt and lifted one hand in a simple awkward wave. "Ki o tsukute….take care."
Tim smiled back, just as awkwardly, and returned the wave. "Yeah. You too, Ten."
Finally, he kicked off the ground and pedaled away from the Diner as fast as he could. Talking with Tengu, he decided, was more than a little like interacting with Cass. And, like Cass, Tim couldn't help the sneaking suspicion that Tengu really knew more than he was letting on…
( - )
Cissie King-Jones was at the end of her rope.
She loved Greta dearly, she really did. She would never have considered rooming with anyone else in the entire school. Greta was like a sister to her, and Cissie absolutely adored her.
But there were some times when Cissie really wondered whether all of Greta Hayes had made it back from the Void that had been The Secret. Tonight was one of those nights.
"Greta, c'mon…" Cissie sighed, poking at the disgruntled form that was lying over the overstuffed hotel bed. "It's almost time for dinner. Stop pouting."
"No," Greta mumbled contrarily, the sound muffled by the pillow she held over her head.
Cissie sighed again, for what felt like the hundredth time that evening. "It's not going to be any fun without you."
"You don't want me to come," Greta said accusatorily. "You think I'm crazy."
"I do not," Cissie smirked slightly and squeezed her friend's ankle. "I'd never think that about you."
It was true. Cissie knew better than anyone else in school just not crazy Greta really was. The thing was, her time connected to the Void had left Greta just a little…well, odd. She was quite sensitive to the environment around her, and sometimes, she seemed to speak to things that weren't actually there. But she wasn't crazy. Cissie knew crazy, and Greta wasn't it.
Greta sighed and lifted the pillow away from her head, looking up at Cissie with a defined pout. "I know it was Tim, Cissie. I'd know him anywhere."
Cissie sighed, one more time, and decided that it wasn't worth arguing about. "Whatever you say, Grets."
She rose deliberately and crossed the room to the mirror, checking her hair and uniform to make sure that everything was in place. He stomach growled and she frowned down at it in annoyance. "Well, I'm going down to dinner. You sure you don't want to come, Greta?"
"I'm sure," Greta said in a small voice, curling around her pillow like a child around a teddy bear. "You go ahead, Cissie. All I want right now is a bath and some sleep."
Cissie nodded, glad that her friend was finally out of her pout. "Okay, I'll bring you up something, okay? Have a nice bath."
With that – and another uncomfortable growl from the archer's stomach – Cissie grabbed her key and disappeared into the hotel hall.
Once her footsteps had disappeared, Greta uncurled from her fetal position and scowled at the door. Cissie didn't believe her. She was being nice about it, but she didn't believe that Greta saw Tim. Not just saw, but touched and talked to Tim, hearing his voice and even getting a whiff of his favorite cologne. Cissie probably thought that she was having a panic reaction because of that awful accident they'd seen. How else would you explain talking to a dead friend that no one else could see?
Greta wasn't stupid. She knew that Tim had died. She had been at his funeral, she had accompanied his coffin to the grave and left him flowers on special days just like he would have wanted.
But she also knew that, in the world that they lived in, death didn't have to be the end. She herself was living (formerly deceased) proof of that. More so, she had once been connected to The Void itself, and thus, she understood the nature of Life and Death better than just about anyone.
Dead or not, she had seen Tim at the scene of that accident. She knew that she had, and, if no one was going to believe her, then she was going to prove it.
Finding her resolve, she threw off her covers and tossed the pillow to the ground, diving for her shoes. As an afterthought, she pulled her hair back into two pigtails to keep it out of her eyes, and dug a windbreaker out of her suitcase. Buttoning up as warm as she could, she opened the window and clambered out onto the fire escape.
For a moment, she paused on the rickety motel platform, gripping the rusty railings and gazing down at the dark, dirty streets. A cold wind blew through, chilling her to the bone and, for a moment, she doubted her previous conviction. But Tim was out there. She knew that he was, and that knowledge gave her the strength she needed to crawl down the fire escape and disappearing into the Gotham night.
( - )
When Cissie returned two hours later to find Greta missing and their bedroom window open to the cold, dangerous Gotham night, she panicked.
Her first instinct was to call Greta's cell phone, which answered her cheerfully from Greta's backpack, which rested at the foot of her bed. Then Cissie went to the teachers, who called the police, only to be put on hold as the constantly overwhelmed department scrambled to get control over nightly insanity. Finally, with no one else to turn to, Cissie dug through her suitcase until she found the small, white keychain that she carried with her at all times and pressed the small, red button that decorated its surface.
Batman, Nightwing and Batgirl were in the Batcave gearing up for a usual night of patrol when Oracle suddenly sent a call through their private transmission band. Bruce immediately moved to the computer and struck just the right key to answer the 'call.' "What is it, Barbara?"
"We've got a minor emergency in your neck of the woods," Barbara Gordon reported, not bothering to digitally mask her voice when speaking with family. "You remember Cissie King-Jones?"
Cass's head shot up. "Friend of Tim."
"Exactly," Barbara continued. "Used to go by the codename Arrowette and, though she retired quite a while ago, she still carries an emergency communicator with her just in case. Her class at Elias Girls' Academy is in Gotham for a field trip, and one of her classmates seems to have disappeared – Greta Hayes."
"The Secret," Nightwing nodded, remembering well the cute little blonde girl who had been so fond of his little brother. "Tell Cissie not to worry. We'll find her."
Bruce gave Dick a Look that indicated he was not particularly happy with that arrangement –sacrificing a night of city-wide protection for the sake of one little girl – but he didn't voice any complaints, so Dick took it as permission granted.
"There's one more thing," Oracle said slowly, as though uncertain whether she really wanted to bring this up. "Cissie said that Greta has been acting very strangely in the last few days."
"Their class happened to be at the scene of an accident today…and Greta claimed that she saw Tim there."
Dick froze, fumbling over the wing-ding in his hands until it clattered to the floor.
"Greta was quite fond of Tim, back when they were all in Young Justice," Oracle continued, as always the voice of reason in an otherwise insane existence. "It's possible that witnessing that violent accident caused her to have a minor psychotic break. Either way, Cissie's sure that Greta went out after…whatever or whoever it was that she saw."
Dick crouched down to pick up his dropped wing-ding, taking a deep breath to steady himself as he did. "I…I see. Anything else, Oracle?"
"Just the bare-bones data about her disappearance," Babs sighed. "I can just e-mail you that, if you like."
"Do it. I'll take care of this," Dick nodded a goodbye to the screen and headed for his bike, grabbing his mask and his hand-held computer as he went.
Cass followed him with her eyes, reaching for her mask as well. "I'll go too."
"No," Dick shook his head and waved her away. "I've got it, Cass. There's no reason for you to skip your patrol."
Cass frowned at him and pulled her mask on with both hands. "I want to."
"Then join him after you finish your patrol," Bruce interrupted, stepping in to place a hand on Cass's comparatively smaller shoulder. Dick smirked slightly at the sight of Bruce acting like a father, of all things, and barely managed to wipe it clean before Bruce's eyes turned to him. "Sound reasonable, Dick?"
"Whatever you say, Bruce," Dick grinned a little wider and jumped onto his bike with one swift leap. "You don't have to worry, though. I'll bring that girl back, no problem!"
With one last nod from Bruce, Nightwing slipped on his helmet and sped out of the Batcave, pointedly ignoring the squirming feeling in the pit of his stomach, which was what Cass was undoubtedly reading from him even as he disappeared from sight.
( - )
Tim sighed, leaning back against the brick stairwell and taking a large sip of the convenience-store hot chocolate he had brought with him. Even after all this time, there was just something about the cold, vacant Gotham rooftops that relaxed him. It was like coming home after a long, stressful day and unwinding with a good book or a favorite TV program. It finally gave him a chance to cool down, to clear out the clutter of that days' thoughts and finally figure out just which issues he wanted to deal with.
Like that thing this afternoon with Greta. Greta, Greta, Greta.
Tim sighed heavily and popped the plastic top off his drink, letting the cooling steam tickle his face. Now that he stopped to really consider it, maybe it wasn't that unexpected that Greta, of all people, could see through his little 'Reaper disguise.' After all, she had been dead once – hell, she was dead for most of the time that Tim knew her. If the other Reapers could see Tim Drake instead of David Cross, then it made an odd sort of sense that the former Secret should be able to do the same.
And, when he thought about it that way, then there really wasn't any reason to worry about whether Greta knew he was around or not. After all, Greta was a smart girl, she knew how to keep a secret, and really, if she ever told anyone, who would believe her?
Somehow, though, Tim didn't think that Borya would see it that way if he ever figured out all the details. Still, it wasn't like Tim was actually going to see Greta again, so there really wasn't anything to worry about, even that excuse made something slimy and uncertain come to life in the depths of his gut…
"Ew! Get away from me! Get away!"
Tim sat straight up at the familiar voice, not noticing how the hot drink splashed over his hand. The burn that it left behind quickly healed as he scrambled to the edge of the roof, gazing down into the alley far below.
Greta Hayes was being herded back into the cramped, dirty dead end by a group of five thugs, all bearing the same insignia of the Crystal Dragons – not the largest gang in Gotham, but certainly one of the most dangerous, especially given their habit to have all active members constantly doped up on crystal meth.
"I…I'm warning you creeps, I play a lot of soccer!" Greta sputtered, backing up against the brick wall and trying to hide the fact that she was shaking from head to toe. "S-So I know how to kick!"
The Dragon leader – a fellow with a neon purple spiked Mohawk and two piercings in both his lip and nose – giggled a high-pitched giggle that reminded Tim of the Joker on helium and slunk forward. "C'mon, honey, we're not gonna hurt yeh too bad. We just wanna have a little fun, right boys?"
The other gang members snickered in their own demented ways and closed the gaps in their circle, pressing Greta back against the dead end and almost completely blocking her from view. Before her face disappeared, the girl let out one last shriek, in the hope that someone would hear her.
And, luckily for her, someone did.
Tim jumped from the building at his first instinct, leaping down the fire escape with all the agility of a cat stalking its prey. On the last level, he grabbed the ladder and slammed it down with both feet, bringing it down directly on top of one of the Dragon's heads.
The Dragon crumpled, his teammates turning to blink at the sight in confusion. In the next moment, Tim swung around the ladder with a furious kick, knocking most of the remaining four prone and tossing all of them away from their intended victim.
Greta gasped, holding her jacket closed with one hand, and stared at him with those same wide, knowing eyes as that afternoon. "Tim…"
"Come on," Tim insisted, grabbing her by the wrist. "We need to move, now!"
Greta's old instincts took hold and she leapt up the ladder after her old friend. When the Dragons came around moments later, both of the teenagers had disappeared from sight.
( - )
Three frantic rooftop leaps and one slide down an abandoned clothesline later, Tim and Greta sank to the tarpaper surface of an old warehouse rooftop, taking the moment to catch their breaths. The rooftop was dirty and disgusting and most likely dangerous, with broken bottles and half-smoked joints from the local 'crawls' scattered everywhere, but it was far from any sign of Crystal Dragons, and that was good enough for them.
Tim sucked in a few large, heavy breaths, forcing himself to release them all slowly, and grinned in spite of his screaming muscles. "That…was close."
Greta giggled. "That is the corniest line I've ever heard you say."
"Oh please," Tim smirked, pressing the palm of his hand against his forehead and pushing his sweat-soaked bangs away. "I used to be so much worse back when we had Kon and Bart around…"
He stopped short in mid-sentence, realizing the enormity of everything he'd just admitted. Slowly, he pulled the hand away from his forehead and looked to Greta with on hesitant eye. Greta was looking back at him with a gaze of wonder, shock and unbridled joy. "So it is you!"
"I knew it was you! Oh, Tim!" Greta threw her arms around his shoulders and buried her face in his neck, only barely suppressing the joyful tears that splashed from her eyes. "God, Tim, it's been so long…I missed you so much…"
Despite himself, Tim smiled slowly and wrapped his arms around her as well. It felt so nice to finally touch one of his friends, finally hold them like this.... "I've missed you too, Greta. Believe me."
"This is just so great!" Greta gasped, sitting back up and rubbing at her eyes with a wide smile. "I can't believe you're back! Oh, just wait until we tell the others, Cissie and Cassie and Bart, they'll all be so happy…"
"Greta…" Tim swallowed heavily and felt it slide all the way into his stomach. "You can't tell anybody."
Greta, naturally enough, stared at him like he was crazy. "What are you talking about, Tim? We have to tell them! They have to know that you're alive!"
"I'm not alive, Greta…"
"Well, of course you are, you're standing right in front of me and-"
"Greta," Tim grabbed one of the broken bottles from the ground beside them and whipped it around before the girl could react. "Look!"
With one swift motion, he plunged the sharp glass into the back of his other hand with all the force he could muster. He might have done it a little too hard, as blood splashed out across the tarpaper, and Greta shrieked in horror.
Tim winced at the pain, but kept himself under control with a deep, steadying breath. He lifted his hand off the roof and showed Greta how the glass had gone all the way through to poke out the other side. "Look, Greta. This is what I mean."
Greta looked on, hesitantly, as Tim pulled the glass from out of his own hand. Within seconds, the broken skin had knitted itself back together, closing up the wound in seconds until there wasn't even a scar left behind.
Tim sighed, flexing his hand to test the strength of the healing, which was perfect, as always. "This is what I mean, Greta. I'm…I'm not alive. Not really. I'm…undead. That's why this happens. This 'life' of mine…it's not real."
A glimmer of understanding flashed across Greta's face, starting in her eyes and spreading outward to all of her features. "So…you're like I was. Like the Secret."
Tim smiled a sad sort of smile and nodded his head once. "Yes, I…I think that's about as close as it gets."
"I see…" Greta frowned thoughtfully and stared at the toes of her shoes, her eyes just slightly distant. "But it's different, isn't it? That's why you can't tell anybody. And that's why Cissie couldn't see it was you."
"Nobody can see 'me,'" Tim sighed, brushing his bangs back out of his eyes. "Nobody but you, Greta. And, if anyone else finds out, I don't know what will happen…"
"I understand," Greta interrupted, nodding her head confidently. "You don't have to worry about a thing, Tim. I'll keep your secret, I promise."
Tim smiled at her, feeling a bit of relief flood over him – not out of concern for himself, no, but out of concern of what could have happened to Greta had she remained on her determined path to show the world that he was still alive. "Thanks, Greta. I knew I could count on you. Now, we should probably get down off this roof and get goi-"
"This is the place, boss!"
Tim stopped in mid-sentence, biting down on his tongue, and Greta jumped a foot. The voice, which had echoed from the street only two stories below, was quickly followed by a loud slap and an angry reply: "You idiot! You've completely ruined the element of surprise!"
In a second, Tim was on his feet and leaning over the edge of the roof, with Greta at his side. Below them, in the dark streets, were three members of the Crystal Dragons, only one of whom was from the group that had attacked them before. He was rubbing his purple-Mohawk 'ed head with an expression of awkward pain, neither he nor his companions realizing that they were being watched. "But boss, this is where those two kids disappeared, an' we've got the fire escape and the stairs all blocked off…"
"Uh-oh," Greta whispered as the leader knocked Purple Mohawk over the head again.
"We better get out of here," Tim agreed, and grabbed her hand to head for the stairwell.
Unfortunately, just as the Dragon had said, that route was blocked off by another three members of the gang, who were standing on the level below them drawing straws to see who would go up first. A quick listen and another glance at the streets was all it took to confirm that the rest of their choices had also been blocked off – at least two, if not three, Crystal Dragon members waited on every one of the three fire escapes for their leader's collective signal.
Greta gripped the edge of the roof tight as she stared down at one of the sets of fire escape guards. "I can't believe they followed us…"
"Relax," Tim sighed, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You and I can take them, no problem. We just have to…"
He stopped, catching sight of a strange shadow that moved on its own through the darkness of the alleyway. He stared at it for a long while, only to find it completely still. He almost thought that he had imagined it, but then it moved again, leaping from level to level along the fire escape without so much as disturbing the gang members who were climbing it.
The shadow paused for a split second beside the gangster that was leading the pack. It ran its hand along the punk's back, and Tim caught sight of a familiar blue glow that spread outwards from the touch. Having fulfilled its duty, the shadow leapt from the fire escape and slid down the side of the building, running one hand along the brick wall to slow his decent.
Tim followed the shadow as it leapt from the alley into the nearby street. It landed in the light of a bright streetlamp just long enough for Tim to catch sight of its…his…face: a long, distinctly Asian face with bright eyes and a long nose.
Tim's eyes widened sharply at the realization. "Tengu…"
At the same moment, the Crystal Dragons lifted their heads in confusion, blinking after the too-swift shadow in befuddlement. "What the hell was that?"
"Never mind that, boss," the second Dragon down insisted, pointing up at where Greta and Tim were gazing down at them. "We've got bigger problems!"
The leader snapped his head up and scowled deeply. He grabbed for the whistle around his neck and snapped, "Get moving!" before he blew the little device as hard as he could.
Greta jumped back from the edge as the Dragons rushed up, gripping her hands into fists in a cautious, defensive stance. "Okay Tim, what're we going to…"
"It doesn't matter," Tim grabbed her by the arm and began dragging her away. "We need to get off this roof."
Greta gasped slightly, her entire basic strategy thrown off. "What…?"
"Something's going to happen," Tim muttered, remembering the three post-its that Tengu had been given that afternoon. "Something bad. We have to get off this roof, now!"
( - )
A chorus of whistles echoed through the alleyways of the night, signally the Crystal Dragon's coordinated assault against the kids who had 'embarrassed' their crew.
At the same time, on the ground level of the warehouse, the hard-working Graveling finally managed to yank the key rivet free from the central support beam.
Without all of its rivets in the proper place, the old iron beam began to slide out of place, bending under the force of years of pressure. And, inevitably, the building began to collapse.
( - )
When the first crack rang through the air, only the three 'leaders' of each of the Dragon's packs had arrived on the roof, while Tim had pulled Greta to the far edge in a vague attempt to find something to grab onto. The sound that rang through the night was earth-shattering – almost literally, as the roof jerked violently under their feet, knocking Tim, Greta and two of the Dragons to the ground.
In the next instant, a long crack appeared in the center of the roof, splitting the concrete open almost in half. It cracked open along the length of the building and spread out in all directions.
The only one who didn't seem to notice was the purple-Mohawk wearing leader of the group that had stormed after the teens in the first place. He heavily stomped across the tarpaper, his steel-toed boots echoing through the otherwise silent air, a nasty grin spreading across his face as he closed in on the apparently cornered Greta and Tim.
"You little brats are going to get it now!" he laughed in an annoying, high-pitched and nasally way. "Nobody disrespects the Crystal Dragons, nobody! Especially not a couple of stupid ki-"
At that moment, the crack finally reached him, and the roof below his feet simply disappeared. Seconds later, so did he.
The cracks spread out from their central point in all directions, the resoundingly subtle noises of their progressive destruction echoing through the streets. The Crystal Dragons realized what was happening too late, more and more of them disappearing from sight as the walls began to collapse inwards and the ceiling crumbled away.
Tim grabbed Greta and curled around her protectively as the destruction closed in, hoping that, at the very least, he could protect her when they fell. Greta grabbed onto him as the heavy cement fell out from under them, their feet hanging over the empty air for a few split seconds before…
They were suddenly whisked away from the roof with a rush of wind and the familiar snap of a de-cel line.
Tim opened his eyes to find an arm around his waist, the dull city lights rushing past his feet. Greta was still clinging to him with both arms, but she was staring up at the larger, stronger figure supporting them both with an expression of shock. "Nightwing!"
Tim twisted around and very nearly dropped Greta in surprise. Nightwing smiled broadly in mid-swing, especially as they landed on the building across the street from the half-collapsed building and he finally set the two teenagers down.
"There we go," he sighed, tossing his hair back and glancing towards the rubble of the destroyed warehouse. "That was pretty close. You guys are pretty lucky, but the rest of those troublemakers…"
"They'll be fine," Tim sighed, pointing down the street. Red and blue lights were flashing in the distance, and the howl of an ambulance's siren was beginning to echo between the buildings. "The ERs will get the ones who survived out and take care of them. You don't have to worry about anything….Nightwing."
Dick raised an eyebrow behind his domino mask, and had his mouth half-open before he figured out what was happening, and his question came out as a laugh instead. "Well, heck, I know you – David Cross, wasn't it?"
Tim nodded slightly, letting a light grin slide on his face in hope that Greta would play along. "That's me."
"And Miss Greta Hayes," Nightwing sighed, putting a hand on the girl's head with a tired grin. "You know, there are folks who've been looking all over for you."
"I'm so sorry!" Greta freaked, waving her hands in a mild panic. "I just…I got confused, and then I got lost, and then…"
Nightwing sighed heavily again and patted her head. "Don't worry. I'm sure everybody will just be glad that you're safe." He lifted his eye to glance in the boy's direction. "Thanks in part to Mr. Cross, I take it?"
Tim began to sputter objections and excuses at the same moment hat Greta began sputtering agreements. Dick raised an amused eyebrow and chuckled to himself as the two teens blushed red and averted their eyes from one another's faces. Their flustered expressions made Nightwing laugh out loud, especially when he looked out the corner of his eye to find several police officers and ambulance staff pulling the struggling, howling Crystal Dragons from the rubble of the warehouse.
He did not, however, see the three who did not walk away from the disaster, nor the dark shadow that slipped away into the night with their souls in tow, and for that, Tim was thankful. The last thing he wanted was for Dick to add another series of deaths to his personal toll of supposed 'failures.'
Once he had finally calmed down, Nightwing insisted on taking Greta and 'David' home in his motorcycle. Tim tried to talk him out of it, but Greta slipped her hand into his and gave it a light squeeze, and suddenly, Tim didn't think it was such a bad idea. It was just a little ride, after all.
( - )
Five minutes after the call came through saying that Greta had been found, Cissie was hovering nervously outside the hotel with her teacher and a handful of friends. Despite the reassurances from Oracle that Greta was, indeed, unhurt and would remain that way as long as she was in Nightwing's care, the former Arrowette was practically beside herself. She was constantly cursing herself for not staying with her best friend and, if anything had happened to Greta – not that Cissie thought that it had, but if something had happened – Cissie didn't know how she would forgive herself.
She was so caught up in these crazy, looping thoughts that the backfire of Nightwing's motorcycle as it rounded the corner made her jump almost out of her skin. But catching sight of the familiar, thankful blob of blonde hair in the front of the sidecar made up for everything. "Greta!"
The motorcycle slid to a stop in front of the hotel, and Cissie rushed forward before any of the teachers could stop her. She swept her smaller friend out of the sidecar, ignoring the flustered-looking boy sitting directly behind her, and wrapped Greta tight in a hug. "Oh, God, are you okay? You're not hurt anywhere, are you?"
"No…No, Cissie, I'm not," Greta muttered, turning bright red at the stares that the teachers were giving her and trying awkwardly to push out of her friend's grasp. "Really, Cissie, I'm fine."
"Thank god," the former Miss Arrowette squeezed her friend a bit more tightly, looking over her shoulder to make eye contact with the young man who had brought her back. "Nightwing, thank you so much, for everything. I'm so sorry about all of this…"
"No worries," Nightwing grinned and gave the ladies a one-handed, relaxed salute. "Just doing my job."
Cissie grinned, chuckled and nodded, understanding his words in a way that only a fellow superhero (or at least former one) could have. Greta, on the other hand, seemed more distracted from their reunion than she was overjoyed by it, and kept trying to wiggle free from her friend's grasp. Cissie just held on to her tighter and asked again, "Are you sure you're okay?"
Greta sighed heavily. "Yes, Cissie, I'm sure."
"Good," Cissie pulled back, but only long enough to knock Greta up the side of the head in a way that was only half-playful. "Don't scare me like that! What were you thinking, going out into Gotham, of all places, by yourself? You know how dangerous it is!"
Greta at least had the decency to look somewhat ashamed of herself. "I'm sorry, Cissie. It won't happen again. I promise."
"Good," Cissie sighed, keeping a protective arm wrapped around her friend's shoulders as she guided her back to the hotel. "C'mon, let's get you inside…you're bound to be freezing!"
Dick sighed to himself, watching the two friends depart the scene from atop his motorbike with a smile on his face. "Glad that's all taken care of," he muttered, turning a bit in his seat. "Now, where can I drop you off, Davi-?"
He stopped and blinked a few times. The sidecar he was now addressing was completely empty – not a sign of David Cross in sight, or even the hint that he had ever been there.
Nightwing blinked again and dismounted his bike, moving to the nearby alley in search of the boy. "David? Where'd you go?"
"Where did…who go?"
Dick stopped and lifted his head to find Batgirl crouched on fire escape above him, her limbs folded under her body in the way that she, and only she, could make so totally effortless. He sighed and straightened, keeping his composure completely calm, even though there wasn't any reason for him to hide from her, and even though they would never have fooled her even if there had been a reason. "It's…nothing Cass. It's not important. Really."
Cass turned her head to one side curiously. "Find Secret?"
Dick grinned and thumped over his shoulder towards the hotel. "Yeah, I found her, just like I said. No worries, Cass, she's safe and sound, right back where she's supposed to be."
Dick stopped and nearly swallowed his tongue. He hadn't gotten his hopes up. He hadn't. It was a silly thing to hope for, and he knew better than that. He had come out here because he'd wanted to help his little brother's old friend. He hadn't actually been hoping that his little brother would actually be there with her…
He must have gotten lost in those thoughts because, the next thing he knew, Cass was on the ground beside him and wrapping her arms around him in a hug. "It's okay, Dick. You did good."
Dick hesitated just a moment before he slowly returned the hug. "…Thanks, Cass. I mean that."
Batgirl pulled away, and Dick knew that she was smiling, even though her mask hid every last hint of it. She cocked her head to the side again and reached out to take his hand. "Let's go home."
( - )
After a six-block trek, two short cuts through otherwise dangerous alleys and a long, lonely, discreet rooftop mile, Tim finally scaled the rickety old steps to his apartment, rubbing a sore crick out of his neck as he did. It had been such a long day that he could hardly keep track of it anymore. All he wanted now was his lukewarm, low-pressure shower and his nice warm bed…
Instead, what he found was Tengu, standing outside his apartment and staring at his door as though he'd never seen one before in his life. The ninja blinked at the locked apartment several times, as though he couldn't figure out whether he should try to turn the knob or knock or what. When Tim approached, the floorboards creaked under his foot and drew Tengu's attention, so that the visitor turned and stared at the younger Reaper with that same wide-eyed confusion.
"Hey, Ten…" Tim said slowly, reaching into his pocket for his key. "What are you doing here?"
Tengu pulled his right hand out of his pocket and held a piece of yellow paper out for Tim to see. Most of it was in squiggly, impossible to decipher Chinese, but the title was obvious in its bold, demanding English: NOTICE OF EVICTION.
"Oh, I see," Tim nodded, taking the paper. "You got kicked out of your apartment."
Tengu nodded with a woeful expression, almost like a puppy that had been left out in the rain. Tim sighed, rolled up the eviction note, and pulled out his key to unlock the apartment door. "All right then, fine. I suppose I owe you, anyway. Come on in."
Tengu smiled slightly and bowed to the smaller boy thankfully before moving into the room. Tim was just about to follow when the little, cheap cell phone that he carried with him suddenly went off. He flipped it open to find a text message waiting for him – from Greta.
It read: "Whether anyone else knows it or not, you'll always be a hero to me."
And, despite himself, Tim smiled. Then he flipped the phone closed and followed Tengu into the apartment so they could get ready for another long, long day.