"What do you see?" Wally asked curiously.
"Look." Dick pointed at each of the writing samples. Wally dutifully read each one through:
//Forgive me. I hope my actions didn't cause you undue pain.//
//Happy 'Just Because,' Dick! Enclosed are four tickets to this year's Baseball All-Stars Game to be held in Gotham Stadium. You are about to make three other people very happy. Choose them wisely. Enjoy!--Selina//
//Darling Bruce, As you know by now, I'm long gone and in Rio. Really, darling, it's for the best. I just don't see myself as the society matron type, married to the world's dullest billionaire. And as for being a mother to Dick, I'm certain that by now you've determined that I'm hardly the Mommy-type. Bruce, darling, you were wonderful in bed, but I've had better. No hard feelings. Ta! Selina//
Seeing that Wally had finished reading, Dick next pointed out the lower case i's in each of the samples. "Notice how the i's are dotted here, here, and here."
He pointed out random words in each of the samples. Each word had a perfectly round dot delicately topping it.
Unsure what he was supposed to be looking for, Wally nodded and shrugged. "Okay, so?" he asked.
"Now, look at how these two i's are dotted." Dick pointed at the word 'actions' in the first sample and 'Stadium' in the second. "What do you see?"
Chin in hand, Wally studied the two words that Dick pointed out. Finally, his green eyes widened in recognition. "The dots are different. They look like little comets--with a head and a comet tail!"
"You know, you're really pretty sharp. I don't care *what* Roy says."
Wally blushed scarlet, pleased at the compliment from his friend.
"So, my dear Dr. West, what *tale* do you s'pose those little comet tails are *telling*?"
Wally grimaced at Dick's bad pun. "Hmmmm. I'm not sure, but I'd guess that maybe because they're going in *that* direction--" He pointed 'left' with his thumb. "--that the writer is left-handed?"
"Is that you're final answer?" Dick asked straight-faced. Wally nodded, grinning. "Good deductive reasoning, pal."
"Thanks, but what about the last note? Doesn't that one have any clues?"
"You tell me, Detective West. What do you see? Take your time," Dick urged. "Here, use the magnifier." He handed Wally a large magnifying glass.
Wally studied the third sample carefully. "Lots of i's," he said, sounding nervous. He kept looking. "It's kinda funny, Dick. They're all so perfect, like the person writing was extra-careful to make sure that the letters were dotted just so."
"Good observation, Wally," Dick said.
After several more minutes of close scrutiny, Wally stopped. He bent closer to the piece of paper. "Huh," he grunted. "Dick, I'm not sure, but I *think* I see something--"
"--What do you see?" Dick asked immediately.
"Well, the i in the signature, 'Selina'...Dick I can't be sure, but it looks different."
"You're right, Wally," Dick said, helping. "It *is* different. But the difference is so slight that only a really careful eye would've caught it. Good work."
"But, what of it?" Wally asked. "I don't understand."
"Look at the comet tail, as you call it," Dick said. "The other tails went to the left, but *this* one goes--"
"--It goes to the *right*!" Wally yelled.
"Exactly. This comet tail goes to the right. It's really hard to spot because the writer was being extra careful to make sure that all of the i's were dotted just so. But here, the very last word of the document, his or her hand must have slipped just a little. Not enough to be spotted by the casual eye, and not even by an investigator that isn't really looking for it."
Dick locked eyes with Wally. "The writer of this last letter was right-handed." Recalling the day Selina taught him how to throw and catch, he added, "And I happen to know that Selina Kyle is a southpaw."
Falcone awoke with a start. He wasn't alone.
"No-oo-o. Not again," he groaned. "Look, I *told* you already! I don't *know* nothing--URK!!" He was grabbed roughly by the neck. Strong fingers like steel constricted his Adam's apple, cutting off his oxygen supply. "~URK~!" He gagged.
"You're going to talk Falcone," a menacing voice growled less than an inch from his face. "You're going to talk, or you're never going to talk again. Do I make myself clear?"
Falcone nodded nervously, his forehead beaded in sweat. He thought he was going to pass out from lack of air, when his dark assailant finally loosened his powerful grip.
"Talk, Falcone," Batman growled. "What does Jake McCabe have to do with Selina Kyle? Why did you hire a lawyer to defend her? And who's after her?"
He threw out the last question without thinking.
"Uh, uh, Jake McCabe's *dead*! He was killed several years ago by the Feds. You can check it out--!"
"Try again, Falcone," Batman hissed, tightening his grip. "Before I run out of patience."
Batman loosened his hold slightly. "*Talk*!"
"Okay, okay!" Falcone whined. "McCabe showed up about three years ago. He'd been hired by an outside agency to snatch the Wayne kid."
"What?" The news took Batman by surprise. Dick? It was Dick they were after? "Who sent him? Who?"
Falcone swallowed, and then added hurriedly. "Some dame named Talia something or other! I swear--that's all I know!"
"What did Selina Kyle have to do with this?"
"McCabe recommended her to Talia's people. Said he knew her father--the best in the business before he died. He also said that the Kyle dame had been mixed up in something *big* somewhere in Russia. She needed to get out of the country--fast--and wouldn't ask too many questions if she was approached right."
Falcone swallowed several more times. "By the time I took the contract to assist the Kyle dame on this end, she'd already been broken out of some Russian gulag in Siberia. She arrived a few weeks later."
"Who is 'Talia'?" Batman demanded. "What's her connection to this?"
Falcone blanched. His frightened countenance became even more terrified.
"I can't tell you--! Please--! You don't know them...they're demons...straight out of Hell!" Tears were suddenly streaming out of his eyes. His face went slack with fear, spittle dripping down the sides of his mouth.
"And where do you think *I* come from?" Batman snarled. "Talk, Falcone. Tell me *everything* you know, or I swear you'll see Hell first hand."
Blubbering in mortal terror, Falcone began to talk.
"Then, Selina didn't write that letter?" Wally asked.
Dick shook his head. "She was framed." Dick thought of the years of heartache that he and Bruce had been put through since her arrest. "I've gotta find Bruce. I've gotta make him see that Selina really *does* love us."
"Let's go," Wally said.
"Uh-uh, Flasheroo. No can do. This is a family matter. I can't have you tagging along on this."
"No buts!" Dick insisted. At Wally's hurt look, Dick added, "I'm sorry, buddy. I know you just want to help and I appreciate it, but I've gotta handle this by myself."
Wally nodded. "Okay, Robbie, I understand."
"Good, 'cause you're gonna have to have a really good explanation for Alfred when he finds me gone."
"What--? But I--!"
"Don't worry. His bark's worse than his bite. He'll start talking to himself in big words that you have to look up in the dictionary, but he's okay. Just keep your head down and apologize--a lot!"
"Apologize? But *I* didn't do anything!"
"Doesn't matter. It'll be your fault...until either me or Bruce gets back. Then it'll be *our* fault. So, remember--"
"--Keep my head down and apologize," Wally finished.
"You got it!" Dick suddenly zipped to the uniform vault and in less than eyeblink, Wally saw a red, green and gold blur zoom towards the Batcomputer. In the next instant the supercomputers were being scanned at incredible speeds. Images flashed by at rates that the human eye would be unable to follow.
Suddenly, Robin, the Boy of Steel was hovering in front of Wally. "Thanks, pal. I owe you." He was gone.
Wally stared at the long dark recesses of the Batcave through which his friend had disappeared.
"Hummph. You call *that* fast?"
The Batmobile roared through the empty streets. They'd framed her. They'd framed her and he'd allowed them to get away with it. And when she'd come back to ask for help, he'd thrown her out. Because of his stupid pride.
And now it was too late. He'd shut too many doors in her face. She'd never forgive him.
Batman slammed his fist on the steering wheel. But did he *want* forgiveness? What of her role in all of this? She'd accepted a contract to kidnap Dick. No matter her desperate circumstances, the fact remained that she'd at first intended to carry out her contract.
Falcone was unable to explain her sudden change of heart. Something about a "better deal."
"What deal?" he wondered aloud. "Bruce Wayne's marriage proposal?" Was it the Wayne fortune she wanted after all? He found himself doubting her again.
"Selina, I don't know what your true intentions were, but I'm going to find out."
Robin streaked across the Gotham night sky. He scanned the city below for the Batmobile's unique signature. He sighed. Batman was running on stealth mode. Finding him was going to be a little harder, even for Robin.
"Okay, Grayson, what now?" Hesitating momentarily, he headed towards the luxury apartments overlooking Robinson Park.
His super-hearing picked up a cry for help from down below. Searching, he quickly spotted them--a gang of thugs surrounding a young couple. Eyes narrowing, Robin changed directions.
Batman hesitated outside her balcony. Was he ready? Could he maintain his objectivity when he questioned her? He recalled what Falcone had told him about her activities in Russia.
In addition to being master thieves, Selina and her father had also been superior bunco artists. Apparently, they'd nearly conned a Russian agent into transferring close to a billion in rubles to a Swiss bank account in "exchange" for US nuclear secrets. The ruse was discovered at the last minute, and the father/daughter confidence team was arrested.
Selina's father was shot as a spy, while she was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Siberian gulag.
When her mysterious benefactors offered to break her out in exchange for a "small favor" she readily accepted.
Batman stood uncertainly outside her apartment. And how did that make him feel? Knowing that Selina had contracted to put Dick in harm's way? Could *he* ever forgive *her*? He shook his head.
Whatever her reasons, or her desperate circumstances, Batman felt in his heart that that was the one thing he could *never* forgive. Straightening his shoulders he reached inside his utility belt for a lock pick.
Entering with the stealth borne of long practice, Batman crossed the room towards the large bed. A sliver of moon broke through the clouds, casting a thin beam on Selina's supine form. She was bound and gagged, her eyes silently crying out a warning.
Batman immediately dove to the floor.
In the next instant, he was set upon by several figures covered from head to toe in black. Batman kicked, punched, and ducked. His assailants' grunts of pain told him that he was gaining the upper hand.
The next instant, he was struck in the abdomen with the force of a truck. He doubled over in pain, gasping for breath. Before he could recover, he was kicked in the head, again with surprising power. Falling on his knees, he could feel himself blacking out. He weakly struggled to regain his feet.
Another powerful blow to his side made him see stars momentarily. Falling on his back, he looked up, his vision swimming. A tall, slender figure walked into his line of sight, a beautiful woman with exotic eyes.
"I am sorry, my beloved," she said with sincere regret. She was pointing a small pistol at him. "But it is time."
"Who are you--?" Batman whispered.
Smiling sadly, she pulled the trigger. Batman's hand automatically went to his shoulder. With numbing fingers, he was just able to pull out a small dart as he blacked out.
Robin stopped the surprised muggers with ease. Using plastic tie-wraps, he bound them and called the GCPD to pick them up. The young couple thanked him profusely. They were just a few years older than he was.
"Thanks, Robin," the girl said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. Robin blushed goofily.
"Aw, gee," he said, scuffing his toe on the ground. "It wasn't anything."
The boy shook hands with him. "I don't know how to thank you. It was stupid of me to take Cindy through the park at night, but we're late getting home. I promised her dad I'd have her home before one."
"Robinson Park *is* pretty dangerous at night," Robin said unnecessarily. "Even with the Dynamic Duo patrolling the streets of Gotham. You're just lucky I happened to be flying over."
The two teens looked embarrassed at his mild rebuke. Robin shrugged. "But, hey," he added, "I know all about breaking curfew--Believe me! Grown-ups can be pretty autocratic sometimes."
"Tell us about it," Cindy sighed.
"Look, you still have five minutes before you're overdue. How far do you live?" Robin asked.
"Just in those high-rises," Cindy said, pointing in the general direction that Robin had been headed. Snatching them both up, Robin took off.
"You're in luck," he said, flying them over the treetops. "That's on my way."
Selina flexed and released her wrists. It was slow going, but she knew that eventually she'd be able to slip out of her bonds. She couldn't believe what she'd seen. The witch had single-handedly taken out Batman! How was that possible?
The woman stood over Selina, looking down at her with disdain.
"You are most unworthy of him, thief. Can you not see that now? He is of noble blood. Destined to be my consort, as he has been in many previous lifetimes." She turned to where Batman lay still in the middle of the floor.
"Ubu, move him so that the boy sees him as soon as he enters. Robin is most powerful. We must distract him momentarily."
Ubu nodded. "Yes, mistress."
"But this time," Talia continued, addressing Selina, "my beloved shall not be allowed to die. Two hundred and fifty years ago, he fought against my father in Tibet. He led a faction, which destroyed my father's base. In the aftermath, my beloved died in the attempt to destroy the Lazarus Pit that my father had only recently established there. After three generations passed, I once more felt my beloved's presence in this world. This time in Peru."
She paused, looking at a point above Selina's head.
"Again, he came into the world only to stop Father from completing his base of operations in the Andes from whence Father planned to seize ultimate control of the world. My beloved's life was forfeited in the great battle that soon followed."
Talia's eyes took on an inner light.
"Several more generations went by, before I at last felt his soul once more. With each rebirth, thief, he has been drawn to me, like a firefly to a lamp. Our souls have come ever closer to being united as one. For it has been written that the Dark Knight shall join with the daughter of the demon and spawn a new generation of super-men."
She gazed on Selina with hate-filled eyes.
"You and the boy have distracted my beloved from his true calling long enough. He is *mine*! And this time round, he shall be unable to resist our destiny. When he dies, he *will* enter the Lazarus Pit and rise again, to rule by my side for all eternity." She laughed suddenly, a fanatical look coming over her. "And the boy? His DNA will be used to--"
The crack of a whip broke the stillness of the night.
Robin's super-hearing picked up the distinct sound of a whip. Catwoman! He zoomed his X-ray/telescopic vision into her apartment. Selina was fighting against a large group of people.
"Batman!" he whispered. His dad was lying unconscious on the floor. A determined look came over Robin. "No body hurts my mom and dad," he muttered.
"It looks to me like Batman has found you very resistible in the past, witch," Selina snarled, lashing out with her whip. "He obviously doesn't want anything to *do* with you!" Selina kicked out, spun and lashed out again with her cat-o'-nine-tails.
"Maybe you should the hint," she taunted. "'No' *means* 'no'!"
"Stop her!" Talia shouted. Her men surrounded Selina, keeping just out of reach of her whip. "Ubu! My beloved! If she does not surrender in the next instant--break his neck!"
"Yes, mistress," Ubu replied.
"*No*!" Selina shouted, leaping over the heads of her attackers. She landed--hard--both feet on the hated woman.
"Mistress!" Ubu roared.
At that moment, the entire outer wall of the apartment collapsed. When the dust cleared, they all saw a small masked figure in red, green, and gold standing in the center of the opening.
"*Ubu*! The boy!" Talia warned. Robin whirled towards the sound of her voice. His momentary distraction was all the time the giant Ubu needed. He fired a large pistol, the room resounding with its sharp report.
The next few moments passed in the twinkling of an eye, but seemed an eternity to Selina. She leaped towards Robin, crying out at the same time. "Robin! Look out--!"
Meanwhile, when Robin heard the sound of the shot, he calmly stood his ground. In the years since he'd discovered his invulnerability, he'd learned not to flinch and duck when someone fired upon him. It was always kind of fun to see the crooks' faces when their bullets bounced off his chest.
Too late, he saw that the pistol had not fired a bullet at him, but rather a long, trailing monofilament that glowed green. As he was about to duck, the leading edge of the green line reached him. Robin froze, paralyzed in excruciating pain--!
Flying towards Robin, Selina saw the strangely glowing green line begin to wind itself around the Boy of Steel. To her horror, she saw the boy's entire body shudder in a paroxysm of agony.
"ARGHARGHARGHARGH!!!!" Robin screamed. Kryptonite! Going down he valiantly struggled against his bonds, but felt himself blacking out. As he fell, frightening images of a giant and a woman with amethyst eyes came to him. His eyes widening in recognition, he addressed Talia. "You..." he whispered weakly. "It was you..."
Alighting next to Robin, Selina desperately started clawing at the fine cable that was holding him immobilized.
He looked up at her, his mind hazy from pain.
"Selina," he whispered. "...Knew you loved us..." Closing his eyes, his face contorted in agony. "Hurts..." Blessedly, the boy passed out.
Selina saw that Robin's skin was beginning to turn a shade of green. Hot tears start streaming down her cheeks.
"Dick--! Hold on, sweetheart. I'll free you. Please, hold on!"
"How touching," an ugly, mocking voice said from behind. "The Cat wishes to save the little bird." Selina suddenly felt something cold on her forehead and froze. Tears stinging her eyes, she looked up.
"Please!" she begged. "You're killing him!"
"No," Talia said coldly. "At least, not yet." She turned to her henchmen. "Ubu, you know what to do." Turning to Selina, she smiled kindly. "I see that you love them both. *Good*! You shall be there to see them both *die*!"
Before Selina could react, she heard a light ~pffpft~ and felt herself suddenly going cold. Drugged! The same as last time!
No-oo-ooo! her mind cried.
He was flying across red-laden skies. Below, the endless white of the dying planet stretched from horizon to horizon. The lights of the last city could be seen up ahead. Even from up here, he could feel the shockwaves that were even now tearing the inner core of the homeworld.
Next to him, the tiny bundle slept soundly. He turned, smiling at his sleeping son. Little Van sighed in his sleep.
He adjusted the video pickup in the aircar.
"My son, my sole regret is that I shan't be there when you take your first step or say your first word. I pray to Rao, the Creator, that at the end of your journey, you will find another whom you shall call 'Father'--and who shall call you 'Son.'"
He reached over and lightly traced his son's damask cheek.
"Soon, I shall join your mother in the House of Rao. Together, she and I will watch over you and protect you." He looked directly into the video pickup.
"You are Van Zee-Two, last scion of the Houses of Zee and El, two houses with a long, proud history. Our family has provided many scientists and recognized leaders to our world, Krypton. Our cousin, Jor-El, is this generation's greatest living scientist." He smiled with pride.
"Men and women such as he have brought our planet to the zenith of enlightenment." He shook his head and sighed. "But such knowledge has its dark side. You are too young yet to fear more than the shadows on your wall. But more frightening shadows grow within our society with each passing day." He looked away momentarily.
"We have tapped the planet's resources to the point that there is literally nothing left to retrieve. Whereas once no Kryptonian ever went hungry, or suffered from want, today the masses are crying for food, for heat, for basic needs." He wiped a lone tear that had started trickling down his cheek.
"Now, Krypton is dying. The quakes expose us to the green radiation and each day hundreds more journey to Rao before their time. The Ruling Council closes its collective eyes to the problem. The masses grow closer to anarchy each day. To protect the innocent from becoming victims of the predators that have been springing across the great city of Kryptonopolis, I donned the mantle of Nightwing." He smiled ruefully.
"Some call me hero. The Council refers to me by another word." His eyes taking on a faraway look, he spoke softly. "Because the Nightwing always flies alongside the Flamebird, your mother, Kara, became Flamebird before her death. Together we fought against the forces of ignorance and hatred that threatened to destroy the very fabric of Kryptonian culture." He choked on his words.
"Before Kara journeyed to Rao, she made me promise that you would be given a chance at life. Now, you and I travel to our cousin's home. I know not if I shall convince Jor-El that he should help, but as we are his last living kinsmen, I believe that he shall honor my request."
He smiled sadly. "Farewell, my son. This recording is a poor legacy with which to leave you, but it is all I have left to give. Except my love. That you shall always carry with you, little Van Zee-Two."
Robin opened his eyes.
Where was he? He turned his head slightly, but couldn't focus. Everything was a confusing blur of light and sound. He became suddenly aware of the pain.
"Uhhnnn..." he groaned.
"Robin!" a soft whisper hissed instantly next to his ear. He felt a light kiss on his forehead, followed by a soft caress on his cheek.
"Selina?" He looked up, Selina swimming in and out of focus. She nodded, a tearful smile breaking through.
"Yes, sweetheart. It's me."
"Batman?" he asked.
"He's here, sweetie," Selina reassured him. "He can't come to you right now. We're in different holding cells. How are you feeling?"
"It hurts..." he whimpered softly, ashamed of his weakness. "It hurts so much..." Comforting arms enveloped him instantly. He felt himself being rocked gently to sleep. "Please, make it stop hurting...please..."
Selina held him closely. The cell was cold and dank. She tried transferring some of her own body heat to Robin.
"How could they do this to you?" Selina whispered fiercely, rocking him back and forth. Whatever they'd done to him, it was just making him weaker. She began to sob.
"Oh, how could Bruce bring you into this life? You're just a boy! I don't care how powerful. You're only a little boy!"
She buried her face in Dick's dark hair, crying raggedly.
Selina's sobs echoed in the outer chamber. A pair of amethyst eyes smiled in malevolent delight.
"Soon, my dear," Talia uttered. "Soon, both you and that alien brat will be but a bad memory. And my beloved and I shall be joined as it was meant to be."
Light images swam in and out of sight. Luminescent snapshots of his life.
Mom and Dad on the trapeze. "Let's go little Robin!"
Reaching out to each other as they fall. "John!" "Mary!"
Bruce holding him on the way home from the funeral. "Everything's going to be all right, son."
Bruce standing in the middle of the kitchen with a pancake on his head, while he and Selina double over in laughter. "Think that's funny?"
Selina crouched on the lawn, holding out her fielder's glove. "Come on, Dick. You can do it!"
Alfred standing calmly, hand on his shoulder, offering quiet support after Selina's arrest. "Everything's going to be all right, Master Dick."
The light dims. The images grow darker.
His hand opens the lead-lined box and he experiences searing-white pain for the first time in his life.
He doesn't know where he is. He's cold and then hot. He's too weak to hold his head up. Voices swell and recede.
"Ubu, you know what you must do."
He struggles to see, opening his eyes with difficulty. A strange giant of a man approaches him, while a beautiful woman with purple eyes glares down at him. He tries to say 'Hello,' but words fail him.
The giant takes out a syringe, and he feels an instant of panic. Something cold and sharp pierces his upper arm. This quickly passes. He concentrates on the woman trying to memorize her features, but his illness has left him too weak.
She approaches him, reaching her hand out to him. Her fingers are cool on his forehead. She begins to chant, and he soon falls under its soothing spell.
"Everything's going to be all right, Dick," Selina's soothing voice crooned. "I promise."
Robin tried to but couldn't open his eyes. "Selina?" he croaked faintly. Selina immediately grabbed his hand and held it tightly to her wet cheek. She struggled to speak, finally getting the words out.
"Yes, it's me, sweetheart. How are you feeling?" she asked. "Are you still in pain?"
His face clenched as a sudden spasm violently shook him. He buried his face in her arms, too sick to be brave. "It hurts so much," he admitted in a little boy voice.
"Oh, honey, I wish I could make the pain go away," Selina said, holding him closer. "But I don't know what that the witch did to you!"
"Kryptonite..." Robin whispered.
"What? Krypton-what?" Selina asked. "What's that?"
"Kryptonite..." Robin repeated. "...Makes me sick...takes my powers away..."
Selina took his face in her hands. "Dick, listen to me, sweetheart. Is *this* what made you sick before?" He nodded. "Honey, how were you cured? Please, I have to know in order to help you."
"Sunlight..." Robin whispered. "Need...sunlight..."
"Sunlight?" Selina repeated. That didn't make sense. And yet, during his recovery period, Dick had been placed outside in the sun as much as possible. She'd assumed that they'd wanted him to have fresh air, but perhaps it *had* been the sun all along.
If it was sunlight Dick needed, then that's what he was going to get! Looking around the dank cell, she assessed her chances of breaking out. Above the door the stones had been unevenly laid and formed what looked like a thin ledge no more than three inches in width.
She heard the key being turned in the outer lock.
Sound returned first. Voices, machinery, metal doors opening and slamming shut. Next, he felt the cold floor underneath. Dampness seeped through his costume and left a bone deep chill throughout his entire body.
I'm in a cell, he deduced. He slit his eyes open, just enough to get his bearings. Not turning his head, he surveyed the area immediately before him: mortar and stone. Very old. He could hear water dripping from somewhere. The walls themselves were covered with a thin veneer of mold and slime.
Underground dungeon, he thought.
Taking a chance he rolled onto his back. He was alone. Sitting up, he fought a momentary wave of vertigo, but this soon passed. He felt around his waist. His utility belt was gone.
Using the wall as leverage, he stood. Eyes narrowed, he immediately started looking for a means of escape. A little to the right and above the door, he noticed that the stones had been unevenly laid. He ran his hands carefully along it. The stones formed a very thin ledge here, no more than two-three inches in width.
Batman heard the keys jangling outside the cell.
"Guards! Prepare the prisoners" Ubu ordered. "The mistress wishes to see them. Ensure that the detective and the woman are shackled properly."
"Yes, overseer!" The two guards promptly turned to open the doors of the respective prisoners.
"Arshavir! If the woman does not cooperate," Ubu said coldly. "Kill her!"
"Yes, overseer!" Arshavir replied.
"Jirair, the detective must not be harmed. The mistress will be most displeased."
"Yes, overseer!" Jirair replied, his voice betraying his nervousness.
Both men opened their doors and waited a split second in the doorway before stepping through the threshold.
Arshavir heard the sound before a heavy mass suddenly dropped on top of him.
As soon as her guard walked through the door, Selina let go and crashed down on top of him. She'd held onto the three-inch ledge over the door with little more than her fingers and toes and lay in wait for her jailers.
Arshavir cried out in surprise as Selina slammed into him. "Overseer!"
Selina's momentum caused them both to tumble in a heap on the floor. Selina recovered first. Kicking out with all the force she could muster, she struck him on the temple, instantly knocking him out.
Alerted by Arsahvir's cry, Ubu immediately ran in. Seeing the guard lying unconscious on the floor, the human giant turned towards Selina and assumed a defensive stance. Although he was a huge man, there was nothing awkward about Ubu. His movements rivaled Selina's in their feline grace. Giving the impression of a tiger on the prowl, Ubu advanced methodically.
He soon had her cornered.
As Ubu got closer, Selina's growing sense of desperation escalated. Dick needed her!
She feinted left and slipped out from under Ubu's grasp. Enraged, Ubu took a flying leap after her. Catching her in his strong grip, he held her firmly as she struggled uselessly to escape.<[>"Let me go, you zombie!" Selina shouted. In response, Ubu tightened his hold on her.
"You are unimportant, thief," Ubu uttered, squeezing harder. "The mistress will not be angered by your death. And I have not had the *pleasure* of killing anyone today." As he spoke, Ubu's arms clamped down with ever increasing pressure.
Selina couldn't breathe. She felt as if her lungs were being squeezed out of her chest. He was crushing her to death! A black maw opened up in front of her, threatening to swallow her whole. Her struggles slowed, growing feebler with each passing moment. She thought of Dick and of Bruce. They needed her and she'd failed them.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, succumbing to the descending darkness.
Tiring of the game, Ubu decided that it was time to end it. The mistress would not wish to be kept waiting from her audience with the detective.
About to give Selina the deathblow, Ubu was unexpectedly struck from behind by a moving freight train!
Batman dropped from the thin ledge above the door and easily subdued his jailer. He then dashed towards the cell where Selina and Robin were being held. Seeing her go down, he went airborne and slammed feet first into her attacker.
All three went down in a jumble, Selina apparently unconscious. Batman instantly rolled over and regaining his feet took up a wary defensive stance. He and his giant opponent circled each other, neither daring take his eyes off his dangerous opponent.
Selina opened her eyes and focused groggily on the battle going on above her. Turning her head, she saw Robin still lying in a small huddle on the floor. She had to get him to sunlight! Moving with excruciating slowness, Selina began crawling towards the Boy of Steel.
Ubu charged Batman, determined to end the altercation by the quickest means possible. He had to take the Dark Knight without injuring him too badly; otherwise, his mistress would take out her wrath on him.
Remembering the last time she'd thrown a tantrum, Ubu shuddered in fear.
Batman grabbed Ubu by the wrist and forearm, spun underneath him, and using the giant's own forward momentum threw him against the wall.
Ubu struck his head on the stonewalls with a resounding ~crack~. His eyes rolling upwards, Ubu slowly slid down the wall to a sitting position on the floor.
Gently raising Robin to a sitting position, Selina somehow managed to throw him over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. Moving towards the door, she almost collapsed under his weight. Leaning against the wall for added support, Selina set her jaw in a straight line and placed one foot in front of the other.
Walking out into the corridor, she saw that there was only one way out. Taking a look back, she saw Batman and Ubu in a deadly struggle. A warning bell jangled inside her head. She had to get Dick to safety. But how could she abandon Bruce?
Dick and Bruce, the two men she loved, needed her. But Dick was still a child, and in Selina's heart, he had become her child. His safety was her responsibility. Bruce would understand.
About to leave, she saw Batman slam Ubu against the wall. The giant slid to the floor, unconscious. It was over. Smiling in relief, Selina waited for Batman--no, she waited for Bruce.
Gasping raggedly, Batman stared long and hard at her. His insides were torn by conflicting emotions. Seeing her almost killed by Ubu had sent him into a wild frenzy of fear mixed with rage. Seeing her standing there, impossibly beautiful despite their filthy circumstances, he felt his heart catch in his throat.
He wanted to take her in his arms. But seeing Robin so impossibly still, his heart almost stopped in fear.
"Robin?" he whispered. He hurried to them, and Selina gently turned the boy over to his father.
"He's in terrible pain, Bruce. Something about Kryptonite--?"
"Bruce--?" Batman looked at her in surprise. She nodded.
"I've known almost from the beginning--" Seeing movement behind Batman, Selina suddenly pushed him out of the way. Hissing, she leaped and kicked out.
Ubu! He'd regained consciousness and was trying to stop them. With Batman looking on with open admiration, Selina lithely spun in midair, kicked out once more, and connected with the giant's abdomen. Still groggy from the earlier blow to the head, Ubu bent over, the wind knocked out of him.
Landing gracefully in front of him, Selina waited for Ubu to look up.
"*This* is for Robin!" She kicked out, striking him on the chin. Ubu staggered back, but didn't fall. Selina spun in fury, and kicking out, snarled, "*This* is for Batman!" Ubu again took a few steps backward, but remained on his feet, stunned.
"And *this*--" Selina took a flying leap and cart-wheeling in midair, she caught him with two solid blows to the head. "--is for *me*!"
Ubu fell straight back, a giant tree meeting its end. Selina stood over him, her pulse pounding in her ears, her breathing in quick, short gasps. Turning to the two men whom she loved more than anything else in the world, Selina just stood and waited.
It was Bruce's move.
Robin stirred. "Bruce?" he whispered. Batman immediately looked down at his boy, holding him closer. Instantly, Selina was standing next to them, her fingertips gently brushing Robin's hair back from his forehead.
"She loves us, Bruce..." Robin slipped back into unconsciousness.
Keeping his eyes on Selina, Batman answered, "I know she does, son."
Selina felt the tears flow unchecked. She tentatively reached a hand up to Batman's cheek.
"What I don't know," Batman continued, "is if she'll ever forgive me for not believing in her."
Unable to speak, Selina nodded. Finding her voice, she began, "I can't blame you, Bruce. I've done too many things in my life that I'm ashamed of. The only good thing that I've ever done is fall in love with you and Dick." She looked down at Robin, her face racked by guilt.
"I was hired to kidnap Dick and deliver him to these monsters. I was in trouble and I was desperate, but I know that doesn't excuse what I almost did." Locking eyes with Batman she spoke softly.
"But when I met Bruce Wayne, I fell in love with him...and his son." Selina's voice caught. "I just couldn't go through with it. Everything that happened was my fault, not yours."
Batman shook his head. "No, not everything, Selina--" he looked down at Robin. "--but this isn't the time or the place. When we get out of here--and I swear to you that we will get out--we'll talk. Until then..." He bent down and Selina willingly kissed him softly, tenderly, a promise of love and forgiveness.
Wally kept his eyes carefully downcast. Alfred was methodically preparing breakfast. The dignified butler hadn't spoken a word since he discovered Dick's absence. Wally felt uncomfortably guilty over the entire episode and was growing increasingly worried.
Dick should've been back by now. All he was supposed to do was *talk* to Bruce. Show him the proof that Selina had been framed.
Something must've gone wrong.
"Alfred?" he asked tentatively. Alfred looked up.
"Yes, Master Wallace?"
Master Wallace. Alfred only called him that when he was in trouble. The same with Dick. He was 'Master Richard' whenever he pulled a particular boner. Wally grimaced.
"I'm really sorry, sir," he apologized, though what he'd done wrong was beyond him. Like Dick had warned him. It was *his* fault, until either Dick or Bruce returned. Then it would be *their* fault. He sighed. He'd never understand grownups.
"No need to apologize, young sir," Alfred said, returning to the task at hand. "I am quite certain that Master Richard left under his own power."
"Yes, sir," Wally said. "I'm sorry, sir." He looked down at the empty place setting in front of him. His worry getting the better of him, he spoke again. "Alfred?"
Alfred looked up again. His blank English butler's expression gave nothing away, yet he somehow exuded 'attitude' nonetheless. He raised a single eyebrow. Wally had the sudden feeling he'd just been chewed out without a word being spoken. He swallowed nervously.
"Alfred, I'm getting really worried," he said in a small voice. "May I go look for them?"
Alfred's expression didn't change, although Wally thought he caught a brief flash of surprise in his eyes.
"And why, Master Wallace, are you asking *my* permission to conduct a search?"
Wally's normally pale cheeks reddened, matching the color of his hair. "Because--" His voice squeaked. Swallowing, he tried again. "Because, I gave my word, sir. I promised Uncle Barry that I'd do whatever you and Mr. Wayne told me to. A-And 'cause I promised Dick I wouldn't follow him." He dropped his eyes again. Inexplicably feeling the urge to start crying, he looked beseechingly at Alfred.
"Please, sir. I'm *really* worried. May I?"
Alfred stared at the boy for a long moment. The loyal butler was deathly worried for the two masters. It wasn't like either Master Bruce or Master Dick not to call if they were to be held up.
Something had happened. Something terrible. He was sure of it. He nodded in agreement.
"Very well, Master Wally. I believe that you should--"
Before he could finish the sentence, Alfred felt a sudden tornado sweep through the kitchen.
"--go check on Master Dick."
As these words left his lips, a second whirlwind swept into the kitchen toppling anything that was not bolted down. Alfred had to duck against the flying debris, covering his eyes from the sudden dust that was kicked up. Within an eyeblink, everything was back in order.
When his vision cleared, Alfred saw Kid Flash standing before him.
"They're in trouble," the junior speedster reported.
Carrying Robin, Batman raced down the dark, labyrinthine tunnels. Selina followed closely at his heels.
"Where are we going?" Selina gasped. She was holding her sides as she ran. Ubu's deadly embrace might have broken a couple of her ribs. As she spoke, they came to a large natural cavern. They immediately spotted another tunnel entrance further ahead and started running towards it.
They didn't get twenty feet.
The cavern was suddenly flooded with huge magnesium stadium lights. All around them stood armed guards dressed in black.
Batman yanked uselessly at his shackles--again. He was chained, immobilized, to a pole. He'd been stripped of his cape and cowl, as well as his gauntlets and boots. Apparently, his jailers were no longer taking any chances that he might have hidden weapons.
Selina was likewise restrained a few feet further down. Robin was tossing restlessly on a hospital gurney, his face grimaced in anguish. His complexion was cast in a faint veneer of green overlaid with a fine sheen of perspiration. His breathing was labored and rapid.
Even unconscious, the boy was suffering.
Batman clenched his jaw, a muscle throbbing on his temple the only sign that he suffered along with Robin.
He felt a slight, cool breeze on his cheek and smelled fresh air. He looked around trying to discern its possible origin. Try as he might, he couldn't see anything past the magnesium lights. Everything beyond the circle of illumination was in deep shadow.
"Bruce, we have to do something!" Selina sobbed. "Dick looks worse than before!"
Batman shook his head. "I know."
A tall, stately gentleman dressed in long, flowing robes stepped forward. He had piercing black eyes that sent a chill down Batman's spine. The man oozed danger.
"So, Detective," he said in a quiet, basso voice. "We meet at last."
"You have me at a disadvantage," Batman said wryly.
A brief flicker of amusement passed across the newcomer's eyes.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Batman asked bluntly.
"Straight to the point. I approve. I am Ra's al Ghul and I am destined to one day rule the world."
"Oh, really?" Selina piped in. "Was there a vote taken? I mean, how does one get to be 'destined to rule the world'?"
Ghul ignored her outburst. Instead, he walked over to where Robin lay restively.
"So young, so brave." He laid his hand almost tenderly on the boy's forehead. A vague expression of remorse registered briefly on his face. "So sad that he must die in order to save the world." He turned to them. "But it is a small enough sacrifice."
"What do you mean by that?" Selina demanded. "What did you do to him, you vampire?"
"What was necessary," Ghul replied.
"How can it be deemed 'necessary' to hurt a child?" she cried. "What kind of monsters *are* you?"
A new voice answered. "The kind of 'monsters' that are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve the greater good." Talia stepped into the circle of light.
"*You*!" Selina hissed. "If that boy dies, witch, there won't be a rock you can crawl under. I'll find you! And when I do I'll--"
"You'll what, thief?" Talia mocked. "Did I not mention that your death was preordained? The boy shall not die--yet. My beloved..." She walked up to Batman, cast a disdainful look at Selina, and kissed him fully on the lips.
Repulsed by her, Batman struggled to fight her off despite his restraints. Finally, he struck out with a reckless move. He butted his head against hers. Talia fell back, momentarily stunned. Her father caught her before she hit the floor.
Selina broke into helpless giggles. "Good one, Batman!" she gasped. "That oughta show her that a gentleman likes to be asked."
Recovering, Talia walked up to the bound prisoners. In a rage, she leaped straight up and kicked out, striking Batman savagely on the temple.
Batman felt his head explode in a shower of red and black sparks. Blinking to clear his vision, he saw three Talias advancing towards him. She was smiling malevolently, yet tenderly.
She caressed his cheek. "Beloved, I forgive you your actions, because you do not understand." Batman jerked his head away from her touch.
She smiled in amusement, but didn't reach for him again. "You do not understand, because you do not remember your past lives.""Past lives?" Batman asked sardonically.
Talia gave a single nod. "In each of your previous incarnations you've fought against my father. But do not worry. This time, when you die, you shall be placed in the Lazarus Pit." Her eyes locked on his, she approached him cautiously, her hand reaching out for him.
"Once you have risen, all you will remember is my love for you. And you will rule as my consort for all eternity." She raised herself on her tiptoes and kissed him gently on the lips.
Batman again jerked his head away from her touch.
"Oh, get a job, lady," Selina spluttered. "What *is* it with you? Can't get a man, so you drug and chain mine? What's next? Are you going to club him and drag him into your lair?" Selina paused and looked around. "Oh, duh! You've already done that!"
Talia lunged towards Selina, her talons extended. "I *will* silence you, thief! But first you'll witness--!"
"*Enough*!" Ghul roared, interrupting his daughter. "We have much to do. Prepare the boy. It will be sunup soon. When he is exposed to the sunlight, his bloodstream will begin to metabolize the serum--"
"*What* serum?" Batman demanded.
Standing shakily from the blow to the head, Talia snapped her fingers. A team of medical personnel entered the circle of light. They were pushing several carts filled with medical instruments and bottles filled with strange liquids.
Talia extracted a single tube that glowed a fluorescent green from the cart. She held it up for Selina and Batman to see.
"*This* serum," she said. "About three years ago, we hired this traitor--" She glanced spitefully at Selina. "--to bring us Richard Grayson. We knew of his extraordinary powers and wished to control them. Much to our surprise, as our plan was about to be set in motion, we received word that the boy was dying from a mysterious blood ailment." She paused.
"To make a long story short, we were puzzled as to what could make the Boy of Steel deathly ill and were determined to find out."
Ghul stepped forward. "I had my daughter extract several blood samples from the boy while his invulnerability was cancelled."
"We'd intended to analyze his DNA as well," Talia added, "but to our surprise, we were not able--"
"Talia!" Ghul said sharply.
"Really, father," Talia chided, "what difference can it make if they know? In another few minutes it won't matter either way."
Ghul glowered at his daughter, but finally nodded in acquiescence.
"So far we have not been able to crack his DNA code," she continued. "It is most unusual. But not to worry. We will. Eventually." She nodded at the medical personnel.
They descended on Robin like vultures.
As one, Batman and Selina once again fought violently against their bonds.
"What are you *doing* to him?" demanded Batman.
"What kind of people *are* you?" Selina asked, her voice shrill. "He's just a *boy*!"
"No," Ghul said, walking over to where the medical personnel were connecting Robin to a variety of tubes and monitoring equipment.
"He is much more than a mere boy. He is the single-most powerful being on the planet. And as such, he is a danger to my plans. But soon...soon his power will be mine."
"Father!" Talia called. She was listening into a headset. "I'm receiving unconfirmed reports of activity outside the compound."
"What kind of activity?" Ghul demanded. Selina and Batman exchanged hopeful glances.
Talia shook her head. "I am receiving conflicting reports, Father."
"Where is Ubu?" Ghul asked. The giant stepped into the light. His battered face showed that he'd been on the losing end earlier.
"Go investigate!" Ghul ordered.
"Yes, master," Ubu said, bowing out.
"Father, sunrise in two minutes. Everything is ready." Talia stepped away from the gurney.
Robin was connected to several tubes that ran ominously to a bank of electronic equipment. A heart/lung machine assisted his labored breathing. The steady rhythm of his heartbeat beeped in the background.
Ghul walked up to his daughter. "Syringe?" he asked, holding out his hand. Talia held out a small silver tray. She pulled back a cloth, uncovering a hypodermic filled with the same glowing, green liquid that she'd shown earlier.
Selina gasped. "What *is* it?" she asked fearfully.
"As we said earlier," Ghul explained calmly as he removed the syringe, "we extracted several blood samples from the boy three years ago. In the ensuing time, even though we weren't able to analyze his DNA, we were nevertheless able to duplicate the poison." He smiled, a cold smile that chilled his captive audience.
"After we successfully duplicated the poison, we were able to manufacture a strain that was five times as powerful. We injected the boy with a weakened strain of the original. Not enough to kill, just enough to--"
"--Just to *torture* him!" hissed Selina.
Ghul's smile temporarily disappeared. "Naturally, that side-effect is unfortunate. But I assure you that it is quite necessary. The boy's blood is even now building anti-bodies against the poison. When exposed to sunlight, his system will metabolize the serum, thus building even stronger antigens against the blood poison. As he builds his immunity, I shall inject him with a strain that's five times as powerful. The additional poison will force his metabolism to work even harder and produce antigens that are even *more* potent."
"I don't understand," Batman said. "Why would you want--?"
Ghul looked like a teacher addressing a very dense student.
"When the boy builds an immunity to the radiation poisoning, then *nothing* will be able to hurt him. But--" He turned and walked towards Robin, holding the syringe at ready. "--he will never be allowed to enjoy the fruits of his suffering. For as the sunlight filters down through the ceiling skylights and touches him, my people will drain all of his blood, even as it metabolizes the serum."
His words were met with gasps of outrage and horror from Batman and Selina, their desperate struggles against their bonds tripled.
"You *can't*!" Selina cried, tears of frustration streaming down her cheeks. "*Please*! I *beg* you! You *can't*!"
Talia looked at her with mock pity. "Oh, but we can, my dear. And we *are*!" She turned to Batman. His naked hatred was almost a physical blow. "I am sorry to cause you such grief, beloved. But I promise. You will soon forget this. All you will remember is my love for you."
"*Never*!" Batman vowed. "I swear, whatever happens to me, Robin *will* have vengeance."
"Daughter!" Ghul said sharply. "It is time!"
"I *still* don't understand!" Batman called in a desperate bid for time. "You said it yourself, Ghul--Robin's blood-type is unique! It's incompatible with yours. What *good* will it do you?"
Ghul looked up from his evil ministrations and smiled. Batman again felt a cold chill zoom up and down his back.
"Good, Detective?" he asked. "Why it will probably kill me. Correct, daughter?"
Talia smiled up at her father. "As you say, Father."
Batman looked at them with obvious incomprehension.
"Detective, I find your concern for me deeply touching," Ghul said sardonically. "But I assure you that your concern is misplaced. As soon as I die from the boy's blood, Talia will submerge me in the Lazarus Pit. And when I rise--"
"--When Father rises, he *will* be born anew," Talia broke in. "But *this* time, he will have the boy's blood flowing in his veins."
"As well as, the boy's powers!" Ghul finished.
"You're mad!" Batman retorted. "You can't transfer his powers like that. It's medically and scientifically impossible!"
"Ah, Detective," Ghul replied, "you disappoint me. Whoever said that we are dealing with the mere laws of science? The Lazarus Pit operates under much more arcane laws. Some would even call it 'magic.'" He smiled at Batman's look of utter disbelief.
"Ah, a skeptic, I see," he observed. "No matter. Soon, I shall make a believer of you." He turned back to the lurid task at hand.
Batman looked up. He could just make out the telltale signs of the night sky lightening into the promise of dawn. Closing his eyes against the sight of death descending in the form of the new day, Batman let his mind go still and began to concentrate on his bonds.
Selina watched with growing revulsion. She wanted to tear her eyes away, but couldn't. If she didn't witness the horror before her, then she'd feel as if she'd abandoned Dick when he needed her most.
Ghul was bent over Robin, ready to plunge the syringe filled with deadly poison into his veins.
She gasped as the first rays of sunlight struck her eyes. Blinking rapidly, she tried to see through her tears.
Batman worked steadily at his bonds, flexing and relaxing his wrists. The only hope left was to break free. Now! He began applying steady pressure on the wrist shackles, concentrating on contracting and expanding his wrists and forearms.
He could feel the veins on his neck popping, perspiration streaming down his face at the tremendous exertion he was putting forth. This had to work. It *had* to.
A sudden warmth began to spread across his body. Simultaneously he heard Selina scream.
Time had just run out.
With one last desperate effort, Batman strained at his bonds and broke free.
They were everywhere! Children! Mere children. Dressed in clothing that reminded Ubu of their elder mentors--
A boy dressed almost entirely in red, shot an *arrow* (!?) at the satcom antenna. Ubu watched as the arrow flew true and in an amazing display of pyrotechnics exploded on impact. The boy had destroyed not just their primary satellite uplink, but their first line of defense as well.
"Good work, Speedy!"
Ubu looked up at the sound of the young, female voice. A beautiful child of no more than thirteen years flew over the young archer and waved. The boy waved back.
"That's nothing, Wonder Doll!" he called. "You should see me do it with my back turned and my eyes closed!" But the girl was no longer listening. She'd turned at the sound of heavy machinery moving towards them.
Eyes narrowing, she flew at the armored personnel carrier. The vehicle's turret rapidly adjusted its large caliber gun tube until it was aimed directly at her. To Ubu's surprise, rather than retreating, the pony-tailed girl child hovered, calmly waiting.
With an earsplitting roar, the gun fired and in less than an eyeblink, the armor-piercing shell struck its small, frail target. As the smoke cleared, Ubu was stunned to see the girl still hovering in the same location.
"Now it's *my* turn!" she said, a dangerous glint in her eyes. She dived towards the hastily retreating tank, and with one well-placed punch, disabled it. The crew abandoned ship in several different directions. Twirling a golden lasso, she was about to throw it to roundup the fugitives, when a red and gold blur suddenly appeared in front of her.
"No *time*, Wonder Girl! We've found the green radiation trail again. It goes into the side of the mountain--it's probably a camouflaged entrance. I'm gonna scout it out by vibrating through it. Aqualad's already waiting over there."
"We're right behind you, Flasheroo!" the young archer called. The flying girl swooped down and lifted the boy. "Now *this* is what *I* call 'Flying the friendly skies'!" he quipped.
The girl laughed, a clear musical sound like that of wind chimes.
Ubu faded into the shadows and hurried back to the underground complex by a different route. If he were to save the Master and Mistress, then he had to act quickly.
Like an avenging angel, Batman leaped across the short space separating him from the huddle of medical personnel. His momentum carried him almost within arms reach of Ghul. The others fell all around him, knocking over surgical instruments and monitoring equipment.
Ghul backed away from Robin. "*Stop him*, you fools!" he ordered sharply, waving his arms for added emphasis.
Never taking his burning eyes off Ghul, Batman battled his way towards the would-be world leader, fending off his minions by instinct. Batman witnessed the fight through a red haze. Ghul's followers were as nothing to him. He wanted Ghul.
"*Batman*! Behind you!" Selina cried in warning.
Batman instantly whirled and ducked. He swept his legs out in a scissors kick, knocking his opponent down. It was Talia. She retaliated in kind, striking with a force that took Batman by surprise.
"Father! Hurry!" she urged. "I'll keep him occupied!"
Ghul nodded and immediately rushed to Robin's side.
"*Batman*!" Selina called. "He's injecting Robin with the poison!"
At her words, Batman went into super-overdrive. With a rage fueled by desperation, he held nothing back. Pounding the young woman who professed to love him, but who was willing to cold-bloodedly murder his son, Batman struck out with an energy he normally reserved for his practice dummies.
He slammed the lower palm of his right hand into her chin and followed through with an elbow to the temple and a straight kick to the solar plexus. As his dazed opponent staggered before him, Batman grabbed her by the collar and was about to deliver the final blow, when he stopped.
She was looking up at him, her expression serene and accepting. "Beloved..." she whispered. "Perhaps, the next time we meet--" She fell unconscious.
Releasing her, Batman whirled towards Ghul who was even now turning on the machines whose dire purpose was to drain the Boy of Steel of his life's blood. Without looking back towards the fallen Talia, Batman vaulted over several obstacles that stood between him and Ghul.
To Batman's horror, the bright sunlight that now bathed Robin in its life-giving embrace clearly exposed the first faint signs of red liquid as it began to pump out of the boy's veins.
"*No-oo-o*!" he roared, landing feet first on Ghul. They both tumbled to the floor together. Ghul recovered and viciously kicked out, connecting with the back of Batman's head. The Dark Knight went down in a heap, the world spinning madly and going black...
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear his mother calling him. "Bruce!" He shook his head and rolled over.
"Mom?" he whispered. "Five more minutes, please?"
"*BRUCE*!" His mother's voice was becoming increasingly insistent. Almost shrill.
"I'm coming, Mom," he promised. "So sleepy..."
"The tubes--! Bruce, you have to remove the tubes!"
"Tubes?" he asked, not understanding.
"Bruce! Dick *needs* you! *BRUCE*!"
"Dick?" he whispered. His eyes snapped open. His vision was assailed by the increasingly bright sun that poured down from the high skylights, 'portholes' carved out of the side of the mountain where they were located. He painfully turned his head.
Ghul was standing over Dick, his vile machine still relentlessly doing its job. How long had he been out, Batman wondered? He had to move. Gritting his teeth against the wave of nausea that washed over him, Batman *willed* himself to sidestep the blackness that once again threatened to enshroud him.
Seeing Dick's life steadily dripping out of his veins, Batman began to crawl across the interminable distance that separated them. He had to remain out of Ghul's peripheral vision. As he pulled himself forward, Batman felt the world phase in and out, like a badly tuned television set.
He felt dissociated from his body, almost floating. The tube filled with red liquid loomed before him.
He reached out, his fingers looking oddly misshapen and faraway. He strained for it, but it remained just out of his reach.
The perspiration streamed down his face, trickling off his chin. He willed his body to gain the additional inch he needed. Looking up, he gaped almost mesmerized by the drip...drip...drip...of the red pearls as they oozed into the tube.
"*Bruce*! *Hurry*!" Selina's sharp voice startled him back to reality. Snapping out of the fugue he'd fallen into Batman's fingers closed around the tube and yanked.
Batman heard Ghul's surprised cry of outrage. This was immediately followed by a second, more powerful kick to the base of his skull. Once again, Batman's head exploded in a shower of stars and pain.
Ghul cried out in triumph.
"Soon, Detective, it shall be over. The boy's powers will be mine, and *you*--you shall be my beloved daughter's *pet* for all eternity."
"Oh, I wouldn't bet on *that*!" a young voice said. It was the last thing Batman heard before he succumbed to the blackness that again descended to claim him.
Ubu ran down the secret passageways, reviewing his standing orders as he did so. Coming to a set of security doors, he placed his palm on an electronic scanner. The doors opened smoothly.
Stepping into the chamber, Ubu hurried to the command console and sat down. He flipped switches and pressed buttons. The sounds of powerful engines coming online rumbled quietly through the bulkheads.
Ubu touched a button and a computer monitor and keyboard emerged from the console. He typed a few commands and soon had a view of the open cavern. The Master was facing off against the Dark Knight.
The Mistress was lying unconscious on the floor.
"I must rescue them," he muttered and began inputting the necessary commands into the computer. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the transporter chamber start its signature glow.
Robin flexed his biceps. The straps holding him down split apart. In an instant, he was in the air taking in the situation. Warm sunlight bathed him in its life-giving rays.
Seeing Batman on the floor, unmasked and unconscious, and Selina bruised and battered, Robin felt a cold, black anger slowly consume him.
"You hurt them." Robin's low voice shook slightly. His normally clear, blue eyes began to burn, mirroring the white-hot rage that was building inside him.
Selina heard the cold, frightening quality in the boy's voice and grew immediately worried. "Robin, sweetheart...please don't--" she pleaded.
Ghul's eyes widened. For the first time in an eternity, he knew fear.
Robin heard Selina's voice somewhere in the shadowy recesses of the darkness that was enveloping his soul.
"He hurt you and Bruce," he said between gritted teeth. "He *deserves* to--"
Robin turned towards the sound of the voice. Kid Flash! And with him were Wonder Girl, Speedy and Aqualad! The momentary distraction broke his mounting wrath. His blazing eyes returned to their normal cool blue.
"Robin--!" "Robbie! He's--!" Selina and Wonder Girl cried out simultaneously.
Robin whirled back in time to see Ghul disappearing in a sparkling display of light. Kid Flash was suddenly there, his hands grabbing for the fading villain, touching only empty air.
A second sparkling display followed in its heels. The unconscious form of Talia disappeared from where she lay. Again, Kid Flash was too late.
Robin looked at his friend in disbelief.
"I thought you said you were fast."
Kid Flash looked at him sheepishly. The others gathered around him, slapping his shoulder, Wonder Girl hugging him.
"Look, we don't have time for this. We've gotta search the place for the transporter. It's gotta be here somewhere." He did a quick 360-degree scan of the area with his X-ray vision. "The place is lead-lined. I can't see through any of the walls. Let's go!"
"No, Batboy!" Speedy said, stopping him. "We'll go look for the bad guys. You take care of your dad and the pretty lady."
Robin suddenly remembered Selina and quickly broke away to free her. As soon as her bonds were removed she hugged him to her. Pulling back slightly, she cupped his face in her hands, amazed at his healthy, apricot cheeks and bright blue eyes.
She leaned down and kissed him gently on the forehead. "Thank you, munchkin," she whispered. "For believing in me." Robin blushed to the tips of his ears. He dropped his eyes in embarrassment, but felt secretly pleased.
"Bruce!" Selina said sharply. They both turned in time to see Wonder Girl easily lifting the 200-pound Dark Knight onto the gurney so recently vacated by Robin. With a wave, the group of teens broke up into teams and left to search the vast complex.
The next few moments happened quickly. A deep thrumming started vibrating throughout the underground multiplex. Soon, the walls and ceiling were caving in all around them, the floor heaving unsteadily.
"Robin!" Selina screamed pointing up. Robin looked where she pointed. The ceiling skylights were coming down on her and Bruce. A feeling of deja vu washing over him, Robin flew towards them, pushing them out of the way...
"Van!" Lara's cries echoed in Dick's mind. Dick/Van Zee saw her horror as the skylights crashed down on him. He felt a momentary sadness at never seeing his son again, but triumphant that his baby was safe...
"Dick!" Selina cried. Dick saw her horror as the skylights came crashing down on him. Remembering the father who'd sacrificed his life for him, Dick felt a momentary stab of regret at never having known him, but seeing that the father who'd raised him these past years was safe, he experienced the same sense of triumph that Van Zee felt even as he'd died.
Robin quickly evacuated the two people whom he loved most in the world, and leaving them at a safe distance from the collapsing mountain, turned to find his friends.
As the Boy of Steel dove back into the underground complex, a hidden entrance opened and a small, stealth aircraft made its escape.
"Dad, are you sure?" Dick asked. "It's not like you're an old man or anything like that."
Bruce looked at his oldest son and smiled. "Gotham City doesn't need Batman anymore, son. She has new protector now." He slammed the door to the uniform vault with a permanent sounding echo.
"But, Dad!" Dick looked over at Selina. She was standing to the side, not wanting to interfere in what was essentially Batman and Robin business. "Mom, *you* talk to him!"
She smiled tolerantly at her first son. "Sweetheart, how can I argue against something that I agree with? Something that I've prayed for?"
Dick looked at her in surprise. They were interrupted by the sounds of a human dynamo running down the stairs towards them.
"Mommy! Daddy!" A five-year-old boy with Bruce's dark looks and Selina's green eyes literally tumbled in. In a blink, he executed five expert handsprings and a round off.
Smiling, Dick bent down to eye level with his little brother. "Hey, Tommy, that was a perfect ten! Gimme five!" The two brothers slapped hands. Dick picked him up.
"I wanna see," Tommy said. "Please?"
A polite throat being cleared announced that it was time. "Master Richard, I believe that you shall find all is in order."
"'Master Richard'?" Dick asked, half-joking. "You only call me that when I'm in serious dog-doo with you, Alfred."
Alfred rolled his eyes. "As you have reached your eighteenth birthday, young sir, and surprised both your parents and myself by somehow graduating from high school with highest honors, I felt that you'd come of age." He paused. "Apparently, I was sorely mistaken."
He spun on his heel. Bruce and Dick exchanged amused glances. Dick lowered Tommy to the floor and followed Alfred into the uniform vault.
"Why can't I go with him, Daddy?" Tommy asked. Selina walked up to her baby and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"One day, munchkin," she whispered reassuringly. She met Bruce's surprised look. "It's the 'family business,' after all."
The door to the uniform vault slowly opened, and Alfred walked out. His most urbane expression firmly in place, he stepped to the side and waited.
A minute passed.
Tommy began to fidget restlessly. Catching sight of someone standing in the doorway, he gasped suddenly.
A figure in black stood before them, hidden by the shadows surrounding him. Stepping out into the light, he looked momentarily uncomfortable at being the center of attention.
Unlike his mentor, Dick opted to forego a cape and cowl, preferring the feel of the wind on his hair and face.
The others studied the new, darker look. Gone were the bright red, gold, and green of Robin. Before them stood a young man who'd come into his own. But he nonetheless chose to honor those who'd come before him with subtle touches in his new uniform.
A bat-like mask honored the man he called 'Dad' today, while a midnight blue stylized wing that ran across his chest honored the father who'd given him life. The sleek, aerodynamic bodysuit--the envy of any acrobat--honored the memory of the first man he'd called 'Daddy.'
And unlike his mentor whose hallmark was instilling fear into the hearts of the criminals against whom he'd fought relentlessly, this hero broke into a wide, ear-to-ear grin. "So? Whadaya think?" He twirled and then posed in a strongman stance.
Selina laughed lightly. "I think it's wonderful, Dick. But I'm afraid that you may wind up fighting off the girls instead of Gotham's criminals."
Dick blushed at his mother's comments. "Aw, mom," he protested. Tommy giggled at his brother's discomfiture, not really understanding it.
Bruce walked up to Dick and placed his hand on his shoulder.
"I'm proud of you, son," he said. "Now, go out and make Gotham City proud of her new protector--Nightwing!"