Even before Tim had appeared in this netherworld, Dick had made the decision to return if he could. It wasn't a difficult decision, and somehow seeing his parents made it even easier. They had no sorrow in the world/heaven they had found. He had been wiped clean from their memory, at least for now, and they were happy. So it was time for him to return home if he could. He was never one to leave a job incomplete, and Bludhaven was his job--his town--maybe even his destiny. Besides, he and Blockbuster had a score to settle.
Jason had walked him to the opening of the cave soon after Tim left. The ghost's words were still ringing in his ears. Or maybe it was because the kid sounded a lot like his father. "Walk tall Richard Grayson. Hold strong the convictions of your heart. Things are not always what you see. Trust your heart to lead you through the darkness, and be brave as you cross through the netherland. Have no doubt what you do is right. For if you doubt yourself, the flames of forgetfulness will consume you and your soul will be lost forever."
"No pressure there," he thought. "People all over the universe hoping to go to heaven, and here I am trying to get back." As he crossed through the opening of the cave, the tether broke. He felt as if lighting had struck him in the chest, burning with the fire of a million volts, knocking his breath out of him, and buckling his knees. "Nope, it didn't take a wall falling on me to think maybe this wasn't the brightest idea," he thought as the light around him became blinding and engulfed him in its nothingness.
By the time the pain eased and he could think again, he was pretty sure he was in trouble again.
"Giddup, kid," a familiar voice growled as it yanked him to his feet. That is when he noticed his feet were a lot smaller and so were his hands. In fact, he was no longer Richard "Nightwing" Grayson. He was little Dicky Grayson of the flying Graysons--right down to his leotards. And the growling voice belonged to a memory of his past too. The same voice he heard behind closed doors of a circus trailer. It belonged to the murderer of his parents. The man known as Tony Zucco.
"Yous ain't gonna get off so easy as your parents, you little brat. I've waited along time to get even with yous. Had a long time to think of what I was gonna do when I caught up with you," he smiled. Zucco hit the little boy with such force he was slammed into a wall two feet behind him.
"Zucco." Somehow the words sounding less menacing coming from a child's body.
"Ya knows kid, one of these days you're gonna learn: if you had forgotten that name in the first place, yous wouldn't have to go through the hell I'm 'bout to knock yous through now." The man laughed as two other goons grabbed the small child by the arms and yanked in two different directions. Dick became frightened; suddenly flooded with the thoughts and memories of a nine-year-old child who, until now, had no reason to fear anyone.
"Go ahead boss make a wish," laughed one of the creeps as the child struggled to free himself. The hood walked up onthe defenseless child and punched him as hard as he could in the stomach, buckling the kid's knees and causing tears to flow freely from his eyes. "The one great thing about being dead in this place is you can't kill me, but you'd be surprised what I can do you." The goon laughed as they dropped the kid to the ground and kicked him as he lay in the fetal position.
*What if it were Robin they were beating would he lay here and take it?* He looked up, and for a moment all he could see was a great shadow covering the sky, and a voice echoed in the back of his mind. He remembered how safe he felt in the strong arms of a stranger. The stranger who would rescue him from a hell almost as real as this one. The man who one day would become his friend, his mentor, and then eventually his surrogate father. The one man who came out of the sky and gave strength to the son of a man he would never know. The same son who had clung to the man as if he knew the man who cautiously embraced him was the only man in the world that could understand the way he felt. Suddenly Dick felt strong again.
Then he remembered the day he donned the costume of the Boy Wonder, and the words of Jason came back to him: "things aren't always as they appear." A smile crossed his face as his eyes opened. He noticed that he was back on his feet and still just a kid, but now not just any kid. He was dressed in a tunic and green shorts, and a cape billowed from behind him. Zucco's henchmen must have crossed his path once before, because all of the sudden the little boy had THEM scared. That's when something occurred to him; this was the same man who destroyed his whole childhood. This was the fool who made him the man he is today. Because of his actions, little Dicky Grayson had become the worse nightmare of every hood in Gotham--and Blüdhaven.
No longer a frightened child, he was trained to ignore the fears and anger that coursed through him every time he thought of this man. Instead he used them to strengthen the convictions of his mind, body, and soul. His memories came flooding back to him; building on every ounce of his being; changing him now just as they had originally until he was no longer a child but a man. Gone were the shorts and cape; he now dawned the blues of the night. This was the uniform that took him into his adulthood, and judging by the sound of gasps that encircled him, this too was a man they recognized. Now he was face-to-face with the scum that had so joyously attacked an innocent child. He smiled.
"Ok, worms for brains, we know you're good at beating small children. Let's see how you do with someone your own size."
"It's the Bat's kid," one of the mooks yelled just as a roundhouse kick slammed into his face.
"I am now, but at one time I was the son of simple circus performers, murdered because the owner wouldn't buy protection." Nightwing returned as he completed his combination with a double sidekick that landed on another guy's nose. "And you have this guy to thank for it," he growled as he stood nose-to-nose with the man who murdered his parents. "I guess your friends don't wanna play anymore, Tony."
An impish grin crossed Dick's face as he watched the other men run away yelling, "Zucco, you made the Nightwing, you deal with 'em," and, "This is all your fault Zucco, I won't forget this."
"Looks like it's just you and me, Tony," Nightwing continued as sound of retreating feet echoed around them.
"So what? What ya gonna do? Kill me, wonderbrat?" He grinned at the masked figure. "I'm already dead." he added with an air of arrogance.
"Yeah I know, and I have to admit I was hoping to find your sorry butt roasting over the hottest pit of hell itself, but I think I like this better." He laughed, as he watched a layer of self-importance peal away from Zucco's face.
"Whaddya mean by that?" He growled.
"They know now that I exist because of you. I wasn't born to this job, YOU made me what I am," he pointed out. "Because of you, Batman no longer flew alone. Because of you, they had two times the chances of being caught and sent to prison." Nightwing watched as layer-by-layer the words cut into the murderer's false bravado. "I think I would have accepted hell when I had the chance. Or maybe that is exactly what this is." The look of fear that danced across Zucco's face was more than even Dick could have hoped for. "As I see it," he continued, "because of you, some of these guys paid the ultimate price for their crimes. So, it would seem, in the long run it is you--not I--that is the catalyst for their being here. But look at the bright side; its like you said; they can't kill ya." He grinned, and then in a accent that mimicked Zucco's, he emphasized, "But you'd be surprised what dey can do to yous."
Still smiling, Nightwing fired his jump line and disappeared from Zucco's sight. Zucco watched in terror as some of Gotham's and Blüdhaven's biggest goons stepped out of the shadows towards him. A scream echoed through the darken alleys, but for the first time since he was nine years old, Dick just walked away.
There was still an hour before the sunset on Bludhaven. Bruce, guised as Matches Malone, wandered the docks of the warehouse district for nearly and hour before he spotted his contact. Roy Harper, the red-headed Titan known as Arsenal, was decked out in T-shirt and jeans, propped against a dock piling.
"Yeah, who's askin'?" Roy glared as he gave the apparent merchant sailor a once over.
"The names Matches. Matches Malone," he grunted. "We got a mutual friend--Nightwing."
"Ok, so what's this about?" He insisted as he hopped down to the dock.
The scrubby character just sneered as he turned around and headed towards the warehouses. "Follow me."
They wove in and out of some of the darkest looking hellholes the Titan had seen in a long time, which wasn't easy because this hero had been to hell and back in every sense of the word. They finally came on the other side where a large abandoned factory shadowed the waterfront. The sailor unfasten the master lock from the gate and quickly closed it again after they had passed through it.
All in all the actions of this thug was beginning to make Roy nervous. Then, as they reached the door of the factory itself, the man, in a total different, yet familiar voice, whispered, "Open." A moment later, the door slid open and allowed the two men to pass through, quickly closing after they cleared the threshold. The lights came up. The Titan stood in awe at the vehicle chaises that hung over their heads like clothes in a huge closet. By the time he found his voice, Bruce had peeled off the false face that had given him anonymity outside the walls. Roy figured that something big was going down, so he hopped up onto the workbench and waited for the downfall.
But when it was not quick in coming, he started it himself. "Ok, Bruce, you gonna tell me what the hell is going on or do we play twenty questions?"
"Did you hear what happened here in the warehouse district last night?"
Roy rolled his eyes. "Ok," he mumbled, " Twenty questions." It was one of the things he hated most about the older heroes--their need to test the youngers' knowledge. Well this time he knew the answer. "The gang war? Yeah, my sources said something about ten dead and sixteen known injured. One of the biggest conflicts to go down since the civil war," he joked, quickly clearing his throat when he saw it had no effect on the dark knight. He continued, "Feds are talking about sending a task force here to do some high class low profile observe and reporting. When I got the call, I assumed Dick wanted to fill me in and see if I could keep them out. So, where is he?"
"Dick didn't call you. I did." Suddenly the hairs on the back of Roy's neck went up. "Last night's 'incident' wasn't a gang war. It was a setup; a trap." Roy began to scan the warehouse. He knew where he was. This was Dick's Lair. Why was the Bat here, and where was Dick? Bruce solemnly noted Roy's glance and then asked, "You recognize these?" Bruce produced spent shell casings from his pocket.
An unconscious whistle of appreciation slipped from Roy's lips. Fifty and sixty caliber; most likely armor-piercing. He pulled two of the casings from the group, "These two are called cop stoppers cause they're intended to go through a bullet proof vest."
"Or Kevlar mesh." Bruce added.
That did it. All the alarms in Roy's head went off at once. Trying to hold in panic, Roy asked, "Bruce where is Dick?"
"Back at the Cave," Bruce replied in that voice.
"How bad?" Roy growled, insistently. "How bad?"
"Bad," was all he said as he turned away from the man.
That wasn't enough, for Roy. He wanted answers and he wanted them now! All those years of fear seem to melt away as he demanded, " Don't give me your cryptic BULLSHIT, Bruce."
Bruce turned on the boy his eyes ablaze with fire, hate and contempt, and for the first time Roy didn't feel it was aimed at him. "When I left him, he was on a respirator. All voluntary functions have shut down." Bruce shoved his finger in the area just below Roy's rib cage " the bullet went in here and came out his back. If he lives--" the word caught in the Bruce's throat before he could control it, "If he lives, there is a one in four chance that the may never walk again."
Suddenly the anger that had protected Roy vanished, and he was again afraid. But not of Bruce, or of Batman, but of the reality that Bruce had just so vividly described. "Oh God, I've gotta call Donna." he muttered as he pulled a cell phone from his belt.
"NO!" Bruce screamed, turning on the young Titan. " No. No one is to know." he snatched the device from the boy's hand and tossed across the room. " Do you understand! NO ONE. If I didn't need your help, YOU wouldn't know."
"You want my help to do what!"
When Bruce turned away, he looked different. Maybe the man was tired. But Bruce somehow looked vulnerable. "I need..." he stopped in mid-sentence as he realized he was again losing control, "I want you to become ...Nightwing." The vulnerability quickly faded, but Roy wasn't backing off.
"Do what.. ?" Roy asked, shocked.
"You're about his height and weight. It might be a little tight across the chest, but you've worked with him enough to know his moves and the way he thinks. In the dark it should be easy enough to pull off..."
"Wait..." he interrupted, "Let me get this straight. You called me because I fit the suit?"
Roy threw his hands up and was heading for the door when Bruce stopped him by slamming him into the wall. His voice turned to a deep growl as he explained, "If I thought I could pull this off without your help, believe me I would. THEY CAN'T WIN. Even if he dies, they can't know they won. Or we lose the town."
Roy pushed himself away from the wall and turned on Bruce. "Now YOU listen to ME! Dick Grayson was... is my best friend. And you call me here and tell me the only reason you told me was cause I fit the suit and you think because of this, I can save the town. I could care less if this place went to hell in an hand basket." Roy rebutted. "Let them rot. They didn't deserve his help. But know this, Bruce, if Dick Grayson dies, this town will answer to me."
"What will you do? Seek *revenge*?" Even without the cowl, Roy knew when he saw Batman. "You do that and you destroy everything he fought for, everything he believed in, and *for what*? Even the Feds are calling it a gang war. They claim he was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Was he?" Roy choked out almost timidly.
"When Tim brought him home, he said it was like everyone who had a gun was there. And he might be right. All of them after one man ... but that is to be expected when you have a price on your head like this," he handed the Titans' one-time leader a folded piece of paper. After one glance, Roy felt himself sliding down the wall where he stayed as the elder man continued. "Oracle intercepted this after growing suspicious of some trouble building in Blüdhaven, but it was too late."
"Who...?" the redhead wondered aloud.
"The one they call Blockbuster?" Roy questioned.
Bruce confirmed with a slight nod, but before he could finish the story, Roy was up and heading out the door again. "Then that's where I am going."
"What do have in mind, Roy? What are your plans?" Bruce called after him, stopping the younger man. "The man sent over twenty men down the river with their head twisted backwards. Dick was there when he snapped the neck of a cop who had just unloaded a weapon at point blank range into the man. And he was exonerated before he got out of the hospital. You go in there unprepared and your chances of coming out are slim to none."
"How can you take this so lightly," the kid growled. "He's your son, for God's sake."
Bruce laughed angrily. The deep resonance almost frightened the younger man. Roy jumped when it stopped suddenly, and he found himself staring back into angry eyes. "I stood outside Blockbuster's window all night watching...waiting. I bypassed every one of his traps and alarm systems with the intention of going in and ripping the overgrown rock the doctors so blatantly call a heart right out of his chest. I even instructed Alfred to give Tim a sedative, to keep him from following me. But I couldn't do it. I keep seeing the deep blue eyes of the little boy I raised staring up at me, in total disgust and disappointment. Do you know what that is like?" Roy quickly turned away hoping to hide the anguish that flooded him. Yes he knew--he knew all to well. "Don't you understand it goes against everything he believes, everything he stood for."
"Yeah, right!" The kid returned, breaking free of the guilt. "Doesn't anybody else see a trend here...they kill, we catch, they go free and kill again." The Titan smirked as he started again for the door. "Maybe it's time we make some changes."
"Then what Roy?" Bruce asked insistently, stopping Roy again. "We already bypass so many "laws" to see justice done that the government doesn't trust us. And what happens when we break the big one, Roy? What happens when the innocent begin to distrust and fear us? We become no better than the slime we fight against," he slammed his fist against the workbench. "The only way to defeat Desmond is to show him he can't beat us. They believe they killed Nightwing last night. I overheard Desmond talking about some drug shipment due to leave port tonight and head up river to Metropolis. If Arsenal or the Batman take it out the cargo, it won't matter because they know we don't belong and will wait us out. If someone takes over, it will not be the same because they will believe they have beaten us before, they can do it again. Don't you see? They'll just wait us out or redirect until they take back the town. But if Nightwing returns tonight, it will start to crumble the foundation of that belief, and they'll turn on each other. And they'll think twice before they go after him again." * if they are given the chance.* he finished to himself involuntarily. "Please, Roy, for him."
Roy had seen Batman in action. He knew all of the Bat's quirks, and emotion wasn't one of them. This was Bruce Wayne asking. And not just any Bruce Wayne, but the father of his best friend."Ok, you win. Lets see how the "suits" fits." Bruce took the kid into the office area of the warehouse.
Walking into a small apartment built into the back rooms, he headed straight for the bedroom were Dick's costume had been laid out. "There are a couple of things your going to have to do before you can do this," Bruce instructed, continuing to the bathroom. Disappearing for a moment, he reappeared with a bottle of hair dye and a razor, and dropped them carelessly into Roy's hand.
Roy looked at the items for a moment, and then looked up, stating, "Maybe you should tell me again why we don't do that whole 'ripping out the heart" thing again?" Bruce just walked away.
When Roy came out of the back room, he found Bruce had changed into Batman. His cowl was pushed behind his head as he sat at the PC. He recognized Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's butler and confidant, in the monitor. "Then I will expect them, sir." the gentlemen acknowledged a request unheard by Roy.
"Call if there is any change Alfred. Batman out," he whispered as the screen went black. Batman stared at the blank screen for a moment, and then turned to find the faux Nightwing standing behind him.
"Well what do you think?" Roy asked.
"The mask fit?" he asked, not even giving Roy a second look.
"It's awkward. I filled it with spirit gum. It should hold for the night and maybe two or three nights afterwards," he mumbled wondering if he would ever be able to get it off.
"Good work." Batman injected. Roy could have sworn, for a moment, he might have seen a semi-almost maybe smirk beneath the Bat's cowl.
Bruce handed Roy his cell phone. "Before we leave, call Donna. Have her go to the manor. You're right; he is going to need his friends with him. But for now, tell her not to talk to anyone about this. Alfred knows she's coming."
"Thanks Bruce." Roy said. But halfway through the dialing, a heavy gloved hand stopped him. "I told you before that Dick was in a coma--" he admitted, still battling the deep sensation of guilt he was feeling having to even ask the kid to don the suit. "And that is true... But what I didn't tell you is that we actually lost him once this afternoon." He looked up at Roy with a father's concern. "They're playing for keeps, Roy. I just need you tonight, and I'll be out there to back you up. If it works out the way I think it will, you won't have to go out after tonight.."
"Look, I don't know why the change of attitude, but I'm in as long as I feel I need to be whether or in blue or orange--makes no never mind to me. Dick is my friend."
"You have a daughter to think about." He countered.
"Yeah, and I think about her every time I go out, and every kid who goes out on the streets. It was something Dick told me once. He said being Robin gave him a chance to keep every other kid in the world from having to face what you and he did when you were kids. I know what's out there, and I know what I have to lose, but I ran away once, Bruce. I will never, NEVER, run again. Besides if anything happens to me... I know she will be well taken care of. So let's go."
Time had no importance here, and it seem like he had been here forever. No longer suited as Nightwing, Dick Grayson sat perched on the cathedral of Saint Stephens over what looked to him to be old Gotham. Even as dark as the city appeared, it was just as magnificent. He had always wanted to romp around the roof tops in his civvies, but he had always known that it would have caused a problem for Bruce's and his secret. The wind whipped through his hair. There was a crispness in the air, and everything seemed so real that for a moment he wondered if he had accidentally "crossed over." At least until an unexpected voice came over his shoulder nearly scaring the hell out of him, "Of all the rooftops in all the city in all the world you gotta pick mine."
He turned so quickly he nearly fell off the building, but that didn't shake him up half as much as what he found standing behind him. A beautiful auburn haired vigilante clad in cape and cowl. "Babs!"
"That's Batgirl to you, big guy," she laughed, standing on the spire and smiling down at him.
Dick asked, "What are you doing here?"
"Hey, that's my line, Boy Wonder," she countered. "It's my dream. Not that you haven't been here before. You're just not usually so... talkative."
"So you're asleep," Dick revealed.
"Duh..." she mocked him looking down at her legs. "Not that your making it any easier, you nearly scared me to death this afternoon."
Dick stepped up cupping her face in his hand, wanting so much to tell her everything he felt in case he didn't get back. But all that popped out was, "So, you dream about me?"
She just laughed and leapt from the cathedral, and he magically changed into Nightwing and followed. He was beginning to like this ability to change by simply thinking about it. It was all he could do to remind himself that this whole thing was an illusion. "Babs! I mean Batgirl... wait up."
They flew through the skyline like young birds unhampered by wings or ropes. They laughed as she led him through a game of follow the leader. He thought he might be able to do this forever. Then he saw her start to fade. She would be leaving soon. He had to tell her. He caught up to her and wrapped his arms around her. He guided her to the top of Wayne Tech, the tallest building in the city. "Babs, we gotta talk."
"No," she objected. "We gotta fly. It's the only chance I get. Come on, Dick, fly with me."
"Babs, please, you're going to wake up soon, and I don't know if I will ever get a chance to say this again."
"No, don't talk like that." She tried to pull violently away from him, but he still managed to embrace her.
"Babs, I love you. I have always loved you. Please, remember no matter what happens, I will always love you." Crying, Batgirl became Barbara Gordon, complete with chair. "Dick, please, please don't say that."
"I love you, nothing can change that. I understand if you don't love me, but I will always love you."
Barbara faded a little more. "I do love you, Dick. With all my heart. But don't you see," she emphasized by pounding on the wheels of her chair, "I can't love you."
Dick kneeled down on his knees in front of her grabbing the chair and pulling her closer. "Barbara, if I find my way back and I can no longer walk or fly, would your feelings change? Would you love me any less?" Tears fell uncontrolled down her face as she shook her head.
"Then don't expect me to be swayed by such absurd excuses. I love you." He smiled, pulled her face to his and kissed her. As he kissed her, she vanished. He stood alone again, looking for a reason from the top of the building. Then, in a gesture of frustration, he flung his hands into the air and yelled out, "Just once I would like to kiss her without something interrupting."
Bludhaven was a filthy town. If any town needed a hero, it was this one. The rats here scurried around on two legs unencumbered by the fear of a trap, because some of the biggest rats wore badges. Roy watched from the rooftop as one of many ships in its black harbor had its cargo unloaded onto the docks. Dick had often complained to him about how the dredge of the world seemed to find their way here. The acoustics of the area allowed Roy to listened in on the conversation of the dock workers as they unloaded the ship. The topics ranged from the a debate of how Nightwing died, to the things that would happen to any other "hero" should attempt to hang his shingle in Bludhaven.
"I don't know," one of the workers was saying, "Maybe we can get lucky and get some costumed chick, like Wonder Woman, or one of them female Titans from up New York ways. I can think of all kinds of things I would like to do with them before they die...."
That did it. A flip of Roy's wrist, and the scum never knew what hit him. He quickly dropped as a Batarang caught him right between the eyes. Roy had to admit he had to practice more with that weapon; he had been aiming for a more intimate spot on the scum's body. Although a second one easily hit the man's partner before he could react and yell. The false Nightwing was aware of company as he saw Batman slink just inside the shadow on the other side of the warehouse.
Roy had to admit the Dark Knight called this one. By believing they defeated Nightwing, they believed they were invincible. Well now was a good a time as any to shatter their illusions.
He took leave of his hiding place on the adjacent warehouse by jumping into the cargo net and down to the gangway of the ship they were unloading. Granted his entrance didn't have the flair that his friend's would have had but the results were priceless.
Two of the men unloading merchandise immediately dumped their cargo in the water, and then purposefully joined that cargo. The ship security started to scream in a foreign tongue, and gunfire erupted all over the dock. And suddenly the name Nightwing was echoing all throughout the port by very frightened and angry voices. By the time they realized it wasn't a ghost that was attacking them, half of them were either taken down or running away as fast as their stumbling legs would take them. The other half on board the ship had pulled away with a better part of the dock in tow and were about to run right in to the Coast Guard.
After rescuing those tossed in the water by rushed the exit of the ship and trussing up all the mooks he could catch, Roy waited long enough for his buddies from feds to show up and then disappeared into the shadows. A very tired Batman met him on the warehouse rooftops. "Good work, Ars... uh Nightwing."
"If I had known being Nightwing was so much fun I would have tried this long time ago." he quipped.
Batman didn't even look up. "You did well tonight, Roy. And I want to thank you. But we still need to rattle a few more cages to get Blockbuster riled up enough to screw up."
"I think I got the hang of it here, Mr. B," Roy injected. "If you want to go home and check on your son, I think I can handle the rest," Roy stated confidently as he watched the feds load up the last of the smugglers. "Besides if it gets too sticky I can always call on some outsiders to help shake some cages." Roy turned to Batman in time to receive the older man's nod. Then Batman disappeared in to the darkness, never knowing that there was another set of masked eyes watching them from a shipping crane just across the docks.