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NIGHTWING CHILDHOOD TIES

BY ALEXANDER BEEDIE

BASED UPON CHARACTERS OWNED AND PUBLISHED BY DC COMICS. This is a work of fan-fiction. Not endorsed in any way by DC Comics. Images Cover art – Pencils: Alexander Beedie. Colours: Sara Dunkerton. Nightwing and Oracle – Pencils Alexander Beedie. Colours Sara Dunkerton. Green Arrow – Pencils and Colours: Alexander Beedie Zatanna – Pencils and Colours: Alexander Beedie

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PROLOGUE Childhood ties last a lifetime. Though it is true that decisions made as a child can have an effect on your adult life, and the environment in which you are bought up, the people who raise you, play a part on your adult personality, nothing sticks with you like the bonds you create yourself when given the freedom to do so. No matter the age, people connect with each other. It can’t be forced upon you - two children put in a room and told to play together will not get along - but when given the freedom to make your own choices, two people may find that they share a connection. Most of the time that connection is lost when the child leaves school. At the time, of course, it doesn’t feel like it. When you play together in the schoolyard, go to the movies at the weekend, it feels like you’ve found a friend for life. A best friend. One you invite to all your birthday parties, share your toys with, share your secrets with - but rarely does that connection last beyond your senior year of High School. Life will, inevitably, take you on different paths. With me it was different. My entire childhood was different. It is true I made connections with various people - most of whom stuck with me through thick and thin and are still here for me today - but there was one in particular, one sole person who was there for me no matter what. Someone who listened when I talked and comforted me when I cried; someone who laughed with me, played with me … and fought crime with me. A girl named Barbara Gordon. As a boy I never went to school, and I never had a home. I was a world-class acrobat with a travelling circus. When I was eight years old my parents were killed in front of me and I was adopted by a man who saw a reflection of himself in me. A man who took me in; a man who cared for me. A man who spent his nights acting on a promise that he had made to his parents when he was a boy: to rid a city of the kind of evil that had taken their lives. To understand me, to understand my life, and to understand my relationship with Barbara Gordon, one must first understand that man: my surrogate father, Bruce Wayne. More commonly known, in point of fact, as Batman. My name is Dick Grayson, once called Robin, once called Nightwing. But right now I have no real identity. Right now, I don’t exist. I was born Richard Grayson, son of John and Mary Grayson, and for as far back as I can remember until that fateful day nineteen years ago - we were known together as the Flying Graysons. We were good. People would flock from all over the country - all over the world - to see us in action. After a while we started going to them; we took the show on the road - started touring the country. Then one day we were told we would be putting on a special show in an east coast city named Gotham. Special, they said. A night to remember. Well, it’s twenty years on and I haven’t forgotten it. Two lives were changed forever the moment Anthony Zucco, professional gangster for hire, laced my parents trapeze ropes with acid, causing them to snap mid-act while my parents were two-hundred feet in the air. My life as I knew it was over; but there was another who sat in the stalls for that performance, and remained there long after everybody else had been rushed out. Bruce Wayne - barely as old as I am now and entering his fourth year as the Batman - was quick to comfort me and take me in when nobody else would. At first it was hard, trying to adapt to a completely new life, new surroundings, and trying to deal with the loss of the two most important people in my life. I had trouble sleeping at night and I couldn’t concentrate on anything during the day. It wasn’t until Batman came to me one night and revealed himself to be Bruce Wayne - the man who had taken me in several weeks prior but had never spent more than two minutes in a room with me - did my mind finally start to settle on something and my life begin to have new meaning. Revenge clouded all rational thought and judgement when I first started training with Bruce. I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing, I was so intent on killing the man who had killed my parents. What I understand now, and what Bruce understood the minute he lead me down to the Cave for the first time, is that if I was going to start a new life outside of the circus I needed to give it some sort of purpose. If I didn’t become Robin back then, if I didn’t set myself a goal, I was as good as dead. In fact, I had died on the same night as my parents.

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Bruce used to say I took to the job naturally, but now he says I saw it as being too much of a thrill, which would be why I outgrew it and started a new life as Nightwing. Truth is it was a thrill, and I loved every second of it, but Batman didn’t need a Robin back then. Unlike today, he didn’t need someone to keep him grounded, to ensure that both Bruce Wayne and the Batman could co-exist. After a while I just found that I got in his way. That’s part of the reason I connected with Barbara as well as I did. Barbara Gordon was the niece, and later adopted daughter of Police Commissioner James ‘Jim’ Gordon. She came into his life after his wife had left him and taken her son - claiming Jim didn’t spend enough time at home; that he was too close to his job and too close to Batman despite knowing nothing about him. It is true that he was a bad father, and a bad husband, but when Babs entered his life he put right all his personal wrongs and the two started an inseparable relationship. And then she became Batgirl. Jim had no idea what Barbara was doing with her nights, and myself and Bruce had no idea who this mysterious redhead in the cape and cowl was who had decided to aid us in our fight. She was, however, untrained, so just as he had with me a few years earlier, Bruce took her under his wing and truly honed her skills and abilities. Barbara never did tell her adopted father who she was, and Bruce never stepped in her way. He considered Jim a friend, but he had never shared his identity either, and with Barbara he said that it was her decision if - or when - to tell him who she really was. After the use of her legs was taken from her at gunpoint and she was forced to retire the new life she had created for herself, she found it easier to never share the information, to never have to put her father through the torment of thinking he had done her wrong. My relationship with Barbara Gordon cannot be summed up in a few lines. Everything we have said, everything we have done, every twist and turn that our lives have taken, has to be experienced to be believed. It is a tale of friendship and love, of anguish and great sorrow, and believe me, if I could go back and redo it all over again I would do, and I would do things differently. But I can’t. It happened as it did. There is no going back. This is my life. CHILDHOOD TIES Gotham County. Nineteen Years Ago. The cave is terrifying and wonderful at exactly the same time. I’m scared - or I’m nervous or something - but who wouldn’t be, right? I’ve spent the past sixteen weeks going through the most intensive training course anyone has ever undertaken, and through all the certainty in what I was doing I still can’t figure out if I’m crazy - or if he’s crazy. I mean, let’s get real for a second… Few months ago the only lifestyle I knew was that of a circus, and now I’m living in a house that’s bigger than any tent I’ve ever performed in and spending every hour of the day whacking training dummies with a bo staff. It’s crazy. And now? He guides me a through at a brisk pace, to an area of the cave I’ve never been before. Months I’ve spent down here. Months. And I’m still just as amazed by this place as I was when I first saw it. He told me once that he had never thought to give it a name, and that could be because there’s no word in the English language that can justifiably get across the scale and scope of this place… And the amazing thing? It’s just getting started. First we pass the display cabinets, where Roman Sentinels and Samurai stand side by side to a varying degree of Batsuits. Then the cars, and the bikes and the plane… Then the workstation, and the dinosaur and the penny… We pass Alfred and I try and catch his eye - hoping for a comforting smile or words of encouragement - but his attention is on the man in front and all of a sudden I don’t feel quite so reassured. Time to try something else. ‘So, where are we going?’ I ask, hopping a bit on one foot to try and catch up with the Batman’s strides. He turns and looks down at me, but his mask is on and I’ve come to learn that he isn’t at his chattiest when he’s like that. ‘Somewhere very special,’ he tells me.

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Special? He uses that word to describe everything in this cave - from the penny to the dinosaur and to every single one of his gizmos - and it now bares little meaning. We carry on into the blackness. It seems he has the route memorised in his head because he keeps telling me to watch out for the crevasse, or to be careful of the stalagmites. It’s so dark I gave up even trying to see anything a couple of hundred feet back. Eventually he stops and I almost bump into him. ‘Here,’ he says, briskly. I blink. ‘Here?’ I ask, in mocking tones. ‘Well I can certainly see what makes this spot different from the one just up there.’ He grunts, then suddenly a candle is lit and I look into his face for the first time since we left the work area. He looks up to the rocky ceiling above us and tells me to do the same. ‘Can you work out where we are?’ he asks. Now that I look around I realise there’s a spot above our heads that seems to be giving off a faint glow. I’m about to ask what it is until I realise it’s moonlight coming from a hole in the rock about thirty feet up, so I figure we must be well into the mansion’s grounds by now since the majority of the work area is situated under the house itself. He didn’t tell me as much; I figured it for myself, realising it was how Bruce was able to get electricity down there and get everything set up in the first place. ‘New holiday home?’ I jokingly say in answer to his question. Unsurprisingly, he chooses to act as though I hadn’t said anything at all. ‘When I was your age I fell through that hole,’ he tells me. ‘One minute I was playing in the grounds, the next I was engulfed by the blackness and the bats…’ I stay silent. ‘Your life can change in an instant,’ he continues. ‘It isn’t how we prepare for those moments, it’s how we deal with them afterwards… My parents were still alive, but in many ways the Batman was born the second I lost my footing and landed here.’ I nod. ‘I get it,’ I tell him. ‘Initiation time, right? You want to know if I’m ready to take the steps you did?’ I laugh, nervously, more of a defence mechanism than anything else. Truth is, this man intimidates me as much as he amazes me, and I feel as though I have to mock him just to convince myself I’m not outright scared of him. ‘You know this is totally sad, right?’ I say, with a fake grin. Again, he ignores me. ‘It isn’t an easy life, Dick,’ Batman says. ‘I can’t change your mind?’ I shake my head. ‘No way,’ I reply, truthfully. ‘You might want to rethink the yellow cape.’ ‘Nope, these were the colours my parents wore.’ ‘And what is it you want to call yourself?’ ‘Robin,’ I reply. ‘It’s, uh, what my mom used to call me.’ For a second I see something in his eyes. Regret? Sorrow? But the next second it’s gone, and it’s back to the same blank stare. He holds his left hand flat and puts his right in the air. ‘Put your hand on mine,’ he tells me. ‘Dude, shouldn’t we be doing this over a Bible, like in court?’ ‘I am a man of science,’ Batman replies. ‘Not of faith.’ ‘It helps loads of people,’ I point out. ‘Hopefully … so will you.’ I don’t answer, I just do as he says and place my right hand on top of his and hold my left in the air, and though my hand is dwarfed by the size of his it still feels oddly comforting. ‘So,’ I start, ‘Robin and Batman?’ He grunts. ‘Batman and Robin.’ Chicago. Now. I turn the key in the lock of my crummy, run down apartment in downtown Chicago but the door doesn’t open until I give it an extra kick. I step through onto the downtrodden mat, drop my motorbike helmet onto a pile of clothes that sit unwashed on a moth eaten armchair and slide my biker’s jacket off my shoulders and throw it in the general direction of an old coat hanger. It misses. I contemplate going to pick it up but the moment passes, and instead I head straight through into what could only loosely be called a bathroom, twist the knob that turns on the shower, then head back into the living area to search for a semi-clean towel. Generally I don’t like living like this. I was, after-all, raised in part by a billionaire, but it’s easier this

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way to slip by unnoticed from the outside world. I was on my bike again today, out of the city, reached a speed that would guarantee death should a crash occur. I guess it’s not slipping by unnoticed, but it’s the only thing that helps clear my mind and makes me forget who I was. After I shower I grab what I hope is a clean white shirt and jeans, hastily try to flatten out the creases and head out the room. It’s dark, but it gets dark earlier this time of year; it doesn’t help me determine what the time really is. I would try and wear a watch but I’ve never been used to the feeling of one of my wrist, having never been able to wear one with my past outfits. Bruce bought me one once but the minute I took it off for the evenings patrol I promptly forgot where I had left it, and in a Mansion with over seventy rooms I didn’t know where to begin looking. I don’t do well with the mundane. The local bar to where I’m staying is an interesting scene. It’s not rough by any means, but it isn’t high profile. It suits me because right now all I really want to do is blend into the shadows, and not connect to too many people. Since I moved to Chicago four months ago I’ve gone to this bar nearly every night. I tried staying in once but it didn’t work; I hated the atmosphere, I hated the silence. I hated being alone with nothing but my thoughts and memories. On the outside the bar is nothing special: a mere shack with a faded neon sign which reads, ‘Terry’s Place.’ The inside is exactly what one would expect: darkness, lit only by the soft neon glow from the signs around the walls and the spotlight illuminating the busted pool table. Several circular booths line the north wall and a cracked wooden bar runs the length of the east. Small, but arguably cosy, the place feels like you’ve stepped into a small towns local and you momentarily forget you’re in one of the busiest cities in America. And that’s why I like it, because right now forgetting is all I want to do. There’re only several other people at Terry’s tonight, perhaps it’s still early. There’s a tune playing on the jukebox but I don’t take in what it is, instead I order my usual and head to the furthest booth where I let the shadow engulf me. I close my eyes. Somewhere to my right a poker game is just starting up and the players are laying their stakes. At the bar an ageing businessman in a crumpled suit is desperately trying to sweet talk a girl less than half his age and is not picking up on her subtle hints of ‘leave me alone’, whilst in the corner a down-on-his-luck stock-broker inserts endless quarters into the bar’s only slot machine. Place like this, reeks of cliché - but with my ears filled with the endless noises that are on offer I can finally relax. ‘Drinking alone?’ Before I open my eyes I inhale, and a blended mix of lavender and cinnamon greats me. I blink. A woman of around twenty-seven, dressed in a tight black strap-top with beautiful dark red hair hanging lose over one shoulder stares back at me, holding out a cocktail of some sort with a hopeful, yet friendly look in her eyes. ‘A man like you,’ she continues, ‘it’s not good for the soul.’ I don’t say anything. The situation is hard for me to fathom. Ordinarily this girl is exactly my type: young, beautiful, strong willed and confident. I imagine myself with her, at least for the night, and a part of me yearns for the experience; to live life the way I have done in the past. But there is another part of me, a stronger part that tells me not to get involved, that that time of my life is over and it would be a mistake to fall back into it. ‘One drink,’ she persists, sliding into the booth and pushing the cocktail across the table to me. I smile in what I hope is a gracious manner, and pick the glass up with my right hand and bring it to my lips. A subtle mix of vodka and lime greets me as I take a sip and immediately I don’t know what to think, but I let the taste settle and it actually tastes pretty good. ‘What’s your name, handsome?’ the girl asks. ‘Dick Grayson,’ I reply, my gaze travelling up and locking with hers as I take another sip of the drink. ‘What’s your story, Dick Grayson?’ she asks. ‘What makes you think I have a story?’ ‘You’re drinking alone in the most secluded pub in Chicago,’ she replies. ‘There’s always a reason.’ ‘Sorry to disappoint,’ I say, although I know I sound less than convincing. She studies me for a moment. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ ‘How’d you figure?’ ‘The way you position yourself, like you’re not quite sure how to act here.’ ‘Maybe I’m nervous around women.’ She scoffs. ‘With your looks?’ I give a soft smile. ‘Gotham,’ I add. ‘Born and raised?’

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‘Not exactly.’ ‘You’re a long way from home.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Man of mystery, eh?’ I say nothing, and take another sip of the drink. ‘You’re not a big talker, are you?’ the girl continues. ‘I’ve not been finding myself all that comfortable amongst people recently,’ I truthfully reply. ‘You’re still here,’ she points out. ‘With me.’ I shrug, and offer a small grin. ‘I’ve got this thing for redheads.’ She slides around the booth bench closer to me. ‘We could get out of here,’ she suggests. ‘Go someplace else.’ She presses herself against me and I can feel her leg interlocking with mine. My pulse starts to race. The voice in the back of head begins to scream, the urge to give in is overwhelming. I turn my head to hers and she’s so close now I can feel her breath against my skin. She looks amazing in the soft glow of the neon lights surrounding us and I want to give in there and then, to hold her, to kiss her, to feel her body against mine… ‘I can’t,’ I finally say, turning my head away and hastily downing my drink in one. ‘You sure about that?’ she asks, sliding her hand around my waist. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘This just isn’t the right time.’ She looks confused, with a touch of sadness and disappointment, but she nods, and lets me get up. ‘Do me a favour,’ she says as I turn to leave. ‘Whatever it is you’re running from, don’t let it consume you. I’ve seen what it can do to people.’ I turn my head back and stare her over my shoulder for a second. ‘So have I,’ I reply, softly, before heading straight out onto the street and breathe in the fresh air. I finished off the cocktail too quickly; my head is spinning. Around me Chicago slowly dissolves, to be replaced with images of Barbara, and Bruce and the life I left behind. The pain in my gut is overpowering. I want to cry, to scream out, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. There’s an alleyway to my left and I instinctively head down it, though it’s by no means the quickest route back to my apartment. I’m reminded of the many alleyways in Gotham and it’s subconsciously comforting. I take a moment to lean against the wall on the left hand side, beside a large dumpster and an upturned mattress, and I slowly start to start to regain my focus. The images of Barbara in my head subside, but as I slowly run a hand through my tangled mess of hair I’m reminded of her touch once more. Though I can’t see her, I can feel her presence, hear her voice as she whispers my name. ‘Babs…’ I stammer, my voice barely above a whisper. ‘I…’ A scream rings out somewhere close by and I’m snapped back into reality. I look around me but the alleyway is deserted. Instinctively I head further down into the blackness to search for a source of the screaming, and before long I’m met with the sounds of a whimpering young woman and another - a male who screams pleas of help into the night. I turn a corner and see the couple cowering near a trashcan, the male with his arms around the girl and a frantic look in his eyes. Standing in a group around them are three large men - one black, two white - all wearing tank tops and ski masks and brandishing knives. Great. More cliché. ‘The money,’ the darker one says. ‘Give. Me. The. Money.’ ‘Please,’ stammers the man on the ground. ‘We don’t have anything on us. Please, we’re only supposed to be meeting with friends.’ ‘Bullshit,’ says one of the others, twisting his knife in his fingers, itching to use it. ‘We followed ya, we did. We saw ya comin’ out of that restaurant.’ The woman is crying. ‘Please, don’t hurt us,’ she pleads. My feet are frozen to the spot; I don’t know what to do. Time was I would have leapt in there in a heartbeat, jumping onto the back of the closest guy and vaulting over his shoulders, legs outstretched and hitting the other two square in the chest. But that was then, that was a different man. I haven’t been in a fight now for about seven months; I haven’t even touched my old costume. I hate myself for it but right now all I want to do is turn and run, to not get involved with these peoples lives, and to ensure that I’m not reminded - at all - of who I was, and what I did. It’s not that I’m ashamed; I just cannot bare the pain. But what would Barbara want you to do, Dick? I don’t allow myself I second more to think, and I run straight into the fray, doing exactly what my instincts tell me to do in the situation and I jump straight onto the closest thug, the black guy. Before I can properly judge the situation I try for the vault over his head and shoulders but I’m out of practice and I’m

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unable to bring my hand into the required position on the back of his neck. I slip, but as I fall one leg manages to lock itself around the guys head and I bring him down with me, and whilst I land on my back his face makes contact with the cold stone beneath us. A loud cracking sound tells me his nose is broken. The other two are advancing on me, momentarily stunned by the shock of me coming out of nowhere and trying such a radical move. I’m on the floor but I leap up in an instant and turn to face them, twisting out of the way at the last minute as the thug on the left charges at me, knife held aloft. As soon as he realises he hasn’t hit me he turns back, but I’m already advancing on his partner, bringing my elbow swiftly into his jaw in a move that only the Batman could have taught me how to perfect. The black guy with the broken nose is on his feet again, and the other two are advancing on me once more. Alternating between my fists and my feet - and never spending too long on one guy - I engage all three of them in a fight. This is a true Batman speciality, and one that requires years of intensive training. I have, of course, had that training, but I’ve been out of practice for so long that I never quite get into a rhythm, and after a while I’m pulling my punches and not landing my kicks whilst I anxiously try and keep the three guys at bay. At last the guy who connected with my elbow earlier breaks the routine, and despite his bulky size he actually manages to move quite gracefully as he gets behind me and wraps one of his enormous arms around my neck, taking hold of the back of my neck with the other and slowly applying pressure. I start to choke, but I’ve been in similar situations before, and thanks to my acrobatic background I’ve always been able to get out of them by simply launching myself off of his body and sliding my head from within his grasp. It works out better than my pervious vault, but its not perfect and I land awkwardly, allowing the second of the two white guys to punch me in the gut. It hurts, but it could have been a lot worse; it appears that I’ve made things personal enough for him to forget about the knife he carries and to simply rely on his size and brawn. I hold an advantage though, and it’s not the years of training with one of the best martial artists on the planet. All three of them are considerably larger than I am - and considerably stronger - but their size makes them slow, and I pride myself on my agility and my speed. It will take a while, but I know I can beat these guys; I’ve just got to wait for them to tire themselves out and get sloppy. But I’m not at my peak and I know it. I’ve spent the last seven months on the road, desperately trying to get as far away from Gotham as I can. The last fight I was in tested me: Barbara had just been killed and I didn’t have time to grieve, all emotions had to be put on hold as an impending strike from Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins forced me and the rest of Bruce’s immediate friends and allies to be on the very top of our game. We won, but from that night on everything changed, and I couldn’t deal with it. The black guy, blood still gushing from his nose, now seems to be in control. I do my best to keep the other two back, but whenever I advance on this guy he’s blocking my moves and not giving me a way in. He waves the knife in his hand, a couple of times preparing himself to drive it forward before pulling it back at the last minute, and forcing me - having already dodged out the way - to loose my footing. He’s playing with me, and it’s insulting. Suddenly he does lunge forward, but his attack is poorly thought out, and one of his comrades picks the exact same time to try and get me from behind. I twist out the way and the black guy drives his knife straight into the gut of the other, and while they both try and grasp what happened I take the opportunity to slide in behind the wounded man, twist his arm around to his back and snap his wrist. He cries out in agony, but I had forgotten about the last man and he’s on me again, sharply bringing his elbow to the small of my back. I double over, and before I know it the black guy is there, knife forgotten and instead punching me repeatedly in the chest and jaw. I take a blind leap backwards and narrowly avoid an uppercut to the jaw, but I can’t land it properly and I immediately feel the impact of the back of my head hitting the stone ground. Behind me I hear a whimper and with great effort I flip myself around so that I’m on my chest, and find myself staring into the terrified eyes of the cowering man and woman, who I had completely forgotten about. ‘Run,’ I choke, blood trickling from my jaw. ‘Goddamn it, just run!’ The man stares at me and tries to edge backwards, pulling his partner with him. They stumble to their feet, but one of the guys stands in their path with his knife clenched between his teeth. He grabs the man, and just as he had done to me earlier wraps his arm around his throat and begins to apply pressure. I try to stand, intent on getting to him and helping, but I feel a boot press down on my back, pinning me to the floor. I struggle but find I can’t move, and then suddenly something large and heavy hits me in the back of the head and before I know it everything has gone dark.

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Gotham City. Sixteen Years Ago. We stand atop the Wayne Tower in Gotham Central, looking down. Just the two of us: me and the girl. Far below us the city is going to sleep; the lights are all turned out in the surrounding apartment buildings, and there are very few cars on the road. Bruce said this would be the perfect time to do it: when there are no distractions, nothing but us and our own faith. And two high power grappling guns with over five hundred feet of wire cord. The girl looks at me. ‘I’ll race you,’ she says, the traces of a grin appearing on her face. I shake my head. ‘No.’ ‘Why not? ‘Fraid you might lose?’ ‘I doubt it.’ ‘Then why?’ ‘This isn’t a game, and we shouldn’t treat it as one.’ ‘That you speaking, or the Batman?’ Bruce took my up here once, eight months to the day when we first started training. He said I was nearly ready, but there was just one last thing that had to be done, one last test that would determine if I was really cut out for the same life as him. I remember looking out over the edge and feeling like I couldn’t do it, but then I looked back up into the eyes of Batman and knew that I couldn’t let him down, and that if he didn’t think I could do it then we wouldn’t be up here. The girl, however, doesn’t appear to be scared at all. Not only is she ready to do it, she wants to race me. I admit I have doubts over Bruce’s decision, that if she’s treating this like a game then she doesn’t know the seriousness of the situation at hand. But is this just confidence that she’s showing? Do I truly think she’s not ready for this because I’m not treating it like a game, or am I feeling threatened because here’s a girl who could very well be more gifted at this job than I am? ‘You’re not like him,’ she continues, ‘I don’t know why you try to be.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I’ve seen you when we train, the look you have on your face. You love it. You love the rush it gives you. Batman is always so intense; he doesn’t get a rush out of it. To him it’s a job, to you it’s a sport.’ I hate that she makes assumptions on things, how she pretends to know me, when in reality she doesn’t know anything about me. Bruce hasn’t revealed himself to her, not yet. He doesn’t trust her as well as he trusted me when I first started the training, and he says that I shouldn’t either. We know who she is, though - Bruce figured it out. She’s Commissioner Gordon’s niece, Barbara; she’s been sent to live with him because her parents died. I think that’s why Bruce has accepted that she joins us, because she’s an orphan. ‘I’m more like Batman than you think,’ I say. ‘How?’ she asks. ‘I know you’re not his son, I thought that originally but now I don’t. I worked it out.’ ‘Good for you.’ ‘I’m good at working things out,’ she continues. ‘All the secrets you keep from me, I’ll work them out.’ ‘There are no secrets,’ I lie. Barbara scoffs. ‘Yeah? So what’s your name?’ ‘Robin.’ ‘What’s your real name, Robin?’ I don’t respond, instead I turn my attention to the buildings edge. ‘We doing this?’ I ask, looking back at her and trying to read the expression under her mask the way Bruce always manages to do. ‘I’ll go first,’ I continue. ‘Watch what I do, then copy it. Remember, the cape will…’ But I’m cut of, because with a simple, ‘Have it your way,’ she’s leaped off the side of building, and I have no choice but to follow. In that single moment any doubt I have that she’s ready for this - any word of warning that I want to give, I can’t. Bruce told me not to overanalyse it, that if you give it too much thought before hand you will feel less secure than when you started, but even so I feel like she was too impatient, and that it was my job as her instructor to ensure she did things correctly. The wind blows hard in my face and through my hair. I grab a hold of my cape and spread it out, but it only steadies my fall, it doesn’t slow it. I can see her ahead of me, and I can see that she’s done the same thing, but my relief is quickly outweighed by my annoyance that she knows what to do despite me not telling her. I watch her for a minute. She doesn’t move like anyone I’ve ever seen: she’s not as stiff as Bruce and she doesn’t twist her body as much as I do, but she is undeniably graceful, a technique of her own, and if I

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wasn’t so annoyed at her confidence and her cockiness I might even have praised her on it. Wayne Tower is one of the tallest towers in Gotham, which is why Bruce says it’s a real leap of faith to jump off of it. I’m so engrossed is watching Barbara that I almost miss the point of no return, the point that if we don’t pull out our grapples and shoot them across to the neighbouring building there wouldn’t be enough time before we hit the street below. When we’re falling, we’re hitting speeds upwards of eighty miles-per-hour: there is very little room for error. Almost simultaneously we fire our grapples and they attach onto a neighbouring office block. I jolt at the sudden change of pressure but I’ve learnt how to position myself so that my arms aren’t dislocated from my shoulders, and then how to turn the fall into a swing - and from there guide yourself neatly to the nearest rooftop. My technique isn’t as seamless as Batman’s but it works, and that’s all that matters. We land on the roof of Gotham’s Second National Bank and Barbara is glowing. She’s proud of herself, which is understandable, but I can’t quite bring myself to congratulate her even though her technique was near-perfect. For once she’s speechless, and I’m thankful for it. There is no sign of her usual boastful manner, no snide remark or note of self-confidence. I’ve known her now for a couple of months, but for the first time I think I’m getting a glimpse of the real Barbara Gordon, not the arrogant one she displays to the world. ‘So,’ she finally says, her grin wide. ‘Am I Batgirl now, or what?’ I’m about to reply when a screeching alarm rings out in the dark, right beneath where we’re standing. Immediately we both rush to the edge of the building, just in time to see four masked goons run out the front door and into a waiting truck. My instincts tell me to rush in, but my head tells me to wait for Batman - but he had never arranged to meet us here after the jump, and it could be hours before the Bat-signal was lit and he was alerted to the situation. Barbara, it seems, was thinking alone the same lines. ‘He won’t get here in time,’ she says. ‘Then we let them go,’ I tell her. ‘They’re bound to have left something behind, something Bru Batman - can track them by.’ ‘How can you be sure?’ she demands, her eyes never leaving the truck that has just turned the corner onto West Avenue. ‘How can you be sure Batman wouldn’t want us to take them?’ ‘The two of us against the four that we know of, plus whoever was in the van?’ I ask. ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s stupid!’ I cry out. ‘Batman always taught me not to rush into a situation you haven’t fully assimilated before hand!’ There’s momentary silence, before Barbara suddenly says, ‘Do what you want, I’m following them,’ and before I know it she’s leaped off the top of the bank, firing a grapple to a law firm across the street, and gliding swiftly through the night. For the second time that evening she’s acted on impulse, and once again I have no choice but to follow her. Just as Barbara had done before me I fire a grappling line to the law firm. I swing across the street leaving the bank behind me, then seconds before I hit the wall in front of me I retract my first line and shoot another to the office block on my left, twisting my legs, then my waist, and propelling myself down the road seamlessly, keeping one eye on where I fire the grapples and another on the impatient girl before me. We catch up with the truck just before it reaches forty-second street and in a gutsy move I see Barbara launch herself off of the wall of an apartment block, fire one last grapple blindly in the direction of the truck and use it to leap across the road and land with a thud on the roof of the vehicle - no doubt immediately alerting the men inside to her presence, if they hadn’t already seen her swinging behind them. The vehicle swerves, but doesn’t slow down, and from my view on a shop awning I see Barbara slip slightly, momentarily losing the grip she had before regaining it. There are no other vehicles on the road in this part of town at this time of night - and there are very few pedestrians to worry about - but I fear that if the truck doesn’t slow down then Barbara will get herself killed. I pull a batarang from my utility belt and do my best to aim it at one of the front tyres, which isn’t easy to do on such a fast moving target. Fortunately, I’ve had weeks of intensive training on this sort of thing from Bruce and I mange to throw it right before the van swerves round another corner. It finds it’s target and the blades imbed themselves into the rubber, releasing the compressed air and causing the tyre to blow out. The truck swerves, tilters, fails to regain it’s balance and topples onto it’s side, skidding down the road before coming to a stop several feet from where it first fell. Barbara leapt off the moment the van teetered but she screwed up her landing and she hits the ground hard, rolling several paces. I swing down and meet

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her as she gets to her feet, neither of us saying a word but preparing ourselves to face the goons who are slowly pulling themselves out the truck. I look at Barbara but her face is expressionless. A trail of blood trickles down from the left corner of her mouth and she wipes it away with the back of her glove, a dull red stain appearing across the muted yellow. I can’t work out what’s going through her mind, if she realises that by leaping onto the truck she made a grave error of judgement and had I not been here as well she could very well have got herself killed. I can imagine what Bruce would say were he here and I’m in half a mind not to tell him, scared that he would penalise me for not stopping Barbara from ever following the truck in the first place. We both run into the fray, we have no choice. Two of the goons have guns, but one thing that Bruce has always taught me is that it’s better to engage the men in close combat then try and stay at a distance and draw their fire. There are five of them altogether: the four we saw run from the bank plus one who presumably drove the van. Bad odds, but the driver is staggering, rapidly losing blood from a gash on his forehead and desperately fighting to stay conscious. Two with guns, best to take them first, but if they’re armed it means they’re not the muscle of the group, so we’ll have to stay alert and use our agility as our main weapon against them. I wish Batman were here. I’m not scared, not really. Having been face to face with Two Face, and the Joker, and seen what the true underbelly of Gotham is like, a couple of goons with guns seems like child’s play. But that’s just it: we are children. Babs is thirteen, I’m twelve; by the cities standards we should be in Junior High, not engaging armed bank robbers at the dead of night. We don’t strike the same image as Batman; we’re not the imposing figure that guys like this run away from. I swing a right hook into the jaw of gunman number one, then immediately follow up with the swift kick and then an uppercut. I’m strong for a boy of my age, but not nearly as strong as this guy, and though I’ve seen Batman use a similar combination as that to bring a man down, I have to keep working at him. He’s too distracted to use his gun though, and that’s a plus, so I’m able to knock it from his hands and throw it as far as I can. I put too much effort in the throw, however, and one of the unarmed muscle men pulls me off the dazed gunman, before punching me in the stomach and tossing me to the ground. To my right I see that Barbara has succeeded in unarming the second gunman but his reflexes are quicker than his comrades and she’s struggling to create an opening and get a hit in. And that’s when it all goes wrong. He’s faster than her, and stronger, and just a moment of lapsed reflexes on her part and she’s on the ground next to me. All four advance upon us, the fifth man - the driver - having collapsed several feet away. We scramble back, eyes in a dead lock with the goons, and suddenly their sneering faces are just as scary as the Joker’s, or Two Face’s, and though I desperately look around I don’t see an out, or anything we could use to fight them back. Is this it? Is this how I go? I’m not even at Batman’s side. Then we hear it: the sound of our salvation. Police sirens - lots of them - drawing ever closer. The bank alarms must have alerted them at last, and the tire tracks left on the road from the van’s swerving would have given them an easy path to follow. I look at Barbara, expecting to see her face rejoice, but she stares back at me with wide eyes, and when she speaks there’s a note of fear and urgency. ‘My dad,’ she whispers. ‘He doesn’t know, he can’t know … we’ve got to get out of here, now!’ The goons scatter but I have no doubt the cops will be able to track them. Together me and Barbara get to our feet, running into an empty side alley before pulling out our grapples and firing them to the roof of one of the buildings. We lift into the air, engulfed by the shadows, just as four police cars screech round the corner, two stopping at the upturned truck and two speeding on and catching up with the running culprits. It’s not until our feet hit the gravelled surface of the building do I realise that’s it has started to rain, but it doesn’t matter. In light of the evening’s events, I actually relish in being able to breathe in the moist night air. I look at Barbara and see she has removed her mask, and I see just how beaten up she looks: bruises cover her right cheek and eye; she has a small gash across her left temple and one of her lips is heavily swollen. She looks at me, unsmiling, then suddenly she bursts into tears, and they speak louder than any words ever could. And suddenly, without really thinking about what I’m doing, just acting out of pure instinct, I reach out and I hold her, wrapping my arms around her shoulders and pressing her body against mine. Our foreheads meet as she rests her head against me and I have a moment of realization in that we’re a perfect match in height, then together we fall to our knees against the wet gravel and the only thought that goes through my head is that I just want to comfort her as best as I can. I reach up and take my mask off as well, and for a while we sit there in total silence, listening to the rain

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around us. It’s hard to tell if she’s still crying, I don’t know where the tears stop and the rain begins, but I don’t want to let her go, not quite yet. In some way I feel responsible for her, though in reality we’re both two little kids who got in over our heads and didn’t know what to do. What happened tonight wasn’t her fault - truth be told had I been alone I would have acted exactly the same way - and with all traces of the cocky young girl from earlier gone I feel as though I am again in the presence of the true Barbara Gordon. ‘Robin?’ she says at last, her voice small. ‘What I did tonight, are you going to tell Batman?’ ‘No,’ I tell her, truthfully. She smiles, and silence follows until: ‘Hey, Robin?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘What’s your name?’ I pause. ‘Dick,’ I say. ‘Dick Grayson.’ Chicago. Now. A coarse hand - an archer’s hand - slaps me on my right cheek, then again on my left cheek and then somewhere close by a disgruntled voice says, ‘Can’t help ya if you don’t get up.’ I open my eyes, and the world spins so I immediately close them again. The voice laughs. ‘It ain’t that bad, Junior,’ it says. ‘You’ve had worse.’ I try again to open my eyes and this time I’m met with the image of a man in his early forties, whose naturally blond hair has been topped with dye to hide several specks of grey, and whose breath smells a little of Tequila but has tried to mask it by taking a breath mint. When he speaks there’s a note of impatience in his voice but also a little amusement, in the sense I clearly owe this guy for saving my ass and he’s the kind of person who never forgets who owes him a favour. Or he just likes having one up on Batman. ‘Hello Oliver,’ I say, forcing myself to sit up and grimacing slightly as I do so. ‘Hey there, Hot-shot.’ I look around me. We’re in the alleyway, but it’s still dark so I can’t have been out for too long. Around me lie the unconscious bodies of my attackers, each with various forms of trick arrows protruding from points in their bodies. I grunt. ‘Your work?’ I ask. Ollie shrugs, still grinning. Oliver Queen is the Green Arrow, a master marksman and fellow vigilante. Like Bruce, he was heir to a fortune, and used his wealth to build his equipment - namely state of the art bows and a varying degree of trick arrows - but that’s as far the similarities between the two men go. Years ago Oliver lost his wealth and became a different person, having been greatly affected by seeing how the poor and downtrodden of America lived their lives. Now Oliver Queen is something of a political activist in Star City, his hometown, and one that’s second only to Gotham and Blüdhaven in its criminals and corrupts. ‘Come on, Kid,’ he says, giving me a hand up, ‘let’s get you inside.’ * He takes me to the penthouse suite of the Benes Hotel, a high-class chain designed purely for the young and the rich and co-owned by Wayne Enterprises. Since Oliver is still in his Green Arrow outfit - a sort of modern-age Robin Hood made from the same type of Kevlar as Batman uses - he options not to use the front entrance and instead makes a zip line from a grapple arrow across to the balcony from the roof of a neighbouring office block. The slide across is exhilarating. I haven’t moved so freely at such a height since I left Gotham - but it’s over before I know it and the momentary impulse to rejoin the old life passes. My landing on the balcony isn’t smooth and I hear Oliver chuckle as he glides in seamlessly, using his bow as a grip on the wire and coming to a perfect stop inches to my left. I expect him to make some snide comment but he doesn’t, he just moves to the balcony door, slides it across and enters the suite, dropping his bow and quiver and moving straight to the mini-bar. He pours a small measure of Tequila into a glass, and holds it out to me. ‘Drink?’ he asks. I shake my head. ‘Had a drink,’ I reply, remembering the cocktail I downed too quickly back at Terry’s and not wishing to repeat the experience. ‘Suit yourself,’ Ollie shrugs, tilting his head back and downing the drink in one. Putting the empty glass on the counter he moves over to an armchair in the centre of the room and puts

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his feet up on the small, glass coffee table. He motions for me to sit down on the adjoining couch but I don’t follow his prompt and decide to remain standing, arms folded. ‘Batman send you to check up on me?’ I ask. Ollie chuckles. ‘Way to get straight to the point,’ he says. ‘No, ‘how are you? Thanks for saving my ass’? It’s good to see you too, by the way.’ ‘I don’t need him watching out for me,’ I say. ‘He didn’t send me, Junior,’ Ollie replies. ‘Believe me, all he wants - all any of us want - is to give you the space you need. No, my being here is entirely coincidental.’ ‘He knows I’m here?’ ‘Not ‘til two days ago,’ Ollie says, truthfully. ‘He kept track when you left Gotham, following your movements; I tell you, I don’t think he’s ever spent so much time in the Watchtower. Anyway, he lost you when you reached New York, I think he expected you to, y’know, get back to work, so to speak. He started looking over crime reports every day but nothing matched your style… Gardner caught wind of you in Toronto, but for the last four months we’ve heard nothing - until an apartment was leased in your name here in Chicago.’ ‘And you thought you’d just pop round, see how I was getting on?’ I demanded. ‘Hey, I already told ya, I ain’t here for you, Kid,’ Ollie says to me. ‘Batman wants you back, but he’s willing to give you the space you need. I came here on another matter.’ ‘What is it?’ I ask. My tone is hard and impatient, though a part of me is comforted by Oliver being here, and of the talk of Bruce. It’s the part of me that yearns to go back to Gotham and pretend like everything is normal there. ‘We’ll get to that,’ Ollie answers. ‘First I want to know about you. Is it just a coincidence I found you outside a bar tonight?’ I pause. ‘No,’ I answer, truthfully. ‘But you haven’t been fighting?’ ‘No.’ ‘So what made you step in and stop that mugging tonight?’ ‘I haven’t been … avoiding fights,’ I reply, ‘But I haven’t gone looking, either. I find it easier to blend into the background, and stay out of the shadows.’ ‘And tonight?’ ‘I met this girl, she reminded me of…’ Oliver nods, and I’m thankful that I don’t have to say Barbara’s name. ‘I get it,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to walk away from the old life, but even if you do it’s damn near impossible to never be reminded of it.’ He’s silent for a minute, then he looks up at me and asks, ‘How’d it feel?’ ‘I screwed up,’ I say. ‘I know you did, but that’s not what I’m asking,’ Ollie replies. ‘How’d it feel to be back in that situation, costume or no costume?’ I don’t answer, but not because I don’t want to. I honestly don’t know how I felt tonight - if I experienced the same rush that I would get when I was Nightwing, or Robin. Somehow I felt disconnected, I didn’t slide back into the old routine as easily - or as comfortably - as I thought I might. But at the same time it didn’t feel wrong, and for the briefest of moments a part of me retuned that wasn’t there before. ‘It’s like that, is it?’ Ollie says. ‘Hey, my first day back on the job after I… well, it didn’t exactly all come flooding back straight away. But I do know being around people helped. Connor, Roy, Dinah, it was key not to shut myself away, and after time I eventually started to feel better.’ I say nothing. ‘He wants you back,’ Ollie continues. ‘We all do.’ A pause. ‘How is he?’ I finally ask. ‘You mean, what’s he been like since that night at Blackgate?’ I nod. ‘He’s coping,’ Ollie replies. ‘Word is he’s been seeing Catwoman, not sure if that’s crazy or not.’ I manage a small smile. ‘It’s good,’ I reply, truthfully. ‘She’ll help him.’ ‘If you say so, Junior. If you ask me he hasn’t really been himself since you left.’ I get the hint, but I don’t say anything, and for a moment there’s an uncomfortable silence between the two of us. Oliver opens his mouth as if to speak, but as soon as he does I cut him off, not wanting to hear another pep talk, or be recited a list of reasons why I should drop everything and go trundling back to Gotham with him tomorrow.

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‘Why are you here?’ I ask, feebly attempting to change the conversation. ‘Kid, I …’ Ollie starts, but again I cut him off. ‘I don’t want to hear it, Ollie,’ I say. ‘I will go back to Gotham again, he knows I’ll go back to Gotham again; I can’t turn my back on everything entirely. But things are different, he’s different, and it’s going to take time before either one of us can properly adjust to the change. If I go back now, Gotham’ll be just another city, and in two weeks time I’ll be back on my bike and back on the road. Please, Ollie, give me something else to think about and tell me what you’re doing here.’ Oliver sighs. ‘I’m chasing a girl,’ he tells me after a moment’s pause. I raise an eyebrow. ‘Oh yeah? What does Dinah have to say about this?’ ‘Hey, It’s not like that!’ Ollie protests. ‘There’s some family - new name - been making a lot of noise in Star City recently. Drugs here, guns there - the usual. Anyway, two days ago Roy caught wind of some big operation they had planned, don’t know what exactly but they were expecting a shipment in, and it wasn’t drugs or guns. Me and Roy went down to the docks but they either knew we were coming and changed the date, or something happened and the thing was called off, but either way there was no shipment that evening.’ ‘So who’s the girl?’ I ask. ‘I’m getting there,’ Ollie replies. ‘So after the docks thing was a bust Roy said he would keep an eye on things, ear to the ground and all that, y’know? About a week ago he came to me with a picture, some hotshot broad he had been tailing who he swears hadn’t been in the city beforehand; reckons she’s the daughter of the boss the way the others responded to her. Two days later he lost track of her, and after that the troops started to rally; they started mentioning Chicago a lot, said the girl was there and that she was with the buyer.’ ‘The buyer?’ ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ ‘But the girl’s definitely here?’ ‘Far as I can tell,’ Ollie says. ‘Way I figured it was she was taking over the family business, started planning another op like the last one only didn’t dare do it in Star City so she came here instead. I figure Chicago’s as good a place as any to set up shop again: New York’s too high profile and the Mobs have practically been driven out of Gotham and Blüdhaven with the crazies taking over.’ ‘I see your point,’ I tell him. ‘What was the name of the family?’ ‘Vincalotti, Galvalotti, Pavarotti, something like that,’ Ollie says, shrugging. ‘You know, your typical Godfather ‘Talian-American crap.’ ‘And the name of the girl?’ Ollie grimaces. ‘Sorry, Kid, never did hear it myself.’ ‘You’re not leaving much to go on, are you?’ I say with an intentional layer of sarcasm. ‘Seriously, all these years in the League, hasn’t Bruce taught you anything?’ ‘Hey, you’re the protégé, Junior. All that CSI crap is your neck of the woods, not mine.’ ‘Fine,’ I say, not wanting to argue. ‘What about the picture?’ ‘What picture?’ ‘The girl? You said Roy got a picture of her before she disappeared?’ ‘Right,’ Ollie says, the realisation clicking. He crosses the room to where he dropped his bow and quiver and produces a medium sized black and white photograph from a concealed pocket on the quiver’s left side. ‘Here,’ he says, chucking me the photograph. ‘Make of it what you will.’ At first the picture looks like your standard secret meeting from any Hollywood crime flick, taken by someone with a vantage point that I know from personal experience could have actually been closer. The girl, mercifully face on, appears to be standing in an alley with a couple of lackeys, and I’m about to chuck it back to Oliver before I take another look at the girl and realise that I’ve seen her before. ‘The girl, what colour hair does she have?’ I ask. ‘Red, I think,’ Ollie replies. ‘She would be a looker if it wasn’t for the criminal mastermind thing.’ He grins at himself, but then catches on that that probably wasn’t what I was asking for and adds, ‘Why, you know her?’ ‘She was the girl in the bar tonight,’ I tell him. ‘The one who reminded me of Babs.’ ‘You sure?’ he asks, but quickly nods in retaliation as I give him a look that tells him not to question me. ‘Okay,’ he adds. ‘So what’s the first move then?’ ‘We go to the bar,’ I tell him, still staring at the picture. ‘See if anyone there has seen her before. If not then we search the surrounding apartment buildings and hotels - she’s got to be living somewhere, and if

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she was in the bar like that then it’s likely to be somewhere close by. If she has something planned she could very well be lying low, and if she is then we have a better chance of getting to her before this thing goes down.’ When I look up I see that Ollie has already got his hat and quiver back on, and he’s leaning on his bow with his eyes on me, an odd sort of satisfied grin on his face. ‘We?’ he asks, his mask twitching slightly as he raises an eyebrow underneath. ‘We,’ I nod. ‘I learnt a long time back that two heads are often better than one.’ Gotham City. Thirteen Years Ago. I hear the sounds of the waves lapping against the side of the docks before I’ve even passed Grant Park, telling me that I’m nearing Port Adams and my destination. I like this time of night, when the city is at it’s quietest. Usually, with the Commerce Street Highway running parallel to the park, I wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds of the docks until I have it in my eyesight, but right now everything is mercifully quiet, allowing me to swing through the city with much more ease and freedom than I would normally have. Not that it really matters, of course. As part of my training Bruce made me memorise the easiest routes to get to places - both in the air and on road - from any given place in the city. If I had to, I could find my way to Port Adams blindfolded. When I reach the docks I spot Barbara crouched behind a large shipping container, peering around it at regular intervals to catch what’s going on in the warehouse in front of her. I don’t see it myself until I get closer, gracefully dropping down beside her having resisted the urge to sneak up, but the warehouse is packed full of low-level goons and stacked wooden crates, confirming Bruce’s suspicion that Port Adams was playing host to a smuggling operation tonight. ‘What are you doing here?’ Barbara asks when she sees me. ‘Bruce said you were in New York with the Titans, figured I wouldn’t see you back here for at least another two days.’ I’m slightly hurt. ‘That what you think of me?’ I ask. ‘My whole life is here.’ ‘It’s not that I think you’re not loyal,’ she says, hurriedly. ‘I just know what being a Titan means to you.’ ‘Came back early,’ I shrug, then hoping to change the subject I add, ‘I checked in at the Cave and Bruce told me you were here, something about a smuggling op.’ ‘Drugs,’ Barbara replies, motioning to the stacked crates inside the warehouse. ‘They’re using stuffed toys, taking out the stuffing, replacing it with bags of whatever is going high on the market these days. Y’know, the same old trick.’ ‘Time honoured classic,’ I reply. ‘Gotta love how they’re not coming up with anything new, makes our job considerably easier.’ ‘Tell me about it,’ Barbara says. ‘Makes me wonder why they even bother. I’ve been listening to their conversations for a while, it doesn’t seem like they’ve even got one of the major players on board. Shame, I was almost looking forward to a challenge tonight.’ ‘How many are there?’ I ask. ‘A few, maybe more further in.’ ‘Guns?’ ‘Can’t see any, beyond the two guys standing near the entrance,’ Barbara says. ‘I would expect more are armed, but there’s enough cover with the crates, they wouldn’t dare shoot the merchandise.’ ‘We heading in?’ ‘If you think you can handle it,’ she jokes. ‘Funny,’ I reply. ‘Think you can keep up with me?’ ‘I not only think it, I guarantee it,’ Barbara grins. I choose to ignore her. ‘On the count of three,’ I say. ‘One…’ ‘You get into trouble, you just holler, ‘kay?’ She teases. ‘Two…’ ‘Look for me in there, I’ll be the one kicking their asses.’ I grin. ‘Three.’ ‘Ladies first,’ she says, pushing past me and leaping over the top of the shipping container, before steering off to the left to avoid the line of the gunfire from the startled guards out the front. I go for another tactic and fire a grapple point up to the top of the warehouse. I make sure its sturdy before I let the coil lift me off the ground as it retracts itself back into the base gun. When I’ve gained

15


enough height I stop the retraction and let the momentum swing me through the large double doors, legs outstretched as to knock over any goon who’s fool enough to get in my way. As I land atop a large stack of crates inside I catch Barbara delivering a swinging kick to a knifewielding goon, then leap over him to take out his friend, who’s brandishing nothing but his bare fists. Before long she has them both engaged in combat. Goon number one soon forgets his knife - perhaps too angry at the idea of being beaten by a girl and wanting to use his fists to prove his virility - so they prove no problem for her and sooner than one would think she has them subdued and has moved onto the next two. I’m getting caught up in watching her, I can’t help it. Perhaps I’m spending too much time with the Titans, but every time I see her recently she’s been showing new moves, new abilities, and I can’t help but feel impressed. She has as much natural talent for this life as I do and it seems that she has finally been listening to Batman’s tuition and honing her skills as best as she can. For close to eight years now I have been answering to the name of Robin, and in all honesty she has reached the same level as me in less than half the time. I’m now leader of the Teen Titans - a role I love and could argue was born for - but watching Barbara I feel like she should be leading her own team as well, and though she loves being Batgirl she doesn’t need to constantly be under Bruce’s shadow. I decide to join in the fight but it isn’t needed. Already Barbara has subdued more than half the number of men that were inside the warehouse, and another lot took one look at her, dropped the dolls they were extracting drugs from and ran straight out a back door, probably terrified that if she was there then Batman wouldn’t be far behind. I help with the clear up, already dreading the comments that are going to come my way later. Soon, the two gunmen by the door - one subdued by Barbara on her way in and the other knocked of his feet by me - start to stir. I’m mid-way through the warehouse and Barbara is further back; both of us dealing with the last of the goons and we almost don’t notice as they get up and retrieve their guns. Having both received blows to the heads they sway slightly as they stand up and try to regain their sense of balance. That may give us a slight advantage but their weapons are automatics, they do not require careful aim, and these two look like the type to shoot first, deal later. I dive behind a crate of dolls just as they open fire on me, the unarmed goon in my hands getting a chest full of their rounds and collapsing. I look down the warehouse but from my position I can’t see Barbara but if I can’t it means the gunmen can’t either, and suggests that she too has found cover. I look around at the layout of the crates trying to determine a route through them all, down to the back where I assume Barbara is and out the side door that the runners took earlier. Besides mine there are two more single crates to my left, then a cluster of about for or five stacked up which would provide better cover. I head for them, hearing gunfire as I do so but keeping low and mostly out of sight. When I reach them I have a better view of the rest of the warehouse, but dare not move from the vantage point I have now because I can’t see a safe route to the back that wouldn’t put me straight in their line of fire. ‘Miss me?’ says Barbara, appearing from behind me and taking cover behind the crate. I don’t bother thinking about where she’s just sprung from. ‘We need to get out of here,’ I say, relieved she’s okay but refusing to show it. ‘We need to draw their fire, get them shooting at something that isn’t there and then head down to the back. We go through the back door those goons used earlier, then we can use the roof, cross the warehouse and get the drop on them from there. They won’t leave the entrance: they don’t want the hunt, they want to make sure we can’t get past them.’ Barbara doesn’t say anything, but the way she looks at me tells me there’s something on her mind. I open my mouth to speak but stop myself, and moments later she’s shaken off whatever was bothering her and the look is gone; she is devoted once more to the task at hand. ‘There’s a path through to the entrance,’ she tells me. ‘They haven’t seen me yet, they think I’m further back. Draw their fire, take the back route. I’ll go to the front and we can come at them from two sides.’ I don’t like leaving her so close to danger but if what she says is right and they think she’s still further back then it does give her an advantage, and I’ll be drawing their fire as I head to the back, allowing us both the element of surprise when we go for the drop. I agree and Barbara slips out of sight. I stand and run straight down the left wall and immediately they start firing, but there are stacks of two crates or more that give me cover as I run, and eventually I find a row that leads close enough to the exit door. I dive behind them, keeping low as I crawl across the ground, not thinking about whether or not Barbara made it but devoting all attention to the task at hand. Part of leading the Titans is making sure everyone knows their place, and to assume things are going to plan unless given direct evidence to the contrary.

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I reach the door and find it’s still open from when the men ran out of it earlier. From the door I fire a grapple to the roof, then retract the cord and let it pull me up as it recoils. The roof has a slight angle to it but it’s straight enough to run across, and eventually I’m positioned over the entrance. The guards are still there, straining to catch a glimpse of either me or Barbara but having no such luck. They’re sweating, and their pulses are racing, fingers poised over the triggers of their guns, ready to fire at the slightest sign of movement… I drop behind them - a Batman favourite - but for once careful to make enough of a noise for them to turn and give Barbara the chance to strike at them from within the warehouse. They open fire on me but I leap out of the way, just as Barbara takes the opportunity to deliver a flying kick to the closest one to her. He drops his gun and the other - confused at the sudden situation - doesn’t know who to fire at - me or Barbara - and by the time he decides I’m already next to him, with a flying kick of my own and swift backhand to the jaw. One goon each, and before long both are subdued, and me and Barbara are left alone on the docks, watching the first signs of the sun start to show on the horizon. Barbara’s grinning, the adrenaline is pumping through her: I doubt she’s even noticed that she’s got a cut across her left cheek. Absentmindedly I raise a hand to check how bad it is, but all I’m thinking is how good it has been to see her again tonight, since my schedule with the Titans keeps me out of Gotham more often than I would like. Her skin feels soft; I refuse to move my hand. Our eyes lock, and for what seems like an age we just stare at each other, lost in an unforeseen moment. Then suddenly I’m kissing her and the world has stopped, and a part of me that felt missing before is now there and I can’t even fathom thinking about letting it go… Our lips break apart, and despite the full realisation of what had just happened I can’t help but smile. ‘Was that the adrenaline?’ she asks, softly. ‘I don’t think so,’ I reply. We stand together, my right hand still on her cheek, my left around her waist. She shows no sign of wanting to break apart: her left hand on my waist, her right slowly moving from the back of my neck to the ‘R’ insignia on my chest. We stand together for a while longer, either uncertain of what to say or do, or too scared to break apart. ‘What does this mean?’ she finally asks. I open my mouth to reply but have no idea what to say. She sighs. ‘You’ve been away,’ she finally says, breaking the silence but also the connection. She steps back, and brushes her hands through her hair. ‘I’ve barely seen you in the past month,’ she continues. ‘We never go out on patrol any more, you spend all your time with the Titans, I…’ ‘I know,’ I say. ‘I’ve … been busy. It’s strange for me, these new responsibilities…’ ‘But what about your old responsibilities?’ she puts in. ‘What happened to that dynamic duo of Batman and Robin, or Robin and Batgirl? You’re a leader now, I know that. I know that you’re growing up and you’re a part of this exciting new life with exciting new heroes, but how can you and I be together when you’re going to be off flying around with the Teen Titans for days at a time?’ ‘Barbara, I can balance the two sides of my life,’ I tell her. ‘I can devote time to you, to Bruce and to the Titans as well. It was so good seeing you tonight, being side by side in the fray once more, it felt just like it did during those first couple of years, y’know? But the Titans, Babs, I can’t begin to describe the places we go, the things we can achieve together! It’s amazing, it’s…’ ‘And what about Starfire?’ she asks. ‘Kory? What’s she got to do with this?’ ‘I’ve seen what you’re like with her, like you constantly need to impress her… Look, I care about you, a lot, and I would love it if you could be here with me all the time, but you’ve got to figure some stuff out. If you don’t want to be a part of this family any more, perhaps you shouldn’t be Robin any more. You’re not Bruce, you have a choice, but I’m not leaving Gotham. I can’t be a part of both your lives.’ She’s silent for a moment then turns to leave, but before she does she looks back and with a soft, subtle smile says, ‘It was good seeing you tonight, too.’ Chicago. Now. Before we leave Ollie’s penthouse I make him change into civilian clothes, not wanting to draw attention to us since the night is almost up. We eventually hit the bar just as it’s closing, when the first glimpses of the morning sun shine through the haze and fog of the Chicago sky. There’s not much to go on

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in there, most of the nights punters had either gone on home or had knocked themselves into unconsciousness at their tables, but the barman claims to have never seen the redhead before that night and predictably we’re left with nothing. Next up we hit all the apartment blocks in the surrounding area, including mine, where we stop off for a moment so I can change into a fresher pair of jeans and shirt before we continue with the search. I suggest also that we take my old ID badge from when I was an officer with the Blüdhaven Police Department, allowing us easier access to the apartment buildings and hotels. Then, once Ollie has made every possible comment on my housekeeping that he could think of, we move on - first checking apartments and then hotels, each time showing the picture of the girl to the clerk behind the counter and each time turning a blank. Slowly we work our way down the list, until: ‘Last one,’ Ollie says as we stand outside of the shabby Hotel Vaughn. ‘Ain’t it always the way?’ I nod, but don’t say anything, barely acknowledging what he said. ‘Something bothering you, Junior?’ he asks. ‘The girl,’ I reply. ‘There’s something off about this whole thing.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I mean, last night in the bar, I’m pretty sure she only had one thing on her mind,’ I reply. ‘Look, I’ve been dealing with gangsters and mob families for close to nineteen years now, believe me Gotham has seen her fair share, and not once have I seen one behave so openly forward as she did last night.’ ‘Perhaps she was using her womanly assets to get something from you,’ Ollie half mockingly suggests. ‘Like what?’ I demand. ‘I’m serious Ollie, there was something about her behaviour last night, it was genuine, like she really wanted something, like she wanted … me!’ ‘You flatter yourself,’ Ollie grunts. ‘She’s a gangster, she wants one thing and one thing only: money.’ ‘I’m not so sure,’ I say, more to myself than to Ollie as I try and make sense of everything in my head. ‘Well whoever she is, we ain’t gonna find her out here,’ Ollie says. ‘We going in?’ Without another word we head into the Hotel and approach the clerk behind the counter. Middle aged and overweight, he doesn’t even lift his head until I’ve pulled my Blüdhaven PD badge and placed it on the counter straight under his nose. Here’s hoping he doesn’t look too closely at the city name, or - if he does see where the badge was issued - question what a Blüdhaven officer is doing in Chicago. He grunts when he sees the badge, then glances up at me and grunts again. His vision wavers towards Ollie who’s standing behind me, but Ollie merely stares straight back at the man, and folds his arms. I’ve got to admit, Ollie fills the quintessential image of a cop better than I do, but Oliver Queen has often publicly spoken out against the politics of Star City and we can’t risk anyone recognising him. I take my badge back and replace it with the picture of the girl. I click my fingers to get the clerks attention, and then point at the photograph. ‘You recognise her?’ I ask. He doesn’t answer me for a full minute; he merely glances at the picture then looks me straight in the eye as if sizing me up. ‘Room 14B,’ he finally says, his voice a little more than a mumble. I blink. I’m slightly taken aback. ‘You know her?’ I ask to confirm. ‘What’re you, deaf?’ the clerk replies. ‘14B, first floor.’ I linger slightly, unsure of whether or not to press the clerk for further information, but eventually decide better of it. I take the spare room key off of the clerk but when Ollie and me finally reach the room we find the door already open: the lock appearing to having been kicked in. Unsurprisingly the room is empty; but aside from the door there aren’t many signs of a struggle, just of poor housekeeping, and from what little the room tells us only confirms my belief that this girl isn’t who Ollie thinks she is. We search the room. Not to the degree Batman would - I find it fruitless to search a hotel room that’s only been lived in a couple of days for anything small and personal that might tell us more about the tenant - but enough to get a better handle on the situation and look for something to present us with our next lead. ‘The draws are open in the bedroom,’ Ollie says, motioning to the room he’s just come out of. ‘All empty; bed’s unmade too, if she was here then she’s left in a hurry.’ I nod. ‘There’s something off about this,’ I say. ‘If she’s got the whole mob at her disposal, why is she staying in such a dump, and who’s after her to cause her to get out of here so quickly?’ ‘Cops?’ Ollie asks. I shake my head. ‘If cops bust the door in they wouldn’t leave it wide open afterwards, and at the very least an officer would be placed outside to see if she comes back,’ I tell him. ‘Here, look’ I add, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and chucking it to him, ‘I found this on the table. Name and an

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address. Not much, but worth checking out. Could be this mysterious buyer.’ ‘Tony Edwards,’ recites Ollie, reading the name off the paper. He grunts. ‘Doesn’t sound particularly Italian,’ he says. ‘The address isn’t far from here, we going?’ * The address takes us to an area of Chicago that I’ve tried to avoid, and to a many-levelled building whose few windows that haven’t been boarded up have been spray-painted black to - presumably - avoid prying eyes. The building doesn’t look like a house, more of an old factory of some sort, though the once red-brick walls have been badly scorched, and black paint is peeling off of the wooden front door and building’s name, which appears to have at some point read, The Alhonso Building. ‘Inviting place,’ Ollie mutters. Inside the view isn’t much better. The door opens onto a hallway that runs the short length of the building to an open-door elevator at the back, and with each of the windows either boarded up or painted the only light source is a line of low-voltage bulbs that run down the ceiling, causing large areas of the hall to be cast in shadow. A burly man in a tight black top steps out from an open doorway on the right hand side and approaches us, folding his arms after doing a bad job of concealing a handgun that he’s just shoved down the back of his jeans. ‘What do you want?’ he asks. ‘We want to see Edwards,’ I ad-lib, knowing full well that it’s not going to work. ‘The boss don’t see nobody,’ the man replies, inadvertently confirming that whatever this place is, it’s home to something of a business, and that Edwards is in charge of it. I glance around him to get a better look into the room he came out of. The door blocks most of the view but I can see another person in there, a girl with tangled black hair sitting somewhat nervously on a wooden stool near a desk. She glances at me and I catch her eye, but she quickly looks away and I get a clearer look at the left side of her face, and the large gash that runs across her cheek. The man catches me looking, and closes the door. I can’t help myself, and as his back turns I lunge at him and press him into the wall, my left hand locating the gun in his belt and my right forearm digging into the back of his neck. ‘Who’s the girl?’ I ask through gritted teeth. The man struggles and tries to turn around. I misjudge his strength and he manages to push me away slightly, but Ollie’s there in and instant and has him back up against the wall, locking his right foot around the back of the man’s ankle and forcing him forward so that he stumbles onto his knees. ‘Play nice, now,’ Ollie hisses. At the end of the hall the elevator begins to operate and I can hear more men inside. Past experience tells me they’re probably armed, and I don’t fancy sticking around long enough to find out what they’re arsenal is like. Ollie hears them too, and with one swift movement he’s brought his elbow down hard into the back of the downed man’s head and the two of us have left out the front door to the street outside. We don’t expect to be followed, but just in case we turn left down a side ally then use a fire escape to climb to the roof of another building. At the top Ollie turns on me, a fiery look in his eyes and I’m reminded of Bruce from back when I first started my training as Robin. How - with just one look - he could make me feel as though I had just jeopardized everything. ‘What the hell was that?’ Ollie demands of me. I’m tempted to reply ‘what the hell was what?’ but I know what he’s referring to. I forced a fistfight without evaluating the situation. I put both him and myself at risk, and despite having the upper hand against the first man there could have been more waiting in the surrounding rooms, who wouldn’t have thought twice about opening fire on us. ‘There was a girl,’ I tell him. ‘She looked beaten.’ ‘Yeah, I saw the girl,’ Ollie grunts. ‘Bit nervous perhaps, but didn’t exactly look like she didn’t want to be there.’ He pauses, unsure of whether or not he should carry on. ‘That’s the difference between you and me, isn’t it, Junior?’ he finally continues. ‘Whereas I see another confidante to these nutters and a possible threat to the situation, you a see a damsel in distress and have to rush in to save her.’ I’m silent for a moment. I don’t believe for a second that Ollie is right, that the woman was there out of her own choosing, but I did endanger the situation and now this Tony Edwards - whoever he is - is alerted to our presence. ‘It’s like the redhead,’ Ollie continues. ‘It’s a tragic fact of life, Kid, but it’s true. The days of pencil moustaches and black cloaks are gone: women are the real masterminds behind everything these days and

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the sooner you admit to yourself that most of them are beyond saving the better off you’ll be. Worse still, they can use sex as a weapon to get what they want, and after that we’re all suckers to the feminine wiles.’ ‘Ollie, I’m telling you there’s something more to all this,’ I say. ‘Whatever was supposed to be on that shipment that didn’t come in; whatever’s happening in this place, they’re connected, and the redhead’s caught up in it. She’s not the mastermind, she’s a pawn.’ Ollie sighs. ‘Okay, say you’re right,’ he says, but it’s still clear from his tone that I haven’t got through to him. ‘Say she’s innocent in this whole damned affair and say she turns up dead tomorrow, what then?’ ‘What do you…?’ ‘Well you don’t know her, do you? Her death doesn’t effect you at all, right?’ I’m silent. ‘How personal does this get for you, Dick?’ Ollie continues, and I register his sudden use of my name rather than the nicknames he has a penchant for. ‘How much are you willing this girl to be innocent just so you can save her - just so you can rush in and play the hero like you feel like you should have done a year ago?’ My blood is boiling. I can’t help it; I clench my fist and swing it around so that it hits Oliver in the jaw. But I’m slow, I’m out of practice, and Ollie raises his forearm to block my swing before bringing in a punch of his own. I fall to the ground, blood trickling from my lips. ‘Barbara’s dead, Dick,’ Ollie says, rubbing his fist. ‘It’s a tragedy, but you are no more responsible for her death than I am, and the sooner you deal with that the better.’ He sighs. ‘You can’t go looking for Barbara in every woman that you see, Kid. You’re never going to find her, and you’ll only hurt yourself in the process.’ He turns to leave, but I call out after him. ‘Ollie?’ Ahead of me he stops, and turns. ‘I’ll find the redhead,’ he says. ‘Chicago ain’t much of a coastal city; there aren’t that many places a shipment can come in. I’ll get to the bottom of this, Junior, but I’m not taking you along with me.’ He leaves, but this time I don’t shout after him. I don’t believe he’s right, but I can’t ignore the fact Barbara’s been on my mind from the beginning, and I haven’t been able to shake that. I get up, climb back down the fire escape and walk the four blocks back to my apartment. Once there, I peel off my clothes before I’ve barely stepped in through the door and I get straight into the shower; barely noticing the cold water hit my skin before it’s had a chance to warm up. When I get out I don’t bother getting dressed, I just wrap a towel around myself and collapse onto the bed, forcing myself to try and have a dreamless sleep. When I wake up I find that night has fallen once more. I get up, but as I go to the bathroom to splash water on my face I find myself thinking about what Oliver said to me. To an extent he’s right, this is getting too personal for me, but my entire life I have only ever tried to help the innocent and if there’s a chance the red head - or the girl in the building - are in over their heads then I have to help them. I tell myself have no ulterior motive; that I don’t want anything from them. Ollie suggested that I think of women as damsels in distress, but truth be told, after the women that I’ve grown up around, I don’t - I can’t - think of anyone like that. Starfire, Huntress, Diana … Barbara… In my life, there are no damsels in distress, there are no victims of sexism, there are only people - men and women - that may need my help, and once upon a time I swore an oath to help them. I need to go back to the Alhonso building. I need to learn what’s going on there. I’m still in the towel I wrapped around myself when I got out of the shower. I quickly pull on a clean black shirt and a dark pair of khaki trousers, and then I grab the keys to my motorcycle and head out of the door. Two minutes later I’m speeding through the city, swerving through the evening’s traffic, on route to the building. When I get there I park my bike down the same alley Ollie and me escaped down earlier. I decide against entering through the front door so instead I head round to the back of the building to try and find a fire escape or something I might be able to use to climb up to a higher level. I find the fire escape on the left side from the front but it seems that the lower half of it is broken off. I cut my losses and make my way to the roof of an adjoining apartment block and judge the distance from rooftop to rooftop, but find it’s too far to jump. Even with the years of circus training I couldn’t make the gap without a beam or bracket or something to grab a hold of on the other side. My last option is using the half of the fire escape that the Alhonso building still has intact. The apartment block’s fire escape - which I used to get to the roof in the first place - is situated further down, ruling out the possibility of vaulting between the two, but by holding onto the edge of the roof I’m able to

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kick off the wall and propel myself across the gap; grabbing the very bottom bracket of the Alhonso building’s fire escape and pulling myself up. I climb another couple of levels then enter the building through a window on the second to last floor: breaking off the wooden beams that cover the frame as silently as I can so as not to attract attention. I enter into a small room that is mercifully empty save for an upturned bed which is missing more than a few springs in it’s frame. I head out the door and find myself in a hallway that runs parallel to the entrance hall downstairs, with the elevator shaft at the furthest end. Running the entire length of either side of the hallway are doors leading into smaller rooms, and as I make my down I find most of the doors are closed. Some, however, have been left open, and as I look inside I find each one has the same setup as the room a entered in: a small table, a bed, and a cracked mirror. I push open one of the closed doors, already knowing - and dreading - what I will find inside. The setup is exactly the same as each of the others - bed, table and mirror - the difference is the room is occupied, and the occupant is a girl no older than seventeen; sprawled across the bed with her hair covering her face and wearing nothing but a tatty, dark grey dress. At first I think she’s dead, but then I see the puncture marks in her forearms and the empty needle on the floor. I try to rouse her, and though she opens her eyes I can’t get her to move, she just mutters something in Russian that’s too quiet for me to hear and passes back into unconsciousness. When Ollie first told me that the shipment from the mob back in Star City wasn’t drugs or guns my first thought had been illegal immigration, though I hadn’t said anything in case I was wrong. When we found this place my fears were pretty much confirmed, and though I had initially thought that the buyer - this Tony Edwards - was something of a slave-trader, the evidence to the contrary is now staring me in the face. This isn’t an underground slave ring; it’s a prostitution circuit. Welcome to the United States of America: a land of dreams and opportunity. I want to help the girl but there’s nothing I can do for her. Instead I leave the room and head further down the corridor with the intent of finding Edwards - if he’s even in the building - and trying to get a confession out of him. My immediate thought is the office that the guard came out of when me and Ollie were here earlier, but years of having infiltrated similar set-ups with Bruce tells me that Edwards would be on the top floor, with the best view of the city he can get. Typical egomaniac stuff: position yourself as high up as you can so that everything else is quite literally beneath you. I’m on the second to last floor, but I want to avoid the elevator. Instead I look around for a flight of stairs and eventually I find one at opposite end from where the elevator was, just inside of one of the open doorways. At the top of the stairs I encounter my first guard, but he’s facing away from me so I can easily come up behind him and get him in the sleeper hold. Once on the corridor I encounter another two - both standing outside a room with a double door that I’m willing to bet his Edwards’ office - but they’re caught unprepared and though armed they never get a chance to raise their weapons before I’ve subdued them both. I almost master a grin. Just like old times… I push open the double doors and I’m greeted with the image of a slightly bulbous man in a suit sitting behind a computer at an ebony desk. I don’t question for a second what he needs a computer for; fact is it’s just part of a false picture he’s created for himself, one that portrays him as a millionaire mogul on par with Lex Luthor rather than a low-level gangster running a brothel. I look around the office, half expecting to see an oversized oil painting of himself, smoking a Cuban cigar and sitting on a high-backed, red leather armchair, but the walls are empty save for a couple of pictures cut out from a swimsuit calendar. As I take in what I see, my anger rises. ‘Tony Edwards, I presume?’ He looks up. ‘What’s it to you?’ I want to run at him, beat him; hurt him for everything I imagine he’s put the girls through. I want to destroy this ‘office’ that we stand in. I want to get the girls to safety then burn this place to the ground, with him inside… But I can’t. I remain still and composed. There’s still something happening involving the redhead and I need him to tell me everything he knows. I still carry Ollie’s picture of the girl and I pull it out of my pocket and throw it on the desk. ‘You know her?’ I ask. Edwards looks at the picture and I can see the recognition in his eyes, but he doesn’t say anything. He looks from the picture to me. ‘What’s this about?’ he demands. ‘Who are you?’ ‘The girl,’ I repeat, refusing to answer his questions. ‘Do you know her?’

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He chuckles. ‘You’re the one that gave Terry a broken nose this morning, ain’t ya?’ he asks. ‘You one of those damn superheroes I hear about?’ Another chuckle. ‘You left your costume at home, pal.’ I snap; I can’t help it. ‘The girl!’ I roar, grabbing Edwards by what little neck he has and forcing him down against the desk. ‘Do you know her? Do you know who she is; where she is?’ Edwards squirms beneath my grip. He’s about to break, I know it, but the second he opens his mouth the door of the office bursts open and several guards enter the room, including the two I had left subdued at the door. They don’t look particularly tough but I’m willing to bet they’re all armed. I release Edwards and he sinks to the floor, making a show of straightening the tie around his neck. He chuckles again, clearly gaining confidence from the roomful of armed mobsters. ‘You break into my office,’ he says. ‘You question me, assault me… I don’t know who you are, Kiddo, but you’ve just made the last mistake of your life.’ He half walks, half waddles towards the door with a false sense of confidence but the guards prevent me from following. I consider for a moment smashing one of the windows in here and jumping out, but I’m six stories up and I know from my earlier scout of the building’s perimeter there’s nothing outside to break my fall - and we’re on the wrong side of the building for the fire escape… Edwards has gone - and with him my only lead on finding the redhead - but right now I have to fight my out of a building crawling with mobsters when I failed to subdue just three petty thugs last night. Okay, I can do this… Rule number one: judge the situation. There are seven guards, each with a handgun but thankfully nothing bigger, and from the size of them I’d say they talk with their weapons rather than their fists. I have little chance of getting to the door, but this room is big enough to engage them in combat and never feel too tied down, so they only thing I have to do is prevent them from ever getting a clear shot. Easy, right? Thankfully, this is one of the first things Bruce taught me. Keeping on the move and dodging the bullets is all well and good, but after a while you tire yourself out whilst your opponents - who have done nothing but point and shoot - aren’t even breaking a sweat. No, the key to beating them is more psychological than physical: make your opponents forget about the weapons in their hands and more focussed on blocking your attacks and defending themselves. Use close combat; surround yourself with your opponents and don’t let them get an open range. Simply put: don’t let them bring a gun to a fistfight. I dart left behind the desk to avoid the immediate gunfire, then role beneath it and take out the legs of the closest guard to me: a bearded man in a black t-shirt who stinks of vodka. That makes things easier: if they’ve been drinking it means their aim’s going to be off, and gives me an advantage. I kick up off the ground and find myself face to face with another guard, but he’s slightly taken aback which allows me to spin him around and use him as a human shield should any of the others feel like firing. Fortunately for him no one does, but I can’t linger for long so I simply bring an uppercut to his jaw then leap backwards to find another three guards standing wait. Close combat… I alternate attacks between the three. The first I deliver a punch to the stomach, then spin around and quickly drive a back-elbow to the jaw of another. I misjudge my position on the third - or he was smart enough to dodge out the way - but my initial attack of a body punch misses and I stumble. The guard gloats, but before he even realises what has happened I’ve used the stumble to my advantage and taken out his legs with a clothesline. He’s up again reasonably quickly but it helps me stay covered: being in amongst the throng means the others in the room are too afraid to fire in case they hit one of their own. By this time the first guard - the guy with the beard - is back on his feet as well, as is the one I took out with the uppercut, but all it does is add to my cover from the last two guards still on the outside. Five against one, but these guys weren’t trained by Batman. First up: another uppercut, but that’s simply so I’m given enough room to get something of a flying kick in to the guy opposite. I land it, but a guard comes in from my right and gets a lucky punch into my side. I fall, but before I hit the ground I put my hands out and balance on them upside down, spinning my legs reminiscent of helicopter blades and managing to knock two guys back before I have to right myself. It feels good to be able to move like that once more. I don’t feel quite as restricted as I did last night and if only for a moment it feels as though I’m Nightwing again. The moment is short lived. Two guys are forced back, but three more rush at me at once and I’m thrown backwards several feet. I get up but two of the guys are on me again, delivering a swinging punch to my

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jaw before taking out my feet and forcing me body first straight into the wooden chair that Edwards was sitting on behind the desk. The chair splinters: the body is broken in half and the legs separate, but seeing them reminds me of a martial art form that I’ve familiarised myself with over the years, one that even Batman doesn’t outclass me in. Escrima is a weapon-based martial art that uses wooden sticks - the approximate length of a chair leg as both an offensive and defensive weapon, and though I’ve modernised it slightly the basic structure runs as true today as it did a hundred years ago. Stick versus gun… I grab two of the chair legs - one in each hand - and force myself round to face my assailants. As expected they take one look at my weapon of choice and start to grin, but before they’ve even raised their guns I’ve brought a spinning Redondo strike into the face of the closest guard, then moved onto the next with a simple thrust forward with my left hand to distract him whilst my right jabs a pressure point in his side. In skilled hands, these sticks can shatter bone. Gradually, I work my way through each of the guards. Shots fire off but I never stay in one position any longer than I have to, I just move my body accordingly and let my hands get used to the feel of the sticks. I have to work my way around the room a couple of times - I can’t always be sure to hit the exact spot and the chair legs aren’t as heavy duty as the metal rods that I’ve used in the past - but eventually all seven of the guards are subdued. I don’t stay in the room a moment longer than I have to. Edwards will be long gone, but beating several of his lackeys doesn’t put this place out of business and I have no doubt that reinforcements will be on their way. I don’t know how deep this thing goes, if this building is just one of several that Edwards has under his control, but I can’t afford to stick around here and find out what happens next. One thing I’ve come to learn is to always expect a chain of events. Averting one disaster doesn’t mean another isn’t waiting right around the corner… Gotham City. Six Years Ago. I stand outside the Clock Tower - on the balcony in front of the clock face, too ashamed to enter the building and talk to the woman who resides in there. Ashamed. Scared. Either way I don’t know what to say, or what to do. Too much has happened; too much grief, too much heartache. Too much, in too short a time. It began with the cataclysm, with the burial of Gotham. Ironic, that of the all mobs, of all the madmen that reside here, it takes an earthquake for the state officials to deem Gotham an unsafe place to live. Either way there was a choice to make: stay and suffer the No Man’s Land, or leave and try and start a new life somewhere else. Those who could afford it left, but far too many stayed. She stayed. Of course she stayed. She could have gotten out, but she knew the only way the city was going to be able to mend itself was if there were still some who could fight for it. Perhaps that’s why I’m scared to see her now: because she stayed, and I didn’t. She saw hope, I saw ruin. The worst part was that she never questioned my decision. When I did come back, when the team was back together, she never asked why I hadn’t stayed in the first place, why I hadn’t pledged my allegiance to Gotham from day one. Is that what she thinks of me now? Now that I’m Nightwing, now that I have a city of my own to protect? It’s true that me and Bruce have had some problems, but she must know I still care about Gotham, that I still care about her? There’s a door to my left that takes me into the clock tower, to the main control unit of Barbara’s entire set up here. I extend a hand to open it but I pause before I turn the handle… Am I really ready? Finally I compose myself I head in to find Barbara sitting back in her chair, the headset she uses to communicate with each of us lies motionless on the desk front. She turns her head to look at me and even through her glasses I can see she’s been crying. ‘What do you want, Dick?’ she says, firmly. There is no anger in her voice, just exhaustion, and frustration. I hate seeing her like this, it brings to the surface all the problems that exist between us; all the resentment she has shown to my leaving Bruce, leaving Gotham, leaving my life as Robin - my life with her - behind. It reminds me how much she has had to sacrifice ever since the fateful day when the Joker shot her, how much of a different person she has become. I want to help her, but right now I don’t think she’ll ever accept it. I don’t bother asking why she’s upset. After a year of trying desperately to keep some level of order in

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the No Man’s Land, the Joker decided to reward her by brutally killing Sarah Essen, Police Lieutenant and wife to Barbara’s adopted father, Commissioner James Gordon. After everything that had happened… Then not two weeks ago there was an attempt on the life of Gordon himself, even now when the city is only just healing itself, and though he survived there was a moment when Barbara was beside herself. If Jim were to die I don’t know what would have happened, and I dare not think about it. ‘Are you okay?’ I ask. It seems dumb, but it’s all I have. She stares at me. For several long moments she just stares at me, point blank, and doesn’t say a word. She shakes her head, a disbelieving smile spreading across her lips. She runs a hand through her tangled mess of hair; then she starts to laugh, and doesn’t stop. It is not joyfully, nor is it with malice, it’s because after everything - the cataclysm, No Man’s Land, Sarah Essen’s death, the attempt on her father - she probably felt like she would never be able to laugh again. ‘Who are you,’ she finally says, through laughter and through tears, ‘to ask me if I’m okay?’ ‘Babs, I…’ ‘Leave it Dick. If you think you have to be here to fulfil some moral code…’ She trails off, and shakes her head. ‘Just leave it, just go.’ There’s something bothering her and I don’t know what. For a moment I just stand there, but I don’t know what I’m expecting her to do. I turn back to the door I came from - a hand reaches out to open it - but something in the back of my mind prevents me from taking another step. I turn and look back over my shoulder at Barbara. ‘Is that what you think of me?’ I ask. ‘Is that really why you think I came here, to fulfil some moral code?’ She doesn’t look at me, and she doesn’t speak. ‘Goddamn-it, Babs!’ I say, my voice rising. ‘After all these years, after everything that has happened between the two of us, you really think I…’ ‘You slept with Huntress,’ she finally says, her voice barely more than a whisper. I blink. ‘I…’ ‘Please, Dick, don’t deny it,’ she says, still not looking at me. ‘You want to be with her, be with her, don’t come here just to make yourself feel better. I don’t need your charity.’ ‘What happened between me and Huntress,’ I start, but she cuts me off before I can say anything else. ‘Damn-it, Dick!’ she says, spinning in the chair and glaring at me. ‘I mean … Huntress! How could you? After what she… You know Bruce doesn’t trust her, doesn’t like her methods…’ She pauses, then adds, ‘You don’t even know her real name!’ I stare at Barbara, trying to figure out what all this is about. I feel like I have to justify the time I’ve spent with Huntress - that despite being more extreme in her methods and not heeding Bruce’s demands, she actually kept it together during the No Man’s Land - but somehow I know it wouldn’t help; Barbara doesn’t want to hear it. When it all comes down to it, this isn’t about Huntress. This is about us. ‘You ended it with me,’ I say, my voice softer in the hope of calming Barbara down. ‘Every time something happened between us, you’d say we’re not ready, or that I’m not ready.’ Barbara looks at me for a moment, but doesn’t try denying what’s really on her mind. ‘You never settled,’ she replies, after a fashion. ‘Admit it, Dick, you never wanted to be with me, you wanted to be off with the Titans, off with Starfire. You wanted to be with someone who you could be out in the field with, and I haven’t been able to give you that since…’ She stops herself, realising what she was about to say. After all this time, it still hurts her to admit she’ll never be Batgirl again, not after what the Joker did to her. She turns her chair around, her back to me. ‘You never wanted me,’ she says. ‘You wanted the thrill of what being with me offered, and we both know I can’t offer that any more.’ ‘You’re wrong,’ I say, though I don’t know if I’m saying it because I believe it or because I think it’s what she wants to hear. ‘Am I?’ She turns to me again, a pleading look in her eyes. ‘Say you want me, and only me. Tell me the chair doesn’t matter. Tell me you don’t long for things to be like they were, when things were easier.’ ‘Barbara, I love you,’ I tell her, but even I know it doesn’t sound very convincing. ‘You never did figure it out, did you?’ she asks. ‘You never did figure out who you wanted to be, what you wanted to be. Who you wanted to be with…’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I mean who are you, Dick, really?’ Her voice is rising again; she’s getting angrier. ‘Are you Richard Grayson, are you Robin, Nightwing? Are you a Titan? Are you Bruce Wayne’s ward, are you Batman’s sidekick?’ She blinks. ‘You claim to love me, you claim to care for me, but you can’t quite bring yourself

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to be with me because you don’t know what it is you really want.’ ‘What I…?’ ‘Christ, Dick, it’s not that hard!’ she practically screams. ‘Are you a part of this family or aren’t you? I commend you for getting out there and trying something new, I really do, but you’re forgetting where you came from and that’s what I have a problem with!’ She trails of, and when she speaks again the bitterness in her voice has been replaced by sorrow. ‘Even the name Nightwing is Kryptonian in its heritage,’ she finishes. ‘I guess that means you really have left us.’ I don’t respond to her, I feel as though I shouldn’t have to; she shouldn’t presume to know me better than I do. ‘And what about you, Barbara?’ I ask, not bothering to hide the frustration in my voice. ‘Are you actually Oracle, have you truly learnt to live with the chair, or day after day do you strive to be Batgirl again? I’ve seen what you’re like with Cassandra - how you’re training her to be just like you - but if push came to shove and you could get out of that chair you would pass her over in an instant if it meant getting out in the field again.’ I don’t even realise what I’m saying until I’ve said it, and I know I’ve gone too far. I try and apologise but before I’ve even opened my mouth I realise that it would be fruitless. She’s tired and she’s angry, and she doesn’t deserve to have had everything happen to her the way it has. And I can’t be the one to try and put things right. There is silence between us but I don’t dare say another word. At last Barbara looks up at me, and with fresh tears in her eyes says, ‘Dick, I love you. I have always loved you. But I never want to see you again.’ Chicago. Now. I slam my fists into a dumpster down the alleyway that my bike is parked in, then spin on my heel and deliver a kick so hard that the dumpster topples over with a thunderous crash. It’s momentarily satisfying to take my anger out on an inanimate object, but all I really want to do is storm back into the Alhonso building and get all those girls out of there - but I know I can’t and I hate myself for it. Even if I could take on every guard that place has to offer, guns and all, the girls are still illegal immigrants, and they’re no safer on the streets than they are inside. For what good it does, I call the Police from a public phone and leave an anonymous tip to search the building, but Edwards himself is no longer inside, and exposing the Alhonso building doesn’t mean he won’t just start up shop somewhere else. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of immigrants hoping to start a new life in America. On the ride back to my apartment I try and piece together everything that I know, but in doing so I admit to myself that I know less then I care to let on. As much as I want to believe it, Edwards himself didn’t smuggle these girls in, he’s just the buyer, and if I really want to expose this entire operation for what it is then I need to track down and take out the source: this un-named mob family in Star City. By the time I reach my apartment my mind is made up as to what I’m going to do. Star City neighbours San Francisco, on the northern point of California, but if I head to Chicago International now I can be there within the next four hours. I will contact Ollie at the Benes Hotel and tell him what I know and where I’m going - after all, Star City is his city - but it’s a formality, and nothing more. I was raised by Batman, the ‘world’s greatest detective’; I don’t need Oliver Queen’s help in tracking down a mob family. But what about the redhead? What if he’s found her, what if she’s the key in all this? I push open my apartment door and immediately I can tell that someone’s been in there. To the untrained eye everything looks like it was before - it wasn’t, admittedly, the cleanest apartment in Chicago - but part of growing up under Bruce Wayne’s guardianship is you start to notice the finer details in everything you see. It’s a habit, now, but I’ve come to take a mental picture of what a room looks like whenever I leave it, and I can’t help but notice what might be different when I step back in. A coffee mug, several inches out of place on the counter from where I left it; a cupboard door open ajar in the kitchen; the towel hung over the back of my armchair crumpled and loose… Someone was here, looking around, and they’ve done a poor job of putting everything back as it was. My immediate thought is Ollie, but truth be told Ollie just isn’t this subtle. Edwards, or one of his men? Possibility, but Edwards isn’t Luthor; he hasn’t got the resources to work out who I am so soon. The mob…? I cross the room to the counter separating the kitchen from the living area and pick up the coffee mug, putting it in the sink with the rest of the weeks washing up. I glance at my watch and see that it’s gone two

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in the morning and I yawn almost subconsciously, but as I inhale through my nose I catch traces of a scent I immediately associate with Terry’s bar last night. A curious mix of lavender and cinnamon engulf me, and I’m transported back to the image of the redhead approaching me, smile on her face and cocktail in hand. Curiously I make my way out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, but as I push open the door I already know what I’m going to see. The redhead, exactly as I remember her, in a tight black strap-top and hair hung loose over one shoulder, is perched on the edge of the bed; but this time there is no friendly look in her eyes or welcoming smile on her face. What I see this time is only fear and remorse, and when she looks up at me I can see the mascara round her eyes has run and I realise she’s been crying. Instinct tells me to go to her, but the shock of the situation freezes me where I am in the doorway and I’m once more forcibly reminded of Barbara. ‘You…’ I mutter, somehow unable to string together any more words. ‘Please,’ the girl stammers, pushing her tangled hair behind one ear and trying her best to compose herself. ‘You’ve got to help me.’ * The girl is a mess; so nervous I can barely get two words out of her. I tell her to have a shower in the hopes she might relax a bit and gain some composure, then when she’s dry we sit down in the living area to talk. Immediately she tells me she’s sorry for breaking in, but I have already decided to trust her, and truth be told there are more pressing concerns that I need to know about. ‘I’ve been looking for you,’ I tell her. ‘I have a … friend from Star City, and he takes the city’s wellbeing very seriously. He came here looking for you, believing you to have ties to a mafia family operating in his neighbourhood recently. After last night… I don’t believe you are who he says you are, but there are questions, and I want answers.’ ‘Where so I start?’ she asks. ‘How about you tell me your name.’ ‘Vercetti,’ she replies. ‘Elena Vercetti.’ A pause. ‘My father is Tobias Vincent Vercetti,’ she adds, in a tone of voice that suggests I should know the name. ‘Second cousin - or so he says - to Nicholas Vitti, of the old Chicago crime syndicate.’ The name Vitti rings a bell in my head; a direct result of having been made to study Bruce’s documentation of every known organised crime family in greater America. My memory isn’t as good as Bruce’s, but from what I remember the Vitti family are all but gone - and what few members are still around have long since merged with the larger families in the hope of staying under Batman’s radar. The Vercettis, on the other hand, not even Batman has any records of. It would stand to reason that Tobias Vercetti’s family tree wasn’t quite as large as he laid claim to, it being far too convenient that the one name he alleges to descend from has no more members to confirm his story. ‘Tell me about your father,’ I say, wanting to gain more background on her, and the name Vercetti. She looks at me, and there’s something in her eyes. ‘Please,’ she says, ‘don’t judge me. What I’ve done, where I come from… I’m not proud of it. Right now I am my father’s daughter in name only, and even that is too much.’ There’s more to all this than I first suspected, but I know that the only way I’m going to get answers out of her is if I don’t push. There are many questions in my head - the least of which being why she approached me in the bar yesterday, and how she found out I was on her trail this morning. But right now all I want to know from her is what connection she has to Edwards, and what it is exactly that she needs help with. ‘I’m not going to judge you,’ I say, in the hopes of reassuring her, ‘but I can’t help you unless you tell me everything.’ Slowly, she nods. ‘My mom died when I was twelve,’ she begins. ‘At the time we lived in New York. Dad, he did work there, petty crimes for petty criminals, y’know? He would always complain loudly at home of course, saying New York just wasn’t where we were meant to be. Relatives of the Vittis, he would say. And we weren’t going to get respect unless we moved to Chicago. Never happened, of course. We were set to go one time but Mom got sick, and on doctor’s orders we made the move to warmer climates.’ ‘California?’ I ask, beginning to understand the link to Star City, which sits just south of San Francisco. The girl - Elena - nods. ‘San Diego at first,’ she says, ‘but Dad hated it. It never once crossed his mind to try for an honest job, and organised crime just never made it big on the west coast. When Mom died we moved up-state and settled in Star City. Dad had somehow managed to set up some sort of business there

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with an old contact he had obtained from New York, and together they set out to write a new chapter in organised crime.’ ‘The contact,’ I say. ‘What was his name?’ ‘Anthony Edwards,’ Elena replies, and I know she saw the recognition flash through my eyes. I question whether or not to say anything but I decide against it, and let her continue. ‘Mom’s death pretty much changed everything,’ she says. ‘Dad always had it in his mind that I would help him run whatever business he got started, but Mom always fought to keep me out of it; when she died, Dad saw his cue to start making me live up to the name Vercetti. He didn’t pull me out of school though in fact he forked out the money to send me to the best private school in the vicinity, stating that if him and I were going to run the business, I had better get the best education I could. I didn’t mind: Dad had always tried to make me bring out the Italian in my blood, but in all honesty I only ever wanted to be American.’ ‘But you got sucked in anyway?’ Again she nods. ‘Dad pulled me out of school in my final year,’ she says. ‘I wanted to go to college but he had other plans. The business was just starting to take off: using the cover of a courier service, Dad and Edwards were managing to traffic drugs across states. I don’t know who their buyers were but something kept them going, and suddenly we were seeing more money than we ever had before. I didn’t want anything to do with it at first, but Dad said he needed someone to handle the finances and, well… it’s hard to turn your back on your own family, you know?’ ‘Believe me, I do,’ I tell her. ‘It’s not always easy to be what everyone expects, but it’s even harder to walk away from what you know.’ There’s a look of something in her eyes, and I wonder for a moment if she knows about me. Who I was, the life I led… My Nightwing costume is in a backpack stuffed into the corner of a closet, not impossible for someone to find should they feel the need to look around. I can’t help but think she must know, I mean, why else would she target me in the bar and subsequently break into my apartment? But at the same time I could be forcing a connection to the old life when there isn’t one - willing this girl, this mysterious redhead, to be Barbara when I know she isn’t. ‘Okay, so what happened next?’ I say, purposefully forcing her to carry on with her story so I can put aside all questions that may arise about my identity. ‘I helped Dad with his finances for a couple of years,’ she continues. ‘I didn’t ask where the money was coming from, what Dad and Edwards were really up too… I had an inkling, of course, but I was happier living in denial. Time wore on and the business grew. Dad eventually hired some extra hands - started calling them his extended family - and I saw an opportunity to convince him to finally let me go to college. He agreed, and I undertook a scholarship at Met-U. I think a part of me wanted to get as far away from my father as possible, just so he couldn’t call me back home at the last minute, so settling in Metropolis seemed like the best idea. ‘Three years later I returned, only now the Vercetti business had grown into something of a Vercetti empire, and though drugs were still the forefront they were now getting most of the business from overseas. Edwards had gone, of course, but I don’t think Dad really noticed. He had more help working for him, and through his deluded dream of a family name he started introducing them as cousins from Italy. I never did a blood test, but I’m pretty certain that none of them hailed with the name Vercetti.’ ‘And now?’ I prompt, realising we must be getting to the end. ‘About a year back Dad came to me. He had been drinking, of course, but the gist of it was he knew he wasn’t getting any younger, and though the name Vercetti had been branded onto others, he was upset that I - his true flesh and blood - had never played a more active role in the business. I, having pretty much convinced myself my father was a good man, agreed to get more involved - afraid that if I refused now, then before I knew it my father would be dead and I would be reflecting on how I never really knew either of my parents.’ ‘Only now they weren’t just smuggling in drugs and guns,’ I say, the bigger picture forming. ‘At the time I had no idea,’ Elena nods. ‘Turns out Edwards leaving gave Dad the opportunity to invest in something bigger, and I was invited along to watch the first shipment come in.’ Her voice quivers slightly and she chokes on the words, tears building up in her eyes. ‘I had always heard of human trafficking, but never thought Dad would get involved with it. It’s foolish, I know, but I always thought he was above all that.’ ‘Something happened on the docks, didn’t it?’ I say. ‘When you saw what - who - it was your father was bringing in.’ When she speaks her voice is barely above a whisper. ‘One of the girls, she broke free,’ she says.

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‘Edwards was there; him and Dad lined the girls up and started putting them into separate groups - which ones Edwards could use, and which ones he … couldn’t. One broke ranks, and being the only woman in the vicinity she came straight to me. She got to her knees, grabbed the hem of my top, and started to plead with me… She didn’t speak a word of English but it didn’t matter, her tone was clear enough…’ She trails off, and I put a hand out to comfort her. She pushes it away. ‘I didn’t know what to do,’ she tells me. ‘One of our ‘cousins’ was there in an instant, pulling her off me… Edwards, of course, said he had no use for someone so unwilling to cooperate, and before I really knew what was happening he had pulled a gun on her… After that I freaked - made an excuse and left. Dad didn’t say anything; for him it was just business as normal.’ With that last bit of information I finally understand the rest. ‘Your feelings for your father’s business changed after that, didn’t it?’ I ask. ‘You acted in accordance with them to gain information about further shipments, figured you could prevent any more girls suffering a similar - or worse - fate.’ ‘I hated myself for so long,’ Elena adds on. ‘I didn’t speak to my father for weeks, maybe months, after that. Eventually I knew that the only way things were going to change is if someone acted against the business - and though I tried to deny it I knew the only person willing - and able - to do so was me. I had a way in and I could get access to their plans without arousing suspicion. Dad, blissfully ignoring any reaction I may have had to the last shipment, was still eager to get me involved with everything else he had planned, so provided I kept my head down I could make as many changes to the schedule as I wanted.’ ‘But someone noticed?’ ‘Thankfully, not until after the shipment didn’t come in - and at first, they didn’t even know it was me,’ replies Elena. ‘Dad’s not an idiot, though, and he soon realised the only person who had been anywhere near those schedules in the past couple of weeks was me. He tried to ignore it, of course, even laid the blame on some newcomer who he knew full well was innocent but couldn’t bring himself to condone his own daughter. He couldn’t lie to himself for long, however, and the minute he started organising another shipment, those nagging feelings resurfaced and he ordered the hit on me.’ ‘His own daughter?’ I ask. ‘I thought his big dream was a family business?’ Elena looks away, staring at her feet. ‘Suddenly I wasn’t his daughter anymore,’ she shrugs, and I could tell it hurt her to admit it. ‘I guess the ‘family’ was big enough without me now, or the ‘business’ part of ‘family business’ meant more to him than the ‘family’.’ ‘So what happened?’ ‘The guy he sent after me - Michael Alhonso - he had worked with Dad and Edwards for years, even given Edwards his family’s old building to use here in Chicago. Thing is, I know my father, and I know his routine - and so I knew he had sent Alhonso after me. I also knew what I had to do … but it didn’t make doing it any easier.’ ‘Alhonso - you killed him?’ I ask, with little surprise in my voice. Elena looks up at me, and I can see her eyes are red. ‘I’m not proud of it,’ she says, hurryingly. ‘You don’t understand, I had no choice, I…’ I cut her off. ‘I know,’ I say, though somewhat disbelievingly. I want to tell her that her actions were justified, but part of growing up with Bruce I’ve come to understand that there is always an alternative to killing, despite what the situation may be, so instead I simply tell her to continue with the story. ‘I had to run, get out of the city,’ she says, in tones suggesting I was a fool if I thought otherwise. ‘Dad would expect that, of course, but I thought that he would expect me to return to the cities that I knew - San Diego, New York, Metropolis - but sometimes there’s no ignoring what you know to lie ahead of you, and I knew that the Vercetti business empire didn’t end with my father.’ ‘Edwards?’ She nods. ‘I wanted to run and hide, but I knew that if I was really going to stop what my father was doing, preventing a shipment of girls coming in would barely leave a dent. I couldn’t ignore it: Edwards was the key to it all - without him, there was no business.’ ‘So you came to Chicago,’ I say, hoping to make better sense of everything in my head. ‘But either your Dad knew you were here, or Edwards saw you and tipped him off - either way, you didn’t have as long here as you originally thought you might before your father’s goons caught up with you…’ I’m about to ask why she came to the bar, and why she approached me, but before the words form in my mouth I stop, and the last piece clicks into place. ‘You wanted protection, didn’t you?’ I ask. ‘You knew your father had sent people after you, so you came to the bar looking to spend the night with someone who looked as though they might help you, if things got out of hand.’ I remember what Ollie said, about women using sex as a weapon to get what they want. In a way he had

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been right, and suddenly I’m wondering if I’ve made a mistake, and that everything this girl has told me has been a part of a trick to get something from me. But if that were true, what is it that I can offer? I’m unconnected to this entire affair, I have no connection to her or her father, and if this is about investigating Edwards then I would be dead. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Elena says, seemingly knowing what I’m thinking but not denying that what I said was true. ‘Don’t look at me differently. I’m not one of Edwards’s girls; my body is not an instrument to be used and tossed aside. I didn’t go to the bar looking for anyone, I went looking for you, and you alone.’ ‘Me…?’ ‘I’d seen you in there before, every night the same story. Same time, same drink, same booth in the corner where the shadows hide all memories. Remember what I told you, Dick Grayson, about not letting the past consume you? Yes, I came to you because I needed someone, but I came to you because I realised that we had something in common.’ I remain silent; shocked, but somehow slightly relieved to hear what she’s told me is the truth. Elena leans forward, eyes locked with mine. ‘Who are you, Dick Grayson?’ she asks. ‘I know what you’ve been doing, and I know you went to the Alhonso building this morning. I came to you again because I know you can help me, and I know there’s more to you than I first suspected. Did you go back? The Alhonso building - Edwards - is that where you were tonight? Did you see for yourself what he has going on in that place?’ She pauses, unsure whether or not to tell me what I suspect that she may know. ‘I checked your name against apartment leases, that’s how I found you tonight,’ she continues. ‘When I got here, and you weren’t… I found the costume, the one you keep at the bottom of your closet.’ I say nothing. ‘Are you one of them?’ she asks. ‘Those people I hear about on TV, read about in the papers… For ages I didn’t believe, I thought they were myths, but then I moved to Star City and I started to hear things, and when I went to college in Metropolis…’ I question how much I should reveal to her. ‘Something happened,’ I say, ‘I’m not a part of that life anymore.’ ‘Why? What happened?’ I want to tell her everything. Bruce, Barbara, my circus training, my life as Robin… What happened at the Clock Tower a year ago, the siege at Blackgate… But I can’t, I know I can’t, I just want so badly to share my feelings with someone who isn’t Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen. There is honesty and warmth in her face when I look at her, but there are secrets that I keep that I vowed to never share with anyone - and despite what may be happening in my life right now I will never go back on a vow. ‘Whatever it is,’ says Elena, realising that I’m not going to answer her, ‘remember what I said. How I felt when I knew I had to face Edwards in Chicago, about not ignoring what lay on the path ahead of me… it rings true for you, too. Whatever it is that stopped you being who you were, look instead and who you will be, and choose which actions to take to get there.’ I listen to what she says but right now we need to form a plan to deal with Edwards and her father. ‘I need to contact my friend,’ I tell her. ‘If we’re taking on Edwards, he can help us. Stay here, they don’t know me, and your apartment isn’t safe… I’ll be back soon, I promise.’ I head into the bedroom to grab a jacket when out the corner of my eye I spot my old Nightwing outfit stuffed into the knapsack at the bottom of my closet. Elena’s words ring in my head. It shouldn’t feel like such a big step, time was I would put on the costume in a heartbeat… but I’m not that man anymore, and I haven’t been for a while. But who am I? If I am no longer Nightwing then why am I rushing out to get to the bottom of a mystery that doesn’t involve me? If Nightwing doesn’t exist, if there is only Dick Grayson, why do I strive for my life to be like it was in the beginning? It’s not just Barbara; she alone didn’t make me love my life as Robin, make me feel like I was doing good in the world. I loved her, but if she was the sole reason that I ever put on a costume then I never would have made the transition from Robin to Nightwing, and then never looked back. I can avoid the costume, I can avoid the fights, but I can never avoid who I am. I am Dick Grayson, and I am Nightwing, and sometimes you just can’t ignore what truly lies ahead of you. I guess you can never put off the inevitable, however much you might want to. Gotham City. Five Years Ago.

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The city is asleep. There are few cars on the road, the bars and clubs are closing; the only movement comes from a fox scrounging for leftovers in a tipped-over rubbish bin. I sit in a heavily modified Ferrari F40 - one of Bruce’s earlier Batmobile designs that he has since passed on to me - in an alleyway directly across the street from the Clock Tower. I wonder if she’s seen me yet; if the scanners she has stationed all around the city have picked me up or she’s if hacked into a CCTV feed and spotted me here. After all, I’ve been sitting here for over forty minutes, desperately weighing up the pros and the cons to grappling up to the clock face and entering the building I haven’t set foot in for close to a year. Am I scared? Among other things. One year. Say it like that and it sounds like a ridiculously short amount of time, and can never do justice to the number of days it holds. Of course, the first couple of months were the hardest, that’s when I really wanted to come back here and put things right - I almost did once or twice - but something would always come up, and the moment would pass. She told me she never wanted to see me again. I have always respected her wishes. But I can’t live like this. She’s my oldest friend; she is arguably my soul mate. If I could take back what I said… I exit the car, and from a concealed utility pouch on the left arm of my outfit I produce a small grapple gun that Bruce had made for me several months back. I aim it across the street at the Clock Tower and squeeze the trigger, releasing a thin - but strong - wire cord that shoots across the gap between buildings and attaches itself firmly to the Clock Tower on the other side. I position myself comfortably and then retract the cord so that I’m propelled upwards and across the street, landing firmly on the small balcony outside of the giant clock face. One whole year… I don’t hesitate. I head straight to the left-side door and push it open. I find Barbara in front of her desk, headset in place, in the process of updating Tim on a break in at Nolan House on Gotham’s upper west side. She glances at me, perhaps longer than she would normally, but nothing in her eyes tells me I’m not welcome. She holds up a finger to motion that she needs a minute. ‘Evidence points to it being Catwoman,’ she tells Tim over the open line she has with him. ‘A rare Indian tiger statue was recently unveiled there, impossible for Selina to pass up. Examine the scene and report back to Bruce, there’s no point going after her now, she’ll be long gone.’ She breaks the connection and the line goes dead. For a moment there’s silence between us, then she finally sighs and says, ‘Dick, what…?’ I cut her off. ‘Come with me,’ I say. She frowns. ‘What do you…?’ ‘I’ve got something for you, I’m not going to tell you what,’ I reply. ‘Come, you’ll see.’ She shakes her head. ‘My duties,’ she says. ‘I should stay here.’ ‘I’ve checked with Bruce. He says all the main players are still in Arkham. But just to be sure I’ve got Wally and Kory doing surveillance in Gotham tonight. Babs, seriously, when was the last time you left the Clock Tower?’ ‘I…’ she trails off, and looks away. I hold out my hand, the corner of my mouth twitching in a soft smile. ‘Please,’ I say. ‘Trust me.’ Barbara looks up at me. Our eyes meet, and then without a word she extends a hand to lock with mine. I know what she’s thinking, because I’m thinking the exact same thing. Everything is not okay between us; this is not forgive and forget. But despite what may have been said the last time I was here, we have known each other for over ten years, and I have earned the benefit of the doubt. I pull her forward just enough to get my right arm around her back, and my left beneath her legs, allowing the proper leverage to lift her up out of the chair. When she’s in my arms I carry her to a concealed elevator that Bruce had installed when Barbara first moved in here, allowing for direct access to the street from Barbara’s workstation and apartment. Once at ground level we head across to the old F40 the streets still empty and silent - where still not saying a word I strap Barbara into the passenger side seat and climb in myself. I start the engine, turn out of the alley and head north, relishing the freedom that the empty streets give us and allowing the car to travel at great speed due to the boosters Bruce added. Past Robinson Park, the Bowery, Arkham and the Narrows and out towards Gotham County on the Robert Kane Memorial Bridge… I can see Barbara recognises the route, it’s the same one Bruce takes to get back to Wayne

30


Manor, but she thinks better off than to ask if that’s where we’re heading. At the end of the bridge, where Bruce would turn right to get back to the Manor, I turn us left, on the road to Bristol and the Goodwin International Airport - our final destination being a large open field situated somewhere between the two. I stop the car amongst a throng of caravans and for the first time Barbara can see where I’ve been taking her. In the middle of the field is a large circus tent, a Big Top, with the caravans forming a small community to one side. ‘Dick…’ Barbara mutters, her eyes inquisitive but filling with a sense of wonderment. ‘They’re empty,’ I say, motioning to the caravans around us. ‘We’re alone.’ I step out the car and produce a small, collapsible wheelchair from a storage compartment behind my seat, then assist Barbara into it. Her eyes never the leave the Big Top, which is purposefully as lit up as it would be during a show, and it warms me to see the excitement in her - that she could feel that way about something that formed such a major part of my childhood and not hers. I wheel her through the grass, past the caravans and towards the tent. She doesn’t ask what we’re doing there, she just allows herself to be guided along, to trust I know what I’m doing. But I can tell she wonders, and it’s not long before the rational part of her brain asks not why we’re at a circus, but who owns it. I let out a soft laugh. ‘I do,’ I tell her, with a grin. ‘Well, Bruce does, technically, but he’s passing the deeds on to me. Once upon a time the circus formed a large part of American culture, but these days they are mostly forgotten about. Wayne Foundation stepped in and provided a considerable amount of funding to keep this one from going under: it’s currently in the process of refurbishment.’ Barbara smiles. ‘Dick Grayson the business man, huh? That’s a side of you I’ve never seen before,’ she says. ‘It’ll be mine in name only,’ I confess. ‘Lucius Fox knows someone who’s interested in opening this place up, he’ll do all the work, probably get it on the road again.’ I shrug. ‘I do get to name it though,’ I add, smiling. ‘Still undecided if ‘The Flying Graysons Memorial Circus’ is too morbid…’ Barbara chuckles. ‘You’ll think of something,’ she says. We enter the Big Top. I can tell Barbara finds the size of it overwhelming; everyone always does the first time they step in to one, since they always look much bigger on the inside. Of course, there are no stalls for the audience, not yet, but I had made sure to have the trapeze ropes set up, and a safety net just in case. ‘So is that it,’ Barbara grins, when she sees them. ‘Am I getting a private show?’ ‘Not quite,’ I say, with a knowing smile. She frowns. ‘What is it then?’ ‘What’s the one thing you miss?’ I ask. ‘The one thing that being in the chair doesn’t allow you to do?’ ‘Dick we’ve been through this before. I’ve adapted to the chair, I’ve…’ ‘I know,’ I say, hurriedly, conscious about starting another argument. ‘But if there’s one thing…?’ She’s silent for a moment, but she doesn’t appear angry. ‘The wind in my hair,’ she says at last. She doesn’t look at me, and at the same time as the words leave her lips she realises what I have planned for her. ‘That feeling,’ she continues, ‘on the grapple line, after you’ve jumped, when the fall turns to a swing… That rush of adrenaline, that feeling of freedom and absolute power…’ she trails off, then adds with a grin, ‘That moment when you know what it’s like to be Clark…’ She tells me, but she knows I know all of this already, which is why I’ve bought her here, now, on the anniversary of her first night as Batgirl. She hasn’t said anything all evening but she never forgets, and neither do I. ‘You ready?’ I ask her. Her heart is racing: anxiety, excitement, but when she looks at me I see the confidence, and I know it’s a foolish question. ‘One last thing,’ I say. ‘Close your eyes.’ She does so, without question. When I tell her to open them again I present her with a replica of her original Batgirl outfit: a dark grey tunic with yellow bat emblem across the chest, with yellow gloves and boots - but minus the cape and cowl. Her eyes widen. ‘Dick…’ she murmurs, staring at the suit in disbelief. ‘Get changed,’ I say. ‘For one night only, let Batgirl be born again.’ She begins to unbutton her blouse and though we have seen each other naked before I give her some privacy and turn around. It takes her a while, she has to shift her body into the right position to be able to manoeuvre her legs into the suit, but finally she tells me she’s done, and asks me to zip her up at the back. Just as I had done at the Clock tower, I carry rather than wheel her over to the platform and pulley I’ve fashioned in order to get her up to the rafters and the aerial platforms. Once up, Barbara sits with her legs

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over the launching platform and I detach the trapeze from a strap and hold it loose. Barbara grips the bar with both hands and shuffles forward slightly on the platform, whilst I support her back with one hand and grip the trapeze with the other. ‘Ready?’ I ask. She takes a deep breath. ‘You got me?’ I nod. ‘Always.’ ‘On three?’ We count down together. She closes her eyes. On one I push us off, and the familiar feeling of weightlessness hits. Barbara takes to the swing with such ease you would never believe that she’s been confined to a chair for the past several years. She’s positioned her legs out straight, allowing her to cut through the air with greater ease, and though I’m fairly confident she doesn’t need it, I keep one knee bent to give her extra support. She doesn’t open her eyes but it’s not out of fear, it’s so that the illusion isn’t shattered. Even with her legs bound together she’s Batgirl again, if only for the briefest of moments, and she won’t do anything to change that. What I said in the Clock Tower a year ago was wrong. Barbara has adapted to life in the chair, she loves the life as Oracle, and she doesn’t wish for one moment to be Batgirl again… But to have the opportunity to be back in the suit, to glide through the air … for just one night… Afterwards we lie on the platform, two hundred feet from the ground. Barbara is buzzing with excitement, and I’m reminded of when we would go on patrol together, just the two of us, all those years ago. She doesn’t say anything, and her face is expressionless, but I can tell how she’s feeling because she looks at me, and her eyes are dancing. ‘I’m not going to apologise,’ I say, breaking the moment. ‘What I said in the Clock Tower, I was wrong. I know it. You know it… But I’m not going to apologise, it will hold little meaning now.’ Her eyes are no longer dancing. ‘Dick…’ she starts, but I cut her off. ‘I’m proud of you, Babs,’ I continue. ‘All the work you’ve done in the past year, that thing you started with Black Canary, whatever it is you call yourselves… Look, I don’t want to have to wait a year before I see you again, and I don’t want to only come to Gotham when there’s some big crisis brewing. If you want some time I understand, I just…’ This time she cuts me off. ‘Dick, shut up,’ she says, her left hand coming round to my neck and pulling me close. ‘Just kiss me.’ Chicago. Now. It’s exhilarating and frightening to be back in the costume again. My mind is racing with a million thoughts; I barely take in everything that is happening around me, I just give in to a guiding force, trusting it will lead me to my destination. The redhead, Elena, in my apartment… A Chicago crime syndicate being reborn, an illegal prostitution circuit… And I’m Nightwing, again. Too many thoughts, too much happening… I left my apartment not only so I could tell Oliver everything I know, but so I can clear my head and make sense of everything that has happened in the last forty-eight hours. I don’t need for Oliver to know I am Nightwing again, I need for myself to know I am Nightwing again, because if I don’t I fear I’ll wake up in the morning and be Dick Grayson once more. Now I’ve got the suit on, I feel as though I can’t go back, or don’t want to. My destination is the Benes Hotel, the only place in the city where I know Oliver Queen to be. I don’t know Chicago as well as I do Gotham or Blüdhaven, but I can remember roughly the route that Oliver took me the other night, and though I’m barely focussing on my surroundings I know I’m going the right way, and I embrace the opportunity to really become who I once was. I stick mostly to the rooftops before I reach the downtown area, vaulting the gaps between buildings with effortless ease and unmatched momentum. When the skyscrapers hit I pull out my grapple from the concealed pouch behind my left glove. It’s small, and doesn’t contain as much wire cord as some of the ones that Bruce uses, but when I fire the piton and take my first leap off of a building, the memories and tactics of using it come flooding back, and the feeling is as natural as taking your first step. When the Benes Hotel comes into view I use the same tactic as Oliver did before and make a beeline from the neighbouring building to the balcony on Oliver’s penthouse. I find the door unlocked but a quick sweep of the rooms tells me Ollie isn’t at home. I question waiting but decide against it, and instead I cross to a small coffee table to write a note telling him the redhead is with me and to meet me at my apartment.

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I turn, with the intent on pinning the note to the glass door separating the living area to the balcony to ensure that it’s the first thing Ollie sees when he returns, but just as I’m about to pin it up the note goes flying out of my hand with the aid of a sudden blur of green. I blink, and mange a small grin as I realise what as happened and see the note pinned perfectly to the door’s frame by an arrow sticking out of the upper right-hand corner. ‘Figured you could use a hand,’ comes the voice of Oliver from behind me. ‘Or you couldn’t let the chance to show off slip you by,’ I say, turning to see Ollie, in full Green Arrow set up, perched on the edge of balcony. ‘You’re off centre though. Losing your touch?’ ‘Not on your Nelly, Junior,’ Ollie replies with a grunt, jumping down to meet me at the door. He gives me the once-over with his eyes. ‘So, you playing dress up or does this mean you’ve decided to get back in the game?’ he asks. ‘Either way, the tights are dashing.’ ‘Says the man in the lime-green hat,’ I respond. ‘Seriously, it brings out your eyes.’ Ollie chooses not to say anything, but his moustache twitches as the traces of a grin appear around his mouth. ‘So,’ he finally says, ‘you going to tell me why you’re here?’ ‘The redhead,’ I tell him. ‘Her name’s Elena Vercetti.’ ‘You found her?’ ‘In an manner of speaking,’ I nod. ‘She says her father is Tobias Vincent Vercetti. Ring any bells?’ ‘Yeah, sounds about right,’ Ollie says. ‘Calls himself Vince, from what Roy told me.’ He pauses. ‘So I take it you’ve spoken to our femme fatale, then? Care to fill me in?’ ‘She’s waiting in my apartment,’ I reply. ‘Come on, I’ll fill you in on the way.’ * We take the same route across the rooftops to get back to my apartment, and on the way I tell Oliver everything that the redhead told me. For the whole time he doesn’t say a single word - no grunt, no witty comment - and I wonder if its because he’s too proud to admit that every accusation he had on Elena was wrong. I chose not to say anything; it’s better to let Ollie come to own conclusions about everything. When we reach my apartment we enter through a window in the living room, which conveniently opens out onto one of the building’s fire escapes. When we enter the apartment, however, there is no sign of Elena. The living area, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are all empty, and the only clue that she was there at all lies in a broken coffee mug on the floor beside the chair on which she was sat. I expect Ollie to make some snide comment about having made everything up, but thankfully he remains focussed. ‘She could have gone back to her own apartment,’ he suggests. ‘She came to me for help,’ I remind him. ‘She wouldn’t leave, not when she knows it isn’t safe.’ ‘So what are you thinking?’ Ollie prompts. ‘Her father’s caught up with her?’ I nod. ‘That’s what it looks like,’ I say. ‘No signs of a struggle though, beside the coffee mug. Could be they drugged her.’ Ollie looks at me, and I know what he’s thinking before he’s even said anything. ‘That ain’t the only explanation, Kid,’ he says. ‘She may have-’ ‘Drop it, Ollie!’ I say, rounding on him. ‘She didn’t go willingly and you know it. Look at the evidence; it doesn’t add up! She had nothing to gain by confiding in me and then leaving whilst I was gone, and if she wanted me dead after what I saw at the Alhonso building then she could have done it already! They’ve taken her - for all I know they could have already killed her - but either way it doesn’t change what she’s already told me.’ ‘Look, I don’t doubt that she was here, and that she confided in you,’ Ollie says, ‘but we know nothing about this girl. All I’m saying is, don’t be so quick to know what she’s thinking, she could have an ulterior motive.’ ‘I don’t believe that,’ I say, simply. ‘You weren’t here, you didn’t see her… I’ve looked into the eyes of liars, Ollie, not even Bruce can play it that convincingly.’ Oliver sighs, and for a moment he’s silent, but then he nods, and when he speaks I know that I’ve finally got through to him. ‘Alright,’ he says, honestly. ‘Let’s go play the hero.’ ‘First things first,’ I say, ‘we have to work out where they’re holding up.’ Ollie scoffs. ‘Please,’ he says, ‘I thought you had more faith in me than that!’ ‘You mean you…?’ ‘I told you before: if there was another deal happening in Chicago I would find out where it was. Seriously, just what do you think I’ve been doing all day?’

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I shake my head. ‘But Elena said her father’s goons were here for her, she didn’t tell me of another shipment,’ I say. ‘That’s because it’s already happened, Kid,’ Ollie replies. I frown. ‘So, then…?’ ‘The shipment’s already come in,’ Ollie continues, cutting me off. ‘Came into the port of San Francisco about a week back. I already told you that the Chicago docks ain’t exactly known for their booming slave trade; if Vercetti felt Star City was compromised, he would’ve simply moved up-state. The question you have to ask yourself is, how do you cart fifty immigrants across six states without raising suspicion?’ ‘Train-line?’ I suggest. Ollie grins. ‘My thoughts exactly,’ he says. ‘See, when I left you on that rooftop, I went and did a little digging in Chicago’s train manifests, and it turns out there’s a helpful little route straight from Moon Ridge - a small trading town about a mile outside of Star City. Forty-odd hour journey, but it’s direct, and a damnsight cheaper - and a hell of a lot less risky - than using planes.’ ‘But if there was a shipment in a week ago then Vercetti could have easily put the girls on a train by now and sent them up here,’ I point out. ‘If we’re going to stop Vercetti we need to catch him in the act preferably with Edwards alongside.’ ‘That’s just it,’ Ollie says. ‘Moon Ridge to Chicago ain’t exactly a tourist trade; it only runs once, maybe twice a fortnight. Now Vince Vercetti may be powerful, but he’s not exactly Al Capone. He can’t run his own timetable with the trains; all he can do is pay the guards to look the other way while he conducts his business…’ ‘And we know for sure he’s using the trains?’ I ask. Ollie nods. ‘Based on what we know, I’d say it’s the only option he has available,’ he says. ‘I mean, he could be using the road but the journey can’t be made in one go, and he wouldn’t risk a stopover on fear of attracting attention.’ My hope starts to rise. ‘So when’s the next train due in?’ I ask. ‘Dusk,’ Ollie says, with another grin. ‘Tomorrow.’ * We spend the next day looking for Elena, both of us knowing full well that we’re not going to find her. For what it’s worth we go to her apartment but find it exactly as we had left it the previous morning, Terry’s Bar, and find it empty; we even check out the Alhonso building only to find it completely deserted, with police tape covering the entrance and the majority of the rooms inside. When we’ve exhausted all avenues Ollie suggests that we try and get some sleep so that we’re fully rested for the evening, but with the sun in the sky and my mind abuzz I’m unable to keep my eyes closed for more than a minute. Mid afternoon we get changed, though I had been so unwilling to change out of my Nightwing uniform in the first place that I still had most of it on underneath a shirt and a pair of jeans. I do, however, dig out my pair of steel Escrima sticks and slot them into specially designed pouches on the back of my suit, deciding they’re likely to be more effective than a broken pair of chair legs. The train itself was due to come in at six pm, and though it did stop at Chicago Union Central it also made one stop prior, a stones throw away from the International Airport, in a place called Woodland View. Logic told us this was the place to be, since Vercetti was very unlikely to unload a cartful of illegal immigrants in the middle of the city, in full view of Chicago’s best and brightest. At four we get on my bike and head out towards the airport, then making sure no-one’s watching us we take a detour to Woodland View - which, and despite what it’s name suggested, was simply a large industrial park and one that wasn’t open to the public. Breaking in doesn’t prove to be a problem, however, since any workers would have been sent home and the vicinity’s guards would have paid them off by Vercetti or Edwards prior to arrival. Seeing the park, and the state of the surrounding housing estates, makes me feel like I’m back home in Gotham, or even Blüdhaven, but it doesn’t serve as a comfort. Graffiti covers every visible wall, potholes litter the roads and the gates and fences have all been kicked in so many times that even when they’re righted they struggle to stand up on their own. The park itself serves as a host to many cranes and towering structures, and I wonder for a moment if Vercetti would be paranoid enough to have set up snipers somewhere with a clear view of the station. Ollie, it seems, was thinking along the same lines. ‘I’ll go check ‘em out,’ he says, motioning to the cranes around us. ‘I’ll meet you at the station, be sure to get a good vantage point.’

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I agree, and we go separate ways - Ollie heading into the park proper and me to a clearing on the outer rim, where a forest of warehouses meets the train track and together they form something of a station. Ahead of me, on the front of one of the warehouses, is a large clock face, and once glance tells me it’s twenty-past five. With the train due in at six, Vercetti and his men would be here any minute; time for me to take cover somewhere with a clear view of the meeting and that would give us the element of surprise when the time comes to strike. Ollie’ll call the cops eventually, but if we’re going to avoid a firefight breaking out then we need to subdue as many of Vercetti’s men as possible - and prevent Vercetti and Edwards from escaping if we can help it. As for the girls, they’ll be sent back to their home country as soon as possible, and if any of them still wish to immigrate to America they’ll be taken through the proper channels. And then there’s Elena… If she’s still alive she could prove to be a valuable asset when it comes to subduing her father, but I am in two minds as to whether or not to get her to safety and out of the ensuing chaos. I take up position on the roof of one of the closest warehouses. At around twenty-to six, Vince Vercetti turns up in a black limousine, followed moments later by two black vans carrying at least eight heavily armed goons each. Ten minutes after that another car arrives and Tony Edwards steps out, followed by a couple of his own men, who I immediately recognise from my assault on the Alhonso building the previous night. I keep turning my head expecting Oliver to show up at my side at any moment, but I know better and if he’s seen Vercetti he will continue to scour the area for any snipers or ground units that may be lying in wait. Ordinarily I wouldn’t expect Vercetti to bring any army of considerable size to a seemingly simplye transaction such as this, but he would have expected Elena to contact the police so he won’t be taking any chances should they show up. From my vantage point I can’t see into Vercetti’s car, and if Elena’s still alive then that’s where he would keep her. Silently I make my way left, leaping the gap between two warehouses and settling on another one further up. There’s a rear passenger door that’s been left open on the limo, and through it I catch a glimpse of Elena’s red hair confirming that she’s still alive, and, provided she stays in the car, safe. Vince Vercetti, at a first glance, doesn’t look too dissimilar from Tony Edwards, though his bulk looks to be more muscular than his partner’s, and his naturally black hair is greying at the sides. He looks shorter than his daughter, and his eyes are darker, which suggests that Elena inherited her mother’s looks and not her father’s. The train comes in a little past six and I get my first look at it. Thirteen carriages long, none of which were built to carry passengers. There are a little over thirty-five girls, it transpires, all squashed into a couple of containers about two thirds of the way down the train. Ollie said it was two-day trip, with no extended stops. I can’t begin to imagine how uncomfortable the journey was, or what must be going through their minds right now. I need to act, and fast. First things first, survey the situation. Vercetti has sixteen men with him, Edwards has two. Provided Ollie has taken out any snipers and there’s no one else waiting behind the scenes then that’s eighteen goons with guns to worry about, plus Edwards and Vercetti, who may easily be carrying handguns of their own. The trick in engaging them will ultimately lie on Oliver, who I know to have several trick arrows in his quiver that could prove to be useful distractions. After that it’s the same story as in the Alhonso building last night: keep moving, and don’t focus on one target for too long. ‘I miss anything?’ comes the alarmingly loud voice of Oliver from behind me. I turn around, motioning silently for him to stay low against the roof of the warehouse. ‘Vercetti and Edwards are both here,’ I say, my voice barely above a whisper. ‘They’re unloading the girls now.’ Ollie crouches down next to me. ‘Thugs?’ he asks, mentally counting the number of armed goons in the vicinity. ‘Eighteen,’ I reply, ‘all armed.’ ‘Sounds like a challenge,’ Ollie replies, grinning. ‘They’re staying reasonably clumped together,’ I say. ‘You get one of your knock-out gas arrows in the middle of one of those clumps, then that’s five or six down already.’ ‘Way ahead of you, Kid,’ Ollie replies, and I see he’s already loading the arrow into his bow. ‘You ain’t the only one who learnt a trick or two off of Batman.’ ‘Glad to hear it,’ I reply, and I too get into position, pulling out my Escrima sticks as I speak. ‘Go for that cluster of six to your left - based on their distance from the others, taking them out first should give us

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an extra three second window to get into position on the ground.’ ‘Never tell me the math, Kid,’ Ollie mutters in reply, his attention firmly fixed on the target. ‘You ready?’ A grunt. ‘As I’ll ever be.’ Slowly he raises the bow until the arrow is level with is eye. Squinting, he peers down the line of sight, then slowly he pulls back his right hand to make the string of the bow as taught as possible. His aim is perfect, he knows he doesn’t need to take his time, but he also knows just as well as I do that if he misses this shot then we can no longer work the element of surprise to our advantage. ‘Well,’ he says, his gaze still locked on the group of six ahead of us. ‘Here goes nothing.’ Inadvertently I hold my breath, but the arrow finds its target without problem. The arrowhead, which holds a small, perfectly weighted, canister of gas, imbeds itself into the ground at a thirty-five degree angle in the middle of the group of six goons. There is a split second delay on the canister from when it imbeds itself into a target and releases the gas, but the shock of seeing an arrow fly at them ensures the guards are still in close proximity when the valve opens. Within a matter of seconds all six are down, but Ollie and me are already on the ground ourselves, preparing for the onslaught of gunfire about to come our way. There were primarily three more clusters of goons when we released the arrow, but as they run towards us - guns raised - they come together and merge into one. On my left, Ollie glances at me. ‘See you on the other side, Junior,’ he says, before darting out of the way of the first line of fire and loading and electroshock arrow into his bow. The group of gunmen breaks up and begins to scatter, as they realise they would be giving us an easy go of it they were to stay together. I expected this, however, and thanks to the open area around us close combat is still possible, provided I judge the greater distances between targets and keep on my feet. Ollie, I know, will stick to long range attacks for as long as he can, which should clear a few of the outermost thugs who tend to rely on their guns as their only weapon. The majority of the guys near me now look muscled enough to forget about their guns the closer I get, so with Ollie keeping the outer-rim clear then we’re both in our elements and stand a greater chance of winning. Escrima sticks in hand, I target the first guy in front of me. He’s carrying an automatic pistol but he’s in such as a hurry to use it he neglects to aim properly and fires rounds off everywhere. I keep on the move, and by the time he realises he hasn’t hit me I’m at his side and jabbing the sticks into various pressure points on his body. First his elbow to make him aware, then his Achilles Tendon to take out his feet, and then just he doubles over I swiftly bring the sticks up and connect them with his temples to knock him out. Works like a charm. There’s no time to linger though, and barely has the man fallen when there’s more gunfire heading my way. Swiftly I jump into the air, separating my legs out and hitting two approaching goons in the face at the same time. Before I land I make the quick decision to go for the guy on my right first, and the second my feet hit the floor I spin on my left heel and extend my right leg out to trip the targeted goon up. When he falls I slam my Escrima sticks into his temples to provide a quick finish, then I throw one of the sticks straight into the face of the guy still on my left as he advances on me, and then bring in a series of quick succession punches to slow him down. It’s not enough to knock him out, however, and he gets a lucky punch in at me, but as he swings his fist a second time I dodge it, and hit him across the jaw with my one remaining Escrima stick. Finally he falls: unconscious, and with a broken jaw to boot. Somewhere in the distance I see Ollie fire another electroshock arrow, which immediately subdues its target with the same amount of voltage in one arrowhead that can normally be delivered through a tasergun. He’s having fun, I can tell. These goons may be heavily armed but for Ollie it just adds to the challenge, and makes this whole endeavour little more than target practice. He’s got to keep moving arrows aren’t faster than bullets - but Ollie doesn’t mind; he would see it as unsporting if he just stood there and picked off all his opponents at a distance. Between us, and including the six knocked out by the gas, we’ve subdued eleven goons. The others still open fire regardless of whether or not they have a clear shot, but after a while it ceases to become a threat and becomes little more than white noise instead. Ollie’s running low on trick arrows which means he’ll soon resort to normal tipped ones and settle for firing them into non-fatal parts of the body. It won’t knock his opponents out but it will cause them a great deal of pain, and should distract their attention long enough for Ollie to get close and disarm them. Seven goons left. I take out one more in much the same way as I did the others - using my Escrima

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sticks for my primary attack - but all the while I’m conscious that I need to advance on Edwards and Vercetti. They’re still in the area; reluctant to move and leave the girls thinking that with eighteen guards in the vicinity, two costumed vigilantes wouldn’t be too much of a threat. With the number of goons rapidly reducing, however, then it won’t be long before they decide their own safety is more important than the business, and they will start looking for a way out. Primarily, of course, they would like to take the girls and run, but Ollie and me are blocking their route to their vans and what appears to be their only exit. The train hasn’t departed yet, despite it’s route terminating in Chicago Central. The drivers are probably too scared to move since Vercetti would have only paid them enough to look the other way while he loaded the girls onto one of the carriages - a vigilante attack and ensuing firefight was probably beyond what they were expecting to deal with. It’s only when I turn my attention to Edwards do I realise that the two bodyguards that he brought with him have remained by his side, and that it’s only Vercetti’s men that decided to engage myself and Oliver. Edwards is probably deeming them the most loyal, but I fought these guys the other night and they’re pushovers - and the only reason they’ve stayed back, I suspect, is because they don’t want a repeat of what happened in the Alhonso building. I glance at Ollie but he appears to be handling the last few thugs on his own. He has pretty much all but run out of arrows so he’s switched to hand-to-hand, but I’ve seen him lift more than twice his own bodyweight before and know he can pack a punch when he wants to. I contemplate helping him out, but decide instead that the bosses are more important, so leaping over a stack of wooden crates that appear to have come from one of the warehouses I make my way over to where they stand. My first impression of Vincent Vercetti was that he was slightly bulbous and overweight like his partner, and though muscled he had let himself go slightly in recent years and carried more pounds than he cared to admit. Now that I see him up-close, however, I see that my first impression was wrong. He is still well muscled, and now that he stands and faces me I realise that he bares a striking resemblance to Bruce when he’s Batman. There is no doubt in my mind that Vercetti is the greater threat to me right now, but just as I’m about to launch my attack against him I’m struck at from behind as Edwards’s bodyguards suddenly decide they do want a rematch after all. I stumble but regain my balance, then whip out my Escrima sticks and spin them in my fingers as I turn my attention on the advancing goons. The first one I recognise as one of the door guards from the Alhonso building, and the second is the one with the beard that smelt strongly of Vodka, but still neither of them look to be too much of a challenge. I launch my attack, leaping onto the shoulders of the door guard and then pushing both my legs forward and driving them straight into the bearded one’s chest. Beard falls back, but the door guard only stumbles as I push myself off him, so I turn and focus my attack on him before taking on his partner. First I deliver a Redondo strike with my Escrima sticks, then force him to the ground by slamming the ends of the steel rods into the backs of his knees. I’m about to deliver a finishing blow to the temples when the bearded thug suddenly comes at me again, and though I spin out the way before he lands his attack I sacrifice my position over the door guard, giving both goons the opportunity to get back up. Okay, so if that’s the way they want to play it… Before either man has gotten up I’m on them again, ramming the ends of my Escrima sticks into two pressure points just beneath the door guard’s shoulder blades. It immobilises him for just long enough that I can throw both of the sticks at his bearded counterpart, and though I sacrifice my weapons both make contact with his forehead and daze him. The two goons are held back, but neither unconscious. I drop to my feet again and deliver a wheel kick into the door guard’s jaw, then leap at his friend and land a flying kick to his stomach. I’m about to deliver a finishing backhand when another attack comes at me, though not from the back where the door guard still stands. Instead it comes from the side, where the huge shape of not Vincent Vercetti, but Anthony Edwards lunges at me and tackles me to the ground. ‘You!’ he hisses spitefully at me. ‘I thought I made it clear before, kiddo, I wouldn’t let you meddle in my business.’ He’s strong - stronger, perhaps, than I would have given him credit for - but he uses his weight for greater advantage. He pins me with his legs and body, and though I struggle to get myself free, nothing I do manages to get him off me. He punches me in the jaw, pauses, and then does it again, and again, until I can feel that my gums and lips are bleeding. Normally, he would go for my mask and try and take it off me, but he knows I’m the same person who assaulted him in the Alhonso building and since he saw my face then,

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unmasking me now would be pointless. Somehow I manage to get one of my arms free, but as I bring it up for an attack Edwards simply blocks it, and then head-butts me in return. He looks at me and I can see the anger in his eyes, and then he’s pulled out a knife from somewhere within his suit jacket and makes sure I can get a good look at it. ‘You’ve made your final mistake, Hero,’ he says, lifting the knife above his head and readying himself to drive it straight into my chest. Suddenly, an arrow flies straight over my head and imbeds itself in Edwards’s right shoulder. He yells, but his cries are only met with another two arrows, one hitting the opposite shoulder and the other going straight for his solar plexus - probably intended solely to piss him off. I take the moment and finally get enough leverage to push Edwards off of me, just as Ollie fires one last arrow mere inches from Edwards’s groin. ‘Move, and I promise the next one won’t miss,’ Ollie says to Edwards, getting across that he’s serious by loading up another arrow and pointing it at his crotch. He smirks, and then turns to look at me. ‘You okay, Junior?’ he asks. ‘I’ll live,’ I nod. ‘You see what happened to Vercetti?’ I blink; I had forgotten about Vercetti. I look around me but there’s no sign of him, though apparently wherever he went he decided not to take the girls because each of the them are still huddled together by the train looking confused and terrified. I frown. ‘Where…?’ but then I remember the limo that he arrived in and Elena, who was still inside it. Immediately I spin on my heel and run back towards the warehouses and the waiting car, despite Ollie’s protests that I shouldn’t allow myself to get too close to Elena. I can’t explain it, I just feel as though something’s going to happen, and I’ve got to be there to protect Elena when it does. I reach the car and see that Elena’s locked in a struggle with her father, preventing him from leaving. In his hand he holds a small revolver though he looks reluctant to use it on his own daughter, which could very well explain why he had her brought here and not just killed in my apartment. Elena told me that she feared for her life, unsure on her far her father would go, but it appears now as if those fears were unwarranted; that Vincent Vercetti had never intended to soil is own bloodline. Though it won’t stop him from beating her to make her get in line. My anger rises and I launch myself at Vercetti just as Elena gives him one last kick to shove him out of the car. I tackle him around the waist and we fall down together, though I put too much focus on trying to get the gun out of his hands and he manages to push me off, and climb to his feet. Immediately he points his gun at me, but I flip back up and dart out of his line of fire. For a while we stage a routine dance: he aims to shoot, I dodge; I attack, he blocks. After a while I’m presented with an opening - he attacks with his fists rather than his gun - so I duck beneath his blows and land a couple of swipes of my own into his stomach. It barely hurts him, but after I land my first attack I immediately take the initiative and leap up and launch a series of quick succession kicks. But that’s when it all goes wrong. I try and kick him, but Vercetti simply blocks the attack and pushes me away. I fall, but when I do I’m able to spin on my heel and try and sweep his legs out from under him, but Vercetti anticipates it and steps out of the way. I jump up and immediately try for a flying kick, but once again Vercetti predicts the move and manages to grab a hold of my ankle, stopping me in mid air before throwing me to the ground. ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ Vercetti says, pointing his gun at me. In the car, Elena suddenly screams out. ‘No!’ she says, forcing open the car door and trying to wrestle the gun away from her father. Vercetti simply slaps her away. ‘Ungrateful girl,’ Vercetti hisses, before switching to Italian and ordering her back in the car. She doesn’t move, however, and Vercetti is momentarily distracted. I take advantage, and whilst is head is turned I push myself up off of the floor and propel my body forward, legs outstretched, ready to catch Vercetti square in the chest. I hit him, and he stumbles back. Immediately I rush at him again to try and go for the gun in his hands but I’m too slow, and before I know it he’s fired off several shots. It happens in an instant. The shots ring in the night, Elena cries out, and a flash of green going just over my left shoulder tells me Oliver has joined us at last. I stumble back, and it takes me a second to realise exactly what has happened. Nothing has hit me; Vercetti firing was more of a reflex action since the gun was in his hand, and the impact of the kick to his chest meant he couldn’t aim, and the shots were off course. But Elena’s scream

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meant the bullets found a target, and the silence that followed meant the worst has indeed happened. Ollie brushes past me - bow outstretched - wanting to get to Vercetti, who now lies cowering on the ground with an arrow in his gut. He says something to me but I barely hear it, I’m too anxious to get to the other Vercetti - the daughter - the one who lies several feet away, slumped against the side of the car with a bullet wound in her chest. I go to her, I support her head and keep her upright, but it’s useless, and I know it. It was a clean shot, straight through the heart. She suffered little, but it serves as little consolation, and out of anger, frustration, I cry out and swing my fist into the car door. Somewhere close by I can hear Vercetti’s struggles as Oliver restrains him, and I wonder if he even feels resentment for what he’s done, if he knows that it all could have been avoided had he acted more like a father. Then Oliver puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘Let’s go, Kid,’ he says, solemnly. ‘The cops are on their way, there’s nothing more we can do here.’ I hear his words but I can’t respond, I can’t even move. Ollie doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand. I mean, how could he? How could he recognise that the body of Elena Vercetti before me is not Elena Vercetti, but rather everyone who I have ever let die - every person who I have loved, and subsequently lost. She is my mother and she is my father. She is Jason Todd; she is Donna Troy. And she is Barbara. Now more than ever she is Barbara, and now more than ever do I wish that she could be someone different. Or that I could be someone different. My entire life I’ve felt that if I had been another person - if I had never known a life of capes, masks and heroes - then the deaths that I have seen would never have been deaths at all, and everything would be now as it was meant to be before. Had I not been my parents’ son; had I not been Robin before Jason… Had I never known Barbara Gordon… The thing about death, it makes you see life in a whole different way. Blüdhaven Docks. One Year Ago. Half-past midnight. An hour and a half past the time Penguin said he’d be here with a new shipment of guns, and every second that I sit here I question why I’m still doing so. I’ve never known The Penguin to be late to any kind of operation, least of all his own, and every minute that goes by it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s not coming, and neither is the shipment. I’m on top of one of the warehouses overlooking the bay, slouched against a couple of cardboard boxes with one of my Escrima sticks in my hand, casually twirling it around with my fingers to give myself something to do. Mercifully, it’s a warm night and as a result I’m not actually uncomfortable, but if it weren’t that I gave Bruce my word I would have given up and gone back to Gotham an hour ago. Cassandra Cain, Batgirl, is with me; perched on one of the corners of the warehouse with a gaze transfixed on the water ahead of us. She’s silent, hasn’t said anything in close to forty minutes now, and though deep down she’s knows just as well as I do that the stakeout is a bust she refuses to let up for a moment. I suggested to her that she leave; she could go to my apartment in the city or even head back to Gotham, but she refused, and said she’d stay. She’s a professional, devoted to the job, and though I admire that about her it also means it’s hard to make a connection, and makes stakeouts such as this a highly awkward ordeal. The seconds tick away, and slowly they turn to minutes. At twenty-five to one, however, something happens that neither Cass nor myself was expecting, and a new figure joins us on the roof of the warehouse. Or, as is more accurate, two feet above it. ‘Dick?’ I spin around, and find myself looking at a figure so imposing, and so striking, I’m almost at a loss for words. He is an awe-inspiring figure of our own mythology, someone whom you could put a costume on and inspire to be. When I see him, it doesn’t matter that I’ve known him for years, or that he was the one who suggested that I take the name Nightwing, or even that I know him well enough to call him ‘Clark’ … he is simply astounding; a God amongst men. He is‘Superman?’ For a moment he does nothing but stare at me, and I see something in his eyes that is hauntingly empty. Usually so potent, so strong, there’s a sombreness etched into his face right now that tells me something is wrong before he’s even spoken. A self-proclaimed boy scout, his face is one that millions the world over turn to for hope and warmth, but all of a sudden I can’t see anything there that reminds me why. ‘Dick, get back to Gotham,’ he says, fighting to remain composed. ‘I… I can’t… You should be with

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her. You deserve to…’ Suddenly he’s gone, and everything is so silent it was as though he was never there at all. I don’t try and make sense of what he said, I don’t need to; I could feel deep down that something was wrong and Clark’s presence merely confirmed that. I don’t look at Cass, I don’t even say anything, I simply leap off the side of the warehouse and land on the ground below; leg’s bent, and arms out. My motorcycle is parked nearby and I race to it and jump on, kicking it into ignition and soaring off down the quayside. Thankfully, at this time of night there are very few people on the roads, even for a city as corrupt and dangerous as Blüdhaven, and it means I have a clear route through the business district to meet Highway 61 and eventually the Gotham Road. When I reach the Highway I find it virtually empty so I apply more power to the bike. Eighty miles-perhour; ninety; one-hundred… At one-hundred and twenty-two the bike hits it’s full speed, and then the boosters that Bruce added on kick in and suddenly I’m doing upwards of one-hundred and fifty, and still I push it faster. When Gotham comes into view I finally hit the brakes, but only so I navigate my way over the Gotham River and steer around the tight corners of Chinatown and the Diamond District without any real problem. When I reach Gotham Central I pull my bike to skidding halt at the bottom of the Clock Tower, and without bothering to apply the steering lock or even the stand I leap off of it and race into the building. There’s an elevator leading to Barbara’s control room but it’s too slow, so instead I take the stairs and bound up them two at a time. When I reach Barbara’s control room I push it open and run into the room, ignoring a pool of blood that lies near the doorframe and I look around anxiously at the sight that lies before me. My gaze is first drawn to the massive clock face that spans the entire far wall, and the huge cracked hole that now sits in it. Then I notice a couple of Barbara’s monitors have fallen from their brackets and now lie on the floor, circuits fried and steam issuing through the vents from somewhere within. Despite the size of the room, I don’t immediately see Barbara; instead I see her wheelchair lying upturned several feet from her desk, amongst a throng of paper documents that litter the floor and a single, blood-stained knife. When I spot her body, face down in a pool of her own blood near her desk, all thought and rational judgement leaves my head. ‘Barbara!’ I cry, rushing towards her, pulling her up off the floor and cradling her in my arms. With shaking hands I push her beautiful crimson hair behind her ears, desperately trying to brush it through with my fingers and get it out of her face. ‘Babs,’ I stammer, ‘Sweetheart, Honey… I’m here now… It’s okay, I’m here now… You can wake up… I’m…’ ‘She’s dead, son,’ comes a deep voice from somewhere behind me. I turn my head, still clutching Barbara’s body in my arms. That voice… For a moment I think it’s Bruce, but then I spot the figure of Barbara’s adopted father, Jim Gordon, crouched in a corner in the distance, almost completely engulfed by shadow. His shirt crumpled; his tie loose, and his hair a tangled mess. When he speaks there is an unsteadiness to his voice, and his usual calm posture is shattered and uncharacteristically absent. ‘No!’ I say, my teeth clenched, my jaw tight. ‘No, no…’ ‘Dick!’ Jim says, louder than before, and so demanding I don’t even register that he called me Dick despite the fact I’m still wearing my outfit. ‘She’s gone, son. Dead. There’s nothing more you can do for her.’ ‘No,’ I repeat again. ‘She can’t be dead, she can’t be!’ Suddenly Jim gets up, striding towards me. ‘And why can’t she?’ he demands, glaring at me through his glasses. ‘Why can’t she be dead? Would you tell me, or is this something you have to wear a costume to understand? Do the lies you tell come with a granted wish of immortality?’ This time I can’t ignore it. I don’t know exactly what has happened here, but somewhere in the course of events Jim has found out what Barbara keeps on this computer system. He’s angry, but can I blame him? In a matter of minutes, perhaps, he has found his daughter dead and been hit with the revelation that she has been keeping things from him for years. I take a passive approach to try and calm him down, but try as I might I cannot steady my voice. ‘Jim, please! You’ve got to listen, you…’ ‘Fifteen years!’ he yells out. ‘Fifteen years you have lied to me, played me for a fool! All this time I have worked my damned hardest to try and keep this city under some sort of control and after all this time this is the thanks I am given!’ In my arms I still cradle Barbara, and reluctantly I let her go and instead reach out to her father. I can

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feel my eyes start to well up but I force back the tears, telling myself that I can’t break down in front of Jim, that he needs me to be strong. ‘She wanted to tell you!’ I say, anxious to say what I can before Jim interrupts me again. ‘Every day she wanted to tell you, but it was hard for her to…’ ‘Do not insult me!’ Jim cries out. ‘She was my daughter, my family! Batman was one thing - I could tell myself that I didn’t need to know who was behind the mask - but my daughter? How could I be a father to her if I don’t even know about the biggest aspect of her life?’ ‘But the biggest aspect of her life was you!’ I say, reaching up and taking my mask off so I can look him squarely in the eye. ‘Not me, not Batman, you. She may not have told you what she did with her days, but everything she did tell you - and everything you saw in her yourself - that was who she really was.’ I pause, but Jim doesn’t say anything. ‘You don’t have to understand her life as Batgirl, or Oracle, but understand this,’ I continue. ‘I loved your daughter. I have done for years, but every time something happened between the two of us my life as Nightwing would drive me away. Blüdhaven, New York, it didn’t matter. I would ask her to follow me, but every time I knew she would never leave Gotham. She told me it was the chair that was keeping her here - and on some level it was - but the greater reason was that she was too afraid of being apart from you.’ Slowly Jim sinks to his knees, and out of instinct I crouch down before him, reaching out and putting a hand on his shoulder. For several long moments there is silence between the two of us but I dare not do anything to change that. Silent tears trail down Jim’s cheeks, and then finally he looks at me and through the stern exterior I see not the old Police Commissioner, but a father who has lost a daughter and is reaching out for help. He remains silent, but I understand what he’s trying to say none the less. We can sit here and grieve for Barbara all we want, but if we are to truly get through it then we must do so together. ‘Jim, what happened here?’ I ask, unable to keep it back any longer. ‘Joker,’ he replies, his voice hoarse. ‘I don’t know exactly how, or why… I heard about the breakout, but I never thought he would go after Barbara, not after all this time… When I arrived … when I found…’ he pauses, unable to utter Barbara’s name. ‘Superman was here, he looked to be in pain, said there was nothing he could do…’ He trails off, then looks away towards Barbara’s workstation. ‘The computer, it…’ I follow his gaze and on one of the monitors I see open all the detailed files on Batman, Gotham, the Justice League and everything else that Barbara has ever had any involvement with. I am conscious that it makes little difference now, but for a moment after I’m too ashamed to look Jim in the eye. Suddenly I feel responsible for every secret ever kept from him; every lie that Barbara, Bruce, even myself has ever uttered. Jim Gordon. Friend, ally… At the time lying felt so trivial, but now it seems both foolish and rude to have not told him everything sooner. Were we protecting him, or too thoughtless to believe he could never have handled the truth? All of a sudden Jim stands, and then crosses the room and lays his long overcoat over Barbara’s body. He turns to me. ‘I didn’t call the police,’ he says. ‘After what I saw, I didn’t know…’ he pauses, then looks away and sighs. ‘What do you want to do?’ I’m silent for a moment. I don’t want to think about changing anything about this place, but Bruce has always held contingency plans in the event of one of our deaths, and though I don’t want to admit it, I know what needs to be done. ‘We need to wipe these computers,’ I say. ‘Everything they contain… We can’t stop word of her death spreading, but we can’t allow her secret to break out as well.’ Jim nods, and together we go about making sure nothing in the room could incriminate Barbara and expose who she really was. Thankfully, Barbara was always prepared for the worst eventuality and as a result was always really careful about the information she kept. Though she held file after file about Batman she made sure to never reveal he was Bruce Wayne, or indeed that Tim Drake was Robin and Cassandra Cain was Batgirl. At the end of the day she kept all the vital information to memory - trusting that she, herself, would never expose it. As we work I try and clear my mind of what has happened, but with Barbara’s body right there it is hard to do. I try and distance myself from the control room and move into Barbara’s apartment through a door on the far side, telling myself that it was important to clear these rooms just as much as the control room. Deep down, however, I know it doesn’t need to be done - Barbara was meticulous about separating the two sides of her life as best she could, the truth is I needed to distance myself from Jim for a moment and get some time to myself. Barbara’s apartment is not an apartment at all, rather a couple of small rooms situated behind the control room with access to the building’s main elevator rather than the concealed one that Bruce installed himself. The first room is a living area with modified kitchen appliances built to allow Barbara easier use from her

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chair. In the centre of the room there are two couches and an armchair, but since she has little use for them herself they remain there for recreational purposes when guests visit. The rest is very much for show only: a small bookcase with several classic volumes, a television that is rarely switched on, and a mass-produced soft Batgirl toy that I bought her from Japan once as a joke. I ignore the living room and move into the bedroom, finding it exactly as I had left it prior to leaving for Blüdhaven earlier. A single bed covers much of the far wall, and there is little room for anything else other than a chest of drawers in the corner and a workout pole attached to the ceiling that allowed Barbara to do pull-ups and keep her upper body in shape. I turn to leave, but I stop in the doorway as I notice the pile of my clothes that I left here earlier on a chair. I think nothing of it and I pick them up, but as I do a small box falls from the pocket of my jeans and hits the floor. The engagement ring I bought her on the way back from Wayne Manor this morning… I had almost forgotten about it, too caught up in everything else that has happened. And then it hits me, and it hurts so much I can’t breathe. Barbara Gordon, my best friend, my fiancée, is dead. Everything I had planned, everything I wanted to say to her, I can’t, and will never be able to. I held her in my arms last night and I told her that I loved her, and that was the last time I will ever get to do so. I ran my fingers through her soft, crimson hair and laughed when she murmured in her sleep… That was it. That was the last time I could hold her close, the last time I could kiss her lips… I yell out in anger and I punch the wall. From somewhere in the control room Jim calls out, but all of a sudden I feel like I can’t face him again. I grasp the ring in my hand but let my clothes fall back to the ground, then I turn around and leap out of the room’s single window, firing a grapple across the street and relishing in the night air. I have no idea where I’ll go - I even question whether or not to find Bruce and alert him of the situation. Right now the only plan that sounds appealing is to keep moving, and not let up for a second. Chicago. Now. It takes some doing but Ollie finally convinces me to leave, just as an entire squadron of police cars race into the vicinity and come to a screeching halt mere feet from the limo. Both Vercetti and Edwards are conscious, but tightly bound, and though they may deny their involvement with everything that went down, all of the girls are still huddled by the train and there is little doubt that the truth will come out. If either have a chance of bail it would be Vercetti since he has no direct link to the Alhonso building, but Edwards won’t want to take the fall for everything himself and will likely drop Vercetti’s name to the court. At the end of the day, there really is very little honour amongst criminals. We parked my bike earlier just a little out of the industrial park, nearer the outskirts of Woodland View, and when we reach it I leap on and drive us back into the city. Though we stick to the main road heading straight in we find it virtually free of other traffic, and I find myself putting my foot down on the pedal and pushing us at a speed that the road is generally too short for. I’m aware of what I’m doing, just as I’m aware that I have Ollie on the back, but I only start to slow down when I see the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago looming up ahead. Eventually I pull the bike to a stop in the alleyway next to my apartment building, and Ollie’s the first to dismount. ‘Nice driving, Kid,’ he utters, rubbing the back of his neck and grimacing slightly. ‘You sure you didn’t want to go just a little bit faster though, only I’m not quite sure we put Wally to shame.’ I ignore his comment, and dismount the bike myself. ‘It’s over Oliver,’ I say. ‘Star City is mob free again, you can go home.’ Ollie looks at me and I can see that for once there is no snide grin on his lips or slight twitching of his moustache. ‘Ain’t going to happen, Kid,’ he says, sternly. ‘See when I saw you in that suit of yours yesterday I truly believed you were back in the game, but now something’s happened that’s made you question everything all over again and you don’t know how to deal.’ ‘Don’t presume to know what I’m feeling right now, Oliver,’ I say, sharply. ‘You mean, how the death of the Vercetti girl has brought up memories of not only Barbara but everyone else in your life who has died?’ Ollie replies. ‘Nah, I have no idea.’ I look at him, and though I don’t ask how he knows he still guesses that I’m thinking it. He chuckles slightly. ‘When it comes to grieving we all have a bit of Batman in us,’ he says, ‘but you have more than anyone. Now, I don’t presume to know you, but don’t forget how long I’ve known Bruce.’ He pauses for a moment and then says, ‘Pushing a bike to it’s limits ain’t going to make everything go away, Kid, and even with your reflexes you could still get yourself killed.’

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I don’t say anything, and instead I turn and jump up to reach the fire escape so I can enter my apartment via the living room window. I do my best to try and ignore what Ollie said but it’s hard to drive it from my mind, so instead and try and busy myself by throwing clothes and what little personal possessions I have into a bag. The lease on this apartment isn’t up for another couple of weeks but I feel as though I can’t stay here a moment longer; I came to Chicago to escape my memories but somehow it’s ended up giving me entirely new ones. Ollie, apparently, has picked up on my intent. ‘So where to this time?’ he asks, perching on the windowsill having climbed up himself. ‘Gotham and Metropolis are out of the question, and you’ve already done New York… Central City? I guess it’d be good to pay Wally a visit, unless of course you fancy trading the bike for a surfboard and plan on heading for the Californian sun…’ ‘Does it matter?’ I ask, throwing the last of my unwashed clothes into a bag before turning and heading for the bedroom. ‘It does to me,’ Ollie replies. ‘I get sunburn.’ I stop in the bedroom doorway, and turn my head to look over my shoulder. ‘You’re not coming,’ I say, firmly. ‘Huh, I thought I made it clear outside,’ Ollie says, sounding slightly bemused. ‘I ain’t leaving you to stew in your own juices, Kid. Where you go, I go, whether you like it or not.’ ‘Why?’ I ask, simply. Ollie looks at me for a moment, and then sighs. ‘I’ve told you before, we want you back in the game,’ he says. ‘You can call yourself Robin, Nightwing or Bat-Mite for all we care, you’re a valuable asset, and not just to Batman but to the Titans, the Outsiders, heck even the League. Look, Kid, I know Barbara’s death hit you hard - it hit all of us hard - but don’t you think she would be the first one to tell you not to turn your back?’ I stay silent. I don’t need to listen to another one of Oliver’s pep talks. ‘Listen, I’ve sung you this tune before,’ Oliver says, picking up on my feelings. ‘Point is, death ain’t easy, but it only gets better by dealing with it.’ Suddenly I turn on him, eyes glaring, no longer able to control my anger at him judging me. ‘Don’t give me that ‘deal with it’ crap, Oliver!’ I yell. ‘The woman I loved is dead and you have no idea how that feels!’ As I say it I know I’ve hit a nerve, and Oliver glares at me with anger, but also hurt, in his eyes. For a moment it appears as though he’s going to shout at me but he doesn’t, and instead he tries his best to retain some level of composure. ‘No, you’re right,’ he finally says, shrugging somewhat. ‘I mean, losing Hal, my best friend, that was a breeze. And it’s not like I’ve ever gone to Heavens myself before, is it?’ ‘Ollie…’ ‘You know what, Kid, you go ahead and wallow in your self pity,’ Oliver says, turning to head back out of the window. ‘Get on your bike, ignore your past, go to Timbuktu if you think it’ll help. But you’re on your own. I ain’t bothering to help someone who won’t help themselves.’ I feel like saying something to stop him from going but at the same time I’m not quite sure if I want him to stay or not. Right now, the most appealing option to me is get out of Chicago, perhaps even America, and head up into the northern reaches of Canada, where the cold will give me something else to think about… But there’s also the fact that I’m back in costume, I’m Nightwing again, and here’s someone who hasn’t judged for a second my decision to ever leave it in the first place. Oliver Queen, millionaire playboy turned vigilante… I’m about to speak out when Oliver turns to me again, and reaches into the concealed pocket on his quiver. ‘Here,’ he says, pulling his hand out and reaching towards me, his fingers closed in a fist. ‘You dropped this back at the train yard, you might want to hang on to it…’ He opens out his fingers and sitting in his palm is the diamond engagement ring that I was going to give to Barbara but never got the chance. In all the confusion I had almost forgotten… A year ago, when I went to the Clock Tower, it was the one thing I took… I’ve had it with me, all this time, in a pocket on the righthand glove of my Nightwing outfit, never taken it out… Somewhat cautiously I reach out and take it, and as I turn it over in my fingers and gaze at the tiny cut stones a feeling of great self pity washes over me and I’m suddenly conscious everything I’ve said and done not only to Oliver but the rest of our ‘superhero’ fraternity. Has it been incredibly selfish of me to deal with Barbara’s death in the way that I have? Should I really have turned my back on my friends, my allies … my family? I am not the first of us to have ever lost someone close to me, and though we all deal with grief in our own way is it not my responsibility as former leader of the Titans and Outsiders to set an

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example to others the way Bruce did for me? I sink to my knees, still clutching the ring. I’m crying, and though I would normally restrain myself from breaking down in front of Oliver I choose not to fight it, to not ignore my true feelings… Oliver stands over me, perhaps somewhat shocked for when he speaks his voice is free of his usual, cynical tones. ‘She wouldn’t have wanted to see you like this, Kid,’ he says. ‘You know that.’ I look up, but remain silent. ‘Alright, what if I told you there was a way for you to see her again,’ Ollie continues, bending on one knee to be level with me. ‘I ain’t promising anything, and I sure as hell ain’t suggesting we can bring her back, but…’ I raise a hopeful eyebrow. ‘But?’ ‘But you and I both know there’s some crazy stuff in this world, things that us non-super powered folk just aren’t cut out to deal with. Now I’ve tried to turn a blind eye to it as much as I can - one of the reasons why being in he League just doesn’t sit right with me - but there are some things that are just too potent to be ignored, some things are just too damn useful to not use.’ I think I know what he’s getting at but I feel as though I have to clarify. ‘What are you talking about, Oliver?’ I ask. ‘I’m talking about magic, Kiddo,’ Ollie replies, through somewhat gritted teeth. ‘I’m talking about tricks and spells and all that Hogwarts crap that any decent standing folk would refuse to get tangled up in. I’m talking about calling upon the forces of nature and exploiting them to our purpose, and I’m talking about the chance to say goodbye to the woman of your bloody dreams.’ ‘Ollie, I…’ ‘You want to tell me that you don’t want to do it, that the words you never said to her aren’t eating away at you day after day after day? You want to tell me that every time you looked at that damned Vercetti girl you didn’t see Barbara, and weren’t forcibly reminded of everything that you’ve been through?’ He sighs. ‘For someone who was trained by Batman you’re easier to read than a bloody book, and though I didn’t want to suggest this I can see it’s the only way you’re going to accept what has happened.’ I don’t immediately take in everything Oliver says, and I offer no comment of my own in return. It is not impossible for the living to communicate with the dead, nor is it impossible for the dead to come back to life - Oliver himself is living proof - but like Bruce, and indeed Oliver, I have tried to ground myself in some sort of reality. I cannot do extraordinary things, and as a result try not to get caught up in extraordinary matters. And yet… ‘How?’ I finally ask. ‘Like this,’ Ollie replies, reaching into a concealed pocket on the inside of his vest and pulling out a small circular earpiece that I immediately recognise as an old Justice League communicator. I smirk. Ollie has been known to tell anyone who’ll listen that he hated being a part of the League, and yet he’s always held on to his old communicator and is there at their beck and call. He puts the communicator into his right ear and presses an index finger against it. There’s a click, and though I can barely hear the voice on the other end of the line I assume that it’s Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern, since when Ollie speaks to him there is a level of resentment and superiority in his voice. ‘Hey Kid, back on monitor duty?’ he says, grinning slightly at the prospect. It isn’t that Ollie is disrespectful of Kyle, in fact he recognises as much as any of us Kyle’s accomplishments in the field, it’s just that when Oliver looks at Kyle he finds it hard to get past the fact that Kyle is the successor to Hal Jordon, the League’s original Green Lantern and Oliver’s comrade in arms. As he once put it himself, seeing Kyle is like seeing a kid turn up at your house on Halloween dressed as your dead best friend. ‘Still giving me a hard time, Queen?’ comes Kyle’s muffled voice from the other end of the line. ‘How’s that working out for ya?’ ‘Don’t get snarky, Kid,’ Ollie replies. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ says Kyle. ‘Now did you want something, Ollie? These monitors won’t just watch themselves, y’know.’ ‘Can you get a fix on my position?’ Ollie asks, somewhat more seriously. ‘Give me a sec,’ Kyle replies, ‘and no ‘Hal could’ve done it faster’ quips while I’m at it.’ There is momentary silence on the line, but soon enough Kyle’s voice comes through once more. ‘Got it,’ he says. ‘What are you in Chicago for?’ ‘Nothing you need concern yourself over,’ Ollie replies. ‘Just get Zee over here, will you? Asap.’

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‘Sure,’ Kyle says, though his voice still suggests he would rather hear what Ollie was up to. ‘I’ll call her now. Green Lantern out.’ There’s a soft click and the line goes dead, and Ollie once more removes the communicator and places it back inside his vest pocket. ‘And there we have it,’ he says to me. ‘Now all we do is wait.’ * Zatanna Zatara, nicknamed the Mistress of Magic but known throughout the hero community as simply ‘Zee’, appears in the apartment a little over forty minutes later - opting to appearing in the living room with a flash of blazing purple light rather than to use the front door. Descended from a long line of mystics, Zatanna is a sorceress, and though she looks to be barely as old as I am in truth she almost as old as Bruce the two having known each other ever since Bruce first started his training as Batman, when he learnt meditation techniques and the art of escapology from Zatanna’s father, Giovanni. Though her appearance has changed over the years she stands now as I have always known her, adopting the look most associated with her general pastime - that of a stage magician. A black top hat accompanies her black jacket and tie, with a white shirt and vest serving as a brilliant contrast. On her bottom half, however, she’s adopted a little of her own style, and fishnet tights cover what little leg is visible beneath her black knee-high boots. ‘Hey, Zee,’ Ollie says when he sees her, his gaze travelling somewhat unsubtly from her eyes to her legs, and everything in-between. Zatanna coughs, one arm at her side and motioning with her hand for Ollie to tear his glance away. ‘Up here, Ollie,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘Sorry,’ Ollie smirks. ‘Got this thing for women in fishnets.’ ‘These fishnets can deliver a pretty mean wheel kick,’ Zatanna replies, grinning. ‘So, care to tell me why I’m here?’ Ollie motions with a nod over to where I’m standing, and Zatanna follows his gaze and locks onto me. ‘Dick?’ she says, clearly startled by my presence. ‘My God, I didn’t see you, I had no idea… Are you alright?’ Being around Ollie these past few days has made me forget that for the past year the majority of the hero community have had no idea where I’ve been. When Barbara died I wanted to be alone, and though I tried to work through it and join in the defence of Gotham from an impending siege from Ra’s al Ghul, I found it hard to try and act like everything was fine. After the fight I took off, and didn’t even tell Bruce where I was going. Ollie told me that Bruce tried to track my movements, but it is unlikely that he shared whatever information he gained with the rest of the Justice League, or even his closest friends like Zatanna. I give what I hope is a reassuring smile, but given what we’ve bought her here for I doubt how sincere it comes across. ‘Zee, you want to sit down?’ Ollie asks from behind her back. She turns her head over her shoulder. ‘Am I going to want to sit down?’ she asks in return, arching an inquisitive eyebrow. ‘You might,’ I offer. ‘What we’re asking for… It goes beyond your normal favour.’ ‘Dick, what is it?’ she asks, an air of concern in her voice that counteracts the seriousness. ‘Zee, you remember Oracle?’ I ask. ‘Barbara Gordon, did you ever…?’ ‘Not as often as I’d have liked,’ she admits. A small grin spreads on her lips as she tries to escape the sombreness of the moment. ‘Never did get an invite to join that team of hers…’ I manage a weak smile but it barely comes across. ‘We were engaged,’ I tell her. ‘I asked her the day before she… It happened so quickly, never even got a chance to give her the ring…’ Zee looks shocked, and deeply saddened at exactly the same time. ‘God…’ she mutters. ‘I heard… rumours, that was it. The Titans, the Outsiders, you know what they’re like, especially with one of their own… I never even thought how much truth there was… And as I say, I never knew Barbara quite as well I would have liked… Christ, I am so sorry.’ I shake my head. ‘We didn’t exactly announce it to the world,’ I tell her, in a hope to relay some of her guilt. She looks away. ‘I’ve always wondered whether I should have played a more active role in Gotham,’ she says. ‘I’ve known Bruce a long time, and with Gotham being as bad as it is… I don’t know, perhaps if I had had a stronghold in the affairs of the city, if I had been there on the night…’ ‘Gotham doesn’t need any more protectors,’ I state. ‘Bruce is one thing, but me, Robin, Batgirl,

45


Huntress … Catwoman, when she feels like it … Even Clark was there when… No, the city has … had … enough protectors, and one more would have made little difference.’ ‘Besides, we all care about the affairs of Gotham,’ Ollie puts in, from his position slouched in an armchair to Zatanna’s right, ‘but you know as well as I do that the only one those crazies actually fear is the damn Bat, and he’s stubborn enough to refuse help when it’s offered.’ He pauses, and takes a sip of a drink I didn’t even know he had poured before continuing. ‘Carries the damn weight of the world on his shoulders, he does, and when he doesn’t even let the other birds in his nest get close enough to share a little of the burden it becomes painfully clear that the rest of us stand little chance.’ Another sip. ‘Damn Bat and his friggin’ morals. And people wonder why I ever left the Justice League.’ I stare at Ollie for a moment, for the first time realising that he - like Zatanna and possibly so many others - carries guilt over not being in Gotham when Barbara was killed. It is strange, for Ollie and Barbara rarely had any contact, but in truth the name Oracle was known well into the hero community, to a point where - to some - she was just as much myth as she was fact, much like Batman to the citizens of Gotham. There are few who knew her as Barbara Gordon, even less who knew her as Batgirl, but it seems that everyone knew her as Oracle, and carried that small ounce of respect. Zatanna turns back to me. ‘So this is about Bruce?’ she asks, going off Ollie’s words. ‘What is it, is he alright?’ I shake my head. ‘It’s not about Bruce, it’s about me,’ I say. ‘Look, for the best part of the last year I have been on the road, on my bike, moving from city to city, state to state. When I think about it, it seems selfish, and worthless, and I hate myself for it but … but the whole point was that didn’t have to think, that I could just … do, y’know?’ She nods, but doesn’t say anything. ‘Point is, for my entire life, I’ve never settled, I’ve never quite figured out who I was. I loved being in the circus; I loved being Robin; I loved - love - being Nightwing … but at the end of the day I am hiding behind so many different identities I don’t know who I really am anymore. I guess in some respect this is about Bruce because in some respect I am Bruce, but all I know for sure is there was only one person who made me feel like Dick Grayson, and that person is no longer in my life.’ ‘Dick, what are you saying?’ Zee asks. ‘I’m saying I need to see her again. Barbara. I need to see her so that I can move on, and put to rest the nagging thought that every single day of this past year has been a day that I could have spent with her, and settled - for the first time ever - into a life that is just my own.’ For a moment Zee simply stares at me, then regrettably, it seems, she looks away. ‘Dick, no,’ she says, grasping what it is I’m asking her to do. ‘God, no… If you knew what it is you were asking, I…’ ‘I’m not suggesting we bring her back,’ I say, hurryingly. ‘I don’t care much if it works, I don’t care if it’s even possible, I just don’t want to play God and start to decide who lives and who dies. What I want … what I’m asking for … is just to see her, to speak to her, to know that - after everything - it’s okay, and she’s okay.’ Silence takes over for several long minutes, during which time I dare not say another word. There are a million thoughts rushing through my head but what I want to do right now is not think about anything, because if I think then I’ll over think, and if I over think I’ll change my mind. At the end of the day through thick and through thin - I was raised by a detective, and I still think just as logically as one. Eventually Zee looks up at me. Her eyes are slightly red and I wonder for a minute if she’s been wanting to cry, and has purposefully fought back the tears. Like so many of us she has known death in her life, and any little thing that reminds her of it can’t be easy. ‘The Ghost Roads,’ she says at last, a strange sombreness to her tones. ‘I don’t know what you want to call them; they have many names, I guess, but I call them the Ghost Roads. Doctor Fate told me once what they’re really called but I couldn’t pronounce it, which if you think about it is saying something since I’ve learnt what every word in the English language sounds like backwards…’ ‘What are they?’ I ask. She shrugs. ‘I guess they’re pretty much the space in between,’ she says. ‘Again, Fate could give you a better explanation, but put simply they’re a plane of existence that lies somewhere between the living and the dead, where both can congregate, but neither belong.’ ‘You mean…?’ ‘I mean, they’re a place where the living and the dead can come together, but only if both want it badly enough, and only for a short amount of time. Since neither belong there, neither can stay there for extended periods, but for what you want there is time enough, and this is the only way I feel comfortable with this

46


happening.’ The more I listen the more her words begin to merge together and lose all meaning. I shake my head and run my hands through my hair. ‘Alright, back up,’ I say, willing myself to concentrate on - and understand - what she’s saying. ‘You said, only if both want it badly enough…?’ ‘Like all things, there are rules,’ Zee explains. ‘You may want to go there yourself, but if the deceased as no - excuse the term - ‘unfinished business’, then the two souls can’t connect. Likewise, you yourself have got to be intent on it happening and must want nothing else, otherwise the thought is impure and no connection can be garnered.’ Images of my parents flash through my mind, to be replaced by that of Donna and Jason. ‘So I won’t see…?’ I start. ‘… Others?’ Zee finishes. ‘No, you’ll be alone.’ I glance over at Ollie, but I have no idea what I expect him to say. His face is expressionless, his eyes blank, and I wonder if the place Zee has described is where he has memories of being himself, and if he ever wishes that he had never been bought back at all - if existence there was simpler, and ultimately better. He rarely talks about what he’s been through but it still haunts him, and there are few of us who can understand what he went through and reach out to him as support. Zatanna stands. ‘Are you ready?’ she asks. I don’t say anything. My heart skips a thousand beats a second. The room suddenly feels a whole lot smaller, as if I’m seeing it in a brand new way. Reality is not reality. Fine lines are being drawn. Slowly, I nod. Zee reaches out touches me, the look of love and concern on her face replaced with a guise of up most concentration. A soft purple light appears in her palm and soon stretches from her fingertips - taking the room, Ollie, and reality as I know it in it’s grasp. When she speaks her voice is deeper, unrecognisable but not threatening, her words spoken backwards, with clarity and with ease, to extract the magic and focus the properties. I close my eyes. ‘KciD nosyarG. Noitpmeder.’ * My head spins, my stomach drops to my toes, my body is pushed in all directions at once… I’m falling, but I’m not moving; I’m hyperventilating, yet my breathing is slow and steady; my senses flare up, yet I feel, see and hear nothing. For what seems like an age I am in constant pain and a state of bliss, and then just as suddenly as it all started it’s stopped, and my feet touch solid ground once more. My eyes are clenched tightly shut and I dare not open them. Part of me is in a state of denial, and part of me tells me that it’s worked. The rational side, the side that Bruce always brings out in me, the side that firmly believes there’s no such thing as magic, is saying that I’m still in Chicago, still in my apartment, and furthermore that Zatanna and Ollie were never there with me. The other side, the side brought out through all the years with the Teen Titans, the side that believes a man can fly - the side that refuses to over think is telling me quite different. Either way, I dare not open my eyes and see which side is right. Okay, so you refuse to open your eyes. What are your other senses telling you? First I inhale, and though I draw breath I realise that there isn’t the slightest trace of a breeze against my face, nor can I determine whether it feels hot, or cold. I still wear my Nightwing outfit and there are thermals inside that help retain my body heat, but even so I have no sense or feeling of being too hot or too cold, and for the first time in quite a while I feel simply … comfortable. I scuff me heels on the ground to get a feeling of the surface texture. Gravel. Gravel’s good. Gravel’s normal. Gravel you feel comfortable with, you can work with… … But there’s no gravel in your apartment… I open my eyes, and I’m greeted with the image of a flat, desolate wasteland that spans for miles all around before fading into distant nothingness. There is no vibrancy, no colour, no signs of life or civilisation. At closest representation it looks like the most secluded place of the Nevada desert, or what the Nevada desert would look like with no sun, and thus no plant life. Though the ground still retains a little colour of its natural sandy hue, the surrounding atmosphere gives the image of a stormy sky without a single cloud. Neither light nor dark, there is no colour only shades of grey, blackest at the point above my head and lightest where it hits the horizon. There is no sun, no clouds,

47


no moon, no stars, only a grey sky and barren landscape; it is the epitome of emptiness, of loneliness, but what scares me most of all is the distinct sense of familiarity - as if what I see is who I am, and this is what my life is like. Instinctively I start to walk, simply to see if my perspective changes and the horizon shifts. It doesn’t. My steps are small; despite the fact there is nothing significant about the spot where I stood I tell myself not to go too far, that somehow that spot is my only link back to normality, and my ticket home. As I walk I look around, hopeful. A million thoughts are rushing through my head at what I expect to see, or indeed how I might feel if I saw the one thing I came here to see. Zee said that to meet here both of us had to want it badly enough. There’s still a chance it couldn’t happen. There’s still a chance she… And then I see her, standing not twenty feet away, as beautiful and as perfect as I have ever known her. Her crimson hair hangs loose over her right shoulder and serves as a brilliant contrast to the dull, lifeless, monochrome of the surroundings. Her eyes sparkle behind her glasses; the corners of her mouth are raised in a loving smile, and she walks - she walks - towards me with such grace I can not believe she was ever imprisoned in the chair. In death, she is shown to be more full of life. I open my mouth to speak but my words come out as little more than a whisper. ‘Barbara…’ ‘It’s okay,’ she says, softly, embracing me and pressing her lips against mine in a kiss more tender than any we have shared before. She does not feel cold, nor does she feel warm, and the kiss, yet so passionate, feels somewhat empty, somewhat hollow. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. She is here; she is alive. She is in my arms. We are together. For how long I hold her I could not say. Maybe minutes, maybe hours, maybe days. Time has stopped, and that is not solely because we exist in a place where nothing exists, but because for the first time in the last year I am content, and I am happy. When I asked Zee how much time we would be given she told me, simply, that there was time enough for what I wanted. I understand now what she meant. We are in a place where time has no meaning, and if you apply logic there is no way of knowing how long we have been here, and how much time is time enough. The fact I don’t belong here means simply that when I return to the reality as I know it, little to no time will have passed, and Zatanna and Oliver will still be sitting in my apartment. It is my will that is keeping me here. What I wish right now is to be with Barbara, and to try and get answers to the questions that are in my head, and that is what is keeping me here. The trouble is, when I’m with Barbara, I know where I belong, and I don’t ever want to leave. To return to reality I must will it, but there isn’t a single doubt running through my mind right now telling me I’m not in the right place, that staying here with Barbara is not the right thing to do. I don’t question how, but Barbara knows what I’m feeling. ‘You’ll know,’ she says, her head resting against my chest, her eyes glancing up to meet with mine. ‘I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’ll know when the time is right to leave.’ ‘I don’t want to,’ I say, simply. ‘I don’t want to know. I don’t want to leave you.’ ‘You will have to,’ Barbara replies, softly. ‘But it will be okay. ‘How can it?’ I say, somewhat sharply. ‘Babs, without sounding trite, I have tried living the same life for the past year and none of it feels right anymore. I thought I could do it, I really did, but I can’t, Babs, I can’t live a life without you in it!’ ‘Dick, have you ever wondered what it was exactly that stopped us from being together?’ Barbara responds. ‘We tried and we tried, but something would always get in the way and drive us apart. The Titans, Huntress, No Man’s Land… I told myself that you could never settle, that we could never be together if your loyalty was always to something else, but the fact is I love you - I always have and never stopped - and your loyalty to the Titans, the Outsiders, to Gotham after the Cataclysm, they make you who you are, and make you the man I love.’ ‘Babs, I…’ She cuts me off. ‘Dick, I’m the one who drove us apart,’ she says. ‘We could have had months, years, in the end, but I was selfish, and I stopped you from growing.’ She pauses, then looks away and sighs. ‘Don’t you see?’ she continues, looking back at me with watery eyes, ‘Your life can exist without me because it has for so long already, all you need to do is think about who you really are, and what has really driven you all these years. It doesn’t matter what costume you’re in, what mantel you wear, there is only the man behind the mask, he is the one that matters.’ Suddenly everything becomes clear, and I hate myself for never seeing it before. My whole life as I really remember it, from the moment my parents fell to their deaths and I was taken in by Bruce, I have

48


tried to be someone I’m not. Though I am certain in my decision to become Robin, I was never quite certain on who Robin actually was, and in many ways I allowed him to be shaped by Bruce and by the Titans, but never by myself. My mind flashes back to sixteen years prior, and me and Barbara are standing on the roof of Gotham’s Second National Bank, and Barbara is glowing with excitement at having made the jump from the top of Wayne Tower. She was amazing, I knew even then, but I never told her, I simply tried to act more like Bruce and assert authority I didn’t even have. What happened that night… I’ve often wondered if we were too young to get caught up in the life we had - and perhaps we were - but even Bruce made mistakes so early on as Batman, and if we were too young for the job we could never have made the jump from Wayne Tower. Our only mistake that night was trying to do what Batman would do, and not looking at, and drawing on, our own strengths and talents. It has been a similar story ever since. Leaving Robin behind was a step in the right direction, but when I became Nightwing I went too far in the opposite direction and made a point on asserting my independence. As a result I severed ties with not only Bruce and Barbara, but with Wally and the rest of the Titans, and though I still called them friends I never acted as a friend would. Over the years Nightwing has evolved, but from that point so early on he was only ever a name and little else, and I fear now that that is why I haven’t truly been able to become that name again after it was lost a year ago. And then it clicks, and a compelling force tells me that it’s time to return to normality. I gain clarity but loose the connection to Barbara, but I also see that she was right, and it does feel okay to be returning. The fact is Barbara Gordon didn’t shape my life - and neither did Bruce Wayne - it was shaped by me, and me alone, and that’s the only way it will move forward. Bruce will play a part in it, but I’ll be behind the wheel. I look back down at Barbara. I kiss her forehead. I hold her close. ‘You asked me once who I really was and I couldn’t answer you,’ I say. ‘I thought I knew. Five years ago, when I took you to that circus, I thought I could balance Dick Grayson and Nightwing, but the fact is I wasn’t ready. When I told you I wanted to marry you - then I was ready, but by that point it was too late. You didn’t drive us apart, Babs, somehow we managed it together.’ She looks at me, realising as I am that this is the last time we will ever be together. Tears fall from her eyes. ‘We could have had a lifetime,’ she says. ‘Babs … we did,’ I reply, simply. And then I’m kissing her, and I’m flooded with memories of all the time we did spend together, and how happy we both managed to be. I’m twelve years old, I’m holding her in my arms as the rain pours down around us. I’m fifteen and I’m kissing her for the first time, standing on the Gotham docks in the early hours of the morning. We’re kids again, and we’re adults, and we’re making love for the first time. Then I’m sparring with her in the Batcave; I’m lying with her in the hospital as she learns she can no longer use her legs; I’m sitting with her in the rafters of the circus, trapeze in hand, we’re ready to jump… When I open my eyes again Barbara is no longer there, and I’m standing in my apartment with Ollie and Zatanna. A part of me wants to tell them everything, I want to say that it worked and I was with her and it was amazing, but a stronger part of me wants to remain quite, and dwell on what I experienced alone. I understand now why Ollie has never shared what he went through when he returned to life. There are some things that can only be understood by you, and you alone. ‘Dick?’ Ollie says, slightly surprised. He stands up out of the armchair in which he was sitting. I nod. ‘I’m ready, Ollie,’ I say. ‘I’m ready to go home.’ EPILOGUE Gotham City. Two Days Later. I stand atop Wayne Tower in Gotham Central, alone. The city spreads out around me; an endless maze of apartments, office blocks, banks and law firms. Lights glare against the night sky, sirens provide a constant soundtrack, people continue to live their lives and remain blissfully oblivious to the dangers that still surround them. Gotham has grown a lot in nineteen years; Wayne Tower is no longer the tallest building in the city, but it had to be here. What I have to do… It has to be here.

49


I stand at the edge and look down, absentmindedly swinging the grapple line in my hands, twirling it around my index finger like a piece of string. Words I once spoke to Barbara play out in my head. Use your cape. Position your body… I guess Gotham is not the only one to have changed. When I became Nightwing, the use of a cape became a hindrance, and little else. I never used one in the circus; there was little reason for me to use one in the city. I close my eyes and let my senses take over. The smells, the sounds, the feel of the buildings… Gotham City, the best and worst parts of New York and Chicago combined, it’s amazing how everything can feel so similar and yet so different to the other places I have the spent the last year leapfrogging around. Even Blüdhaven, Gotham’s little sister, a city I resided in for many years, can’t give the same feelings that Gotham does. When I’m here, I know it. Every street, every corner, every stone of every building holds a memory, and I relish in it. It’s good to be home. ‘Dick?’ I knew he was there before he spoke, but the fact I did means that he wanted me to know. It was subtle, virtually unnoticeable, but to a man like him virtually unnoticeable is still too much, and were this any other night and I was anybody else I would never know he was there at all. He landed on the other end of the roof several minutes ago, arms out, body straight, his knees bending only when he landed and not before. As he arose his cape was pulled inwards, dragging across the loose gravel of the rooftop surface with a light scratch before settling itself into it’s natural position, with a little more than a flurry in the wind. I turn, our eyes locking under their respective masks. ‘Hi, Bruce,’ I say, softly. He crosses forwards and stands beside me at the edge of the roof, eyes now fixed ahead of him, his cape fighting to break free of his stronghold and escape with the wind. For a long time neither of us speak, but there is little that is uncomfortable about the moment. We both know what needs to be said, and we both know there is little point in saying it. ‘So, I’m back,’ I say, taking the initiative and starting the conversation, as I have done so many times in the past. ‘I mean, for good, I’m back, I’m here.’ He doesn’t look at me, but there are momentary traces of a slight twitch in the corners of his mouth. ‘I know,’ he says, simply. ‘I was always going to,’ I add, somewhat hurryingly, ‘but I guess you knew that sooner than I did. I don’t want you thinking like I abandoned you or something because I … well, I guess I did, but it’s been hard, harder than it was when my parents died, I just…’ I trail off. The unsaid stuff is being said. It doesn’t need to be. Several long moments pass. Time to break the ice. ‘So word from Ollie is you’re seeing Catwoman … again. Care to share?’ Bruce turns and looks at me, a glaring look in his eyes. ‘Oliver Queen as never known when not to open his mouth,’ he says, defensively. I put my hands up. ‘Hey, you got no quarrel from me,’ I say, quickly. ‘She’s really … well, okay it’s kinda crazy, but you guys are pretty much meant for each other. Just don’t … y’know … break it off as soon as you realise you might have actual feelings for her…’ A moment passes, and then he smirks. ‘Am I to be taking relationship advice from you?’ he asks. I grin. ‘Was that humour? You being humorous now? … Just how long was I gone for?’ Silence befalls us once more, and both our gazes return to the cityscape ahead. ‘How’s Tim?’ I finally ask. ‘Coping,’ Bruce replies. ‘He has not known death like the rest of us have. The Titans are helping him better than I can.’ ‘That his choice, or yours?’ I ask. ‘His,’ Bruce says, after a fashion. ‘He is … independent, even more so than you ever were. Times like this, I cannot pretend to be his father.’ ‘You ever figure that is probably for the best? I point out. ‘Tim strove to be Robin, he worked for it, he has made the role his own.’ I pause. ‘Tim isn’t me. He does not look upon you like a father, and he does not wish to have his life shaped by you or by anyone else.’ ‘And you?’ Bruce asks, turning back to look at me once more. I pause, then shrug. ‘I guess I always looked on you as a father,’ I reply. ‘Look, point is, let Tim grow on his own. When I was Robin, after I left … what happened with Jason … you always wished he could be more like me but you know he never was, and that is arguably what got him killed.’

50


‘Dick…’ Bruce starts, but I cut him off, realising that the unsaid stuff needed to be said after all. ‘You shut yourself away, Bruce!’ I say, hurriedly. ‘Ever since Jason, maybe even before, you have shut yourself away from everything around you and I didn’t ever want to become that! This whole year, the reason I’ve been away… Marrying Barbara was supposed to be my way out, it was supposed to stop me from ever turning into you, but now…’ Bruce looks at me, but doesn’t say anything. ‘Bruce I want to join the Justice League,’ I say. ‘I want … I want for things to be like they were before, I want that dynamic duo together again. I can’t stop myself becoming you, and I don’t want to try anymore, but if I join the League, if we go through something together, maybe we can both change, and we can both be … better.’ As has happened so many times before, silence befalls the two of us, but this time it is Bruce to break the calm. ‘Put your hand on mine,’ he says, holding his left palm flat and putting his right in the air. For a moment I pause, wondering what exactly he wants me to do, but then my mind flashes back almost twenty years, to a moment in a the cave by the flickering light of a candle. I grin, and mimic his motions, my right hand on his, my left in the air. ‘So,’ I start, ‘Nightwing and Batman?’ A grunt. ‘Batman and Nightwing.’ ‘Still?’ I mockingly say. ‘After all this time?’ ‘I tell you what,’ Bruce says, detaching a grappling gun from a pouch on his belt and stepping onto the very edge of the building. ‘You catch me, and you can have it the other way round.’ Before I can even think of a retaliation he’s jumped off the side of the building, his cape at last free and spread out behind him, soon to be caught in the updraft where it will become something of a heavy duty parachute. For the next several seconds his body will remain perfectly rigid, then he will twist his abdomen, fire the grapple, and the entire city will be at his beck and call. I grin, take one last look at the cityscape around me, and then I follow.

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Nightwing: Childhood Ties