End of Summer
 
Choices Chapters
1: Prologue

2: Robin & Huntress

3: The JSA

4: The JLA

5: Starfire, Robin & Batman

6: New Members of the Family

7: At The Manor

8: The Stake-Out

9: New Friendships

10: The Titans

11: Facing The Past

12: Shattered

13: Confrontations

14: Flying

15: Conversations

16: Hitting the Streets

17: On the Trail

18: Face To Face

Choices

Chapter 8: The Stake-Out

by Marilee Stephens

"How many places do we need to cover, Uncle Bruce?" Helena asked.

"Five", Batman responded in a lowered tone. "We're going to need all of us to cover them. Dick, Jay, help me get five surveillance packs together. Amanda, ask Prophet to dig up any extra information about these sites. Alfred…"

"Don't worry, Master Bruce, I know what you need made up."

"All right. Forty-five minutes to get everyone together and get suited up. We discuss who goes where at that point."

With that, people took off in various directions, intent on carrying out their assigned tasks, or to get ready. All except Dick. He was about to go and grab his own suit, when he remembered the note left for him earlier in the afternoon.

Waylaying Alfred as he was about to head up to the main part of the manor, he asked the older man where he could lay his hands on his costume.

"Oh, dear. I'm afraid we might have a bit of a problem there, young Master Dick. I'm still in the midst of trying to mend it. It's hardly in decent shape for you to go out in."

"But Alfred, I have to go out with them. Batman said that we were going to need everyone on this."

"I realize that, sir, but your outfit isn't going to do you any good in the condition it's in presently. Your gloves and boots are in one of the lockers in change area, but the body-suit portion of your costume…"

Dick was about to indicate that he didn't care what shape his suit was in when a voice came from behind them. "Problem, Alfred?"

"A small one, Master Dick. I'm afraid I've been working on fixing young Master Dick's costume and it's not nearly ready."

"That's all? I think I can remedy that. C'mon, 'Wing, let's see what we can do."

Dick turned and followed his older counterpart, even as he questioned, "'Wing'?"

"Yeah, well, it looks as if you're going to be here for a little while, and it feels weird calling you 'Dick'. Since the kids are calling you 'Uncle Wing,' thought I might use the nickname as well."

Reaching the locker room, the Earth-1 Dick headed over to one of the lockers with his name on it. Reaching inside, he grabbed one of the few costumes it held. "Here, try this for size. It might not fit perfectly, but it'll be close enough."

Dick grabbed the dark cloth thrown at him. It had a slightly different weight than what he was used to, and the flash of yellow across the chest brought back memories of a time he wasn't sure he wanted to remember. He didn't want to reject the generous offer his counterpart was trying to make, but he wasn't sure that he could actually put this on.

"Something wrong?"

"N… no, of course not. Thanks for the suit." Dick handled the material gingerly. It was just a piece of cloth. It's not like he was really slipping into the other guy's skin.

"No problem. Might even work better in the long run. People see what they know as their 'Nightwing' and there won't be as many questions asked."

"Yeah."

Searching through some more of the unmarked lockers, Dick found his gauntlets, boots and the harness for his escrima sticks. Laying them out, he made to change. Donning the blue-black bodysuit felt strange through. Thankfully, pulling on his own pieces of equipment lessened the feeling.

"What is that?", his counterpart inquired in a confused voice.

"What's what?"

"The sticks?"

"Escrima sticks? They're a fighting…"

"I know what they are. Why are you carrying them on your back?"

"Well, I…"

"How the hell do you do any acrobatics with those things stuck on your back? I thought when I noticed the boots up on the satellite that it would be difficult enough with just them, but the sticks…?"

"I don't have a problem with them," Dick responded in a deadened tone. Who was this guy that he could question Dick about his methods? But even as that thought popped into Dick's head, he had to remind himself that if anyone would know his methods, it was this man. "They work for me, okay?"

"If you say so, but man, I'd hate to see your back and legs after a night of going around with those on."

Dick didn't respond. Let him think what he wanted. The disadvantages were outweighed, at least for the most part, by the advantages. At least, that's what he told himself.

The younger man's silence communicated to the older man that he considered that conversation finished. Shrugging, he just added, "I better go. Those surveillance packs aren't going to be put together by themselves."

Dick finished changing in silence. Glancing around, he caught a look of himself in a mirror. He almost didn't recognize himself, he realized. The thought sent a small shiver down his back.

Leaving the change room, he went over to the computer terminal. Off to one side, a printer was ejecting several sheets of paper. Picking them up, he began to peruse them. They were obviously being sent by Prophet, and included a detailed map of each of the locations they would be watching over, as well as details as to what each business was involved with and their past histories.

Richard and Helena, changed back into their Robin and Huntress identities, came up behind him. They both did a bit of a double-take when they saw his outfit, but didn't say anything. He, in turn, silently handed them the pages that he had already gone over. A few moments later, Starfire also joined them from upstairs. She carried with her five black backpacks, that seemed to already had a few things packed into the bottom of them.

"Anything stand out about any of these places?", she questioned the trio in front of her.

"From each other? Not really, Koriand'r", Richard answered. "Two are electronics firms. One's another theoretical physics lab. One's a chemical lab/warehouse involved in explosives manufacturing. And one's…"

"One's WayneTech," Bruce's voice came off from the side.

"Should have known that would be on the list," Jay added as he and the elder Nightwing joined the group, each carrying a couple of black packages. Silently, they went about loading them into the backpacks that Kory had brought in earlier.

"So, who's going to go where?" Richard asked. But even as he was finishing his sentence, a dull roar could be heard zooming up from the direction of the tunnel. Wondering who else could be using it, Dick was unprepared for the sight that greeted his eyes when the group turned as one to see what was up.

For a motorcycle was pulling into the main room of the cave. One that Dick recognized, even with the slight variations this one had. But its rider was the person who caused Dick the greatest surprise. However, before he even could mouth her name, his older counterpart and Batman were headed towards her.

"Barbara… Great to see you", Batman responded as the two men greeted her, with the others moving to surround the cycle. "But what are you…"

"Doing here? A 'little bird' told me that you were needing all the man-power you could get for a case. So here I am." Even as she climbed off her cycle, the dark-clad woman's eyes swept the group, resting for a moment on Dick, a slightly curious look entering her eyes.

Jay spoke up with that. "Yeah, I called Barb just after we got Prophet's first messages. Figure the more, the merrier."

"Still, you were probably busy with other stuff," Bruce interjected.

"No… The boys are in bed, and my darling husband is doing some paperwork. And Jay said this was mainly stakeout work. Might not even see any action."

Amanda, who had joined the group, looked up from the computer print-outs to ask, "Hey, Aunt Barb. Tony and Jimmy are going to be able to make it to Mike's birthday party… right?"

"Yes, sweetie. They were upset they missed yours."

"Yeah, well, I missed them too. They've got the best 'good cop/bad cop' act around."

Dick noted that the Batgirl… No, Batwoman… standing in front of him gave a somewhat pleased, and somewhat exasperated, look at Amanda's statement. "Great. Well, I guess I know what line of work my sons will end up going into." But Dick could see how pleased the woman really was with the girl's statement.

"So, what are we up against?", Batwoman then wanted to know.

"We're not really sure yet, Barb. Only that it will probably involve thefts in explosive compounds and components that could be used for inter-dimensional jumps. There's been some evidence that more than one person is involved. And our young friend here seems to have a role somewhere in this as well," the elder Nightwing outlined.

With that, Batwoman turned towards Dick. "Jay told me a little about you. Nice to meet you, Nightwing. Hope we have a chance to really talk at some point," she stated as she approached him, her hand extended.

Dick's own hand slowly moved out, as if by its own volition. Because his brain was still dealing with the ramifications of what a walking Barbara Gordon meant.

And one of those ramifications presented itself even as Batwoman withdrew her hand and turned again towards the girl seated at the computer terminal. "By the way, Amanda, is that Prophet you're on the line with?" With the girl's nod, the woman continued. "Well, tell our little friend that if he hacks into my personal computer files one more time, I'm going to hunt him down and bash him with his giga-byte hard-drive."

Amanda giggled. "Sure, Aunt Barb… I'll tell him." She then turned and typed rapidly. Dick's mind slowly started to work again. Barbara Gordon was not Prophet. Then who the hell was?

But even as his mind picked up speed, the others were continuing the discussion that had been interrupted with the new arrival. "So, I guess we'll basically have to go in groups of two, except of a couple groups of one," the elder Nightwing outlined.

"Appears so. I'm glad that Batwoman's here. The more heads we have involved here, the better," Batman added.

"I'm glad you feel that way, Bruce," came a voice from the shadows off to the side of the cave. Dick recognized it. He had heard it briefly earlier in the day. It was the voice of the counterpart of Helena's mother. But when he saw the woman step from the shadows, his jaw almost dropped open in disbelief.

"Ohmigod," he thought rapidly to himself. The costume wasn't right, but the cowl was close to the one he knew. But that would mean… That would mean…

"Batman married Catwoman?!?" raced through his mind. Of all the women… No. That wasn't true. He knew that there was a very odd attraction between his Batman and the Catwoman he knew. But to think that they got married?!?

And apparently there was the same something between the Batman and Catwoman on this earth, if some of the other man's and the woman's reactions from earlier in the day were any indication. Now he was really intrigued. He had to find out more about this.

But there wasn't time now, he knew. Still…

"Selina, what are you doing here?"

"I phoned her, Uncle Bruce. You did say we would need a many people as possible involved," Helena added in explanation.

Batman's eyes narrowed beneath the cowl. But he only gave a curt nod of his head before turning back to the group as a whole. The cat-motifed woman silently followed him, even as her eyes swept reassuringly over to her dimensional-displaced "daughter". She then turned to Dick. "Helena told me a bit about your situation. I hope I can help."

"Yeah… Me too… I guess," Dick responded faintly. There had been a few too many things thrown at him in the last few minutes, but he held himself in check. A moment or two was all he needed now to adjust to these differences. Or so he told himself.

His E-1 counterpart then took the lead in the conversation. "Well, we've now got enough people for 4 teams of two and a single. Richard and Helena, you work with each other more than anyone, so you should probably work together. Why don't you take the physics research lab over at Gotham University?"

"Makes sense," Richard commented, as Helena nodded.

"And I suppose Bruce is the most natural one to go over to Wayne Tech."

"I could go with…" Catwoman started to interject, but Batman cut her off abruptly.

"No. I can handle Wayne Tech myself." Dick noticed that the woman's face fell just the slightest amount, though she rapidly hid that response. More and more, the obvious relationship between these two people intrigued him.

"Well, then, Jay and Selina have had some experience working with each other in the past…"

"Yeah, and nearly killed each other several times," Dick heard Jay grumble under his breath, as the young man stood behind him. Again, another interesting little clue about the make-up of this group.

But Nightwing appeared to not have heard, as he kept on. "… so why don't you two take the electronics firm over on the south side?"

"If you think so, Nightwing," Catwoman appeared to agree, as Dick again felt the young man behind him give a heavy sigh.

"As for the chemical plant/warehouse…" Nightwing's voice trailed off. Dick saw a quick look being exchanged between him, the elder Robin and Starfire. If that look meant what Dick thought it meant… He almost knew from what he had heard before what the man was about to say even before the words emerged.

"You had plenty of experience working with your Starfire, haven't you, Wing?"

Dick closed his eyes briefly. "Yes. Yes I did."

"Fine. Then I think you and Kory should go to the warehouse. You would know how to work with her better than almost anyone here, except maybe for me. Batwoman and I will take the other electronics company."

"What makes you think I want to go sit outside a some run-down electronic store with you, Boy Wonder? Sure, you've got that whole crush thing to work through, but I moved on", Batwoman affectionately teased.

"Look, Bat-chick, I outgrew the crush years ago."

"Yeah, right. Sure you did. And 'Bat-chick'? Why, I ought to…" Dick could see the affection between the two of them. In some ways, it mirrored his and his own Babs. Their relationship was obviously that of very close friends.

"Would you two stop! And Barb, try to keep my husband out of trouble. I know it's a tough job…"

"What is this? Two of my favorite women ganging up on me. Did I do something wrong recently?"

Even as he heard the lightness in the tone, he also sensed the underlying seriousness. It was obviously just a bit a light-hearted banter before they all set off, not knowing what was going to happen to each other over the course of the evening.

But he himself was a bit anxious even without the possibility of action. Because he knew why Nightwing had paired him up with his wife. He just didn't know if he wanted to talk with her or not. Not just yet.

Still, Batman obviously agreed with Nightwing's choices for the various teamings. Even as the others had been listening to his counterpart, Bruce had been working with Amanda, packing the various information about each of the suspected target sides into the different large black backpacks.

"Here." Batman turned on offered a backpack to a member of each respective team. Dick took the one that obviously contained the information for the warehouse he and Starfire were going to monitor. The pack was fairly heavy, but nothing he couldn't handle.

Batman then turned back to the desktop in front of him. Dick noticed that he had another device in hand. "Nightwing," he gestured toward Dick, indicating the device, "this is for you."

Dick took it. It was a small radio transmitter and receiver, similar to the one incorporated into his own costume. "I don't know with the inter-dimensional shifting if your own electronic equipment will work perfectly with ours. And we don't really have time to test it properly. So here's a back-up."

"Thanks, Batman." Again, another similarity with his own Batman. This one also covered all the bases.

"Okay. Everyone send a radio signal every hour. If anything happens at your site, report immediately. Let's go." Batman headed over to the Bat-mobile, even as Batwoman and the older Nightwing climbed onto their respective motor cycles. Though not before Nightwing whispered a short message to his wife and briefly kissed her. Before he headed off, he also sent a brief word of farewell to the child manning the computer terminal.

"I've got my 'kitty-car' just down the tunnel, Jay. We can take that."

"Fine… Why not?" the young man responded a bit sullenly even as the two of them moved off.

Batman turned back to the older Robin and Huntress. "The keys to the back-up car are in its ignition."

"Thanks, Uncle Bruce."

Dick looked over at Starfire, even as she moved towards him. "I guess we're going to fly over there," he asked.

"Yes. Is that a problem?"

"No. Just checking."

Starfire turned to wish her daughter goodnight before she reached for him. He felt her hands slip under his arms even as his feet began to lift off the ground. He had assumed that they were going to head out through the regular tunnel as well. So he was a bit surprised to have them head over to a secondary tunnel, off to almost the other side of the cave.

Starfire rapidly flew along the wide tunnel, and then, after a few minutes, sharply turned up, to head up an inclined space in the rock. This tunnel was basically large enough in diameter to let their two bodies pass easily enough, though any sort of vehicle wouldn't fit through. Suddenly, instead of being surrounded by dirt, though, they were out in the fresh air. Looking down as they ascended into the sky, where the sun was just starting to set, causing a blaze of red, oranges, pinks and purples to sweep across it, he realized that they had emerged quite a distance from the manor and that he couldn't make out a hole in the ground below them.

"Uummm…"

"What?"

"That tunnel?"

"Bruce put that in when I became more of a regular visitor to the Manor. It was just an easier way for Dick and I to get into the cave than going through the main one."

"I see."

Dick fell quiet with that. Flying, being in this woman's arms, he was suddenly reminded of all the flights he had taken with his Kory. About how much he had loved their 'sky-dancing.' A sudden sadness swept over him when he realized that he probably wouldn't ever experience that sensation again. But then, he wasn't going to experience a lot of things that he had become use to, possibly even taken for granted, ever again, was he?

For several minutes, they flew high in the sky. But as they approached the area of Gotham where their site was located, Dick noticed a loss of altitude. Suddenly, they were down amongst the buildings, skirting around corners and such. He quickly realized that obviously this Starfire had adapted her techniques a little bit, such that she was trying to be as discreet as possible when approaching their target location.

Finally, she landed on the roof of a building a short distance from the warehouse they were supposed to watch.

"So, where do you think we should set up the watch site?", Starfire questioned as Dick pulled the sheets that had been included in the backpack out. He was rapidly scanning the maps of this area of the city and the building's layout as she patiently waited for an answer.

"Well, the roof of that building over there would give us the most cover, except for the back entrance to the warehouse itself. Maybe one of us should set up there and the other can find a spot for monitoring the back way in."

Starfire looked at him a bit perplexedly for a moment. Then, as if something became clear to her, her expression cleared. "Oh, you don't use the bat-cams on your earth, I guess."

"Bat-cams?"

"Yes. These." Starfire opened one of the parcels that had been put in the pack. Dick saw that in her hands were what looked to be a miniature camera and very small, hand-held television monitor. "Batman and Nightwing usually set up several around a perimeter of a building that they watching, if there's time. It's something WayneTech came up with a few years ago. Each camera has a TV monitor to pick up its signal. But the broadcast range is pretty small. Only a half mile or so."

Dick was impressed. This would certainly make watching the building easier. Especially one this size. "How many of these bat-cams do we have?"

Starfire rapidly counted the packages in the pack. "Eight, from the looks of things. On the map, is there any markings? Batman might have decided where he thought each might go."

Looking back down at the map of the warehouse's layout, Dick noted some small X's at various points around the building. Quickly looking at the map, and the actual building itself, he realized that he agreed with the sites that were marked.

Indicating this to Starfire, she nodded her agreement. "Great. Then you take these four and mount them on the north and west sides. I'll cover the south and east."

"Fine. But with this, I think we should slightly change where we set up 'camp'." Pointing to a spot on another building, he indicated his choice to Starfire. The new site gave a much clearer view of the front entrance, which was still the most likely spot for someone to try and break in at. Unless they went for the roof, and the new site was high enough that they would have a clear view of the majority of that.

Starfire quickly showed him how to mount one of the cameras. Then, agreeing to meet at the new location, they both hurried off to put them up before someone would notice them.

Twenty minutes later, Dick got back to the new roof-site, to see Starfire waiting for him with the backpack. She was just starting to unpack the corresponding small TV monitors and turn them on. Talking almost unconsciously, she noted that when she and her Nightwing went on stakeout, one of them tended to watch the building itself, while the other kept an eye on the various TV screens. Dick asked her which job she preferred.

"Oh, I usually take watching the building. With my eyesight being slightly better than earthlings…"

"Of course. That makes sense."

Dick settled down to look over the various sites displayed on the small screens. For their size, the resolution was really remarkable. Starfire finished unpacking the rest of the stuff in the back-pack. A large thermos and some wrapped sandwiches were the last things to come out.

Seeing Dick look at them, Koriand'r smiled. "There's no way that Alfred would send any of us out on a stakeout without some 'proper nutrition' to back us up. Though I still don't understand how some people can consider coffee as 'proper nutrition'", she finished with a smile. She then moved off a few feet, more towards the edge of the roof they were on, to take up her post watching the warehouse.

Several silent minutes passed with that. Dick got the impression that maybe the woman in front of him was waiting for him to make some sort of first move. But suddenly, without taking her eyes off the near-by building…

"Want to tell me about it?"

"About what?"

Dick could almost sense the smile that must have crossed Starfire's face at that point. He knew she knew he knew what she was talking about.

"Okay. Okay. But why do you want to hear this?"

"Because I don't understand. And I want to. From your reactions up on the satellite… You seemed so hurt. So lost. I… I don't want to see you hurting this way." Koriand'r voice trailed off.

"It's not that." A short silence followed. "Well, okay. It was that. But just not the way that you think. It just seemed everyone was assuming stuff about me, about how I was supposed to feel, to think, to act. They were acting like I'm just like your husband, or Richard." A sharp note of anger entered Dick's voice, though it remained quiet. "And I'm not. Things are different. I'm different. I don't think I can be who some of them expected me to be. I can't be anymore… Not after…"

"After what?"

"You just don't know. You can't know. You all have everything you ever wanted."

"That's not true." Though physically they hadn't moved from their positions, Dick keeping his eyes on the TV monitors, Koriand'r on the building, Dick knew that mentally, they were no where near the warehouse. But all of a sudden, he wasn't sure that that mattered anymore. This woman wanted to hear what had happened. All right. She would hear it. Every last bit of it.

So though he kept up his monitoring duties, though he kept his voice low, he started to spell everything out, letting all the pain that he hadn't allowed himself to feel for months be wrenched out of him. He told her about the ordeal with Brother Blood, him questioning his sense of identity after that. He told her about the Wildebeests, about what happened to Joey, to Raven. The problems with New York city after the tower blew. He told her about the Team Titans, the mess with Mirage, the disaster of a wedding that never should have occurred in the first place. About how the Titans were taken over by the government. How his Kory had been after the attack by Raven at the wedding. After her run to the Amazon, and his following her, to find that she didn't even know him anymore. About how she left without saying good-bye…

He told her all that and more. He spoke precisely, laying out the facts, as if keeping it concise, to the point, he could hold the old pain away, prevent the old wounds from being open. It might have taken minutes… It might have taken hours. He didn't know and didn't care. Early on in his recitation, he heard the occasional gasp or sigh from her as she absorbed what he was telling her. But later, when he would occasionally glance away from the screen and up at her, he saw her spine becoming more and more rigid, as he sensed an anger growing within her. But even that sense of knowing that she was getting upset didn't stop him. He just kept going.

Finally, he drew to a stop, but not before adding, on almost a defiant note, "So, you see, you and the others know nothing about me, or my life. You don't know what it's like to have your whole life swept from out underneath you."

He barely got the words out before he registered the clenched hands at the woman's side, a faint pulsing light starting to glow about them. But, even as obviously upset as she was, she kept her voice low… harsh but low.

"No… From what I've just heard, I would say that I don't know what it's like to have someone basically throw their life away and never look back."

Dick stared up at the back of the woman incredulously. Hadn't she heard a thing he said. "I didn't throw it away and not look back. It was taken from me!"

"Only because you allowed it to be. You say that your Kory was obviously in some sort of emotional distress, first with the nightmares and then with this ritual you've mentioned, and then amnesia. And yet, when she leaves, without saying good-bye as you put it, you didn't question it at all? You're right. You're not like my husband. Because something like that would have set alarms off in his head immediately."

"Hold it right there. You don't know what we had been through. I turned myself inside out trying to help her. Tracking her down to the Amazon, only to find a totally different woman than I had known. You have no idea. With everything that had previously happened… The deaths… The feeling of failure…"

"And you just said that your Kory wasn't acting anything like you ever knew her as. Didn't that tell you anything? Didn't that tell you that something was obviously not right? Would leaving that way be something your Kory would actually do? It's not something I would. I confront my problems head on. Are you saying your Kory didn't?"

Dick didn't know how to answer the angry question. She was right, Kory wouldn't do that. But before he could even formulate a response, she continued. "Are you telling me that you weren't even curious to find out why anyone would act like that, let alone the woman you claimed to love?"

"Now just a minute. She left, not me."

"But why did she leave? You haven't answered that."

"I don't know… I just figured with all that had happened… That she had realized…"

"Realized what?"

"That it wasn't going to work. Okay? Does that satisfy you?"

"No. No it doesn't. Not if she's anything like me. I wouldn't leave without saying good-bye… I can't see how she would have if she had been okay, which she obviously wasn't. And I'm surprised that you wouldn't want to know why she did that. Even if there wasn't a big emotional tie between the two of you."

"All right. I screwed up. Is that what you want to hear? You have no idea what we had all been through. Losing teammates…"

A stronger note of fury entered the woman's voice when she interjected. "Stop it. You keep saying stuff like that, but you are so wrong. We've lost teammates…"

A touch of scorn entered Dick's voice. "Right… I'm wrong. That's why I saw Vic, saw Gar, had Donna mention Garth, Raven and Joey. Sounds to me like the Titans are pretty much intact."

With that, Starfire swung away from viewing the building to face him. The anger on her face gave it a beauty that was both frightening and stunning. "You are wrong. You say that we don't know you. Well, you don't know us either. Think about who you just listed. Doesn't it seem to you like someone is missing? Someone that maybe you should have seen this morning, considering who else was up at the satellite."

Dick stared at Koriand'r, even as his mind raced over what he had learned so far. He had seen Wally, Donna, Vic and Gar. Had heard about Joey and Raven. Donna had mentioned Garth joining the JLA, and also indicated that she had no clue who Danny was. As for the later members of the New Titans team… Who knew. But suddenly, a dawning horror started to etch itself across his face as he realized an important omission on the list. But that wasn't possible… He had seen…

"No. No, I don't believe you", Dick stated in denial. Not Roy. Not one of the liveliest people he knew.

"Yes," Starfire stated simply, if still in an angry tone. She knew from his expression that he had figured it out. "Yes, Roy's dead. Has been for almost two years. In fact, it happened the month after Alex's christening. She lost her godfather almost as soon as she had gotten him."

"No… No. I saw Lian…"

"You saw Lian because she lives with Donna and Terry and both she and Rob were interested in meeting you. And as for the heartbreak you've suffered, have you ever had to go and tell a ten-year-old that the person she depended on most in life was never coming home again? Because that's what my Dick had to do. Him and Donna. Roy dying ripped a hole in their hearts, in Wally and Garth, in all of us, that's been hard to fill. It's like there's an empty space that should be filled and can't be."

Dick felt a dead weight settle in the region of his chest. He couldn't make himself imagine. Roy… dead. "What happened?"

"I don't know all the details. I do know that Donna was there. Her and Wally. Roy had been on some sort of drug-related case for the government when he called them in. Dick, Garth and some of the others were busy on another case, which is why they couldn't help. Donna… Donna still won't talk about what happened. She and Roy…"

"…were close. So, so were mine."

"When Dick found out, he freaked. As in shut down. Felt that it was partially his fault for not being there. Of course, it wasn't, but… Still, he thought he should be one of the ones to go and break the news to Lian. So he and Donna did. I went with them for moral support, but waited in another room. We thought too many of us might upset Lian even more. I still remember her screams though."

"I'm… I'm sorry."

"Yeah, so am I. And Roy's not the only one. Bat-girl's also dead."

"What? Batgirl? But I just saw Barbara…"

"Sorry. Not Batgirl. Bat-girl." Dick heard the very small hesitation placed between the two syllables of the word the second time round. But who?…

"You know… Betty Kane?"

No, Dick didn't know, but he decided to keep quiet to hear the rest of Koriand'r's explanation. "She was mostly retired from crime-fighting. But she somehow heard that the League of Assassins was going to start up again. Considering what happened to her Aunt Kathy, she knew that she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she let that happen. Unfortunately, she got in too deep. Considering the history between her and Dick, it was another blow to him… Another loss from the days of his childhood."

Her Dick had more than a passing relationship with this earth's analogue to Flamebird? And who was Aunt Kathy? Dick was about to ask. However, Koriand'r had turned back to her watch on the building. Her stance indicated to Dick that she might not be totally willing to answer his questions right now. Instead, silence reigned for several minutes. Dick spent the time going back over the TV monitors. He didn't know what to say. Still, somehow, he didn't think that Starfire really understood what the Beests had started, had taken away from him and his Titans. Hoping to clarify the situation a bit, he put forth, "Look, I'm sorry if I upset you. Obviously we've all been hurt by this type of thing. But it's not the same. Everything that the Titans had been was basically ripped apart by the Beests. And yes, I do know what it's like to have to tell people that their loved ones are dead, or at least not in a form to be able to come back to them. I've had to tell parents… grandparents, that their children are gone. That can be just as hard as telling a child her parent is."

Dick noticed that Koriand'r shoulders slumped slightly with that. A faint "I know" came back to him. He didn't take the time to wonder what she meant by that though. A sense of urgency hit him. Maybe he was getting through to her a bit about why he had had to turn his back on that part of his life. That the process of trying to make sense of it, of trying to piece what could be salvaged might have been too painful in the long run. Hoping that he could make her see, he continued, "At the time of what happened to me, it just seemed like I was losing everything of importance to me. Teammates, the team, my Kory… The entire life I had built for myself. I was losing everything. I don't see how I can make it any clearer, make you understand…"

A harsh laugh broke from Starfire's mouth with his last few lines. He realized that they might have cost him what headway he had made. Her retort just confirmed that. "X'hal, you amaze me. You really do. How many times have I lost everything that my life was built on. When my parents' were forced to give me over to the Slavers. When I escaped and made my way to Earth, a planet I had no knowledge of before. I've lost everything before in my life. So has Dick. So have you, when your parents died. Did you just turn your back on that whole section of your life when it happened? I'm sorry about what happened to you and your Titans. I really am. But I still don't see how it justifies you turning your back so easily on your Kory when it seems so obvious to me that something was really wrong with her."

Dick didn't know how to respond. He really didn't. So he hadn't by the time she came back with, "And please don't go into how I just can't understand about your pain. That we've obviously got it so good with us. You have no idea the types of losses that Dick and I have suffered, the things that we've had to deal with. You make it sound like we've had it so easy. Well, we haven't. We've had to face pain that I don't think you can even imagine. Didn't mean that we turned our backs on each other at the least sign of trouble."

With this pronouncement, Dick remembered back to other snippets of dialogue from earlier in the day. But she was continuing, her voice growing more strident, if ever more laced with pain as she spoke. "You seem to think you have the monopoly on loss, on grief. You say that we don't know you. Well, you don't know us either. And yet, you've made just as many assumptions as we might have. You've assumed that because we still here, we haven't known pain. Or at least, pain as bad as you've felt. Well, you're wrong. You have no idea as to the pain we've gone through. Until you've had one of your… your children… hurt because of who you are…" Koriand'r voice caught, the break tearing at Dick's heart in a way that he wasn't sure he had ever felt before. "Until you've lost a child, and knew it… knew it to be your fault…" The pain in Starfire's voice caused it to trail off, as a steady stream of tears fell from her wide-open eyes. Dick felt like something was almost physically breaking inside him, the sheer grief in the woman's voice affecting him so.

Koriand'r drew herself up suddenly and wiped her eyes quickly. Taking a deep breath, she finished in a harsh tone, "Until you've experienced that, please don't tell me about what kind of pain I have or have not experienced. Or about how bad yours is compared to mine."

Once again, Dick was at a loss for words. What she had just revealed? He couldn't imagine… He didn't want to imagine. Still, he had to know.

"Can you… Can you tell me about it?"

Rawness came back to him. "Why do you want to know?"

"For the same reason you did earlier. I don't want to see you in pain. And I want to understand."

Starfire seemed to almost draw into herself with that. He saw how her back stiffened somewhat, while her arms came up to wrapped around her body, almost as if she was trying to hold herself together physically against whatever mental pictures she was conjuring. A weary note entered her voice as she further remarked, "Which do you want to know about first? The child we almost lost, or the one that we did?"

Dick could only look at her back in confusion. Either one was going to cause her a whole lot of pain, he knew. "How about you start right at the beginning… How did you and your Dick even get to the marriage stage, without falling into the disasters that seemed to hit me and my Kory." He hoped by starting back at what he hoped was something she considered a good point in her life, she might lose that haunted aspect that he was picking up from her.

"I don't know where that might have differed from what you and your Kory had? Did she have to go to Tamaran and get married to Karras?" At Dick's spoken affirmative, she then pondered, "And you mentioned that you spend time in Blood's church?" Again, with his affirmative, she continued her wondering. "Okay, after you spend those weeks recovering at the manor…"

"What? Wait. I didn't spend any time recovering at the manor. My Batman and I weren't talking at the time. My Titans rallied around me, but not Batman."

A quick, short, rather humorless burst of laughter sprang from Koriand'r's lips. "Don't tell me that I have Bruce to thank for me and Dick still being together?"

"I don't understand…"

"Okay. I don't know what happened to you, but here, after the whole mess with Blood went down, Batman came to New York to find out what exactly had happened. He had been part of the larger group of heroes that had worked on crowd control while we Titans, along with Jason and a few others, were the ones that went directly up against Blood. He had seen some of the newscasts that Dick had appeared on and been extremely worried, especially considering the last time he had seen Dick, he had come by the manor to have a 'talk'. Bruce had had to brush him off, saying he had a case that he had to finish then and there. When Bruce got done, Dick had already left the manor. Next thing he knew, Dick is appearing on TV, chanting nonsense."

The woman paused in her recollections. Dick patiently waited for her to continue, even as he marveled at some of what she was revealing. "Anyway, so as soon as possible after we got Dick and Raven out of Blood's clutches, Batman shows up at the Tower. He managed to convince Dick that maybe taking a few weeks off and 'going home,' as I remember him putting it, would help him. At the time, I hated the idea, but I didn't have a say back then."

Dick gently broke in. "Why 'hated'?"

Starfire kept watching their assigned building, as Dick looked over the TV monitors. "Because at the time, I didn't… like Bruce. He was everything I found strange about this planet in terms of how people thought about life. I guess I just didn't understand him then. We hadn't ever really had the chance to get to know each other. As a result… Well, it's not really important. He came to the Tower, and after a talking with him, Dick decided to go back to Gotham for a few weeks, to 'straighten his head out,' so to speak."

"And somehow this led to you getting married?"

A peal of laughter again rose from her lips, though this one had a touch more humor in it. "X'hal, anything but. No. When Dick got back from this little vacation, he made it quite plain that because of what had happened on Tamaran, we were through. That he just couldn't deal with being involved with me, with loving me, under the circumstances. Of course, I didn't like that, and yes, I tried to convince him otherwise several times over the next few months. Besides, it didn't help his case when he would say one thing and then act quite differently."

Obviously somehow sensing Dick's perplexed confusion at this last statement, she clarified. "He kept saying that he wasn't going to let himself love me anymore, as if telling himself would actually make it happen, but then would do things in battle, or little gestures when we were together as a group that would betray that idea. It gave me hope. Maybe I was wrong to take it that way, but it did. Finally, I decided enough was enough and tried to have it out with him about the whole thing. That's when I found out why he was acting the way he was. And it all came down to something Bruce had told him while he had been recuperating at the manor."

Again, a short break in her story occurred. She seemed to be recollecting memories, whether good or bad, Dick didn't know. "Seems that during their conversations, the whole mess from what happened on Tamaran came up. I don't know the exact how he said it, but from what Dick told me, it seemed to me that Bruce was warning him off me. Something like, 'can you still see yourself with this woman five, ten years down the line with this hanging over your heads?' Dick obviously decided he couldn't. Which was what had been causing him to sprout all that stuff about making himself not love me the last several months."

"And you blamed Bruce for this decision of Dick's." It wasn't a question. Dick could read it in the way she had worded her explanation.

"Yes. I… I wouldn't allow myself to blame Dick. Got a bit of a blind spot that way. Bruce, however… Bruce I could blame. At the time, I knew, or at least thought I knew that he wouldn't understand about what it was to really love somebody, regardless of what other things you were forced to do. Looking back, I know I was wrong, it was more a clash of cultures and Dick's own stubbornness coming out, but at the time… Well, Bruce was the easiest one to blame."

"What did you do?"

"Do?" Again, a faint trace of humor entered the woman's voice. "I did what I thought I had to do. I went to confront Bruce at the manor."

"No, you didn't!"

"Yes, I did. X'hal, I just blew up. It was a real screaming match, with me doing all the yelling. Bruce never raised his voice, which just irritated me further, and tried to talk to me rationally at first. But I wasn't in the mood for that. Finally, he did get angry. It was awful. I think at one point, I even compared him to a Psion in terms of having emotions." Dick saw her give a small winch at that memory. "And in the end…"

"In the end… what?"

"I… well, I sort of… 'bolted' him."

"No, you didn't."

"Uh-huh, I did. Not to hit him. I was just so furious that I threw a bolt in his direction. It ended hitting the floor just in front of him. If his reflexes hadn't been better than most, he would have probably been thrown off his feet."

Dick was becoming more and more fascinated by all she was telling him. He couldn't imagine it happening with himself and the counterparts of these people that he knew, but he could picture all that she was describing. "What happened next?" he demanded to know, with a touch of almost eagerness in his tone.

"Next? Next, I went home and waited for the fall-out. It wasn't very long in coming. Dick was so angry. He couldn't believe I had done that. That fight was probably the worst one we ever had. I was pretty shattered afterwards. How Dick felt, I don't even know, but it finally convinced me that I should just let the whole thing go, no matter how I really felt. For the next few days, I was pretty destroyed. But then something Bruce said early in our confrontation came back to me."

"Something Bruce said?"

"Yes. About starting to live my life for myself, or something like that. About not expecting others to build that life for me. I don't remember the exact words, but it was along that line."

"So?"

"So, it brought to mind an offer that had been made to me several weeks earlier. One that I had turned down. But that whole incident made me reconsider."

"And that was?"

"Well, you might think it was dumb, but a fashion house in Paris wanted me to come and act as the 'muse' for a few of its designers. At the time, I had turned it down. I wasn't about to leave New York and the Titans, or Dick. But with everything… I thought it might be the break that I needed. The chance to 'build my own life,' as Bruce had put it."

"You left?"

Starfire nodded in the affirmative. "It wasn't supposed to be for very long. A six-month contract. Part in Paris and part over at a design house in London. I just thought that the break might help. At the time, well, things didn't seem like they could get much worse in New York."

"And you know", she continued, "Bruce was right, not that I would have told him that at the time. I did need to have that chance to get away from all the demands of everyone else. I needed that chance to just be by myself. To not be the princess, or the slave, or the Titan. To just be Kory for awhile. To define myself away from everyone else. And I enjoyed Paris. It was a fascinating city to live in. Plus the chances to tour around Europe were wonderful. If anything, it made me realize that a lot of Earth didn't have the same hang-ups that Americans had for the most part. That some of the people on earth were more like Tamaraneans then I had been led to believe. Still, I missed the other Titans… And there were times when I was off seeing something that I wished Dick was with me. Turned out, he obviously was having the same feelings."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because six weeks after I left, he phoned me. Tracked me down somehow."

"Why? Was there something wrong?"

"No. At least, that was the impression he gave in the beginning. He said that he just wanted to see how I was doing, to make sure that I was all right. That he felt bad about the way that we had left things. Wanting to be friends and nonsense. Updated me on some of the things that had been happening with the Titans. Later in the conversation, it came out that he did have a purpose in calling. He had been involved in a case that had not gone well. And he wanted to talk it out with someone… No. With me. He knew I would understand some of the emotions he was dealing with."

Dick nodded at that. That was the one thing he could always do with his Kory, talk about what he was feeling without feeling like he was going to be judged.

"Anyway, that was the start of him calling. For a few weeks, it was once a week. Then it was a couple of times. Got to where he was calling every couple of days."

"You didn't object?" When she turned to look at him perplexedly at that, he clarified, "Well, if you were trying to 'build' your own life…"

A wistful sort of smile crossed her face. "Yes. Maybe I should have objected, or told him that I didn't want him to phone anymore. But while I was enjoying myself in Europe, I still missed him so much that I ached. And there was nothing in the calls that would warrant me telling him to stop. If anything, I think we became even better friends than what we had been through them. I called him on all the other cultures I was learning about and how they were much more like Tamaran then he and the others had led me to believe Earth possessed. And we laughed over some of the things we were both seeing on the two sides of the Atlantic. I can't explain it, but being apart actually maybe made us realize what we were giving up. Though neither of us admitted that out loud. I doubt Dick even admitted that to himself." Another small break occurred as Dick absorbed what she was implying. "Anyway, the time in Paris ended and I moved to London. And after what happened there… Well, let's just say that Dick couldn't make claims about not loving me anymore."

Dick waited for an explanation to that last line. At the same time, he realized how much time had passed since the start of their conversation. It had to be after midnight. "Hey, shouldn't we have reported in way before now?" he queried, as he reached for the thermos, pouring himself a coffee, and quietly offering her one. She shook her head in the negative.

"I have been reporting in", she commented. Showing him the communications relay located in her wristband, she explained. "Since sometimes we have to go to complete silence during stakeouts, Bruce and Dick devised an individual code for each of us that we send by pressing these buttons in a certain sequence. I've been sending mine every hour on the hour. I guess they figured if I'm okay, you'll be okay as well, or they would have set you up with one too."

While he sipped his coffee, she quickly continued with her story. "I found London to be totally different than Paris. But it intrigued me. The diversity of the people. Still, at the time, there was also an underlying tension that I hadn't found in France. I didn't know a whole lot about the political situation over there with Ireland at the time I moved there, though I did eventually learn about it… the hard way."

"Political situation? As in…?"

"As in the IRA. Turned out that they were stepping up some of their attacks right when I first moved there. About a month after I got there…"

"What happened?"

"I'd taken to taking the 'tube' to ride around in the city. I loved it. It gave me the chance to observe such a wide-spread group of people. But one morning, while I was riding it from the West End down to Picadilly Square, a bomb went off in the tunnel."

"Oh god…"

Dick noticed her back stiffening a bit. "According to the note sent to the authorities, the bomb was suppose to go off between trains and just damage part of the tunnel. But something went wrong. It went off just two cars in front of mine as the train I was riding on went over it."

"God, were you hurt?"

"In the initial blast? No."

"Starfire, I don't…"

"I know. It wasn't something I want to relive. But considering some of the things I had already seen in my life… I understand what war will do to a people. So I reacted immediately. I knew I had to be the one to help whoever was hurt. Some of the people in my car were injured, but not all that badly. Yet, in the car ahead and the one in front of that…" Again, her voice trailed off. "I did what I could to help the people there. My bolts provided both light and the means to clear a lot of the rubble. Rescue crews actually got there quickly. I think they must be very well trained for stuff like this. But at one point, in the most heavily hit car, I heard a child screaming under some twisted metal." Again, she stopped for a moment, as another memory assailed her. Slowly, she started speaking again. "She couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. There was a dead woman on top of her. I don't know if that was her mom or not. But the woman's body had partially protected her. I had to use my strength to remove the metal and the body before I could get to her. What I didn't know was that the blast had weakened the wall of the tube at that spot. My moving the metal and such jarred it enough that… Just as I handed the girl off to some rescuers, it collapsed."

Dick stared in horror at her. "What…?"

"I don't know what happened after that. Next thing I remember, I was waking up in a London hospital room, and Dick was beside my bed." A smile crossed her face at that point. "You have no idea how happy I was to see him."

"How did Nightwing…"

"Not 'Nightwing'… Dick was sitting next to me."

"I don't understand."

Koriand'r shook her head knowingly. "From what he told me, he had just gotten home from a night patrol and had switched on the late night/early morning news. That's when a report came over about the bombing, and how the 'American hero, Starfire' had been badly injured while trying to rescue people." Dick noted the ironic twist that came to the woman's mouth as she repeated the way the newscaster described her. "He later admitted that he hadn't thought, but just threw on some clothes and used his access to the JLA transporters, which the Titans had been given when the satellite was rebuilt, to get to London. It was only when he had gotten to the hospital that he realized that he was going to need some sort of cover story to explain his presence."

"What did he come up with?" Dick was curious to know.

"Dick can think fast on his feet when he needs to. He told them that he was a representative of the Wayne Corporation, and had been in contact with me about me possibly taking on the job of representing some of Wayne Tech's more highly advanced developments. You know, the "outer-space model" to represent some "outer-space gadgets" angle. Since I didn't have any family on earth, he thought he would come down such that a familiar face would be present when I woke up. I'm still not sure if the staff at the hospital would have bought the story, except I think he must have hinted that we were closer than possible business associates. At least, that's the impression I got from a couple of the nurses later."

Dick felt a faint grin spread over his face. The look on Koriand'r face, for the moment, was almost positively blissful. Even if he did nothing else, he had caused this woman to remember a good memory, as well as bad ones.

"And then…?"

"And then he told me about what a big jerk he had been. How incredibly idiotic he was, but that he loved me, though he would understand if I never wanted to see him again. Which, of course, was ridiculous. I found a way to shut him up about it pretty quickly." A cheeky grin skipped across her face with that. "Though I do remember that I teased him about why was it always that I almost had to die before he clued into what he felt." Dick realized that she was referring to the first time he admitted to himself that he loved his Kory as well. Took her being tortured by her sister and that Psion before he had clued in. Apparently the Dick Grayson of this earth had done the same thing.

"When I was well enough to travel, he took me back to the States. Set me up in the penthouse on top of the Wayne Foundation. I knew it from the time Bruce and Dick had been living there when I first arrived on earth, though Bruce had moved back to the manor not too long after that." This bit of information was also news to Dick. Bruce had lived somewhere else other than the manor?

"Turns out that when he told Bruce the cover story that he had had to come up at the hospital, that Bruce agreed to make it a reality, to make sure that everything fit together. Bruce even came up with the idea that he had sent Dick along to Europe to make an initial private contact with me, such that the other people at Wayne Tech wouldn't wonder about why they hadn't heard of these plans. They also started circulating the story that Dick and I have met months earlier at a charity event… One that we both had attended before I had gone back to Tamaran. So it made sense that Dick was the one that Bruce asked to approach me. Sometimes, the way those two men's minds work. It just amazes me. They can be so devious."

Devious. Dick figured that was one word for it, though he didn't think his Batman would appreciate the use. Koriand'r voice drew him back from his musing. "So things were going great. Dick and I were together. I had a very lucrative modeling contract out of it. I could start working with the Titans again. I was happy. Dick was happy. For several months…."

Dick heard the hint of trouble lurking in Starfire's voice. "Something went wrong."

"No… Yes… NO! Not really. Just life happened. See, even though we were together, making it work, there was still the basic problem that had split us up earlier."

"The marriage… Karras."

"Yes. For a while, it seemed we could forget about it. But then Roy and Dick managed to get Lian away from Cheshire. And a few months later, Donna found out she was pregnant with Robert. And at the time, well, at that time, Bruce and Selina had just gotten engaged."

"What? This earth's Batman… and Catwoman… were engaged?" He knew he had sensed something between the two of them. And of course, their counterparts on Earth-2 had gotten married and had Helena. But still, somehow, the whole concept of Batman being that close to marriage seemed so foreign to him…

Koriand'r seemed to miss a lot of his incredibility at the thought though, or at least, his reasons for it. "Yes. I know it never happened, but at the time, well, they were very happy. But it just brought Dick's and my situation into focus more. Because Dick still did have misgivings about the whole thing." Dick nodded sympathetically. He remembered his own feelings about that whole mess. "And I knew that we were going to have to do something about it if our relationship was really going to go anywhere. So, I arranged with Superman and Green Lantern for a way to get back to Tamaran."

"You went back?"

"Uh-huh. I had to. That's where the problem was. So that's where I had to confront it. And I remembered how I had felt even before I had left Tamaran the last time. I didn't belong there, not really. Not anymore. I love that planet. I love my parents. But it wasn't home for me. I had changed. In a lot of ways, what had happened before wasn't fair to the people, or to me."

"I still don't understand. I thought there wasn't any divorce on Tamaran."

"There isn't. But I had thought of something. I didn't know if it would work. It might not of. And it wasn't something that I really wanted to do. But if it would work, it would have solved my problems. Still, I was only going to use it as a last resort."

"I still don't get it. What were you planning?"

"Well, I originally hoped that I could appeal to Queen… Komand'r…" Dick heard the angry hesitation in the woman's voice. Obviously this Koriand'r and her sister hadn't yet patched up their differences. "There was no point to the treaty with her having rule over the entire planet. But of course, that failed. Then I appealed to my parents and the Council of Elders, but they sided with the Queen. There might not be any functional value to the treaty, but the ceremonial one in the eyes of the people still worked in holding the planet as one. So at that point, I felt for sure that I was going to have to use my
back-up."

"This back-up? Was it really that powerful? We're talking centuries of a civilization's societal development here that you were trying to change. And where was your Dick during all this?"

"Oh, he was with me. When he heard I needed to go back to Tamaran to straighten some stuff out, he had insisted on coming with me. But I hadn't told him what I was planning. I didn't want… I didn't want to raise any false hopes. As for my back-up. Let's just say that it was what lawyers on earth would call a "legal loophole", I think. Others would call it an end-run-around. All I knew was that I was fighting for my freedom. In a way differently than when I was a slave, but still, it was a freedom, a chance to make my own choices for myself."

"Okay, you have got to tell me what this plan was?"

Koriand'r smiled at his curiosity. "Impatient, are you? You're reminding me of Alex when I don't get to the end of the story fast enough for her. It really wasn't all that difficult, though I did need to consult the original treaty to make sure it would work."

"Original treaty? I thought the ceremony was the treaty."

"Well, yes. But there had to be documentation of the various conditions that were going to result from Karras's and my marriage. That's what I needed to find out. And the wording there was quite clear. You see, the treaty was for the marriage of the Royal Princess of Tamarus and the Prince of Kalapatt."

"Yes, you and Karras."

Koriand'r shook her head. "I wasn't Crown Princess any more. When Komand'r ascended, I was out of direct ascension to the throne. And our actual names were not listed in the documents."

"Still, Starfire, they could say that the treaty was made in good faith at the time."

"I know. Still, it was a… 'bargaining chip,' I guessed you'd call it. But that wasn't my final shot anyway. No, I had decided that if worse came to worse that I was going to…"

She paused, hesitantly, as if the memory still bothered her. Dick asked gently, "You were going to what?"

"I was going to renounce all claim to the throne of Tamarus and Tamaran and my title as Princess."

Dick was horrified. "No… You wouldn't. You couldn't. That would be like renouncing everything you had been through for that planet. I can't see your Dick agreeing to you doing anything like that at all. He would rather go on the way that you had been than have you do that. I know that I would feel that way."

"I know. That's why I didn't tell him. Believe me, I didn't want to do it. I felt like I would be ripping part of my body off. But I couldn't see any other means. And it wasn't like I was saying that my family wasn't my family. Just that my title would be gone. I could live with that. And it might have been enough to convince Komand'r, my family and the Council about just how serious I was here."

"Whoa. You said 'might have been enough.' It didn't come to that?"

Another bright smile flashed across Koriand'r's face. "No, it didn't, Thank X'hal." A peal of laughter emerged from her lips with that. "Actually, I should say 'thanks to X'hal'." Taking a deep breath, she clarified, "You see, I was torn about doing this. My birthright was still my birthright to me. A large part of who I am. But I didn't know what else to do. The night before I was going to confront Komand'r and the Council, I went to the Temple of X'hal to pray, to ask for guidance."

"And X'hal actually showed up," Dick figured out.

"Yes. One minute, I'm going over the whole set of pro's and con's in my head, like I had done hundreds of times before. The next, a bright flash of light is filling the temple. It… It was beautiful. It was X'hal."

Dick noted how the tone of Starfire's voice moved into supplication. "She said that she had felt my distress and couldn't not come to seek out why. When I told her what I was planning to do, she was dismayed. But I didn't know any other way around it."

"Then, X'hal decided to take matters into her own hands. Why, I don't know. She did make some vague reference about how all I had suffered for my people and that I shouldn't suffer anything more, but somehow I can't see that being her only motivation. Anything, next thing I knew, there was another burst of light, and everyone involved in the whole sorry situation was there. Komand'r, my parents, Dick, Karras, Taryia, King Tharras, Queen Salja and the entirety of the Council of Elders. I didn't know what to think. But X'hal commanded that I tell them what I had been considering doing. Needless to say, everyone was shocked. As you mentioned, Dick said that he never expected me to do that. Not for him, or for anyone. My parents, Karras's parents, the Council. They were all outraged that I had even considered it. Karras, well, he just seemed sad, yet I think he accepted why I needed to do this, even if he didn't totally understand it. And Komand'r. I had no idea what my sister was thinking. Though she did have to gall to tell X'hal to leave, that this was a Tamaranean matter and none of her concern. I do believe I saw a look of fright on her face when X'hal faced her down on it."

Dick, totally absorbed by the story, almost forgot to keep an eye on the TV monitors. "So…"

"Then the chief of the Council came forward. He put forth all the placating terms to X'hal that was expected, but basically told her the same thing that Komand'r had. That this was a matter of the politics of Tamaran. While X'hal didn't regard him in quite the same manner as she had Komand'r, she did make it quite clear that she was involved. I remember it so clearly. She confronted all of them saying, 'Were or were these two not bound in my temple, under my auspices, in other words, in my name?' When the others confirmed that, yes, that could be considered the case, she then proclaimed, 'Then I have the right to un-bind them as well.' I don't know who was more shocked. I don't know why she put herself out like this, but even Dick now understands my allegiance to her, though I will follow some of his customs here on earth."

"I can't believe it was that simple."

"Well, there was still some unrest, obviously. But she asked Karras what he felt about it. He just reached for Taryia's hand and said that he understood my need to be joined with the person that I loved. And then she asked Dick if this was what he wanted as well." Another smile of pure joy flashed across Koriand'r face at whatever memory this brought forth. "He said that yes, it was what he wanted as well. But then the Council and Komand'r brought up about the fact that it would be breaking the treaty. X'hal questioned whether a replacement treaty, without the marriage contract portion, couldn't be devised, since it obviously worked without Karras and me actually even remotely pretending to be married. But then my parents argued about what this would do to the people's concepts of our society, if such traditions could be so easily broken. Dick pointed out that this wasn't being easily broken. That X'hal herself was getting involved. And then X'hal asked why the people would even have to be told. I think she really surprised everyone with that. But it did make sense. They didn't have to be told. She could break the actual 'bond' between Karras and I, without the people knowing. I think a number of the people in the room found it to be a distasteful concept, but I mentioned that we had kept Komand'r treachery secret all those years. Why couldn't this one be done? So the people still think Karras and I are bonded, though we're not. It makes things interesting the couple of times Dick and I have been back there with the kids since, but it was the best compromise at the time."

Dick was amazed. It all sounded so logical, spelled out like that. "So, X'hal… 'debonded' you."

"Yes, but not right then. No, it was decided that we would do it the next day, at the hour of darkness, when the day ends, as this bond was ending. That also gave Komand'r, the Elders and King Tharras time to come up with a new treaty."

"And after the debonding, you went back to earth."

"Well, not quite. See, I guess X'hal reads me better than I thought. Cause while I wanted to marry Dick in an earth-style wedding, a part of me cherished the idea of also being bonded to him in the Tamaranean method. And X'hal knew this and told Dick about it. So…"

"So you were married on Tamaran, in a Tamaranean wedding."

"Yes. It was at two days after the debonding, at dawn, the hour of possibilities. Only my parents and Ryand'r were there. X'hal even performed the joining. It was… It was amazing. It felt totally different than the bonding I underwent with Karras."

"And you don't know why X'hal did all this for you?"

"No. Like I said, she made some reference to my previous suffering. But before Dick's and my joining, she also mentioned something about how love should rise above everything else. Politics, war, everything. Maybe that played a part. I don't know. And I did have to lose something for taking this route, though not as much as I thought I was going to. For in the new treaty, it was included that while I would retain the title of "Princess", and my children would have royal titles, we were all out of line for succession to the throne. And my children's children would not even have the titles. But considering how much we're even on Tamaran, that seemed a small enough sacrifice."

"But still a sacrifice."

"Yes, but in the end, I got what I set out to do. That's all that's really important in the end, isn't it?" With Dick's hesitant nod, she stopped, as if she was considering something. "But you would already know this, wouldn't you. I mean, something similar must have happened with you and your Kory, as you've said that she did marry your dimension's Karras at one point, and that you were also going to be married."

Dick drew a deep breath with her question. "In my… dimension, things weren't settled quite as satisfactorily."

"I don't understand."

Dick paused a long time before responding. "On Tamaran, there was no divorce. But there was… death."

Koriand'r swung around, such that the side view of her face he had been able to occasionally glance at during the last several minutes became a head-on one. One that was looking at him in horror. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that Kory and I could get married, but only because… because Karras died."

"What? How? No. Wait. Don't answer that. I don't think I want to know."

With that, she turned back to watching the building. A deadened silence hung in the air, even as Dick slowly canvassed the monitors in front of him. Deciding that he better try to bring back the lighten tone they had previously been enjoying, he mentioned, "I take it when you got back here, the big wedding planning started."

Koriand'r didn't respond for a moment. Then, realizing the tack he was taking, answered. "Yes. It was an incredible day. Heck, Bruce even arranged with Clark and others to get my parents here for it. Though I think Mother and Father were a little confused by some of the ceremonies involved, especially during the reception. But I couldn't have ask for the day to go better."

Dick thought about the disaster that had awaited him and Kory on their wedding day. It was sort of nice to know that at least somewhere, that day hadn't turned out so badly.

"There were no problems?"

"Well, there was some media attention that I could have done without. I'm not sure why some people thought it was their business whether Dick and I got married, based on the fact that we're from different planets. Unfortunately, Dick Grayson was the ward of a very well-known millionaire philantrophist and socialite, and Kory Anders had made a name modeling. Still, we had been dating for months, living together for months. Publications like 'People' and 'US' tracked our goings on in society. Why getting married caused the stink that it did I'll never understand. Though it was nothing like when word got out that we were expecting a baby. X'hal, the way some people reacted, you would think the world was going to be destroyed by some god or something in retribution for this 'sin against nature', or whatever term they used."

Dick knew that they were getting to the part of the story that was going to cause this woman pain. He realized that much as he wanted to know what she had meant earlier, he wasn't sure he could put her through reliving this. Trying to keep things on the upside, "Your pregnancy went okay?"

A slightly haunted look swirled deep in the emerald gems of her eyes where they glowed in the darkness of the night. "With Amanda? That one went great. I never felt better in my life. Okay, I could have done without the cravings. Dick really could have done without the cravings. Trying to find an earth substitute for roast skor and iglana fruit was not easy. And the fact that Sarah and the obstetrician she connected me with, Jenn, wanted to have weekly appointments seemed to be going overboard. But physically, I felt great. The only stress was when we came across radio call-in programs or news shows where we heard stuff like how our baby was 'the spawn of the devil', or a 'travesty of nature'. How could anyone see Amanda as a 'travesty'?"

Thinking of the bright, inquisitive child he had met, he had to agree with her mother's assessment. But he also knew how prejudiced some people could be, especially of things that they don't understand.

"No, for the most part, the first few years of our marriage were wonderful. But you might have noticed that there's a few years age discrepancy between Amanda and Michael. More than Mike and Alex?" With Dick's nod, a deep frown scrolled across her face and she paused before she went on, "That's because… well, when Amanda was about 15 months old, we found out I was pregnant again. This one went totally different though. I was sick all the time. No energy, no appetite. Constantly feeling like I was fighting to just exist. We didn't know what was going on, and the tests that Sarah and Jenn thought it would be okay to run on me didn't show anything definite. But the baby seemed to be doing okay, so I just gritted my teeth and went on. And I did start feeling better occasionally as the pregnancy progressed."

She again paused, and Dick looked up to see a gleam of wetness coat the deep green of her eyes. "Then, on one of my good days, when I was just over 6 months pregnant, I went out to do some shopping for Amanda. But while I was at the mall, a gunman tried to hold up a store. He was holding the employees and other customers hostage, and had already shot a woman." She again paused, drawing in a deep breath before exhaling it slowly. "I couldn't not help… I just couldn't. Not when those people's lives were at stake. But…"

A single tear worked it's way from behind her eyes and slowly tracked down her cheek. "I didn't know what to do. I had to help. But I still wasn't 100%, and when I went in, even as I managed to take the robber down with a bolt, he got a shot off that struck me in the shoulder."

Dick looked at her, both worried and confused. "I don't understand. Yes, it would have hurt like hell, but how did that cause you to lose your baby."

"Shock. At least, partially that. Sarah and Jenn explained it to me and Dick later. You see, Terrans and Tamaraneans are compatible genetically, up to a certain point. With the right combination of genes, we can conceive. But the wrong combination won't take at all. They told me that I might have been pregnant several other times, but the genetics of the… zygote, I think the term is, just wouldn't allow for it to be viable. From what I understand, some mis-matches of genes between myself and the baby would cause absolutely no problems for the baby. But other ones would just not allow for the baby to live. And then they explained that some cases would be very borderline. The genetic make-up of the baby would be compatible enough with mine to allow survival… maybe, but just compatible."

"And that was the case here?"

"Yes. After the baby… after Johnny was born and… died, they did some genetic analysis. I don't know all the scientific details, but it basically came down to that his basic genetic make-up was just different enough from mine that up until that point, it had been a very careful balance that I had been able to carry him at all. The hormones that usually protect a mother's body from rejecting a fetus were in constant battle with the ones that wanted to get rid of an object viewed as "foreign" to the body. It's why my pregnancy had been such a problem up until that point. But with that gun-shot, my all ready stressed system went into over-protective mode… And it caused rejection of anything not vital to my survival…"

"Including your baby."

Koriand'r slowly nodded in the affirmative. "I went into labor that night. They tried to stop it, but none of the methods they used worked. He was born early the next morning." A few more fresh tears silently glided down her cheeks. "He was so beautiful. But so tiny. They tried to save him, but… He died two days later", she ended with a note of finality.

Her pain cut through him like a knife. He wanted to go and take her in his arms, the way that he would have with his Kory, but knew that he didn't have the right to do so. "Starfire… I'm sorry. I don't know what to say…"

"There's nothing to say. He died, and it was my fault." Anger entered the woman's voice again, mingling with all the other emotions, but Dick knew that this anger was directed at herself, not him, whether it was deserved or not.

"It wasn't your fault."

"Yes, it was. He died because I went to stop that robbery. If I hadn't placed myself in that situation in the first place, I wouldn't have been shot."

"But you said that the genetics weren't perfect. Who knows…"

"That's what Sarah and Jenn tried to convince me of. That Johnny might not have lived anyway. But I knew… I knew better. I'd felt him move inside me. He would have lived if I had taken better care. If the pregnancy had gone to term. I know it."

Dick tried to think of a way to argue the point. But he could tell by the set of her face that he wouldn't change her mind.

"So that's the kind of pain I've had to deal with. My child is dead, and it's my fault. Tell me that you've had to deal with anything like that. Tell me!"

"Starfire… Koriand'r. Please, don't do this. You were trying to save people's lives. That's one of the noblest things that anyone can do."

Koriand'r shrugged abruptly. "Yes, I was… and I paid for it. Seems like I always have to pay for doing what's considered the 'right' thing for other people." She wearily lifted a hand to swipe across her forehead. "Sorry, that's unfair. It was my choice. But X'hal, I hurt so much afterwards. And Dick… He was so understanding about the whole thing, but I knew that he was hurting every bit as much as me. We tried to talk it all out, so many times. If we hadn't had Amanda to also concentrate on at that point…"

"I was just so mad at the world, at everything. I wanted to lash out at someone and there was no one to lash out at. No one but myself. I got… I got a little destructive at that time. Oh, Dick and Amanda… Those two I watched like a hawk. No one was going to take them away from me. But others…"

"How did you end up… coping?"

Koriand'r sent a rather ironic-looking smile over to him, even as tears still occasionally tracked down her face. "Would you believe Bruce of all people made me realize what I was doing?"

"Bruce?!?"

Starfire hugged herself again at that point. "I don't know all the details. I don't even know if I should be saying anything about this to you. But some time after we'd lost Johnny, and I was still trying to get past my grief to cope with what had happened, to build anything resembling a normal life around us again, though my attempts were doing more harm than good, Bruce had us come down to the Manor. He said that he was worried about both of us. That's when he told both me and Dick that at some point in his past, he had also found out that he was going to be a father."

Dick's mouth dropped open in shock at that statement. "Ohmigod?!? Who…?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure even Dick knows, though Bruce might have told him later. I knew that when he first told us about it, Dick was as amazed as I was. I get the feeling that he hasn't told very many people about it. That's why I'm not sure I should even be telling you this. But he seemed to feel that he had to tell us, if only to try and stop the path that I was taking us all down. To make me see that things happen that I, or any one, can't have control over, much as we want to always be in control. If anyone knows about wanting to be in control, it's Bruce. Anyway, he didn't go into all the details, but he did tell us that the woman lost the baby, and for a while, he blamed himself. That she had lost it due to being in the middle of a battle. One that he himself had been part of. He felt that he hadn't protected her enough, that if he had made sure she stayed out of it… that she was taken care of, it wouldn't have happened."

Dick shook his head in even more amazement. To think… "He must have been devastated."

"Yes… I think he was. Especially since I'd seen how he had reacted to Amanda from the time she had been born. It was almost like he was taking it upon himself to make sure that nothing ever happens to her. Early on, I didn't understand that, considering what I thought of his emotional state, but when I heard his story, I started to. Still, I was… I couldn't get past the idea that it wasn't my fault. It took me, with a lot of help from Dick, who was still dealing with his own grief, as well as the others to at least accept it. It took a long time, but I was just about back to as normal to what I was ever going to be following that. And we were really happy again for a year or so. Then we nearly lost Amanda."

"You almost lost Amanda?"

The sorrow that had etched lines into Koriand'r face was replaced by an anger that Dick knew he would never want to be on the opposing end of. "She was 4 and a bit. We had put her into a junior kindergarten to try and get her socializing with kids outside our own group, to have her experience different types of people. As well, I was pregnant with Mike. We hadn't been sure what to think when I got pregnant again… Not after what had happened with Johnny. But my pregnancy had started out as smoothly as the one with Amanda had. I wasn't sick, or anything, so after a few months, we were allowing ourselves to be hopeful about this one. I still had to go for weekly check-ups though. And Jenn insisted that I not do anything that could remotely jeopardize this one. So no flying, no starbolts. Some basic exercise, but that was it. Nothing that could even remotely be considered stressful. Dick backed her up on that completely. Not that I was going to do anything else. Much as I hated not being able to fly, there was no way I was taking any chances with that baby."

"Anyway, by the time I was about 7 months along, we had been taking Amanda to JK for about 5 months. There had again been some media attention when the news got a hold of the fact that she was attending school. While there hadn't been the media frenzy that had occurred at the time of her birth, there had still an occasional report about her, with various groups going on about whether she even had the right to exist. I would get so mad…" Koriand'r fists clenched as she paused, trying to maintain control, "… but those were nothing like when they found out she was in school. There were people saying that she shouldn't be allowed to interact with 'real people' and everything. It was just so stupid."

"People can be stupid. We both know that, Starfire. Some people just don't like things they don't understand."

"What's to understand? She's a little girl. The fact that they can't deal with the fact that there are other intelligent beings out there besides earthlings is their problem, not hers. But at least it was only talk, or so we thought. What we didn't know was that there were groups out there who were more concerned to be doing something besides just talking about it."

"Someone did something to her."

"They took her. Took her to do X'hal knows what with."

Dick finally got to his feet from in front of the monitors and went to put a comforting hand on the woman's shoulders. "Hey, it's okay. You got her back."

"I know… I know… But when I think what could have happened…"

"Tell me"

Koriand'r started shaking her head. "It was so insane. I don't even know how the group even formed, there were so many diverse philosophies involved. There were people who wanted to get back at super-heroes, and since I was one of the ones with a known identity… Then there were the scientists who wanted to… conduct 'tests' on her… Figure out her physiology and how a human/alien hybrid worked." A vile distaste colored Starfire's words. Given her history, Dick fully understood it. "And there were even people involved who wanted to get back at Bruce Wayne, for whatever reason. But the majority were ones that felt that Amanda was an 'abomination', that should be 'eliminated' to prove that such things were not to be allowed in society."

Dick could only shake his head in disgust. Some people's prejudices were just so insane. "I take it that they grabbed her from her school."

"Yes, at recess one day. She didn't have full command of her starbolts yet, so her line of defense there was weak. She later told us that she tried flying, but they had somehow accounted for that possibility as well. The school called us as soon as it happened, but by the time we got there, she was gone…"

"And you…"

"And I went insane. So did Dick, but in a different way. After everything, if we had really lost Amanda then… Anyway, he immediately got a hold of Bruce and the other Titans. Bruce got all the JLA involved. I vaguely remember someone at one point making the observation that these people were obviously completely out of their minds, if they thought they weren't going to have to go up against our teams."

"That's true. They really weren't thinking."

"Well, yes and no. They might have thought they would have to go up against the Titans, given my ties to that group. But they wouldn't have known about Dick and Bruce's ties to the super-hero community. Their identities aren't known. You have to wonder if they would have been as willing to kidnap her if they knew she was the former Robin's daughter, and Batman's grand-daughter, as opposed to being Dick Grayson's and Bruce Wayne's. Still, it was all still so sick."

"Yes, it obviously was."

"So they didn't know just who they were going up against. I don't think I've ever seen either Dick or Bruce go into overdrive the way they did then. They were like mad-men. Of course, I was going nuts as well, but they refused to let me help, what with Jenn's instructions about not pushing our luck with the pregnancy. In fact, Dick made Alfred and Donna watch me to make sure that I didn't do anything. But they went full-out, 24 hours a day, until we got her back."

"Which took?"

"Five days. Five of the worst days of my entire life." Starfire's voice shook with her memories. "I was ready to throw Donna out of the way at that point and just go find my baby, even though I knew Dick and the others were doing everything they could. But these… animals… were good. They seemed to have planned for most contingencies. I don't know how, but they even managed to block Raven's powers for locating her."

"So how did they find her?"

"Dick and Bruce did it. With all the various super-powers in the world, it came down to those two applying every detective skill they possessed. Bruce especially. Even though he would rarely admit it, I know Dick's thought processes were being hampered by his own worry about her, as well as his worries about me. Bruce managed to keep those issues separate, I suppose. I think that's when I really realized that the front he sometimes puts up with people he's not quite sure he trusts yet, that of being cold and emotionless, is just that. A front. Because after Dick called me from Star Labs, where he and Bruce had taken Amanda after they had been able to rescue her with the help of the others, I think I saw the real Bruce, the deep down inside person, for the first time. He loves my little girl, just as much as he loves Dick, and later, our other kids."

"How did…"

"How did I come to that realization. When they found her… X'hal, even thinking about it hurts… You wouldn't know it now by watching her, but they had basically tortured her. A four-year-old girl! She was beaten and bruised and bloody. She still won't talk about that time at all." Dick realized that this must be the event the girl had avoided talking about when they had had their conversation earlier. "A child psychiatrist we consulted said that she will have to eventually, but to let her distance herself from it for a while. When they did the examination of her at Star Labs, we found out that they had done micro-surgery on her and taken small vivisections of some of her organs. They had dehydrated her and starved her. I later found out that the others were pretty sure that they hadn't once fed her or even given her water while they had had her. Sarah and the other doctors weren't even sure if she was going to make it. But my daughter's a fighter. I knew that. And there was no way any of us were going to allow her to die. Luckily though, Raven performed a miracle for us, even if Amanda had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks afterwards.."

"But how did Bruce…"

"You should have seen him… Him and Dick. There was no way that she wasn't going to get the best care imaginable. But then Dick also told me that Batman had been the one to find her in the gang's headquarters when they got there. By the time Dick had gotten to the room where they had held her, Bruce had beaten every one of the gang present into near unconsciousness. And he had removed Amanda from the… apparatus they had put her in. Dick said that Bruce was crooning to her, telling her that everything was going to be all right. That Grandpa was going to make sure that nothing like this ever happened to her again." Koriand'r's eyes again welled with tears. "I then saw how he treated her at the hospital. I might have thought a lot of dreadful things about Bruce in the past, but after that… Well, let's just say that my perceptions changed."

Dick acknowledged her statement for what it was. It had been obvious to him earlier that this Bruce's and Koriand'r's relationship had to be very different from the one he had experienced. Hearing her story just helped him to make sense as to why it had changed, and for the better.

Koriand'r was still talking however. "So, to get back to the point of telling you all this, you have to see why I just can't stand by and hear you go on about how we never knew pain. Not like you have. Maybe… maybe if some of the things that happened to us had happened at different points in time… No, I can't believe that. I'm sorry. I know what my Dick and I have, even if we had to fight to keep it at times. I just can't believe that you would let that slip through your fingers so easily. I just can't!"

Dick thought about trying to explain again, but he somehow knew that he wasn't going to be able to convince her. But it was also obvious after hearing this story that there were differences between this earth's Dick and Kory from what he and his Kory had had. Different pressures, different events to deal with. He had to know that's what caused the two worlds' situations to work out differently. He had to tell himself that. He just had to.

Several minutes passed as he absorbed what she had told him. A quiet fell between them, though not the same expectant one from when they had first set up camp. This one was due more to emotional exhaustion. What they had both revealed had taken a lot out of each of them. He was about to speak again, when Kory raised her hand. She was intently staring at their target building. "Nightwing, do you see anything on Monitor… 6, I think?"

Dick shifted his eyes from Monitor 3, the camera view of the front entrance to the building, which he had been concentrating on for the most part, to Monitor 6, from which a side alley and small vent entrance could be seen. For a few seconds, he didn't notice anything. Even Starfire looked like she was beginning to doubt she had seen anything. But as Dick watched, small shadows separated from larger ones. They were there one minute, and gone the next.

"You're right. Something's up. Let's go."

"How do you want to deal with it."

"Let me go in first. Get a good scan of the place and who's doing what. I'll then signal you."

"Fine."

Dick made to quickly lower himself from their hidden rooftop location by throwing out a line. Just as he was about to leap off the edge, he heard Starfire whisper back, "Be careful… Nightwing."

"You too. I won't be long."

"I know."

With a quick nod, Dick launched himself off the edge of the building. While he had been putting up the bat-cams earlier, he had made a quick note of a number of the entrances he could possibly use to get into the laboratory/warehouse. The quickest one seemed to be large sky-light that looked directly down into the main room of the building. But Dick avoided it using it as an entrance. It may be the quickest, but it was also the easiest one for anyone inside the room to see him come in by. Peering down through it, he made out about 5-7 shadows moving across the dimly lit floor. So he made for a ventilation conduit that, from the blueprints for the building, he knew led into the actual lab.

Quickly peeling off the outside mesh of the conduit, he pulled his body into it. It was a tight squeeze, and he knew he would have to wiggle 20 or so feet until he reached the lab, but his own natural flexibility allowed him to get to the inner covering vent in a matter of minutes. Peering though the vent, he noted only two darkly covered men in the room, who were intently looking through files from a filing cabinet and talking to each other on the far side of the room.

He debated with himself for a few seconds. What would be the best approach to take here. He would shove out the vent and jump the two, but that would take several seconds. Seconds with which they could alert any others in the building. He could toss a few smoke and gas pellets in and hope they would work quickly enough to incapacitate them before they realized what was happening. He could try to carefully and quietly get the vent cover off and get down, though it would mean taking longer and praying they were so engrossed by what they were doing as to not notice him. Or he could back out and find another way in.

Going over the options, he realized that the last was the safest. He didn't know just how many of them there were. Then he remembered from the blueprints that there was a slightly smaller tunnel coming off the conduit about 10 feet back. Backtracking quickly, he found it, though it had a layer of mesh covering it's opening onto the main conduit. Hoping it would lead to a room with a better opportunity for entrance, Nightwing shoved his body into it. But it was an even tighter fit, and he could only inch his way along slowly. Still, when he reached the end of it, and looked through the vent into the small room it opened onto, he breathed a sigh of relief. A smaller room, obviously used for the storage of some of the chemicals being worked with here, it was empty. He quickly opened the vent and lowered himself down, keeping an eye out for security cameras and motion detectors. He knew from the notes that he had perused earlier that the lab was equipped with such devices, though there didn't appear to be any located in this room. And he wondered why none of the security systems had become activated when the others had entered the building.

Silently slipping out of the vent and across the room, he eased open the door a crack. The room where the other men were was just next door. At the end of the short hall, before entering the main room where the chemicals were manufactured, he saw three others. Listening intently, he could hear several voices coming from the large room. Knowing that he needed to be able to hear what was being said, he scoured the hall for a hiding spot closer to the entrance to the larger room. Luckily, just a few minutes later, the two of the three men were called into the room. Dick quietly crept up behind the third and broke a gas pellet under his nose. The man fell quickly, with Nightwing catching him before he hit the floor to prevent any sound reaching into the other room. He then quickly carried the man back to the room he himself had just been in, stuck him inside and locked the door.

Returning to peer around the door to the large room, he noted all the various large vats placed methodically across the floor. As well, walls of bottles circled the room, and large catwalks criss-crossed above his head. Barrels of substances were being filled and moved by about 15 men, Dick counted. Dick decided to head up to one of the catwalks, above all the action. Using the shadows provided by the vats, he was able to flip up to one of the lower ones with no problem at all. Looking down, he tried to ascertain just what was going on here.

In the center of all this stood a slightly stooped older man, bald, wearing thick glasses with black rims and a white lab coat, directing all the actions. Beside him, a slightly younger replica of himself, with hair, stood waiting, listening to what the older man was saying, in his high, squeaky, whiny voice.

"See, Junior, my formula for passing through solid-matter works as well on this earth as it does on our own. And those devices I created to undermine this place's security haven't had one problem. I am such a genius."

"Of course you are, Father. The smartest man in the world." At a look from his father, the young man amended, "… on all worlds."

"That I am. And best of all, we don't have to worry about that stupid Big Red Cheese showing up. It was a red-letter day when that voice contacted me and set me up with the others. We will take over these worlds, and when we're done, I will make myself head of all of them."

"Of course, Father. Who better to lead."

At that moment, one of the "workers" stepped in front of the duo. "Hey, Doc… We got the chemicals all loaded. Where do we go from here?"

"It's Doctor Sivana, you fool, not 'Doc'. Never forget that."

"Yeah, yeah, all right. Sheesh, talk about touchy. So what now?"

"What we planned, you imbecile. Contact the others and have them pull the vehicles up. I'll make use of my formula to allow us to transport the containers outside."

Dick knew that it was now time to contact his own back-up. Reaching for his communicator, he remembered the device that Batman had given him earlier. Palming that, he made a connection with Starfire, speaking quickly and quietly.

"I was getting worried."

"Sorry. Contact the others. Scoop is 15-20 men. Has some way of passing through matter, so that they don't need to break in physically. I need you to create a diversion, so I can take out the one or two that apparently know this means of transport. Burst in through the large sky-light, using bolts pointing directly down, but make sure you don't aim at any of the vats off to the left and right. We don't know what each contains. Do that in precisely… 45 seconds."

"Got it. Contact others for help. Be there in 42 seconds."

Dick ticked off the seconds silently. The men were slowly moving the barrels over to one wall. With 3 seconds to spare, he got into a position to leap down on the duo before him. At the precise second, a loud "Skee" filled the room at the same time a blast of light and heat did. Dick didn't look up, but he knew that the sight would have been amazing -- Starfire bursting in, hands literally bursting with energy, a fierce gleam in her eyes, with her flight trail providing a graceful arc for the eye to follow her path by.

But Dick concentrated on leaping upon the two men beneath them. Landing solidly on them, he quickly rose, only to look down to see that they already appeared to be unconscious at his feet. "Must have hit their heads on the floor", he decided as he quickly bent to check their pulses.

"Nightwing, your back."

In his crouch position, Nightwing quickly swung one leg out and around, knocking the feet out from the man that had been coming up behind him. Flipping over several time, he regained his feet, to see Starfire protecting herself from several guns that were being fired in her direction, swooping and dodging, even as she fired what appeared to be obviously weaker bolts at the men. She was definitely only trying to stop them, not kill them. But she couldn't handle all of them, he knew, unless she used a stronger one. One whose energy might be enough to affect the various chemicals surrounding them. They couldn't chance that.

He entered the fray then, using his acrobatics and his sticks to take down some of the men. Starfire handled the others, as they each spent time warning the other of the ones around them. A few times, Starfire seemed to automatically know when to pick him up and then let him go, watching him fall within the gang to take down a few more of the men with his flying kicks and round-house punches.

At one point, he took down one man with a flip twist and a swing of his sticks. Starfire, still firing, shot back, "Nice move. Don't remember ever seen my Dick use that one." But then, her Nightwing didn't use the sticks, did he?

As he laid into the goons, Dick felt an exhilaration growing within him. This was what he had needed, a chance to just let off steam, to work loose physically the anxiety that had been plaguing him. While the conversation… no, confrontation with Koriand'r had wiped him out emotionally, this physical action was bringing his spirits back up.

Still, it was also strange. Working alongside Starfire again. It felt like old times, Dick realized. Working as a team, a pair, each knowing when the other needed assistance and what to provide. He was surprised at how easily it felt to slip back into that role. He even realized that he had missed it. Missed it a lot. It felt good… and maybe even right… but weird, all at the same time.

Just as it seemed that they were about to put an end to the whole thing, which had taken all of 10 minutes he realized, that same thin whiny voice arose above the fracas.

"Hold it right there, do-gooders. Don't know how you found us, but you're not stopping us."

Dick turned to see the smaller man standing again, leaning on his son, who was directing a nasty looking weapon in his direction. He made to leap at the two of them, just as the younger man fired, and he felt Starfire swooping in.

"Nightwing… No!"

And then all hell broke loose.


To be continued.

 
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