Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Through The Looking Glass

by Syl Francis

Acknowledgement: Quotations borrowed from Lewis Carroll's, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

The nightmare haunted his dreams. No matter how hard he tried to shake it, to will it to go away, it stayed. Chipping away at his defenses, clawing at his psyche, tearing at his most inner self.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" he muttered, repeating it over and over restively, shaking his head in confusion. "Not real…no sense."

His restless tossing stilled momentarily. A few minutes later he began to mumble, a distortion of a childhood refrain: "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you're at!"

He turned on his stomach and settled down once more. The next moment, the same nebulous, false images began to invade the darkest recesses of his mind.

"No!" he cried out loud. "Not true…! I know who I was when I got up this morning…! I must have been changed since then." He was now speaking in rapidly staccato and panicked notes.

"Got to wake up!" he insisted. "Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?" He couldn't open his eyes. Why couldn't he open his eyes? "Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance," he mumbled helplessly. "Stop it! You've got to wake up," he urged. "You've-got-to-WAKE UP!"

Dick sat up in bed, drenched to the skin. His heart thumped in his chest, his breathing ragged. Taking deep, harsh gulps of air, he brought his shaky hands up to his face, rubbing his eyes, trying to get himself under control.

Feeling slightly better, he threw off the covers and made his way to the bathroom. Leaving the lights off, Dick turned on the cold-water tap and held his still trembling hands under the water, quickly splashing his face.

Eyes closed, Dick breathed in deeply, feeling somewhat recovered.

He thought back to the nightmares that had troubled his sleep during the night, but couldn't recall any. Just a sense that there was something so wrong, so--

Dick stopped. A feeling of unease began to spread deep inside him. The same black foreboding that had plagued his dreams.

"Take it easy, Grayson," he muttered. "There's no such thing as a bogeyman." He sighed. He glanced over his shoulder at the glowing bedside clock--10:06. He blinked, squinted his eyes and looked again--3:15.

"Funny," he mumbled. "Could've sworn--" He leaned against the door jam, gazing tiredly at his rumpled bed. "I guess there's little chance of going back to sleep. Might as well get something done," he said deciding to go out on a late night patrol. Shrugging, he flipped on the bathroom light and was met by the face of his nightmare!


Dick took the deserted roads at incredible speeds, at times pushing the motorcycle to over 140mph. He didn't care. He had to see Bruce. Bruce would help him. Bruce would fix it.

Dick thought of the countless times in his life that he'd turned to his mentor, his 'father,' when he had no one else in whom to turn. Oh, he had the Titans--fiercely loyal friends who'd follow him into Hell if he asked them.

And he had Oracle, in whom he'd willingly lose himself if she so much as hinted 'yes.' In fact, she was the first person he'd thought to call for help. He'd been on the verge of contacting her, when something stopped him. Suddenly, he didn't want Oracle to see him this way.

No, for this, Dick needed his family.

"Only Bruce," he muttered. "No one else!" Taking the hairpin turns that led to the Batcave's secret entrance, he amended his words. "Except, maybe, Alfred." He paused. "And Leslie," he added. He felt suddenly vulnerable. Leslie would also have to know.

The unyielding cliff face loomed before him, an ominous shadow in the night. Tensing himself, he gunned the motorcycle and aimed directly for it, his heart rate jumping like always. As he approached it, the hologram projecting the cliff face dissolved, morphing into the well-worn path that led deeper into the Batcave.

As he zoomed through the dark tunnels leading home, Dick felt that heart-thumping panic start growing within his soul again. How would he face Bruce? How would he tell him? More importantly, how would Bruce react? Would he even believe him?

"He has to," Dick muttered. "He will!"

Dick knew that every monitoring device installed in the Cave was already tracking him. The fact that no defensive weapons had been activated told him that the Cave's occupant knew who was invading his secret headquarters.

Seeing the lights up ahead, Dick willed his breathing and heart rate to slow down. Soon, he entered the Batcave's living/work area and saw the grim figure up ahead. Waiting for him. Dick slowly maneuvered the motorcycle up to its parking berth, never taking his eyes off of Batman.

Finally, bringing his bike to a complete stop, he waited a moment, watching Batman for any reaction. There! Dick gulped, astonished by how quickly Batman 'made' him. There was no helping it now.

Here goes nothing, he thought grimly. Dismounting, he stood slowly so as not to provoke an attack from his mentor. Raising his hands to his helmet, Dick deliberately removed it.


The alert went off. Not a raucous alarm warning of an intruder in his inner sanctum, but rather a subtle red light blinking on his security console. Eyes narrowing, Batman quickly activated the close circuit television cameras that lined the pathways leading to the Batcave.

His monitors quickly showed the 'intruder.' The shadow of a half-smile tugged at the corner of the Dark Knight's normally grim mouth. Not an intruder, but a welcome visitor. Abruptly, the smile left him.

Why would Dick be coming here so late--or early depending on one's point of view? And why hadn't he called ahead?

"Something must be wrong," he said, making his way down to the vehicle hangar. As the motorcycle entered the living area of the Batcave, Batman saw it slow down, until it came to a hesitant stop.

Batman waited, his sharp eyes assessing his young visitor. There was something 'different' about Dick, he noted immediately. His clothes for one thing were much too large on him, as if he'd lost more than a hundred pounds overnight. Dick's height--his overall size, in fact, was all wrong! Instantly, he knew. This wasn't Dick! This was--

The visitor removed all doubt from his mind at the next moment. Dismounting cautiously, 'he' removed the protective helmet, and revealed not Dick but a stranger--a girl.


"Hi, Bruce," Dick said, not really knowing what else to say. He felt the blood rush to his face. The voice that spoke wasn't his--it was much higher and softer. Without being conscious of doing it, he analyzed it: More feminine. Not musical, like Donna's, or sweet, like Barbara's. A little husky, almost a contralto, but a girl's voice nonetheless.

Batman wasn't saying anything. In fact, he wasn't doing much of anything. Just standing there.

Oh, boy! Dick knew he was in trouble--not to mention danger. He only had about twenty seconds left before the hammer fell.

"Bruce, I can't explain it! I woke up a while ago from the world's worst nightmare, and there I was--there she was--staring at me in the mirror. But it's me! I'm Dick! Please, you're the only one who can help me."

Dick stopped, embarrassed. He felt on the verge of tears. What was the matter with him?

You're a girl! That's what's the matter with you, you moron!

"Bruce--?"

"I don't know who you are, or how you found your way in here. Nor do I know how you managed to acquire that motorcycle, or--" Batman paused, his entire being exuding peril for the petite girl standing before him. "--or how you got that jacket." He indicated the well-worn, too-large Gotham Knights jacket that was as much a part of Dick Grayson as the escrima sticks were a part of Nightwing.

"But I promise you, before I'm done, you'll tell me everything. And you'll also tell me what happened to the owner of those items."

Dick struggled with fear and laughter. Finally, his quirky sense of humor won out and he let out a short, shaky laugh. He cut it short, when he noticed that it sounded more like a girl's high-pitched, nervous giggle.

He noticed Batman's expression. Dick knew Bruce well enough to realize that under his cowl he was probably raising a single eyebrow at his visitor's inappropriate response.

Dick covered his mouth. "Sorry," he said shrugging. "But, come on, Bruce…try those grim tactics on someone who'll swallow them. As for me--!"

Batman grabbed him by the collar and lifted him off the ground, as easily as if he were a mere child. Dick couldn't believe it. To make matters worse, his air supply was now cut off.

Dick found himself choking on his words and struggling for air.

"Bruce--" he gasped. "You're--choking--me!"

Batman released him suddenly, letting him fall to the floor in a heap. Dick gasped for air, beginning to feel just a little peeved. At himself for not anticipating that Bruce would be harder to convince, and at Bruce for not recognizing him!

The next thing he knew, Dick was being hauled to his feet by the scruff of his neck. To add to his humiliation, both of his wrists were firmly secured behind his back, held in place by only one of Batman's hands.

"Okay! Now I'm mad," Dick muttered.

Flexing his arms, Dick freed his hands catching Batman by surprise. Next, he squirmed out of his mentor's grip and, before Batman could react, flipped him head over heels. Batman landed on his backside, but in an eyeblink regained his feet, assuming a defensive stance.

"Bruce, you're going to listen to me if I have to beat some sense into that thick skull of yours," Dick said between clenched teeth. "Now look at me! It's me! Dick!"

As he spoke, Dick and Batman circled each other cautiously. Both alert to any opening the other might give.

"Okay, maybe I'm not exactly myself at the moment," Dick admitted. "But I'm still me." Dick felt his heart being torn in two. If he couldn't make Bruce believe him, then--No! He had to make his father believe him.

Batman made his move. Instinctively, Dick leaped and somersaulted over the Dark Knight's head, landing behind him. In a flash, he tore off the Gotham Knights jacket and kicked off his too-huge boots. He'd hitched his pants several times in order to keep them up, but they were beginning to slip off his (embarrassingly) shapely hips.

Okay, no time for modesty, he thought grimly. Batman was already circling again. He'd soon attack a second time. Dick fell backwards and rolled several times. As he did so, he easily slipped out of his pants and tossed them aside. In a single motion, he returned to his feet, facing the Dark Knight in nothing more than a dark, baggy T-shirt and his Batman boxer shorts.

Thankfully, the T-shirt fell to just above his knees.

He noted that he'd taken Batman slightly aback by his impromptu striptease. He flashed Batman his patented daredevil grin and shrugged.

"I guess I lost a little weight last night," he said.

"Do you insist on continuing with this ridiculous charade?" Batman demanded.

"Bruce, I know I'm asking you to take a lot on faith," Dick said. "But can't you at least listen? I swear that if you still don't believe me, then I'll accept whatever fate you choose. Please, Bruce--I'm asking for your help. I need you, Bruce. I've never stopped needing you. Not since that day my parents fell off the trapeze and you held your hand out me."

Dick dropped his defensive stance and stood straight, holding out his hand, pleading. "Please…I need you to listen."

Batman stared at the petite, dark-haired girl a moment longer, taking in her dark blue eyes and tanned complexion. He recalled her amazing athletic moves of just moments before. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that Dick's sister was standing in front of him. What if--?

But, no! That was impossible. Wasn't it? In spite of himself, Batman hesitated. Finally, he nodded.

"All right," he said. "I'll listen. Start talking!"


"So far you haven't said anything that convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt," Batman growled. 'Dick' looked up at him with wide, hurt eyes. Again, Batman found himself hesitating. "But there may be a way to prove your story," he added reluctantly, surprising both himself and the waif-like girl sitting in front of him.

"How?" she asked.

"DNA," Batman said succinctly. "If you are Dick Grayson, then your DNA signature should prove it."

"But it'll only show that I'm a girl," 'Dick' protested. "How will it prove that I'm me?"

"You said you wanted my help," Batman replied. "This is it."

His bearing appeared aloof as he closely studied the girl's reactions. Her lovely, oval face reflected her emotional turmoil: Expressive, dark blue eyes instantly flashed hope, despair, resignation, and then hope again.

Batman noted how a stubborn lock of hair kept falling over her eyes, refusing to obey her impatient gestures to push it back. He felt his throat catch. How often had he seen Dick perform that exact mannerism?

The Batcave's indeterminate lighting threw odd shadows and angles at the girl's delicate features. While she sat facing away from him, her soft curves blurred momentarily, and for a fleeting moment Batman saw a familiar boy of thirteen stubbornly jutting his chin out, disappointed yet again that he wouldn't be allowed to join him on that night's patrol.

Batman clenched his fist. No! This was impossible, and he was going to prove it. What's more, once he proved that she was an imposter, he'd force her to tell him what happened to Dick.

A throat being cleared tactfully from behind caused the both of them to turn. Hiding in the gloom afforded by the shadows, Dick watched nervously as Alfred made his way silently across the Cave carrying a breakfast tray.

"I'm quite sorry, sir," Alfred said. "I didn't know Master Dick was here. Would you care for any breakfast, young sir?"

"Sure, Alf," Dick said without thinking. "How about some of your chocolate chip pancakes?"

Alfred turned slowly and stared at Dick. "Master Dick?" He blinked and shook his head. "I beg your pardon, Miss--? My word! If I didn't know better, I'd swear that you--" He stopped, and glanced apologetically at Batman.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said quietly. "I shouldn't have interrupted." The usually urbane butler stared long and hard at the petite brunette, still not quite believing what he saw, or thought he saw. Then, without another word, he turned to go.

"No! Stay, Alfred," Batman said. "This concerns you, too." He indicated the young girl sitting huddled on one of the padded chairs.. She was wrapped up in the familiar, well-worn Gotham Knights jacket. Batman clinically noted that Alfred immediately recognized the leather jacket, but didn't volunteer any further information, instead preferring that Alfred draw his own conclusions.

The girl stared at Alfred with those expressively wide blue eyes, which at this moment were peeking out from behind a curtain of raven-black bangs. She nervously pushed the forelock out of her eyes, but it fell back of its own accord. Finally, she offered a weak, embarrassed grin.

"Hi, Alfred," she said, attempting to keep her voice light. "I guess I'm not exactly myself today, am I?" Unable to keep up her brave front, her face suddenly scrunched, looking stricken. Ashamed, she covered her eyes, quickly wiping. "But, as they say--" She managed to get out. "--I-I'll be getting better soon."

"Master Bruce, is this--?" Alfred began, not taking his eyes off the young woman. Swallowing several times, he tried again. "Sir, is this Master Dick?"

At his question, the dark head rose slowly, a tremulous smile transforming her lost-little girl features to one of a stunningly beautiful young woman.

"Alfred? You recognize me?" she asked, hope dawning on her lovely face. It was quickly dashed by Batman's next words.

"No. He doesn't," Batman answered harshly. He turned to the girl and using minimal gestures pointed her towards the forensics lab. "Let's go," he said. "Alfred, contact Leslie. We may need her medical expertise."

"Yes, sir," Alfred said dazedly. "Excuse me, sir, but should we contact Ms. Oracle? I'm certain that--"

"No!" Alfred and Batman whirled around. The petite brunette, looking lost in Dick's Gotham Knights jacket, came stomping back to them. "No! You're not calling Oracle. I won't let her see me like this! Not now--not ever!"

"But--" Alfred began.

"No 'buts'! If you call Oracle this whole deal's off. I'll leave now and you'll never hear from me again. You get it? No Oracle! Under any circumstances!"

Batman and Alfred exchanged neutral glances. Finally, Batman turned to his uninvited guest and nodded.

"It's your choice," he said. "For the moment, at least." Without further comment, he led his female visitor to the lab.


Dick watched Bruce pace in front of him. Once the Dark Knight studied the irrefutable results of the DNA tests, he'd removed his cowl and changed into a pair of sweats.

"It's medically and scientifically impossible!" Bruce muttered. "A person's DNA cannot be affected by a sex change. If you were Dick Grayson somewhat surgically altered to resemble a woman, your DNA results should unequivocally show that you were a male who outwardly looked female. But--"

"But the results show unequivocally that I'm female," Dick finished, looking crestfallen.

"Yes," Bruce finally looking Dick directly in the eyes. "According to the tests, whatever has been done to you is at the genetic level--not to mention the sub-atomic level. You are a female, but--" He paused and took a step forward, tentatively pushing that stubborn lock of hair out of Dick's eyes. "--but you are just as unequivocally Dick Grayson. Or, at least, if Dick Grayson had been born a girl, he would have been you."

The right corner of Bruce's mouth quirk up flittingly. "Gobbledygook, I know. But the best way I can explain it the moment. "

The barest ghost of a smile broke through Dick's otherwise serious expression. "Curiouser and curiouser!" he said, and then fell into pensive silence, weighing his options. At last he looked up and nodded as if arriving at a decision.

Again Dick's expressive eyes revealed the conflicting emotions warring inside him. Somehow he managed to look both vulnerable and determined. Locking eyes with his mentor, he asked the question they'd both avoided for the past hour.

"So, how do we fix the problem?"


He showered in the dark. He couldn't bear to look at himself--to look at her! He'd forced himself to submit to a full medical exam conducted by Doc Leslie. She'd been his personal physician since he was nine and he trusted her implicitly, but this was different. He'd never been examined as a woman before.

Through the ordeal, Dick had tried to pretend he was somewhere else. He kept telling himself that it was all a nightmare that if he tried hard enough and put forth sufficient effort, he'd wake up. Finally, he closed his eyes tightly and heard himself reciting:

"The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, All on a summer day: The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts, And took them quite away!"

Where'd that come from, he wondered. Doesn't matter. Takes my mind off what's happening. What about country capitals, he thought and then started repeating from memory:

"London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome--no, that's all wrong," he muttered, feeling slightly muddled. "What's the matter with me?"

You're a girl, Einstein, he reminded himself harshly. Okay, so I'm a girl, he conceded. But that doesn't explain why I suddenly can't do Geography.

"I hope this nightmare ends soon," he muttered out loud. Dick went perfectly still. Nightmare, he wondered again? Could this be nothing but a bad dream--?

He cried out sudden pain, despite his best efforts to stoically submit to the exam.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," Leslie chastised a bit harshly, "a great girl like you…to go on crying in this way!"

"What?" Dick gasped in surprise, completely caught off guard. He gritted his teeth at the unexpected pain, trying to keep the unbidden tears from spilling.

"I said, all done, sweetheart," Leslie said, smiling kindly. "You've been very brave, dear. A pelvic exam is no fun, no matter how often we have to go through it." She stood over Dick who'd determinedly turned away. Very gently, Leslie ran her hand through his hair and then leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.

"Everything's going to be fine, sweetheart," she said. "You'll see."

Dick turned reluctantly and looked up at her, blinking rapidly. He was living a nightmare. He didn't know how much longer he'd be able to hold on to his sanity.

"Dick, why don't you call Oracle?" she asked gently. "With her skills, she might be able to help us find a solution to your current…situation."

Dick started to say 'no' automatically, but stopped. Maybe Leslie was right. Oracle did have the necessary skills to maybe help find a solution to his problem. But he couldn't bear to have her see him like this. Not as a woman. Intellectually, he knew that he was no different on the inside that he'd ever been, that he loved her as much now as he did yesterday.

But his 'situation'--as Leslie put it--did indeed alter circumstances. If Oracle was reticent about a relationship between them, afraid of tying him down to her, because of her 'condition,' by the same token, there was no way that Dick would tie her down to a relationship with him in his 'condition.'

But shouldn't he allow her the chance to make up her own mind, he reasoned? Did he believe her so shallow that she wouldn't be able to love him for who he was inside? Unsure, he looked up at Leslie about to ask for her advice, when abruptly a feeling of anger washed over him.

"No!" he shouted, jumping up. "I won't call her! I don't want her help! Can't I make you people understand? Oracle is off limits!"

With that he'd rushed into the showers located in the Batcave and locked the doors. An overwhelming need to wash himself consumed him. He stepped into a stream of hot water and ruthlessly scrubbed as if trying to rub off the outer skin. After several minutes, the dark tides finally ebbed. Dick turned off the water and vigorously toweled himself dry.

Automatically, he went to the lockers located in the showers and pulled out a fresh set of clean underwear and a sweat suit. He sighed when after cinching the sweatpants as tightly as possible, he still had to roll them several times in order to keep them on.

He caught his reflection in the darkened mirrors. In the gloom, he could almost convince himself that it had all been his imagination. That he was the same Dick Grayson he'd always been. He glanced at the reflection over his shoulder. The wall-mounted chronometer numbers glowed in the low illumination.

The numerals were reflected in reverse--60:01. Mentally, he corrected, 10:06.

Dick's eyes narrowed slightly and he turned quickly to look directly at the wall-mounted digital clock. 7:30. Dick closed his eyes.

"I'm going mental," he muttered. "Okay, Grayson, get a grip. You're a girl. Fifty percent of the population is female--get over it!" He stared steadily at the clock.

"Like hell I will!"


Dick raided Alfred's neatly maintained storage bins. Clothes lay strewn everywhere covering every inch of floor space. He stood knee deep in what had been precisely folded and stored clothing that he had long outgrown.

"There has to be something here that'll fit me!" he said, annoyed.

He grabbed something and was about to toss it aside, when he paused momentarily, holding it out to study it carefully. He sat back on his heels. The small item of clothing brought back a flood of memories.

He smiled, feeling oddly touched by Alfred's decision to keep certain items rather than discard them: His favorite Gotham Griffins sweatshirt now torn and faded with age; a long-forgotten Green Lantern T-shirt in which he'd seemingly spent an entire summer; and--he grinned broadly holding out the small item that had given him pause--his Superman pajamas.

Dick shook his head smiling at the memory. Bruce had tried everything possible to interest him in something else. In all fairness, he'd even suggested other JLA heroes, not just Batman, but Dick wouldn't hear of it. It was the Man of Steel or no one.

"I must've been a little pain in the butt," he said.

Putting them aside, he finally found items he thought he could use, clothing he'd worn when he was in his early and mid teens. He tried them on, but found that the T-shirts were either a little too tight around the chest or too baggy. Furthermore, the jeans didn't fit quite right either around the hips or the waist.

Dick sighed. He'd figured that all he had to do was find clothing that was smaller than what he'd found in his own closet in Bludhaven, but apparently there was more to women's clothing sizes than he'd given thought to before. And shoes? Nothing seemed to fit properly. His feet were just too narrow.

"God, don't tell me that I'm gonna have to shop!" Dick brought his knees up and dropped his head down on them. He hated to shop for clothes. Alfred always made sure he had decent looking stuff and Dick rarely noticed what he had in his closet. He thought about having to try things on and groaned.

Dick next thought about underclothes. He couldn't bear the thought of shopping for ladies' lingerie, but…No!

"I'll cross that bridge when--if--I have to," he said.

Dick forced himself to look at his reflection in the mirror. He stood slowly and stared at the girl who stared back. He blushed. Before him stood a girl who looked oddly familiar and yet was not. He saw long forgotten echoes of his petite mother--same wide blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes; the same oval, softly rounded facial features highlighted with a wide, generous mouth and high cheekbones.

The whole effect was topped off with the familiar raven-black hair, styled in a short, boyish haircut. He impatiently pushed back the forelock that at times seemed to have a mind of its own. It stubbornly fell over his eyes once again.

"My sister," he said. "You would've been my sister, the one Mom promised she'd give me one day, but never had a chance to." The backs of Dick's eyes began to sting slightly. "Did you know that we would've named you 'Mary'? After Mom? I always wanted to meet you," he said. "But this?"

Swallowing, he jutted his delicate chin in a determined line. "I'm sorry, Mary, but fate never meant for you to be born into this world. I can't let you take my place." He stood to his full height. "I'm a man," he said, a note of steel in his voice. "I'm Dick Grayson. And when I find whoever did this to me, I swear I'll make them pay!"


Dick flew from one apparatus to another. He caught, swung, and released, misjudging the distance to the next apparatus. Falling awkwardly, he instinctively twisted in midair, saw the safety line and reached out, grabbing it at the last moment.

He hung tightly to the rope, his breathing coming in quick, short gasps. His eyes clenched shut. This is a nightmare, he told himself. When I open my eyes it'll be gone.

"I'm Dick Grayson," he said between gasps. "Of the Flying Graysons. I learned to walk on the high wire! I was flying before I could read. I am not afraid." His heart rate and breathing settled down. "When I open my eyes, I'll wake up and everything will be back to how it should be."

He blinked his eyes open.

For an instant, he suffered an attack of vertigo. He was in a brightly lit room, surrounded by strange equipment. The room zoomed in and out faster than his eyes could focus. An odd little man wearing a funny hat with a piece of paper sticking out of it turned and looked at him.

"NO!" he yelled. "Not yet!"

Everything went black.


"Dick?" Worried voices swam all around him. "Dick!"

"Bruce?" he whispered.

"Yes, son. Can you open your eyes? Wake up, Dick," Bruce urged. Dick concentrated for a moment and finally fluttered his eyelids open.

Bruce's worried face swam into view. His eyes smiled down as Dick looked up at him. "Welcome back, partner," he said. "Had me worried there for a moment."

"What happened?" Dick asked, allowing Bruce to help him sit up. "Bruce I've just had the worst nightmare of my life. Dreamed that I was a--" He laughed shakily. "--a girl."

Bruce's expression became grim. "I'm afraid that it's not a dream, Dick. More like a nightmare, but real nonetheless."

"Real?" Dick whispered. At Bruce's nod, all of Dick's personal resolve finally collapsed. The nightmare was real. He couldn't just will it to go away. Dick fell into Bruce, ashamed of his weakness, but unable to help himself.

Bruce held him tightly, offering strength.

"Dick, we'll get through this, son. I promise," Bruce said fiercely. "We'll find a solution. Together."

"Wh-what if we can't?" Dick asked raggedly, his voice muffled.

"Hey, I remember adopting a boy years ago," Bruce said. "I have a son, not a daughter. I want my son back, Dick. And I promise you, we'll get him back."

Dick looked up at him, his eyes wide with trust and nodded. Bruce gave him his usual half-smile. Nodding towards the training equipment, his eyes narrowed in thought.

"You forgot to compensate for the fact that your center of gravity has shifted. Plus, you're lighter and your reach is much shorter." Dick nodded at Bruce's assessment of his miscalculation.

"So, want to try that maneuver again, Mister Grayson?" Bruce asked. Dick grinned suddenly feeling as if he'd just emerged from a dark tunnel. He jumped to his feet, holding out his open hand to Bruce.

"You bet I do, partner!"

Father and 'son' clasped hands and shook.


"Dick, we need to retrace your steps of the last twenty-four hours," Bruce said over lunch. Leslie nodded.

They were all three seated in the Wayne kitchen, enjoying a light lunch that Alfred had insisted they eat--or else.

Dick nibbled at this sandwich. He didn't feel much like eating at the moment. He felt a pair of eyes boring into him. He took a cautious sideways glance in Alfred's direction, and seeing the family's strict disciplinarian's silent glare, Dick gulped and took a slightly larger bite out of his sandwich.

He chewed hastily and swallowed, almost choking. He took a quick sip of his fruit drink and was surprised to see the words 'DRINK ME' on the outside of the glass. He stared it, wracking his brains at the words. Where had it seen it before?

Giving up, he put it down deciding to ask Alfred later. He picked up his sandwich and starting taking tiny bites out of it. Chewing, he wondered at the strange flavor. Sneaking a quick peek between the two slices of bread, he was surprised to see a whole mushroom on a bed of lettuce and tomato.

Dick swallowed. A mushroom sandwich, he wondered? He somehow managed not to need the Heimlich maneuver even once during lunch. Taking a sip from his drink, he blinked. The glass was clear--no writing. What was going on?

"Okay, we're up to five o'clock," Bruce said. "You say you spent the afternoon bartending at Hogan's Alley and left at five. What happened next?"

Dick shrugged. "I went home," he said. "I showered because I had a date."

"With Oracle?" Bruce asked. Dick looked at him curiously. Why are we all referring to her by her codename, he wondered? Weird.

Realizing that Bruce had asked him a question, he answered him. "No, with my landlady, Clancy."

Bruce, Leslie, and Alfred all exchanged neutral glances. "Clancy?" Bruce asked, single eyebrow raised.

Dick grinned. "Oh, brother, could you three be a little more obvious?" he asked. "I've told you before, she's just a friend."

Bruce nodded noncommittally. "Okay, I believe you," he said. "What happened? What time did you meet her?"

Dick thought seriously. "Ten of six," he said with conviction. "We were supposed to meet at a really toney restaurant for 'High Tea,' as she calls it. According to the restaurant's advertisements the High Tea starting time of six o'clock was strictly adhered to. So we agreed to meet there ten minutes early."

"High Tea?" Alfred asked skeptically.

"She wants to civilize me," Dick explained shrugging. "She has a curious background. Ethnically, she's Chinese, but she was raised in Ireland, so culturally, she's Irish. Speaks with this fantastic Irish brogue!" he added, grinning wolfishly.

Noticing the others' stares, he cleared his throat embarrassed. "But--like I said. We're just friends, and anyway, she never showed up." Dick looked at them chagrinned. "Stood me up. I guess what goes around comes around," he added thinking of the numerous times he'd reneged on their dates.

"Uh-huh," Bruce uttered. "So, did you go in and have 'High Tea' anyway?" At Dick's nod, he added, "Who else was there? Anyone you know or remember?"

Dick thought back on the evening before. The dining room had been furnished with only a single, extra-long table set for a large party. He'd looked down the table, but it was mostly empty.

"Funny," he said. "The table was set for several people, but besides me, there were only three others there. Some guy with big, floppy ears who kept checking his watch, another who kept falling asleep, and a third man in a top hat and tails."

"Do you remember anything else?" Bruce asked.

"Yeah," Dick said strangely. "The settings were all dirty, like they hadn't been washed."

"My word!" Alfred said horrified. "I certainly hope that you didn't eat anything while there."

"Odd you should mention that," Dick said bemusedly. "There wasn't anything to eat!" At the others' expressions, his face went thoughtful. "Well, there was, but for some reason, they wouldn't serve me. Said something about me not being properly invited to sit at the table." He shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe my reservations got screwed up somehow."

"What happened next?" Bruce asked.

Dick concentrated, confused. "We played cards?" It was a question rather than a statement.

"You tell us, Dick," Bruce said. "Did you play cards? What time was it?"

"I'm not sure," Dick said helplessly. "Ten of six? No, that's the time I was supposed to meet Clancy for tea. Maybe six after ten?" Why was that number familiar? He shook his head.

"Wait a minute," he muttered. "The time was 10:06! I remember 'cause the guy with the floppy ears and the big pocket watch called out the time, saying he was late for an appointment. But the rest of us must've stayed behind and played cards, 'cause the Knave of Hearts stole the tarts--"

He stopped, grinning ruefully at the nonsensical rhyme. He expected a reaction from the others, but none of them batted an eyelash. Dick blew out a long, drawn-out breath. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed. He shrugged.

"I think that we were supposed to play croquet, but I don't think we did. I remember being told that 'Five' accused 'Seven' of jostling his elbow, and that 'Seven' claimed that 'Five' was always blaming others for his mistakes."

He stopped, feeling suddenly short of breath, his face flushed.

"Or were we painting the petals on the roses?" He covered his face and ran his hands through his dark hair. "Everything's a blur, Bruce. Nothing makes sense!"

"Of course, it does, dear," Leslie said, patting him gently on the arm. Dick looked up at her, a trickle of perspiration running down the side of his face. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his blurred vision.

She was smiling at him, a tiara balanced precariously on her two-dimensional head. He stared. Leslie's sensible suit had been replaced by a flat, cardboard-like gown with a heart on either corner. He rubbed his eyes harder. Leslie looked like the Queen of Hearts!

"Isn't that so, Alfred?" she asked, addressing Alfred who regally walked up to her, also appearing suddenly two-dimensional. He, too, was wearing cardboard-like attire--The King of Hearts!

"Yes, my dear," he said agreeably, taking her hand. "Of course, it makes perfect sense. Five is always blaming others for his personal shortcomings." Dick gulped and desperately turned to Bruce for help, but he, too, was now a card--the Knave of Hearts.

"It was quite naughty of you, Master Knave, to take the Queen's tart," Alfred said addressing Bruce.

"Enough with the accusations," Bruce returned. "How about a song?" As one, all three burst into song, with Bruce keeping time by banging on the table with his spoon:

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail. There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail. See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance! They are waiting on the shingle--will you come and join the dance? Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance? Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?"

Dick stared open-mouthed. He felt himself going into a tailspin.

"What's happening?" he cried. "What are you doing? Have you all gone nuts?"

"Gone nuts?" asked Alfred. "Is that the same as 'gone for good'?"

"Or 'gone to Hell'?" added Leslie.

"What do you mean by 'gone nuts,' young lady?" Alfred asked.

Dick stared helplessly. "I meant what I said," he finally answered.

"Oh, pooh," Leslie said. "The young lady claims that she means what she says. I suppose she also thinks that she says what she means, hmmmm…?" Leslie asked, batting her eyelashes exaggeratedly at Dick.

Dick simply stared at her, not knowing what to say. "I don't see any difference," he finally said. "Isn't that the same thing?"

"Absolutely not!" Alfred cut in. "You might as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"

"It's not?" Dick asked. Then thinking about it, he stated flatly. "No, I guess it's not." A pounding headache began to grow behind his right eye, a dull throbbing pain that was quickly sharpening with every passing moment.

"Are you ready to call Oracle for help?" Bruce asked.

"Yes! That's a smashingly good idea, Master Knave!" Alfred cried. "Let's contact the Lady Oracle!"

"She'll know what to do," Leslie added. "Lady Oracle knows everything!"

"I bet she knows who stole your tarts, dear," Alfred added. "Not to mention the two billion from your secret Swiss bank accounts."

"The two billion what--?" Dick started to ask.

"I say that he did it!" Leslie proclaimed imperiously, pointing at Dick. All eyes turned to him. Dick had trouble concentrating on the confusion going on around him. The pounding in the back of his eye had spread to both temples.

"Does the accused have anything to say in his defense before the jury announces its verdict?" Bruce asked, assuming a cerebral tone.

"Stuff and nonsense!" Leslie cried, waving her small hands in the air. "Sentence first--verdict later! Off with his head!"

"Master Dick, you didn't finish your lunch," Alfred chastised. "And I picked those mushrooms specifically for you. They'll make grow you up, nice and tall, and they go especially well with Orange marmalade."

"Can you blame him?" Bruce retorted. "I wanted Lobster Quadrille, but you won't make it anymore!" Bruce and Leslie immediately broke into song together. Alfred picked up a knife and fork and banged them in time to the rhythm:

"Tis the voice of the Lobster; I heard him declare, You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair. As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes."

They all laughed spontaneously. Dick brought his hands up to his ears. He felt the room spinning, their raucous laughter causing his head to pound.

"Stop it! Stop it!" he cried. "You're driving me crazy!"

"Nonsense, Dick," Bruce said. "A person can't 'drive' another person anywhere! Besides the Batmobile has more horsepower! By the way, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'" he asked, seemingly out of no where.

Dick shook his head. "I don't know," he said, confused.

Bruce glared at him menacingly, and then grinned broadly in a most un-Bruce like manner. "Neither do I! Are you ready to call Oracle?"

"No," Dick rasped. "I told you before--"

"Stubborn, lad--or should I say, lass?" Alfred interjected. "Of course he doesn't know 'Why a raven is like a writing desk'! He hasn't asked the Lady Oracle! If he did, she'd be able to tell him. After all--" he began.

"Oracle knows EVERYTHING!" Alfred and Bruce finished together. Elbowing each other for their cleverness, they slapped one another's hand in a high five.

"Master Dick, are you quite ready yet to call the Lady Oracle?" Alfred asked. Dick looked at him as if he'd never seen him before, too dazed to make sense of his words.

Bruce, Alfred, and Leslie stood up, and holding hands they formed a circle and began to dance around the kitchen table. Dick was still seated and felt trapped as they danced around him, his head spinning to their nonsense:

"You can really have no notion how delightful it will be When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea! But the snail replied 'Too far, too far!' and gave a look askance-- Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance!"

"This is all a horrible dream," Dick said desperately, closing his eyes to the chaos around him. "A horrible dream--! I've got to wake up…wake up--!" He collapsed on the floor, rolling over on his back, the world whirling in a mad kaleidoscope around him.

"Are you ready to call Oracle?" Bruce asked, his face moving in a steady circle above Dick.

"Yes, Master Dick, you must call Oracle," Alfred pressed, his face next to Bruce.

"Dick, sweetheart, you should know by now that only Oracle can help you," Leslie added.

Bruce knelt down next to Dick, but appeared distorted as if from the wrong end of a telescope. Dick closed his eyes, desperately trying to push away from his mentor.

"You don't want to stay in your current condition forever, do you?" Bruce asked, his hot breath next to Dick's face. "I adopted a boy, Dick! I have a son! I do not have a daughter! Do you hear me! I want my son back! Now, call Oracle this minute or we'll have to carry out the sentence!"

"Sentence?" Dick asked anxiously. Had there been a verdict?

"Call Oracle!" they cried, chanting together, their voices increasing in volume, drowning out Dick's ability to think. "Call Oracle! CallOracle! CallOracle! CallOracle!CallOracle!OracleOracleOracleOracleOracleOracle…!"

Dick felt the world spinning out of control. He lay helplessly shaking his head, his eyes squeezed shut, his hands covering his face. In the background he heard Alfred and Bruce singing in off-key, two-part harmony:

"Twinkle, twinkle little bat, How I wonder what you're at! Up above the world you fly, Like a tea-tray in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle--"

"No, I can't call her…can't…won't…I won't…I won't! I WON'T!! I-WON'T-CALL-ORACLE-AND-YOU-CAN'T-MAKE-ME!!!"

He sat up, his eyes snapping open. The words were torn raggedly from his throat and now rang loudly in his ears.


"NO!! It's too soon! You can't wake up, yet! Not yet!"

Nightwing stared dazedly at the peculiar little man standing in front of him. Focusing on the strange man, the young vigilante realized that it was one of the same men he'd seen at the tea party! The one in top hat and tails. Nightwing's eyes zeroed in on the top hat. A slip of paper, like a ticket, stuck out of the hatband. It read, 'In this style, 10/6.'

He recalled being haunted by those numbers. The clocks always seemed to read 10:06 when he casually glanced at them, but once he'd concentrated, the times would change.

Nightwing felt an all-consuming fury overtake him.

"Jervis Tetch," he growled, his voice shaking in rage. He reached up and yanked a number of wires from his forehead. "I might have known it'd be you--the Mad Hatter. The others I saw at the tea party. The guy with the floppy ears and the watch--he was the March Hare. And the one that kept falling asleep--the Dormouse! Well, that semi-explains the trip through 'Wonderland.' But not the 'why?'"

As he spoke, Nightwing jumped off the gurney he'd been lying on and advanced cautiously on his tormentor. Tetch might look like a helpless wimp, but he was an escaped Arkham Asylum inmate who couldn't be dismissed lightly. The villain's obsession with Alice in Wonderland and his genius for mind-control devices made him both insane and dangerous.

Tetch's fixation with Alice partially explained the wild merry-go-round ride Dick had been on. All of the odd quotes and songs were from Lewis Carroll's novel. Dick remembered Alfred reading it to him, cover to cover, during his first few weeks at Wayne Manor. Even though the protagonist was a girl, Dick had been fascinated by Alice's exploits. So much so, that after Alfred finished reading the book out loud, Dick begged him to read it to him again.

But Jervis Tetch's insane obsession had perverted the child's innocent adventure into a frightening, nightmarish journey.

These thoughts flashed through Nightwing's mind as he reached the Mad Hatter. Infuriated by the hellish voyage he'd been put through, the young hero threw caution aside and picked up the diminutive villain by the oversized bowtie, twisting the knot another turn. He recalled his own dream struggles against Batman.

"Okay, I'm listening, Tetch," Nightwing said his voice low and threatening. "For your sake, you'd best start talking. And fast!"

"It was all Seven's fault," Tetch stuttered. "He made me!"

Nightwing shook the Hatter slightly, causing the frail man to gag. Several small items fell out of his considerably large pockets. Nightwing glanced down quickly and saw that they were microchips, probably for his mind-bending electronic devices.

Releasing his hold just enough to allow the Mad Hatter a chance to breathe, Nightwing spoke again. The finality in his tone warned of the dire consequences to come should his questions not be answered directly and to his satisfaction.

"Last chance, Tetch," he growled. "Unless you want to be squashed so flat that you look like a playing card, tell me--who made you come after me and why?"

Tetch gasped for air, his eyes rolling in their sockets. "Listen, my rude guest. Where did you learn your manners, elbowing your way in here without being properly invited--"

Nightwing squeezed just a bit tighter.

"--Blockbuster!" Tetch squeaked. Nightwing released the pressure just enough.

"Talk!!"

"He wants someone named 'Oracle,'" Tetch said rapidly, tripping over his words. "Said that you'd almost revealed this person's location once before, but you got away before the interrogators had a chance to succeed. He broke me out of Arkham and brought me here. You were already his prisoner and unconscious. Nightwing, I swear! He ordered me to use my mind-control devices on you! To get you to finally lead him to this Oracle person! He's not happy that Oracle's been stealing his ill-gotten gains right from under his quite enormous snout!"

Dick began to squeeze again. Babs! It had been Babs all along. That was why he'd been hounded by the others to contact her! And why he'd refused so adamantly to do so.

"But why did you make you me think that I was a woman?" Dick demanded again, curious in spite of himself.

"Is that what your nightmare was all about?" Tetch asked fascinated. He smiled proudly. "I didn't make you think that, my young, manxome foe," he said. "You did it all yourself. I just gave you a set of post-hypnotic suggestions that were triggered once you met a certain set of parameters in your nightmares. Other than that, I had no way of knowing what form your nightmares would take."

He stared huffily at Nightwing.

"I'm not a mind-reader, after all, my black-clad vigilante," Tetch said, sniffing in disdain. "I'm an artiste!"

"What about these 'parameters'? What were they?" Nightwing asked impatiently.

"They were any powerful nightmare sequences that--once you got caught up in them--were supposed to place you in such dire straits you'd be forced to call on this Oracle for assistance." Tetch's face fell.

"But you didn't!" he cried indignantly. "You spoiled everything! You never called Oracle. Every time the monitors showed that you'd reached just the right factors that should've driven you to frantically beg for her assistance, you backed off and refused to take the necessary next step." He glared accusingly at Nightwing.

"I don't understand. Why did you choose to believe that you were a woman if that nightmare wasn't going to force you to ask Oracle for help?"

Nightwing thought about his shame and refusal to have Babs see him as a woman and grinned suddenly. "I think you just answered your own question, Tetch."


Nightwing checked his wrist chronometer. Time! He grinned. A man less sure of himself would probably pace nervously, or maybe chew his nails, but Nightwing didn't do either. He knew as if he were there and witnessing the whole thing that the raids had gone without a hitch.

He thought about the events leading up to his ambush and capture by Blockbuster's minions. Shortly following Desmond's failed attempt at capturing the elusive 'Oracle,' the giant gangster placed a price on her head in certain underground trade papers.

Nightwing got wind of it through the grapevine and went ballistic. It was bad enough that Blockbuster had had him tortured by two refugees from a horror movie. That one of his goons had wounded Barbara in the leg. And that they had almost succeeded in capturing her--hell, in almost drowning her!

But this? To place a million dollar bounty on her head? Dead or Alive?!

When Dick found out, he'd immediately contacted Batman and arranged for Oracle's round-the-clock protection. Next, he went after Blockbuster. He just didn't tell Batman about that little part of his plan.

They were waiting for him, of course. Trapped him, gassed him, and apparently recruited the Mad Hatter to brainwash him.

He vaguely remembered part of the process. He was heavily drugged and barely able to understand what was being done to him. Through the drug-induced haze he knew that they were doing all of this to him because they wanted Oracle--real bad.

Standing on the rooftop now, Nightwing could clearly recall one other thing:

His vow that as long as he was alive, they would never get their hands on her.

Nightwing grinned, a feral snarl in the darkness. Soon, he felt the tension along his shoulders begin to relax, and he found himself smiling. Softly at first, then with growing strength, he recited:

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. He took his vorpal sword in hand: Long time the manxome foe he sought-- So rested he by the Tumtum tree, And stood awhile in thought…"

Nightwing took a deep breath, tasting the soft sea fragrance of the night air. For the moment, he felt strangely at peace.

"Yeah, Blocky, my manxome foe," he said softly. "You'd better look out for my vorpal blade, 'cause just about now it's going snicker-snack all around the world. And before you know it, the good guys will all cry out, 'O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'"

Within minutes, Nightwing's comlink activated and confirmations of the night's activities began coming in from all points…

"You called it, Robbie," Beast Boy said easily. "We took down their operation without any problems."

"Glad to hear it, Gar," Nightwing said. "I don't think the West Coast will be bothered by Desmond's business expansions for a while."

"Hi, Dick," a sultry voice broke in. Nightwing rolled his eyes. Flamebird! "I'll be in the East Coast next week for a tennis tournament. What if we--"

"Uh, excuse me, Bette!" Nightwing interrupted hurriedly. "I, uh, have another call! Nightwing out!" He let out an explosive breath. His comlink activated. "Nightwing," he said curtly.

"Nightwing, this is Jesse Quick," the no-nonsense voice of the female speedster answered. "Mission accomplished. Desmond Operations New York is now officially terminated."

Nightwing nodded to himself. Jesse's report was straight and to the point. The way he liked it.

"Acknowledged, Jesse," he replied in similarly clipped tones. "Any problems with the raid?"

"Negative," Jesse answered. "The feds are at this moment arresting the building's occupants. We managed to confiscate a weapons cache that could've supplied an entire army for a year or more."

"Good work," he said. "Nightwing out--"

"Oh, Nightwing," Jesse interrupted, "before you sign off. I, uh, was wondering. Are you available tomorrow afternoon for another, um, 'training session'?"

Nightwing felt the heat in his cheeks go up a notch. He couldn't be sure, but was Jesse implying something other than training by her request? He was going to say 'yes,' but at the last minute thought better of it.

"Uh, um, gosh, Jesse," he began. "I, um, I'm, uh, busy tomorrow--all day! A, uh, Bat-family meeting! Yeah, the boss just called a meeting. Gotta be there. Nightwing out!" He wiped his brow as he closed the circuit. What was that all about, he wondered?

Finally, the last call came in.

"Hey, Wingster! Black Canary here!"

"Acknowledged, BC," Nightwing replied.

"Just wanted to let you know that our mutual, monstrously huge friend's overseas operation is--as they say in the local vernacular--kaput!" Black Canary's sparkling laughter came over the satellite uplink.

"You and Oracle called it, all right. Nothing like tweaking a giant's nose just for grins, I always say. Of course, I think I also managed to poke his eye a couple of times, too."

"Good job, BC," Nightwing said, smiling broadly. This was it--the last report.

"To quote Mae West, Wingster: When I'm good, I'm very good," Black Canary said, her voice sexily dropping an octave. "But when I'm bad--I'm better! Why don't you come up and see me sometime?"

Caught completely off guard, Nightwing blushed from the tip of his toes, to the top his head. Maybe being a girl wouldn't have been such a bad thing, he thought momentarily panicked.

"Uh…th-that's great, BC!" he stuttered. "I'll, um, keep that in mind." His response was met with delighted laughter from Black Canary and to Nightwing's terror, Oracle who suddenly broke in.

"Are you two quite done?" Oracle asked frostily.

"Not yet!" Black Canary called out, still laughing. "Wingster, don't you have another little call to make?"

Nightwing grinned in the darkness. "Sure do, BC. Thanks for the reminder." He paused. "Okay, ladies, go to stealth," he ordered. Immediately, their secure lines went to an even higher state of scramble--a new system Barbara installed following her recent 'troubles' with Blockbuster.

Nightwing pressed the special hotline that Barbara set up for him earlier that evening. He was soon rewarded by the massive countenance of Roland Desmond, AKA Blockbuster.

"Boy, talk about the 'uglification' of cyberspace!" Nightwing said, giving his number one enemy a Cheshire cat grin.

"Nightwing!" Blockbuster roared. "When I get my hands on you again, I'll twist your neck so hard, you'll be looking behind you for the rest of your life!"

"I've missed you too, Rolly," Nightwing said easily. "Sorry, but I don't have time for a long chat, so I'll get straight to the point. I'm calling you as a friend, big guy. You know, just passing on information--sharing, if you follow me."

Blockbuster roared something unintelligible.

"I know, I know. Made me a little misty-eyed, too," Nightwing said. "Anyway, buddy, you need to check out your pals in LA, NYC, and Eastern Europe. Rumor has it that they've been caught sleeping on the job." He grinned broadly, noting that Blockbuster looked close to apoplexy.

"Hey, take it easy, big guy--your heart, remember? I really fear for your health, Blocky. Take a couple of aspirins and call me in the morning! G'night!"

Oracle and Black Canary immediately burst into laughter.

"You can be my 'wingman' anytime, honey!" Black Canary said suggestively.

"Dinah--!" Oracle interrupted, blustering.

"Whoops!" Black Canary said good-naturedly. "I think that that's my cue to disappear. This is the one and only Black Canary signing off--and going on vacation. Now remember, kiddies, don't anything I wouldn't do! Oh, and Oracle, honey? You'll be able to reach me at--phzzzt!"

"Dinah! Wait--! Oh, honestly!" Oracle said, put out. "Now she probably won't come online for about a week! Do you know how difficult it is to line up another operative who can do what she does?"

"Babs?" Dick spoke quietly.

"And you!" she continued, her anger escalating. "Next time you go after Blockbuster alone, I-I'll torture you myself!"

"Babs--!"

"How could you?" she asked. "Without telling any of us? Do you know how worried we were? You were missing for four days! Bruce was beside himself. I've never seen him so obsessed--!"

"He's cool. We talked--!"

"And your friends, the Titans, they wouldn't stop calling me. Checking for updates! Do you know how many people were searching for you--?"

"Babs!" Dick roared in a close imitation of Blockbuster. Pausing, Dick listened to make sure she'd stopped talking. "So, do you know 'Why a Raven is like a writing desk'?"

"What?" she asked, sounding blank.

"Never mind. I'll explain later," he said smiling. "By the way, may I come in?"

"Come in--?" she asked, confused. "Where are you?"

"On your roof. May I come in?" he repeated.

"How long have you been waiting out there?"

He smiled in the dark and shrugged.

"All my life."

The End

 
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