Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Nightwing: A Matter of Vengeance

by John Westcott

Chapter 11: Bloodlust

********************

Dick had an exceedingly difficult time struggling back to the waking world. Normally, that would be nothing out of the ordinary for the young man, but this particular morning proved to be even more difficult than usual. As he lay on the couch in his semi-unconscious state, he knew he had rarely been this comfortable, or this at ease, in his entire life. Dick had a difficult time rousing himself out of bed in the morning due to his extremely hectic lifestyle and the tremendous physical and mental exertions it required. He simply did far too much in the span of a day and never set aside enough time to catch up on his sleep. It was unhealthy, he knew, to go without rest as he did, but he had never been one to lounge around in bed when there was work to do. Whether growing up in a circus atmosphere, or leading a double life as a masked vigilante was to blame, Dick didn't really know or care.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead." He used to tell Alfred and Bruce. Bruce, especially, enjoyed his full eight or nine hours of sleep after a full night of crime fighting. Dick used to snicker under his breath when his mentor would awaken every morning to a muscle massage from Alfred and a ready made gourmet-breakfast.

"Don't laugh," Bruce had said. "Someday, you'll be old and you'll need a massage, too."

Dick had fallen asleep early last night, hardly the norm for him, lying on the couch, with Barbara snoozing comfortably by his side. Her face had been nestled against his shoulder and her arms around him, and his around her. The palpable feeling of security and comfort as they both lay there together lulled him into the deepest sleep he could ever remember having. Dick hadn't stirred in the full eight and a half hours he had been asleep, which was unusual, as Dick was always a fitful sleeper.

As the morning sun began to seep in through the windows, Dick glided through REM sleep up toward the waiting world, the smell of freshly brewed coffee slowly guided him to the edge of consciousness. When he was finally aware of his own physical body, he felt as if the couch were not simply underneath him, but that it was actually a part of physical being. Even opening his sleep filled eyes was something of an effort. Dick felt that he had been asleep for years, and he knew that once he finally became alert, he would feel as rested and healthy as he ever had in his entire life, but for now, it was damn hard to move out of this incredibly comfortable position. With a jolt, his mind snapped to full attention for the first time.

Freshly brewed coffee?

Dick sat up on the couch, only to realize that Barbara was no longer beside him. He sniffed at the air and felt his stomach betray him. Hunger pangs shot through his body as he smelled something delicious in the air. How had Barbara moved from the couch, across his own body, to her chair, without waking him? No one had ever done that before. Dick prided himself on the fact that no one could sneak about in his presence, even when he was asleep, without alerting him. Not only had Barbara moved across the room and into the kitchen, she had apparently taken to making breakfast, all without his knowledge. Dick was not only hungry; he was damn impressed. Even without the use of her legs, Barbara could teach even the most silent vigilante or government secret agent a thing or two about the art of stealth. Of course, he knew his own deep sleep had something to do with it, as well. At least, that's what he told himself in order to maintain his self-image.

"Good morning," she called to him from the kitchen, somehow alert to the fact that he was no longer asleep.

"Morning," he called out, his voice scratchy and thick. "How long have you been awake?" She rolled her chair into the living room, past the folding partition Dick had erected in the loft apartment to separate the rooms and allow some semblance of privacy. Her smile was pearly white and her hair combed and shining. She had obviously been up long enough to use his toothbrush and wash her hair. How had she managed to do all this without waking him? Is this what it meant to be in love? To be so comfortable and secure around another person that he could trust her enough to completely relax in her presence?

"About an hour and a half," she said with a smile as she took him by the hand and led him into the kitchen. "I made breakfast and cleaned up. I didn't think you'd want to see me first thing in the morning, I even scare myself," she joked as Dick took in the breakfast table, which he almost never used, preferring to eat in front of the television or the computer. On it laid a stack of golden pancakes, a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. Off to the side lay small dishes which he didn't even know he owned, filled with strawberry jam and marmalade. She had even arranged tiny spoons in the breakfast spreads, Alfred would have been proud. Dick knew that this was easily the best breakfast he would have since his move to the city of Bludhaven, seeing as how usually he slept in until it was time for lunch, and lunch was usually either pizza or Chinese food from the previous evening.

"Babs, I don't know what to say. You're a gem," he told her as he ran a hand through his mussed hair and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "All I did was sleep in and greet you with sleep in my eyes and morning breath." Barbara merely took his hand and kissed the back of it, her lips soft and warm against his skin.

"After a magical evening like last night, it was the least I could do. Besides, it's nice to know that even an alpha male like Dick Grayson looks like the rest of us when he wakes up in the morning."

Dick took a seat at the table opposite hers and began to eat. The bacon was as Alfred and his own mother before him would make it on Saturday mornings. Not overdone, but not underdone either, slightly crunchy, but nowhere near burned. The pancakes were light and fluffy, sweet and flavorful. Barbara "tsk tsked" his diet playfully as he smothered the pancakes in syrup and buttered his toast heavily, something he was never allowed to do as a child with Alfred in the kitchen. Just as he could not remember a night where he had slept so well, he could also not remember a morning when he woke up so ravenously hungry. There was just something about the woman across the table from him that brought these things out in him, and he liked it.

Barbara pointed toward the window as she took a fork full of pancake for herself. After a few seconds of chewing she spoke again. "It snowed last night. A lot. There's supposed to be more coming tonight, too. With Christmas approaching, things will be ripe for crime against holiday shoppers. Something tells me I better get home before night fall, Oracle will be needed to assist the big bad bat, and his handsome former partner as well. Not to mention I have a million little chores to do, like get that promised research to our latest boy wonder."

"So, you won't be staying another night?" he said, only partially play acting at being disappointed.

She laughed at that, a beautiful laugh that reminded him of someone singing the finest aria. Dick promised that he would take her home later in the afternoon once the roads had been cleared somewhat, and this time he promised himself that he would drive carefully, no fooling around like the night before. In mid pancake, Dick rose from the table and went to check the phone.

It was still off the hook, where he had left it. It was not something he would normally do, but he wanted his date with Barbara to be uninterrupted, he felt that they both had earned it. Surely she would have found out that he had removed it since she had been awake for almost two hours now, and he felt she agreed that their time together was special enough to warrant a night off from the world - interruption free.

"I have an idea," Dick said as he returned to the table. "After I take a shower, why don't we just lounge around the apartment for a few hours, look out at the snow, watch some DVDs and just generally enjoy one another's company? I'll put the phone on the hook long enough to call in sick to work today."

Barbara giggled. "We really are being selfish about this."

"Hey, nothing's gonna happen until night time anyway."

"Let's do it," she said conspiratorially.

*****

"Who needs a gang of Misfits when you have friends like these?" The Joker cackled as he twirled about in comic fashion, bowing deeply in respect as a trio of extremely large men, even larger than Charon himself, entered the room. The Joker introduced them as Nil, Null, and Void. Three of the best hit men and hired guns he had ever employed. Their real names were of no importance to Charon or The Joker. The point was, these three behemoths were just as powerful and dangerous as all the nobodies and nothings that Charon had ever gathered around himself when he was known as Jonah. According to The Joker, the three men were without conscience, ruthless, trained killers who had slain hundreds in "those loser countries" as the grinning psychotic had so eloquently put it.

Although the three men were very similar in some instances, each had powerful physical bodies that fairly rippled with immense muscles, and a series of battle scars across their arms and faces, they were different as well. The one known as Nil wore an eye patch over his left eye, concealing a horrific looking wound to his eye socket. Joker had begun to insist that Nil go without the eye patch, as the wound "reminded him of spring time", but recanted on his request when he was informed by the hired mercenary that if he were to go without it, it would hamper his ability to kill. Joker wanted none of that, to be sure.

Null had a fairly unmarked face, but he wore some type of metallic cybernetic attachment on his arm to replace his missing right hand. When he proffered it to Charon for inspection, Joker mumbled something about "missing a stroke could kill you" and began laughing hysterically. Both men were Caucasian, with similar military style hair cuts, short and efficient. Charon could not detect any hint of mercy or kindness within their cold, hard eyes. That was good. Where they were going, mercy and kindness had no place.

The final member of the three was different from the rest. He was apparently a man of Arab decent, with long midnight black hair that was pulled back in a ponytail, descending to the middle of his back. His face was adorned with a thick mustache and beard which made him appear fierce and untamed, even more so than his comrades. Void also appeared to be the healthiest of the three, with little in the way of visible scars, and no missing body parts. Charon instinctively knew that Void would be the most lethal of the men. All three were attired in military style combat fatigues. Charon estimated that the three would have easily slaughtered his entire group of Misfits, and rubbed his hands together with glee at the destruction he could cause with these three at his command.

Charon was also impressed with the equipment and armaments that had arrived with them. Each man carried in an armload of suitcases, which opened to reveal weapons he had only dreamed of finding within the Shearwater Naval Base. The one known as Nil produced two dozen or more oddly shaped machine guns that he referred to as FN Herstal PN90's. Designed as an advanced personnel defense weapon for armchair generals, Nil proudly informed Charon and The Joker that the weapon "felt like a BB gun, and could penetrate over forty layers of kevlar body armor." The gun was also known to go eat up a 30 round magazine like overweight movie reviewers go through popcorn. Thus, the magazine was transparent so that the user could watch the bullets feed and be prepared with another magazine at the ready. Nil was not alone in his lust for heavy weaponry, however.

Null was quick to point out the weapons he had brought with him, bought recently in Metropolis. Among them were a case full of Claridge Hi-Tec's Model L semi-automatic handguns. Charon found himself grinning as Null pointed out the proper usage of the 30 round magazine and handed one to the young West Point drop out. This was truly some devastating firepower. Referring to The Claridge as a handgun was like referring to The Joker as "disturbed" he thought to himself. Charon decided to take a PN90 and a Model L for himself, along with handfuls of spare clips. When night fell, he wanted to be armed to the teeth.

Even Charon decided to pass on the type of weaponry Void preferred. The hulking individual preferred a Striker Automatic Shotgun, which fired twelve rounds of magnum loads. Used properly, the weapon could devastate any opponent. Void truly seemed to relish the gun, his mighty arms heaving one in each hand without so much as a grunt of exertion. With two of these firing at you at the same time, there would be nothing left of your opponent, let alone the building behind him, when the shots stopped echoing.

To Charon's surprise, The Joker merely snatched up a two shot derringer from Null's suitcase and tucked it away into his jacket pocket. When he noticed Charon looking at him with a mixture of surprise and curiosity, The Joker merely replied: "I am an artiste. I prefer to place my shots. Such widespread mania, I leave to my apprentice and my underlings. Soon, you two will be a precise, killing machine... just like dear old dad!!!" He howled as he referred to himself as "dad".

Through the use of The Joker's many talents, they had managed to make their way out of Gotham City to Bludhaven without much in the way of ruffled feathers or witnesses. It didn't take much, surprisingly, as The Joker was aware of a series of tunnels that led out of the city, straight under the Gotham River. Of particular use to them was an old steam tunnel that ran underground, parallel to the Trigate Bridge, beginning at the D'Angelo Sewage Treatment Plant and bringing them up outside the city limits, in Gotham County, across the street from the brightly lit Gotham Light and Power Plant. Charon grimaced involuntarily as he recalled the stench that wafted across the river as they emerged into the night air. The tunnel had partially collapsed in the quake that had leveled Gotham, but according to all reports, had been repaired by The Penguin's men in the event that a quick escape route from Gotham should ever be needed. During the No Man's Land, The Penguin had made himself a small fortune dealing with the outside world, and being a man of enterprise, he liked to prepare for such eventualities.

Once outside the city limits, Charon and Joker made their way south to Bludhaven, pausing at a private warehouse self storage facility. The key Joker had retrieved from his front in the city fit perfectly into the lock of storage area 43-B. While areas 43-A and 43-C might have contained furniture or industrial equipment, The Joker's personal storage area, rented under the name G. Khan, contained two suitcases full of 1000 dollar bills, two Colt .45's, and an old fashioned child's joy buzzer. Vested with freedom and money, the duo soon found themselves in Bludhaven, taking refuge in one of Jonathon Masters Senior's warehouses, which had been dormant since the death of its owner.

Batman would no doubt be scouring Gotham by now, Joker informed Charon, looking for clues to his whereabouts, and never suspecting that his prey was out of the city. The clown prince of crime howled as he envisioned The Bat hunting down every skell who had ever come into contact with his archenemy, rousting them for information about his next scheme. All the while The Joker and his new cohort were leaving him behind, at least for the moment, only to reemerge with devastating results soon afterward. This new scheme would bring everyone into harm's way EXCEPT The Batman, and when the blood spilled, and the dead were counted, Bats would go completely over the edge.

"My glorious cohorts will gather around us some nameless and most willing canon fodder willing to work for a buck," The Joker informed him as he indicated all the extra weaponry that lay at his feet with a flourish. "And they have already brought me some interesting intelligence from Gotham City, it appears as though your nemesis, Officer Dick Grayson, is courting an old friend of mine, Miss Barbara Gordon."

"What does that mean, father?" Charon asked, scowling at the mention of the name Dick Grayson.

Joker's laugh was low and menacing. "It means that providence, lady luck, madame fate, or whatever you want to call that stupid bitch who pulls the strings of our lives down here on Earth, has smiled upon us both once again. We have something in common, Charon my dear boy, we share enemies. I am the genius who put Miss Gordon in her mobile high chair in the first place. Together, we can wreak such beautiful havoc that people will be speaking about it for years to come. I can taste the delicious fear, already." The Joker licked his lips and fell back in his wheelchair, laughing until he was exhausted. He couldn't wait for the sun to dip below the horizon once more, for when it did, he and his new cohorts would set the world on fire.

"What do you call a warehouse full of dead Gordons?" He asked to no one in particular.

"A good start!!" he wailed as he answered himself. Slapping his hands on his legs and wiping tears from his eyes.

The fun would begin in a matter of hours...

*****

"Whatdaya think, Commish? This stuff legit?" Jim Gordon winced slightly at Harvey Bullock's lazy use of the English language as he reached out and took the envelope in hand that his detective proffered. Bullock had mastered the art of brusque behavior and lack of refinement, but when it came to getting the job done, there was no better cop on the force. To his left was Renee Montoya, Bullock's partner, and in Jim's eyes, there was no greater mismatch. Renee was a beautiful young woman, in her early thirties, and even during the days of No Man's Land, without the modern contrivances of makeup and beauty products, she could have turned any man's head. When you looked at it on paper, pairing the two was a bad idea, Harvey with his cigars and donuts, Renee with her health regimen and perfect hygiene, it was a recipe for disaster. Everyone figured that the two erstwhile partners would kill one another in their first week. Jim knew otherwise, he had hoped that the two would compliment one another's talents, and together they would become a greater force for justice than either could alone, and he was right. They were two of the very best he had under his command, that's why when news reached him that The Joker had escaped, they were given the case, reporting directly to him.

What Bullock offered him now was a thick manilla envelope, addressed to Jim Gordon, supposedly, it was from Batman. It had arrived in its usual way, suddenly appearing on Gordon's desk when his back was turned, but with Joker loose, Bullock insisted that the bomb squad go over it first. They all knew that Joker had a hatred for the entire Gordon clan, and would stop at nothing to create more pain and suffering for them all. The bomb squad had given it an okay, but Bullock was still wary of the package. It was daytime, now, and The Bat would not be seen until the sun had dipped below the horizon once more, but that didn't mean that Gotham's resident vigilante would sit by during the day and do nothing while a menace such as The Joker was loose. It didn't help matters that Joker escaped with the aid of another inmate, one Jonathon Masters Junior, recently of Bludhaven. Gordon has requested a file on the young man, but true to Bludhaven Police standards, his jacket hadn't arrived yet.

"I think it's safe," he told them as he ripped open the top of the envelope and peeked inside. It contained two VHS videocassettes and a note, which could have been printed from any computer printer in the country, impossible to trace. The note read:

"Jim,

We may have more trouble than the escape of two inmates from Arkham at once. Watch the tapes, you'll see what I mean. I'll have my agents in Bludhaven keep a watchful eye. We may be looking in the wrong place.

See you tonight,

B."

Gordon felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he wondered what it was on these tapes that he should see. That was when a small logo on the front of both tapes caught his eye, a stylized double "A", and beside it, the words in tiny lettering: "Property Of Arkham Asylum".

"Get me a VCR and a TV, right now, then meet me in my office," he told Bullock.

"I'm all over it, Commish."

The image on the television was dark, the picture grainy, but the sound was far better. Gordon, Montoya, and Bullock pulled their chairs in close to the television, squinting to make out the dark figure that sat in the cell. He was mumbling, somewhat, but most of what he was saying came through loud and clear with the volume turned up almost to maximum levels. It was the voice of The Joker, speaking to someone out of camera range.

"I am The Joker, and I'm going to teach you how to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight," Joker had said.

"Have I told you yet about the time I boiled my victims in their own juices?" he asked later on.

"Yes, you told me yesterday," the disembodied voice responded.

"And do you remember the point of my little story, young man?"

"You're saying that, those little voices in my head, the ones I keep saying 'no' to. The ones that tell me that even I couldn't get away with what I am planning......"

"Throw all that out the window right now, my young psycho in training. If the little voice in your head says no, then you absolutely MUST SAY YES!!"

It was a surveillance tape of The Joker's cell. Arkham had camera running twenty four hours a day in all of his violent patients cells. Gordon switched tapes, and saw the entire series of conversations replayed, only this time from another camera view, this one inside the cell of Jonathon Masters Junior, formerly known as Jonah - gang leader, murderer, and rapist. Jim removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. It was obvious what The Joker was doing, he was attempting to educate the newcomer, teach him the ways of a psychotic. Gordon picked up the phone and dialed Arkham immediately, demanding to know why something wasn't done to separate the two prisoners. Jeremiah Arkham responded that the sound had been turned down on many of the cameras for months, especially on The Joker's. In the past, security people had been driven insane themselves by The Joker's diatribes and threats to the cameras.

When he hung up the phone, Gordon saw that his two friends and fellow officers were looking at him expectantly. "Harvey. Renee. Send a car around to my daughters place to check on her, please. I know she went to Bludhaven last night to see her boyfriend, but I haven't heard from her since."

"We'll do it personally," Renee replied.

"No," Gordon called out to them as they charged out the door. "I need you to help track down these madmen, and I need you to set up some kind of liaison with Bludhaven, which won't be easy." Bullock snorted his agreement, working with The Bludhaven PD was next to impossible, because The Bludhaven PD didn't work at all.

"We're on it. I'll see what I can do about getting a line into Bludhaven," Harvey replied as he retreated to his desk. Renee stayed behind for a moment, casting a worried glance at her boss. When Gordon looked up at her, he gave her a reassuring smile.

"She'll be fine," she told him in a tender voice. "We'll get him before he can do anything. I promise."

Jim sighed heavily. "For all our sakes, I hope so, Renee."

*****

The true nightmare began just as the last tendrils of sunshine reached out over the horizon, trying to maintain its grip on the world. Dick had just dropped Barbara off at the clock tower, and the two shared a breathless kiss before she bid him goodbye, refusing his aid when it came to getting upstairs. She found it charming in the extreme, but the building was equipped with a wheelchair ramp, and she wanted to maintain her independence, no matter where their relationship was. It had been a truly glorious day, the pair had played together in the snow, eaten popcorn, and watched Monty Python movies all afternoon, laughing and revelling in one another's company. Unfortunately, the day grew long and it was time for Barbara to become Oracle once more. Dick also had his nighttime duties to perform, not as Nightwing, but as Officer Dick Grayson, who was scheduled for stakeout duty with Officer Rohrbach.

For both of them, the bard's words, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" never held more truth. They both knew the parting was temporary, however, and a smile was plastered all over Barbara's face in sweet anticipation of their next meeting. Dick had pulled away from the curb and within minutes she was at her door, producing the remote unit from her jacket and keying in the secret code that deactivated the security systems. On the street below, a GCPD squad car had pulled up to the curb, making its hourly check on Barbara's apartment, as per The Commissioner's orders. Barbara was expecting Robin to show up any time now to pick up the research she had promised him, and she didn't want any ribbing from him on her not sleeping at home last night, so she resigned herself to checking her email and booting the system up immediately.

Barbara felt the car outside explode before she actually heard it, the force of the explosion practically knocking her out of her chair. Reacting instinctively, she whirled the chair around and secured the locks on the door before proceeding over to the false wall that led to her computer systems. She would need to boot them up before she could see anything on the security monitors. She prayed that it was nothing more sinister than a simple gas leak.

Another explosion rocked the building, she hadn't heard anything this violent since the quake hit Gotham. Barbara wheeled her chair over to the window and peered outside. What she saw made her blood run cold and her stomach turn over. From across the street, they approached the clock tower at a breakneck pace, except for him, he rolled his own wheelchair through the destruction more slowly than the rest.

The Joker.

Barbara had to force herself to breathe.

He was herding at least two dozen men across the street, toward the entrance to her building. One incredibly large and well armed individual seemed to be leading the rest of Jokers minions. It didn't take a genius to see that he was coming for her. Somewhere in the distance, she heard more gunfire, and she knew that havoc was breaking out across Gotham City, no doubt as a distraction from his real goal. Her first instinct was to run, but there was nowhere to run from The Joker, she knew that all too well. It was barely dark out, too early for The Bat to be out yet, she punched the emergency code into her remote all the same. With all her being, she wished Dick was by her side, protecting her, but he wasn't. It was all up to her. Well, that was fine, she was all that she ever needed.

Her hands had suddenly grown very cold with fear, but she managed to wheel her chair across the room, where she fumbled for her taser, baseball bat, and a double barreled, sawed off shotgun. Should worst come to worse, she would shoot to kill. It wasn't long before she got her chance, with automatic shotguns blazing, security device after security device exploded, culminating with the front door being blown to pieces with no ceremony whatsoever. They swarmed into her apartment like a pride of lions on the hunt, sensing weak prey at hand. Barbara would prove them wrong.

Aiming low, she pulled the trigger and felt the tremendous recoil against her shoulder. Two of the intruders fell immediately, clutching their knees. The Arab mountain thundered through the door and charged at her, followed closely by The Joker. Barbara fired once more, but both of them dodged out of her line of fire. The gun was suddenly batted out of her hand and clattered across the room. Two hands locked around her shoulders like a vice.

That was when the window behind them shattered. Barbara almost cried out Dick's name, thinking that it was him. Her eyes widened with fear, not for herself, but for the young boy who had leaped into their midst - Robin, the current boy wonder. Here to pick up the research she was holding for him, no doubt. He was about to get a lot more than that. Barbara wanted to scream at him to run. There was no way he could take on this mob by himself. For his part, Joker seemed thrilled to see the colorfully clad sidekick. "I invite you to come and join my reindeer games this holiday season," he said as Void dropped Barbara back into her wheelchair and began firing one of his shotguns at the newcomer.

"I decline," Robin replied as he swung his quarterstaff at the assembled thugs, sending most of them reeling. Void was the only one to dodge underneath it and grab hold of The Boy Wonder by his cape, hoisting him off of his feet.

"I insist."

Robin felt a flash of heat sear through his left leg as Void brought his right fist down into the young man's calf. The young vigilante fell to the floor in a heap, part of his leg now bending the wrong way. Two more blows from the huge Arab left him unconscious. Barbara spat at The Joker and swung her baseball bat at him, hoping to catch him in the temple and kill him. The Joker's minions pounced on her and restrained her in the chair.

"Leave the boy," Joker said. "I'd kill him, but he'll drive The Bat and Gordon crazy with his first hand account of the evening, which is even more fun than outright death. Besides which, I've already killed a Robin, and I just hate repeating myself." He then turned his attention to Barbara, and with a right cross to her chin, knocked her unconscious.

"To the steam tunnels, boys," Joker yelled. "Time is short and we need to get outta Dodge! By now, my young friend will have eliminated his little problem... gee, I hope he took pictures for me."




Approximately forty minutes later and sixty miles away, Dick was returning to his Bludhaven apartment building. If he didn't shake a leg, he wouldn't be ready on time, and that would just tick Amy off more. She was due to pick him up at the curb only a few short minutes from now. He probably should have driven Barbara home earlier, but he wanted to spend as much time with her as he possibly could. He knew it was selfish, and he didn't care one little bit.

They attacked as he approached his home. From out of the darkness they came, dozens of them, dressed in a very familiar fashion, only this time there was no chanting. For a split second, Dick stood there, frozen in place.

Misfits.

How had they known to attack Dick Grayson? Were they looking for some revenge against the officer that had helped put Jonah in Arkham? That was when he saw him, charging from the shadows. Jonah. He looked very different, but to Dick he was instantly recognizable as the young man he had seen committed to Arkham. His head was now shaved completely, and he wore some kind of contact lenses over his eyes, making them appear blood red. Forgetting that he wasn't in his Nightwing uniform, Dick rolled for cover and picked up a trash can lid, preparing to use it as a makeshift shield. He abandoned the idea as Jonah fired his weapon at Dick, shredding the lid. Dick recognized the PN 90 Jonah was holding, and knew that the lid would offer him no protection. Instead, he picked up several other lids from nearby cans and began tossing them at his attackers. Even he was surprised as they bounced off the heads of some of his attackers, stunning them momentarily.

They continued on toward him, guns at the ready. With no protection and no immediate cover to hide from Jonah's weapons, Dick almost panicked. Was he going to die like this? In his street clothes? A victim of some revenge minded psycho he had put away as a police officer? Refusing to die until he was actually dead, Dick sprinted out from behind the trash cans and tackled the Misfit nearest him with what he feared was too much force. Thankfully, the streets were snow covered and rather than have his skull split open against the pavement, the Misfit was merely knocked unconscious. Dick grabbed the PN 90 and dashed toward a car some ten feet away, bullets singing and whistling past his ears all the while. When he was close enough, he leaped through the air and rolled behind the vehicle, squeezing the trigger twice, firing the weapon into the air as a warning shot. Seeing that their prey was now armed, the new Misfits rolled behind cover themselves, awaiting orders from their leader.

"You guys don't wanna do this," Dick yelled from behind the car as he checked the weapons magazine to see that it was only half full. "I'm a cop, you idiots! I'll give you one chance to back off, then I'm shooting to kill!"

He knew it was a bluff, but hopefully they didn't. In the distance, Dick could hear more gunfire, there was some kind of assault going on somewhere else in the city, as well. Dick knew that Master's gang war against Roland Desmond had just begun anew. Only Charon remained in the middle of the street, laughing maniacally, his laugh offset by the crimson eyes that housed deep pools of hate.

"You wanna do this the hard way? Fine by me, Grayson," Charon called to him. "Even if you survive this night, you'll go as crazy as I am when you find out what I'm going to do to your girlfriend! I'm not Jonah, anymore. You can call me Charon, and your slut girlfriend will be the first among many I escort to Hell, but not after I've had my fun with her."

Dick's ears perked up when he heard Masters mention his "girlfriend". Did he know about Barbara? Wasn't Jonah supposed to be in Arkham?

Dick lay flat on the ground as bullets began ripping into the car. The Misfits had begun riddling the car, hoping to disintegrate his cover, or make it blow up when they hit the gas tank, whichever came first. In all his years, Dick had never felt so completely vulnerable. He was beginning to think that this may be it, he would either have to resort to killing someone to get out of this mess or die himself. Dick stared at the weapon in his hands, loathing it and yet realizing it may be his only salvation. He was aware of the power of the PN 90, it could shred kevlar like a scythe through cotton, and the rusted out Chevette he was using for cover wouldn't last much longer. What would it be? Kill or be killed? Despite the chill in the air around him, Dick felt sweat pouring down his flanks.

Dick thanked God just then that Amy had shown up early. With squad car siren screaming, Amy Rohrbach roared onto the scene at full speed, placing her squad car fully between Dick and the advancing, but very surprised Misfits. Amy kicked open the passenger side door and leaped from the vehicle, pump shotgun in one hand and radio in the other. "This is Baker 9 - 13, we have two officers taking heavy fire! Request backup immediately!" she yelled into the handset, followed by their current position. Dick crawled out from behind the Chevette and to Amy's side behind the squad car.

"Am I glad to see you!" Dick yelled over the piercing whine of bullets embedding themselves in their cover.

"I can't leave you alone for a minute, rookie."

Luck was with them, once more. Apparently, two squad cars happened to be nearby, lunching at a donut shop. Even in Bludhaven, this much firepower will get a cops attention. Within three minutes, two more squad cars had appeared on the scene. Charon called for a retreat, and he and his Misfits disappeared into the shadows once more with three officers pursuing. Dick wanted nothing more than to go upstairs and change into Nightwing for his own pursuit, but that was not an option. He was attacked as Dick Grayson, and he would have to remain Dick Grayson until he had an opportunity to be alone. Jonah - or Charon as he was calling himself now - was on the loose again. Dick recognized the Dante reference, of course, and feared the Masters time in Arkham may have made him even worse.

Two detectives showed up on the scene to take charge of the investigation. A man and a woman, their badges indicated that they were Officers Halfacre and Richard. Dick didn't know either of them, and couldn't tell whether they were dirty or not. They did seem to genuinely care about the attack on him, though, no doubt because it was an attack on another cop. Even in Bludhaven, cops stuck together when they were threatened, dirty or not. Dick sat in the back of a squad car, patiently answering their questions, all the while itching to get upstairs and become Nightwing. He felt a definite sense of foreboding overtake him. Charon had mentioned his girlfriend. Was it just something to drive him crazy? Or was Barbara in real danger? Amy told him to forget about stakeout duty tonight, he had been through enough. When they had finally left the scene, Dick darted up the stairs of his building three at a time. He burst through the door and ran for the phone, which was still off the hook from last night. He immediately placed the receiver back on its base, wanting nothing more than to call Barbara and make sure she was safe. To his surprise, the phone began ringing the moment he hung it up.

"Barbara?" he said as he snatched up the phone.

"Dick, where the hell have you been? I've been trying to get in contact with you for hours," Bruce said, his voice pinned with an undertone of extreme seriousness and urgency.

"Bruce? I was attacked just now. Outside my apartment. Jonah is free again, and he threatened Barbara."

There was silence on the other end.

"Bruce? What's wrong?"

"Dick, listen to me, we have a serious problem. Last night, The Joker and Jonah escaped from Arkham... together. I have some evidence that the two have been making plans together since Masters arrival at Arkham. Joker seems to have taken him under his wing, so to speak. Less than an hour ago, Barbara was kidnapped from her apartment. Robin showed up, he recieved a broken leg for his rescue efforts. The Joker has her, now. He wants revenge against Gordon and against me. He's going to use Jonah as a weapon against us all."

Dick staggered back against the wall in shock, knocking over a lamp. "He... has Barbara?"

Bruce continued, unabated. "You were one of the arresting officers that sent Jonah to Arkham. Both Joker and Jonah see her as someone who means something to both you and Jim. We need to find her, immediately. She may be in Gotham, or perhaps in Bludhaven, I'm not sure yet."

"He... has Barbara?" Dick repeated, in a state akin to shock.

"Dick, listen to me," Bruce said in a commanding voice. "I need you to focus on the task at hand. I need your help on this one. I can't do this without you. Gotham and Bludhaven are too big for me to find them by myself before it's too late. I want you to suit up and meet me at the clock tower in sixty minutes."

"He has Barbara," Dick repeated, this time as more of a statement than a question, as if he had finally processed the horrific truth of the situation.

"Dick!" Bruce yelled into the phone, an uncommon occurrence for him. "Snap out of it! Together, we can fix this, but I need you to keep it together."

"No. I'll do what needs to be done... by myself."

Dick hung up the phone.

No.

Not Barbara.

Not now.

Dick fixed his gaze on the window, looking toward the starry heavens. The howling of white hot rage and the pleas for answers from God went unspoken, but in his mind he screamed as a single tear ran down his cheek. His eyes felt as if they were burning. Rage boiled within the young man until he could barely see straight. Why was such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman to be so abused by a butchering psychopath? If the heavens knew the answers to the many questions he was asking at that moment, they were keeping their own council. The apartment was so silent, he almost found it comical. There was no moment of realization, no answers from on high. It almost made him laugh.

With no answers at hand other than the brutal statements he knew Joker would make, Dick's face soured into a frown, his jaw clenched and tightened. The Joker. Charon. They were only a fraction of the endless parade of psychotics both he and Batman had sent to Arkham, only to reappear in too short a time, even more crazed than before. How was Arkham helping these men? Would they give as much care to Barbara when they inflicted more bodily harm on her? What about the mental torture that being their prisoner would inflict? How many psychiatrists would roll out their couches for her to help rid her of the nightmares? None. You can't write a book about the psyche of some anonymous woman and expect it to sell, but a peek into the mind of a madman like The Joker, that would sell so many books psychiatrists were lining up around the block, willing to work for free just to get a chance to treat the twisted animal.

Unbidden, images of Dick's past flashed before his eyes. He instinctively reached up and tentatively touched the area below his ribs where The Joker had shot him years ago. There was still a slight scar there. As if it had happened yesterday, he relived the pain shooting through him as the bullet tore through flesh and blood spurted everywhere, soiling his red and green Robin outfit...... possibly for eternity. He remembered with crystal clarity attempting to breathe and failing as his legs gave way beneath him and his adoptive father looked on in abject horror. Suddenly Dick realized he was not breathing in the here and now, and forced himself to inhale. Is that what Barbara was feeling even now? His lips curled into a sneer of hatred for the men who would subject her to such things. Yet, he knew he was not the first victim of The Joker's madness, nor would he be the last.

As if he were replaying the worst moments of his life on celluloid in some macabre theater, his memories moved into fast forward. He recalled the night he had learned that Barbara had been shot by the same feral animal that had shot him. Only she had not been so lucky, she would never walk again. How many years had it taken them to find their way back to one another after that horrific incident? How many years of happiness had he robbed them both of, and where was Dick Grayson when she was shot? He certainly wasn't there to protect her, as he should have been. How dare Joker presume to even touch the woman he loved? He dirties her name when he speaks it. And now he had kidnapped Barbara and probably handed her over to Charon, a man he knew all too well. Why had he done all of this? For nothing more than a few laughs. He knew that Charon was personally responsible for the brutal slaying of several women, and more than his fair share of men. He had threatened to crucify an innocent woman with a nail gun, and then turned it on both Nightwing and his own father. What could that bastard be doing to Barbara even now? The thought made his skin crawl and he felt the bile rising in his throat. Charon was another who would have to pay for daring to sully Barbara with his very existence. Dick realized that he had balled his hands into fists, and that they were clenched so tightly they were already beginning to ache. He felt a sudden longing to make Joker and Charon feel the pain they had inflicted on so many of the people he called family.

Once again, his memories fast forwarded through time, and he recalled a death in the family.

Jason.

Jason Todd.

The second Robin.

A damn fine human being.

At first his memories of Jason caused a smile to flicker across his face. Just as quickly the smile faded into nothingness, replaced by the now familiar feeling of his clenched jaw and the sneer of disgust. Jason was dead and buried, murdered in cold blood by the Joker.... along with Jason's own mother. Was there no limit to Joker's insanity? Was there no limit to the suffering he would bring to them? Through it all, The Joker offered not even a shred of remorse. He was merely put away in Arkham time after time, to let his mania fester and breed, and now it had infected another like the sickness it truly was. Somehow, he had come across Jonathon Masters Junior while in Arkham, and together the two must have... bonded... somehow. The Joker wasn't alone in his psychosis any more.

He had an apprentice.

Good God, what must poor Jim Gordon be going through right now?

The Joker's latest heinous act spun through his mind, almost making him dizzy with rage. He remembered this one well, for he was there to witness it firsthand. It was during the time of the No Man's Land. When Gotham was cut off from the world, left to fend for itself, and The Joker had struck again. This time, he had killed Sarah Essen-Gordon, Commissioner Jim Gordon's wife. They had all been unable to stop it from happening, and he recalled the look of pure hatred that burned through his eyes and into the purple clad murderer. Jim Gordon had been emotionally broken at that moment, resorting to shooting out The Joker's knee in order to exact some revenge. Now, Dick wished with all his heart that the bullet had found Joker's brain, not his kneecap. Jim Gordon refused to kill him, even Batman didn't have the nerve to snap his scrawny neck.

Bruce should have killed him when Jason was murdered, supposedly he almost did. Bruce had spoken about it only once to Dick, late at night. Bruce had told him that it would have to be enough for him to see that his foe had been brought to justice and locked away from mankind. He had felt the thirst for The Joker's blood, and he had abandoned it for justice? Where was the justice? The Joker has yet to stand trial for a single crime. He was always deemed criminally insane, and he had proven that time after time. Why had such an irredeemable madman been granted a stay of execution this long? As Police Officer Dick Grayson, he had taken pains to bring Charon in when everyone else was looking for his blood. What did that get him? Nothing. Something within Dick Grayson awakened at that moment. He instantly recognized it for what it was.

Bloodlust.

He had Barbara.

This was no longer a matter of justice.

This was a matter of vengeance.

The Joker will die.

Charon would follow him.

Nightwing would make certain of it.

The decision made, Dick moved to the walk in closet that housed his Nightwing uniform and the tools of his vigilante trade. He donned the combination Kevlar / Nomex jumpsuit slowly, deliberately. The boots followed, then the gauntlets. He checked to make sure that he was well armed with shurikens, his favored escrima fighting sticks, De-cell cables, and grapnels. He would need no more weaponry than that. What he planned to do to The Joker and Charon, he would do with his bare hands.

Lastly, he donned the mask, and Dick Grayson all but disappeared. Nightwing had taken his place. Moving silently, Nightwing leaped out the window into the brittle cold night air. He breathed deeply as he sprinted across the rooftops. He could taste it on the tip of his tongue, he could feel it in his bones, he could even smell it in the frigid night air. The Joker's demise was at hand, he would die at the hands of Nightwing.

- Encounter #1 -

It was hard for most anyone to believe, but in Bludhaven, there was actually a man who called himself "Joe Six Pack". A former Hell's Angel, Joe was barred from the group for inciting unnecessary gang wars. Gang wars were all well and good when they were called for, but they hurt business. Joe didn't really care about the business, he simply liked all the killing. Joe had made a reasonable living running a protection racket out of Gotham City before the quake hit, and he was forced to move south to Bludhaven. He had even done a few small jobs for Gotham's resident psycho, The Joker, before moving on to greener pastures. The pickings were ripe in the city, what with all the displaced Gothamites and the new businesses starting up. Joe and his gang, which numbered all of six men, made a point of hitting every new business that was starting up in the city, demanding his protection money and unleashing his wrath on those who could not or would not pay up.

As the holiday season approached, Joe and his six pack had descended on a small antique shop. The owner, one Joanne McCoy, had stubbornly refused to pay Joe in the past. With the money denied her during the Christmas shopping season by Joe's brutal attacks on her place of business, they both knew she would have to pony up the dough. Joe also liked Joanne personally, she was a damn sexy woman, and he thought she might be fun to take on a roll between the sheets, whether she liked it or not. He and his men had been in her store for over ten minutes, destroying the goods for sale and threatening her, when the voice from the shadows addressed them all.

"If you know what's good for you, you'll leave the woman alone, Joe."

Joe and his men whirled to face the voice from the shadows. The Bat wasn't supposed to be here in Bludhaven. There were rumors of another vigilante in the city, one that used the same methods, and was perhaps an agent working on Batman's behalf. Joe had always thought that killing a Bat wannabe would make for a great evening.

"I'm looking for The Joker and a man calling himself Charon. If you've been in contact with him, you had better tell me now."

Joe spit into the shadows. Whoever this guy was, he wasn't Batman. "Bite me, wannabe!" he yelled as he leveled his Beretta 9mm and squeezed off six rounds.

The shadow came alive and moved across the room with blinding speed. Although there was a fair share of light cast across the room, neither Joe nor any of his men could get a clear view of the newcomer. It was as if the shadows clung to him like a lover. For a few seconds, there was the wet sound of flesh striking flesh, and perhaps the snap of a bone or two. Before he had time to blink twice, the shadow had dropped all of Joe's men. Instinctively, Joe pressed the barrel of his Beretta to Joanne McCoy's temple.

"Back off man, you walk outta here right now or I waste the bitch," he roared, defiantly.

The shadow remained perfectly still.

There was a brief flash of movement, quicker than the eye could follow, and Joe Six Pack felt something dig deep into his forearm as he screamed with pain. Seconds later, his world was turned on its axis as he was suddenly up in the air, then falling in a heap to the floor, blood spurting freely from his arm. Joe felt his bleeding arm being twisted up and around his back until bone grated on bone. His shoulder was now fully hyper extended. He let loose a string of curses and begged for mercy.

"I won't ask again, Joe. Have you seen The Joker since you showed up in Bludhaven?"

"Nooooooooooooooooo!!!!!" Joe screamed as he trembled with pure agony.

Just as quickly as it began, it ended. Joe felt the pressure on his arm suddenly dissipate and the weight on his back had disappeared. His mysterious attacker had vanished. Joe slowly brought his arm out from behind his back and stared wide eyed at the bat shaped shurikens still embedded in his torn flesh. Robbed of his strength and mobility, Joe could only watch as the shop owner picked up his Beretta in her hand and raced for the phone to dial 911. Whoever or whatever it was that had attacked him, even an encounter with The Batman was preferable to what he had just been through.

- Encounter #2 -

"Mister Tedeschi."

Lee Tedeschi sat bolt upright the moment he realized that he and his wife were not alone. Tedeschi was accustomed to moving quickly, and he didn't care one wit that he had left his wife in a somewhat embarrassing position on the bed. Weighing in at approximately three hundred and thirty seven pounds, the former sumo wrestler and current proprietor of Tedeschi Gyms moved with the speed of a man half his size. The gigantic sumo was completely nude, but that did not mean that he posed no threat. During his days in Japan, Tedeschi had risen to the rank of Yokozuna, which translated as 'Grand Champion'. His hands were capable of encircling a normal mans neck twice, and he possessed more than enough strength to snap said neck like dry kindling.

Tedeschi was also an enforcer of sorts. Sometimes he worked for Eddie Minh, and other times he contracted his services out to others. The men and women who trained in his Dojo were among the deadliest on the east coast, and they were for hire. Trained in the ancient arts of self defense by Tedeschi himself, they were feared and respected among underworld types. Despite the fact that Tedeschi had no idea how this interloper had penetrated his defences, the behemoths ire had been roused, no one dared to intrude upon he and his wife in such a manner during a private moment. The intruder merely waited for him, hands behind his back, as he charged across the room at the dark figure, enshrouded by the night. At the last possible second, a gauntleted open palm streaked forth, snaking through his defenses to strike Lee Tedeschi full on the chin.

The giant sumo felt his knees buckle and the floor rushed up to meet him. The shadow from the darkness approached him, almost nonchalantly, and dropped to one knee beside the fallen man. Tedeschi feigned unconsciousness, waiting for his opportunity to strike. At the last possible second he lashed out with a knife edge chop, only to have the shadow expertly block it and counter with his own, a strike to a nerve cluster in his shoulder that would render his arm useless for the next several hours. The intruder may indeed move like a shadow, but he was solid enough.

"You're a contract enforcer, Tedeschi. I want to know if you've been doing business with either The Joker or a man who calls himself Charon."

Tedeschi refused to speak. He had rights, and there was no way some psycho in a mask and long underwear was going to grill him like a cop under the hot lights. Whoever this asshole was, he had no authority. Lee clammed up completely, biding his time until his arm regained its feeling and he could strike back. He watched as the liquid black shadow reached out and dug his fingers into the trapezius muscle group. Searing pain lanced through Lee's body like a hot knife.

"Silence is not an option, Tedeschi."

For all his earlier bravado and fierceness, Tedeschi decided to speak the truth, he knew that his men would be waiting outside for this costumed freak, and they would rip him limb from limb anyway. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I haven't been contracted to do any work for anyone but The Minh family since fall. Not to mention I don't like working with psychos. Psychos just like you." He spat. Across the room, Mrs. Tedeschi was whimpering in fear under the sheets.

The man in the shadows was silent, the white lenses that hid his eyes boring a hole through Tedeschi's sweaty face. After what seemed like an eternity to the sumo, but which was in fact only a few seconds, the intruder released his grip and rose to his full height, only to make his way silently to the door. The pain that had lanced through Lee's shoulder all but disappeared. As he reached for the doorknob, he turned back to Tedeschi. "You better pray I don't find out that you're lying, or an arm won't be all I'll paralyze."

As the intruder walked out the door, Tedeschi smiled as he rose clumsily to his feet, his right arm still useless. His best guards were waiting in the hallway beyond. Seconds later, a call of alarm went up throughout the building, and the sounds of violence soon followed. No guns were fired, which Tedeschi thought was odd. Even though he had trained his men to the pinnacle of their fighting art, he insisted that all of them carry guns just in case. There was no point in being stupid, after all. Tedeschi hobbled out of the room and down the hallway, which had suddenly become very still. He peeked his head around the corner and his eyes widened in shock. There on the floor, lay sixteen of his best men, unconscious. The masked vigilante was nowhere to be found.

- Encounter #3 -

Mac Arnot came close to swallowing the cigarette between his lips when he witnessed a sight he hoped he would never see again. As if he were on a morning stroll for the Sunday paper, Nightwing back flipped onto the terrace of Roland Desmond's estate in Avalon Hill and approached the huge sliding doors that led into the mansion's spacious and impeccably decorated sitting room. Nightwing had infiltrated Desmond's estate several times before, and even though the crime lord had increased security with every breach, it still seemed as if he could come and go at will.

It was because of Nightwing that Arnot was now visiting Roland Desmond, coming personally to his master to report what amounted to a siege on Bludhaven's underworld by a masked vigilante who, from all reports, matched the description of their vigilante foe. Something was dreadfully off about these reports, however. Nightwing was not known to make such a violent impression. If this was indeed Nightwing, and not another pretender to the name, which had happened in recent months, something had set the vigilante off in a big way, and it seemed he was working his way up the criminal food chain. It would be only a matter of time before he came face to face with Desmond. However, Arnot hoped he would be nowhere near when that moment came.

Both Desmond and Arnot realized that something was drastically different about this encounter as Nightwing approached the glass doors. Roving cameras scoured every inch of The Desmond estate, and he was sure to realize that such an obvious entrance would be well monitored. The reports had been correct, Nightwing seemed to be on a rampage of some kind, the kid gloves, so to speak, were definitely off. Desmond had always secretly feared the day when Nightwing stopped playing by rules and took matters into his own hands.

The masked man's pace was such that, if he didn't slow down, he would walk right through the plate glass windows that comprised the sliding door. Rather than allow that to happen, Nightwing stopped for only a split second and let loose with a vicious side kick that reduced the plate glass to a million jagged shards. Bludhaven's avenging angel strode purposefully through the doorframe, his eyes scanning for the man he sought. Alerted well in advance of his approach, Desmond's guards charged into the room, each bringing his own Smith and Wesson MK 60 to bear on him. Roland Desmond himself had personally chosen the weapon as standard issue for his guards, a 9mm submachine gun that was small enough to fit under a decent sized dress coat, and yet still housed a 36 round magazine. With over a dozen men pouring into the room, each armed with a gun of that type, both Desmond and Arnot fell to the floor in expectation of the lead that would soon fill the air. Much to his Desmond's surprise, the roar of gunfire was not as loud as he had expected. Glancing up and behind him, he saw that five of his men had already fallen. How had that happened so quickly? While Nightwing was on the other side of the room, no less?

For that matter, where was Nightwing now? Desmond returned his gaze to the position where Nightwing had been standing, and there was no one there. He cast a glance over to the remaining guards, and noticed that they were firing toward the ceiling. Gazing upward, Desmond saw Nightwing as he had never seen him before. Descending from a chandelier above, the black clad vigilante swooped down upon them, evoking the image of the pure avenging angel he was rumored to be. From his hands flew dozens of bat shaped throwing stars. What truly piqued Blockbuster's curiosity was the look etched upon his enemies face. It was a look of pure hatred, one that he had never witnessed before, at least, not on Nightwing. Normally his foe was almost upbeat in his dealings with even the lowest criminal element, producing a rouge like smirk at every turn, if only to infuriate his foes. Something was wrong. Desmond leaped to his feet and spread out his arms in order to catch the eyes of his remaining guards. When he spoke, his voice thundered like a canon.

"Enough!"

Thanks to their superior training and a healthy dose of fear for their employer, the guards immediately stopped firing. To Desmond's pure astonishment, only three of the original twelve remained standing. His foe had eliminated the rest in mere seconds. Nightwing turned his back on Desmond's guards as if they meant nothing to him and stalked toward Blockbuster. That was when Arnot interposed himself between them, placing a warning hand on Nightwing's shoulder. "Put it in park, big shot. This is as close to Mister Desmond as you get."

A savage knee to the groin doubled Arnot over completely and Nightwing stalked past him as if he were nothing more than a gnat, not even worthy of acknowledgement. Desmond regarded his foe warily. "No snappy patter tonight, hero?"

"I left my joke book in my other uniform," Nightwing replied flatly.

"What can I do for you?" Desmond asked.

"You're finally going to get your wish, Desmond. I'm going to kill Jonah and his new partner for you. All you have to do is help me find them."


Chapter 12: Awake The Giant

********************

Fury beyond description.

Jim Gordon fairly shook with restrained fury. The only other emotion that warred for dominance in his weary soul was a feeling of desperate sorrow. He was devoid of joy, or even the smallest flash of hope. He rubbed his eyes to clear his blurry vision. He held Barbara's picture in his hands, the glass in the frame now soaked with his tears. Renee Montoya had the unenviable task of informing him of the destruction of a squad car, the death of two fine officers, and the apparent kidnapping of his daughter. Renee had done a heroic job of keeping a professional demeanor, but inwardly, her heart was breaking for the gruff old man who was more to her than just his boss. She considered him a father figure, as part of the family, as did everyone in the department.

Night had barely fallen and The Joker had made his move, not against the city's police chief, but against his daughter. That decrepit animal didn't have the guts to take him on man to man. It wouldn't have taken much; Gordon would have gladly met The Joker one on one in the park somewhere, and pounded him into a bloody pulp. No, Joker didn't work like that. He was the dirtiest player ever. He would kick you where it hurts, he would do anything to cause you pain. There was no honor in it, nor was there decency. Those feelings would just hold Joker back from doing what he did best: violence and murder.

It was not standard operating procedure, but he had the signal lit anyway, even though it was only about 7:30 in the evening. It had barely been dark for an hour and a half. The Batman rarely appeared before 10:00 at night.

Gordon couldn't have cared less.

This was his daughter in that madman's clutches. Heaven only knew what he would do to Barbara. He had crippled her without meaning to, what could he possibly do now, when he was meaning to do her harm? Was this his fate for choosing to live in Gotham City? Would he bury all those whom he loved, the victims of the profession he had chosen? His wife was dead and buried, his daughter crippled for life and in the hands of a rapist, perhaps even dead by now.

No. Don't think like that. He wouldn't kill her, at least not yet. He wants them all to suffer, knowing that he has her and there is nothing anyone else can do about it. It was Batman that reassured him of that, on the rooftop. He had appeared only five minutes after the signal had been lit, which meant that he had been nearby. What had brought him out so early? Gordon didn't know, he only thanked the Heavens that his old ally had chosen this night to be out so early.

"You know as well as I do," Batman had told him earlier. "Joker will want to drag this out. He has to keep her alive and in relatively good condition. That gives us some time. I will find her, I promise."

Jim remained agitated. "What about this?" he said, his teary eyes betraying his fear. He held in his hands a fax from The Bludhaven Police Department. The record of one Jonathon Masters Junior. Bullock still hadn't managed to get in touch with a liaison to the Bludhaven PD, but he had managed, through some serious yelling and threatening, to get the document faxed to Gotham. Masters had been arrested at his family home for inciting a gang war, not to mention the repeated assault, sexual and physical, of several Haven women. A man who had been committed to Arkham by the state for treatment until he was deemed fit to stand trial, and while at Arkham, his insanity was encouraged by the grinning ghoul who had been a cancer on their lives.

"From what I know of him," Batman responded. "Masters regards The Joker as some kind of mentor. I don't think he'll do anything to Barbara without Joker's consent, and Joker won't give it until he's run out of ways to torture us. I know Nightwing has run into Masters on more than one occasion. He's deadly and thinks nothing of taking human life, but he's also desperately in need of a father figure, which he seems to have found in our old enemy. When your forensics team is finished at Barbara's I'll take a look and see what I can find."

"So..... they might be in Bludhaven. I assume you have Nightwing working on it down there?"

"I.... haven't been able to contact him yet. Don't worry, I'll have him on the case within the hour."

Gordon slumped over slightly and shook his head, betraying his weary state. He cast his mind back to the year before, when The Joker had shot Sarah, could he have prevented this somehow? Was he somehow to blame for his daughters kidnapping? "I should have killed him when I had the chance," Jim whispered.

Batman said nothing for several moments, regarding his old friend with a keen eye. It wasn't easy to miss the tears welling up in his eyes, the shake of his hands. "The fault is mine. I've often thought the same thing, myself. None of this would have happened if I had killed him years ago."

A light rap on the door brought Gordon out of his sorrow, and he tucked the picture away as Harvey Bullock's head peeked inside. "Hey Commish, I know there's no use asking if you're gonna be okay, but there's at least one bright spot on the horizon. I'm expecting a call within a half hour, Bludhaven's finally giving us a real person to deal with. All I had to do was threaten to do down there and rip them a new ....."

"Thanks, Harvey," Gordon said, cutting Bullock off before he could complete his sentence. "I just hope it's someone we can deal with."

Bullock looked at Gordon with the same concern that had been apparent in Batman earlier. For all the effort Harvey put into his John Wayne, tough-guy-wannabe exterior, there was a good and caring man underneath, especially when it came to Jim Gordon, a man he would die for. "You holding up okay, Commish?"

Gordon managed a quick smile of reassurance. "I'll be fine. Good work, Harvey." Bullock nodded and closed the door. Jim reached into his desk and pulled out the picture of Barbara one more time. As he did so, he reached down to his belt and removed the badge that was clipped to it. He held one in each hand, almost as if he was weighing the importance of each. He cast a glance at the badge he had worn so proudly, it was a symbol of his life's work. Then he looked at the picture of Barbara in the other hand. She was more than his life's work, she was his life. Jim took the badge and shined it with the piece of cloth he used to shine his glasses, and then placed it in the drawer, shutting it tight, the picture of Barbara remained on his desk. The choice had been made. When The Joker was found, there would be no bullets in the kneecap, this one would go straight to his skull, and Jim didn't want to be a cop when that came to pass.

*****

The Batmobile roared into the Batcave, announcing The Dark Knight's arrival. Alfred was, to put it mildly, glad to see him. As the canopy slid forward on the legendary automobile, Alfred approached with a cup of coffee and Bruce Wayne's silk robe, should he desire it. Batman leaped forth from the cockpit and approached his oldest friend. "Has there been any word from Dick?" he asked pointedly. Alfred's brow knitted at the mention of the young man whom they both considered a son.

"I'm afraid not, Master Bruce. Master Richard has even deactivated his GPS locator. I have failed to locate him, and I dare say I'm quite worried about his mental state at this time."

Bruce reached out and patted his old friend on the shoulder. "I'm sure you did your best." He gladly accepted the cup of coffee but waved away the robe. There would be no time for relaxation tonight. "I have to admit, I'm concerned myself. Dick doesn't just disappear like this. I've never heard him sound the way he did on the phone. He and Barbara were finding their way back to one another, and then that animal had to go and interfere." Bruce paused to collect his thoughts as he drank the coffee which tasted slightly of lemon. "If he wanted, Dick could be a lethal weapon, Alfred. I'm afraid he may be looking for blood. Those two bastards may have pushed him too far."

Alfred immediately tensed at Bruce's comments. He had suspected as much himself, but to hear Bruce give voice to those fears gave them another, altogether more horrifying reality. "Then surely, sir, you will be travelling to Bludhaven to track down Master Dick and make him see reason?" An expectant tone crept into Alfred's voice. This was not just a question, it was a plea. Alfred wanted nothing more than to have the father rush to the aid of his son before something horrible happened... something that Dick would regret for the rest of his life. Much to Alfred's shock, Bruce shook his head, negating whatever hopes he had.

"I can't do that, Alfred. You know as well as I do that The Joker and Jonah have Barbara. God knows what they could be doing to her, even now. I tried to put Jim at ease, and I don't think Joker will kill her, but that doesn't mean he can't do something almost as bad. They may be in Gotham, or they could be in Bludhaven, I still haven't tracked them down yet. I'll be going over Barbara's apartment in about ten minutes, when the forensics team is done. In the meantime, I've been checking on Joker's old haunts in Gotham. Tim is unable to help with the physical end of the search, but he is taking Oracle's place at the computers for the moment. I can't spare a second until I find Barbara and bring her home."

Alfred scowled disapprovingly at his master. "Surely sir, you are not suggesting that we abandon Master Dick to his own grief? Lord knows what he might do in such a state. I refuse to believe it of you."

Bruce actually managed a half smile, completely for Alfred's benefit, and it reassured the kindly old man completely. "For the time being, I'll just have to call in some assistance to calm him down."

Alfred visibly straightened and cleared his throat before he spoke again. "I volunteer to go after him, sir."

"No, old friend. I need you here. I don't think you'd be well equipped to find Dick on Bludhaven's rooftops, anyway."

"Then who, sir? Master Tim is unable. Mister Valley would only make matters worse considering his past with Richard. Miss Cassandra can barely speak to calm him down."

Bruce considered the matter for a moment and walked across the cave to where Tim Drake sat, his eyes pouring over a computer screen and his leg in a cast. As Tim caught Bruce's movements out of the corner of his eye, he swivelled the seat around to face his partner. "How's the leg?" he asked.

Tim shrugged. "Needless to say, it's seen better days. Alfred did a great job of patching me up. I guess I'll have to lie to my dad and tell him I broke it playing hockey with the guys or something."

"Any luck with the search?" Bruce asked.

Tim sighed wearily. "I hate to tell you this, but the answer is no. I've been online trying to track down where The Joker and his buddies could hide in Bludhaven, but that city is SO in the dark ages, it's a data nightmare. The Masters holdings in Bludhaven alone could take days to check out. If we ever needed an Oracle, we need one now."

Bruce frowned. They had become so reliant on Oracle, so trusting that the ever present fount of information would always be there, her absence was a reminder just how big a role she played in their war on crime. Losing her was akin to losing a limb, or perhaps one of your senses, like sight or hearing. No, Bruce told himself, stop thinking of her as lost. She's not lost yet.

"Bruce?" Tim asked.

"Yes?"

"What are we going to do about Dick?"

"Tim, put me in contact with Titans Tower, immediately, and the JLA satellite as well. I want to speak to Wally West and Roy Harper, as in yesterday."

Tim smiled, as did Alfred. "Consider it done."

*****

She smiled, happy to be rid of her nightmare. It had been the worst nightmare she had experienced in ages. She would have to get up soon, though. She was being negligent in her duties as Oracle this evening. Dick seemed to have that effect on her, somehow. He could make her forget about all her worries and problems, and remind her that there was a life out there, just waiting to be lived to the fullest. She smiled at the thought of him, and felt the twinge in her jaw. In her nightmare, The Joker had invaded her apartment, knocking her unconscious with a closed fist to the jaw. Surely, all that had been a nightmare?

As Barbara slipped further and further into the waking world, she began to think that it hadn't all been some horrific dream brought on by too much pizza and too many late nights staring at a computer screen. She began to realize she was not in her bed, whatever she was lying on was hard, unforgiving, and cold. Her bed was always warm and soft. Something was dreadfully wrong. Panic began to well up inside her as she forced her eyes open wide and propped herself up on her elbows.

She was not in her bed.

In fact, she had no idea where she was. There was little light to speak of in her surroundings, and she squinted to make out the two figures in the darkness. It wasn't a nightmare. Nightmares end when you wake up. This was real. She could make out two sounds in the darkness, one was the sound of heavy breathing, the other was a twisted, evil, chuckle.

"Oh, dear Lord," She muttered to herself.

Without warning, several bright spotlights clicked on, blinding her for a moment. The two shadows in the darkness, outside the field of light, were invisible to her now. She didn't need to see them, however, she knew who it was.

"You'll never get away this, Joker." She was about to continue, to tell him how Batman, Nightwing, her father, and probably a few others would come down on him like the hounds of Hell, but she knew better than to play into his game. For the first time, she saw her wheelchair, sitting about five feet away, and she began crawling toward it. The Joker merely giggled like a schoolboy, remaining out of sight. Barbara pulled herself up into her chair, and immediately knew that something was wrong. It almost felt..... rickety. It's structure had been weakened somehow.

Suddenly, the chair fell apart, and she toppled to the floor in a heap. Barbara's face reddened with anger as The Joker broke into a wail of laughter and rolled his own wheelchair into the light, followed by the incredibly muscular and terribly frightening Jonathon Masters, who had changed his grotesque appearance to include a shaved head and red contact lenses in his eyes. He was eyeing her with barely disguised lust. The Joker produced a plastic bag and emptied the contents on the floor beside Barbara. It contained all the missing screws that held her chair together. It was just some sick and twisted joke.

"Looking for these?" Joker wailed.

"You're a waste of skin," She spat.

"You don't appreciate my sense of humour, is that it?" Joker asked, clutching his hands over his heart and frowning. "You wound me to the quick, Miss Gordon. After all the trouble I go through just to get a laugh, and you don't even give me a snicker?" Joker slid forward on the seat of his chair and bent over so that he might take Barbara's chin between his thumb and forefinger, she flinched at his touch, even though he was wearing white gloves. When Joker spoke again, he was making no attempt at being playful, the tone of his voice had dropped considerably, and his face a mask of seriousness.

"Now let me tell you something, missy. I've got a lot of fun planned for us. For you, your dad, the flying rodent, everyone. I don't need a heckler like you in the audience. I do suggest you play nice. It may not be time to kill you yet, but I can hand you over to my associate here for a little fun and games," He gestured towards Masters, who stared at her intently. "After which you'll wish you had died. Comprende?"

Barbara nodded, saying nothing.

"Excellent," Joker cooed. "Now, we have some business to attend to, but please don't think we'll forget you, because I could never forget you." He wailed with laughter once more, and together, he and Masters stepped out of the light and into the darkness. Seconds later, she heard the sounds of a door being bolted in place. Barbara began to cry, wanting nothing more than to give in to the state of panic that threatened to overwhelm her. No. She would not give in. She refused to play The Joker's game, and she refused to sit and wait for the knights in shining armour to come to her rescue. She was Oracle, the original Batgirl, she was above despair and panic. Somehow, she would have to effect her own escape. Despite her bravado, she felt the icy tendrils of fear wrap themselves around her. Thoughts of her father, and his weakened heart refused to leave her mind and clawed at her consciousness.

Wait!!

Her father.

Barbara immediately sat up and reached down to her belt buckle. It was there, still clipped where she had left it. Where she promised him she would keep it. The key chain, on one end, a rape whistle, and on the other end...............

Pepper spray.

They assumed a woman without the use of her legs would pose no threat. They never assumed she could have anything dangerous on her person. Barbara's tears changed from sorrow to those of hope as she clutched the key chain her father had given her days ago to her chest as though it were a lifeline.

She had a weapon.

Moreover, she had the beginnings of a plan.

When the time was right, she would strike. She would show them that Barbara Gordon was nobodies victim. Dick would be coming for her, as would Bruce, and her father, and the entire police department, but she knew that if she stayed calm, and used her wits, all she would need is herself. Placing the key chain in her pocket once more, Barbara began sorting through the nuts and bolts that helped keep her chair together. Slowly, with much patience and a steady hand, she began the lonely task of reassembling it.

Outside Barbara's prison, Charon was not at all happy as he pushed Joker's chair down the hallway of the warehouse they had taken up residence in. "You're having your fun, but Grayson got lucky. I want to carve his heart out. I need to kill him. He's what made me what I am today. I want him to feel my pain."

"One thing at a time, my dear boy," Joker replied. "Your misfits are out there, as we speak, waging war on this Blockbuster moron, and by now we must have the bat and his little bat mites going off their rocker. You need to learn to enjoy the anticipation that comes before the kill. It's like waiting until Christmas morning to open your presents, the longer you wait, the better it will be. Grayson will die, when the time is right, and when it's poetic, not before."

Charon frowned. "He better," he paused as he considered the young woman they had just left behind in the locked storage room. "I like her," He said. "She reminds me of..... my mother. I don't know wether to kill her or... well... you know."

Ignoring his new apprentice for the time being, Joker reached into his jacket and removed a folded up copy of yesterday's newspaper. The Bludhaven Gazette, a rather drab and stunted member of the fourth estate, Joker thought, proudly proclaimed that since the influx of citizens from Gotham a year ago, local businesses had enjoyed a new prosperity. The article was accompanied by a photo of the Bludhaven Plaza Hotel and the almost complete casino at it's apex. "All in good time, my boy. Tell me, have you ever heard of my trademarked... smilex?"

*****

A short time later in Bludhaven, two figures, cloaked in darkness on a nearby rooftop, watched an old friend from afar. They did not like what they saw, for they barely recognized him. His mannerisms, the way he spoke, and even the way he moved clearly indicated that he had undergone some change, and that change was not for the better.

"Je-sus! Will you look at him go?"

"Man, I don't like this, not one bit. No wonder he called us in."

"Maybe we should try and get a little closer, in case he gets in any trouble."

"If we get any closer, he'll know we're here, he might know already. Besides, does he look like he needs our help?"

"I've never seen him like this. Ever. Have you?"

"No, and I sure as Hell don't like it."

"You said that already."

"That's because I'm worried. That's not the Nightwing I know."

Below them, Nightwing was running rampant through a gang of Misfits that had seen fit to attack one of Roland Desmond's businesses, known as The Cherry Pie Club, which was basically a high class strip club frequented by bankers, travelling businessmen, and Desmond's gangster lieutenants. Drinks were free, but the women were expensive. When The Misfits had hit Desmond's other club, Shooters, they were starting at the bottom. They had since moved upward, hitting the higher class of club, killing the people who truly mattered to Desmond's machine, not just some small time cogs in the wheel.

Nightwing moved at an almost inhuman speed, somersaulting to and fro, lashing out with kicks, punches, and escrima sticks. The police were nowhere in sight. The duo on the rooftop above watched with concern. What struck them most was the silence with which Nightwing fought. Both of them had come to know him and his fighting style. A constant stream of puns and wisecracks were as much a part of his arsenal as were his Capoera fighting discipline, a martial art developed by slaves in Brazil that emphasized wide sweeping kicks, handstands, and great gymnastic skill. It was disconcerting to see him so violent, and doubly so with his lack of speech.

It was at that point that a white van hurtled around the corner and screeched to a stop. From the back, even more Misfits clamoured out, hurling flaming molotov cocktails and with weapons at the ready. Nightwing didn't even flinch. He made no attempt to run for cover as several of The Misfits tossed the home made bombs into a dumpster, causing it to ignite immediately, and pushed the now completely ablaze metal container toward Nightwing. Above them all, the duo tensed as they watched.

"Shouldn't he be hunting cover about now?"

"He would be if he was thinking clearly."

"Maybe we better lend a hand."

"I think you're right."

Roy Harper, also known as Arsenal, leaped to his feet and into the light. Producing two crossbows, he prepared to leap into action alongside his friend. He glanced to his right, only to find that his fleet footed ally was already down the fire escape and into the midst of the situation. Roy shook his head in frustration as he watched The Flash streak to Nightwing's side. "Why do I even bother trying to lead a charge with him?"

The Titans had arrived in Bludhaven.

It took Nightwing a few seconds to realize what he was seeing as the crimson blur that was The Flash ran among them, disarming many of The Misfits as he did so. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Arsenal running toward them, firing bolts as he went. Under normal circumstances, Nightwing would have been thrilled to see his old friends and allies from The Titans, but not tonight. As the last of The Misfits fell to the ground unconscious, Nightwing ran toward Wally and didn't stop until his face was mere inches from that of The Flash.

"What the Hell are you two doing?" He asked.

"Keeping you from getting your head blown off," Flash responded.

"Hey Wingster," Arsenal called to him as he approached the scene. "No 'hello's', 'How are you', or ''thanks for saving my ass'?" Roy commented as he slapped Nightwing on the back. Nightwing reached around and removed his old friend's hand as though it contained a disease.

"You two shouldn't be here. I'm busy."

Flash snorted. "Man, you sound way too much like your former partner for my liking."

Nightwing turned away from them and ran toward the fire escape that Arsenal and The Flash had descended only moments ago with Roy and Wally chasing after him.

"I needed one of those Misfits left conscious for questioning. You just set my timetable back, and there's..." He paused for a moment, trying to catch his breath. "There's a life at stake."

When they had reached the rooftop, Arsenal was the one who forced himself into Nightwing's path, refusing to move. "All right, I've had enough of this pussy footing around, Wingster. Give it up. Tell us just what the Hell is going on around here. What's got you so damn careless that the mighty Batman himself feels it's necessary to call us lowly mortals in?"

Batman. Even in his current mood, Nightwing had to laugh. Damn the man's tenacity, anyway. He had told Batman that he would handle this alone, and he was in the process of doing exactly that. Using information supplied to him by Roland Desmond, Nightwing knew that there was a high probability that The Misfits would attack this very club very soon. In the past few hours, Bludhaven had erupted into violence, and yet neither The Joker nor Charon were seen at any of the crime scenes. It was as if they had known Nightwing would be out there, waiting for them, and they chose to stay out of sight, probably torturing Barbara as he stood there, wasting time.

His plan was simplicity in itself, and it would have worked, too. Had Roy and Wally not gotten in the way. Leave one or two Misfits intact, and pretend to allow them to escape. Following them via jumpline would have been child's play for him. Seeking out their leader for guidance, they would have led him straight to The Joker and Charon, and then Nightwing could kill them before rescuing Barbara. Let Bruce handle Gotham, he'd be too busy gathering evidence against them for a trial that would never happen anyway, leaving Nightwing free to put an end to the threat they presented once and for all.

It felt strange to him, to shut out Batman's help as he did, but that didn't mean it wasn't necessary. After this case was over, Nightwing would have taken his first, and hopefully his only, human life. He didn't want Batman, Robin, Joey Flaherty, Arsenal, or Flash around when that happened, because they would only try and stop him, and when they failed, they would feel responsible for a murder. It was for their own good that they stay away from him until this business was complete. It was for this reason that he turned to Blockbuster for assistance in finding Charon. He recalled with some disgust the smile on Desmond's face when he said he was going to kill Charon and Joker.

"Oh really?" Desmond had said. "I'm not sure what caused this change of heart, but I must say, I approve." Desmond then informed him about The Cherry Pie club, and the high likelihood that it would be hit. Desmond even promised to arrange that many of his most important men would be there, acting as a lure. Nightwing acknowledged the information with a nod, and turned on his heel to leave Desmond's estate.

"What? No thank you for your new partner?" Desmond asked, his tone almost gleeful as he made sure to stress the word 'partner'. Nightwing made no response, and left the building to set up an ambush for The Misfits. He didn't have to wait long, and had Roy and Wally not interfered, he might be rescuing Barbara at this very moment. Now Batman had called in Arsenal and The Flash, which was obviously a ploy to make him think twice about his current course of action. It wouldn't work. Nothing could make him think that the lives of Joker and Charon were worth sparing. Nightwing's mind snapped back to the present, where he realized Roy and Wally were looking at him strangely.

"Are you sick or something?" Wally asked.

"Guys, if our friendship means anything to you, you'll leave. Now."

"I'm not going anywhere. How about you, Roy?" The Flash asked as he leaned nonchalantly against Arsenal, supporting himself on his elbow, which rested on Roy's shoulder.

"I ain't moving an inch," Arsenal responded.

"Looks like you're stuck with us," The Flash responded, turning his attention back to Nightwing.

Nightwing drew in a long breath and just as slowly let it out again, trying to think of something he could say that would persuade them to leave him be. He had known both of them for many years, since they were just teens - Teen Titans in fact. Wally West, formerly known as Kid Flash and nephew of Barry Allen - the original Flash, and Roy Harper, formerly known as Speedy, a former student of Oliver Queen - the original Green Arrow, had been two of his closest friends for what seemed like forever. He knew they had the best of intentions, but he couldn't allow even them to keep him from his current plan. He decided that perhaps the best course of action, would be to let them in on at least some of the details.

"The Joker is in Bludhaven and he's taken an enemy of mine under his wing," He told them matter-of-factly. "His student likes to call himself Charon. Apart from inciting a gang war with our local mob boss, he's also into raping and killing women... and..."

Roy shook his head in frustration. "What?"

"He has the woman I love hostage."

Both Wally and Roy were silent for a few moments as they let the information sink in. Roy opened his mouth to speak, and no words came out. When Wally tried to speak, he also seemed to trip over his words. "Ah. I... see." Wally managed to say. Of course, Batman had refused to fill the two Titans in on the particulars of the situation, indicating only that Nightwing was in serious trouble, was not thinking clearly, and may be contemplating taking a life. Batman was unable to come to his side, and therefore they must calm their old friend down. Silently, both Wally and Roy cursed Bruce Wayne's mania for security.

"Okay," Roy said as he gathered his thoughts. "Let us help you. Titans together and all that stuff. We'll slam those two idiots into next year and get your woman back. This time tomorrow we'll be at East Side Mario's having a beer and stuffing our faces with meatball pannini."

Nightwing turned away from them. "No. You two don't understand. I'm not just going to stop them. I'm going to kill them. The Joker has done too much to the people I care for, and I will not let Charon become an extension of that evil, he's bad enough as it is."

For the second time in as many minutes, Roy and Wally were stunned into silence. Nightwing? Take a life? "You can't do this. You know you can't." Roy told him.

Nightwing whirled around to face them. "Oh no? Tell me Roy, what would you do if someone you loved so dearly you felt as if you'd stop breathing without them fell into the clutches of someone like that? Raped and beaten and left for dead in a dumpster!! All without the slightest bit of remorse!! What would you do? What would you do, Wally, if it was Linda? What about you, Roy? What would you do if they had Lian?"

Arsenal bit his lower lip as the words sunk in. What would he do if they had taken his daughter? The Flash looked expectantly at him, hoping that Roy would have the common sense not to speak the truth in this situation. Nightwing had asked him what he would do if it were his wife, Linda. The Flash refused to answer the question, because he knew the answer would be that he would also consider killing. He would also hope that a good friend would keep him from doing something he regretted for the rest of his life. However, Roy was not so introspective, and he worried that Arsenal would say the wrong thing. Wally's spirit sank as Roy shook his head in the affirmative.

"I'd kill them," Roy muttered.

Wally practically spat his response. "That's bullshit!! That's a completely different situation and you both know it!"

Nightwing turned his back once more on his friends and moved out of the light. "Is it, Wally? Is it really?" He asked. "I'm going to kill those two animals, end of story. It's about time someone did. Please don't try and stop me, and please try and forgive me when it's over. I hope you can understand why I'm doing this." Having finished with defending his actions, Nightwing tossed out a de-cel cable and swung across to the next rooftop. Arsenal and The Flash exchanged a worried glance.

"I'm sorry. He hit a soft spot with me." Arsenal said.

"Yeah, all right. I understand, but no way can we let him go through with this. Agreed?"

Roy nodded.

"Then there's only one thing we can do. Subdue him until we can make him see reason."

Arsenal's face was a mask of disbelief. "You're kidding, right? Us? Fight him?"

The Flash shook his head. "I didn't say fight him. We just... keep him busy. Maybe wear him down a bit until he gets tired enough to sit down and think this thing through. Batman's got the investigation covered for now, we have to make sure he doesn't end up doing something he'll regret. We sure as Hell just can't give up on him," He said, pointing a gloved finger toward their friend as he disappeared over the rooftops.

"Have you seen him lately?" Arsenal said, his voice almost a whisper. "To be honest, I'm not sure we can take him."

"We're not going to take him," Wally explained. "We're just going to... calm him down."

Arsenal took a deep breath as he produced some of his least lethal weaponry. The last thing either of them wanted to do was injure one of their best friends. "All right, then. Let's do it... preferably while I still have my lunch."

Wally also took a deep breath as he steeled himself for the effort. "All right, I'll take point, see you there." With that final comment The Flash streaked away and jumped to the next rooftop with ease using the great momentum he had built up. Roy shook his head in disbelief at their actions and looked at the weapons in his hands - some gas capsules that looked much like a handful of ball bearings, some throwing stars, which he would have to make sure to pin Dick down with, not puncture him, and a set of wooden nun-chucks connected by a length of chain. He took a moment to slide the foam practice covers over the wooden chucks. Hould go out of his way to avoid damaging Nightwing with the often lethal weapons.

"We're gonna get hurt." He whispered to himself as he broke into a desperate run to catch up to the others.

*****

Jim picked up the phone before it had completed the first ring. He had not left his office since he had received word that The Joker had escaped. "Yes?"

"Commissioner Gordon? I'm the B.C.P.D. liaison officer you've been requesting. My name is Joey Flaherty."

Gordon slammed his fist down in frustration. As he did so, he simultaneously made the effort to calm himself down. He would do his daughter no good if had a heart attack now and ended up in a hospital bed. Wouldn't that be just what The Joker wanted? "What kind of department do you people run down there, Mister Flaherty? I've been waiting hours to hear from you. There are lives at stake!"

On the other end of the line, Flaherty paused before he answered the question. Had it been business as usual, Commissioner Gordon may not have heard for many more hours from anyone in the department. As it was, though, this case was special. The phone call had roused him from his sleep only thirty minutes ago. It was the phone call he had been dreading. Arnot's smarmy voice came through clearly on the other end.

"Hey, Joey. How's my old friend?"

Flaherty groaned as the blood in his veins ran cold. It had begun, Arnot was going to start using him tonight. "What do you want?"

On the other end, Arnot laughed. "You're a down-to-business guy, Joey. I like that. Turns out our old buddy Jonathon Masters Junior has managed to free himself from the loony bin up in Gotham City and has apparently hooked up with their resident psycho, The Joker. In case you haven't heard the explosions across the city, the gang war is back in force. Mister Desmond wants someone he can trust to work with the Gotham Police Department. I can't think of anyone better than you. You can keep us completely in the loop, and when dirty little deeds need to be done, we know we can count on you."

Flaherty sighed heavily. He was paying for the skeleton that he kept in his closet for so many years. While it was true that no one died thanks to his indiscretion, he had still broken the law. Should Arnot decided to release the information to the public, it could conceivably destroy his career and cause his family to look at him in a different light.

It happened back when he was a patrolman. A local snitch had informed him of some possible illegal doings by someone who had been an old childhood friend of his. Brian Walters, an old schoolmate of his, was rumoured to have been selling stolen goods. He was supposed to have handled some very hot merchandise that had been stolen in New York, which would make him one of the most wanted men in the state. When there was enough proof, Flaherty had confronted his old friend, in the privacy of his home. Walters was no career criminal. He took the job as a fence for stolen goods simply because he had fallen on hard times and needed the money. His mother was deathly sick and needed money for her medication; his wife had also taken ill and had to quit her job. They had three children to feed on top of all that. He had even cried when confronted by Officer Flaherty.

It wasn't like Joey couldn't sympathize. He, too, had another child on the way. He could barely afford the apartment they had in the city as it was. Things were tough in Bludhaven, the recession was in full swing, jobs were nonexistent. Perhaps it was because they were old friends, or perhaps it was the fact that he sympathized so strongly with his situation, or perhaps it was just because he was a soft cop, but he did not bring Brian in to justice. "Never let me see you commit a crime again," He had told his old schoolmate. "Or so help me I will run you into the ground myself."

Walters had been so relieved, so very indebted to Joey for the second chance, he shoved a briefcase full of cash into his saviour's hands. "Take it. It's dirty money. Give it to the poor, give it to your church. I don't care. Just do some good with it."

Joey had never heard from Walters again, but had heard through contacts that he was in Ethiopia for a time, working with some company over there to bring relief to the malnourished people of that country. The problem now was: what was he to do with the money? He had counted it twice: almost seventy five thousand dollars. He knew of a very worthy cause for the money - his own family. With another child on the way, and more government cutbacks in the near future, his pay wouldn't add up to a hill of beans. He could use it to buy a house in the suburbs and start a college fund for his children. What was so wrong with that?

The problem was: it was dirty money. Joey had no idea how Desmond had gotten wind of it, or what proof he had, if any. He really didn't need any proof. Even the accusation would cause investigations from internal affairs, and they would see that his sudden influx of money was damn near impossible for someone of his pay scale. It would be seen as taking a bribe. He had done it all for his family, but no one would see it that way. Now, he was forced to dance to Arnot and Desmond's tune... all for the love of his family.

As a result of all of this, he was now being forced to string along one of the greatest police officers on the eastern seaboard: Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. The officer in question was now impatiently awaiting an answer to his question. "I'm sorry Commissioner, I've just been given the assignment of dealing with your department. Whose life is at stake?"

"My daughter!!" Gordon yelled into the phone.

His daughter.

Another man with a great love for his child. Suddenly, Flaherty felt like scum. He felt dirty. How could he go continue with this facade? No, he couldn't put up with this much longer.

*****

He actually heard Wally coming before he saw him. Nightwing began to grind his teeth together in frustration. They were keeping him from doing what he had to do. His mandate was clear; no one else will die except The Joker and Charon, even their minions were of no concern to him. They were nobodies; the insane duo at the heart of things - they were the cancer that needed to be eliminated. Now, he had Wally coming up behind him, and kicking up a hell of a wind as he did so. Blinded by rage as he was, Nightwing didn't stop to wonder why his course of action was so objectionable to his friends that they would try and ambush him as they were about to do. If he had, he may have taken a good look at his plan, and stopped right then and there. Instead, he readied himself for action. Defeating Wally and Roy would be no easy task even if he were not inclined to pull his punches. Despite his anger, he could never bring himself to truly hurt them. He merely wanted to lose them.

Wally would be coming in very fast, judging by the sound of the winds behind him, and on these snow covered rooftops, it would be hard for even him to come to a complete stop at a moments notice. Nightwing bided his time and continued running, and at the last possible second side stepped as his old friend came rushing by him.

"Sorry, Wally." Nightwing said as he produced a grapnel and fired the hook at the red blur that rushed by him.

The Flash, unaware that his approach had been anticipated, streaked past. "Whoa!!"

Nightwing aimed the grapnel at Wally's legs, and the pneumatic propelled cable shot forth, entangling itself around the feet of The Flash. Nightwing wrapped the cable around his wrist and yanked hard, pulling the speedster off of his feet and into the air. Wally fell to the rooftop, skidding on the snow as he went. Unwilling to see any harm come to one of best friends, Nightwing noticed that Wally was headed straight toward an old fashioned style brick chimney, on which he could split his skull open should he hit it at top speed. Beyond that, the rooftop ended, where he may fall to his death. Nightwing dug his heels into the snow and put all his weight behind the cable, pulling hard. Despite the tremendous speed at which he was running, The Flash stopped just short of the chimney, still not quite aware of why he couldn't move his legs properly.

Although he had no metahuman powers, Nightwing was on top of The Flash with tremendous speed that would have impressed The Scarlet Speedster himself, were he not otherwise occupied in getting his legs free from the very entangled cable around his legs. From a compartment within his gauntlet, Nightwing produced a small drug tipped dart that would knock Wally unconscious for approximately thirty minutes. He reached down to gently break the skin at Wally's cheek with the dart, when Arsenal had finally caught up to them. A perfectly aimed throwing star knocked the dart from his grasp and to the ground without ever touching Nightwing. It was an impressive shot, to say the least.

"Sorry, old buddy. You'd just hate yourself in the morning if I let you do that." Arsenal called to him as he charged across the rooftop.

Nightwing back flipped twice to give himself some manoeuvreing room as Arsenal approached. He was now standing on the very edge of the snowy roof. "I've always envied you your aim, Roy."

"Yeah yeah," Roy said as he swung the foam covered nun-chucks at his friend. "Come on, Dick! Let's stop this silly crap and work together! We can talk about how to do this thing together!"

"You don't know, Roy. You don't know what these two are capable of. You don't know what they've already done. Someone has to have the guts to put them down. If it has to be me, then so be it."

That was when Roy made his mistake, attempting to outflank Nightwing by swinging with the nun-chucks at his chest, while trying to sneak underneath his guard and kick him in the shin. Nightwing leaped high in the air and somersaulted over his old friend, who had been taken completely by surprise by the manoeuver. When Nightwing landed, he was standing with his back to Arsenal. Without turning, he stepped backward and hooked his boot around Roy's ankle, and pulled. Arsenal fell to the ground beside The Flash, who was cursing and panting as he tried to get loose from his bonds. Nightwing would have to move fast, Wally was almost free.

Nightwing broke into a run and jumped through the air. He came down on the snow and skidded across the rooftop as his hand scooped up the drug tipped dart just as The Flash was returning to his feet. He knew from experience that the cable trick would not work twice and threw the dart with all his might. It hit Wally in the cheek just as he was sloughed off the remainder of the cable. The drug affected even his meta-human body almost instantly, and he dropped to his knees.

"I am gonna kick your ass...when I wake up..." he mumbled as he fell. Nightwing leaped to his feet and managed to catch him before he hit the snow, dropping him gently to the rooftop.

Arsenal once again made his presence known as he launched several of the ball bearing like gas grenades at his friend, and he wasn't hiding the fact that he was righteously angry. "You little shit," He yelled. "Wally was my only way out of this stinking city! I don't even have a car here!"

Nightwing covered his face and ducked behind the chimney, knowing that the gas would disperse quickly outdoors. With The Flash out of the way, he had only to deal with Roy, and still he broke out into cold sweats thinking of the time he was wasting with him. Time that The Joker and Charon could be using to do the most unspeakable things to Barbara.

Spurred on by that thought, Nightwing leaped out from behind the chimney as the latest array of weapons Arsenal could bring to bear on him flew by. Taking advantage of the fact that Roy had to re-arm himself, he launched himself at Roy and knocked him cold with a blow to the chin. As he did with Wally, Nightwing caught Roy as he fell and lowered him to the ground gently. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I swear, if you guys will still talk to me when this is over, I'll buy you a beer and we'll just hang out - like the best of friends."

Nightwing left his friends alone on the rooftop and ran back the way he had come. It was always his intention to lead them away from the crime scene they had just left. Although they had interfered with his plan to follow one of The Misfits back to their lair, there were other clues waiting to be had. The police hadn't shown up yet, and he still had the streets almost to himself, although he could hear them approaching in the distance. The Misfits were keeping the police busy this night. He approached the van that had come careening toward them and inspected it with a wary eye. He bent down on one knee and examined the tires and mudflaps. They were mud covered. Where was there mud when everything was covered with snow? He activated his gauntlet, and almost sent out a signal to Oracle. His heart sank when he realized no one would be there to answer. Perhaps Tim had taken the computer duties over, but he didn't want to involve the youngster in any of this.

Instead, he activated the controls for the remote database that Oracle kept online at all times. Although normally she would access it for others, it was possible to make a query himself, and see the results on the tiny monitor in his gauntlet. He ran the licence plate number of the van. As he suspected, it was registered to a business owned by the now deceased Jonathon Masters. It was one of a fleet of vans used by the company, and was kept in a depot near the docks. The docks always received more rain than snow, due to the proximity to the ocean and the lower temperatures that usually came in off the water, resulting in more mud than snow. It made perfect sense that they were using company equipment. The Joker and Charon were not in Gotham... they were in Bludhaven. He could feel it. He would continue his search at the depot. There would either be more clues there, or perhaps even more Misfits he could follow back to their lair.

"Hang on just a little longer, Babs," He whispered. "I'm on my way."

*****

The Joker and Charon were in Bludhaven. Batman knew that for sure, now. The moment he entered Barbara's ruined apartment, he picked up a strange scent that stood out from all the others in the room. A musty, wet smell that he associated with the steam tunnels that ran under the ground to a point outside the city limits. That, however, did not prove anything. He had made it a point to investigate the tunnels after the quake, knowing that many had tried to use it in the past for their own nefarious schemes, including The Penguin. The smell that emanated from the pipes was unique, but it didn't necessarily mean that they had Barbara in Bludhaven. They could have used the tunnel for a one way trip.

The fact that Bludhaven was now exploding in a gang war, however, confirmed his suspicions. He ached for Nightwing's input on this situation, but he had gone rogue, and Batman feared the worst. He felt especially bad now, thinking that he had wasted all this time in Gotham. He let his irritation show as the communicator on his belt vibrated, letting him know there was an incoming message. He snatched it up quickly before it could vibrate again.

"Yes, Robin?"

"I'm getting an incoming message from Bludhaven. I'm relaying it to you."

"Go ahead." Batman could barely hide his anticipation. Had Nightwing finally contacted him? His spirit crested as he heard Wally West's voice come over the tiny speaker.

"You know how I love to give you bad news..."

"What's the situation down there?" Batman asked.

"Well, we found him. We couldn't make him see reason, though. He even fought with us..."

"And beat us..." Roy added sheepishly.

"He says he's going to kill The Joker and his new pal. You don't have to be Cleo the fortune teller to see he means what he says. By the way, it would have been real decent of you to let us in on the details of this mess."

"There wasn't time," Batman replied.

From a distance, Batman heard Arsenal clearly refer to him as a horse's ass. "Do you want us to try and find him? I can try a super speed search of the city." The Flash asked.

Batman whirled about and exited Barbara's apartment through what was left of the window. Seconds later, he was in The Batmobile. The situation was as he feared; The Joker and Charon had awakened the giant within Nightwing, pushing him beyond the limits and rules that he had embraced from The Dark Knight's teachings. "No. You two have done your best, and he's just as determined as ever. I'm coming to Bludhaven personally, to talk some sense into my son."

 
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