Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Nightwing: A Matter of Vengeance

by John Westcott

Chapter 15: Last Man Standing

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

He fell ever faster, plummeting towards either a battle that he had only a slim chance of surviving, or certain doom on the streets below. The closer Nightwing got to his target, the faster the Earth rushed up to greet him. His view of The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel grew larger and larger through his visor. He checked the altimeter mounted on his wrist. The moment of truth was fast approaching. In his head, he counted down the seconds and manoeuvred his body around so that he was falling feet first rather than head first. He could now make out tiny specks on the rooftop that would no doubt be the guards Charon had posted. As expected, his approach was soundless. He was practically on top of the building now. He could make out the large "H" that signified the helipad Desmond had incorporated into the roof. Two guards sat there, unaware of his approach from above. Nightwing noticed a sudden pinprick of light flare up as one of them lit a cigarette. Two others were strolling aimlessly back and forth across the rooftop in an attempt to keep warm. He could also make out the wreckage of what looked to be a helicopter on the ground, still burning and surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. The police had apparently not yet arrived, but he knew they soon would. He was less than one hundred feet from the rooftop at this point. Nightwing wrapped his right hand around the rip cord.

With a strong pull on the cord, Nightwing's parachute deployed perfectly and bloomed like a flower above him. Bludhaven's avenging angel tightened the muscles in his neck to prevent it from snapping backward to the best of his ability. The leather parachute harness dug into his armpits and thighs as the air currents caught his parachute and slowed his descent considerably. He took a moment to cast a glance toward the rooftop as he passed it, and saw that no one had heard him. As he passed the rooftop level and began sinking quickly, gauntleted gloves reached for the piton launchers in his belt. Scant seconds later, he took aim and fired both of them at the concrete wall, each launcher emitting only a muffled "chuff" sound. The pitons sang as they whistled through the air and embedded themselves in the wall.

Nightwing locked off the cables and felt them go taut. The Edelweiss ropes allowed him to descend slightly further before they reached the tolerance limit of their stretching abilities. That would be the critical moment for Nightwing. Would he have slowed to the point where a sudden stop would not prove fatal? He reached over with launcher still in hand, careful not to cross the lines, and thumbed a button in his left gauntlet. The Grivel mountaineering crampons were released from the recessed area in his boots. It was at this very moment that disaster struck.

The rapidly approaching blizzard was nearly at hand. The meteorologists were somewhat off in predicting the timing of the oncoming snowstorm. Powerful gusts of wind buffeted Nightwing, tossing him about like a blade of grass in a hurricane. The vigilante felt himself lifted on a blanket of air and tightened his grip on the launchers, holding on for dear life. As the wind current reversed itself, he found himself tossed like a rag doll toward the hotel wall with punishing force. In his mind's eye, Nightwing imagined himself being crushed like an insect against a car windshield. Only a last minute twisting of his body in mid-air kept him from being killed. Nightwing twisted his body around and took the brunt of the impact on his right shoulder. Fire lanced through Dick's arm as he began to scream in agony, and then suppressed it instinctively to avoid detection. The deployed parachute had not yet been released, and he felt it billowing in the strong winds, dragging him downward.

Nightwing dug into the concrete wall with the metal spikes on his boots and attempted to secure his position. Another gust of wind wrapped around him like an invisible hand trying to rip him from the wall. The parachute was yet again caught up in the wind and conspired to rip him from his perch. Digging into the wall with his boot spikes and gripping the launcher handles with all his strength kept him anchored in place, but not without cost. Through gritted teeth Nightwing let out a low growl as pain ripped through his shoulder and up into his elbow like a red hot lance. Finally, the wind subsided for the moment and Nightwing almost passed out from the pain that was now reaching as far as his fingertips. A string of curses passed through his lips, all of them directed at whatever fates responsible for his misfortune. He was now perched in a very vulnerable position, along the side of Bludhaven's highest building, his right arm in severe agony with guards only a few feet above and Barbara's life on the line.

Some sixth sense warned him of danger from above.

Nightwing glanced up to see the two Misfits from the helipad, staring at him in slack jawed disbelief...

*****

Snow began pelting at the windshield of the police cruiser Jim Gordon, Joey Flaherty, and Captain Addad now occupied. Gordon had immediately liked Addad and recognized that he was a no nonsense cop that would do the right thing every time. He knew he was lucky to find such a man so quickly in the wretched city of Bludhaven, which was known to have a dirty cop on every street corner. Flaherty was another case entirely. At first he had assumed Flaherty was dirty due to his stonewalling on the case. Now, he wasn't so sure. The man seemed to be a decent enough person, and he seemed to clash with the phantom cop calling himself Inspector Arnot. One look at Arnot and Gordon knew the man was rotten to the core. From the deepest recesses of his memory, Gordon seemed to recall the name Arnot from Gotham, and he knew the name was spoken only in the roughest and most vile social circles of his city. Now, the three were being driven by Addad's nephew, a rookie to the force whose name Gordon could not recall, to The Bludhaven Plaza with sirens blaring and SWAT vans pulling up the rear with Montoya, Bullock, and Addad's hand picked teams.

"What's this you mentioned about Internal Affairs, Flaherty?" Gordon asked as they rounded a street corner at full speed. "You in some kind of trouble?"

From the back seat, Flaherty cleared his throat as he caught Gordon's eye in the rear view mirror. Addad, who was also in the back seat, cast a suspicious glance at him.

"It looks that way, Commissioner," Flaherty responded. "Many years ago I came into possession of some money, a large amount given to me by a criminal who wished to go straight. It was illegally gained of course, and instead of reporting it I kept it for myself." Addad's eyebrows raised in anger and Joey felt a sudden urge to clarify. "Well, not for myself, exactly, for my family. I didn't spend a cent on myself. I moved my family to a nicer home and sent my daughters to college with it. I don't drive around in a Porche, sir. I drive an eight year old Toyota. Some... people became aware of the situation and tried to blackmail me, and I refuse to let them. Still, I know it was wrong, and I have to answer for it. This will be my last case as a police officer."

"You shouldn't even be here now if that's the case, Sergeant," Addad interjected, his voice tinged with both disappointment and menace.

Gordon swivelled in his seat to face both Addad and Flaherty. "Technically that's true, but if you're the man who put this Masters fellow away the first time, then I want you here. At least you had the guts to stand up when it counted."

"Thanks. I hope it's not too little too late. I have two daughters myself, so I can imagine the pain you must be going through at this moment."

"It isn't too late. It can't be, Flaherty. I will not lose another member of my family to these lunatics."

They pulled into the brightly lit main square of The Bludhaven Plaza before anyone could answer. The building towered into the sky, and at its base lay the flaming ruins of a Bludhaven Police Helicopter, which also happened to block the main entrance. The four men stepped from the cruiser and gazed in awe at the destruction The Joker and Charon had wrought in such a short time, their hearts going out to the hostages within the confines of the hotel. Gordon's gaze fixed on the very top of the building, barely visible in the dark and at this angle. He knew his daughter was up there, at the mercy of those madmen, and he wanted nothing more than to charge the building and rush to her aid. He knew that this was not an option, no matter how badly he might want it. Hundreds could die, including his daughter. No, he would wait for Batman's all clear signal, and then... God have mercy on The Joker... because Jim Gordon would not.

Three more vehicles, all blue and white SWAT vans, pulled into the main square and parked bumper to bumper with the squad car. Seven more squad cars were only minutes behind them. The rear doors of each one burst open and revealed the contents within - dozens of men and women, all hand picked by Addad. Montoya had raised an eyebrow as Addad called out their names back in The Justice Center: Flemming, LeCarre, Sanders, Follett, Ludlum, Puzo, and Clancy among others. "What do you have here, Addad, a writers convention?"

"Pure coincidence I assure you. This bunch is clean and they're among the best. They'll do the job right."

With his own SPAS Shotgun still in hand, Gordon watched as the teams deployed with expert efficiency. Two of them began moving the crowds away from the perimeter while others disappeared to take up sharpshooting positions on nearby rooftops and yet others secured their position in the plaza square. Despite their names, this bunch was definitely up the task ahead and he felt better knowing that. He also felt better knowing that Batman was nearby. He tried not to think about the torture his daughter could be going through even now.

*****

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! You're driving me crazy!" Charon was not a happy man at the moment, despite the fact that he was now making all of Bludhaven sit up and take notice of him without benefit of his dead father and his money. The cause of his irritation was, of all things, Barbara Gordon.

"I'm just telling it like it is. We've developed a rapport over the last few hours, you and I. I thought you'd appreciate my honesty." Inwardly, Barbara felt very pleased with herself. She had been taking advantage of the hostage/kidnapper syndrome known as The Stockholm Syndrome for the past few hours. It was not an uncommon circumstance. Kidnappers and their hostages had often fostered close relationships as their enforced time together passed. Over time, hostages had been known to fall in love with their abductors, or to have the kidnappers fall in love with their prey. The two opposing sides began to identify, and even relate to one another on a deep emotional level. Barbara had overcome her fear and was now acting almost as confidante to Charon. The man known as Jonathon Masters Junior was known to be very violent towards women, and she knew it was a great risk to try this tack with him, but she gambled that perhaps Charon was merely rebelling against the mother figure that had been ripped from him in his formative years. It was armchair psychology at best, but it seemed to be working. The trick was to turn Charon against The Joker, and not her.

"Don't you think you're being denied something, here? You want Nightwing dead. Well, where is he? You want my boyfriend dead. Joker won't even consider killing him or allowing you to kill him. He supposedly has bigger things in mind with Batman and my father. I'm just wondering who's running the show... him or you." They were in a small security room where, on a normal night, Roland Desmond's security people would hold people who couldn't cover their debts to the casino or who got out of hand from excess liquor. It seemed only natural to put Barbara, in her now reconstructed chair, in one of these cells, which were deemed escape proof and luxurious at the same time. In typical casino fashion, the "cells" were furnished with a plush couch and deep pile carpeting of a color Barbara liked to call "Hooker Rouge".

She had been blindfolded upon leaving the old Masters warehouse, but she had heard Charon beating and raping yet another woman in an adjacent room before they left, and shed many a tear at the terrible and brutal act of savagery that she could not prevent. After he had finished with his latest victim, Charon and The Joker had used her tear stained face when they recorded their message to be left for Batman, Nightwing, and of course her father. She worried at what the site of her tears would do to all of them, especially her father, whose heart had seen healthier days. She wanted to say something to the camera, that she was all right, that the tears she was shedding were not for herself, but for the poor woman who had just died, but she dared not anger the homicidal maniac with the face of a clown. Other than Nightwing, she was the only one in full possession of the facts about Masters, and the only other one who could figure out the clue mentioned by The Joker, "the opposite of six". They may have blindfolded her but she knew exactly where she was, in Roland Desmond's casino.

"Bludhaven is my city!" Charon growled.

"I believe you," Barbara replied in a soothing, almost maternal, tone. "Don't tell me, tell The Joker."

*****

There was no time to think. He had to react now. Nightwing produced an Escrima stick from its secure position on his belt and, gripping it with his good arm firmly around the middle, let it fly. If a sudden gust of wind were to hit now, the stick would land far off its mark and all would be lost. The nearly unbreakable weapon sailed through the air faster than the eye could follow and, as he had hoped it would, caught both men at once in the face with each end of the fighting stick. He had intended to hit both of them hard enough to knock them backwards onto the rooftop, but luck was not with him. The Misfit on the left did indeed let out a small groan as he flipped backwards, probably unconscious, as most of the fighting stick had impacted on his jaw. The one on the right however, had only received a glancing blow, and teetered on the edge, dazed.

He was going to fall.

Moving on pure instinct, Nightwing reached out and hit the release on his parachute. Finally, the damnable thing had been cut away and was no longer a danger to him. The vigilante thumbed the retract buttons on the launchers in his hands and began the agonizingly slow ascent toward the roof. He watched in horror as the disoriented Misfit took a bad step and toppled over the side. Without a thought for his own safety, Nightwing released his grip on the launcher in his right hand and reached out with his badly injured arm. Immediately he knew that he would not be able to reach his quarry. He summoned all the strength in his legs and pushed off of the wall, swinging out in a wide arc and grasping wildly. After what seemed like an eternity, he felt his fingers close around the collar of his adversaries heavy winter jacket.

White hot agony the likes of which he had rarely experienced in his lifetime ripped through Nightwing's arm as he desperately tried to maintain his grasp on the struggling Misfit who, thankfully, was too frightened to make any noise. It was all Nightwing could do to keep from passing out with the pain that throbbed within him like a living creature all its own. His left arm trembled with the effort it took to hang on to the piton launcher in his hand as it winched him in to within a few feet of the rooftop area. Beneath him, the unfortunate Misfit still struggled and scrambled as a few whimpers of fear escaped his lips. The edge of the roof came closer and closer as the winch system, which was designed to haul in only a man of Nightwing's approximate weight, struggled and protested against the added load.

Finally, the launcher had reeled them both in and he was faced with a new problem. Were Nightwing on his own, he could simply reach up with both hands and pull himself to the rooftop. As it was, his right arm was supporting the weight of a fully grown man. He had no choice. Straining to keep silent, Nightwing hefted The Misfit up and over the side of the rooftop to safety as his right arm screamed in protest. The Misfit, now lying on his back in the snow next to his unconscious partner, was still silent, no doubt in shock. Nightwing said a silent prayer as he hoisted himself up over the edge and rolled to relative safety. Quickly he scanned the area, the other pair of Misfits was on the opposite side of the roof, staring out toward the other side of the city skyline at the menacing storm clouds. Speed was of the essence. One shouted alarm, one fired shot, could result in Barbara's death. He crawled to his knees and over to the man whose life he had just saved. The Misfit's eyes widened as he realized for the first time what had just happened and who this was who appeared over him now. The look that spread across his face was not one of gratitude, but malice, and he reached for his weapon nestled in a holster inside his jacket. Sparing his right arm the effort of throwing a punch, Nightwing merely brought his head -helmet and all - down against The Misfit's jaw, knocking him unconscious with possibly the meanest head butt in history. The Misfit slumped back into the snow.

It wouldn't be long before the remaining two stopped stargazing and returned their attention to their guard duties. Nightwing lay back in the snow and gasped for breath as quietly as he could. His right arm was seriously injured. He closed his eyes and began an ancient meditation technique Bruce had taught him many years ago, one he had learned from a Tibetan Monk in his travels around the world. The technique was intended to completely block the sensation of pain to certain parts of the body and allowed these Tibetan masters to perform many feats considered almost impossible. Neither Dick nor Bruce had mastered the meditation as The Tibetans did, but they had used it many times over the years to ease pain, rather than completely block it. Dick's mind whirled with thoughts of Barbara, now just one floor beneath him, and he found it very difficult to achieve the ocean of calm that he required. Time seemed to slow to a standstill. After what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few moments in reality, he snapped back to the here and now. The throbbing was still ever present along his right arm, but it had subsided to a certain degree. There was no time to try the technique again.

He leaped to his feet and charged across the rooftop toward his newest quarry, the two remaining guards. Neither heard him approach as the wind began to howl and big heavy snowflakes surrounded them. Making sure not to repeat his mistake with The Misfit whose life he had saved earlier, Nightwing reached out and grabbed both of them by the hair. With a sudden flash of movement he knocked their heads together with just the right amount of force and dragged them into the rooftop stairwell that led to the main elevator shafts. Moments later he had dragged the original pair he had encountered to the stairwell to join them. There the four of them would remain until the mission was complete.

Nightwing descended the stairwell cautiously, on the lookout for more guards. There were none at the bank of elevators at the bottom of the stairs. As the heat of the building hit him, he shed the added emergency gear he wore. His belts, helmet, oxygen mask, climbing crampons, and backup parachute were all discarded at the bottom of the stairs. Then he reached up with his left hand and found an overlapping seam along the right shoulder of his uniform. Grasping the overlap of material, he tore it away and as he did so, the heavily insulated uniform ripped away as well, revealing his normal, lighter version beneath. Eschewing the elevators, he moved to the stairwell door and accessed the security layout Tim had so deftly lifted from Blockbuster's databanks. He punched in a six digit code onto the panel by the door and it hissed open. As he stepped into the main stairwell, he activated his comm unit for the first time since he had made the jump, his voice barely a whisper as he spoke.

"This is Nightwing. Does anyone copy?" he called. As he suspected, Batman's voice was the first to reply, followed by Tim and then Alfred.

"Go ahead. Are you all right?"

"I don't believe it. He did it. I'm reading you five by five, you maniac."

"Thank God. What a relief to hear your voice, Master Dick."

A ghost of a smile passed across Nightwing's face. "I'm in."

*****

Relief washed over Batman like a tidal wave. Although the most dangerous portion of the mission may yet lie ahead, The Dark Knight felt that Nightwing's success was an omen of things to come. He did not believe in luck, but he was a big believer in omens. Were he not, he would never have modelled his own crime fighting persona on the bat that flew into his study that fateful night years ago. He had switched off the torch he had been using to cut through the wall and switched the frequency on the comm unit in his cowl. "Jim?" He called as he opened the frequency. "Do you read me?"

Now in the plaza, Jim Gordon nearly leaped out of his skin as Batman's voice came over the radio. He had been expecting the call from his old friend of course, but secretly he feared it as well. He knew that Batman could be about to give him bad news instead of good. Addad, Flaherty, Bullock, and Montoya all gathered around to hear the incoming message. "I'm here, old friend," Gordon answered.

"Nightwing has penetrated the rooftop area. I'm about to make my move. Stand by for my all clear."

Flaherty cast his eyes upward, straining to make out the very top of the building. "How in God's name did he get on the roof?"

"Look there." Montoya pointed as she stared into the night sky, struggling to make something out in the distance. Together, they all followed her line of sight until they could all see it descending toward the ground, fluttering in the strong winds and appearing for all the world to be some sort of ink black ghostly apparition. Nightwing's discarded parachute wafted gracefully toward the ground. Bullock ran over to intercept it and gathered it into his arms. They all stared in awe toward the roof as he examined the parachute.

"More guts than brains..." Flaherty muttered.

Meanwhile, beneath them, The Dark Knight braced his broad shoulders against the portion of wall he had just cut through from the sewer maintenance tunnel adjacent to the hotel. He had to be careful not to make too much noise. According to their calculations, the hotel's laundry rooms, storage rooms, and air exchange systems were all located on the other side of the wall. He brought pressure to bear and felt the section of wall begin to move, thankfully with little noise. Neither The Joker nor Charon were idiots. They would have the smilex bombs well guarded against attack. His job was simple. Defeat the guards encamped around the bombs without alerting their leaders above, and then make his way to the casino as quickly as possible so that he might prevent both Barbara's death and Dick's murder of The Joker and Charon. He could not remember when such a challenging set of tasks had been laid before him.

He stopped pushing against the section of wall as it let out a loud crack and a thud of plaster falling to the floor from the hotel side of the wall. He held his breath as he waited to see if anyone had come to investigate. After three minutes of remaining perfectly still, he was satisfied that no one had heard. With one final push, the manhole sized portion of the wall gave way and he pushed it back with all his might.

He stepped inside.

The only light came from red emergency lights recessed into the bare walls in the hallway he found himself standing in. His back hugging the far wall to make himself less of a target, Batman began inching his way toward the rooms that housed the air exchange system. He followed the hallway past the laundry rooms, and after consulting the map Tim had stolen, ventured down another hallway to his left when he reached an intersection of sorts. As he continued on, he noticed that the area was getting brighter... and there was the sound of movement ahead.

Crouching low, he made his approach. Around the next corner, he could see a Misfit standing watch in the shadows. Beyond him lay the vast chamber which housed the air exchange system and at least eight or nine more Misfits that he could see and possibly more hidden by machinery. He could also make out the form of the mercenary known as Null, who was no doubt acting as their field commander. Null was one of The Joker's men and the sole remainder of the trio he and Nightwing had encountered earlier in the evening. Nil and Void had been defeated at the van depot on the other side of the city and taken into police custody. With his cybernetic hand attachment augmenting his strength, Null was a foe to be wary of. As was his custom, Batman wrapped his black cape around him and became one with the shadows, moving slowly but surely, ever closer to the guard that was now only fifteen feet away.

The Misfit scanned the hallway and saw nothing out of the ordinary. From his jacket pocket he removed a package of Marlboro's and plucked two cigarettes, calling to a friend in the main area beyond to come and join him for a smoke. Another, almost identically clad Misfit approached, his Claridge Hi-Tech weapon slung lazily over his shoulder. The newcomer produced a match and stuck it against the back cover of the matchbook... illuminating the white lenses of Batman's cowl, who was now so close to the duo that it appeared as if he were leaning in for a cigarette himself. The pair stared into the darkness, unaware of what they were seeing and the danger they were now in. The Misfit took one step forward and held the match out, revealing the yellow and black oval of the bat on his chest.

"What the hell?"

That was the last sight they would remember when they finally woke up. The Dark Knight lashed out with maximum efficiency. One knife edge chop to a nerve cluster in the guard's neck rendered him unconscious, while a dart tipped with choral hydrate dispatched the other into a comatose state before he could even cry out. Quieter than a whisper and darker than the night itself, Batman moved on.

The Caped Crusader was at the edge of the shadows now, peering into the well lit and cavernous room beyond which housed the air exchange system that serviced the entire hotel and the shops within it, regulating the air temperature no matter what the time of year. The machinery sounded to him as if someone had turned on three dozen air conditioners. That was good, he thought to himself, all the better to cloak the sounds of his movement. He watched as the one known as Null pulled up a folding chair and leaned back against the far wall, obviously bored. Now that he was closer, Batman could make out three more figures in the main chamber, bringing the grand total to twelve, an even dozen. He could also make out the smilex devices that, when activated, would deliver the toxic gas into the air exchange system, killing everyone in the building.

He paused to take several calming breaths and to remove the necessary tools from his utility belt. A handful of stun gas grenades appeared in one hand and a handful of bat shaped shurikens in the other. It would only take one to reach the devices attached to the machinery and kill everyone in the hotel, and he figured on Null probably carrying a remote activator somewhere on his person as well. The aim would be to take him out first while distracting the others until he could deal with them. Dropping down to one knee, Batman cast the circular gas grenades across the smooth tile floor and into the light of the main room. At first, no one seemed to notice them. In the five seconds it would take for the timed fuses to activate the spray of gas, he reached into his belt and removed his grapnel launcher and rebreather.

"Hey, what's this?" Null was the first to notice the tiny marble like objects rolling toward him. Before the final word was completely out of his mouth, the gas plumed outward, releasing its fog like mist into the air. With the quick reflexes of a trained mercenary, Null managed to roll backward and take a deep breath at the same time. At that exact moment, Batman leaped from the shadows and aimed his grapnel launcher at the humming flourescent lights overhead. The Dark Knight activated the release and the grapnel hook climbed straight up and shattered the lights, plunging the room into near darkness.

The darkened room erupted in chaos as Batman watched through infra red lenses as Null and The Misfits under him began firing at his last known position. As if the shadows were his to command, darkness enveloped him, concealing his movements as he lashed out with a series of punches to three of The Misfits nearest him. A fourth attempted to attack him from behind, but The Caped Crusader flattened him easily with a punishing elbow to the nose.

Though the only light source in the room was now the emergency lights, Batman could see Null as clear as day through the starlight technology in his cowl eye lenses. The mercenary was the only one of the group who had the wherewithal to take in a deep breath as the attack began, as one by one his comrades fell into a deep slumber after inhaling the fumes. Null was reaching into the pockets of his leather bomber jacket, fumbling for something. Batman guessed that it was either a radio to call in reinforcements from other sections, or the detonator for the smilex bombs. Either way, he could not allow Null the time to find what he sought. Batman leaped high in the air, over the strewn bodies of the Misfits he had either rendered unconscious through violence or exposure to the gas, and came down hard with both feet crashing into Null's chest, sending him sprawling across the room.

As Null's hands flew from his pockets, the remote detonator in his hand also flew across the room. It was now a race between the two men, a race that would determine the fate of all within the hotel walls. Batman broke into a sprint for the control unit, only to feel Null's cybernetic hand reach out and grab him by the ankle in an iron grip. The Dark Knight fell to the ground in a heap as he lost his footing. The pressure Null's artificial hand exerted on Batman's ankle was brutal. He scanned the room, the remote detonator was mere inches from his fingertips. Null refused to release his iron grip on Batman's ankle, as his free hand scrambled for his weapon, much as Batman scrambled for the detonator, both just out of reach. Neither man would dare speak for fear of inhaling the gas that swirled around them.

Batman clenched his teeth and hissed into his rebreather as he felt something pop within his ankle. He took a moment to glance down at his foe and saw that Null was edging ever closer to his weapon, in fact, his fingertips were now touching the barrel of his gun. Batman was no closer to the detonator. Summoning all his strength, The Dark Knight reared back with his free leg and brought his boot heel down with all the force he could muster into Null's face.

Null reeled, but he did not relent.

Again Batman connected with his boot to Null's face, and again the tough as nails mercenary refused to go down. Twice, and then thrice more Batman repeated the assault. Still, he did not relent. Just as Batman felt as though he would pass out from the pain in his ankle, he made one last ditch attempt to defeat his foe. Forgetting the detonator for the moment, Batman fumbled in his utility belt for the weapon he sought. He removed what appeared to be a tiny strip of metal, which was in reality a microprocessor that, when activated, would fry the circuits of any machinery it came into contact with. The Dark Knight reached out and slapped the metal strip onto Null's crushing artificial hand.

Instantly, Null's face became a mask of shock and surprise, his jaw dropped in amazement. The artificial hand he had relied on was suddenly useless, the cybernetic attachment no longer functioned, and the pressure he was exerting with a mere thought on Batman's ankle suddenly disappeared as if it never was. Batman gritted his teeth around the rebreather in an attempt at a cruel smile, which made his fearsome countenance even more frightening as he watched Null forget himself in his shock and inhale the last of the gas fumes. Seconds later, Null's head fell to the floor.

Batman struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on the wall beside him for support, and hobbled over to the detonator lying on the floor. The LCD display on the device showed that the bombs had been armed, one touch to the detonator switch and all within the hotel would die. The Dark Knight pressed the deactivation button instead, and the panel informed him that the bombs were no longer armed. He struggled over to the air exchange system itself and pried the bombs from their housing within the machinery. When that was done, he removed the fuses entirely. Without the fuses and the detonator, the bombs could not go off. Unless there was a leak, they would be safe until a hazardous waste disposal team could get rid of them. The threat of smilex to the hotel's guests had ended, but not without cost. Batman was injured, and his mobility had been severely limited.

He refused to let it stop him. He still had to get to the casino above and assist Nightwing, no matter the cost to himself. Batman reached up to an area at his throat, the spot in his cowl that housed his comm unit, which could be either voice activated or activated by touch. He felt the small transmitter hidden in his cowl and pressed on it with his first and second fingers, which would open the frequency Jim Gordon would be monitoring. He felt the small stud depress and then release, he repeated this action four more times. This would result in five clicks as he opened and closed the frequency five times. This was the prearranged signal.

Batman hobbled toward the elevator shafts...

At street level, they all listened as five clicks came from the speaker on Gordon's radio.

"That's it," Gordon said. "That's the all clear."

Flaherty and Addad, flanked by Bullock and Montoya, gave the signal to the SWAT team. Move in.

Gordon felt the cold metal of the SPAS shotgun in his hand. Their first priority would be to take back the hotel floor by floor and work their way to the top. He knew there was a good chance Nightwing and Batman would have dealt with the situation by the time he had arrived, but he did not care. If he got The Joker in his sights, he was going to kill him, in cold blood if need be.

*****

"I went to see Mother Theresa on her death bed. Did you know that? It's true. Do you know what she said to me? Well... nothing, because I got there very late." The Joker erupted into maniacal laughter and practically toppled over the microphone in front of him, wheelchair and all.

"You know, I love clams but they make poor pets. I threw my pet clam a ball... and I crushed him!!"

Undaunted, the madman continued. "Why did John Lennon get shot?"

"I don't know, why did John Lennon get shot?" Someone called from the darkness.

"Because Yoko ducked." After a short burst of laughter, he continued.

"What's rich, ugly, and sleeps alone?"

"I don't know. What's rich, ugly, and sleeps alone?" Another voice called.

"YOKO ONO!"

The Joker was in his element, standing dead center on the large stage that occupied almost half of the One In A Million Lounge, which was scheduled to have such performers as Sigfried & Roy and Wayne Newton in the coming new year. A single cone of light surrounded the purple clad psychopath, and he was playing the ham for most of Charon's Misfits whom he had stationed here to protect him when the final battle arrived. From somewhere in the distance, a rimshot was heard every time he shouted a punch line and cackled wildly. Somewhere in the back of his mind, The Joker wondered why he had never come to Bludhaven before. This town obviously knew talent when they saw it.

"Come on, people," He screeched. "This is my 'A' material. It doesn't get any funnier than this. Come on! Laugh! I know you're out there, I can smell you breathing!"

It was at that point that Charon interrupted him, storming onto the deserted stage, every muscle tight and ready for battle. The younger man grabbed the microphone from Joker's hand and threw it into the darkness.

"We need to talk."

For his part, Joker's eyes widened in shock... and a growing fury. "What did you just do?" He asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued on. "You took my microphone away!! Have you been taking lessons from Harley Quinn or something? Who's been feeding you the stupid pills, my boy? If there's one thing you must never do," He practically growled his last words. "...you must never... Ruin. My. Moment. In. The. SPOTLIGHT!!"

"Pull the pole out of your ass, Joker. I want to talk to you in private, while you still have a jaw that isn't broken." Charon wrapped his strong hands around the handles of Jokers wheelchair and pushed him offstage. A few of The Misfits in the crowd even applauded the horribly bad would-be comedian as he disappeared behind a curtain.

"This had better be good," Joker told him as they returned to the main part of the casino. "Or daddy might just have to spank you very hard." Charon stopped dead as he remembered Nightwing using almost those very words in one of their first encounters. The recollection made him even angrier. With one arm he whirled The Joker around to face him and brought his face in close to The Joker's, his lips pulled back in a feral snarl.

"It's good, all right. You have to realize just who's calling the shots around here. You have Batman and Gotham to play with. Bludhaven is MY city. MINE. You're just helping me. The Misfits are MY creation. Barbara Gordon is MY hostage. I wanted to bring Grayson here and kill him, but I kept letting you put off my plans. I want Grayson dead so much I can almost taste his death. You remember this, clown. From now on, I call the shots."

After what seemed like an eternity, Joker's solemn face broke into a playful grin. Charon was taken by surprise when The Joker reached out and kissed him on the nose. After he pulled back, The Joker's playful smile vanished once more, to be replaced by his own version of a feral snarl. When he found his voice again, it was without mirth or gaiety of any kind. "Remember this, sonny, and remember it well. I was strangling babies in their cribs when you were wearing diapers yourself, so don't presume to tell me what to do or I must just decide I don't wanna play with you any more."

Charon was not used to people threatening him or usurping what he saw as his hard earned right to command. He reached back, about to throw what would no doubt be a lethal punch at his mentor. As he did so, Joker produced his derringer from his jacket pocket and waved it in Charon's face. "Ah ah ah. Don't make daddy send you to your grave without any supper."

Another voice interjected into the conversation, a reedy, thin voice that belonged to one of Charon's most valuable Misfits. A young man named Rudy whom he had met at The Voltage Club one night. Rudy was a former computer expert studying at M.I.T., when he was expelled and charged for running a kiddie porn site from his dorm room. Jonathan Masters knew a useful man when he met one, and gave Rudy refuge and a purpose in The Misfits. Charon had instructed Rudy to keep watch on the computer surveillance systems and to alert him when anything important required his attention. Both The Joker and Charon looked toward Rudy as he disrupted their disagreement.

"The cops are here. They have the place surrounded. I can see 'em on every monitor."

Joker and Charon looked to one another, the angry looks on their faces now supplanted with a look of glee. They both knew what it meant. Nightwing and Batman would soon be there.

"Get the girl!" Joker shouted as Charon took off at full speed toward the locked room he had left her in.

*****

It took all of Nightwing's restraint to resist leaping from his current vantage point into the midst of the two architects of this nightmare and snap their necks with one quick, fluid movement. The black clad vigilante peered into the garishly decorated casino through the tiny crack he had opened in the stairwell door. He had only arrived seconds ago, and he had caught the tail end of the brewing argument between Charon and The Joker. The two were standing in the middle of the casino floor, surrounded by slot machines bearing images of Wheel or Fortune, Monopoly, Yahtzee, and Cast for Cash, black jack tables, video poker machines, and roulette wheels - The Joker waving a gun in Charon's face. That was good, he thought to himself, a little dissension in the ranks worked to his advantage.

Cautiously, he slipped through the doorway and concealed himself behind a black jack table. A few Misfits passed him as they moved from one location to another, but it seemed that most of them were still in the adjoining lounge area, where it appeared that The Joker was putting on some kind of show from the snippets of conversation he had just overheard. His heart was racing and all at once he began to feel the throbbing in his right arm increasing. The meditation technique he had used earlier to quiet the pains was not as successful as he would have hoped, and as time passed the agony returned. He knew that Batman had succeeded in deactivating the smilex bombs, as he had heard the series of five clicks come over his earpiece to indicate that that part of the mission, at least, had been accomplished. Whatever else happened, the hotel guests would be safe from the smilex bombs and rescued by Flaherty and his men in due time. Now all he had to do was rescue Barbara, kill The Joker and Charon, defeat his Misfits, and do it all without getting himself blown up by the semtex explosive that no doubt lined the walls.

For the first time, Nightwing noticed the interior of Roland Desmond's casino, and he balked at the design. Like most North American casino's he had seen in his lifetime, Desmond's was a mixture of the gaudy and the outright ridiculous. The main gambling area, which he was now hiding in, was a cavernous circular room measuring almost 32, 000 square feet with deep pile blood red carpets and a cathedral like domed ceiling which had been painted a la Michelangelo, only these designs were far less awe inspiring, depicting a montage including the Bludhaven skyline and a few assorted local celebrities that had been born in the city. Three different chandeliers, that appeared to be made of cheap glass rather than any fine crystal, hung from different points in the ceiling. Track lighting provided the rest of the illumination. Along the northern facing wall lay the currently vacant and very long bar area, which followed the curvature of the room. Nothing like keeping the gamblers good and drunk to keep their wallets loose, he thought to himself. There were swinging doors at either end of the bar. According to the map Tim had purloined, one lead to the kitchen area, and another to the offices and security rooms. Directly opposite the entrance to the office area on the other side of the room was the entrance to the lounge area, where has-been comedians and hypnotist acts would perform.

It was toward the office area that Charon and The Joker had disappeared. The Joker had mentioned a girl, which had to be Barbara, and Nightwing felt tremendous relief. She was alive. Up until this point, Nightwing had been focussed on killing Charon and the Joker, but now, with Barbara so close, he found himself wavering, as if getting out of there with Barbara intact would make everything seem okay. But he knew there was no way around it, they had just gone to retrieve her. She would be with them now. The battle was inevitable.

So be it.

The first step would be to neutralize as many Misfits as possible before The Joker and Charon returned with her. There was no sense in leaving Charon an entire gang to play with. Nightwing rose to his full height and moved out into the light, no longer making any effort to conceal himself. Three Misfits standing in the doorway to the lounge area were the first to lay eyes upon him. Nightwing simply continued walking toward them. The Misfits hadn't expected an enemy in their midst, and didn't even have their weapons nearby. Panic lit up their eyes as Nightwing broke into a run and lashed out at them. A simple kick to the jaw flattened one instantly. Before he had landed with both feet on the ground, Nightwing reached out and grabbed a second by his wrist, he pivoted inward until his back was almost turned to his foe, and pulled hard on the wrist in his hand. The Misfit flipped over Nightwing's hip and as he did so, crashed into a roulette wheel not far away. He spun around to face the third.

"If I were you, I'd run," He told him, his voice a menacing whisper.

As he had expected, the third Misfit turned tail and ran into the lounge area, where his brethren could assist him. Nightwing followed almost nonchalantly, shutting the large doors behind him and locking them. Now he had most of them in a contained space. He was reluctant to admit it to himself, but he wanted to fight them all at once, he almost needed it. He had been operating under severe stress for an extended period of time. Like it or loathe it, he was about to relieve some of that stress on The Misfits, but only as a preliminary to the main battle that was to come.

He passed through a short hallway, on the heels of the third, frightened Misfit, and entered the main lounge area. This room was also of a circular design with a similar arched ceiling, but for the most part it was entirely black, with ink black walls dotted only with full color pictures of mostly dead entertainers such as Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin, and black carpets even. Specks of glitter on the ceiling reflected what little light there was, resembling starlight. He had no doubt that the design was intentional, to keep the focus on the entertainers on the stage. In the distance, he saw the main stage, bathed in a few spotlights, but nothing else. Most of The Misfits were sitting on the edge of the staging area, looking bored and smoking cigarettes when Nightwing's deathly frightened quarry ran, screaming gibberish as he went, into the room.

Once more, Nightwing broke into a run, intending to leap into the midst of the assembled thugs before they could fire off a shot, and thus keep them from shooting in such close proximity to one another. It was a tried and true strategy that he preferred, Nightwing wanted the combat to be hand to hand. As he gathered speed, he leaped up onto the back of a nearby row of chairs and leaped even higher into the air as he propelled himself away from them. Somersaulting forward, he landed almost dead center amidst the group, who had been too busy trying to make out what their comrade was screaming to see him. Three of them went down without ever realizing what hit them. A spin kick sent them sprawling into three others, knocking them to their knees as well. He lashed out with a series of quick jabs with his left hand and swung the escrima stick in his right hand with uncanny accuracy and incredible effectiveness.

Like a whirling dervish, his assault continued. He was no longer seeing the individual faces of those he was battling. Every Misfit he looked at had the same face, that of Jonathon Masters Junior. As one appeared in front of him, he battered bone and pounded flesh, only to be replaced by another, and all the while he saw Charon's face. Another grabbed his shoulders from behind, hoping to surprise him, but adrenaline coursed through his veins, giving him the gift of added strength and speed. Occasionally, a Misfit would connect with a solid kick or a punch to some part of his body. Fuelled as he was by pure rage against Charon and The Joker, Nightwing barely even felt it. For him, everything was in fast forward.

The passage of time returned to normal with a jarring effect as a hail of gunfire tore into the locks on the main doors to the lounge, and they were summarily kicked open. There, he saw The Joker seated in his wheelchair with a joyful grin on his face, Charon with hatred burning in his eyes, approximately a dozen additional Misfits staring on in amazement... and Barbara... with the barrel of Joker's gun to her neck. The derringer he usually used was now replaced by one of the Claridge Hi Tech weapons that he had seen many of The Misfits using. Both Barbara's and Nightwing's eyes widened in recognition of each other. Nightwing suddenly looked around at The Misfits strewn across the stage, all of them were unconscious. In his blind rage, he hadn't actually realized that he had defeated them all.

Without a care for his personal safety, Nightwing moved to center stage, enveloped in the cone of light that had been reserved only for The Joker up to this point. The Misfits advanced cautiously, amazed that their comrades had been neutralized by one man.

"Gentlemen! The time has come to reap what you sow." He pointed at Charon, clearly indicating his true goal, then he addressed the Misfits once more, staring them all down at once.

"Get out of my way."

Wisely choosing survival over defeat, The Misfits began retreating from the stage as Charon stepped forth with hate filled eyes the color of lava and a sneer of disgust and hatred on his lips. "Do as he says. Go out front and make sure the cops don't get up here. I'll take care of him." Behind them, The Joker giggled gleefully at the chaos he had wrought. Intent upon witnessing the coming battle, and hopefully the death of Nightwing at his protegee's hands, he did not notice Barbara slowly manipulating the pepper spray in her right hand.

Charon barked a humourless laugh. "Are you willing to die for this little bitch?" He asked as he stepped up onto the stage and into the light, indicating Barbara with an arrogant hand gesture. Nightwing took in the man's giant, muscle bound form, rock hard and fully capable of inflicting devastating amounts of punishment.

Nightwing cast a glance at Barbara and flashed a brief smile to reassure her, then returned his cold stare to Charon, his smiled fading as quickly as it appeared. "I'm not the one who is going to die here tonight. You are." He then extended a finger and pointed toward The Joker. "And then you."

Barbara shook her head slightly as if to clear it, trying to process what her lover had just said. Had he threatened to kill these two? She had no idea that her kidnapping had driven him so far over the edge. She examined him closely and saw the signs of fatigue that few others would notice. Whatever happened, she knew that the first priority would be to get free of this disastrous scenario and deal with Dick's lapse of good judgement later. Stealthily, she palmed the pepper spray in her hand so that no one could see it.

The Joker, brave as ever with a hostage under his gun barrel, snickered. "Oh Heavens no," He began, his voice raised in mock fear. "Are you gonna kill widdle ol me?" He then increased more pressure on the gun barrel at Barbara's neck. "You're forgetting, sonny, I got me two aces up my sleeve - I'd have Jokers but aces are worth more - to begin with, I have this fiery piece of work here playing the role of damsel in distress..." He reached into his pocket and removed his remote unit. "... and I have a detonator here for smilex bombs planted throughout the building... and a detonator for some bombs planted in this very casino, just to make things interesting. Now, you be a good boy and dance to Joker's tune. You and my boy Charon here are gonna see just who is the better man." He cackled wildly at the idea of using the two young men in a death match of sorts that he had arranged. Joker always did enjoy violent and deadly spectacles as a normal person would enjoy a football game.

Nightwing's eyes locked with Charon's own. Neither moved a muscle. Later, Dick would liken the situation to an old fashioned old west gunfight with two combatants standing toe to toe, waiting for the first move to be made. From the back of the lounge, several of The Misfits had gathered around the entrance to watch the spectacle that was about to unfold.

Charon moved first. Whether it was an uncanny reading of his foe's weakness, or just pure luck, no one knew for sure. The raging madman lashed out with a single closed fist. Nightwing managed to side step it partially, as it was aimed at his head, but the stress and the earlier battle combined with the events of his parachute jump had taxed him. He had slowed somewhat while Charon was still reasonably fresh and relatively uninjured. The punch landed full bore on his right shoulder. The meditation technique had been fading for the past several minutes, and when Charon's fist impacted on his shoulder, the pain surged back along his arm as if the injury were fresh. Nightwing spun partially around and groaned with renewed agony. To him, it felt as if the very bones in his arm were throbbing in agony and the skin was on fire.

Strategist that he was, Charon was quick to capitalize. He leaped at his momentarily stunned enemy. "What's the matter, hero? Hurt yourself?" Charon almost whispered the words into Nightwing's ear as he landed on Dick's back and knocked them both to the ground. Mercilessly, Charon delivered a series of powerful punches to Nightwing's kidneys, causing him a brand new kind of pain to accompany the fire that burned in his arm.

Face down on the floor with Charon atop him, raining down severe blows, Nightwing felt the sudden urge to vomit as pain overwhelmed his very soul. He felt Charon's fingers entangle themselves in his hair and yank hard, pulling his head up off the floor, only to have it smashed down again with incredible force. Only by twisting his face to one side did he avoid having his nose broken. As it was, his cheekbone may have been fractured.

Once more, the survival instinct that had kept Nightwing alive in past similar circumstances kicked in. Using the only weapon available to him, he lashed out with his left arm. Although he was unable to see it, he felt his elbow connect squarely with Charon's nose, and he felt it break. Charon screamed in agony and rolled off of his enemy, blood now gushing freely from his nose.

Nightwing took advantage of Charon's moment of weakness much as Charon had done to him earlier. The masked vigilante leaped to his feet as though he were a tightly coiled spring and, letting the pain in his right arm act as fuel for his fury, unleashed a series of roundhouse rights and lefts to both Charon's body and face. Blood spattered from Charon's mouth as one punch split his lip open, and another knocked loose some teeth. The gang leader danced a macabre jig as he reeled, trying to put up a defence.

"Chaos! Chaos! Rah! Rah! Rah!" The Joker cheered as he turned his attention to Barbara. "What do you think of the hero now, my dear? Not so gallant is he? Feel like changing your bet? Odds still favor my boy."

For the first time since she had been kidnapped, Barbara genuinely smiled. She was going to enjoy this. "No thanks. I'll let my bet ride on the hero." Like a snake ready to strike, Barbara's hand shot out, her finger on the release button of her pepper spray container. Before she could release it, Joker's own hand grabbed her by the wrist, effectively ending the surprise attack.

"Now, now, my dear. Don't make me mad."

"You're already mad, and you just made me angry." Forgetting the pepper spray, Barbara lashed out with her other hand, balling her fingers into a fist and releasing years of pent up sorrow and anguish resulting from her paralysis as she struck the Joker with all her sury square in the groin. For an instant, The Joker looked as if he were a balloon that had suddenly deflated. Unlike Barbara, who had no feeling beneath her waist, Joker was fully capable of feeling sensations in that area, and his eyes went as wide as saucers as the kind of pain only a man can feel enveloped him.

"Meep," Was the only sound the demented clown could utter as Barbara extended her fingers and dug her nails into that most tender of areas. She twisted with all her might. Joker dropped the gun to the floor as he sat there beside her, frozen with pain. The Misfits behind them, intent on watching the battle onstage, noticed nothing.

Joker toppled to the floor in agony, clutching his groin as Barbara picked up his gun from the floor and whirled her wheelchair around to face The Misfits. Only then did they notice, one by one, that she was now armed.

"If I were you boys, I'd run," She said, echoing Nightwing's earlier statement without even knowing it as she took aim.

"I don't think you have the guts," One of them answered.

Barbara smirked. "Ask me if I give a shit about what you think."

To make good on her threat, the woman known as Oracle squeezed off a few bursts, aiming well over their heads. Wisely choosing to obey Charon's earlier orders, The Misfits ran for their posts, leaving their leaders to deal with the gun toting firebrand. The sounds of gunfire brought both Charon and Nightwing's battle to a halt. She turned her chair back to face them and brought the weapon to bear on Charon.

"Come on!" She shouted to Nightwing. "We have to get out of here."

Nightwing looked toward Barbara, The Joker laying beside her whimpering. He then returned his stare to Charon.

"No."

Barbara's brow furrowed. "What did you just say?"

"Keep that rabid dog covered while I finish off this one. Then I'll deal with him."

"Are you nuts? We have to get out of here. NOW!"

Charon actually smiled at Nightwing, revealing his now gruesome blood stained teeth as he relished the thought of renewing the battle between them. Nightwing knew in his heart that if he were to take Barbara out of here now, they may win the battle, but they would lose the war. The Joker and Charon would be sent to Arkham, only to escape sooner or later and torture them all again. The nightmare needed to end. He would remove them from society like a surgeon would remove a cancerous tissue. He could not love Barbara with the possibility that these two might take her away from him. Finding her dead in a dumpster, beaten and raped, or hanging from a warehouse ceiling... would kill him.

"Last man standing is the one that lives," He said, addressing Charon, whose smile deepened into his cruel red eyes at the thought.

"Agreed."

At long last, the moment of retribution was at hand...


Chapter 16: Sky High

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

"Shots fired! I repeat, we have a report of shots fired from the penthouse location!" The report came from one of Addad's SWAT officers as they charged up the stairs toward the very top of the Bludhaven Plaza Hotel. They numbered an even dozen as they made their way toward their goal. Seven floors below them, the main assault team was moving floor by floor, liberating the hotel from the pockets of Misfits that had ensconced themselves with hostages. As they had expected, The Misfits were not nearly as threatening without their charismatic and psychotic leader, who was many floors above them. Many had given up completely without a fight. Those that chose battle over surrender soon found themselves outclassed by Addad's hand-picked SWAT team. Jim Gordon stopped dead in his tracks as the implication of the statement hit him. The report could have been his daughter's death knell. As if he were reading Gordon's thoughts, Flaherty was by his side with a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

"That doesn't mean anything. One of our SWAT guys on a nearby rooftop caught the sound and a flash of muzzle fire. They could be shooting at pigeons to pass the time for all we know. She's your daughter, and you're afraid for her, but there's no sense in assuming the worst until it actually happens."

Gordon nodded and favored him with a knowing smile. "I know. Thanks, Flaherty. I misjudged you earlier. You were doing what you had to do in a difficult situation... to protect your family. If I can understand one thing, I can understand that." Flaherty couldn't explain why, but that simple statement from a cop like Jim Gordon was like having a ten ton weight lifted from his shoulders. No matter what happened to him in the coming weeks and months regarding his career as a police officer, Joey Flaherty felt completely exonerated.

Together they resumed their race up the stairs, doing their best to catch up to their comrades who by this time were almost a full flight of stairs ahead. They could hear Harvey Bullock cursing, in turn, Jonah, The Joker, the questionable bloodline of the architect that designed such a tremendously tall building, and every Boston Cream donut he had ever consumed.

"I don't know if Harvey will ever be the same after this," Gordon muttered.

It was at that moment that a blood-curdling scream emanated from behind the door leading to the fourteenth floor. It was a woman's scream, and she was experiencing a kind of sheer terror that only someone who is held hostage can truly understand. Flaherty and Gordon were closest, as the remainder of the team was well beyond them now, and the main SWAT team was several floors beneath them, so they kicked the stairwell door open and charged inside.

The doorway led into a standard hallway, lined on each side with large wood-panelled doors that led to individual suites. At the end of the hallway, they could see that a suite door was left open, and there was movement inside. Together, the duo moved along the hallway, Flaherty on the left and Gordon on the right. Again, the scream penetrated the walls of the hotel, this time followed by a repellant, sickening laugh. Gordon gave Flaherty a hand signal, indicating that they should stop and listen for a moment to assess the situation.

"Please," the female voice pleaded. "My son needs his medication! He'll die if he doesn't get it! He has a heart condition!"

"You think we give a sweet shit what your wuss son needs, lady?" It was the owner of the sickening laugh they had heard earlier. "He won't be worrying about his medication if I bust a cap up his ass now will he? You wanna watch that, momma?" They both heard the distinct sound of a magazine being slammed into a weapon.

"Don't you dare lay a hand on my son, you bastard." This was a man's voice, the father of the trio.

"Or what, pops? You gonna get rough with me? Maybe they didn't tell you, but we're The Misfits, and we're gonna own this town after tonight. When we blow up the casino, no one will have the stones to take us on."

Gordon ducked his head into the room for a split second to get a layout of what was happening. The Misfit was holding the barrel of his Berretta 9mm to the forehead of a fourteen-year-old boy. To the child's credit, he was neither cowering nor crying. However, beads of nerve-induced sweat were rolling down his face. His parents were in far worse shape, which was understandable to Gordon. There was nothing worse than seeing a family member threatened. A quick glance in the mirror at the other end of the room revealed that The Misfit had a grin on his face that indicated he was completely enjoying the moment. Gordon felt the bile rise in his throat once more. These Misfits, even without their leader, represented nothing but human trash to him. They were brutal, senseless schoolyard bullies without care for human life. With SPAS shotgun in hand, he charged into the room, Flaherty on his heels.

Gordon let out a roar of anger as he charged into the room and smashed the butt of his weapon into the throat of The Misfit, who toppled over with a gurgling sound. Once again, the woman screamed, almost taking Gordon's ears off with the shrillness of it. The Misfit lay there with his hands around his throat, gasping for air as Flaherty moved the family into the other room. Gordon looked at the thug laying at his feet, and felt the rage return. He aimed the shotgun at The Misfit's head and then at the last second shifted his aim so that he would miss by several feet. The retort from the shotgun as he pulled the trigger echoed throughout the entire floor. A large portion of the floor only a few feet from The Misfit's head splintered away and The Misfit himself moved his hands from his throat to his ears, as he was almost deafened by the gunshot. From three other suites along the hallway, six more Misfits emerged with weapons at the ready. Flaherty raised his shotgun and took aim.

"Drop them! Right now!" He commanded in a tone that indicated that he would brook no shenanigans from the group. At the sight of the imposing shotgun shoved in their faces, The Misfits dropped their weapons to the floor. Flaherty commanded them all to move against the wall face first with legs spread wide, fingers laced together behind their heads in the common manner used by police forces everywhere. It was only then that he cast his gaze back to Gordon. He was taking aim once more, the shotgun aimed directly at the face of the helpless Misfit this time.

"Where's your big talk now, hot shot? Threatening a helpless young boy and his parents with a gun makes you feel like a big man, huh? Well you aren't dealing with a helpless family now. You got a cop, mad as hell, aiming a shotgun in your face. So tell me, do you feel like a man now?"

The Misfit looked as if he were about to wet his pants. Flaherty didn't like where this was going one little bit. "Commissioner... what are you doing? Stand down, man."

Gordon didn't answer. His thoughts were interrupted by yet another clamour in the hallway as Addad, Bullock, Montoya, and their team burst through the door.

"Here they are," Montoya shouted.

Addad's team began placing handcuffs on The Misfits Flaherty had captured while Addad, Bullock, and Montoya charged into the hotel room Gordon and Flaherty were in. They froze as they saw Gordon standing over the anguished Misfit. Addad ran over to them and placed his hand on the barrel of Gordon's shotgun and slowly began pointing it away. "Cool down, Commissioner. You're here as an observer and advisor, nothing else. I understand the pressures you're under, but I can't let you jeopardize lives, even his life. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that your daughter is held upstairs." He indicated The Misfit as if he too shared the opinion that he was nothing more than human trash. Gordon's steel gaze was boring into The Misfit. Behind him, he heard the frightened whimpers of the family in the other room. They had been through enough already. There was no reason to ruin their holiday season any further. Finally, he looked away, toward Bullock and Montoya, who looked as if they didn't truly recognize the man he had become. They understood the source of his anger, but they did not like what it was doing to the man. Reluctantly, he put the safety on his weapon and relaxed his muscles.

"Fine. Let's get on with this, shall we?"

"All right, let's go," Bullock shouted as the SWAT members cuffed the Misfits and radioed their position to the team that would follow. Gordon took a deep breath as he followed his people once more into the stairwell. He could have easily killed that Misfit in the hotel room. That wasn't what he wanted. He simply wanted to kill The Joker. Suddenly he realized that it was true, The Joker was slowly turning him into a killer. What would his daughter have thought of him had he taken a life like that? He had even wasted precious time with that piece of scum back there. Precious seconds that Barbara might not have. His blind rage could get them all killed. He had some serious thinking to do before he reached the casino level.

*****

Batman paused to catch his breath as he entered the stairwell. The sweat of exertion was dripping from his brow. He had seen Gordon and the others enter the stairwell on the opposite side of the hotel foyer after his painful trek from the basement of the building. He didn't think his ankle had been broken, but it had been seriously damaged, of that there was no doubt. He wasn't sure how much longer he could continue walking. Within minutes, a second and then a third SWAT team would be taking the initiative and entering the hotel, no doubt choosing the stairwell he was now in to gain rooftop access rather than take the route already cleared by the first team. The Dark Knight cast his gaze up. The stairwell seemed to continue on into infinity. No matter his varied expertise, he would not be able to ascend them in time and without being seen. Not with his ankle so badly injured.

He checked his utility belt and the hidden folds in his cloak that housed the various tools of his trade. He had two grapnel launchers left. He had no choice. Removing the first of his last two grapnels from its hiding place, he took aim high at a nearby stairwell wall and fired. Seconds later, Batman felt himself being lifted high into the air. The strain on his ankle ceased, but he knew that the grapnel line's maximum reach was only about twelve stories. He would have to disengage the cable, retract it fully, and then reuse it as he made his way to the top. It was faster than climbing the stairs, not to mention easier on his ankle, but it would still take precious time.

As he reached the tenth floor, the newest SWAT team entered the bottom of the stairwell and began their part of the mission. Batman hoisted himself over the railing and waited as he held his thumb to the retract button and waited for the rest of the cable to coil itself into the launcher once more. When the task was complete, he once again took aim and fired. He estimated that the cable only made it about nine stories before hitting the wall. It would have to do. Again, he hit the retract button and felt himself whisked into the air. He hoped that he would not arrive too late...

*****

Barbara Gordon clutched the weapon in her hand as though it were a life preserver given to her on stormy seas. Warily, she kept one eye on The Joker, who was lying on the floor writhing in pain, and another on the stage before her. Charon and Nightwing stood there, facing one another, each daring the other to attack first. She had never seen the man she loved like this before. His outside appearance was that of a glacier - cold, imposing, and unyielding. One look into his eyes, however, told her the real story. Inside, he was a whirlwind of emotion. Fear, anger, hatred, and even love all warred for dominance within him, and yet he kept them all suppressed so that he might achieve his goal, which was obviously revenge against those who had wronged them. She found it ironic that he was more like Batman than Batman himself. For his part, Charon seemed to be relishing the moment before this final battle.

"When I've snapped your neck, I'll take the woman next," Charon sneered, licking the blood from his tongue in an obscene manner. "My father didn't want me, my mother left me when I was still a child, but I can guarantee the redhead will love me when I'm done with her."

"Take an anger management course, Charon. I've got better things to do than wet nurse your inner child." Nightwing's reply was immediate, his tone fairly dripping with acid-like hatred. Barbara also noticed that Dick's voice sounded somewhat hallow, as if he was empty inside. She knew better. He was at his breaking point. If something wasn't done, and soon, either Jonathon Masters Jr. or Dick Grayson would die this night.

"Really?" Charon replied. "What pressing things do you have to do?"

"Burying you and your pasty-faced pal in a coffin and dancing on your grave leaps to mind. You two signed your death warrants by coming to my city, it's high time I carried out the execution." Barbara almost flinched when she heard that. Dick was truly intent on killing these two.

Charon motioned Nightwing toward him. "Then come on, hero. Take your best shot. I ain't going anywhere."

Nightwing's head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. The preliminaries were over, the final battle had begun. Nightwing moved forward, his guard up, his muscles tensed. Charon also raised his guard. The two began to circle one another cautiously, never leaving the cone of light that surrounded them. Even as Barbara watched in horror as they did so, she couldn't help but be reminded of the mighty Sumo's, whose movements were restricted with a circle of sorts. Her mind screamed at Dick to get them out of here, but he wouldn't listen to her before... she didn't know how to make him listen now.

Nightwing made some tentative kicks at Charon, who blocked easily and then countered with his own, which Nightwing blocked as well. So far, it was a stalemate. Barbara knew that if Nightwing were at his full capabilities, he would no doubt wipe the floor with Charon, but she could tell by the way he moved that he was suffering some sort of injury. From the way he was favouring his left arm, she assumed his right arm was in great pain. The bruises on his face from his tussle with Charon moments earlier and the Misfits before that meant that he was nowhere near his physical peak. That meant that Charon actually had a chance to not only defeat Dick, but possibly kill him.

Charon unleashed a spin kick at Nightwing's head, swinging his leg around from the right side, forcing Nightwing to block primarily with his right arm. The vigilante winced with pain as he blocked the kick and pushed the leg away from him. Charon was momentarily off balance as his leg was pushed away, sending him into an uncontrolled spin of sorts. Nightwing took full advantage of the situation and brought his right knee up hard into Charon's barrel shaped chest, causing the red-eyed behemoth to expel all the air from his lungs and double over.

Pressing his advantage, Nightwing brought his left elbow down onto the back of Charon's neck. Charon dropped to one knee - in pure agony, but he managed to retaliate just the same. He brought his ham-sized fist down hard into Nightwing's kneecap. Bludhaven's Avenging Angel also dropped to his knees as his leg gave out beneath him. Both of them were now on their knees facing one another. Nightwing reared back with his head and smashed his forehead into Charon's jaw with an old style head-butt. It had been a long time since Barbara had seen Dick fight, and she found it to be an almost frightening experience. It was a brutal spectacle and a part of her life that she had long left behind. Her war on crime had taken a more cerebral tack in the years since her spinal injury. Even after considering all the violence she had seen in years gone by as Batgirl, this was combat on another level entirely. This was a terribly ferocious dance of death. She had rarely seen such an ugly display.

As Charon fell backward clutching his face, Nightwing leaped into the air from his kneeling position toward his foe. Unfortunately for him, Charon had the presence of mind to roll out of reach. Nightwing landed in a heap on the floor as Charon reared back and brought his elbow down on the back of Nightwing's head. Stars danced across the vigilante's line of sight with the power of his blow. Barbara had seen enough.

Both combatants came to an immediate halt and turned their attention to her as she sprayed the air above them with bullets. Charon's eyes were seething pools of hatred for the woman who had stopped their competition just as he was gaining the upper hand. Barbara ignored him and turned her attention to the man she loved.

"What the hell are you doing? Who are you trying to impress? We have to get out of here!" Her tone was a mixture of plea and command.

"Does the woman do all your thinking for you?" Charon asked with disgust.

Nightwing spat some blood from his mouth and ignored his remark. "I'm doing this for all of us, Barbara. If I kill them both, we'll all be better off. Now you watch him," He indicated The Joker on the floor, who was now managing to recover from the blow Barbara had dealt him minutes ago. "and I'll take care of this one."

"I'M the one they kidnapped," Barbara countered angrily. "I'M the one The Joker shot! I'M the one who lost her mother to him! Don't you think if anyone should decide if they live or die, it should be me?"

On the floor at her feet, The Joker groaned as he managed to pull himself up, only to slump to the floor again.

"You think he hasn't done things to me? That clown shot me! He killed a boy I consider a brother!" Nightwing pointed at Charon, who was still standing and waiting for the combat to continue. "And this piece of trash has put me through enough already. Just keep your gun trained on the clown while I take care of this." He turned his attention back to Charon.

"Bring it on."

Charon reached out and grabbed the microphone stand The Joker had been using earlier. Nightwing watched as he extended it until it had reached its fullest height. Nightwing clucked his tongue, showing his disgust that Charon had chosen to use a weapon. The red-eyed would-be lord of the Bludhaven underworld began swinging it in a wide arc. Nightwing ducked underneath the first swing, hearing it cut through the air as the heavy base of the stand passed within an inch of his head. He quickly realized that should the stand connect, it could easily disable him long enough for Charon finish the job and kill him.

Charon continued the swing, arcing around a full three hundred sixty degrees until he was bearing down on Nightwing once more. Slowed by his injuries, the microphone stand glanced off of his left shoulder. With Nightwing off balance from the impact, Charon swung around once more, this time the microphone stand hit with a punishing force on Nightwing's chest, sending him sprawling across the stage, scrambling to keep his balance. Barbara grimaced as she watched, almost feeling the pain vicariously. She felt the urge to shout words of encouragement to her lover, but she refused to due to the fact that his ultimate goal was the death of his foe. She refused to encourage murder, even in her own best interest. Nevertheless, her spirits lifted as Nightwing turned defence into offense, rolling with the blow as he somersaulted forward, underneath the wildly swinging microphone stand, and performed a handspring into the air, somersaulting forward with legs outstretched. His boots impacted with a punishing force on Charon's chest, which was already badly bruised from the blow Nightwing had dealt with his knee minutes earlier.

Charon dropped the microphone stand to the stage floor and tumbled backward, falling out of the cone of light that the two had battled in. As Nightwing landed gingerly, he glanced around only to see that his foe had melted into the darkness as expertly as Nightwing or Batman could ever hope to.

"Where the hell did he go?"

"Now's our chance, please let's get out of here," Barbara was practically begging now.

"Nobody goes anywhere until the fat lady sings..." The Joker groaned as he sat up, his perpetual grin now almost a full blown sneer. Nightwing ran at full speed down the steps to the theater floor and stopped dead as The Joker produced his gloved hand. In it he held the remote for the bombs that lined the casino. "...and I forgot to book the fat lady, so get back up there and fight like a man."

Barbara stiffened as she brandished her gun. "Drop it, clown!"

Joker merely waved a hand as if he were swatting a fly. "Oh pish tush, you stupid cow! We both know neither of you will kill me, so get to the fighting already."

And just like that, the situation crystalized in his mind as if it were a radio station suddenly being dialled in, fading from heavy static into crystal clear stereo. The Joker, sitting there on the floor with a detonator in hand, had been orchestrating this moment from the very first moment he had encountered a willing pupil in the person of Jonathon Masters Jr. Nightwing had been dancing to The Joker's tune since Barbara had been kidnapped, sinking ever deeper into a bloodlust that had almost consumed him. Was it just a bad dream, or had he really fought with Wally and Roy? Had he really almost killed one of The Joker's henchmen in cold blood at the Masters van depot? Such acts would have been reprehensible to him only days earlier. Were he to look in a mirror at this very moment, would he like the man he saw looking back at him? Would he even recognize the person on the other side of the glass? He was travelling down a dark and ugly road, and as he laid eyes upon the disgusting leer plastered across The Joker's face, how he revelled in the bloodshed and death, he saw a reflection of himself and his own dark impulses there. He truly was becoming what he hated the most. He would not dance to The Joker's tune any longer.

He remembered Bruce's words from the Masters Van Depot earlier: "If you could only see yourself. You're acting like a bull in a china shop. I taught you better than that. I taught you to use stealth. The way you're going, you'll get yourself killed." And then later: "You weren't there when I learned that he had been given complete absolution for his past crimes due to his new position. You didn't see him taunting me. I wanted to snap his neck, too... When I was younger, I got a lucky break. A young boy came into my life. He reminded me of the consequences of my actions just by fighting at my side. He caused me to think things through rather than simply react. He reminded my of my own humanity. His presence kept me from crossing that line time and again. Then the boy grew up, as all boys do, and became a man. That boy was you."

A wisp of a smile passed across his lips as he remembered countless times fighting by Bruce Wayne's side. As Batman, he had instilled certain values in a young Dick Grayson, a moral code that must never be broken, a code of honour and conduct that set the two vigilantes apart from those they preyed upon. They would not resort to murder. They aided the justice system, but they were not above it. His thoughts then took a different direction, remembering a young Barbara Gordon, in a costume of her own making, desperately trying to be their equal, and eventually succeeding on all counts. She, too, was taught by men like Jim Gordon, to uphold certain values and codes of conduct. If he felt he had been through hell in the past few days, she had certainly been through even worse, and still she did not cry for their blood.

His mind snapped back to the present as The Joker waved the remote detonator in the air. "Do I have to tell you again? Make with the bloodshed or..." He waved the detonator around some more to make his point. "...BOOM!" Nightwing took a moment to cast a reassuring glance at Barbara. Even from behind the mask, she could see that his eyes had lost their maniacal fervour. Despite their situation, she instantly felt better. Nightwing turned and began to ascend the stairs once more. He recalled the last few moments of their battle. Charon had blended into the darkness and virtually disappeared while Nightwing simply stood there, waiting for him to strike. Disappearing into darkness was a strategy he and Batman had used many times. Charon was using his own tricks of the trade against him. Further proof that he was not thinking straight. He knew he would have to draw Charon back out into the light and implement a new strategy. A strategy worthy of him and the legacy of the heroisim he upheld. As he ascended the final step, he failed to see the blood red eyes appear in the shadows among the curtains, and then strike with the speed of lightning. Charon stepped from the shadows and hit Nightwing full on the jaw. Like a puppet with his stings cut, the vigilante fell to his knees with Charon standing over him, a wicked smile on his face that matched The Joker's. Nightwing wiped the blood from his mouth once more and rose to his full height.

"Is that the best you can do?"

Charon gave a wet chuckle and fired off another punch at Nightwing's jaw. He was amazed when his arm cleaved through nothing but air. His masked foe had ducked the punch completely. Nightwing's head popped back up, a smug look on his face.

"You're not laying another filthy paw on me."

"We'll see about that."

Charon threw another punch. Again he found nothing but air where his target once was. Yet again he attempted to throw a punch, only this time to the body. Even with his injuries slowing him, Nightwing stepped deftly to one side and boxed Charon's ears as he did so. This did not amuse Charon, as he growled from somewhere deep in his chest. Nightwing had finally divorced himself from the anger and blood craze that had consumed him, and as a result found his combat skills had increased phenomenally. Charon attempted a spin kick. Nightwing ducked underneath it. He followed with an attempt at a leg sweep. Once again Nightwing leaped far out of reach. Since he had returned to the stage area, Charon had only connected once with his foe. It now appeared that Nightwing was part ghost, able to make himself intangible for a time. Charon was breathing heavy now. It was like trying to punch the wind.

"Now, just for future reference, this is how one actually connects with a punch," Nightwing told him, his tone that of a kindergarten teacher toward his slowest student. Growing ever more frustrated, Charon attempted to throw another punch. Once again, it failed to connect. To add injury to insult, Nightwing ducked underneath the punch and came up swinging with both fists. Charon reeled backward with the double impact of the punch, only by grabbing the curtains at the edge of the stage did he manage to stay on his feet. If the move hurt Charon as much as it pained Nightwing's injured arms to perform it, the tide would indeed be turning.

Charon staggered back toward his foe and attempted yet another punch. Nightwing side-stepped the attack and extended his left leg in a perfectly executed side kick. Before Charon realized that his punch had not even connected, he had impaled himself on Nightwing's boot. He doubled over in pain once more before falling backward onto his tailbone.

"Get up. I'm not finished with you."

With a mighty surge of adrenaline brought on by anger, Charon leapt to his feet and charged the vigilante he despised so much, blinded by a rage all his own. Nightwing dropped to his side on the stage floor as Charon ran toward him and extended his legs, ensnaring Charon's with his own and tripping him up completely. Charon, who earlier appeared so completely lethal, suddenly appeared clumsy and ungainly as he fell and skidded across the stage floor. Just as easily as he dropped to the floor, Nightwing leapt to his feet once more and moved across the stage until he was standing over Charon. He dropped to one knee and grabbed Charon by the back of the head, placing his left hand around the throat of the last surviving member of The Masters Family.

He began to squeeze.

The Joker rubbed his hands together with glee as he watched events unfold. Nightwing squeezed harder on Charon's throat, whose eyes began to bulge out of their sockets. Charon, bloodied and battered, was in no position to fight back. Barbara looked on, her own eyes growing wider with horror. She could have sworn that he had seen the light, that he had given up his quest for revenge.

Charon began to choke and gasp for air.

"Come on! DO IT!" Joker yelled. "Bats will shit porcupines when he hears about this!"

Just as suddenly as it began, it ended. Nightwing shifted his iron grip on Charon's throat. Rather than choking him, he pinched a specific nerve on his neck which rendered him paralysed for approximately three hours while still retaining complete control over his senses. He released his hold on Charon's head and let it fall to the stage floor. As he stared with revulsion at The Joker, he leaned over and whispered in Charon's ear.

"Now I'm finished with you."

Barbara sighed heavily with relief.

The Joker was not amused.

"What! The! Holy! Blue! Hell! Do you think you're doing? You take stage direction about as well as your mentor! Okay, Wingnut or whatever the hell you call yourself, you wanna play dirty? Let's play dirty! How about I blow us all sky high?"

The air whistled as a batarang sliced through their midst and struck The Joker hard on the knuckles, forcing him to drop the detonator to the floor. Nightwing, Barbara, and The Clown Prince Of Crime all turned their attention to the main entrance where, silhouetted by the light from the casino beyond, Batman was waiting.

"How about you don't." It was not a question, it was a command... and a warning should the psychopath get any ideas about acting up. The Joker was fuming with barely restrained fury now.

"Foul! Foul! I call a foul! You three have me outnumbered! How in the name of all that's unholy did you get past our men anyway?" As if in answer to his question, gunfire and shouting began to erupt nearby. Jim Gordon, Joey Flaherty, and the rest of the SWAT team were upon them.

"Your men are..." Batman paused as he searched for the correct wording. "...otherwise occupied."

"It's over," Nightwing said as he cast a subtle, but loving glance at Barbara, and then a look of reassurance toward Batman. Almost at once, Dick had noticed his mentor's posture. He was trying to conceal it with his cape wrapped around him, but Batman was leaning against the door frame in order to stand erect. He was injured in some fashion. He wanted nothing more than to run to Barbara and hold her close, but he dare not show too much affection for her in front of The Joker, for he would become even more determined to hurt her in order to injure Nightwing and Batman. Instead, he contented himself to place a hand on her shoulder and give it a light squeeze before turning his attention to Batman.

"Are you alright?" He asked.

"I'll be fine. How's Barbara? How are you?" Typical of the man, put aside his own pain in order to care for others.

"She seems okay, and I'll be back to one hundred percent with some rest." Batman seemed to visibly relax when he heard the good news. At just that moment, the door to the stairwell swung open so violently that it nearly came off the hinges and Jim Gordon, flanked by Joey Flaherty and Rene Montoya, charged into the casino. As one they noticed the Misfits Nightwing had dealt with earlier strewn across the casino floor, and Gordon cast his gaze toward the lounge area and his eyes met those of Batman. He stormed across the casino floor in their direction.

"Where is she? Where's my daughter? And where's the madman that kidnapped her?"

Batman held out his hands in a calming gesture toward his old friend. "Easy Jim, it's been taken care of."

From behind The Dark Knight, Barbara's voice cried out with glee. "Dad?"

Batman stepped aside to reveal Barbara, alive and well, and she rolled her now rickety wheelchair out to greet him. Tears welled up in Gordon's eyes as he dropped the shotgun to the floor and ran to her, arms outstretched. He wanted to say something to her, but he found that his voice had failed him. He was utterly speechless. Nightwing and Batman looked on, both wanting to express their love and relief, but instead remained shackled to their secret identities, and apart from the joyous reunion.

The Joker sat on the floor, his arms crossed and his mouth formed into a cruel-looking frown. He had been disarmed and humiliated by his foes once again. Without the use of his legs, he could only sit there, waiting to be returned to Arkham. If only he could get his hands on the remote detonator, which was now...

...which was now laying on the stage where Batman's weapon had taken it... within two inches of Charon's fingers... and those fingers were moving ever so slightly. With a mighty roar of defiance, Jonathon Masters Jr. reached out and grabbed the detonator, rising to his full height on the stage as everyone but The Joker looked on in horror. Nightwing especially was amazed at Charon's movements, any normal man would have been immobilized for hours, but the hate that drove Jonathon Masters pushed him past the limits of any normal man.

"I may not be The Joker," Charon roared, his voice now guttural and strangulated. "But the last laugh will be mine!" He was practically foaming at the mouth as he shouted. "You've taken my mother and my father, my Misfits, my woman, and my ally..." He paused as Nightwing began to run toward him, and then stopped cold as he waved the detonator. "...but you will not stop me from making my mark on the world. When people turn on their televisions tomorrow morning, they'll all know about me, Jonathon Masters, last surviving member of the Masters dynasty, a man no one took seriously, until he blew up the city's largest building."

"Excellent my boy! You've learned your lessons well." Joker clapped as if in appreciation for a Shakespearean performance.

From his back pocket, Charon produced an Asp 9mm and took aim. "Perhaps I learned them too well. I wouldn't use this on Nightwing, because he deserved to be killed with my bare hands, but you..."

He squeezed the trigger twice.

Joker fell back to the floor as one of the bullets ripped into his right side, while the other missed him completely and embedded itself in the far wall. For his part, The Joker couldn't stop laughing, despite the pain he was in. They all watched in horror as Charon pressed the detonator button... and collapsed to the floor in a state of complete exhaustion.

"Oh my God," Flaherty muttered.

"How long do we have? Can we stop it?" Gordon asked. To their amazement, it was The Joker, spitting up blood, who gave them their answer.

"Three minutes is the time to beat," He coughed violently, his skinny frame visibly suffering from the wound he had received. "I'd have made it sixty seconds, just like in the game shows... but this place doesn't have wheelchair ramps, so I needed more time to get out... like Gordon's gimp daughter. No chance to stop it... give my regards to Yoko Ono..." With that, The Joker passed out with a mile wide grin on his face.

"Everybody out! Hit the stairs running and don't look back! GO! RUN!" The command came from Nightwing, and it surprised him that Batman hadn't beaten him to the punch issuing the commands. He looked over at his mentor and noticed that he was in increasing amounts of pain. Flaherty charged past them and placed handcuffs on Charon, as Addad did to the now unconscious Joker, just to be sure. Together they began the task of dragging their respective collars to safety. Flaherty almost panicked as he strained under the weight of Charon's bulk, but was relieved to feel his burden lightened when Bullock and Montoya came to his aid. Together they all made their way to the stairwell with all possible speed. Gordon reached for his shotgun once more and cocked it as Addad passed him with The Joker draped over his back. It was Batman's voice, uncharacteristically soft, which snapped him from his reverie.

"Jim, you have more important things to attend to. Take your daughter and get out of here."

Gordon's eyes drifted toward his daughter. The choice was clear. He scooped Barbara up into his arms and threw the shotgun back to the floor.

"What about my chair?" Barbara asked.

"We'll get you a new one," Jim replied as he kissed his daughter on the forehead. He then turned his attention to Batman and Nightwing. "What about you two?"

Batman removed the cape from his shoulders and revealed a terribly swollen ankle. It was nearly twice its normal size.

"I can't walk any more. You three go. I'll find my own way out."

Nightwing was aghast at the thought Batman had put forth. Abandon him? "Hell no. I'll get you out of here."

Batman's reply was as tinged with anger as anyone had ever heard. "Damn it! Go, Nightwing. You're in no shape to carry me to safety. Do as I say. I will not have you killed for my sake."

Everyone but The Gordon's, Nightwing, and Batman had evacuated the immediate area. They were alone. There was no help coming for them. It was then that an idea struck Nightwing.

"How many grapnels do you have left?"

Batman regarded his former student with curiosity. "Just one. Why?"

He began to push Gordon toward the stairwell door. "You two get out of here! Get Barbara to safety! I'll get Batman out, just trust me."

"Are you sure?" Gordon asked.

"Yes! Now go!" He shoved Gordon toward the exit, he knew Barbara's eyes were boring into his back, but he had no time for that now. She was being moved to safety, it was time now to see to the man who had played so many roles for him throughout his life - father, brother, mentor, friend. Batman was not happy with Nightwing.

"I told you to leave me. I can get out on my own."

"The hell you can. You can't walk. I'm going to get you out of here, but I apologize if it's not the most dignified rescue in the world."

"What's your plan?"

"Just come with me," Nightwing replied.

Batman was, as always, correct. With his badly injured arm coupled with the beating he had taken this night, Nightwing was not in any condition to carry a man of Batman's size to the distance required before the timer reached zero and blew them all to bits, but there was another way. No matter how tired and beaten he was, Nightwing had enough energy to carry Batman up one flight of stairs to the roof, and therein make their escape. Nightwing scooped up Batman in a fireman's carry position, he grunted with exertion as he took the weight of The Dark Knight's body across his shoulders.

"You're putting on some weight, old man. Better tell Alfred to lay off the rich food for a while," Nightwing jokingly told him.

"I hope your jovial attitude means we have a good chance of surviving whatever stunt you have in store for us." Even draped over Nightwing's shoulders with semetx explosives only seconds from exploding, the two could always find time to exchange some witty banter.

"I just hope this works," Nightwing replied as he dashed across the casino floor to the stairwell door he had entered through. He kicked it open and, reaching down into the very depths of his being for energy reserves, took the stairs with as much speed as he could muster. On his way up, he almost ran into the original Misfits he had immobilized on the rooftop during his HALO jump landing. They drew their weapons and readied for battle until Nightwing yelled at them, informing them that The Joker's bomb was counting down to zero. As with all animals when confronted with danger, they forgot their rivalries and made a bid for survival, gladly foregoing their orders to kill Nightwing and Batman.

Seconds later they reached the banks of elevators where Nightwing had first shed his gear, including the parachute pack. Nightwing took a moment to prop Batman up against the wall and began to step into the harness.

"Let me get this straight..." Batman began.

"Before you ask, the answer is yes. I plan to use the back up parachute and jump off the top of the building, with you in tow, in the middle of a snowstorm, with both of us injured, hoping that your last grapnel will slow us down."

The Dark Knight shook his head. "No. The chances of this working are slim to none and you know it."

By this time, Nightwing had slipped into the harness and cinched it tight. He turned to his former mentor and attempted to reassure him with his winning smile and a well chosen remark.

"Surviving in Bludhaven is sixty percent training, thirty percent good planning, five percent instinct, and five percent flying by the seat of your pants. We have just entered the realm of that final five percent. Right now, you have to trust my gut instinct and fly with me. Now don't make me knock you senseless before I save your life. That's been done in the movies way too many times and it's pretty damn cliche. Not to mention I need you to pull this off."

Without waiting for Batman to reply, Nightwing picked him up in the fireman's carry position one last time and made a mad dash for survival up the small flight of stairs that led to the roof. His body was aching from head to toe, and he knew that he couldn't go on like this much longer. He estimated that they had about twenty seconds left as he kicked open the door and ran for the edge. The blizzard had hit with full force by this time and the biting wind combined with the huge snowflakes that pelted them made it difficult even to see a few feet ahead. When he reached the precipice Batman dropped to his feet and steadied himself as best he could. Nightwing stepped in to his side and wrapped one arm around his waist.

"Are you ready?"

"I'll fire the grapnel, your arms are injured and mine aren't."

"Exactly what I had in mind," Nightwing countered.

"If the wind gusts in the wrong direction, we could be slammed against the building," Batman told him, Nightwing could only make a guess as to why he felt it necessary to include that piece of information before the jump.

"Would you rather stay here?"

"Here's to soft landings," Batman replied with just a hint of humour in his voice.

And without another word, they jumped into the cold, unforgiving night air.

Nine seconds later, the One In A Million Casino, along with Roland Desmond's dreams of becoming a legitimate businessman, died aborning in a cataclysmic explosion that rained debris on the street below. Luckily, the police had cordoned off the area and onlookers moved out of range. Far above street level, Nightwing and Batman plummeted like stones. Mere heartbeats after they had stepped over the edge, Nightwing had shifted their positions so that Batman was in front of him, suspended by Nightwing's strong legs hooked underneath The Dark Knight's arms. Without even a moment to say a prayer, Nightwing pulled the rip cord, and the back up XL Cloud Type Special Forces rectangular parachute shot out above them.

Once more, the wind buffeted the pair back and forth. Both men gasped as the wind shifted and it appeared that they would indeed be slammed into the hotel wall with ferocious force.

"Hold on," Nightwing yelled, desperate to be heard over the snowstorm.

At the very last second, the wind shifted again, and the pair were whisked to a safe distance from the structure. With double the weight, they both knew that they were falling far too fast to survive. The Parsons Building loomed nearby. Batman readied the grapnel as the falling debris began to reach them. Nightwing twisted and turned, using his formidible agility to dodge the larger pieces of shrapnel and avoid injury. Unfortunately, some red hot shards of metal ripped through the parachute itself, causing them to accelerate even more.

As The Parsons Building sped past them, Batman took aim and fired. Silently, he worried that the grapnel, basically a miniaturized version of the M-16 .223 Gunline, would hold them both. He knew full well that it was not designed for such feats, as Nightwing's mountaineering grapnels were. Still, there was little choice in the matter. With the snowfall as thick as it was, Batman could not even tell if the grapnel hook had taken hold. Their fall continued, with Nightwing doing his best to keep them from breaking into an uncontrollable spiral. Batman braced his arms for any sudden stop, and seconds later it came. The de-cel line went taut and Batman grunted with exertion as they came to a sudden halt, only twelve floors from street level. As the line tightened in Batman's hands, they began to swing in a wide arc towards the structure.

"Brace yourself," Batman yelled.

Batman extended his arms as they careened towards the building. With the parachute on Nightwing's back still serving to slow them down to a certain degree, there was a chance that they would survive this. The huge glass windows rushed toward them. Seconds later they hit the wall with a bone jarring impact, but Batman's extended arms took the brunt of it, and soon they were swaying gently on the cable. The stunt was the true epitome of teamwork. Nightwing's arms never would have held up under the strain in his current condition, nor would Batman have made it out in time with his injured ankle. The two injured partners had acted as one cohesive unit, making up for the other's shortcomings and saving their lives in the process.

The danger was not over, however, they now had to get to safety without being hit by the shrapnel that was falling from the sky. Luckily, The Parsons building had been evacuated after the police helicopter had crashed earlier, and it was a small matter to force open a window and disappear inside. Moments later, Batman and Nightwing were at street level, emerging from a side door and disappearing into the shadows while everyone's attention was riveted on the raging fireball high above. The Batmobile, summoned by remote, appeared at their side. Nightwing promptly passed out from his injuries and extreme enhaustion as the car approached. For a moment, Batman considered waiting for Jim and Barbara to emerge from the building, but Nightwing's medical condition overruled that notion. He trusted Jim to get everyone to safety. Within moments they were long gone from the scene.

Thirteen floors down from the casino, Jim Gordon stumbled as the explosion rocked the building and caused him to lose his footing. Barbara reflexively held him tight as she heard it. The stairs creaked somewhat, and they could have sworn they felt the entire building sway, but the structure held. Gordon picked up his pace even more, thankful that he didn't smoke any longer, for he needed all his breath now. The casino floor had imploded and fell in on top of the penthouse suites below. The building continued to creak as the floors beneath gave away under the stress. For a few scant seconds, both Jim and Barbara feared that the explosion would claim their lives after all. Finally, they breathed a sigh of relief as the creaking stopped. They didn't know it, but the structure had ceased to give way three floors below the casino. Power was cut in a three block radius by the blast. The entire building was a disaster area, and needed to be evacuated. Jim Gordon knew that he personally would never set foot in the building again if he had his way.

Four minutes after the explosion, the father and daughter emerged from the stairwell and charged through an emergency exit, along with dozens of other guests/hostages into the snow-covered street beyond. Thankfully, there were over a dozen ambulances waiting and he carried Barbara over to one of them. Barbara protested, saying that she was fine and that they should save an ambulance for a truly injured person, but her father would have none of it. As he climbed into the back of the ambulance, they both turned and peered into the sky. Despite the mob scene that ensued as every occupant of the hotel vacated the building, the relative silence that followed the explosion was achingly eerie. The heavy snow whirled about them, almost completely obscuring their view.

"Where do you think they are?" Barbara asked. "Do you think they made it?"

Gordon took his daughter's hand in his own and held her tight. "I'm sure they did. Men like that just don't lay down and die. They fight it tooth and nail every step of the way. Whatever they had in mind, they're alive. I'd feel it if they were dead."

Barbara smiled, and although she didn't say it aloud to her father, she knew she would feel it, too.

END OF ACT 2

The next day saw Barbara Gordon discharged from Rabe Memorial Hospital after an overnight stay for examination. Her father insisted on being by her every step of the way and slept on a cot by her side all night. The Commissioner's vow to kill The Joker was all but forgotten, replaced with concern for his daughter he so loved.

Gordon stopped at the entrance to the hospital to pick up a newspaper, which told of the overnight hostage situation and explosion in one of the city's finest buildings. It mentioned that local police officers Addad and Flaherty had brought in America's most wanted criminal, The Joker, and his young apprentice, Jonathon Masters Jr. Both were being transferred to Arkham Asylum immediately, with cells far apart from one another. The Joker was in stable condition, but had yet to achieve consciousness. Although an EKG revealed heightened brain activity, the clown prince of crime was, for all intents and purposes, in a coma. Although injuries resulting from the explosion were many, quick action in evacuating the hostages meant that none were serious. No fatalities were reported. The record snowfall of the previous evening also dominated the first few pages of the newspaper. Barbara turned to the society page, which told of a cancelled charity appearance by Gotham philanthropist Bruce Wayne to raise money for toys for needy children at Christmas. It was said that Wayne had injured his ankle in an indoor tennis match, and in lieu of his appearance, The Wayne Foundation would double the amount of their donation. Buried beneath all of these headlines was yet another article, barely large enough to catch the eye, which told of the coming hearing for Officer Joey Flaherty of The Bludhaven Police Force.

They were alive.

Now all Barbara had to do was wait, and Dick would come to her.

At her father's insistence, Barbara did not return to the clocktower where she lived, but rather returned with him to his house for the Christmas season. She returned to her old room, which neither time nor the massive Gotham earthquake had really touched since she left it years ago to strike out on her own. Her father doted on her constantly, making it rather difficult to slip into her other life as Oracle, although she had managed to get online a few times using her laptop. She sent three separate emails to the cave, but only received one reply, from Alfred. The message stated that both men were recuperating and that he had restricted them both to bed rest for the moment. He assured her that Dick would contact her when he was able.

On the afternoon of December twenty-fourth, Barbara managed to steal a few more minutes away from her father and boot up the laptop. She was just typing up another email when there was a gust of wind behind her and a brief rush of movement at her window.

"I hope you don't type 'LOL' or 'TTFN' in those emails. I just can't stand that," Came the familiar voice from behind her.

She whirled her new chair her father had insisted on buying her (minus the handles of course) around to face him, and was surprised by what she saw. It was Dick Grayson in front of her, not Nightwing. He was dressed in civilian clothing - a pair of khaki dockers, a grey and white sweater, running shoes, a black baseball cap, and his favoured Gotham Knights leather jacket. His hair had been cut recently, his right arm was tucked inside his jacket in a sling, and the remains of a scarlet bruise on his cheek was still healing.

She didn't know what to do first, kiss him or slap him for his foolhardy notion that he would kill Joker and Charon. Looking into his eyes, she knew that he was once again the man she loved. Words were of no use to them at that moment. He ran to her as she approached him. They embraced and Dick buried his face in her scarlet hair. He smiled as he breathed deeply.

Her hair even smelled like vanilla.

They broke the embrace long enough to share a passionate, almost frenzied kiss, as if both were desperate to hold onto each other as long as possible, due to the very real fear that something might happen to separate them again.

After what seemed like a blissful eternity in each others arms, they broke the embrace and stared into one another's eyes.

"I've been worried about you," She said as she traced a fingertip across his injured cheek.

"Sorry I couldn't come earlier, but I was in pretty rough shape the past few days. I wasn't even conscious for much of it. Alfred was frantic about letting me out of the house even today, but Bruce convinced him that it would be best for my health if I got to see you."

She grinned at that. "How did you survive that explosion?"

Dick shook his head as he recalled the events. "We flapped our arms and flew. What did you expect?"

Dick was about to go on, regaling her with the tale of their narrow escape, but she interrupted with yet another passionate kiss. It didn't matter to her how he survived, what mattered was that they were together once more. He, of course, held her tight and revelled in the sweet taste of her soft lips and tongue. Moments later, her father's voice called from the other side of the house. There was going to be a Christmas party tonight, and everyone from the G.C.P.D. would be coming over. He would need her help to be ready in time.

"Can you please come to the party? I can only handle so many cop stories on my own."

Dick nodded. "Sure I can, but give me a few hours. Maybe afterwards we can go carolling to the manor and bring some of the spirit of the season to that old place. I even took the liberty of buying a tree to be delivered later tonight. We can decorate the place, sing carols, get Tim to stop by, and just generally drive Bruce and Alfred insane with Christmas cheer. We'll have tons of fun, I promise, but let me tie a few things up first."

"Hurry back."

They kissed once more, and parted for the time being.

*****

Titans Tower: One Hour Later

"I must admit, I was wondering when we'd be seeing you again." Roy Harper propped himself up on the couch he was lying on with his daughter Lian. The two were watching It's A Wonderful Life and eating mounds of Christmas chocolate. Roy was a great father to Lian, but he was far more indulgent than any other father Dick had ever known. Lian, of course, was thrilled to see Dick, embracing him and giving him a peck on the cheek under mistletoe she held in her hand. Roy, on the other hand, was clearly more guarded with his emotions. Before Dick could speak, Wally raced into the room, holding a piece of paper in his hand.

"Hey, I just got an email about you guys needing my help with some emergency tonight and..." He stopped as he and Dick layed eyes on one another. "... oh, it's you. Captain Ahab has returned from his quest for vengeance."

Dick flashed his trademark grin and gave a small wave. "I was hoping we could talk."

"Don't mind if I do," Wally replied. "I've got a feeling that what we have to say isn't best suited for smaller ears, though," He inclined his head toward Lian. Roy left his daughter to watch an animated special about Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer on the television and suggested that they all move to the command center for some privacy. Once they were inside the soundproof room, both men turned to Dick and stared coldly at him. Dick took a moment to compose his thoughts, and then began to speak.

"First off, I apologize. You guys have to know how sorry I am about the way things went. I was in a lot of pain and feeling a lot of fear. The Joker and Charon had pushed me to the edge of my sanity when they kidnapped the woman I love. I wanted him dead, and believe it or not, I was only doing what I did - meaning fighting with you - to keep the blood I was planning to spill from dirtying you, too. You guys are two of the best and oldest friends I ever had, but that doesn't mean we can erase what I did or pretend it didn't happen. I have to make it up to you guys and earn that friendship back, but I know I can do it. Our friendship was built on a rock solid foundation, and it won't crumble just like that. Some day, I'll be worthy of being called your friend once more."

Wally and Roy shared a look of concern.

"Listen, Wingster, Wally and I have been talking since that night in Bludhaven. We both kind of see what you were going through there. As usual, you take things too damn far and punish yourself too much. Everyone's allowed a screw up every now and then, or don't you remember a liaison I had with a mercenary called Chesire?"

"Maybe we are allowed to screw up every now and then, but I was actually violent with you two. I'd understand if you couldn't even look at me any more."

Wally actually got angry at that point. "You know what gets me angrier than anything else, Dick? The fact that you refused our help boils my blood more than anything else. Damn it, we've been through wars together, man. I don't think either of us could be mad at you for long. You're our friend, and you're our leader. Hell, we're like brothers. Brothers fight amongst themselves, but when someone else picks on your brother, you want to help them. That's what we wanted to do with you. Roy and I both know what it's like to be in love, but you have to remember that we are friends. The best of friends, since we were kids. The next time you refuse our help I'll..." He paused as he dredged his mind for the proper wording.

"The next time you refuse our help..." Roy interjected. "We will just have to try and help you even harder. Even if it means cold cocking you on the chin until you see the light of reason."

Silence hung in the air like the thick blanket of snow that swirled along the east coast for the past few days. Dick was speechless. He wouldn't have blamed either of them for punching him in the face for his terrible behaviour toward his friends in the past month.

Roy rubbed the stubble on his chin in a thoughtful manner. "Listen, I think I know a way we can all get beyond this."

Dick shook his head, indicating that he didn't know what Harper was talking about.

"I believe we were scheduled for meatball paninni and a few pitchers of Christmas cheer... paid for by the heir to the Wayne fortune, of course."

At once, all three of their faces erupted into broad grins. "You're on. In fact, I'll supply a whole party's worth of it if you guys, and Lian of course, don't mind coming to a little party in Gotham at a friend's place."

The three extended their right hands and placed them, palms down, on top of one another. "Titans Together, pal," Wally said.

"It's the only way to be," Roy added.

"Amen," Dick said reverently, as if it were the end of a sacred prayer.

"I just have one question," Roy interjected.

"What's that?"

"Who's Captain Ahab?"

*****

Flaherty Residence In Bludhaven: Forty Five Minutes Later

"Merry Christmas, Joey." Somehow, Joey Flaherty wasn't even surprised by the soft whisper-like voice that appeared behind him as he stepped out of his car and headed toward the house.

"I have to admit, I was wondering what the hell had happened to you." He turned to see Nightwing stepping partially into the light cast by the twinkling Christmas decorations that adorned his house. His arm was still in the sling that Dick Grayson had worn earlier in the evening.

"I've been wondering what's going to happen to you, too. I'm sorry about the Internal Affairs investigation. Truly, I am."

In response, Flaherty just smiled. "Hey, don't worry about me, kid. Things aren't so bad. Yes, I am going to be stripped of my badge, nothing can prevent that, but it's not such a disaster. Arnot and Redhorn have shut up like clams since Captain Addad has been speaking up for me. There have even been questions raised about the statute of limiations on this crime. Because I came forward in the manner I did, not to mention that I'm the guy getting credit for collaring young Masters Jr., I've had people ask if I can help them with their problems even after I've left the force. Even a semi-honest man like myself is something of a rarity in The Haven. I know the ins and outs of the city, who to trust and who's scum and so on. So I'm planning on opening a private investigating firm. I've got tons of requests for help already, more than I can handle in fact."

Nightwing felt a warmth rise within his him that things had turned out well for Joey, unlike the way they turned out for his brother, Mully.

"It is the season for miracles, after all."

Joey smiled as he hefted a bag of newly wrapped Christmas presents from the car. "Hey, do you want to come in for something to drink? A hot toddy, maybe? It's pretty damn cold out here. The wife and kids might be a little spooked at first but they'd get used to the mask and everything. The dog would love to see you, too."

Nightwing couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, but no. I have a prior engagement with some friends."

"Well, that's good, then. As long as you're not alone. And hey, now that I have your ear, don't be a stranger. You helped me to do the right thing, if you ever need a reliable lead in The Haven, you come and see me. Old Joey won't steer you wrong."

Nightwing extended his gauntleted hand to shake Joey's, and then took it back to remove his glove. He wanted Joey to feel the warmth of the handshake on this occasion. "We'll see each other again, I'm sure. Merry Christmas, Joey."

Joey took Nightwing's hand and shook it firmly. "Merry Christmas, punk."

*****

Arkham Asylum: Forty Minutes Later

Tied to his bed for the evening, Jonathon Masters Jr. could hardly believe it as two glaring white eyes peered into his cell from outside the window.

"Merry Christmas, you waste of skin." The rough voice was unmistakable to the man who called himself Charon.

Nightwing.

Charon's throat was still damaged from his encounter at the top of the Bludhaven Hotel and Casino, but when he spoke, his voice was more than hoarse, it was filled with pure evil, and just a hint of joy. "Back for a rematch, are you? Just get me out of here and we'll finish what we started."

"No. Not this time. You're going to be chained to that bed until you're too old and weak to even breathe without assistance."

"Don't think this is over. I will get out of here, and when I do, I'm making a beeline to Bludhaven and I will finish what I started. I'll kill Grayson, I'll kill The Joker, I'll kill Desmond and I'll rip your heart out and nail it to the wall as a trophy."

The barely visible face in the window remained impassive. "I'm going to do something Batman never did with The Joker. I'm going to give you a piece of advice. If you know what's good for you, you'll stay in that tiny little cell, where it's safe, time itself comes to an end. If you ever, and I mean ever, set foot in Bludhaven again, I will cut you off at the knees, beat the ugly off of your face, and bury you so deep that the next time sunlight hits your body, you'll be the star attraction of an archeology dig. This is your only warning, Jonathon. I know you can still feel my fingers around your throat."

Charon sneered. In fact, he could indeed feel small impressions around his throat where Nightwing was squeezing so very hard. A few more seconds, in fact, and Masters would be dead, not immobilized. Charon railed against his restraints, but to no avail. Nightwing's white eyes simply looked on impassively as he did so. Frustrated, Charon began screaming for the guard. Within seconds, a tall blonde man in his late twenties and dressed in Arkham Security gear came running in.

"What the hell is it, Masters?"

"There's someone at my window! Get him! Shoot him!"

The guard moved over to the window and looked outside. A light snow was falling. He could see no one there.

"We're five stories up, you idiot. No one can be out there, especially on a cold winter night. I'm going to talk to the Doctor about upping your meds until the Christmas season is over."

Charon began to scream and yell and thrash about in protest. On the rooftop above them, Nightwing savoured the sound as it drifted up to his ears. Finally, Charon had learned what everyone who had come up against him had discovered.

In Bludhaven, the darkness is ruled by Nightwing.




The End

Nightwing Will Return in Black Ops II: Kane's Revenge

Author's Notes: Many thanks must go out for the successful completion of this story, and it would be unforgiveable not to put those thanks in print. In the past year, I've had tons of help from tons of people in both real life and from my little cyber world. First and foremost, praise be to the betas, of which I have used three on this story at various times. The first chapters of this story were beta-d with great care and expertise by my friend Andrea (who educated me in the fine art of comma usage), and when real life commitments overwhelmed her, another great pal of renowned fanfiction fame by the name of GenX stepped in to beta a chapter (she taught me the fine art of using an ellipses). Last but never least, the uber talented Jim Greeno took over beta reigns for the remaining chapters. Jim was especially helpful in aiding me with The Titan's scenes, and was instrumental in bringing the whole thing to a conclusion (not to mention educating me in hyphen usage). My undying thanks goes out to you, my friends and my betas, for your tireless efforts to make me look more talented than I really am.

Also, to my friends Rod and Cyndi, for honouring me with your artwork based upon my story, you have my sincere thanks and complete awe in your artistic talents. I always wanted to be able to draw but I just don't have the talent in me to do it. If I had as much artistic ability in my whole body as you two had in your pinky fingers, I'd be a very talented artist. Your artwork served to inspire me even further to deliver the best story I possibly could. I say it again, you honour me.

Thanks to online pals who have encouraged me and guided me with words of support and suggestions that made the story better: Kat Richard, Josh Hill, Rod, Cyndi, Scott, Gina Ivy, Charlene Edwards, Scythe and my team of beta readers - who couldn't write a good story with help from talented people such as these?

And to everyone who reviewed this story so kindly through fanfiction.net and through personal emails, you have my deepest gratitude. I love to write this stuff, but when you let me know that you enjoy it too, it just makes a writer's day. Thank you for hanging in there through the cliffhangers and the posting delays that inevitably occur when real life butts in and takes up your time, which was especially true this summer.

It goes without saying that I have a great relationship with my online pals, but I'd be very remiss without thanking the love of my life, Dee, my especially wonderful parents, and my real life buds who don't think I'm crazy for spending my spare time participating in ventures like this one. Like Nightwing in this story, I'd kill for every one of you! Welllllllllll...... maybe.

THE AMOV SOUNDTRACK (if you like burning CD's to read by)

Dance The Night Away / Van Halen - From the CD "Van Halen II"
King Nothing / Metallica - From the CD "Load"
Psycho Circus / Kiss - From the CD "Psycho Circus"
Highway Star / Deep Purple - From the CD "Machine Head"
Taking The A Train / Duke Ellington - Available on many different CD's
Shooter (Chris Benoit's theme) / James A. Johnston - From The CD "WWF: The Music Volume 5"
If You Dare (Tazz's theme) / James A. Johnston - From The CD "WWF: The Music Volume 5"
Batman Theme / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Roof Fight / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
First Confrontation / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Batman To The Rescue / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Beautiful Dreamer / Stephen C. Foster - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Charge Of The Batmobile / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Attack of the Batwing / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
The Final Confrontation / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Finale / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"
Batman Theme (Reprise) / Danny Elfman - From the soundtrack to the film "Batman"

 
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