Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Twenty

by Nikoru-chan

PART ONE

 

It wasn't the Bat's fault. Not really. Well, sure, if he hadn't betrayed the boy's identity, then said boy wouldn't have been rushing off so terribly upset that he neglected to take account of his surroundings. Or, more importantly, what was *in* those surroundings. But not even the world's greatest detective could have predicted what happened next.


Robin walked off, away from Batman, away from Spoiler, and then started to run. And ran and ran. Somewhere, burning dimly in the confused morass that was his brain, was the thought that if he ran far enough, he could outrun the betrayal. The comm in his ear buzzed. He'd turned it on, he recalled, as soon as he'd been in costume. From the sounds on the other end, the Bat had done the same. Dimly, he could hear Steph's -- the Spoiler's -- voice: "He was betrayed. By both of us." Such understanding. He'd hoped Steph would be understanding about his secrets, but not like this, not now that she'd so callously penetrated them. Her awareness of what she'd cost him came too late, at too high a price. He switched off the earpiece, switched off the Bat's explanation mid-phrase. . . Sometimes it ends well. Other times. . . Robin tasted bitter bile in his mouth.

Without realising it, Robin found himself on a rooftop in downtown Gotham. One of his favorite places, one where he used to take Spoiler to watch the city lights. Now, those lights seemed to mock him . . .betrayed . . . betrayed.

The uniformed thugs that leapt out from behind the chimneys and gargoyles were almost a welcome diversion.
Almost. Until they proved to be more than mere thugs. Until they got the upper hand.


EARLIER.

They'd been researching Robin for months. Ever since the Doctor had discovered there was some truth to the "Urban Myth" that was the Boy Wonder, he'd had his professional researchers, computer experts, strategists, psychologists and geographers tracking down this elusive being, this boy who looked . . . perfect.

He couldn't have had a better profile if I'd prayed for it! The Doctor contemplated the stolen data from DEO. When rescuing the mist girl's friends, Robin had stumbled over it, and with his usual native ingenuity, had sent a copy off to the JLA watchtower, another to the Oracle, and deleted the remaining copy. However, one of the Doctor's hackers had been able to intercept the message aimed at the Watchtower. Now, the Organization, and by extension the Doctor, had excellent data on the group Young Justice.

In a way, it was Robin's own quick thinking that would be his downfall; the data he'd sent off in such a hurry had proved that the Boy Wonder did in fact exist, and also mentioned certain parameters that made him perfect for the Project: He was a teenager, nearly a child. Physically only above average, but so blindingly intelligent that he used what he had so cleverly that he was more capable than many who were stronger or more agile. Above all, he was pure human. No meta genes, no alien background, nothing that was likely to interfere with the complex procedures he'd be subjected to once the Doctor had him.

And I **will** have him, the Doctor thought, it's only a matter of time. So, with eighteen failures, and one possible successful subject in his hands, the Doctor turned the considerable researching abilities of the Organization into tracking down one subject who might just be the key, one subject who could potentially be that most elusive of things; a success. One little bird had been marked as prey.

It had taken a while to track him down. Oh, the connection to the Batman was known, so Gotham was an almost certain bet, but how to find one boy in the chaos that was what was left of the city had proved a challenge even to the Organization. In the end they'd given up trying to be "thorough" enough to discover his secret identity, and had merely settled for locating his favorite haunts.

When this had been accomplished, the Doctor, unwilling to underestimate Robin, had sent an entire squad of his best retrievalists. And then had settled back to wait, as patient as a serpent, for the rooftop to be visited.

Patterns are dangerous, Little Bird. I shall have to program that out of you, but for now it will be useful. For now it makes you mine.


Robin ducked and wove, deftly sidestepping a swipe aimed at his midsection and parrying with a kick to his attacker's head.

Hoo boy, I'm in trouble. These guys are good! He ducked under another's booted leg, and handspringing off a third's back, got enough height to take out a fourth and fifth with a scissoring kick.

Funny, it's like these guys were originally trained to cripple or kill, but they're not going all out. Why? do they need me alive? uninjured? Who would want **me** like that? The list was depressingly long; as well as the Bat's opponents, (all of whom would love a live juicy bait), Robin had made no few enemies of his own. Add to that the vendettas held against the previous two Robins . . . I guess the question is, which of the Rogue's gallery **wouldn't** want me dead by **any** means possible?

He backflipped away from yet another opponent, (was there no end to them?) and landed in a half-crouch, breathing heavily. He was outnumbered, outclassed, and smart enough to know it.

"Somebody. . . anybody. . . Help m-" he gasped into the comm, before a realisation struck him; Batman! He told Steph! Who else did he--? No, he wouldn't have. I think. So, who did Spoiler . . .

The thought, and the pause that accompanied it, proved to be his downfall; one fighter behind him grabbed and jerked his cape backwards, as another slammed him across the jaw. The Boy Wonder crumpled, noticing with surprise the sudden gentleness of the hands that caught him. The dark, gloved hands of his attackers were the last things he saw before blackness embraced him.


They'd returned to the cave, the Bat and the Spoiler, in brooding silence. They'd gotten out of the car, and walked to the computer, also in silence. Steph found it unnerving. The sudden crackling of the computer came as a relief to the fidgety girl, though the computer generated face was nearly as unnerving as the silence.

Later, on reflection, Steph noted she'd have preferred the silence to what followed . . .

"Batman, this is Oracle! Batman!" The woman's voice, shrill with fear, belied the calm, disinterested expression of the face on the screen.

"Batman here." Came the terse reply. Obviously, when this woman, whomever she was, was worried, the Bat was worried too. Or maybe he's just always like that. Terse. It's not like I really know him, Steph contemplated.

"Robin! is he with you? Is he okay?"

"What do you mean?"

"We just left hi--" The Bat and the Spoiler spoke at once. A look from the former and the latter subsided into shivering silence.

"I intercepted a transmission from him a few moments ago. His earpiece was offline so I couldn't reach him from my end. It's not much, but I'll play it."

The brief bite of sound, distorted though it was, sent chills down Batman's spine though his expression remained inscrutable.

"Somebody. . . Anybody. . .Help m-"

The Bat turned to the car, wasting no motions, and leapt inside.

"Get in." He said to Steph, who hastened to comply. This is great! He trusts me enough to take me! Heh, like he could stop me! Well, okay, maybe he could but still! She thought, elated. Or else. . . or else he simply doesn't trust me alone in his hideout, with all his cool gadgets. . . and his other secrets. Much as she hated to admit it, the latter seemed vastly more likely. She was distracted from her thoughts by a flashing light on one of the many computer screens on the dash.

"Eh? What's that?"

"A tracking device. It's in Robin's suit."

"Cool!"

There were, in fact, three such tracking devices, one in Robin's mask, another in his left boot, and a third in the black backing behind his "R" symbol. Batman (without informing either Robin or Oracle) had taken the liberty of installing them after a certain incident involving a giant tentacled sea creature that had resulted in Robin being "MIA" for over a day. Though in general he approved of the boy's abilities in taking independent action, there were limits.

The flash on the computer stayed comfortingly put, even as the batmobile roared up to the base of the building, even as the Bat, followed by a Spoiler who pointedly wouldn't stay put, charged up the fire stairs, and then swung onto the roof. Where both stopped abruptly, almost unable to take in the scene.

There was no one. No foe, no ally, no bodies. No Robin. Shreds of clothing lay about the rooftop, closer inspection proved them to be shreds of a certain redbreasted costume. Quickly, methodically, Batman worked to assess the scene, to find any clues, scant as they might have been. Who did this? where are they now? More importantly, where is Robin?

Spoiler simply stood, mouth hanging open, as the impact of what must have happened came crashing in upon her.


The retrievalists had been thorough. As soon as the bird was down, a nasty bruise already spreading across his face, they scanned him. The two transmitters secreted in his clothes were quickly discovered and efficiently discarded. On more detailed scanning, the third in his mask was also found, and this too removed. The scanning also revealed a wealth of crimefighting trinkets secreted in his belt and sleeves; these were recorded before being discarded.

"We're out of time. Let's go."

All stood to depart, one sparing the time to wrap the now nearly naked boy in a dark sleeve-blanket before slinging him over a burly shoulder.

"Out of here."

With a silent grace that belied the size of his figure, he and his compatriots melted into the shadows, scant minutes ahead of the arrival of the Bat.


There were no clues. Not 'no clues except an incredibly subtle one that only the Bat could decipher', not 'oh, the ripped clothes are actually cut and that's enough of a clue for the Bat to figure out what cut the costume right down to the make of the knife and then suddenly know exactly who gets supplies of said knife coz he's Batman.' No clues. At all.

Superficially, the costume had been ripped in a manner that suggested that Robin hadn't been resisting when it occurred, that it had been to expedite the removal of the apparel. There was nothing to indicate that the costume had been cut at all, let alone with a specific type of knife; the Kevlar tunic had been removed without damage. There were no fibres from another type of cloth in the tears that peppered the rest of the costume, or anywhere on the fabric, and no traces of the attackers' skin or blood on either the gauntlets or the boots.

As the night progressed, Batman grew grimmer. Spoiler had long since given up even pretending to be helpful and had silently sobbed herself to sleep in a corner of the cave. Already the Bat was beginning to regret her inclusion. Sighing inaudibly, he turned back to his task. With this little he couldn't even call in Nightwing or Azrael for action. He had nothing to go on. In desperation, he took a closer look at the rooftop. It had been, Steph had reluctantly confided, a location where many of their 'dates' had taken place, as Robin loved the city view. It was also not squarely in anyone's territory; the Penguin had put in a nominal claim, but mostly it served as a buffer between his turf and the Joker's (currently an Arkham resident).

His eyes blurred as he stared at the screen. He ignored them. Maybe I should call in Nightwing. Not for action, but for another set of eyes, another perspective. That is, if Oracle hasn't already done so. The former Batgirl, he knew, had been doing her own investigation, trying to track down anything unusual in the data stream. It was a phenominally broad task, and thus far had been as fruitless as his own efforts.

"Oracle." Funny how his voice sounded so hoarse at the moment.

"Oracle here." Came the instant reply.

"Anything?"
"We've got nothing yet." The 'yet' was spoken firmly, with conviction. Babs was not going to give up. The Bat smiled thinly. Her phrase had told him something else.

"Send Nightwing over to the cave. He can have a look at these shreds and see what he makes of them."

"Understood. He's on his way." The voice betrayed no surprise. She'd deliberately used the oblique phrase to inform the Bat of the visitor who'd come tearing around to her clock-tower, desperate to know what had happened to his 'little brother'.

 

It was several weeks, weeks of failed investigation, weeks where Spoiler turned to the visiting Connor Hawke for comfort, weeks where Batman became increasingly grim, before Oracle's 'yet' became unspoken. Robin, the Boy Wonder was nowhere to be found.

***********

MEANWHILE

Robin awoke, head and cheek pounding, in the dark. On further, tentative exploration, he discovered that it was not in fact dark. One eye was swollen shut - and he was lying face down on the other - in a dimly lit cell. Black eye at least. Maybe concussion, I guess, he thought muzzily. At least the bruise will distort my features, since my mask seems to be gone. Hn. Mask's gone. That should worry me a lot more than it does. Definitely concussed. Before he could gather his scattered wits, a door in the previously seamless wall opened and a figure was tossed in to land in a crumpled heap, the aperture sealing immediately.

With supreme effort, he crawled over to the slight form. At first, his questing fingers met a long plait of hair, still soft and beautiful, despite the layers of blood and grime. A Girl? Gently turning the figure over, he realised his initial impression was mistaken; the boy was small, whipcord muscles playing over what would otherwise have been a scrawny build. Aquiline features, angulated by a combination of malnutrition and genetics, were softened by their current slackly unconscious state. The other boy's high forehead was emphasised by the tight pulling back of his hair into the plait. The hair in and of itself was remarkable; thick, and as jet-black as Robin's own, it reached easily to the other boy's waist, brushing gently over a tattoo on the boy's bare shoulder; the mark reading simply "18".

Robin's inspection was interrupted by a low moan. His fellow prisoner shivered as if with cold, though sweat beaded his brow. A quick touch confirmed clammy, frigid skin. What the heck happened to him? He's freezing! That tanktop and shorts set wouldn't keep anyone warm. The boy moaned again, this time more faintly. It was that that decided the boy wonder. He's almost certainly a prisoner like me. Anyway, he's too out of it to be a threat, and I'm sure not going to let him die. With that, he pulled the other boy into his arms, sharing his warmth through his own tanktop and shorts. Clothing , he realised with a start, that was identical to the other's. Well, well, well, he thought, a uniform of sorts. The plot thickens. Still, maybe this means they're not going to kill me out of hand, or else why bother dressing me? With that he drifted off into an uneasy slumber. Or, more accurately, passed out again, his head still pounding.

Once again, Robin awoke. This time less concussed, though still stiff, sore, and acutely aware that someone was watching him. Cautiously he opened his eyes slightly, and then widened them involuntarily as he was met with a hazel gaze scant inches from his face. Reflexively he scooted backwards until he hit the wall.

"Calm. Please. I'll not hurt you. I want to thank you. For sharing your warmth and human touch. It was a kindness."
"Uh, no problem." Great Tim, just brilliant. Time to get coherent, get some answers, and get out of here. Not necessarily in that order, either. The other boy eyed him expectantly, though he remained unmoving as Robin slowly stretched and shifted into a crouch.

"Where am I? Who are you? What is happening?"

"To answer: First, I do not know. I was simply piloting my. . . craft . . . when I was shot down. I awoke here, a prisoner like yourself. Second I am Dehwhitt. NO!" He shook his head frantically, clutching it.

"NO! I, I'm not! That's who they want to make me! But I'm not! I'm Kaze. Mireba Kaze! Sixteenth successor to the Mireba budo, and tensai pilot!" He gasped, as if the statement caused him pain, and closed his eyes, his breath ragged. Robin cringed away. Hang on. . . Tensai? Genius? Oh my God. He's the prodigy pilot. The one in the Batcave's files of "people to watch". That Japanese kid from, like, an ancient line of Ninja. A fifteen year old boy who happens to have a hobby involving planes. He can fly anything currently in existance, even though he's not metahuman! I didn't even know he was missing. What the heck is he doing here? and with a person like him . . . what can our captors possibly want from us?What do they want from me? I'm hardly a prodigy at anything, I can't even get my partner to trust me enough not to blow my identity!

With a few deep breaths, and obvious effort, Kaze regained his composure. "Thirdly . . . again, I do not know. You are only the second fellow prisoner I've seen since I arrived. Our captors are . . . doing something strange. . . to our minds, to our bodies, but I do not know what. Now, who are you and why did you warm me?"

"I'm Robin. No last name. And because you might have died without my help." Robin replied simply. I'm gonna keep it simple. While Batman may have told the entire vigilante community about my secret ID, I'm kinda hoping I've retained some shreds of confidentiality in the world at large.

"First name only. Simple. A pseudonym I guess." Kaze held up a hand to forstall comment, "no, keep it that way. It's important you do so: If our captors don't know who you are, I think maybe they cannot do the strange things. Whatever you do, keep your identity secret!"

Robin could only stare, shocked. The "strange things" . . . From what I remember of the file, Mireba Kaze had no vigilante or hero secret ID. No alter-ego at all. . . Can my secret ID protect me? keep me mysterious enough to be safe? If so, from what? Oooh boy, this is too big. I've got to get us outta here and call in Batman or even the JLA.

Any further thought was negated by the fine mist of paralytic gas that sprayed into the room, followed by four large, gasmasked goons, two of whom grabbed the flaccid Robin and dragged him from the cell.

Whatever you do, keep your identity secret!

It was advice, Robin soon discovered, that was easier given than taken.

**********

They had the Boy Wonder screaming. Oh, not at first. At first, the Doctor contemplated, they had tried "reason". Still, I must admit I did not expect reasoning with him to work. Perhaps I should have kept him in single confinement until after the first interrogation. But then we might have lost all hold on Dix-Huit, he was too close to becoming masterless. We lost Dix-Neuf because of that. I needed something to hold over him, over Dix-Huit who is our closest near-success. Something to control him, and Robin here may as well be it.

With a purely internal sigh, the Doctor turned away from the boy currently strapped to (and convulsing on) the table, and contemplated that first, crucial encounter. . .

Robin had been dragged unceremoniously into the room. Also unresistingly, though that was due to the paralytic gas, rather than any fear or hopelessness on the prisoner's part. He'd been strapped onto the table, and the Doctor had waited the requisite few minutes for the gas to wear off before approaching him.

"Your name." He'd demanded. It had echoed harshly in the room, despite the natural softness his accent accorded anything he said. He'd long since stopped trying to rid himself of the French lilt. In fact, his native tongue was what he'd used to rename - to number - his subjects, something none of his American compatriots had figured out. "Dewhitt" indeed. He'd have corrected the slurring, but the name was a potentially useful corruption of the subject's number, dix-huit.

The boy had been silent in the face of his command.

"I know who you are, Robin, Boy Wonder. Squire to the Batman."
"I figured you'd worked it out, what with the costume and all."

The doctor smiled, thin lipped, at that. It was a smile that held not amusement, but glee. With careless consideration he avoided the boy's tacit attempt to pump him for information. He was not going to reveal **how** he'd 'worked out' where to find Robin, 'costume and all.'
"A costume you are nolonger wearing. You are a . . . civilian . . . for the moment. With a civilian identity. Your name."

". . ."

"We may do this simply, or with difficulty. Your call."
. . .

The Doctor was jolted out of his reverie by the sudden cessation of screaming. The silence, after the sounds of agony preceeding it, was as deafening as the cries had been. The Doctor flicked an eyebrow at one of his assistants, a man named Brown, standing near the table.

"He's passed out, Sir. Shall I revive him?"
"No, I think not. I do not wish to have him too run down when we begin the other proceedures. And there is Dix-Huit to consider. Take him back to their cell."

The other man nodded, and readied a syringe. Just to make sure the boy was as unconscious as he seemed. The Doctor nodded to himself, pleased with his assistant's care. They'd lost Quatorze that way, when she'd tried to make a break for it, killing Brown's predecessor in the process before being mown down herself. This, no doubt, had a fair amount to do with the man's cautious attitude toward the subject.

"Before you take him, have photos taken of his face and start running them through the various Gotham schools' Year Book databases, student profiles, etc. Since he wont give us the information freely, I want other avenues of investigation pursued."
"We will do so, but his bruises will make it difficult."
The Doctor fixed a baleful eye on the technician who had spoken. A Mr. Debbit, if he recalled correctly. The man paled, and scurried offto a workstation, muttering about digital photo manipulation techniques.

Satisfied that all was under control, the Doctor went to his own "office"; a sealed bunker deep within the complex. There, after locking the voice activated safe-style door, he sat at his own computer. The computer was a marvel. One of a kind, it stood in lonely spendour. The isolation was quite complete; the Doctor risked no networking connection, nothing that might have allowed a curious hacker (of which he employed several of the best, to say nothing of outsiders) a peek into the system. It was this system he now booted up. Specifically, it was a program he himself had designed, based on data gleaned from numerous organisations and entities, some earthly, some not (one even including a certain green-ringed individual).

The data had been collected based upon the theory that there is no one place in the brain where memory or emotion is stored. Rather, there are places in the brain where neurons are activated in specific sequences and patterns to retreive what was encoded in those patterns, namely memory, emotion . . . all patterns needed to enact higher neurological functions.

The data provided a precise map to the synaptic routes taken by memory formation and retrieval, by personality expression and alteration, and emotional impulses and responses. In short, a precise guide to how a person's mind was built. Oh, there were minor synaptic ideosyncrasies that were unique to certain individuals, but overall, the information showed precisely how various impressions were formed in a human mind. And how those experiences moulded that mind.

From that data, the Doctor had taken the next logical step. He'd worked out how to re-wire those synaptic paths with the precision of an engineer. That was what the programme he'd created was for. With it, it would be possible to re-write the personality of his subjects into exactly the creations he wanted. Other techniques, a combination of hypnotherapy and New Genesis-derived neurosurgery, would allow that rewiring to go beyond simple digital modeling into the organic. The Boy Wonder would be his, body and most importantly, soul.

There was one slight problem. What the doctor wanted to do was retain the skills, intellect and ability of his chosen subject, while replacing personality and memory. While this could be done with hypnosis and drugs, that was a crude technique, rather akin to simply blugeoning the boy's mind to death. And about as likely to retain all his skills as that bludgeoning. So. What had to be done was removal, with the assistance of the functionally complete map, of certain synaptic pathways; the complete erasure, as if it had never been, of certain precise memories, hopes, aspirations, emotions. . .

To do so required at least rough knowledge of the types of pathways that should be there. The doctor had a good brief on the memory pathways that the vigilante experience was likely to have layed down, and the erasure here would have to be very precise; for in erasing a memory of swinging off a rope next to the Batman, the Doctor did not want to erase knowledge of how to swing off a rope. To be honest, however, these memories were less of a worry to the Doctor. My mapping for superheroics is good, especially for those who are mere humans. The experiences from that will be easily manipulated into what I want. The problem is the other aspect. The civilian identity. Did he have a girlfriend? that leaves a particular synaptic pattern. Did he love her or was it not really close? Was it a boyfriend? Did they fight a lot? Were there any romantic relationships at all, or is he still too young? Does he have living parents? Is Batman his parent? If not, how do his parents feel about him cavorting across a roof in spandex? If his parents are dead, what sort of impression did their dying leave on him? All these things will leave synaptic trails, will be components that drive his personality. To be thorough in erasing them, I must know what they are! To do that, I need to know everything I can about the boy's civilian identity. Starting with his name. With that I can research, and erase, his history.
And then, when the mind had been selectively wiped to a clean slate, the implantation of a new mind. A mind whose template already sat waiting in the computer in front of him; a set of synaptic patterns that would be painstakingly implemented one by one, by the Doctor.


Pain. Dull, throbbing aching pain. Robin moaned, his entire body hurt and he was cold. So very cold. Fingers brushed across his forehead, burning in their warmth. He almost flinched away. Almost, then warmth registered, and he leaned towards it. Arms, equally ablaze, folded around him, their heat penetrating to his bones, melting the ice that seemed to grip him. Safe. Robin slept, comforted in their embrace. And as he slept, Kaze gently held him, and softly crooned a song to keep away the nightmares.

 

The first time was the worst; the pain and cold so terrible Robin felt he could scream his life away, scream the pain into oblivion with it, except that his throat was so raw he could not even raise a whisper. It did not lighten after that torture session, but Robin became more inured to it. He acheived a fragile balance; his tolerance for pain and his personal resources sat in frail accord. As a result, his identity remained secret for nearly two weeks. Two weeks of daily or twice-daily "discussions" with the doctor and his crew. In this time he and Kaze became friends, and more. . . driven together by their mutual adversity, they became comrades. As Kaze comforted and supported Robin in his quest to give no information to their captors, so Robin held Kaze together, helped him fight against the demon encroaching on his mind, taking away his memories and self. A demon named Dewhitt.

He was fed enough to remain alive, no more, though Kaze seemed to be better nourished - he'd smuggled the Boy Wonder some bread once, at the end of their separate eating time, only to be discovered and severely beaten. The result was Robin refusing to allow his friend to make any further attempts at splitting their meals. In the end, the combination of fatigue, filth and hunger gnawed Robin's resources into crumbs. In the end, the Boy Wonder broke.

On the day, the Doctor had been feeling frustrated. No one, no one lasted two weeks. Not with this sort of abuse. The boy is going to be spectacular when he's mine! I will have his identity! He's too valuable not to do **everything** right with, even if some of this is because Dix-Huit's helping him resist. The searches through various databases that he'd initiated had been fruitless, initially due to the boy's injuries, and later due to alterations in his facial structure brought about by his treatment; while ID photos never look flattering, they still do not resemble people who are haggard with fatigue, pinched with pain, and gaunt from hunger.

"Who are you? who are you, boy?"
". . ."
More torture. More screams.

"Who? What is your name?"

". . . Tim . . .othy . . . Dra. . .ke . . ." The Doctor had been thrilled to hear, gasped out in the hoarse remnants of a voice, the two words. Two little words that were the key to a life, key to a boy that had promptly passed out as soon as he'd spoken.

The Doctor had rallied his hackers, researchers, and information retrievalists. Within five minutes the Boy Wonder's identity had been confirmed. Within seven, all information held within the Gotham Department of Education's computer system had been retrieved, the original data purged from the system. By fifteen minutes, squads of retrievalists were en route to both Gotham Heights and Brentwood to obtain all paper files.

This was slightly trickier; while the Gotham Heights file could simply be removed, the Brentwood one would have to be replaced, as the file would be 'active' due to the boy's currently enrolled status. Presumably, the school would have also reported him missing to the police by this stage, and the officers would have wanted a look at the file as well. But private schools are private schools; the file would have stayed on-campus, as would any and all authorised copies. The doctor had prepared for this eventuality, and had had a bogus file created, with slightly altered (but, crucially, unrecognisible) ID photos in it. Three quarters of an hour later, the replacement file was in it's drawer, ready for the cops to peruse.

The Brentwood file proved to be invaluable; while the boy's father was living, he'd recently remarried. Then, not unreasonably, he'd taken a honeymoon with his new bride. Being wealthy, and held in high regard (and hence heavily sought after by large numbers of people, even when supposedly on holiday) he'd arranged for the honeymoon to be an eight week soujourn on a small carribean island, where he and his bride would burn their skin into a cancerous crisp during the two months of trysting. Though the island resort was charming in every way, in one aspect it was particularly perfect, both for the honeymooning couple and the Doctor. The island had no communications with the outside world. No-one could ring in or out (with the exception of an emergency radio the staff kept under lock and key.) Hence, no-one could bother the honeymooning couple to inform them that the troublesome child they'd left behind in a boarding school was anywhere but in said boarding school. The boy's father doesn't even know he's gone. A not insignificant boon, given how the man got Gotham reopened to retrieve the child. A two month 'grace' period! The Doctor had been beside himself with glee.

From the Brentwood file the boy's address had been obtained. Shortly thereafter, a fire caused by the spillage of a can of Zesti onto a CD player's powercord had damaged one wing of the house, incidentally completely destroying the room housing the CD player; a boy's bedroom. Since no-one had been in the house at the time, and hence no-one was hurt, the local Press was not particularly interested. The cause of the fire being determined as 'accidental', combined with a sensational bank robbery on the same day (foiled by a new, meaner Batman - a fluke, but one that nonetheless served the Doctor well) meant that the fire wasn't even reported by the Press. By evening, the Doctor had photographs and catalogues of everything in the room, copies of every bit of paper, and even a photo album of Tim Drake with a pretty black-haired girl, later identified as one Ariana Dzerjenko.

The picture is starting to come together, the Doctor mused, soon I will have all the peices, all the parts I need to erase a soul!

The true wealth of information, however, came not from the boy's admission of his identity, but from his mentor. By a sheer miracle, two days after Robin broke, one of the Doctor's hackers managed to worm into the JLA Watchtower's computer system. From there, she'd piggy-backed a signal transmission to Gotham. Expecting to get into the outskirts of the very elusive Oracle's system, she'd been thrilled to find herself instead inside the mighty Crays. Though cut short, the foray into the Bat's system was extremely fruitful.

I'm lucky the Batman is so paranoid! A complete file on Robin, and on Tim Drake. This is one file I'll bet the boy never saw. . . Now this is interesting. Looks like he had a girlfriend after that Ariana girl. . . How priceless! A vigilante! Even better, the Doctor discovered, was a complete record in the Bat's own words of his final encounter with Robin, and the betrayal that had ensued. Perfect! The file could not be better if I'd emailed him and asked him to write it! Everything the boy's done, even from before he became Robin, is in here! Everything I need to erase him, in one convenient package.

In a way, this was the second time the Bat had failed the current Robin. Though the hacker's data download had been cut short partway through the details of Robin's various training efforts, it was complete enough to be the final nail in the coffin of Tim Drake, a.k.a Robin.

It was then that the Doctor began the erasure of TimDrake/Robin's mind. It was then that his latest subject, Vingt - Van to the Doctor's underlings - was born. Two days after the download from the Crays, when the Doctor had completed the tailored map of erasure for TimDrake/Robin's personality, the number "20" was tattooed onto the arm of a bedraggled, tattered boy. The war of minds and wills was about to be truly joined. The first skirmishes over identity were to be nothing compared to what followed.

The new marking on Robin's arm did not go unnoticed. Although now almost entirely Dewhitt, the other boy retained - or rather, had been allowed to retain - enough feelings of affection and friendship for Robin that this new change alarmed him. In fact, it alarmed him enough to put a certain plan into action. . .

Kaze/Dewhitt had awoken from another round of the Doctor's ministrations to find himself as usual, held and comforted by an equally worn and haggard Robin. This time however, the other boy was different.

"Hair . . .gets in my face. Batman hates long hair. I can't have it . . . rip it out." Robin had been clutching his head, pulling his hair even as he sheltered Kaze/Dewhitt. Firm hands reached up, stopped his clutching fingers. Robin raised his chin defiantly, only to meet a pair of intensly serious eyes.

"Robin . . .the mark on your shoulder - he knows your identity, doesn't he." It was a statement, not a question. The brutal torturing that the boy wonder had undergone had proven to both their satisfactions that, indeed, the 'strange things' the Doctor did could only be done when he knew a person's identity. They'd also proven that he'd stoop to new lows to obtain that identity.

"Can't have long hair . . . can't. Gets in the way. In my eyes. He knows. I told him. God help me, I told him." Robin looked away, suddenly unable to meet the other's gaze.

KazeDewhitt sighed softly. It was to be expected. No one can hold out forever. But the hair and his mentor's approval - that I *can* help with. Gently he patted away the other's hands, took the unruly strands and braided them into a short french plait. The boy wonder's hair had indeed grown, though not a huge length, and was only just grazing the boy's chin. It had been about time for a haircut when he'd been taken, and the interim had seen it lengthen to that 'irritating' stage.

"Ro-kun . . . tomodachi . . .I have few memories of my own left. Few things that are purely mine, Kaze's, and not placed in my head for the benefit of Dewhitt. One of those memories is my name. The other is my hair.

"My father was - I think - quite strict. I remember little about him except that he did not approve of a boy having long hair. I'm nolonger sure of the details, but I think I gained the right to my hair when I landed a plane we'd been traveling in, one that had malfunctioned. The pilot had panicked, but I brought the plane in to land. I think I may have had a little experience with planes at the time, but not much. He was . . . proud . . . of me. And when I told him later of my intention to continue growing my hair, he had not exploded as I expected, but nodded, and told me I'd earned it." KazeDewhitt took a deep breath, "Ro-kun, you've withstood weeks of pain. You've withstood it to protect yourself, and also the identity of someone else. Maybe several someones. You've earned the right to your hair. Keep it." Eyes wide, the other boy nodded.

"Listen to me. The alterations done to me go beyond merely my head; the Doctor is altering my body as well. I told you this before, but now the process seems more advanced. Somehow my reflexes are much faster, and there are certain . . . movements . . . that I know I did not know even from my Ninjitsu training, movements that now come as easily as breathing. I think as of my next . . . session . . . I will be Dewhitt only. All other memories purged, these other changes completed. Add to that the knowledge that he will start on you soon. . . " He paused, took a deep breath, and with a lightening fast movement punched Robin in the solar plexus. As the other boy crumpled onto his side, KazeDewhitt stood, facing the door through which soldiers and restrainers would soon boil. Already an alarm was sounding.

"Robin, you are too weak to travel at the moment. I am now strong enough - altered enough - to do this. So I will go alone, and bring back help. You must survive, Ro-kun. You must survive physically and most importantly, as yourself. In any way you can, survive until help comes. Survive until I get back."

Robin, incapacitated with pain, could only watch from the floor as his friend casually kicked down the door as it opened, paralytic gas spewing into the air. The other boy smiled at him gently, then his eyes hardened and with a battle yell he threw himself through the doorway at his opponents, expelling the held breath that protected him from the gas.

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

You must survive. You must survive as yourself. The words echoed through a head made dizzy by pain and fatigue. I must . . . survive as myself. As Robin, as Tim Drake. I **will** survive as myself. I will be here, in one form or another, when help comes. But I failed to resist the torture. I will be unable to resist whatever else the Doctor has planned for me in my current state. So, instead of fighting, I will run and I will hide. Slowly, painstakingly, Robin called upon his precious few remaining resources. What little strength he had that could be directed to resistance would now be rerouted into this, a last despirate gamble.

Lying on his side, paralysed by gas, Robin let his mind drift back, back to a technique the Rahul Lama had taught him. One he'd never expected to use or need. His breathing deepened and his eyes rolled back in his head as he released himself as an observer into the passages of his own mind.

He walked calmly through his own thoughts and feelings. Carefully, he selected certain memories, emotions. Both good and bad, he selected traits and other indefinable things, things that made up the core. That core was Tim/Robin. But there was little time and less space. He had to be very selective. As carefully as he could, he packed up himself, that inner nucleus, into as small a bundle as possible. Then he secreted the bundle of Self, and the Observer that had collected it, into a tiny pocket of his mind. There they remingled, became one again. TimRobin's essence.

Then, his core Self secure, he sealed it away. Sealed it into stasis.

When the guards arrived to take Robin - Van, as they already thought of him - to the Doctor for the first of many "trainings", they found him flaccid and unresisting, his eyes glazed. Crucially, the Doctor thought this a side effect of the torture, (after all, no-one had resisted that long before. There was no data on what would happen when someone did.) He did not look for that core and hence did not find it when he set about obtaining his primary goal. The essence of TimRobin watched, incapacitated, as his mind was erased. It watched, but it also survived.

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

MEANWHILE IN THE BATCAVE

Spoiler was in the cave when the Crays was hacked. Batman, of course, was with her. He spent a few precious seconds determining that, no, she hadn't been idlely fiddling with the computer (despite getting growled at numerous times, Spoiler retained her inability to leave things alone when told to.) By that stage, the damage was done; most of Robin's file had been lifted, and all of Tim Drake's.

This, of course, prompted a flurry of activity. A rushed call to Oracle later, and the enigmatic computer genius was hot on the trail of the hacker. As the file on Robin had only been partly pulled, Batman went about discovering precisely which bits of information had been lifted. Spoiler was put to the task of confirming that, indeed, all of the Tim Drake file had been obtained by the hacker. This, not so incidentally, required her to read all of that file.

By the end of it, she knew as much about Tim Drake's civilian life as she knew about herself (a thought which she found no little disturbing.) What she found, she did not like.

He's . . . omigod. . . he's **fourteen**! I'm dating a fourteen-year-old! Sure, he's mature and all, but he's just a kid! Her own nearly-seventeen age flashed through her mind. Perturbed, she finished the task. The entire file was confirmed. That damn hacker, whoever they were, got all of it. She reported this to Batman, and then went to the training area to work off the knots that suddenly twisted her guts.

I . . . I don't feel the way I did about him before I knew. Before I found out his identity. Before the thrill of the mystery was gone. Is it that, though? or is it simply that he's been missing for two weeks? Her mind not in it, she half-heartedly went through a few of her exercises before calling it a night. Batman said nothing as she loaded herself into the sealed cabin that would travel through underground passageways and the Gotham sewers, before stopping near her house to offload her, then returning by remote control to the Batcave.
Outside the house, she reconsidered, and took to the rooftops once more. The thrill and tumble of the leaps and swings cleared her head and lifted her mood. Almost without thinking about it, she ended up on a highrise building in downtown Gotham. It was not the one she'd used to visit with Robin, but rather the one where she'd met the new Green Arrow, Connor, for the second time.

It had been after Robin had disappeared, and she'd been trailing around after the Bat. During a chase, she'd been unable to keep up (Batman, since Robin's abduction, had developed a single-minded ferocity when it came to hunting running crooks, and would slow down for no-one. At least, she **thought** it was a new development.) Winded and lost, she'd paused on a rooftop, only to discover she was not it's sole occupant. After the initial flurry of concern, she and Connor had reminesced about the gunrunning gang they'd busted and caught up on gossip in general. Spoiler had found Connor to be easy to talk to, and the reverse seemed true as well. They'd met several times since, to talk, though she'd never told him why Robin wasn't with her. He never asked, she comforted herself, probably doesn't even know we were - are! - a couple. We certainly weren't when he last visited. . .

She remembered the conversation she'd had with Robin at the time: "Just remember we're busting a gang of gunrunners, Steph. It's not a date."
"You really flatter yourself, don't you?"
"huh?"

" Maybe it's your new buddy I want to get next to."

Contemplating her present situation, the discoveries she'd made about Robin and then herself, she realised there was more truth in the comment than she'd ever thought at the time.

"Hey," the word startled her out of her reverie. Looking up, she saw Connor's smiling visage. Without a word, she burst into tears.

A hankerchief, a hug, and a short while later, they were sitting next to each other on a gargoyle.

"So, you know, now that I know who he is, like, without the mask, the mystery that attracted me is gone. Also, I've got Batman's approval now. He even said I could be better than Robin on like the physical vigilante stuff! I used to really want to impress him and Robin, but now I have, Robin's sort of . . . less important to me. And then he made me feel all guilty when I found out his ID, but I'm kinda getting less guilty and a bit mad at him for that. And . . . now I know . . . not only is the mystery gone, I kinda don't really think what the mystery hid is all that . . . appealing. Sounds horrible, doesn't it? I must really be a rotten person."

"No. No you're not. You're just at a crossroads, your life's taken a new turn onto a new path to explore, and now you've got more information with which to do it."

She mulled that over. Both the statement, and the sentiment that seemed bursting out from behind it. Then she kissed him.

"Wanna explore that future with me?"

His answer, though not precisely verbal, was definitely positive.

 

END PART ONE

NOTES:

-kun = Japanese suffix for a male friend, usually one you know well. When Kaze refers to Robin as Ro-kun, he's calling him by a nickname. (Not unreasonably, since he knows "Robin" is a pseudonym, they're friends, and they're going through hell together, he wants something more familiar to call him.)

Tomodachi = friend

Spoiler's age = this I don't actually know for sure, but I'm postulating that she's over sixteen and nine months at least, otherwise her boyfriend would presumably have been charged with statutory rape of a minor when she fell pregnant. Even if this is incorrect in the DCU, in my little AU it isn't. So there. (Grin)

DIALOGUE AND SITUATION in the latter portion of this fic (namely the bit where Spoiler reminesces) has been quoted directly from Robin #25 (Dixon, Wieringo, Woch). Other situations, including the one that this fic is based upon, as well as the tentacled seamonster line, have been referenced from various other Robin issues. Respectful homage is intended. Copyright infringement is not.

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

 

 

PART TWO

 

NINE MONTHS LATER

It was night, and the lab was quiet. Through the vidscreens connected to surface cameras, a full moon could be seen hanging in the air, gravid with promise. A fine night, the Doctor thought, a fine night for the birth of a dream. Turning away from the screens, his attention reverted to the thing in front of him.

The thing itself seemed hardly worthy of the Doctor's gleeful perusal. It was the living body of a boy. Small, no more than fourteen or fifteen, at first glance it was completely unremarkable.

On second glance, it was a good deal more than that.

Though criss-crossed with healing - nearly vanished - scars, the slim frame was not scrawny. The build was rather that of a dancer or acrobat, though the callouses on the hands showed a distinct comfort and long familiarity with many weapons. The figure also sported a stunning mane of long black hair, currently tied up in a high ponytail, a few strands falling into parted bangs over the boy's forehead. Attached to the forehead, and numerous points along the spine, were several surgical leads. Leads where reprogramming and re-routing had finished laying a new mind, and new reflexes. Leads that were about to be detached.

Following the debacles that had resulted in the loss of dix-huit and dix-neuf, the Doctor had decided that vingt would be . . . "completed" . . . under sedation, rendering him unable to attempt escape until he was fully programmed, at which point the idea would never enter his mind.

This night, under the moon, that glowing orb on his monitors, the Doctor had finished the programming. Tonight then, would truly be the first awakening of his completed project. Tonight would be the birth of number 20. Vingt. Van. The pinnacle of my achievements!

With the flick of a switch, the leads detached, cauterising their wound entry-points behind them. With a further extension of the his fingers, the Doctor shut off the IV line supplying the boy - my weapon! - with nutrients and sedatives. Then, he settled back to wait, his impatient anticipation showing in every line of his body.

After what seemed like an eternity to the Doctor, the figure on the table in front of him twitched. He breath caught as slowly, ever so slowly, a stunning pair of ice-blue eyes opened and gazed upon the world around them with frigid calculation.

Chortling with glee, the doctor sat back, running a few diagnostic tests. The results made his smile widen toothily. The 'birth' had been a complete success.

"Welcome, Van. Welcome to life."

The figure pulled himself off the table with fluid grace. Then, lightening-quick, he knelt on the floor, head bowed in servitude to his master.

The doctor contemplated this for several long moments, then considered measuringly the thought that occurred to him. Before I can convince them that we are the best, me as designer, you as product, you'll need to prove the truth of that statement. You also need a final test. We can do both at once, though. I know just what we will do to impress them. . .

"Van, I have a mission for you. Code One-Five-Eight." One-Five-Eight. An assassination.

"Acknowledged." The voice, soft and icy, did not waver in the slightest.

"The details are as follows . . ."

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

He never really knew why he got them. Hunches, that is. But he did know that when he did, they were usually accurate and he'd ignore them at his peril. He used them, of course. Any extra tool was welcome in his unending crusade against crime.

With a shrug, Batman obeyed his gut instinct and pulled the bullet-proof mask and cape down from their spot in the armament room. Normally he preferred the lighter fabrics for his head, light enough to enable easy movement. Tonight though, his gut was telling him differently. Another shrug, this time to wriggle his ears comfortably into the stiff cowl, and the Bat was ready for the night's patrol.

He'd been very solitary after Tim had disappeared. Or at least, he'd tried to be. Tried to shut himself off from the world in much the same way he'd done after Jason had been murdered. But this time, they wouldn't let him. Whenever he went out, Batgirl went with him, her silent presence soothing and competent. On the rare occaisions she was not around, Nightwing would be up from Bludhaven to keep him company, and Oracle kept a constant check, her radio presence, though often silent, as helpful as any physical being. Then there was the Spoiler.

She'd taken up huge amounts of his time. Time for training, babysitting, and teaching. If the Bat wasn't convinced she'd continue vigilante-ing even without his instruction, he'd have given up on her ages ago. Oh, she was competent physically. Not a patch on Batgirl or Nightwing, but then, who was? Certainly, she'd blossomed under his tutelage, at least in this regard. She was very nearly as good as Robin, and improving every day. She might even be better than the Boy Wonder by this stage; without the two of them together it was hard to be sure. Her detective skills, however, left a **lot** to be desired. Put bluntly, they were abysmal.

Before the boy had vanished, Batman had begun to take for granted Robin's ability to act independently, to investigate and to extract himself from unpleasant situations without direct supervision. Most importantly, the boy was able to do it successfully, both by himself and with the cavalry he would call in if needed. Spoiler didn't even seem to be aware that cavalry **could** be called in. She'd gotten herself into more scrapes than could be counted, and remained blythely unaware of how to get herself out of them. Invariably, Batman, Batgirl, Nightwing, or the visiting Connor Hawke would do it for her, though she always helped with the roundhouse punch-up part. This had worked out largely because her independant investigating skills were . . . below mediocre. There was no major crime she'd stumble onto that the Bat or Oracle wouldn't already know a lot about, and hence nowhere she could go to "investigate" without them knowing where to find her.

In desperation, Batman had forbidden her to go out independently. When she'd disobeyed him as he knew she would, he'd arranged for Connor to tag along. Purely in an advisory capacity. Really. The boy's in lust or love with her, the Bat considered, of course I'm going to use it for what it's worth! Especially since he's been 'just visiting' Gotham for nearly ten months.

Tonight though, was different. Tonight they'd be going out en masse. Batman, Batgirl, Nightwing and Spoiler. It would be almost like old times. The only thing missing was Robin. Batman felt a sharp stab in his chest as he thought of his absent protege. You are missed, partner. Sorely missed. I will find you and bring you back. I swear it. But until I can, I'll not let this city crumble.

Without a word he exited the armory and climbed into The Car. Nightwing and Batgirl would meet him on the roof of the AMA skyscraper, along with Spoiler. The Bat just hoped he could get there before she aggravated his ward too much; the frosty reception Spoiler had gotten with Alfred was **nothing** compared to her introduction to Nightwing. While the Bat's disregard of Robin's ID had incensed Nightwing, the girl's incompetence had further alienated his ward, to the extent that any interaction between the two was barely civil. Certainly not the warm friendship Nightwing had shared with the third Robin.

At least we're talking again now. Those first three months after Robin went missing, and Nightwing blamed me **and** the girl were hellish. Thought our newly patched relationship was beyond repair for sure that time. Now . . . Now he's focussing on finding Robin and keeping Bludhaven safe. Helping me in Gotham too, though some of that is because Spoiler keeps needing to be bailed out.

Silently, the Car glided to a halt, a block away from the meeting place. By foot, rubble from the earthquake meant the route was tortuous and would take hours to navigate. By de-cell line, it was mere moments before he landed silently on the concrete railing of his destination's roof.

"You're late." Nightwing said, without turning around from the vantage point he'd been using to monitor the city, the immediate surrounds, and more recently the Bat's progress towards his current location. Batgirl waved a hello; though now able to speak, she still had something of a poverty of words. Spoiler, as usual, startled to see her mentor suddenly appear out of nowhere. Although he'd not attempted to disguise his presence on the rooftop, she'd not noticed his arrival.

Somebody else, however, had.

Two rooftops over and up, a slight figure swathed in black carefully adjusted a rifle on it's stand. The figure, only of small height and light build, was dressed in loose dark clothes, a sort of modern Ninja garb. An outfit that allowed a great deal of mobility with minimum impediment. The outfit also hid the rifleman's hair and face, leaving only a slit of skin and eyes free from the dark fabric.

Carefully, the sniper attached and adjusted a nightscope to the rifle. He did this entirely by feel, his eyes never moving from the plateau in front of him, never wavering from the shadow of the Bat. Seconds later, the sight was mounted and adjusted to it's known zero point.

Batman, followed by his 'family', readied a cable and prepared to swing out over the city.

The sniper took calm, careful aim. The world narrowed to himself and his target, bracketed in crosshairs.

The Bat stepped onto the ledge of the roof.

Gently, the figure squeezed the trigger as the Bat was about to leap. Watched as the Bat crumpled, saved only from spinning off into space (and to his death) by the rapid synchrony of Nightwing and Batgirl, who got him down to a lower, closer rooftop and behind a stairwell.

Despite the knowledge that his headshot had been accurate, the figure did not assume the Batman was dead. He would not assume anything. He would check. Carefully and quickly, he disassembled the gun and sight, his hands steady, his breathing and pulse unraised. He'd almost finished by the time Batgirl was upon him. Then, he had other things to think about.

The Bat was not, in fact, dead. Though unconscious and badly concussed, the bulletproof cowl had spread the impact of the round enough to deflect the killing shot. He'd wake up with a bad headache, but he'd wake up.

Batgirl, having ascertained this, went off to make sure the same could not be said of his would-be assassin.

She'd found his location by a combination of instinct and luck, the same things that ended up saving the sniper from her initial silent attack; seeing her gone from the tableau in front of him and sensing her presence behind him, he'd spun, flinging up the rifle stock and barrel to deflect her first blow. It was not a futile attempt; the gun, though now totalled, bought him enough time to flip into a loose-limbed fighting stance. Then the real combat began.

Dizzyingly fast, their fists and feet formed a blur of attack and counterattack, strikes flowing so quickly it was impossible to tell where one started and another finished. They fought bitterly, both knowing that even even in the unlikely event that this proved not to be a deathmatch, it would nonetheless maim at least one of them. One . . . the other . . . even both would die.

They seemed evenly matched as well, the sniper slightly faster and more flexible, Batgirl slightly more fluid. No difference significant enough to win the day for one or the other. In the end, it was the intervention of the Spoiler that determined the outcome. She'd seen the two combatants sillhouetted against the clouds, and had flung out a de-cell and swung up to the rooftop where they battled. Then, with a despirate gamble, she'd dived in, trying to get one of her trademarked uppercuts landed on the sniper's jaw.

She never had a chance. With a strike so rapid it seemed almost deceptively lazy, the sniper blocked her fist and clipped her across the cheek, snapping her head back and sending her spinning to the ground, dazed.

Her intervention allowed the sniper to disengage from Batgirl, and fling himself off the roof. Batgirl quickly checked Spoiler's pulse. Finding it reassuringly steady, she too leapt off the roof, intent on catching her foe.

Landing some three floors down on the roof where the Bat and Nightwing were, she saw no sign of Batman's assailant. But he had to come here! There's nowhere else! Swiftly she moved to Nightwing's side, noted worriedly the slack surprise vying with tight-lipped concern on his features.

"What?" The word was layered with meaning in a manner Batgirl had long ago learned.
"I stood up to defend Batman but he didn't even come near me. He looked at me, about to attack. Then he cocked his head as if listening to something and ran to the other side of the roof, and . . .he . . he did it. That guy. He pulled off the Flying Grayson's quadruple summersault! He even did it with our special variation, not the one that that French pair use! I didn't want to leave Batman in case there were more like him, though there doesn't seem to be. Whoever he is, he's seen that summersault before. But so have a couple thousand circus-goers."

"Later." Though she had a feeling his information would prove crucial, Batgirl also had priorities. Between the two of them they got both Batman and the now groggily aware Spoiler back to the Cave for medical care.

'Later' came as soon as the two injured were settled, when Nightwing contacted Oracle with the information they'd discovered. Twenty minutes of intense discussion later, the three conscious members of the Bat-family were convinced of two things. One, someone wanted the Bat dead. Wanted it very badly. Two, more uniquely, whoever "someone" was, they knew enough about the Bat-family's capabilities to choose their assailant very, very carefully; both the sniper's combative ability and acrobatic skills had attested to that. Further, there had been no warning, no elaborate trap or hostage situation. Most unusual. Though most of the Gotham underworld wanted the first, there were very few who could truthfully say the second. As for the other observation, the lack of florid dramatics in the situation more or less ruled out all of the Bat's more frequent opponents as the instigator of the attack.

That left the idea of a new player. Not something any of the Bat-gang was thrilled to think about.

"That sniper could have been acting on his own," Nightwing mused, "but I doubt it. Not when he stopped his attack after seeming to listen to something. I bet he had a transmitter on under his hood and someone told him to back off."

"By 'someone' you mean the person behind this." Oracle stated. It was not a question.

"Hn."

As it turned out, Nightwing was correct on both counts; on the other side of the city, the sniper knelt in front of the 'someone' and proceeded to give his report.


ELSEWHERE IN THE CITY

". . . I obeyed your orders and returned, making sure I was not followed. End of report."

The Doctor frowned. The assassination should have gone off without a hitch. Probably had. But until the Bat's death could be confirmed, all bets were off. (While a head shot was almost certainly fatal, the Doctor knew from his research that the Batman had a nasty habit of surviving almost certainly fatal things with depressing regularity.) Then, though he wanted Batman dead to prove his product's competence, losing said product to the Bat's followers was not in his game plan. Nor was having his prize badly injured. It was, the Doctor was fully aware, as much luck as anything else that the encounter with the Batgirl had ended in a draw, rather than mutual destruction. Having Vingt take on both Nightwing and Batgirl (who would have been hot on his heels) at the same time would have been futile. Hence the order to withdraw.

This is what I get for starting with pure humans rather than Metas. Not that I had an option. No, that isn't really fair. My programming and rebuilding is so superior that Vingt could take on a Meta and wipe the floor with them, but Batgirl is similarly superb! What a wonder she would have been if I'd gotten to her a few years ago! I doubt even I could have improved on her skill, but she would have been magnificent serving me. A perfect killing machine, as remorseless as Vingt.

"Very well. I suspect as do you that the Bat yet lives. I also suspect he will resurface within a few days." He paused,Vingt remained in front of him, silent and immobile.

"The mission profile is still active. Next time, though, there will be a change of tactics: Rather than allowing you to determine your own methods and contacting you by remote, I shall accompany you and supervise you directly." Vingt did not react to the implied slur, did not stir at all. The Doctor was pleased.

"Will I be responsible for your safety?"
"No, I'll take care of myself, though of course if the need arises my wellbeing remains your priority. Validation code eight-zero."
"New orders confirmed."

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

It was in fact nearly a week before Batman resurfaced. Vingt's analysis of his physical features and movements confirmed it to be the same man as the one he'd shot and not some double.

He did not resurface for a routine patrol; those had been covered by Batgirl and Nightwing while Batman recuperated more fully from his concussion. This was less of a problem than it might have been; all of Gotham's resident nasties were by some miracle actually in Arkham, Ras Al Ghul hadn't been seen for six months, none of the art galleries currently had any exhibitions worth stealing, and there were no particularly brutal or baffling crimes that the GCPD needed 'special' help to solve. Nothing, except the ongoing mystery of Robin's kidnapping, and the newer mystery of Batman's attempted assassination. Both of these were 'in-family' concerns.

So, what brought the mostly-healed Batman out of his cave was a different issue all together; Gotham had a visitor. A loud, brash, teenaged visitor who, missing his friend and team mate Robin a good deal more than he cared to admit, had come to see his other Bat-friend for an update on the Boy Wonder's case. Yes folks (as he more or less announced as blatantly as he could), Superboy was in town!

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

Shortly thereafter, Superboy was ready to slink out of town, proverbial tail between his legs. Batman, little thrilled about having Superpowered visitors in "his" city at the best of times, had even less patience when they came with an overt "Yoo-Hoo! Villains! Here I am, come get me! I dare you!" manner. Gotham had enough problems without inviting in a superpowered villain looking for a challenge.

Batgirl, told off for encouraging him by giving him updates on the Robin kidnapping at all, was also ready to scuttle off (in the opposite direction). Though not out of the city, she was certainly ready to get back to her patrol.

It was luck - and hunches - that made them both turn back halfway. Something in the air, something situational, hadn't been quite right.

I'll just check, they both decided, simultaneously.

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

Another rooftop. Another fight. A stunning sense of deja-vu. Batman, though still groggy from his injury, was currently more than holding his own against the two squads of Retrievalists brought along to ensure the Doctor's safety. This time, it was Nightwing and the assassin that battled.

This time, the would-be killer was taking no chances. This time, Vingt was attacking from close quarters.

This time, the Bat would die.

At least, that was the Doctor's plan. Nightwing amongst others had different ideas.

Delivering a punishing kick to Nightwing's middriff, Vingt reached for the handgun at his waist, determined to drop Nightwing with a well-placed shot before going for his primary target, the Bat. He was sure from the way the other vigilante moved that his costume was not heavily armoured, and even if it does stop the bullet, he'll be out of action long enough for me to accomplish my mission, and do so before my Master loses too many retrievalists.

He'd just raised the trigger when a hunch of his own caused him to fling himself backwards.The batarang aimed at his hand struck instead the barrel of his gun with enough force to send it spinning away to the rooftop, several meters distant. In the next instant he was fighting with every fibre of concentration in his being against a furious Batgirl.

Of the melee on the rooftop, theirs was the only even match; Batman, now with the assistance of Nightwing, was easily mopping the floor with the retrievalists. The Doctor, seeing his bodyguard force rapidly being eroded by the Dynamic Duo, was giving serious consideration to a discrete escape (it being the better part of valour). Once I'm away I can always give a radio retreat order to Vingt.

He had, in fact, reached the edge of the rooftop, foot on the ledge, when Spoiler noticed what he was doing.

"Hey! He's getting away! Or not!" With a flick of her wrist, she spun a batarang and rope towards him. With perfect pitch and glide they struck, wrapping around his ankles, stopping him from running. Unfortunately, they also hindered his balance rather substantially. With a shriek, the Doctor toppled from the edge of the roof towards the ground some thirteen stories down.

He never got there. Swooping up from below was a suddenly very welcome superpowered visitor.

"Going somewhere?" Superboy cracked a grin.

"Er, yes, young man. If you would kindly deposit me on the main street I'd be very grateful."

" 'Fraid not. See, you're wearing batropes," he gestured at the line around the Doctor's ankles, "an' that means I hang onto you and give you to the gang that owns 'em." With that he landed on the rooftop, holding the Doctor's wrists as securely as bands of steel.

He was just in time to witness it all: Batman and Nightwing emerged battered but triumphant from their fight, the bodies of injured and unconscious retrievalists strewn around them. Batgirl was still fighting with Vingt, but this time Batman had enough sense to keep Spoiler from interfering.

Then, once again, the unexpected happened; Vingt, seeing his master caught, detached a small blue globe from his belt and flung it at Superboy. The whining shriek of a killing-level energy charge sundered the night as the ball struck, discharging its force into a screaming Superboy. The doctor, protected from the current in his insulated "workwear", twisted free, ready to call a retreat and wait for a better day. As Superboy writhed on the ground, Batgirl, hand flailing but determined to take advantage of the fleeting distraction, grabbed hold of the assassin's cowl and mask. And ripped it off. Superboy forgot his pain, forgot the sheer effort it had taken to survive the charge that would have killed a normal human, and forced himself to his feet.

There was a gasp from all assembled as the long, dark ponytail fluttered free from the confining hood to whip in the wind. And then the assassin, Vingt, looked up. His face was expressionless, but his eyes . . . his eyes were like blue ice, narrowed and lethal.

"R. . . Robin. . .?"

The Doctor was not sure who'd uttered the name. Vingt's expression showed no change, no recognition at the word, but the Doctor knew. The game is up. Even if you kill the Batman, even if we get away, they'll know it's you. And they'll come and get you, they'll hunt us down. I'm sorry Vingt, but it's time to cut my losses. A heartbeat later Vingt resumed his attack. A heartbeat after that, Superboy restrained the now-immobile Doctor again.

"Code Two!" The Doctor yelled, his voice cracking.

"Confirm." Vingt was as cold as ever, not even showing the strain of the intense fight.

"What? What're you . . .?" Superboy was puzzled. Suddenly, Batman looked up from where he too was watching the combat.

"Superboy! Cover his mouth!"
"Huh? Whu -" He was hurting, and hurting made him slow.
"Gamma! Confirmation Gamma!" The Doctor yelled.

"Acknowledged." Again the voice was inflectionless. He's . . . he's perfect. My perfect weapon. The Doctor turned his gaze away with pained pride, knowing what was about to happen. Au Revoir, my Vingt. No, I'm afraid it's goodbye.

Vingt, taking advantage of Batgirl's surprise at the recent revelation, landed a good punch on her. She steeled herself for his follow up, but it never came. An instant later - an instant too late - his body language revealed what he was going to do.

Batman and Nightwing saw it too, also too late.

Vingt dove for his handgun, brought it up. . . He's gonna kill this dude!?That's what that "Gamma" crap means!? Superboy prepared to shield his prisoner. Despite being hurt and weakened, he knew he had to. Even if it cost him in pain. He couldn't let Robin - couldn't let his friend - murder someone.

The hand holding the gun didn't even pause as it swept it's aim past the Doctor, past the Bat. It halted with the barrel resting against Vingt's temple.

With a small smile that only Superboy - facing him - saw, Vingt gently pulled the trigger.

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

He was not aware of screaming. Nor was he aware of flinging his prisoner to one side. Without thinking Superboy dove for the ground the minute Robin's finger tightened. Oh please, please, let me make it in time! Please! His hands hit the ground at the same instant that a shower of blood blossomed from the side of his friend's head. Looking up, he saw, as if caught in a still photo, Robin begin to crumple, blood streaming from his forehead. So red, so very, very red.

He took forever to fall, the moment held in eerie silence. Time stopped.

Then, as the bleeding body hit the ground, time started again. Superboy resumed breathing. Without even looking, he could tell the Bat had moved, was running for the boy, Nightwing hot on his heels. Suddenly, sound returned with the Spoiler's screaming sobs. I . . .I . . . oh, please, let it have worked!

It was then he heard the second-most-wonderful sound in the world. The sound of a chunk of plaster detaching from the fretwork of the next building over and falling to the ground. It had been knocked asunder by the ricocheting bullet.

Without knowing how he got there, he was suddenly at Robin's side, impervious to the blood that coated the figure, Superboy dropped his head to his friend's chest. That was when he heard the first-most-wonderful sound in the world. A heartbeat. Faint but constant. A beat. Then, overlying it, the sound of a breath.

"He's concussed. Out cold. But it's just a flesh wound. Scalp wounds always bleed a lot and look worse than they are." Superboy looked up, surprised. It was the most words he'd ever heard Batman utter in a single sentence. I did it! Thank god for Knockout's training! I did it! I used my tactile telekinesis (TM) to make Robin bulletproof! And. . . hey wow. . . I did it without even touching him! Just the ground he was on.

The Bat looked up, catching his gaze, and his next statment caused Superboy to pinch himself.

"Thankyou." There was a wealth of relief and gratitude in the normally forbidding voice. Somehow, Superboy found his own tongue.

"He's my friend." He said simply. Then, without asking, he carefully gathered the body of his team mate into his arms. He's so small! Superboy noticed irrelevantly. Somehow, whenever he was conscious and co-ordinating Young Justice, Robin seemed so competent, so sure. Seeing Robin looking so frail and lost in his arms was more than a little disconcerting.

Carefully, Superboy used his telekinesis to keep the other boy's head carefully braced, and then to stop the blood that was still pouring from the ugly-looking scalp wound. Never been so glad for my little bag of supertricks as I am today.

"I'll get him home." With that, he flew slowly, carefully towards the Cave. Thankfully, he still remembered the way, for all that it had been a long time since the one and only time he'd been there. Come to think of it, having all the world's grown-ups disappear seemed suddenly a lot less scary than it had at the time. A lot less scary than watching a friend shoot himself in the head.

"You're home, Robin, you're home."

That was when he noticed his burden's breathing, increasingly irregular for the past few seconds, had stopped.

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

Inside Vingt's head, the hibernating TimRobin stirred, and wakened. It watched impassively - it had to, there was no connection to current emotions in it's tiny refuge - the explosion of pain that followed Vingt's suicide attempt. Then, TimRobin became interested. The walls around it were weakening as Vingt continued the self-destruct sequence the Doctor's words had ordered. If Vingt weakens enough, if before we die he just weakens enough, I can get my body back and survive, just like I promised! Hope flared, and TimRobin knew by that that the walls to be very thin now, the connection to his feelings almost established.

Then Vingt, knocked into a stupor by the concussion, rallied. He could not force the superhero carrying him to drop him, he'd read the dossier on Superboy and knew that his tactile telekinesis would prevent it, but he still had one ace in his sleeve.

One of the techniques he'd been programmed in was overriding the body's instincts. One of those instincts is to breathe. He would complete his mission. He would stop his breathing, and then use control of his own vagal nerve to slow his heart. By the time he was too weak to retain control of both of those, he'd also be too close to dead to be revived. TimRobin screamed in impotent rage as Vingt set his plan in action.

Then, TimRobin stopped raging and went back to watching. Vingt's plan had been implemented without the knowledge that TimRobin existed. There was still a chance that he could turn the situation around. But Vingt wasn't weakening fast enough, and any moment Superboy would notice there was a problem and try to save his body. If that happened while Vingt was still in control . . . I'll be back where I started, only the next time he tries to kill us both he'll make sure he succeeds.

The walls were thinning, Vingt's grip on mind and body was weakening, but so was TimRobin. For all that he was a concept-personality bundle, his hiding place in the brain was as vulnerable to hypoxia as anywhere else. Come on, come on!

As Vingt began to slip away, Superboy began a despirate telekinetic CPR. Seeing his chances of survival intact recede, TimRobin readied everything for a last despirate gamble. I must survive. Somehow, in some form, I must survive! With that the bundle that was TimRobin gathered itself and flung itself at the dying Vingt, despirate to break through the other personality, break back into existance.

TimRobin and Vingt collided in the mind and body that both sought dominance over. One despirate to die, one despirate to survive. Both shattered into tiny fragments with the impact, both broken beyond hope of individual repair.

Suddenly, from nowhere but everywhere, Kaze's voice sounded, as true and clear as a bell "don't give up! You must survive!"

Silence.

Slowly, carefully, a tiny fragment of TimRobin, a fragment glowing with "survive" reached out tendrils to the fragments around it. Fragments of TimRobin . . . and fragments of Vingt. It was indiscriminate, and it bound them together. It wanted to survive. It was a mind and it **would** survive by any means possible.

Somehow, neurological pathways in the brain were reactivated, reformed and even blazed anew. TimRobinVingt came into existance, a new birth. A new person. A survivor.

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

In the Cave, Batman smilingly took the paddles off Robin's chest. The boy looked terrible; old whip scars marred the skin of his torso, which was also now burned from the cardiac rescusitation machine. His nose was bleeding, from where a nasogastric tube had been passed, and his mouth was jammed open by an intubation tube connected to a ventilation machine.

But he was alive, and the ECG tracing on the monitors indicated he was going to stay that way, thanks in no small part to Superboy's quick thinking and application of telekinetic first aid when the boy had first stopped breathing, and then gone into cardiac arrest.

"Someone will stay with him all the time until he wakes up. We will roster. A concussion should not cause cardiac arrest." Nightwing, Batgirl, and surprisingly Superboy nodded. They would watch for any signs of a further arrest, and if necessary, they would bring him back again. Spoiler looked uncomfortable. With the barest moment of hesitation, Batman pulled out a set of restraints from a drawer and efficiently shackled the small form to the medibed. Nobody objected. After all, nobody really know who - or what - would wake up.

Alfred, summoned back to the Cave by Nightwing (via Oracle when he was driving back after depositing a securely bound Doctor with the police), settled down to take first watch. Batman looked as if he might argue, but a sharp glance from the elderly butler quieted him. With a small smile he herded Spoiler towards her transport home. She still used the sealed cabin, as she remained one of the 'uninitiated' when it came to Batman's true ID.

While Batman was escorting Spoiler out, Nightwing turned to the figure on the medical bed. So small and still, he could see the marks of torture and abuse that Batman had noticed earlier. With a growing cold rage, he noted the amount of weight the boy had lost, despite the wiry development of muscle. He's pretty strong now, but those scars . . . he looks like he's been through Hell. Probably has, with that kind of brainwashing. If I'd seen this . . . physical stuff . . . before . . . I might have been tempted to 'restrain' that bastard doctor a little harder before giving him to the cops!

Pushing his anger down, Nightwing turned his attention to the boy's face. Thinner than it had been, and distorted by the bandage on one side, it looked surprisingly peaceful. Gently, Nightwing ran his fingers through the long dark hair splayed across the pillow.

"I missed you, Little Brother. It's good to have you back."

Batman's return signalled Spoiler's departure, so Nightwing made his way over to one of several beds tucked into a corner of the cave, crawled into it, and was asleep within moments. Superboy, Batgirl, and finally Batman followed suit. Of them all, only Batgirl got as far as removing one boot before sleep claimed her.

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

He awoke. His first thought was I am alive! His second, Why does that surprise me? Cracking open recalcitrant eyelids, the first thing he saw was a large rocky spear, pointed directly at his face. Before he could panic and attempt to fling himself out of it's path, he realised it was in fact a stalactite, and was going nowhere.

Carefully, gently, he twisted his head to the side to see more of his surroundings. A man, young, with black hair and a mask came into view. Familiar yet unfamiliar, recognised as friend yet opponent. Confusing. He tried to sit up, only to find he could not move. Dimly, he registered restraints on his arms and legs, holding him to the bed he was lying on.

"Welcome back," the man sitting next to him said. He seriously considered replying, but then settled for falling asleep again.

The second time he awoke, it was a girl next to him. Several years younger than the man had been, she was blonde and, he supposed, fairly attractive. She was also fidgeting.

"Oh! Wow! You're awake, Tim! Er. . . sorry. . . Should I call you Robin? I mean, you don't have your mask on or anything but if you, like, want me to I can." He looked at her. He didn't know her, he was sure, yet felt instinctively that he did not trust her. At some stage he knew he had known her, trusted her. But something had happened, somehow she'd betrayed that trust. The thought was not comforting. Tim? Robin? Is one of those my name? He found he liked the sound of the second better. Faintly, a memory of another young voice, this one boyish, though roughened by strain, calling him "Robin". The boy the voice had belonged to had . . . had what? Maddeningly, the memory slipped away. Present time first, he decided finally.

"Where am I?"

The girl, who had until then been keeping up a constant stream of incessant chatter, suddenly stopped, speechless.

"Wait here. I'll, uh, I'll, like . . . go get someone." She all but fled. Moments later she returned, with several "someones" in tow. Robin (for he had decided to use that name) felt distinctly threated, not least because he had just discovered he remained bound to the bed.

Somewhere in his scattered unconsciousness, restraints stirred a very unpleasant memory. The girl and her compatriots approached. Robin felt something akin to fear; Trapped! Tied! Can't move and he's coming! Hurts! Hurts! The memory surfaced, gripping Robin in a tight clench, leaving him gasping and terrified. Sobbing, he fought the restraints, ripping bloody gashes into his wrists and ankles. Fresh marks to match the older restraint scars already there.

One of the figures, the man from earlier a (tiny) cool, dispassionate part of him observed, noticed his distress and hurried forward, snapping free the ties and holding him close. The others gasped, as if expecting the figure on the bed to attack, to attempt escape. . .

He almost did, but . . .

"Robin, Robin, it's okay . . . shhhhhh. . . it's okay, little brother. . . shhh. Nobody's going to hurt you. You're safe." Gently he held him. Nightwing. This is Nightwing. This is Dick. He is my friend, like an elder brother to me. The thought popped into his head, and the sense of familiarity that accompanied it soothed the crying boy. Slowly, his terrified sobs eased.

When he looked up again, his sky-blue eyes peering from the safe comfort of his 'brother's' arms, the blond girl was gone, but the two other men were standing there. One, a butler from the look of his dress, was holding out a handkercheif. Hesitantly, he took it.

"Th - thank you. Alphonse? no. No, it's Alfred."

"I apologise, young sir, for restraining you. We had no way of knowing in what, er, frame of mind you would be when you awoke. We considered it a lesser of two evils, though now I wonder," he eyed the scars on the boy's chest contemplatively. Then, shaking himself, sat down with a first-aid kit and proceeded to deal with the wounds the boy's struggles had opened on his wrists, noting the scarring there from previous restraining, Those scars would have been left by rope and pain. He was tied down and tortured. The poor boy, no wonder he was so scared. Carefully, the butler tended Robin's wounds, managing to do so without forcing him from the shelter of his brother's arms.

The Bat had been silent the whole time. Watching, evaluating. Robin watched and evaluated right back. As far as he could tell, he had greatly admired this man. Something akin to hero-worship, I think. But this man had, like the girl, betrayed him. Robin had, and still would, trust him with his physical wellbeing, though he shredded my life.

"Robin," finally, Batman spoke. "Spoiler said you asked where you were. What do you remember?"

Robin contemplated for a moment. I must give a proper answer. Within limits. This person is one who can take away my right to the Robin persona, and just at the moment I need that. It is all I have. No, it is all I **am**. He wasn't completely sure where this sudden insight came from, but nonetheless trusted it. A fragment of memory, I guess. Thinking hard, Robin was rewarded for his concentration when several more memories coalesced in his mind.

"You are . . . Batman? Yes, Batman. He is Nightwing. The other man is Alfred. He is my friend. He was your butler, but you drove him away, so he helped me, both as a butler and as a confidante. You are also Bruce Wayne. Nightwing is Dick Grayson. There is another. A woman. She is Oracle, and . . . Barbara? Yes, Barbara Gordon. I am Robin. And I'm tired. Don't tie me up again." Satisfied that the Bat now knew that Robin knew too much to be . . . retired . . . out of hand, he allowed himself to fall back into a deep, healing sleep.

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

The next few weeks were difficult ones. Robin's physical injuries healed quickly, his mind slowly. Sitting at the mighty Crays, he discovered that nomatter what he'd lost or had damaged in his mind, his hacking skills remained (had become via implant?) absolutely superb. In twenty minutes of his first day out of bed, he'd hacked into the Crays' personnel files (something he was pretty sure he'd never even thought of doing . . . before). There, he spent the rest of the day re-familiarising himself with every member of the Bat family, the JLA, the Titans and Young Justice. Including himself. Robin III. Timothy Drake.

Except he wasn't, anymore. Looking at the file was like looking into a fractured mirror; parts matched exceptionally well. Parts didn't. Timothy Drake, Robin decided, was dead. He died at the hands of the Doctor nearly ten months ago. I'm not him. Not anymore.

But he wasn't Vingt either. That much Robin figured out on the second day out of bed, when he realised that some of his memories could not be from his time in the Cave. Memories of harsh trainings and abuse, of screaming on a torture table, and of the Doctor. Always the Doctor. Going into his mind to take things away. And to put things in. Memories of the implantation of martial arts, fighting techniques, weaponry skills. Them memories of the intensely painful spinal and perepheral reprogramming, needed to implant the reflexes to carry out the newly created martial abilities present in his head. Memories of the physical training that accompanied it, of forcing his body to be fast enough, supple enough, strong enough to follow the directions of his carefully sculpted nervous system.

That was when he started looking elsewhere. That was when he discovered the hack into the Crays that had occurred nearly ten months ago now. With a skill not even Oracle could boast he patiently re-created the path the hacker had taken. It took him eight minutes. Then he started hacking. Hacking into the Doctor's own network.

Or what was left of it. At the time Robin hacked in, someone or something had destroyed the entire facility, killing everyone in it. Slicing into the security cameras' circuit, Robin caught a brief glimpse of a small boy, not unlike himself in build, but with a hip-length braid of hair. The figure stirred memories, but before Robin could get a good shot of the other boy's face, the camera was smashed. Rapidly downloading what he could of the organisation's semi-destroyed files, Robin ruminated on the boy he had seen. There's something familiar. . . he couldn't place it. But somehow, he felt a kinship for the other. It wasn't the mass destruction he was perpetuating (though that didn't bother the new Robin to the extent that Batman, had he known, probably would have liked) it was something else. Those hands, slender and dealing such unbeleivable punishment, had delivered comfort as well.

With a snort, Robin shoved a lock of his shoulderlength hair out of the way behind his ear; though Batman had said he would arrange for the removal of the "20" tattoo, nothing yet had been said of his hair.

The memory was suddenly, vividly clear.

"Wear your hair with pride. You've earned it." Kaze. That boy is Kaze! Unconsciously, Robin lifted his hands to his head, and twisted the unruly locks into a neat plait, the same style that Kaze had tied it into when there was so much less of it, so very long ago. The memory was gone, leaving Robin with a name, a face, and a recollection of friendship, other memories hanging tantalisingly just out of his grasp.

As more time passed, Robin continued to wear the braid. Batman said nothing.

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

Batman said nothing, that is, until shortly before Robin's return to patrol in Gotham. The Bat had been monitoring the boy, watching as more memories clicked into place. Watching as the boy became both more like his old self . . . and less.

The boy's skills - both physical and mental - were better than ever, of that there was no doubt. But his ethics? Batman ruminated on this for some time. He was not about to unleash another former assassin upon Gotham, even if this was a former assassin who'd never killed anyone. Watching Robin spar with Batgirl (friendly matchs now) the blantant double-standard of this did not occur to him.

The night before Robin's reactivation, Batman left on patrol. As he was climbing into the Batmobile, watched as always by Robin, he commented in an off-hand manner to Alfred, "Oh, and Alfred, would you pull out a fresh suit for Robin please?"

The quick intake of breath from the boy, followed by the shy smile, convinced him he'd made the right decision. The boy needed this, needed it as much as Dick ever had, way back in the days after his parents' death. The energy and training he had needed to be channeled constructively. Or else it would flare up and consume him, along with whoever else happened to get in the way.

Dispelling the disquieting images that idea conjured up, Batman added, almost as an afterthought, "and see to it his hair's cut back too, we can't have a long-haired Robin."

Roaring off into the dark, he did not see the tableau left behind him, did not see as Robin's shy smile melted into a shocked, white-faced expression of horror.

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

"No."
"Master Robin, Master Bruce left instructions to -"

"No. Not my hair. He can't have my hair."

"Young sir, if I may, the master's instructions were quite specific. For you to resume your role as Robin, your hair must -"

There was a soft click as Robin removed his mask (the only part of his costume he currently wore) and set it on the table. Alfred took a step back at the look of bleak misery in the boy's eyes. Forlorn and lost, Alfred knew how much of the boy's healing had depended upon being Robin. He also knew what the removal of the mask meant. He'd. . . He'd give up being Robin over it. Over his hair.

Silence.

"Very well then, young sir." He turned away, apparently oblivious to the silent tears rolling unchecked from the boy's eyes, and walked off. . .

And returned moments later with a black wig from the Bat's extensive disguise room.

"I believe this one should fit, young sir, and we can cut it appropriately." The boy simply looked at him, blankly, for an instant, the tears still trickling. Then, slowly and a little unsurely, he smiled. A genuine, grateful smile that lit the room. Alfred felt his heart lift. He's finally back with us. At last. He's healed enough that there's something he's willing to fight tooth and nail for. Blast it if I won't help him with everything I've got, even if it is only for hair.

The Batman returned early the next morning to a fully costumed Robin, his hair neatly cut into it's old, short style. He arrived just in time to see Alfred sweeping up the ends of hair from the floor, apparently the aftermath of a haircut. He arrived too late to see Alfred teach Robin how to bind his hair flat under the wig, and apply the special glue so that the wig would not lift off easily, either from pulling or from water. Too late to see Robin tuck the jar of glue solvent very carefully away.

The next night, they went on patrol together. Batman and Robin were back in business.

 

END PART TWO

 

NOTES:

1.Many thanks to E.B., for the tutorial on the merits of various firearms. While in the end I did not opt to use 'brand-name' weaponry, our discussion was most useful for me to get clear in my head precisely what I needed (from a story-telling POV) from the armaments. Any errors in accurate depiction of these guns are entirely my fault.

2. No, I have never seen an issue of any comic where Superboy uses his Tactile Telekinesis (TM) in either of the two manners I had him use it here (if anyone has, please let me know). However, both the bullet-proofing through touching the ground the subject is touching, and the CPR seem logical extensions of the technique.

3. As always, respectful homage is intended, copyright infringement is not.

 ***************

PART THREE

LATER THE SAME NIGHT

 

Batman had been hoping for a relatively quiet night, this first night out. A few muggings, maybe an arson or two. Nothing major, and, please, no costumed criminals.

Be careful what you wish for. . .

They'd foiled three muggings, one attempted rape, and a carjacking. Batman was pleased. Though initially awkward, by the end of the first mugging Robin had followed his lead competently. By the middle of the second, he was anticipating Batman's needs and moves, and molding himself to them. By the time they'd finished with the wannabe car thieves, they were working together as seamlessly as ever they had. There was not a costumed criminal in sight. And every hood we took down, we took non-lethally without me reminding him to. With minimal trauma, even. At this rate he'll be back to solo work within a month.

That was when the Batsignal flared against the clouds. With a glance at his young protege, they were airborne, swinging towards the rooftop of the police building with synchronised ease.

It did not take them long. They were at the station within eight minutes. But still, the sight that greeted them on arrival was pure carnage.

 

Commissioner Gordon leaned wearily against the signal, the first aid people had gotten to him relatively quickly, and as a result he was on his feet again, dislocated shoulder (now reduced) in a sling. Why am I bothering with this thing? he thought muzzily, contemplating the signal as best he could while painkillers coursed through his system. The attack is over. The attack was over before we could even call for back-up on the radio, let alone get up here to light up the sky. To call **him**. Now I have thirty wounded officers, a dead prisoner, and a kid's corpse. Great. Just great. The Feds are gonna have a fit when they get here to pick up 'their' special prisoner . . . from the morgue. Tiredly, he considered the case - or, more accurately, the bloody mess - he was about to hand over to his 'unofficial' help.

He had to hand it over. Most of his detective staff would be taking sick leave for a while to come yet. Second time in recent memory someone's attacked the station itself. First time in recent memory they got further than the lobby. First time **ever** it was just a kid. A child. On his own. Dear God, what is this city coming to?

So mazed with pain and painkillers was he, that Gordon didn't even flinch as the gloved hand landed on his shoulder.

"You came. Thank God."
"What happened?" The voice was low, grim. Obviously, the Bat had seen telltale signs of the attack, if not the full extent of the destruction inside.

"The Station was hit. Again. Only this was so much worse than last time, when Al Ghul's goons tried it. Those guys we stopped at the lobby. This time . . . this time the perp was at the high security holding cells almost before we knew we'd been attacked." Gordon drew a deep, shuddering breath.

"The 'perp'. I call him that. No reason not to, really. He took out thirty of my officers. Took him ten, maybe twelve minutes. Took them out so fast nobody even had time to scream, let alone raise an alarm. Didn't kill any of them, that's the amazing bit. He got down to the cell where we were holding that 'special' prisoner for the Feds." He paused, obviously marshalling his thoughts.

"The prisoner, he was that Doctor guy Nightwing hand-delivered a fortnight or so ago. Remember him?" Without waiting for an answer, the Commissioner continued. "Well, the Feds decided they wanted him, but they wanted to get him out of Gotham with high security and a minimum of fuss. Difficult to do both given the state of this city these days. So, we were baby-sitting him until they could come. Then this perp beat them to it." Gordon fell silent, reliving the horror of the incident. It had been him, in the end, who'd seen the perp . . . do it. He had the dislocated shoulder to prove it.

"Go on." The Bat's voice was low, tense. Robin, by his side, had yet said nothing. Gordon took it as a good omen that they were in fact still there, that they hadn't vanished into the night as was their wont.

"The perp. He was this little kid. A short, skinny Asian boy with a hip-length mass of hair. He . . . God, he looked like he needed a decent meal more than anything else. Didn't look dangerous at all. Not like our usual costumed psychopaths. . . "

He'd been walking down to the cells with Renee Montoya, discussing a different case entirely. They'd not known anything was wrong until they - literally - fell over the prone figure of Johns, a junior policeman pulling guard duty that evening. Checking his pulse, Gordan had quickly ascertained he was still alive, though almost certainly concussed.

Montoya had gone to the duty desk to call for back-up. He'd gone on ahead a little way. Not far. But far enough for the snippet of a child to see him coming, and disarm him by dislocating his arm before he even knew what was happening. Then . . . then it had happened. Of all the things he'd experienced as a cop, this one would live in his mind in lurid, appalling detail. It replayed over and over again. It would continue to do so, Gordon suspected, in his nightmares for years to come.

The boy had been speaking to their 'special' prisoner when Gordon and Montoya had stumbled in. Now he concluded his conversation.

"So. You ordered him to self-destruct." The boy's voice had been high and pure. And icily, bleakly cold. "He survived everything you did to him, everything except your failsafe. Damn you."

The Doctor had simply nodded, and then uttered the first words Gordon had ever heard him say, "code two."

The boy had stiffened. Then, in a voice that was, if possible, even more frozen than before, had whispered his own single word "Confirm."

"Code Gamma."

" . . . Confirmed." The boy had seemed, from Gordon's pain-filled vantage on the floor, to be engaged in a mental struggle. A struggle he was losing. Then suddenly the fight was over. The frown on his face was replaced by a small smile.

"I must obey. But this is for Ro-kun." The child, with the very gun he'd taken from Gordon, had then calmly shot the Doctor twice, once through the left ventricle, and once through the brain. The man entered the afterlife with a frozen expression of surprised disbelief on what remained of his face.

Then he'd raised the gun to his own head and, still with the small smile that Gordon knew would haunt him until he died, the child had pulled the trigger. Blood splattered ink-black hair, staining it an obscene crimson. . .

Gordon passed out before the corpse hit the floor.

With a start, he shook himself out of his reverie. Turning to the two vigilantes, he saw an odd role reversal; from what little he could see of the other's face, Batman looked almost concerned, though he'd removed his had from the commissioner's shoulder. Robin's face, however, was an expressionless mask.

"I . . . We need to know who this kid is. Was. Whether he worked on his own. His parents. . . His parents will want to . . . If he has any . . .You know the deal." Suddenly tired, Gordon turned away. "I can't put any of my people on it at the moment. They're mostly all hurt. A copy of the security video's in my office. It should have finished taping by now. Autopsy reports will be around in a few days. . ." His voice trailed off. Even without looking back, he knew he was alone on the rooftop.

Returning to his office, he noted the video had been ejected from the VCR that resided in isolated splendor on a set of filing cabinets. Pausing only to clumsily fumble his coat on, Gordon headed off into the night. The case was in good hands. Now he had thirty police officers in Gotham General Hospital to check on.

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

Batman said nothing until they'd returned to the Cave, a courtesy for which Robin was profoundly grateful. The boy's mind was churning. It has to have been him. But it can't have been him. He's . . . we both . . . Oh, Kaze! Please let it not be him! Almost ashamed of his sentiment, Robin nonetheless clung to it, clutching the hope that it hadn't been Kaze, that the other boy remained somehow still alive.

The hope was quashed as soon as Gordon's tape was played in the Cave. The graceful, silkily smooth movements with which the taped figure took out the policemen were a mirror of Robin's own. He moved like the wind dancing through autumn leaves, swirling them out of his way with scarcely an effort. A small corner of Robin's mind, the only part that wasn't screaming silently, noted that even the Bat looked impressed.

Then, what Robin had been both secretly hoping for and dreading. A clear shot of the other's face. Unconsciously Robin rubbed his own shoulder, the spot still sore from the removal of his number. The face on the screen. . . the face was Kaze. Or DeWhitt. The two so mingled as to be indistinguishable from each other. No, that's not quite right. Robin realised, it's as if the Dewhitt personality has somehow subsumed the shreds of Kaze. And the only way that would happen is if Kaze let it. Let DeWhitt win control of the body, but retaining control of the overriding mission priority, like I did. His own mission. To rescue me. Oh, Kaze! Why does it happen like this?! Why couldn't I find you sooner?!

If Robin had been offered anything in the world at that instant, anything at all, he would have frozen the moment, lived it for eternity just watching Kaze's face. But he could no more halt time than fly, and all the wishing in the world would not make it so. The tape rolled on, to it's gory, grim conclusion. Robin had been powerless to even press the pause button.

Sitting in shocked silence, he barely registered as Batman rewound the tape, pausing it at the shot of Kaze's head and shoulders, and sending a copy to Oracle. Batman glanced at him worriedly. The kid's taking this hard. I guess it's the most gory thing he's ever seen. I wonder if I should have tried to spare him this. . . Too late now. Unless that's not it. Unless . . .

Robin scarcely heard his mentor's voice asking Oracle to check into the boy's identity.

Her immediate reply, however, did gain his full attention.

"Hey! That's that kid!"

"Explain." Robin and Batman spoke as one, and the unusual grimness in both their tones took Barbara aback. Gamely, she continued.

"I just recently processed the Titan's film of this encounter! I've been a bit backlogged recently with . . . other things, so I only just got to it." Tactfully, she didn't mention what the 'other things' were that had been of higher priority. Robin was mending now, and reminding him all the time of his abduction was unlikely to speed up the process.
"He turned up at Titan Tower a couple of months back. Asking for their help. I think Roy or Donna took charge of the situation. Anyways, Nightwing wasn't there, and we hadn't yet told them Robin was missing, so they didn't believe his story. After he fought Roy over being a trespasser - and soundly clobbered him - he kind of gave up on getting Titan help. I think Donna flew him back into the city and that's all the detail I have."

"You . . . he came for help and you . . . the Titans . . ."

"Robin, you know this kid?" Batman felt his worst fears materialise. The boy had never discussed his captivity to any great extent, and he'd certainly never mentioned other prisoners. Batman had assumed Robin had been the only one there at the time, or at least had been kept in solitary confinement. I assumed. That was a very big mistake on my part, one that will cost me.

The boy was silent for so long that Batman began to suspect he hadn't heard the question. Then, staring straight ahead with flat, glassy eyes, Robin began to speak.

"He . . . he was there. With me." The boy said tonelessly, all life sucked from his expression. He . . . The process was more advanced with him when I got there. Robin's thoughts were in a mire, though his face remained expressionless. He'd already been partly programmed. He helped me resist . . . what the Doctor did . . . for a long time. When I . . . when I couldn't, couldn't, didn't . . . anymore . . . he escaped to save me. Promised he'd be back with help. I promised him . . . I promised him I'd survive until he came. He . . . made me live. God, it would have been easy to give up and die. So easy. But I promised him. I survived. And now he's dead.

The boy took a deep shuddering breath. Then in a horrifyingly composed, icy voice, he continued.

"His name is Mireba Kaze. Fifteen years old. He is a Japanese national, and an expert pilot. Further details, including next of kin, should be in the Crays computer, in the 'people to watch' section."

Robin stood, turned and walked away from the computer, saying only "Please excuse me." Batman let him go.

The Batcave was vast. This was good. It also echoed in places. This was bad. However, Robin found himself a small outcropping which didn't echo and was well away from the rest of the cave.

Then he dropped to his knees and screamed himself hoarse, pounding his fists on the unforgiving rock of the cave floor. With supreme self-control he stopped himself before he broke his hands. Despite his rage and horror and misery, his tears were not forthcoming. Robin did not cry.

When he returned, blood seeping through his gloves, Alfred was just entering the cave. He was carrying that universal salve of milk and cookies, something the old Robin had loved, and the new Robin still retained a sneaking fondness for.

"Ah, young sir. I have some good news for you. Good lord, what happened to your hands?! Sit down over there, now!" Meekly, Robin did as he was told. When Alfred used that tone of voice, it was best to obey and keep one's head down.

Alfred set the tray down and returned with the first aid kit. Removing the battered gloves, he started cleaning the wounds. The injuries were, he noticed with relief, quite superficial.

"Well, young sir, this is quite a mess. I don't know what you'll say to your father about it, when he returns to Gotham next week!" Alfred's 'good' news did not provoke the expected reaction. The boy in front of him went as white as the glass of milk he was clutching.

"I have a father?" Turning he stared at Batman with round eyes.

"Yes. Of course you do. But you knew that! You read it in the Crays database if nothing else."

Robin's brow furrowed. Dimly, he recalled something about that in the "Tim Drake" file. He'd been vastly more interested in discovering other facets of his "Robin" file that he'd not pursued much of the content of the first. Concentrating, he attempted to dredge his still-recalcitrant memory for further information. Little was forthcoming, and what there was was not encouraging. My mother is dead. I know that much. Also they would travel without me. More pieces clicked into place in the puzzle, filling holes in his memory. He put me in a boarding school recently so he wouldn't have to deal with me. Couldn't deal with me. We had fights over grades, I recall.

Later, after the Bat had gone to deliver an edited report on Kaze to Gordan, and Alfred had returned upstairs, Robin sat at the Crays. He searched the database again, finding out everything he could about one Jack Drake, and his relationship with his son, Timothy. The details that came to light were no more encouraging than his patchy memories had been. The man had definitely been a hands-off parent. The one time Tim **hadn't** been shoveled off to boarding school had been when his father was dying and Bruce Wayne had arranged for the boy to attend Gotham Heights Public School. And now . . .

Now he's remarried. To his physiotherapist, no less. And they've just returned from a honeymoon retreat. It was meant to last for two months, but instead went for eleven. Why was that? Further digging revealed the answers.

Aha. She got pregnant. And it was a difficult pregnancy so she couldn't travel off the island. Not that it mattered, given the superb hospital set-up they've got there, and the equally superb investment broker they've got here in Gotham. So he stayed with her until she delivered and the child was declared healthy enough to travel. They arrive back in about a weeks time. He still doesn't know his son is - was - missing, and has made no attempt to contact him in that time. Oh, wait, that's wrong. He sent a message to the school . . . Brentwood . . . saying Tim wasn't to bother coming home for the holidays as no-one would be there. No way of replying because of the island's communications policy.

Now, Robin realised, he had a few decisions to make. And, whatever course he decided upon, less than a week to implement it.

In the end, it was, once again, Spoiler that proved to be the crucial factor. Spoiler, and the Bat.

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

She flounced into the cave on the heels of the Batman, obviously very pleased with herself.

". . . AND I got the mugger, too! Without any help from Connor!" Catching sight of the figure at the computer she wandered over, "Oh, hi Tim! How's things?" "Please call me Robin."
Instead of just letting it go in embarrassed silence as she had previously, Spoiler opted to be . . . pro-active about it. She'd had enough of his reserved politeness, his refusal to remove his mask in her presence, and this time she was going to do something about it!

"Why? When we were teaming up together you used to call me 'Steph' even when I was in full costume! I hated it but you never stopped! Why should it bug you that I'm doing it now? You're just getting your own back, now stop sulking and being so damn polite, and get over it! Honestly, you treat me like I'm just an unwanted, untrusted acquaintance. If Batman trusted me enough to tell me your identity, why can't you trust me too!?" Batman winced fractionally at the last. Very few people would have even noticed it. Robin was one of the few.

Clenching his hands so tightly that the blood from his injuries seeped through the bandages Alfred had wrapped around them, Robin walked off to his makeshift bedroom in a corner of the cave. Spoiler had enough sense not to follow.

Her comment, Robin decided, had done it. It was an instantaneous decision, but once made, the wheels in his head immediately set about determining a plan by which the choice could be carried out.

Robin had known for a while that Timothy Drake was dead. It was something he'd figured out on his first day out of bed after the shooting that had created him anew. It was time, Robin decided, that he shared that information with the rest of the world at large (minus the Bat-gang). Shared it in as graphic and convincing a manner as possible.

 

END PART THREE

 

NOTES: The previous storming of the police station mentioned occurred at the end of the 'LEGACY' story arc.

Once again, homage is intended, copyright infringement is not.

 

 

PART FOUR

It was, on reflection, going to be easier said than done. Particularly with the Bat and, shortly afterwards, Nightwing hovering over him, concerned about his reaction to Kaze's death. He wasn't over it, not by a long shot, but he'd promised to survive. And part of that is going to be making sure no-one can endanger me in that way! Nobody at all can get that close. Ever again. Robin stared pensively at the laptop he'd 'borrowed' from the equipment room of the cave. He'd checked it thoroughly for bugs of any kind, and satisfied there were none, had started his project.

The project in question consisted of two parts, one simpler than the other, but both time consuming. And Robin didn't have much time. In six days, Jack Drake - for he didn't think of the man as his father, not anymore - would be returning to the US. By then, all had to be prepared.

The simpler part was the identity. Specifically, Robin's new secret identity. He'd already decided it would be one completely unlinked to Wayne or Grayson in any way. It would also be unlinked to the Drake family.

The hard part would be the public 'death' of Timothy Drake. It had to be done in such a manner that would leave no question in any mind, especially that of Jack Drake, that he was in fact deceased.

There was a further catch; the preparation had to be done without the Bat family knowing. At best, if he found out, Batman would insist on knowing my new identity. Given that he sold out my other identity, I don't want to trust him with it again if I can avoid it. At worst, if he caught on, he'd make me abort the plan. Make me go back to being 'Tim Drake'. Living in a restricting, and more importantly compromised charade with a father whom I don't even know any more, and who seems never to have made an effort to know me. Worse, having to pretend to be a person I nolonger am, and never can be again, with parts so similar they are the same, and parts so wildly different they're almost incongruous. Almost. Except I exist. I, the old-new Robin. A bundle of contradictions indeed.

No, 'Tim Drake' becomes the cover identity I will use with the Bat group and the Spoiler, an identity that will keep them secure in their 'knowledge' of me and off my back. My new identity, the one I'll live in when I'm not Robin, my haven from the Bat-family and especially the Spoiler, will be my little secret. Robin had a hunch it was a distancer, a spacer, that he was really going to need.

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

SEVERAL DAYS LATER

Creating the new identity was fairly easy, as was deciding where he should reside; Robin had scanned all the boarding schools still operating in the Gotham area and found one quite distant from any of Tim Drake's old haunts, but no further a commute from the Cave than Brentwood would have been. It was also roughly equidistant to the other school, so he'd be able to meet Spoiler or Batman on the roof of Brentwood without them being the wiser. Or so he hoped.

The new school, Bryleaf Academy, had other benefits; boarders were housed in single rooms, with four rooms sharing a central sitting area and bathroom. The rooms all had windows, and the dormitory buildings were tall. Also, as the school sat nestled next to an office building on one side and a church on another, skulking and rooftop access was unlikely to be a problem, despite the parklands that made up a large portion of the rest of the surrounds.

The final, crucial deciding factor had in fact been something rather mundane and very un-Batlike: the uniform code. While the school had a uniform (one based upon, and strongly resembling, the Japanese public school uniform for boys of a high-collared, waist-length black jacket over a white business-style shirt, coupled with straight black trousers and shoes), their only hair code was that anyone whose tresses ran to longer than shoulder length must have their hair tied back at all times. Robin figured that the long ponytail he intended to wear would not only allow him to keep his hair, but add to his overall disguise value. None of the Bat family, with the exception of Alfred, knew he retained that hair, and Alfred wouldn't talk.

Developing the new identity credentials on the borrowed laptop was simple. Loading them into the system would take a lot more work. And he wouldn't be able to do it from the Crays. Batman had designed and built the computer himself, well before Tim Drake became Robin. There'll be failsafes and data monitoring programmes hidden in that machine that I'll find only with difficulty. If I miss any of them, I hand Batman my identity, my plans, on a silver platter.

There was, however, an alternative to the Crays. A supercomputer every bit as powerful, every bit as connected and set up for hacking as any Batman possessed. And Robin had helped build it, had laid down nearly all it's monitoring programmes himself, and had helped design all of the others. Two days before Jack Drake returned, Robin paid a visit to the Oracle.

The upload turned out to be ridiculously simple; Robin merely timed his arrival to occur a few moments before Nightwing's, and remained with the computer when Oracle wheeled off to let the other vigilante in and re-set her perimeter sensors. The three minutes or so that he was alone with the computer was all it took for the new identity to be uploaded into all the relevant government department records, and also for enrollment and fee-transfer to be acknowledged at Bryleaf. As an added bonus, Robin secured himself a room on the top floor of the dormatory building, facing the church. It would be a twenty metre leap - more accurately, swing - up to the steepled rooftop, invisible to viewers on all sides. Perfect! When the school reconvened in two weeks, there would be a new transfer student, one with good grades and absent (though wealthy - the paid school fees attested to that) parents.

Robin choked harshly, this is for you, Kaze. And for me. I will survive as I promised. I will survive 'any way I can'. Once again, Robin did not cry when he thought of his friend, though this time he did not scream either. Tears were a comfort he could not indulge in, a comfort denied him ever since the Doctor had . . . altered . . . him.

 

The disc was back in his utility belt, the traces of his hack wiped clean, by the time Barbara and the flirting Nightwing entered, to find him sitting on the opposite side of the room, innocently reading the newspaper.

The paper provided his second big break, and when Nightwing and Barbara went into the kitchen to make the three of them a late dinner, Robin got his third. It was his own hacking skill that made him his fourth.

A story in the paper covered a suspected arson fire in a supposedly empty warehouse on the Gotham waterfront. Except that Robin knew, via Gordon's update to Batman, that the fire had occurred in a warehouse used by drug runners to cut their product before it's final distribution to the dealers. Robin also knew that the warehouse had been far from empty at the time it had burned to the ground. When Gordon and his skeletally understaffed crew had arrived, the remants of the building had been filled with corpses. Gordon had managed to stop the story from making the newspapers, at least until tomorrow (Robin wasn't sure he wanted to think about **how** the Commissioner had pulled that off) to stop trophy hunters and other ghouls from raiding the site and destroying the evidence while it was inexpertly guarded, and before it could be properly documented. Said documenting had just started and was scheduled to continue the next day, when more of the temporary reinforcements Gordon had called in arrived. The replacement staff came from federal sources to keep Gotham patrolled while the city's own police officers healed.

Perfect! Every detective working on the case is going to be an out-of-towner who will likely return to out of town within a few days to weeks as Gordon's own staff come back. Further, with a little bit of judicious hacking, I can probably get this case reassigned federally, to, say, the DEA. Then nobody here can touch it!

Of the fourteen bodies that had thus far been discovered, thirteen had been confirmed to be the badly charred remains of males. Boys, probably, from the size and build. Of the thirteen, ten had had dental records run thus far, and eight of those had been determined to be teenage boys already on record. To be specific, two 'runaways', one 'abductee', and five who were just plain 'missing'. Looks like the druggers nabbed these kids off the streets, and put them to work refining their 'product'. Cocky of them, using local kids, knowing there were likely searches happening for them. Very cocky. Then the break. Another kid, also a runaway, had had genetic material on-file due to a paternity suite. A request had been sent by the police (along with samples from several of the as-yet unidentified bodies) to the institution that had done the genotyping, to look for a match. The boy in question had been gone for three years.

Taking the initiative, Robin hacked the institution's database. The genotyping had been done, though the results not yet communicated to the police. Sample number twelve was a perfect match for the lost boy, one Jonah Kedd, reported 'missing' three years, four months and six days ago.

Tim Drake has only been missing for eleven months. He'll fit right in. There's no genetic material of Drake on file anywhere, Batman made sure of that when I became Robin, and the Bat is nothing if not thorough. So, time for a little visit to the dentist. Deftly, Robin intercepted a set of police computer searches that were still running through the Gotham public health system's database. Someone must have plugged them in right before going home for the night, trusting the results would be ready the next morning. Gee, I'd hate to disappoint him.

Rummaging through the nearly completed search, Robin found what he was looking for. Perfect! A fairly close match of height and weight. Slightly taller than I am, but you'd expect an adolescent to grow in eleven months. Badly charred, to the extent that he's unrecognisable, though bone structure indicates caucasian. Dental work identified the corpse as one orphan, a certain Mickey Reckk. No family or friends. Currently posted as a runaway from Juvie Hall. Well, that's gonna change. With a few keystrokes, Mickey Reckk's dental file was empty. As far as the state was concerned, the boy had never needed dental care, and his whereabouts remained a mystery about which most were indifferent. A pity there's no centralised database of private patients.

The hardcopy of this guy's notes are kept at Gotham General, in the medical records section, dental subdivision. How convenient that Tim Drake's dentist operates from an exclusive practice just two blocks from the place. I think it's time for a little late-night breaking and entering. But I'm not solo yet, so how to get my babysitter to play along? Play. Hn. I wonder if Nightwing would care for a game of tag.

Robin heard the clatter of knives and forks being set out on the kitchen table, and rapidly clicked a few keys into another quick, subtle slice. This time into Oracle's world-wide 'jungle grapevine'. In a few hours, Ra's Al Ghul would be making a mysterious appearance in Beirut, along with a newly missing nuclear warhead. Or at least, he'd appear to be, digitally, in a series of small clues that only Oracle would possibly be able to piece together. Outside of the computer world that Oracle ruled, of course, the Demon would be heaven knows where and the warhead nonexistant. But until she and the Bat figure that out, Batman will be out of town and across the globe, frantically tracking a genocidal maniac with a nuclear arsenal. Nightwing too, if I'm lucky. Due to the poor assosciations of Robins and Beirut, I'll be sitting safely in Gotham, meeting my father. Or so they'll think. I'll have to figure out some way of covering Oracle so she doesn't find out about Timothy Drake's death. First things first, though. Dinner, and then a dental file switch.

As it turned out, Nightwing was more than willing to give Robin a five minute lead on a game of 'Tag'. The boy was supposed to have been re-memorising a map of Gotham, and this would be a good opportunity to both test him out and get his mind off Kaze. The head start Nightwing gave his 'little brother' was more than ample time for the current Boy Wonder to give Nightwing the slip, get to the hospital and empty Mickey Reckk's file, break into the other dental practice (The 'high tech' locks and alarm system were, to Robin's mind, a total joke) and enter Reckk's dental notes and X-rays as his own. A few more falsifying touches (Including the shredding and incineration of Tim Drake's own dental records) and the swap was complete.

A little over an hour later, Nightwing 'ran down' a fleeing Robin, catching him as he doubled back towards Babs'. Though the boy wonder had remained out of his sight for the hour, Nightwing laughed when, as he thought, Robin grudgingly agreed the older vigilante had never been far behind him. Robin was not inclined to disabuse him of the notion.

They were still at Barbara's, each lingering over a coffee that Robin had prepared, when Babs sounded the alarm; while they'd been 'out on the town', her sources had picked up the trail of Ra's Al Ghul, as well as leaked reports from the US department of defence concerning a missing nuclear warhead. It was not, she reported, a fake or a drill.

"Near as I can tell, he's headed for either or Beirut or Palestine. I've notified Tall Dark and Scary. Short Pants, you're on your way to the Middle East." The redhead said, as she pushed away from her computer and stretched. Robin hid a smile in his coffee cup. Then Oracle turned to face him with a slightly uncomfortable look as she relayed, in a carefully reworded way, the other part of the Bat's message. Yeesh, the man has no tact. Fancy saying"I can't take him with me. Not for this, not there. Yet don't trust him enough to leave him on his own. Not since we've had only one patrol, and not since his friend died like that. Not yet. He might do something stupid or rash. But I'm not going to take him off-duty either. That'd destroy him fast. I want Alfred to come with me to act as liason and help co-ordinate our efforts, so Robin will be attached to you until this is over. For indoor duties only." Despite her discomfort with Batman's assessment of the situation, as she watched this new, different-yet-same Robin, Barbara uneasily had to conclude that the Bat had a point.

"Robin, you're to stay here with me and help me track Ra's Al Ghul and the warhead by computer. I'll need your back-up for this."Well, not really, but it doesn't hurt to say so, since he has to stay anyhow.

"He is? But-"
"Acknowledged." The look Robin gave her, overriding Nighwing' angry protests, told her that he knew exactly what was going on, both in her mind and Batman's. Then he broke eye contact.

Just as well, Robin thought to the dregs of his cup, that I poisoned her this evening. By tomorrow she'll be too unwell to man the computers for the Bat, and certainly too unwell to check the local news net. Still, before she gets ill, she'll have enough time to firmly place Al Ghul in Beruit.

An hour later, as a Waynetech private jet prepared to leave, the Bat got the Demon's precise location from Oracle. Batman and Nightwing were on their way to Beruit. An hour after that, Oracle started vomiting and took to her bed. Robin, naturally, rose to the challenge and took over finding information and feeding it to the away team. As far as Batman and the others were concerned, he did an excellent job, though it took him nearly twelve days to determine that Ra's was in fact nowhere near the middle east, and that the warhead was a computer-only model created for digital war-games by the State Department. Still, as the Boy Wonder himself said, that was why he was Robin and not Oracle.

After twelve days, the shocking discoveries made in the Gotham warehouse, both of the bodies, and that one of the corpses was that of Timothy Drake - poster boy for the re-opening of Gotham - were old news to a cynical, desensitised public. Particularly since the case became exclusively the very hushed domain of the DEA. When Batman returned on the thirteenth day, the findings nolonger even rated a mention in the papers, as Superman had just saved the American continent from space debris again. (Robin hadn't planned that, but he certainly appreciated it's timing.)

On the forteenth day, Jack Drake and his lovely new wife Dana, along with their baby daughter, left Gotham for good. Having returned there a fortnight previous only to be told his son had been 'merely' missing for the better part of a year, but was now confirmed dead, the senior Drake had been shattered. Further raising his distress was the discovery that the boy's room in the palatial Drake home had been devastated by a fire nearly ten and half months earlier. All the child's possessions, as well as all family photos, had been destroyed. After the house's gutters clogged, resulting in a leaking roof, the few pictures of him and the boy that had resided in the living room had been water damaged beyond recognition. (The retrievalists were very thorough.) The final straw had been the inattendence of his one good Gotham high society friend, Bruce Wayne, at the memorial service Drake had arranged six days after his return to Gotham. The man had been out of the country, according to Lucius Fox. Vacationing in sunny Hawaii, Wayne could not be contacted.

Washing his hands of Gotham, Jack Drake moved himself, his new family, and his assets to metropolis. As well as these, the man took an abiding sadness with him. Unlike the other items with which he started his new life, this stayed at his side every hour of every day, as silent and omnipresent as the laughs and tears of the son that he'd lost. Smiles and frowns that he'd missed or taken for granted, certainly never actually seen, so involved in his own life had he been. Smiles and frowns that he'd never have another chance to see.

As far as Batman was told, Drake had opted to leave his son in boarding school, while moving on to bigger and better investments elsewhere after becoming disenchanted with Gotham. Though glad not to have lost Robin, he never forgave the man.

In the meantime, the exclusive Bryleaf Co-Educational Academy gained a new transfer student. A fragile-looking, wild-haired boy, he soon established himself as a good pupil. A boy that always *always* smiled, he was a very good listener who often had time for others, his high ponytail bouncing or swinging behind him as he responded to a classmate's conversation. Though quiet, he became quite well-liked. It was not until ages after the Bryleaf students and staff had accepted him as one of their own, that anyone realised they really knew very little about him. Only his name, for certain: Van. Van Casey. Vingt Kaze.

"Vingt Kaze." A homage to a friend. An affirmation not of self, but of the chance to find self. To survive, and eventually to grow. A struggle undertaken individually, without the knowledge or help of Batman or indeed anyone else, except a tall, grey-haired English gentleman.

END PART FOUR

"Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." - Winston Churchill (From memory, so I've no idea if I've mis-quoted.)

 

NOTES:

1. Before all and sundry point out that Ra's Al Ghul is knocking around seducing Black Canary, and hence that it seems highly unlikely that Oracle wouldn't be keeping close tabs on where he is and what he's doing, I hasten to point out that I didn't know about the whole Canary-Demon thing until a few days ago when a friend of mine mentioned it in an email. I opted to post this chapter as-is anyway coz, hey, it's my little AU and here the whole romance isn't happening. Or if it is happening, it's still not enough of a sure thing these-two-are-attached-at-the-hip-and-ain't-it-cute thing to make it possible for Barbara to track Ra's' every move through Canary.

2. For the whole Beiruit issue, and specifically Batman's reluctance to take Robin into that area of the world (especially when tracking a madman), I refer interested readers to the events of the story arc "A Death in the Family".

3. The whole dental records etc. on computer for public patients is fictional, merely a plot device. At least, I think it is.

4. As always, respectful homage is intended, copyright infringement is not.

5. What the spiffy quote thingy at the end means is that the further repercussions of the alternate universe situation created in this fic are explored in the sequel fanfic "Wind and the Snow", now nearing completion. (plug, plug)

6. C&C is greatly appreciated, ravenously sought, even.

Nikoru-chan has a blurb.

 
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