His mother sounded so light and relaxed. So unaware of what was to come. She adjusted the scarf he was wearing and the scent of her perfume comforted him. His father stepped closer with the umbrella to shelter the small family and the tobacco smell that clung to his clothes as a result of the pipe he smoked returned to Bruce at that moment. The two distinct fragrances amalgamated into one that made Bruce feel safe. “The aroma of love,” he murmured aloud.
“Come on. We’ll use the lane to make a dash to the car.”
His father lunging in front of his family to protect them. The first of two shots.
Bruce’s gut twisted. The littered alley of the present faded and was replaced by the events of the past. He was back there on that night, standing behind his parents. They had both endeavoured to protect him. Why the assailant had pulled the trigger, Bruce didn’t know. He watched his father’s body catapult backwards and to the left. His mother screamed and then began crying out for help as she crouched beside her husband, the deep crimson stain spreading on his white shirt.
The second shot.
His mother flopped forward…. And Bruce did nothing. He just stood there. Frozen. Unable to think. On the inside he had been screaming, but no sound found voice.
Jo Chill turned the gun on him. Their eyes met and for the first time in Bruce’s life he stared evil in the face. Before Chill could pull the trigger, curious passers bye, who had heard the shots and screams, entered the lane to investigate. Chill, a coward to the core, turned and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Bruce standing over the top of the lifeless bodies of his parents. It had all been over in less than ten seconds.
The image faded.
Tears streamed down the grown man’s face, forcing their way out of his tightly shut eyes. He had done nothing that night. He hadn’t called for help. He hadn’t tried to assist. He hadn’t lifted a finger. He had expected that his father and mother could protect him and they had, but they had not been able to protect themselves from the evil that lurked the streets of Gotham City. Someone else should have. Someone should have been there to defend innocent people like his parents.
Now, someone did.
Bruce drew in a shuddered breath and opened his eyes, staring out directly in front of him. Every night he pulled on the cowl, this was the reason he did it. Not for revenge, but to be that ’someone’… that someone who should have been around that night to protect his parents.
Standing in the middle of the lane that had stolen his family, Bruce silently grieved. His grief over the past few years had not been confined to the loss of his parents. It also included grief for the loss of all those who had joined his war and paid the ultimate price…and also for the pain he had inflicted upon those he cared about as a result of his relentless pursuit.
Wayne drew in a deep breath and lifted his eyes to the rooftop above. He could see and hear nothing, but he knew Dick was there… he always was. He had never missed a single anniversary, not even at the height of their estrangement a few years passed. He came to watch over Bruce during the few moments when Wayne allowed himself to be completely defenceless… when Batman was stripped away leaving only Bruce Wayne. It was the one time each year when the side that was Bruce Wayne dominated and the logical, calculating, emotionless being that was Batman, became submissive.
“Thanks, Dick,” Wayne whispered to himself. He was able to come here and do his soul searching without concern for he knew his partner was there. They had never discussed it. There was even a chance that Dick didn’t realize that Bruce knew he had been coming each year. They were close again now, but in the days when things had been strained between them and they had been barely speaking, Dick had still come. That alone was a testament to the bond they shared.
Bruce lowered his gaze and scanned the empty alley one final time before turning on his heels and heading back down the lane. Wayne heard a whisper of wind that confirmed his self appointed guardian had been watching over him. His job done for another year, Dick disappeared back into the night. He never intruded, he was just there.
As Bruce approached the end of the alley, his emotions still bubbling, three men darted to block his exit. Wayne stopped walking, squinting at the trio who were infringing on his sacred annual pilgrimage. Despite the distance, the stench of their unwashed bodies caused his nostrils to pinch.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” one of the men snarled.
Rage exploded within Wayne and it took every ounce of his self-control to stop him doing what these low lifes deserved. He wasn’t Batman this evening. It was always a difficult balance. He had to survive this encounter without actually coming out on top. Slowly, he began to back up.
“Mister, it ain’t safe for fellas like you to visit places like this,” another of the muggers snarled, flicking out a knife.
The thugs were armed which made things all the more difficult. Bruce lifted his eyes skyward hoping that Nightwing was still around.
“If you’re looking for God, pal, he don’t make visits to this area. Hand over your wallet and just maybe you‘ll get out of here with your life, pretty boy.”
Abruptly, the moonlight shining down on the lane was obscured. The thugs looked up to see a figure launch itself from the rooftops.
“Agggghhhhh! It’s Batman! Let‘s get out of here.” The trio spun around and took off like the hounds of hell were after them.
Nightwing landed in a crouch in front of Bruce and rose to his feet. “Just once, I’d like for them to say ’agggghhhh, it’s NIGHTWING. Let‘s get out of here.’ Is that too much to ask?” He glanced back at his rescuee.
There were tear tracks running down Bruce‘s face that stole Dick‘s forced mirth. “I just happened to be in the area,” the young man offered as a lame explanation for his presence.
“The car’s at the end of the street,” Wayne explained.
“Yeah, I saw it. I better walk you there, just in case any more fine citizens decide to rob you.”
“I could have handled it.”
“True, but you forgot your cape,” Dick pointed out. He smiled easily. “You’ll notice, I don’t wear one. Not cool. Incredibly old fashioned these days,” he added with a wink.
The pair started toward the end of the lane. “You okay?” the younger man asked. He understood why Bruce came each year. It wasn’t to mourn and it was more than just paying his respects. It was to renew his focus… to revisit his reason for doing what he did.
Without warning, Nightwing’s head snapped to the entrance of the alley while at the same time, Bruce’s snapped to the opposite end. The three muggers were back and they had three new friends.
“See I told you it wasn‘t him. Just some other costumed freak,” one snarled.
“Who are you supposed to be?” another yelled at Nightwing.
“Who cares. It ain’t the Bat. Let‘s get him.”
They began to advance - three from each end of the alley.
Dick reached out his left hand and shoved Bruce to the side of the lane. “Mr. Wayne, keep your head down for your own protection.” Bruce considered for only a split second. Tonight, Nightwing would have to fight alone. Not that that should be a problem. After all, there were only six of them. At the age of ten, Dick had been capable of handling six twits like this.
The thugs proceeded from both ends of the alley, all wearing grins of triumph. “So where’s your old man, junior?” the self-elected leader of the mob asked as he and his group advanced.
“Okay, two things,” Nightwing stated, opening his stance ready for the attack. “First, no one calls the big black, old fashioned, fashion barren bat, ‘old man‘, except me. And second…” When his attackers had completely surrounded him and were within arm’s reach, he launched himself straight up in the air, hung there for an impossible handful of heartbeats and then spun, his leg snapping out and downing the group of thugs like dominoes, before he descended back to the ground with the grace of an acrobat. “My name is NIGHTWING. Shall we say that together so you get it right? Night. Wing.”
His adversaries rose unsteadily, regrouped and foolishly decided to try again.
“You got to be kiddin’,“ Dick muttered. One rushed the costumed hero. Dick waited for the thug to reach him, sidestepped the attempted punch, grabbed the other’s arm and twisted until the unfortunate man fell to his knees. The agile hero thrust his face an inch from the hooligan‘s. “Bad move.”
“Nightwing!” Bruce warned as two other men launched an attack.
The young hero shot his left hand out and grabbing a handful of the one of the men’s jackets, he tossed him into the second. “Altogether now, gentlemen. Night… as in after dark. And wing… as in… ummm, as in wing. Got it?”
The final three men charged together. Nightwing released the man he still held, backflipped twice, hit the wall and sprang back at the stampede, knocking them to the ground. “Now, where were we? That’s right, this is hero identification 101. My name,” Dick growled, leaning over the untidy heap of thugs, “is Nightwing.”
Bruce shook his head, a smirk creasing his lips. There was always a running monologue when Dick fought. It didn’t matter how many times the older man had told the boy the importance of listening to all of the sounds around him, Dick had never been able to keep his mouth closed. Of course, it had never hindered his ability. Unlike most, Dick didn’t rely solely on his senses to provide information. He was an instinctive fighter and Bruce was proud to admit that his partner had the best instincts he’d ever seen.
Nightwing thrust a finger at the closest man. “What is my name?”
“Nnni..ightwing,” the man whimpered.
“See, look how easy that was? You can go.”
The thug eyed the lean hero towering over him, swallowed and hesitantly got to his feet.
The would-be mugger took off without looking back. “Nightwing, and don‘t forget it.” Dick called after him. He then dropped his gaze to one of the other men.
“Nightwing,” the man stated immediately.
“Now, I’m happy. You are dismissed,” Dick granted.
“Th…th… thank you.” With that, the gibbering man shot off after his friend.
Nightwing turned his icy gaze on the remaining men.
“Nightwing,” they cried together.
“Perfect. Now next time we meet, you can say, aggghhhh, it‘s Nightwing. Let‘s get out of here.” Dick paused. “Well, what are you waiting for? GET OUT OF HERE.” They didn’t need a second invitation. Dick watched them disappear and then glanced across at Bruce who was looking amused. “Sorry about that. Just a little publicity.”
“They expect to see Batman in Gotham. It would be the same thing for Batman in Bludhaven. They’d expect to see Nightwing.”
Dick snorted. “Just be my luck they‘d say, ‘Look it’s Nightwing, get him!’ And then they’d see you and cry, ‘aggghhh, it’s Batman. Let’s get out of here.’ You have no idea what that does to my ego!”
Wayne winked. “I don’t believe your ego has ever been in danger of being dinted.”
Nightwing grinned. “Oh, now that hurts, Bruce. That really hurts.”
Bruce’s heart was content. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed this in the years he and Dick had been estranged. Thankfully, those days were behind them.
“I better take off,” Nightwing stated, noting that they were beginning to attract attention from some of the residents of the area. “I have an early shift tomorrow.”
“Thanks for being here tonight… for being here every year.”
“I figured you knew.“ As Dick’s and Bruce’s eyes came together, they experienced the same strange sensation they had so many times in the past. It had happened for the first time thirteen years earlier when an eight year old boy had looked up into the eyes of Batman only moments after watching his parents fall to their deaths. For some reason neither understood, their very souls had touched in a unique and nebulous way. That was why Bruce had taken Dick in - not because he had felt sorry for him, but because he had felt an instant connection with the child. That was why he had allowed the youth to join his crusade. Dick, as young as he was, had understood what Batman was trying to do.
Standing in the deserted street only feet from where the legend of Batman was birthed, the two once again found themselves looking directly into each other’s soul. A thousand words were exchanged in that single look and all that they had always shared was confirmed. They had been, and always would be, more than partners… more than just two people who shared a similar tragedy. They were two individuals with very different souls that were somehow inexplicably connected.
“Every time,” Bruce acknowledged, reaching out his hand and laying it on the younger man’s shoulder. Every time he needed him, whether he wanted it or not, whether he needed it or not, Dick was there to support him. Despite all that had happened between them, the insurmountable pain and anguish of the past, and what the future may hold, they both knew they would always be there for each other when it counted.
But then, that is the way of family.