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Disclaimer: Sadly, Dick Grayson isn't owned by me. DC has that privilege. DC owns most of the characters in this story. All I own is the distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations. (g) No money is being made from this. Please don't sue. It wouldn't be worth your while.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION: The young man I have used to represent Dick is an actor named Eric Close. This photo is from the 1990s. You may recognise him from the hit show "Without A Trace". He played Martin.

WARNING: There are a number of spelling, grammar and punctuation differences between Australia and the USA... please forgive me for writing with an accent. (g)

When Heroes Grieve

Part 6

Dick stopped directly in front of the small wooden cross and his brow furrowed while his mouth set in a deep frown. He stared with narrowed eyes at the stake standing alone under the tree close to the stables. It was a strange feeling looking at his own name carved into a cross. For several seconds he was mesmerized, looking at something very few people ever got to see – their own headstone.

Footsteps approached from his right. Bruce stopped beside the silent man. The two stood shoulder to shoulder, both absorbed by what the symbol represented.

“I’m sorry,” Dick whispered.

“None of it matters, now. You’re here.”

Dick shook his head. It did matter. He didn’t know what to say. He had recognized that Bruce would think he was dead, but he hadn’t expected this. He could only imagine what Bruce had gone through. If it had been the other way around, and he had thought that Bruce had died... Grayson couldn’t even finish the thought.

The pale young man stepped forward, grabbed the cross, yanked it out of the ground and tossed it to the side. There was no anger in the movement, but there was a very real finality.

“We won’t be needing that, Bruce. I have no intention of going anywhere.” The words were soft and the tone reflected the emotion he felt. The fact that Bruce had erected the cross here had significant meaning for Dick. It was on this very spot that Bruce had asked him if he wanted to stay at Wayne Manor permanently. He had known from the beginning that living with Bruce and Alfred had only been temporary - the social worker had told him that repeatedly. There was no way a single man would be given custody of a traumatized child who had witnessed the death of his parents. When Bruce had brought him out here to sit under the old elm tree only a few minutes after having a shouting match with a group of lawyers and social workers, Dick had honestly thought it had been to tell him that he had to leave...

Bruce indicated for Dick to sit. The little boy swallowed and followed the instruction, sinking down on the cool grass under the tree. He felt so scared again. The last four weeks had been the worst in his life, but Bruce and Alfred had shown him so much kindness. He felt safe when Bruce was around. He knew Bruce understood how he felt because the quietly spoken billionaire had lost his parents when he was a child.

Wayne sat down too, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He picked up a leaf, curled it and then blew through it. The shrill whistle echoed in the open area. He handed the leaf to Dick and encouraged him to have a go. No words were exchanged. For some reason the pair didn’t seem to need verbal cues to communicate. Grayson accepted the leaf in his small trembling hand. He had never heard Bruce shout before, but he had clearly heard several roared phrases through the crack under his bedroom door . “I will not accept that. You can’t just take him away!... Then I’ll see you in court!”

“When I was your age, I used to climb this tree,” Bruce stated in the hushed tone that Dick had become accustomed to. “My mum and dad warned me that I’d fall but I never did.” Bruce paused. He wasn’t sure how to go about any of this. Maybe the social worker was right. He didn’t know the first thing about raising a child. The billionaire looked down on the eight year old boy beside him. Dick’s eyes were wide, his young face a blanket of worry. In that instant, Bruce dismissed the doubts. He may not know anything about raising children, but he knew in his heart that he was the only person who would be able to provide this particular child with the support and understanding he needed. “Relax, son. You’re not in any trouble. I just wanted to talk to you. Do you like it here?“

Dick swallowed and shrugged. “I guess.“ His small heart was thundering in his chest. If they took him away, where would he have to go?

“Dick, I know I can never replace your parents and I know that Wayne Manor is no Haley’s circus, but I hope you have felt welcome and happy here. “ Dick’s fear turned to confusion as his eyes brimmed with tears. He had no idea of what was going on. He just wished that everything would go back to the way it was, but he knew that was impossible.

Bruce laid his hand on the child’s shoulder. “Alfred and I have been very happy since you’ve come to stay with us and if you agree, I’d like to make it permanent. I’d like you to live with us. What do you say? You don’t have to, son. If you want to go…“

Dick launched himself into Bruce’s arms and tears burst from his eyes.

Bruce was startled by the reaction. For a split second he froze, and then he wrapped the sobbing child in his arms. “Easy, chum. Easy. So, you want to stay with us?“ It was important that he confirmed the child’s wishes. The fight ahead would not be an easy one and would only be successful if Dick truly did want to remain in Bruce’s care.

Dick’s small arms encircled Bruce’s neck and he held on tightly – held on like he’d never let go.

Bruce smiled with relief. He had hoped that Dick would choose to stay. “I’ll take that as a ’yes’, will I?” Gently he eased the child down onto his lap. “Yes?”

Dick nodded, wiping the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I thought you’d say I had to go.”

“No one is going to make you go anywhere you don’t want to. “ Even if it took every cent he had, Bruce was determined to fight to the very end to keep this little boy. “It isn’t official yet and we will have to go through court, but somehow we’ll stay together. Okay?“

Dick nodded again. For several seconds they stared at each other - looking directly into the other’s soul. Without warning, Bruce thrust his right hand out between them. Dick understood immediately. He laid his over the top and gripped Bruce’s hand. Wayne placed his huge left hand on top of Dick’s tiny fist and the child followed suit. Bruce‘s face became serious. “No matter what happens in the future, I will always be there for you, son. I promise.”....

From that moment on, Dick’s life became stable again. Gradually the pain of his parents' death eased to a dull ache and the emotional limbo he had been in was eroded by trust and a good helping of love.

Every time Dick came out here and stood under this tree he remembered that moment. He remembered the overwhelming relief and the great affection he had seen in Bruce’s eyes that day. Bruce had tried to keep his promise, too. Perhaps not as successfully as he would have liked, but he had certainly tried.

Grayson clapped Wayne on the upper arm as he turned and walked towards the open paddock.

Bruce released a long breath. The cross he couldn’t quite remember constructing lay discarded several feet from him. For the past few moments he had been reviewing exactly the same moment in time as Dick. It was here under the elm that Dick had agreed to enter his life. The billionaire’s world had changed completely that day and Bruce thanked God for it.

Wayne stared down at the symbol of his loss. His heart rate increased rapidly as all of the pain and grief returned. Without conscious thought Bruce stamped down in the middle of the cross. Finality! The release of anger and a multitude of other emotions felt wonderful. The splintering sound of the timber echoed the release of tension in Wayne’s body. Until now, he really hadn’t considered anything except the fact that his son was home.

Across from him, he heard Dick whistle. Bruce glanced at the slightly hunched man who was leaning against a fence he had helped to erect, both arms across his chest to support his tightly bandaged ribs. The thundering of hoofs filled the air as Alegre galloped up toward his owner. The animal thrust its head through the fence and jammed it into Dick’s chest. Bruce grinned.

“Owwww. Easy there, fella. You’ll knock me over.” The horse dipped its head again and shoved Dick. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too.” Dick caressed the animal fondly. “Come on, let's go for a walk. I could use some fresh air, but we‘ll have to take it slowly. I feel like I‘ve been used as a punching bag.” Gingerly he climbed though the rails and headed off with the horse.

Bruce’s grin matured into a full smile. He watched his son, dressed in a pair of pyjamas, make his way down to the small creek, the huge black and white horse nudging him as they walked.

Wayne’s chest quivered. It was like it had all never happened. Despite everything he had been told, unconsciously Bruce had never truly accepted that Dick was dead. Something deep down inside of him had refused to let go. It was more than just his need to have Dick around. It was something else. Something he and Dick had shared from the very first look they had exchanged. On that dreadful night when Dick had witnessed his parents' murder, Batman had approached the child, their eyes had met and their souls had touched. Bruce knew the child’s pain and felt it to his core. Dick had sensed the understanding - he had found a kindred spirit.

Since that day, the pair had shared a bond that others could never understand and while logic had insisted that Dick was dead, and Bruce had allowed himself to acknowledge it, Wayne had still been able to sense the nebulous connection to his soul. A connection that had forced him to continue to look for his son on the plain leading to Gotham despite reason and common sense dictating that it was impossible for Dick to appear there - but he had.

Alegre’s jet black coat shone, reflecting the midday sun equally as well as the small stream he was nimbly walking beside. Dick stared into the slowly flowing water as it jumped and danced over the rocks before tumbling into a deeper pool. This was his favourite place in the world. It was shrouded in trees and almost hidden from the outside world. The crystal clear waters were freezing and were so deep that he had never been able to dive to the bottom despite numerous attempts and a long-standing challenge with Bruce. It was here some ten years ago that Alfred had dared Dick to push Bruce in. While others weren’t prepared to incur the wrath of Batman, it didn’t worry Dick. He knew the man that was hidden behind that tough, emotionless exterior. On the day in question, Bruce had been in one of his dark moods and had only come down to the creek to locate Alfred. The butler had whispered the challenge and Dick had accepted readily.

The memory left a smile of satisfaction on Grayson’s face. Wayne had dragged himself up the bank, his hair matted to his head, water cascading down his face. Not a word passed his tight lips as he made his way out of the water, glaring at Dick until the teenager had tackled him, taking him back into the pool a second time. After that, a great many words were roared and echoed in the peaceful area - none of which could be repeated in polite company.

Alfred had laughed so hard that day that he’d started choking and had to be rescued from the water.

As the memory faded, Dick reflected on just how long ago it was since he had enjoyed those days of innocence.

Bruce walked up to Dick. “Still haven’t hit the bottom?”

“No. Not sure we ever will.” His soft voice echoed a great sadness. There had been a time when he had honestly thought that it was possible... that everything in life was possible if you tried hard enough. Maturity had taught him how naive that was.

“When you feel up to it, I’d like to spend some time here again.”

Grayson glanced at the older man, curiously. It wasn’t what he had expected. In Wayne’s blue eyes he saw turmoil. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Bruce dismissed, turning and stoking Alegre’s head. “We really should go riding together more.”

“Sounds good, but life doesn’t present as much time as either of us would like,” Dick pointed out.

“We need to change that, Dick. We have to.” Again Bruce searched for the words he needed. “I have been so wound up in my life and what I wanted to achieve that I haven’t really taken the time to... you and I haven’t...” He was cut off by the screaming of his cell phone. For a split second he ignored it as he stared into Dick’s bruised and confused face. Why was this so hard? The phone continued to ring, shattering the atmosphere. Finally, Bruce dug it from his pocket - part of him relieved, part frustrated.

“I better head back, Bruce. I’m feeling pretty tired.”

Bruce nodded his understanding and watched Dick lead the horse back through the trees. “Hello!” Wayne snapped into the phone.

“Batman, all hell has broken loose in Gotham and...”

“I am sure that the police have a plan for dealing with it, Robin.” Without waiting for a response, Bruce ended the call. He stood alone in the shadow of the trees, his head doing battle with his heart. Roy’s words continued to repeat over and over again in his mind... For Christ’s sake, you replaced him. Not just Robin. You adopted Jason...The hell he understood...Is it so hard for you to show him?... You replaced him... the hell he understood.... you replaced him.... the hell he understood...

Bruce squeezed his eyes shut. Was Roy right? Did Dick understand? Bruce was drowning in confusion and helplessness. There was so much he needed to say to his son, but he honestly didn‘t know where to start. Perhaps he should make a list?

When Bruce returned to the house, Dick was asleep. Leslie ushered Wayne out of resting man’s room. “Don’t wake him,” she ordered. “He never should have gone off like that. It’s too much too soon.”

“So, did he tell you what happened?” Bruce asked.

Leslie eyed him curiously. “To what are you referring?”

Bruce frowned. “I’m not blind, Leslie. I was prepared to believe it was all a result of the river until I noticed his knuckles.”

“Ahh. He didn’t want to tell you,” she admitted.

“I’m asking you to,” Bruce requested. “I think I have a right to know.“

“What transpires between a patient and his doctor...“

“Don’t give me that, Leslie. I’m not asking you anything he won‘t tell me if I ask.“

Leslie thought about it and then relayed the story. She waited for the explosive reaction Dick had predicted, but Wayne‘s face remained completely blank... eerily calm. “Stay with him. I need to go out for a while.”

“Bruce, I’m not sure that is such a good idea. Why don’t you...” But he was gone.

Leslie and Alfred watched the helicopter lift above Wayne Manor and arc west toward the wasteland. Leslie shook her head. Alfred sighed. “He must do what he sees fit. To be honest, I hope he pounds them to a pulp.”

“Alfred!” Leslie cried, genuinely startled.

“I make no excuse for my comment, Leslie. What they did to Master Dick is inexcusable. I only regret that I will not be there to see it.”

Leslie was stunned. She hadn‘t realized how deeply this was still affecting him. She, better than anyone, knew the great love Alfred had for both Dick and Bruce. The doctor slipped her arm around her longtime friend‘s back. “Dick is just fine, Alfred. I have no doubt that he will be causing problems for the two of us soon enough.”

Alfred nodded. “We won‘t be able to keep him in that bed for much longer.”

“I know.” Leslie‘s thoughts returned to Bruce. “Thankfully, there is a lot of ground out there. He’ll never find them.”

“He has infrared tracking installed on the chopper. If there is anything alive out there, he’ll find it.” Alfred had seen the look on Bruce’s face and he recognized it. Nothing would stop the billionaire tracking down the men who had attacked his boy. Nothing in this world and probably nothing in the next.

“He didn’t go as Batman,” Leslie noted.

The skin around Alfred’s grey eyes wrinkled with concern. “I know.”

“I shouldn‘t have told him,” Leslie murmured with regret.

“He would have found out. Besides, he is simply going to explain the error of their ways,” Alfred offered. “Painful, but superbly effective.”

Bruce Wayne had experienced rage before, but nothing like this. This was something altogether different. Something raw and guttural that came, not from anger, but from guilt. He had failed to protect Dick at a time when his boy had needed him. Every parent has an innate drive to protect their child... and Bruce had failed. The fury at himself and those who had attacked Dick ignited in his heart as he set the chopper down on the uneven and unstable ground in the wasteland. For several seconds Bruce sat frozen. The moment he had detected the six men huddled under some concrete slabs abandoned in the no man‘s land, Bruce had felt the emotional control he had spent his life maintaining slowly slipping away. For the first time, he didn’t try to stop it happening. He permitted his rage, guilt and grief to amalgamate into a single emotion without a name - the closest thing? The pits of hell itself.

With a single thought in mind - the annihilation of the spineless bastards who had beaten his son - Bruce stepped from the chopper and strode toward the artificial cave created by debris from the Earthquakes. Six men cautiously crawled from it. Even over the distance, the putrid smell of their unwashed bodies wafted across to Bruce. Their clothes were filthy and torn. Their bodies were battered and bruised. Dick had obviously given as good as he had got Wayne thought proudly, but then, he’d expect nothing less.

Bruce stopped walking and set his legs a shoulder’s width apart. He glared at the despicable examples of the human race in front of him, his huge hands balling into fists. These mongrels had attacked Dick when he had been ill, exhausted and injured. Wayne’s anger bubbled, close to reaching breaking point. He knew he needed to hold on to the final few threads of restraint until he was sure this was the group who had beaten Dick. Then he would teach them the error of their ways.

“Did you come across a wounded man about a day or so ago?” he demanded. There was no true voice. Just air forced out through his tightly clenched jaw. The thugs exchanged wary glances.

The billionaire’s eyes honed in on the wrist of one of the men. He was wearing a silver watch; the silver watch Alfred had given Dick for his 21st birthday. “You met an injured man a day ago,” Bruce snarled. No longer was it a question. The veins in Bruce’s neck stuck out like chords. He’d found them.

“Who wants to know?” one of the men growled.

“His father!“ Bruce roared. The valve controlling Bruce’s anger blew with spectacular effect. Judgment day had arrived. The battle that followed was short - total annihilation took less than 90 seconds.

Night settled over Gotham, but it brought no respite. Robin pitched forward after taking a blow to the side of his head. Normally he would have dodged it, but there were so many and the teenager was exhausted - mentally, physically and emotionally. As he raised himself up onto all fours, he spotted the knife arcing toward him. Knowing he couldn’t roll out of its path, he braced himself, but the blade was jarred loose by a well aimed blow from another party before it could descend. Robin raised his eyes as Arsenal leapt over him.

“Kid?” he cried, as he fended off another blow.

“I’m okay,” Tim replied, dragging himself to his feet. He and Arsenal were surrounded and the mob was baying for blood.

“Robin, we need some help,” Roy panted.

Silently, Bruce deposited the silver watch on the small table beside Dick’s bed, the glow of the hall light reflecting off Grayson’s badly bruised face. That hadn’t happened in the river, but Bruce could put it behind him now. He’d dealt with it. Not revenge exactly... justice.

As he removed his coat, Grayson stirred. Bruce smiled down at him. Dick glanced sideways and caught sight of the watch and shook his head. “I had intended going back to get it when I was feeling stronger.”

“Well, now you don’t have to.”

Dick started to pull himself up, but only got a few inches before Bruce took his shoulders and lifted him. “Thanks.”

“How do you feel?” Wayne asked, arranging the blankets around Dick.

“Better. Still tired.” He grinned. “And just a little sore. Reckon I could use something to eat too.”

Bruce drew in his breath and decided it was now or never. “I’ve got some things I need to tell you and...” He frowned.

“What?” Dick asked curiously. “If you’re going to tell me that you and Selina are sleeping together, I already know.” His lips parted in a sly smile and his eyebrows bounced. “If it isn’t about time.”

Bruce shook his head, his frustration growing. Every time he had tried to tell Dick what he needed to he got interrupted.

“Come on, Bruce, you can’t lie to me. I can see straight through you. Besides...”

“No, this isn’t about Selina. It’s about... hell,” he mumbled, beginning to pace.

Dick watched him and his concern prickled. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No!” Bruce clamped his mouth shut. He hadn’t meant to shout.

“Ooookaaay. It’s none of my business. But then, it‘s never any of my business is it?” Dick pointed out softly.

Bruce stared at him, watching as the pain of rejection flashed across Dick’s blue eyes before fading quickly. Bruce had almost missed it... almost. He had seen that look before. He remembered it distinctly from the night when Dick had been shot - that night when he had forced Dick out of life through fear. You replaced him.... the hell he understood... It was all such a mess. “That’s just it,” he whispered. “It is your business, Dick. All of it is your business. I... God, why is this so hard?”

Dick frowned.

At that moment, Alfred strode into the room, a newspaper tucked under his arm, his face lined with worry. “Sir. I have Master Timothy on the phone and...”

“Not now!” Bruce thundered. Alfred blinked. Bruce swallowed. “I’m sorry, Alfred.” His eyes flashed a sincere apology for taking out his frustration on his old friend. Alfred’s head bobbed once with understanding and acceptance of the apology. “Please tell him I’ll ring back when I can.”

“Sir, he said it was an emergency.”

Bruce cursed quietly, rose to his feet and strode from the room. Soon such interruptions would be in the past, Wayne assured himself.

Alfred watched him and shook his head slowly.

“Alf?”

Alfred turned slowly and handed Dick the paper. “Gotham is falling apart. The dregs of society have banded together in Batman’s absence.”

Dick unfolded the paper and stared down at the three headlines on the front page. “Anarchy Reigns“, “Army sends for reinforcements” and “Commissioner Gordon’s behind the scenes push for Batman memorial.”

“He has given up,” Alfred explained. “Since he collapsed after searching for you he has ignored the plight in Gotham. When we found you, I had hoped that he would again become Batman both for his own and Gotham’s sakes, but he has refused all calls for help from Master Timothy.”

Dick raised his eyes to Alfred. “Tim’s asking for help?” This was more serious than he had believed.

“Oh, no. No you don’t,” Alfred admonished, quickly. “You are not leaving that bed. You are injured. Master Timothy has help in the form of Arsenal but...”

“To stop it, it will require Batman,” Dick murmured, scanning the paper. He couldn’t believe things had become so bad so quickly. This is what a world without Batman would be like, he realized.

Bruce walked back into the room and froze when he spotted the newspaper. He had not looked at one for days, but he knew what was being said. Dick lowered the newspaper, his ice blue eyes holding the angry accusation. “What the hell is all of this?” Grayson demanded.

“All of what?” Bruce asked, quietly.

“Jim Gordon thinks you’re dead!”

“He knows Bruce Wayne is alive.”

Dick thrust the paper at Bruce. “And what about Batman?”

“Batman was a temporary band-aid on a problem I could not fix.”

Dick’s brow furrowed. There was so much defeat in his voice. Dick had heard Bruce's voice echo so many things but never defeat. “So that’s it? You’re throwing it all in? You’re just going to curl up and die?”

“On the contrary,” Bruce stated calmly, walking toward Dick and sitting down in the chair beside the bed. “I’m going to start living. Dick, I have spent so much of my life worrying about other people. I want to start worrying about me. Is that such a terrible thing?”

Dick eyed Bruce, carefully. “No," he admitted. "But... Bruce... Gotham needs you.”

Wayne smiled with amusement and shook his head. “I had convinced myself of that, but the fact of the matter is, life goes on. Gotham didn’t pause for a moment when it thought you had died... but I did. Dick, I want... I want us to spend more time together.”

“That’s going to be difficult because I’m going to be really busy,” Grayson stated, harshly.

“Why?”

“I'm going to have to share my time between Bludhaven and helping Tim out in Gotham.”

Bruce stared at him. “But...”

“I can’t just turn my back on the people who depend on me, Bruce. And neither can you.”

Wayne rose to his feet. “Yes we can! We’re not doing it anymore, Dick. We can’t keep fighting the battles of faceless people. I want to live a normal life. I want to spend time with the people who mean something to me. It isn’t our responsibility to look after humanity.”

“If we don’t, who will?” The question hung and the silence that followed screamed in the room. Dick picked up the television remote control and turned the tv at the end of the bed on. Images of chaos filled the screen. He changed the channel. This one too showed Gotham at her worst. Dick continued to flick until he spotted someone he knew. Bruce’s eyes were drawn to the screen which showed Commissioner Gordon conducting a press conference. Dick turned the volume up.

“... that the army is calling in reinforcements so they can take complete control of Gotham from you?” one of the two dozen reporters asked.

Jim Gordon’s drawn face and tired eyes flashed with anger. He looked like he hadn't slept for days. “I have already explained to you that...”

“And is it true that the Joker is collecting together all of the criminals in the city to form a super criminal organisation?” another shouted.

“That is an unsubstantiated rumour. At the moment the police and army....”

“Still no Batman or Nightwing?” another reporter interrupted. “So are the Joker’s claims true - that Nightwing is dead and Batman is too scared to face...

“That is a load of crap!“ Gordon’s ruddy face went redder. “If Batman was capable of helping us, he would!” Jim's own face flashed with surprise. It had slipped out. The department refused to acknowledge Batman's existence.

The Mayor stepped up to the microphone and quickly gave the official line. "Batman is nothing more than an urban legend. There is no evidence that such a man exists."

Jim dropped his head and he cursed. For years he had been forced to support that. He no longer could. Batman had been real... and he'd been a friend.

The reporters ignored the Mayor and continued to direct their questions at Commissioner Gordon.

"You've met Batman, Commissioner?"

"You know Batman exists?" Still Jim kept his eyes on his boots.

“So you believe he is dead?”

Gordon swallowed and raised his face. “He has to be. He wouldn't turn his back on us.”

Dick glanced across at Bruce. Wayne’s face was twisted with emotion. “They aren’t so faceless are they?” Dick whispered.

Bruce looked across at his boy. “I can’t do it, Dick. I feel for Jim, but… Batman was a dream I had. The dream became a nightmare. I set out to prevent others from losing their family and I couldn’t even...”

Abruptly, the image on the television changed. The Joker’s face leered at the millions of viewers, his cruel smile inches from the camera.

Greetings fellow Gothamites. This is your new Emperor. Emperor Joker. It’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? At 10:00 this evening, I will be officially taking over Gotham. If Luthor can be President then I can be Gotham’s Emperor.” He laughed at the idea. “My first decree is simple. All prisoners will be turned loose. What beautiful mayhem it will cause. My second decree: all police and army to be obliterated. My third decree: well, that’s about it. I have the allegiance of over five hundred decent, hardworking criminals in the city who are, at this very moment, making assaults on strategic positions around the city. The Mayor’s office. The central police station. Gotham National Back. Wayne Corp. and a few others. Soooo, Bats if you have the guts to face me, I’ll be right here waiting.”

The camera panned back, revealing Gotham stadium. The Joker was standing in the centre of the field.

“Let the reign of Gotham’s Emperor begin!” The Joker began to laugh. The laughter built and built to crescendo

Without warning he stopped and lunged toward the camera. “I’m waiting Bats... if you have the guts to face me... and now we will return you to your normal viewing.”

The image flickered and then the interview between Commissioner Gordon and the press reappeared.

Dick Grayson shot a look at his former guardian. Wayne was staring straight through the screen.

“Bruce, you can’t let this happen.”

Wayne rose to his feet and shook his head in true torment. “I can’t. I..." He had failed. It was all too hard. He had seen what the storm had done. Watched as those who trusted him had been washed away... even his own son. His voice dropped to a whisper of agony. "I can't do it on my own, Dick.”

Dick swung his legs over the edge of the bed and dragged himself upright with a grunt of pain. Alfred lunged forward to support the young man. “You aren’t on your own, Bruce. You’re right. It’s too big for one man, but you knew that. That’s why you assembled a team. They’re out there waiting for your orders.”

Bruce stared at Dick. In Wayne’s face Grayson saw the first glimmer of belief.

“You took me in. You gave me a home, but more importantly, you gave me family and you taught me how to make a difference. To stand up for what I believed and... 'To fight against crime and corruption and never swerve from the path of justice.'"

Wayne's eyes grew wide. Those words! They were the pledge Bruce had made to himself the night he had first pulled on the cape. It was the oath he had made Dick take when he became Robin so many years before.

Dick gently pulled away from Alfred, stepped toward Bruce, waited until he had the older man's gaze and held it. "You started this, Bruce. Now you go and finish it,” Grayson growled. Bruce stared from Dick to Alfred and back to Dick. Grayson nodded his encouragement.

Alfred walked forward and from his pocket he withdrew a small, handheld communicator. With a smile he handed it to his employer. “You will need this to assemble your team.”

Bruce glanced at it and raised his eyes to Dick, still in two minds. He had stared his own mortality in the face the day he had lost his son. He had realized then that he had been defining himself by some arbitrary figure of the night he had created, rather than by the concrete relationships he shared with those he loved. For the first time, he had seen his life with perfect clarity. He had become the avenger of the night at the expense of everything else... everything including Dick.

Bruce drew in a long deep breath, his eyes drawn back to the television screen that showed his city in the grip of Armageddon.“I can’t just turn my back on the people who depend on me, Bruce. And neither can you.” His son’s words had struck a chord.

Dick stepped closer, cutting off the view of the television and just as they had so many years before, his and Bruce's souls touched.

I understand what you're feeling, Bruce. But you have to be who you are. You can try to ignore it, but you can't hide from it. Batman is a part of you. An important part. Batman and Bruce Wayne can co-exist. We’ll find a balance together, but right now, Batman is needed.

Wayne's face twisted. He understood every element of the message that Dick was communicating via the inexplicable connection they shared.

“I wish I could go with you, boss, but I’d only be in the way. Go on. A lot of people out there are depending on you.”

Wayne reached out his hand and placed it on his son’s shoulder. Dick was right on all accounts. Batman was a part of him he couldn't hide from. He had lost faith in himself, but his family had never doubted him. He had forgotten his mission, but his son had been there to renew his focus. He would need Dick’s help to find the balance he needed, but it was obvious that wouldn’t be a problem.

Just as important was the fact that Dick had reminded him that he wasn't alone.

Bruce turned to Alfred who nodded. The elderly man could see the change immediately. It shone from Bruce's eyes. “It is good to have you back, Sir.”

“Go get’em,” Dick encouraged with a relieved grin.

Bruce squeezed Dick's shoulder, nodded once, strode from the room and raised the communicator to his lips. The voice that came from him was deep and echoed absolute authority. “Oracle, Batman. Open all channels. I need to speak to everyone NOW.”

Dick and Alfred watched Batman go - there was no mask or cape, but then the mask itself had little to do with it. Batman was something that came from deep down within Bruce. The person who had just left Dick’s bedroom was Gotham‘s Dark Knight.

The butler assisted Dick back down onto the bed and then handed him a second communicator. “I thought you may like to know what’s going on.”

Dick grinned. “You were pretty sure of yourself, weren’t you, Alf?”

Alfred feigned innocence as he tucked the blanket around his charge. “I have no idea of what you mean, Sir.” Dick’s eyes narrowed. Alfred winked at him. “I knew that if I told you of the trouble you would be able to find him. You found him once when he was lost. I knew you would again. Thank you.”

Dick nodded and whispered, “He found me when I was lost, a long time ago.” Grayson smiled at Alfred. “And so did you.”

Alfred patted Dick’s arm as the younger man turned on the communicator.

Understood, Batman,” Huntress acknowledged.

“Catwoman, Wayne Corp.”

“I don’t remember volunteering to help,” she snapped.

“I don’t have time for games, Catwoman.”

“It will cost you a dinner,” she shot. For several moments there was silence.

“Done,” Batman whispered.

A sly smile formed on Dick's pale face. “The woman is right for him. When the hell will the big dumb lug realize that?”

“I get the feeling he is beginning to,” Alfred chuckled.

“Arsenal, Gotham National Bank.”

“Yo,” was the only response.

“Robin, Police Central. They’ll be going after Jim. I want you to get him out of there.”

“Yes, Sir. Welcome back, Boss.” There was a mixture of relief and excitement in Tim’s voice.

“Oracle, I need a couple of camera crews sent to Gotham Stadium.”

“Camera crews? Understood... Anything else?” she asked.

“Not at the moment. Keep an eye on things and keep me informed. The rest of you, once you have secured your location, report back to me. We need to break this open tonight.”

“Let’s do it!” Robin cried.

“All for one and one for all!” Roy shouted.

Alfred took the communicator from Dick’s hand. “Now, you lay back and sleep.”

“Not sure I’ll be able to. They’ve got a hell of a job ahead of them." It wasn't going to be easy. Batman couldn't be everywhere at once, but that was what was needed. Not because Bruce could physically stop every criminal in the city but because the moment they realized he was back they would slink back to where they'd come from. Bruce needed all hands on deck if he was to pull this off. "I really should be out there with them.”

Alfred adjusted the pillow behind Dick’s head as the injured man stiffly slid down in the bed. “Out of the question. As you said yourself, you'd just be in the way."

Dick scowled.

"Besides, I don‘t see what is worrying you. Tim is excited. Catwoman is keeping Batman on his toes. Roy is acting like a child. Oracle is monitoring everything and will keep the team well informed and Batman is going to recapture the Joker. All is as it should be.”

Dick sighed deeply and shut his eyes. He felt exhausted and his battered body was craving sleep. “You’ll keep me up-to-date?” Dick checked.

“Should there be anything I feel you should be told, I will wake you.”

One of Dick’s eyes opened. “Why don’t I believe that?”

“Because I am lying though my teeth,” Alfred chuckled. “Relax, son. They can handle it. They always do. Your need to rejoin them will only be fulfilled once you have permitted your body to mend and that is going to require generous amounts of slumber.”

Dick lay for a few more seconds, cursed and then grimaced uncomfortably as he sat up. “Can you turn the tv on?” Despite the fatigue harassing him, he had to know what was going on.

“Welcome to my world,” Alfred muttered. Waiting and wondering was something Alfred had learned to deal with over the years. “Son, you need to rest. Dr. Thompkins said it is essential. Watching what is happening out there will only...” He could see that his words were a waste of time. Then again, Alfred was aware of the fact that Dick was fighting a losing battle with sleep. In a few minutes, the wounded man would succumb, despite his desire to remain awake. Alfred picked up the remote control and handed it to his stubborn patient. “You’re impossible.”

“I do my best,” Dick agreed, smiling. The smile faltered and fell as the screen filled with scenes of Gotham in torment. “Maybe I should call in the Titans?”

“With all due respect, Master Dick, would that not give the impression that Batman has lost control. He must handle this his way.”

“What if he can’t handle it?” Dick whispered, watching images of gangs of hoodlums roaming the streets turning over cars and smashing windows. Things were really bad this time.

Alfred sat down on the edge of the bed. “He will handle it. He knows what he's doing.” After a few minutes, Alfred took the remote from his weary patient's hand as Dick began blinking.

Behind them, the Joker’s face filled the screen again as he bypassed normal programming.

“Knock, knock?” he asked.

A voice from off screen answered, “Who’s there?”

“Not Batman.” The Joker began laughing. His laughter built and built causing tears to stream down his face. “Not Batman,” he repeated. “You’re afraid, aren’t you, you great night rat? I’m waiting for you. I’m ready. You’re new emperor is waiting.... and again we return you to your regular viewing.”

Dick frowned. “I’m ready,” he mumbled, quietly. Grayson released his breath slowly. “Not, waiting. He’s ready. He knows Batman will come.”

“I’m sure he does. He...”

Again, the transmission was interrupted and the Joker began singing to the tune of Frere Jacques.

“Bats isn’t coming. Bats isn’t coming.

No he’s not. No he’s not.

He doesn’t want to face me

He knows he can’t beat me

Bats is dead. Bats is dead.

And if he isn’t dead,” the Joker snarled, his song finished. “He’s a coward.” Dramatically he threw down a glove. “I’m challenging you, Batman. Winner takes Gotham. Loser... dies!”

Alfred switched off the television, turned to the silent bed and sighed. It had been inevitable.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8



© May 2006 Aussie Nightwriter : This relates only to the creative property in this story. The distinctive way the story unfolds, the specific dialogue and unique situations are mine. I acknowledge that some of the characters and settings belong to DC comics and thank them sincerely for turning a blind eye so I can borrow them. (g) No infrigement of copyright was intended and no profit has been made from this story... so, please don't sue me. It wouldn't be worth your while.

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