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Disclaimer: I acknowledge that some of the characters, settings and situations in this story belong to DC Comics. I use them only because I love them and want to see them live on. No infringement of copyright was intended. Please don't sue me. I really won'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)
Lake of Lost Souls
The internal door swung inwards with such force it almost left its hinges. Dick Grayson exploded into the hospital corridor with long strides. Normally his gait was smooth, almost graceful like that of a dancer, or more accurately, an acrobat. Tonight, the pounding of his anger was echoed with the fall of each step.
Ahead, a man in a suit wearing a hip holster flexed his shoulders and moved to block the path of the jean and leather jacket clad man bearing down on him. Two other muscle bound bodyguards joined the first, watching the uninvited guest sporting a motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm march toward them.
"I'm sorry, Sir. This section of the hospital is restricted."
Grayson stared at the speaker, his face twitching with annoyance as he halted in front of the hired security. "I want to see Bruce Wayne."
"Sorry. Mr. Wayne is not receiving visitors."
The annoyance shifted, expanding to include Dick's anger. "'No' visitors?" It was a growl forced out through his tightly clenched jaw. Surely Bruce had included his name on a list of people cleared for admission. Eyes of brilliant blue flashed with an intenseness all three bodyguards couldn't ignore. This one was going to be trouble each decided. The trio had been hired by Wayne Corp. to ensure the billionaire was not disturbed. So far, that hadn't been difficult. The reporters were now waiting downstairs and outside of redirecting a few curious members of the public, there had been little to do but drink coffee and play cards.
"Sir, I'm asking you to leave."
Dick flicked his eyes to the two men standing a step back and then returned them to the cretin blocking his path. The valve keeping his self-control in check moved one step closer to blowing. "Is Alfred here?"
"Mr. Pennyworth is with Mr. Wayne,” the cretin replied carefully.
Dick, despite the bubbling of his emotions, felt a sense of relief. "May I speak with him?"
The guards exchanged a glance. One turned and disappeared down the corridor, stopping to speak to a uniformed policeman who then disappeared into a room.
Moments later, Alfred appeared, squinting at the figure some distance away. His eyes lit up with surprise and then concern as he recognised the 'biker'. Swiftly, he strode toward Dick.
"Master Dick. What are you... ?"
Dick shouldered past the security men, shot Alfred a look of irritation and headed toward Bruce's room. Behind him he heard shouts of 'stop', but Alfred's dulcet tones calmed the bodyguards quickly. When Dick arrived at the door, the policeman eyed him carefully and then smiled. "Mr. Grayson, isn‘t it?"
"Officer Turnbell," Dick acknowledged, remembering meeting the man once at some function at Wayne Corp. Turnbell opened the door and Dick stepped into the private room. Bruce was sitting up in bed dictating a letter to his secretary. Lucas, the only other occupant, greeted the newcomer warmly.
"Dick, it's good to see you." The younger man forced a smile and turned his attention to his former guardian. While pale, Bruce looked well. There was a drip attached to his arm but there was no sign of injury.
"... which will make negotiations difficult. It is for this reason that I..." Bruce appeared to notice Dick for the first time and nodded absentmindedly before continuing with his dictation.
Lucas drew Dick aside. "He wouldn't listen to me. I warned him, but you know what he's like." The elderly man's face was flushed with an equal amount of concern, guilt and exhaustion. He had been at his employer’s side since the attack two days earlier.
Dick patted his shoulder. "I know how stubborn he can be. What do the doctors say?"
"That he's incredibly lucky. The knife slash is deep, but it missed everything important. Half an inch deeper and..." Lucas shook his head, running his trembling hand through his greying hair. He had been beside his employer when the assassin had leapt from the crowd. Bruce, despite the flood of death threats prior to the event, had refused to increase the number of bodyguards that usually accompanied him. Security had swooped quickly, but not before Bruce had been injured. Lucas had watched his friend stumble and then collapse, blood spreading across his lightly coloured suit. The personal assistant remembered screaming for an ambulance. Everything else was a blur of images and emotions.
"Please get that off today," Bruce ordered. The young woman nodded, smiled at Dick and then left the room.
Bruce and Dick's eyes met. Lucas, sensing the tension, excused himself. When the door closed behind him, the room was plunged into silence. Neither of the occupants appeared able to find voice. Finally, Bruce reached for the glass of water beside him, gripping his bandaged chest as he did so.
"I saw the attack coming but couldn't react as quickly as I would have liked. Too many television cameras." Bruce had done just enough to save his own life. Protecting his 'secret' had almost overridden his instinct to survive.
Dick shook his head. This hadn't been the first time Bruce had 'turned the other cheek' for the sake of Batman. Grayson, himself, had done it many times as a teenager. Then, he had found it frustrating. Deliberately missing out on being on the basketball team. Holding back in the gym. Allowing a bully to push him around for almost three years. Now, he understood the reason it was essential to keep his 'abilities' a secret, though allowing yourself to be stabbed was taking it too far.
"I should be out of here in a couple of days," Bruce continued. "Just being kept in as a precaution in case of infection. Lucas had me rushed here before I could do or say anything, otherwise I’d have contacted Leslie and let her deal with it. So, what brings you to Gotham?"
Dick's eyebrows drew down, his eyes narrowing. "I read in the paper that there was an assassination attempt on your life and that you were in hospital." The words were ground out. His anger rose again and threatened to ignite. There was silence for several uncomfortable seconds. "Why the hell didn't you call me?" Dick demanded. He remained several feet away from the bed. The physical distance echoed the emotional chasm between them.
Bruce shrugged. "Things haven't been convivial between us for some time. Last time we spoke we parted badly. I didn't think that..."
"You didn't...?! Christ, Bruce! I read about it in the paper! I had no idea of how badly you were hurt."
"Lower your voice," the older man ordered.
"Damn you!" At that moment, Alfred slipped into the room, locking the door behind him. Dick turned to the elderly man. "You couldn't find a phone?"
Alfred's wizened features flickered with deep feeling and then the mask of control fell into place. "Master Bruce felt there was no need to worry you."
Dick studied Alfred as the butler moved to stand beside the bed. "I can't believe you two. I thought that after last time..." ...last time. Last time when Bruce's back had been broken. Last time when Bruce had taken in another boy. Last time when Bruce had adopted that boy. Last time when Jason had been killed. Last time when no one had BOTHERED to let him know. Grayson turned to glare at the man who had taken him in after the murder of his parents. "Look, we had a disagreement, but that..."
"There was nothing to tell you. I'm fine. I will be home in a few days. Tim is looking after the city in my absence. Lucas is quite capable of doing anything needed for the company while I’m laid up. There was little sense disturbing you or burdening you with my problems. You have your own life. We have everything under control here."
Dick would like to have been stunned to by the clinical attitude his former guardian was displaying, but the sad thing was, he wasn't surprised. Bruce had become an emotionless shell so many years past that Dick barely remembered the animated person he used to swing though the night with - or were his memories now skewed with false reminiscences of what he would liked Bruce to have been like? No, the young man decided. Bruce had been different in the beginning. Dick wasn't sure exactly when the transformation had started, nor at what point he had realized it had been completed, but a transformation it had been. Gradually, over time, Bruce had shut the world out and that included even one of the few people he had shared his most prized secret with.
“There was no need for you to make the journey from Bludhaven. Like I said, I have everything under control.”
"You're a real piece of work, Bruce." The anger resonating in Dick’s voice was fuelled by other emotions, not the least of which was hurt.
"Did you come all this way to argue with me?" Wayne demanded. Again they stared at each other lost in an abyss of inexplicable emotions.
Alfred's aching heart cried out in pain. He had watched helplessly as these two men he loved like sons had drifted apart. He had watched horrified as they had come to, not only verbal, but physical blows. Devastated, he had accepted their estrangement from each other.
Dick drew in a deep breath, released it slowly and then turned for the door. Obviously, there was nothing else to be said. He had been dismissed... again. “If you need anything, you know how to contact me,” he spat as he slammed out of the room.
Alfred sighed as his attention settled on Bruce. “That went well.”
Wayne continued to stare at the door. Why did it always end like that these days?
“We should have called him,” Alfred pointed out, taking the empty glass from Bruce. “He’s angry because no one let him know you were hurt. That was what I was trying to tell you.”
“There was no need to interrupt him. I'm fine. I have everything under control,” Bruce responded, automatically.
“Of course. And you would feel there was no need for him to contact us if he was stabbed, in hospital and had everything under control?”
Bruce frowned, his emotions wallowing in confusion. As Nightwing and Batman they still shared the most unique of all understandings. They anticipated each other's movements and complimented each other completely. It was the perfect partnership without equal on the planet, though geographical distance had reduced the amount of time they combined their talents. These days, Nightwing mostly worked alone patrolling the streets of Bludhaven and Batman only called on his other partners sporadically to deal with Gotham’s problems. Despite the extraordinary working bond Nightwing and Batman shared, the relationship between their alter egos was strained and dysfunctional.
“I don’t know him any more, Alfred.” The statement was hushed. It was almost an admission of failure. He no longer knew or understood the boy he had raised.
Alfred Pennyworth sank down into the chair beside the bed. Like Lucas, he felt incredibly weary having been at Bruce's side since he had been admitted. Alfred's voice lowered to an emotional whisper. “Master Dick is same young man who came to us fifteen years ago... confused, angry and mourning the loss of his father.”
Wayne’s frown deepened. “He came to terms with the death of his father a long time ago.”
“He came to terms with the loss of John Grayson,” Alfred agreed. Clearly, that had not been what he’d meant.
The look of undiluted rage in Bruce’s face prevented the butler from commenting further. Rage? No, pain and bewilderment Alfred realized.
“Speak to him, Bruce. You need only...”
“I’m tired. I think I’ll get some sleep.”
Alfred shook his head. Bruce Wayne was one of the most capable men he'd ever met. Whether it be business, or engaging in his ’night job’, Bruce was without peer. However, when it came to human relationships, the man who was Batman was about as effective as ‘no smoking’ signs.
Bruce lay down and shut his eyes, but an image of Dick’s angry face replayed in his mind and refused to be dismissed. The abyss between them had grown another couple of inches tonight and Bruce honestly didn’t know why.
Dick tossed his motorcycle helmet onto the faded blue couch and switched on the light of his small Bludhaven apartment. Immediately, a voice from across the room greeted him.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to contact you all night.” Dick glanced at the computer sitting atop his desk in the corner. Barbara’s pretty face filled the screen, her emerald eyes flinty with annoyance.
“Gotham,” the young man answered, wearily.
Via the camera zapping video images across the globe, Barbara watched her friend disappear into the kitchen. His movements were slow and lethargic. By the look of it, his trip to Gotham had involved the usual emotional scene.
“You should have kept your communicator on. I can’t be expected to...”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” the disembodied voice interrupted. There was no sign of anger. It was an empty question that echoed in the untidy apartment.
He reappeared with a can of Coke, his handsome face demanding answers. “Tell you what exactly?” Barbara clarified.
“That there had been an assassination attempt on Bruce's life.” Now the anger was evident.
Barbara frowned and adjusted her glasses. “You didn’t know? I thought that he would have...”
Dick snorted and slumped onto the couch, his head dropping back and his eyes focusing on the ceiling. “Why the hell would he think to tell me? He had everything under control.”
The hollowness of his voice caused Barbara’s heart to twist. She hated seeing this and of late, she had been seeing it more and more. “Dick, I...” She didn’t know what to say.
Grayson shut his eyes. He’d been in the cafeteria at the Police Academy when he’d spotted the page one headline, ‘Gotham Billionaire Stabbed.’ A phone call had failed to provide answers and so he’d raced to his bike and sped to the Gotham hospital unsure of what he was going to find. On the radio on the way down he’d heard a news announcement stating that Bruce was in a satisfactory condition. While relieved, he couldn’t deny his anger at not being informed.
“Dick, it’s his way. You can’t let it get to you. Of all people you should be used to Bruce by now.” When this failed to evoke a response, Barbara added, “He probably didn’t want to disturb you. He knows you’ve got your hands full with Bludhaven and your cadetship.” Still the bundle on the couch didn’t move. “Dick?”
“I thought that after I filled in for him for a while things had changed but...” The weeks Dick had worn the cowl in Bruce’s place had given him a greater insight into the pressures his former guardian faced in shouldering the mantle of Batman. Following the time, there hadn‘t actually been a ‘thank you‘, but Bruce had said some of the things Dick had longed to hear. His mind drifted back to that moment in the Batcave...
“Look, this is the part I’m not good at. You reached an age where you couldn’t be the Boy Wonder anymore. You outgrew it. A distance grew between us. I left so many things unsaid. I handled it all wrong. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it? Between fathers and sons.”...
At the time, Dick had been so stunned, words had failed him. It was everything and more than he had hoped to hear come from Bruce’s lips, but that was where Dick had made the mistake. It hadn't been Bruce speaking. It had been Batman. While one person, the two personalities were kept separate and Dick had failed to realize which was speaking. Understandable really, considering the fact it was the first time in years either had opened up. Unfortunately, the words only reconciled the relationship between Nightwing and Batman. Batman had indeed come to realize that Nightwing had outgrown being the Boy Wonder and was stating that he was willing to work with the younger man as an equal partner... well, as equal as anyone could be to Batman. However, nothing had changed between Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne. The distance Bruce had spoken about was still there. Worse still, Bruce didn’t approve of Dick’s career choice. Rather like Hitler hadn’t approved of the Jews. The disagreement had grown and pushed them further apart than ever before.
“Bruce doesn’t cope well with change,” Barbara whispered, interrupting Grayson’s thoughts.
Dick’s eyes opened and he dropped his chin to look at the screen across the room. “Huh?”
Barbara smiled. “He’s a man. Men don’t cope well with change.”
Dick’s face screwed up with mock disgust. “Please continue, Mrs. Freud.”
He had come alive again and Barbara reflected not for the first time, on the fact that he one fine example of the opposite sex. Jet black hair that was never truly tidy these days because Alfred wasn't there to ensure it was combed and brilliant blue eyes which saw everything had melted more than their fair share of female hearts - hers included. “Seriously, Bruce has never coped well with change. Think about it.”
“He trusted me more to watch his back when I was eight than he does now,” Dick murmured.
“That’s not true and you know it. Nightwing and Batman still work together like a well oiled machine. He trusts you implicitly. He has learned to handle Nightwing as his adult partner. What he can’t handle is...” Barbara struggled to find the words...”is the fact that the little boy who showed him that there was more to life than seeking revenge nightly, grew up on him.”
Dick frowned. A lot of what Barbara was saying he already knew. “I wee bit simplified, don't you think?"
"Maybe, but I think it's close to the mark. He loves you Dick, he just doesn't know how to show you now that you're an adult."
"It’s not my fault I grew up, Babs.”
“No, but he didn’t cope. I, on the other hand, think you grew up very nicely, Short Pants.“ She flashed him a wide, seductive smile.
Dick winked at her. “Is that an invitation?”
“In your dreams,” she laughed.
“You‘ve got that right.” Barbara blushed beautifully and Dick laughed. She had lifted his spirits, but then, she had that effect on him... always had. He had loved her from the moment he had laid eyes on her as an eight year old. He accepted it was more than a brother/sister relationship now, but he wasn’t sure if she did. She had known of his crush on her when he was a teenager, but exactly where they stood these days was a mystery to him... probably to both of them, he decided.
Dick’s mind returned briefly to Bruce. “Babs, can you look into the knife attack for me? If I do, he’ll hit the roof. Just find out a bit about it. Lucas said there have been a number of death threats. Find out what it‘s in relation to and whether his fears are founded.”
“I... I just wish Bruce and I could have a normal conversation. Hell, even if it’s about football or girls or... I don’t know.” He rose to his feet. “I’ve got to get going.”
“Hang on a minute,” Barbara snapped. Her voice had taken on that quality a teacher’s does when they disapprove of something a student is about to undertake.
Dick grinned. “Problem, pretty lady?”
“Let it go tonight.”
“Wish I could but..”
“Your mind is so far from being on the job it isn’t funny. You can’t afford to be distracted out there on your own.”
“I’ll be fine. I can look after myself.” He turned and disappeared into the bedroom, accompanied by Barbara’s protests. When he reappeared moments later, he was dressed in his ’evening cloths’. The x suit, which moulded to his body, accentuated his perfectly muscled form.
“Damn it, Dick. You’re not in the right mind for this tonight.”
“What makes tonight any different? I spend my evenings with the most undesirable people on the planet. Lord knows what a psychiatrist would make of all of that.” The quips that had littered his youth had followed him into his adulthood. It was his way of coping.
Barbara cursed. “You’re getting more like him every day!”
This caused Dick to pause, his brow furrowing deeply. Such a thought terrified him. “In what way?”
“Nothing is more important than hunting down the next lowlife. The city can’t survive without you. Sound familiar?” she spat.
Dick grinned, winked, walked toward the open window and disappeared into the darkness beyond calling, “Night, night, Mom.”
“Lord, give me strength!”
In the penthouse apartment of one of Gotham’s most exclusive hotels, a man dressed in a flashy red suit surveyed the city below. Once, this had been his city. Once, he had been important here. One man had ruined that and that man was going to pay.
Behind the figure at the window were two very nervous men sweating profusely. They only knew their employer as 'Mr. Smith', though both knew exactly who he was and thus they regarded him with a healthy amount of trepidation. This job had promised wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, the dream was quickly becoming a nightmare.
“I’m sorry, Sir. The assassination attempt failed.”
“I do not accept failures.” Mr. Smith’s voice had a quality all of its own. Strained and yet cultured. He turned and the inhuman rage on his face caused both of his visitors to recoil. “The job was sloppy and amateurish. I am neither. I was informed that you were professionals.”
“Of course, Sir. Sorry, Sir.” The hired thugs exchanged a concerned look and then watched their employer move across to a wine cabinet and pour himself a drink.
“Have you dealt with the loose end?” Smith demanded, downing the contents.
“He has just been found hanging in his cell.”
“Good. And...?” the threat hung in the air.
“We won’t miss next time.”
“Next time? Who said there was going to be a next time?” Smith asked grinning, his expression flashing with fiendish delight.
“But I thought you wanted Bruce Wayne dead?” A shadowy figure stepped out behind the two thugs. In his hand, he held a revolver. The weapon barked twice in quick succession and the hapless hired assassins took their last breaths.
Mr. Smith shrugged indifferently and returned his attention to the skyline. “I am sure you will not fail me, Mr. MacDonald.”
“Wayne will be dead by the end of the week. I stake my life on it.”
Mr. Smith glanced back over his shoulder and held his new employee’s gaze. “That is exactly what you are doing.”
For the second time in less than a week, Dick’s motorcycle flashed down the highway to Gotham. The sun was arcing to the west and announcing the arrival of evening.
“Dick, you there?” Oracle’s voice burst from the radio.
Grayson smiled. “Fire away, pretty lady.”
“I have looked into the death threats Bruce received.“
“Took your time.“
“You are not the only person I source things for,“ she pointed out, her voice rising with irritation.
“Yeah, but I’m the cutest.“
Barbara made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “No, you’re the most annoying. It seems Bruce has upset a small group of environmentalist.”
“Oh? Bruce is usually fairly environmentally conscious.”
“Their claims are rubbish. Wayne Corp. is clearing some land to build a new private hospital. The environmentalists claim that the clearing will destroy a raccoon colony.”
“Raccoon?” Dick laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“No. Bruce launched an investigation and discovered that the only animal life was rats who are feasting on the rubbish that less than civic minded people have dumped there.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“The protesters don’t believe him.”
“And the knife wielding man?” Dick inquired.
“Some emotionally unstable soul. He hung himself in his cell three nights ago. There ends the threat. So, you’re headed to Gotham?”
“Yep, I need a book.”
“A book?” Barbara sounded surprised.
“I think we’ve got a copycat killer in the Haven at the moment.”
“I think he’s following the verses of a poem written by Arthur Wilmington-Randle.”
“Never heard of him.”
Dick smiled. “I doubt many people have. His work really is trash which is why I haven’t been able to locate a copy of his poems - thus my trip to Gotham. If any library in the country will have a copy, the Manor will.”
“I could have looked on-line for you.”
“I did myself. Came up blank. I’ll be in touch.”
“You do know that Bruce is holding a function to launch the building of the new hospital at the Manor tonight?”
“Nope, I didn’t. He doesn’t usually have functions at the Manor any more.”
“He didn’t want to risk protesters crashing the function. They‘ll have a hard time breeching the Manor security.“
“Okay, thanks for the heads-up, Oracle. Dick out.”
Protesters lined the private road that lead to the Manor. Dick couldn't help being amused. All of this over rats. He guided his bike to the huge double gates that were being guarded by a troop of rent-a-cops. Dick frowned. This wasn't Bruce's style. He had never laid on security like this. Maybe there was more to the death threats then just some disgruntled racoon lovers.
"Do you have an invitation, Sir?"
It took some time before Dick was cleared to enter the huge grounds. Grayson rode up the long driveway, passing the guest car park which was brimming with vehicles. For the first time in years, the Manor was lit up like a Christmas tree. As Dick pulled in close to the front door, he stared up at the mansion that had been his home for most of his life. It was four stories high and that only took account of what was above the ground. The labyrinth of caverns below, which held Gotham's most technologically advanced room, was the size of a small city. The house above contained fourteen bedrooms, six bathrooms, library, ballroom, conservatory... and the list went on. When Dick had first arrived he had thought he was in a hotel and had asked how many people were staying there.
The sound coming from the Entertainment Courtyard on the opposite side of the house, pinpointed it as where Bruce was hosting the function. The football oval sized courtyard had been specially designed for large parties. Dick remembered attending many business functions when he was young. He had found them boring and had hated the simpering looks people had given him. He resented their whispered and pointed fingers - the unfortunate orphan. Sometimes, people took it upon themselves to tell him just how lucky he was that he had been taken in by a millionaire. Most of all he had hated watching Bruce play the part of the rich playboy. It didn't suit him and was so far from who he really was that it was almost laughable. Others, however, believed the act. Perhaps that was the greatest resentment of all. Bruce Wayne was an intelligent and complex man, not the halfwit playboy many people took him for. Something deep down inside Dick felt the need to defend the man who had became a surrogate parent to him.
As Dick had got older, he'd still found Bruce's business functions boring. It was something of a disappointment to Wayne who had assumed his ward would go into the family business. Actually, from the age of fifteen, a lot of decisions Dick had made had disappointed Bruce. He hadn't meant to hurt his guardian, but he couldn't live a lie. He had tried for Bruce's sake but it wasn't who he was. He had needed to become his own man and running Wayne Corp hadn't been part of his future vision. Than again, neither had becoming a cop and yet, that was what he was training to do.
Surprisingly, Dick encountered no other security. He let himself into the Manor and headed straight for the library. Despite the considerable noise coming from the outside courtyard, Alfred's irritated voice wafted above it from the kitchen.
Dick paused, watching as the elderly man reappeared muttering under his breath, two waiters following him. Alfred, despite his apparent subservient role as man-servant was anything but. He was Bruce's right hand man in many ways. Pennyworth ran the estate almost single-handed and manned the Batcave each evening when Bruce was on patrol. Of course, there was also a deep and caring relationship between Bruce and Alfred. Perhaps not quite father and son, but damn close.
Alfred spotted Dick and his stressed face lit up with true joy. "Master Dick. What brings you down here?" He dismissed the two waiters with a curt nod and strode down the long hall toward the young man he had helped raise.
"I’m after a book."
"I take it leisure is not the motivation."
Dick smiled. Alfred stopped in front of the younger man and without thought, hugged him briefly. "I am sorry about the misunderstanding. I should have ignored him and telephoned you."
Grayson shook his head. "I shouldn't have reacted the way I did. I just..."
"You were angry and hurt, both appropriate reactions considering our thoughtless behaviour." The pair stared at each other. Alfred‘s voice dropped. "I wish you could visit more often, son. The house is empty without you. I miss you... and so does he."
Dick sighed. "He’s as busy as ever. I doubt he has time to miss anything." For a moment there was silence as both men reflected sadly on the statement which rang with truth. "Look, I better not hold you up. I take it he's got you co-ordinating the entire function?"
"I should think so." Alfred's voice rose sharply. " He was going to bring in some 'professional' to do so. I do believe he used the words, 'a man of your age'. Needless to say, I gave him a piece of my mind."
"I'll bet you did," Dick chuckled. "I'll get out of your way. By the way, what's the deal with the rent-a-cops on the perimeter?"
"Mr. Lucas hired them. Master Bruce wasn’t impressed. They were stationed all over the gardens and courtyard area, but the moment Master Bruce saw them he dismissed the majority to the other side of the fence." As Alfred spoke, a deep frown formed on his face. Lines of worry folded on his brow and his expressive grey eyes clouded.
"Alfred?" Dick asked, curiously.
"I know he's had death threats before, but never so many. He's only got a handful of men out there watching for trouble and after the attack on Tuesday, I tried to talk him into more, but..."
Dick nodded his understanding. "If you’re worried, why don't you just order some of the hired security back inside?"
Alfred's eyes flashed with mock surprise. "Such as suggestion! As you well know, Master Dick, 'I' do not have the authority to order Wayne Corp. employers around." The inflection of his voice rose at the end and hung enticingly.
Another grin invaded Dick's lips and his head titled to the side in amusement. "Go on."
"As a silent executive on the board, it would seem to me that you would not only have the authority, but a responsibility to ensure the safety of the company chief executive."
"Okay, okay. I'll go out and take a look around and if it looks like a few more bodyguards are needed, I'll organise it. You realize that when he finds out, he'll want my guts for garters."
"What's new?" Alfred asked with apparent seriousness.
Dick winked, spun around and headed for the Entertainment Courtyard. Despite the light-hearted banter, Dick could tell Alfred was genuinely worried, though Grayson guessed that his former guardian had everything under control. Bruce always did.
As the young man who had once despised parties like this stepped out into the function area, a band started playing. Dick shook his head. Bruce really knew how to lay it on. Dignitaries from all over Gotham were present, including a frowning Commissioner Gordon.
"Evening Commissioner," Dick greeted as he walked past.
"Dick? What on earth are you doing here?"
Grayson paused and smiled. "SOS from Alfred. Apparently there isn't enough security."
"Exactly, but Bruce Wayne is the most stubborn man I've ever met, perhaps with the exception of Batman."
"You don't get any argument from me," Dick laughed.
"Son, I really don't think he'll listen to you."
"I wasn't going to give him the opportunity to argue." Dick bounced his eyebrows and moved through the crowd, his experienced senses taking in every corner of the courtyard. Peter and Mal, Bruce's regular bodyguards were standing a few feet behind Bruce. There were five rent-a-cops around the perimeter of the area and one sniper lying well concealed on the roof of the mansion. Dick made his way to the guard wearing the highest ranking security insignia.
"Sir, I would ask you to move on," the man muttered, sipping his coffee.
Grayson frowned. "And just how much is Wayne Corp. paying you to stand there drinking coffee?"
The security guard's face flooded with puzzlement.
"I'm Dick Grayson, Mr. Wayne's personal assistant on security matters. Considering the death threats Mr. Wayne has received, I'd have thought you'd have been on your toes." The stern rebuff saw the coffee cup disappear and the bodyguard swallow. "How many threats to his life are we talking about?"
"At last count, sixty-seven."
Dick frowned. "And do you always give such information to complete strangers? You didn’t ask for any ID. For all you know, I'm a reporter looking for a story."
The man's eyes grew wide.
"Lucky for you, I'm not. I'd like..." A muffled shot of sorts rang out. Dick spun around, searching for Bruce, but he instinctively knew that the sound hadn't come from a gun. All faces in the courtyard were raised. The sky above exploded with light and the musicians began to play, the volume so loud that conversation was impossible. "Fireworks!" Dick roared. "You approved fireworks after the death threats he's received?!"
The hired security chief nodded. “What’s wrong with...”
"I want them stopped. Now. IMMEDIATELY! "
The man nodded and began barking into his cell phone, all the while keeping an eye on the pacing man beside him. Dick watched as Mal and Peter moved closer to Bruce; Wayne, too, looking annoyed. Fireworks could mask a gunshot making it impossible to locate the direction of the shooter. There was no way Bruce had authorized this. Something was very, very wrong.
"Well?" Dick demanded as the security chief lowered his phone.
"It's all connected. Once the fireworks start, they can't be..."
"Get the rest of your men to move in and tell your sniper to keep his eyes peeled!" Dick ordered as he started through the crowd toward his former guardian. He needed to get Bruce to safety. None of this felt right.
"Sniper? What sniper?" the guard called after him.
Dick's heart missed a beat. He spun around to look at the security guard horrified. Before he knew it, Dick was running, forcing his way through the awed crowd who were watching the fireworks and deafened by the music accompanying them.
"BRUCE!" Dick bellowed, shoving people out of his path. The essential warning was swallowed by the combined noise of fireworks and music. Dick’s eyes honed in on the shooter. As he watched, the sniper turned his weapon toward Bruce. "NOOOO!" Dick Grayson lunged forward and leapt up onto a table watching helplessly as the shooter zeroed in on his target. Without his suit... without his weapons, he was powerless to stop this. The assassin began to apply pressure to the trigger.
Time slowed. Dick Grayson reacted in the only way he could. He launched himself through the air, somersaulted and landed on the stage in front of Bruce, using his own body to shield Wayne. "Get dow...!" Dick was catapulted forward, slamming into Bruce. The two men tumbled to the ground, an ice sculpture behind them exploding as a bullet struck it.
Mal and Peter reacted immediately. One grabbed Bruce, dragged him to his feet and began to shepherd him to safety. The other threw himself over Dick. Bruce was forced off the stage and behind an overturned table. Only a few of the guests appeared to notice that anything out of the ordinary was happening, most mesmerized by the fireworks. The music continued for a few more seconds before the musicians were distracted by the movement on the stage. In confusion, they stopped. The fireworks echoed out and the guests turned to investigate.
“Everyone remain calm!” Mal shouted. Security men began to enter the crowd with weapons drawn, those who had been dismissed beyond the gates now pouring back into the grounds.
Bruce Wayne allowed himself to be manhandled, for tonight he was Bruce Wayne, not Batman. However, he couldn’t help searching the roof top for the shooter. His guests were all racing for safety, their high pitched voices and shrieks bringing Alfred outside to investigate.
"There!" Bruce yelled, spotting the sniper. Mal immediately radioed the suspect’s position to other members of the security team who began closing in.
Bruce stepped out from behind the table as the shooter disappeared. He'd seen the man on the roof earlier, but had assumed that he was part of the rent-a-army Lucas had hired. Wayne cursed. This was an unacceptable breech of security. Innocent people could have been injured. If Dick hadn’t arrived, there was a good chance that the ice sculpture’s fate could have been Wayne’s own. A split second before Dick had materialised in front of him, Bruce had seen a blur arcing toward him and had realised it was his partner. No one could move like that except Grayson. He owed Dick his life... again. Of course, the fact that Grayson had been throwing himself around in a way only Nightwing could was something Bruce would have to take up with the younger man. Dick had risked revealing his secret identity through his actions - that wasn’t acceptable no matter what the circumstances.
"Mr. Wayne, we need to get you inside," Mal ordered. “Your guests will be taken care of. Commissioner Gordon has called for police reinforcements.”
Bruce continued to stare up at the roof for several seconds, his anger boiling. The protesters had just crossed the line. Now, Batman would deal with this.
Wayne acknowledged the bodyguard with a nod. He straightened his tie and turned, but something on his hand caught his eye - a crimson smudge covered his palm. Puzzled, Wayne lowered his eyes to the front of his shirt. A fist sized spot of blood met his eyes. Blood?
“Sir, you’ve been hit!” Mal cried.
Bruce Wayne‘s breath caught in this throat for he knew that wasn‘t the case. He hadn’t been hit. Wayne’s head snapped back to the stage where Peter was leaning over someone.
A strangled whisper was wrenched from Bruce‘s soul. “Dick?”
Years of intense training and mind conditioning to ensure he never ‘reacted’ but made conscious decisions before responding were obliterated in that single moment as Bruce Wayne leaped from the ground onto the stage - an action that was beyond the capabilities of anyone outside of a trained athlete.
Bruce dropped beside his fallen partner, his attention drawn to the front of Dick‘s white shirt which was covered with blood, a single bullet wound evident. For a handful of heartbeats Bruce knelt frozen, his mind moving at a million miles an hour. Flashbacks cruelly rose up and threatened to consume him. His parents...The gun... Joe Chill...His mother’s scream ..The shots...Blood.
Peter clamped his hand over the wound, trying to stem the blood flow. Bruce allowed his eyes to move up Dick’s chest and settle on the younger man’s face. It was creased with deep lines of pain, Dick’s eyes wide with shock, his body squirming on the ground in response to the intense discomfort. Dick's tanned complexion was insipid, all colour stolen by the burning agony reverberating through his system. The same thing had happened to Bruce’s parents before their eyes had gone glassy and life had left them, Wayne remembered.
Bruce and Dick’s eyes met. The former looked lost as memories stole his ability to respond. He simply couldn’t handle this. It was all happening again in front of his eyes! His family was being stolen from him. Bruce’s very soul felt like it was being tugged from him.
Despite the pain and shock, Dick recognised what was happening.
Get him! Words were far from necessary. Telepathy it wasn’t, but years of working together had given them a complete understanding of each other on this level. Right now, the millionaire needed something to cling to. Dick knew that Bruce Wayne couldn’t cope - Batman would.
Get him! Dick’s intense stare ordered. The latter recognised the signal from his partner and the small, traumatised boy that dwelled inside him instantly transformed into Gotham’s avenging angel.
I’m okay. Dick silently assured, reaching up and patting Bruce's arm. Get him.
Bruce nodded and rose to his feet, rage providing him with the strength to draw himself from the abyss he was slowly tumbling into. Alfred appeared behind him.
“Stay with him,” Wayne ordered, before dashing off without looking back.
Alfred stepped forward puzzled. He couldn’t see Dick, who was completely masked by the huge bodyguard. When the butler’s eyes fell on the injured man, his elderly face clouded with alarm. “Master Dick!” He raced around and knelt down on the opposite side to Peter who was calling for an ambulance. Alfred picked up Dick’s hand and squeezed it firmly as he tried to assess the extent of the damage.
“Hang on, my boy. Help is on the way.” Alfred’s usually calm voice wavered dreadfully. How had this happened? As Alfred tried to comfort Dick, everything began to sink in. There was blood everywhere, but it appeared to be coming from under Dick. The young man’s body began to tremble as shock set in. Alfred glanced back over his shoulder in search of Bruce. It was clear that Dick’s condition was serious. Where the hell had he gone?
Dick drew in a breath and his being exploded with searing heat. His condition was deteriorating quickly. There was a gurgling sound in his lungs as blood began to seep into them. Pain and loss of precious life-giving fluid pooled in a deadly combination fogging his mind and causing his consciousness to waver. He felt so incredibly tired. It was impossible to concentrate and yet that look of terror on Bruce’s face was imprinted on Dick‘s soul. Bruce would blame himself for this and Dick couldn't allow that to happen. He had to let Bruce know this wasn’t his fault... then Dick could sleep. He felt so tired. He desperately wanted to rest, but not before he delivered his message. Dick tried to speak, but nothing but a weak grunt was emitted.
“Easy, Dick. It’s okay,” Alfred assured him, reaching up and running his hand through the young man’s dark hair. The slightest trace of pressure was returned via the hand he held. “Good, boy. Hang on.” Alfred maintained his vice-like grip of Dick’s fist. “It’s okay, my boy. You’re going to be okay.”
“Help me roll him onto his side,“ Peter ordered.
Alfred stared at the other man startled, but did as instructed, conveying their intentions to the injured man. “We’re just rolling you over.” Dick groaned, loudly. “Be careful!” Alfred shouted at Peter. “You’re hurting him.”
“Oh shit! Shit! Shit!” Peter exploded in frustration as his suspicions were confirmed.
Alfred stared aghast at the three gaping holes in Dick’s back.
“He’s taken three,” Peter barked into his radio set. “There’s only one exit wound. There are still two slugs in him. His breathing is laboured. Lungs are filling with blood. WHERE THE HELL IS THAT AMBULANCE?!”
Dick was aware that he was being moved around, but he couldn’t comprehend any of the conversation. The pounding in his ears drowned out everything else. The jerking as they moved him caused the agony to intensify to the point he was passing out, but at the same time the pain crystalized his thoughts momentarily, enabling him to cling to consciousness.
“Alfred,” Dick panted. Speaking was more strenuous than he could ever remember, but Bruce‘s survival depended on what he had to say.
“Don’t try to talk,” Peter ordered.
The roaring in Dick’s ears made it difficult to focus, but the image of Bruce’s face fuelled his determination. “Al..fred.” It was a real battle to form the words. The only one he’d managed to get out was badly slurred and almost unrecognisable even to his own ears, but his iron will and stubborn nature united. He had to make Alfred understand! Then he could rest. God, he felt tried.
Dick reached up and took hold of the front of the elderly man’s jacket and drew him down. “Tell him... it’s not his... fault. It was... my choice. My... decision. You’ve got... to tell him.” Dick began to cough, blood appearing in the corner of his mouth.
Alfred swallowed, wrestling for control. He gripped Dick’s hand with one hand and his shoulder with the other.
“I’ll tell him, now you just rest and that’s an order, young man.” The butler’s voice broke as tears began to well in his grey eyes.
An incredible feeling of relief settled over Dick. Alfred had understood. He would pass on the message... but would Bruce believe him? Dick’s body shuddered as he battled for his life. He had begun gasping, desperately trying to draw oxygen into his suffocating system.
Alfred held onto his grandson tightly - for a grandson he was. The elderly man could see he was losing him. He could tell. He was watching Dick fight like he’d never fought before.
Without warning, Dick attempted to speak again, his face lined with an equal amount of pain and determination. His fear for what would happen to Bruce forced him to try again. “Al...fred...” The fingers of oblivion were gripping the injured man, but he refused to succumb. He fought against the darkness beckoning him - fought with a fierceness and determination few others could understand or equal. The nerve in his cheek twitched. “Alfred... you‘ve got to ... make him... understand. My decision. .. Not his... Not his... fault.”
“I will try, but he will need to hear it from you, son. You must stay with us,” Alfred encouraged. Somehow, the wily old man had realized that Dick’s need to save Bruce from himself, may be the key to him finding the strength to save himself.
Dick heard the words and understood them. His eyelids flickered twice before closing. Without his consent, Dick was drawn down in the painless world of unconsciousness, still fighting... for Bruce’s sake.
“Master Dick?” Alfred licked his lips and squeezed the hand that gradually went limp in his. “It’s going to be alright,” the elderly man whispered. Dear God, it’s got to be alright!
“He’s stopped breathing,” Peter snapped.
The declaration hit like a physical blow. Alfred Pennyworth stared at the other man as he rolled Dick onto his back, took hold of his chin and tipped it back. Dick had stopped breathing?! It simply didn’t compute.
“Where the hell is the ambulance? I’m losing him, here!” Peter screamed down to Mal, before starting expired air resuscitation.
The revelation sent Alfred’s world spinning out of control. They were losing him. One of his boys was dying? ONE OF HIS BOYS WAS DYING!
“Out of my way,” Alfred roared. Strength he didn’t know he had ignited. He wasn’t going to let Dick die. Alfred shoved Peter back and began to blow life giving air into Dick’s still lungs. “You are not...” Pause for a breath. “... going to leave this world...” Breath. “under these circumstances... You must fight... Come on, Son... If not for your own sake... for ours... You must fight!”
© May 2004 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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