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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
Dick stared out directly in front of him. He was standing on the edge of a large body of water shrouded in a white mist. There was absolutely no sound around him. None. The stillness was unreal... eerie. He realized that he was completely alone. Turning to glance behind him, he could see only emptiness - nothing real or distinct was evident.
Batman pulled his cowl into place and jogged back toward the hidden entrance that led to the grounds above. His mind replayed his partner’s face and he reflected on the message he’d seen there.
That was exactly what Batman intended doing. He would get him - by God he would get him!
A thoughtful frown formed on Batman’s lips as he reviewed the events methodically. The sniper had gained access to the Manor with the security company Lucus had hired. He had waited until the fireworks started before making his attempt, knowing that it would mask the shot. Perhaps he had even organized the fireworks himself for no one on Wayne’s staff had authorized them. The assassin’s goal would have been achieved if not for Nightwing who had taken a single bullet low on the right side of his chest.
Here, the detective paused. His partner was okay he assured himself. Nightwing himself had cleared Batman to pursue the investigation - yet, there was a prickling deep down inside the Dark Knight that he couldn’t ignore. Batman’s thoughts snagged, his controlled emotions beginning to bubble and boil. He cursed. He couldn’t afford this. He needed to pursue his investigation now while all of the clues and facts were fresh, but still his mind refused to let go. Batman’s thoughts churned as he fought to consciously override the strange throbbing that had invaded his chest.
Nightwing would be okay... Alfred was with him... Nightwing would be okay... Medical help was only minutes away... Nightwing was okay... He’d called Leslie... Nightwing was in good hands... Leslie would be at the hospital waiting... Nightwing would be sore, but he was okay. He was a fine solider... one of the best Batman had ever known.
That look alone convinced Batman his concerns were unfounded.
Wilfully, Batman pushed every other thought aside. His training enabled him to shut the other parts of himself down. All forms of emotion where literally turned off allowing logical thought free reign. If Batman was to do his job and fulfil his partner’s request, then he needed to be completely focused on the job at hand. Nothing would sway him from his objective. Nothing. The sniper would not escape. Gotham City’s Dark Knight would make the paid assassin see the error of his ways and reveal his employer - the person who wanted Bruce Wayne dead. Only once Batman had apprehended this mystery person would his job be done. Only then would he allow himself the luxury of reacting as others would.
Until then, no other thought would be permitted to penetrate his mind... and yet, despite his best efforts and years of experience at zoning out, the burning in his chest remained.
There was a slapping sound. Oars striking water. Out of the dense mist appeared a small wooden boat. Dick stared at the tiny craft and at the oarsman.
“Hello,” the man called. He was old - wizened - but surprisingly strong for his age. Despite being quite close, Dick couldn't really make out his features.
The young man just stared, no conscious thought forming.
“Well, come on, young fella. It’s time to go.”
“Go?” Dick asked. His voice sounded hollow and it seemed to echo in the overwhelming silence.
“I’m here to pick you up. Come on.”
Dick glanced at the emptiness that surrounded him. Puzzled, he stepped into the small boat.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m the oarsman.”
“Where are we going?”
“Well, that depends on you.”
The ambulance pulled in at the hospital with a police escort and two dozen members of the media all desperate for a photograph. News had travelled like quicksilver, though details were sketchy. Flashes flickered in the night as men and women with microphones jostled for position. Uniformed police appeared and forced the baying crowd back.
"Bruce Wayne’s been shot?" one reporter asked another.
"No. Apparently, someone from the crowd jumped in front of him!"
When the doors of the ambulance burst open, Alfred, who had remained at Dick’s side as the paramedics took over the EAR (Expired Air Resuscitation), searched for one face. To his overwhelming relief, it was there.
“Leslie!” The doctor stepped up into the ambulance, patted Alfred’s arm and started shouting instructions to the other medical personnel. She had received updates from the ambulance officers, which had enabled her to have everything ready at this end.
“Leslie?” Alfred asked, reluctantly releasing his grip on Dick’s hand as his grandson’s stretcher was pulled from the back of the vehicle and whisked away, the ambulance officer still blowing air into Dick’s lungs. "Leslie?" Alfred repeated.
“It’s bad,” Thompkins stated, seriously. He deserved the truth. She didn't want to raise his hopes. The vitals that had been reported to her were shaky. It was going to be an up-hill battle.
The look of raw agony on Alfred’s face pulled at Leslie’s heart. She knew how much he loved Dick. The grey-haired doctor hugged the elderly man briefly and then raced off after her patient. Alfred stepped out of the ambulance and stood outside the hospital for several moments before following, Leslie’s words ringing in his ears. It’s bad.
Alfred already knew that. He’d never seen so much blood, and over the years, Alfred had seen his fair share. He’d stitched up Bruce, Dick, Jason and even Tim more times then he cared to count. He’d lived though Bruce’s broken back and Tim’s infection with the deadly virus and each time he’d thought things couldn’t be worse. How wrong he‘d been. This was worse. Nothing could be worse than this. If Dick died as a result of a gun... as a result of saving Bruce’s life, Alfred would lose both of his boys. Nothing was surer.
“Mask!” Leslie ordered. A nurse handed one to her and the medic placed it over Dick’s nose and mouth, the automated pump taking over the job of forcing air into the unconscious man. Briskly, the doctor dismissed the paramedic who had kept Dick alive until now. “Transfusion. He’s ‘O’ negative. We‘ll need X-rays. A couple of his ribs are broken by the look of it.” She was move with great speed and yet her actions were calm.
“Are you a doctor?” one of two surgeons asked, entering the ER.
“Dr. Thompkins,” Leslie stated, placing a stethoscope to Dick‘s chest. “I want a brain scan and...”
“With all due respect, doctor, we’ll take it from here.”
Leslie glanced across at the ID badge worn by the speaker. “No, Dr Moffit, you won’t. I have been doing this since before your mother was born.”
“You know the protocol, doctor,” Moffit stated, arrogantly, despite the protests from the physician he had entered with.
Leslie’s eyes hardened. “This is my patient! I will be the primary on his case. If you don’t like that, get the hell out of here, Sunny Jim!” Thompkins turned to the startled nurses. “Get him out of these clothes and where the hell is that blood?!”
“Let me help you doctor,” the other physician offered, dismissing Moffit and starting the transfusion.
Leslie nodded her thanks. Moffit stormed from the room.
“How much do we know?”
“Three bullets. Two still in him. He‘s not breathing, but has been resuscitated since independent respiration stopped. Massive blood loss,” Leslie informed the other doctor, using a light to examine Dick’s pupils.
“He a friend?”
Leslie nodded. “I‘ve known him all his life,” she whispered, pausing for a moment to study Dick’s deathly pale face. “And I’m not going to lose him!” she snapped, returning her full attention to directing those around her. “Is that ’O’ negative? Nurse, why aren’t these clothes off him, yet? Where’s the scanning equipment?! Those bullets have to come out now. Come one, people. Move.”
Dick felt strangely calm. Calm was a feeling he knew was wrong, but he couldn’t remember why. Something told him he was supposed to be concerned and yet, the tranquillity around him was impossible to deny.
He noted that the oarsman was studying him intently.
“You seem to accept all of this without question. Most of my passengers are far more inquisitive.”
“I feel like this is right.”
The oarsman nodded and continued to propel the primitive boat over the still water. “You are one of the few who has prepared himself for this journey.”
“The journey after life?”
Dick frowned. “I’m dead?”
The oarsman paused in his rhythmic rowing. “Not quite. I’ve picked you up so you are on the way.”
Dick struggled to remember what had happened. “It wasn’t the Joker, was it?”
“You must know by now that your friends will never allow that to happen again.”
The oarsman inclined his head toward the bank that they were pulling away from. Dick glanced back. The shoreline was no longer empty. He could see people standing there. Leslie was the clearest. That puzzled Dick.
“She is fighting to save you,” the oarsman stated simply as he resumed his stroking.
The oarsman smiled, gently. “Further back. Behind the others.”
Dick turned to face the elderly man who seemed to know what was going on. “I don’t understand.”
“You are dying. This is your final journey. Look at the bank in front of you.”
Dick strained his eyes to see across the distance. He could distinguish another group of people but they were a long way away and he couldn’t make them out. Then something caught the young man’s eye. A pink dress. That pink dress! It was the only thing he could remember his mother wearing when she wasn’t performing.
“Mama?” he whispered.
“She’s waiting for you. She’s been waiting a long, long time.”
Before he knew it, Dick was on his feet. The boat began to rock wildly.
“Sit down!” the oarsman ordered. “You must not fall into the water here.”
Slowly Dick sank back into the boat. “Why?”
“This is the Lake of Lost Souls. You have lived a good and fruitful life and thus you have earned a ride across it. Those that don’t - those whose souls are unsavable - I don’t come for, and they end up lost in the lake forever. The lake is filled with the doomed spirits of both the living and the dead. If you fall in here, your soul will join theirs and be lost in limbo.”
Dick strained to see the woman in the pink dress. “You’re taking me to be with my Ma?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“The decision is yours, Dick. Life or death?”
Inside theatre 4, Leslie and the other surgeon, Alex Schneider set about removing the two missing bullets.
“Blood pressure’s dropping,” the anaesthetist informed the doctors.
Leslie glanced up at the screen that was monitoring Dick’s vitals. “Come on, Dick. Hold on.” She returned to probing for the first of the bullets. “Keep me informed.”
“There it is,” Schneider stated.
“Yeah, I see it. It nicked his lung. We need to drain them.”
“I’m on it.”
Leslie’s brow furrowed as she carefully explored further, finally getting hold of the slug. “Got it.”
“Breathing’s becoming irregular.”
“Come on, Kid. You can do better than this,” Leslie chastised, dropping the bullet into a dish and then beginning her search for the second. “How are his lungs?”
“I‘m almost finished draining them. I’ll stitch the hole and then do some of the internal stitches needed.”
Leslie lifted her eyes and sent a message of thanks. The younger doctor smiled. “We’ll get him through this.”
“BP is dropping again.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Leslie snapped. “How much blood has he been given?”
“A full bag. He’s not trying,” one of the nurses commented with great experience. She’d seen it before. Sometimes, people wanted to go.
Leslie shot her a look of undiluted rage. “You don’t know anything about this young man!”
“Sorry, Doctor. It’s just that...”
“I need some suction.”
The medics returned to work, Leslie quickly locating and removing the second of the bullets - all the while the nurse’s comment echoed in her heart.
“The decision is yours, Dick. Life or death?”
Dick’s brow creased with confusion. “You mean I’m allowed to decide? I didn’t think it would work that way.”
“For some it does. Others are killed outright.”
“Like my parents.”
“That’s right. Some, like yourself, are strong fighters and it is up to you if you wish to go back and battle for your life.”
Again, silence filled the air. Only the rhythmic sound of the oars interrupted the unreal peacefulness. “Well? What do you want, Dick?”
Dick couldn’t take his eyes off the figure in the dress. He wished he could see her face. He longed to have her arms around him.
“You want to see your mother,” the oarsman stated with certainty.
Abruptly, the monitors began beeping.
“BP moving into critical.“
“We need to close him now!” Leslie ordered, her voice rising sharply.
Lights began to flash on the life support machines. “Breathing is erratic,” the anaesthetist reported. “He’s getting further away from us. We’re losing him.”
“No, we’re not. Get me some adrenaline.”
“Adrenaline?! You can’t inject him with adrenaline after what you‘ve already given him,“ Schneider argued.
Leslie thrust her hand out, her expression leaving no room for negotiation.
Reluctantly a nurse handed Thompkins a large needle which Leslie pumped directly into Dick’s heart.
“Doctor!” Schneider cried. “I‘m not prepared to take any responsibility for this.”
“Come on, Son,” Leslie pleaded with Dick quietly. “I can‘t do this on my own. You‘ve got to start fighting.” For several moments all waited. “Come on, Dick.”
Abruptly a warning alarm sounded. “Heart has stopped.”
“Get me the paddles. NOW!” Leslie shouted. She placed the objects on the young man’s chest. “Clear!” A massive burst of electricity zapped through Grayson’s body.
“He’s still flat lining,” Schneider testified.
“Again!” Leslie shouted. “Increase the charge.”
“You want to see your mother,” the oarsman stated with certainty.
“Good. I thought you would.” The oarsman continued to stare at the young man across from him. “Have you nothing to live for? Nothing back there worth fighting for?”
Dick turned to face the bank. There he could see Leslie, Alfred, Tim and Barbara.
“No... maybe... kinda.”
“They must be. Only family from your life stands on that side. Oh, and if it is a case of murder, you are allowed to see the person who caused your death.” Dick searched the bank. Far off to the right he could see a man lurking. Grayson’s face darkened. Him? He was behind the assassination attempts on Bruce’s life!
Without warning, Leslie moved. It was only then that Dick realized that the others were frozen. The doctor stepped right up to the water’s edge and stretched out her hand, her face a blanket of worry.
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s trying to save your life. She’s calling you back.” Dick swallowed. He had never seen Leslie look so concerned. “She knows you are dying and she is beginning to realize that whether you live or die is not up to her. The decision is yours and yours alone.”
“She’ll blame herself if I die.”
“Yes, she will.” The oarsman continued to row. “Does that matter? She’ll get over it. She will come to terms with your death knowing that she did everything she could. Remember, your mother is waiting.” Dick focused on the other bank and his heart soared. The figures there were becoming clearer. “You do want to see your mother again, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Yes, he wanted to. He wanted to so much it hurt.
“Then sit and relax. This journey is painless.”
Dick glanced back at Leslie. He could see the woman’s mouth moving. He couldn’t hear the words, but Leslie’s eyes were pleading.
“Dick? It’s not too late to turn back,” the oarsman whispered.
“I...” He was torn; confused. As much as he wanted to see his parents, something was holding him back.
“Of course, back there, there is pain. On the other side,” the oarsman stated, inclining his head toward the other bank, “there is no pain. No suffering. You have earned that. And there is your mother and your father who are longing to hold you again. Are you prepared to disappoint them now - now that you are so close?”
“Clear!” Dick’s body jolted as the electrical charge stimulated his adrenaline-flooded heart. Leslie lifted her eyes to the monitors.
“We have a pulse... He‘s stabilizing... Breathing is becoming more regular.” There was quiet celebration from the nurses and the anaesthetist.
Leslie released her breath slowly.
Schneider shook his head in amazement, taking the paddles from the relieved woman. “You’re an incredible doctor, Dr. Thompkins.“
Leslie flicked her eyes to Schneider. “I have an incredible patient.“
“Yes, he is,” Leslie agreed, placing her hand on Dick’s head and smiling down at the young man with great affection. “He always has been.”
Schneider eyed the woman carefully, concerned she would blame herself if Grayson didn‘t make it.
Considering his condition, that was the most likely outcome. “I’m not sure any of this is up to us any more,” he warned.
Leslie looked over at the other physician and nodded. “I know. It’s up to him now,” she agreed.
Alfred continued to pace. He thrust his phone back into his pocket. Bruce still wasn’t responding. It was obvious he had turned his communicator off. Batman only did that when he was determined to see something through. At such times, interruptions of any type weren’t tolerated.
Commissioner Gordon stepped out of the elevator and spotting Alfred, approached the restless man. He offered his hand. “How is he?”
Alfred set his shoulders. “If I know Master Dick, he is cracking jokes and refusing to lie still.”
Gordon smiled. He'd known Dick Grayson since the day his parents had been killed. He was a good lad. Gordon had watched the relationship between his daughter and Bruce Wayne’s ward grow and mature over time. “From what I know of that young rascal, I'm sure you're right." Jim's face became serious. As much as he would liked to have simply been there to offer support, he had a job to do. "Alfred, I know this is a bad time, but do you have any idea where Bruce is? He’s disappeared... now, I’m sure that he’s safe,” Jim added, quickly, not wanting to alarm Wayne‘s long time friend, “but I really need to find him. Those bullets were meant for him.”
“I... I...” Alfred blinked, searching for an excuse. What the hell could he say? How could he explain Bruce’s reason for not being at his former ward’s side after Dick had been shot? “I...”
The Commissioner reached out and squeezed the floundering man’s shoulder. “It’s okay. We’ll find him, Alfred. We’ll find him. Give Dick my best,” he added, before turning and disappearing down the corridor with purposeful strides.
Alfred released his breath in a burst, took out his phone and re-dialled, punching the buttons with a certain amount of frustration. Again he received the automated message signalling that Bruce‘s communicator was switched off. Alfred squeezed his eyes shut helplessly. If Batman didn’t want to be found, no one would find him.
Realizing that others needed to be informed, Alfred called a second number.
“Hey, Alf. You’ll never guess where I am? Go on, try and guess.”
“I have some news.” Alfred’s voice cracked with emotion despite his best efforts to keep it level.
“Alfred? What is it?” Tim asked carefully, hearing the strain.
“Master Dick has been shot.”
“Ooookaaaay. His suit would have absorbed most of the impact.”
Alfred swallowed. “Master Dick as been shot.”
For several moments there was silence. “I don’t... you mean...?”
“I am at Gotham Hospital. Dr. Thompkins is tending to him. He has lost a considerable amount of blood. He... he wasn’t breathing when we arrived.”
“What?!... but... Alfred?”
“I think it would be best if you joined me here, Master Tim.” The last past was a subtle message informing Tim that this was not the place for Robin.
“Okay. I... Alfred, how bad is it?”
Leslie’s words rang in the butler’s ears, but Alfred had no intention of passing that on until Tim arrived. ”Dr. Thompkins is with him.”
“Is Bruce there?”
“I have been unable to contact him. He has gone after the shooter.”
“Do you want me to find him?” Tim asked.
Alfred considered the question. “No. He knows Master Dick has been injured. I am sure he will call to check on his condition shortly. You come straight here.”
Alfred ended the call and started to dial Barbara’s number when Leslie appeared at the top of the hall. Their eyes met and she nodded. Alfred slowly lowered himself into a chair, relief sapping his strength. Dick was alive.
Leslie walked up the hall and sat beside him. “It was tough going. I almost lost him.”
Alfred nodded, doing his best to stay abreast of his emotions, but it was becoming more difficult by the minute. “And he is going to be alright?” He stared into Leslie’s eyes, pleading for the only answer he was prepared to accept.
The doctor took each of his hands in hers. “I don’t know,” she replied sincerely. “He’s lost a lot of blood. However, the bullets missed his heart and other organs. One of the bullets broke two of his ribs. I'm waiting on brain scans to check that there has been no damage due to oxygen depletion. I...” She sighed. “It’s going to be touch and go for a while. I wish I could be more positive.”
“You have been honest and for that I am grateful. Can I see him?”
Leslie nodded and they rose to their feet together. “Alfred, you need to prepare yourself. He’s on life support.”
“I have seen life support before, Dr. Thompkins,” the butler informed her stoically. “I expected as much.”
Leslie led Alfred through a maze of corridors to the intensive care ward where Dick had been taken. She paused in the doorway assessing the butler’s tense expression. Satisfied that Alfred was strong enough to face the scene beyond, she stepped inside.
One of the best poker faces known to man faltered momentarily, but Alfred maintained his calm appearance, focusing on the wall beyond Dick. Leslie gripped his arm gently. “Are you okay?”
“You can stay. I have spoken to the nurse,“ Leslie informed him, inclining her head to an intensive care nurse seated at a small table across the room. The woman was completely absorbed in her work and did not appear to notice the newcomers. “She will inform me the moment there is any change in Dick’s condition. Are you sure you’re okay?“
“I am doing as well as can be expected, under the circumstances,“ Alfred replied. The doctor waited a few more moments and then retreated, providing Alfred with some privacy.
Alfred Pennyworth continued to stare out directly in front of him. He listened to the fall of Leslie’s shoes as they echoed down the corridor and finally disappeared. Only then did Alfred lower his gaze and allow it to fall on Dick. His breath caught in his throat as he stared down at his grandson who appeared somewhat small and frail hidden under the masses of tubes and wires. Dick’s face was as pale as the pillow his head was resting against. His heavily bandaged chest rose and fell - or was forced to do so by the breathing apparatus that he was attached to.
Slowly, Alfred approached the bed, his face twisted with a combination of horror and grief. He reached out and laid his hand on Dick’s head, gently brushing his hair from his brow. “Oh, my boy.” Alfred raised a trembling hand to his mouth as he fought back the tears.
For a long time he just stood. Finally, Alfred lowered his face and asked for help from the one person he thought may be able to give it. “Please don’t take him, Father. He is needed here.”
Opening his eyes, Alfred picked up Dick’s hand and squeezed it, hoping that somehow the injured man would know it was him... know that he wasn’t alone... know that someone who cared was there.
“Don’t you go and die on me, young man. You hear me?” The only response was the gentle beeping and buzzing of the technology that surrounded the bed. Alfred could feel he was losing the composure he was renowned for. Tears filled the reserved man’s eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you,” he whispered, quoting from Winnie the Pooh. It had been Dick’s favourite book. Why that popped into his mind at that moment, Alfred didn’t know, but it echoed everything he felt.
“He needs you, Dick. I honestly don’t think he knows how much he needs you.“ Again, Alfred ran his free hand though Dick’s hair. “And... I... need... you... too.” The quiet sobs increased until Alfred Pennyworth finally broke down and cried.
“Another of your friends is calling you back.”
Dick turned. Alfred had stepped up to the water’s edge, his right arm outstretched. Dick stared at the elderly man’s face. “Alfred,” he whispered, recognizing the rare pain displayed.
“He’ll be all right. He knows that you are headed for a better place. His faith will cushion the blow that your death delivers.”
“Alfred’s faith is strong,” Dick agreed. The butler was a regular churchgoer who honestly believed that the Lord had been keeping an eye on his boys. ’How else would you have survived this long?’ he was often heard to say. However, Dick couldn’t help but wince at the hurt that plagued his friend’s eyes. Friend? No, ‘friend’ was far from adequate. Alfred was family. The truth was, Alfred was the cornerstone of Dick's life. No matter what happened, Alfred was always there to restore his equilibrium.
“He will help the others deal with their grief.”
“But no one will help him deal with his,” Grayson muttered with certainty.
“Perhaps not. We are nearly halfway. Look, you can almost see your mother’s face.”
Dick spun around quickly. They were much closer now and he could... he could see his mother’s face! She was smiling at him. His father was there too. Dick could feel tears filling his eyes. They looked well. They looked so happy. Both had their arms stretched out toward him. His longing to be with them grew.
“It won’t be long now, Son. Like I said, you are almost halfway.”
Henry MacDonald paced nervously. He still couldn't believe it. Thirty-two successful hits under his belt and he had missed! In ten years in the profession, he’d never missed. Once this particular employer caught up with him his fate would be sealed, which was why he was here.
MacDonald stopped and stared around the dump, though the word dump was far from an adequate description. This was the bottom of the line. The carpet on the floor was bare with ground-in filth and fleas. There was no electricity and the only light he had was from a single candle placed on the small table beside the blanketless cot that would serve as his bed. The shared bathroom down the hall was putrid and there was a smudge on the walls that could only be one thing. The smell of unwashed bodies and faeces was so strong in the common room it had made the assassin retch. However, he had no other choice if he wanted to live. No one would find him here. He'd left no trail. That he was certain of. His ability to disappear completely after a hit was legendary.
A rat ran across the ten-foot square room, stopped and studied MacDonald for a few seconds and then continued on its way. Henry grabbed one of his shoes and threw it at the vermin but missed. His hands shook with rage. He didn’t deserve this! None of this was his fault. He had to ring and let 'Mr Smith' know.
MacDonald took out his cell phone and dialled, starting to pace again.
"It would seem that Bruce Wayne is still breathing," Smith growled without welcome. "That does not please me."
MacDonald licked his lips. "I didn't actually miss. I hit the place he was standing but...You see..." How did he explain? He still couldn't believe it himself. "Someone from the crowd leapt up in front of him and..."
"And you shot him. Yes, it is on the news as we speak."
"Look, I had his bodyguards covered. This fella wasn't a bodyguard or a member of security.” The assassin had checked them all out meticulously. He knew their exact positions. He had taken the time to study them so he could recognize them on sight.
“He came from nowhere and positioned himself directly between me and Wayne. He knew what he was doing. I've never seen anyone move like that. I guess he must have been a bodyguard of sorts. Someone Wayne had planted in the crowd. I didn‘t pick him."
"I see. Interesting," Mr. Smith purred, "but far from important. I paid you to exterminate Bruce Butter-Wouldn't-Melt-in-his-Mouth Wayne."
"Look, I give you my word, I'll get Wayne the next time." There was silence. MacDonald licked his lips. The seconds drew out. Perspiration appeared on the harassed man's brow.
"Very well. But should you fail me again, your death will be long and excruciating. I will see to it personally."
"I won't fail." The phone was slammed down in his ear.
MacDonald took out a cigarette and his breathing gradually returned to normal as he sucked the calming nicotine into his agitated system. He’d been given a second chance. He wasn’t about to waste it. Now, he just needed to plan out the hit. He couldn’t afford errors. Wayne was likely to be at the hospital at the moment. If he could...
A shadow fell over MacDonald. He turned toward the window as it shattered inward. Henry MacDonald screamed as a creature from his worst nightmares landed inside the room. MacDonald took a revolver from his pocket and emptied it into the hulking form at point-blank range. The creature paused momentarily and then continued toward him.
"Who hired you?" it snarled. The voice was a hushed whisper - basically just air forced out through its tightly clenched jaw. A fist the size of a bowling ball darted out and encircled MacDonald's throat. "Who hired you?"
"I...I... I missed. Bruce Wayne is still alive," MacDonald whimpered. He knew Batman was a friend of Bruce Wayne’s. He had heard Wayne speak out in defence of Gotham’s creature of the night.
Batman's eyes became harder, but his grip relaxed a little. "Go on." Through great experience, Batman had learned that allowing a felon to talk often brought about unexpected revelations.
"He... I shot some other fella. Young fella. He leaped out of the crowd. He saw me and... and... he knew." MacDonald realized. "He knew I was going to shoot." Unlike everyone else who had spotted the assassin, this man seemed to know MacDonald wasn't part of the security team. "He jumped in front of Bruce Wayne. Saved his life. Positioned himself so I couldn‘t get a bullet past him."
Batman continued to glare at the other man, but his mind drifted. Dick had leapt up onto the stage knowing the bullet was coming? Of course he had. Dick didn’t try to shove him out of the way. He didn’t have time. He stood there and took the single bullet in the back! Batman blinked and his attention resettled on his captive. "Why didn't you pull out of the shot?"
"I'd already made them. He moved so quickly. I've never seen anyone move like that.” Batman continued to glare at the other man but he appeared distracted. MacDonald saw his chance to negotiate a deal. “Look, will you let me breathe here? I’m willing to co-operate. I know you know Bruce Wayne. You’re friends aren’t you?“
Batman’s face remained blank.
“Look, Bruce Wayne is fine. The fella I shot was a nobody. No one important. No one you'd care about."
Batman's emotions exploded. He lifted MacDonald off the ground, the hapless assassin kicking and gasping.
No one important. The words rang in Batman's ears. Nightwing was his partner and he had risked his life to shield the Dark Knight from the bullet. Batman once again became aware of the dull ache in his chest. It was a strange sensation that was distinct and different to the throbbing caused by the six bullets that had bounced off his reinforced suit. This wasn't something he'd felt for a long time... so long, that he didn't recognize it.
MacDonald's gasps became gurgles. "Who hired you?" Batman ground out, the flickering light from the candle refecting off his impassioned face. Normally Batman showed no emotion. Today was different.
"I... Mr. Smith!” MacDonald wasn’t prepared to identify his employer. Batman terrified him but Mr. Smith... Mr. Smith was a man who didn‘t know what mercy was. “Mr. Smith. That’s all he told me. I met him in a bar over on 46th Street. The Buster and Oyster."
"I know it. If you have been lying to me..." Batman increased his grip as added emphasis and then hurled MacDonald across the room. His rage was building without control.
The assassin began coughing as he dragged oxygen into his starved lungs.
"I expect you to give yourself up to police." Batman didn’t have time to do it himself. He didn’t know why, but he felt a sense of urgency that had little to do with the trail going cold. There was something nagging at him... and the burning in his chest was gradually spreading and intensifying.
MacDonald stared up at the Dark Knight with wide eyes.
"Give yourself up or I'll become your worst nightmare."
"Okay. I'll go now," MacDonald garbled, hauling himself to his feet. Batman maintained his piercing gaze, the sniper gradually wilting under it.
Without a word, Gotham's avenging angel turned, stepped up onto the window sill and disappeared into the emptiness beyond.
“How old were you when your parents died?” the oarsman asked.
“That’s young. You must have missed them very much.”
Dick stared passed the hunched old man. His parents were no longer frozen figures. They were moving about on the shore impatiently. It was then that Dick consciously noted the other people standing there. There was a young couple about his parents’ age. There was also a plump woman with large dark eyes. Dick knew instinctively that she had to be Tim’s mother - the family resemblance was unmistakable.
“They are waiting for you too,” the oarsman stated.
“You can read my thoughts?”
“Why are they waiting for me? I don’t know them.”
The oarsman smiled. “But they know you. They want to thank you. You have been important in the lives of those they love.”
Dick sensed movement behind. Tim had stepped up to the water. Unlike Leslie and Alfred, who had their hands stretched out, the youth simply stood looking lost, his arms hanging uselessly at his sides.
“Hi,” Tim whispered, as he entered the quiet intensive care ward. Alfred was seated beside Dick, his wrinkled hands locked around one of his grandson’s as he prayed in earnest. Leslie was standing at the head of the bed, her own hand on Dick’s brow checking for fever.
“How is he, Leslie?” Tim’s voice echoed in the room.
“Not good, Tim.”
The boy swallowed hard. He hadn’t expected all of this... all of these machines. “Is he going to be alright?” For several seconds there was silence outside of the sound of the pump forcing air in and out of Dick’s body.
“I don’t know.” Leslie’s voice was soft. Almost as if she didn’t want to admit what she had to say. “I’ve done all I can.”
“But he’s got a chance, doesn’t he?” Tim was floundering. Leslie wasn’t giving the answers he wanted - needed to hear.
Leslie sighed. “There’s always a chance, son.” Tim didn’t like the defeat that had echoed in each and every syllable.
“But he can’t die! He can’t!” The young man’s voice rose sharply and resounded with helplessness and desperation.
Alfred opened his eyes and glanced up at the youth. “His fate is out of mortal hands, Tim.”
“But he’s fighting, isn’t he?!” It was a sob. He was pleading.
“I don’t know,” Leslie muttered, honestly. “I hope so.”
Tim stared at Dick - a man who was like a brother. A man who had taken the time to teach him. Someone Tim loved. Slowly, he strode forward. “You’ve got to fight this, Dick. You hear me?! You’ve got to.” The boy stared down at his friend, the black and purple of the bruising peeking out from under the bandages standing out in contrast to the stark pallor of the rest of Dick’s skin. The beeping of the life-support machines shouted out how serious all of this was. “He isn’t breathing?” Tim whispered.
“No.” Leslie walked over to the lad and put her arm around him.
“Isn’t there anything you can do to help him?” Now Tim was drowning. This wasn’t right. Dick was strong. He wouldn’t go without a fight. He wouldn’t... would he?
“I’ve done everything I can, Tim. I wish there was more I could do.”
Tim licked his lips, pulled free of Leslie and stepped closer to the bed. Gingerly he placed his hand on Dick’s arm.
“Come on, Dick. You gotta fight. You’ve got to.”
© 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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