Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Nightwing: A Matter of Vengeance

by John Westcott

Chapter 9: The Art Of A Madman

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

Authors Note: Special thanks must go out to my friends Noel, Gina, and Andrea for helping me to get this right. You can all consider yourselves gurus. (^_^)

Deep Purple and Highway Star are copywright Warner Bros. Music and is available on the CD "Machine Head", written by Blackmore / Gillan / Glover / Lord / Paice. Beautiful Dreamer composed by Stephen Foster (first publication date circa 1864) and is available (among other places) on the original motion picture score for the film "Batman" by Danny Elfman.

In a Bludhaven apartment building, two horribly discordant voices wailed at the top of their lungs, screaming along with the rock music that pounded out of powerful Klipsch speakers. "Nobody gonna take my car! I'm gonna race it to the ground! Nobody gonna beat my car It's gonna break the speed of sound! Oooh it's a killing machine.... it's got everything. Like a driving power, big fat tires and everything!!!" As the pulsing music of Deep Purple's Highway Star shook the very walls of Dick Grayson's apartment, the owner of both the apartment and the building itself leaned backward and yelled the lyrics into a long handled wooden spoon from the kitchen, adopting his best rock star pose. Across the room, young Timothy Drake jumped up in the air, his legs outstretched and his hands flying wildly over an imaginary guitar. The teenager picked up where Dick left off, screaming the lyrics in his own terribly off key style.

"I love it! I need it! I bleed it! Yeah it's a wild hurricane! Alright! Hold tight! I'm a highway starrrrrrrrr!" During his attempt to hold the final note in the chorus, Tim's voice cracked and faded into nothingness, leaving the current boy wonder with a dismayed look on his face.

Dick was the first one to lose his composure, dropping to his knees in a fit of laughter. In true cause and effect style, Tim witnessed Dick's collapse and summarily doubled over laughing. Neither individual was particularly useful for the next five minutes, as they could do very little other than try and remember to breathe through fits of wailing laughter. If Bane himself had leaped through the window with a machine gun in hand, neither Dick nor Tim could have done all that much to stop him. Finally, Dick composed himself enough to climb to his feet and turn down his stereo.

Many months ago he had taken the liberty of partially soundproofing the walls in his apartment, but he could only do so much without ripping out the walls and inserting sound proofing baffles in them, and that would have brought too much unwanted attention from the buildings beautiful and very intelligent superintendent, Bridget Clancy. With the volume turned up well over the halfway mark on his NAD C523 CD player, his powerful Klipsch speakers were moving some serious air. Clancy had already been up to his apartment twice to check on the ungodly noise that was emanating from the usually sedate apartment, and Dick didn't want to make her or the other tenants angry at his rambunctious merrymaking.

It was, after all, early on a Saturday afternoon, and Dick knew full well that most people in the building wanted to spend their weekend luxuriating, not getting their ears pummelled by a classic rock band at near maximum volume. He may have owned the property, but he couldn't act like he did. Dick was only too happy to spend his day off with Tim, whom he had invited up for chili and some general down time. Likewise, Tim was only too happy to take a break from his studies and join Dick in Bludhaven for the day, both of them needed some time off from their crazed lifestyles. From the moment Dick showed up on his motorcycle to pick up his teenaged friend at Brentwood Academy, the two embarked on a day of merriment and fun.

First up was the ride to Bludhaven on Dick's motorcycle, which, needless to say, was faster than just about anything Tim had ever experienced. For a short time, as they hurtled south down Highway 61 towards The Haven, Dick could have sworn that the wind was howling a little louder than usual in his ears, then he realized that it was Tim screaming at the top of his lungs. Acting like the true older brother to Tim, Dick surged the motorcycle along at an even faster pace, much to Tim's dismay...... and Dick's delight. The fact that it was early winter, and not the best time to be driving a motorcyle to begin with, did not help to put Tim at ease. Upon their arrival in The Haven, the pair visited a local movie store and rented several of their favourite movies, among them were Die Hard, Die Hard II, the first three Lethal Weapon Movies, some early James Bond films, and a Playstation II console and several games.

"I really should buy myself one of these." Dick commented as they set up the game console.

"Yeah, like you'd have time to play it. I think you should just cut out the middle man and buy me one, instead." Tim quipped.

Dick and Tim then proceeded to whip up a batch of "The Famous Flying Graysons Flying Chili", all rights reserved, patents pending. According to Dick, the recipe for the chili was handed down from one generation of Grayson men to the next since time immemorial, although Dick had a hunch that was just something his father told him just to give the concoction a special charm. His father had always been a master showman. After the events of the past few weeks, with Jonah and his gang of psychos threatening every life in Bludhaven in an attempt at a gang war, and brutally raping and murdering several women, Dick was as tightly wound as he had ever been in his life, and this time spent with the teen he viewed as his younger brother, in spirit if not in blood, was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Although Roland Desmond was still a serious threat to the city and everyone in it, that was an evil he could deal with. Things seemed to be looking up once more, as his upcoming date with Barbara loomed ever closer and Jonah was finally in custody at Arkham Asylum. The two young men invited Bruce along for their day of fun, but as they fully expected, the shadow of the bat loomed large over its creator, and Batman was needed to tend to research on a case, spending most of his day in the cave below Wayne Manor, before venturing forth at night to act on the research culled from the mighty crays during the day. Bruce insisted that it was a necessary, yet trivial matter, and that the two should continue on with their planned activities without him. Dick was disappointed, but not at all surprised. Thankfully, Tim was more than ready for an afternoon of fun and relaxation as his Christmas exams approached, and constant study was beginning to take its toll.

"Wow, I can't remember the last time I've seen you this relaxed." Tim told him as he turned on the Playstation II and popped a game into the machine.

Dick checked on the chili once more before joining Tim on the couch and responding. "Let me tell you, pal o' mine, it's been a rough couple of weeks. I've had to deal with this psychotic gang and their even crazier leader as both Nightwing and Dick Grayson, there's barely been time to go to the bathroom, let alone relax. I think that's finally behind me now, and I've got some things coming up that I'm looking forward too, as well."

Tim snickered and smiled a knowing smile. "Yeah, I was talking to Babs the other night on the phone, she seemed awfully high on life, too. When I asked her about it, she told me it was grown up stuff, which immediately made me think it had something to do with you."

"Ever the detective, eh Sherlock?" Dick replied as he picked up a game controller and chose a character to do virtual battle with Tim's chosen character.

"Believe it or not, it was Bruce who let me in on you and Babs. Of all people, I would have expected him to be out of the relationship loop, imagine my surprise when he told me you and Babs are going out on a real date."

Dick grimaced as Tim's character let loose with a special move on his own cyber warrior, causing mock pixilated blood and gore to fly across the screen. Dick may have been the superior fighter in real life, but as a child of the video age, Tim definitely had the advantage in the gaming world. "I ought to make him play against Babs." Dick thought to himself. "Yeah, it looks like Babs and I are finally making the effort to put our past relationship mistakes aside and move forward. Did I tell you her dad was here to read me the riot act when he found out about us?"

Tim's eyes widened and his concentration faltered upon hearing that piece of news, allowing Dick to seize the opportunity and attempt a special move with his character. With his fingers flailing wildly across the control pad, however, the attempt failed and Tim expertly countered, laying Dick's character out for the count. "Wow, what is it like getting the parental third degree from Jim Gordon?"

"Let's just say I pity any criminal that he interrogates."

Tim chuckled as he entered his initials into the games memory as the world champion. "That must have been tough to take, but something tells me she's more than worth the effort."

Dick nodded his head and smiled at the thought of the beautiful redhead. "You won't hear me arguing, partner. She's worth it, all right."

Tim reset the game and the carnage began all over again. If his life ever hung on ability to control a video game combatant, Dick would much rather have his fate rest in Tim's hands than his own. "That reminds me, I was with her a while ago and noticed that you had her doing some research on a school project for you. What's with that? I wonder what your teachers would say if they knew you were getting research done by the cyber legend known only as Oracle." Dick chided as he swatted the game controller from Tim's hands and proceeded to press his temporary advantage, launching attack after attack on Tim's virtual combatant.

"It's nothing huge, I'm going over to her place later this week to pick that up. It's for a project I have to pass in before Christmas, and I was a little pressed for time." Tim replied as he scrambled for his game controller.

"In my day, I did research the old fashioned way, I went to the library and looked it up in books."

His controller firmly in his grasp once more, Tim's fingers flashed over the buttons and Dick watched as his character was picked up high in the air and literally ripped in half, only to be thrown onto a set of ugly looking metal spikes in a pit below the two virtual warriors. Somehow, Tim had managed to defeat him yet again. "You gotta catch up with the times, old man." Tim snickered. Dick countered the remark with a pillow shoved in Tim's face, pushing the teen down onto the couch and sitting on him, effectively pinning him down while Dick finally engaged in a match against Tim that he might have a chance in Hell of winning. Tim had forgotten the oldest rule in the book, when all else fails, play dirty. When he finally struggled out from beneath his captor, he lunged for the control pad, only to find that he had been soundly defeated and Dick's character was now the champion of the world.

The pair broke into another fit of laughter as Dick took to strutting around the room in a triumphant power walk. Finally, the laughter died down and Dick returned to the couch, where Tim had turned his attention to the picture of Dick and Barbara that rested on his coffee table. Tim didn't need his detective skills to see that the picture had been taken before he had taken up the mantle of Robin, as Barbara was not confined to a wheelchair in the picture. Her bright red hair and beautiful figure was enough to give any male a reason to pause, but the look in Dick's eyes made it obvious to anyone that he was looking past the curvy figure, exquisite facial features, and wild mane of fire red hair to the true woman that lay inside.

"You really love her, don't you?"

Dick leaned back on the couch and laced his fingers together behind his head, staring at the photograph, taken years ago. It seemed like another lifetime. "What's not to love? Ever since we decided to start dating again, I moved that picture from the wall over to the table where I can see it more often. I also had a wallet size version of it made so I can have it with me wherever I go. Just getting through a hard day is easier when I can think of her and look at her picture. I have some experience with women, but not a whole lot with true love. If this ain't it, I can't imagine it feeling much better than this. In one way or another, I think I've loved her since I first met her."

"I haven't known her as long as you, but I'm pretty sure she feels the same way."

"I'd like to think that." Dick replied.

"That must feel pretty good." Tim added.

"It's the best feeling in the world, kiddo. You don't know what the meaning of the word 'content' is until you know someone loves you like that."

"That's the kind of thing men die for."

"It's worth dying for, kid. When did you get so smart, anyway?"

Before Tim could respond with another witty one liner, they were interrupted by a knock at the door. They exchanged curious glances, as neither one was expecting company. Perhaps it was Clancy, come to see if the boys at play had killed one another yet. Dick bounded across the room and slid on his sock feet across the tiled floor. When he opened the door, he was shocked to see the last two people he ever expected standing before him.

"Is there room at your table for two more?" Bruce asked as he and Alfred Pennyworth stepped inside.

*****

In the darkest recesses of Arkham Asylum, formerly known as Mercy Mansion, The Joker continued to listen to the insane rantings of his new understudy. Although he was only partially listening to the newcomer, he still managed to take in the meaning of every word while he continued making his own art inside his cell. Being The Joker, he was, of course, denied any sharp objects during his stay at the asylum. After an incident three years ago when he bludgeoned an orderly to death with an ashtray, The Joker had been forbidden even blunt objects while under the care of Jeremiah Arkham. During mealtimes, the psychotic madman was fed vegetable soup and bread with a plastic spoon or sometimes strapped down and given an intravenous drip. Even when most of the other inmates were allowed into the exercise yard one at a time for daily exercise, The Joker was encased in a leather strait jacket. Held in check by twelve armed guards who kept the inmate under control with twelve separate leashes that were attached to various areas of his restraints. All that was for one lap around the exercise yard in his wheelchair.

The families of the victims of The Jokers countless homicides raised an unholy ruckus in The Gotham Gazette about allowing such a horrible criminal to breath free air and feel the sun on his face, but as a citizen of The United States, even he had certain rights that many Washington Lobby Groups fought so valiantly for. They argued that even the basest criminal needed help, not punishment, and to deny men such as himself the right to a brief trip around the yard was as criminal as anything he had done. The Joker always wanted to go to Washington and feed those idiots their own livers as a thank you, too bad he hadn't gotten around to it..... yet. So, denied any useful utensils for making art, The Joker instead contented himself with etching his genius into the concrete wall with one long, uncut fingernail. It was most certainly crude, but it was the best he could do until he was free once again. Soon, the tiny image he was etching into the wall would be complete.

"Everything in life came easy to me.....except keeping my sanity." Jonah growled through clenched teeth. "I had everything growing up, except a parent to truly love me."

Across the hallway, seated in his wheelchair, The Joker's laugh was low and menacing. "Why Jonah, your story would bring a tear to even a glass eye. Alas, all your bad luck and a million dollar bill would buy you a three toed sloth and enough food to feed it for a fortnight. What am I saying? I'll tell you. You have to leave that crap behind and concentrate on one thing....... death and destruction. The only true art." For a split second, The Joker's mind flashed on a scene, was it from his own life? In that brief second of memory, he saw someone who looked remarkably like himself. Was that a wife and child with him? Did they ever find out what happened to the man who became The Joker? Did they even care? The Clown Prince Of Crime shook his head to clear it and the vision was gone, replaced with the crystal clarity that came with insanity, which he readily embraced like a long lost lover.

"Have I told you yet about the time I boiled my victims in their own juices?" The Joker asked.

Across the hall, Jonah nodded his head. "Yes, you told me yesterday."

"And do you remember the point of my little story, young man?"

Jonah nodded. "You're saying that, those little voices in my head, the ones I keep saying 'no' to. The ones that tell me that even I couldn't get away with what I am planning......"

"Throw all that out the window right now, my young psycho in training. If the little voice in your head says no, then you absolutely MUST SAY YES!!"

John Masters Jr., otherwise known as Jonah, nodded again as if he were in a classroom taking notes from a brilliant professor. In a very real way, that was exactly what was transpiring. Once more, The Joker took a split second to ask himself why he was doing this. Why had he taken this violently crazed lunatic under his wing? Normally, he would just as soon strangle this man calling himself Jonah with his own tongue rather than take the time to pass on his infinite knowledge of the homicidal arts. Then it suddenly came rushing back to him, the reason for this little tutoring session: The Joker wanted to hurt Batman, and he wanted to hurt him in a brand new and exciting way. He had tried the direct approach, attempting to kill the flying rat through a countless number of death traps and macabre schemes, only to have all of the innocent bystanders fall, while The Bat remained standing.

But there was more than one way to inflict pain.

The Joker remembered quite well his execution of Batman's sidekick, Robin. The whole scenario led to the Bat boob chasing him from the United Nations Building, a blood red fury in the Dark Knights eyes. He remembered the time he had shot and paralysed the daughter of Jim Gordon, the oh-so boring policeman who was always there to handcuff him when Batman was finished with him. The Batman was looking for blood that time, too. It wasn't until the incident in No Man's Land, when The Joker shot and killed Gordon's wife, that he realized who this Nightwing truly was, surely this was the original Robin he had encountered years ago. The Bat's first and most trusted squire. Imagine the pain and suffering The Bat would experience if this Nightwing were to be killed by Jonah, acting as an agent for The Joker's insane schemes? Oh yes, it was a beautiful ploy. Yet another work of art by the master. Maybe Nightwing's death would finally drive his old foe over the edge. After all, wasn't that always the ultimate goal?

Not to mention, it sounded like a lot of fun.

For Jonah's part, he was beginning to think that being sent to Arkham was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Finally, he had found the one person who encouraged him, instead of constantly discouraging him. He had found someone who accepted him for what he was, and didn't try and mold him into something he wasn't. He felt as if this bizarre looking man was just like him, someone who didn't accept societies version of what was normal and what was not, someone who did what he wanted, when he wanted. The idiot who was attempting to treat him, Doctor Arkham, was certainly no help at all. All Arkham ever wanted to do was 'cure' him, everyone but The Joker always assumed there was something wrong with him that had to be fixed. In their first meeting, Arkham began by showing Jonah a series of Rorschach tests, to which Jonah responded that each ink blot looked like a 'naked dead woman', while Arkham 'tsk tsked' every answer. Of course, they didn't look like naked dead women to Jonah, they looked like ink blots, and nothing more. No, Arkham would be no help to him, but The Joker was another story altogether.

Finally, Jonah had found the father figure he was looking for.

*****

"Don't take this the wrong way, guys, but I have to admit I'm shocked you're here." Dick said as he swallowed another mouthful of his classic chili. Even Alfred, who was not partial to spicy foods like Dick's chili, admitted that it was a fantastic meal. Dick had to take special care, though, to keep Alfred from attempting to serve them all, insisting that while he and Bruce were guests in his home, Dick would serve them. Bruce, who was dressed somewhat casually in a leather bomber jacket, which he had removed upon entry, a pair of relaxed fit dockers, and a dress shirt, tilted his head indifferently as he swallowed his own mouthful of chili.

"I got a call from Jim Gordon, today. He told me about his little trip down here and your discussion, which included Barbara and myself as topics." Dick groaned as he remembered the event.

"Jim was doing a pretty good job at pretending to be angry, but I've seen him truly angry, and I know he was impressed with the way you defended yourself. He told me, pretty much verbatim, what you said about me."

Tim glanced curiously at Dick and then back at Bruce, wondering exactly what it was that Dick had said, but not inquiring about it himself. If either man wanted anyone else to know, then he had no doubt it would come out in time. Dick and Bruce shared a look across the table, each one seeing a special glint in the others eyes. It was a look that neither had seen in a long time, since before the time of Bane's assault on Batman, before even Bruce insisted that Dick abandon the mantle of Robin for his own well being. It was a look that hinted at their shared camaraderie of old. Bruce was never much to share his feelings, especially in front of Alfred and Tim, but Dick knew when he saw that look in Bruce's eyes why he had given up an afternoon in the cave to spend time with his adopted son. It was his way of saying thank you for the kind things Dick had said in defending him. It wasn't something Dick had to do when confronted by an angry Jim Gordon, he could have played into the old 'millionaire playboy' image when Jim confronted him, and apologized profusely for Bruce Wayne's treatment of women while swearing that he had not grown up to be as flighty and directionless as his mentor, but instead he staunchly defended Bruce Wayne the philanthropist, and lauded the virtues of Bruce Wayne the foster father. Certainly, Bruce had given Dick plenty of reasons to give up on him throughout the years, and still he defended him.

"You're welcome." Was Dick's only reply.

"Allow me to clear the table, Master Dick." Alfred interjected as he began gathering up their plates. Dick snatched the plates from the kindly old butler's hands before he could even stand up.

"Not on your life, Al. That's what Tim is here for. This afternoon, you're just one of the guys." This time it was Tim's turn to groan as Alfred merely smiled demurely, content to let the youngest member of the group do the dirty work.

"Alfred told me about your phone call to The Manor the other day. I hope that DNA analysis helped your case." Bruce said as they moved to the living room while Tim placed the dirty dishes in the sink to soak while mumbling something under his breath. A breif smile passed across Dick's face, even at rest, Bruce couldn't help but think about a case.

"Oh yeah, it helped big time. Thanks to that DNA sample I took and another Joey Flaherty had in his possession, we had enough corroborating evidence to put him away. Last I heard, he was up at Arkham, where he belongs. The guy was a real head case, Bruce, he even gave me the willies." Dick replied as he inserted the original Lethal Weapon into the DVD player and activated it. "So, do you guys want to watch the movie now, or take a crack at the Playstation?" He asked.

"What's a Playstation?" Bruce asked innocently.

"Finally!" Dick exclaimed triumphantly as he handed Bruce a control pad. "Someone I can beat at this stupid game!"

*****

Frankie was enraged at the treatment he had received since his arrival at The Bludhaven Justice Centre. Why didn't they fear and respect them? They were The Misfits, and they deserved respect. Instead, he and his fellow gang members had been treated as just another set of criminals, with nothing at all special about them. Frankie was livid that the police had taken his gun away from him. That was his gun, he had stolen it fair and square from The Shearwater Naval Base, and not only that, there was no sign of Jonah anywhere. Shouldn't he be coming for them? As Jonah's second in command, the other Misfits looked to him for leadership, but Frankie had no answers to give. As they all waited in a large holding cell in the bowels of The Justice Centre, a man Frankie had never seen before entered the area through the lock down gates and approached the guards standing outside the cell. After handing each of them a wad of money, the guards nodded and disappeared down the long hallway that led to the only exit.

"Who the Hell are you?" Frankie asked.

"I'm a messenger, my friend."

Frankie sized up the newcomer. He was in his early twenties with black hair and a lanky build, dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans, a white dress shirt, and long trench coat, an unlit cigarette dangling on his lips.

"What's the message?"

Mac Arnot removed a shiny metal cigarette lighter from his trench coat pocket, savouring the power he held at this moment. "The message comes from Roland Desmond. The message is........ goodbye."

At the mention of Roland Desmond's name, Frankie and many of the other Misfits in the holding cell flew into a rage. "Desmond's nothing but a sack of shit! What's he gonna do to us, big shot? We're in jail!"

Arnot turned on his heel and began strolling away, refusing to answer. Frankie and the others watched as Desmond's latest errand boy grew smaller and smaller, disappearing down the long hallway that led to the secure monitoring area. Arnot had arranged the entire affair, making sure that officers loyal only to Desmond were on duty at the time, from the security monitors to the guards walking the beat. He had arranged for all of them to be "taking a break" for the next five minutes, and for the broken pipe that led to the main holding cell. When he finally reached the end of the long hallway, Arnot turned on one foot and cast a glance back at the caged animals known collectively as The Misfits. Arnot winked conspiratorially at Frankie as he thumbed the wheel on his lighter, causing it to spark and a sliver of flame to shoot forth.

"I've got two words for you, stud: gas leak." Almost as one, The Misfits began to panic and rattle the bars of their cells. Arnot took some pleasure at watching the fear and panicked reactions as he lit his cigarette and took a long draw on it, savouring both the chaos and the musky tang of tobacco. And then, with one final gesture, Arnot tossed his lighter down the hallway toward them...... still aflame. The Inspector turned on his heel once more and disappeared into the main part of the building. Seconds later, the holding cell exploded in flame. Blockbuster had already arranged to have the gas turned off within seconds of the explosion, there was no reason to have any more of The Justice Centre destroyed than was absolutely necessary. The Misfits would be destroyed by a disastrous, and accidental, gas leak. Chief Ebersol would do some public relations work, assuring the public that it would never happen again, and no more questions would be asked. As Arnot exited the building to the sound of a raging fire alarm, he smiled contentedly. He had only one more thorn to remove from his side, Sergeant Joey Flaherty.

*****

As the sun fell below the horizon, Dick felt a pang of regret well up in his stomach. It had been a fantastic day for him, spent in relaxation with his oldest and truest friends. Bruce, Alfred, and Tim, along with Barbara, were the glue that held his life together, and it felt wonderful to share an afternoon with them and not have to worry about fighting crime or coming to bodily harm. Bruce, especially, was not one to pine away his days eating chili, learning to play a video game, watching movies, and very little else. Since the death of his parents, Dick's mentor had been a very driven and brooding individual, and he had become even worse since the death of Jason Todd. Dick figured he could probably count on one hand the times he and Bruce just hung out and did as little as possible, just for the fun of it. Bruce Wayne always had a case to go over, a criminal to catch, or some new fighting style to perfect. Wether it was because he felt he owed this day to his son or not, Dick appreciated the effort, and he told Bruce so.

And now night was approaching, and the time of The Bat was at hand.

It was almost as if a shadow passed over Bruce's face, marking the time of day, and the fact that night was approaching. When Dick saw this, he knew it would not be long before Bruce would ask Alfred to start the car. It was time to return to the cave, and to the call of The Batman. Indeed, just as Dick predcited, seconds after the sun began to dip over the horizon, Bruce informed Alfred that it was time to go home. Although Dick was sad to see them go, he was thrilled that they had shown up at all. Alfred and Tim shared a short but heartfelt goodbye with Dick before disappearing downstairs to the car, leaving Bruce and Dick alone in the apartment. For several seconds, the two just shared a slightly uncomfortable silence and a warm look, the look of a father and son.

"Ummmm, listen," Dick began, "Thanks for coming. It meant a lot to me."

"I know it did. It was the least I could do."

"You know, I meant all those things I said to Jim the other day. You've been great to me, even though we've had our problems in the past, you've always looked out for me."

Bruce shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other before responding. "I did my best. I hope it was enough. It certainly seems to have been. You've done everyone proud, especially me, but I suspect your strength of character and the help of your friends, like The Titans, Tim, Barbara, and Alfred, had a lot more to do with it."

Dick nodded. "They did have a lot to do with it, but none more so than you."

Just as the look on his face became hard and impassive moments ago, it just as quickly softened at the compliment payed him by Dick. Bruce reached out and squeezed Dick's shoulder, which was as close to a hug as Bruce ever gave. "Go and give Barbara a call. I know she'd love to hear from the man of her dreams."

Dick offered Bruce a lop sided grin. "Yeah, I think I'll do just that."

Bruce nodded, smiling with his eyes, if not his lips, and turned to walk out the door. "Be happy." He called as the door shut behind him.

"Take your own advice!" Dick yelled back, making sure Bruce would hear.

Seconds later, Dick was dialling Barbara's number. After three rings, she picked up the line. Before she even had a chance to say hello, Dick was speaking. "Hey beautiful, enough of this messing around, let's get serious. In two days, this date is going to happen, and it's gonna be big."

*****

If Joey Flaherty thought for one second he could get away with murder, the one individual he would choose for that dubious distinction was approaching him at that very moment.... with a peculiar smile on his face. Mac Arnot, as bold as brass, was approaching his desk from across the floor of the squad room. Immediately their eyes locked, and both men refused to blink in some childish contest of will. Sensing Flaherty's indignation, Arnot smiled and began to wave a file folder that he held in his hands as if it were a white flag. Flaherty's lips pulled back into a sneer of contempt for the young man, this moment was bound to happen since Joey had taken control of the Misfits case away from Arnot and dragged it into the light. Well, if Arnot wanted a fight, Flaherty refused to back down.

Earlier in the day, Joey had been sitting at his desk when the explosion in the sub basement in the next building over took the lives of every Misfit in custody. Immediately, Flaherty knew what had happened and who was responsible. In what could only be described as a stroke of genius, Roland Desmond had arranged for The Misfits to be killed while in police custody, and to have it all conveniently blamed on a gas leak. Joey had raced to the scene, doing his best to aid the rescue efforts, but it was too late, The Misfits were dead.

To anyone with a brain it seemed to be a transparent execution. Just enough gas had leaked into the holding cells to create an explosion to kill The Misfits, but not enough to destroy the rest of the building, there was hardly any structural damage to the basement areas. How convenient, also, to have every guard on duty taking a break. The gas had been turned off seconds after the first explosion, as if someone had been standing by, waiting for just such a moment. Would anyone of any importance ask any questions? Of course not. Desmond had greased the right palms, and the threat to his power had been eliminated in one masterstroke. With Arnot approaching him now, Joey knew that The Inspector had more on his mind than gloating about his triumph. The case against Jonah remained strong, however, and there was no way even Roland Desmond could kill Jonah in Arkham, the case would continue no matter what Arnot had to say.

"If it isn't Desmond's new lackey." Flaherty said, not caring who in the bustling squad room would hear him, as Arnot approached his desk. The Inspector shook his head, as if in sympathy, for Joey's attempt at an insult.

"I think you want to keep your voice down and be nice to me, Sergeant Flaherty. I'm about to become your new best friend." Arnot replied as he tossed the file arrogantly on Joey's desk.

"What's this, your rap sheet?" Flaherty asked.

Arnot snickered arrogantly, shaking his head once more as if Flaherty were the slowest child in a class all by himself. "No, but it may be yours."

Suddenly, Joey froze on the spot, the look in his eyes suddenly became very wary and a sinking feeling suddenly welled up in his stomach. As his face became a mask of alarm, Mac Arnot's face blossomed into a self satisfied smirk. Saying nothing, The Inspector merely pointed to the file on Flaherty's desk, indicating that he should read it before hurling any more insults at his antagonist. Joey refused to speak any further until he opened the file to see what lay inside. A fear that he had almost forgotten grabbed him by the spine and refused to let go. Reaching out with fingertips that had suddenly turned ice cold, he flipped the folder open...... and felt his world crash in around him.

"Where the hell did you find this?" Flaherty said, his voice deep with barely repressed rage.

"It's not where I found it that counts, it's what that little piece of information means. From now on, you and I are the best of friends, Sergeant. You're gonna play ball with me and the people I work with, and you're gonna smile while you do it. Understand?"

In a show of defiance, Flaherty ripped the file in two. Arnot was not impressed. "You can rip it up all you want, I have the original. You see, I know a guy like you won't respond to threats against his family and friends. You're a tough, old line cop. All threats like that would do is strengthen your resolve, but to destroy your reputation as a cop, to destroy your image in the eyes of your fellow cops, your family and friends, that's what I'll do if you don't settle down and be a good boy."

Joey sighed in resignation. "You're no better than the Misfits you killed today, Arnot. In fact, you're worse. What do you want, anyway? The Misfits are destroyed, Jonah is in Arkham, what can you gain by doing this?"

Arnot's response was immediate. "It's simple, I don't like flatfoots like you challenging me. I run this town, you little shit, and if you don't play ball with me, you'll be wishing you were six feet under the ground with your loser brother." At Arnot's last remark, Joey almost leaped across the desk and crushed The Inspectors skull with his own bare hands. Instead, he gripped the sides of his desk until his knuckles turned white. Arnot took an involuntary step backward as he witnessed the rage building in Flaherty's eyes, these were the moments Arnot enjoyed most. "I know you wouldn't have gone up against me if it weren't for your pyjama wearing pal, and I want to bury him, so what you're going to do is continue to play his confidante while feeding him the information I want you to feed him, and keeping me appraised of his plans."

For some reason even Flaherty could not comprehend, he suddenly shut up tighter than a clam. Perhaps it was the remnants of his past that Arnot had dredged up, perhaps he didn't trust himself to contain his fury over the comments about his brother, and perhaps he just didn't want to give his foe the satisfaction of hearing his voice trembling with anger. Nonetheless, Sergeant Joey Flaherty refused to acknowledge Arnot any further.

"You think about what we've said here today, friend. I'll get back to you when the time is right." Inspector Arnot then turned and walked away as if nothing of consequence had been said. Joey released his grip on his desk and began to rub his temples, he had some long hard thinking to do.

*****

Finally, The Joker had completed his latest work of art and decided upon a plan of action. It was bold, it was daring, and it was oh so delicious. As he merrily hummed the melody of 'Beautiful Dreamer' to himself, he etched the final line of his art into the wall of his cell. To anyone else, it was merely a stick figure, but to The Joker, it was the embodiment of his plan. There, on the darkened wall before him, was a female stick figure seated in a chair....... a chair with what appeared to be crudely drawn wheels on either side. Soon, very soon, the blood would run deep in Bludhaven.


"Wow!" Barbara exclaimed. "Where's a phone booth when you need one? Or is this your repair-man outfit?" She asked as Dick entered her apartment. Her old flame was dressed casually, in a pair of faded blue jeans, a simple red T-shirt from The Gap, and his ever faithful Gotham Knights leather jacket. Dick's face blossomed into a mile wide grin as he offered the beauteous red head a chivalrous bow and brought his arm out from behind his back, presenting her with two freshly cut red roses. Just the sight of them made her squeal with delight.

"No special outfits are necessary this evening. It's quite simple, my dear woman. You and I have been beating around the bush for the better part of the last decade. We've seen each other at our best and worst. I thought our date should be relaxed. You don't need to dress up to impress me, and considering I'm going to put the modules in for you before we head up to my place, I figured I should mothball the tuxedo for the evening. Let's just be ourselves, shall we?"

Barbara looked at him adoringly as she took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her roses. "I couldn't agree more, my knight in shining armour. Or should I say denim?"

"Good." Dick replied as he took off his jacket and tossed it to the couch, searching out the monitor modules and the step ladder to begin his work. "Now let me get to this so we can have some fun."

"You don't mind if I change while you work, do you?" Barbara asked.

"Not at all. I should have this done in about fifteen minutes." Dick replied. Barbara disappeared into the bedroom as Dick climbed the step ladder and went about his work, armed with screwdriver and tool belt. From the other room, Barbara called out to him.

"So, are you going to give me any clue as to what we're doing tonight?" She asked. Dick smiled to himself as he inserted the new modules in their bracket mounts.

"Not a one, my dear. This evening is an exercise in two things: you're trust in me, and me finding new and improved ways to make you wonder what will happen next." From the main room, Dick heard Barbara mutter something under her breath. She was never fond of surprises, but Dick had made sure that all the events of the night would be pleasant. He hadn't really been old enough to get much advice on courting women from his own father, and Bruce certainly hadn't been much help in that regard, but there was one thing he remembered from his youth. He remembered his father sneaking up on his mother, and presenting her with a handful of flowers he had picked at the fairgrounds. Dick remembered the look on his mothers face, it was the look of sheer delight. She, too, was known for her hatred of surprises. Dick recalled vividly his father on the receiving end of a loving kiss from his mother, and then his father giving young Dick a conspiratorial wink and a thumbs up. "All tehara's love a good surprise." His father told him later, using the old Romany word for 'young woman'. He had thought long and hard about what to do for this occasion. This was, after all, their first real date in some time. He wanted it to be special, but he didn't want it to be pretentious. Dressing up in gown and tuxedo for an evening in a fine restaurant felt wrong to him, as did a simple night of popcorn and movies. So Dick did what he was so very good at, improvising with whatever was at hand. Above all else, he wanted tonight to be a night that they both would remember for the rest of their lives.

With one module installed, Dick moved on to the next one, placed just over the main door to her apartment. Placed in this manner, the monitors would ensure that no one could ever injure Barbara in the same manner as The Joker had ever again. He was halfway into screwing the second monitor into its bracket when Barbara's musical voice rang out behind him. "Well? What do you think?"

Dick turned his head in the direction of her voice...... and was absolutely stunned. For the first time since he could remember, Dick felt himself losing his balance, and stumbled for the rungs of the ladder. Barbara had certainly done herself up for the occasion. She wasn't dressed in any particularly high fashion style, she was, quite simply.... beautiful.

Barbara hadn't been in her bedroom for much longer than five minutes, but the effect it had on her appearance was dramatic, indeed. Ever since the incident that cost her the use of her legs, Barbara had made a habit of dressing down, almost making a concerted effort to not look too sexy. She had certainly made up for it this evening. Instead of slipping her hair back into a ponytail as she normally did, she let the red mane of hair fall loose around her shoulders, which only served to enhance her high, almost obscenely perfect cheek bones and eyes so green he felt as if he could become lost in them for the rest of his life. Normally, Babs eschewed makeup in her day to day life and in her alter ego as Oracle, but some red lipstick and eye shadow served to bring out her full lips and brilliant eyes even more. Foregoing the usual loose fitting clothing, Babs also favoured a tighter, black sweater this evening, clearly showing that she had not lost her figure. Dick had almost forgotten that she could serve as a model if she so desired. Her face was just that perfect.

Suddenly, Dick was reminded of another incident many years ago, just a few weeks after Barbara showed up on the scene as Batgirl. Dick was taken with the sexy red headed newcomer from the very first, and as a young boy with his hormones running wild, he wasn't able to hide it very successfully when in her presence. Inwardly, he made a note of the fact that he wasn't doing a very good job of hiding it even now. He remembered conversing with the new vigilante, Batgirl, on the rooftop of the Cathcart Tower, and the newcomer becoming very angry with him.

"I'm up here." She said to a young Robin, causing him to glance from her chest to her scowling face.

"Yeah. I know. I'm sorry." Young Robin apologized. Mesmerized by the young girls beauty.

"You're talking to my chest, again, boy wonder." Batgirl replied, her voice tinged with anger and more than a hint of warning.

"I'm sorry." Robin replied. And yet, he was still eyeing her with the look that only an awestruck teen could truly muster. It was then that she slugged him. It was the only time she had ever been physically violent with him, and the punch hurt his pride more than anything else. It did, however, set some ground rules between the two erstwhile partners. He was not to stare at her like she was a piece of meat, and she wouldn't have to flatten him in the future. As the memory came flooding back to him, Dick grinned, and made the decision that he would handle the situation with far more aplomb this time around.

"Wow." Dick muttered. "I'll comment on your looks just as soon as I can make my brain work again. It's kind of stuck in neutral right now."

Barbara laughed musically. "Don't worry, boy wonder, I won't hit you this time. Actually, I kind of like it. In fact, I always have."

Dick exhaled in relief and the two laughed together. It had been a long time since he had heard her laugh like that, too long. He immediately quickened his pace and screwed the last monitor module into its bracket while connecting the necessary fibreoptic wires into the unit. The job done, he leaped down off the ladder and donned his jacket. Seconds later, he met Barbara by the door, still sniffing the roses he had given her and smiling contentedly. Dick leaned over to take a sniff of the roses himself and spoke in a hushed tone. "Do you know why I just gave you two roses?"

"I have an idea, but why don't you tell me?" She replied with a smile.

"Quite simple, my lady. One red rose represents you, the other represents me. Together, they smell sweeter than they do apart."

Playfully, she held out the roses for him to smell, and as Dick leaned in to enjoy the scent, she suddenly pulled them away, and reached out to kiss him. Their lips met, tentatively at first, and then becoming stronger, more passionate. For both of them, time stood still, and their surroundings melted away as they became lost in one another's arms.

She even smelled like vanilla.

Barbara broke the kiss after a time, and smiled mischievously at him once more. "Come on. Let's go back to your place."

*****

Joey Flaherty sat in his squad car in the underground parking lot at the Bludhaven Justice Centre, smoking a cigarette. It had been ages since he had quite smoking, but the events of the past few days had convinced him to start up again. Thinking back on his encounter with Mac Arnot, he swore to himself that he would rather die of lung cancer than have to meet with the slimy thug one more time. To his right, yellow tape cordoned off a section of the underground parking lot where a wall had been blown apart. Joey knew that on the other side of that wall lay the holding cells in building II, where Arnot had set off an explosion that killed all The Misfits in custody in such a grisly manner that three members of the medical examiners team sent in to retrieve the bodies had to be sent home sick. It occurred to Joey more than once that the underground parking structure was probably suffering some structural damage after the explosion, and that it might not be entirely safe to be down here, but this was Bludhaven, and parking was almost non-existent, so the lot stayed open.

"Too bad the ceiling wouldn't fall in on me about now." Joey muttered as he lit another cigarette. Arnot had somehow gained access to a piece of Flaherty's past, something he had long thought buried and forgotten. How stupid of him to think so. No, things like that don't die in Bludhaven, they always come back with a vengeance to bite you on the ass. He cast his memory back to that time many years ago. He had needed the money, and no one got hurt. With a second daughter on the way, he couldn't say no to that much money. With what he had been offered, he could afford to move to the suburbs and give his family the nice home they deserved. Certainly, he wasn't making enough to do that on his current pay. Not once after that had he ever done anything even remotely like it, but that didn't matter. He would still lose his job, and possibly face criminal investigation, not to mention what it would do to him in the eyes of his family and co-workers. Deep in his heart he knew that this was the reason he and Mully had gone their separate ways, Mully's drinking problem was just an excuse. He had overcome that addiction, it was Joey's not so clean past that kept the wedge driven between them. Mully died thinking of him as someone who wouldn't stand up against the darkness in this city, and God help him, he may be right.

Joey almost spat at the thought of his brother looking down his nose at him. What did Mully know, anyway? He could come off as all high and mighty if he wanted to, he didn't have a family to support, he had no mouths to feed other than his own. It didn't matter anyway, Arnot had him by the short hairs, and their was nothing Joey could do except dance for his new master. The thought sickened him. Almost as if on cue, a candy apple red 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne Z-11 entered the parkway and pulled up beside Joey's car, the tires chirping slightly as it came to a halt. There would be no one down here to witness their little talk. As the tinted window descended, Flaherty was disgusted to see Arnots face, a smile as phony as a three dollar bill.

"Why if it isn't my old friend, Joey Flaherty. How are you doing, Joe?"

Arnot winced at the use of the nickname Joe. "You called me here, Arnot. Make your case so I can go home and take a shower, you make me feel dirty."

Arnot's sickeningly sweet smile faded as if it were never there and was replaced by a look of pure hatred for the officer in the car next to him. "You know, Joey, I try to be nice to you. Despite all the trouble you've given me, and the way you treat the case that was mine." He said as he thumped his own chest to make his point. "Not yours. Mine. I don't appreciate having things taken from me, Joey. Now, here's the way I see this playing out." Arnot leaned over in his car, causing the leather bound seats to squeak just a little.

"You can play on my team. You do as I tell you, when I tell you, and we'll both live to a ripe old age and retire as heros of the Bludhaven Police Force. You forget about your loyalty to that masked nut job you've been hanging around with and keep me updated on his comings and goings, making sure that he chases his own tail for all eternity..... or until I kill him, whatever comes first."

"Or?" Joey asked, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Or? Or you can stay hooked up with your current masked, yet silent, partner. You can get in my face and Roland Desmond's face, you can stand up for yourself, your home, your family, and your kids. Which will get you one thing: dead. You'll wind up dead, but not before your entire image is shattered in front of your families eyes. Is that what you want, Joe?"

That was when Joey did something that surprised Arnot and himself. He reached into his jacket and produced his immense looking Smith & Wesson .357, pointing it straight at Arnot. At the sight of the powerful and very deadly gun, The Inspector immediately backed off in alarm. "Or maybe I can just relieve you of your head right now, Arnot. I'd be a hero for ridding the world of a scumball like yourself. I don't take well to people threatening me and my family."

Arnot slid back over to the drivers side of his vehicle, his hands outstretched in a peacemaking gesture. "Listen Joey, think about what you're doing, here. You shoot me, and you won't make it through the week alive. You probably won't make it through the rest of the day alive. You won't be alone either, my employers will make certain your family dies right along with you."

The last remark incensed Joey, who pulled back the hammer on his revolver, a fury in his eyes. "Trust me. That was the wrong thing to say."

At this point, Arnot couldn't push himself further back against the door of his car. "Listen pal, it's tough to hear, but it's the truth. You kill me, you might as well put that gun in your mouth and pull the trigger yourself, because I'm telling you it'll just be a matter of time. For you and your family."

Flaherty was silent for some time. To Arnot it felt like an eternity, looking down the barrel of a weapon that would no doubt split his head like a melon at this close range. Killing Arnot would be immensely satisfying to him. To wipe that smile off of his face, to make him feel fear for that split second before a bullet tears his brain in half, that would be worth all the riches in the universe, but there was his family to think about. He had done everything for them, including break the law. Now, he would simply have to swallow his pride, and dance to Arnot's tune....... for his family. Flaherty shut his eyes so that he wouldn't have to bear witness to Arnot's smug grin of triumph as he eased back the hammer on his revolver and placed the weapon back in his holster.

"Okay. You win." Flaherty whispered under his breath.

As he expected, Inspector Arnot grinned.

*****

Even if the rest of their date turned out to be a disaster, which Dick knew it wouldn't, than the trip to Bludhaven from Gotham City was, at the very least, a blast for both of them. Dick had always been afraid that Barbara was becoming more and more of a cyber-recluse, chained to a virtual window on the entire world, hidden from the eyes of others. In this way, Barbara could continue to be a useful and productive members of society without submitting herself to the sad gazes of others. "Poor girl." they'd whisper, "She had her whole life ahead of her." If there was one thing she hated, it was to be the object of someone else's pity. He had finally pried her out of that apartment of hers, and he wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Barbara sat in the passenger seat of Dick's muscle car, which was adorned with the standard outer body shell of a Dodge Charger, throughly enjoying the speed and power of the vehicle as they drove to The Haven. Dick knew he shouldn't be showing off for her, pressing the accelerator down further and hurtling forward down the highway, but he knew it was all worth it when she rolled down the window, stuck her head out into the crisp night air and yelled "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" Just the sound of her voice, immersed in the pleasures of life, made the whole evening worthwhile for him.

Upon their arrival in Bludhaven, Dick gallantly scooped the ravishing red head up in his arms and carried her up the stairs to his apartment as she tickled the tip of his nose with her roses. Much to her surprise, when Dick opened the door to his apartment, there was absolutely nothing special about it. Although Dick had taken the time to clean the apartment, she expected something more, something that reflected the special nature of their evening together. "I don't get it." She said. "I thought we were having dinner."

Dicks mouth widened into a wolfish grin. "Oh, we are."

Without saying another word, Dick carried her past the living room and over to the window. "Where are we going?" She asked. Dick said nothing. Barbara gave him a sceptical look, which he just returned with his own "Trust me" smile. Her radiant face morphed into a scowl as he slid the window open with one hand and carried her out onto the fire escape.

"Do you trust me?" He asked in a serenr tone.

Barbara raised a quizzical eyebrow. "I...... think so." Dick laughed at her response.

"Then trust me now and shut your eyes." Babs said nothing, choosing instead to shut her eyes, and trust Dick. As he began walking once more, Barbara tried to take in what was happening. She picked up the scent of something she didn't quite recognize, something that actually smelled quite good. She also felt warmer than she should for this time of year. There was a source of heat nearby. The final clue she picked up was that they seemed to be ascending the fire escape stairs, judging from the metallic tap tap tap of Dick's shoes on the metal grating beneath his feet. Something was definitely afoot. It wasn't long before she found out what Dick had planned for her.

"Okay, you can open your eyes, now." He told her. Barbara counted to three before she did so, not knowing what to expect from her beau. Finally, she could stand no more and she opened them wide.

What she saw made her heart sing.

They were on the roof of Dick's building, but it was certainly no ordinary rooftop this evening. A wrought iron table covered in a checkered table cloth stood before them, a chair on either side. On the table lay a vase with ten more roses in it, the remainder of the dozen he had purchased for her. All around them, dozens of candles were lit, their flames flickering slightly in the breeze. Off to the right lay a space heater, which had already been plugged in thanks to some assistance from Hogan's adopted son, Michael, formerly known as Mutt. The one time street urchin had proven invaluable to Dick in setting up this little scenario. Down at street level, one rarely saw the stars in Bludhaven, but up here the heavens were twinkling all around them. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, Barbara was speechless.

"What do you think?"

As if he had to ask. She loved it, and he knew it. Dick carried her over to her chair and placed his Gotham Knights jacket around her shoulders, freeing him to go back downstairs and get their meal from the oven. Barbara pulled his coat tightly around her as she awaited Dick's return. Minutes later, he arrived with their meal, a dish prepared by his own hands - Fettucine Alfredo - rich and cheese filled and decadent, just like his mother used to make. His hands covered by Superman oven mitts to keep them from being burned, Dick carried the piping hot dish up to the roof and set it in front of her, leaning in to kiss her on the forehead as he did so. Barbara was mildly surprised when he produced a bottle of red wine, Domaines Perrin, Vacqueyras, bottled in 1998 according to the label, and began pouring it into her glass. "I thought the boss didn't approve of alcohol consumption of any kind." She said as he handed her the glass.

"What Bruce doesn't know won't hurt him, besides, he's way behind the times. Medical studies have shown that a little wine on occasion is actually good for your heart. This wine comes straight from France, it actually won the gold medal at the at the international wine challenge, and it goes perfectly with my Fettucine. Now, let's not speak of Bat related matters again tonight. For the rest of the night, Bludhaven and Gotham City will have to do without Nightwing and Oracle. This is about you and me." He replied as he filled his own glass and touched it to hers, resulting in a musical clink.

"Then here's to us, and our future together." Barbara toasted as she cast a seductive glance at Dick from over the top of her glass.

"I hope it's not too cold for you up here." Dick said as he dipped his fork into his meal. "I kept a close eye on the weather to make sure it would be a good night for this."

"It's wonderful." Barbara replied as she too took fork in hand. "I can't remember when anyone has gone to this much trouble for me."

"It was no trouble, Babs. I was always willing to do this for you. You just had to be ready to accept it." He winced as he spoke those last words, afraid he had said the wrong thing, and that she might react poorly. Awaiting her response, Dick took a sip of wine.

"You're right, Dick." She said as she reached across the table and took his hand in hers. "I wasn't ready. I had to come to this place myself, to this realization that what we have always had, can continue on, despite what has happened to me."

"Just give me a chance, Babs," Dick said as he squeezed her hand. "and I'll top this each and every night." He gestured with his fork to the twinkling candles. "I mean, just look at what I've accomplished tonight, and this is just the beginning. You know, my Fettucine isn't just a meal, it's an experience."

"All that's missing is the violin player." Barbara giggled.

"Well if it's music you want...." Dick's voice trailed off as he got up from his chair and produced his portable stereo. He pressed play on the machine and the strains of a song she hadn't heard in years greeted her. It wasn't a typical love song, to be sure, but it was one that held a special place in her heart. 'Dance The Night Away', a Van Halen song from the late seventies, care free and fun. It reminded them both of a time many years ago, when the two of them danced to that very song on the beach. It was one of Dick's birthdays where Bruce had not been available to celebrate, and the pair ended up together by a roaring fire. Being a typical guy, Dick had always been a fan, and at the time Barbara insisted that a bunch of macho, spandex wearing, rockers was not her cup of tea, and then Dick played this song, and all at once she was proven wrong. She took in the lyrics as Dick turned to face her, his arm outstretched, beckoning her.

I feel it, from across the room
Yes it's love in the third degree
Ohhh baby baby,
Won't you turn your head my way
Ohhh baby baby,
Oh come on
Take a chance.....
you only have to dance the night away

"May I have this dance?"

Barbara immediately threw down her napkin and scowled at him. What kind of cruel joke was that? Dance? In her condition? Surely, Dick hadn't meant to be this thoughtless. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Dance? Where have you been? Mars? I can't use my legs!"

Dick smiled apologetically as he reached out and scooped her up in his arms once more, his strong arms encircling her tiny waist, holding her body to his. Her feet resting atop his. "You don't dance with your legs, Babs." He whispered. "You dance with your heart." In one fluid movement, he whisked her away from the table and around in a wide circle. Barbara merely let him lead, and melted into his arms, taking in the beauty of the stars above, the crisp wind in her hair, and the smell of Dick's cologne on his jacket and skin, the combination of lavender, sandalwood, and citrus that comprised his scent of choice, Drakkar Noir. Together, they swayed to the music, moving as one while the steady tempo whisked them to a place beyond their current surroundings, to a place where everything was perfect, and two young people could be in love. It was just as simple as that.

Barely a beginner
But just watch that lady go
She's on fire,
cause dancing gets her higher
than anything else she knows

Ohhh baby baby,
Won't you turn your head my way
Ohhh baby baby,
If I scared you for a minute
you only have to dance the night away

As they swayed and twirled, Dick's arms holding her tight, Barbara let her conscious self go, and remembered what it was like to be free and in love. Their eyes met and her heart swelled with love for the handsome man who held her, and she wondered why exactly she had been pushing him away these many years. A tear of joy escaped her eye and ran down her cheek, but she wiped it away before Dick ever got a chance to notice and wonder if anything was wrong. How could anything be wrong? She was in the arms of the man who adored her, and she adored him as well. Dancing the night away under twinkling stars, with dozens of scented candles winking at them below. She had to give him credit, he certainly knew how to sweep a girl off her feet. She suppressed a giggle at her use of the term. Swept her off her feet, indeed. She had been afraid for so long that she couldn't be one with Dick due to the trauma inflicted upon her by The Joker. How could she have been so stupid? Grayson truly did see her for the woman she was, not the wheelchair she was confined to, or the person she used to be. It was Barbara Gordon, as she existed in the here and now, that had captured his heart.

And the music continued to play....

Dance, dance, dance the night away....

*****

The Joker couldn't help but laugh. Strangling the guard had been simplicity in itself. When would they ever learn? He shouldn't fault them, he always was a gifted actor, able to reproduce the symptoms of any illness he chose. He supposed that the constant overturning of the guards here at Arkham created the opportunity for him, as well. After all, how can they get wise to his tricks if they didn't stay at the institute long enough? The burnout factor among security guards was very high at Arkham, as dealing with psychotic inmates and possible breakouts tended to lead one to ask for a transfer within months of being assigned to the hellish place. Certainly, the ones who did last long enough to fall for The Joker's little antics never lived to tell the tale to another.

The grinning madman quickly set about a wild ploy, combining faked symptoms of an illness and raving wildly about anything and everything that occurred to him, he even did his best job of foaming at the mouth. It wasn't long before one of the guards appeared in his cell, about to administer a tranquillizer, when he realized, only too late, that he was about to become one of The Jokers latest victims. Even confined to a wheelchair, The Clown Prince Of Crime had a feral strength that enabled him to choke the life from his victim using only a pillowcase. The barely rational side of his brain took over now, for he knew that the cameras that kept a watchful eye on him would be transmitting the horrific images of murder to a main control panel in another part of the building. The Joker knew that this type of escape attempt would not normally succeed. Under normal circumstances, he might make it as far as the foyer before being tackled by a swarm of guards, but this was not ordinary circumstances.

This time he was not alone in his bid for freedom. With uncanny speed, he grabbed the set of keys from the deceased guards belt and produced the electronic key card that opened the cell doors in the maximum security wing. He wheeled his chair across the hall and swiped the credit card shaped piece of plastic through the card reader on the door, and as the computer system read the magnetic stip, the electromagnetic locks on the door disengaged, and Jonah was free once more. The clear plexiglass wall receded into an alcove, and the two villains darted for the main doors with all possible speed, Jonah pushing his mentor's wheelchair ahead of him with his powerful arms. They had mere seconds before someone noticed that they had escaped, and hit the panic button, resulting in an immediate lock down of every corridor in every wing.

A full three seconds before the guard at the end of the hallway noticed that anything was wrong, Jonah and The Joker burst forth through the main doors and out into the open. Armed only with the taser that they had liberated from their first victim, Jonah took aim and fired the weapon. Just as the guard reached for the panic button, his muscles locked up and his body would no longer respond to the commands from his brain. Jonah was pleased to see that the guard at the monitoring station was armed with something more lethal, a small snub nosed Smith and Wesson attached to the underside of his desk and a rifle loaded with mercy bullets. Jonah was in no mood to show mercy, but he would use whatever was at hand. Pushing The Joker ahead of him with one arm, Jonah took aim with the revolver and emerged into another hallway, this one reeking of antiseptic. Two more guards were at the other end, and in the split second it took for them to realize what horror was coming toward them, Jonah shot them both in the head.

Working as a team, The Joker reached out as they passed their deceased victims and snatched up another key ring from their belts. As they had hoped, these guards were in possession of a master key card, one that would open any door in the asylum, even during lock down. They sacrificed two more seconds to gather up the guns each man had in their holsters. Now, The Joker was armed with a weapon in each hand, free to shoot whomever came into view as Jonah pushed the wheelchair ahead of him. Together, the two remorseless killers cut a swath of death and destruction through every hallway they passed.

"Now THIS is what I call hell on wheels!" The Joker brayed as he fired twice more at guards who appeared in the distance, only to fall as if they were marionettes with their strings suddenly cut. Insane though they were, both The Joker and Jonah knew that this streak of good luck would run out sooner, rather than later. They had made the most of their element of surprise, and within minutes a large squad of well armed guards would mobilize against them. What was needed was a hostage. Thankfully, The Joker provided them with one. As yet another female guard appeared in a stairwell and raced toward them, The Joker took aim and fired. The hapless woman tumbled head over heel as the bullet took out her shoulder, where her kevlar vest did not offer protection.

"Come with us, my dear." The Joker said as Jonah picked her up by her hair. "We're going to make you famous, and then we're going to make you quite dead."

After that, it was mere child's play. The duo's demands were simple: if anyone hits the panic button, thereby summoning the police, the young woman would die. If Arkham's rent-a-cops didn't clear access to the main foyer and have a fully fuelled car waiting in two minutes, the young woman would die. On Jonah's tactical advice, they did not give Arkham or any of his men much time to respond, thereby giving them no time to attempt a doublecross or snare of some kind. Had Arkham been given more time, surely he would have tried to diffuse the situation with hostage negotiation tactics, simply stalling for time before the police, and possibly Batman, arrived to take over. Seven minutes after the pair had escaped from their cells, they were given Jeremiah Arkham's personal car, a 1999 Dodge Bonneville, and with their hostage, made their escape into the night, only ninety seconds before the first police cruiser made the scene, bearing Detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya. The female guard was found just down the road....... shot in the head.

The Joker and Jonah were free once more.

God help us all.

*****

It had been a truly magical evening. Barbara had been swept up in the romance, just as Dick hoped she would. Together, they danced for the first time in years, under the stars, as one. They ate well, the delicious pasta dish surprised Barbara, as she knew Dick could cook, but she had no idea how well he could cook. Unused to the wine, she giggled like a schoolgirl, chiding him with comments about how he would make her a good wife some day.

"Hey, I'm all man and don't you forget it." Dick responded playfully as he thumped his chest with his palm.

"Oh I don't doubt it." Barbara chuckled. She wondered if she could dare to find out just how much man he truly was.

As the temperature began to drop, Dick carried Barbara back downstairs to his apartment, fetching her wheelchair from the trunk of his car should she need it. With the romantic dinner aside, Dick lay down on the couch and with one arm lifted her on top of him. Barbara slid down to one side and nestled herself in between Dick and the back of the couch. As he wrapped his arm around her, the pair simply stared at the ceiling, revelling in the comfortable silence that wrapped itself around them like a cocoon. After a short time, Dick felt something digging into his waist.

"Ow. What's that?" He said as he sent his free hand in search of the offending object.

"Oh, that's just something dad gave me last time I saw him." She laughed as Dick's hands closed around the key chain attached to a belt buckle loop around Barbara's waist. "It's a key chain they hand out to street walkers in Gotham It's a combination rape whistle and pepper spray container. I promised dad I'd keep it close just to make him feel better. He was pretty worried about me coming down here."

Dick laughed. "So, your dad doesn't trust me huh? Afraid I'd make some untoward moves on you?"

"You're reputation with women precedes you, Grayson."

They laughed together for some time, and then fell into their comfortable silence once more. After a time, Barbara realized she could hear the steady, strong beat of Dick's heart, and it somehow made her feel safer than she had ever been. When she was near him, nothing could ever harm her. She found herself regretting that their first real date was coming to an end, and mentally asked herself what she could do to stretch out their time together.

"What would you say.........?" She paused in mid sentence.

"What would I say about what?"

Barbara swallowed hard and gathered her courage. "What would you say if...... if I said I wanted to spend the night?"

Dick snickered. "I'd say you can't handle your wine." For that she thumped him in the stomach, once more bringing back memories of the only other time she had hit him.

"I'm serious, you jerk." She teased. For a long time, Dick was silent as he contemplated the meaning of her words. It wasn't the type of request he was expecting. Of course, they were both adults, but something told him that Barbara wanted intimacy, not sex. Was the offer to stay the night just her way of telling him she wanted to spend more time with him? Dick gazed downward, his eyes searching hers. He searched them for what seemed an eternity before he found his answer. She truly DID want to spend the night with him. If they were to make love, he knew neither of them would regret it. She didn't make the offer out of some feeling of gratitude to him, she made it because it was what she wanted. He brought her face to his, and kissed her passionately. Barbara felt a sudden hunger she had not felt in a long time as they kissed one another. She chewed slightly on his lower lip, as lovers do. For several minutes, the young lovers shared the breathless kiss. After a time, though, Dick broke the kiss and smiled so wide, even his eyes seemed to be smiling. This was far too good to mess up by rushing into things. To the best of his knowledge, Barbara hadn't been with another man since she was shot, and when it happened, he wanted it to be with him. He also wanted it to be the perfect time.

"Why don't we just....." It was his turn to pause as he sought the proper words. "Why don't we just leave it like this tonight? If you still feel that way, you can always stay here tomorrow night. We have all the time in the world, Babs."

This time, Barbara initiated the kiss, giving him the answer she was finally ready to give.

And the music continued to play....

Dance, dance, dance the night away....

*****

"They're going to have this city shut down in less than an hour! We have to get out of here!" Jonah yelled furiously as he punched a hole in the wall of the "Laffing Academy", a small store front business in Gotham which specialized in novelty jokes and accessories, and also as one of The Joker's many fronts. Jonah had only been to Gotham City once before, and that was as a child. the city seemed compelling and yet very frightening at the same time to him. It wasn't that the city was particularly dangerous in comparison to Bludhaven. In fact, it was, in its own way, less dangerous than the city of his birth, but there was something here he couldn't place his finger on, something that made his skin crawl. Police sirens screamed in the distance, they were casting a net over the city already.

Jonah recalled the only story his father had read to him as a child - Dante's Inferno. It was a lesson in fear that haunted his dreams as a toddler. "Remember this story well, boy." His father had told him. Jonathon Masters Senior went on to tell his young son of the tale of The Inferno. For Jonah's father, Gotham City was The Inferno, and he made sure his son knew it. What Jonah truly remembered about the tale was the description of Charon, the ferryman across the river of Acheron. The demon with eyes like embers.

- And here, advancing toward us, in a boat, an aged man - - his hair was white with years, was
shouting: "Woe to you, corrupted souls! Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven: I come to lead
you to the other shore, to the eternal dark, to fire and frost -

As a boy, Jonah had always been frightened of the image of Charon. His father had always told him that if he wasn't strong enough, if he wasn't good enough, Charon would come for him and take him to Hell. Now, Jonathon Masters Junior would become that demon with the eyes like fire. He would be the ferryman that escorted others to the netherworld. He would become Charon.

Meanwhile, his mentor simply rummaged playfully in a colourfully painted locker at the other end of the room, a wicked grin on his face. Suddenly, a light was cast across the sky, and Jonah realized what else it was about this city that caused such internal struggle for him. The Bat-Signal swept lazily across the sky, summoning forth Gotham's nocturnal protector to do battle with the escaped felons.

Batman.

As much as Jonah would like a chance to kill The Batman, there were many others that were ahead of The Dark Knight on that list. First among them..... Nightwing. Second among them...... Officer Dick Grayson. Yes, they would be among the first he escorted to Hell.

"Relax, Jonah, my boy." The Joker laughed gleefully as he removed a small black address book and a key from amidst the assorted junk in the locker. "I've taught you everything I can in a classroom setting, it's time we took a field trip....... to Bludhaven."

Jonah smiled viciously at the thought of returning to his home town and grinding Nightwing's bones to paste. "My luck has changed, Joker. I'm no longer a Jonah. Call me Charon."

The Joker chortled. "Of course, Jonah my boy... oh, please excuse me, I mean Charon. And please, think of me as the father you have always wanted."

"Yes..... father."

 
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