Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Nightwing: A Matter of Vengeance

by John Westcott

Chapter 13: The Opposite of Six

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

When she heard him remove the steel bars from across the door and tentatively poke his head inside, Barbara admitted to herself that this might have been a completely different man from the one she had come to know as Charon. His brusque, openly sexual and violently tinged manner had completely disappeared for the moment. When he spoke his voice had no trace of the testosterone-pumped and completely crazed timbre that it once had. In a way, his voice reminded her of Dick's when he spoke to her softly. "I have something I have to show you," he told her as he walked into the room as if he were trying not to awaken his parents on Christmas Morning.

Barbara was still sitting where they had left her, in the middle of the grungy and dreary store room, silently piecing together her wheelchair. She was, of course, without the benefits of tools like a screwdriver, which could be easily made into a weapon, but she knew that if she tightened the screws as much as she possibly could by hand, the chair would stay together long enough to get her to safety. It wouldn't as secure as it could have been, but she was sure it would hold long enough for her to make her escape. Even in his current, more docile mode, Charon was still frightening to her. His shaved head emphasised how large his neck and shoulders truly were, as they were as thick as tree trunks, and he never seemed to remove the blood red contact lenses that gave him such a demon-like appearance. She knew what he was capable of doing to women, but she refused to let him see her fear.

For a split second, she considered using the pepper spray on him now, while he was alone, and making good her escape. It was tempting to use it and get out of there as fast as she could, but in the end she denied the urge. Her wheelchair was still not completely together, and she had no weapon nearby to hit Charon over the head with once she had immobilized him. No, better to bide her time, and strike when she would do the most damage.

"What is it?" She asked, keeping her tone as conversational as possible.

Charon brought a hand out from behind his back and held out what appeared to be a folded newspaper to her. Wary, Barbara reached out and accepted it from him. She unfolded the paper and gazed at the front page headline which proclaimed, in a bolded typeface:

GOTHAM POLICE COMMISSIONER KILLED IN
GANG WAR RELATED INCIDENT

To the lower left was a picture of her father lying on the cold ground, blood stained with eyes rolled back in his head. She looked at the date, it was indeed today's date. The story that followed told of how Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon had come to Bludhaven in search of his daughter and was killed in a fire fight between The Misfits and the police. Barbara felt as if the blood in her veins had stopped flowing. Her fingertips grew numb and tears began streaming from her eyes. Her father, dead trying to rescue her.

"I'm truly sorry," Charon said. "He never should have tried to spoil our fun. I would have given you back to him when I was done with you."

Barbara felt the urge to vomit, both from the heart breaking news, and from Charon's sickening attempt at compassion. She heaved once, but restrained herself in time from actually becoming ill. The sadness that weighed so heavily on her heart was coupled with a hatred so deep, she felt as though she could kill Charon with her stare alone. More and more she was tempted to blind him, at least temporarily, with the pepper spray - to cause him some measure of pain. She looked at him then, her eyes burning with her tears and a hatred all her own, and saw something within the man before her, something she had seen in many a criminal in years gone by. It was something she had learned in her formative years as Batgirl, the ability to tell if someone was telling the truth.

Charon was not.

Barbara looked at the paper once more. The ink rubbed off on her hands quite easily, even for a newspaper. Were this a real paper, Charon surely must have picked it up at the printers and rushed it here. She scanned the other headlines. The stories seemed to be vague in nature, telling of terrorist attacks and politician scandals, but there were very few details and hardly a country was mentioned by name. The paper... was a fake. Silently, Barbara cursed herself for being so damn gullible. Anyone these days had the ability to manipulate a photo so that it appeared to be someone it was not, and who could tell the difference in a black and white photo replication at newspaper grade resolution? Not even she had that ability. She thanked God in a silent prayer that her father was still alive and looking for her. Soon, she would have her revenge on this sick and twisted maniac, but now was not the time.

"I'm sorry, too," She told him as she wiped away the tears. Suddenly, she realized how much trouble she would have been in had she given into the temptation to blind him with the pepper spray now. He was no doubt expecting her to lash out, to try... something. Had she done so, she could have died. She had to remain calm, no matter what circumstances Charon and The Joker inflicted upon her. She had to remain strong. When the time was right, she would know it in her head, not in her heart. If she gave way to irrationality, as they wished her to, all would be lost. Charon looked at her, somewhat disappointed.

"My genetic father is dead too," he told her in a sympathetic tone. "Killed by your boyfriend. I was lucky to find Joker to guide me and support me."

Barbara decided to take advantage of the situation that presented itself now. Perhaps she could do even more damage by sowing the seeds of decent between Charon and his mentor. "Is that what you believe?" She asked him as she folded the paper and put it aside. "Is that why you want to kill my boyfriend?"

Charon looked at her, his face a mask of surprise that she understood him, even a little. "Yes. Yes that's it, exactly. I tried once, the same night we took you. He got lucky, but I'll get another chance very soon."

Once more, Barbara had to struggle to remain impassive on the outside. Inwardly, she felt a wave of relief so large, she thought she might faint. Dick was alive, at least she knew that much for sure. Dick would have become Nightwing by now, and would be hunting for her. Now there would be no way The Misfits could ever find Dick Grayson before he found them first. Unwittingly, Charon had just given her three important pieces of information: Number one, she was not in Gotham any more, she was in Bludhaven. Number two, Dick was alive. Number three, her father was no doubt alive as well, or they wouldn't have taken the time to create a phony picture of him lying on the ground dead. All were pieces of information that she could cling to for hope, and hope strengthened her resolve. She dare not let it show.

"So, why haven't you killed my boyfriend yet?" She asked.

Charon shrugged. "Joker says it's not the right time yet. It's not poetic."

"So, The Joker tells you what to do, and you just obey him blindly? I had heard of you before you went to Arkham, I thought you were a man who answered to no one."

Charon snorted arrogantly as he thumped his chest. "I am my own man. I showed my father that."

Barbara continued to piece together her wheelchair as she spoke to him, almost as if they were two old friends discussing the weather. "And yet, Joker says he doesn't die, so you don't get to exact your revenge? Joker seems to be having his share of fun. He gets to abuse me and drive my father and Batman crazy. What fun do you get?"

"Your boyfriend, Grayson, he's going crazy with worry too, I'm sure," Charon replied.

"Yes, but you don't want him crazy with worry, you want him dead," Barbara shot back, almost before Charon had finished his last sentence. It was a macabre debate, to be sure. Charon balled his powerful hands into fists as he remembered the name of Grayson. The pain that he had suffered throughout his life all because he wanted to see The Flying Graysons as a child.

"Oh yes, I want him dead. I want him as dead as my mother and father."

Barbara merely clucked her tongue as if to say what a shame you're not getting what you want and went back to work, ignoring Charon from that point on. As she turned her back to him, she smiled wickedly.

Take that, you bastard.

Charon rose to his feet and slowly left the room, pausing only to bar the door behind him. He was going to tell her that soon they would be moving, but that topic had long since been forgotten. The Joker had a plan involving his Smilex gas. He had sent some Misfits out to purchase the necessary chemical components from certain disreputable contacts in the pharmacy world and instructed them on how to create it, as he was no longer able. Three men died with a horrid grin on their faces before they had learned the method of creating it safely. Joker had explained most of the next few hours to Charon, and none of it involved killing Grayson. Could it be that Barbara Gordon was correct? That he wasn't going to get his chance at killing Officer Dick Grayson? His thoughts centred upon the man he had come to know at Arkham, his visage that of a demented clown. A clown. After what had happened to him as a child, he had come to hate everything associated with the theme of a circus, including the clown. Was Joker merely using him? A shiver ran down Charon's spine, and he decided to watch Joker much more closely from now on.

It was at that moment that he heard The Joker's cackle down the hallway, followed by a small explosion. "We are in excellent shape, my dear demented little boy," Joker called to him, his sickly grin wider than ever. "Thanks to our disposable minions, here, we have all the smilex we need. What we have left over when we're done, we'll send out as Christmas presents!" He cackled as he turned his chair wildly in circles. "How did the fake newspaper work? I paid a lot of money to have that made. Of course, I killed the creator once it was done, so it doesn't really matter because I got my money back. I simply told him... you are the weakest link... goodbye!"

"It seemed to work fine. Are you sure all this will work, Joker?" Charon asked as he extended his arms in a sweeping gesture, indicating the vials of bubbling smilex gas that filled the room..

Joker pursed his lips and pouted. "Of course it will work. You can't doubt big daddy Joker."

"And what about Grayson? When do I get to kill him?"

The Joker sighed heavily and hung his head as if Charon had just asked him to discuss quantum physics. Why wasn't Charon allowed to kill who he wanted? Why must The Joker dictate who lives and who dies? "My dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear... boy," Joker said. "Must I remind you of this every nanosecond? It was you who wished to learn at my feet. Now please pay attention, because there will be a test later." He wheeled himself close to the young man, took his hand, and held it to the chalk-white skin of his cheek." "I love and hate you like a son, but Grayson can't die right now. Your Misfits can't really find him anyway, and besides, we're stretched a little thin with this war you wanted against this Roland Desmond fellow... Blackbuster or whatever his name is."

This time it was Charon's turn to sigh in annoyance. "Blockbuster."

"Whatever. The point is, you wanted my help, and now you have it. I'm teaching you the tried and true method of running a city into the ground before taking it over completely. However, even I only have two hands. I've tried cutting off someone else's hands and using them for myself as extras, but it just didn't work. Grayson will have to wait until we're done with the rest."

Charon pulled his hand away. "Fine."

Silently, he added: "For now."

"Now, did you bring the video camera like big daddy Joker asked you to?"

"Yes."

"Well, Shazam! Let's get to work, my boy. It's time to make Miss Gordon famous. I, for one, am ready for my closeup," Joker wailed as he disappeared down the hallway in the direction of Barbara's cell. Before he followed after him, Charon took a handful of his Misfits aside and gave them some new instructions regarding his personal torture of Police Officer Dick Grayson. It was time to follow his own lust for blood and mayhem.

*****

Jim Gordon arrived in the parking garage of the Gotham City Police Department and placed three SPAS shotguns in the back of his Dodge Caravan along with two boxes of ammunition and a bulletproof vest without being seen. A choice weapon used by many a SWAT team member worldwide, Gordon already had the weapons fully loaded to maximum with 8 rounds each, and he knew that before the night was over, he may go through at least one of his spare boxes. He realized just then that he was not alone. He could easily hear the sounds of two others approaching from behind, and without looking, he knew exactly who it was.

"Commish, you think you're headin' down to The Haven without us?" Bullock called to him. Gordon turned to face him and saw Renee Montoya approaching as well, a look of concern etched on her face.

"You are going there, aren't you?" Renee asked.

Gordon paused for a moment and considered lying to them, but he found he could not. These two continued to be more than co-workers to Jim. They were the main reason he remained a cop instead of taking early retirement. Sure, he told others it was because he was born a cop, that being a cop was all he knew how to do, that he loved the city, but most of all, he loved them. They were his comrades, through the earthquake that had levelled the city, through the death of his wife, they had been there for him. He should have known they'd be there for him now.

"Yes, I'm heading South. That's where she is. That's where he is."

"You don't know that for sure," Renee said.

"Don't kid a kidder, Rene. The only attacks that have taken place in Gotham were when Barbara was captured. It was a diversion set by The Joker to make sure he could nab Barbara and get away. Ever since, the crime scene has been nothing but normal, while in Bludhaven, the city is exploding. That has The Joker's fingerprints all over it. He bonded with that psycho in Arkham, and now they're running riot down there, just begging us to play on someone else's field. I won't disappoint them. I don't think Batman will either."

"Batman?" Bullock echoed.

"I got an email from him. He's convinced that Joker has Barbara in Bludhaven with his new friend. We're not sure where Nightwing is at the moment. This liaison officer Bludhaven has given us, Joey Flaherty, he must be on the take. He's stonewalling to beat the band. I can tell. This is a kidnapping and you both know what that means. Pretty soon the FBI is going to be all over and who knows if Barbara will come out of this alive? The FBI, they're not equipped to deal with people like The Joker. I am. I have all the experience."

They stopped discussing the situation for a few moments as two squad cars pulled into the parking garage and two pairs of officers coming off duty passed them on the way to the locker rooms. When they were safely out of earshot, Renee spoke first. "Then we're coming with you."

"Damn straight," Bullock added.

Gordon held up his hands in protest. "No no. I can't allow that. You could be throwing your careers away. We have zero authority there. For the first time, we will be the vigilantes, without official powers. The Bludhaven authorities may bust me, but I won't allow you two to take the fall with me."

"There ain't nothing to discuss, Commish," Bullock told him as he leaped into the passenger side of the car and lit a cigar. "We're coming. Vigilantes or not. You don't think you're gonna scare us out of it, do you? We've been through No Man's Land! We were vigilantes then, too. This is a walk in the park. Besides, I got something for The Joker right here." He patted the right side of his chest, indicating the weapon he carried underneath his coat. Gordon was about to protest when Renee moved to his side and spoke softly.

"We just can't let a member of our family suffer and do nothing. You know that. I think you even suspected this might happen. Why else did you take three shotguns?"

Jim allowed himself a hoarse laugh. Why indeed? Perhaps he did suspect, and maybe even hope, that his two best cops would aid him. It was selfish, but he was glad they insisted on coming along. He felt that if they worked together, they might avoid another tragedy like the death of his Sarah. Together, they piled into the car and left the parking garage, heading south on highway 61, bound for Bludhaven, and The Joker.

*****

He tried to reach for the doorknob, he truly did. He wanted to open the door and walk right in, but he just couldn't bring himself to. Were he a stronger man, like his brother Mully, or Jim Gordon, he would have been able to. That much he knew. Instead, Joey just stood there staring at the name on the frosted glass- 'Detective Addad'.

Addad was something of a legend in the Bludhaven police force. He was known as one of the few squeaky clean cops in the city. No matter how hopeless the cause, no matter how much money was waved in his face, Addad remained a force for justice in the city. Even though he was one of only a handful of clean cops in the city, prevented from making a real difference in the city by the corruption that mired down the justice system of Bludhaven, Addad fought on. How Joey wished that he had that strength of character. Long ago Joey had given in to the temptation of dirty money. His reasons, while noble, would mean nothing to internal affairs. Neither would they mean anything to the press. There's nothing they would like more than a dirty cop to roast over the coals. They would conveniently forget that he had taken the money and provided his daughters with an education and a better home. All they would care about was the simple fact that Joey Flaherty had taken money that was not his own.

A dirty cop in Bludhaven wasn't news. A dirty cop sloppy enough to get caught was.

Salvation lay just beyond that door. Addad was a good man, he would see to it that Flaherty was treated fairly. However, Joey's last concern was for himself. Yes, he was horrified at being seen as a dirty cop in the eyes of his fellow workers, and in the eyes of the press, but it was his daughters and his wife that had concerned him most. What would they think of him? He had lied to them all these years, espousing the virtues of honesty and justice, and yet he had lied to them for decades. Were he a single man, with no children, he would come forward and take what was coming for him. The irony was, were he a single man with no daughters, he wouldn't have taken the money for himself in the first place.

To steel himself for the moment when he confronted Addad, he had called home earlier, on the cell phone Nightwing had given him. His youngest daughter Lisa had answered the phone. She had always been his little girl, even more so than Moira, who had dared to help him spread the word of The Misfits. In the background, he heard the dog barking. The dog Nightwing had given him after the encounter with Jonah on the highway. He wanted to name the dog Zeus, but Lisa insisted the dog's name was to be Scruffy. Joey merely smiled and bemoaned the hardships of being the only man in a family of women.

Remembering the dog and the cell phone he was given, Flaherty's thoughts turned to Nightwing. Here was a man who risked his life night-in and night-out. Masked, he refused to take any credit for the good he did - still another man who was better than he. Anger flared up inside him. Who were they to judge him? He had never used any of the money for his personal gain. He did it all for his family. Did Nightwing even have family? Did Addad have two daughters and a meagre paycheck to split between them? Let them judge him after they had walked a mile in his shoes, and not before. Who the hell did they think they were, anyway? Flaherty was sure they had all done something in their lives that they had not been proud of. At least the one black mark on his record was for something greater than himself.

Flaherty was about to open Addad's office door when one other thought crossed his mind. Roland Desmond. Blockbuster. Surely, Desmond would have him killed for betrayal. Even worse, he might have his family killed in retaliation. Joey let his hand drop to his side, away from the doorknob. No, he couldn't come forward.

*****

He watched the scene below him unfold through opaque eyeslits - several different emotions warring for dominance within him as he did so. At first glance, he saw the boy who had become a man; the boy he had trained, and he felt great pride. The longer he stared down at him, however, he saw the man who would become a destroyer if allowed to continue down his chosen path unchecked, and he felt desperate fear. He was no expert at dealing with his own emotions, nor was he at all qualified in helping others with theirs. What he himself had become was a result of his own inability to properly deal with his deep emotions, especially anger and fear. Now, he looked on as grief threatened to consume yet another, and he vowed that he would not let it happen again. He would not stand idly by and watch Nightwing sink to the level of those that tormented him.

Batman would rather die.

It wasn't a difficult matter to track Misfit activity to this depot. As the Batmobile roared towards the city limits at record speeds, The Dark Knight had scanned the police band, keeping careful track of the details presented by officers who reported in during the gang war that had layed siege to Bludhaven this night. The Misfits were running wild through the streets in great numbers, assaulting properties owned and operated by the city's resident crime lord or his operatives. The death toll had already reached the double digits and was climbing as Desmond's forces fought back. Some of those who had died were Misfits, others were Blockbuster's men, many were innocents caught in the crossfire. Bludhaven had become a war zone. Many of the local police seemed unable and perhaps even unwilling to tackle this threat to the city. Crooked cops were always more concerned about their own skin than the fate of the people they were supposed to serve.

One thing was common to all the police reports, however. The Misfits were all using white Ford vans. He hadn't earned the title of the world's greatest detective for nothing, and it was a small matter to trace the vans to a Masters-owned company depot. He also knew that Nightwing would no doubt track them to this spot as well, no matter how blinded by pain he was. Batman felt a surge of pride in his one time partner when he saw that he was correct. He also noticed that something was very wrong with the way his eldest was approaching the building.

Nightwing moved as though he were bulletproof, daring someone... anyone... to attack him. He was glad that he had ordered The Flash and Arsenal out of Bludhaven. Even if they were able to track down Nightwing, which they almost certainly wouldn't now that he knew he was being watched, he didn't want them to bare the brunt of Nightwing's anger in the events that were to follow. The Titans were his best friends outside of Alfred, Tim, and Bruce, and he wanted to make sure that things remained that way. If Nightwing were to be angry with anyone, if he were to actually be so blinded with grief that he would lash out at someone, Batman wanted it to be him.

Below him, he watched as Nightwing kicked down the side door of the van depot. That act alone convinced Batman that Nightwing was not himself. Long ago, he had taught his ward to use stealth whenever possible. Going in through the door could easily get him killed. Nightwing was spoiling for a fight, which was very out of character, indeed.

The depot itself was basically another in an endless series of warehouses along the waterfront, only this one stored a fleet of white vans used for delivery purposes by companies owned by Masters Enterprises. Jonathon Masters, Sr's money and extensive properties meant that his son had inherited a huge machine with which to wage war on Roland Desmond.

Officially, Batman knew there was no legal way Jonathon Masters Jr. could inherit his father's holdings and fortune, due to the fact that he had caused his father's death. However, the courts were still waiting for the nearest relative to take control of the Masters estate, and the remainder of the Masters clan lived overseas. In the interim, Charon ruled Bludhaven utilizing his dead fathers fortune. Taking control of the fleet of vehicles Charon was using meant that a serious blow would be dealt to this gang war, but Batman seriously doubted that had even crossed Nightwing's mind. He was here for one reason only. To find clues to Barbara Gordon's whereabouts. Seeing that his ward was in no immediate danger, Batman contented himself to wait and watch.

Nightwing kicked down the door and strode through as though he were a gunfighter from the old west entering a saloon, looking for trouble. The warehouse was cavernous, with white Ford vans lining the outer walls. All of them were backed into their parking spaces, their rear bumpers almost touching a narrow, concrete loading deck that ringed the outer walls to make the loading and offloading of cargo much easier. As far as Batman or Nightwing could tell, there was no one in sight. Nightwing said nothing as he entered the building and began to scan the area. Standing in the rafters with his midnight black cape wrapped tightly around him, Batman remained perfectly still to avoid detection.

Both of them immediately flinched as a maniacal laugh filled the air, booming off of the walls and echoing back and forth. From the center of the floor a gleaming mechanical device popped up from beneath a floorboard and began to assemble itself before their eyes. There seemed to be no human operator that either vigilante could detect. Batman watched in horror as Nightwing merely stood there watching the device assemble itself into an automated machine gun, his head cocked slightly to the side as if he were wondering if it could really injure him. Batman realized that he was too far away to be of any help to Nightwing.

In his mind, Batman screamed. "MOVE!"

At the last second, Nightwing did indeed move. Leaping behind the nearest van as the machine gun nest released the safety and began to spew bullets at an incredible rate where Nightwing had just been standing. Worried for his adopted son, Batman was about to make his move, grabbing a handful of shurikens and a jumpline launcher from his utility belt. Nightwing moved first, however, and he moved faster. Dodging between vans with the speed of an Olympic runner, Nightwing made his way closer and closer to the machine gun nest. All the while, the recorded mocking laughter echoed throughout the building. The vans he hid behind were quickly chewed up by the weapon's fire and soon Nightwing was moving again. Leaping up to the loading deck, Nightwing broke into a full run, moving faster than the automatic tracking systems the gun employed could follow. Where the weapon fired, Nightwing was already long gone.

Batman watched as his former protégé built up speed and then leaped atop one of the vans. The black clad vigilante continued his run along the roof of the van and, with hands outstretched, performed a handstand on the hood of the vehicle and propelled himself through the air. All the while, the weapon's tracking system failed to catch up to him. Nightwing somersaulted through the air and landed directly behind the gun emplacement with more grace than Batman had ever seen in any other individual. The gun ceased firing as it swivelled about 180 degrees to take aim once more. Before it completed its turn, Nightwing reached out and took hold of the computer control module that was the brains of the mechanism. With one hard pull, he ripped it from its base, and the gun sputtered to a stop. The Joker's recorded laugh also faded.

"Nicely done," Batman finally said. "But don't you think you could have avoided that situation by merely avoiding the front door?"

Nightwing watched as Batman leaped to the ground, an unamused look on his face. "You were watching me."

"Would you rather I stuck my nose in where it doesn't belong? You've expressed resentment toward me in the past for not letting you take care of yourself. As much as you may want it to be so, you can't have your cake and eat it, too."

Nightwing turned away from his mentor, unable to look at him. "Please go."

Batman's reply was immediate. "I can't do that."

Nightwing shook his head in frustration. It seemed as if everyone was working against him. Was he the enemy? Had everyone just forgotten about The Joker and Charon and the things they were doing? Why was everyone making his job so difficult? "You can't be here," He said finally. "I don't want you here."

"Why?" Batman asked, the single word spoken so softly that it was soothing to Nightwing's ears.

"It's... complicated," Nightwing paused as he searched for the words. "The things I'm going to be doing, I don't want you to see it. I don't want you to have any part of it. Just let me do what I have to do. When this is over, you'll thank me. Everyone will thank me."

Batman reached out and placed a gloved hand on Nightwing's shoulder. "I know you plan on killing them for what they've done. Do you honestly think I could stand by and let that happen?"

"Dick," Nightwing almost flinched when he heard Batman use his true name while in costume on a case. It was something he rarely did. "If you could only see yourself. You're acting like a bull in a china shop. I taught you better than that. I taught you to use stealth. The way you're going, you'll get yourself killed."

Nightwing whirled to face Batman, his upper lip curled back in anger. "Is that what you think? That I'm going to let myself be killed by those animals while Barbara is in danger? Is that why you sent Wally and Roy after me? You thought they'd be enough to stop me, but they weren't. If they can't stop me, what chance do Joker and Charon have? You'll be singing a different tune when I'm choking the life out of them!"

"I didn't expect for you three to fight. I expected them to remind you of the values you uphold because you seem to have abandoned them. If I thought it would make a difference, I would have called the entire Titans team, were they available. I didn't come personally because I had to make sure they weren't holding Barbara in Gotham before I came here. You know that's the truth. Now that I know she's here, we can work together and bring Barbara home."

Nightwing stepped away from him. Batman's hand fell to his side once more. "Values? What have our values gotten us? Time and again Barbara's family, along with countless other families, suffer because of our sufferance for lunatics like them. Can you honestly say you didn't share my conviction after what he did to our family, after what he did to Jason?"

Batman was spared, at least temporarily, from having to answer that difficult question. The large sliding doors that allowed the vans' entrance to the large warehouse were practically ripped off their hinges mere seconds after Nightwing's angry words echoed off of the walls. Both he and Batman turned to see two dozen Misfits, armed with the Claridge Hi-Tech weapons, storming into the building. At their head were two men who were not dressed as Misfits, Nightwing and Batman recognized them both from encounters in the past. They were called Nil and Void. The Joker had employed them in past schemes of his, and they were deadly in the extreme, even without the backup of over twenty well armed Misfits. Their disagreements immediately forgotten, Batman and Nightwing nodded to one another and an unspoken plan was put into motion.

Removing a grapnel launcher from his belt, Batman aimed toward the ceiling and fired. An instant later he had melted into the shadows of the rafters before his presence was detected. Nightwing remained below to draw their fire. Leaping among the rafters, Batman dodged a stray bullet or two as he watched Nightwing leap between vans once more. Focussing on him and oblivious to the unseen vigilante above, they advanced on his position, trying to pin Nightwing down.

As Bludhaven's resident vigilante dove behind yet another van, Nil and Void instructed several of The Misfits to run around to the other side as the two hired killers circled around from behind. Batman patiently waited for the cue from his one time partner, which he knew would be coming very soon. He watched as ten of the garishly clad Misfits raced around the front of the vehicle while Nil and Void circled around from the back, approaching with more stealth, indicating their more professional nature in the art of killing. The Misfits skidded to a stop as they raced around, only to find that Nightwing had disappeared. In the rafters above, Batman's lips curled into a ghost of a smile. Seconds later, Nil and Void poked their heads around the back of the van. They, too, realized that something was amiss.

One of The Misfits asked, "Where in the hell is he?" Nil and Void merely looked at one another in alarm. They had the vigilante pinned down. There was no where else to go... except down. A look of realization dawned on their faces as the pair cast their gaze downward. Void raised a finger to his pursed lips and then pointed underneath the van, indicating that Nightwing had taken refuge there. The Misfits all nodded, drooling with the prospect of bringing Charon and The Joker Nightwing's head on a platter. In one swift movement, Void dropped to his back on the ground and began firing his weapon wildly. Batman raised a quizzical eyebrow. If this bunch wasn't careful, they'd kill themselves by puncturing the gas tank and blowing up the van. He watched as Void's eyes focussed on the area beneath the van.

There was no one there. The silence that had followed the gunfire only seconds ago seemed cloying to them now.

Void's eyes once again widened in surprise. The Misfits had by now surrounded the van, Nightwing couldn't have gone underneath, over the top, or anywhere else without being seen. Batman watched as Nil and three other Misfits were hit with the realization of Nightwing's location and took a tentative step away from the van. Realization rippled through their ranks like a wave cresting on the shore, and as if in response, the rear doors of the van swung open, knocking over the one known as Nil and several other Misfits as it impacted with different parts of their bodies. In a blur of motion, Nightwing leaped from the back of the van and launched his body against the rear wall of the warehouse. Somersaulting over just in the nick of time, he landed with his feet to the wall, and pushed off once more, rebounding off of the wall like a pinball off a bumper and into the midst of The Misfits.

That was Batman's cue to take action. From above, The Dark Knight launched a handful of shurikens at the remaining Misfits. Needless to say, the effort caught their full attention. The dozen or so gang members that were not tangling with Nightwing looked up, and Batman watched as one of them even had the gall to make the traditionally Catholic sign of the cross on his chest at the sight of Batman. From his utility belt, he tossed one more handful of shurikens at the nearby light fixtures, and the warehouse plunged into near total darkness. The Misfits could only watch in horror as the grim moving shadow from above dropped down into their midst to join his impossibly fast ally.

Using the darkness to their advantage, Nightwing and Batman lashed out with punishing kicks and wicked punches that sent their enemies flying in all directions. Nightwing's miraculous escape coupled with the appearance of Batman and the sudden imposed darkness gave the vigilante duo the edge that they had required to survive so many well armed Misfits. Brief flashes of light lit up the warehouse as the odd Misfit made the mistake of firing his weapon in the darkness, only to injure one of his comrades. On either side of the severely punished white van, Nightwing and Batman made quick work of the gang that had attempted to swarm them, which was the now standard M.O. for The Misfits. Only Nil and Void remained conscious and stepped away from the action.

As the last of The Misfits fell to the ground like marionettes with their strings cut, Nil and Void activated the laser sights on their weapons. Two slivers of red light cut a swath through the darkness and came to rest on the chests of the vigilante nearest to each of them. Nil was closest to Batman, while Void decided he had the pleasure of killing Nightwing. Nil was brandishing his favoured PN 90, and the spray of bullets sent Batman dodging behind the white vans as Nightwing once did, as Batman knew all too well the kevlar shredding abilities of the PN 90, just as Nightwing did.

Nightwing's lips curled back into a sneer of disgust as Void produced his automatic shotgun and fired. Batman involuntarily flinched as the weapon let out a devastatingly loud retort which echoed off the walls once more. He felt a brief flash of worry for Nightwing, and just as quickly suppressed it. He would have to deal with the one eyed character known as Nil before he could help his adopted son, and allowing himself to be distracted by worry would only end up getting him killed, and he couldn't help Nightwing then. Fortunately, Nightwing dropped to the ground as Void fired the weapon, and the van directly across from them on the warehouse floor practically blew apart. Nightwing rolled toward Void and lashed out with his legs. Void was expecting to be kicked and braced himself for an impact, but instead felt Nightwing's boots wrap themselves around his shotgun and wrench it from his powerful hands. Void watched as his weapon clattered to the warehouse floor behind Nightwing and broke into a run for it. He was stopped when Nightwing flipped to his feet, now only inches from his foe.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

Void merely smiled wickedly in response and took one step backward in order to take up a fighting stance. Nightwing simply watched with amusement as he did so. "I've read the file on you, Void," He told him. "You're some kind of martial arts specialty guy. What is that stuff you practise?" Nightwing paused as he gazed at him, almost absentmindedly. Then he snapped his fingers as he remembered. "Oh yes, Iron Forearm Gung Fu, isn't it? Basically, you practise beating things with your forearms until they become lethal weapons. Well, you certainly do have big forearms. I bet you've made a lot of people cry uncle with those arms of yours." Void nodded in the affirmative and spit on Nightwing's boots

Behind them, Batman leaped from a kneeling position behind the van and landed within two feet of his own foe, the ever deadly Nil. As the mercenary brought his weapon to bear on The Dark Knight, he was shocked to see that he had suddenly gone blind, or so it seemed. In reality, Batman had draped his own cape over Nil as he landed... almost as a bullfighter would, preventing him from seeing. In one quick movement, Batman ripped the gun from Nil's hand and sent it flying across the warehouse floor, where it landed next to the Striker Automatic Shotgun that Nightwing had deposited there. Batman reached out and wrapped his strong arms around Nil's neck and pulled him into a type of headlock, where Nil was basically doubled over and facing The Dark Knight, only with his head locked in the crook of Batman's right arm. As efficient as he was well trained, Batman lashed out with his right knee three times. Two of the shots were perfectly centered in Nil's stomach, while the third went to his face. Nil promptly fell to the ground unconscious, still wrapped in Batman's cape, almost as if it were a sleeping bag.

Batman turned to face Nightwing and Void, picking up the conversation just as Nightwing was saying, "Well, you certainly do have big forearms. I bet you've made a lot of people cry uncle with those arms of yours."

Both Void and Nightwing were simply standing there, daring one another to try something. Although the warehouse was barely illuminated by the light cast from a lamppost across the street, Batman could see the entire scene unfold in perfect lighting thanks to the starlight lenses in his mask. "You see," Nightwing said conversationally. "I don't have time for you. I don't have time for any of this stupid shit. Your boss is holding someone hostage. It's someone I care for a great deal. You've got two choices: tell me where Joker and Charon are, or I will pull out every hair on your ugly head one by one before I take your spleen out through your nose."

Void's response was to spit once more at Nightwing's feet.

"Don't say I didn't warn you."

Void never had a chance.

Utilizing his own fighting style, a mixture of aikido and capoera, the mercenary known as Void and his Iron Forearm Gung Fu fell almost immediately to Nightwing's expertise. In order to use it on Nightwing, the first thing he would have to do was lay a hand on him, and he never once succeeded in that endeavour. The big man threw himself at Nightwing, his forearms flying, and Batman watched as his ward dropped to one leg and extended the other in a sweep that sent Void toppling to the ground.

Being a professional, Void was rolling back to his feet before he had completed skidding to a stop and came at Nightwing again. This time, Bludhaven's avenging angel stood his ground. When Void thrust out an arm at Nightwing's head, the vigilante merely moved two inches to the right and lashed out with his own hands. His right hand reached out and grabbed Void by his massive shoulder, while the left snapped out and grabbed the wrist, effectively trapping his arm in the extended position. Before Void could react, Nightwing lashed out with his left leg as if it were a striking cobra, the knee coming up hard into Void's torso. As the breath was knocked from his foe, Nightwing released his grip on his foe's shoulder and brought down his knuckles with all his might into Void's fully extended bicep muscle.

The mammoth mercenary cried out in agony as Nightwing released him and let him fall to his knees. What happened next was what truly disturbed Batman. He watched as Nightwing stood over his foe, and took Void's chin in his hand, directing his line of vision to his captor's grim face. "Tell me where they are."

Still, Void refused to speak. Despite his lack of morals, the mercenary remained devoted to the man who payed his wage, The Joker. Batman broke into a full run as Nightwing reached back, his fingers fully extended in a knife edge manner, his muscles fully tensed. Batman could hardly believe his eyes as, one by one, Nightwing curled his fingers into a fist, almost as if he were counting down the seconds his victim had to live. It appeared as if he were about to deliver the lethal Leopard Blow. The punch that would drive Void's nose back into his brain, killing him instantly. Nightwing's arm was shaking and his stare bored into Void's fear filled eyes. Sweat fell from Nightwing's brow, despite the winter temperatures.

No one was more surprised than Nightwing when he felt Batman's own steel hard arms lock around his own and back flip him away from Void. "That's enough!" Batman yelled, surprised at the sound of his own uncharacteristically loud voice. Void crumpled to the ground in relief, clutching at his arm and chest and heaving for breath as Nightwing rose to his feet and looked at Batman with disbelief.

"Keep your distance!" Batman told him as he turned back to Void and rolled him over so that the two could see eye to eye. His only hope of turning the situation around and still finding out where The Joker and Charon were located was trying his hand at the old good cop / bad cop routine.

"As you can see, my partner is losing his patience with you," he said, his voice lowered once again to the menacing hoarse whisper. "Why don't you do yourself a favour and tell me where Joker is hiding? I'm not sure how long I can restrain him."

Finally, Void found his voice and acquiesced. "He's... in a warehouse six blocks down. A Masters subsidiary company owns it. It's still under construction, the roof ain't all finished yet. That's where he is."

Batman heard Nightwing turn on his heel and sprint toward the main doors. With a quick punch to a nerve cluster at the back of the neck, Void fell to the floor, blissfully unconscious. The Dark Knight retrieved his cape and ran after him. "Nightwing! Wait!"

Nightwing was already close to the top the roof of the building across the street thanks to a nearby fire escape. Batman removed another grapnel launcher from his belt and aimed it at the nondescript building Nightwing was ascending. The hooks embedded themselves in the wall of the building and he activated the retract feature. A tiny yet powerful winch system pulled him into the air, and seconds later he alighted on the rooftop, only seconds behind Nightwing. "Wait," He called again.

Nightwing whirled about to face Batman once more. "He dies! They both do! End of discussion! I will not have Barbara's family mourning through yet another Christmas Season," He practically spat as he recalled how The Joker had killed Sarah Gordon nearly a year ago.

Batman stopped in his tracks as he took in the frightening image of Nightwing's tortured face. Deep hatred and anger lines were there, but only to mask the fear and sorrow. Only Batman could tell that the young man was struggling to hold back tears. Fear and anger. They were two sides of the same coin. "I'll say it again, I can't let you do that."

"What will you do? Do you think you can stop me?"

Batman's reply was immediate. "No."

Nightwing shook his head slightly, as if he couldn't believe his ears. "What did you say?"

"No. I don't think I can stop you. I've seen that look before. I've felt those exact same feelings. You weren't there when I learned that Joker was appointed as the new Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations only days after murdering Jason in cold blood. You weren't there when I learned that he had been given complete absolution for his past crimes due to his new position. You didn't see him taunting me. I wanted to snap his neck, too."

"And?"

Batman actually half smiled at the memory and let out a dry chuckle. "The CIA actually brought in Superman to stop me. In the end, even he realized that nothing can stop people like us when those we love are threatened." The Dark Knight rubbed his knuckles as he spoke, recalling the pain he had suffered when he had lashed out at Superman with a single punch.

"So. You figure you can't stop me. What are you planning on doing?" Nightwing asked, the cold wind whipping his hair back and giving him the appearance of a fearsome warrior.

"When I was younger, I got a lucky break. A young boy came into my life. He reminded me of the consequences of my actions just by fighting at my side. He caused me to think things through rather than simply react. He reminded my of my own humanity. His presence kept me from crossing that line time and again. Then the boy grew up, as all boys do, and became a man. That boy was you."

For the first time since Barbara had been kidnapped, Nightwing smiled, and he looked like Dick Grayson once more.

Batman continued. "We had our differences, but I know now that's just the nature of growing up and finding your own identity. Then Jason came along, and I got lucky once more. When Jason died, I became as you are now, just looking for some new mook to break in half. I was heading for disaster, and then I got lucky once more. Tim came along, and once again I saw a reflection of myself in his eyes, and I didn't like what I was seeing."

Nightwing stood there in the cold wind, waiting for Batman to make his point.

"I'm saying that you three; you, Jason, and Tim, all of you kept me from becoming the evil I faced every night. You honoured me by being my partners. Now, it's time I paid you back for that. I'm going to do the same thing for you. Dick, I'm going to stick to you like glue until this business is over. I'm going to remind you of everything you once swore to uphold. I'm going to be your partner, and maybe you'll think twice. I may not be able to stop you, but I'm pretty sure you can't stop me from tagging along."

Nightwing shrugged. "Fine. Come on. But you won't change my mind." Once more he turned on his heel and began sprinting across the rooftops. Within minutes they were atop the warehouse Void had directed them toward. It was exactly as the mercenary had described it. The roof was only half finished. As they touched down on the rooftop, Batman reached out and placed a gloved hand on Nightwing's shoulder to get his attention.

"I'm with you on this. Just consider one thing. We go in quiet, agreed? If you try the same routine you pulled back there, Barbara could end up dead."

Nightwing nodded in agreement. When he spoke, his voice was as cold and emotionless as the grave. "Just don't try and stop me when the time comes."

Taking the lead, Nightwing dropped into the murky, embracing darkness below. Batman was quick on his heels. They landed within seconds of one another on the floor of the warehouse, silent as a whisper. The place appeared to be deserted, and very poorly lit. Both men knew it was the perfect place for an ambush, but they had no choice but to continue.

"Let's move out," Nightwing whispered.

The duo began moving their way through the gloomy, night-enshrouded warehouse, taking each step with great consideration, careful not to set off any hidden traps. With Nightwing on one side of the hallway and Batman on the other, they advanced on the heart of the building. Due to the unfinished roof, the chill winter wind howled through the building and was the only sound the pair could discern. The silence was truly disconcerting. Batman felt a chill go up his spine, but made no outward sign of his discomfort. He looked across the hallway at Nightwing, and noticed that he, too, gave no signs of being afraid. It was as if the freezing wind that whipped down the hallway with them was the harbinger of vengeance, and they accompanied Nightwing, announcing his arrival.

To their immediate left was a doorway. Batman was glad to have taken the left hand side of the hallway, so that he could safely test the door, rather than risk Nightwing kicking it down. He reached out and jiggled the handle ever so slightly. It was unlocked. He signalled to Nightwing, who stepped over to the other side of the door, facing his mentor. Batman counted down to three, and opened the door in one swift motion, while Nightwing ducked inside. There was no one inside. They were beginning to wonder if anyone was in the building. Had Void lied to them?

"Look at this," Nightwing said. Batman joined him at the worktables that had been arranged in the room. They shared a worried glance. Nightwing pointed toward the stainless steel vats that had been arranged on the table and ran his glove along the inside of one of them, removing a powdery residue. "Unless I miss my guess, this stuff is..."

"Smilex," Batman completed the thought.

"And over here..." Nightwing gestured to three crates, now empty. Batman scanned the writing that had been spray painted using a stencil over the side. The words read "AA ROCKETS - DO NOT USE WITHOUT PROPER AUTHORIZATION." Anti-Aircraft Rockets - the feeling of dread that Batman experienced earlier only increased as they continued throughout the room. In their haste, The Misfits had left behind a small amount of Semtex explosive as well. Everything in the room spelled death in mass quantities.

They both whirled around to face their destinies together when they heard a loud creak from down the hallway. They stopped to listen, there was nothing but silence now. Batman indicated that he would take point, and, to his credit, Nightwing did not disagree. With The Dark Knight in the lead, they stepped into the hallway and continued along to the main area. They came to only one more doorway before the would reach the large warehouse floor, and once again, they heard the creaking sound. Something lay beyond this doorway. This time, Nightwing reached out to test the doorknob, and found that it unlocked.

"Look at this," Nightwing whispered as he pointed to faint scratch marks along the doorframe. "This door has been barred, and recently." Batman nodded in agreement. A sense of foreboding enveloped him, and the sixth sense that he had developed from years of crime fighting kicked in. He motioned for Nightwing to back away from the door as he removed a length of fibre optic wire with a tiny camera attached to the end from his utility belt. Batman dropped to his knees and snaked the length of cable underneath the door while handing a portable viewer to Nightwing, who activated it.

Batman stomach sank as he could only watch Nightwing's face turn white with shock and a terror all his own. Whatever he had witnessed as he activated the monitor was something out of his worst nightmares.

"NO!!"

Before Batman could stop him, Nightwing had kicked the door down and stormed inside. The Dark Knight could only follow and hope for the best. Once inside, he, too, froze in his tracks at the grisly sight that greeted him. A woman with fire red hair, naked and bloodied, her back turned to the duo, hung by the neck from the rafters and swinging in the wind. Without a doubt, she was long dead. Nightwing ran around to face her, the tears of anguish now barely held at bay. Batman had to admit, he was rooted in place, himself. His heart felt like it had stopped completely. While Nightwing was moving without thought, Batman found he simply could not move at all. He had failed Barbara... again. Nightwing paused as he ran around to face her, his mouth dropping open, but no sound came out for some time.

"It's not her." Batman noticed that Nightwing's voice was shaky, a mixture of relief, guilt, and fear. He also felt the same flood of relief wash over him, and the hope that Barbara was still alive. These emotions were coupled with a feeling of great guilt. This woman, whoever she was, was someone's daughter, someone's sister, perhaps she was someone's mother as well. Only The Joker could make them run the gamut of emotion like this.

"Look at this," Nightwing whispered, almost as if the woman hanging before them was merely asleep and not dead, as if the slightest noise might wake her. Batman summoned his strength and walked around to face the dead woman. In reality, she looked nothing like Barbara except for the red hair. Her face and body was severely bruised, but that was not what had caught Nightwing's attention. Attached with duct tape to her left breast was a videocassette. A small piece of paper was taped to it as well. Only two words were written in purple ink: "Play me". Together they cut down the body, Nightwing cradled the dead woman as if she were a loved one. Batman had no doubt that his eldest son was picturing the tragic victim as Barbara. With the greatest respect for the dead he could muster, Batman removed the videotape from her body and glanced around the room. In the corner was a small television and a VCR. They both knew that the neither the videotape nor the player itself would be booby trapped, long distance killing was not The Joker's style.

"Let's see what the madman has to say," Nightwing muttered as he gently lay the woman's head to the floor and covered it with a nearby tarp. Batman inserted the tape and the television lit up. Both vigilantes recognized the room in which The Joker and Charon were pictured in. The dead woman they had found was swinging wildly in the background as Charon paced back and forth beside her, breathing heavily, while The Joker stood up front and center.

"They say insanity is just a state of mind," Joker began with a gleeful laugh. "I agree completely. I hope my little gift to those of you that are seeing this tape are being driven at least as insane as you all claim that I am. Jim Gordon, Batty, Officer Grayson, I'm looking at you."

Nightwing could feel the bile rising in his throat as Joker continued. "As you can see, we're long gone, moved to a newer, far more upscale locale. Now I look down on all creation and I see a plethora of useless maggots ripe for the killing. You think this useless street walker was something?" He gestured toward the dead woman. "That was my friend Charon's little idea. He likes to express his needs in a rather.... violent nature."

At that point Charon stormed to the forefront and stuck his face in the camera so that it filled the screen. "This little bitch was just the beginning! I know you're seeing this, Nightwing. You come and find me or..." Charon reached off screen and yanked hard. Barbara Gordon came into view, her hair entangled in Charon's massive fingers and tears on her face. "... Or this one gets it next!" Batman watched as Nightwing's nostrils flared with rage.

Joker then stepped to the fore once more and tried to edge Charon into the background. "Yes, yes. That's enough for now, my boy. Let big daddy Joker continue his rant. Listen up, Bat folks. Here's the deal. All you have to do to find me is figure out one thing. Tell me, Bats, if you're so smart, just what is the opposite of six?" Joker paused as he turned his attention back to Charon, who was sniffing Barbara's hair, and then turned back to the camera, pretending to whisper. "Better hurry. I don't know how long I can hold the big guy at bay."

The screen flickered and went dark. Batman heard Nightwing take a sharp intake of breath. He turned towards his partner and saw that he appeared as if he had been physically assaulted. "What is it?" He asked.

Nightwing shook his head slightly as if to clear it. It appeared as if he had undergone an epiphany of some sort. "I know where they are."

"Where? We should let Jim know. He's probably in Bludhaven as we speak."

"No. Not yet. If I'm right, we have to be on the spot first. There's preparations that need to be made. We can't allow Gordon or The Haven police to screw things up until we do what needs to be done. We can't even notify them about this woman's body just yet."

Batman didn't like the sound of that. It wasn't like Nightwing to keep others out of the loop. The tableau that had just unfolded before them may have only strengthened Nightwing's resolve to kill the two criminals. "I don't like the sound of this. Tell me what's going on."

"I'll fill you in on the way." Nightwing turned to leave, only to have Batman's massive hand lay on his shoulder and forcefully turn him back to face The Dark Knight.

"No. You listen to me. If you want my help we have to act as partners. A well oiled machine, just like we used to be."

"This is what you want to protect?" Nightwing yelled as he gestured toward the television.

"I'm not protecting them. I'm protecting you... from yourself. I couldn't care less if they live or die."

"Who would think any less of me for killing them?"

Batman's reply was immediate. "I would. Tim would. Alfred would. Barbara would. None of us could ever look at you in the same way again."

Nightwing shook his head slowly, as if trying to deny the truth. "You're better than this, and you're better than them."

Batman extended his hand to Nightwing, waiting for his partner to shake it. "We do this together, as partners. When the time comes, you do what you need to do. I suppose I can't stop you, but until we reach that moment, the main goal is rescuing Barbara. Are we agreed?"

Nightwing stood there for a few moments, staring at Batman's outstretched hand. It seemed as if it was an eternity to Batman, who truly wondered what Dick's reply would be. Finally, Nightwing's hand shot out and clasped Batman's own with a resounding slap, a symbolic seal of the partnership.

"Let's do it."

"He'll know we're coming for him," Batman cautioned.

"Then I hope he has the wisdom to be afraid."

Batman was left with one question. Just what was the opposite of six?


ven.geance
Pronunciation: 'ven-j&n(t)s
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from vengier meaning to avenge
Date: 14th century
- punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense: RETRIBUTION
- with a vengeance 1 : with great force or vehemence 2 : to an extreme or excessive degree



Jim Gordon, Renee Montoya, and Harvey Bullock together burst through the main doors of The Bludhaven Justice Center with shotguns in hand like water through an newly opened dam. Seated at the information desk directly in front of them, the middle aged officer on duty was in the midst of absentmindedly blowing a bubble out of the wad of chewing gum in his mouth at the time. When he layed eyes upon the trio of Gotham's most famous police officers, the ones who held Gotham City during the time of the No Man's Land without authorization or support of any kind against psychotics and roving gangs of murderers, thieves, and worse - the living legends that worked hand in hand with vigilantes, he promptly swallowed the gum he had been chewing, just narrowly avoiding choking himself.

The trio stopped at the information desk, well aware that the eyes of everyone around were now centered directly on them. The officer looked up at Jim Gordon's stern face and attempted a wan smile. "C..c...c.can I help you?"

"I'm looking for the officer in charge of apprehending the man known as Jonah. You know him as Jonathon Masters Jr. He has kidnapped my daughter, and he's in this city. I'm Commissioner Jim Gordon from Gotham City. You will take me to the officer in charge of the case... now."

"Ummm... okay." The trembling officer stumbled to his feet and led them toward the main elevators. Bullock sneered at the onlookers they passed while Renee simply ignored them. As they stepped into the elevator and the officer stabbed the button that would take them to the detectives floor, the silence that filled the elevator car was palpable.

"So... ummm, how's the weather in Gotham these days?"

The trio of Gotham newcomers stared daggers through their companion. No one answered his inane attempt at conversation. As the car came to a stop and the doors opened with rumble that indicated they had not seen regular maintenance in some time, Mac Arnot was the first to witness Gordon and his most trusted officers step out. Joey Flaherty was the second. Arnot came across the floor, almost at a run, trying to intercept them.

"Just hold it! You've got no authority to be here!" Arnot yelled as he polked his finger into Gordon's broad chest.

Still in the lead, Gordon moved in close to Arnot, his face resembling a thundercloud, a look that clearly indicated that he would brook no interference. Arnot suddenly felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Finally, Gordon leaned in so that his face was very close to Arnot's, when he spoke his voice was a low rumble. "Just who in the HELL are you?"

Arnot swallowed hard, but refused to back down just yet. From the corner of his vision, he noticed Joey Flaherty approaching them quickly from across the room. "I'm Inspector Arnot, Commissioner Gordon. You and your people are out of your jurisdiction. I'm going to have to ask you to put down your weapons and leave the building. If you don't I'll be forced to incarcerate you."

To Arnot's surprise, Gordon merely smiled. The smile contained all the warmth of an ice cube tray. Suddenly, Arnot felt as if he were a child threatening an oncoming tornado. The look Gordon favoured him with gave him the impression that The Commissioner had come across far worse and far more threatening people in his day, and Arnot barely rated his attention at all.

"I happen to know," Gordon began in a menacing whisper that only he and Arnot could hear, "that Bludhaven has neither a Commissioner post, nor an Inspector post. So, whoever the hell you are, you're not a cop, and you're in my way. That's a very unhealthy place to be when my daughter's life is on the line." Gordon stepped in once more, his right foot was now on top of Arnot's left, and he pressed down with all his weight. Jim Gordon was not a small man, and he brought the full weight of his well toned body onto Arnot's toes. To his credit, Arnot refused to yelp or squeal, the price he paid for his silence was having his face turn bright red with agony and more than a little embarassment.

Without warning, Gordon removed his foot and Arnot doubled over with pain. As he did so, Gordon brought his right knee up until it impacted with Arnot's skull. "Whoops!" Gordon said in a voice loud enough so that all could hear. "Excuse my clumsiness, sir." The Commissioner strode past Arnot as if he no longer existed, continuing his search for the officer in charge of the case.

As they passed him, Bullock tilted his fedora to Arnot and smiled congenially. "Tell your boss that Gotham's finest send their regards." Arnot made no reply as he clutched his head, fingers of pain digging into his skull.

By this time, Flaherty had reached Gordon. He instantly recognized the famous policeman, as would any law enforcement officer on the east coast, and his stomach sank into a well of despair as he witnessed Gordon's entrance onto the detective's floor. He recognized instantly that the time for self pity and hesitation was over. Gordon had forced the issue by coming to Bludhaven himself. He would have to deal with his problems wether he liked it or not.

"Who are you?" Gordon asked as Flaherty approached.

"Joey Flaherty, Commissioner. I believe it's me you're looking for."

"You're damn right, Flaherty. I don't know what the hell kind of precinct you people have here, but I've been stonewalled long enough. I have it on good authority that Jonah and The Joker have my daughter here in Bludhaven, and if you're not willing to do anything about it, I'll just have to get things done myself. Whatever fallout there is will fall on your head, as you're in charge of the case."

Just then, Detective Aswal Addad - Captain Of Homicide - stepped into their midst. "What the hell is going on out here?"

Flaherty was about to answer Addad when he noticed Arnot rising to his feet once more, still rubbing his head. Their eyes met, and Arnot's gaze was brimming with unspoken warnings.

Talk and you're dead. You're dead and so is your family.

Images from Flaherty's past roiled in his mind's eye like thunderclouds. Images of his wife and two daughters, and of his brother, Mully. Joey could hear Gordon complaining to Addad, but his voice sounded as if it were coming from miles away. Why shouldn't Gordon complain? His daughter was in the hands of a madman, possibly two madmen, and no one in this city was doing anything about it. Joey had two daughters, what would he do if it were him? Suddenly he felt as if Mully was by his side, his brother, who died at the hands of the monster known as Bane. Whatever Arnot could do to Joey, he knew he could face it with his family by his side, Mully didn't even have that, and still he died bravely and with honor. Finally, he found his voice.

"Detective Addad, Commissioner Gordon," he interjected, "I'm in charge of the Jonathon Masters case, and if you'd care to step into the Captain's office where we can have some privacy, we can form a plan of action to find your daughter."

From across the room, Arnot's eyes widened with unspoken fury.

"Why do we need my office?" Addad asked.

"Because when we're done with this I need to speak to you about something, sir. I'll need you to contact Internal Affairs about a delicate matter that can be discussed after Miss Gordon is returned to us."

"As you wish, Flaherty." He made a gesture that indicated they should all follow him. As they entered Addad's office, Arnot made sure he was close enough to the door to speak in a voice low enough that only Flaherty could hear.

"You're a dead man, Joey."

Flaherty turned back to the inspector before entering the office. "I don't think so. You see, when I'm done here, I'm going to ask my daughter, who's a reporter by the way, to call a press conference on my behalf. I'm going to be a man and take my punishment publicly... like a man. I'm blowing this whole thing out into the open, Arnot. I'd like to see you and your boss kill off someone who's about to become as public as I intend to be. No, you're going to leave us the hell alone, I think. Cockroaches like you and Roland Desmond don't like it when light starts shining." Having said his piece, Arnot followed his fellow officers into Addad's office and slammed the door on Mac's face.

"Now, will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" Addad demanded as they piled into his tiny office. Suddenly, the frigid winter wind gusted into the cramped room and sent papers flying across the captain's desk as Addad's office window slid open, and a shadowy figure spoke to them in a rough whisper from the ledge outside.

"I will tell you all you need to know, Captain Addad," Batman said. "I know exactly where The Joker and Charon are."

*****

Twenty minutes earlier and eighteen miles south, Officers Allgood and Greeno were calmly seated in their patrol car alongside the southbound lane of Highway 61, sipping at hot coffee kept warm by the thermos Greeno's wife had given him only last week. The young Asian man was on his first assignment since graduating from the academy, and was assigned to Rose Allgood, a veteran of many years on the force. The two had set up their radar detector and were now settled in for the long night of busting drivers with lead feet. The holidays sometimes brought out the worst in people who liked to drink and then drive themselves home. Greeno was looking forward to saving lives and making the world a better place, especially at Christmas time. Being the veteran she was, Rose was far more blase about the entire ordeal. It was just another night setting up a radar trap for her. She had chided the young man about his enthusiasm, knowing that in a few years he would be as uncaring about the whole scenario as she, but in her own way, she envied him his naive enthusiasm.

Greeno was pouring her a cup of coffee when the car passed them with such speed that the wind literally shook the their own squad car to and fro while the roar surprised the rookie so that he spilled hot coffee all over Allgood's lap.

"Je-sus!!" Greeno swore. Allgood's own string of curses when the hot liquid hit her made Greeno's oath seem pale in comparison. A glance at the monitor would tell them what speed the offender was travelling at. To Greeno's surprise, the monitor was showing them only strange symbols instead of numbers. Whoever was driving the car that had rocketed past them was outfitted with a radar jamming device. Greeno reached for the car radio and began to call in the pursuit when Allgood's hand was upon his, stopping the call.

"What?" Greeno asked.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm calling it in. Let's get after that bastard."

Allgood shook her head in a condescending manner toward the young man. "First of all, how do you think we're going to catch that car? Strap some of Wile E. Coyote's Acme Rockets to your back? That car would be home in the garage and the driver in bed snoozing by the time we started the car."

Greeno shook her hand away free from the radio and pressed the button along the side that would open the frequency. "This is Baker 3-9, we have a..." he paused as he looked at his senior partner. "Did you get a make on the car?" Allgood shook her head once more, again in the negative. Undaunted, Greeno opened the frequency again.

"This is Baker 3-9, we have a... a... car, unknown make and unknown color, driving at dangerously high speeds in the northbound lane heading towards Gotham. Over."

Allgood sighed heavily. "Listen, kid. Don't you know who that was?" Greeno shrugged, indicating his ignorance.

"Once you're on the force for a while, you'll get used to things like that. Only one vehicle in this state can go that fast and bollix our radar like that."

"Huh?"

"Honey," Allgood said, this time in a more motherly tone. "That was none other than Batman."

"Batman," Greeno echoed, his voice tinged with awe and respect. He had never truly thought he would be lucky enough to have an encounter with Gotham's fabled Dark Knight. Then, all at once, anger welled up within him and his face reddened.

"Everyone has to obey the law, even Batman. Isn't that what he's all about?"

"Trust me, kiddo," she told him as she wiped at her lap with some napkins, "If he's driving like that, it's for a reason. He's trying to save lives. They could be anyone's lives. Yours. Mine. Your parents. Your sister. I've been on the force over a decade now, and every time that car makes me spill coffee on myself, I know that I'm going to read something in the paper the next morning about how Batman saved lives. Trust me, with him, it's best to just get the hell out of his way, cause the next life he saves just might be yours."

Officer Allgood was wrong. The dark figure behind the wheel of the speeding vehicle was not Batman. It was, in fact, Nightwing.

*****

The Present...

"Well, Tim? What do you think of my new look?"

Nightwing stepped into the overhead light of the Batcave's armoury, outfitted for the dangerous task that lay ahead. Tim Drake, poised on crutches, could only look on in stunned silence. There was no question, he looked every bit as imposing as the mentor they shared. The young man who often acted as a surrogate big brother for Tim was clearly dressed for battle. The version of his costume that he now wore was a special thermal version of the thickest variety, the outer layer of which could be torn away at a later date, revealing an exact duplicate of his costume underneath, so that he might have more flexibility when he needed it most. On his head he wore a black helmet adorned with the "V" shaped insignia displayed on his chest. The one way visor that extended from it down over his eyes and the breathing apparatus he wore over his nose and mouth completely masked the rest of his face from view. Strapped to his back was a parachute, and he wore a black equipment belt around his waist that held, among many other things, two specially designed grapnels in custom fitted holsters. To complete the outfit, he had one final equipment belt strapped around his right thigh, lined with pockets that held the rest of the equipment he required and an altimeter attached to his wrist. To young Tim, he looked like some kind of space age gun fighter.

"You look like you're going to try something incredibly dangerous and risky. Are you sure this plan of yours will work? Are you even sure about Charon's location?"

"Has Alfred finished fuelling up The Batwing yet?"

Tim would not be put off track. "Don't try and change the subject. Are you sure about this? I mean one hundred percent certain? There's no reason to try this stunt if there's even the slightest bit of doubt, you know."

Nightwing moved out of the armoury and into the main area of the cave, speaking in an even tone to Tim as he went. "There's no other choice, Tim. They're in The One In A Million Casino, that's the only place they can be."

"How can you be so sure?"

"It's what The Joker said in his little prerecorded message. What is the opposite of six? The answer is one."

Tim shook his head, bewildered. "Run that by me again, please."

*****

Officer Lopez of the Bludhaven Police Department fully realized what a sweet deal he had in life. While others on the force were relegated to patrolling the meaner streets of The Zee Moore Housing Projects, where death came easily and, more often than not, officers refused to answer calls to that area without significant backup, he had lived a charmed life of sorts. During his first seven years on the force, Lopez had been assigned to the Melville district of The Haven back when it was still a respectable area, he had transferred out to his current beat just when things were starting to go to seed in that particular area. Instead, he had been transferred across town to the business district of Bludhaven, where there was little or no action after dark.

In past decades, The Ashby District had been fraught with crime, back in the days when businesses actually dealt with paper money and there was something to rob in these ancient buildings that seemed to radiate affluence and influence. Here, in the present, transactions were all completed electronically, and actual money rarely, if ever, saw the light of day any more. All that was left in the way of crime in Ashby was the occasional mugging of a well-to-do passerby on the way to one of the many high class restaurants, exclusive shops, and attractions that littered the bottom floors of many a skyscraper along these streets. Even that was rare, however, due to the fact that the best of Bludhaven's citizens worked in this area, and the city made sure that the streets were always well lit and well patrolled.

As Lopez reached the corner of Barrington Street and Thornton Avenue, he cast a glance upward. Next to him was the towering Bludhaven Plaza Hotel, and from ground level, it seemed as if the massive structure continued on into the stars themselves. The shops themselves had closed for the evening, and the Christmas shopping rush which was normally prevalent at this time of year had been abated by the gang war that had erupted in the city in the past day or so. Lopez wondered how the rest of the Bludhaven Police Force was faring on their beats in the rougher parts of town. For him, the gang war seemed very far away indeed. Thankfully, all remained quiet in Ashby.

He took another sip from the Styrofoam cup he held, his coffee had gone cold quickly in the bitter night air. As he gazed upward, Lopez noticed for the first time that he had never actually been inside The Hotel he now stood beside. "Surely," he thought to himself, "They must have a coffee shop inside." From all accounts, the hotel was a virtual mini-metropolis inside, offering a stunning amount of shopping opportunities, but none came cheap. With the swelling of the cities population thanks to the Gotham earthquake, and the sudden upswing in the Bludhaven economy as a result, the hotel was enjoying a new prosperity. The new casino at its very top would prove a boon to the economy as well, he knew.

Lopez thought of wandering inside to see about getting another hot coffee for himself, and then decided against it, assuming that the price of a cup of coffee in a place such as that would no doubt cost him a week's salary. In any case, he was a cop, he didn't want any foo foo Starbuck's style coffee. He wanted what they called down at the station 'Jesus Coffee'. Coffee so strong you could walk on it. Still, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and he desperately wanted to get warm, if even for just a moment. Lopez smiled and shrugged to himself. Why not?

You only live once, right?

Lopez strode quickly, enticed by the idea of warm surroundings on this frigid evening, only days until Christmas. When he reached the gargantuan archway that led to the main glass doors, however, he stopped cold. Furniture had been piled up in front of the doorway... from the inside, effectively blocking the large doors completely. For a moment, Lopez cocked his head to the side in wonder. He had heard that the hotel had been virtually gutted since the creation of the casino had been announced, to make way for immense upgrades of materials and technology. He wasn't surprised to hear that, considering the rumours that the mob was involved in the casino's construction, but this.... this didn't look right at all. Overhead, he heard a faint whirring noise and he glanced upward one more, almost becoming dizzy as his eyes traced the corner of the building up toward the very top. It was the sound of a Bludhaven Police Helicopter, he knew, another sign of how the city looked after its wealthiest citizens, even if the bulk of the force was currently elsewhere trying to contain the gang war. Suddenly, it occurred to him, if the majority of the force was elsewhere in the city, wouldn't that leave a spot like this ripe for the picking?

There, hundreds of feet above him, he saw a tiny flash of light, lasting only a second, followed by a faint thud. Lopez had no idea what was transpiring here, but he felt it wasn't good. With beads of sweat beginning to fall from his brow, he removed his Glock 19 from his holster and reached for his jacket collar to activate his radio, intending to call in the disturbance and the strange manner in which the doors had been blocked, which constituted, at the very least, a major fire hazzard. He suspected something very wrong was happening inside the building, something much more malevolent than a fire hazzard. Just as he was about to speak into the radio, he saw his own death coming toward him. From out of the sky, the flaming ruins of the helicopter descended upon him. Eddie Lopez knew that his luck had run out this night. There was no time to run. There was no cover to hide beneath that would save him. He merely stood there, rooted to the spot, his mouth hanging open in dismay.

"Mother of God."

Those were his last words. The helicopter landed with a deafening crash on the street below and erupted into a blazing cataclysm. Eddie Lopez was standing at ground zero.

Far above his charred remains, The Joker laughed while Charon let loose with a warrior like holler from deep in his barrel chest.

*****

Tim was not about to let Nightwing's revelation of The Joker and Charon's whereabouts go unchallenged, especially when the clues given made no sense to the young crime fighter. "How can you be so sure they're in the casino?" Nightwing explained himself as he crossed the main area of the cave and passed through a small tunnel which led to the hangar bay with Tim trying to keep pace.

"I'll start at the beginning. He said he was moving to a 'newer, far more upscale locale'. He said something to the effect of 'looking down on all creation and seeing a plethora of useless maggots ripe for the killing'. He used the words upscale, and looking down on all creation, hinting at a higher vantage point. The casino is at the top of The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel, which is the highest building in the city by at least 10 stories.

As for the opposite of six being one, opposite sides of a dice need to add up to seven, it's the same on any dice you look at. The opposite of six on a dice is one. Dice are used in casinos, like The One In A Million Casino, due to open on January first. It's not math, it's just simple trivia, but not something you'd think of automatically. Even Bruce was stumped. Since I first learned of his existence, Jonah, Charon, Masters, or whatever the hell you want to call him, has been trying to take over or destroy Roland Desmond's hold on the city. The One In A Million is the biggest jewel in his crown. It's Rollie's ticket to legitimacy. For The Joker, it's just a great place to cause death and chaos, and maybe a way to lure Batman and I to our deaths. That's all he cares about."

Robin let out a low whistle, clearly impressed by Nightwing's reasoning. "Okay, so they're all in that casino of Blockbuster's. Does that make this little stunt of yours necessary?"

They were coming to the other end of the tunnel now, entering another part of the cave. The spacious and well lit area that housed several of Batman's special aircraft, each one specially designed for one purpose or another. In the distance, they could see Alfred, who was removing the fuel hose from one of the medium sized craft, a look of worry etched onto his dignified face.

"Even Bruce agreed that this was the only way, kiddo."

He recalled the brief conversation he shared with Bruce after they had finished viewing the tape The Joker had left for them. He explained his reasoning to his mentor, and Batman nodded his head slightly as he listened, saying nothing. Indicating that Nightwing had been correct in assuming the deadly pair of psychotics had taken Barbara to the casino, and that they were awaiting Batman and Nightwing for a showdown of sorts.

The argument only began when Nightwing outlined the plan he had in mind for them. They had agreed that the semtex explosive would be set up in the casino, as a last ditch attempt to ruin Roland Desmond's bid for dominance over the city. Recalling that Masters was an ex West Point student with a flair for strategy, it became obvious that the anti-aircraft rockets were to defend themselves against any SWAT team trying to gain access to the roof via helicopter. It was well known that the business section of town was well patrolled by air. The question was, what was the smilex for? In Nightwing's mind, there was no doubt, the smilex would be used to hold the entire hotel hostage if need be, no doubt wired to the air circulation system. Only in this way could Charon and Joker hold off the police until Batman and Nightwing showed up. It was the idea of splitting up that Bruce didn't like, not to mention that he usually insisted on being the one to perform the riskiest elements of their plans.

There was nothing Batman wanted more than to stick to Nightwing like glue in case his anger got the better of him and he did something he would later regret. Not to mention that Nightwing's chosen method of getting to the roof could very well get him killed. In the end, however, even Batman had to relent with lives at stake. He reluctantly admitted that Nightwing was the better choice to perform the HALO jump. With his aerial abilities, Nightwing's chances of performing split second adjustments with his body that just might save his life meant that the chances for success were far lower should Bruce attempt the same feat. There was also the added inducement that Batman had far more familiarity with defusing The Joker's Smilex bombs than Nightwing.

"Okay, I understand all of that," Tim interjected. "I just don't see why you needed to split up, or why you feel the need to do this crazy stunt."

"Nor do I, Master Dick," Alfred said as they approached, clearly listening in on every word they were saying. "Surely, there must be some other way to get you onto the roof of that building. I cannot say that I approve of this at all."

Nightwing gave the Batwing a once over, taking in the sleek lines of the perfectly maintained, though slightly modified Typhoon 313B. "Bruce said the same thing, Alfred. I convinced him other wise. To save Barbara, and the rest of the hotel's occupants, one of us needs to go in through the bottom floor, the other has to take the top floor. The air conditioning units are located in the basement and will be well guarded. Joker and Charon may have a remote control unit to activate the smilex, but if I know Masters, he's got someone else somewhere in the hotel with a back up remote, ready and willing to activate it if something happens upstairs. These Misfits seem to do anything he desires, including die for him. So we can't just storm the top floor and take The Joker out, we need to take out the smilex bombs themselves, that's Bruce's job. We also can't just take out the smilex bombs or he'll know we're here, and by the time we get to him, God only knows what he and Charon could do to Barbara to take their revenge. It has to be a two pronged attack."

"And I dare say your part of the attack is trying to get yourself into an early grave, Master Dick."

Alfred was referring to Nightwing's plan of attack as he had layed it out to them only minutes ago. In order to reach the roof, one would have to either climb the Bludhaven Plaza Hotel itself, or be dropped off in a helicopter of some sort. Climbing was not an option in the frigid temperatures that had invaded the east coast. Not only would he risk freezing to death, but the task of simply climbing half way would take hours on such a flat and slippery icy surface. The anti-aircraft rockets Charon was using negated any possibility of simply storming the area in a helicopter. Charon's Misfits would no doubt shoot them out of the sky before they could ever get close enough. There was no other nearby rooftop to swing from either, as it was by far the tallest building in the city. In Nightwing's mind, there was only one other possible way of gaining access to the top floor.

A HALO jump.

HALO jumps, an acronym for High Altitude Low Opening jumps, was a method used by organizations such as The navy SEALS for insertion into enemy territory from as high as 35,000 feet in the air and sometimes up to fifteen miles away from the target using a compass to land within 15 to 20 feet of their chosen landing zone. Nightwing was going to do The SEALS one better, however, and use a laser tracking device to identify the building he wished to invade, rather than a compass. The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel, when marked in this manner, would practically glow in the dark thanks to the full spectrum capabilities of the visor on his helmet.

HALO jumps resulted in more fatalities than any other type of jump. Normally, to make a jump of this sort, one is required to make previous 200 jumps (otherwise known as a D-license equivalent), an FAA Medical Certificate, and physiological flight training (which was basically a day long course involving knowledge of the human bodies exposure to high altitudes and hypoxia, plus a lesson on oxygen equipment and a stay in a barometric chamber to simulate high altitudes). Fortunately, he had been trained by Batman, and he had all of those things... except the 200 + jumps requirement. He had certainly parachuted many times, he estimated at least a hundred, but never in a situation such as this.

The dangers inherent in this plan were many, some obvious, and some not so obvious. To begin with, there was a very real danger of descending too quickly and getting the bends, which meant an excess of nitrous oxygen in the blood, similar to what scuba divers who surface too quickly can face, and it can kill. Another possible problem was hypoxia, which was, in Nightwing's opinion, far more dangerous than the bends. When a jumper goes over 10,000 feet above sea level, hypoxia is always a danger. The worst thing about it is that when you experience it, you may not even know it. Symptoms include possible dizziness, light-headedness ,tingling of the fingers and/or toes, and a kind of drunkenness that sets in. Any of which are lethal at that height. One could simply fall asleep as they jump if they weren't careful, the problem with that being that they would never wake up again. Even if he didn't succumb to any of those things, there was always the danger of breaking his neck when he opened his parachute and his head snapped back as if he were in a car accident.

Then there was the problem of landing.

Ideally, HALO jumps are performed over water. Although this is not a hard and fast rule, many jumpers obviously prefer it as it is can be safer. Nightwing would not have that option. Unfortunately, nor could he simply land on the roof of the casino, only to have his parachute fall on top of him before he can cut it away, and allow the guards Charon is sure to have posted to shoot him at will. That was where the special grapnel launchers came in. The equipment was specially designed by Bruce and Dick years ago but only in recent times did they have access to someone who could actually construct such a device in the person of the brilliant, and silent, Harold. The two grapnels that were housed in the holsters at his waist were of a far more powerful variety than those usually required by The Dark Knight and his brethren. To begin with, the launchers used CO2 charges to fire the grapnel, instead of the usual, less powerful, compressed air blast.

Nightwing's plan was to parachute alongside the building itself, and fire the grapnels at the wall of the hotel as he passed it, securing his position and allowing the cables - themselves a special version of the top rated Edelweiss STRATOS 8000+ mountaineering ropes and composed primarily of a polyamide braid - to allow him to come to a controlled stop rather than stopping too suddenly and ripping his arms from their sockets. The only problem with the bungee-like cable was that it might result in several nasty scrapes along the hotel wall if he wasn't careful. He had decided early on that the risk was minimal.

The usual grapnel hooks had been replaced by a nearly unbreakable aircraft-grade heat-treated aluminum mountain climbing piton. Bruce and Dick had based the design of the pitons on the commercially available MSR Coyote Snow Pickets, another popular mountaineering tool capable of supporting tremendous amounts of weight. The higher rate of thrust supplied by the CO2 charges in the launcher meant that the pitons would embed themselves completely and safely in the hotel wall so that there was little risk of them coming loose, and of Nightwing falling to his death. The sound of the launcher itself being fired was expertly muffled by the thick molded fibreglass casing that comprised the housing of the launcher. When Nightwing was secure, the powerful winch system inside the launcher would begin to retract and pull him to the rooftop, which would be less than one story away. When Alfred suggested merely using the winch to get to the rooftop from a nearby building, Nightwing informed him that the nearest rooftop was 10 stories down, and none of their grapnel lines reached that far.

Hidden in his boots was a specially designed retractable set of Grivel 2F mountain climbing crampons. When activated by pressing a button in his gauntlet, the 12 point spikes would reveal themselves and assist greatly in his ascent to the roof through far surer footing on the icy hotel walls. When he had reached the rooftop, the crampons could easily be removed from his boots by merely removing a screw at the heel and slipping the crampon frames off. Tim had joked uneasily that if man were meant to be performing such feats, they'd have been bitten by a radioactive spider or some such crazy notion. Dick had replied that if this actually worked, he might give serious thought to designing his own webbing for future endeavours of this nature. Despite their jokes, they all knew that timing was critical. Dick needed to pull the rip cord, aim and fire the grapnel launchers, activate his studded boots, and ascend the wall within 5 minutes, all without being seen, heard, or injured.

The fact that his approach would be nearly silent, and that he was clad completely in black (including his coal black parachute), meant that The Misfits would never see him coming, nor would they hear him as they floated past, only to reappear moments later and disarm them without alerting the others in the casino below them.

Alfred had protested mightily upon hearing Dick inform them of his plan, despite the fact that Bruce had already given it the go-ahead. With time running out on them, Nightwing quickly persuaded his mentor that this was the only option if a dual strike was to take place. "This sounds incredibly risky... but if anyone can do it, you can," Batman has told him. From that point, they had split up. Batman was to give Nightwing an approximate 20 minute head start, and then find Joey Flaherty at The Bludhaven Justice Center. Flaherty was a man to be trusted with the proper handling of the hostage situation with the police, and would make sure that they did not interfere with the vigilantes as they executed their own plans. Dick had called ahead to the cave, and had the special equipment ready and waiting upon his arrival with Alfred already fuelling the Batwing.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Tim asked.

"Yeah, actually. Word is that Desmond had the entire hotel pretty much gutted and rebuilt as a high security building using only the best high tech security measures available. What I need is the new floor plans to the hotel and casino, if you can hack them somewhere."

"You want the floor plans to the new building?" Tim sounded exasperated. "I'm good but I'm not that good. That's an Oracle type job."

Nightwing spared a moment to rest a reassuring hand on Tim's shoulder. "Just ask yourself 'what would Barbara do' and just do what comes to mind. Without that intel, this mission becomes a lot riskier. I know you can do it, Tim."

The boy wonder smirked. "Is that all you need? I mean, how about a cure for all known diseases while I'm at it?"

"No rush, you've got 5 minutes."

"Gee, you're all heart." With that, he retreated to the mighty crays, leaving Alfred and Nightwing alone.

"Should just one of any number of things go wrong, there won't be enough left of you to identify the body, Master Dick." Alfred's tone was solemn.

"Thanks for the warm thoughts, Al."

"Should anything happen to you..." He hesitated, his voice catching on the sadness that welled in his heart. He took a moment to compose himself, and then continued. "I fear none of us would survive your death, Master Dick. Master Bruce, myself, not even Master Timothy. You are a part of us, as we are of you. I just wanted to say... in case the worst happens, this is the bravest thing I have ever seen one man do for another, and I am honoured to have known you, and loved you as my son."

Behind the visor of his helmet, Nightwing fought back tears. All at once he felt anger, joy, and despair blossom within him. Anger at Bruce, who obviously knew what he was doing by making sure Nightwing was no longer alone in his quest to take down The Joker and Charon. Dick could feel the difference already in his soul. Being back in the cave, planning a death defying stunt with Alfred and Tim, acting as a team rather than a rogue vigilante, somehow forced him to shift his focus from killing the deranged duo, and more on Barbara's rescue. For some reason, he didn't want to be dissuaded from executing them. He knew the world would be better off if they were dead, and he had all the skill to complete the task. Now, however, the thought of killing them was like a faint flicker of light in the back of his mind. No matter, the rage would return the moment he left the Batwing and began his dive toward his enemy's stronghold. The simple fact was that he could not achieve his goal acting alone.

He also felt joy from being in the presence of Alfred and Tim once more. They were his closest family. He had missed contact with them since the crisis had begun. He had no idea that working as a team with them in order to solve one problem or another would make him feel so good. Nightwing almost asked himself if he had become addicted to teamwork.

Finally, he felt despair, knowing what was at hand, an assault on Desmond's casino. He knew that he might be too late. Barbara may already be dead. The odds were against that, it was true, but one never knew for sure when dealing with The Joker. He felt his stomach turn over at the thought of making his way into the garishly decorated casino only to find Barbara as Bullock and Montoya had discovered Sarah Essen-Gordon during the final hours of No Man's Land. He knew he would be devastated at the sight of her, broken at the hands of Charon. He also knew that his only reason for drawing breath from that point on if such an event occurred would be to wipe The Joker and Charon from the face of The Earth. He also knew that Alfred, Tim, Bruce, his fellow Titans, and everyone else he had ever cared for would be severely disillusioned and heartbroken if he even attempted such a thing, and he felt despair because he just didn't care enough about them to rise above his foe's lack of morals. All these emotions and thoughts occurred to him as he looked into Alfred's eyes. The lines in the dignified old gentleman's face were taut with worry. He refused to lay the burden of his emotions on any of his friends.

"You're the best, Al. Anyone who says otherwise will answer to me. Don't worry, I'm coming home in one piece, and I'm bringing Babs with me."

At that moment, Tim's voice crackled over the speaker in Nightwing's helmet. "I can't believe it! I think I have a lead here. It's gonna take me more than 5 minutes to get past this firewall and these passwords, but if all goes well I should have it before you jump and can send you the plans en route."

"You just earned yourself a raise, partner," Nightwing replied over the microphone in his breathing mask. "Don't let your mouse get in a knot. We're all set now."

"Shall I take the pilot's seat, sir?" Alfred asked, still not fully composed from the emotional moment that had just transpired between them.

Dick patted his oldest friend on the back as they entered the mighty vehicle.

"Let's go, Al. It's time to save the day."

Tim said a silent prayer as the engines roared to life and Alfred eased the plane out of the hangar and into the night air. He watched the Batwing disappear over the horizon on the main monitor. In mere seconds he would have to return to his work in an attempt to penetrate Roland Desmond's cyber defences and coordinate the plan between Batman and Nightwing, but he wanted to savour those last words he had shared with Dick. They would be over Bludhaven in less than 10 minutes and attempting the jump. There would be no second chances. He prayed that he hadn't just heard the last words Dick Grayson would ever speak to him in this life.

*****

Jim Gordon's relief at seeing The Dark Knight in Bludhaven knew no bounds. Captain Addad, however, did not enjoy such warm feelings as Batman slid the window open. Just one look into The Captain's dark eyes told Gordon that Addad had seen his fair share of crime scenes, and murder victims. He had wrestled with the ever present spectre of death that loomed over the shoulder of every serious police officer since the dawn of their profession. Even with all of that experience, one is never quite ready for their first face to face encounter with Gotham City's king of shadows. The gust of cold air that wafted into the room seemed to travel right down Addad's spine. Even Joey Flaherty, who stood to Addad's right and had partnered with Nightwing, was somewhat in awe of the newcomer.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph..." Addad whispered under his breath.

"Allow me to make the introductions, Commish," Harvey said. "Captain Addad, Sergeant Flaherty, this is the big winged freak-o. Big winged freak-o, this is Captain Addad and Sergeant Flaherty." The gruff policeman enjoyed a hearty chuckle until Renee Montoya reached out and pinched his earlobe in stern motherly fashion.

"Would you care to come inside?" Renee offered.

"No thank you." It was far too crowded... and too well lit in Addad's office for Batman's taste.

"You said you know where my daughter is," Gordon prompted, eager to see this nightmare come to an end.

"Yes, Jim. I do. The Joker and Charon have taken her to The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel. They intend to hold her, and no doubt every occupant of the building, hostage until Nightwing and I get there."

"How do you know this?" Addad had finally found his voice and was encouraged by the familiarity shown between Batman and the Gotham Police Officers.

"You must trust my methods, Captain. As we must trust you to assemble a SWAT team composed of men and women you trust, officers that are not on Roland Desmond's payroll. You must assemble them at The Bludhaven Plaza and commence hostage negotiations as a play for time."

"Play for time?" This from Gordon. "What's your plan? Where is Nightwing? We want to back you up."

"Trust me on this, Jim. You won't see us, but we will be there. Allow Nightwing and myself to handle this part of it. I will contact you on our usual frequency and tell you when The Joker's bombs are defeated. Then you can make your move on the Hotel and begin rescuing the hostages floor by floor."

"Bombs? They have bombs?" Addad was truly aghast. "We'll need the bomb squad to disable them..."

"No," Batman cut him off. "Have them standing by in case something goes wrong, but I will be the one to deactivate the bombs. They contain smilex, and I am one of the few who has experience with them. No bomb squad, and no air support. The Joker and Masters will shoot down any aircraft in sight. If you give the order to engage the psychotics that control that building before I give the all clear, everyone inside will die."

"Officer Grayson should really know about this," Joey interjected. "He's a damn good cop and he helped me to bring Masters in the first time. Where the hell is he, anyway?" Addad began to pick up the phone to have Dick Grayson summoned to his office when Batman interrupted yet again.

"You won't find Officer Grayson, Flaherty. He's under my protection. This Jonathon Masters individual, he's fixated on Grayson, and the attack on him earlier was Masters' attempt at killing him. I have placed the young man in a safe house of my design until this is over. I know he wanted to rush down here and volunteer for the SWAT effort, but I wouldn't allow it. He sends his best wishes."

Flaherty was silent for a moment. "Damn, he's a gutsy kid."

"I agree," Gordon added.

Batman then turned his attention to Addad once more. "Listen to me, Captain. They say you're one of the few cops that can be trusted in this town. Nightwing tells me that Sergeant Flaherty is a man you can trust, as well. For Barbara Gordon and the other occupants of that hotel to survive, you must do as I suggest. When you find you're unsure of what to do, ask Commissioner Gordon and these two officers for assistance," He gestured towards Bullock and Montoya. "They have much experience with The Joker, and they know what they're doing. Above all, you can trust them with your life. Do you understand?" As those last words left his lips, Batman cocked his head to one side, as if he were listening to a voice that no one else in the room could hear. Gordon, Bullock, and Montoya all knew that The Dark Knight was listening to an incoming transmission from a device hidden somewhere in his cowl. Addad merely nodded in the affirmative, still feeling somewhat out of his element. For Joey's part, he knew he had made the right decision when he heard Batman himself speak a testimonial for him on Nightwing's behalf. The situation was dire, but his heart filled with pride in doing the right thing. He was now officially on the side of the angels, even if some of those angels were more frightening than the devil himself. Just then, Addad's door crashed open. They all turned their heads in unison to see Chief Redhorn's bulky frame blocking the doorway, Mac Arnot hovering behind him as if he were a schoolyard child who had summoned his big brother to deal with bullies.

"Addad! We just got report in, all hell is breaking loose down in The Plaza. Someone shot down one of our helicopters and Inspector Arnot tells me you're in here conspiring with unauthorized personnel!"

Gordon returned his gaze to the window, but Batman had disappeared from sight, as always. Addad moved from behind his desk to face Redhorn. "Chief, these are specialists from Gotham. You may recognize Commissioner Gordon..." Redhorn merely sniffed arrogantly without truly acknowledging Gordon or his fellow officers. "You may not be aware of the entire situation, Chief. The Joker and Jonathon Masters Junior have taken their gang war to The Plaza Hotel. They have taken hostages, including The Commissioner's daughter. As you well know, The Joker is one of the most wanted men in the world. I request permission to assemble a SWAT team and to take these officers, and Sergeant Flaherty who has been on this case from the beginning, to The Plaza immediately."

Redhorn raised his left brow as his brain processed Addad's request. The Chief was not happy about the idea of letting a cop that was not under his control take command of this situation. "I don't think that's a good idea, Addad. Better let one of my boys handle it. We'll take it nice and slow."

It was a surprise to them all when Renee Montoya stepped forth. "Barbara Gordon is a kidnapping victim, perhaps we should all just wait here for the FBI to arrive, Chief. Then you can explain your reasoning to them. I'm sure the hostages will wait."

Redhorn's eyes went wide with fear as those words registered in his somewhat slow brain. Federal authorities, asking lots of federal questions. "The... FBI?"

Gordon smiled across the room at Montoya. He mouthed the words "Bless you." As he did so, Redhorn's shoulders sank in defeat. "You handle it, Addad. Take whoever you want. Take whatever you need."

"All right!" Addad shouted as they stormed out of the cramped office. "Flaherty! Gordon! Montoya! Bullock! You're all with me!" He turned his booming voice toward the rest of the detectives on the floor. "Everyone assemble in full kevlar gear and fully armed in the basement in FIVE minutes! I will be handpicking the main assault team myself! Let's MOVE!"

Redhorn and Arnot merely watched helplessly as the situation careened out of their control. "This town is going to hell," Redhorn told Arnot. As they stormed away, Harvey Bullock managed to overhear the statement and charged back to their vicinity.

"You're damn right it is!" He said as he grabbed them both by the collar and led them to the window in Addad's office. Still holding them in his iron grip, he forced their heads out into the night air. "Your lovely city's infested, pal... with Bats!"

Both Redhorn and Arnot felt the rage building within them as they witnessed the unmistakable form of the legendary Batmobile streak away from the building with a mighty roar, heading in the direction of The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel. Arnot was the first to notice that yet another unfamiliar noise filled the crisp night air. He could only describe it as a loud and intense pulsing. As he gazed skyward in an attempt to find its source - as did many who were on the streets of the city below - he saw the Batwing through a break in the clouds, silhouetted against the full moon directly overhead. For the first time in history, the citizens of Bludhaven looked skyward this night, and saw what amounted to the bat-signal high over their heads. For one night only, those who would do evil were given a reminder that crime did not pay, for The Bat was now in Bludhaven, and the innocent slept just a little easier.

*****

In the face of adversity, Roland Desmond grew stronger by the moment. This threat to his power from the upstart known as Jonah, or Charon as he was now calling himself according to intelligence sources, seemingly invigorated Bludhaven's crime lord. While it was true that these Misfits of Charon's were causing him grief, nothing made Desmond work harder than having the odds against him. On other fronts, it appeared as if he would indeed be able to gain a new heart for himself, thus ensuring his continued reign over the city. Charon would not succeed in taking it from him. And finally, he was able to use the consistent thorn in his side known as Nightwing to aid him in achieving his own goals.

He had never seen his costumed foe act and speak in such a ruthless manner in the past. Charon had obviously succeeded in doing something Desmond had failed at, striking at the vigilante where it hurt him the most. No matter, Nightwing was willing to kill Charon now, and Desmond would have the threat to his power removed before Christmas Day without ever having to sully his hands. He had supplied necessary information to Nightwing on Charon's possible whereabouts, but no news came in from his sources reporting Charon's death, and these attacks on his properties and interests continued. Nightwing himself seemed to have fallen under his radar, and was now missing. Desmond wondered to himself if Charon had succeeded in eliminating Nightwing. Either way, Blockbuster was left with one less enemy to deal with. The situation was serious, but thanks to his brilliance he was managing to work all the available factors in his favour.

Desmond was roused from his thoughts by the subtle chiming of his private phone. Access to his private line was restricted to six people on the entire planet, and it was not used frivolously. With a sense of foreboding, Desmond reached across his four poster bed and picked up the receiver.

"Yes?"

Desmond listened to the aggravated voice on the other end of the line for three minutes without interrupting, his heart rate increased dramatically with every passing minute.

"My... casino...?"

*****

"We're coming within range of the target, Master Dick. I am switching the engines over to silent running." Alfred Pennyworth, indispensable aide to Batman, Robin, and Nightwing, was normally the most serene of individuals. When all about him was chaos, Alfred was the eye in the hurricane, he was their rock. That was not so on this evening. Alfred had to struggle valiantly to keep the emotional quivering from his voice. He was not at all pleased with this plan, and was truly amazed that Master Bruce had given it the go ahead. Things must be truly desperate in the city below. The gentleman's gentleman noticed his fingers shaking slightly as he thumbed the button that switched the plane over to silent running mode. As he did so, the sounds of the plane, from her mighty engines to the sound of the aircraft itself cutting through the night air, were almost completely absorbed by a specially designed set of baffles built into and around the aircraft. Suddenly, all around them was still and it seemed that they could have been riding on a cloud.

On one of the many glowing screens that lit up the cockpit, Alfred saw a visual of the city below him. He would take one pass over the Bludhaven Plaza Hotel, and "paint" it with a laser tracking device would that allow it to show up on Nightwing's infra red visor as if it were a lighthouse on the shoreline, guiding him to his target. After that pass had been made, Alfred would take the plane up to 32,000 feet, above the cloud system that was rapidly moving in and open the cargo doors through which Nightwing would jump, either to his death, or the greatest feat of daring in his lifetime.

Alfred had immediately noticed the young man's eyes, which looked tired and haunted. When asked when he slept last, Dick refused to answer. Alfred also could not help but notice how haggard he appeared, unshaved and unkept. That, at least, was remedied as Alfred forced him to shave as he readied the aircraft for take off. HALO jumps cannot be performed by men who have facial hair. The oxygen masks required for such jumps cannot be used with beards.

"I'm ready, Al." Came Nightwing's voice over the main speaker.

A map of the city was overlayed on the screen, allowing Alfred to find his target that much easier. The Bludhaven Plaza Hotel, which was surprisingly dark only a short time before Christmas. Even Alfred was aware that the hotel was usually well lit at this time of year for the holiday season. You can even see the hotel from certain points in Gotham at this time of year, it was so well lit. He activated a series of switches on a console overhead, and the hotel on the screen took on a bright green and red hue. That would be how it appeared to Dick as he plummeted toward his quarry. Alfred couldn't help but smile at the thought of the hotel, which now appeared as it should in the bright colors of the Christmas season.

The cockpit was suddenly filled with Tim's breathless voice as he cut in on the transmission. "I can't believe it! I did it! I have access to the floor plans to the Hotel AND the new casino. I'm transmitting them now. You can access everything from the monitor in your gauntlet."

"Great work, Tim. As always, you're at the head of the class," Came Nightwing's voice.

Alfred smiled as he listened in on the exchange between the two. The more Tim interacted with Dick, the more he felt the elder's spirits lifting.

"Unfortunately, I have some bad news to report. I just checked the weather channel, the biggest blizzard of the decade is heading up the coast. It's gonna be a big mother, too. It could hit Bludhaven in less than an hour."

Alfred hit the switch that allowed him to cut in, but another voice beat him to it, this one far deeper than Tim's or his own. "Are you one hundred percent positive you can do this? Perhaps we should abort now while we still can. You won't do Barbara any good if you're dead." Batman interjected.

There was a moments silence on the speaker. "You heard Tim, Bruce. It won't hit for an hour. I have time. More than enough to get to that roof and do what I have to do."

Alfred sighed heavily in defeat as Batman echoed all their wishes. "As you wish. Good luck, son."

"Are we at the jump coordinates yet?"

"In moments, sir," Alfred replied. "The red light in the cargo bay will begin flashing when the time to jump is at hand."

Alfred watched the altimeter as they ascended. Tim was also silent as he listened from The Cave with bated breath. Were he the type, Batman would have said a prayer for Dick. Instead, he continued his work with an acetylene torch that would cut through a portion of the wall that led to the basement of the hotel. In the spare moments when he allowed himself to think of the dangerous feat Nightwing was attempting, he forced himself to continually think of Dick's feats as a crime fighter and as an aerialist. Success was the only option. He would not lose another loved one to The Joker and his allies.

27,000 feet

28,000 feet

29,700 feet

31,000 feet

31,400 feet

31,788 feet

32,000 feet...

Alfred hesitated long enough to say one more prayer, and then flipped the switch that opened the cargo bay doors and activated the flashing red light. In the cargo bay, Nightwing stepped forward on the metal grating as the bay yawned open accompanied by a hydraulic hiss. Below him was a blanket of rapidly gathering clouds that for all the world looked like an ocean of cotton to him. Even through his thermal suit, he felt the frigid air at this height gnawing at his bones. He stepped forward on the cargo bay ramp and leaned out, his fingers wrapped tightly around the handholds. Any other man would be reeling from feelings of vertigo at this point. His body was now outside the aircraft more than it was inside. All he needed to do was release his grip on the handholds and he would begin his controlled plummet to the ground. Once he did so, there was no turning back. It was time to literally do or die.

One by one, he peeled his fingers away from the handholds until he was secured only by his index fingers. His jump window was closing fast. Nightwing closed his eyes and took one deep breath... and he thought of Barbara, the rest was easy. He let his index fingers slide free and spread his muscular arms out to each side. He dropped like a stone from the Batwing, which already appeared tiny to him as he glanced back over his shoulder. With the clouds below him obscuring his view of the city, he felt as if he were flying. Up here, everything was calm and peaceful. It was as close to feeling godlike as mortal man would ever come.

Now, the clouds approached him faster, and before he knew it, he was passing through them. Beneath his mask he chuckled, the ocean of cotton did not break his fall. He became aware of his own amusement and began to wonder if he was beginning to feel the effects of hypoxia. Mentally, he took stock of the sensations coursing through his body. He heard and felt the cold air whipping around him, chilling him to the bone, but there was no numbness in the extremities. He was still in control of his senses. Darkness of the purest kind enveloped him as he passed through the gathering cloud cover. The moon was no longer visible, and he now felt as if he were swimming at night. It was disconcerting, not being able to see above nor below, but he fought down the panic that threatened every sky diver at this height.

As before, the sensation did not last long. Moments later, he emerged from the cloud cover, and the city lights below winked at him. In the center of town, one building was lit up in orange and red on his visor - brighter than all the others combined. The free fall continued as he rode the air currents toward his goal. His rate of descent would now be truly a dizzying speed. The peace that enveloped him as he drifted through the clouds dissipated as his eyes focussed on the building where Barbara was now being held. Behind the oxygen mask, his lips pulled back into a wolf like snarl. Vengeance may belong to The Lord, but for one night only, Nightwing would be the one who doled out punishment as he saw fit. "Here I come, you murderous bastards..." He whispered, mostly for his own benefit. "Right down your throats."

 
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