Disclaimer: I claim no part of any of the characters of DC Comics and their creators as I'm using them for my own entertainment and that of anyone who reviews. Joey Flaherty is the property of John Westcott, who is kindly letting me use him. The lyrical extract from Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again (from The Phantom of the Opera) is reproduced from those supplied courtesy of Williamson Music, ASCAP. The extract from the intro to Disney's Aladdin has never been mine and ain't ever gonna be mine. Don't sue me!
Furthermore, I am not being paid (worse luck), and I promise to return the characters in one piece (more or less). I'm just a penniless student scraping the bottom of the barrel on welfare and trying to get a passing grade. Besides, the only thing I have of value is my computer, classical cds, and a few bits of jewellery. Be Gentle. :-)

Timeline: Deals with the fallout from 'The Last Laugh' arc. Consider the universe halted in its tracks from that point on...and the DC cannon picks up right where it left from whatever point I finish this at.

Universe: DCU mainly, but I've borrowed bits from John Westcott's fantastic Nightwing series.

Summary: Unable to cope with the fact that he 'killed' the Joker, Nightwing immediately went underground. Six months later, a new villain appears...and a humble PI claims the unthinkable.

Rating: At the high end of PG13. Not quite enough for an R rating, although I tend to think its close, particularly about the third chapter. Just tell me if you think I should change the rating (either higher or lower) in any way. Rated mainly for a few scribbled out swear-words and implicated dismembering (opening few scenes only in this chapter). Nothing graphic, but you've been warned if that ain't your thing.

Category: Angst tending towards action, with a dash of mystery to spice things up.

Author's Notes: All you really gotta know is that I'm going to treat the "Last Laugh" events as if they happened shortly after Westcott's "A Matter of Vengeance". Still, I hope some of you like this story. If you do, could you, um, review? This is my first attempt in this fandom/area, and well, encouragement helps, ya know? Critical reviews will also be accepted, as long you don't rip my story to shreds! :)

BTW, 'italics' will indicate thoughts. Generally, I'll be using underline for emphasis and bold for added emphasis.

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This story (for better or worse) is dedicated to:
John Westcott, for writing such great stories and letting me pick his brain about the DCU;
Jim Greeno and Micro Hue for having the courage to look at my initial drafts and not scream, faint, curse me, or do anything but encourage me to continue;
The betas who, sometimes coming into this half-way through, managed always to pick up where I'd left off and somehow managed to figure out and improve what I was trying to do;
The Grayfox, who wrote such a wonderful review on my first ever fic (in a different fandom) that it has inspired me to keep writing throughout some of the darker periods;
Last but not least, everyone who has ever taken the time to read and/or write a story/review, thus feeding my muse.

Without your help, either directly or indirectly, this fic would've never even been attempted.

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ABSENT WITHOUT LEAVE
Missing In Action

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Chapter 1
A Case Left Open

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Try to forgive; teach me to live
Give me the strength to try
No more memories; no more silent tears
No more gazing across the wasted years
Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again
Andrew Lloyd-Webber

On a dark night . . . a dark man waits . . . with a dark purpose . . .
Disney's Aladdin

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Night. The darkest part of the day. A time of darkness, for shadowy dealings and the cowardly of heart.

Tonight, however, all that was going to change.

Tonight, although many would not know it and would continue to sleep these hours away, there was a new criminal of the night. Tonight, there was something here greater than even this Blockbuster to terrorize the lowlifes inhabiting this city, something far more unpredictable and shrewder than the so-called 'Nightwing' that had been hanging around the city's skies until his run-in with Gotham's Joker almost half a year ago. Ever since, Nightwing had not been spotted in Blüdhaven – rumour had it that he had been either killed in the confrontation (always followed with a hearty "And good riddance!" by the relevant storyteller), or was too demoralized by his 'murder' to fight. Either way, he was gone. It was only the old Titans and sometimes Robin that watched over Blüdhaven now.

However, there was now one man other than Roland Desmond who was not afraid of these so-called "vigilantes," one man who refused to be afraid...of anything.

This man.

The shadows shifted slowly as he stepped onto the doorway, caressing his body like a lover's soft hands. The darkness in the alley shifted and swirled around him as he emerged from the building, apparently gathering around him, merging with the blackness of his heart. To this, though, he paid no mind, accepting it as quickly as he had embraced his newfound powers.

He breathed in deeply as he moved. It was as if this was his first taste of fresh air in decades, even though Blüdhaven's air was anything but fresh. The overpowering aroma clogging the night was sewerage and the stink of excrement left out in the sun all day. As seemed to happen on an almost hourly basis, some unscrupulous men had dumped of couple of truckloads of waste into the already heavily polluted waters of the bay. The BPA (Blüdhaven Port Authority) no longer bothered with trying to stop such things. What was the point? Almost everyone in the BPA was paid (and paid well) to look the other way at such things going on. Besides, rumour had it that there was a waiting list for similar dumpings of waste (often toxic) about a week or more long. Stopping one group would only open up the way for about ten more.

Underneath such a hearty aroma was the rancid stink of sweat, greed and unbounded despair. In a city besieged by corruption despite the best efforts of its vigilante watchers, it was not very surprising. Although slavery had been abolished at least a century ago in the 'civilized' Western World, the desperate could sell themselves (and their souls) each night for the price of a single drink at one of the 'Haven's many bars and establishments – with no one to stop them. The cops, after all, were too busy lining their own pockets, and the few decent ones of the B.C.P.D. ...well, let's just say that the 'example' set by a certain Officer Richard Grayson had been more than enough to stop the few clean cops left from making waves.

The dark man smirked with evil satisfaction at the thought.

Yes, Officer Grayson and his "companion" known as "Nightwing" had indeed proven an interesting challenge...but still one he had ultimately conquered.

The man's evil smile widened as he stepped further into the night.

The message he had sent Batman about his "son" should have arrived by now. Bats, the JLA and the Titans ought to be arriving in force any day now.

Yes...any day now....and he would have his full revenge for what had been done to him.

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What Came To Pass I

The dark void he had lain in for so long slowly lifted as consciousness returned to him in a small trickle.

The first thing that came back was smell. Smell of sour, old dirt, of sweat, of freshly-primed leather. All the interesting aromas that come to you when you're lying in a cave deep underground... 'Wait. What am I doing underground? I don't belong in the ground...or do I...?'

As if on cue, his memories returned to him in a flood, bombarding him with images and emotions too quickly for him to process. It took all his strength to force the overwhelming images down, shoving them back into the small box they came from. He didn't want to think about that, about what he had done...

His thoughts halted abruptly as the sound of big, booming laughter echoed in his ears. His heart clenched and sped up at the sound, fear hammering at his mind despite himself. He knew that laugh. Still, he strove to keep his eyes shut and his breathing even. He did not want him to suspect that he was awake – or something near the vicinity of "awake," anyway.

As his senses slowly returned, he realized something more important: he was still "in costume." He could feel a draft from somewhere playing over his hair, but not where his mask normally lay, nor where his costume was. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that at least his identity was still safe . . . Then again, it didn't matter how safe his "dentity" was. He already knew exactly who he was.

Cautiously he eased his eyes open, trusting the starlite lenses in his mask to hide his sudden awareness from him. He blinked as rapidly as he dared in an attempt to clear both the cobwebs from his brain and the darkness from his vision. No such luck. His head was still throbbing, his thoughts were still fuzzy, and his vision was still dark.

'Damn! Concussed. Why does he always have to hit me so hard anyway?'

His hazy, half-realized thoughts were answered when heavy footsteps came toward him. It was only his instincts, the kind born from years of exactly the wrong kind of living, that warned him of danger. Whatever was coming for him was not going to be good for his state of health. Half-remembered images of torture sprang up before his eyes, and with these came pain, a deep, throbbing pain that felt more familiar than it should have. Fear began playing a cold tune along his spine and his heart danced inside his chest as he blinked hard again, hoping to get his stubborn eyes to focus.

'He's coming...for me...'

His body tensed for action, although outwardly he remained sprawled where he had fallen...even though he could not really remember the last time he had fallen from anything.

'Run... Got to run...'

He tried to leap to his feet, to escape the coming horrors beating on the doors at the edge of his mind.

He couldn't move.

He was fully conscious, but he could not move. Not even if his life depended on it . . . which it did. His breathing deepened and a fine sheen of sweat graced his brow as panic squeezed his heart like a vice.

'RUN!'

His panic increased when the footsteps stopped beside him. Desperately he tried to leap to his feet, to kick out this strange foe, to turn his head towards it, or even to move his little finger up from the dusty ground.

He failed. Dismally.

The silence grew. His foe seemed to be staring at him, waiting for a response.

He blinked hard again behind the mask, struggling to force his eyes to clear. Slowly, ever so slowly, the figure resolved itself into a blur he could vaguely recognize. All at once, his panic subsided and his jaw dropped in surprise. "Batman?" He felt surprised to hear his own voice when the rest of his body was completely paralysed, but his mind quickly accepted it as a fact – or quirk – of nature.

There was no reply, but then he didn't really expect one anyway. Batman was said not to be one for conversation – seeing him was a sign of rescue or a sign of a period of unconsciousness soon to follow. So he slowly allowed himself to relax overly tense muscles. Everything was going to be okay. Batman was here. He was going to be rescued.

Then, Batman spoke, in a voice that sent chills racing through his heart. "Did you really think you could get away so easily?"

He felt himself cringing at the...taunt...in The Voice as old wounds he'd thought healed were torn open once more by the words. Fear rose again inside his heart as he struggled to comprehend the situation, and how he could be thoughta failure when he didn't know what he'd failed on.

Before he could organize his thoughts and emotions into any resemblance of order, however, he felt Batman grab hold of his wrist in a vice-like grip harder than steel and start dragging him away. He stared at the black cowl in confusion, his throat working as he struggled to ask what was wrong. However, this time, no sound emerged from his throat.

He cast his eyes around desperately, trying to find some way – any way – to free himself. Nothing. He looked for someone to help him, to get the crazed Bat off him. He squinted into the shadows, thinking he had glimpsed movement in his peripheral vision.

And then he saw them. All of them. All of the Bat-Clan standing in the shadows, watching dispassionately as Batman dragged him across the floor of the cavern. Not one of them made any movement to help him. He tried to call out, to beg their help. But before he could even form the words, Batman stopped and suddenly threw his limp body against the wall.

He landed with a hard bone-crunching sound, and felt something grate within his chest at the impact. His body fell to the floor and he slumped to the side, unable even to hold his head up. Dazed, lying paralysed on the floor, nowhere near broken, he could only stare at the black cowl as Batman stood over him and said in The Voice, "You can't escape me, boy."

And then there was no time for anything else, for the pain began all over again. At least now he knew why he could still speak, but was unable to move the rest of his body.

It was not to make sure that he wouldn't escape.

No.

It was so he could scream.

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The mail package arrived at the doorstep of the Gotham City Police Department without warning, addressed simply:


Batman
C/- The Commissioner

It arrived exactly at mid-day during the busiest part of the lunch-hour traffic, although later investigation would reveal that no one saw the person who delivered the fateful package.

Of course, such a package was naturally greeted with much caution. With Gotham's history of psycho-maniacs running loose in the city, there was no telling what such a box would contain.

A routine scan of the small cardboard box by Gotham's Bomb Squad revealed nothing untoward...outwardly, anyway. No wires, no plastique, not even one shred of metal. Nor was there any trace of Smilex, fear toxins, or any other such manufactured threats. In fact, the box seemed to contain purely organic matter.

Even so, it was still untouched by human hands. It was only after they determined that Poison Ivy was still in solitary confinement at Arkham that they approached the unassuming box with anything shorter than the proverbial barge pole. Duly cautious, they opened the package using a robot in an airproof room, just in case it contained a deadly organic substance. It was at this point, a mere five hours after its mysterious delivery, when they determined that the package did not contain something poisonous to humans as its contents were examined for the first time by human eyes.

The sight was enough for even the most battle-hardened, cynical cop in the entire Police Department (namely, Detective Bullock) to dash to the toilets with a queer, green expression on his face. Even Commissioner Aiken needed time to 'compose himself' in the nearest toilet stall after viewing the box's grizzly contents.

That night, the Bat-signal was lit well before dusk.

Despite this, the Bat was late in arriving. The Commissioner stood on the roof, pulling his jacket closer to protect him from the unseasonably cold winds from the north. Aiken alternated between pacing anxiously and smoking his pipe as he waited. He would never admit to being nervous to his subordinates, but he could not deny the butterflies flirting around his stomach. He told himself it was because of the grizzly nature of his news – this kind of thing was never easy – instead of his fear of the Bat.

He morosely looked up at the signal illuminating the night sky. He had been waiting for over two hours so far, and he had at least double that in work waiting for him on his desk. 'This is gonna be a long night.'

With one final glance at the sky, he sighed and turned around to order the signal deactivated. Looks like the Bat was not going to come after all...

"What is it?"

The Commissioner whirled, his heart beating wildly at the gravely voice coming from the edge of the roof. He was not quite sure what he expected to see, but all he could determine was the glow of the Bat's eyes from the shadowy edge. His mouth suddenly dry, he muttered, "B-Batman?"

The figure remained silent, a confirmation in itself.

Aiken heard himself sigh again. "I-I called you here for a favour. A big one."

Again, silence. The eyes remained immobile, unrevealing if it was a silence of interest or one of apathy.

He licked his lips nervously. "I need you to find someone for me."

This, at least, generated a response, albeit in an unhappy growl. "I deliver justice, Commissioner, not messages." The eyes disappeared as the figure turned to go.

"Wait!" he blurted. "I know this is going to sound strange, what with his profile and all, but I need you to find Bruce Wayne. It's very urgent."

The figure paused (froze?) with its back still to him. A beat. "Explain."

"I've called his office repeatedly but not even Lucius Fox knows where he is exactly, only telling me that he's called in sick for the last two months or so. I called the Wayne Manor, but his butler said he's been out of the country for last few weeks dealing with a personal emergency." He took a deep breath and launched his final appeal. "Look, I know it's a lot to ask when you're looking after the entire city Batman, but we have to find him urgently."

The dark man turned to face him slowly, still appearing more apathetic than truly interested. "Why?"

"You mean 'Why is it so urgent?'" Silence, which he took as another 'yes'. "We-uh-we received a package earlier today he needs to see. It concerns his adopted ward and-"

He got no further as Batman interrupted firmly, "Give me the package. He'll have it by morning."

Relieved beyond words, Aiken snapped his fingers. Montoya immediately emerged from behind him, carrying a plastic evidence bag containing the mysterious package. Even now, they were being especially careful not to ruin any of the prints on the box – even if they all doubted there was any on it to begin with. The figure did not flinch when Montoya appeared, having been aware of her from the moment he had landed on the roof.

The box soon disappeared in the folds of a black cape. "Anything else you want me to deliver?" the man growled a hairs-breadth away from the Voice.

The Commissioner shivered despite himself. "Not really. Just make sure that..." He trailed off, realizing suddenly that there was no point in continuing the suggestion that Wayne have company when he opened that box.

Why bother when the Bat was long gone?

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It was with great relief that Robin parked his Redbird in its designated spot in the Batcave a few minutes later. It was not the first time he had pretended to be the Bat for the Commissioner, but Aiken could be a bit more alert and prone to taking action about such things than Jim Gordon had been. He was lucky his voice was starting to get deeper. Still, he couldn't help but have a bad feeling about the package lying on the Redbird's passenger seat.

Alfred looked up from dusting the Cray's, one carefully raised eyebrow the only sign that he was startled to see the young vigilante back so soon. "Ah, Master Robin. I trust your meeting with the Commissioner went well?"

"Yeah," Robin nodded absently, his mind more on the strange box than the butler's words. Taking the package from the seat next to him, he carefully carried it over to the Bat-Computer. Setting it down on an analysis table, he immediately began to open it.

He was not as worried as the G.C.P.D. had been about the risk of the package containing dangerous or toxic substances, as the Commissioner would've surely told him if it did. Still, just to be safe, he'd directed the formidable computer onboard his Redbird at the box en route and had found nothing outwardly untoward.

Besides, the Commissioner had specifically told him it had something to do with Dick. He would not admit it to anyone, but this Robin missed his surrogate brother dearly. It had been six months since Dick went underground to sort himself out after that disastrous affair with the Joker. Personally, Tim had expected Dick to come back after at least a few days, two weeks at the most. And with every day that he delayed, Bruce became more and more withdrawn. Robin and Tim did what they could to keep Bruce otherwise occupied and tried to ensure Batman didn't take out his frustrations too much on Gotham's criminal element, but he'd long since learned that there was a limit to what he could do. If Bruce wanted to be reclusive and upset at the world in general, there was nothing this Robin could really do about it.

Bruce needed Dick back to snap him out of this dark mood he'd fallen into. It was that simple.

That was why Dick's long absence was concerning him. No one else would admit to it, but Tim was beginning to be convinced that the long delay in his return could only be due to foul play. Dick was a smart man, smarter than he and probably even than his surrogate father. Dick knew how much Bruce depended on him, let alone Babs. Tim knew with all his heart that Dick would not commit suicide over the Joker's 'death'...but he hated to think what else could be keeping Dick away. Therefore, he was going to open the box as soon as possible. This package, Tim knew, could be the key to Dick's whereabouts. Why else had the Commissioner been so firm that Bruce be given it immediately? Sure, Bruce would be well within his rights to blast him about it...but Tim was sure it was worth the risk if he got a bit of an head-start on finding Dick.

Nevertheless, it was the smell of decaying flesh that first alerted Robin that he should not have been so eager to open the box. By then, however, it was already far too late for him, as he'd opened it with his head directly above the box. The small glimpse he had of the contents as he opened the flaps was more than enough to send his entire world spinning.

He staggered back, his stomach feeling as if it had the front-row seat on an out-of-control Titan's Jet with the Joker at the helm. With that last thought, he crashed to his knees as his rebellious stomach relieved itself of its contents.

Alarmed by the boy's response, Alfred stopped dusting long enough to investigate what had so upset the young Master. His own quick look at the contents of the package invoked a similar reaction to Tim's, although it was only his strong sense of decorum and dignity that stopped his last meal from ending up on the floor – although it did nothing to stop the half-digested food from leaving his stomach in the first place.

The small, unassuming cardboard box held only one item: a human hand, severed from the rest of the body below the wrist. Fairly recently too.

But this was not what upset them, although it would've been more than enough to make any normal (sane) person have nightmares for weeks. As vigilantes, and their hired help, they had seen worse things in their years of haunting Gotham's skies.

Carved into the palm of the hand was the gold insignia of the Bat, below which was a smaller replication of Nightwing's midnight-blue 'V'. To make matters worse, the sadistic man who'd done this had even taken the time to dye the incisions with the right colours.

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Barbara Gordon stared numbly at her screen, never really noticing that the screen was blank. She had turned almost everything off four hours ago when she'd crashed after two days of solid coding. She would never remember how she got herself into the 'Oracle room', fully dressed and in her wheelchair at two in the morning, and all without turning on any lights. Nevertheless, here she was...staring sadly at her empty screen.

'...Empty...'

The significance of the day and hour, though, could not escape her notice. She sighed and flicked her gaze to the clock above her computer.

'Six months almost down to the day...right down to the hour...'

In terms of calendar days and hours past, it had indeed been six months since the light in her life had disappeared; but in terms of the aging of a broken heart and an empty soul, it was a lifetime and a half. It was far too long to be alone.

Part of her said it could not possibly be half a year since she had seen or spoken with her Dick Grayson or Nightwing. It seemed like only yesterday that she was making the fateful call to direct him to where the Joker was after Robin's disappearance. It seemed as if only a few hours had passed since he had left the message on her answering machine to tell her he was 'going away for a while'. She still had the tape; it was nestled securely in the safe where she put the things she treasured most. In that safe she also had the friendship locket he had given her all those years ago, her few momentoes of her parents, one of the batarangs she'd used as Batgirl, even pictures of her with Jim and Dick before...that day she lost her legs and a part of her soul. Yes, that one single safe held her most treasured and bittersweet memories. It had seemed like a fitting place to put her final record of Dick's voice, even though it had been to say goodbye.

Barbara slowly sipped the cup of coffee resting between her hands, absently noting that it was prepared just the way she liked it. Although she was not sure how it got there in the first place, she knew that she needed it. The way she felt, the java would be the only thing keeping her going throughout the coming night.

The electronic noise of her comms came as a welcome intrusion into her thoughts. Wishing for something to distract her even for a few moments away from the significance of this day, she quickly booted up her system and answered the call on a secure line.

All business, she started to say, "You've reached the Oracle." She suddenly stopped about halfway through to stare at the face on the screen. It was Robin's face, pale but grimly serious, and without the mask. Her 'Oracle' persona faded a little as her concern mounted and alarm bells started to toll. "Ti—Robin? Are you okay? Did the Bat...?"

Robin shook his head slowly as he gathered himself to the point that he no longer looked quite so pale and shaken, although the grim lines to his expression remained. "Nah. He's fine, at least as far as I know. I just wanted you to take a look at the prints I'm sending you."

Oracle opened the file as soon as it arrived and directed her computers at it without really looking at the prints it contained. "Already done, but don't the Cray's have finger-print matching capabilities?"

Robin nodded, the depths of his eyes shaded haunted in the Cave's light. "It does. I want you to tell me it's wrong."

Her eyebrows rose at the strange request, but still she said nothing as she waited for her computer to come back with a match. Within seconds, a small beep only she could hear alerted her that her systems were finished with the file. She did not think anything of the fact that only one file had been listed as a match – such things happened regularly – so maybe it was just her tiredness that made her not look at the title of the data-file before she opened it.

All the saliva drained from her mouth as her heart stopped beating. 'No. It can't be...'

Tim's face took on a grim expression as he supplied the disturbing answer to the question she dared not ask but was written over her features. "They're Dick's, aren't they?"

She nodded, not sure of her voice. She had to swallow a few times, closing her eyes and employing a few Tibetan techniques she'd picked up from her time as Batgirl to get the panic under control. "Where...Where did these prints come from, Tim?" she asked hoarsely, disbelieving eyes still fixed on the monitor displaying the shocking result.

If anything, his face looked even grimmer. "His hand," he replied bluntly (bleakly). "It was sent to the Commissioner earlier today in a cardboard box."

"His hand..." she echoed softly. Blame her own exhaustion or a heart unwilling to believe, but it took a full minute for the words to sink in. She looked up abruptly as her brain made the final connection. "But that means—"

Tim nodded once. "I know," he replied quietly. "I don't fully believe it myself, but it's the only thing that makes sense."

She offered up a weak protesting, "But surely..."

Tim had the advantage over Oracle. Not only had he had more sleep in the last two days, he'd also gone on a brutal patrol before making himself face the box's contents again. He'd thus had an extra few hours to adjust to the idea of losing his brother all over again. He sighed and forced himself to be logical – for Oracle's sake, if not his own. "No Oracle. Dick would not have stayed away this long of his own volition. He might have been upset after the Joker-thing, but he's too honest and good-hearted to just give up on either us or the 'Wing, let alone Bruce. You know as well as I do that foul play is the only thing that could keep him away from you for any length of time."

"I know, it's just..." she trailed off and ran a hand through her hair. Suddenly she had a thought. "Does Bruce...know?"

Robin shook his head slowly. "Alfie and I are gonna tell him when he comes back from that undercover mission. Until it's completed, we can't contact him or Cassandra."

She frowned and sat a little straighter as her Oracle persona slowly came to the fore and her mental cogs began to grind and mesh as she considered the path before her. "Good."

Robin's eyebrows shot up at the unusual reply. "Huh? Why is it good that he doesn't know?"

She stared at him solidly, determined stubbornness once again rearing its head in her heart. It was that same strength of will and stubborn survival instincts that had led her to become Oracle now enabled her to evolve again, to adapt and become something new in order to face new challenges. It was this strong sense of determination that allowed her to push her grief aside for the moment, locking it up in the back of her mind to emerge when all this was over – then, she would have all the loneliness she needed to fall apart. "Because I'm going to catch the swine who did this to my Richard," she swore with a calm she did not feel. "And I'm going to do it my way." She locked her jaw firmly. "Try and round up the first Titans; they deserve to know, and besides, we're gonna need their help."

"We?" Robin asked meekly. "I thought it was just you and me."

Oracle shook her head. "It will be, but we're going to need them to cover a few angles. Contact me again when you've got them together."

And then she was gone.

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The message was waiting for him on his answering machine when he finally made it home. He noticed it after checking on his little princess, while in the middle of taking off his boots sitting on the couch in his room. The young superhero stared wearily at the small blinking green light for a few minutes, wondering if he would have the energy to look at it before he crashed for the night. And that was when he noticed that the red LED was blinking as well: it had come on the secure line. '...No rest for the wicked.' With a tired sigh, he levered himself off the couch and tried to get his limbs working again as he moved with an aching shuffle towards the table next to his bed where the answering machine was located.

In the last three days, he had gotten about five hours sleep. The rest of the time, he'd spent ducking around government agents, firing at criminals, running in front of oncoming trains, and ducking under or around cars. He'd been punched, kicked, beaten, chased, and slammed to the ground. He'd quipped, joked, cajoled, interrogated, and snarled his way across the entire city at least twice. He'd checked his email at least five times, done his laundry, entertained Lian, tidied the house, repaired his uniforms, and reloaded his armoury. He'd doctored sprains, scrapes, friction burns, and more bruises than he cared to count. He dozed off in front of the TV, in the bathtub, under his car, and on the computer. Oh, and in-between the usual vigilante work, he'd also stopped a gang war, prevented seven armed robberies and four break-ins, broke three conspiracies, and interrupted a massive shipment of heroin.

Needless to say, he was bushed. It was all he could do to flop on the bed on his back and blindly reach over to activate the message.

"Arsenal? Are you there? Pick up if you are, you know I don't like these things."

In his state, it took the voice of the newest Robin a few seconds to penetrate. 'Noooo, I'm not here. Ain't nobody here but us sleepers.' A beat. 'Waz Robin doin' callin' me anywayz? T'Haven ain't mine for a week or so...' he thought fuzzily. 'I think.'

Robin sighed. "Fine, don't pick-up. Look, something's come up here you've gotta know about."

'Riiiiighhhhtt.' Far as he was concerned, the only thing he needed to know about was his bed. And sleep. Solitude had never looked so good. He closed his eyes and allowed his body to finally start relaxing even as the message continued.

Was it his imagination, or did Robin's voice falter? "Could you...get ready to meet me? It...It's about Dick."

Roy's eyes jerked open and he tensed on the bed. 'Dick?!' Did he hear it right?

Robin took a deep breath as if steeling himself for what was to come. "He–He... Look, you'd better just come to the apartment next to his. This is something I can only do in person."

Roy rolled to the side into a sitting position, all of a sudden wide-awake and bushy-tailed. A chill settled in his chest as he wondered what kind of news could he only be told in person. 'I gotta baaad feeling 'bout this one...'

"Please, Roy? I'll try and send Wally by around four."

Click.

His first coherent thought all night was that he had never heard this particular Robin beg quite so shakily before – and he wasn't sure he ever wanted to hear it again either.

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Wally West was a man that lived well, ran fast, played hard, and slept like a log. That is, he slept like a log most nights.

Except tonight.

Tonight, he could not sleep. He stared at the ceiling, his thoughts tumultuous and restless. He knew he should sleep, that he should at least be resting his mind and body to help him recuperate from a long day as the speedster known as The Flash. To him, sleep was one of the most precious things in his life, right up there with a good hearty meal and sleeping next to Linda.

Even when the rest of his life was going to hell in a hand-basket, she always kept him sane.

Tonight, however, not even the exquisite pleasure of listening to her soft breathing could calm his mind. His thoughts jumped from one thing to another, never settling down long enough for him to figure out what was wrong. He felt himself chasing his own mind, trying to reign in his chaotic brain with little success. If this kept up much longer, he swore he'd start running up the walls just to get rid of all this pent-up energy that seemed to be keeping him awake.

For what seemed to be the millionth time tonight, he clenched his eyes shut firmly and slowed his breathing. He focused as many thoughts as he could on sleep, focusing on that single word to the exclusion of all else.

Just when he felt himself beginning to drift off, the phone next to his ear gave a harshest sound possible: it rang.

He jerked up in the bed as if he'd been stung, instantly awake and muttering a few phrases he had picked up from Roy. He hit the switch for the lamp with more force than necessary, almost destroying it in his haste to see the trilling instrument. Uncaring that he'd almost destroyed the lamp – although Linda would certainly have something to say about it in the morning – he fumbled with the phone for a moment before he managed to pick it up and bring it to his ear.

"What?! Dis better b'good, or I'm leavin'."

There was a moment of silence on the other end, and then he heard a tentative voice ask, "Flash?"

"...I—" It took a moment for his brain to catch up with his mouth. He swallowed and began again. "Robin?"

"Yeah, it's me. Look, I'm sorry if I got you up—"

"Don't worry, 'm already awake," he interrupted quickly, habitually slurring his words in his rush. Robin only called him when something had gone wrong. "Whazzup?"

"Do you know where Donna and Tempest are? I've rung all the places I could think of, but I can't seem to contact them."

"Sure, Garthzat Atlantis. I t'ink. Donna might be home. I-" He stopped to yawn widely, again feeling the need to sleep. "I really need to sleep, but I s'pose I could find 'em if you wanted..." he trailed off drowsily, wondering why he hadn't been this tired even a few minutes ago.

Robin's voice, though, remained firm. "Could you please? You've got to bring them and Roy to the apartment next door to Dick's in a couple of minutes."

Wally yawned again, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. "Sure t'ing, I think I can find it."

"Could you get Roy and Garth first? It'll give me time to warn Donna that you're coming."

Even with Wally almost feeling awake, the suggestion immediately made sense. "Good idea. I don't think she wants me to see her pj's."

Robin chuckled, but the speedster could tell it was forced. "Thanks Wally. I really appreciate this. I'll see you there."

Click.

It was only after he put the phone down that he realized exactly why he couldn't sleep. In three days, it would be exactly six long months since Nightwing had disappeared.

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RIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNGGGGGG!

Donna Troy groaned heavily and rolled over, shoving a pillow down on top of her head to shut out the incessant noise. Still half-asleep, she curled up in a fetal position and tried futilely to reclaim her sleep. Sighing dreamily, she nestled down under the covers and focused on the images of her dreams. She had been right at the point where they'd been about to kiss...

BRRRIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGG!

The harsh electronic noise disrupted the half-formed images in her brain once more, sending them scattering like birds in forests will disperse at sudden movement. She sighed heavily and passed a hand over her eyes, knowing from long experience that she would never be able to recapture her dreams now.

BBRRRRIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGG!

Still groggy, she shoved her hand out from under the covers and felt around for the trilling mobile phone. Whoever was on the other end was about to be blasted, if only for making her expose some of her skin to the fresh, wintry air.

BBBBRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIII

Her hand fell on the cell phone and she grabbed it up to stop the annoying electronic noise then returned her hand, phone in tow, underneath the pillow. "What?" she snapped testily.

"Donna? Where are you?" came the voice of the youth she knew as Robin over the instrument, hurried and rushed, almost emotional.

"Robin," warned Donna, dropping into the 'don't-mess-with-me' voice she had picked up from Nightwing somewhere along the way as she unknowingly echoed Wally West's words, "this'd better be good or I'm hangin' up."

"Come on Donna, I'm serious," came the pleading voice through the tinny speaker. "Just tell me where you are."

Donna sighed and removed her head from under the pillow as she rolled over onto her back and flung her free arm over eyes. "I'm at home," she grumbled, "where I should be sleeping. Now would you please tell me what was so important you had to disturb me after," she squinted at the bedside clock, "my first three hours of uninterrupted sleep in thirty-six hours?"

A deep breath. "I—" There was a small pause and the sound of muffled voices, as if he'd put a hand over the mouthpiece to talk to someone. Then: "Look, you'd better hear it with everyone else. Flash'll be there for you in about a minute. Whatever you do, don't answer the door to anyone but him."

Click.

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It was three-fifteen in the morning by the time everyone was gathered, but Robin did not care that all good vigilantes were firmly in bed by now. He wasn't a good vigilante...not anymore...and never again.

In the last few moments he had to himself, Tim took one final look around the apartment of his surrogate brother. It was exactly the way Dick had left it when he came to pack a few things before burying himself so deep underground that not even Batman would find him. The dishes were still piled in the sink, and a carton of take-out Chinese was resting precariously on the edge of the rubbish bin, no doubt where Dick had tossed it after using the leftovers as breakfast on the day of the fateful fight with the Joker. Not even the clothes Dick had tossed to the side as he'd packed had been budged from where they'd fallen on the floor – even though clothes on the floor was one thing Alfred simply did not tolerate.

It wasn't dusty, though – or no more than Dick usually let the place be dusty, anyway. During the last six months, Alfred had disappeared for a day or so at reasonably regular intervals. Although the crusty old butler was not revealing anything, Tim was sure the old man came to Blüdhaven to make sure the apartment was no dustier than it needed to be.

In short, it was exactly the way Dick had left it, just waiting for its owner to return...except now he never would.

Tim shook his head regretfully and forced himself to focus on the job at hand. Just like Oracle, he was determined to bring to justice the sorry little sht that had taken his brother away for good. Then, he and the rest of the 'Bat-Clan' would have the rest of their lives to fall apart and mourn their loss.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Robin made himself shut the door connecting the two apartments Dick maintained in the tower – one in his own name, the other as Dr Fledermaus. He and Oracle planned to hold their meeting in the latter, as there was just too many memories to handle in the former apartment.

Robin closed his eyes for a moment to gather his strength. 'I swear it, bro, on your honor I'll bring down the b–––––d that did this to you. If it's the last thing I ever do, I'll make sure you can rest in peace.'

'Count on it.'

With that, he resolutely shut the door to Dick's apartment behind him and entered the Fledermaus apartment to find it already occupied. Roy Harper leant with an air of uneasy nonchalance against the wall near the window as Arsenal, while Tempest was already pacing the floor with pent-up energy. Robin cleared his throat and told himself he was not nervous about his news. "Where's the Flash and Troia?"

"Comin'." Roy replied shortly, not very impressed with this young vigilante right now, despite Dick's high opinions and glowing talk. What right did the kid have to demand they assemble in Blüdhaven right now? Hell, the kid had even invoked the Wingster's name! He was determined to remain angry with the kid, despite all the sideways looks Garth kept giving him. It was easier to be angry than to consider...what all this...might...mean.....

'Speak of the devil and here he comes,' Robin thought to himself darkly as a red and yellow blur hopped in the window. It was Flash, carrying one very concerned (not to mention slightly nauseated) Troia that was soon settled on the couch in the Doctor's makeshift loungeroom.

Robin cleared his throat and tightened his grip on his scattered emotions. "Thanks for assembling here so quickly, guys. I-"

"Stuff the clap trap and get to the point," Roy interrupted impatiently, his tiredness making him more irritable than normal. "Some of us have cities of our own, you know. Not to mention beds."

The barb did not have the effect he intended, as Robin barely seemed to look in his direction. He was instead staring out over Blüdhaven's skyline as the eastern sky began to lighten. He could not help but think how much Nightwing had loved to hate this festering city with all its criminals and corrupted cops; and now he was gone...

No. 'Breathe.' He could not allow himself to think like that. 'Focus.' He had to focus. 'Focus!' Think of the mission only. 'The mission.' That was all that mattered.

In a low tone that did nothing to hide the grief he could no longer hold back, Robin told them of the box delivered to the G.C.P.D., how they had found out what it contained, and then the news from the Oracle.

There was a long moment of silence when he finished.

Garth stood absolutely still in the same spot he had been in when Robin had started his tale. He stared at the younger vigilante in a horrified kind of belief, knowing without a doubt that the youth's words were true. His long-time friend was gone. 'Gone...'

Roy leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, feeling as if the weight of the entire world had come crashing down on his heart. Somewhere during Robin's explanation, he had sunk to the floor and there he remained. His thoughts were a jumbled mass of bittersweet memories and emotions. Images of Dick Grayson a.k.a. Nightwing kept flashing before his eyes. A single tear rolled down his cheek as Roy went travelling on his personal Memory Lane.

'The patented smile combined with those knockout eyes...'
'Imitating the Bat with spooky accuracy, uncaring if Batman saw him...'
'Visiting him in rehab...'
'Leading the team with a dedication and confidence he'd always envied...'
'Standing up to Roy and winning with ease although at least a full head shorter...'
'Twisting through the air like he was born to fly...'
'The time he first saw Dick leap off a building without a jumpline...'
'Sardonic grin and quick-fire quips in the middle of battle.....'

"Nonononononoo!" Wally paced rapidly round the room, rambling so fast the words were slurring together. "Hecan'tbedeadhecan'tbedeadhecan'tbedead!Iwon'tlethim!" All he wanted to do was run away from this knowledge, to rewind back to before Robin's early-morning call so that he'd never remember what came next; but he would no more halt time than fly, and all the wishing in the world would not make it so. His thoughts a whirlwind, he crashed to his knees and cried for his lost friend.

Donna sat stiffly on the couch Flash had deposited her on when he'd arrived, her mind replaying his words over and over as she struggled to adjust. '...received the package...' Her breath came in halting gasps that sounding more like sobs than respiration. '...opened it without realizing...' Her hands clenched into fists on her lap, wanting to crush the life out of the one that had harmed her only brother. '...the hand was carved with his symbols...' The anger lasted only briefly before swiftly dissolving into bottomless grief that plunged into the depths of her soul. '...ran them through the Cray's...' Hot, burning tears streamed silently down her cheeks as the truth hit home. '...second opinion...' Her brother was dead. '...He–He's gone. I–I–I'm so sorry.'

Robin stood silently in the centre of the apartment as the emotional storms swirled about him. An uncaring observer would have taken that stillness to highlight his clinical side, criticizing the young vigilante for not caring about the Titans' reactions to his news. In actual fact, such an observation was far from the truth. Robin cared, and cared deeply. If anything, he cared too much.

It hurt.

It hurt like he hadn't thought possible, to see their grief and feel their pain, and knowing it was all mirrored in his own heart. In many ways, he considered the Titans as part of his extended family, feeling connected to them by ties far tighter than those of blood. And when one of those ties was severed, it was worse than the loss of the limb. He felt as if someone had opened his chest up without anesthetic, shoving all his bodily organs aside and screwing them up into little balls, then tearing massive chunks out of his heart and throwing them away, sewing him back up without any regard to the way things should be.

The trilling of his link to Oracle slowly penetrated the haze that surrounded his thoughts. He stared at it in surprise, wondering how long it had been ringing without him noticing. Slowly, as if he was moving underwater, he activated the comm. "Robin."

Oracle frowned, concerned at the roughness in his voice. "Are you okay, kid? Did everything go all right?"

"Yeah." It came out as if his throat was made of sandpaper and his voice-box a surface to be blunted. He swallowed a few times and tried again. "Yeah," he repeated, this time in an almost normal voice. "In a manner of speaking."

"Can you put me on the big screen?"

"Sure." Robin put the connection on hold as he went over to the computer system they had installed in the apartment specifically for this purpose. It was designed to take any incoming communication and blow-up the transmitted images onto a large plasma screen TV mounted on the wall. It was a simple matter for Robin to dial in the frequency of his comm. Within moments, the electronic visage of the 'mysterious Oracle' occupied the plasma screen.

Babs took a moment to look around the room before speaking, steeling herself to look in each of the Titans' eyes. They'd taken the news pretty much as she'd expected, which is to say badly. Gathering her own flagging strength, she activated a loud electronic beep that was guaranteed to penetrate even the heaviest stupor. It had the desired effect.

Everyone present, even Robin who'd been warned what to expect, jumped at the blast of noise. Their gazes almost immediately focused on her computer-generated image – not her true image, but the images she used for those from which she hid her identity.

Garth rubbed his ears unhappily. "Give me a bit more warning next time, please," he complained miserably. "My ears were wide open and everything."

"Sorry about that," she apologised immediately. "It was the only way I knew to really get your attention in a hurry."

"Oh yeah? And who are you to talk?" Roy griped, angry at this intruder's interruption. "What's your gig anyway?"

Oracle turned towards him slowly. "For your information, Roy, my name is Oracle. I came to you now because I want you to help me find Nightwing."

For once in his life, Roy remained silent. He was simply too stunned to be seeing 'the Oracle' he'd heard so many complaints about to talk.

"Huh?" Garth looked at the screen in confusion. "B–But Robin has already told us what happened."

"We've only got Dick's hand, Tempest," Oracle reminded them, the hint of grief giving way to plenty of anger and determination. "I want the rest of him. More to the point, I want the swine who did it to him."

Always the one who led when the rest couldn't cope, Donna somehow found the strength to slowly stand up from the couch. "So where do we come in?" she asked quietly.

The Oracle quickly explained what she had in mind. In the end, they didn't take much convincing.

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It was Tim that found out first.

As the only active member of the so-called "Bat-Family", he found himself volunteering to make the early-morning visit to this particular civilian. Like any good graduate of the "Bat School", Robin watched the house from the roof of an empty three-story building across the street while he reviewed what he knew – which was only what the Oracle had told him, which in itself was referenced from old conversations with Nightwing and the case-files she had copied from Dick's computer – about the man he was to visit.

Joey Flaherty.

Joey apparently once had a brother, called Mully. Oracle said that Mully had helped Dick go up against a group calling themselves the Cabal. Unfortunately, Mully had been killed by Bane the same time that Nightwing sustained injuries (also by Bane) that had almost killed him. She said that Dick had once mentioned casually that the only reason he'd kept going as Nightwing at the time was, in part, to honour Mully's sacrifice.

A few months after that, Nightwing teamed up with Joey to bring down Jonathan Masters Junior, who later went by the name of Charon. The Joker had later used Charon to kidnap Barbara to force Nightwing into confronting Charon in a one-on-one fight. Joey had apparently played a role in rescuing Barbara and helping Nightwing and Batman bring down Charon, although Barbara was still rather tight-lipped about that part of her life.

Formerly a police detective, Joey generally considered himself a man trying to do as much good as he could. He was clean (remarkably so for Blüdhaven), semi-honest, conscientious, and with a big heart to match – all of which he hid behind a wealth of cynicism. Although he had now retired from the Force and had turned into a Private Investigator, Nightwing had listed him in his files as dependable and worthy of a lot of trust. He'd even given the P.I. a means to contact him if Joey needed to.

Robin knew one thing for certain: Joey Flaherty had certainly made an impression on Nightwing – and probably vice versa, knowing his surrogate brother. He smiled bleakly at the thought as he watched Joey's house from a distance. Knowing Dick/Nightwing as he did, it was hard to recall anyone (excluding criminals and corrupt cops) that had not in some way taken a liking to him with his patented grins, sardonic quips, and shining personality. Right now, it was only he, Alfred, the old Titans, and Oracle that knew the truth of Dick's disappearance – and when the rest found out, Robin would've laid long odds (if he'd cared to) that there was going to be a lot of broken hearts and crying eyes.

The amount of attention he directed at Joey's house increased when he suddenly heard the muffled voices of laughing females. His interest pricked a little at the sounds of a happy family, Robin watched the house closer. He could pick out at least two different females, perhaps three, just from the voices. Occasionally a male voice would call out something too – Joey himself, no doubt. Robin carefully shifted position so that he could get a better view without making a noise on the tin roof. On such a quiet morning as this without a single car in evidence, such a sound would no doubt be noticed.

Flaherty resided in a two story home in the Eagle Crescent area, a well-to-do middle-class suburb less than two miles from the mansions of the Blüdhaven movers and shakers in Avalon Hill. The house lay on your typical suburban rectangular plot along a quiet, well-lit street. A well-kept lawn adorned both the front and back of the property. Classic white siding and a black-shingled roof along with a two-car garage made it the ultimate up-and-coming yuppie home. There was even a white picket fence along both sides of the property.

The sun would be up in under half an hour, but Robin could not quite bring himself to care. He didn't care much about anything except seeing this mission to its end. He could wait all day until Joey was alone if he had to. The sun could well be up, or even high in the sky, before that occurred, but he would make the contact regardless. Technically, it would mean going against one of the Bat's Cardinal Rules – namely, to always work in darkness. It was easier to gain the elements of surprise and stealth that way. Robin knew this, and knew it well. Quite frankly, though, he didn't give a damn about it. Not anymore.

This little Robin was not going to bed until this mission was completed.

He doubted he'd be able to sleep anyway.

Still, he was going to have to move fairly soon. Crouching on a roof was all right when it was dark without a bright moon, but not under a full sun. Even in his borderline-depressed mood, Robin knew he would be far too exposed for his liking come the dawn. He would have to find some other place to keep watch on the house after dawn until Joey left for his rented P.I. office – not to mention a way to track him to the office if necessary.

Thank God he'd brought the Redbird with him. He could probably hide in it and monitor the situation from there. He was just about to leave the safety of the dark roof so that he could be settled in the Redbird before it got any lighter when some sixth sense of danger made the hair on the back of his neck suddenly rise. He hesitated, wondering for a moment what to do.

Suddenly, there flashed into his mind one of the first lessons he ever got off Batman: 'The night is a tricky thing, especially in the periods of dusk just before sunrise and sunset. When people are surprised at such times in a dangerous situation, they tend to run for cover. To be truly invisible, however, you must remain absolutely still. It sounds impossible, but remaining immobile can allow you to hide out in the open at mid-day.' This lesson remained in the front of his mind as he froze into place, while he waited to see what had made his instincts call out a warning.

His answers came as the outside light flicked on at Joey's place and the Flaherty's voices suddenly became much clearer. He watched as human shapes could be seen moving about in front of a window, apparently hugging each other. He found himself frowning as he watched, almost as if he resented their closeness while his own 'family' was being torn apart. He quickly shoved the thought aside, not allowing himself to consider it nor let it break his concentration.

Just in time too. The garage door was rising.

Robin watched apathetically as the people piled into the Flaherty car, only really caring that the females in the family seemed to be departing. The man remained by the garage door, saying his goodbyes to his family. He remained absolutely still as the car slowly pulled out of the driveway and turned onto the road, the headlights reaching only as far up as a few meters below his perch. It was only once the car was out of earshot and the outside light at the Flaherty residence had been turned off, the man having shut the garage door and gone inside for a few minutes, that he left his high perch in favour of the ground.

Like a whisper on the breeze, Robin melted into the shadows from whence he came as he seemed to almost drift across the street.

If he had known that he was being watched and by whom, or even of the events that would be caused by this 'social call', he would no doubt have promptly made his way back to the Batcave and would not have emerged again for a year.

Meanwhile, Joey Flaherty covered a tired yawn with the back of his hand as he reached for the TV remote, absently wondering why his wife and daughters had to get up so early for a simple two-hour trip to his mother-in-law's place for lunch. Personally, he would have waited to the last minute. It wasn't that he disliked his wife's parents...but that mother of hers sure could be a bitch most of the time. Always finding something to pick at him about – most recently, it was about his admittedly not-so-clean past. 'Why can't the old girl just let the past die?' he mentally groused as he surfed channels. 'It's not as if I haven't paid the price for what I did all those years ago anyway. Besides, I did it for her daughter! Sometimes I—'

"Mister Flaherty."

The coarse but youthful voice coming from the corner of the room startled him just when he was getting on a roll. He jerked to his feet and whirled to face that direction, his mind returning immediately to the time not all that many months ago when Nightwing had startled him by saying almost the exact same words. At the time, Nightwing had come to him about a partnership, asking for help to bring down a psycho terrorizing Blüdhaven's female population. His heart lifted with the thought that maybe the erstwhile vigilante had finally answered his calls. "Nightwing? That you, punk?" he called out eagerly.

He received another shock when the shadows moved slightly to reveal a young boy dressed in a green, red and yellow costume with a dark cape, his eyes hidden by a mask similar to Nightwing's. The boy shook his head, his slightly long black hair tumbling around his face. "No sir. My name's Robin."

Joey sighed and flopped back down on his couch. 'Great. Just great. Another one to take care of.' He casually picked up the remote he'd dropped earlier, giving the young hero a glance over his shoulder as he changed channels. "Let me guess," he grumbled, an hint of sarcastic acid lacing his words. "Nightwing's kid brother?"

Robin swallowed hard. "Something like that," he managed, keeping his voice as level and emotion-free as he could.

"All I can say is that it's about time someone showed up," Joey continued as if the other had not spoken. "Do you know how many messages I've left for your punk brother? Let me tell you," he continued without pausing, "exactly sixty-three messages since this case first came to my attention. Sixty-three messages, all of which were supposed to go right through to the punk's gauntlets." He made a derisive snort as he continued flipping channels. "Sounds to me like I'm knockin' on his door but no-one's home." He paused, expecting some reply from the kid by now. "Not very talkative, are ya kid?"

Robin blinked, then mentally shook his head to clear his thoughts. "Actually, sir, that's what I wanted to see you about. Nightwing's missing."

Joey snorted, not surprised in the least. "'Course he's missing. I haven't seen him around for over four months at the very least." He looked at the kid out of the corners of his eyes. "I don't see how I can help you, though. He never took me to his hidey-holes or anything. Just talked to me on the phone a couple of times and helped take down a nut-cases or two."

Robin nodded solemnly, aware that he was about to take a huge risk – but a risk that Oracle had calculated was worth it if it got them to the bottom of this mess sooner. "I know. You don't need to find Nightwing himself." He took a deep breath to continue. "I need you to find Dick Grayson for me."

It was Joey's turn to have a pale face as he jerked to a standing position once more and faced his visitor, frowning heavily. 'Please tell me I didn't hear that right.' "Did–Did you just say 'Dick Grayson'? As in rookie 'Richard Grayson' of the Blüdhaven P.D.?"

Robin nodded again, taking a moment to phrase his words carefully. "Yes, sir. He has to Nightwing. Find him, and he'll lead us straight to Nightwing."

Joey shook his head regretfully. "I hate to be the one to break this to you, kid, but I'm afraid it's a bit too late for that. You'll need another way to find Nightwing."

Once again, Robin had the uncomfortable feeling of being on the souped-up Titan's Jet while the Joker was flying without a flight plan. Once again, he felt the world around him spinning out of control, and knew he was powerless to stop it. He didn't want to ask, didn't want to know the answers, but the question somehow emerged of its own violation: "What do you mean?"

"The case I want the punk's help on," Joey explained as gently as he could, carefully watching the youth's face for some kind of reaction, "is that of the murder of Officer Grayson. His body was found in a ditch a few days ago."

The words hit Robin like a stream-train in the chest as his heart was ripped apart by the cruel, uncaring hands of grief. He distantly felt the blood rush from his face, in the same way that he was aware of Joey asking him what was wrong as if from far away. His mind instead worked furiously, feverishly, to hold the teen superhero together even as he felt himself falling apart. He clenched his hands into tight fists to stop them trembling. Robin's mouth dropped open and he tried to speak, swallowing hard a few times to force the words out in a dry rasp, "I—He—The body?"

"At the morgue, I should think. It'll be there for a few more days until someone comes to claim it," Joey replied promptly. He could not quite see the effect his words were having on Robin, as the boy always remained in the shadows. His stare hardened, however, as a thought came to him at the emotions he thought he'd sensed in the boy's voice. "Why?" he asked, a note of suspicion entering his voice. "Are you really his family or something?"

Robin shook his head in automatic denial even as he stepped further back into the concealing shadows. His chest heaved, fighting for air as he struggled to compose himself. His universe shrank until he was alone, all alone in the darkness that greedily swallowed up his soul. The spoken words echoed around in his mind, each repetition hitting him ten times worse than before.

It was all simply too much, far too much for anyone in his position to take.

First Dick, Nightwing, his mentor, brother, protector, went to ground. Then, swallowing down his increasing worry and loneliness, he had agreed to 'fill in' for Batman while he went undercover. Just as he was starting to adjust and feel comfortable with his new role, the cosmos threw him for a loop and turned his world inside-out. Before answering that fateful call to the roof of G.C.P.D. building over six hours ago, he could never have predicted any of what had happened next. He had seen a human hand in a posted box, only to confirm through a simple fingerprint test that it had belonged to his brother. He had faced Oracle and then stared down the Titan friends of Dick, forcing them all to listen to him, only to have to turn around and comfort them when it was he who needed the comfort.

But through it all, he'd had hope. Hope. Hope that the hand was not Dick's, hope that he was thinking along the wrong lines...hope that this was a nightmare he could simply wake up from. It was a hope that he had not dared to vocalize or mention, but it was no less tangible for all that.

And now this... the supreme strike, the ultimate upset, the last laugh.

Dick Grayson's body had been found and identified.

All his pain and grief increased, filling him like steam in an over-fired boiler, pushing his mind and soul far beyond the point of explosion. Only his training prevented the scream rising inside him from escaping out into the open.

Without thinking, he did the only thing he could, the only thing he knew how to do:

He fled, vanishing like smoke in the wind into the pre-dawn gloom and leaving Joey Flaherty to stare in astonishment at the spot he had occupied, amazed all over again at how fast these vigilantes were able to move.

Scarce seconds later, Joey was rooted to the spot as a wordless scream of despair and denial filled the air from everywhere and nowhere all at once. He felt his veins run with ice as the bone-chilling cry rose as if issuing straight out of the pits of hell and tearing the very air asunder.

The scream continued for what seemed an eternity as Robin cried his pain to the unforgiving city. Dick Grayson a.k.a. Nightwing, his cherished brother, was lost. He would never be the same again. His world descended into darkness even as the earthly Sun began the process of rising over the horizon.

The Light of his existence had been extinguished.

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Whew! I never knew that writing angst could be so exhausting! As always, tbc :-)