Additional Disclaimers: See first chapter for the essentials. For this chapter, the quote from the lyrics to Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely come from the Backstreet Boys's album, Greatest Hits Chapter One. And all remaining mistakes are mine, 'cause I can't resist tweaking even after its been beta-ed.

Summary: A stand-off in an alley, reminiscent of one of times past, doesn't end well. Heck, there's a lot of things that aren't going to plan right now...

As always, please remember that this story is effectively set in the DC universe immediately after The Last Laugh story arc's conclusion. Its just that six months have passed in that universe with no further arcs occurring. AKA, its my answer to what The Last Laugh left hanging.

The main reason it took so long is the WCtP (What Came to Pass) section in this chapter. That section has currently delayed posting the chapter by over seven months. I was never happy with it, and it showed. So I finally had a brainwave and swapped the WCtP sections in 5 and 6 around, and suddenly everything started fitting a lot more sweetly and I could finally start polishing the chapter. Hence the repost of the older chapters – if I've got to redo one, I figured that I might as well fix up the things that bugged me in the first few chapters while I'm at it. :)

So, with no further delays and shenanigans, please enjoy the final fruits of my labours.

This chapter is dedicated to Bongsum Kim in deep thanks for his tireless efforts to improve earlier chapters and ask the questions no one else would, making this a better story and me a better writer for it. Many, many thanks for all your hard work in my behalf, Kim, and may you find success and happiness along the road of life. :) I really will miss our talks.
Many, many, thanks also to Janet and Gaer, for picking up this story and helping me feel better about posting it. This chapter wouldn't be out without their support.


Rules of Engagement
Chapter 6
The Inferior Response

Guilty roads through an endless love

There's no control; are you with me now?...
...Show me the meaning of being lonely...
...Tell me why I can't be there where you are
There's something missing in my heart
I have nowhere to run; I have no place to go
Surrender my heart, body and soul.
Show The Meaning Of Being Lonely
Backstreet Boys

Light is the absence of Dark.

What happens when the monsters find out where you live?

A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies.
Oscar Wilde

What Came to Pass IV

Running. He was running again.

His footsteps pounded the pavement in tune to his heart beating within his chest, a thumping beat of suspicion and unacknowledged fear. He could hear the drumming beat through the blood rushing past his ears as the adrenaline flooding his system boosted the blood supply to critical areas. The adrenaline thus sharpened his vision even as fear reduced his focus until it was solely on the next turn he had to take, the buildings flashing past him forming an insanely jumbled mix of sensations and sights that he knew he'd never untangle. Places and faces and facades merged into one in his mind till it was becoming impossible to tell friend from foe in his memories, never mind the real world. All he had to go on was pure instinct and judge of character, not to mention more than a little hope that he wouldn't judge wrong.

His pursuers had always nameless figures, one out of a thousand faces in a crowd. He saw them everywhere, lurking behind him in the shadows, watching him around corners, in the sideways glances at his dishevelled appearance and haunted eyes. He saw them in the mother's face watching him to make sure he never went near her baby, in the boys playing in that park that looked up as he hurried through, in the old men on that bench that seemed to be dozing the day away, in the business men and women rushing past him as if he was carrying a plague. Then again, he was a plague; no one could come near him without receiving a late-night visit by the warriors on his trail, something he'd never wish on anyone even if he hadn't already experienced it for himself.

That was probably why Sanctuary seemed such a distant concept. With every hour that he remained on the streets, the odds against his survival just kept getting worse and worse. With the underground and black-market alerted to his appearance and for some reason more than willing to turn on him, the list of available safehouses was dwindling fast. With all doors closed to his knock and all ears shut to his pleas, there wasn't much left for him. Not even the police were a viable option – a lesson he'd learned the hard way a few days into this mad dash for freedom.

He'd been burned more times in the last few weeks than he cared to remember, by the very people he would've once trusted with his life. Even the lowest of the criminal scum weren't normally very willing to turn on an innocent man, but turn on him they did, and in sufficient numbers to make him suspect his pursuers had given them enough incentive to make common sense no longer an option. Pardon the french, but out here on the streets, payback could be a bitch. In the underworld, there was nothing worse than a wronged man looking for blood. They were the dangerous ones, the unpredictable and uncontrollable factors that could quite deliberately ruin months of delicate plans for a chance at vengeance.

He'd once liked to hope, at some point, that this was what he'd become to the ones running him down...but that hope was more like a distant memory now, now that the end was nipping at his heels. He could feel it coming for him, even as he sprinted down the streets of the city and through dark alleys. It was there at the edge of his senses, at the back of his mind, in the primitive regions of his soul:

Something wicked his way came, and it was coming for him.

It was then that he spotted the little niche carved into the alley wall that signalled an opening, hopefully with a door attached – he'd been fooled by openings without doors so many times already that he dared not hope for a room beyond it. He flung himself at it anyway, desperation and fear urging him on and shouting down the voice of reason nattering at the back of his mind. Praying the entire time his momentum would be enough to force the door opent, at first the door barely seemed to give underneath him, as if it was made of sterner stuff than it should've been.

That was when he heard the pounding footsteps coming behind, and for one heart-stopping moment, he was the deer out in the open that felt the hunter's gaze but couldn't move to save its life.

Heart quite literally in his throat, the fear galvanised him into action again and he thrust himself at the door again, urging it with his thoughts as well as his muscles to open. He was not yet so far gone that he wished for death to end his troubles, even if he knew it was going to claim him sooner rather than later. That was probably why he dared not look, be it five minutes or even five seconds, ahead or behind, because looking back only reminded him of why he was running and looking ahead would only hasten the inevitable that he was not yet foolish enough to welcome.

And then all of a sudden the door gave way beneath him, and he stumbled through into the unlit room beyond. Only the last shreds of his rational thought made him pull the door almost shut behind him. He slumped against the wall by the door, struggling to control his heaving breathing and ignore the cramps in a body pushed to its limits and beyond.

How long had he spent on the move anyway, always looking over his shoulder? It was definitely longer than a fortnight since he'd left what he'd once called his home, but he wasn't completely sure it had been less than a month either since he had last been able to relax. The days and weeks blurred together until he wasn't sure where the nearest "safehouse" was, let alone what part of town this was.

Whatever the case, he'd spent far too much time alone and afraid and he welcomed this small opportunity to catch his breath even as he kept a grim watch through the crack where the door was left slightly ajar.

And none too soon. His pursuers were barely a second behind him, he noted in the part of him that was constantly analyzing the world around him. Had the door taken any longer to let him through, he really would have been that proverbial deer in the headlights.

It was a pair this time, he realised as the two warriors ran past him, one clad in black and the other in red and green, their black cloaks billowing behind them and their breathing barely affected by the mad pace they were setting. Passing him by so close that he could've reached out and fingered their sleeves had he so chosen, he hardly dared breathe, more than a little convinced they would hear the beating of his heart that would surely give himself away. How else to explain all the times he'd failed to evade them in situations like this, even when he'd been convinced he'd made no sound except to quietly suck air into his lungs?

At least it wasn't going to happen again tonight. The pair passed him by without looking to either side, intent on following the path they thought their prey had trod, too confident in their abilities to consider the possibility that their 'prey' might have deviated from their plans.

He was no one's prey.

There was a moment there when the light from the crescent moon far above shone almost directly on their faces, and his breath caught in his throat. He could not see the features of the one further away from him, the one all in black, covered as they were by more black material; but the other one had a face of a young sixteen-year-old, his clear blue eyes and fresh face containing a deadliness that belied his age. He was right at the age where he should be focusing on the girls at school and partying with his friends...but instead here he was, chasing down a breathless man scared down to his core and feeling every single one of his years.

So young. Hell, they were all too young for this madness.

He shook his head to clear his wandering thoughts as he averted his gaze and carefully moved away from the door along the wall, past experience making him careful not to even scrape his clothing together in case it might give him away. After giving himself a moment to adjust to the lack of light in the room, he looked around for the first time, more than a little cautious. He'd burst inside this place with little thought to what it contained, a mistake he thought he'd learned to avoid a few days (or was it weeks?) ago when he'd found himself knee-deep in Vicelords with his pursuers literally hot on his heels.

Knowing better as he did than to try to go back out through the door, he was grateful – more than even he could comprehend – that nothing seemed amiss. Still, he dared not bring himself to hope that this room would provide an escape route for him, somewhere he could hide and rest for a bit. The time he had available before the pair discovered he'd evaded them could be counted in seconds, and it would be half that again until they'd pick up his trail once more and the chase would begin all over again. He needed to find a way out of this place that didn't involve the door he'd just come through.

He stumbled again as he tried to step away from the wall, his exhaustion and aching muscles catching up with him yet again, his knees trembling as they tried to bear his weight and ended up almost dumping him on his butt. He struggled for a long moment to keep on his feet, bracing himself on the nearby wall, knowing without a doubt that once he went down he wouldn't be able to get up again for a couple of days. He had to rest soon, or else he might as well just roll over and give himself up, because there was no way he could continue to de—

A woman's cut-off scream stopped his thoughts (heart) in their tracks.

A cold chill swept through his heart, bringing with it a creeping dread and leaving behind nothing but emptiness and a dulled resignation in its wake. He tensed at the shadows that suddenly took on a human form, a form boasting a blue stripe that was at once sickeningly familiar and foreboding.

Nightwing...smirking...and pushing towards him something the vigilante had held in his arms...

And then he knew. Not a word had been spoken by his hated foe, and yet he knew. Nightwing had found her.

He stiffened and felt the blood leave his face as he involuntarily took a half-step forward, his mouth forming words not even he knew as he mentally pleaded with the Fates for anything, anything, but this. But he could only watch helplessly as that other part of his soul stumbled for a moment, her soft auburn hair flying around her face. He clenched his fists when he felt the sudden urge to tuck that flyaway hair behind her ears, to hold her close and let her lean on him, steeling himself with all his strength not to show how much he cared and thus not to reveal to Nightwing the hold his woman held over him. He'd do anything to save her, even give his life to keep her safe and alive, and he knew with everything he was that Nightwing shouldn't know that. It would be used against him faster than he could blink to make him 'lay down his king' in this mad chess game they played.

And then she raised her head, her beautiful teal eyes widening as they locked with his.

Time froze, and his focus narrowed until that mattered was the here and now and their surroundings no longer mattered. The two companions stared at each other for a moment, an eternal moment of the silent communication managed only by those who knew that each other was the other half of their soul, those who shared the bonds of true and pure love. Their eyes said more in that frozen second than they could ever say in the words of a hundred lifetimes, filling up volumes with unparalleled love and devotion, of a loyalty to each other that could sweep away nations and conquer worlds...but it wouldn't be enough. It couldn't be enough.

His face hardened as he steeled himself to turn aside, to tear his eyes away from hers, to seal his heart to the confusion and hurt on that beloved face as he turned back to the crazed vigilante. He glimpsed the vigilante's face, saw the growing smirk that could only signal that Nightwing already knew what he'd tried so hard to hide, and his gaze flicked back automatically to the love of his life as fear clenched his heart and constricted his lungs.

'No... I can't let that happen.'

His gun was out in an instant, the Beretta tugged out of the waistband of his jeans where he'd kept it ever since he'd started running and levelled it at his nemesis faster than he could blink. He held it steady in a classic two-handed Weaver grip as best he could, the gun (amazingly) never wavering as he sighted down the barrel and increased the pressure on the trigger.

One way or another, it was going to end here.

The Phoenix was back.

He stood there at the face of the alleyway, blocking the exit with his metallic armor glinting and gleaming under the light that leaked into the alley from streetlight outside. The (twisted) man beneath the armour was barely even panting from exertion, somehow thus making the events of the last half-hour or so seem little more than a dream.

But if this was a dream, then it was a waking nightmare.

The evidence as to the reality of the night was standing right before the villain, evidence that none could deny...least of all Black Phoenix. Indeed, he regarded that evidence and considered himself to be downright proud of his handiwork and the havoc he had wrought.

For there Robin himself stood, trapped in the alley, wavering on his feet and holding onto the wall for balance (support) with the other arm wrapped protectively around his ribs. His once bright uniform was tattered and torn, smeared with blood and mud from the many times he'd tripped and lost his balance on the way here. Not even the cape shrouding his form could hide the weariness in his bones and the exhaustion that came after travelling just a few blocks on pure strength of will alone. His mind had slipped more and more into neutral with every shambling step he'd taken, his body kept moving only by instinct as his thoughts had focused on one thought and one thought only:


But now even that was beyond him. The Lair had been desecrated by the presence of Black Phoenix. It was no longer the haven and secret place of his older brother; no longer the place Robin had often visited in the last six months when he'd needed some time to think or even just some pure solitude. Not even the Cave was comfortable anymore, thanks to the package he knew was sitting in cold storage, still awaiting full analysis. His memories of that package, he knew, would appear distorted in his dreams for as long as he lived, no matter what the outcome of these events. And now, in a deserted alley in Blüdhaven's industrial district, he couldn't even rest for a moment without being caught and trapped again.

No place was safe for him now.

Robin stared tiredly at his hated foe, knowing all too well that he was at the end of his rope. He had tried his best, called on reserves of strength he hadn't known he'd had, done more than should've been humanly possible, but now it was all over. The two birds of ash and of morning had come face-to-face once more, but this time he truly had nothing left with which to defend himself. His tank was long since running on empty, and it hadn't been enough to see him through. It hadn't been enough.

He could already feel the dark void sinking its long claws into his soul, not bothering to wait for his heart to finally stop beating before it tried to drag him down into the dark pit, never to be seen again. He felt it, had felt it the entire way here, and didn't know why he'd bothered to fight its hold on him. Either he died a "natural" death as a vigilante, or Black Phoenix would take care of it for him. Whichever way he ended up following, dead was still Dead...and he was far enough past the point of no return that he didn't really care how it would finally happen. If he was dead, at least he'd see Dick again...assuming he even believed in an afterlife.

He liked to hope there was. At least then he could hope that the Phoenix would one day rot in Hell for all eternities.

"Are you going to kill me now?" The calmly spoken words emerged from his mouth before he was aware of even thinking them, but Robin made no move to withdraw them. In some ways, he wished he would be killed. Death would be such a pleasant release from this never-ending heartache he battled with every rattling breath he drew.

His hated foe just laughed in response, as if he'd just heard a good joke. "Don't flatter yourself, kid. I don't kill without just cause."

For some reason, the reply didn't faze Tim. Maybe it was because he'd just been battered physically, mentally, and emotionally by the last twenty-four hours that he was simply numb, unable to feel anything but the cold emptiness filling his soul. Maybe he'd simply faced one too many psychos since he'd first donned the Robin costume to care about one more crazy excuse. Maybe it was because he was starting to run out of reasons to get up in the morning. So he did the only thing he knew how to, the only thing left to him: He arched one eyebrow – an unconscious imitation of the Bat – and simply asked: "Like you did with Nightwing?"

The Phoenix's mocking laughter died a quick death at the mention of that name, and he moved a step closer to tower over his younger prey. "I killed Nightwing," his mechanical sounding voice snarled, spitting the name out from behind his mask like the curse it was, his breathing heavy as he struggled not to release his anger on the youth, "because that little deserved everything he got for what he did to me."

Robin choked back a sudden surge of bitter laughter of his own even as he cautiously craned his neck back to see into the villain's eyes through the mask, ever-mindful of the thumping of his concussions. "You call that a 'just cause'? What did he do that's so bad?"

The Black Phoenix glared heavily down at the kid punk through his mask, hatred boiling in his depths. His hands curled into fists by his side as the flame of anger stroked his mind and tipped him on the edge of losing his last few shreds of control. "You really have no idea, do you?" he demanded darkly, his voice harsh and roughened by hate.

The bitter laughter that had come to him so readily vanished like evaporating water in the Sahara, and Robin swallowed hard at the emotions he detected in the question despite the mechanical distortion of his foe's mask. His instincts screamed at him that he had just crossed a line he should've avoided (fled from) and he automatically began seeking a way to defuse the situation. His mind was the clearest it could be with his body in the state it was, his thoughts full of a clarity he normally only found in his current state after prolonged meditation, but still everything he thought of would only make it worse.

The Phoenix squared his jaw, his burning anger building the longer the upstart vigilante remained silent. His heart was aflame with a furnace of emotion and torment, insisting on the freedom it needed to take him high up on its wings to the place of true peace to which only his anger could take him. All that he was, everything that made him who he was, demanded that he avenge his pain on the young boy before him, that he show the boy exactly how it felt to brought time and again to within inches of death...and yet for some reason he found himself holding back, found himself struggling not to let the purity of his anger blind him, much as he craved the release that the white-hot rage would give him once he yielded to it.

Just for a second or two...that's all he wanted...just a moment... Was that really so much to ask?

Meanwhile, Robin tried to think of what he'd said to set the villain off, but for the life of him he couldn't pin it down. He could sense it was something obvious, something he should've immediately grasped, but it was as if his view of it was being distorted by something else so that it escaped him every time he managed to draw close enough to touch it. He swallowed hard past the lump in his throat, and desperately turned his thoughts towards trying to think of something to say so as to not goad the villain more than he already had.

Should he say "yes"...that he actually did have some idea of what was going on, that he knew the cause of the Phoenix's apparent grudge against Nightwing? No. He could not. Not only would that be a lie, but he knew that would be tantamount to admitting culpability in some part of this "grudge-match"...and how could he be guilty of something when he didn't know what it was? So maybe he should say "no"...that he really did have no idea what he was supposed to have done. But then that might also imply he thought himself innocent of any crime except waiting too long to find Dick's whereabouts, and he feared that the Phoenix would interpret that as arrogance and thus would only inflame the situation further. If only he knew what was really going on!

And so he tentatively went for what he thought was the middle of the two options: "Um, should I?"

The Phoenix snarled at the cheek of the boy to deny all of what (he) everyone knew to be fact. That, for him, was the last straw. No longer would he try to withhold the strength of his rage, no more would he try to moderate his responses. All his restraint and control evaporated and deserted him like so many other things in his life had when the flickers of hate and anger within his heart quickly burst out into a fiery flame that consumed him with its heat. He literally saw red as the raw power of his rage overtook his thoughts and boiled in his veins, quickly becoming conscious of nothing other than his blazing need to strike out at something other than himself.

One way or another, he was going to end this confrontation here and he'd failed to do that fateful time when the stakes had been the life of the girl he loved.

Robin mentally swore at himself when he heard the other's answering growl, knowing it meant he'd just picked the wrong reply anyway. He swallowed hard and cautiously backed up a step. 'Why do I have a bad feeling about this?' he mentally asked the air as he automatically slipped into the best defensive stance his body could muster. And that was all the preparation he had time for before his mental question was answered and the relentless onslaught was upon him.

The youth's hastily erected defenses didn't even make the twenty seconds they'd lasted in the Lair, and Robin quickly found himself crumbling under the power of every blow upon his already-battered body. Once again he heard himself cry out with every fist and foot that connected, catching the smell of his fear intermingling with blood as barely-healing wounds were torn open and older injuries were joined by new ones. All too soon he was lying on the ground, curled up in a fetal position with his arms wrapped around his head and his legs futilely trying to protect his chest – already bruised and broken from tonight's earlier scuffles – as the one-sided onslaught continued despite the broken cries he could no longer hold back.

And then it stopped, the silence quickly joined by pressure on his chest and a rushing stiff breeze that blew his matted hair against half-lidded eyes and placed unkind pressure upon his body in all the wrong places. The world seemed to whirl around him faster and faster until it was moving at mach speeds while colours swirled before his eyes, all shifting and dancing between the dark spots clouding his vision. Hands grabbed at him from all round, grabbing him and jerking him this way and that with random brutality, leaving him overwhelmed and open, unable to predict when the next groping move would come and thus unable to defend himself.

However, before he was even aware of it all, before he could comprehend what it meant, the hands disappeared as the world seemed to slow. But the dizziness and the mad jumble of colours persisted and were joined by something hot incredibly close to his body, creating in his head a cacophony of impressions and sensations that made him cry out, pleading with it all to stop.

And then it did stop and the hands disappeared...but with them apparently went his support for then he was falling...falling...forever falling to the hard ground as the darkness claimed him, sucking him deeper and deeper downwards until he knew no more and felt no more when his exhausted mind finally managed to pass out.

Superman never made it to Nightwing's once and former lair. He never saw the bodies of the fallen Titans, tossed aside like so many used toys by Black Phoenix. He didn't see the Batmobile parked haphazardly out the front of the once-abandoned dealership turned vigilante Lair, evidence of one of the very few times Batman had impulsively rushed into a dangerous situation. He was not even there when what vigilantes that were left standing found the video tape, forgotten amidst all the chaos as it still waited in the Lair's VCR to be ejected.

In fact, he barely even made it past Blüdhaven's northern suburbs.

He had been flying over the city outskirts alongside Diana, half listening to Oracle's summary of the events of the last twenty-seven or so hours over the communicator while the rest of his mind sorted through the myriad of sensory information he was receiving.

It hadn't taken him long at all to realise why Nightwing had chosen to reside here, all those months (lifetimes) ago. In under two seconds, he had managed to pick out 46 muggings in progress, 1 gang-war about to get kick-started in a major way, 26 simple BE's, 52 armed BE's, 12 ramming-snatch-and-grabs, and approximately 36 car-jacks in progress – and that wasn't counting the number of small-time pimps, drug operations, blackmarket deals, shady visits, and general all-round lawlessness that he was picking up as well.

If ever there was a town needing a vigilante, it was this one. The problem, Superman knew well, was that they had "lost" their previous one – for lack of a more tactful way of phrasing it – which always made criminals feel invulnerable and overconfident. Whoever came in to clean this town up would not only have to start from scratch, but they'd probably be starting about a figurative kilometer behind what the city had been when Nightwing first arrived. He had no doubt that it would be a member of the Batclan that would come to tidy up the town or their close associates – the city was, after all, implicit "Bat property". Of course, such a move would probably also entail a change of costume, from the vigilante's original costume to the midnight blues and blacks that Nightwing had once sported with pride after leaving behind the green and yellow costume of Robin. One way or another, Nightwing's legacy would never be allowed to die nor fade lik—.

The world around him disappeared entirely as Superman suddenly (finally) realised what his eyes were telling him. Flying over a nondescript alley, his super-sharp vision just managed to penetrate the polluted haze forever cloaking the city like a death shroud to see the events occurring far below. What he saw, he would swear later, made his heart stop beating for an eternal moment.


Before he fully realised what he was doing, what he was seeing, he'd handed the comm over which Oracle was still talking to Diana and had dived towards the alley far below, abandoning Diana and Oracle and plummeting almost straight down towards the earth. He squinted in an effort to minimise the effects of the wind rushing past him so that he could focus on what he was aiming at even as he strained his powers and abilities to their absolute limits to make it. He put his all into his desperate flight and more, pushing himself further than he'd ever had before in a race against time.

But it wasn't enough. Even travelling at close to mach one and deaccelerating at the very last possible moment, he'd been too slow.

He'd been almost on top of them before he'd realised that he was aiming wrongly, coming only a metre above a rooftop before he had managed to adjust his course for the alley adjacent to the building... Arms reached out even as he'd consciously realised he'd been watching Robin desperately fighting some strangely-clad foe, his opponent being the cause of most of the shifting colours and glaring reflections he'd seen... Glimpsed a metallic mask jerking up in surprise even as he'd descended from on high, had heard the feral snarl when his hands had closed around the tail of young Robin's cape...and yet he'd been entirely too late.

He was too late.

Even for Superman, it was all too fast to comprehend. One moment he'd used the advantage of surprise to the full, he'd had a secure grip on the young hero's clothes that couldn't be shaken...and then he felt himself freeze as he had heard the material start to rip apart and heard Robin's frantic (pleading) cries for not let him go, to keep him from the arms of hell.

But he was too slow.

He heard the final ripping sound, the final cry mixing both pain and a plea for help, for someone to save the boy's soul from what he knew was to come...and then nothing. Nothing. He came to a stop barely an inch above the dirty, grimy concrete floor of the alley, a look almost of disbelief and astonishment gracing his handsome alien features as he righted himself and landed gracefully. And there he remained, alone in a dark alley with nothing more to show than a scrap of material in his closed fist for all his frantic efforts. Somehow, he still wasn't sure how, the two had vanished, and with them went the prospects of one of the few Young Justice heroes who'd truly had his respect and admiration.

The flashes of red and green and yellow were burnt into his retina for eternity, a testament to his failure. His hands hanging loosely by his side could still feel the tattered and roughened fabric slipping through his fingers even as he'd tried to tighten his grip. His ears echoed with the boy's cut-off cry, with the young hero's call for his hoped-for savior. The boy's glazed and forlorn blue eyes, both concealed and revealed by the half-mask, dilated with pain and hope, stared at him from the shadows.

And it was all the more accussatory for being figments of his imagination.

The half-mask his mind saw was not really present, the vigilante who'd worn it having vanished like a wisp of smoke on a windy day. The alley he hovered in was empty, as empty and barren as it had been mere moments ago and would now be for an eternity to come. It was silent, cold, and lonely, barely a sign of what had just transpired. It was as if he'd imagined it all...

No. He hadn't imagined it at all. 'It's real.' The small and tattered scrap of yellow cape hanging out of his fist said it was. 'It has to be.' He stared at the torn patch of material, rubbing his thumb silenty over the reddish stains. 'But I wish it wasn't.' Robin was gone, vanished along with his captor, and he was at a loss to explain how on all of Krypton it had happened.

Failure wasn't a feeling Superman was used to.

"Superman? You there?"

He blinked, jerking his mind back to the present at the eerie sound of the respected hacker's voice in his ear through his back-up JLA comm. "Yeaahhh..." he responded absently, still looking at and fingering the bloodied Kevlar scrap in his hands.

"What on earth happened?" Oracle demanded, her flat, electronic tones still containing a world of upset. "One moment you're with Diana, and then my sensors are screaming that you've hit the ground. Care to explain?"

"I thought I saw young Robin..." he explained slowly.

Oracle's voice immediately perked up, the eerie emptiness she'd demonstrated earlier gradually disappearing under the stream of questions that followed: "You did? How was he? Where are you? Do you need backup?"

He paused to scan the alley, and again saw nothing. It was, he found, still very empty. "Naaahhh," he replied carefully, biting back a regretful sigh, "no backup will be necessary. Whatever happened here, it's all over now. They're gone."

There was a muttered curse he quickly decided he'd be better off not to have heard, along with the soft sigh that accompanied it. Finally Oracle spoke again: "Right. I've got the position logged for later analysis. Now you'd better tell me exactly what just happened on your way to the Lair."

"Oh, nothing," Superman replied with studied nonchalance that covered most of the guilty frustration brewing inside him. "But I think...I think I might've just met your Phoenix...and he had Robin with him." A beat. "They're gone."

Technically speaking, Robin wasn't just gone.

He was nonexistent.

Every single tracking signal Batman had quietly slipped into Robin's gear over the years had mysteriously disappeared from Oracle's system. One moment they showed him motionless in Nightwing's Lair – no doubt unconscious – and then they simply winked out.

Every single last one.

Oracle frowned, her suspicious nature instantly alerted that something was going drastically wrong. It could, of course, be a mechanical failure, some kind of technical glitch that took his sensors off-line...but all eighteen at once? With no one else being affected? While she wasn't about to calculate the odds of that kind of thing happening, she knew all too well that the odds were remote – even in their line of work. The far more likely causes were that Robin had managed to remove them without tripping her systems, or that he'd had them removed for him – and all without tripping her systematic firewalls, which, coincidentally, was supposed to be impossible – or...

...Or he had been killed by his opponent, this 'Black Phoenix'. But then the 'corpse marker' should have activated the moment his heart stopped producing the electrical field unique to the human body, and she knew for a fact that this particular device was also thankfully (forebodingly) silent.

She scowled heavily even as she forced that final thought away and out of consideration. Robin wasn't dead. He couldn't be. The kid was far too stubborn to let some punk villain beat him, no matter (who) what the said villain claimed to be. He just didn't have it in him, period. She hoped he didn't, anyway.

But so many things had changed within the last twenty-four hours that she no longer felt certain of much of anything anymore. Her world had been turned on its head, all her points of reference brutally taken away from her, leaving her feeling more lost and alone than she ever recalled feeling before. Not even when the use of her legs had been taken from her by the Joker had she felt as isolated and empty and vulnerable as she did now. The maelstrom of emotion and grieving shock she had experienced then was unable to compare to the emptiness now growing inside her soul with the loss of the man in her life...just like being chastised by Batman when she was Batgirl could never come close to a gentle rebuke from Alfred.

Tim wasn't dead. She wouldn't let him be dead, she couldn't. It was too soon, too close to Dick's...

No. He wasn't dead.

So what (where) on earth was he?

The answer came to her with uncomfortable suddenness. Tim Drake, the latest Robin, was really little more than a teenager. A quiet-genius teenager with incredible street-sense and a nose for trouble, but a teenager nevertheless. That's all he was. He was the kind of kid that should be out playing pranks on the adults around him instead of catching crooks; he should have been hanging out with friends his age instead of fighting the dregs of the criminal world. When he was the age to learn to drive, he was already making his mark on Gotham in his own personal way – by leaving more than a few of his footprints on criminals' faces.

Times like these were one of the few times Barbara allowed herself to question the wisdom of the course they had chosen, of opening up the eyes of people like Tim to the true evil the system could create...and worse. Was it wise? Had it been a good idea to take their childhood away and make the kids grow up all too fast?

And how the hell could she ever answer something like that? She herself had volunteered for a life-course in Vigilante-101 when she was sixteen, giving up her own peace and happiness – and eventually her legs – for the sake of the many, even going so far as to force herself into the Batman's circle of associates to get it. Could she really say that she regretted it, that she wished her time in the night sky and flying over Gotham had never happened? Despite it all, despite the Joker and what had happened to her family, she couldn't honestly say she regretted the way her life had played out. The only choice she wished she had done differently was the day she chose to unknowingly open the door to the Joker and invite into her life all the pain that the maniac could give.

But if she hadn't...

Would Jim Gordan, the uncle that had become her Dad, still be alive? He would've opened that door instead of her...and who really knew what harm the Joker would've inflicted on her dear father without her there to distract the deranged clown? And besides, without the shooting, would she ever have truly moved on from her days as the first Batgirl? Or would she have simply drifted, ending up penniless and shattered from a life spent going nowhere? For that matter, where would the world be without her Oracle? How many criminals would've gone unpunished without her skills on the keyboard? How many times over would the Bat and his followers have been killed without her to penetrate the dime-a-dozen conspiracies every week against them? ...And would she ever have realised the depth of the unquestioning love held out to her by the only man to truly hold the keys to her heart?

Barbara leaned over her console and rubbed her temples wearily in a vain attempt to hold back the migraine she could feel gathering behind her eyes. She didn't know the answers to those types of philosophical questions, the ultimate 'what might have been's that not even Bruce could truly contemplate... And for that matter, she wasn't that sure she ever wanted to know the answers to these questions. Some things just weren't meant to be known.

So where did that leave them? Where did it leave her?

It left her a lonely woman in her clocktower, the weight of her loss pressing down hard upon her even as she forced herself to keep the tears inside, fought tooth-and-nail to keep the endless pain and grief bottled up inside where no one would ever see how she was dying from a broken spirit with every second that passed. Lost and alone, she slowly tapped her keys, the sound echoing in her ears as a mournful song with haunting tones as she worked mindlessly, 'half-an-ear' always directed towards the speakers in case the few remaining of those she had allowed herself to care about ever tried to call her.

And where did that leave Tim Drake? Where did all her lonely thoughts leave young Robin?

Nowhere. Somewhere. Anywhere but where he should be.

The clocktower tolled the hour of seven at night, but the once comforting tones were hollow and empty to her. The hours of the night stretching out in front of her mind's eye in an endless path leading to nowhere, the typing of keys continued throughout what was undoubtedly going to be a loong night.

Joey Flaherty had racked his brains thoroughly, doing it twice over for good measure and to make sure he wasn't overlooking anything, but he was quickly coming to the conclusion that trying to find something "unusual" in Blüdhaven was like asking a connoisseur of the feline domesticus species to pick out a cat in a room full of them. Amy would've been much better off asking if him there was anything "abnormal in the sense of being normal" in his life. This was Blüdhaven they were talking about, after all, the city where the darkest patch of Gotham's night was their brightest midday, where the criminals ruled the roost and the good-guys really did come last on the pecking order. His whole life hadn't exactly been "normal".

'Abnormal in the sense of being normal...'

Come on, he was one of the few contacts for Nightwing in the entire city, for crying out loud! Superheroes dropped in on him left-right-and-centre, like vultures swooping on their prey—

He grimaced and pushed the mental images that thought had created out of his mind. Ok, so maybe he could've picked a better analogy, but the point remained. Hell, he'd once tried to invite Nightwing into his home to have a cuppa with him and his family on Christmas Eve! What the hell was "normal" about that?

'What's "normal"...about that...'

Then it hit him.

'...A flying visit from Robin...'

A vigilante dropping by and knocking a few more years off his life didn't really upset him, apart from the usual surprise that comes from hearing voices from a corner or a window that you swore was empty only a moment ago. The whole shock element was gone for him, especially after that whole business with that Charon nutcase.

'...The Grayson case...'

For that matter, as a Blüdhaven cop he had seen more than his fair share of crazy and stomach-churning corpses. Torture, mutilation, dismemberment, it was all part of the whole Blüdhaven gig. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a murder case he'd taken on had, at some point, threatened his family's safety.

Oh yeah, he had something "normally abnormal" going on in his life. Did he ever.

He opened his mouth to explain it as best he could to the patient sergeant by his side, his mind racing to find the words to explain something he wasn't fully sure he understood himself, when something happened that made him freeze in his tracks:

Something heavy landed against his front door with a loud thunk.

Joey grimaced, forcing himself to relax and unclench his fists. He shot Amy a lop-sided smile that never made it higher than his lips. "I think I know the answer to that question, but I also think I'd better check that out first."

She shook her head in return, her instincts screaming at her that something bad lay on the other side of that door. "Maybe I should go, Joey. What if it's the people responsible coming to take you away as well?"

Joey stopped and leveled his gaze upon her. "Let them," he answered simply. "I'll still be with my family. And besides, if it is them, it would be ten times worse if a copper answered the door instead of a worried husband and father."

With that he turned and walked away, leaving her to consider his words and promptly ignore them. As his long stride carried him quickly to the front door, Amy followed about two metres behind, her revolver out but pointed towards the floor. Quite pointedly ignoring the fact that he knew she was there, he yanked the door open before he could give himself time to reconsider. He ran a hand through his hair and tugged on his shirt even as he did so, trying his best to look presentable just in case the caller was someone he knew...only to find that he needn't have bothered making the effort: The doorstep was empty, with no obvious source of the noise he'd heard.

Joey strode through the doorway and down the garden path a few steps, his head turning this way and that as he searched for any hint as to who or what had caused the "message" he had received. The dim light of city-night revealed themselves as little more than blobs of gray to his light-accustomed eyes. The street was as quiet as it ever was, his neighbours having already turned in for the night or were away on holidays. There wasn't even the sterotypical piece of litter fluttering across the bitumen in a light breeze. Heck, there wasn't even a breeze.


He frowned as he slowly turned and walked back to his own front door, his mind churning and getting nowhere. All thoughts stopped in their tracks, however, when he saw the state of the front door. What had once been a pristine, varnished wooden door now had a knife, a sharp and shiny knife at that, quite boldly stuck in the wood and holding down a piece of paper containing the stereotypical letters cut from some newspaper.

'What the hell? I thought that only happened in movies.'

By reflex he reached up to tear down the note, but managed to stop himself in time – the paper might hold vital fingerprints or something that he dared not disturb. Careful not to get too near, lest even his breath alter something it shouldn't, he read the note...and read the note again, just to make sure.

wE HavE yOUr wiFe daUghTeRS

ForGEt tHe BaTs
or gRaySOn's dEatH
wilL bE PaInlEss
cOMpAreD tO tHeiRS

Kidnapped. Someone had kidnapped his family, his wife and...daughters.

Both of them.

That statement with all its meanings and implications penetrated his swirling thoughts, and he closed his eyes and almost collapsed to the floor in relief. Lisa was alive. 'She lives!' His youngest daughter wasn't dead after all. 'They're alive!' His family was intact...for the most part, at least. Almost giddy, he couldn't help but slump against the exterior wall as the overpowering burden he'd been carrying ever since Amy had entered his home lifted from off his shoulders.

The Blüdhaven cop in question chose that moment to reappear, having heard nothing from the direction of the front door and thus believing that it was alright for her to make her presence known. Her eyes widened when she noticed the knife and the paper attached, and its message. "Uh...Joey?"

Eyes still closed, he let out a lop-sided smile. "Kidnapped. They're not dead."

"For now," she replied grimly, ever practical, and his smile died a quick death when his relief was damped by reality rushing back in.

The Blüdhaven PI watched in thoughtful silence, mind churning once more, as Amy pulled on latex gloves to protect the evidence and carefully removed both the note and the knife from his front door and placed them onto separate transparent evidence bags.

'Ok Flaherty. First things first.'

Whoever had kidnapped his family obviously had something to do with the death of young Grayson, or at least knew how painful the reports said Grayson's murder had to have been. 'Check.'

By extension, they would also have to know that he was doing some digging into Grayson's death that was prompted by Robin's visit, for why else would they warn him to stop helping the vigilantes? But that also meant they were aware of Robin's visit. 'Double check.'

And that would also mean that whoever they were, the kidnappers were worried enough about what he could find out that they'd chosen to resort to such drastic measures as kidnapping to get him to lay off the case. Why? What on earth could he find out that would've been so worrying? Did one of his contacts know more than they should've...or had let something slip to the wrong person?

So what could he do about it?

His first option, as always, would be to go to the cops, or more specifically the BPD. Amy already was involved, so it wouldn't be that hard to take a step back and let her do her stuff...but would it be enough? The BPD being what it was, not even Captain Addad could keep Arnot out of something like this, and once the crooked Inspector saw the note... Well, let's just say that Joey didn't have many friends in the BPD anymore. The crooked ones hated him for standing up to them, the clean ones weren't impressed with him for that one time he'd looked the other way and accepted money of dubious origins that he'd only used for his family, and whoever was left couldn't care less about him now that he was a civilian. It didn't help matters that he was known to have operated hand-in-glove with Nightwing, a vigilante working outside the law. And even if he hadn't technically talked to Nightwing since that Charon nutcase was in Arkham, vigilantes still featured heavily in his life. Robin's early-morning visit was just a case in point, and the note was testament to that.

Once his enemies in the BPD saw that note, they'd be all too willing to see it as evidence of him working with vigilantes – which it was – and thus arrest him as an accomplice to some goodness-knows-what crime. And that was a scenario he feared would end with him being found one morning in a cell with his throat cut or his head facing the wrong way, a message from Blockbuster himself that playing with vigilantes didn't pay. Not even Amy and Captain Addad could save him from that fate if he was in jail, and there was certainly no way he could save his family from that position.

No, better to keep the BPD out of it. Of course, there's always the FBI...

Just as he came to that first decision, before he could follow the next line of thought, Amy pulled her fingers across the top of each bag, the airtight seal slipping shut and protecting the contents from contamination. Only then did she strip off the gloves and turn to face him with an almost angry look on her face. "Care to tell me what on earth you've gotten yourself into, Joey?"

He flinched unconsciously at her voice, saying nothing for a long moment as he tried to work out how to convince the Sergeant of his decision.

"Come on, Joey," the officer suddenly prompted as if she could sense he'd made at least some kind of decision, almost but not quite growling in frustration. "Tell me what the hell is going on here and what on earth you've gotten yourself into."

He focused on the worried face of his former fellow officer, and swallowed hard at her frustrated expression. 'Good question. What have I got myself and my family involved in?' He shook his head at her slowly. "I...I don't think you really should want to know, Amy."

"Like hell I do," she retorted firmly, her entire body communicating her disagreement with his decision.

He shook his head again, more firmly this time. "No, Amy. Tell Addad I had nothing to say on the record. And then tell him that I want both of you to stay out of this, both for your sake and mine...and for all our families."

"But the note—" she protested.

"Give the evidence to me," he interrupted again. "I can access faster and more reliable labs to analyse it than you can. I think—"

"You mean the vigilantes," Amy broke in for a change, her face showing her distaste of and disgust with the idea. She made no move to shift from her spot or offer the two evidence bags respectively containing the note and the knife to him. There was no way she was going to let him turn his back on the help she had to offer, even if a small voice in the back of her head that she did her best to ignore agreed with his assessment of Blüdhaven's medical services.

He sighed and stepped aside to make room for her to pass him to go outside anyway. "Like I was trying to say, Amy, I think I know what's going on, but I also don't think you need to know. Not right now anyway. It'll be better that way, both for your family and mine. Trust me on that, if nothing else," he concluded quietly. "I don't want your family being in the same position mine is on my conscience."

She frowned and tightened her lips, hearing what he was saying but not liking it one bit. "I still think you should let me help you."

Joey sighed and tried again. "Tell you what. Give me thirty-six hours to do my thing, and just add that I need some time to get myself together." It wouldn't exactly be a lie anyway. "And then if I'm no further along than we are now, you have my full permission to come here and do what you like with what I've got...within reason of course," he quickly added.

Amy reluctantly nodded with a long sigh. "All right. Against my better judgement, I'll agree to it for the sake of what you once were." She handed him the two evidence bags and stepped past him, but turned back on the step to give him her best glare. "But mark my words, Joey, I'll be back here tomorrow night. Early."

Somehow he mustered up a weary smile he didn't really feel. "I'd expect no less. Thanks Sarge. For everything. I meant it."

"Don't mention it," she retorted gruffly, and was up the garden path before he had the chance to say anymore.

Joey Flaherty remained standing at the open door, watching her stride to her car – no doubt muttering the entire way about stubborn civilians and their habits – and get in and slam the door shut. He waited until the engine had started and she was pulling away before he stepped back inside and shut the door, even then watching through the sidelight panel until the police car's tail-lights were receding into the distance before he turned his back, shut the door, and head straight for his office.

There was plenty of work to be done, and he could only hope he had given himself enough time to do it.

The first thing Joey did was place the evidence bags on his desk and stare at them for a long moment. There was something...something about the threatening note that troubled him...something right in front of him, he could feel it. But when he reached for it, searched for it, it evaded him like an incoming soccer ball into goal would those few times he tried his hand at goal-keeping in his youth. It always that little bit out of reach, and in the end he pushed the thought aside in the hope that it would come to him if he didn't think about it. He was always better at kicking than he was at catching, anyway.

It only took a few seconds to flip through the phone book to find the number he wanted. He placed the evidence bags on the table before him and went to pick up the phone he'd installed in his office, but hesitated just before his hand gripped the device when his eyes fell on the note once more.

His eyes narrowed as he finally realised what was still bothering him about the threatening note: The kidnappers knew that he was aware of the specifics of how young Grayson died. All family loyalties aside, it was the only reason he could think of for why they'd think he'd have the motivation to obey their demands. They knew he knew, and also knew he wouldn't want to put his family through what he knew would happen.

But how did they know he knew? He wasn't even on the Force anymore and so had no official reason to know the details. Sure, some members of the public knew that a rookie had recently been murdered and had heard that the body had been badly burned... But only the BPD members knew the rookie's identity and the more nauseating injuries, let alone exact details on how the murder was thought to have happened...and even those were kept "close to the chest," so to speak, to avoid causing undue alarm and panic. No one, least of all himself, wanted the public to know about the latest maniac to visit Blüdhaven.

Whoever killed Grayson had been one sick psycho, and he shuddered to think of his family in the hands of such a monster.

Besides, out of the entire BPD, only Addad and Rohrbach had reason to suspect that he even had a file on the rookie's death and he had no worries about the leak coming from their corner. Those two were as honest as the day was long and he also knew they had no reason to tell their superiors what they knew (did). What was the point? Technically, there was no real harm in one officer innocently "venting" about the brutal murder of her rookie partner to a former friend, particularly when the said friend had worked with said rookie in the past. They weren't even the ones to give him the file, anyway. Besides, he'd done all his investigating "on the quiet" so to speak, during the times he had free when he was at home and least likely to be noticed. Hell, he'd even gone to the length of always keeping the file with him or in very close vicinity at all times – a case this "hot" was too important to leave unattended at his office overnight.

And so he was back where he started: how did the kidnappers know that he knew?

And while he was at it, how did they know that he'd had a visit from a member of the so-called "Bat Family"? How could they know that he'd decided to help them out in their investigations of Grayson's death, even though Robin hadn't actually asked him about the rookie's murder? He'd been home all day, not speaking to anyone except his contacts over the phone...

He stopped, realised what he'd just said, and swore to himself under his breath. Somewhere, somehow, his security had been penetrated. Either they were watching his home...and/or the phones were tapped. Neither option was appealing, especially as the latter meant that they would've had to have physically enter his home to plant the "bugs". His fists clenched unconsciously in anger at the violation of his privacy and his family even as he told himself to calm down, that he might be wrong...that all his instincts might be leading him down the wrong path...

Yeah, right. And what were the chances of that?

He scowled and strode to the other side of the study, to the power-point where he'd plugged in the charger of the cellphone Nightwing had given him all those months ago. He had no doubts that at least this phone was still secure and not "bugged", as he always kept it on his person or was in the same room as the phone while it was charging so that he wouldn't miss Nightwing when the punk finally called him. The time he'd spent with Amy was in fact the first time that he'd been further away from it than a few metres. Still, just to be safe, he unplugged the cell from its charger and went outside.

He was standing in the middle of the backyard – ostensibly for a better signal from Blüdhaven's floundering cell network – before he made the call to the number he'd picked out and memorised from the phonebook. As he waited for the other end to pick up, it took all his control not to obviously glance around in a suspicious manner and thus reveal his wariness of any surveillance. No sense in tipping anyone off that he was on to them, was there?

After a couple of seconds of waiting, a young lady's cheerful and smooth voice came down through the line: "Hello, you've reached Titans Tower Direct, Argent speaking. How can we help you?"

He held the cellphone to his ear and carefully kept his voice down as he answered, "Hi, I'm Joey Flaherty, a good friend of Nightwing's. Can you tell me how to contact Robin please? It's urgent."

"I'm afraid we haven't heard from Robin in a while, Mr. Flaherty," the young lady replied. "But hold the line for a moment and I'll connect you through to someone who has."

"Thanks, I'll hold," Joey replied and went back to trying to be unobtrusive as he watched his surroundings. A few moments later...

"Hello, this is the Oracle. I believe you're after Robin, right Joey?"

'This is the Oracle? Yikes' "Yeah, I am," he replied, then launched into his prepared story before he could convince himself otherwise. And the entire time, his mouth was drier than the Sahara, not only due to a touch of awe at who he was speaking to – what law enforcement officer hadn't heard of the Oracle and what the famed hacker could do? – but also in the creeping fear that he might not be making the right decision.

Yet what else could he do but try it anyway?

The room was dim, shadowy, a place of mystery and concealment.

What ambient light there was floating througth the room seemed almost silvery-blue, coming as it did from the waxing moon shining valiantly from its place just above the artificial horizon created by the city's buildings. The moonlight streamed into the room through the cracks between the slats of the venetian blinds covering all the windows, a cool ambience that sucked the soul and colour out of all objects it touched. Maybe that was why it didn't seem to have success in the illumination area, concealing as it was as much as it illuminated. Far more prominent in the room were the shadows, the pools of inky blackness and midnight navy that gathered even in places it seemed that should've been impossible.

Just the way its owner liked it.

The Phoenix preferred the Darkness more than he'd ever liked bright lights and artificial illumination. Where the Light was all about illuminating for clear vision and crisp shadows with definite boundaries, he liked his Darkness more primitive and pervasive. He wanted shadows that spread without limits and left things to the imagination, for more to be concealed than it was revealed. It was just more comforting that way...and made for more darkness for him to hide in, too. Besides, however much he'd once tried to deny it and now embraced it, the Dark was more a part of him than the Light had ever been anyway.

Recent events had only served to emphasize that part of his nature.

The only concession he had made to the Light had been one done reluctantly, even though it certainly needed to be done. He wasn't about to let his latest prey go unsupervised. That was why, while the rest of the room was as shadow and mysterious as he could make it, the eastern end of the large open-plan area was a study in contrasts. Unlike the rest of his hideout, this end was compartmentalised and well lit. He was quite proud of the way he'd managed to virtually shine a floodlight on the eastern end while keeping the rest of the room in the deep, dark shadows he much more preferred.

It had taken some doing, but he'd managed to make sure that there were no concealing shadows around in which the Bat's spawn could hide and conceal himself. Every single square centimetre of that end was clearly visible. He'd learned the hard way last time that he needed to be able to keep a close eye on his captives all the time, especially those of the BatClan variety. Those ones had a nasty habit of getting out of even the most secure of places. Hell, the only reason he'd been able to keep Grayson cooped up as long as he had had been because he'd eliminated the bad's dexterity with his hands from the equation within the first few hours.

His latest captive was certainly no less dangerous, he knew, for all of the boy's relative youth and apparently battered and beaten appearance. Of course, the boy was sleeping now...or maybe he was just unconscious. It was hard to tell. The kid certainly looked like he should be unconscious, what with his bruised and battered features and the way he stiffly held himself even in the realms of dreamland. The way the brat had been brought here was itself enough reason to be unconscious, he knew.

Still, it didn't matter either way, really, the Phoenix reflected to himself as he picked up the clock lying next to him on the table he was working at. He didn't truly care what the punk did as long he kept still and quiet in the small room that was going to be his new home for a while.

He shot another cursory glance through the one-way glass separating the harshly lit area from his shadowy working area to confirm that the kid was actually still there like he'd been barely seconds earlier, absently turning the miniature clock over in his hands as he did so. After a moment's careless consideration, he calmly set the small clock down again and returned to working on the project before him.

It didn't really bother the Phoenix that he was the cause of the dark purple bruising and dried blood on the youth's face, nor even the grimace of pain that twisted those features even when asleep. It didn't even give his conscience any concern that he knew what kind of effects the kid was going to experience because of his chosen mode of transport.

Oh, it wasn't that he was some kind of sadistic sicko who got himself off on the pain and suffering of others, especially since he'd been on the receiving end of that type of pain and suffering for far longer than he truly cared to remember. He knew Pain far more intimately than most ever would in thousand lifetimes and knew better than to inflict as much of it as he could on others. Well, most of the time he did, anyway. The Bats were the only people for which he would ever make an exception. 'Serves all of them right to finally get a taste of their own medicine,' he thought to himself sourly.

No, he was just being realistic about things, he knew as he picked up some discarded wires and promptly began to fiddle with them while he thought. It had to be done this way, it really did. He needed the kid with him, needed that extra leverage of the kid's injuries to keep the damned Bat and his cohorts off-balance long enough for all the pieces in his plans to move into place. And he needed the kid himself kept off-balance by what was going to happen to him so that he wouldn't try to escape...again.

Besides, if the punk hadn't put up such a great resistance earlier tonight, it wouldn't have been necessary to deal out such brutal punishment. The amount of force dealt out had simply been necessary to secure the brat's surrender. Regardless of his outward youth, the boy was still one of them, part of The Enemy that were the bane of his existence. He was Robin for crying out loud, not some snot-nosed brat that would fall over the moment it was looked at wrong. Taking him down was never going to be a walk in the park, especially since all Bats knew 60 ways to take someone down and another 100 ways to make it hurt. They were people that would stop at nothing to achieve their objectives, he knew from hard experience. Hell, he counted himself lucky to have come off only a little worse for wear from his own brushes with them. Certainly the end result had been much worse for—

He scowled at that thought and firmly pushed the thought away before he could complete it and before he could think of her name...pushed it away and fed it to the rage within his heart, the rage that burned for the blood of the "Bat Clan."

With that, he held up the object he'd been constructing for final inspection. Twisting it from side to side, he visually checked and double-checked the components and wiring, running through his mental schematic of the workings of this device as he did so. Finally, nodding to himself in satisfaction, he stood. Keeping his carefully constructed device in one hand, he quickly grabbed something else from amid the objects scattered all over the shadowed table before moving deeper into the half-shadow he'd been working in...

...And, with one final glance at his prisoner, he promptly vanished.

He had plenty of time to give the Bat a taste of same Fire that had led to his own rebirth before the brat would awaken. Plenty of time.

The fingers of the Oracle still flew over the keyboard a short while later, her intense emerald gaze focused on the holographic displays in the air before her. Her fine eyebrows drew closer together, the little furrow between them forming in tandem with the lines in her normally smooth forehead and in direct proportion to her level of concentration.

The Oracle was on the hunt.

...Tiptaptap tiptaptapatip tiptap...

To her side a cup of once steaming coffee sat, now cold and forgotten in the familiar and ever-addictive rush of hunting down unfindable files, of being where she ought not and doing what she ought not. Her emerald gaze was almost unblinking, so great was her focus and absorption in the Hunt. She was so close she could almost feel it...

...Taptiptaptaptap taptiptaptaptaptip taptaptiptap...

...It was like an itchiness in her bones, a quickening of her spirit, a beating in her chest, all of it speaking to her in a language of instinct and skill. The goal – the conclusion of the Hunt by the capture of her Prey – stood before her in her mind and grew clearer and closer with every breath she drew and every tap of her flying fingers on the keys...

...Taptaptiptaptaptap taptiptaptaptaptaptiptaptaptaptiptiptap...

...But reaching it would be both bitter and sweet: the conclusion of the Hunt intermixed with knowing her skill had once again proved itself superior. And yet, oh, when she was this close, nothing else mattered but the Goal, the conclusion and the triumph of the Oracle. Just a little bit more, and...


'What the hell?'


Barbara Gordon suddenly let loose with a flow of language that coloured the air and even the holographic display she worked from – she could've put the proverbial trooper to shame ten times over – as her session was abruptly terminated from the other end. She angrily pushed her chair away from the console and let her breath out in an explosive gust, cursing rapidly under her breath at the ingenious designer of the encryption and protection around the file she was after.

She'd already broken through at least two layers of encryption – both with passwords that had been laughably easy to crack, like "God" and "SuperUser" – before coming up against what she'd believed was one final layer of protection...until it turned out to be five layers of super protection in one just as all the security bots started yapping at her heels. It had been one of the few times the Oracle ever allowed herself to be flustered. It had taken all her of quick, dirty, programming skills to evade the security and escape with her pride – and her link to the file – more or less intact. And then she'd come against the final layer of the five-fold protection that just had to be grand-mother of all firewalls.

And all this was just for one lousy folder on the Phoenix mythology! One. Stupid. Lousy. Folder. It was probably only filled with pornojunk, too. It had certainly happened often enough to her before. Why, she wouldn't even be surprised if it was just an empty folder, the way some of the security paranoid freaks out there operated. Those were the ones that gave delusional paranoids a bad name, who were the real bitc—

She jerked in her chair in surprise for a moment, the sudden boom of lightning and thunder breaking into her tirade just before she got herself wound up enough to really let loose some of the tension aching in her breast. Only then did she realise the distant noise she had dismissed as background static a few minutes ago – or was it a few hours ago? – had actually been the power of the rain falling on her roof. That was when she actually glanced out the window to see what the weather was. 'Dandy. Just what I didn't need. Typical Gothamweather,' she growled mentally, swearing softly and glowering out the window as if the commotion outside was the cause of all her troubles.

On the other side of the pane was the chaotic yet somehow harmonious vista of nature in all its glory and magnificence. Rolling black storm clouds overhead and sheets of rain driven down by gusts of wind contrasted with the flashing burts of lightning in all its form. The churning clouds were lit by a constant flashes of light as bursts of electrical energy forced a path through the air, both from the ground to the storm above and between the layers of cloud. The accompanying booming thunder – the sound of the electrical energy making its own path and connecting with the answering stream from the other end – echoed all around her Clocktower.

She shivered, suddenly feeling her smallness next to the show being put on by the unreasoning fury of the weather. The small protection afforded her by the glass pane from the lightning and the accompanying thunder didn't just seem to be enough against the storm that seemed to have its centre right above her home.

Her expression slowly softened, although the furrow in her brow never left, as she continued staring at the storm, mesmerised by what was raging outside. Slowly rolling her chair closer to the window, Barbara quietly reflected to herself that there was something...something almost soothing in watching the tempest playing itself out from the relative safety of the other side of her window. The frenzy of this powerful force of nature somehow reached her on levels ne'er before touched by a simple storm.

It was, she realised in an unexpected spark of clarity, as if she felt like the heavens were crying when she herself could not thaw the tears frozen deep inside, as if the sky was mourning for her at a time when she could not let herself grieve for all she had lost this day.

She wanted to cry; she really did. She wanted to wail and howl her heartbreak at the stars and the moon as the wind was howling between Gotham's skyscrapers, wanted to shut herself away from the world and let herself fall apart. She wanted to hurl herself down with all the power of the rain hurtling down from the sky and cry just as many tears to drown the entire world. She felt herself as battered by events and feelings as the city was by this storm, and wished that she could let herself release her own pent up emotions. Maybe that would ease the storm brewing inside her soul.

But more than even that, she ached to hear Dick again...just one more time. That was all she really wanted. Just one more chance to say what she should've said all those years ago when she first met him., to explain everything she had procraistinated about saying for far too long...for just one more chance to say goodbye. That was all she wanted. She wanted to see him hold him close, to protect from all the badness in the world and keep him safe...keep him alive. More than anything else, she wanted to rewind everything back six months and prevent this entire calamity from unfolding like it had. If she had one wish, one wish at all, that is what she would ask for.

Was that too much to ask? Just one chance to make things right, to make amends, to put things back how they should be... That was all she could ever want or need. She just wanted everything back like it was Before, before her life went to hell and lost all its meaning when he called to say goodbye.

It shouldn't have to be this way.

Failing that, she'd at least do anything to relieve this ache inside her, this gaping black hole of twisting and churning emotion that was tearing her up inside. Anything to soothe the turmoil and chaos running riot throughout her heart. So many torrents of emotion had flowed within her in the last few hours alone that she felt swamped with all their weight. She felt as if she was slowly but surely drowning beneath the flow, beneath the flood of emotions and thoughts she had no idea how to deal with.

So she had done the only thing she did know how to do: she ignored them.

Everything had been pushed all aside and out of the way for about eighteen and a half hours now, and she knew the strain was telling. Just because she could not (would not) let herself feel didn't mean that the torrent wasn't there, flowing ever onwards and steadily taking pieces of her soul away with it, like a gaping black hole within her heart that was slowly consuming her from the inside out.

She felt herself kind of detached from the world even as she felt everything aching so deep within her that she almost didn't think she could stand it another second. It was like trying to hold back the ultimate unstoppable force with only the strength of her will, like the lone ant holding up its hand to try and stop a rampaging bull with fire in its eyes and murder in its heart. Her intentions might be pure and good...but nothing was going to stop her being trampled underneath those powerful hooves like the ant by the power of pent-up emotions.

But what choice did she have?

However much Barbara Gordon might want to curl up in the corner and let Life pass her by, to cry a thousand tears and drown the world, to do something to relieve the unceasing ache within her chest, the Oracle had no such options. The Oracle had to keep functioning, keep moving ever closer to a solution and the answers to the questions that drove her. She had to protect the lives of the superheroes out there in the field, already fighting the good fight against Black Phoenix...and by extension the lives of those who'd have to take up the fight if they failed. She had to keep going.

She had to keep doing the impossible.

At that thought Barbara gave a long sigh, a deep expulsion of air that came as if from deep within her soul and from the very depths of her being, as she brought up a hand and placed it on the cold pane of glass, slightly surprised to find it was trembling. 'Hnh. Probably fatigue.' She had so far managed about six hours of sleep in close to seventy-two hours of operation...and it was all finally catching up with her. Allowing her upper body to fall forward, she rested her forehead on the glass and soaked up the chill bleeding into the pane from the storm tempestuously raging on the other side of the glass.

The impossible had never before seemed so hard, so overwhelming...or quite so personal.

She allowed her eyes to close for a moment, content for now to stay at the window. There was nothing else for her to do, after all. The downed Titans were en-route to Gotham's STAR Labs courtesy of Diana, Clark and Tempest...Robin was missing, presumably in Black Phoenix's hands, and she had no ideas on how to find either...both Batman and Supes were doing their own thing...and Joey was hopefully following her instructions. In short, Oracle was not needed right now...and so she had no need to pretend that she was unaffected by the events of the last day. There was finally plenty of time to let herself feel.

But it was once again not to be.

It seemed that no sooner did her breathing finally relax that she was startled by what sounded like a tremendous crash coming from her loungeroom. Her eyes flew open as her Bat-trained ears pricked, knowing from experience that that had been the sound of a someone landing on her window ledge...and undoubtedly getting surprised by the latest modifications to her security system.

Barbara growled deep in her throat as she reached for the baseball bat she'd put in her computer room on impulse right when this mess started. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at the closed door, as if she could see through it to the intruder who was now undoubtedly in her loungeroom. 'Whoever it is, they just picked the wrong night to mess with me...'

There. That wasn't too bad of a cliffie now, was it? I mean, at least the scenes kinda ended this time. -)

And, as always, please R/R and TBC...