Summary: After Nightwing sets up shop in Bludhaven, he resents being unable to come out from under Batman's shadow; furthermore, he resents his mentor's uninvited interference.
Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome!
Copyright March 1999
by Syl Francis
"It is a wise father that knows his own child." (The Merchant of Venice II, ii)
Soames called me Batman Light.
I've gotta admit that the words stung. Mostly because I agreed with him. I was Batman Light. A poor, second-rate imitation of the original. Now, even the crooks knew it!
The name's Dick Grayson.
I used to be a member of a family of aerialists called the Flying Graysons. After my parents were killed during a performance, Bruce Wayne adopted me. I soon discovered that Bruce had a dark secret. By day, he was a billionaire industrialist and playboy; by night, he was the masked vigilante known as the Batman.
To my delight, he trained me to become his partner; I selected Robin, a childhood nickname that my mother had given me, as my new superhero code name. (Besides, it sounded a little like Robin Hood, one of my heroes.) And within the year, I became the second half of the Dynamic Duo: Batman and Robin.
Now, I'm a solo act.
And the name's Nightwing.
It seems that half my life I've been living in Batman's shadow. No matter where I go or what I do, however successful I've become, I'll always be second best. I've been called Batboy, Batman, Jr., Birdboy, Boy Wonder, Short pants. You name it.
But Batman Light?
That was the last straw! It was enough to make a grown man cry. Or just say, "To Hell with it!"
I thought that moving to Bludhaven would change things. I thought that on my town, with no Wayne billions as a safety net, no Batman to come save the day at the last possible instant, no Alfred to fix me a nice pancake breakfast as a means to soothe my hurt pride, that I would finally prove to everybody that I was my own man. I thought I'd prove that Nightwing was a crime fighter to be reckoned with. A name to strike fear into the corruption that seemed to infest my new home.
Most of all, I thought that I could prove it to him that I was his equal, deserving of his respect.
Instead, what happens? He comes to Bludhaven, bold as brass, without so much as a phone call, and commences to take over my case! And with him, he brings all of his grim darkness; that attitude that just seems to exude cold, knee quivering, gut-spilling fear into the ignorant mooks that inhabit my town.
God! Why can't I do that? After all these years, I still don't strike that kind of dread in people. Oh, I've done my share of making the bad guys talk, but only after a few minutes of my own special brand of encouragement. Batman takes one look at a suspect, and the poor guy's confessing to every unsolved crime that's been committed this century.
Hell, he once had one guy swear that he was the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper, and another who said he was responsible for the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. I was only eleven at the time, and hadn't heard about either case, so I was surprised when we didn't run them both in immediately.
Anyway, Batman has that effect on people. On me, too. I never could lie to him. I tried once. I was only ten, and still naive to the ways of the Bat, but I learned--fast!
"Dick, did you finish your homework?" Bruce asked. I was sitting in the family room watching my favorite TV show. It was the only show that I was allowed to watch back then.
"Yessir," I mumbled. I was finished with my homework, I told myself. The only thing I hadn't done was read the next three chapters in that stupid novel we were reading in class. It was called The Phantom Tollbooth if you can believe that!
"I see," Bruce said, then proceeded to quiz me on the novel. I looked up at him stunned.
"You've read that book?" I asked.
"Yes, but apparently you haven't. Dick, consider yourself grounded until further notice. A lie, even a small one, will not be tolerated in this house. I thought you knew that by now." Bruce turned away, then dropped the last bomb.
"I'm very disappointed in you, son."
How do you think I felt? About as low as the lowest sewer rat in Gotham City. I ran upstairs to my room, threw myself on the bed, and cried, ashamed of what I'd done. Then, pulling myself together, I took out my novel, and finished it right then and there! I swore that I'd never give Bruce cause to be ashamed of me again.
Maybe that wasn't the last lie I ever told in my life, but it was the last lie I ever told Bruce.
So now here he was, frightening my suspects, gathering my evidence, investigating my case, and shoving me aside. So what else was new?
Batman held one of Blockbuster's minions, Benny the Fence, by the scruff of the neck. I stood back, feeling thoroughly ignored and unneeded.
"Where's the shipment coming from?" Batman asked.
"I can't tell you! Blockbuster will kill me if I talk! Please! Ask me anything else, but don't ask me that!" Benny whined. "Look, I can tell you about the diamonds that Captain Boomerang over in Keystone City is trying to fence. Or--or the self-portrait of the Birdman of Alcatraz that the Penguin stole and is trying to stash in a safe house!"
"That's very interesting information, Benny," Batman growled menacingly. "But it's old news. I want Blockbuster's weapons shipment, Benny, and I want it now!"
"I can't! I can't! Please!" Benny pleaded. He turned to me for help. "You know Blockbuster, kid! You know what he'll do to me. Please, tell your Dad--make him understand. Please!"
Benny finally collapsed in fit of blubbering. Shaking his head, Batman let him go and Benny just seemed to fold in on himself like a pile of rags.
"Let's go," Batman said. "He's useless to us."
"Batman, wait," I said quietly. I walked over and crouched next to Benny. "Benny, you know that if we find the weapons shipment and bust the party, Blockbuster will think that you're the one who told us."
I paused to let this sink in.
"Come on, Benny. You've been missing for almost two hours now. There were eyewitnesses who saw you leave with us--"
"--Unwillingly!" Benny cried. "You made me go with you! You forced me!"
"You're right, Benny, you're right," I said soothingly. I placed my heavily gloved hand on his shoulder. "But we'll still have busted the weapons shipment, and Blockbuster will still think that it was you who led us to it!"
By then I had my arm almost protectively around his shoulder.
"Benny . . . we're your only hope," I whispered gently, cajoling. "I promise you, Benny, that if you help us, we'll help you disappear. And believe me, when Batman helps someone disappear, they stay invisible!"
I smiled, then snapped my fingers.
"Abracadabra! Presto Change-o! New name, new identity, new home! All untraceable. Even your own mother wouldn't know you if she saw you!"
Benny looked at me through tear-brimmed, faded eyes. The lines on his face, and his gray, thinning hair bespoke of a hard life lived under harsh conditions. Finally, he closed his eyes, and a single tear spilled down his cheek. He nodded his head resignedly.
I almost felt sorry for Benny, but then I remembered all of the kids that these guns had been slated for. Gang wars. What a waste of youth and potential, I thought darkly.
Benny spilled. He talked nonstop for almost fifteen minutes. The weapons originated in Columbia and left South America by fishing tram. They were smuggled into North America through Nova Scotia, and entered the country through one of the many unprotected US-Canadian border crossings in the Midwest.
Currently, the weapons were traveling east on I-80. They would be arriving in Bludhaven tomorrow morning at 5:00am. They would be delivered at the old abandoned warehouse district located in the west outskirts of town.
We stashed Benny in one of my safe houses, which was secreted in a quiet neighborhood, set back in wooded lot, away from prying eyes. I warned Benny to stay away from the windows, and to keep the lights off if he knew what was good for him. I didn't have to argue to convince him.
"You did a good job back there," Batman said. I'd been about to snap my shoulder harness in place, when his words caused me to suddenly fumble with the simple mechanism. Did I just hear a compliment?
I looked at him stunned. My face must have registered my disbelief.
"I said that you did a good job back there," he repeated. Then, he added reluctantly, "I handled him too roughly. Too much of the bad cop routine. I forgot that I wasn't in Gotham City. People don't always react the same way to dark looks and threats."
"Bludhaven is your town. You do things differently here." He didn't say anything further, concentrating instead on his driving.
Conversation over, I thought. Typical. Give me a heart attack, then offer almost no explanation. I slouched down in my seat feeling exceedingly put out.
"You are different, Nightwing." Batman's quiet, gruff voice broke the silence. He spoke so softly, that I had to lean a little closer to hear him. He seemed distant, as if remembering something from long ago.
"You always have been. Remember that, son. You're not me." He paused, then added quietly, "You're better."
Okay, I almost fell out of the Batmobile on that one.
"Better?!" I swear my voice squeaked. I was ten years old all over again. I swallowed and shook my head. "No way, Batman. No one's better than you! You're the best; you'll always be the best!"
I looked down at my lap.
"Me, I'll always be second to you. Hell, even the mooks know it. Soames called me 'Batman Light' the other day. I gotta admit that it hurt."
"Dumb, huh?" I looked up at him for confirmation. Instead, I saw a fierce anger burning from his intense eyes.
"Don't you ever call yourself 'second best'! Do you hear me? You're only twenty-three, Dick. You lost your parents at the age of nine, and by ten you'd become a crime fighter."
"Sure, your kid sidekick," I interrupted. Holding out my hand in front of me, as if reading a banner headline, I intoned mockingly, "'Robin the Boy Hostage' is how I remember some newspaperman described me once!"
Batman waved my protests aside.
"You were my partner, Robin the Boy Wonder! I was very proud of Robin, and I never would've allowed him to accompany me if I hadn't had the utmost faith in him!"
I looked at him disbelievingly.
"I was a liability!" I said in anger. "How many times did you have pull my butt out of the fire? How many times did I end up as the bait in some trap that had been set for you? I remember how hurt and angry I was when you fired me after the Joker shot me. The wonder is that you didn't fire me long before!"
I didn't mention Jason or Azrael; those painful subjects were finally water under the bridge, but the emotional trauma that they'd played on our relationship was still so raw it hurt to even think the names much less say them.
"Of course, you made mistakes! You were only a child!"
At this moment, Batman did something so completely out of character that I almost pulled off his mask to see if that was really Bruce Wayne underneath. He drove the Batmobile off the road and turned to face me--to talk!
Batman sat still for an instant, his hands closed in a taut grip around the steering wheel. I'd seen those hands bend steel before. I couldn't help being relieved that the steering wheel was made of indestructible titanium.
"Dick, the wonder isn't that I didn't fire you sooner, the wonder is that I even trained you and allowed you to join me. Sometimes I ask myself 'What the Hell was I thinking'? Intellectually, I know that I wanted to give you an outlet for your anger, to keep it from festering inside you and possibly destroying you like mine almost did me. But I know that wasn't entirely true. I needed you out there with me, Dick. Tim was right. I needed Robin to keep me sane."
Batman studied me as if from across a vast distance.
"You and those god-awful puns of yours kept me sane. You gave me a reason for continuing the fight, but you also gave me a reason to start believing in people again. To hope again."
We looked away from each other; both too overwhelmed by the moment to continue talking. After a lengthy pause, Bruce began speaking again. I'd finally come to realize that this wasn't Batman speaking to me, but Bruce Wayne.
"Dick, don't believe for even a moment that you're second best. You've overcome more obstacles than most people twice your age. You have a resiliency to bounce back from adversity that I find envious. You've proven yourself a sound and capable leader in your role with the Titans. You've also shown that when needed, you can not only fill my shoes as Batman, you can do it with your own unique style and grace. And through it all you've maintained your dignity and your sense of humor."
Batman started the motor. As he put the Batmobile in gear and released the brakes, he continued.
"So, is being called 'Batman Light' necessarily bad?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't know, Nightwing. It depends on how you want to look at it. If you want to think of it as just a second-rate version of Batman, then there's nothing to worry about, since we both know that that just isn't true!"
Batman looked over at me for confirmation. I reluctantly nodded my head in agreement.
"Now, if you look at it in a different context. Let's say, as in Batman Light versus Batman Dark--then, yes, I can see how the term would fit. I tried to frighten Benny the Fence tonight. All it got me was a broken old man too terrified of Blockbuster, of me, and of what was going to happen to him. You, on the other hand, understood his fear. You talked to that fear, and you soothed it by promising protection. More importantly, you got us the information we needed. You weren't dark and threatening. You offered him hope--a light at the end of the tunnel."
He gave me a half-smile from underneath his cowl.
"If that's Batman Light, a Batman who doesn't necessarily always strike fear in the hearts of criminals, but sometimes offers some semblance of dignity and hope to their lives, then I want Batman Light on my team. You see, years ago, I met a young acrobat who showed me that when it came to the high wire, I still had a few things to learn. Today, the student has surpassed the teacher and showed him once again that he still has a few things to learn."
By then I was facing forward determinedly. I couldn't speak. I was just too emotionally torn up. Bruce was proud of me. No! Batman was proud of me. How long had I waited to hear those words, I wondered. Was it really half my lifetime?
Then I began to remember.
I recalled all those times that he'd looked at me with a half-smile after I'd done something especially well, like taking down a bad guy without his assistance.
"Robin! The third man! He ran out the back door!" Batman's stern voice carried all the way into the back alley.
"Oh, don't worry, Batman. He decided that he'd rather just 'hang around' after all," I said calmly. As Batman emerged from the building at a run, I jerked my thumb behind me and added with a smirk, "He's 'all tied up' at the moment!"
The last of Rupert Thorne's goons was swaying in the slight breeze, hanging from the fire escape; he was nicely bound by my batline and looked madder than a hornet.
"Let me down, you little punk! Wait'll I get my hands on you--!" His words choked in his throat when he realized Batman was standing there menacingly in the shadows between the two buildings.
Batman turned away, but before he'd completely faced away from me, I saw the right side of his mouth quirk slightly upward.
I suddenly remembered the feeling within my chest that his smile instantly evoked, a sensation that made my chest feel as if it were about to burst.
I recalled how he used to place his hand on my shoulder after a particularly long night and say, "Let's go home, partner!" Could there have been a prouder kid on the planet? I mean, I was the Batman's partner!
"Thanks, Batman," said Commissioner Gordon; his tired features reflected the long, exhaustive chase that the Riddler had led us all on that week. "If it weren't for you, this tainted heroin might've found its way into the street, and within a week, Gotham would've had countless deaths from this poisoned batch."
"Don't thank me, Commissioner. It was Robin's solving of the Riddler's final clue that led us to the underground chem lab." He placed his hand on my shoulder, and gazed intently into my eyes. "Ready to go home, kid?"
"Uh-huh," I said sleepily.
Batman gave me a brief nod, then steered me towards the Batmobile. I'd only been doing the Robin bit for about three weeks, and it was way past my bedtime. As I nodded off on the long drive home, I heard the softest whisper, "Good work, partner."
I recalled how he insisted that I show him that elusive quadruple loop, day in and day out, for months straight, until he finally--almost--got it! But not quite. Back then only three people in the entire world could do a quadruple! I was one of the three. Since then, the other two retired from the business, but two others replaced them.
Batman wasn't one of them.
I'd heard that a French act, two sisters, had mastered the quad and added it to their act.
I recalled that even though Bruce wasn't one for openly expressing his feelings, I'd always known that deep down he loved me. I mean, a guy knows that his own father loves him!
However, what I'd never really been sure of was whether he was proud of me. I'd wanted him to say it! I'd wanted to hear the words spoken out loud. Now, as we drove through the darkened city of Bludhaven to the weapons rendezvous point, I became aware of something I'd known all along.
I smiled suddenly. Like with every thing else, Bruce didn't need to tell me that he was proud of me.
He'd already shown me.