Disclaimer: All familiar characters in this piece belong to DC Comics, and I use them without permission. I make no money off my writing. Please don't sue :)

Notes: Without Syl Francis, this work would never have come to pass. She has been ever patient, ever quick to respond with feedback, and endlessly supportive of my efforts. For her understanding when I've been late with feedback and for her superb beta-reading skills, she has my undying thanks, and for her incredible ability to inspire others to tell a story with her own remarkable talent at writing, she has my awe and admiration. Thank you, Syl.

**This story picks up where the "Family Reactions" left off ... Batsignal high in the sky! :)

To Catch A Killer by Terri Hayes

Chapter 1

Batman melted out of the shadows behind Jim Gordon, his dark voice coming out of nowhere. "What have you got?"

Jim Gordon was too used to Batman's arrivals to jump, but the young officer operating the spotlight wasn't. He gasped, swinging toward the sound of the voice in surprise. With a single hand motion from Jim, the startled officer turned off the BatSignal spotlight, which was housed on the roof of Police headquarters in downtown Gotham City.

"Something that might catch your interest. Three days ago, Donovan Sellers was released from prison in upstate New York."

Without alerting the Commissioner or the officer at the spotlight, two additional sets of feet came to rest on the roof, cloaked by darkness. Nightwing and Robin listened wordlessly to the briefing.

"Donovan Sellers was the man who attempted to assassinate Bruce Wayne eleven years ago." Batman's voice held no question, which didn't surprise the Commissioner of Police much. Nothing escaped the Batman's notice. The two hidden listeners glanced at one another in surprise, though. Eleven years ago was just before Dick became the first Robin. Neither of them had ever heard the name Sellers before.

"That's right. His wife was fired from Wayne Enterprises for embezzlement and then, as the police arrived to arrest her, she killed both of her children and herself. Sellers vowed vengeance, blaming their deaths on Wayne."

"Have you notified him? He's a wealthy man, I'm sure he can have bodyguards hired," Batman said with a faintly wry tone to his voice.

Robin couldn't help the smirk that crossed his face, clapping his hand across his mouth to keep the snickers from escaping. Nightwing simply shook his head, vaguely amused though he was concerned at what he was hearing.

Jim sighed. "No, I haven't contacted Wayne yet. I've left a message with his butler, but he's not at home this evening. I'll continue to update him on the situation as more information becomes available. I've involved you because of this --" Jim held out a plain manila file.

Batman reached for the folder, flipping it open and pulling a small light from his utility belt to peruse it. Nightwing leaned forward to try and get a better view, but he was too far away to see the photograph inside the folder. Batman was quiet a long moment. "Interesting. I'll look into it."

Jim nodded, "I thought that might catch your eye." He reached for the folder and turned back toward the building. "Watch your back, Batman."

It was a long-established scenario. By the time he looked back toward the edge of the roof, the Dark Knight was already gone. Gesturing for the young officer at the spotlight to precede him into the building, Jim looked up into the night sky with a pensive expression.

Shaking his head, he went inside headquarters to start work on the case, only catching the brief flash of a yellow cape out of the corner of his eye. His voice was soft as he murmured, "And you watch his back, too, kid."

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

Nightwing and Robin caught up with Batman halfway across town, flanking him as he swung between buildings. Landing on sure feet atop a tenement near the waterfront, all three kept to the shadows. Batman acknowledged their presence at the briefing. "I didn't expect to see you here, Nightwing."

Nightwing chuckled softly. "Babs understands." Although their engagement was only hours old, both Dick and Barbara were old hands at having private time interrupted by their vigilante work. She had sent him off with a twinkle of rueful amusement in her eyes.

Tilting his head in a quizzical fashion, Nightwing got back to the subject at hand. "What was inside the file?"

Batman's gaze seemed to be on the Gotham skyline. "A photograph of a man named Marc Collins. One of the best known hit-men in the world. He was spotted by an off-duty FBI agent getting on the train from New York to Gotham. At the end of the run, he was not one of the passengers disembarking."

Robin blinked, "Hit man? You mean there's a contract on Bruce Wayne?"

Batman nodded. "Highly probable. Collins has a reputation for never missing a target and, just before Collins was spotted heading for Gotham, a large sum of money disappeared from Donovan Sellers' account."

A grimace passed over Nightwing's face, "Oh terrific. Not that we can't handle it, but it's a bit outside our norm. Assassins targeting one of our own public personas could get tricky."

Batman turned to face his two proteges. "There is no 'we.' I'll handle it myself."

The younger vigilantes shook their heads negatively, in unison.

"Forget about it. We're here for the long haul." Nightwing's refusal carried the authority of a man full-grown and not about to be told what to do.

Robin's protest was equally emphatic. "Especially if this guy will be tracking Bruce Wayne's activities! Batman might not even be able to make an appearance."

Batman nodded again. "It will be messy. Very messy before it's over. Which is why you're both off the case. I'll handle it." His tone brooked no argument from either of the young men.

Exchanging glances, Nightwing and Robin seemed to carry on an entire conversation with their eyes in only seconds. Both young men simply looked at Batman without a word.

Eyeing each of them, Batman's stern countenance softened very slightly. These two young men were the world to him, though he couldn't show it often or easily. He would not be the cause of them being caught in the crossfire.

"I expect you to respect my wishes and stay out of the situation." Batman fired off his jump line and was gone as soon as the autocratic words were out of his mouth, apparently expecting his orders to be followed.

Nightwing murmured to Robin, "Take off... I'll be right behind you both." Nodding in agreement, Robin fired off his own grappling hook, taking to the sky to follow his mentor.

Standing silently on the rooftop, watching the lights of Gotham City below, Nightwing considered his options. He realized that the reason Bruce was being so adamant was that he didn't want Dick or Tim hurt, but that just wasn't going to cut it. Neither Dick nor Tim was about to let him put his life on the line just to keep them out of the line of fire.

"Sorry, Batman... but you're not washing your hands of us that easily." His hand touched his comlink, sending a signal to the one person who could find the information he and Robin would need if they were going to keep up with the Dark Knight's investigation.

"Oracle here... what's up, Nightwing?"

He couldn't help the faint smile that quirked the corner of his mouth. "Heya, gorgeous. Need a favor...."

Chapter 2

Barbara stared at her computer, absolutely appalled. The BatCave's records were always open to her, and she was looking at one of the files now. Through her headset, she asked, "Are you *sure* this is all correct? One person simply can't be this busy!"

"It's correct, Miss Barbara," Alfred responded grimly. "Master Bruce's information is *quite* extensive, as you well know. Collins was in British Intel for a while before he turned to mercenary work. That bit of information is not in Master Bruce's computer records, as you can see, but I cashed in a favor with an old friend to verify it. It may give you some additional leads."

Something in Alfred's tone was disturbing Barbara, but she couldn't figure out quite what. "Is there anything else you know that might hasten the investigation, Alfred? Dick and Tim are incredibly worried about Bruce's reaction tonight, and I can't say I blame them. If this guy is half as good as some of this indicates, even Batman may be a little out of his league."

"Yes, miss... that is, unfortunately, very possible. I'm afraid there's nothing more I can tell you. Do keep me informed, however, and meanwhile I shall endeavor to keep Master Bruce's schedule chaotic enough to hinder them."

Acknowledging his words, Barbara disconnected from the call. Frowning at the screen, she went back over Alfred's answer. "There's more that you're not telling, Alfred. But I have a feeling you've given me the clues I need to figure it out. Now... what piece of this puzzle am I missing? You're not telling me outright probably because you've determined that it's not your place. Collins in British Intel, though. Where did he go from there, and why?"

Focusing intently on her mission, Barbara began her work in earnest. She knew that Alfred held his duty to Bruce above everything else, but she also knew the butler had a tendency of working around whatever orders had been given him if the situation warranted. She'd have to decode the clues he'd given her, and she only prayed that she had the time.

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

Several hours (and four muggings, two bank robbery attempts and an alleyway brawl) later, Robin and Nightwing sat together on a rooftop discussing the night's events. In a worried whisper, Robin asked Nightwing, "We're not letting him do this alone, right?"

Nightwing's response was immediate. "Absolutely not. You knew that before you even left the roof on patrol tonight." His voice became thoughtful. "There's something he's not telling us. I don't know what it is. Oracle's researching the case information. I dropped her a request earlier. It's usual for him to want to do things himself, but... something in the way he told us to stay out of it is niggling at me."

Robin nodded. "Good thing it was a quiet night tonight. He was distracted."

Nightwing's eyes rested on his younger counterpart, not overly surprised. "How could you tell?"

Robin looked up and said matter-of-factly, "He missed." He shrugged. "He hardly ever misses with the Batarang, and that was an *easy* shot."

Nightwing nodded. "That was the only indication I saw, too. Good eye, kid." He looked across the Gotham skyline, where dawn was just beginning to lighten the edge of the world with tints of grey instead of black.

"Get some sleep. I'll let you know if I figure out what's going on. In the meantime, stick as close as you can to him. Barbara has probably alerted Alfred already. Collins won't make a move immediately. He'll have to trail Bruce and work out his schedule in order to find the best angle and position for an ambush. So we've got a couple days, at least."

Robin pushed himself to his feet. "See you around, then." He grinned. "Looks like it's going to be a bit more often now, hmm?" Firing off the jumpline, Robin took to the sky with the ease born of long practice.

Nightwing watched the boy vanish into the shadows, shaking his head in amusement. It always gave him a kick to see the younger Robin take off. Sort of like watching an old videotape of himself at that age. He threw himself off the other side of the roof without a line, letting his body freefall halfway down the skyscraper. Flipping himself over, he fired a line skyward to capture the edge of the building, letting the slack play out. It carried him in a wide arc back towards 'home'.

*********

In no time at all, Nighting was climbing silently through the secret door that Barbara had installed back when she was Batgirl. Expecting to find her asleep, since she usually called it a night between three and four o'clock in the morning when nothing serious was happening, he was surprised to find her still at her computer. Quietly, he moved up behind her to ask, "What's happening?"

Barbara's frown turned to a faint smile as she looked up from her screens. "Hi there... is it that late already?" She glanced at the clock in the corner of her screen and then slid her glasses off her nose to rub her eyes. "Nothing's happening, I've just found some really strange leads on this Collins guy. Three hours worth of digging, and a tip from Alfred, and I *still* can't get a complete profile of this guy." She sounded tired and a little frustrated.

Dick yanked his heavy gauntlets off as she talked and removed his mask. He then settled his hands on the back of her neck to massage the tendons there, listening attentively.

Barbara made a soft sound that might have been a groan of pleasure. Silently absorbing the closeness of his touch, she continued. "I finally came across one little footnote in a file that gave me the first lead. Dick..." She slid her glasses back into place and turned to look up. "If what I've been able to piece together so far tonight is true, this Collins guy has been on the payroll of several small countries as an assassin, and a couple of larger ones as well. Most notably, the US and Japan. And he's got about three dozen aliases that Interpol is certain of, and who knows how many that aren't accounted for."

Dick's hands rested on her shoulders, giving her his full attention. Marc Collins was apparently a master of disguise. "That still doesn't tell me what's got Bruce more uptight than normal with this one. It's not like it's the first time he's been threatened."

Barbara sighed and nodded. "I'm still digging on that one. But I won't give up on it. Alfred's going to make sure to vary his routines with Bruce until we can get this guy. The thing is... I double-checked on the money missing from Sellers' accounts. It's completely untraceable, even for *me* right now." Which only made her more curious. "If Collins is as good as all this, why is he taking on a penny-ante job like Bruce Wayne? All his other targets have been very high profile, who have also had some incredible pull in the government. Bruce has pull, but in the scheme of things, he's not got the kind of profile that Collins' other victims have had."

Dick looked thoughtful. "If this is such a small-time job, maybe there's something bigger going on. Maybe it's not a simple hit and Collins is after something else. The threat to Bruce could be strictly coincidental." He sighed. "I don't know. Alfred knows the drill in his sleep, though. It's one of the reasons that he has the position he has. It'll be fine. You know as well as I do that Collins will have to hold off a couple of days just to try and get a handle on Bruce's movements before he can strike. Those couple days may give us the time to find out why he'd take a job like this."

Barbara nodded tiredly. "This is about all I can do tonight. I've left a couple of search routines running to see what we can find on Collins and his aliases. Are you ready to catch some sleep?" She looked up at him, a faint smile quirking the corners of her mouth upward. "I assumed you were staying since you didn't pop back by two o'clock to gather your things."

Leaning down to kiss her tenderly, Dick nodded. "I think I'll stick around Gotham for a few days at least. Can you put up with me that long?"

The soft response, "Did you have to ask?" simply made him laugh as they got ready for bed and curled up together to sleep.

Chapter 3

Barbara opened her eyes early in the afternoon, disoriented to realize that she'd slept past noon. That usually only happened when it had been a rough night with Dinah working in another time zone. Though it *had* been after dawn when she finally collapsed here, she thought sleepily. Rolling over, she realized something else. Dick wasn't there.

Frowning slightly, she pulled herself out of bed and into her wheelchair, making her way through the apartment. "Dick?"

Looking up from his concentrated scrutiny of a computer screen, Dick's expression eased into a small smile. "Good afternoon, sleepyhead. Would you like some coffee?"

Barbara shook her head 'no' and stretched out. "Anything new come through?"

Nodding, Dick pushed his chair away from the terminal so Barbara could move into his place. While she scanned, he summarized.

"Marc Collins, alias Reed Baxter, alias Lucas Wheeler... among about 20 other known aliases. This guy is like a ghost. What information there is so far is only contradictory." He sighed.

Barbara responded mildly, "I was expecting that. But look at this." She pointed to the screen thoughtfully, "Fifteen years ago, he was put in jail overseas."

Dick nodded. "The charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence." Barbara was frowning at the terminal, and Dick started to get the feeling that he was missing something. "What is it?"

"This doesn't look right. Let me do a little more digging on it." Barbara pointed to the screen, "Here and here... see?"

Dick leaned forward to study the two notations in the file, shaking his head. "What about it? It says that Interpol lost track of him right after he was released for about 6 weeks, until he surfaced in Switzerland."

Her fingers flying across the keyboard, Barbara's response was a bit absent. "Yeah... but how could they lose track of him, when *this* came from their own files?" Another notation popped up on the screen. "That record says he was underground for 6 weeks... But *this* is a report from the London-Gatwick airport. Look at the dates, Dick. They never lost him."

Dick studied the evidence with a frown. The March 15 notation in the file he'd been looking at stated that Marc Collins had been lost by Interpol on March 15 and the next entry had him surfacing in Geneva on May 3. The file Barbara pulled up was an airport security report on one of Collins' aliases, showing that he'd cleared customs in London on March 17. This was not looking good at all. "Interpol usually isn't that sloppy," he offered.

Barbara grimaced. "A photographic memory comes in nice, hmm? I noticed that London file last night when I was looking for images of Collins. How much would you like to bet he was on a job for someone between March 15 and May 1 who had enough connections in Interpol to hide it?" She paused. "Alfred said this guy used to be British Intel before he was a mercenary. I'm beginning to think there's a *lot* more to this than meets the eye."

Dick rubbed his forehead. "If we have entire countries, British Intel and Interpol covering for this guy's movements, tracking down what's got Bruce's tights in a twist is going to be difficult." He paused. "Not to mention, it makes the question of why a bigtime hit man would take on a smalltime vngeance hit even more interesting."

Barbara just looked at him and nodded, concern easily read in her gaze. "Whatever is going on, I think Bruce has a lot more information than he's going to share. So watch yourself out there... going in blind can bite you in the butt."

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

Bruce stared at his computer screen silently. He was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, and there was a cup of cold coffee sitting next to him, forgotten as he worked.

Alfred tsk'd lightly from behind him. It was obvious to the butler that Master Bruce had not even gone to bed when he came in last night. It was now lunchtime, and he was determined that his charge would at least eat. Setting down the tray with a sandwich and a glass of milk on it, Alfred spoke in his stern-affectionate-scolding tone. "Master Bruce, killing your brain cells with sleep deprivation will most assuredly *not* solve the case for you. Now kindly eat your lunch, sir, and your bed awaits."

Bruce looked up blearily and sighed heavily. "Yes, I know, Alfred... thank you." Rubbing a hand across his exhausted eyes, the billionaire-playboy-turned-vigilante rested his head back in his chair.

The aging butler worried at the strain evident in his employer and honorary son's face, but he remained silent. Master Bruce would speak when he was ready, and not one moment before.

It took until after the sandwich had been eaten and half the milk drunk before Bruce finally spoke. "I don't have to tell you to vary our movements over the next few days... I have faith in your skills to know what to do." He looked at the butler with one of his rare full smiles. "You've been the best friend that a man like me could have, Alfred."

Alfred was uncertain how to respond, though flattered by the genuine affection showing in his "son's" usually impassive face. Such open caring gave clear indication that Master Bruce was worried. Alfred's answer was given with an unusual gentleness beneath the slightly arrogant British tones. "Quite so, Master Bruce. Quite so. Now, young man, off to bed with you. You'll be quite useless this evening in tracking down this villain if you do not get some sleep."

Bruce couldn't help the faint smile. The two men shared a sincere love for one another not unlike that between between Bruce and Dick, but it was rare that they allowed themselves open expression of it. Standing, Bruce bid the butler a soft "Good night, Alfred," and went up the stairs to bed.

Watching after him for a moment, Alfred Pennyworth was struck by the haunting fear that if he wasn't watchful, he would lose a large part of his heart. Resolve hardened his features, giving them a harsh expression more suited to the agent Alfred was in his youth. Nothing was going to happen to that young man, or Alfred *would* inflict serious bodily damage.

A glance up the stairs showed him that Master Bruce was out of the cave, and Alfred used the opportunity to check the information the younger man had been so intently studying. What he found didn't surprise him, he'd been expecting it. Carefully erasing the screen, the butler stood from the terminal and left the Cave with a purposeful stride.

Chapter 4

Marc Collins sat in his hotel room, carefully cleaning his weapons and making sure they assembled quickly and silently. He wouldn't be able to use them for a little while yet, but he was a fanatic about how well his equipment was kept up. Repacking them carefully in their cases, Collins studied his handiwork with pleasure. Then he closed the cases and hid them in the closet, locked tightly so that the cleaning staff wouldn't be tempted to rifle through them.

Grabbing his jacket off a hanger, he surveyed the room, committing certain details to memory. He'd be able to tell when he returned if anyone had been in the room. Sliding his arms into his coat, Collins turned and exited his hotel room, moving to blend in with the crowds of people on the street for the first phase of his stakeout - getting a look at the Wayne Enterprises building and determining which office was Wayne's. Blueprints were public domain and could be obtained this afternoon.

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

Upon arriving at the BatCave at his normal hour, Tim Drake was surprised to find Bruce not in residence. Letting Alfred know that he was downstairs, he suited up. Carrying his mask and boots to the control panel, Tim checked the main computers.

"Master Timothy, Master Bruce left word that you should not join him this evening on his patrol."

Tim turned to look at Alfred, startled. "You're kidding."

Sadly, Alfred shook his head. "No, young man, I am not. He has already left for the night."

Scowling, Tim demanded, "And you let him go? Knowing what's happening out there??"

Something glinted in Alfred's eyes for a split second, but the butler remained outwardly his usual placid self. "And you would suggest I attempt to stop him _how_, Master Timothy?" Alfred's tone held the disdain that only a British butler can exude.

Tim sighed. He knew there was no way to stop Bruce from doing whatever he felt like doing, but this was getting ridiculous. "I'm going out anyway, Alfred." He studied the older man quietly. There was something he couldn't quite put his finger on. That split-second expression, perhaps.

Alfred simply nodded. "As you wish, young man. Is there anything you need before you go?"

"No... thanks, Alfred." Tim waited until the butler took himself up the stairs and into the manor house before opening the comlink to Oracle. "Robin to Oracle, anyone out there?"

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

When the call came through from the BatCave, it was Nightwing who responded. "Robin? It's Nightwing."

Tim rolled his eyes. Like he had to be told that much!

"Anything new on your end, Nightwing? You were right, Bats ditched me for the night."

Shaking his head, Nightwing sent Barbara a grimace as she wheeled into the room. "Yeah, I figured. He did that to me a few times, too. Listen, Babs has picked up a couple of names that she's looking into, but so far, we don't have a lead on where Sellers or Collins are holing up. I figure we'll case a few of the less reputable motels and stuff while she works her magic."

Barbara smiled faintly, winking at him for the compliment.

Robin nodded slowly. "Gotcha. Meet you on top of the tenement building from last night?"

"Yep, see you there," replied Nightwing. Noticing that the other boy sounded almost hesitant, he prodded gently. "Anything wrong, Robin?"

"Well... tell Babs to keep an eye on Alfred, okay? He's acting a little weird."

Barbara raised an eyebrow and made her presence known to the young vigilante. "Weird how, Boy Wonder?" She glanced at Nightwing with a grin. Sometimes it was hard to keep their nicknames straight, when she was teasing them. Tim's next words worried her, though.

"It's hard to describe, Oracle. I just... well, I caught something in his face a little while ago, and I can't quite pin it down. I don't want to sound paranoid or anything, but I think he might know a bit more than he's telling about what's going on, and it seems a little creepy that he's not sharing it."

Nightwing and Oracle exchanged glances. Interesting theory. It gave Barbara something new to go on, as well. "I'll check into it, Robin. Thanks for letting me know," she replied.

Nightwing stood and kissed her cheek, securing his mask tightly. "I'll check in every so often, and you know how to get me." Without waiting for a response, the masked crimefighter disappeared from the apartment. Barbara turned her full attention to her computers to sift through the information she had so far and began her search for clues.

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

Donovan Sellers skulked around Hyatt Corners, a scum-infested neighborhood on the south end of Gotham. It was the kind of place where nobody sees anything and questions are never asked. In a dingy little apartment above an establishment euphemistically named "Bob's Lounge," Sellers fingered the fraying newspaper clippings that reported the deaths of his wife and two children. He'd handled the printed pages so often, they were starting to disintegrate.

Tears glistened in his faded blue eyes as he carefully set aside the clippings to look at the last family picture they'd had taken, just three months before their deaths. Odd, he thought to himself, how you couldn't see Melissa's growing depression in her smile. She'd known her job wasn't secure, that her research was soon to be cut off. But he hadn't. Donovan hadn't seen the fear and desperation in her eyes. Not until it was too late. Until Joey and Donny paid. His fingertips touched her face, trembling under the force of his anguish and rage.

"He will pay, Missy... I promise you that. For the boys, and for what he did to you."

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

Alfred kept a careful eye on the time. Master Bruce would be out all night, but covering his tracks in the computer had to be done perfectly or his eagle-eyed employer would know something was afoot. It took him almost two hours to find what he was looking for, and he carefully printed out the results, then erased all traces of what he'd found. There was no need for more than one copy, and he had to make sure Master Bruce didn't find the information before Alfred had the chance to do something about it.

Chapter 5

Barbara spent the better part of the afternoon tracking down a timeline for Marc Collins' movements in the past 20 years. Tacking together all of his known aliases, she managed to piece together most of his history, though there was a four-year stretch of time missing. What he'd been doing in this timeframe, she just couldn't seem to trace.

Twenty-two years ago, Marc Collins (born Marcus Brian Vickers) had been a Black Ops officer in Her Majesty's Royal Navy - essentially the British version of the Navy SEALs. He'd been recruited into British Intel at the age of 30, working undercover on various overseas jobs in the Middle East. Seven years later, he'd come under suspicion of being a double agent. It was then that he dropped off the map for four years. No records, no information, not using any of his known aliases, no photographic records, nothing. Barbara was incredibly frustrated by the matter, actually.

Eleven years ago, Collins resurfaced under his own name. Reports were unclear on whether he had been cleared of the suspicion of being a double agent, but the reports of his activities after he resurfaced indicated that he'd taken on the life of a mercenary. A grand total of 21 aliases known to Interpol were listed in his records, and some impressive hits were attributed to Marc Collins. Four Columbian drug lords, three high level Iraqi commanders, one Indian diplomat, two Russian generals and three billionaire financier types. All of the information Interpol had indicated that he was taking money in exchange for both assassinations and information brokering.

"Nasty guy." Barbara considered her options. Those four missing years were nagging at her in the worst way.

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

Collins spent the day studying extensive blueprints of the Wayne Enterprises building. "Very interesting architect you have here, Wayne...." he murmured thoughtfully. The building was set up to be as close to impenetrable as humanly possible. He noted something else odd, too. Between several of the floors of the building, and in several walls throughout the structure, there seemed to be some extra space. Like the walls were thicker than normal. Soundproofing, perhaps?

Lunchtime came and went before Collins moved from his hotel room. By the time he was ready to move, he had a full understanding of the schematics of Bruce Wayne's building. And he was going to leave the billionaire playboy a message....

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

Because Nightwing couldn't move as easily during the day, Dick Grayson resolved to do some snooping of a more mundane sort. Taking his motorcycle into downtown Gotham, Dick took on his public persona of "Bruce Wayne's ward" and showed up in the office of Gotham's Police Commissioner.

Jim Gordon sat at his desk as Dick was ushered in by one of the uniformed officers and studied the young man closely. "Afternoon, son. How are you?" He stood to shake Dick's hand.

Dick reached out and took the proffered hand and nodded a little. "Could be better, sir, thank you for asking." When the Commissioner indicated that he should sit, Dick complied and then continued. "I wanted to know just what information you have on this Donovan Sellers guy that's after Bruce. I'm pretty concerned, Commissioner, as I'm sure you can imagine."

Jim nodded, retaking his seat behind the desk. Pursing his lips beneath his mustache, he began. "Sellers was jailed eleven years ago for attempted murder when he came after your guardian, Dick. The guy's wife murdered both of their children and then committed suicide after losing her research grant at Wayne Enterprises. It was a tragic situation, and Bruce blamed himself for a long time. Sellers snapped, and about four days after the funerals, he tried to shoot Bruce while he was in the Gotham Regency Hotel eating dinner. I don't know for sure that he will continue to try anything, but the warden notified me when he was released just in case. I've offered Bruce police protection, which he's turned down. There's not much else I can do."

Dick nodded. "Alfred said something about the possibility that Sellers hired someone to come after Bruce?"

"Well, son... from all the evidence we have, it does look that way. Since Bruce refuses police help, though, there's little I can do except keep my officers on alert."

Dick sighed. "Thanks for seeing me, Commissioner. I just needed to know where the situation stood... and you know Bruce. He won't say much about it." Chagrin showed on Dick's face. "I think he still thinks I'm a kid or something, sometimes."

Jim smiled faintly. "We all feel that way about our kids, Dick. Keep your eyes open, okay? If you see anything strange, let us know."

Dick nodded and stood. "I'll do that, sir. Thanks for your time." He left the office with a black scowl on his features as he made his way through the precinct.

Stepping outside into the bright sunlight, Dick weighed his options. Bruce wasn't going to tell him or Tim anything at all, and Alfred was hedging. Why? Dick wasn't sure. But he'd get to the bottom of that.

As he walked toward his motorcycle, the sound of a gunshot echoing between the buildings sent him ducking for cover. A burning sensation in his left arm gave Dick the clear understanding that whoever was shooting, it was at *him*! Hurling himself behind the nearest car, his right hand flew to assess the damage and staunch the flow of blood while he peeked out to try and locate the source of the shots.

Two more dinged off the hood of the vehicle around which he was peering, and Dick ducked again. By now, officers from the precinct were already moving. Three bolted from the doorway of the building to the protective cover of cars, while one carefully made his way to Dick.

Officers Hanley, Morgan and Nelligan scanned the area quickly. When no more shots were fired, Nelligan bellowed toward the precinct. "Lock down the block, get the squad cars in to cordon off two blocks in either direction, NOW!"

Officer John Sylvester checked Dick's arm briefly, and then hauled the young man to his feet. "C'mon, inside!" He hustled Dick back into the precinct under the cover of the other three officers, with Dick protesting the whole way.

"It's nothing," he insisted. No one was listening, especially once the Commissioner realized Dick was hit.

Immediately calling for a first aid kit, Jim squatted next to Dick and cut the expensive silk shirt away from the groove in the younger man's arm, the Commissioner gruffly replied, "Just hold still, let me look."

Dick subsided gracefully, allowing his future father-in-law to take a close look at the gash.

Jim's face was a study in relief. "Just a scratch." He shook his head, cleaning and bandaging the wound himself. "Jesus, Dick... scared the hell outta me, boy. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Barbara gets hold of you."

Dick couldn't help but grin a little. "She'll just be glad I had the presence of mind to duck." He glanced at the officers scurrying here, there and everywhere. "But I think I better call her. She's got that police scanner, and she knew I was coming here. She's probably frantic by now, sir."

Jim taped the bandage tight and nodded. "Go on, then. I'll need a statement from you shortly." He grinned slightly, "I don't expect it to say much, but anything you remember seeing might help."

The Commissioner watched as the young man went into his office to make the call in semi-private conditions, and shook his head. He had a feeling that if young Grayson hadn't been who he was, he'd have been dead on the ground outside police headquarters. Heads would roll if the shooter wasn't located.

Jim got to work, hollering for Nelligan. "Have you got him yet?"

Chapter 6

When the phone rang, Barbara grabbed it the receiver from its cradle, fearing the worst. "Hello??"

"Babs? It's me."

The redhead wilted in relief. "Thank God. I didn't hear any calls for ambulances, so I figured you were in one piece. But you scared the crap out of me, Grayson."

"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I just got grazed by a bullet on the arm, Barbara. Try not to panic." Dick grimaced. "Your dad's not too thrilled either, and wants to stick *me* into protective custody now." He sighed. "It's got to be related, but I can't afford bodyguards. Not now."

Barbara nodded, though Dick couldn't see it. "Yeah, I know. You better call Bruce and let him know. If he finds out some other way, you know how he'll be. Maybe this will be a catalyst for him letting you get involved and we won't have to sneak around him."

"Ever the optimist, eh?" Dick sounded amused. "I'll call Alfred after I get done with the police reports."

Barbara sighed. "All right. Get going. I'll be here when you get done."

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

Collins' sojourn was a success. Message delivered. Now, to stake the place out. Getting too close to the house would be a definite problem, set back from the road and fully secure as it was. Marc decided the best thing to do was wait. Wayne hadn't come in to the office today, but he would get the message soon enough.

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

Filling out a police report, even when you had next to no information to actually put in the darn thing, took much longer than Dick planned. Finally, he told Jim sternly, "I'm leaving. I don't want police protection, and I *don't* want this publicized. Try and keep it out of the papers, for God's sake, as long as you can. I need to contact Bruce."

Jim simply sighed. He'd expected as much. "Fine. Whatever you do, son, don't lead them to Barbara. Bulletproof glass or not, she can't dodge as fast you can. They could be just going after you for a message to Bruce because they can't get to him... or you could be the primary target. What better way for a guy to get back at the man who he believes caused his sons' deaths than to take that man's son in payment?"

Dick nodded. "I know, sir. I'll be careful."

Escaping the precinct, Dick was cautious on his trip back to Wayne Manor. He was greeted at the door by a very concerned Alfred. "Master Dick, Miss Barbara called to let us know what happened. Are you well, sir?"

Dick smiled. "It's a scratch, Alfred, nothing more." He squeezed Alfred's shoulder. "Is Bruce home?"

"He's in the library, sir. I'll bring tea. You both have a lot to discuss."

Dick nodded and made his way to the library.

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

Alfred waited until Dick was out of sight, and his expression altered from concern to rage. *NO one* was going to threaten either of those boys like this. Not while *he* had anything at all to say about it. It was time that Alfred, the British Intel agent, came out of retirement. The aging butler hastened to get the tea, knowing that tonight could be his last night as a gentleman's gentleman.

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

When Alfred arrived in the library with the tea, it was to heated words between Dick and Bruce.

"Damn it, Dick, this is not your concern! I've set you up with a bodyguard for your public identity, and I realize that's going to limit your movements as Nightwing. I have to find Collins myself, don't you understand? I can't afford to lose you too."

"No, I don't understand!" Dick's tone was laced with more frustration than anger. "You're hindering my ability to protect myself at all with a bodyguard. Just like having one for yourself would hinder *you*. And I won't have it! You don't get to call the shots here, not when this jerk just tried to kill me!"

Bruce's eyes on Dick were cold. "If he wanted to kill you, he would have. He doesn't miss. Ever."

Dick's brows drew together in a faint frown. "You know more about this guy than you're telling, aren't you? How do you know that?"

Bruce's words were harsh. "I made it my business to know."

Alfred interrupted. "Master Bruce, Master Dick. This will get you nowhere, sirs. Kindly drink your tea, and brainstorm about how working together will get you further than working apart." He sternly fixed an eye on Bruce. Rarely did he give the young man orders anymore, but he used the tone that said Bruce better listen. "You know he will just go out on his own without you, eluding a bodyguard in the process, Master Bruce. You might as well turn it to your advantage. Now both of you, cease this tirade." The butler turned on his heel and left the room, not missing the look of surprise that passed between the two men he considered his "sons."

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

Donovan Sellers chortled to himself in his rat-infested room. Oh yes, this plan was working out splendidly. Too bad Grayson was only grazed, but still. It would work out as he planned. Most definitely.

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

Alfred moved into the BatCave and began gathering things up. He'd spent part of the afternoon pulling together a 'bag of tricks,' as it were, to help him tonight. He had a good idea of where to start, but he needed to be ready to move as soon as Batman left for the night. Preferably with Nightwing in tow, and Robin tailing them for backup.

His small case ready to go, Alfred went upstairs to make dinner for the two men, and then assisted them in getting ready for the night's caper. As he'd hoped, Master Bruce had taken his stern words to heart and Nightwing would be accompanying him.

"Keep Robin here, though. Tell him to coordinate with Oracle for tonight." Batman's voice was quiet.

"Of course, sir. I wouldn't dream of not having him in touch with Oracle at all times."

Nightwing and Batman roared into the night, and when Robin arrived a half an hour later, Alfred assisted him in suiting up as well. "Master Robin, you're not to let them see you, and you're to stay in constant contact with Oracle." His expression was stern. "Do _not_ let those two out of your sight, Master Robin."

Tim nodded. "Absolutely, Alfred. Nothing will happen to them, I promise."

Alfred allowed himself a small smile. "As do I, young man. Now, off with you."

As soon as Robin cleared the Cave in the Redbird, Alfred was in motion. Gathering up the elements of his disguise, the butler dressed quickly and grabbed his small bag of tricks. Into the night went the eldest of Batman's masters of disguise, on the hunt.

Chapter 7

Barbara's night had already been hectic enough. Black Canary contacted her for information on Quarac, because something was happening in that country that didn't look so good. She'd contacted the League about an anomalous reading from one of the Watchtower's computers and dispatched Green Lantern to investigate a spatial irregularity at the outer rim of the solar system. And she was *still* trying to trace the movements of one Marc Collins and one Donovan Sellers.

Street level, she already had a bead on Donovan Sellers. Hyatt's Corners somewhere. She anonymously sent that information to her father, so that he'd get a plainclothes officer down there to locate and follow Sellers. But Collins was getting to be a serious pain in the butt.

Those missing four years were just not ANYWHERE. What had the damn man been doing?? She tried to find clues about his destination in all records of the work he'd been doing prior to his disappearance. The only person with whom he'd been in contact, for which she had proof, was on Dimitri Petrov of the Soviet Union. And that was strictly Intel business.... or was it? Barbara snapped her fingers. How could she have missed it?? Intel business!

Opening a link to the Batcave, Barbara attempted to contact Robin or Alfred. There was no answer, which puzzled her, especially since all three of the "boys" were out. Alfred usually monitored from the Batcave. She opened a link to Robin's comlink.

"Robin here, Oracle. Whatcha need?"

"Robin, where are you?" She noted that his voice was hushed, like he was in the middle of something.

"Keeping an eye on Bats and the Wingster, Oracle."

Barbara frowned. "Okay... any ideas where Alfred went tonight?"

That made Robin pause. "He's not in the cave?"

"Nope. Just tried there. It's kind of strange. Maybe you better check on him."

Robin hesitated. "He was acting a bit odd before I left, Oracle. He told me to stay out of sight of Nightwing and Batman tonight."

"Get back there, Robin. Let me know what you find when you get there, and meanwhile I'll let Batman and Nightwing know something may be up." Oracle's voice remained ever calm, despite the fact that she was more than a little concerned.

"On it, Oracle."

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

Nightwing's comlink chimed in his ear while he was busy pounding a large brute to a pulp for assaulting a young woman with a baby. Batman was taking on the other two in the group while the young woman sobbed, protecting her infant.

"Just... a sec... Oracle." Nightwing huffed a little. "Got my hands full."

Barbara rolled her eyes on the other end of the terminal, simply waiting until he could focus. Meanwhile, her hands flew over the keyboards. If Alfred found something, it would have to have been in the Batcave's computers, and Barbara knew those machines inside and out. She'd been helping maintain them. So what did he find?

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

Alfred took up a position in a coffee shop just across from the Bryant Hotel. It had taken him some time to remember it, but Marc Collins had a son. The vast majority of his aliases were not related to the boy. They were just names he pulled out of the blue. But one alias, which had not even been an official one for the Intel community, had been based on his son's name. Lo, and behold... Nathaniel Roberts was checked into the Bryant Hotel.

Now, all Alfred had to do was wait. He'd personally worked with Marc Collins (nee Vickers) just once, 13 years ago. He hadn't known about the man's tie to Bruce at the time, only learning that yesterday with a lot of digging. He still wasn't clear on why Collins would take this hit, but he was *going* to find out. If the assignment actually was a hit on Bruce Wayne and not something bigger, Alfred was going to 'persuade' his old comrade to walk away from the job and let Alfred handle the fallout back home. He was certain he would recognize the hitman, and Alfred's own disguise - short dark hair, swarthy complexion, scruffy beard and mustache - shouldn't make him too obvious. He could even eradicate his British accent if it became necessary.

Collins left the Bryant Hotel in a blond wig and mustache, carrying what looked like his suitcase. Nothing at all unusual in that, unless you knew what you were looking at. He moved with every evidence of casual disregard to the possibility of being followed, but his dark eyes were constantly flitting from one place to another. As observant as he was, he missed the shadow that was Alfred.

As Collins turned down Carter Avenue toward the subway station, he finally noted the presence of someone. He ducked into an alleyway, out of sight. When Alfred rounded the corner, Collins grabbed the butler by the throat, intending to slam him against the wall... and was shocked to find that in a split second, he'd become the one in danger. Alfred held a butterfly knife to Collins' throat, hissing in a deadly voice, "One millimetre, and I will watch as every bit of blood drains out of you onto the ground."

Dark eyes met Alfred Pennyworth's gaze, and sudden recognition gleamed in them. "I say, old man... it's about time you found me."

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

Robin arrived back at the Batcave to find it empty and contacted Oracle. "There's nothing here, Oracle. No note, no information, nothing. Where would Alfred have gone without telling us?"

"I don't know, Robin... but I do know that he's not carrying any of the bat-equipment. Whatever he's doing, I can't trace him."

From her headset, Oracle finally heard Nightwing's voice. "Okay. We're through here, Oracle. What's happening?"

Keeping her response brief, and making sure both Batman and Nightwing were listening, Barbara replied. "Alfred has vanished from the cave. Robin says there's no trace of him, and he's not carrying any of the equipment that I could track. It might also interest you to know that Sellers has gone underground. The plainclothes officer said he couldn't have gotten out more than 15 minutes earlier."

Nightwing's breath hissed out of his throat in a quiet "Damn." He looked toward his mentor, worry for Alfred clear in his expression.

Batman seemed to be lost in thought. "If there are no signs of a struggle in the upper levels of the house, this entire situation has taken on a new dimension." He looked at Nightwing. "Come on, chum... he's fine. I have an idea."

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

Firmly entrenched in the dark hole he used as a hideaway, Donovan Sellers looked on the frayed picture of his wife and sons sadly. "Soon, Missy. He'll pay, and then I'll come to you. I promise."

Chapter 8

Alfred dragged Collins deeper into the alleyway, butterfly knife held pressed against the assassin's throat. "I dare say, Marcus, that you were expecting me. As well you should, considering your target."

"Let's just say I expected you to see what I wanted you to, and I hoped you hadn't lost your skills. I made certain to be picked up coming into the country so that if you were looking, you'd find me. We need to talk." Collins' voice was calm, and he met Alfred's eyes steadily. "If you don't help, Wayne's ward will be dead within 24 hours."

Studying the man with narrowed eyes, Alfred expertly flipped his knife closed. "You have 10 minutes, Marcus, to explain yourself. Then, if I do not like your explanation or do not believe you, I will leave your body in an alley to be identified later." Alfred's threat rang with conviction. His years in the theater served him well, it was impossible to tell whether he was bluffing unless you knew that he wouldn't kill.

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

Three unmasked vigilantes stood before the BatComputer while Barbara joined them via teleconference and showed them what she'd uncovered. "I still don't have anything whatsoever in that four year gap, though," she concluded. "He could have been doing anything, anywhere in the world. *BUT* I did come across one notation. Here." She flashed one document onto the screen of the terminal that the three studied.

Robin looked confused. "What do the Wayne Enterprises blueprints have to do with anything?"

Shaking her head, Barbara replied. "I can only guess at this point. A call came from Bruce Wayne's office to the Manor about 18 minutes ago, however, that may answer that. Fox said there was a ... message ... left for Bruce Wayne."

Bruce scowled. "What kind of message?"

Barbara paused. "A picture of Dick held to the wall with a knife. No fingerprints." Her gaze sought and held Dick's. "Sellers is after revenge, but he's going to do it by taking Dick out of your life the way you took his sons."

Dick frowned.

Bruce nodded slightly. "I wondered, when he was shot at in front of the PD." He steepled his fingers together. "It will limit Dick's movements, but I'm hoping that by giving him a bigger target, Sellers might leave Dick alone."

All three of the younger members of the team looked at him with varying degrees of dismay, already knowing what was coming.

"If I make a public target of myself, we may draw Collins - and Sellers - into a trap."

"No way, Bruce!" Dick's temper exploded. "He's obviously not trying to kill you. He's trying to make you suffer. Well, I'm not 'Robin, the Boy Hostage' any more, and I won't be used against you that way!"

"Hey!" Tim looked a little affronted. "Robin, the Boy Hostage?"

Dick cast a vaguely apologetic glance at Tim. "Sorry."

Bruce scowled. "No. I will not allow you to place yourself at risk for this. Don't you understand, Dick? Marc Collins _does not miss_, ever."

Dick's expression eased as he caught Barbara's sympathetic look toward Bruce. He realized that his foster father loved him and that it was incredibly hard to show. He put a hand on Bruce's shoulder, which was still encased in Batman armor. "Bruce... listen to me. You can't always protect me. And if we're going to draw him out by being a target, your best bet is to either let me come with you, or let me play bait while *you* nab him as Batman."

Bruce shook his head. "Whatever Sellers' agenda, Collins has one of his own." His voice was quiet. "If Collins were the one shooting at you, he winged you for a reason. Maybe just to give us a fighting chance to figure out what's going on."

Barbara caught the same tone which had given him away to Nightwing and Robin earlier in the night. "Bruce... what are you not telling us?"

Bruce sighed quietly, studying the adamant expressions of his adopted son and youngest protege. "All right." He moved to face the computer. Dick's hand slid from Bruce's shoulder as he and Tim took up positions on either side of their mentor to see what he was showing them. Barbara observed via her remote connection, the first to get a good look at what was on the screen because it was on hers too.

"Oh my God." She was stunned.

Dick and Tim both skimmed the documents. Tim's grasp of the information was not immediate, but Dick's was. His blue eyes widened in shock, and he breathed a soft epithet. "Why didn't you *say* something?"

Bruce shook his head. "Because it was personal, Dick. And it was my fault." Leaning back in his chair, Bruce began the story in a hushed tone ....

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

< Bruce Wayne, travelling the world in his efforts to learn all that he felt he would need to know in order to become the Batman, met a man named Jon Baxter in a pub. They were the only two white men in this area of Thailand, which drew them together for a shared drink. It was then that Bruce found out that Jon, known now as Marc Collins, would also be training under the tutelage of Ampan Sita. The two men hit it off from the start and became friends.

Three months of friendship and shared learning beneath the master fighter Ampan Sita bred a type of competition into the friendship. Good natured, usually, though occasionally one or the other would get angry at being bested. The setting was probably one of the most relaxed Bruce had known in many years. Until the night that Jon Baxter died.

Ampan Sita had few enemies, but those few were incredibly good fighters and very powerful sorcerers. Bruce Wayne had never believed in magic before that night, but he watched as Ampan Sita was cut down in a whirling blast of sparkling green mist. Jon and Bruce launched themselves at the attacker, but he turned his power on them easily.>>

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

"When I woke, Jon was gone and Ampan Sita was dead. I thought at first that Jon was killed too. Five years later, I knew that he hadn't been. I don't know how he got out of there, but he left me a message. 'I won't forget.'" Bruce's breath blew out in a sigh. "It was my fault that the sorcerer traced Ampan Sita so quickly. I had been asking about him all over Asia. It's possible that Jon blames me for what happened. I wouldn't have thought he'd be angry enough to take on a job like this, but I've been hoping to find him and ask. Whatever the Commissioner believes, I don't think he's here to kill me. He could have done that any number of times already. And if he intended to actually kill *you*, Dick, he wouldn't have just grazed you in front of the police station. Something's just not adding up."

Barbara shared a glance with Dick, who returned her look and then gazed at Tim.

All three were wondering the exact same thing, which Tim voiced. "What's that got to do with Alfred, though? It's not like him to just jump into something like this. He knows we can take care of ourselves."

Bruce shook his head. "That, I don't know. Alfred's been very careful not to act strangely where I could see him."

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

Two figures sat hunched over drinks in a dingy little pub off the waterfront. "So young Richard has no idea what he saw, then?"

Collins shook his head. "We don't think so. If he did, we were pretty sure he'd have already reported it. We have extensive files on him, including the fact that he's applied to the Police Academy in Bludhaven. The price on his head is strictly because of what he saw, regardless of whether he'll talk. Intel is sending someone to talk to him, and Mirelli doesn't want to give the kid even the opportunity to remember anything about that meeting. Giavinni was supposed to have been dead already."

Alfred considered the situation that Collins had just finished laying out for him, and then nodded. "All right, Marcus. I'll help you, because it helps my employer and his ward. There will be conditions, however. The first of which is that I can verify what you've said. I'll meet you back at the Bryant in one hour."

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

Barbara pursed her lips and then nodded. "All right. How about we turn the tables? Bruce, I take it your plan was to attend the opening of the Courtland Street Community Center to make yourself a target, right?"

Dick glanced at Barbara in surprise. Damn, she was good. His admiration was genuine, as Bruce gave that rueful half-smile. "Good deduction, Barbara. Yes."

Barbara nodded. "I recommend that you allow Dick to go instead, and that Batman and Robin act as backup bodyguards." She held up a hand to forestall Bruce's argument. "We can pad him with unmarked armor beneath that nice tux that Alfred keeps so beautifully pressed, and he'll be fine. However, it will give both you and Robin the advantage of being out of the limelight, and this guy is more likely to go for his real target than you."

None of them could really argue that point, and Bruce was forced to concede. He didn't like it, though, it was clear. "All right... we'll let the press leak that Dick will be attending in my place tomorrow night."

Tim simply nodded and then asked worriedly, "What will we do if this guy's grabbed Alfred or something, though?"

Dick and Bruce exchanged shuttered looks that barely hid their anguish. If anything happened to the faithful butler, they would both be devastated. Dick finally responded roughly. "We'll find him, Tim. He'll be fine. I promise." His eyes never left those of his mentor, each making the words a pact between them.

Chapter 9

The knock at the hotel room door sounded like pistol shots in the quiet room. When Collins checked outside and opened the door, Alfred Pennyworth stepped into the room. "Have you verified what you needed to?"

Alfred nodded. "It's good to be working with you again, Marcus. Your employer sends his regards." Collins grinned faintly. "I'm sure I'll get an earful when I get back about allowing myself to be found out. I have the layout of the square. Let's get started." He pointed to the map of the Community Center and its immediate vicinity as he spoke. "Grayson will be here. I believe this area will be our target." He paused. "And if I know Bruce, the Batman will be somewhere.... here."

Alfred's expression remained cool and remote. "If the Police Commissioner has enlisted the vigilante's aid, all to the better. It's highly likely you are correct that he will be there somewhere."

Calmly, Collins nodded. "Especially since it's his ward who is the target. I hope your disappearance doesn't cost you his trust, Alfred."

"I'm afraid I have no idea what you mean, Marcus."

"Of course you do, Alfred. But you have no need to acknowledge it. My superiors don't know that Bruce Wayne is the Batman, and never will from me. Ampan Sita's training is distinctive and shows through in his moves, though. I've had the opportunity to observe him several times in the last few days." Collins left the conversation at that. "Let's get to work."

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

Alfred did not return to Wayne Manor that night, nor the next morning. By the time the evening rolled around, everyone was more than a little tense. No one was going to put into words the idea that Alfred might have been killed.

Barbara spent the entire day attempting to track down the four missing years in Collins' life. She was making some headway, thanks to the information that Bruce had finally shared. She contacted Bruce late in the afternoon.

"He was in Sri Lanka, Bruce. I've managed to isolate a name finally. Thomas Jeffries." Her tone was thoughtful. "Just out of curiosity, did you know that Alfred was doing a lot of travelling at the same time you were?"

Bruce quirked a dark brow at her. "Of course. He spent some time in England, since the Manor had no real need of fulltime care."

Barbara nodded slowly. "England wasn't the only place he spent time. Thomas Jeffries was Alfred's alias in British Intel, years ago. It was reactivated in Sri Lanka 13 years ago, less than a year after Jon Baxter supposedly died in Thailand. On a hunch, I followed 'Thomas's' movements and I came across the name 'William Nathaniel.' It's not one of the multiple aliases that Collins has on file at Interpol, but then neither was Jon Baxter. This Nathaniel guy fits Collins' general description, though. And he was buddying around Sri Lanka with our friend Thomas."

Bruce blinked. Though probably the greatest detective in the world (not a title he'd given himself), he had been too preoccupied to think to check *Alfred's* old ties. "Interesting," he replied. "It puts a new spin on Alfred's movements the last few days, too. After you and Robin mentioned his odd behavior, I checked here a little more closely. There are a few disguises missing. Alfred has likely taken matters into his own hands, though I don't understand why he'd do that instead of simply telling us what he knows."

Barbara shook her head. "I don't know, Bruce." She glanced over her shoulder, as Dick's voice came from behind her.

"I'm on my way to Wayne Manor to pick up my tux. I hope you and Robin have that block covered, Bruce."

The turbulent emotions in Bruce's eyes were quickly masked, though Barbara caught his fear for Dick as he spoke. "Not to worry, Dick. We're heading out momentarily to take our position. Just remember to duck, will you?" It was a valiant attempt to keep the situation light when Bruce's heart felt like lead in his chest. "Oracle, keep the lines open. Once Robin and I are in position, we'll open links."

Barbara nodded and replied, "Oracle standing by."

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

This was a colossally bad plan. Standing out here, even with armor on, deliberately making a target of himself was causing Dick to practically break out in hives. Although there were plainclothes and uniformed police on and near the podium and the new Dynamic Duo were sitting somewhere above in the shadows, Dick was nervous. It wasn't showing, but he was. The small receiver in his ear hummed with Barbara's quiet voice. "Nothing yet, from any quarter."

The director of the community center droned on and on about how grateful they were for Bruce Wayne's contributions to the project. Dick's blue eyes scanned the crowd, barely listening.

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

It hadn't taken any effort at all to knock the rookie officer unconscious, he mused. As if his revenge was being blessed by a higher power. No one had even missed the kid yet. It was time.

Donovan Sellers made his way into the crowd, dressed in a stolen police uniform. He didn't care what happened to him, but he had to get close enough to get one good shot at the Grayson boy. He was angry at himself for missing that morning in front of the police station. He was out of practice and too far away, though. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

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

Batman and Robin studied the gathered crowd below carefully. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Oracle quietly reported, "There are plainclothes guys stationed at both sides of the podium, three plainclothes guys in front of the podium, and a large number of uniforms in the crowd. The Commissioner is pretty sure he's got the area covered."

Batman didn't even acknowledge her. His eyes were on Dick, just now standing to move to the podium and graciously accept the accolades on Bruce Wayne's behalf, and then on the surrounding buildings. If an assassination attempt was going to take place, it would be from up here _somewhere_. He just had to find where.

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

Collins held his rifle stable in the window. "I've got him lined up. I just need him to move very slightly, and I have the shot."

"You'd better not miss, Marcus, else I shall be forced to take matters into my own hands." Alfred's voice was cold, and he watched carefully from a second window to see what was happening below.

Collins didn't look up from his sights, though a frisson of an emotion not unlike fear slid up his spine. He had no doubts what would happen if he missed. Alfred had a reputation for being scrupulous about details, and worse than a pit bull when it came to defending his charges.

The head of dark hair in Collins' scope moved, aligning itself perfectly for the shot to be taken. "He's making his move, Alfred."

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

The night was suddenly shattered by gunshots. Pandemonium broke out in the street below. Two almost simultaneous shots, one at ground level and one from higher up in the surrounding buildings, reverberated in the square. At least one hit Dick, and the young man was sent sprawling backward on the stage.

Seeing Dick fall galvanized Robin into motion. The young vigilante hurled himself off the rooftop, headed for ground level before Batman could get a word out to him.

The Dark Knight barked into his comlink, "Oracle! Get me a location on the high shot! There are enough police on the ground to handle that one."

Oracle's voice was a little shaky, though calm. She'd watched hundreds of times as Dick was injured, but this time was a little different. It would have been so easy for the bullet to strike his head instead of the armor somewhere, and there would have been no way to prevent that without being obvious that they knew what was happening. "I'm on it, Batman. Satellite scan of the area isn't turning up anything."

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

The third, completely silent, shot left the barrel of the rifle only a split second after the resounding echoes of the first two. Alfred's breath hissed out in a fluent Arabic curse, something he rarely allowed himself. "What just happened?" he demanded of Marc Collins.

The assassin turned to look at the aging butler. "I hit him just as he squeeezed off a round. That second shot was ground level, though."

Alfred peered from the curtains to see Dick gaining his feet. "Let's go. The young man is all right. The police and Batman will be converging on this location within minutes." He snatched up his bag of disguises while Collins broke down the weapon.

Chapter 10

Batman looked down to see that Robin was just landing on the podium near Dick, who was gaining his feet slowly and looking skyward angrily. Robin's voice came over the link. "Batman, Grayson says the second shot came from two buildings to the left, third window from the left on the top floor." More shots came from in front of the podium. People scrambled for cover as Sellers, in the stolen uniform, got off several more rounds. Amidst the screams and ensuing chaos, realization finally dawned that he was one of the shooters. As he took careful aim to fire off another shot at Dick, two plainclothes detectives shot him through the heart. As the sounds of gunfire and the screams of the terrified slowly faded, all that remained was the stillness of death.

Batman was immediately in motion, heading toward the location where Dick had seen the gun. Robin grabbed Dick and shot off a grappling line to carry them both skyward. As they gained the rooftops, Robin halted and dropped Dick off. In less than a minute, the tuxedo was ripped away and Nightwing stood in the space Dick Grayson occupied only moments before.

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

Two older men slipped into the alley at the back of the building, mingling easily into a crowd of other bums lining the street. They were at the edge of the square, and police were urging all bystanders out of the area. Alfred and Marc Collins shuffled their way out of the area, herded safely by uniformed police who never had a clue of what was right beneath their noses.

Expertly, the two men split up to make their own way back to the hotel, each by a different route.

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

Batman crashed through the window in question, landing on the floor and rolling behid the side of the double bed several feet away. For several seconds he held his position, listening for movement or gunfire. When no sound came, he stood slowly to look around the bedroom.

When Nightwing and Robin came through the window moments later, they found Batman kneeling thoughtfully over the body of a young man with dark hair and a swarthy complexion. There was a clean hole right at the man's temple where the bullet had entered and then a gaping mess where the bullet exited the other side of the man's head.

"Oh.. yuck. What the heck happened?" Robin's voice showed his surprise and distaste. Seeing a body in this condition was not commonplace to him, and he felt a little sick. He refused to get sick on his shoes, though! He didn't want Batman disappointed in him, so he tried to remain nonchalant.

Nightwing, on the other hand, simply looked grim. "If this is our shooter, who shot *him*?"

Before Batman could answer, Oracle's voice came through each of their comlinks. "Batman, the police have retrieved the body of Donovan Sellers in the square. His was the ground level shot. What about the sky shot?"

Batman's response was curt. "Oracle, there was a third shooter. Check the satellites and see what they caught."

"A *third*? All right, Batman, I'm on it."

There was silence from the link while she worked. Batman moved to the window, studying the body's position and then the building across the road. He pointed out several windows to Nightwing and Robin. "It had to have come from somewhere over there."

Nightwing's gaze was on the unmarred face of the dead man, his expression puzzled. Robin asked quietly, "What is it, Nightwing?"

"I don't know, Robin. But he looks familiar somehow."

"Got, it, Batman!" Oracle's voice came through loud and clear. "Satellite imaging picked up just the tip of something come from the building across the road from your position, one floor up and second window from the left. I have a picture about three and a half minutes later of two men coming out the basement door of the building. No clear face shots, though. They're gone now."

The words were barely out of her mouth before three jumplines carried three vigilantes out of the apartment. Barbara sighed on the other end of the comlink, and notified the police of the apartment number where the second shooter's body could be located.

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

Arriving back at the hotel, Alfred stripped off the mustache and straggly beard that he'd glued to his face with spirit gum. He'd been cautious, taking a long route back, but he'd still beat Marcus back to the room. He smiled faintly as he changed his clothes. It had been a long, long time since he'd felt so energized.

Collins opened the door warily, and relaxed to see Alfred within the room. "Good to see you made it back, old man."

"Of course. You had no reason to doubt it. I know this city better than almost anyone."

"I have no doubt of that, Alfred." Collins grinned slyly. "Considering how many scrapes you've probably unobtrusively helped Batman out of, I'm sure you know every back path in the city."

Alfred simply shook his head. "I have no idea what you are talking about, Marcus." His tone was calm and unperturbed. Whatever Collins knew, Alfred had no need to confirm or deny anything. "Your assistance in this matter with Master Grayson was most appreciated. Your superiors will be pleased."

Collins shrugged. "Not really. After all, you found me, didn't you?" He smiled faintly. "Tell Bruce.... Just give him my regards. He saved my life the night Ampan Sita died, and I owed him. I couldn't let Mirelli take out his adopted son."

Alfred nodded. "I will tell him, Marcus." He held out his hand to Collins. "Safe journey. And if you have need of anything, you know where to reach me."

Marc took Alfred's hand with a smile. "Be well, old man."

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

Nightwing stayed on the narrow ledge just outside the window Oracle had directed them to, while Robin crouched *in* the window and Batman moved around the room. There was no need for all three of them to be walking on any clues that might be left.

With a thoughtful frown, Batman bent down to pick up something from the floor.

"What is it, Batman?" Robin's voice was quiet, though there was no one but the three of them and Oracle to hear at the moment.

Batman looked at the two young vigilantes hovering in the windowframe and replied quietly. "I believe I know who the shooter was, but we need to go back to the Cave."

Nightwing studied his mentor for a long moment, and then nodded. "I'll meet you both there."

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

Barbara practically crowed in delight. "Finally!" She touched her comlink and spoke into her headset. "Batman, I found it!"

"We'll talk when we arrive back at the Cave, Oracle." Batman gave Oracle no time to object or give additional details, cutting the communications link.

Chapter 11

Barbara started filling them in as soon as they entered the BatCave. "According to Alfred when all this started, Collins was British Intel. After Bruce gave me the additional information about Ampan Sita, I managed to find out what Alfred was doing. He covered his tracks in the BatComputer *very* well, but once I had the additional aliases provided by Alfred's time in Sri Lanka, I found it.

"Alfred, alias Thomas Jeffries, took a job for Brit Intel with a man named Nathanial Williams, who fits Collins' description," she continued. "By tracing the movements of those two, I found a trail of files that Alfred accessed. One of them contained information on Marcus Vickers' family - that was Collins' real name. He had a son named Nathaniel, and Alfred traced him to a local hotel by presuming he was using that name." Barbara smiled faintly. "The child's existence was not mentioned in any of the files that I had hold of previously, which is why I didn't locate it. Anyway, those files led me to the Bryant Hotel! That's where he's got to be."

Batman nodded. "We're not going."

Nightwing and Robin were already turning around to leave the Cave again when Batman's voice said those words. Whirling back around, Nightwing demanded, "Why not??"

Bruce stripped off his mask and cowl, then held up the object he'd picked up off the floor in the apartment where the third shooter had hidden. "Because Alfred was with the third shooter, who I can only assume was Marc Collins. I don't know what the Italian had to do with anything, though. Barbara?" The object was a small, distinctive smoke grenade - Batman's.

She shook her head. "I still can't track that. I have his name, and I'm working on it."

Bruce nodded, looking at Robin and Nightwing. "We'll wait for him to get back and tell us himself."

Dick stripped his mask off, moving to take the pellet and inspect it. "Alfred was shooting at this guy?" He sounded incredulous. Tim was just looking completely flabbergasted.

"Of course not, Master Dick. Have you ever known me to do such things?"

The mild voice of Alfred Pennyworth had all three vigilantes spinning to see him standing at the foot of the stairs to the Manor. Exuberantly, Tim raced over and hugged the butler, Dick hot on his heels. Bruce appeared relieved, though concerned.

"Alfred!" "Are you okay?" "What happened?" The questions bombarded the butler from both sides. He returned the affection of the two younger men readily.

"I'm fine, young sirs, and I appreciate your enthusiastic welcome. Perhaps we should all sit before I explain."

Dick thumped Alfred gently on the shoulder, scolding lightly. "You scared the crap out of Bruce, Alfred."

Bruce scowled at his eldest protege, but moved to stand in front of Alfred and study him intently. "You're well?"

Alfred met Bruce's eyes and nodded. "Quite, young man." The affection was clear in his voice and face as he spoke to Bruce. "I see you've found my secret, Miss Barbara. Congratulations. I hadn't expected to be able to hide it from you this long."

Barbara smiled faintly. "Well, it does explain a few things. Like why you didn't tell us what was happening. You weren't sure he wasn't here to kill Bruce either, were you?"

Alfred paused, allowing time for each of the three younger men in the Cave to retake their seats. "No, Miss Barbara, I was not. It wasn't until I could verify what his mission orders were that I knew it was safe."

Dick asked, "So he wasn't the one who shot me?" at the same time that Tim interjected his question. "Who *was* his target, then?"

Alfred handed Bruce an envelope. "For you, Master Bruce, from Marcus. He sends his regards, and the letter explains everything." He looked at the group. "Marcus still works for British Intel, Master Dick. His assignments do include assassination, but not of innocents. He is, instead, a hunter of assassins." He shot a faint smile toward Tim. "His target was the man you found with the bullet through his head. Donovan Sellers was an unfortunate coincidence."

Bruce opened the envelope and scanned it as Barbara shook her head on the screen. "Alfred, you always manage to amaze me."

Alfred looked pleased with himself. "Thank you, Miss Barbara. That's high praise indeed."

Bruce read the letter quietly and the frown that had been marring his forehead eased. 'Bruce - my apologies for vanishing on you the way I did. Alfred explained that you thought I might have come after you, and it was then that I realized you must have taken my message as a threat. Ampan Sita's death was never your fault. The sorcerer followed _me_ to his home. I have since hunted him and his followers down and dealt with them. I know you don't approve of the methods that I am using in the service of my country and the world, so I will not put you in the position to have to face me over it. By now, Oracle will have managed to trace down my report on that night. If that's not the case, Alfred will be able to get hold of it for you. You saved my life that night, which is what I meant when I said I wouldn't forget. When I found out that your adopted son was the target, I knew I couldn't let someone else take the job. I owed you, and someone else might miss. Take care of yourself, and if you've need of me, Alfred will know how to find me. ---Jon Baxter/Marc Collins'

When Bruce looked up, all eyes were on him. "So just who was his target, and why was the man targetting Dick?"

Alfred looked at Dick. "You don't know, after seeing him?"

Dick frowned. "He looked ... familiar, but I'm not sure why." Tim crossed his arms and listened.

Barbara elaborated on her information. "His name is Jorge Mirelli, and he's an assassin. But that doesn't tell us who hired him."

Alfred nods. "Very good, Miss Barbara. Mirelli *is* a hit man, and Master Dick could place him for certain with his last target. Do you remember the Giavinni murder?"

Bruce filled in the details. "Michel Giavinni was killed in the bathroom at JFK International Airport 4 months ago, no suspects and no witnesses."

Dick snapped his fingers. "I *saw* them! I remember thinking after I heard about it that I'd _been_ there, and wished I could have done something. But it happened just after I'd boarded the Wayne jet to Paris for that conference you wanted me at, Bruce."

Alfred nodded. "Precisely, Master Dick. Mirelli's employer was not happy. Therefore Mirelli was sent to make sure that you couldn't point the finger at him, thereby making sure that Mirelli wouldn't turn over his employer at the time in return for immunity."

Barbara sighed and shook her head. "And Sellers just bungled his way into the situation without being involved. And he might have gotten a lucky shot at Dick, had we not already been concerned about the possibility of a threat."

Bruce looked thoughtful. "Was Collins the shooter at the police station?"

"No, Master Bruce. He left a 'message' that Dick was in danger in the form of a picture at the office. Mirelli was also not the shooter. Marcus was keeping quite close tabs on him."

Dick nodded slowly and turned to Bruce. "So the Commissioner was right. What better way to make you suffer than by taking out your son when you took his?" He sighed. "Sellers was clearly around the bend."

Bruce put a hand on Dick's shoulder. "It's over now. That's all that matters." He quirked a half-smile. "And I think your fiancee would like to make certain of that for herself."

Dick grinned toward the screen. "I'm on my way, Babs." She returned the smile and said, "Oracle out."

Epilogue

Alfred brought Bruce a sandwich and some tea. Young Master Timothy had gone several hours before, but Bruce was still sitting in front of the computer studying the report on Ampan Sita's death and Marcus Vickers' service record.

"He's credited with kills that aren't his, to boost his reputation in the mercenary crowd, Alfred."

"Yes, Master Bruce."

Bruce turned to look at Alfred. "And you condone what he does?"

Alfred looked steadily back at his eldest 'son.' "Master Bruce... life in the Intel business can be quite ugly, as you well know. I myself chose to keep my assignments to the bloodless variety when possible. I did, however, carry a gun and occasionally was forced to use it. I do not condone killing, however Marcus provides a very valuable service. If he had *not* been doing what he's doing, it's highly likely that Master Dick would be dead."

Bruce nodded slowly. "You know how I feel about guns. But I can't say I'm sorry about what happened to Mirelli." He sighed, clearly conflicted by the situation. His savage elation to know that Dick was no longer a target because he was no threat to Mirelli's employers was tempered by his hatred of the fact that his friend was doing a job so against what Bruce himself believed.

Alfred placed a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "I can't say I'm sorry either, Master Bruce. When I thought Marcus was the threat to you... even though I have worked with him before, I was quite ready to do him serious bodily harm. It is just what happens when loved ones are threatened." He smiled faintly.

Bruce smiled at the butler. "Alfred... how did he know that Oracle would be able to tell me?"

Alfred smiled his enigmatic smile. "I have a feeling, Master Bruce, that Marcus knows quite a lot more about you than you realize. But he will keep your secrets. I got the impression he quite admired Batman. Good night, sir."

As the butler left, Bruce shook his head slightly. He knew what Alfred had done before he worked for the Waynes, but he'd never really realized how much the older man missed it. It was clear from his actions in the past several days that the butler enjoyed the adrenaline rush. He hoped next time Alfred would leave a note or something. "Good night, Alfred."

*** THE END ***