Follow the Leader

by Jim Greeno

jrgreeno@ix.netcom.com

"Kent!"

Clark Kent looked up from his computer and glanced calmly toward Daily Planet editor Perry White's office. Perry stood as he usually did when shouting the name of one of his reporters across the crowded newsroom; legs spread slightly apart, hands on his hips.

First of all, Clark didn't much care for people yelling at him. Having super hearing makes sudden loud noises extremely unpleasant. Secondly, the Planet's digital phone system was literally the best the world had to offer. Mr. White could sit at his desk, pick up the receiver, push a button or two, and immediately be heard over the intercom on Clark's desk.

Clark had long believed that logic dictates reason, and that Perry White was a very logical and reasonable man at heart. But definitely not when it comes to running his newspaper. Perry had never learned to appreciate the benefits of modern technology. The phone system, Internet research, and computers in general were pretty much lost on him.

In fact, Clark mused, the only constructive thing he'd ever seen Perry do with his newfangled phone was throw it at the television when Lex Luthor announced his intention to run for President. And it wasn't that Perry was unwilling to learn to use the phone for other, more constructive purposes. To Perry White, there was no point in addressing one reporter in private when you could use that same conversation to frighten the rest of your staff into working a bit harder.

"Something I can help you with, Perry?"

"Where's that copy I asked you for last night," White asked with a huff.

Clark smiled, "It's in your inbox. I sent it over right after you mentioned it."

With that, Perry turned and disappeared into his office and returned seconds later with an empty plastic tray. He held it above his head so everyone could see it.

"This is my inbox, Kent! Do *you* see anything in here? I sure don't."

Before Clark could respond, Perry's secretary, Janice, was on her feet, addressing her boss. "Mr. White, I'm sure Clark is referring to your e-mail inbox. Here, let me check it for you." Janice sat down and proceeded to log in to White's e-mail.

"Here it is, Mr. White. I'm printing you a copy on the printer in your office. It'll only take a sec."

White lowered the plastic tray and stared at it angrily. "If my inbox is on your computer, why do I still have this thing on my desk?"

Clark chuckled quietly to himself as he saw Janice's expression change from soothingly pleasant to listen-here-buster. The woman had been White's secretary for as long as Clark had worked for the Planet, and probably for years before that. As tough as Perry was, Janice had him wrapped around her little finger.

She stood again and matched his earlier stance, with her hands on her hips. "Every time I remove something you don't use anymore from your desk, you order another one from the supply room. Your inbox and outbox, your hole punch, your page mapping tools…Perry, your stapler has been out of staples for over three years. Did you even notice?"

His brow furrowed with contempt, "I…you…my…nevermind!" He then turned on his heel and marched back into his office, slamming the door behind him in frustration.

Clark turned his attention back to his latest article. Just as he got his concentration and rhythm back, he was interrupted again, this time by his intercom.

"Mr. Kent, you have a call from a Mr. Dick Grayson on line four," the receptionist said.

"Thank you, Marjorie," Clark replied as he picked up the receiver, answering the transferred call. "Dick! It's great to hear from you."

"Hi, Clark. How're things," Dick replied in a hushed tone.

"Great, and you?"

"Busy, but pretty good. You know how it is."

"I sure do. Dick, why are you whispering," Clark asked plainly.

"Well, that's kinda why I called, Clark. I'm in town, actually. You know the Unibank branch at the corner of Twenty-Third and State?"

"Yes, what's up?"

"I'm inside, and there's a robbery in progress. They're having some trouble getting into the vault. Two are working on that problem while another four are holding about twenty civilians hostage. The bad guys are wearing metallic green suits, with some kind of wrist cannons. So what I need to know really is how dangerous they are…"

Clark lowered his voice, "They're a low-key contingent within Intergang. No special abilities, but those cannons you mentioned are pretty powerful. Condensed energy with enough force to make me feel it, if that helps at all. Did you say you were inside?"

"Yep."

"Ummm…mind if I ask where?"

"In the ceiling. I saw them come in from the street, took off my civvies, put on the mask, and followed them in."

Clark allowed himself a small smile. In the ceiling…where else would he be? "I'm on my way, Dick. Give me a minute or two."

"Okay, you head right for the guys at the vault. I'll go wave hello to the others. Bye!" The call was cut off from Dick's end.

Clark sighed inwardly. He'd known Dick Grayson since he'd made his debut as Robin, The Boy Wonder, some thirteen years before. Even back then the young man had proven himself capable of handling the most impossible situations, but his daredevil attitude had always made Clark worry.

Bruce Wayne, Dick's boyhood guardian by day and Gotham's avenging angel by night, was much different in his approach to his crusade. He and Bruce had been wary friends at first, and the progression of that friendship had hit a roadblock when Superman was introduced to Robin. The idea of a child fighting crime, especially without superpowers, was inconceivable to Clark.

But then, over time, Superman worked with Robin and got to know Dick Grayson. The young man's incredible natural abilities and overwhelming sense of responsibility matured him far beyond his years. Yet somehow his concern for Dick never faded. It wasn't a doubt in his abilities as a hero and leader. It wasn't his age anymore, either. At twenty-four, Dick had long been a proven adult.

No, what always gave Clark pause when it came to Dick Grayson and Nightwing was his smile; the gleam in his eyes and slight raise at the corners of his mouth whenever he was about to do something most people would consider suicidal. Jumping from his perch atop a skyscraper, going headlong into a severely outnumbered brawl, barreling down a highway in the rain at 125 miles per hour on a motorcycle…something inside of Nightwing enjoys it…all of it.

Clark had only ever seen that kind of cavalier joy from two other non-powered heroes, one of whom was Roy Harper, Arsenal of the Titans. As a boy, Roy's sense of abandon had led to a drug habit that almost cost him his life. Becoming an adult and father matured Roy exponentially, even though it doesn't show at times. But as a hero, his love of adventure was always tempered by his competitive and self-deprecating attitude. That mixture and his desire to be there for his daughter give Roy pause in action, and ultimately make him a seasoned and responsible hero.

The other person was the young man that replaced Dick Grayson as Robin. Jason Todd relished the power that the mantle bestowed upon him, and saw the danger that went with it as a thrill ride. In truth, many young heroes go through similar phases at the beginning of their careers. In time, Jason may have grown out of it.

Unfortunately, he never got that chance.

Clark's concern over Dick went far beyond the casual thought that he may one day be hurt and lose that smile and gleam forever, he had to admit. He saw Dick as more than the son of a friend. He'd taken a keen interest in Dick from the start, the boy's infectious positive and fun-loving attitude was magnetic to the Man of Steel. Dick had looked up to him, first in hero worship, then eventually as a mentor, confidante, and trusted friend. He knew that Dick perceived him as an uncle of sorts, and Dick might be proud to know that he's Clark's favorite, and only, nephew.

So, yes, Clark was worried as he made his hasty exit from the Daily Planet offices, changed into Superman, and headed for the Unibank branch. He was worried in a way that reminded him of dozens of other similar situations…taking off to assist a daring young man with a yellow cape billowing in his wake or a stylized blue wing emblazoned across his chest.

And, just as in most of those situations, he wasn't surprised to find nothing but a scattered collection of unconscious Intergang thugs and a piece of paper attached to the wall by a Batarang that read, "Faster than a speeding bullet, my butt! Ha! NW."

Superman couldn't help laughing. Apparently, he'd been caught reflecting and hadn't responded as fast as he could have. Who could blame him, though? He hadn't heard from Dick in a few months. He was allowed to look back fondly on a young man that had forgotten how to use a phone, wasn't he?

Actually, it wasn't customary for Dick to stay out of contact for so long. They'd both been extremely busy of late, Dick in Bludhaven and with the Titans, and he with Metropolis and the JLA…the JLA…

"Blast," Superman exclaimed as he left the bank and took to the air. Dick hadn't spoken to him since Batman's dismissal from the Justice League. He began combing the city for signs of Dick and/or Nightwing. And once he found him, they would have a little talk…a talk they should have had some time ago.

Flying quickly to the tallest nearby building, Superman began his telescopic search for Dick Grayson. After a minute, he caught sight of the young daredevil, still dressed as Nightwing, moving quickly along the rooftops about two miles away. It looked as though he was following someone, or something.

Not at all surprised by that particular turn of events, Superman took off again to get a better look. As it turned out, Nightwing was in hot pursuit of another six-man team of Intergang goons. They must have been backup for the bank team, Superman surmised.

They had taken the chase to street level and already turned to confront their pursuer as Superman came into range of the ensuing battle. Nightwing was on the offensive, staying in the middle of his attackers. The circular close combat made their wrist cannons useless, unless of course they didn't mind shooting each other.

Clark approached slowly, making sure that Nightwing saw him coming. The second the young acrobat noticed him, he flipped backward out of the midst of the team of combatants and went mobile, making himself a viable target to his foes. Superman understood the ploy immediately…Dick was drawing their focus so that he'd be free to first protect any nearby civilians, and then make a sweeping surprise attack to end the battle.

As he made a couple of superspeed passes to remove innocents, Superman silently commended Nightwing's instincts of teamwork and efficiency. He was convinced that Nightwing could be the seamless partner to anyone the way his mind automatically adapts his actions to include all variables. He falls so easily into a team environment when such situations arise. Superman wondered to himself how much more dangerous Batman would be if he adopted his ward's flexibility in working with partners and teams.

Nightwing took note that the area was now clear of civilians, stopped his aerial display, and moved quickly back amid his collection of foes. But just as they refocused their attention to his closer proximity, the fight was over. With one gust of superbreath, Nightwing's attackers were swept hard into the stone wall next to them, knocking them all unconscious.

Nightwing lowered his battle-ready arms and sighed. "It's so anticlimactic when you take them out that way. No fun at all," he said to Superman by way of greeting.

Superman smiled as he landed next to the first Boy Wonder. "Well, I thought I'd take you to lunch since you're in town, and long battles give you too much of an opportunity to pull the disappearing trick your mentor is so fond of," he replied as he extended his had to the younger man.

Nightwing took the offered hand and gave it a firm, if somewhat reluctant shake. "Thanks for the offer, Superman, but I came into town to have lunch with Donna. Speaking of which, I have to run. I'm late as it is."

"Later then? I'm free for dinner. I'd really like to talk some things over with you, Nightwing," Clark protested.

The sincerity in the other man's eyes told Nightwing that this was Clark addressing him…Kal-El…not Superman. The two weren't as different as the opposing sides of his mentor, but it was clear that Clark wanted to clear the air between them.

"I work nights, Superman…hence the name," Nightwing said as he began to walk away.

Superman called after him, "Then why did you call me if you didn't want to talk? You could have handled this…"

Nightwing launched his jumpline and made his way to the rooftops, knowing the distance between himself and Superman wouldn't stop him from being heard. "You know the rules I was raised on, Clark. 'Always let the locals know when you want to kick a little tail in their town.' Just following orders. I'll see you around."

Superman watched as Nightwing left the scene. His hearing had picked up Dick's parting statement easily, and the distance assured the young vigilante the last word.

Like father, like son, Clark thought to himself sadly as he flew away.

___________________________________________________________________

"Lois? I'm home," Clark called as he entered his apartment.

"I'm in the living room, Clark," she answered loudly. Lois had tried long and hard to resist the natural urge to shout when her husband wasn't within 'normal' earshot. She finally decided it was too confusing, reasoning that if Superman can withstand a bazooka shot to the chest, then he can just deal with his wife's raised voice.

Clark crossed the spacious living room and plopped down on the sofa next to his wife as he removed his glasses. "How was your day? Did I miss anything exciting?"

Lois looked over at Clark, whose face was downcast and sullen. The Kansas farmboy inside of him was so transparent when it came to his emotions. "Nothing much happened today. I spent most of it going over the background notes we dug up on Luthor's cabinet. What kept you away so long, Kansas?"

Clark sighed. She'd called him 'Kansas,' which she only did when she knew he had something on his mind that was bothering him. "That attempted heist at the Unibank on State Street."

"Hmmmm," Lois pondered, her wheels obviously turning. "Jimmy said that got wrapped up pretty quickly by one of those mysterious vigilante types."

"Nightwing," Clark stated plainly. "He called me at the Planet to let me know about the Unibank thing before he acted on it."

Lois seemed a bit surprised. "Called you at the Planet? Nightwing knows your secret?"

Clark smiled. "You're just acting surprised. You know enough to work it out on your own. You *are* Lois Lane, Investigative Reporter Extraordinaire, after all."

"Okay, okay. Nightwing, leader of the Titans, also rumored to be Bludhaven's resident vigilante. Not much known about him except that he took over leadership of the last Titans team shortly after Robin left. Most people probably wouldn't care enough to put that together, but I'm betting that Nightwing was the first Robin. Am I warm?"

Clark chuckled. "Very nice work, Miss Lane."

She winked at him playfully, "Thank you, Mr. Kent. So if Nightwing was Robin, that means he's really close to that wonderful putz of a friend of yours, Batman. You know Batman's identity, he knows yours, so I suppose it stands to reason that Nightwing knows you, too."

"Yeah, I met him when he first became Robin. He was just a kid, Lois, not even a teenager yet. He was so bright and funny, not at all what you'd expect from someone raised by the Batman."

"Hmmm, sounds like you really liked the kid," Lois said in turn.

"You can't help but like him. He was so mild-mannered, casual, and trusting with people. You know what I mean?"

Lois laughed out loud. "Are you serious, Clark? Yes, I'm very familiar with the type. I married it."

A small laugh escaped from Clark as he continued, "I guess you have a point there. Maybe we were kindred spirits of sorts. Whatever the case, the changes he brought about in Batman were amazing. Subtle to those who don't know him, but Nightwing really opened up a part of his mentor to me. It was shortly after Robin surfaced that Batman and I really became friends."

"Friends?" Lois scoffed. "I'm not sure I'd call him a friend, Clark."

"You know what I mean, Lois. Batman didn't trust me at first because I'm an alien to Earth. But I think the fact that Robin put so much faith and interest in me changed his mind. Anyway, it's a long story. Suffice it to say that, in a way, Nightwing is the nephew I never had."

"I don't know that I like having family that I'll never get to meet just because your pointy-eared friend is so snooty," Lois said mockingly.

Clark shrugged. "Nightwing would tell you who he is if it were entirely up to him. But knowing who he is leads you to Batman's ID, and that's not his secret to tell, Lois."

"I know, I know. Batman's ID must be the ultimate trump card in the Superhero Secrets game," she answered snidely. "So what happened with Nightwing today that has you so down in the dumps?"

Clark sighed again, more resignedly this time. "He hasn't said exactly, but I'm pretty sure he's angry with me over Batman's trouble with the JLA. He and Batman don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but he's very defensive of his mentor. He's probably taking the JLA situation harder than Batman did."

Before Lois could answer, there was a knock at the door. Clark got up and put his glasses back on. "I'll get it," he said as he made his way to the door. Being who he was, he knew who was at the door before he opened it.

"Dick, it's great to see you! Lois is here, though," Clark said in a hushed tone as he swung the door open.

"I'm not worried. I know I can trust her if she puts it together," Dick replied with a small smile.

Clark waved him inside and escorted him into the living room. "Lois, this is Nightwing. Well, it's Nightwing dressed casually," Clark stammered.

Lois laughed as she rose, and offered her hand to the young man. "I get the picture, Clark. It's nice to meet you, Nightwing. I've heard nothing but good things from Clark, and nothing but bad things from the New York state legislature and Roland Desmond."

Dick flashed her a winning smile as he shook her hand. "Clark is biased, the state is still kinda mad about Titans Tower blowing up, and Desmond…well, let's just say that we have the kind of relationship Clark has with Lex Luthor."

Lois returned his smile and studied him closely as he took a seat in the armchair across from her. He wasn't very large, only maybe an inch or two taller than she stood. His build, however, was quite impressive. Clad casually in jeans and a simple collared shirt, she could easily make out his athletic frame. He had an easygoing manner about him, the kind of laid back manner that puts people at ease. His crystal blue eyes coupled with a devastating smile were enough to make her heart skip a beat.

He made a good first impression, that much was certain. Aside from that, though, there was something oddly familiar about him…as though she'd met him before.

He noticed her scrutiny of him and decided to head it off at the pass, "It's not impossible that you'd recognize me, Miss Lane. We met a couple of times when I was a kid. All I'd ask is that if you do piece it together, you keep it, and whatever else you might learn as a result, to yourself. I don't much mind you knowing who I am, but there are…"

"I know the drill, Nightwing," she interrupted him, then glanced over at her husband. "I'm good at keeping secrets."

Dick smiled again. "Which is why I didn't wear the uniform and mask," he winked. "I just wanted to apologize about earlier, Clark. I did have a lunch date with Donna, but I shouldn't have blown you off like that…"

"I understand. I should have assumed that our situation with Batman would have affected you as well, which is why I wanted to talk to you."

"Before you boys get into it, are either of you hungry? Can I get you anything," Lois asked.

"I'm fine, honey."

"Me, too, ma'am," Dick replied.

Lois shot him a mock scowl. "'Ma'am?' Uh-uh. You can call me Lois."

"Sorry, Lois. And I'm Richard. My friends call me Dick."

Clark was a bit surprised that Dick chose to share his name with Lois. And by the looks of it, so was Lois.

"It's good to meet you, Dick. Thanks for that," she replied.

"Calling me Nightwing is silly enough *with* the mask, when you think about it," he said with a laugh.

"It's better than what Desmond calls you when you're not around…," Lois answered.

"Are you kidding? You should hear what he calls me when I *am* around."

The trio shared a laugh, then fell silent.

"I suppose we should just get to it," Clark began.

"I'm all ears. You don't owe me an explanation, though. But I would appreciate one, if you're offering. I'd like to understand…"

"I want to make it clear that I'm speaking with you about this both as a team leader and as a friend…as Batman's son. You said you want to understand, and I *need* you to understand," Clark's eyes spoke as sincerely as his words.

Dick sat back in his chair. "Okay, you have the floor. No interruptions, I promise."

"First of all, the big issue. The files he kept on us…the ones that described in great detail how to kill each member of the JLA…they were disconcerting to say the least."

"You're damn right they were," Lois added.

Clark shot her a pleading glance, and she fell silent.

"How those files fell into Ra's al Ghul's hands isn't really the issue to me. That kind of thing happens...Oracle can only protect so much, and I know as well as anyone that Batman felt they were as secure as humanly possible.

"My problem is that he kept those files from us; never let us know that he had them. I wasn't surprised that he had a file on me. It was almost something we came up with together, and I wouldn't be surprised if my giving him the Kryptonite ring is what planted this idea in his head in the first place.

"But I knew about it; that by giving him the ring he would consider the way in which he would take me down. It gave me comfort, and that's why I went to him. I'm not an egomaniac, Dick, but I'm fully aware of how powerful I am. Giving Batman the means to protect the world from me, should the need arise, was something I felt I had to do. He and I agreed, we had an understanding, we shook on it."

Clark stood up from his place on the sofa, moved behind it, and began to pace absentmindedly. "But the others didn't have that kind of understanding with him. Most of them were wary of him and his methods to begin with. For them to find out that he plotted to kill them was the ultimate betrayal. I understand his motivation, just as I'm sure you and Wally and J'onn do. The others don't trust him like we do. Do you understand, Dick?"

Dick steepled his fingers in front of his mouth, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair. He considered Clark's words briefly, then nodded.

"It goes deeper than that, too, Dick. The way he was with us during the No Man's Land situation in Gotham, that didn't help. He's so unbending in his drive to keep us out of his personal affairs, knowing full well that we only wanted to help. The lives and time we could have saved…

"To find out that he's studied us, our private affairs…all in an effort to determine the best way to kill us…in their eyes, Dick, it makes him the ultimate hypocrite. He fights tooth and nail to keep us out of his life, yet he keeps detailed files on all of us. You can see how that must look to someone that doesn't know him and has no real reason to trust him."

Clark returned to his seat on the couch and met Dick's eyes. "The more he closes himself off, the more he withdraws…the more we bend and compromise to accommodate him. Over the years, Dick, I really feel as though I've compromised enough, and it's never been a two-way street. That's why I voted the way I did. It was the best thing for the team. I think you can understand that."

"Are you finished," Dick asked politely.

Clark nodded.

"Can I ask you an honest question?"

"Always," Clark replied.

"When you guys got the JLA back together, and Batman asked me if I would join, that wasn't his idea, was it?"

"No, it was mine. J'onn, Diana, and Arthur felt many of the Titans had long since earned membership, and you were someone I definitely wanted on board," Clark answered.

"Do you know why I declined…why I've never really even considered a JLA membership?"

"Batman said you were occupied in Bludhaven, but I suspected there was more to it than that, perhaps simply that he didn't want you to participate."

Dick snickered slightly. "Oh, doesn't he wish he had that kind of control over me," he shot Clark and Lois a wink, and they shared a laugh. "No, that's not why I declined. Clark, who leads the JLA?"

Clark pondered the question for a moment. "I like to think we lead by committee. Though I am technically the chairman, no individual member has more power than another."

Dick nodded. "Do you guys train together?"

"No, at least not regularly, or very often. We all have responsibilities that fall outside of our JLA duties."

"Do you have an established set of goals, or any kind of mission or purpose?"

"To protect the Earth and its people. It's simple, but I think it works," Clark answered curtly.

"There's no clear leadership, little organization, no tactical or proactive planning, and your mission is purely reactionary. You know how much I admire you and the other members of the JLA, Clark. But what you have there isn't a team. A team works together, a big emphasis on 'together,' to accomplish a common goal.

"That idea has only been true of the JLA once…back when J'onn pulled it from the ashes with a collection of relative unknowns and trained them to be something great. At the end of the day, no one may have known or even cared who Vibe or Vixen were, but that was the one JLA team that I admired as a *team*.

"I grew up idolizing and worshipping you and the other originals. You were the mentors of my best friends and me. But as great as you were, you never really worked *together*, and that's something I was never comfortable with."

It was Dick's turn to stand and pace, and Clark could feel the nervous energy coming from him. His heart rate had increased dramatically…these were painful thoughts for him to convey.

"I'm not the world's greatest anything, Clark. My one true gift is teamwork. I know how to work with other people. I know what makes a great team. The Titans may never have been the most powerful group around, but there are few incarnations of Titans that I wouldn't have put up against the JLA in a bet," Dick said.

Lois laughed. "Dick, the Titans were great…but compared to the JLA?"

Dick smiled, "I know it sounds funny, but add a little perspective. Take the Titans team today and send them up against their counterparts on the recent JLA teams. So the JLA squad would have Batman, Aquaman, the new Green Arrow, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. Against the Titans' current lineup, which team has the edge?"

"The JLA team, hands down," Lois said nonchalantly.

Dick shifted his gaze from Lois. "Clark?"

Clark remained silent for a moment before responding, "I see your point, Dick. It would be interesting, but I might be inclined to give the Titans the edge. Teamwork speak volumes in situations like that."

"Exactly. In all fairness, Lois, you may be right. The JLA team has some of the most seasoned solo heroes ever to walk the Earth, and that counts for a lot. But the Titans know each other forward and backward, they train together regularly, and the majority of us have worked more together than apart for several years.

"But that's neither here nor there. My point is that the JLA severely lacks that element of teamwork, and shows no outward desire to correct that shortcoming. The team as it was when I was invited consisted of several heroes that were relatively new to what we do. The new Lantern and Arrow, Steel, the Huntress...great heroes and people, all of them...but not experienced enough to handle the pressure of JLA membership, especially when training isn't a part of the deal," Dick said as he returned to his seat in the armchair.

"I can't say that I agree with you there, Dick. They all handled the responsibility very well," Clark countered.

"Sure they did, but how many of them are still there? It's just Lantern now, isn't it? And he's also the only one of them that perceives himself as one of the greatest heroes on Earth; a personal opinion of himself that is due mostly to his JLA membership," Dick said confidently.

"Kyle has a bit of an ego problem, but he's done very well since he became a Green Lantern. You can't deny that."

Dick shook his head, "No, I can't. I like Kyle, and he's done a good job. But he's not what Hal Jordan was, and he never will be until he embraces the fact that he still has a lot to learn. With all due respect, Clark, the mere sight of Hal used to make me tremble as a kid. Kyle? I don't expect to be intimidated, but with Kyle it's because I *know* I can take him."

Clark smiled, "He might surprise you."

Dick nodded in return, "You're right…he might. But like you said earlier, I'm not an egomaniac, but I know what I'm capable of."

"I'm sure you do, but I fail to see what all this has to do with Batman. You make some very strong points, and I'd be lying if I said that we haven't considered the elements that we lack. It's one of the bigger reasons I wanted you as a part of the League. Those of us that know you value your input very much."

"And I appreciate that, Clark. My concern here is that all of you know how obsessed Batman is with details. He plans for everything. I can't fault them for being taken aback by the discovery of his files on them, but upon further consideration, I'd like to think that they understood why he keeps those files," Dick said.

"Perhaps they do. But as I said earlier, Dick, they don't trust Batman like I do. J'onn and Diana respect him…Arthur merely tolerates him. But the rest of them don't trust him, and have no reason to, especially now."

Dick sighed, "Then why was he on the team, Clark? You can't build a team around people you don't trust. Batman may creep some of the younger guys out, but I can't believe that they didn't trust him before this happened. The senior members that have known him for years would all trust him with their lives, and you can't convince me otherwise.

"Something bad happened and they reacted. Because you guys don't work together or make any real effort to become true teammates and friends, there was nothing keeping you from tossing Batman aside. You brought him into the group because you knew that he offers skills that you can't get anywhere else, and those skills far outweigh the fact that his demeanor makes some of you uneasy."

Dick took a deep breath and looked into Clark's eyes. "You're the one person outside the family that knows him like I do, Clark. I *know* you asked him to join because you know he's capable of leading in that committee you were talking about. You were looking at having a young roster and you needed people who commanded respect and exuded authority. You knew that Batman, obnoxious as he may be, has a way of bringing a team together and can pull impossible solutions from thin air.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you really feel it was best for the team for him to leave, why was he on the team to begin with? You knew how he was, and so did a lot of the others. Batman plans for everything…you know as well as I do that he has a similar file on me and Robin, just as *I* have a file on *him*," Dick said forlornly.

Lois gasped. "You can't be serious," she said, then turned to face her husband, whose features betrayed similar surprise.

Dick gazed at her nonchalantly. "Think about it, Lois. People like Superman and Batman are dangerous, and they routinely go up against forces of unimaginable power. We're all susceptible to something, even mind control. It's happened to Batman, Brother Blood got me, and the Titans were there to stop Clark when that scientist swapped bodies with him.

"Batman feels that we are necessary to prevent death and destruction, but he also knows that we can be the cause of that selfsame chaos. Because of that, he plans for the possibility. He's obsessive about being prepared. Just like you make sure you have a spare tire in your car or carry a can of mace, Batman prepares for the unfortunate occasion where Superman or Nightwing become a danger to innocent lives. And I agree with him, Lois, which is why I've prepared to take him down if I ever have to…even though it was the hardest file I ever had to put together."

Lois shook her head, "I suppose it makes sense, it's just hard to accept that you plan how to kill your father, or that he plans how to kill his friends."

"Put yourself in Clark's shoes, Lois, and ask yourself who you'd want to pull the trigger if you ever became a threat to innocent people. Me? I'd want it to be Batman or the Titans…or Clark. I'd want it to be someone that cared enough and knew enough about me to know that I would *never* want to harm people."

Lois looked at him, sobered by his words, and nodded her head in agreement.

"Look, this isn't just about Batman, Clark. It's twofold. You know that the JLA needs to improve its organizational structure and teamwork. You also know that Batman had a lot of plans for those aspects of the team. Sure, you and Diana and the rest of the senior members would have had to work with him to make sure those plans were bearable, but at the end of the day it's a big part of what Batman does…plans, organizes, trains…it's who he is.

"And the other side of it is that Batman needs you guys if he's ever going to come out of the shadows. On a good team, sometimes it's hard to deal with members that become problematic, but sometimes that extra effort is worth it. I had a lot of problems dealing with Raven at the beginning, and Arsenal wasn't exactly thrilled when Sarge Steel stuck him with Damage. But they both became our teammates, we worked together, cared for one another. Raven ended up saving the Earth, and Damage saved our entire timeline.

"Batman may be a pain in the ass to work with, but I guarantee you the rewards far outweigh any risk involved," Dick stated.

Clark stared back at him, processing Dick's words. "That may be the case, Dick, and I don't disagree with you. I sincerely hoped it wouldn't come to him having to leave the JLA, but the vote spoke for itself. I may want him back, and the team may need him on a lot of levels, but I can't change the minds of the other members."

Dick fumed, raising his voice slightly. "Why? Why can't you change their minds? You're a natural leader, Clark! Lead! Explain to them that the JLA needs organization, leadership, and guidance. Explain that without testing and training together, their team is destined to become another in a long line of JLA groups that didn't stand the test of time. Without increasing the sense of familiarity and understanding between your members, there's never going to be any real reason for you to stay together.

"Batman can help you with that. If you trust him, work with him, and make just a little effort to understand him, he'll help make you a part of something great. He needs that from you, Clark, and you owe him that!"

Lois stood up, an indignant look on her face. "I've heard enough of this, Dick. Clark has bent over backwards for that father of yours. He broods and worries over his well being probably more than he does over mine. It killed him to be a part of the decision that removed Batman from the JLA, but Batman brought that on himself!"

Clark rose and moved between his wife and their guest. "Lois, please. Let me speak with Dick alone…just for a few minutes."

Lois stared daggers at Dick, whose own features were apologetic. She reigned herself in and took a deep breath. Standing before her was a young man trying desperately to help his father be understood. He didn't deserve her rage.

"I'm sorry, Dick. I'll leave you two alone," she said.

"You had every right, Lois. I'm sorry, too…," he replied to her retreating form.

Clark waited for Lois to leave before speaking. "You know me, Dick. You know I care about him. But I don't feel like I owe him anything anymore. I'll always owe him my friendship, and he'll always have it, but that's all I have to give."

Dick hung his head. "It's not good enough, Clark." He raised his chin and locked eyes with the Kryptonian. "I'm just going to be straight with you…

"To maintain his life as it is, Bruce only needs me and Alfred. He's grown accustomed to Barbara, Robin, Batgirl, and the others…even Helena. We're his family…the sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews that make his little circle complete.

"But you, Clark…you're his only friend. I don't know if you ever really knew that, but it's true. There was a time with Ollie, but then…," he trailed off sadly.

Clark closed his eyes and nodded his head. "I know."

"You're important to him, Clark. He respects and trusts you. He admires J'onn and Diana and the others, but he sees you as a friend. And I know that there isn't anyone else he sees in quite the same way, though Jim Gordon is right up there." Dick paused again, as if to make sure that Clark was hearing every word.

"You're his connection to the outside world. When you came into our lives and became his friend, you took on a bigger responsibility than you bargained for, Clark. He needs you like he needs Alfred and me. We can keep him going, but it's going to take you and your efforts to help him come out of the shadows. I don't want this to be it for him…

"After all he sacrificed and fought so hard for, he deserves better than that. I'd spend my whole life doing better for him if I could, but I need help. *Bruce* needs help…"

Clark fell silent and moved to stare out of the balcony doors. He was quiet for a time, then spoke softly. "Assuming you're right, how can it be fixed? I know he thinks I burned him, so how long am I in the proverbial doghouse," Clark asked with a small smile.

Dick released a good-natured laugh. "It took me almost four years. I failed him by leaving. My absence led to the mess with Jason, and that ultimately led to the mistake with Jean Paul Valley."

Clark moved back toward Dick and placed his arm protectively on his shoulder. "Those things weren't your fault, Dick. And they weren't Bruce's, either."

Dick looked up at him and smiled. "I know. It's okay. But Bruce's perception is that it *is* his fault, and there's no changing that. He faults himself for letting me go, as if he could have stopped me from growing up. The fact that the estrangement lasted as long as it did was my fault, though. I should have forced the issue sooner.

"It's stupid that we have to cater to his stubbornness, but we can't help him unless we stay close."

Clark grinned. "So that's why you chose Bludhaven instead of New York or Denver or wherever else?"

Dick laughed aloud. "Maybe."

"I'll talk to him, Dick. I can't promise you that he'll listen, but you have my word that I'll talk to him. I agree that if we want the JLA to improve, we're better off with him than without him."

"He'll make it easier, Clark. I promise. It definitely won't be more pleasant with him around, but the transition will be easier."

The two friends shared a good laugh and were soon rejoined by Lois.

"I'd best be going, guys. Clark, thanks a lot for listening. And Lois, I'm sorry again if I upset you earlier, and for monopolizing your hubby tonight. I owe you one," he said as he flashed her another award-winning smile.

Lois scolded herself for the slight flush she felt on her cheeks, and chose as usual to turn her discomfiture against its cause. "Well, if you feel you owe me one, and you can't give me the exclusive story on Batman's ID, then the least you can do is show me this disappearing act Commissioner Gordon is rumored to be so impressed with."

"Lois! Now you've done it! You asked Nightwing to perform," Clark exclaimed with a mock groan.

Dick's eyes lit up and a broad smile crept across his handsome features. "Don't listen to him, my dear," he said as he walked toward the balcony door on his hands. "Clark, I owe your lovely wife a secret, so hush up and escort her to the balcony." Dick flipped easily back to his feet and pulled the balcony door open.

The trio moved out onto the balcony of the Kents' 27th floor apartment. Clark took a seat in a patio chair while Dick and Lois walked to the middle of the balcony.

Dick reached into his pocket and produced his Nightwing mask. He deftly affixed it to his eyes, then bowed low before his one-woman audience.

"Okay, I'm Nightwing, you're Jim Gordon. We're on the roof of the Gotham police station, and you're giving me the details of a case."

"Okay."

"Me and Batman are very Joe Friday…'Just the facts, ma'am'… Once you tell me everything I need to know, I'll ask you to repeat something or some unimportant question that I already know the answer to. Are you with me so far?"

Lois nodded, paying close attention to his words, but scanning the balcony to be sure he didn't slip away. "So you just stall him with a question and…hey…" When she looked back to where he'd been standing he was gone. Whirling around, he found that he'd moved behind her.

He smiled at her mildly annoyed look. "See? So we get you in thought on an unimportant fact of the case, but it's even easier to vanish when he's so intent on keeping an eye on me," he replied with a wink.

"Yeah, but where do you go? You can't fly or teleport or anything…," she asked incredulously.

Dick shrugged. "Batman usually has a jumpline waiting, but I just jump off the roof."

"You jump off the roof?"

"Yeah."

"Isn't the police station like 10 stories high?"

Dick shrugged yet again. "It's not as hard as you might think. Even from way up here. Look over the side and see if there's anything you might use to break your fall."

Lois complied. Leaning against the railing, all she could see were the two dozen balconies below theirs. "Not really," she said in reply. "But you…hey…wait a second…"

She spun around quickly, only to find herself alone on the balcony with her husband, who was smiling proudly.

"You walked right into that one, Lois."

"Where did he go? I know *you* saw him," she demanded.

"He jumped, just like he said."

Lois scowled, "So he just jumps off of roofs and balconies, and out of windows?"

"Yeah, it's one of his many gifts," Clark laughed in response.

"I'm going to start doing that during Perry's editorial meetings," she mused.

"Now now…Nightwing has been jumping out of windows since he was a child. Baby steps, Lois. Baby steps."

Lois smiled seductively and pulled her husband to his feet.

"Oh, I have a funny feeling that someone would catch me. Tall, dark, handsome…," her voice drifted off as she led Clark back inside their apartment.

"That's funny. I didn't get the impression that you liked Batman that much…"

"You're in for it now, Kent!"

END

Winner - Best Miscellaneous Story - BLUDHAVEN DFAs