The Night the Lights Went out in Gotham

The Night the Lights Went out in Gotham
by Constance "Eilonwy"
© 2001
eilonwy@earthlink.net

Batman, Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, and Jim Gordon are the property of DC Comics/Warner Brothers animation. No profit is being made from this story. All other characters are mine.

Set after the end of The New Batman Adventures, and after two other of my fanfiction stories, The Summer of Her Discontent and Thirteen Hours. It didn't start out that way, but the stories turned into the first 2 parts of a trilogy. This one is the 3rd and final installment (not my last batfamily fic, I hope, but I expect from now on it's time to try my hand at the comic book continuity).

It ignores the (future) events detailed in Batman Beyond. They didn't (will not) happen. I'm departing the text. I like Batman Beyond, but it kind of ruins my fun. For the record, my Batman fanfiction falls into 3 categories. 1--set in the continuity of the animated series, but ignoring Batman Beyond. 2--set in the Batman Beyond continuity.

Some information and inspiration came from The Blackout History Project website: http://chnm.gmu.edu/blackout/transition.html and from a letter written by editor Willaim Maxwell during the New York City blackout of 1965.

With thanks to Kellie, who listened to me describe this blow-by-blow before it was even time to start writing it; Batya, for random bits of dialogue; and Merlin Missy, who beta-read and cared enough to nit-pick, fix typos, and suggest things I should have thought of but didn't.

Additional dedication to Chuck Dixon, writer of the Nightwing comics, who allowed Dick Grayson to come into his own and sent him to Bludhaven; and to all the writers, over the years, on Batman Animated, who can really take a whole lot of the blame for inspiring this.

* * * *

"When it comes to emotions, even great heroes can be idiotic."--from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

* * * *

"It's time."

"Wait a sec."

"Now!"

"If I rush this, I'll blow it."

"If you don't do something, you'll blow it. She's going to get away!"

"You can't hurry something like this. It requires strategy. Delicacy."

"It requires you to open your big mouth, bird brain. Uh-oh."

"What?"

"Look."

Tim Drake, dressed in a black and white tuxedo almost identical to Dick Grayson's, reached up and turned his friend's head toward the parquet dance floor. A tall, blond man with a prominent jawline and a smile that showed too many teeth spoke to a slender young woman whose long red hair was piled high on her head, loose tendrils hanging down over shoulders left bare by the simple green velvet dress she wore. She had to tilt her head back to look at him and offered a smile and a nod in return.

"Oh, hell." Dick Grayson let out a groan and smacked his hand to his forehead. "Not Biff."

"I think it's Dirk." Tim Drake watched with amusement as Dirk, or Biff, led Barbara Gordon out onto the dance floor. The band started playing "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

"What could she possibly see in that bozo?" Dick turned back to the refreshment table behind them, snatched up a handful of celery and carrot sticks, and shoved half into his mouth mechanically; they could have been wooden chopsticks for all he noticed.

Squirming in his tuxedo, Tim Drake tugged helplessly at his bow tie--not a clip-on, but a real, honest-to-god bow tie. Alfred had insisted. "Beats me. Look, you asked for my advice. I think you should tell her how you really feel."

Dick Grayson's look of irritation smoothed out into defeat. The confident, cocky line of his body sagged as he glanced away to the rain-streaked plate-glass windows that formed the walls of the penthouse restaurant. "I know," he said miserably. "But a lot's happened...I screwed up. I'm not sure she...aw, forget it." He cut the air with his hand dismissively, turning back to the food.

Lightning, sharp and jagged, danced over the towers of Gotham, with a glare that made the night bright as day for an instant. Inside the Riverview Terrace Restaurant, it was a balmy 71 degrees for the Gotham Orphanage Charity Dance. Outside, on the terrace for which the restaurant was named, the thermometer crept up inexorably towards 95 degrees.

"Ooh, doesn't that sound nasty?" a socialite squealed as a clap of thunder sounded. She and her escort swept by the boy and the man, the woman clinging to her date's arm.

"Yes, very nasty," the date said mildly. He was tall, with imposingly broad shoulders, black hair, and a tuxedo similar to Tim and Dick's. As he went by them, he shot Dick a helpless look.

Tim grinned. "He sure puts on a good act, doesn't he?"

"Yeah," said Dick. "It used to be all I could do not to crack up when Bruce went into his playboy routine."

The song ended. Tim Drake took a neat side-step, put his hands between Dick's shoulder blades, and shoved. "Go ask her to dance," he said, with clenched teeth.

The man who just three days ago had taken on ten muscled goons by himself began to sweat in his tuxedo. As the blond man with the obnoxiously prominent chin reluctantly drifted away from Barbara, Dick Grayson forced his feet to move. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot...

"Hey, Babs."

She turned at his voice, the smile she offered polite, but apparently nothing more. "Hi, Dick. Having a good time?"

"Oh, sure, if you like incredibly dull, endless society events. I think I'd rather chase Croc through a sewer."

"That bad?" she said wryly, with a half-smile more friendly than the social one she had just given him. "You look nice," she said, eyeing his tuxedo up and down.

"Thanks. So do you."

The band shifted mood and time period and began a slow rendition of "It Had to Be You."

"Wanna dance?" Dick said smoothly, stepping closer to her.

"With you?"

He bit back the reply he was tempted to give her in sheer self defense; something like "no, with Harvey Bullock."

"Sure, with me," he said, grinning. Taking another step closer, he held out his hand.

Warily, as if convinced he had some nefarious plot in mind, she slowly lifted her hand, placed it in his. He put his other hand on her waist, and then, so fluidly they barely had to think about it, they were dancing, without awkwardness. In some ways it was like being out there, on the rooftops together--that was like a dance, as they timed their movements, working together to triumph when outnumbered.

"It's...uh...not a....bad party," she said.

"Hm. The food's...decent."

"Uh-huh," she said, her voice oddly breathy.

A loose strand of her hair tickled his nose. She shifted slightly, and her cheek came to rest on the shoulder of his jacket. Everything stopped.

There was a snapping bang, a loud pop, the smell of burnt wiring. With another bright flash of lightning, the Riverview Terrace Restaurant went pitch black.

A woman screamed. Voices began to murmur in confusion.

"What..."

"...blow out..."

"Fuse?"

"Probably the lightning..."

"...get my raincoat..."

"...worst storm in thirty years..."

The pitch black was not actually pitch; it was only the sudden loss of light that made it seem that way. On each table, candles in elegant silver holders continued to burn, flickering slightly with the startled movements of the guests.

Dick felt Barbara pull away from him, but she left her hand in his. He held on tightly and began to gather his bearings.

"Tim?" he called softly.

"Over here," Tim answered. "By the ice sculpture."

"Where's Bruce?"

"Stay alert," a deep voice spoke into his ear. "This is probably nothing we need to worry about, but if things get out of hand, our costumes are with Alfred in the car downstairs."

"Got it," Dick said.

After eight minutes that felt like an eternity, the restaurant staff came with flashlights and the maitre'd announced that the entire building had lost power. Another waiter ran in, flashlight bobbing, and whispered something to the maitre'd, whose face turned even gaunter in the hollow glow of the flashlights and candles. The man cleared his throat, collecting himself. "Ladies and gentlemen, it would appear...the rest of the 1200 block has lost power as well."

Dick and Barbara turned and made their way carefully to the windows.

Even through the rainstorm, the lights of Gotham city had been visible, twinkling through the streaked glass.

Now, there was nothing but rain.

Without saying a word, Dick found the sliding glass door leading out onto the terrace. Barbara followed his steps automatically, her hand still in his. Together, they stepped out into the rain, heedless of what it could do to their evening clothes.

Lightning lanced across the sky like a scar, illuminating the surrounding buildings and the Gotham River beyond for a moment. The rain was a steady rhythm, relentless. It was windy here, high above the city.

Together, they looked down over the terrace wall.

Block after block, the city was shrouded in darkness. There were no streetlights, no homelights glowing from the apartment buildings. The only illumination came from the cars and the occasional flash of lightning. A chorus of panicked honking rose distantly from the streets below, as drivers discovered the traffic lights had gone dark.

The beam of a flashlight sliced through the falling rain, and Dick and Barbara turned to see Tim holding a flashlight, with a taller form beside him. Thunder crashed, loudly enough that even Bruce flinched. They withdrew under an awning, where they could talk in privacy.

"It's the whole city," Bruce said, the rain starting to plaster his hair to his head. "All of downtown Gotham."

The flashlight Tim held seemed absurdly inadequate next to the rage of the storm. Water danced along the tiles of the terrace, raindrops falling with the intensity of sparks.

"We need to get down to the car," Bruce finished. "We're going to work. It's going to be a long night."

* * * *

In the wake of the noise and rage of the storm, the silence was almost an abomination.

They stood at the edge of the police precinct rooftop, Batman, Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl, watching the street below, which glistened from the recent rain.

Floodlight stations were set up about every other block, with two cops at each station. Crossing guards in reflective orange stripes as well as ordinary citizens rising to the occasion directed traffic, while a cop with a bullhorn informed everyone to go right home. One hardware store had pulled its entire inventory of flashlights and the owner's sons stood on the sidewalk, giving them away, along with batteries, as if this were merely a promotional stunt to help the flashlight industry. But far too many other shops had locked their gates. The latest report on the police band was that the power company was working frantically to get things back on line, but the lightning had fried several towers.

"This could turn into an unholy mess," Commissioner Gordon said, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his trousers, his shirtsleeves rolled up against the oppressive heat. "For the moment, things are sane."

"And Arkham?" Batman turned to look at his long-time contact. "Blackgate?"

"Holding. They have their own back-up generators, as do the police precincts and the mayor's office. But god help us all if those back-up generators fail."

Batman handed Gordon a small metallic object about the width of a finger. "You contact me on this the moment something goes wrong at either facility."

"Got it. If it does...we'll need your team's help. There's no moon for this one. That's bad."

"Who's not on the inside at the moment?" Batman asked.

The commissioner thought for a moment. "None of your favorites."

"You're kidding," said Robin. "Scarecrow? The Joker? Poison Ivy? Two-Face...all three of him?"

"All locked up at the moment," Gordon said, with some satisfaction.

Nightwing groaned. "Of course. For once all the nutjobs are locked away. So we have a blackout. It figures."

Gordon turned and headed back for the roof access door above the police station, giving Batgirl a quick glance as he did so.

"Nightwing," said Batman, in his clipped, on-duty voice, "You and Batgirl survey the waterfront. Report in at fourteen hundred hours. Robin and I will sweep midtown."

"Yes, sir," Nightwing said irritably.

"If that's a problem..." Batman began, voice calm.

"I think Robin and I should check out the waterfront," Batgirl suggested, pulling out her rappelling gun and adjusting the line.

"Huh?" Nightwing turned to her. "Why?"

"He knows it really well. He busted that smuggling ring a few months ago."

"You go with Nightwing," Batman said curtly.

"I'd rather work with Robin on this one." She tried to keep her voice casual, looked away as Robin knowingly glanced from her to Nightwing, and Nightwing's eyes fixed onto her.

If Batman noticed the silent exchange, he was pretending not to. "We don't have time for this," the Dark Knight said, a dangerous note creeping into his voice.

Somewhere below, a siren went off.

"No, of course not." Dick clenched his gloved hands into fists. "You just fire off orders, and everyone hops to, no questions asked, no opinions taken. Heaven forbid anyone ever has a say in the matter."

A frown drew down the corners of Batman's mouth. "Do we have to discuss this now? We have a job to do. Go to the waterfront, Nightwing."

"In case you haven't noticed, I don't work for you anymore. I'm just here to help out. I take orders from no one. Come on, Batgirl, let's go." Nightwing reached for her arm.

"Excuse me?" Her cowl twitched as her eyebrows shot straight up and she stepped out of his reach. "Now who's giving orders?"

"Come on, I didn't..."

A sharp whistle brought the conversation to a halt. All three masked figures turned. Robin lowered his bare fingers from his mouth; he had momentarily removed one glove. In the darkness, the scarlet chest of his costume stood out starkly against the black trim.

"If you're done, maybe we should actually try patrolling?" the boy said, rolling his eyes. "We're supposed to work together. Or maybe proving who's in charge is more important than helping people?"

There was an uncomfortable silence on the rooftop. "I'm ready when you are, Batman," Robin said, pulling out his rappelling gun.

The expression beneath Batman's cowl was inscrutable. He, too, aimed his rappelling gun. With two short bangs, they shot their grapples upward, lines streaming behind. The grapples anchored on the next building. Then, they simultaneously leapt, their capes flying out behind in them. Their movements had a precision that looked practiced but were really just instinct.

Nightwing watched them go. "Did he and I ever work that well together?"

"Yeah," Batgirl said.

He looked at her, surprised; he hadn't expected an answer.

"Yeah, you used to." Her eyes fixed on the shrouded skyline, distant.

"Listen," he said hesitantly, one foot up on the rooftop cornice. "If you really don't want to work with me tonight, we can split up. If you want. I'll take the waterfront, you scout Burnley..."

She sighed. "No. No, it's not that. We should stay in pairs, it's dark out there. Let's go."

Together, they fired their lines and took flight.

* * * *

The darkened sky was oppressive, still covered in a layer of thick, murky clouds although the storm was over. Down at the waterfront, the ships had their emergency lights burning. Shimmering strips of gold danced across the water. In the distance, the bridge was only a faint, spidery shape without its strings of lights.

A plane, redirected to Bludhaven or Metropolis, roared overhead, the wing lights standing out brightly against the murkiness above it.

A handful of police patrolmen wandered the docks, but they couldn't be everywhere.

And not every criminal was currently in Blackgate or Arkham.

"Behind you!" Nightwing called a warning to his partner, then launched a spinning kick that knocked a burly, muscular man to the ground.

Batgirl executed a backflip as the gunfire from an automatic weapon followed her trail. She landed behind the protection of a stack of crates. A blue-black blur, Nightwing darted in the other direction, trying to draw their fire, and found refuge behind a pyramid stack of metal bars.

"You can't hide forever," said the one who was apparently the leader of the group. He was a stranger to them, a wiry man who wore a long brown coat, even in the heat, and glasses. He looked ordinary.

Flanking him on either side, his compatriots brandished their guns. One of them, a women in her thirties dressed all in black, blond hair pulled up in a bun, smiled nastily. Besides the leader, the burly guy, and the woman, there were two others who looked as if they had come from Rent-a-Thug. Near them on the ground were open crates, packing material spilling out. Several sacks now bulging with the objects stolen from the crates gaped open. They were museum pieces, small statuettes, gold platters, bowls and other household objects from a time long gone.

"Hey," said Nightwing. The woman turned, startled; suddenly the masked crimefighter, as if by magic, was no longer by the crates, but right behind her. He punched her in the chin and she fell back against the man wearing glasses.

One of the Rent-a-Thugs swung his gun on Nightwing. There was a whipping sound, of wind against blades, and a batarang caught him on the arm. He shouted in pain and dropped the gun. Nightwing kicked it into the water and tackled the thug head-on.

Batgirl leapt into the fray.

"We shouldn't be wasting time here," Nightwing called out to her. "It's in the city where Batman's going to need help."

"You think we'll have rioting?" she asked, ducking a punch from the woman, then kicking her opponent in the stomach. The woman went down, hair spilling out of the bun, and didn't get up.

"Gordon said it. There's no moon. People are going to panic. And in this heat..." Nightwing side-stepped as one of the thugs rushed him.

"But what about the artifacts? We can't just let them steal them." The other thug aimed his gun at her but she kicked it out of his hand.

"True," he said. "Watch it!" Nightwing leapt at the leader as he took aim at Batgirl's back with his gun. The gun bounced on the concrete dock and plopped into the water. "Hi," Nightwing said, hoisting the slight, wiry man by the front of his brown coat. "It's not nice to steal shipments of priceless artifacts during a blackout, didn't your mommy ever tell you? In fact, it's not nice to steal priceless artifacts any time."

"Quite the cocky wisecracker, aren't you?" the man in the glasses said, as if he weren't being held with his feet inches from the ground. "I am no mere thief, young man. I am a collector."

"Yeah, yeah. You can tell it to the judge."

"Oh, I don't think so."

With an unexpected movement, he brought his left hand into his right coat sleeve. Swiftly as a snake, too swiftly for Nightwing to realize what he was doing, his left hand slashed out, the blade of a knife glinting.

Nightwing shouted in surprise and pain as kevlar tore.

"Nightwing!" Batgirl punched the last standing thug in the chin and ran towards her partner.

Red welled out from the slash across his upper arm, but Nightwing didn't drop the thief. He only offered his prey a slow, nasty smile. "Not a smart move," he said, and tossed the thief aside as if he were a sack of laundry. The man struck the wall of a storage building and fell, out cold.

"Guess our work is done here," Nightwing said--and promptly sat down on an unopened crate.

"Oh my gosh." Batgirl hurried to his side, her fingers searching for the source of the blood. "Let me see."

"It's just a scratch."

She snorted. "Why do they always say that?" she muttered, rolling her eyes. " It's just a scratch.'" Gingerly, she touched the wound. The fingers of her glove came away dripping red. "It looks deep. I think it needs stitches." She reached into her utility belt and removed a small bundle of gauze and tape. "For now, this will have to do."

Batgirl wrapped the gauze around his upper arm while he tried to pretend he didn't want to wince.

"I don't need stitches," he protested. "There isn't time. Just patch it up."

Her communicator beeped. Batgirl touched it. "Go ahead, Batman."

"We need you both downtown, corner of Burnett and 12th. Rioters."

Batgirl inhaled sharply. "That's bad." She tore off a piece of tape. "You'd better ask Alfred to meet us somewhere on the way."

"Why?" the voice asked, with a strained calm. There were only certain reasons to ask for Alfred.

Nightwing reached for his own communicator with his free hand. "She's overreacting, Batman. I just got a little scratch, that's all."

"A very bloody little scratch," she said, glaring at him. "His arm. The knife cut through kevlar, I'd love to know where the creep got it. He's going to need stitches, I think. Oh, and give us an extra five minutes or so, we have to gift-wrap these archaeological thieves for the police patrols."

"Acknowledged. Stand by."

They tied up the thieves. Nightwing left a batarang as a calling card. Red was already starting to stain the gauze wrapped around his arm.

"Batgirl?" The communicator came to life.

"Go ahead," she said, her eyes fixed on the red stain on Nightwing's arm.

"Alfred's leaving us his first aid kit at Burnett and 10th on the roof of the Dixon building. We can't risk being seen with him. Besides, I need Alfred elsewhere right now."

"Got it."

"Wait a minute," Nightwing protested, as she cut communication. "Alfred's not stitching me up?"

"Oh, stop being such a baby."

* * * *

"Ow!"

A rebellious-looking Nightwing sat on the edge of a ventilation duct on the rooftop while Batman knelt beside him, cape spreading out behind him on the roof. His mouth was tight with concentration as his gloved fingers worked deftly, stitching the wound.

Nightwing hissed through his teeth, in pain.

"Sorry," Batman said, and made another stitch, then cut it and tied it off. "Done."

The Dark Knight wrapped a bandage around his former protegee's arm and taped it securely.

From the street below, light radiated upward and faded as a car went by, headlights on high-beam and the interior light turned on.

Nightwing got to his feet and rolled his shoulder, sensing out the condition of his arm. He winced.

"It'll be sore for a while," Batman explained, also rising to his feet, a fluid shadow on the rooftop. "Try not to use it tonight."

"Right," Nightwing said sardonically. "Come on, we'd better get to Batgirl and Robin. That crowd looked nasty.

* * * *

Robin, perched like a bird on the big sign above a hardware store, dropped another smoke pellet.

"It's discouraging some of them," Batgirl said, standing with her back against the upward arm of the sign. "But there are too many. We can't just beat them all senseless."

Some small illumination came from a few flashlights the boys had. A car swept by, its headlight beams flashing over the boys. The car sped up, and Batgirl and Robin could see its nervous occupants, a family with two children, staring out the window as they went by.

Several boys barely out of adolescence, dressed in white t-shirts that stood out starkly from the darkness of the night, slammed themselves against the store gate. The gate shuddered and began to give.

"We have to do something," Robin said.

"Batman said it's happening all over town." Batgirl bit her lower lip. "We can't stop every single mob."

"But we can stop this one." Robin turned to her, fade shadowed. "The way I see it is, if we only help one person, we're making a difference. If we can stop this gang from breaking the store window, stop them from stealing, it gets that much less crazy in Gotham tonight. Maybe they won't go off and meet another gang, start fighting over the stuff they stole. Maybe if we stop them here, we can stop another group somewhere else. Like...a chain reaction."

"A butterfly sneezing," she said, looking down at the gang.

"Huh?"

"Never mind. All right, Boy Wonder Jr., let's do it."

She dropped, graceful as a cat, into the thick of the teenagers, Robin a split second behind her. Batgirl shot her rappelling gun at two boys, immobilizing them with her line. Robin threw his batarang, striking the hand of another as he reached for the store gate. He pulled out another batarang, raising it above his head as a threat.

"Listen me," Batgirl called out, her voice clear and strong. "Stop this, now. I don't think any of you wants to go to jail."

"Hey, check out the chick," one of the teenagers shouted. He held a length of chain and had black hair. "Nice costume."

"You can arrest me anytime," another seconded. He was smaller than the black-haired boy and wore a black t-shirt with a skull on it.

"Woo-hoo!" a voice called.

In response, Batgirl spun and punched the nearest gang member in the stomach. He doubled over, gasping in pain. "Anyone else want detention?"

"Um...Batgirl..." Robin said nervously.

The two boys, who seemed to be the leaders, advanced towards them, with the rest emerging from the fog-like smoke like apparitions. The black-haired boy moved with agility, a confident grin on his handsome face.

"...I don't think my idea is working," Robin finished.

Another boy rushed Robin, who let fly with the batarang, hitting the older boy in the shoulder. The boy cried out and stopped, clutching his shoulder.

"Don't you understand?" Batgirl said calmly to the gang. "There's a city-wide blackout. You're only making things worse. Keep this up, and people are going to get hurt. You can be a part of the problem, or you can help."

"Yo, freak, you sound like my teachers. Shut up." The leader swung at her. She ducked, then grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. "Ow!" he yelled. "OW ow ow ow! Let go of me!"

"I pity your teachers," she said, low. She shoved the boy aside. "Anyone else want to try me?"

Two teenagers rushed Robin at the same time, one from each side. The scarlet-clad figure leapt straight up and kicked both at the same time. They slumped to the sidewalk.

"Hey, punk." A tall, burly boy in a black leather jacket leapt at Robin, swinging a lead pipe. He caught the costumed figure a blow across the ribs. Robin stumbled, holding his side.

Batgirl turned and grabbed the lead pipe as the burly boy raised it for another blow, but then two more attacked her from behind, one wrapping his arms around her and lifting her off the ground. She muttered a curse and slammed her heel down hard into his foot, then jammed her palm upward into his chin. Blood spurted from his mouth and he dropped her while the other one dove at her legs, tackling her and bringing her to the ground.

There seemed to be an infinite supply of juvenile delinquents emerging from the smoke. Batgirl pinned the one she was wrestling with and called out, "Think we miscalculated the situation?"

"Oh yeah, I'd say so," Robin replied, ducking and then catching one of the teenagers in the stomach with an upward blow.

The attacking boys became not individuals but merged into an anonymous swarm of faces and raised fists and weapons. Everything dissolved into chaos. Batgirl and Robin had no time to catch their breath or plan, but could only lash out at each attacker, trying not to hurt them too badly as they defended themselves. The two masked figures found themselves with their backs to the damaged gate.

"You costumed nuts think you're so righteous," the older boy snarled. He shoved back the dark hair falling into his eyes with one angry gesture. "Telling us to do the right thing. Blame everything on punks like us. Let me tell you something, some guy in a business suit paid me fifty dollars to smash a window for him. A lady offered Spike a twenty if he'd break a store gate. We figured, hey, if folks like that take what they want, so can we."

"But you could be better than them," Batgirl said.

The boy laughed. "Sure. And when the crisis is over, things go back to normal, and we're the bad guys again."

Robin kept loooking from the rest of the gang, who had paused to watch their leader speak with the enemy, to the one confronting Batgirl.

"Please, if we just talk about this..."

"Shut up!" The boy leapt, slamming her up against the gate, holding a pipe against her throat.

Robin started to go to her, but four guys piled on him and suddenly he was far too busy.

And then the two dark shapes dropped from the murky sky.

All heads turned. The boy holding the pipe to Batgirl's throat slowly lowered his hands. Robin and the four teenagers froze in mid-tableau, Robin with his arm drawn back to strike, the other teenagers clinging to his arms and legs, trying to bring him to the ground.

The two forms emerged from the smoke, one lithe, a demon in blue-black like a clear night sky, the other a massive shadow that seemed formed from the smoke itself, a ghost. Their eyes glowed through the murk, and even Batgirl and Robin, who knew this was due to the night-vision lenses, momentarily tasted the awe that criminals often felt.

"Let go of them. NOW." The ghost spoke, with a voice that could make granite obey.

The boys immediately stepped away from Robin as if he had burned them. The teenager holding Batgirl released her, turning slowly, face still, as if in shock. The lead pipe clattered from his limp fingers, his eyes fixed on the ghost.

The demon leapt, and suddenly three gang members found themselves stripped of their chains and lead pipes. Arms folded, eyes burning, the demon loomed over four boys who had drawn together, legs unstead. "Boo," the demon said.

The four boys ran as if hell itself was after them.

"Leave," said the dark ghost, turning to the rest.

They obeyed, running in the direction their companions had gone.

Only two remained. One of them was the younger, small boy in the black t-shirt with the skull on it. He stood still, eyes wide and frightened, like a rabbit fixated by a snake. The black-haired one stared, mouth open slightly, awed.

The demon and the ghost turned, the ghost's cape whipping out behind it. Batgirl and Robin followed, and all four were gone, swallowed by the fog.

"Hey, Spike?" The older boy said, after a long stretch of lonely silence.

"Yeah?"

"You ever think...maybe..."

"What?"

"That maybe...it could have been different for you...ever...aw, forget it."

* * * *

Gotham City. Trapped in darkness, the best and worst rose to the surface, freed by the absence of an everyday veneer.

Wherever they went, the heroes saw rioters, looters, and thieves. These were not only the criminals of Gotham, but the terrified or the avaricious or the temporarily insane. It was a city transformed; candlelight, flashlights, emergency lights seemed bright out of proportion to their power. The difference between darkness and illumination became everything.

Light was everything.

Wherever they went, they saw ordinary people helping other people. Stores somehow staying open to distribute candles and flashlights and food. They saw an automat that had managed to stay open, lit entirely by candles. Neighbors hanging out on their stoops because with the air conditioners dead it was too hot to be indoors. They sharply called to their children to stay within flashlight range, to stay within sight. So the children ran and played in tight circles, the ones with flashlights using them for complex variations on tag, under the watchful eye of many adults.

This assuaged their fears for the families; they felt a certain satisfaction in being able to pity anyone who went up against these other protectors in the night.

While the generators at Blackgate and Arkham held...and held...

* * * * *

"I thought for sure he was going to lecture us."

Batgirl crouched on a gargoyle, looking down at the street below while Robin coiled his jumpline, standing behind her on a ledge with one foot propped jauntily on a window sill.

"He did," Robin said dryly. "Didn't you notice?"

"He didn't say much of anything, just told us what areas to patrol."

"No, but he gave us The Look."

"Oh. Yeah, he did, didn't he?" She looked out across the canyons between the buildings, at the sky where the clouds were starting to thin, letting a half-moon peer through. It bathed the city in a faint silvery tint. Then a cloud moved across the moon again, restoring the oppressive darkness. "I hope Nightwing and Batman don't have too much trouble together," she said. "They weren't exactly getting along earlier."

"So, what else is new?" said Robin. He looked down, adjusted his gloves, and bit his lower lip.

"What is it?" she asked him.

"Oh...it's nothing. It's just...those boys. That...that could have been me. If not for, you know."

Before she could answer, from the street below came a scream and the sound of breaking glass.

Robin's shoulders twitched. "That's our cue," he said briskly, then gestured graciously with his arm. "Ladies first."

* * * * *

They were back to back. Batman's cape looked a bit tattered, Nightwing was favoring his arm, and six nasty-looking thugs who hadn't appreciated the interruption to their appropriation of a dozen television sets, vcrs, and laptop computers were closing in.

The alley, whose name had faded off the wall, appeared to be a remnant of Gotham's 19th century roots. Cobblestones broke through the concrete. The stone walls offered little purchase, with no fire escapes. One rickety catwalk crossed the alley, far above their heads.

Batman touched Nightwing's arm, nodded upward. Nightwing saw the catwalk, its framework etched against the moon for a moment before the cloud cover returned, and nodded.

A thug advanced, only to fly backward from a kick from Nightwing. Another one rushed Batman and was felled by an uppercut to the chin. The thugs looked at each other. It seemed they, too, had worked together before, for an unspoken communication seemed to take place. One nodded.

As if it were a cue, they all rushed the masked figures at once.

The odds were six to two, and the thugs didn't have a chance.

Some lessons are never forgotten, some habits easy to slip back into, rhythms once learned, impossible to ignore. Batman shoved a thug, timing the placement so that the one Nightwing punched fell into him and they both went down. Together, Batman and Nightwing formed a barrier none of their opponents could cross. Knives no sooner flashed then they clattered to the cobblestones from a powerful kick. Nightwing faced a thug, grinning, and twitched his gloved hands in an invitation, come and get me.

The thug rushed him. Nightwing ducked at the last second and Batman's punch rushed over his head, sending the man flying against the wall.

Nightwing straightened up as Batman turned so they were back to back again. Each took up the ready, martial arts stance, hands up, feet apart.

"It's good to have you back, partner," Batman said, just before another thug decided he was foolish enough to rush in.

Nightwing blinked, and half-turned to stare at his former mentor. "What did you say--oof!"

The blow caught him hard in the stomach. Nightwing fell almost to his knees before he recovered and punched the thief a reciprocal blow. Now was not the time; he'd better focus on the task at hand.

Three minutes later, the alley was filled with unconscious or bruised and bleeding figures.

"Let's gift wrap em," said Nightwing. "Another present for the GCPD."

"It's no gift. Not anymore. The jails are so full they had to reopen The Catacombs."

"That old place? It's barely habitable."

"Right now, it's filled with a lot of folks who under normal circumstances would never break the law."

"I guess a blackout makes people behave oddly." Nightwing began wrapping line around one of the unconscious thugs. "A lot of people are doing good tonight. Helping other people. It's not necessary to fall apart."

"No, it's not."

When the thieves were trussed up and ready for delivery, Batman aimed his rappelling gun towards the sky, and fired. The grapple clanged against the catwalk, and held. Batman tugged on the line, testing it, then switched the gun to retract. He slid swiftly up and grabbed the catwalk, pulling himself up.

Nightwing followed using the same old-fashioned method; the glider attachments under his arms wouldn't work without an updraft.

Up on the catwalk, they paused to get their bearings and calculate their next move. Nightwing looked at Batman, who had lapsed into inscrutability, a shadow crouched on the catwalk. Unapproachable. The younger man opened his mouth, wanting to ask...he closed his mouth.

He'd heard right, he decided. He should be grateful for small gestures. He decided to let it go.

"I meant what I said," Batman said, quietly, keeping his back to Nightwing as he surveyed the city. "I've missed working with you."

Nightwing's jaw dropped.

"What happened earlier..." the cowled figure continued, more hestitantly. "It's my habit, to give orders. Out here, it's survival. I thought you understood that. But I realize now, it was partly my fault--in my mind, you're still that brash little boy in scarlet and green, eager to rush in and get the bad guys without thinking first, needing guidance." He shook his head. "But you're not anymore."

"No, I'm not anymore."

Silence folded around them. The city--for the moment--was quiet.

"Batman..." Nightwing spoke finally. "Bruce."

Now, the cowled figure turned on the catwalk, standing up. The two of them faced each other with about four feet of space between them, one taller, darker, older, the other younger but full of confidence.

"Thank you," Nightwing said. "For everything. And...uh...I missed working with you, too."

The silence was too thick now, practically humming. Batman turned away, Nightwing cleared his throat.

Batman froze, seeing something in the distance. Nightwing turned in the same direction, peering out across the dark buildings.

"What is that?" he said, puzzled. He took a step forward, then glanced at the digital readout on his wrist display. "It's too early for sunrise, isn't it? Is that east?"

"That's east," said Batman, voice flat. "But that isn't the sunrise."

The eerie red glow, visible through the glass windows of an abandoned factory, intensified.

"What is it then?"

"Fire."

* * * * *

It was a small apartment building on a residential street that consisted mostly of small houses with gardens enclosed by white picket fences.

The street's inhabitants, who had stayed quietly at home in the blackout, were outside on the sidewalk, staring at the spectacle at the end of the block. Children clutched teddy bears or their parents' hands, fascinated and frightened. The glow of the fire cast an eerie, flickering orange light over the scene. Clouds of smoke rose from the roof of the apartment building.

A small firetruck and an equally small group of firefighters battled the blaze. Water sprayed up from the hoses, cascades of white.

Nightwing and Batman ran past the onlookers, several of whom turned and gasped at these new apparitions. As they reached the firetruck, the captain turned and spotted them.

"Batman!" he said, startled.

"How did it start?" The Dark Knight asked, the orange light playing over his black and gray costume.

"Accident, we think. Probably a lighted candled fell over." The captain, his face smudged with soot and sweat, shook his head. "It wouldn't have been so bad, but there are fires all over the city. The fire department's taxed to the limit. This truck is all we could spare." The man, who was in his mid forties, heavy-set but not overweight, turned and looked straight at Batman. "We could sure use your help."

There were two kinds of city officials. Those who distrusted the unusual knight and his team, who viewed them as nuisances at best and insane at worst; and those who saw him as a savior of Gotham, a necessary tangent to their job. This fire captain, with his weathered, dirty face, air of calm, and a wedding wing on his left hand, appeared to be in the latter category. There was a respect in his voice and expression.

From inside the building came a groaning crash as a beam gave way. There was a faint human cry.

"There are still people inside?" Batman said sharply.

The fire captain nodded, pulling off his red fireman's hat and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve of his jacket. "God help me, I think so. We got a lot out, but we're only a skeleton crew. Bader and Murakami are inside now. I think we should--"

But Batman and Nightwing were already gone, running towards the building.

"Hey!" The captain called after them. He rummaged in the side of the truck, withdrawing two breathing masks. "You'll need these!"

There was no response, but the two paused, silhouetted against the fire, as Batman pulled something out of his belt. He handed one to the figure in black with the blue crest on his chest and took one for himself.

"Guess you had your own," the captain said. He watched them go in, and breathed out a long sigh. "Godspeed."

* * * * *

Inside it was an inferno, a choking mess of flame and smoke, relentless. The flame-retardant material of their suits protected their bodies, the breath masks protected their lungs. Still, the heat was hellish. Nightwing could feel the exposed areas of his face and neck growing hot. His scalp tingled as his hair began to singe.

"Upstairs," Batman said.

Nightwing nodded. They would waste no unnecessary breath.

The stairs were half-gone. They used one line to form a kind of ladder, then climbed, Batman first, then Nightwing.

When Nightwing reached the second story, he found visibility was almost null. The caped and cowled figure had disappeared, swallowed by the smoke.

"Batman?" he called, taking a cautious step.

"Here." He handed Nightwing an armful, a young woman lapsed into semi-consciousness, her cat clutched tightly in her arms. The cat, an orange tabby, spat and yowled as Nightwing lowered himself and his charges using the line.

A wall began to collapse as he reached the first floor. He leapt, still holding the woman and her cat, and then the blessed, relatively cool air of the hot summer night was around him. Shaking his head, he loosened the breath mask and gently lowered the woman to the ground.

The fire captain ran over to him, trailed by a pair of EMS workers.

"I'm going back in."

"You can't!" the captain insisted. "Bader and Murakami just came out the back. They saved two more people. I'm not letting anyone back in, it's unsound."

"My partner's still in there," said Nightwing, and was gone before the captain could do anything else to protest.

But as he reached the entrance to the inferno, Batman emerged, holding an old man in his arms. The old man's head lolled to one side.

As Batman put the man on the ground, more EMS workers arrived. They began working on the elderly man.

Batman shouted to the police captain. "Is there anyone else in there?"

"I'm not sure," the man said, uncertainly. "I hope to god not. I got my men out of there, no one's going back in...wait! You can't go in there, it's suicide!"

Batman ran past Nightwing, who turned and followed him.

"What are you doing?" Nightwing demanded.

"There still might be someone inside."

"You heard the captain. It's no longer safe."

On the front steps, the flames dancing behind him, Batman turned. "It's never safe. But I have to help them if I can."

Nightwing reached out and took Batman's arm. "Batman..."

Batman shook off his grasp. Nightwing leapt past him, up the steps, and put himself between Batman and the entryway. "The structure could fold like a house of cards at any second. Or maybe you didn't notice the collapsed wall and the nonexistent stairs the last time we went in? We saved three lives here. The captain told me his men just saved two more. If there's anyone left in there, it's too late for them."

"No," Batman said, his voice frighteningly soft. "We can't assume that. I have to..."

"Sorry, I'm not letting you." Nightwing folded his arms and stood squarely in the doorway. He could feel the tremendous heat against his back, even through the kevlar.

"Get out of my way," the taller man said in a voice low and rough.

"Do you want to die?"

"Get...out...of...my...way."

Nightwing shook his head.

Batman moved first, striking at Nightwing with a sideways blow. But the younger man was faster, lighter, and trained by the best. He twisted, keeping his balance, and without hesitation tackled the man who had raised him.

They landed hard at the bottom of the steps. Nightwing pinned Batman in place, gripping his shoulders and digging his knees into Batman's chest. "You can't save everyone!" Nightwing said desperately.

"I know."

The older man stopped resisting, the tension draining from his body. Nightwing released him and rolled into a wary crouch, watching. Batman knelt, staring at the burning building.

"I know," he repeated bleakly. "I...I always have to do more. If I'd only...done more...to save them..."

They both knew that he wasn't talking about the inhabitants of the apartment building.

"You did all you could," Nightwing said softly. He moved so he knelt beside Batman and put a hand on his shoulder. "We did all we could tonight. We helped save five. Five whose families won't have to mourn them tonight."

From within the building came a rending, horrible crash as the first floor gave way. The two men knelt there together for a long time, silhouetted against the inferno, watching it burn, while the water from the hoses cascaded above them to touch the flames.

* * * * *

"Oh my god," Batgirl said, when she saw their soot-streaked faces. "What happened?"

"We helped out at one of the fires," Nightwing explained tiredly.

Batgirl nodded. "They're all over town. Arsonists, we think. Some accidental. Mostly industrial buildings, thank goodness."

"This was an apartment building."

"Did everyone get out okay?"

"I think so."

"How did things go with the two of you?" Batman asked, even more subdued than usual.

"We stopped another mob--they responded pretty well to intimidation and smoke pellets. The cops are all over the place tonight. They made our job a lot easier."

"They're taxed to the limit," Batman said. "So is the fire department. Gordon says that the mayor is declaring a state of emergency."

"What next, boss?" Robin said.

The clouds moved aside. Moonlight, blessed, silvery moonlight bathed the city like a calming, cool hand.

"Keep patrolling," The Dark Knight said bleakly. "Until dawn. We have to do all that we can."

Batgirl rubbed at her eyes with her fingers. "Until dawn."

"Robin, Batgirl, I'd like you to check out the residential districts, make sure things are calm..."

"Uh...actually, I'll do that," Nightwing said quickly. "That is, if you don't mind my company," he added, looking at Batgirl.

She seemed puzzled. "Uh, no. But don't you think it would be better..."

"No time to discuss it," Robin said cheerily, pushing Batgirl towards Nightwing. "Have to go patrol, the city needs us."

"All right, all right, quit pushing!" She protested.

"Meet us at the batmobile, Miller Alley, at sunrise. And...be careful," Batman said.

Batman and Robin left the rooftop, soaring across the street on their jumplines, an odd contrasting pair, one large in black and gray, the other small in scarlet and black.

"Wow," Batgirl said. "How unusually...friendly for him."

Nightwing walked to the edge of the building. "Where to first, Babs?"

"Don't call me that in uniform, dummy," she said, playfully swatting his arm. "Let's check the garden district, move our way north."

"Sounds good to me. Listen, I'm glad we got paired up, because I've been meaning to talk to you..."

"Like the boy said, no time," she said. She abruptly raised her rappelling gun and fired, then leapt from the building, cape streaming behind her, legs forward, arm muscles taut as her hands gripped the line.

"Damn." Nightwing sighed and lifted his arms so his gliders could catch the updraft.

* * * *

The blue minivan, headlights slicing the darkness, pulled to a stop on a street lined with tenement buildings. On the side of the minivan, clearly defined in elegant white lettering, were the words "Wayne Foundation."

Children ran towards the van, and the light, as if it were an ice cream truck. Adults, only a few flashlights between them, some holding candles, followed, their faces looking hollow and worried in the faint illumination. The buildings on the street were in badly need of paint and repair. Concrete steps were crumbling; trash lined the gutters.

A man got out of the vehicle. He was tall, thin, in his 60's, dressed in dark clothes and a windbreaker with "Wayne Foundation" emblazoned across the back.

He held up his hands. "If you will all line up patiently," he said, the accent softly Anglican, "I have supplies for you all in the van--flashlights, nonperishable food, and the like."

"You do?" A middle-aged man with stubble on his chin, dressed in a dirty white t-shirt and rumpled slacks, narrowed his eyes suspiciously. A small boy stood at his side. Neither looked terribly well-fed or clean. "How much will it cost me?"

The thin man opened the sliding van door and started removing boxes. "Not a cent, sir. These supplies come courtesy of the Wayne Foundation. There is a crisis in this city; the Foundation is equipped to aid in such situations." He handed a flashlight and a few packets of food to a young, lone mother with a baby and a six-year old girl. "Perhaps you should stay indoors, madam," the man said kindly. "It's not terribly safe on the streets tonight." He held out his finger for the baby to grasp, then extricated himself. The man's head vanished into the van as he pulled out two more boxes. "We also have batteries, transitor radios...one per customer, I'm afraid. But hopefully it will do until the power company gets the lights back on."

"Yeah? How long will that be?" asked the middle-aged man, accepting a flashlight and a transitor radio. He handed the radio to his son, who immediately tore open the packet of batteries and with expert fingers inserted them into the radio.

"Soon, they say." The Wayne Foundation representative offered a dignified smile and held out a flashlight and batteries to the next person.

A few stations, the ones with backup generators, were still on the air. A burst of static and voices came from the radio as the boy twiddled the dial.

"...fires in the waterfront district...*crrrk*...accident in midtown...*crrk*...hotline, call 1-800...*crrk*...generators at Blackgate are fully functional, according to prison officials ...*crrk*...a guy just called my cell phone from his cell phone, says he just saw The Batman. Bill, what do you think? Is this a lot of hooey? Is he helping? Or are these sightings the result of mass hysteria?...Well, Don, there are some who feel, particularly in a situation like this, that it's a comfort to know there's someone out there in the darkness to pick up the pieces that slip through the fingers of the GCPD. And I have to say I agree. The Batman is a hero, whether the city officials want to admit it or not."

"No, no," said the thin man, waving away the crumpled money a man thrust at him. "As I mentioned before, no payments is required. If you would like to make a donation to The Wayne Foundation, I have forms in the van. Here, make sure you get batteries for that flashlight..."

* * * *

They leapt the gap between the buildings in unison, and ran across the roof.

"I think we lost them," Batgirl said, stopping to catch her breath. She laughed. "That was one of your more insane ideas."

"Hey," Nightwing raised his hands in protest, a lopsided grin on his face. "We were out of smoke pellets. Had to break it up somehow."

"You blew a raspberry at a guy holding a two-by-four."

"A deadly weapon, the raspberry," Nightwing said, making his voice low and rough in a mockery of an old radio-show hero. "Criminals tremble with fear."

"No, they just chase you so they can beat the tar out of you." She raised her head as a faint, warm wind swirled across the rooftop, stirring her red hair and her cape. "Dawn's not far away."

"Thank god," Nightwing said, and rubbed his chin with his palm tiredly. "Robin looked tired, too, although the kid would rather die that admit it. He was just far too perky." He lowered his hand to his shoulder and rotated his injured arm experimentally, then winced. "Damn."

Batgirl turned to him, concern showing on her face even through the concealment of her cowl. "Let me look at it."

"It's okay...ow, watch it..."

Carefully, she peeled away the gauze and inspected the wound.

"Well, doc?" he said, turning his head towards the top of hers, positioned so that if she raised her head they would be nose-to-nose.

"You'll live," she said, replacing the bandage. She raised her head, met his eyes, and quickly stepped away.

"Batgirl..." he said, holding his hand out after her.

She stopped at the edge of the rooftop, hugging her arms, while the breeze danced around her. She closed her eyes. "Not now. Not while we're working."

He opened his mouth to object, even as he knew she was right, when a faint sound drifted to them, borne on the pre-dawn wind. "What was that?"

Together, they strained to listen.

"The next rooftop," she said, turning and walking back the way they had come.

He followed her. They reached the cornice, then turned simultaneously and ran for the far edge. They leapt again, easily clearing the gap.

There was a ventilation shaft in the center of the next rooftop, covered by mesh grating.

"Hello? Anybody? Help!"

Batgirl knelt by the shaft and cupped her hands to her mouth. "Hello?"

"Oh my god, is someone there?"

"Yes! Where are you? What happened?"

"Oh, my wife and I, we're trapped in the elevator. We've been here all night. I've got the top hatch of the car open, I've been calling up the shaft hoping someone would answer. We would have climbed out but my wife is eight months pregnant."

"Hang on, we'll get you out of there," Batgirl called down.

Nightwing knelt beside her and began to inspect the mesh, murmuring something under his breath over and over. It took Batgirl a moment to decipher it.

"Oh please don't go into labor oh please don't go into labor oh please don't go into labor..." he shut his eyes as if in fervent prayer, then opened them and pulled a knife from his belt. "We can cut this, then I'll lower down to them. You pull them up one at a time, the pregnant woman first."

"Got it."

"Hello?" the man called. "Sorry to nag, but..."

"It's okay," Batgirl shouted down to him. "We're coming down to get you. My partner's going to rig a harness for your wife and I'm going to pull her up."

Nightwing finished cutting the mesh and tore it away. Batgirl handed him a jumpline, then hooked the grapple into a steam outlet chimney. He stood, back to the opening, his hands holding one end of the line, she holding the coil facing him. "Ready?" he asked.

She nodded. "Ready."

"Coming down," he called down the shaft, and with Batgirl holding the line, he lowered himself backwards through the opening.

The darkness in the shaft smelled of oil and rust. Holding the line with one hand, Nightwing let himself dangle for a moment and withdrew a flashlight the size of a pen from a pocket in his sleeve. He switched it on and held the light in his teeth. It made a thin, laser-like beam of light down the shaft, and finally brought into view a man in his mid-thirties with sandy hair. He stood on top of the elevator car, holding the cables to steady himself. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up and his tie lay discarded in the grime on top of the elevator.

"Hi," the man said, a fine layer of soot covering his pleasant face.

Nightwing nodded a hello, his mouth full of flashlight. He lowered the last few yards and dropped lightly to the top of the car, then tucked the flashlight into its pouch, leaving it turned on. The emergency lights of the elevator car provided a faint, reddish illumination from below.

The man stared at him. "You..." his eyes took in the costume and the mask. He let out a shaken breath that was almost a laugh. "I thought you were...I assumed you were cops, but you're not you're...everyone says it's just urban legend, but..." a slow grin began to spread across his face, "...here you are...it's an honor--"

"I think you probably have me confused with someone else," Nightwing said, a bit acidly, busying himself with the line.

"Aren't you Nightwing?" the man finished.

"Uh...I...yeah..."

"I've heard all about you!"

"You have?"

"Well, sure," the man said, as if this should be evident to anyone with a brain. "Everyone's heard of Nightwing. I'm Al, by the way, this is my wife, Debbie...Deb! Look who's here!"

Nightwing leaned over and looked down into the car. A small woman with lots of long dark hair gave a little gasp of surprise then waved cheerfully. "Hi, Nightwing!"

Al patted his pockets, an unconscious gesture. "I'd love to get your autograph but..." he coughed, embarrased. "This is really the wrong time, forgive me. Now that I'm done babbling at you like teenage fanboy, what should I do to help?"

"Okay, Al, here's what we're going to do," he said with energy, revelling in his work. "You're going to hop down into the car and help me get your wife up here. Then I'm going to use the rope to make a sling and my partner up there is going to pull her up."

Al hopped down into the car, while Nightwing muttered, once, "Please, please, don't go into labor..."

"Hey," Batgirl called down. "You okay down there?"

"Fine!" he yelled up to her.

Down in the car, Al had scooped his extremely pregnant wife into his arms. "Well," he said to her, "this isn't the worst night we've ever had."

"Nah," she said, chuckling. "I can think of worse fates that being trapped with you for hours on end."

With some effort, grunting from the weight, Al lifted Debbie and their potential offspring towards the escape hatch. Nightwing reached down and grasped Debbie under her arms, pulling her up, straining a little himself.

"Nice costume," Debbie said, looking him up and down. "Who's your tailor?"

"Very funny," he said. "How's the bambino?" Nightwing tugged on the rope and Batgirl gave him more slack. He began wrapping the rope around Debboe, forming a rescue seat.

"Or bambina," she said, raising her arms so he could work. "We decided not to peek at our present ahead of time."

Al pulled himself out of the elevator car, joining them. "How is it out there?" he asked seriously.

"Bedlam," Nightwing said. "All right, Debbie, I want you to hold onto the rope, like this. Don't make any sudden moves, and stay calm. This line could hold an elephant."

"Oh, Gee, thanks," said Debbie.

"No, I'm serious! We tried it once. So you and your...luggage...should be fine. I'll be right here if you get into trouble. I'm a good climber. Ready, Batgirl?"

"Ready," came the reply.

"Batgirl?" Al said. "You mean...the Batgirl?" He looked as if he'd won the lottery instead of being trapped in an oily, dark elevator shaft.

"The one and only." Nightwing grinned. "Hoist away!" he called up.

The line went taut, and then Debbie was hanging in space, supported by the makeshift rescue chair. Before she was raised further, Debbie reached down, grabbed Al, and kissed him long and hard.

Slowly, Debbie went up the shaft. The line swayed a little, and Nightwing heard Al's sharp intake of breath. A bit uneasy himself, Nightwing reached out and put his hands on the shaft wall, prepared to climb up to her if needed.

At last Batgirl's face appeared, staring down at them. She reached for Debbie, carefully pulling the pregnant woman out of the shaft.

A few moments later the line dropped down. "You next, Al."

"Imagine," Al said calmly, as the line pulled him up. "People pay money at amusement parks to feel this kind of adrenaline rush."

"It's quite a ride," Nightwing said, under his breath.

After long minutes, the line dropped down again. "Want to come up and join us?" Batgirl called down to him.

He transferred the flashlight from the pouch back to his mouth, and looked up, The thin flashlight beam caught her in the eyes. She squinted. "Beautiful," he said, his mouth full of flashlight, "if you're up there, you bet." Catching the line, he coiled it around his waist a few times, then grabbed hold.

The line went taut and he felt it dig into his sides. With his feet, he helped her pull him up the shaft, using a swinging motion similar to that employed by rock climbers. Batgirl went hand over hand, pulling the line in as if he were a fish. He grabbed the edges of the shaft as she released the line and seized his arms.

Out on the rooftop, Al held Debbie under the curve of his arm.

"We'll escort you to the nearest emergency shelter," Batgirl told them. "Can you climb down a fire escape?" she asked Debbie.

The woman nodded. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

Al nodded. "Yeah," he said weakly. "For a while there, we were afraid Deb would go into labor right there in the elevator car."

"You and me both," Nightwing muttered.

* * * *

Robin had to jog to keep up with Batman's long strides. The street was still, only broken glass and trash to show any violence had occurred there earlier. Neon signs sat darkened; it was hard to make out what they read.

The boy winced and put his hand to his side.

Without turning around, the caped and cowled figure stopped still.

"You're hiding something from me," he said.

Hastily, Robin lowered his arm. "No, I'm fine."

The dark figure turned then, his shadow, cast by the moon, falling over the small scarlet-clad figure. Batman lifted the boy's arm and lightly tapped his ribs.

Robin gasped, then set his mouth in a firm line, back straight.

"How long have you been concealing that?"

"Uh..." Robin fidgeted. "A while...few hours, I guess."

Batman made a low sound in his throat, almost a growl.

"It's only a bruise," Robin protested.

A light flickered; someone approached.

"Hello!" A confident voice called out of the darkness. "Who's that...oh."

The man stopped and stood a few feet away, shining the industrial-strength beam of his flashlight on them.

He was young, maybe in his early twenties, tall and wiry with dark skin and straight brown hair. He wore the uniform of a GCPD beat cop.

"Batman?" he said, in some surprise. "Wow, have I heard the buzz about you. Didn't think I'd actually get to meet you so soon. I've only been in harness for three months. My name's Angelo, by the way. This is so incredible. And Robin too. Great job you're doing, mi amigo, put 'er there."

Delighted at being noticed, Robin held out his hand for Angelo to slap.

In the face of the rookie's enthusiasm, Batman only said quietly, "How goes the night, Angelo?"

"Oh, you know, rough at times. But I did okay, I think. Helped a girl and her grandmother to a shelter, earlier, tried to stop the riots."

His face was smudged with dirt and something darker.

"Where's your partner?" Batman asked.

"She got hurt," Angelo said flatly, his anger long gone cold but still raw. "Senseless. She was only trying to help. I got her to Gotham General, they say she will be ok." His eyes went to Robin. "I heard you say something about the kid being hurt. Can I help?"

"I said I'm okay!" Robin almost shouted, his voice squeaking with annoyance and fatigue.

Angelo held out his hands, chuckling. "Easy, mi amigo. This one is a firecracker," he added to Batman, gesturing at Robin with his thumb, hand fisted. "Well, it'll be dawn soon and this godforsaken night will be over. I'm going to check on my partner. Batman." He brought his fist to his chest in salute. "And Robin. Muchas Gracias for what you do for this city."

He started off, flashlight bobbing. Batman and Robin continued toward the alley where the batmobile awaited them.

But Angelo stopped and turned back.

"Hey, Batman?"

The Dark Kniqht halted and said, in a tone that might cause many to hesitate to ask further questions, "Yes?"

"I just wondered..." he said hesitantly, his thumb fiddling with the flashlight switch. He stared down into its glow for a second, then raised his eyes to the caped figure again. "What do you do on nights like this? When it gets to be too much, I mean. How do you keep going?" The rash confidence was gone, replaced by the aching need for an answer, for guidance.

"I remember a promise I made."

Angelo nodded, and his fingers came up to brush the badge on his chest. He walked away.

As he disappeared around a corner, a street lamp flickered into life. Then another, and another. Lights came on in buildings. Streetlights winked green, yellow, red.

From a few blocks away, echoing down the empty streets, they heard a voice that sounded like the rookie's shout out in an unrestrained whoop of sheer joy.

Batman and Robin stood together in one of the pools of light for a long time as throughout Gotham, the darkness grew less visible, and sunrise came at last.

*****

Nightwing and Batgirl perched on the ledge of a billboard, watching the city. The wind increased, bringing with it a breath of coolness.

Sirens, fewer and farther between than earlier in the night, sounded distantly. There were police barriers along the avenues. Stores with their gates torn away presented smashed windows like jagged wounds. Trash littered the streets. The moon had set, plunging Gotham into darkness again, but the darkness was different now. There was an expectant quality to the sky, a premonition of light.

"Dawn is an hour away," Batgirl said, looking up at the sky. "I think we're going to make it. Gotham is going to make it. The officer at that emergency station said that Arkham and Blackgate held. They held. I can hardly believe it." She shuddered. "Imagine. Imagine if those generators had failed, if even one had been on the outside with the idea of freeing the others, of setting off a bomb..."

A seagull swooped past them, its white feathers seeming to glow.

"We were lucky," Nightwing said, voice distant. He watched her while she lowered her eyes to the street below once again, as the wind tugged her hair and cape forward around her.

"They said the power company should be done fixing the problem," she continued. "We could have light at any moment..."

There was a hum and a click and then illumination, blinding and hot, caught them from below like stagelights. They both shied back, hands up protectively.

The billboard floodlights had come on. As if they had set off a chain reaction, up and down the block lights flickered on in the buildings. A soft roar filled the early morning from a thousand restored air conditioners and cooling systems. In the distance came the sound of jubilant cheering.

Caught in the light, their shadows etched on the colorful billboard behind them, Nightwing and Batgirl froze, speechless. Batgirl swallowed, embarrassed, as her eyes glimmered, and she choked down the threatened tears.

"...and then there was light," Nightwing murmured.

He slowly reached out and took Batgirl's wrist, drawing her gently towards him; as if under a spell, she didn't pull away, but took a step closer to him, her fingers coming up to touch his arm. It was like their dance at the beginning of the night, automatic, instinctual. He cradled the back of her head in his palm and kissed her, long and deeply, in the light.

They broke apart as she sagged back against the billboard for support, stunned. Without a word, he spread his arms, releasing the gliders, and then leapt, letting the wind carry him away.

* * * * *

She found the long, sleek black car--if it could be called something so mundane--in the promised alley. Batman and Alfred were waiting, the butler oddly informal in a black turtleneck and black pants.

"...yes sir, all the boxes of flashlights are gone," Alfred was saying. "I took the liberty of returning the van to the garage and putting my foundation attire inside before coming here. The usual precautions we discussed." He looked up as Batgirl lightly dropped to the pavement nearby. "Ah, there you, Batgirl," Alfred said smoothly, as if she were merely late for teatime. "Everyone accounted for then, sir."

"Nightwing called in, said he was going straight home to his loft," Batman told her.

"Oh," she said flatly. "Where..." She glanced into the back of the car, whose protective doorshield was halfway open, and had her answer.

Robin, known as Tim Drake by daylight, was curled up in a ball on the backseat, his cape tucked over his shoulders like a blanket, peacefully asleep.

"Poor boy, he was completely worn out." Alfred tut-tutted.

"He did well tonight," Batman said, allowing the quiet pride to show in his voice. "And he has two cracked ribs," he added.

Batgirl put her gloved fingers to her lips. "Oh no, it was that lead pipe that JD had...I knew Robin had been hit, but he seemed okay, honest, I didn't..."

The tall, caped figure held up a hand. "I didn't notice it myself until a short while ago. He hid it well." It was difficult to tell if he was angry or impressed.

"That's all well and good," Alfred cut in, "but I believe you all need a good night's sleep. Batgirl, you are of course welcome to stay the night at the manor..."

"That's all right, Alfred. My apartment's not far." She gave a full-faced yawn, extending her arms above her head. "I think I...I'd like to take the scenic route."

Through the break between buildings, the horizon was visible, growing from pale rose to scarlet. It was going to be a brilliant sunrise.

A flicker of something...perhaps a smile, touched the Dark Knight's lips. "Get some rest, then," he said. "Tomorrow night's clean up."

"I can't wait," she said dryly, and reached for the fire escape ladder.

"Batgirl..." Batman said.

She turned.

His cape fell around his shoulders, covering his torso completely. "You also did well tonight."

Fighting against the small smile she could feel tugging at her mouth, she reached for the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder, then swung herself up. "I think we all did."

* * * *

A steady knocking awoke her. Stirring, she groped at the nightstand, overturning a picture frame and knocking a book to the floor. After moments of blinking and disorientation she realized the sound was not her alarm but the door.

She sat up. Her clock said it was about noon. It hardly seemed possible that it had only been that morning she had watched the sunrise from an alley, standing outside the batmobile. Bright summer sunlight streamed in through the slats of her venetian blinds, casting bands across the rug. Throwing off the covers, she grabbed her robe off a chair, stumbled to the door, and opened it.

Dick Grayson stood with his hand poised in mid-knock, dressed in blue jeans and a heather gray t-shirt.

"Dick?" She rubbed her fingers in her eyes. "What are you doing here?"

For a moment she had an overwhelming sense of deja vú, remembering a night years ago when Dick had come to her door, waking her up just like this, coming to her agitated and upset and almost incoherent, his eyes begging for help before he shut her out.

She looked at him. He seemed calm, except he stood awkwardly just outside her door, uncharacteristically stiff.

"Want to come in?" she inquired.

"I came to ask you to breakfast," he said abruptly. "We need to talk."

* * * *

The 24-hour diner had kept itself running throughout the blackout, using thermal catering equipment to dispense coffee to exhausted cops and rescue workers and local residents.

Having weathered the disaster, the diner was now offering "blackout survivor specials" to a cheerful, noisy, packed crowd. The counterman, dressed in white apron, shouted orders back to the cook while a waitress in a pink uniform flirted and joked with an EMS driver. Music played on the jukebox, a rock song with a stirring beat and an upbeat outlook, the kind of thing you could dance to. Everyone wanted to feel good now that the crisis was over.

They sat in a booth in the back, in the corner, seeking relative quiet.

Dick plowed his way through a stack of banana-walnut pancakes and a side of bacon. He seemed almost to be storing up energy, as if this were the last meal of a condemned man. Barbara, her red hair pulled back with an elastic, reached for the maple syrup and poured it over her french toast.

Snippets of conversation from the other tables drifted towards them.

"...if that cop hadn't been there..."

"...fireman...sorry, firegirl. Man, she looked so tiny, I thought she'd fall over under the weight of that equipment. And then she picks up Fred--and you know how heavy he is, just slings him over her shoulder, and carries him out of there..."

"...this guy, I don't even know his name, he showed up with a flashlight and guided us out of the subway tunnel. I think he was a token booth clerk or something..."

"...stuck in an elevator with my boss. Can you imagine?"

Barbara stirred her coffee. "Sounds like we weren't the only heroes out there last night," she said in a low voice.

"Yeah," he said, not surprised, but heartfelt.

"...and then this caped figure appeared...his eyes glowed...no, I swear! Never seen anything like it. He saved our lives. Urban legend my a--"

Sipping her coffee, Barbara stole a glance at Dick over the rim of her mug, and was astonished to find a small smile on his face as he eavesdropped.

She set down her mug. "Okay, Grayson, spill it. What are we doing here?"

His eyes went to her face, and he coughed. "Yeah. That." He swallowed, shifted in his seat, picked up his straw, twiddled it in his fingers, and then dropped it. "About last night..."

"Dick, I don't think we..."

He held up his hand, palm flat. "No. Hear me out."

She closed her mouth. Her hands, resting on the table on either side of the mug, curled into fists, and she remained silent.

"We both know what I'm talking about," he said, pitching his voice lower. "I know what I felt. I think you felt it too. You're going to deny it, even though we know what the truth is, and see, the thing is, Babs...Barbara...I understand how you feel. You're going to write it off because you're afraid I might leave again, the way I did before." He let out a long, shaken, breath and his fingers found the straw again and began to fidget, even though he kept his eyes on her face. "And I want you to know that I don't blame you at all. I didn't ask you here to tell you you're wrong, or...talk you into anything. I just have to say what has to be said. For a lot of reasons."

The jukebox song switched, to something a decade old, with a haunting guitar riff.

"Please, don't..."

"Damn it, I have to."

Dead silence fell between them, forming a bubble that made the noise around them, the clatter of plates, the music, the post-blackout gossip seem very distant.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I am so, incredibly sorry. It's only words, Babs. But even if you accept my apology now, know that it wouldn't be enough, it won't make me feel any better."

"You left without saying goodbye," she whispered, tears stinging her eyes. Mortified, she wiped them away and quickly took a gulp of her lukewarm coffee.

"You refuse to even cry in front of me," he said flatly. "Cry, curse, yell...something. But you never did."

"I cried," she said through clenched teeth. "While you were away. When no one else could see or hear."

He caught his breath, blinked, startled as much by her candor as the revelation itself.

"You sent a postcard," she continued, her voice thick with anger and hurt. "A stinking postcard saying you were alive, Tibet next. You know how awful it was? Watching how it was eating Bruce up inside, watching Alfred try to pretend he wasn't hurting...but all I could really think about was myself. About how much I missed you. About how it wasn't that you'd left Batman and the cave and Gotham, but me. I'd be out on the streets, on the rooftops, each night and imagine you were still there beside me. God, I missed you. But Batgirl is supposed to be strong. And I was pissed off at you. So I didn't let anyone see it. But when there was no one around, I cried. And I hated you for it."

"Do you...still...hate me?"

"I try to." She closed her eyes.

He reached out, put his hand over her clenched fist, opening her hand, touching the back of her hand with his fingers.

A sob broke from her. "Don't," she said.

"Don't do what? This?" he said softly, and leaned across the table to kiss the wetness beneath her right eye.

"You bastard," she said, but left her hand in his, allowed him to kiss her other eye. Finally, his lips moved down to hers, and as he began to kiss her, she responded. Her grip tightened around his fingers.

He pulled away first and they sat facing each other.

"Okay, I deserved that," he said. "The bastard part, probably not the kissing, but I'll take what I can get. I am sorry, Barbara Gordon. I am sorry I left without saying goodbye to you or without contacting you or explaining what I was going through. I was a complete and total abject idiot, all other idiots bow before me and not that I have any excuses, but remember that you were a part of what I had to escape from. You were a part of it, the cave, all of it...I was a little crazy, I'd pent things up so long, and when I left it was like...I felt free, like an adult, for the first time in my life, I wasn't..."

"...somebody's sidekick," she finished for him.

"I love you," he said. "I kept thinking about you when I was travelling, I'd see a girl with red hair in a crowd...in China, I found myself a sensei, and he had some female students. Every time they leapt, kicked, ducked, punched...they reminded me of you. I always loved you, from the first moment we met on a Gotham rooftop, you made me so mad, you were so cocky, so sure you could handle yourself."

She laughed. "I was cocky? Look who's talking."

"I thought you were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life," he said. "And you cut me to the ground, put me in my place. But I never...I never let myself feel what I felt. I buried it. Besides, I'd met someone new, someone equally as exciting who had nothing to do with the rooftop world. You were the two loves of my life, Babs."

"So..." she said, tracing the edge of the coffee mug with her finger. "What do we do now?"

"That depends," he said, and bit his lip. "I have to be up front with you. I'm not staying in Gotham. I'm not leaving right away, but I've been thinking a lot and it's time for me to go. For me to find my own path."

"You're going to leave," she said, her voice leaden. Then a light dawned in her eyes. "Oh, no, Dick, did you and Bruce..."

"Nope," he said. "In fact...it's okay between us. I understand him better now. Which is exactly why I can leave. That was one reason that brought me back to Gotham. The other was you. If we're...okay...I can leave."

"Are you serious?" Her mouth opened. "I'm not buying it, Grayson. So, if I'm still mad at you..."

"Here I stay," he said, spreading his arms wide. Then he let his arms fall. "Babs, you don't have to love me. But I want you to forgive me. If I can't have the first part...well..." he trailed off. "I've survived worse," he said, his voice raw. He quickly covered it, his voice taking a teasing note again. "C'mon, Babs, you gonna let me shake the dust of this one-horse town off my heels or not?"

"What happens if I do still love you?"

"I have to leave Gotham anyway."

"Oh."

The jukebox went silent. The waitress hollered back for some pigs-in-a-blanket. Early afternoon sunlight advanced across the formica.

"I guess you'd better leave, then," she said, her voice quiet and full, as if holding a secret.

A very happy smile quirked at his mouth before he could control it.

"Where will you go?" she said, her voice normal again.

"Well..." he said slowly, "...there's this little city downriver. It's not much, but they really could use some help."

She raised her eyes to his. "Dick...you're not thinking of..."

"Bludhaven," he said.

"It's a cesspool!" she said. "Anything too disgusting for Gotham flows downstream to Bludhaven."

"Hey, watch who you're insulting," he said with mock indignation.

"...You won't have any help, Dad says the police department's corrupt from the top down..."

"Then I'll have my work cut out for me, won't I?" he said with satisfaction. "I have to go, Babs. I have to do this. But look, it's only half an hour away. We could see each other all the time, I'd visit here, you'd visit there. We could...uh..."

"Date again?" she said, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes. If you want to. No more secrets."

By answer, she leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the mouth.

"Hm. Hope I deserved that..."

"We'll see."

"Of course..." he added, after a pause. He spoke slowly, as if selecting each word with tremendous care. "There is another option."

"Another option?" she said, puzzled.

"Yeah. Instead of the going back and forth thing."

She frowned.

"You could come with me," he finished.

Silence fell between them with a mute thud and lay there like a dead thing.

There was a crash from the kitchen as somebody dropped a dish. Laughter burst from a nearby table. The jukebox song rotated.

Barbara lifted her hand into the air. "Oh, waitress..."

The woman in pink hurried over. "How is everything?" she asked cheerfully, then whipped out a pen and flipped through her order booklet. "Ready for your check?"

Barbara glanced at Dick, then turned back to the waitress.

"We'd like more coffee," she said. "We're...going to be here a while."

THE BEGINNING...?