Before I start this story, I would like to make an announcement to any possible new readers: This is a sequel to one of my other stories, "Face to Face, Mask to Mask." If you don't read the first one, odds are you won't understand what the heck's going on. I just want to clarify…
Now, to all of my old readers: Hello, once again! I'm looking forward to seeing your reviews on this newest addition, and I can't wait to see what you think of it! So, without further ado…
Prologue: Return of the Shadows
Gotham. Two and half weeks following the annihilation of Jump City. 7:04 p.m.
William Wintergreen was—quite truthfully—bored out of his skull, to borrow a phrase typically used by teenagers.
He was a respectable gentleman of British descent, who worked for a well known insurance company in the famous civilization of Gotham City; he dressed nicely and had his hair, even though it was thinning slightly, cut neatly every three weeks to maintain a professional appearance; not to mention that he lived alone peacefully, and was in top condition for an aging man such as himself.
And how he hated it.
It was true, he concluded sullenly, as he climbed the stairs in the apartment building one at a time, shoes clicking neatly on the filthy stone. There was nothing like longing for the "good ol' days."
The army…now that had been a life—plenty of action, violence everywhere you turned, the sound of gunfire and the smell of smoke polluting the air, should you decide to bomb the enemy…not to mention that he'd met one of the single, most brilliant young men he'd ever had the fortunate opportunity to come across: Slade Wilson. There was talent…ability, the determined will to conquer. Rare qualities in a human being, and one of the reasons that Wintergreen had been drawn to Slade's personality; the explanation as to why his life had intertwined with "Deathstroke the Terminator's" more than once in the past…
But the war was over long ago, and Wintergreen had changed to fit the modern times…look at him these days: A mild mannered business man. Good God, how the world worked in strange ways.
"Hey, you jerk!"
William sighed wearily and stopped his steady progression on up to the fourth floor and leaned over the stair railing to gaze at the landlord of the building: A bad tempered, uneducated American man, Mr. Johnson, who was furious.
"Yes, sir?" Wintergreen asked as politely as his pride would allow, seemingly ignorant of the other male's rage. "What is it?"
"You know what, jackass!" Johnson hissed, spit flecking his lower lip and chin. "Where's my money? You said you'd have it today, and it's been a week! I oughta kick you out on the street right now, you—"
"Have no fear, sir," Wintergreen said loudly, drowning out the landlord. "I shall deliver your money to you by tomorrow morning. I simply require time to count it out tonight!"
So he continued his ascension, pretending that there hadn't been an interruption, while Johnson shouted various threats at the top of his voice about tossing his resident to the mercy of the criminals out there in Gotham…
That was one thing that not many people at work knew about Wintergreen: The apartment building that he dwelled in was located in the slums, almost smack dab in the middle of some of the city's petty villainy. It wasn't something he was proud of, but it was the most convenient for him, seeing as he was forced to balance his salary with paying the rent and buying groceries and other small things here and there…
Room 406 loomed before him; the iron digits were chipped and dented, and the zero had been stolen again by the hooligans on the fifth floor who found it amusing to see if they could evoke the "old dude's" anger. Their scheme never worked, and if William was patient enough, the missing numeral often came crashing through one of his windows a week later at midnight, followed by hoots of drunken laughter. He slid the key into the lock and stepped into his cramped excuse for a living space, consisting of only three small, painfully plain rooms: A bathroom, a kitchen area, and small hallway (with closet space) that led to his bedroom.
The man gazed at his dismal surroundings with a flat expression, then dropped his briefcase carelessly to the floor (It landed with a loud thunk! that caused the people in the room beneath him to yell unhappily) and went to the counter and brewed a cup of tea.
"Home, sweet home," He uttered sarcastically, lifted the mug in a mock cheers to the bare walls, and took a large swig.
A series of short, rapid knocks sounded on his door, startling Wintergreen from the slumber he had sunken into; he was sprawled in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, sections of a daily newspaper from the gas station strewn all around. The British man yawned and rubbed sleep from his eyes, glancing at his wrist watch.
"Dear me, where has the time gone," He grumbled to himself, and began shuffling the black and white printings into a large pile in the corner of the room…let's see…he'd been flipping through the paper, trying to find something worth reading about—something that wasn't somehow related to the "Tragedy of Jump City" or about "how brave the Teen Titans acted, rebuilding their home—and an article about a morgue's stolen body had caught his attention…but the report had been badly written, and his day at work had been exceptionally tiring…
What had woken him up again?
As if in an answer to his question, there came more knocking at the door, this time insistently and more eagerly.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Wintergreen yelled to his current visitor and, staggering over to the entrance, twisted the handle violently and flung the battered wooden door wide open.
A young woman with wild blonde hair stood there, wearing a traveler's jacket and a pair of jeans; her pale hands clutched at a suitcase and pallid blue eyes were directed at the scratched floor.
"Can I help you?" He asked, trying to adopt the tone he used at work.
"Yes," She said confidently, and William was almost pleasantly surprised to hear her British accent. "But I'd rather not embarrass you by looking up."
"You have black ink on the side of your face; when you fell asleep on the newspaper, it rubbed off on your skin."
Wintergreen blinked. How did she—?
"It doesn't matter how I know it, sir. If you want, you can go wash your face, and I'll wait to come in."
The man, perfectly bewildered, hurried to the bathroom to examine himself in the mirror; sure enough, just as the girl had claimed, there was black streaked across his right cheek. His ears went red, and Wintergreen set about with a washcloth and soap, scrubbing the print off.
The young lady was shifting her weight from foot to foot when he returned, still looking her sneakers, though she lifted her head as he approached and gave him a wide smile.
"Good. Ah, Mr. Wintergreen, may I have a moment of your time?"
He shrugged and ushered her inside, shutting the door with a snap as she passed through. In the kitchen he sat down in his original place, whereas she remained standing, instead of being seated in the spare chair that William usually reserved for the rare person that dropped by for a talk.
"This place…this is exactly the place…" She was muttering to herself over and over again, while he watched her with a slight twinge of nervousness.
"I don't mean to interrupt," He said finally. "But who exactly are you?"
The woman jumped as if she had forgotten he was there, then grinned again and said:
"Amelia—Amelia Watson…I've come all the way from London just to find you, sir," She added, giving him a once over, shoes to head.
"Oh…have you really?" He asked awkwardly. "Funny, I—I don't seem to remember ever meeting you…um, did someone from Britain send you?"
"No, no," Amelia responded airily, noting the clump of newspapers in the corner. "How was the story on the morgue?"
"Actually, quite ridi—" Wintergreen stopped short and eyed her in alarm. "All right. Who are you?"
"Who are you? What are you doing here—have you been following me, or what—"
Amelia Watson let out a small groan of exasperation, taking the open chair at long last.
"Perhaps I had better explain…"
"Yes. Perhaps you should," He added testily, though he still hadn't let his guard down all the way.
"What I am about to say might sound—to your ears, anyway—quite impossible—"
"Nothing's impossible," Wintergreen said under his breath, thinking of a certain man who had undergone truth serum experiments with what were extremely unexpected results.
"—But you must try to have no doubt in me…When I was born, and was old enough to start comprehending what was happening to me, I noticed that I had certain…abilities. I had dreams during day and night: For instance, one time, I saw ghastly, disturbing images of corpses in the streets, smashed metal ground up and completely destroyed. The next day, the news reported on a terrible car accident which had killed many people. Those who had died from it looked exactly like the bodies in my 'dream.'
"I decided to pursue this mysterious power of mine, and after research, I began to see that I was having visions. I was a precognitive, who was given the gift of insight into what had been the unknown, looming future. I put forth all my efforts to assist others that could've died the day I invited them to go to a café instead. For awhile, I was happy; I learned to balance my powers as well as maintaining what would be considered a normal life.
"But then, not long ago, I had a vision, more potent than any other I've had in my time. I saw names…blood…There was a veil of gray color, draped across the scene for a moment, and I saw a young boy who was out of place somehow…I saw an odd title scrawled in blood… Slade? Deathstroke? One of them I recognize, but that certain mercenary died long ago or retired and is now in hiding or under another identity. I saw this building—this exact structure—, this room…you sat in that exact same spot, and then out of the shadows came—"
She stood up and walked over to a cabinet, pulling out a blank video tape, sliding it into the tape deck of Wintergreen's small television set. She checked that it was set to the news channel (not that it would have made a difference, for it was the only channel he got that wasn't clouded with static), pressed the 'record' button, before rejoining him at the table, not meeting his eyes.
"—Came a monster. Some terrible sort of menace, with evil written all over its aura. And yet…well…that was where the vision ended. But, I could not get it out of my head, no matter how I tried. It was irritating, but eventually it led me here—though it took a very long time—in hopes that I'd discuss this issue with you. That's all I've got to say…"
Amelia's sentence trailed off, and she stared at her short fingernails, inspecting for dirt that could have slipped beneath the white crescents. There was quiet…and then…
Watson watched Wintergreen, evidently dumfounded as he burst out gasping for air between laughter. It was obvious that she hadn't been expecting this sort of reaction to what she had thought was an incredibly dramatic speech.
"That's clever," William said, exerting great means to keep his chuckles restrained and failing spectacularly. "That's very funny. Honestly, it's the best story I've heard a long time…now, the truth: Why are you here?"
Amelia couldn't find the will to speak. Her companion, however, had calmed down now, and it had just hit him that she wasn't kidding.
"Wait…you were serious?" He questioned incredulously.
"Yeah!" Amelia Watson shouted, jumping to her feet as if those four words were an incredible insult. "Why the bloody hell do you think I traveled out of Europe all the way here to California? To crack jokes with some stranger?"
Wintergreen was getting annoyed now.
"Enough is enough," He snapped, getting to his feet as well. "Are you here for some purpose? And if so, give a reasonable explanation to why you are here—even if you're selling drugs, the least you could do is say something other than a fairy tale blown tremendously out of proportion!"
Amelia was enraged and close to tears, as she threw a card down on the table with her number.
"HERE! Just in case you decide to take my advice!"
She stomped over to the door, muttering curse words and whatnot, then turned, hesitating in the frame, regarding him with contempt.
"If any evil comes here tonight, all I can wish is that it finishes you off for good!"
He shut the door in her face and slouched over to the large chair placed in front of the TV set.
William yawned in exhaustion and woke up again, massaging his temples with his fingers as he looked both ways. The apartment was empty.
" 'Monster,' " He said derisively to the darkness as he got up, pushing on the armrests of the ratty armchair to help him up. "Hysterical witch…"
He left the television to its own devices. Maybe, when he was done preparing for bed, he'd go back and watch it just a bit more…even if there was nothing interesting on. Now that it was later at night, the reporters were simply chatting about local occurrences and striving to be witty while they conversed.
Wintergreen bumbled down the hall…and yet faltered in the door frame, unsure whether he should enter or not. He felt something niggling at him from the back of his brain, much like the sense one got when they were forgetting about something they had to do…or if there was something waiting for him just around the corner.
"…Out of the shadows came a monster. Some terrible sort of menace, with evil written all over its aura."
"Come off it," He whispered, assuaging his fears. "You don't follow any of that absurd superstition…"
All the same, the old man reached into the bathroom and—as silently as he possibly could—wrenched down the plastic bar that held up the shower curtain, and discarded the fabric and plastic sheet by the toilet. It was so damned dark—why hadn't he left more lights on?—but he turned anyway, ready with his makeshift weapon…
A giant fist swung down and caught him on the top of his head, sending him crumpling to the floor.
When his eyes first fluttered open, he had the impression that there was a huge, black blob sitting opposite him at the kitchen table. The lights were on—in his view, they were simply blurry yellow spheres levitating in air—and the distinct scent of green tea wafted past his nostrils.
"You're awake. Excellent."
Wintergreen sat up straight in the chair he'd been propped in, and blinked madly until his vision was clear.
"My God!" He cried in astonishment. "Slade?"
The mercenary halted in stirring a cup of tea, and removed his mask to greet his friend with a broad smirk.
"Unbelievable!" Wintergreen said happily, while he rubbed the new lump on the back of his head. "And to think—I thought you went off to a foreign country ages ago!"
Slade shook his head and pushed the hot drink over the notched surface of his staff sergeant's table, indicating for him to drink. William did so, still amazed by the soldier's unexpected visit.
"I…I don't know what to say," He stated matter-of-factly. Slade shrugged.
"Then don't say anything. I apologize for that, by the way." He pointed at the bump that rested upon Wintergreen's skull. The British gentleman waved it off, as if it were nothing but a slightly irritating insect.
"Never mind that. How have you—" He stopped, catching sight of the hole in the forehead area of Slade's mask, then squinted at his companion's face.
"What have you been up to?" He inquired, changing what he was about to say. The world renowned killer chuckled dryly beneath his breath.
"We'll get to that soon. But for now—I've been meaning to look you up. I must admit, though, Will…for just an average insurance salesman, you seem to desire remaining anonymous…Nothing in any of the phone books or community records…"
Wintergreen blushed a bit.
"Uh, yes…I'm not well liked at work…if somebody found out I was down in the slums…"
"I see. It doesn't matter though; I've tracked you down—"
"But for what purpose?" William said with a tiny smile, which Slade returned, brushing a bit of hair back, so that the elderly man glimpsed the eye patch his acquaintance wore over his missing eye.
"I know you too well, Will…insurance man? Law abiding citizen? Not exactly like the old days, eh?"
For this, Wintergreen had no response. It never failed to make him marvel, how Slade had an unusual knack for guessing what people desired the most. Usually, he'd use their wishes to turn the tables on them, and murder them…but on the other hand, he was remarkable when it came to persuasion…and the old man had a vague assumption of where his associate was taking this.
"I've got a plan," Slade murmured, leaning forward enthusiastically. "And I want you to assist me. It'd be an escape from this supposed life of yours…"
Wintergreen bit his lip.
"You don't know how much I'd love to…yet…"
"Yet?" Slade pressed.
There was silence; then, in the background, the news theme blared loudly, and both men turned to stare at it in aggravation.
"Cathy Simpson here, with the latest in local news; today, the Gotham City Public High School finished their 'Early September Projects,' a program where the students in each grade come up with a plan to donate money to local charities. The idea was founded by billionaire benefactor, Bruce Wayne. The freshman class passed out money to the Animal Shelter; the sophomores to a group that rescues abused women and children and takes them in till they can manage on their own…"
Wintergreen rolled his eyes at pictures of the classes rolled by as they were mentioned, and turned back to Slade, but the younger man now seemed intrigued by the report.
"…This report is extended in the Daily Press newspaper, along with the forecast for this week. Speaking of the weather, Jim, what do we have coming up for us folks in Gotham…?"
"I'll be damned," Slade said quietly, a tremor of what sounded like laughter in his tone. Wintergreen, still nonplused, cleared his throat.
"What is it? Something catch your eye?"
"Someone," The solider grumbled thoughtfully. His sergeant paused, recalling that the stupid woman who'd come by earlier had slipped a tape in and begun recording the news.
"Do you want to see it again?"
Slade raised an eyebrow.
"You tape the news?"
"I'll explain later," Wintergreen said hurriedly, and crossing over to the television, hit the stop, then rewind button.
The two watched as the freshmen waved, giggling and falling all over themselves. As the sophomores appeared again, Slade ordered, "Pause it."
Wintergreen complied, and the two males studied the screen. Personally, William wasn't quite certain what they were searching for—
"There." Slade pressed his fingertip against the screen, and his friend peered at the single student. It was a boy, with dark, spiked hair and electric blue eyes; he stood apart from the rest of the gathered kids, arms folded across his thin chest and was scrutinizing the camera. True, Wintergreen was a bit drawn to the child's serious expression that contrasted with the idiotic grins of his fellow pupils. Other than that…
"What newspaper do you get?"
The British gentleman started, then responded dutifully:
"The Daily Press. Why—"
Slade had already strode to the corner where the newspapers were stashed and rifled through the pages. Wintergreen returned to his seat and reviewed the mercenary carefully.
"Why are you so fixated on this boy? He looks like most any other teenage brat. What's he done?"
Slade didn't answer right away, but said slowly, as he scanned the small print:
"You wanted to know how my mask was punctured, correct?"
"He did it."
"What!" Wintergreen blurted. "You're pulling my leg!"
"No…" Deathstroke gave a wolfishly twisted smile as he put aside the report on the missing body in the morgue. "He killed me. Impressive, no?"
"Very," William said, exhaling sharply.
"Of course, I think I murdered him first."
"Huh? What, the boy's immortal too?" Wintergreen practically squawked. Lord, how things passed you by when you were trying to blend in with society!
"Do you recall that deal I told you about, that one time when the snake venom dart hit me?"
"Only too well," the other man admitted.
"I'm under the impression that He kept up his end of the bargain, except that He had the boy have an illusion that he was in purgatory. The child has about five years left, so I'm told."
"By who?" Wintergreen wondered aloud.
"I stopped by a church sometime back to talk with one of His servants—here."
Slade spread the pages across the tabletop with an extensive article on the high school, four pictures of the grade accompanying it. William leaned over the assassin's shoulder, squinting at the line of names in their second year of school.
"Richard Grayson," He said aloud, putting the name and face together. "Grayson…I know that name!"
Wilson twisted his head about to look at the aged man.
"Yes…there was a conflict many years back in the company. I heard about it—it's one of the many favorite cases of some people there…"
"Uh—huh. Mr. and Mrs. John Grayson were murdered when their son—assuming that's him—" Wintergreen inclined his head in a nod at the picture. "Eight years old. They were circus performers. Acrobats: The Flying Grayson. The show that night was without a net, and Mr. Haley—Haley's Circus was what it was called—"
"—Wasn't paying up to a gangster named Tony Zucco. So, that night, Zucco and his men take their guns and shoot the wires. Down go the Graysons, and their kid ends up an orphan. The insurance company came in later to see what kind of policy the dead man and woman had; but then Tony has a heart attack the moment the Batman comes swooping in—overcome with terror, apparently. A day or so following the deaths, Bruce Wayne adopts young Richard as his son. The company had a hell of a time with the lawyers, and trying to sort everything out, but it was soon settled and the case was left to rot on a bunch of papers that were shoved in the filing cabinet in the basement."
Slade took all of this in, remaining eye glimmering with thoughtfulness.
"Bruce Wayne and Richard Grayson…" He gave a small, cruel laugh as he folded the newspaper up, tossing it back in the corner.
"I never would have guessed…"
Wintergreen was puzzled.
Slade Wilson reached for his mask and put it on with a snap, before answering:
"It seems that the last Grayson is actually—or was—Robin, Boy Wonder…Batman's sidekick, and leader of the Teen Titans in Jump City."
William's mouth dropped open.
"You're…you're positive of this?"
"The boy may not be wearing a mask, but it makes no difference. He can't ever hide…"
The infamous villain walked back to the bedroom, where he leaned before an open window; Wintergreen trailed behind, wringing his hands.
"I hate to let you leave so soon…I was expecting you to stay a bit longer…we do have some things to catch up on…"
Slade's eye glinted in amusement.
"What are you talking about? You're coming with, I thought?"
William Wintergreen stared, then shook his head.
"No…I can't possibly…I'd like to very much…the company…my apartment…"
"You don't want to stay here, Will, I know that much."
The old British man rocked back and forth on his feet, considering. Here, he had Mr. Johnson, and those moronic bosses at work. But…
"Oh all right," He said in exasperation, though he couldn't conceal that he was brightening up, just thinking about it. "Let me get my coat."
There was nothing like the old days…not in all the world.
To be Continued…
I must admit, this prologue was probably better than my first chapter on the last story…well, it doesn't matter. People progress and get more experience along the way. Anyway: So now Slade knows Bruce and Robin's history! Duh, duh, duh! I wonder what will happen next? Except…that I'm the author and I know what's happening…so it was a stupid question to begin with…Ahem! Please review, and I look forward to your comments!