Disclaimer: Some writers wait for omens to begin a new story. A new moon, a rainbow, that sort of thing. This morning, I passed a dead deer on the road and sat through a hailstorm (not exactly common on the California coast). Make of that what you will. And I don't own these characters. Or the deer.
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It was late at night, he had a diamond necklace in his hand, and he was staring at the wrong side of a pointy object in the hands of a guy about his age dressed in an outfit more suited to Dick's day job than the nighttime activity he had decided to resume. 'This wasn't a good idea,' Dick thought.
----- ----- -----
Earlier that day...
It was another show, on another night, in another city. When they'd arrived, he'd pitched in like everyone else in the employ of Haly's Big Top, setting up tents, food stands, fencing. He'd taken pains to make sure he wasn't branded a prima donna just because he had his own trailer. It worked, for the most part. He fit back into circus life easily enough, he'd just found the fit wasn't as comfortable as he remembered.
Center ring performers weren't expected to take tickets or man the booths on the nights of shows, which was just as well. Trips into the assorted cities to visit museums, cafes and libraries were a large part of what had been keeping Dick sane. Nearly eleven months he'd been out on the road, and he was losing his taste for it.
Not for performing, mind you. For ten minutes each night, there was just him, a set of traps, and the sounds of the crowd: murmurs, gasps and roars. For those ten minutes, each time his hands caught the trapeze bar, it felt like the calloused hands of his mother and father. It was hard not to throw out just one more trick, just to make the moment last a few seconds longer, but the performer inside wouldn't let him. Once he hit the quad, the show was over. His part of it, at least. Get back to the platform, take your bow, head back to your trailer.
Another show. On another night. In another city.
Dick's eighteenth birthday was in two days. It was a date that nagged at his subconscious. Not that he put much stock in his impending 'adulthood'. He'd been essentially on his own for years, made millions and now owned a business that employed dozens. Only in thirty-two hours would he be a full-fledged adult human being? It still stuck in the back of his mind, though.
Dick was coming to grips with the fact that whatever his future was, it wasn't going to be with Haly's Big Top. It was with that in mind that Dick suited up in his old costume, brought the whip and claws out of mothballs and set Tiger loose on Star City. It wasn't Gotham, but it had a few places worth taking a closer look at. He'd found himself in the habit of doing that in the last few cities, scouting potential targets.
Entering, things had gone smoothly enough. It seemed that the security systems of jewelry stores in towns that weren't home to Catwoman didn't need to be as good, (which struck Dick as rather odd, since they didn't keep her out anyway.) Cracking the store's small vault was almost pathetic. When you have a lock opened by an electronic signal rather than physical tumblers, and all it takes to send that signal is to cross a couple wires behind the panel's keypad, most manufacturers suggest that said panel be secured by a bit more than two phillips-head screws.
Opening the vault, he grabbed a pair of pieces that were in the way, stashed them, then reached inside for the diamond necklace that was clearly the best piece in there. Looking it over, Barbara's words from the year before echoed in his mind. He recalled the portly, balding salesman who'd been behind the counter when Dick was browsing through. The unctuous little man, upon seeing Dick's Knights sweater and faded blue jeans, had informed him that they didn't carry costume jewelry. Dick found it hard to muster up much sympathy at the possibility of him losing his job.
"Freeze, punk!" Dick heard. He felt a rush of panic. Had he missed a silent alarm? Had the seemingly-poor security lulled him into missing something less obvious? He slowly turned around, expecting to see guns and men in blue. Which made the bow and the kid in red quite a surprise.
Dick felt, oddly enough, relief. This was more familiar ground. Costumed 'heroes' might be better-trained than your average police officer, but there was only one of him to avoid, and they tended not to use lethal force, at least not against jewel thieves. "Aren't you supposed to be green? And old?"
"Put it back, funnyman," the vigilante ordered.
"Then what?" Dick asked. He might not be able to use Selina's more visual distractions against the bowman (although with that bright red Robin Hood getup, Dick kind of wondered), but there were other was to confuse a crimefighter.
"Then you're going to jail."
'Predictable,' Dick thought. "How?" The archer looked at him like he'd just asked if his arrows were pointy. "Well, if I attack you or run, I'm assuming the bow comes into play. I'm also assuming you aren't going to shoot a nonviolent thief at point-blank range with a lethal weapon. So, how are you getting me to jail? Going to be hard to call the cops while keeping your arrow nocked. Are you going to march me down the street at arrowpoint?"
The teenaged archer looked confused. Dick had expected as much. No crook could be expected to take someone in that outfit seriously, especially not a kid. Most probably attacked him. Someone actually surrendering had to be a new thing to him, (not that that was exactly what Dick was doing.) "What are you," he asked, "some kind of joker?"
Dick looked insulted. "Am I wearing purple, laughing insanely?" The vigilante's eyebrow raised. "Joker? Clown? Gotham City? Ok, never mind. Let me make a suggestion. I'll leave this necklace here on the counter and walk out of here. You'll have stopped the crime, and nobody will have gotten hurt." Which would still leave the ruby brooch and the emerald earrings he'd already slipped into his pouch. Not that Dick actually expected him to take the deal, but it amused him nonetheless.
"I have a better idea," the red-clad crimefighter answered, and without moving his bow, his foot shot outward, the heal of his boot smashing into a glass display case containing a selection of diamond rings Dick had deemed beneath him. The case's alarm, which Dick hadn't touched, made no sound, which was not a good thing, since Dick knew the signal was being relayed to the police.
"Not bad," Dick said, tossing the necklace into the air. The archer's attention was distracted just for a moment, long enough for Dick to bring his whip to bear, the leather coiling itself around the vigilante's arm. Dick yanked on the whip's handle, noting in his mind that this was a good deal more fun with Barbara on the other end. With his free hand, he grabbed the necklace and dropped it into his pouch.
The archer managed to hold onto the bow in one hand, the arrow in the other, but Dick grabbed his wrists. As they struggled, the vigilante quipped, "Not that the whole whip thing isn't interesting, but I really don't swing that way."
"No straight man since Errol Flynn has dressed like that," Dick said, clawing the bowstring, snapping it with a twang. He gave his whip-handle a tug, releasing the now-bow-less archer's wrist. The vigilante backed off a bit, planting himself in front of the doorway and saying, "You are not getting out of here."
Dick chuckled. He zipped the pouch shut, but while the necklace was safely tucked away, his hand didn't come out of the pouch empty. He threw the small pellet at the archer's feet and ran towards him. The vigilante crouched, preparing to use an aikido throw on the oncoming thief when a cloud of white smoke erupted, enveloping him in a fog. Dick leapt, flipping over him and sailing through the doorway untouched. Out on the street, a whip-swing brought him up onto the fire escape of a four-story building.
As he ran, Dick couldn't help but laugh. Batman would pop a vein if he knew Dick had used one if his tricks on a robbery.
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The next morning
He'd gotten up early and headed out to breakfast at a French bakery he'd seen across the street from the jewelry store. He'd acquired the Gothamite tendency to look down on most other cities, and therefore wasn't expecting much from the cuisine, but this was better pain au chocolate than he'd had in a week's worth of breakfasts in Paris.
Sitting outside, he sipped at his espresso when his cellphone rang. 'Cat Scratch Fever', a ringtone he hadn't heard in months. He grinned, took the phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. "Selina!" he said cheerfully, "Calling to congratulate me?"
He wasn't at all prepared for the gravelly voice that replied. Not. Exactly. Bruce Wayne's voice. Batman's voice, more accurately.
Dick took a second look at his phone's display. The caller ID listed her home phone number. He frowned, could his heist have possibly made the Gazette? The necklace couldn't be worth more than a half-mil, retail. "Afraid I wouldn't take your call if it came from your phone?" Was it possible to send a fake caller ID?
Put them back.
"Where have I heard that before?"
"I thought you guys were territorial about this sort of thing. 'My city' and all that. Shouldn't you be siccing the Robin Hood twins on me?"
You want me to tell Green Arrow and Speedy your identity?
"...He calls himself Speedy?"
I suggest you put them back. If you don't, I will not leave this to Green Arrow. You know what I do to thieves.
"Ok, ew. Thanks for the mental image..." There was silence on the other side. Dick explained, "It's eight in the morning and you're in Selina's apartment. Let's not talk about what you do to thieves." Dick imagined the glare that must be occurring back in Gotham right now and grinned. "Look, when Selina gets out of the shower, ask her to call me, will you?"
Dick decided to be nice to the guy. It couldn't be easy to get into the whole Bat-mood and have the thief you're trying to shake down ask you to have your girlfriend give him a call. "If I promise to put them back, will you ask her to call me?"
How did you know she was in the shower?
"Because you wouldn't have made this call if she were going to hear you." Dick ended the call, put his phone away and shook his head.
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Ten minutes later
As he walked along the streets of Star City, Dick's phone sounded, the same ringtone as before. Flipping open the phone, he said, "He actually told you. I'm amazed."
I'm disappointed in you, kiddo.
Set off the alarm, smashed a display case. I thought I taught you better than that. She ruined the stern voice with a light chuckle.
Dick laughed in response, "I'm offended that you think that was me. Junior version of the local welcoming committee. They're not as subtle as the Bats around here."
Don't go to Miami. Daniel's in a federal prison.
Dick smiled. So far as he knew, Selina hadn't stolen anything since he'd left Gotham, but whether she had or not, obviously she was still the same Catwoman. "That Bruce's doing?"
He won't say. Just gives me that damn smirk.
Dick frowned. The incarceration of Selina's old fence might prove problematic. "Dammit. Think there's any chance Penguin would fence for me?"
From inside his cell?
"He's still in Blackgate? The old boy's slipping." Dick pondered, realizing the full breadth of his difficulty. "Dammit..."
"This was more of a whim than any sort of meticulously-planned heist. I never made any contacts with any fences other than yours."
There's always the pawn shop.
"Har har. I'll figure something out. It's not like I need the money or anything. You want the necklace?"
Not if this picture in the paper is accurate. It's a nice piece to sell but way too gaudy for me to wear.
"Think Barbara would like it?"
"Kidding! Kidding!" Dick chuckled and said, "Anyway I guess I'll just put it back tonight."
Ok, it's not that hard to find a fence. Guilty?
"Not exactly. More like...it was one thing when I needed the money. But now? Pop ran things tight enough that the circus was able to keep going despite having to pay protection. When you figure almost forty percent of the revenue was going to that, I've been able to have Pop give everyone a raise, himself included, and I'm still making about ten thousand a night. We do about a hundred shows a year. And the circus pays me a salary commensurate for what a center-ring performer makes. Not what you and I were pulling in, but I don't need to steal right now. Maybe it won't always by the case."
So why did you? Just keeping your hand in the game?
"I'm here. I don't know. Is that not the dumbest thing you've ever heard. I cased the joint, disabled the security, got the goods, ditched the crimefighter, and I still don't know why I was doing it. It wasn't as much fun as it used to be with you." He paused and laughed, "Except for ditching the crimefighter. Would you believe he calls himself Speedy? I will never complain about 'Tiger' ever again."
Selina's laughter rang in his ear.
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The break-in went exactly the same as the night before. The store's security system had been repaired, but not replaced. He stared at the vault panel and shook his head. The store's management had completely failed to notice the scratches on the panel's face. 'They probably just changed the code.' Dick shook his head and popped open the panel. He crossed the wires again, when he heard a grizzled voice behind him, "Not smart, coming back here kid."
'Oh for fuck's sake...' Dick thought. They couldn't possibly have...he raised both his hands and turned around. Both of them, this time. Green Arrow and Speedy had arrows nocked and aimed at his chest. In disbelief, he asked, "You two actually staked this place out again in case I came back?"
"You say that like you didn't," the older of the two replied.
"Do we look stupid to you?" the younger one said.
Looking obviously downward at their costumes, Dick smirked and answered, "Do you really want me to answer that, Speedy?"
"Can I shoot him?" Speedy asked, as a familiar dark shape stepped away from the shadows behind the two archers.
"No." The gravelly voice was unmistakable.
"What the?" Green Arrow said, whirling around to face the caped figure. Dick took note of the fact that while the one moved to face the new arrival, the other kept his focus on Dick. "The hell are you doing here, Bats?"
"No," Batman repeated. "Your young partner cannot shoot him."
The archer answered hotly, "Last time I checked, he didn't take orders from you, Grim."
Dick watched in amusement as the archer's hackles raised. 'He's just as big a jerk to these guys as he is to me.' Oddly, Dick found that comforting. Batman brushed past the two, saying, "I presume you've noted that he hasn't opened the vault yet?"
"He already robbed the place yesterday," Green Arrow said, "I didn't need to wait for him to commit another count."
"Not what I'm referring to," Batman said. "The pouch." Dick laughed and put his hands down, handing the pouch over. Batman opened it and removed the diamond necklace Dick had stolen last night. Glancing at the archers, he asked, "Recognize this?"
Green Arrow and Speedy glanced at each other, looks of confusion upon their faces. "He's bringing it back..." Speedy said, lowering his bow.
Batman was frowning at the pouch. Pulling out a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills, he glanced queryingly at Dick, who answered, "For the brooch and the earrings I snagged. List price plus sales tax." Grinning, he added, "I know a girl they'll look good on."
"He must be one of Batty's baddies," GA answered. "He's obviously nuts." Dick glared at him.
Batman glared at Dick, "The security system? And the case?"
Dick snorted, "The security system is crap. They should pay me for pointing it out to them. And we both know that I'm not the one who breaks things on jobs," he said, grinning at the Bat-grunt elicited by the reference to the fake statue Batgirl had broken (over his head!) on his last job in Gotham. "They want payment for that, they can take it from Carrot Top over there."
Green Arrow glanced in Speedy's direction. "You broke the case?"
"You're taking his word over mine?"
"You never gave me your word. You said, and I quote, 'the case got broken.'"
"Seeing as how my part of the show is done with," Dick said, "I'm gonna go now."
"Shut up!" both archers said simultaneously.
"You know what?" Dick said, glowering at the two of them, "I don't think I will. See you around, Batman." He threw a pair of smoke bombs to the floor and took off. After a good deal of coughing, yelling and cursing from the archers, when the smoke cleared, they were all alone in the building.
"Well that's just peachy," Oliver said, frowning. The necklace was still sitting next to the money on the counter. He glanced at his partner and his frown deepened. "Uh, Roy? Where's your hat?"
Roy's hand went to his head, feeling only his shaggy red hair. "It's gone!" He pointed at Oliver's head, saying, "Yours is too!"
"Dammit!" Oliver cursed.
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Five minutes later
Atop one of Star City's roofs, Dick took a seat, leaning back against the brick chimney. He needed to do some thinking. A brief shadow flickered in the moonlight. Dick didn't hear the Dark Knight's arrival on the rooftop, didn't see the man standing behind the chimney, black cape billowing in the wind, but he knew what that shadow meant. he held up the red cap in one hand and said, "Souvenir?"
"No thank you," Batman graveled, stepping around the chimney and showing the green cap in his, "Got my own."
Dick's eyes bulged behind the lenses of his mask in surprise. "You...you stole it?"
Batman nodded, "I stole it. Don't worry, he's got plenty more where this came from."
"Why? He piss you off or something?"
"Yes, actually. That's not why though. Selina's been worried about you."
Dick glared at Batman. He stood up, crossed his arms, and leaned back against the chimney. "Try again."
Batman grumbled. "'Worried might be too strong a word. We talked about your..."
"Comeback?" Dick suggested.
Batman grunted in response, saying, "I got the impression that you didn't particularly enjoy your 'comeback'."
"Just so we're clear here, I am going to verify this conversation with Selina, and if it turns out that your 'talk' was actually eavesdropping on our conversation, the both of us are going to claw the shit out of you." That got another grunt. "Get to the point," Dick demanded.
"You have a rather uncommon skillset, not necessarily suited to a wide variety of careers, and between acrobatics and larceny, you seem to be dissatisfied with two of them."
"If you're about to make me an employment offer, I'm going to demand a signing bonus, Wayne Enterprises stock options and a good dental plan."
Batman scowled, "Fine. This was a mistake."
"Because you're obviously not interested in doing anything worthwhile with your life!"
"I mean, why are you asking me this? From what Barbara's told me, her partnership with you was over your objections rather than with your blessing, at least at the start. Somehow I doubt you go around recruiting policeman's daughters or acrobats or thieves to the great Bat-cause."
"Barbara told me about the night you two met."
"You know I'm not exactly thrilled with you checking up on me via all my friends."
"Barbara is my partner. Selina is..." that was a little harder for Bruce to encapsulate. What were they, really? "The point is, in that alley, and in that kitchen, your instinct was to do the right thing. You may have been a thief, you may have been my enemy, but when you saw an innocent person in danger, you did the right thing. Not every policeman's daughter, acrobat or thief has the ability to do what I do. Almost none, in fact."
"But beyond ability, there has to be that instinctual desire for justice. I think you have that. I think it's the reason you'll never find crime satisfying again. When you thought you weren't hurting anyone, it could be. When you accepted the truth...you may not have realized it, but it was the end of Tiger. At least, the end of him as a thief. I stole the had because I wanted you to understand what I do. I'm not a policeman in a costume. On a nightly basis, I commit criminal acts including trespassing, assault, blackmail, about every traffic violation you can imagine short of DUI, and yes, theft as well. I respect the law, but I do not follow it. I break the law because it is necessary to do so to enact justice. Whatever line you think separates us, it isn't the law."
Dick scowled, "So this is all some redemption kick of yours? You couldn't do anything when your parents died. You couldn't do anything when my parents died. So now, let's turn me into some junior version of you and it'll be all right? My life's purpose, revealed?"
Bruce glared at Dick's sarcasm. "You said the only difference between us was money, but money is just a tool. The difference between us was that because of money, I had an opportunity. Now you have the same opportunity. Twenty-seven minutes ago, you turned eighteen. From this moment on, whatever you do, whatever choices you make, you are your own responsibility."
"Does it matter that I don't like you?"
Batman grunted. "If liking me was a prerequisite for fighting crime, the JLA would disband tomorrow."
Dick laughed, then stopped suddenly and did a double-take. "Was that a joke?"
Maintaining an absolutely straight face, Batman said, "No."
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He's still Dick Grayson, but he isn't Robin.
Batman's going to have his hands full
in Chapter 2