Issue #1- Welcome and Unwelcome Visitors
"You saw me as second-rate. Not being able to be as good as the "other" Robin!"
"I don't think I can stay here anymore."
One-hundred and eighty-four days.
"All we took was ten minutes from you!"
One-hundred and eighty-four days, four hours, and, damn it, that last fall destroyed his watch.
"Forget about being a detective for once. We are who we are. That's why this works."
He made a mental note to discuss the faulty inner workings of Waynetch's latest donation to the world of technology with Lucius later this morning.
"I was part of the legacy though, wasn't I? At least for a little while?"
Bruce Wayne wondered if other superheroes, his so-called peers, contemplated their failures as ardently as he did. He didn't see it as possible. If they did, then how could Clark always have that All-American grin plastered on his face every time Bruce perused The Daily Planet? Maybe it was some kind of metahuman-related denial, some exaggerated external locus of control brought about by extreme stress. Is that why Wally and Kyle could yammer on about some old Monty Python or Japanimation reference whenever things ran slow at Justice League meetings?
Batman knew his rationale was bordering on the nonsensical. However, everyone always seemed to think he was so damn smart, even the people who claimed to loathe him and his way of thinking just before they asked him for help. To them, he was the ill-tempered malcontent that everyone turned to when the tough questions needed answering. Well, this was a tough question, so why the hell couldn't he figure this out?
Then again, things have been pretty rough lately.
His latest encounter with Jason Todd, his former protégé and current rival, yielded results that were frustratingly similar to that of their previous face-offs: numerous bumps, bruises, and scratches, a slight smattering of property damage, a dash of dead criminals, and no answers to the many questions simmering in the forefront of the detective's mind. Additionally, all investigations into the hows and whys behind Jason's unexpected arrival only resulted in the need for further inquiry. Even something as simple as Jason's intentions remained murky, with the man seemingly dividing his time between extracting some personal revenge upon him while attempting to gain a foothold in the ever-tumultuous Gotham underworld.
The body count was beginning to rise and it was only a matter of time before an innocent was caught in the crossfire. And, as much as he would refuse to admit it to anyone, a large part of the problem was that he had no one to turn to for help. Tim and Cassandra had apparently set up shop in Bludhaven and had some run-ins with The Penguin. Dick had returned to Bludhaven as well after helping clean up the damage from their recent battle with Amazo. The android had been a security measure of the masochistic murderer known as the Black Mask, the current head of the Gotham City hierarchy of crime.
It had been Nightwing's departure that truly stung him. He honestly thought that Dick would stay. At least for a little while. He thought he, above everyone else, would have understood.
Selina had made it abundantly clear that the two of them needed some time apart. Barbara and Helena had gone off to Metropolis after the destruction of the Clock Tower on that awful day. The Justice League did not want anything to do with him, and vice versa for that matter. By the time the dust had cleared from the mass exodus, he was only left with Alfred. He had been abandoned by those who claimed to care for him. Then again, it wasn't as if he put in a lot of effort to stop them. Hell, he all but held the door open.
It was this foul walk down memory lane that brought him back to the origin of his latest round of brooding; the latest good soul to be cut down in his endless, labyrinthine quest for justice.
She was the fourth person to dawn the mantle of Robin.
Her fledgling hero career had begun when she prevented her own father, a small time crook and con-man, from succeeding in one of his more pitiable schemes. A girl dismayed with a life of struggle and normalcy, she donned a costume and dubbed herself the Spoiler. Though her competency and capacity for restraint left a great deal to be desired, her enthusiasm, her determination, and her will to succeed and carry on throughout her life's many difficulties drew him to her. However, despite his grudging respect for the girl, she had spent only 70 days as Robin when he dubbed Stephanie as unfit for duty.
He had told her that it was because she refused to follow orders, but that was only part of it. Yes, there was no doubt that Stephanie had the innate tendency to get on his last, well-frayed nerve in an alarmingly short amount of time. She talked too much when it was time to start fighting. When she finally got around to it, she was prone to excessive violence, choosing to extract unnecessary pain when simple incapacitation would do. However, Bruce could not deny that these aspects made her no different from Dick or Jason when they were that young.
And that was the problem. Tim Drake, the third Robin, was an incredible fighter, an inspired detective, and loyal to the core. However, he had all the tools to succeed even before he had joined the good fight. The boy only needed someone to point him in the right direction. Tim would have shined just as brilliantly had he never met the Batman. Stephanie, on the other hand, was a work-in-progress; an alarmingly fragile soul seeking anyway to climb up from the hole that life had dug her into.
Despite her troubles, she never stopped smiling and telling those idiotic jokes that frequently made him wish that the passenger seat to the Batmobile had an actual ejector seat. While he indirectly pushed his former partners and friends away, Stephanie did everything in her power to stay with him, to impress him. Slowly but surely, the little noboby from the Gotham streets started to worm her way into Bruce's heart, a place he had hoped to shut off a long time ago. He had learned the price of sharing his heart with anyone.
"How could you let me die!"
Learned it damn well.
The Batman shook off his reveries. As he had noted before, it had been a long night and even he realized that he could do with a couple hours sleep. He fired his zip-line towards a nearby rooftop, the grapple lodging into the aged stone of the tenement brownstone. He swung down towards the Batmobile, one of the few tools that remained undamaged from the night's proceedings. He tried not to wince as the vehicle's engine gave off a voluble roar as it thundered to life. His weaving through the sparsely populated twilight streets of Gotham was more of an afterthought, a practice honed by over two decades of experience.
"I'm sorry, Batman. I know I messed up, but I swear I'll try harder."
Yes, even a perennial pessimist like Bruce Wayne could recognize that things were not going as well as they should be.
Lloyd Thomas had no bloody clue on why he was here.
As far as new homes could go, Gotham City was hardly making a pristine first impression. The atmosphere was loud, the groceries were over-priced, and the streets smelled faintly of piss.
Bugger. At least the people in Hong Kong knew enough to invest in a street sweeper!
Then again, the town had its' fair share of excitement.
The source of the scream was an aged, black woman that appeared to previously be overburdened by several large grocery bags. However, now the items were askew and some opportunistic fellow was running off with her purse. The bandit looked to be no older than sixteen, his nimble sprint emboldened both by youth and experience.
No one was making any efforts to stop him. Typical American compassion, Lloyd thought snidely. Then again, maybe Mao had a point. Maybe he should give Gotham City a chance.
"SOMEBODY STOP HIM! PLEASE!"
Well, first things first.
By the time Lloyd had begun to move, the robber was a good thirty feet away from him and well on his way towards making a clean getaway. With the grin of a devil, the young man was in motion, the living definition of a hunter. Within a fraction of a second, Lloyd was standing in front of the robber, his countenance set in stone. He tried not to laugh out loud as the mugger crashed headlong into his chest.
As Ryan Black recovered from his unexpected stumble, he looked into the eyes of a predator; sharp, hazel orbs that looked down on him with dangerous bemusement. The night's overcast skies and the man's black hair made him look like some kind of boogeyman.
Although he currently didn't look the part, Ryan Black was a fairly bright fellow. In the back of his addled mind, the young man couldn't help but wonder just how exactly he didn't bowl the stranger over. He looked to be about his age and he was by no means a big fella. Although he stood at a shade under six feet, it was clear that the man was nothing but lean muscle and lanky limbs even under the coverings of a heavy black sweater. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to put any more effort into this line of thought, since the man's toothy grin and ominous glare seemed to shut down everything above and below his stomach.
"Out for an evenin' jaunt, are we?" the British scarecrow asked as he picked up the purse. "Call me a critic, but this doesn't seem like your style, mate. The little silver sparklies 'round the edges doesn't really scream masculinity."
The jackal was looking towards the old bat he had robbed. "Don't mind if I give this bag back to the nice lady, do ya? She looks a bit hacked off an' she could use a pick-me-up. Do me a favor an' stay here 'till I get back, eh?"
The seemingly friendly slap on his shoulder the British man gave him as he walked away felt like a sledgehammer. He was trying to run away. He really was. Why the hell couldn't he move his legs? Oh, Jesus. He's coming back.
"Well, fellow. Since I got you down here and all, you don't happen to know where I kin find Victor Fries, do you?"
The man didn't even wait for him to say that he didn't know what the hell he was talking about. "Use to be a primetime scientist, I heard. Big with cryogenics, trying to eliminate terminal illnesses and all that. Pulled a Frankenstein, went 'round the bend and now calls himself Mister Freeze. What cha think would drive a man to go crackers like that, hm?"
A strangled gasp was the only response that Ryan was able to accomplish.
"Now apparently he's become the latest mercenary hired by the Black Mask. You heard of him, by any chance? No? Well, he's callin' himself the new lord of Gotham City. Bleedin' ridiculous, I think. City's been standin' 'ere over 200 years. How many people you think have called themselves the king of this mountain? City this big, you're bound to get your neck hacked off for stickin' out that far. Least that's what I think. Any thoughts on that?"
Another stifled mumble.
"Not much of a talker, are ya Ryan? Ah, well. Truth be told, I'm not much for gossip either. Still though, someone's gotta hold the bootstraps up on our little chat, right? Ooh, by the way. You don't happen to know where I can find Batman, do ya?"
Another murmur. At least this one he could put a bit of volume into it.
"Well, well, this chat's getting lively! Yeah, me old boss tol' me to come over to Gotham and find him. Said that he'd like to see two of his old students workin' together. Didn't really put much thought into actually going through wit' it 'til now. Figured I'd see the man, call him a git, and be on my way. After all this though it's beginning to look like this ol' town could be a good place to hang me hat. Fellow can't survive on hotel mini-bars all his life, after all."
Ryan could hear the faint wail of a police siren. He really should be running right now, so why wasn't he?
"Well," said the man with the unruly mop of black hair and glowing hazel eyes, "looks like your ride is here. 'Fore you go though, allow me to give ya a nice bit of advice. Next time you come up with the bright idea of robbing old women, try and remember this little experience. And feel free to tell all your friends about it too."
The man rose up to his feet, shouldering his coat with a ghastly smile.
"After all, everyone loves a good story."
Jason Todd hissed as his brain registered the sting of the alcohol as he treated the wound just below his right shoulder blade. It was nothing more than a hairline scrape, the price paid for being a half-second too slow in dodging one of Bruce's attacks. It was something that needed to be handled, however. The last thing he needed was to be a step slow because of a small wound that went bad. Bruce had taught him that, although Jason had always suspected that it was secondhand-advice courtesy of Alfred.
The dark-hearted vigilante tried diligently to shake those old thoughts aside. Nostalgia wouldn't help him win this fight. It wouldn't prove that Bruce had never treated him fairly. It wouldn't prove that Bruce had always underestimated him. It wouldn't prove that he could run this town better than that old fool ever could. He had to focus on the here and now.
With a wounded groan, the former Robin hefted himself to his feet and observed his living quarters: two-room apartment, wooden floors, some training equipment in one corner and an aged twin bed in the other. A Spartan existence to be sure, but Jason wanted to keep things simple. Take out the Black Mask and take over the Gotham crime world in order to destroy it from within. And, if Bruce didn't like it, then he'd get rid of him too.
His old teacher's interference was not wholly unexpected, but even Jason had to admit that it disheartened him. Maybe, he had thought, after all the pain and sorrow and hell that Wayne had endured, perhaps he would understand that this was the way to go. No compromise, no grey line.
Jason once again shook his head to and fro, trying desperately to rid himself of his indecision and shake himself free from the one time in his life when he had a life and a place to call home. Bruce had taken him in from the streets of Gotham and gave him a purpose, a means to focus all the anger and frustration earned and gained from living the life of a small-time thief and troublemaker. However, as his apprenticeship went on, Jason had grown to realize something, something that had taken that little prick Grayson years to discover.
Bruce wasn't even remotely interested in letting Jason find his own purpose. Bruce was forcing his own purpose upon him, turning him into another mindless drone for his endless, fruitless war. Once Jason found that out, Batman suddenly discovered that he was a loose cannon, a black sheep that he didn't have the time or energy to deal with.
Then along came his mother.
Then the Joker. The trap he should have seen coming. The crowbar coming down upon the bridge of his skull, the sharp crack of his nose and lower jaw snapping like wet twigs, the oozing sensation of unconsciousness as the clown struck again and again. Waking up and feeling the dried blood draped and cracking over his broken face.
Then the coffin, oh Lord the coffin. The sudden jolt of waking from his undisturbed slumber. The joy of being alive shattered horribly with the stench of mothballs and no air to breathe. Kicking, scratching, and clawing through his former tomb, the dirt tumbling over him, crawling into the gaps of his clothing, filling his mouth and nostrils.
Jason roared and threw the rubbing alcohol at the far wall with all the strength he could muster. The bottle collided with the cheap plaster wall with an ignoble thud, the clear contents spilling over the already messy floor.
No more distractions. He had already had his share in the past five years. He had been scouring the world, searching and training under some of the world's most vicious fighters. It had been an invaluable experience, but Jason couldn't help but think that each new lesson learned threatened to deter him from his ultimate goal. He had learned everything he had needed to learn, however, and no one would hold the sway of superiority over him.
More importantly, he had spent too long serving under the whims and intentions of people who didn't appreciate him. From Bruce to Talia to that bandaged freak Elliot, Jason had spent far too long listening to the wrong people, to other people. He was the master of his own destiny and no one would stop him from achieving what he desired. Not Richard Grayson, not that pretender Drake, not the Black Mask and most certainly not the Batman.
Jason gave off a hearty sigh, his self-faith reaffirmed. The pain of his wounded shoulder had ebbed into a lingering sting. Tomorrow it would be just another scar, another symbol showing how far he had come from that contemptible little boy who thought it was cool to run around in a colorful tunic and pixie shorts. A brief self-assessment led him to the conclusion that he didn't need food or water. A simple rest would do.
He gave off a languid stretch, listening to the pop of muscles and joints that had spent a little too much time lying dormant. With a confident walk, he moved towards to his austere sleeping quarters and reclined against the sole pillow lain upon it. He picked up a threadbare paperback and lazily leafed through the well-worn pages. Satisfied and assuaged with the belief that Bruce would endure another sleepless night, Jason absently scanned over The Fall of the House of Usher for a handful of moments before finally dozing off.
Alfred Pennyworth normally had an uncanny knack for predicting when his charge would return from his nightly patrol. Thus, he was rather surprised to hear the familiar rumble of the Batmobile at just a shade past three in the morning. What with the recent troubles with Jason, the Black Mask's ongoing attempts to keep Gotham within his mad grip, and the various everyday scuffles to be endured, the butler had hypothesized that Bruce would not return until the very break of dawn. This was not a much beloved conclusion, granted, but one that Alfred had deemed inevitable.
As the vehicle came to a stop, Alfred took a break from his latest examination of the broken and disassembled former coffin of Jason Todd and moved to examine Bruce. Though the cape, cowl, and costume was sporting a sizeable number of rips and tears, Alfred had seen his charge looking far worse, particularly in the past year. To make up for his physical well-being, however, Bruce's face held a darkened scowl that indicated an unhealthy dose of gloom, even under his quite impressive standards.
"Another run in with Master Jason, I presume?" Alfred asked as he worked to relieve Bruce of his heavy battle armor. Bruce accepted the gesture without resistance, but chose not to respond. This reaction did not surprise Alfred in the least. After many years of serving as the Batman's field surgeon, caretaker, and confidant, Alfred Pennyworth had come a long way to mastering the art of one-way conversation. Besides, with Bruce's current mood, a frustrated, unanswered question was bound to be forthcoming. Yes, yes, right about. . .
"Why is he doing this?"
Alfred sighed. It was an unsurprising, but nevertheless unsettling query. From what he and Bruce had been able to gather, Jason had originally returned to Gotham under the employ of a man calling himself Hush. However, Jason had not made himself truly known until several weeks after Black Mask's violent takeover. Since then, the Batman had spent many restless nights searching for any clue, employing any means to discover the source of Jason's return.
To be brutally frank, Alfred feared that this venture was costing Bruce a great deal more than extra time to sleep.
Roman Sionis was hardly a fool, but Alfred never considered the Black Mask to be capable of outsmarting his pledge. As far as he was concerned, Sionis' victory, not to mention his continued control of Gotham, was another circumstance that should have been preventable and would have been stopped if other things had not gotten in the way. From Bruce's discovery of the mind wipes performed by the Justice League to the breaking of ties between Bruce and his former associates to Jason's unexpected return to Gotham City, it seemed that matters that would have been solved quickly and with little effort in the past now seemed to linger and take their toll.
"Well, Master Bruce. Your search has shown that the only plausible and consistent source of rejuvenation from death is the Lazarus Pit." Alfred gave off an inward shudder while mentioning the caustic jumble of primordial chemicals that had revived Ra's Al-Ghul on a number of occasions throughout the course of centuries. "The pit offers life at the price of sanity. Perhaps that is the source of Jason's misplaced aggression?"
Bruce shook his head slowly. "It's as I explained before Alfred, the Lazarus Pit only works for the recently deceased. By the time we had buried Jason, it had been over a week since his death." Bruce slumped down in his seat in front of the enormous mainframe computer that dominated the center of the Batcave. "And to be honest, I don't necessarily believe that his anger is altogether misplaced."
Bruce brought his thumbs and ring fingers together and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's all my fault, Alfred. I should have never brought Jason into this world." He gave off a bitter, caustic laugh. "Who am I to judge whether one way of living life is superior to another? What good has it done for me? What good has it done for anyone?"
Alfred's lips pursed as he continued to listen to the Batman's pity parade. The 67-year-old butler knew Bruce Wayne better than anyone and was well-aware of the man's worth. For all the cold receptions and pointed glares, for all the detached behaviors of a detective's mind honed endlessly by horror and tragedy, a small part of Bruce was still concerned for the well-being of a man who had gone to considerable effort to wipe him off the face of the Earth. No matter what any of Bruce's so-called "peers" had to say about it, the heart of the Batman was just as strong as the mind and Alfred was not about to let Bruce continue to wallow in such unnecessary self-doubt.
"Master Bruce, if you utter such a ridiculous statement again I will not hesitate to box your ears. Like you, I had my doubts when you brought that young man back to the manor, when you chose to train him in order to replace Master Dick. However, I do believe I am well-versed enough in the field of dark vigilante psychology to believe that Jason enjoyed his time here. And, at the risk of being expelled from this ever-abominable, ever-odious cavern, I dare say that you did as well."
Bruce gave off the tiniest of smiles. "Yes, old man. I'd say you've had your share of experience there."
"Eighteen years and counting, Master Bruce."
Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne shared a tired, lingering chuckle.
Of course, it would be Bruce that felt compelled to end the moment. "It's been six months now, Alfred."
"Yes, Master Bruce. I attempted to get in touch with Stephanie's mother as you requested. As you might imagine, the results were less than kind."
Bruce nodded. "Thank you for the effort, Alfred, and I can hardly blame her. I may as well have killed her daughter."
"Master Bruce, continuing to blame yourself for Miss Stephanie's death shall accomplish nothing."
"I was the one who gave her the mantle of Robin, Alfred. It was MY plan that she used in some convoluted attempt to gain my favor that allowed Black Mask to get to where he is now. I should have been there for her. I should have tried harder to convince her to stop."
Try as he might, Alfred could not help but slightly agree with Bruce's admission. It had been no secret that he had been against Bruce's hasty approval to turn Stephanie Brown into Robin, the "Girl Wonder" as the papers had dubbed her (much to Stephanie's personal chagrin). However, during the two months that she held the position, Alfred could not help but grow fond of the young woman. He finally understood why Cassandra Cain, who could easily be as distant and stand-offish as Bruce, would wish to befriend her. Stephanie's energy and joie de vivre had proven to be dangerously infectious, even for the two fairly inflexible denizens currently occupying the Batcave.
"Master Bruce, in your rather unflattering portrayal of your interactions with Miss Stephanie, I cannot help but notice that you chose to ignore a rather important event in your relationship with her."
Bruce rose from his chair, the patented "Bat-glare" at maximum intensity. "I had to fire Stephanie! She lacked the self-discipline and refused to follow my orders!"
"Of course, Master Bruce. I believe you are referring to those two incidents against Zsasz and the assassin that had been hunting Master Timothy. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was quite possible that she saved your life on both occasions. Well, I can most certainly understand your reaction. Everyone should be on the lookout for people displaying such strident examples of disloyalty."
Bruce emitted a noise that seemed to be a cross between a grunt and a growl. Despite its possible peculiarity to others, Alfred recognized it as Bruce's most common gesture when approached with an argument he could not win.
"I'm going to bed."
"Of course, Master Bruce." Alfred knew his limitations when it came to reasoning with the Batman.
But tonight he decided to go for broke.
"However, if I may offer a suggestion." Bruce Wayne froze in his tracks, a clear sign that a cold comment was forthcoming. Alfred chose to speak quickly to prevent it. "I believe it was Miss Stephanie's foremost wish that you did not undergo your crusade alone. If you wish to truly honor her memory, perhaps some calls are in order."
Alfred realized that he had been on thin ice even before he had made such a bold statement. Still, for the sake of Bruce's well-being, he felt he had to risk it.
Bruce turned back to Alfred from his place on the passageway leading to the cozy confines of Wayne Manor.
"Tomorrow's another day, old friend."
As Bruce continued to slowly scale the long stairway, Alfred could not resist the smile creeping onto his face. Nevertheless, it had been a wise decision not to tell Bruce about the call from Mister Tenryu. For someone who felt so comfortable in the ever-tremulous world of Gotham City, Bruce Wayne was never one for change unless it meant a new engine for the Batplane.
Three hours ago, the Happy Brothers Corner Store had housed over two tons of cocaine that was soon to be sold on the streets of Gotham. Two hours ago, over two dozen of the Black Mask's "employees" charged with the distribution of illegal narcotics had assembled in this hideaway in order to draw out supply lines designed for maximum profit. Now, neither the associates nor the contents of the Happy Brothers Corner Store were likely to garner any value at all.
Two figures, a middle-aged man and a young woman, stood in the midst of destroyed narcotics and unconscious criminals.
"Was all that really necessary, young lady?"
The young girl nodded exuberantly as she waved a finger at the man. "See? That's the problem with your generation! You have no flair for the dramatic! No place for aesthetics! Why do you think no one ever listens to ya anymore?"
The "old man", who didn't look a day over forty, gave the girl a dubious glare. "Well, I'm reasonably certain that Courtney listens to me."
The girl screwed up her face in a comical fashion. "What? Stargirl? That doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment to me. I mean, who goes off to fight the forces of evil in a belly shirt? Why not just have her wear a nice big target? By the way, is it true that she wears braces?"
The man remained silently as he searched for any avenue that would lead him away from the sudden turn the conversation had taken. "You know, it isn't too late for you to rescind your decision. You've already proven yourself to the Council and even if you didn't want to work all the way out there, we would be more than happy to have you in the J.S.A."
The girl gave the older man a wistful smile and shook her head. "No dice, my man. It's just like I said before. This is my home. It's dark, it's depressing, it smells faintly of pee, but it's mine." The girl put a closed fist onto her chin. "Besides, I always thought that Hawk Man was an ass-hole."
"I could make a comment about the pot and the kettle right about now." The man chuckled and checked his watch while the girl snorted with laughter. "It's been ten minutes since I made that call. Just how slow is the G.C.P.D.?"
"Cut 'em some slack. Gotham's a big-ass burg. If you really wanted to get them here in a hurry, you should have just dropped your name."
"I thought you wanted your being here to remain a secret?"
The girl rolled her eyes. "I said your name. It's not like I'm going to stay for all the boring red tape. Quite frankly, I was planning on leaving you here and motoring back to the hotel."
"Such a responsible young lady." The man seemed ready to say something else, but the faint sound of sirens had drawn his attention. "Well, with that we should probably both make our getaway."
The girl agreed, her face set in a smile. "Sure you don't want to stick around? Looks like a wonderful opportunity for a photo-op and you old fogies always seem to be such fans of those."
The man avoided the young lady's digs and made his way towards the fire escape. "Come along now. We'll save the next trip for tomorrow. And for the record, it was Wildcat that always wanted to do those."