TITLE: What It Takes (To Let You Go)

Spoilers: None.

Rating: PG-13.

Summary: AU. Batman faces his greatest challenge yet as he grapples with a new reality and a world without what he needs the most.

Thank to LG for the beta, as always! PS - How's your summer going?

And on that note, I've missed you guys! Seriously, feel free to email me any time or maybe bug me a little (AKA inspire me to finish some stuff), but don't be surprised if I take a little while to write back...I know, I know, I'm awful...

Chapter 1: What It Takes

"Tell me what it takes to let you go/Tell me how the pain's supposed to go" – Aerosmith

He crouched on the roof, blending with the shadows that shrouded him. Eyes sharp as they analyzed the scene around him, taking in the details that others would have missed, he let his heart rate slow and steady as he watched the night unfold around him. His breath soft and still in the chilly air that clung to Gotham as midnight fast approached, he watched his quarry as a cat would a mouse, determined that tonight would end the reign of terror that had been unleashed on his city, spooking the citizens, driving them home, and emptying the streets of all life on a night such as this one.

This had been a case unlike any other, requiring him to push himself harder, to steel himself in utter determination and revoke his life as Bruce Wayne in order to fully become the Bat. In nights past, he'd rarely taken off the uniform and now it felt to him like a second skin of sorts, simply another layer of the man and his driving need to do right by the city that had taken so much from him.

And yet, the city was still home, just as the night was his domain, his dominion in which he ruled with willpower and resolve, pushing himself to his limits in order to become their savior of sorts, so that others wouldn't have to face the same emptiness that had nestled inside his soul on that night so long ago.

He could still remember it – the night still around him as he watched, his mother's pearls falling to the ground, one by one, coated in the blood that stained her dress and her agonizing scream still lingering on the air. He couldn't remember if he had said a word that night or simply stared in mute horror and shock at the sight that beheld his eight-year-old eyes. His father's suit was smeared in blood and he could see the eyes that he had inherited, lifeless and empty, cold on that bitter night.

He had lost everything that night. And he had rebuilt himself, determined to save the city that he could see falling rife to the criminal element; rebuilt himself in a guise that demanded respect and into a man who choose duty over all else. His heart was focused in Gotham and it came first, no matter the consequences to the rest of his life. He had sacrificed untold hours, relationships, and God only knew what else in his attempts to rescue his city from the barren wasteland of desperation and desolation that it had become in the hands of the sinful and the insane.

And here he crouched, his knees skimming the icy rooftops and the tip of his cape fluttering in the wind as he sacrificed yet more hours to what many would call a foolish cause and a never-ending battle.

There were times that he would have agreed with them.

But this crusade, the course of action upon which he had based his life, was entrenched in his heart and he could no more stop his forays than he could stop his breath. He knew that with every instant, his life could end, that he could end up as fodder for the headlines when they discovered his identity, ultimately impeding his work, and yet, it was a part of him, the reason his soul and his heart had needed to continue after that night in Crime Alley.

One day, someone else would be Batman. Somewhere in the recesses of his brain, he had already realized that truth and understood it. The legacy would continue even if he himself was no longer available to continue to define the mantle, to wear it with the combination of pride and elusiveness that it required. One day, the shoulders of another would fill the suit and someone else would try to reign in the terror that clutched at the heart of Gotham.

But not tonight.

And so, he continued his campaign to rid Gotham of the filth that had filtered in and practically overrun in the years should that should have been his transition between youth and manhood. Instead, he'd found himself an orphan, trying to understand the tragic circumstances that had struck down his parents and left him bereft, adrift, and without any guidance and emotion in his life other than Alfred.

Alfred. He'd been a boon and a saving grace throughout the years, taking the young Master Bruce under his wing and into his care, teaching him and guiding him into becoming the man he was now. His formative years had shaped him, but the subsequent days and years after his parents' death had honed him, forced him to find a purpose and to almost revel in it, to literally become the Dark Knight of Gotham.

From the shadows that dominated the streets below him, he watched, keeping a keen eye and an open ear out for anything that signaled a potential for trouble. He'd been on the tail of this case for some time and tonight, he intended to end it, to bring about the wrath and vengeance that only Batman could dole it without mercy or compassion.

When it came to certain aspects of his life, he thought, glancing over at Dick and Tim with an almost imperceptible gentling in his eyes, his emotions were slightly closer to the forefront and softer in nature. But, eyes turning back to the shadowy figure below them, mercy, compassion, and the softer emotions had no business on a case, no business in the streets of Gotham where his brand of dominance was necessary for Batman to endure and ultimately save the people in his city.

His city. His world.

Muscles tightening, he fixed his gaze on the man that he recognized as his quarry, preparing to unleash his Batarang and soar through the night sky on nothing more than a jumpline and faith in his own abilities. And behind him, he knew, at his back, would be the boys, the men, he had taken into his clan and claimed as his own, as wards, as sons, as Robins and heroes of the night devoted to his mission and his purpose in Gotham.

And as a shaft of moonlight lanced through the darkness, he swiftly lifted a hand, firing the line with an almost imperceptible sound over to the darkness of the next rooftop. Without words, knowing that the two behind him would follow his lead and his wishes without instruction or direction, he flew through the air, cape flapping softly in the wind as his shadow clad form descended rapidly to the ground, landing nimbly on the concrete beneath him before whipping his head around at the soft sound of footsteps that sounded just steps away from where he crouched, intent on blending in with the murkiness of a Gotham night.

Tonight Batman would succeed and the justice system of Gotham would have yet another occupant, that he promised himself.

Eyes fixed on the location of the soft footfalls that he had heard in the darkness, he poised, his body braced for action, knowing that something was aware, was lurking in the darkness. Sliding deeper into the shadows, he moved towards the sounds he had taken notice of following his descent, knowing that Dick and Tim would soon follow him into the criminal abyss, the unknown element that awaited them.

He had spent countless hours over the last few weeks trying to determine more about this criminal, trying to find out more about the mastermind who had perpetuated this string of crimes, but with each attempt, he had faced more murkiness and run into brick wall after brick wall. It was almost as if the shadowy figure didn't actually exist, other than in his imagination. And yet, he knew that wasn't true, that somehow this man was made of the same skin and steel that he was.

But certainly he wouldn't be honed to the same degree as the Dark Knight of Gotham. He spent hour and hour in the Cave, improving his physique and his analytical skills, whetting his talents with the precision and decisiveness that had served him so well all of these years.

But here in the shadows, he knew that it wasn't always enough, that no matter how much time he spent in the gym with a weight in his hands and sweat poring from his body, no matter how sharp his intelligence or acumen, no matter that his sense of determination and ruthlessness when it came to defending his city, he was missing something that the other side typically found themselves either endowed with or hindered by.

Sheer insanity.

The criminal element of Gotham was nothing if not often composed of the utterly outrageous, bizarre, and crazy. It seemed to be their trade in stock, from their themed antics and thefts to the fact that Arkham Asylum often seemed to be filled to overflowing with men and women he had placed within their stone walls.

But this rash of thefts had a different earmark to it – one of deep intelligence and a crafty cunning that was almost unlike any he had faced before – almost unearthly or, to be more correct, more supernatural.

He was used to working with and occasionally going against the unearthly and the supernatural – counting Martians and Kryptonians among his allies in the Justice League - and yet, the way that this criminal had been active and almost utterly invisible told his mind that he was dealing with something that wasn't the typical Gothamite villain.

This was a much more shadowy figure.

He paused, his utter stillness detailing the fact that he was waiting for a sign that he had been discovered, that his enemy had realized that he had been tracked and was now aware of the man perched on the ground. As seconds passed and silence descended, he inclined his head towards the roof where Nightwing and Robin were waiting, not wanting his prey to elude them as he had in the weeks prior to this night.

And in the still night air around him, he heard the faint but unmistakable sounds of two simultaneous jump lines echoing in the street, his compatriots in battle following their fearless leader into battle.

But tonight he didn't feel fearless – he felt altogether too human and too vulnerable, as if he could feel the night around him stripping him of his confidence, of the suit that had so shortly ago seemed like a second skin, another part of him and his way of dealing with the world of sin and corruption in Gotham.

His heart began to beat wildly in his chest and the world around him seemed to move in slow motion as a figure quietly and quickly moved away from the shadowy depths of a nearby building, his hand smoothly coming up, clutching the cold metal of a weapon that Bruce recognized only too well from his years as Batman and the death of his parents.

Struggling to move, he found his feet almost leaden, his mind toiling to analyze the situation and to respond rapidly, but to his mounting horror, he found himself as if in a daze.

Death had never scared him, but now, fear seemed to grip him by the throat in tangled fingers of shock and surprise. His eyes seemed glued to the cold, glinting shaft of metal the unknown assailant wielded, knowing that at any moment, he could find himself having followed his parents into what lay after, if anything, that his body could fall, broken and bloody, to the ground before Dick and Tim had even descended from their airy perches where he too had been what felt like just seconds ago.

And as his fogged brain tried in desperation to process the scene around him and react accordingly, he moved forward, despite the leaden feet and the ache that threatened his heart, knowing that every moment counted and that he could save the two that had followed him into this life, that had chosen to don the costume and patrol the night and the sky at his side.

It wasn't their turn to die, that much he knew, and with a strength that seemed to emanate from his inner self, he pushed himself forward, letting his body become vulnerable as he fought to keep his mind from his surroundings, from the horror that he knew that gunfire could inflict upon two bodies.

Shoving that image out of his mind, he lunged for the gun, somehow feeling the cold steel despite his gloves, pushing the barrel towards the sky rather than the two figures still making their way towards Earth. It erupted and he could feel the heat of the shot, the pulse of it as it flew past his cheek, could feel the air shake just as surely as he could hear the sound, echoing through his eyes, reminding him of moments buried in his past and deep within his mind.

As they continued the silent struggle, he heard the soft sounds that signified that the boys had reached the ground and he knew that they would be coming to assist him soon. Reminding himself that the boys were still vulnerable, he continued the tussle, using every move from his wide arsenal in order to protect himself and his boys from the fate that could await them with another shot of the weapon.

Spinning his leg around in a vicious kick, he watched, just a hint of satisfaction lurking in his brain, as his unknown assailant fell to the ground, a moan on his lips and, Batman hoped, a prayer in his heart.

It was over, he decided, time to end this and send yet another villain to the deepest recesses of Arkham.

And yet, as he stepped forward, restraints at the ready, he felt a sickening pain leap up his spine, causing his to lurch to the side in an effort to maintain his balance.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he witnessed the assailant raise his arms from his prone position, turning the weapon toward the charging former and current Robins with a vicious smile curling his lips, the mists of the night wrapped around his darkly clothed body, and Batman realized that his efforts had been in vain, that no person, no move, no matter how practiced or prepared, could stop what he knew was about to happen, the inevitable fate.

Still, he fought to shake himself free from the pain, to loose the coil of torture wrapped around him like ivy on a tree, but the agony clung tightly, stopping him in his tracks, no matter how hard he pushed himself to remember his training, to ignore the pain and focus on the job ahead.

Today, pain would win and the heart, the sons, of Batman would fall.

As gunfire erupted, two bodies fell to the ground, a crimson tide seeping onto the pavement and pooling, the red of his nightmares and his memories suddenly returning to haunt him, the pearls that had fallen like milky rubber balls, ripped from his mother's neck as she had fallen lifeless intermingling with the unmistakable symbol of the letter 'R' and the distinctive blue and black of the Robin who had decided to make his own nest.

Both gone now, he thought, closing his eyes as grief overcame him, causing faint tremors to race through his system, even as he turned towards the lone gunman, determined to wipe the smile from the man's face, even through the pain wracking and radiating through his body.

He took a step forward…

And then someone screamed.

Next chapter coming soon...(hopefully! I know what it's about, I just need the time and inclination/inspiration to do it!)