I do not own Batman, or the DC characters named within. I am borrowing them for an AU telling of a possible future scenario.

THE BAT:

Return of the Bat

By LJ58

It had been almost twenty years since anyone had seen the once familiar shadow of the bat over the skies of Gotham City. Once, it meant the city's greatest hero was being summoned to face some danger even the cops could not handle alone. If at all.

That had been twenty years ago.

Almost every surviving citizen in Gotham knew of the night. The night when the Bat did not answer. He had simply faded into the shadows that had spawned him without a word. There had been no climatic battle that might have left the hero injured, or even bordering on death. There was no warning. Nothing. Just that one night when he did not respond to the Bat-signal, as the press had taken to calling it then.

For a few months, less than a year, there were others. The daring, new Batgirl, the intrepid Robin, and even the more boisterous Nightwing had returned to patrol Gotham for a time. Still, in the end, they, too went their way. Batgirl simply disappeared, too. Robin went to the Titans, and turned his attention to other matters. Nightwing was a hero in his own right, with another city under his protection.

Just a few months after that night, Gotham's greatest protectors had simply left. Without warning. Without justification as far as its citizens were concerned. They had simply gone.

That had been twenty years ago.

Max "Millionaire" Mahoney knew that like a scientific fact. He had come of age in that year when the Bat's shadow had faltered, and failed. He knew exactly when the cesspit of Gotham's sewers had once more run over their banks to threaten to bury the city. He knew, because he had a large share in the cesspit, controlling almost a full fifth of the human filth that lived off Gotham's more honest and upright citizens.

What he couldn't understand was why he was dangling upside down, looking up at a tall, shadowy figure that looked very much like the Bat his uncle used to rail about for hours when he wasn't in stir.

Of more immediate concern was the forty foot drop directly below him as he looked down at the dizzying vista before he looked back up at cold, empty eyes that stared down at him from out of that black cowl that was more than mask, or even face. A thin, humorless lip cut a cruel slash across the lower jaw that was just barely visible as Max looked with utmost concern at the hand holding his ankle in a painful grip.

"I can….let you go," the shadowy figure rasped in a voice that sounded like ground glass and gravel grating, "Or we can have a nice chat, Mahoney. Your choice," the fathomless eyes narrowed just so, and Max felt his bladder twinge, and suddenly knew just why Uncle Jake had been scared straight in the end.

"What….What do you want to talk about," he babbled, not wanting to make this impossible phantom angry.

The man in the shapeless cape and grim cowl said nothing at first. Then he nodded in some grim manner as if he were one of those morons down on Garden Street that heard voices in their head. "All right, Mahoney. First, who is behind the recent hit on the mayor?" "I don't…..! No," he screeched as he felt that hand slowly loosen its grip, and his ankle slide just an inch before the hand tightened again. Incredibly, the shadow-man didn't show any sign of fatigue, and his arm stuck out as if he could hold him by his foot all night if he wished.

"Try again. Who is behind the hit?" "It was Cobblepot," he all but shrieked, not caring that he had just violated the one rule of criminal coexistence that even Gothamites adhered to in these colder, crueler times. "That birdbrain thinks getting rid of Gordon will clear the way for him to run unimpeded."

"He still controls the Narrows, and he's trying to take over the Black Mask gang that has resurfaced. Is that correct," the shadow demanded, his lips barely moving, his voice grating almost painfully in Max's ears.

"Y-Yeah. He's got caught up in his dreams of glory lately. Trying to relieve the old days. He thinks he can take over the whole city from the mayor's office without…..without……" The hand jerked him up, then both hands caught his favorite tailored, silk jacket, and pulled Max up to within inches of the shadow-man's face.

"Without me, Mahoney," the faceless man rasped. "I'm letting you go. This time. But only so you can tell Cobblepot, and all the rest that I'm back. And I'm shutting you all down this time. For good. And, Mahoney," the cold-eyed creature rasped as he simply dropped Mahoney on the roof in the sticky tar, and other refuse that covered the rooftop of the old skyscraper where Max had woke up to find his dream of soft-skinned beauties had turned to nightmares.

"Y-Yeah," he rasped, looking up from his ruined suit as the boot of the man in black stepped onto the narrow railing, fearlessly perched on the edge of the abyss before him.

"Retire," the creature rasped as huge, black wings spread out from the shadow-man's back, and he flew out over the city like a huge…..bat.

Max felt cold fear race up and down his spine as he forgot everything but his need to survive. He raced for the rooftop door, wanting only to get back to his own penthouse, and barricade himself in his own secure fortress.

Even as he raced down the steps, he tried very hard not to think he had been sleeping off a drunken celebration after one of his biggest deals ever in that secure penthouse just before he had woke up to find himself dangling over the city.

He grimaced as he remembered those cold, empty eyes, and the threat in those simple, curt commands. He could imagine the old 'Penguin's' response to his claims if he called the crime lord and told him the Bat was back. And that he looked as young, and strong as he had ever been.

Still, he would warn his…..

Not friends. Never that. His cohorts, perhaps. Then, maybe a vacation was in order. A long vacation, someplace out of town. Maybe out of the country. Even as he ran down the stairs, not waiting for the elevator, he screamed for a taxi, and gave him his address as the Mex driver gaped at him in confusion. Max's was a known face in his neighborhood. He ran vice in this part of town. Or he did.

Maybe he would do more than take a vacation. Yeah. Maybe he would retire. He was a real millionaire, after all. Years of peddling whores, crack, and any other vice the masses wanted, or could pay for had seen to that.

Yeah, he'd retire. Let someone else take the heat. Uncle Jake had the right idea after all, he decided. You just did not mess with the Bat. Not unless you liked extended stays in the pen. Usually in traction for most of the time.

To a man like Max, who reveled in his fit, masculine image, he had no wish to see how far down the ladder he could slip. He certainly didn't want to end up on another rooftop staring down at the city he had helped fleece for so long.

It was definitely time to get out.

B

"You're crazy," the portly old man spat as he slammed down the receiver, and spun his padded chair around from his desk to stare out over the vista he had of the city from his current perch. Twenty years of graft, and plotting behind the scenes without that annoying rodent had helped make Oswald a very rich man. With that old crow Barbara Gordon out of the mayor's chair, and that incompetent moron Drake in the district attorney's chair, he could all but walk into office, and own this city in just a few weeks time.

He had it all planned.

Perfectly planned. Like all his deals, above, or below the table.

Only two nights ago, the hit on Gordon had been botched. His hit man had disappeared, and he had no clue what had happened beyond the fact he had failed, and security was tighter than ever around that woman's office, and home.

Now Max Mahoney, that small-minded thug with an expensive suit, had called babbling about the Bat. He knew that demon as well as anyone, and he knew it couldn't be him. Hell, he had practically put him in the ground a few times himself. Then there was that episode with Bane, and lunacy with that green-haired idiot someone had finally strapped in the chair after they brought back the death penalty. It had taken a toll on his seemingly inhuman foe.

No one else saw it, but he did.

The Bat was slowing down towards the end. Getting old. He pulled out his second stringers, and used more of his toys than ever, but in the end, that old nemesis likely put himself in the ground from the sheer intensity of the private war he had been waging to little avail. Not that Oswald minded. But he was not going to sit here and be a good little bird while some pretender showed back up playing Halloween in his town again.

Probably one of those annoying little bird-boys the freak had cultivated over the years. Maybe one had come back to try to prove something to himself, or someone else. He didn't know, but he was going to deal with this thorn in his side before it grew any larger.

Swinging his chair back around, he picked up the phone, and punched a code for a number that technically did not exist.

"Ivy, this is….."

He cringed as the shrill voice of the bitch on the other end.

"Shut up, and listen, babe, or we're both going to lose. I just got a tip we have a pretender in town trying to bring back the Bat. Now, neither of us wants that. Do we? So, what say you do your thing, and lure the would-be hero out where we can rip off his wings, and do unspeakable things to him," he chortled darkly, his gray eyes glittering with malice behind the thick glasses he was now forced to wear rather than his once stylish monocle.

"Listen, girly. You may not think so right now, but once he knocks off the big boys on the block, provided he gets that far, who do you think he's going to be coming after next? You did put a nice big target on your shapely backside when you took over Gotham Park, and declared it your private territory. Even the mayor went along with you, but do you think this nut job will if he's looking to bring back the Bat we all knew, and despised? That's right. Now, I think a little cooperation here is in our best interest. So this is what I was thinking. I'll send you over a dozen of my best men….."

He listened again, and sighed. "All right. All right. You've proven you can handle yourself often enough since you, ah, budded. But I'll have men waiting all the same. Just in case," he said, and hung up the phone.

He sighed heavily as he turned back to the vista of the city outside his penthouse that was cloaked in shadows just now. It was late, but dawn was still hours away. He sighed again, doing his best to ignore the faint ache in his chest that was starting to concern him more of late. He wanted….needed the mayor's office if he was going to leave a lasting legacy behind him. And like the original Bat, he was getting no younger.

Not like that freak job Ivy who never seemed to age. If anything, she only got more and more sensual, and more and more deadly. Even the police stayed out of her way these days, which explained why they let her have Gotham Park. The last time the police, backed by the Guard, had tried to confront her, half had ended up dead or dying, and the other half had ended up screwing one another silly before the toxins the woman had released had dissipated.

He still remembered the chagrin of some of those big, tough soldier, and cops. Gender had not mattered when they had gone into hyper-arousal. They had simply stripped, and grabbed the closest body standing next to them. Unfortunately for many of them, they literally did screw themselves to death.

Not that Oswald shed any tears for them. He just wished Ivy would give him the formula for that particular toxin. With his arms contacts, he could make a fortune on a bio-weapon that could incapacitate whole armies, or police forces.

Or cities.

Ivy, unfortunately, had become even more misanthropic than ever as she had aged. Only women had any chance around her now. Frankly, Oswald had been taking a chance even calling the woman, but he had counted on her enmity with the Bat to override any anger she might turn on him.

Besides, what could she do to him now? He was an old man. His only real fear was that he was going to die before he made his legacy a reality. And he simply was not going to allow that to happen. He had survived the gang wars, the Bat's endless campaigns, and age itself. He was not going to yield now. He would never yield, unless it was on his terms. At his own time.

B

The sleek, almost rocket-shaped vehicle roared into the underground complex, its turbines dying with a shrill whine even as the floor beneath it began to rotate to aim its armored nose back toward the exit before the single occupant rose from the transport with a fluid grace.

"I see the field test went well," a still lean, muscular man of some forty years commented as the caped man leapt out of the vehicle, and stalked toward the row of massive supercomputers that lined one wall in the long unused cave.

"Yes," the man nodded as he pulled off the cowl revealing a familiar face. Or one that might have been familiar some thirty-odd years ago. It was the face of a much younger Bruce Wayne. The eyes. however, showed an age and experience that no one of his apparent age should know. "As I suspected," he said as he turned to the patient redhead at Dick's side. "Penguin was behind the assassination attempt. Mahoney gave it up."

"We heard," Richard Grayson nodded at the computers as he spoke, the woman saying nothing.

"Right," the rejuvenated Batman nodded as he reloaded the utility belt, and hidden pockets in his black, armored bodysuit. "I also had a complete uplink with the Crays on command, too. The cybernetic systems are functioning better than I anticipated."

"This is still….unreal," Barbara told him as she turned her wheelchair around to face him. "I mean, I know you're Bruce. But….."

"Bruce Wayne is dead," the man growled with an impassive face. "Only Batman remains now."

"Yeah, well, from what we managed to overhear from Cobblepot and Mahoney's private lines, you put a real scare into them. Mahoney is arranging to leave town, and our old friend is bringing Poison Ivy out of her private paradise to deal with you."

"Ivy, is it," he murmured with a grim eagerness neither cared to hear just then. "I anticipated no less," the resurrected Bruce drawled. "I'm going to be busy for the next few days," he told Richard Grayson. "Give Mahoney one day's head start, and then cut off his lifeline. I want every dollar he ever extorted, stole, or made from his illegal activities funneled out of his accounts, and into the charities I left listed."

"I can handle that," Barbara told him as she cast an envious look at the tall, seemingly invulnerable man that stood before her. "I can use the private computer Oracle once used for…..things, and make sure he can't track his money, or stop it from disappearing."

"Good. I'm going to the park."

"Tonight," Richard gaped. "Now?" "If I strike now, before either Penguin, or Ivy can be prepared for my coming, the advantage remains mine."

"Just like the old days," Barbara sighed as the grim hero replaced his cowl, and leapt into the newly designed stealth vehicle he employed as the new Batmobile.

"More than you know," Richard nodded at her. "Only I'm still a bit concerned. I know it's Bruce in that thing. I mean….."

"Alien cybernetics are way out of my league, too," Barbara told him as the transport's engine whined to life once more before it just seemed to explode into motion, leaving the cave so fast it was almost as if the powerful vehicle just vanished. "But I won't say I'm not a little envious," she admitted.

"Yeah," Richard nodded, holding up his prosthetic left arm. "Still, is it really our Bruce in there anymore? I've watched him for the past few years working on this, ah, project of his, and while obsession is hardly new to him….."

"That goes without saying," Barbara laughed.

"I'm still not sure he was ready to go public just yet."

"I won't say I don't share your concerns, but I'm glad he showed up when he did, or I'd be dead now."

"That's the only reason I tipped him off. When the word came in that a known assassin was in town. I figured it had to be someone big if the underworld bosses were hiring out of town."

Barbara smiled up at him from her chair, and told him, "I'm going to have to find a way to thank you both properly after this is over."

"Over," Richard frowned, though he smile through it, remembering just how Barbara used to think him. Even trapped in her wheelchair, Barbara Gordon, who had never wed after all these years, made a beautiful picture with that still vibrant red hair falling about her shoulders, and accenting the heavy swell of her full, round breasts that were still her second best feature. To him, those beautiful, expressive eyes were always best.

He sighed, and shook his head. "As much as I look forward to it, Barb, I have the sinking feeling this is not going to be over anytime soon."

"Then we'll just have to make time for ourselves, won't we," she offered, putting a hand on his prosthetic limb, and smiling.

"Just like the old days," he smiled, his anticipation obvious since it was all but staring her in the face as his brown slacks tented as he remembered some of those old days.

"Not quite, but we can dream," she told him with a wistful glance at her lifeless lower limbs.

"Always," he told her, and leaned down to kiss her fourth best attributes, those full, pouting lips that were always ripe, and ready for him.

"How did I ever let you get away," he sighed as he broke their embrace with a soft moan.

"I don't recall being the one to run off with the Titans. Or carrying on with that green-eyed alien. The one that ran off and apparently married another alien girl before disappearing into….."

"Okay, okay. You made your point," he groaned as he held up his hands in surrender.

"I was always here, Dick," she told him with the same sweet smile. "I'm still here." "Well, I'm back, and this time, I'm not going anywhere," he told her, and leaned to kiss her again.

"Touching," came a curt comment over the computer's communication link that was still open. "Now if you're about finished with renewing your reproductive dance, how about getting to work? We still need to identify whoever has been putting Oswald in touch with out of town talent. And don't forget we still have three other kingpins to bring down."

"Gotcha," Dick replied nonchalantly, then closed the link as he shared a blush with Barbara.

B

Pamela Ivy was once a very normal woman. An environmental activist that used her own research to try to make the world a better place, and save what was left of a rapidly declining ecosystem. Then came the betrayal, the unforeseen accident, and a mixture of chemicals that should have been lethal.

Well, actually they were. Just not to her.

Somehow, her blood and tissue interacted with the untried serums she was working on, and turned her into a living embodiment of Mother Nature at her bitchiest. Or that was how some callous media reporter had once described her.

Right before she slowly flailed him alive in front of his own camera with a tough vine of thorns she 'birthed.' It was the only way she could describe what she was able to do. Her mind and will just reached into the green around her, and she birthed that which she needed, or wanted.

Such as the virtually impenetrable wall of tree-sized vines complete with thorns that now blockaded the once beleaguered park from the rest of the city. It had once been a filthy sty that had threatened the natural greenery, and a haven for the worst kind of thugs. Now, she roamed its lush, natural beauty alone, and tried not to think of how alone her 'dream' had left her.

True, after years of playing the petty criminal, she came to the realization that she was getting nowhere, and her precious natural world was suffering all the more. Ironically, at the very moment she began to consider changing her tactics, and actively cultivating her own dreamed of paradise, her longtime nemesis Batman simply disappeared. At first she was sure it was a ruse. He was good at ruses. He was good at many things. An uncanny sense of timing, for instance.

Yet the days passed, and the nights, and her dark-clad nemesis did not reappear. Not even when she killed those that came in his place. Not even when she held the city hostage, and demanded the park as her own. Not even after that ridiculous orgy of eroticism and death that even she had realized had gotten a little out of hand. Still, the Bat did not show. Not even a hint of his grim demeanor cast a shadow over what should have been her ultimate triumph.

As she walked carelessly through the moonlit paradise she had created of the parklands, she wondered why it was that the telephones in the park still worked. She wondered, too, why she had been oddly eager as she lifted the nearest receiver when it seemed they all rang at once around her for the first time in many years only to hear the loathsome rasp of that petty tyrant Cobblepot. His audacity had angered her at first, startling her out of a long, senseless Winter of near insensate existence.

Then he had mentioned him.

She had been skeptical, of course. Who wouldn't be after so many years? Even if he were alive, he would be ancient. Well, older. Certainly not the prime, physical specimen she had come to grudgingly admire even as she faced him each time, hoping that this time, she would be the victor, and prove her way was best. Was superior.

But he outwitted her, outfought her, outthought her at every turn.

In a manner of speaking, she had come to think that he had even defeated her in the end by simply not bothering to counter her sudden change in tactics, and leaving her to her own, comfortless dream. She sighed, walking the green, lush meadows of the central park beyond the trees, and wondering what she should do about this pretender. There was little doubt he was a pretender in her mind. One of the bat-brats grown up, and finally deciding to take his mantle. She had little doubt of that. For he was obviously long since gone.

She stopped to stare up at the moon, having heard a soft, achingly familiar rustle in the green, and looking for some sign of his return. Of course, she knew it wasn't him. Still, if even for a moment, she could pretend.

"Ivy," came a low, growling voice that echoed in her nightmares, and her dreams.

The shapely, green-clad redhead spun to face the shadow that detached itself from the trees, and walked fearlessly toward her.

She studied the seemingly empty sockets, the grim, resolute jaw with that characteristic slash as his lips turned into a thin, almost cruel line that barely broke the plain of his exposed jaw. It was him. The ultimate predator had returned. Yet he radiated youth and strength as never before, and with her senses attuned to all about him, she would know. It was him, and yet…..he was too young.

"Bat….man," came the soft, almost sensual rasp of her breath, her eyes glittering with anticipation as she turned to him.

The tall, caped figure simply stopped before her, standing resolute, unmoved.

Never mind that she had just released enough endorphin-laced pheromones to put an elephant in heat. He simply stood there, untouched, and indifferent to her purely sexual invitation.

Which was what that runt Oswald never understood. She didn't make her toxins. She conjured them out of the depths of her own transformed DNA. Her unique mingling of animal and plant genetics had given her mastery over both. She simply preferred the flora to the fauna of the world.

"How," she began, knowing instinctively, that however impossible it seemed, that this was him, and he was back.

"I know your tricks, Ivy," came the answering growl as she shifted restlessly, feeling a vague sense of unease, and yet was unable to summon any defense to her side as he stalked inexorably toward her. "In all these years, you're still the same, frustrated female that used the same ploys over, and over again hoping someone would figure out what I now know."

"What…..What is that," she demanded when he paused again, now just inches from her, looking down on her like a stern father about to reprimand his wayward daughter.

The smile was far from sympathetic. Far from warm. It was a mask of triumph as a gloved hand reached out and wrapped cruelly around her neck, keeping her from withdrawing if the thought even occurred to her.

"That, you, Ivy, have been denying your own innate, and demanding instincts since the beginning of this farcical conflict. That you were wanting a mate to fulfill your own reproductive instincts," he growled, and her green eyes rounded hugely as his fathomless orbs burned into her own.

"You…."

"Isn't that right, Pamela," he murmured her name with a tone that sent a surge of pure, animal lust through her body.

"You….. You.….."

"I know exactly what you need," he told her solemnly as that hand on her nape pulled her too-red, poisonous lips toward his own.

Full, ripe lips that kept the world at bay, that killed all who dared trespass, were suddenly pressed against his thin, masculine mouth that meshed and melded with her own fearlessly. She gasped, drawing breath though her delicate, flared nostrils as she felt the hunger of an entire world suddenly amplified in her still, all-too-frail form, and her slender arms wound about the caped intruder who had returned to torment her yet again.

This time, he used her own empty heart, and unsated desires against her with ruthless efficiency. She wasn't sure how he was resisting the deadly touch that was her very essence now, but he did so even as he plunged his tongue between her lips, probing her warm, moist cavity with a hunger that rivaled her own. She returned his kiss in full when she realized he was not withdrawing, not withering, or dying, and let her own tongue duel with the intruder as she moaned in full, sexual blossom as her body began to realize that there truly was a potential mating in its immediate future.

Her hands moved restlessly over the hard, armored plains of his chest, stroking his sides, and moving occasionally to simply embrace him, almost content to simply be held as his own grip at her neck relaxed, and his other hand joined its mate to roam, and stroke her own hungry, and aroused body.

She felt voluptuously rounded breasts some had mocked as patently false swell even more as her nipples thickened, and throbbed with the universal need to feed. Be it her hunger, or her potential offspring, her body was reacting just as nature insisted it should, and she moaned again as she realized Batman's hands were not just stroking her body, they were stripping her.

She felt her full, heavy breasts suddenly spring free, their natural buoyancy making them spring up even as the green garment that had held them in place was tugged insistently downward. She sighed as she felt the cool night air tease her naked flesh even as her nemesis, and lover now pulled her close against him, pressing the aching nubs of her bared flesh into the hardness of his warm body that radiated heat despite that thick armor.

Which was when she discovered another amazing detail.

Her lover, long renowned for his utter, and ruthless control of his own flesh, and spirit, was obviously hard, and pressing back against her liquid core as her heat began to pool in that small vee of flesh where it would do the most good. She could literally smell herself as much as she could smell him, and only then did she realize that somehow, incredibly, her longtime adversary had used her own weapons against her. She could now sense his own pheromones. Feel his heat, and all but tasted the need to procreate that emanated from his hard, masculine form.

She, Poison Ivy, ironically a longtime virgin, had been overwhelmed at her own game.

She moaned as he finally broke their kiss, feeling a cold surge of fear and disappointment as he pushed her away, his forbidding expression completely unaltered, and she almost wept as she feared he would leave her in this state even as he knelt before her in the ultimate gesture of male submission. Yet as he pulled her attire down the firm, round globes of her bottom, and on down the slender, yet muscular legs to pool at her feet, she realized he was only taking this dance to its next step.

She cried out in blissful agony as his firm, demanding lips were pressed to the musky slit that flowered open for him in that instant when Pamela, the long denied virgin, mentally gave up all control to the male that knelt before her, now thrusting his hot, insistent tongue into her fiery flesh. Technically a virgin despite the many artifices she had tried to employ to gain pleasure, and sate her natural instinct for completion, she had never truly felt a man as she now felt him as he tasted and tormented her as one.

All her dreams and nightmares curled into one mad shriek as a gloved finger joined his tongue, and the digit slid into her and found a place even she had been unaware of until that moment. She bathed his face in her venomous discharge, but still the dark knight lapped, and teased her, completely untouched by her venomous nature.

Her knees buckled even as he thrust a second finger into her, stretching her as even her toys and plants had never done, and she realized she had been playing silly games compared the earnest gravity of her nemesis' seduction. Without breaking stride, he had pulled her costume from her tangled feet, her boots already gone somehow, and left her sprawled out on the green carpet she had made of a once near blighted wasteland, with only the baleful eye of the moon gazing down upon her.

She cried out as he intensified his efforts, using fingers, lips, tongue to drive her nearly mad with blissful agony as she arched her hips to communicate her increasingly urgent need as her desires began to build, and crest, and build all the more without showing sign of abating.

And then he was gone.

Looking up, she feared abandonment all the more this time as he seemed to tower over her even as he knelt before her, no longer looking the slightest bit submissive even in her mind's eyes as pleaded with him to finish what he had begun. She heard a low, growling chortle of masculine triumph, and then he moved again. She fixed her eyes on the living shadow that suddenly rose over her, and then all but howled as she felt him descend again, this time stretching her with a veritable club as she felt a hard, obviously male organ thrust into her body for the first time in her long, empty life.

She screamed, literally screamed, and knew a completion unlike any she could have ever imagined as she felt him bury his shaft deep in her forbidden sheath with a single, hard plunge that had her shaking in ecstasy as her climax shattered her will, and numbed her very mind.

And still he was not finished with her.

The shadows that now moved over her shifted, and she felt a surge of new delight as the thick, blunt club filling her began to move rhythmically in her liquid flesh, reminding her she was, at heart, still human as she knew now he would never finish until he had completed the most universal, and primitive act Nature demanded of such mating. She clung to his body as he forced himself ever deeper, for that was how it seemed to the overcome villainess what had completely yielded to her arch-rival who now dominated her completely as he filled her too long empty womb with every thrust.

She had been truly defeated this time. Even she knew that. Her hips writhed, and arched to meet every thrust, and she knew now it was more than mere animal hunger. More than an instinctive need to mate. She had met her rival, and he was her master. She cried out again as he forced overpowering waves of sheer lust and delight onto her once empty flesh.

There they remained for what felt an eternity as he drove her firm body into the soft grass, his breath mingling with hers as he teased, and kissed, and stroked her in endless fashion until she sensed his coming climax after experiencing an endless parade of her own breathtaking orgasms. Even when he began to spill his scalding seed deep into her belly, filling her womb with life, she felt the long, endless rutting had been too short. She wanted more. Far more.

"I'm yours," she simply cooed up at him as she lay spent, and sated beneath him, putting a gentle hand to the hard, unyielding jaw as that unforgiving visage stared down at her with typical masculine pride, and triumph.

And she didn't mind one bit.

"Get dressed," he ordered her as he rose from atop her after a moment, showing no signs of their frantic, feverish coupling save for a faint trace of her glistening juices around his lips he had yet to wipe away.

"Are you….taking me back to Arkham," she asked quietly as she reached reluctantly toward the discarded uniform she had once worn akin to armor. For what man could have penetrated it to reach the woman beneath the poisonous veil?

She now knew.

As she had always instinctively known, she realized as she slowly pulled on the distinctive garment of Poison Ivy. No, just plain Pamela Ivy.

"No," he told her in the same forbidding manner she was well used to by now. It was as if he were unmoved by their sudden, and unexpected coupling. As if it meant nothing to him.

"What do you intend to do then," she asked, unable to banish the tears that welled in her bright green eyes like fresh dew on the morning grass.

He stared grimly at her, then reached out and touched her cheek.

"I will give you a second chance. If you will ally yourself with me, and the city, rather than standing against us."

"Anything," she blurted out, and meant it as she impulsively flung herself against him, feeling the same hard, unyielding body that had driven her mad with pleasure that still throbbed in her

"Open the park to the citizens of Gotham for starters," he commanded her, and she nodded against his chest, one finger tracing the dark sigil of the bat that had replaced the yellow oval that once adorned his chest. "The honest citizens," he stressed.

"I will," she promised. "And I'll protect them, too." "Which I expected all the same," he drawled as he looked down into her smiling visage as she beamed up at him like a schoolgirl with her first crush. Only her girlish hopes and anticipations that had died stillborn in that destroyed laboratory had never felt this good.

"No more deaths," he added as he broke free of her, and turned back toward the trees.

"Wait," she cried out when he kept going, already starting to meld with the shadows around them as the moon now seemed to hide behind a growing bank of gray clouds as if at his command. "Will I see you again," she all but begged, one hand reaching toward him.

"Yes," he told her, and disappeared into the shadows as she smiled after him, feeling content for the first time since she had woke up to find herself a genetic hybrid that no man could resist. And no man could touch.

Except one, she added as she did not even ponder how her lover had managed to breach her defenses. Those around her private paradise, as well as those around her heart. He was the Batman, she knew. That was enough.

B

"Where have you been," Richard almost shouted into the link when the speakers crackled with life after hours of foreboding silence. "It's been hours."

"Don't worry about it," came the curt reply. "I'm going to check on something else, and then I'll be coming back."

"What about Ivy," Barbara asked, just as apprehensive as Dick, since she knew full well what that deadly siren's abilities were. She had once spent three weeks in a narcotic haze in a local brothel thanks to that red-haired bitch. It was only sheer luck that Dick, as Robin, had found her, and managed to keep her then secret identity secret.

"She's been neutralized. And you can announce to the city that the park is once more open, and safe for Gothamites," came the short, uninformative reply before the channel was closed again.

"You're right," Barbara glowered as she looked at the console as if it were somehow at fault. "Not much has changed." "No, one thing has. I'm still worried about Bruce."

"Maybe if I knew more about what happened to him," she asked suggestively.

"That's just it. I don't know. All he told me was that he encountered an alien race on League business, and that he's been working with them all this time."

"And they just gave him that…..cybernetically enhanced body as a parting gift," she asked doubtfully.

"Exactly. He's been down here for the past decade testing himself, putting himself through all the usual paces since. He was uncertain about returning until he knew his body was…..reliable, as he put it. I think he was also doing a few enhancements of his own, though. I don't know. Like I said, secretive and obsessive. Some things didn't change."

"Right," Barbara nodded. "I rather noticed that myself already."

B

The shadow of the Bat loomed large as the regenerated hero spread a cape that was more parasail than cosmetic camouflage now. The technology wasn't that new, but its application and design were perfected by the alien species that he had spent almost ten years helping on League business before he finally won his freedom. Won, because the species he had sided with had been captives along with him, and a few other heroes who had not made it back. He had helped form a core of resistance among the literal slave colony where he had been deposited after he had been captured after a pitched battle in space. Subversion, and intelligence were the same on any planet, and his new allies soon realized they had a formidable comrade in the smooth-skinned alien that walked among them.

Their mutual enemy learned too late he was not a being to be underestimated. In less than a year after he had been captured, he had an active resistance formed on the prison colony where he was held. In just four years, the colony was in the hands of his allies, and a true rebellion had been sparked. Six years, and they were winning back whole worlds. In just nine, the alien system was liberated, and the invaders pushed back with crippling losses.

The campaign had not been waged without taking its toll on him, though. Unlike the silicon-based life forms he fought alongside, he was much more easily injured. More than once he had faced a lonely death out in space fighting a war ironically as familiar to him as the streets of Gotham. There had been three other heroes with him that did not make it. Still, he soon learned his allies had unexpected talents.

Each time he was wounded, their technical skills healed him so dramatically that it seemed almost miraculous even to him who had seen some truly amazing, and miraculous events in his already astonishing life. When he was in danger of dying before he could even consider making it home from simple age constraints, they offered him a new body. Familiar with Metallo, and similar creatures who lapsed into madness when they realized what they had lost to gain power, he was ready to refuse, and would have accepted a more dignified end out there, had it not been for a practical demonstration.

His new cybernetic enhancements meshed easily with a regenerated body that was still his own, but made his skin tougher, his muscles stronger, and his reaction time and reflexes even sharper than they had ever been at his peak. The regenerated body he now occupied also had a much longer lifespan. Where Bruce Wayne at his prime might have expected sixty, or seventy years of life given the demands of his alter ego, the newly improved Bat had a potential lifespan equated in centuries. Quite a few of them. Apparently, his allies saw aging as just another disease to be eradicated.

He used his cowl's cybernetic enhancements in conjunction with his own much improved eyesight to study the rooftop of the Gotham Aviary where Oswald's penthouse jutted up out of the domed structure like a defiant fist. He knew his old enemy had always had a thing for flaunting his power and presence. As when he had even dared make contact with an envoy of Apocalypse left stranded some years ago after the League had drove the dark tyrant Darkseid off their world. His would-be weapons smuggling empire had threatened the stability of the entire region, not to mention quite a few lives.

He had foiled that plot, too, with the aid of the then fallen hero Hawkgirl.

He would do the same now.

He wasn't surprised to find hoods atop the penthouse roof standing watch. Even if Oswald even thought him a copy, he knew his methods well enough since they had been fighting for years. Ever since the dispossessed megalomaniac had decided to use his odd genetics as a criminal motif.

He swooped back around, his electronic amplifiers picking up the sentries' bored chatter as they smoked, and even drank as they lounged around, obviously feeling safe in a city that had not known his constant watchfulness for several decades now.

That, he promised himself, would change.

He angled his cape/wings, and dove to the nearest corner, sweeping up just before he struck the side the building, and landed atop a cornice just behind a satellite dish. "Did you hear that," someone spat as the snap of his cape's rigid frame yielding itself back into a familiar shape that cloaked his broad shoulders as he hunched just behind the dish, placing each of his opponents in his mind as he planned his first move.

"Freakin' pigeons, man," someone muttered, and the slosh of a bottle being lifted, and guzzled was heard.

"Boss don't like that kind of talk," another thug drawled. "'Specially about his bird buddies."

"You ask me, the boss is out to lunch. The Bat? He's been dead for years.

"Jules, over at Seacrest said he saw Ol' Croc drag him into his sewer, and he never came back up."

"You're full of…."

"I swear. And right after that, the freak disappears, but good. You even heard of anyone seeing the Bat since? I tell you…."

"I seen the Bat rip out Croc's teeth once," another snorted, obviously already tipsy. Good help was apparently hard to find these days. "If he chews anything, it's applesauce in the old folks home where he's locked up these days."

"Well, whatever happened, it ain't like the old days. Back then," an older, raspier voice drawled, "You had to fight some costumed clown every other day of the week. And forget clean getaways. Hell, the Bat, the real Bat, was inhuman the way he was always one step ahead of you. Sometimes, he was even waiting for you to show up."

"Well, don't piss yourself, old man," someone snorted as the hero smirked coolly, and palmed four small bat-shaped darts in one hand, and two gas pellets in another. Both were newly improved. The gas would put out the men who breathed it in seconds, and they'd wake hours later with very bad headaches. The newly restyled batarangs were weighted to give a hard sting to the victim, leaving them momentarily incapacitated from the trace narcotic he used, giving him even more of an edge.

A trick, he was not ashamed to admit, he had learned from the late, unlamented Dr. Crane.

Stepping from behind the satellite dish, he stood there a full minute as the men spread about the access door to the penthouse simply paid no attention to him. Then a bird fluttered from its nearby roost, and all eyes went instinctively to the noise.

"Oh, crap," the older man rasped, staring into his opaque eye slits. "Mahoney was right," he wailed as he did the one thing Batman didn't expect. "It's the Bat," he howled, and threw his automatic rifle down, and fled into the dark doorway.

"Do we do this the easy way," he growled as the others stared at him, one of them dismissing the old-timer as a coward. "Or the interesting way," he mocked them.

"The interesting way, then," he smiled coldly as more than one of the nine men that burst into simultaneous action raised guns as they simply dropped bottles or smokes with harsh curses.

The two gas pellets went to the largest knot of men, three together. With practiced ease, his four darts flew, striking four separate targets. Even as the weapons flew, he was moving, easily dodging erratic gunfire as the startled, and obviously drunken men howled in fear and anger as he moved among them like an untouchable shadow. Only this shadow had powerful fists and driving kicks that put men down with one, occasionally two strikes, as he was still learning to pull his blows so his enhanced strength didn't actually kill these men.

The three men who sucked in the gas were downed in seconds. That left six. Four of which were stunned by the drugged darts that had struck them almost without notice, leaving them immobilized long enough for him to take them down the two men he had not targeted, as they were already nearly incapacitated from their drinking. He looked down at the nine men, and shook his head in disdain.

Good help must be really hard to find these days. He had rougher workouts in his cave alone than these lot had given him.

Striding boldly into the access door, he ignored the closed doors around him as he walked down the dark hall. His hearing was attuned to the closed environment, and he knew the rooms were empty. His IFR lenses confirmed it. He moved inexorably, seeming to glide as he crossed the wide, lush living area, and then stood before the private office the blueprints of Oswald's penthouse had shown. He shoved the door open, and simply stared at the small, balding man that slouched behind the desk, his gnarled hands spread open, and flat on the desk.

"Well, I heard it, but I didn't believe it," the nasal drone of the small, aging villain mocked as the hero in black moved into the dimly lit office without fear. As you can see, I've foregone the usual farcical conflicts we once enjoyed in my old age," he said as he held up his empty hands.

The dark shadow stood before him without comment.

"Oh, but you aren't the real Bat, are you, imposter? Too young. Too toned. The Halloween nut-job I knew in our heydays was much older, and already showing the wear and tear his ridiculous campaign had cost him. Wise up, junior, and go home now. Gotham belongs to those with the money and power to control it."

"And you think that's going to be you, Penguin," Batman drawled, his voice growling low in his throat as he closed the distance between them.

"Wait. I….I know that voice. But….how? You were older than I was when we started having at it. How did you regain your youth," Oswald swore as he heaved his bulky body up from his chair with obvious difficulty. "How?" The Batman's thin smile was far from pleasant.

"You should know by now, Cobblepot. I don't give away trade secrets."

"It's not fair. It's not fair," he rasped, collapsing back into the chair as his legs simply gave out on him.

"Time is catching you, isn't it, Cobblepot. The mayor's attempted assassination was one last attempt at making a name for yourself that would live past your own mortality. Well, you'll be remembered all right," he said, his eyes narrowing as he now loomed over the older, sadder reflection of a once relentless foe. "As a common thug, and a fool who thought he could steal my city. I'm here to tell you that you can't," he told him, leaning over the desk as his own gloved hands supported him as he moved to glare into Oswald's rheumy eyes that were wide with desperation more than fear.

"Just tell me how you managed it," he rasped, his thick lips wet with saliva as he stared back with the obvious fear of death, and the desperation of those unready to face that grim mortality filling his pale expression. "Tell me."

The Batman's thin lips quirked again.

"No," he rasped, and then straightened, and leapt over Cobblepot head, and landed near the open glass doors behind him. "And stay away from Gordon, or you'll be on life support in a prison hospital ward for what remains of your pathetic life."

Stretching his arms wide, his cape stiffened even as he leapt from the balcony, and flew out over the city he had returned to reclaim from those who thought Justice was dead. He glided out over the rooftops, catching an updraft, and angling toward the darker ruins of the heart of the old city. A heart that had darkened even more after he had disappeared.

Thanks mostly to the efforts of men like Cobblepot, and Mahoney.

He heard a shrill scream, and banked sharply, diving almost headlong toward the streets even as he saw the young, pale teen trying to frantically fight off three larger black teens who were methodically stripping her in full view of a half dozen other people who made no attempt to help her. Let alone try to stop the men.

He angled his cape just short of the ground and landed in a low crouch just behind a smashed trash bin, and slowly rose to his full height of just over six feet. In the shadows cast by poor lighting, he loomed large, and ominous as he rose behind the three thugs who might have been part of a gang, or simply out for a lark.

He didn't care why they were doing what they did. He was stopping them.

One of the teens seemed to possess more awareness than the others, and looked back even as he pulled the woman's torn blouse from her shoulders, her own eyes rounding huge as she looked past her attackers, and saw the apparent demon that seemed to rise right out of the ground.

"Not in my city," he growled as the one thug gave a warning cry too late.

He leapt forward, driving his fist into the thug's gut and bent him over to take his raised knee in the face in a perfectly timed combination that sent his sprawling back with a scream as blood all but exploded from his nose. His companions turned only then, and found themselves confronted by the tall, menacing shadow who reached out to take both by the nape, smashing heads into one another that had both unconscious before he released them to fall in ungainly piles on either side of the half naked girl who looked up at him as if she could not believe her eyes.

"But…..But…..you're dead," she rasped, staring at him as shock threatened to overwhelm her.

"No," he told her quietly as he retrieved her blouse from where the first man still lay clutching his pulped nose. "And you're safe now. Dress. The police will be here shortly," he told her, having already radioed for an emergency response even as he had leapt into action.

The girl fumbled with her blouse even as the shrill sirens of the approaching police filled the air. Still, the few spectators stayed away, not daring to come any closer. He waited until the first police squad was within a few yards, the cruiser's lights blinding all around him, and then his hand flashed, and a super strong monofilament line shot out of a concealed grapple to catch several stories up on the nearest brownstone. Triggering the interior wench in the device, he seemed to fly into the air, and quickly melted into the darker shadows around the old structure as he scrambled up the façade of the old building with an ease that made it seem he had never been gone.

He reached the top of the old apartment building, and perversely stood atop the building, looking down on the scene as the second and third units rolled up to surround the three thugs, and the still frozen girl who was gaping up at him as he stood there looking down in an almost imperious manner. He saw the first officers follow the girl's gaze even as the other men moved to quickly check the fallen men who had yet to move.

He heard their incredulous shouts, and then saw several fingers pointed his way as he stood in what Tim would have called his power stance. He smiled thinly at that old memory, and flung himself from the top of the brownstone, his cape flaring as he caught the wind, and soared off into the shadowy sky of the city that was his home. He angled over the area for a few moments, remembering, and savoring, and knowing it had been this moment that had kept him strong enough to return despite the odds against him out there in a galaxy that was larger than most people realized even in this day of alien visitors, and almost daily dimensional incursions.

The hour was apparently late enough, or the people uncertain enough about his rumored return, that the night was quiet just then. He turned his flight path back toward his hidden Batmobile, and triggered the stealth control that let the vehicle shimmer back into view even as he dropped from the sky. He landed just inches from the nose of the sleek, black rocket, and waited for the new armor shield to retract before e approached the open driver's compartment. He glanced to his right, saw the small, round face that stared down at him from a dark window, and waved a gloved hand at the astonished child before he jumped into the driver's seat, and ignited the turbine drive that had him moving even as the retractable belts tightened around his body.

He could just imagine the boy's tales the next morning among his peers.

B

"I heard you were back. And looking as grim as ever."

"You look as chiseled as ever," Batman retorted as he turned from the computer screen he was studying to glance at the impressive physique clad in distinctive blue and red. "I like the new shield," he said, nodding at the red slash across a black field.

"It's in honor of you, Gordon, Kyle, and the others. I take it you didn't bring any of them back?" "I barely made it back myself."

"Dick said you've been back almost ten years now. Funny no one heard from you until now."

"I wasn't ready."

Superman sighed, and shook his head. "Bruce….."

"Bruce is dead. He's been dead a long time. I'm not brining him back. Unlike you, I don't have a valid way to explain my apparent resurrection."

"Well, you do look….normal enough. Why not simply claim you're an illegitimate….."

"Bruce Wayne was a lot of things. Careless was not one of them. Besides, the best documentation would crumble under the scrutiny that kind of publicity would bring."

"And what do you intend to do when you outlive Clark? Fake his death, or finally admit who you are?" "I can't do that. There are still a lot of innocents out there that would pay dearly if I exposed myself like that."

Batman's colder gaze locked with his, and he merely nodded at having made his point.

The Kryptonian hero sighed, and commented, "Space travel seems to agree with you. But even Einstein's laws of inverse time travel can't explain why you look….."

"Take a closer look. I know you're dying to do it."

The Kryptonian's eyes narrowed only slightly, and the Batman could actually sense his powerful x-ray vision penetrating his body.

"Interesting. To say the least. I've never seen organic tech on this level."

"I acquired a new league while I was away."

"J'onn would like to hear from you, too. I'm sure he would like to study….." "I'm no one's lab project. I still have a city to protect, and from what I've seen, no one has done much in my absence to protect the people I once swore to guard with my life."

"It's a big world, Bruce," Superman told him grimly as the uncloaked hero merely stared at him. "Even the new league can't patrol every inch of it."

"Still, you could have kept crime lords from taking over the city. I just barely stopped Barbara Gordon's assassination this past week, and….."

"I heard. And I'm sure we're never going to agree on many things, just like before. Still, I've been sent to offer you this."

Batman looked down at the streamlined communication device with a distinctive logo. "No thanks," he shook his head. "I've had a belly full of the League, and it's business from before. I'm staying where I belong this time."

"We could still use you. Diana, J'onn, and I are all that's left of the old guard, and the young heroes we have these days just don't listen to reason, or cooperate as well as.…."

"We did," Batman smirked. "I seem to recall quite a few heated arguments during our time, too, Superman. Then there was the whole Aquaman fiasco, and then the Thanagarian invasion, and John and Shayera's on again, off again, on again flings."

"They got married." Superman told him quietly. "They have a son now. He's five."

"I expected as much of them," he told him cryptically.

"You were probably the only one that did. Most of the League was pretty sure they were going to kill each other the last time they argued. Instead, they went out and got married."

"Sorry I missed that one," Batman drawled, and pressed a key, and glanced at the console screen again before looking back at him.

"Are you?" "I've missed a lot, and I won't deny it. But in case you missed it, I was fighting for my life out there for all those years. Galactic war, and all that, you recall," he drawled sardonically.

"We wanted to come after you," Superman told him after a moment. "I was ready to do it alone. But we couldn't leave Earth defenseless against the Gordanian incursions. After your line buckled, it was all we could do to hold them back for a time. That's what John and Shayera argued about, by the way. She was ready to come after you, but John insisted they stay, and keep the aliens from reaching Earth. He….He suggested rather strongly it was what you would have done."

"It was. It is," Batman told him grimly.

"Besides, I suspect it was you who helped us drive them back in the end," the big Kryptonian who remained as youthful as he suddenly smiled. "Less than a year after you disappeared with Kyle, and the others, they started faltering in their attacks, and acting distracted."

"As I mentioned. I found a few allies, and managed a little subversive activity from the backside of the galaxy."

The virtually invulnerable hero chuckled. "I guessed that myself when we caught a few of the aliens who admitted they were confused as how we had managed to reach their rear defenses, to harangue them there. I wanted to send search parties then, but…..well, as you know yourself by now, it's a big galaxy. We couldn't begin to guess where to search."

"I appreciate the sentiment. We managed, though, and our comrades died facing down the enemy. It's all that need be said of them. They died fighting for what they believed in."

"I'd like you to say that, then," Superman asked him. "Even if you won't return, I would like to have the rest of the League hear that from you. Especially about the sacrifice sometimes demanded of us. Some of them still treat this life like a game. I can't seem to get through to them how serious a game this can be at times. Most treat me like a doddering grandfather," he snorted, as if unable to believe it.

"To some of them, you probably are," Batman drawled. "Face it, Clark. You grew up in a world that most people will never know again. I don't discount your ethical outlook, but sometimes you're a bit too much of a……"

"I believe I told you I was never a boy scout," the Kryptonian replied evenly.

"No, but you come across as a bit of stuffed shirt, to borrow the phrase. Even now, you're standing here as if you could somehow lecture me into cooperation, or trying to use your presence as a means of intimidation."

"I'd never do that," the alien hero frowned. "Especially not with you." "Not consciously. But you're so used to using those methods, that you do it unconsciously most of the time. And trust me, it didn't work twenty years ago, it certainly won't work now." "You are a bit more curt than I recall. That is saying something even for you," Superman sighed. "Listen, man-to-man, will you please address the service we would like to hold to formally retire those heroes that were listed as missing until now?" Batman stared at him, then slowly nodded. "Two days. Just before noon, I'll join you at the new lunar headquarters to give my spiel," he responded.

"I'll arrange…."

"I'll be there," Batman cut him off, and turned to the computer screen once more. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm trying to track the last three major crime lords that still hold Gotham in a stranglehold."

"Last three? I thought there were six at last count."

"Five," Batman told him without looking from the screen. "I got rid of Max Mahoney, and I visited Cobblepot a few nights ago. He's no longer a threat."

"What of that elemental woman," Superman asked. "Even I haven't been able to get within striking distance of her. Oddly enough, my super senses make me even more susceptible to her toxins than ordinary men for some reason. I suspect there might be something magical to her, as much as her origin indicated an organic nature to her powers."

"She wouldn't be the first elemental we've encountered," Batman reminded him. "And Pamela Ivy is no longer a threat. I've neutralized her."

Superman couldn't help but stare at his long missing companion.

"Friday, Clark," Batman dismissed him with his tone. "And remember. I'm not returning. Just making the obligatory gestures for your memorial service."

"I'll tell J'onn and Diana," he nodded.

"So she's really still around," Bruce asked, looking up at him again only then as he paused the data stream that he seemed be literally absorbing as he had stared at the screen.

"She comes and goes. She came back the moment the word reached us you were back."

"Word gets around fast."

"You obviously haven't met our new speedster. Pulse makes Wally look like the very model of discretion at his worst. And she's computer literate."

"How is Wally," Batman asked.

"You don't know?" "I have been more concerned with Gotham, and….other matters since my return," Batman drawled.

"He lost his legs below the knees about five years ago. Ironically, one of his clumsier villains actually got lucky, and he got hurt pretty bad."

"I see," Batman drawled, recalling the impulsive, extrovert that had refused to grow up. Yet he had commanded an awesome power as his personal legacy, and helped save the world several times on his own.

"He's our new Oracle," Superman added. "I doubt anyone could match him at hacking, or simple typing. What he can't do with his legs, his mind and hands now do faster than even his modified keyboards and consoles can cope."

"Sounds like he found his niche, then."

"Well, yes, but he still misses the old days, as he now calls them. It doesn't help our standing when he sits around the Watchtower telling war stories to anyone he can pin down."

"Actually, that sounds just like him," Batman replied, almost smiling just then. Then the smile was gone again, and he eyed Superman with a level gaze. "How about you? I had noted Lois died three years ago."

The Kryptonian's gaze sobered even more as he simply returned his gaze, saying nothing.

"My point exactly. There are some things you just don't discuss. Goodbye, Clark."

He never knew precisely when he left, he was that quick. He only knew that in the time it took him to look back to his computer console, the greatest hero of his age was already gone. He continued reviewing the history of the recent past he had missed, knowing he would find trends, and details that could explain how his city had truly been faring. He noted a familiar name among many of the reports, and made a point of reviewing everything that was linked to one Thomas Thorne, Rupert's nephew who had apparently stepped in to take over his uncle's faltering businesses since the old man had almost died in jail after his last arrest.

He immediately place the young Thorne in his list of likely suspects for the last, and so far, unnamed crime lord operating in Gotham. He knew two newcomers now ran the rackets, and vice in the city respectively. Without the more garish villains that had plagued his earlier life, more polished, and secretive criminals had risen to take the reins of the city. One was Ethan Hawke, a self-styled mobster, and the other was a Chicago native named Polanski. Both would be easy to find from what he had gathered so far, but Thorne was far more clever.

He had his address, of course. His phone, cell, and even emails. Even the covert one he used to cruise for fresh talent for his stables. What he didn't have, was concrete evidence that linked him to at least nine murders in the past year, and a host of other charges.

When he had that, he could put a second Thorne out of business, and break the back of organized crime in Gotham once more. He wasn't worried about the possibility of escalation in the wake of a power void. By then, Gotham would know he was back, and that he was not going anywhere again.

A soft chime sounded from across the cave he was still gradually bringing back to life as he updated, upgraded, or just generally cleaned out the accumulated dust and debris of a long, neglected past. He rose from the console he had been studying, and shut down the online link before he moved gracefully over to the lab section where the sound had originated.

He lifted a small cover from a device he had built from memory, and ignored the rush of steam that rose from the device as he opened it. He studied the readout on the nearby scanner even as he lifted his creation, and eyed it critically. He turned it over, studied the linkages, and tested each one before he set the device aside, and turned to another device that was still assimilating the biological data he had fed into it. It was not going to be ready anytime soon, and it was almost night.

Time for the Bat to return to the streets of Gotham.

He walked toward his equipment center that now glistened brightly as the chrome shelves had been cleaned, and dusted, and the new devices he had been testing where added to his stock-in-trade 'toys' he had little need to alter. Loading his new utility belt, and secret pouches and pockets, he donned his cape and cowl once more, not bothering to summon Barbara, or Dick.

The former was still glowing in the glory given her for 'arranging' a truce with Ivy, and the former had business at Wayne-Tech as his sole heir, and CEO of the company. Unfortunately for the new heir, he did not have a Lucius Fox he could rely on as Bruce had when he was in charge of the company. The rumors he had heard had Dick losing his arm in a racing accident trying to follow his guardian's careless example of thrill-seeking were naturally untrue. The truth was, Nightwing had almost gotten himself killed during that last patrol that had gotten him involved in taking down some heavy hitters with meta powers that challenged the supremely trained athlete.

Batman smiled grimly as he leapt into the driver's seat of his new transport that was more a rocket than a car. Igniting the engine, he aimed the Batmobile toward the city, and the nightly patrol he had taken up once again since it became common knowledge that Cobblepot had been forced into retirement after a massive stroke. The doctors all agreed something had frightened him badly.

It made it hard for even the 'law and order' mayor to bring charges against the man for hiring the assassin who had tried to kill her, and instead had only managed to take out five of her bodyguards, and two civilians before a surprise appearance by the 'new' Batman stopped him cold.

Hard, but not impossible. The once self-styled Penguin now occupied an ICU room in a prison hospital.

Mahoney had vanished, his million-dollar empire literally dissolving overnight. Meanwhile, the last three bosses were running scared, and thugs were jockeying for position to see who would fill the void in the power structure of Gotham's elite underworld hierarchy. He intended to ensure no one did so.

His turbine-powered rocket cruised through the streets, and he spotted quite a few police cruisers on the streets as he turned down alleys, and took side streets most would have avoided in daylight, let alone after dark. Barbara was determined to keep her city safe, and its citizens protected, though, and thus she had built a massive police department. Unfortunately, just being an officer didn't guarantee you were honest. Corruption remained a problem even in modern police forces, but Batman didn't distinguish.

You were either good, or you were bad.

He didn't care if you were wearing a badge if he spotted illegal, or immoral actions.

So when he saw two officers forcing a teenage prostitute into an alley, rather than into their car, he knew something didn't look right. He sprang from his car even as the auto-drive took over, and spread his cape to glide over and down atop the men.

"Is there a problem, officers," he asked grimly as he landed just behind the man about to throw a punch into the frightened redhead's face.

"Just move along," the man spat as his partner turned, his hand on his gun, and froze.

"Ah…..J-J-Jim," his partner stammered, obviously a rookie who was being led down the wrong path. "You….might want to turn around."

"What," the older cop snapped, and turned just in time to see the dark shadow that seemed to leap out to surround him just before he was jerked up into the air, and abruptly found himself dangling upside down from the edge of a fire escape more than thirty feet from the hard pavement.

The rookie gasped as his partner seemed to just fly up into the air with the black-clad figure, and then the Batwings fluttered as the mystery man landed in front of the young officer still standing beside the frightened prostitute.

"You're a little young for this life," he commented grimly as he ignored the younger officer, and stood before the pretty redhead.

"I…I don't want to do this," she stammered, staring at him with huge, green eyes. "My….My dad owes money to Sgt. Hankins, and…..and he said I had to…..to….."

The girl burst into tears as Batman turned to the rookie. "Are you an officer of the law, or a thug, kid," he growled.

"I….I want to be a policeman," the young man rasped, too frightened by the dark knight's presence to even think of running, or fighting.

"Then take this girl home. And when your….comrade is brought in, make sure you testify against him for his illegal activities."

"I can't rat……"

"You can talk to the D.A.," Batman growled as he moved to look down into the young officer's suddenly pale face. "Or you can talk to me. And I can find you anywhere, Officer Roy David Barlow. Anywhere."

With a rustle of his cape, the vigilante seemed to fly up into the air once more, and then he was gone. Back in the street, there was no sign of the sleek, black car he had arrived in earlier. The vehicle had just vanished.

"Look….ah, Helen," Roy rasped as he looked around anxiously as his sergeant screamed obscenities down at them. "Get in the car, and I'll take you home. He….Uh, Batman…..He's right. You don't belong out here."

"R-Really," the girl asked, tears still falling as her makeup streaked down her face. Jim had been ready to beat the girl into cooperating tonight, and Roy wasn't so sure he had liked that idea. Still, even he didn't know if he could have defied the senior officer when it came to it.

Until he was suddenly motivated by the cold eyes of the vigilante who had sprung up to take up the mantle of the Batman. He had heard some claims it was the same Bat, but he knew the man would have had to be nearly sixty by now if he even still lived. That was not a sixty year old man he had seen. He wasn't altogether sure it was a man at all.

When he settled the young ten into the passenger seat of the squad, he was surprised to find both Jim's badge, and his equipment belt, including his backup pistol, in the front seat. He didn't even try to understand how it was accomplished. He simply radioed in the situation, and waited for help to arrive before he took the girl back to her parents.

"What about the money," Helen asked timidly when he stopped in front of her apartment house, her green eyes full of fear.

"Tell your father to forget about it. Sgt. Hankins is out of business," he said even as he spotted a shifting shadow atop the building as Helen smiled anxiously, then all but leapt out of the car. He did not try looking up again.

His father had told him tales of the first Batman. He had been a cop in the early days of Batman's career, before the commissioner had finally deputized the vigilante that no one could seem to stop, let alone find. He drove right back to the corner where Helen was to have entered Ben's stable to repay the loan he had made to her father, and cringed under the cold, hard gaze of Commissioner Bullock's portly features.

"So, you the mook that saw the Bat?" "Yessir," he nodded as Jim gave a yelp when the men climbing up to free him almost dropped him. "And I think I need to talk….about my partner."

"Funny thing, kid," Harvey drawled as chewed the toothpick that had replaced the cigars he used to smoke in his youth. "Someone already dropped a real fat file on my desk just this evening. I was on my way to see Jimmy there," he said, stabbing a thumb at the cop now being led toward a squad in cuff. "When I hear your call. I just want to know one thing. This Bat character….Did he look old to you?" "No, sir," Roy shook his head. "Dad used to tell me about seeing the Bat. But it's not the same when you look into those eyes. But…..this guy….he was young. I could just tell he was young. But he was scary. Scary as hell. Begging your pardon, sir, but…..I wanted to piss myself when he stared at me."

"Yeah, that sounds like him. But the freak would have to be well into his sixties by now. Guess he was off training the next generation all this time," he snorted. "Terrific. Just when I thought we were done with the circus acts in this town," he muttered.

Then he looked back at Roy, and added, "By the way, you're suspended till IA clears you. If they clear you. You got an appointment to see them first thing in the morning. Right after you see me," Harvey told him, his balding head temporarily revealed when he pulled his old hat off to wipe a thick brow.

"Damn, it's hot."

"Hot," Roy frowned. "That was it. That was what I noticed." "Noticed what," Harvey asked.

"That Batman. He was….I don't know, flying, or something. Moving real fast, and yet…..he never sweat. Not a drop. It was like….he wasn't human," Roy exclaimed.

"We'll not mention that again, right," Harvey demanded as the press, typically quick to sniff out a story, appeared en masse around the five squads, and Harvey's private car. "In fact, you won't say a word. Get out of here, kid. Remember. No comment," he said, and turned to face the reporters trying to see who was in the car rolling off just then.

B

Batman smirked as he watched the young officer deliver the girl safely home. He then turned to launch himself into the air, using his grapple this time as he exercised his muscles as he exalted in the sheer effort of swinging from roof to roof, and heaving himself up and over tall spires to leap out once more into the night. He noted his heart rate remained virtually constant, and he never truly had to breathe more than normally as his virtually tireless body moved with ease that made him feel almost as young as he appeared to be just then.

He wondered if this was how Clark must feel. Doing the things he did, and yet doing them without much effort at all. Even back in his heyday, he had noted that Clark was growing stronger over the years. Where once he had grunted lifting cars, he now lifted cargo ships without any visible effort at all. Where that radioactive element that came of his home world's demise had once nearly killed him, he had heard it now barely even slowed him down.

He certainly looked no older.

He suspected that was what truly bothered the new generation of heroes he had been reviewing through the available files. Clark and Diana seemed all but immortal. From what he learned, Diana was. Maybe Clark, too. It was becoming more evident every year. The young heroes were likely just disconcerted by those demigods that walked among them, trying to show them the way as if they were some kind of archetypal parent, rather than allies.

A mistake, Batman knew. True, he had made his share of mistakes with his wards and allies over the years. Still, one thing he had learned was that you did not just lecture young people, and expect them to stop and listen. You could offer suggestions, and lend guidance, but you did not stand there and dictate because no young person, hero or otherwise, was ever going to listen.

He finally paused, and for a time watched the dark building just a few yards from his perch, and when the light finally came he flung himself toward the steel and chrome building. He landed lightly near the window, and entered the room to find himself in a small, private office. He heard voices just outside the office, and hesitated.

A moment later, a man chuckled as he entered the room, flipping open the light, and looking over his shoulder, said, "I promise, I won't be long. I just need to file a few reports, and then I'm all yours, honey."

"Congratulations," a voice said from the dark cloak of the drapes just beyond the lamp's soft glow that illuminated the desk alone in the room. "I just heard you were married recently."

Tim Drake spun around, and gaped as he saw the tall, imposing shadow he had been hearing rumors about for days now. "Batman, I presume," Tim recovered quickly as his eyes made out the humanoid shape in the shadows behind him. "I heard you were, ah, back. If you are….." "I am back, Tim," he drawled. "And I could use your computer skills. Barb's are good, but she was never really as good as you, even as Oracle."

"B….Batman," he stopped himself from using another name as he frowned, and stepped closer to the shadow. "But….we heard you were…."

"As they say, the rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated." "I should have known. Still, shouldn't you be in retirement…..?"

Tim couldn't help but gasp as the tall, lean, and very powerful form separated from the shadows in his office to stand before him. Whatever he had expected when he heard the rumors, seeing this obvious specimen of human perfection standing like a grim monolith before him was not it.

"Wow. What secret did you learn, and how can I learn it," the already graying D.A. asked as his dark hair was streaked by silver by the stress of his job.

"You wouldn't like it. You have to spend over ten years in space first. And that was the easy part."

"So, what is it you think I can do to help?" "First," he said, "Here is everything I have on Polanski. He's about to move into white slavery, and plans to ship out more than fifty young women to Arab and European buyers tomorrow night. I think you can catch him red-handed if you know where to go."

"And….you know?" "I know. Read the report. What I need from you, is everything you can dig up on Thorn."

"Thorn? Man, Bats, he's so clean he squeaks. We haven't been able to find so much as a parking ticket we can use against him. Now Mahoney….." "Max is out of the game," came the grim reply.

"And Penqy had a big-time stroke. Which, I'm starting to understand now," Tim said as he eyed the grim-eyed hero who had yet to move so much as a muscle other than handing him the computer disk he had produced. "And, I'm guessing you had something to do with Poison Ivy's sudden change of heart, and her new leaf, so to speak?" "Thorn, Tim. I need more on him than what's in the public files. I want you to dig deeper for me. Rumors. Speculation. Anything I can use to break up his organization."

"What organization? Like I told you…." "He's using the revamped Black Mask gang," he cut Tim off with a scowl.

"We thought that was Hawke."

The Batman's head shook slightly. "Hawke fancies himself a sporting man. He sticks to numbers, rackets, and the like. Cutting off the money would put him out of business overnight. With Mahoney gone, he lost a major source of his income. Right now, he's scrambling to regain his piece of the pie. Polanski thinks to up the ante, turning his vice network into a true slaver's operation like the one you cracked in Central City with….Wally's help a few years ago."

"You knew about….?"

Batman cut him off with a curt snort, telling him; "Neither him, nor Polanski have the brains, or the desire to operate such a band of obvious thugs and murderers. Bad for their legitimate businesses. So, that leaves only Mr. Thorn. Meanwhile, we have to stop the other two as well. The evidence on that disk will take down Polanski for you. And put him out of business for good. I'll see to Ethan Hawke myself. But we need to stop Thorn before he can try to fill the power vacuum left by the others. I don't want another Rupert in my city," he spat.

"I'll see what I can find out," he said, turning to the desk to set the disk near his computer even as he switched it on. "But….. Damn, I never did get used to that," Tim swore as he turned to find the draperies swaying slightly from the breeze allowed by the open window, but nothing else. The Batman had simply vanished.

Sitting down in front of his computer, he opened the disk, and gaped as he saw the shipping manifests, inventories, and more that had to have come right from Robert Polanski's own computer. He swore as he saw some of the data that turned human beings into cattle, and commodities, and broke his promise to his wife as he began to dig deeper, and deeper, and soon found himself lost in a role he had thought left behind many years ago.

B

"Well, well," Harvey Bullock muttered as he switched on his office light and saw the tall shadow standing there awaiting him. "Now I know how Gordon felt," the man spat as he kept his composure despite the thud of his heart when he had first seen that evil-looking bastard standing over his private files.

"But you're not the Bat, not the real one, because I seen him, buddy. Now, trick-or-treat is over, and I'm not deputizing your sorry ass for beating on cops. Not even crooked ones. So why don't you…." "Save it, Bullock," the voice growled, and Harvey knew, he just knew, this was the one and only Bat. "I'm not here for niceties. I have something for you," he told him.

"Drake's already called me. Seems he didn't trust no one else in the department. Too many bent cops these days. Cutbacks in pay make even honest men greedy," he shrugged as he took his seat behind the desk, and turned to glower at the man who admittedly made him more than a little uneasy.

The dark shadow said nothing as he just stood there eyeing him.

"So, you looking for something in particular, or do you just have a fondness for breaking and entering?" "This isn't about Polanski. It's about the Black Mask gang."

"Joker's old outfit," he snorted. "They went belly up after we fried that madman. 'Bout time, too. I thought for sure you'd finish each other off someday, but I guess somebody finally got tired of letting that loony walk all over us."

"Then the joke is on you, Bullock. Joker is alive."

"What?" Harvey sat up straight now, and glared at him as Batman slammed the drawer closed.

"DNA profiling," Batman said, and dropped the file on his desk. "You fried an innocent man. Joker cloned himself, and if what I suspect is true, he is rebuilding the Black Mask gang into a private army to take on all of Gotham. If not more. He always was a megalomaniac."

"Said the fruitcake to the screwball," Harvey muttered as he picked up the file, and stared at it. "What's this," he frowned.

"Confirmation. Carl A. Shipton. A minor thug in Joker's old gang. Went missing several years ago. Right about the time you supposedly executed the Joker. About the same time one Thomas Thorne, golden child of the city's financial district came out of nowhere, and began amassing a private fortune to rival the world's richest men."

"Are you saying….?" "One DNA sample is all you need to ascertain that Thorne, and Joker, are one and the same."

"Is that even possible," Harvey demanded as he stared at the file. "I mean, making one guy into another?" "I've seen even more amazing things. With the current level of cellular research being carried on in private research facilities, it not only possible. It's probable. Or have you already forgotten Cadmus?" "I don't really like hearing this scifi crap, Bats," Harvey swore at him. "You been gone for like, forever, and then you just drop back in like it's old home week, and set off this bombshell in my office. Do you know what this is going to make us look like?" "I don't care about your appearances, commissioner," Batman shot back. "I wanted to warn you. There is a war coming. Joker wouldn't build up an empire like this without a reason. Knowing him, it's got to be a very deadly reason."

Harvey sighed. "Five years. Just five more years, and I could retire in peace."

"Justice," Batman retorted, "Does not retire." "Yeah, and……" Harvey swung his chair around, but there was no sign of his tormentor. "Damn, I hate that crap," he spat, feeling a heavy thud in his heart again. Guess he would have to consider seeing that damn quack about his ticker after all. Meanwhile, he had some questions to take up with the coroner, not to mention a few security guards at Arkham, and hell, half the damn city.

"Five more years," he muttered, and looked down at the missing con's face he had figured for one of them that either got iced, and dropped in the river, or had taken off for greener pastures. Just five more years, and he could have had a nice, quiet retirement. Instead, he had to come in just in time for a reunion of Gotham's greatest freaks.

He shook his head, and reached for the phone. Time to start waking people up with bad news. Hell, why should he be the only one not sleeping?

B

"Hello, Ethan. Or should I say, Henry?" "Ah, the ever inestimable Batman. I am honored to be considered worthy of your time, sir," the lean, dapper man in a gray evening suit smiled as he affected a faint bow in the Batman's direction. "Would you care for a drink," he asked as he continued making himself one without showing any loss of composure by Batman's sudden appearance in his private club that had just closed for the night.

"It's time to move on, Henry. For your own safety, I suggest another climate."

"And where would you suggest, sir," Ethan Hawke asked mockingly as he turned to face the hero again, sipping his drink as if unmoved by the grim manner of his visitor.

"Anyplace but Gotham."

"Ah, but there's the rub. I've a thriving business here. Employees to consider. Not to mention a very sizeable….."

"Your investments just went belly-up.

"Mahoney is gone, and Cobblepot is retired."

"Yes," Ethan drawled. "I heard about his sudden…collapse. I suppose the old man just couldn't take the shock of seeing you, could he?" Batman didn't reply.

"I suppose summoning my boys to give you a proper thrashing would be of little use, would it?" "They're all sleeping out back," Batman drawled with a thin smirk.

"I see," Ethan sighed, and cocked his head. "And I heard you aren't the type of fellow to bribe."

The opaque eyes narrowed into menacing slits.

"Just a notion," Ethan said, and smiled as he nodded at him.

Or behind him.

"Still, I've another who might like a second opinion. Perhaps you recall him?" Batman spun, and saw the huge, bulky frame of a masked man in midnight blue with a bulky gauntlet on one thick wrist. "He almost killed the first Batman, you know," Ethan chuckled. "I thought, why not give him a shot at the replacement? Bit of poetic irony, don't you know," the man smacked as he sipped his drink as the big man before the dark hero flexed his massive musculature, and growled an incomprehensible threat. "Don't mind him, though. All that venom has left him quite witless. Completely fried his brain, you see? But he still takes orders quite well. Bane. Kill," Ethan drawled carelessly as he pointed at the cloaked man.

Bane's wide eyes fixed on Batman from beneath his mask, and he lumbered forward, fast, breathing like a freight train in great rasps, and huge fingers outstretched to grab, maul, and break as the hero did not even move to evade him.

Instead, before Ethan's stunned eyes, Batman slipped under the surprisingly quick brute's charge, and wrapped his own hand around his venom-injecting feed, and literally crushed the mechanism even as his other hand curled into a hard fist, and drove up and into the man's chest just beneath his diaphragm. The heavily muscled assassin gasped, stepped back, and fell flat after a follow-up blow to his jaw left him out on his feet. Literally.

"As I was saying," Batman turned to face Ethan again. "Anyplace but Gotham. Or not even the witness protection program will hide you from me, Henry," he told the former Chicago native who had turned on his bosses for a deal with the feds, and started over as his own boss in Gotham after it seemed to have lost its protector.

"It would seem you have learned a few things the original didn't know," Ethan drawled, now fighting very hard to maintain his composure as he studied the grim figure that stepped carelessly over the fallen assassin's body, and moved toward the door.

"Tomorrow night, Hawke. That's how long you have to get out of my town."

Then the Bat was gone, and Ethan, swallowing the dregs of his drink, turned to grab a bottle to gulp down the burning liquor without pretense. Suddenly, it did seem like a very good time to leave. He had known when to get out of Chicago, after all. It only made sense he should know when to leave even this cash cow of a city.

Dead men, after all, couldn't spend a dime no matter how rich they had been. From the look in that grim, masked vigilante's face he had little doubt the vigilante promised more than a few bruises. Judging by how easily he had taken down Bane, too, he could more than deliver on that implied promise. Ethan forced down two more gulps of the potent liquor to calm himself, then went to rouse his men to start packing.

Better safe than sorry, he told himself, feeling the old adage was more than apropos just then.

B

Batman climbed out of the Batmobile even as the engine turbines still whined down to a stop, and strode toward his working experiments as he pulled back the cowl from his solemn features after a long night of patrolling. He had stopped four thieves, two attempted murders, and no less than a dozen rapes. Things were definitely slowing down already as Gotham drew a cautious breath, waiting to see just what manner of Bat he was going to be since his apparent return.

He stopped by the main console of his supercomputers, and saw no messages warranting his immediate attention. That meant Drake had yet to find anything, and that Dick was likely still busy with Wayne-Tech, or Barbara. He considered a few other matters he had to tend even as he headed toward the working experiments that awaited his attention. Even as he did, he stopped, dropping into a low crouch as one hand pulled his cowl up even as the other palmed two batarangs, his eyes already searching the dark cavern around him for the source of the sounds his ears had detected.

"Sharp as ever, detective," a low, raspy voice commented as the faint squeak of wheels again reached his ears. "I'm impressed. But even more, I am intrigued," the aged figure before him in the wheelchair smiled a horrific smile.

"Ra's," he murmured curtly. "What brings you out of hiding," he asked grimly as he rose to his full height, but did not otherwise relax.

Old, or not, he knew well enough that Ra's al Ghul was likely one of the most dangerous men on the planet. Even supposedly incapacitated, Ra's al Ghul was a man not to be underestimated. He had learned that lesson countless times over the years.

"You, actually, detective," Ra's smiled again.

TO BE CONTINUED………..