Screaming without a Voice

By Christopher W. Blaine

e-mail: darth_yoshi@yahoo.com

DISCLAIMER: All of the characters and situation contained in this story are ©2002 by DC Comics Inc. and are used without permission for fan-related non-profit entertainment purposes only. This original work of fiction is ©2002 by Christopher W. Blaine and may not be reproduced in any form, as a whole or in part, without the express permission of the author.

Ducking low, the thug's wild swing went over Robin's head, the only damage being that the young man's hair was put out of place by the subsequent wind. With a short cry of war, the Teen Wonder punched his attacker deep in the stomach, sending him back onto his posterior. Without another thought, the young hero twisted and brought his foot up, catching another of the Penguin's henchmen in the jaw. Teeth showered onto the ground like an off-white rain and the man, his eyes glazing over as consciousness left him, landed with a resounding thud onto the black rooftop.

A few feet away, the Batman dispatched two other hired guns with ease, his method of defense lacking the sheer energy of his partner. His cape swirling like a small thunderstorm, the Batman approached the Penguin, who held out his latest selection of umbrella as a rapier. Robin started hopping in place, itching for more of a fight and frustrated that he had no way to unleash his pent up desires.

The Penguin thrust his umbrella at the yellow and black emblem on the Batman's chest, pressing a small stud on the handle. A jest of flame shot out, catching the Caped Crusader off guard and sending him sprawling back to avoid being seriously burnt. Robin, crying out to his mentor and friend, started in a run at the Penguin, reaching behind and under his cape for his batarang.

As he pulled it out, he saw a flash of something cross his vision and then the umbrella flew out of the Penguin's hand. The batarang flew anyway and landed deep in the fatty flesh of the criminal's hand. The Penguin cried out loud and stumbled. A shadow fell over him and he looked up only to see the silhouetted outline of the Batman.

The Penguin fainted right away and the Batman kneeled down to examine the wound that Robin had caused. It was not as bad as it looked and he dropped the limp limb and proceeded to scan the area for whatever it was that had knocked the flame-umbrella away. His answer was standing on the next rooftop, approximately another three stories up.

A few minutes later, Batman was shaking the hand of Green Arrow, the Emerald Archer, while Robin and Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick, exchanged excited accounts of the battle. "I appreciate the assist," the Batman said with a smile.

"I was in the neighborhood," the other man replied. Batman noted that his friend was starting to grow a beard. "Yeah, I thought it might make me more distinguished, you know. Too many youngsters nowadays in the League. I was hoping this would earn me some respect."

While the two men spoke, Robin was demonstrated his roundhouse kick. "Man, that is heavy…"

Robin paused, unsure of how to answer. He and Speedy, along with Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Aqualad made up the Teen Titans, and were friends all. In fact, both Speedy and Robin had competed at one time or another for the affections of Wonder Girl and ironically it had made their friendship stronger. Lately, however, he had begun to notice a change in his red-haired friend. Gone was the perfectionist who had to get every shot from his bow exactly right and in place of that was someone so more relaxed that it was like a whole new person. "Right," he finally replied. He eyed the Batman, hoping that he wanted to leave, but he was too busy discussing Justice league business with Green Arrow.

The Teen Wonder was aware that several new members for the team were being considered and Green Arrow was campaigning for the inclusion of his girlfriend, the Black Canary. Robin didn't understand what the problem was, but Batman had mentioned something about keeping the political alignment of the team neutral. "Everything is about politics anymore," he mumbled.

"That's right," Speedy said. "It's always politics, man. That's why babies are being killed in Viet Nam…so that the politicians can get fat off of military contracts. Only problem is that unless there are some dead bodies for the public…"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Robin asked, bemused. Lately, he found that every conversation with Speedy, and Aqualad for that matter was becoming a debate on social issues. Everything from the war in Viet Nam, to abortion and civil rights.

"Man, don't you what's happening? The establishment is slowly choking the liberty out of this country. It's like we have a few hundred Hitler's in Washington, buddy. You don't want to see it because you're rich…"

"Excuse me? I seem to remember something called the Queen Fund, which supplied you and Oliver over there with money, tons of it! Where do you get off giving me hell about being wealthy?"

The young archer waved off the verbal assault, as if he were shooing flies. "Yeah, we had money, but we weren't wealthy, not in our souls, man. We let the man's green paper rule us! When we lost it, we gained something more."

Batman stopped his conversation and looked over to where the two young men were starting raise their voices. Green Arrow leaned over close. "It's a young person thing."

Batman whispered back. "You mean like how you debate every little thing with Hawkman."

"He's a fascist; Robin is just a Republican…not quite as bad…yet," Green Arrow chided. Like Speedy, he had become very politically active since he had lost his fortune to the IRS. It was his own fault for not paying taxes to begin with, or at least ensuring that his accountants had, but that made no difference to him. "We have to go anyway, spooky. I just wanted to give you my two cents worth for my pretty bird."

"And like I said, I'm more than willing to cast a vote in her favor, so long as you give the Red Tornado the same consideration." The Red Tornado, an android super-hero, was also up for membership in the League as well, having been nominated by Superman. "I think that would make everyone happy."

"And a happy Justice League is what we're after," Green Arrow said, walking over to retrieve his partner. The two young men were flustered and waving their hands around by this time. Green Arrow put a hand on Robin's shoulder and said something. Glumly, the Teen Wonder nodded and held out his hand. Speedy looked shocked and almost enraged at Green Arrow and another whispered lecture took place.

In the end, the two young men shook hands and parted ways, but the Batman could tell that the argument was far from over. "Anything you want to talk about?" Batman asked.

"No, that's okay," Robin said as he pulled out several pairs of fabric restraints. He began to truss up the Penguin's gang. "I guess it's all part of growing up."

"What is?" Batman asked as he pulled a small medical kit from his utility belt. It would be sometime before the police arrived, and he did not want infection to set in on the Penguin's hand.

"Things change…people change," Robin lamented as he rolled over the recently toothless thug he felled. He pulled out his own smaller medical kit and began wiping away the blood from the man's mouth. "I remember when the only thing Roy and I would argue about was Wonder Girl's measurements." Roy Harper was Speedy's real name and Batman understood that the use of someone's alter ego meant that his partner was in deep thought.

"He is entitled to his opinion," Batman said, trying to offer some middle ground for Robin to come to.

"Yes, but he's not entitled to belittle the efforts of our peers that wear the uniform and fight in Viet Nam."

Batman stopped, dropped the medical kit and slowly walked over to Robin. "You've never been so vocal about the war effort before; I didn't even realize that you had a viewpoint."

Robin continued to secure the criminals, avoiding any eye-to-eye contact with the Batman. "Of course I do, Batman. It's my generation that's fighting this war and I just happen to support the effort. I don't like communism," he said matter-of-factly.

Batman folded his arms over his chest and examined the boy. He's not a boy any longer. Why haven't I seen it before this, that he's a man now, with his own wants, desires and outlook? "That still doesn't explain why you've gotten so defensive…"

Throughout the world, the Batman was known as the World's Greatest Detective and it was a title that he had earned through hard work many times over the years. Superman may have had X-ray vision and Wonder Woman had a magic lasso, but the Batman possessed an analytical mind that took random clues and put them into a pattern. The picture that was forming in his mind made him nearly quake. "Did you get something in the mail, Richard?"

Robin stopped and looked around them and saw nothing but the sleeping forms of their latest captures. Even the Penguin looked somehow more innocent as he slept from fright. By the Batman using his first name, he knew that this conversation had reached the point of no return. He would speak now, answering all questions truthfully. "Yes."

The Batman sighed. "Don't worry about it; I'll take care of it in the morning. I'll call Johnson personally."

"No!" Robin said, his eyes watering. His hands clenched into fists and he stepped from foot to foot, as if he were wound far too tight. Batman now understood that what he had taken as anticipation of the night's activities was actually the release of nervous tension. "You won't do anything…Bruce."

Casting a glance to ensure that the penguin was still out, Batman approached his partner. Robin was fiddling with the last pair of bindings, again avoiding looking at the older man. Batman reached out and laid a hand on the binding, a gauntleted barrier between Robin and his attempt to not discuss what was truly going on. "We've discussed this before, when you were younger. God, I honestly thought the war would be over by now. Its such a small country…"

"Backed by Soviet and Chinese forces. The League can't go in because the Soviets said that if even one American super-hero is sighted in Viet Nam, it would be considered as a nuclear strike against mother Russia." Robin looked away, staring out at the dark Gotham night. The urban sprawl seemed centuries away from the conflict going on in the jungles of Viet Nam. "Instead, young people like myself have to go over there and try to protect the people from a government they don't want."

"Richard, sometimes things aren't that simple. You just got talking about how things are different as you grow older; wars are the same way. They change as they go on and the line between right and wrong starts to blur. You go in with the best of intentions…"

There were tears in Robin's eyes. "It's not just that…if I don't go, if I let you use your influence to keep me from fighting, then someone else has to go. Doesn't that go totally against everything you taught me, everything we believe in? Do I take the easy way in order to not get hurt? How could I live with myself? Both of our fathers served in World War 2…"

Batman shook his head. "My father was a naval surgeon stationed at Pearl Harbor; your father was an airplane mechanic stationed in Pensacola; they didn't fight. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this, Richard. We have a mission here to perform; we have our own war to fight."

"What? How can you compare the sacrifice those men are making over there to the two of us beating the hell out of fat guys and idiots?"

"We'll discuss this more at home; right now, we have to contact Commissioner Gordon and let him know about these men." The Batman turned and with a swirl of the cape, paused the debate for a later time.

Robin watched him go with a heavy heart. He knew that on the inside, the Batman was hurting. The truth was that Robin was hurting as well. When he received his notice in the mail that he had been selected for compulsory military service, he had taken several days to try and figure what his view on the matter was. In reality, he never expected to be drafted, especially with Bruce Wayne, the Batman's alter ego, being a highly placed defense contractor.

At least he wasn't going to be alone, he thought glumly. When he had confided in Wally West, the Kid Flash, the speedster had immediately marched down to the recruiting office and requested to be accepted for military service, so long as he could stay with his buddy Rich Grayson.

"I got a letter from Wally the other day," the Flash said as the Batman tinkered with the Justice League computer. They were both on monitor duty in the famous Hall of Justice in Metropolis, a duty that all members had to serve on a rotating basis. During weekends, it was a common practice to double-up.

The Flash would usually ask Green Lantern to join him, as the two were best friends, but in recent months, the Scarlet Speedster and the Caped Crusader had found themselves spending more time together. Ever since Robin and Kid Flash, in their secret identities, had left for basic military training.

Unlike the Batman, the Flash did not have a true father-son relationship with Kid Flash; in fact, their relationship was mostly caused by a series of coincidences and accidents. Barry Allen, the man behind the Flash mask, was married to Wally West's aunt. "He says that they haven't seen any action yet."

Batman grunted and examined the large cables. He had literally thrown himself into his work after Robin had left. They had argued for several days over the matter, but in the end, Batman realized that there was nothing he could do to stop it. If he prevented him from going by putting a well-placed phone call to the President, then the boy would never forgive him and would give up being Robin. Either way, he would lose something very valuable to him.

"I hear we might be pulling out of there anyway. Those boys will probably end up in Korea or Germany," the Flash offered, an upbeat tone to his voice. The Batman had become particularly moody and even Superman was having a hard time dealing with him and the two of them were supposed to be best friends. "Hal," he was referring to Green Lantern, "has been asked to join back up to teach dogfight tactics. He thinks that a bunch of pilots are going to be coming home soon and retiring and there will be a new crop to train."

Still the Batman remained silent as he pulled out several lights and checked them for blown filaments. "Wally says that the hypnotic suggestion Wonder Woman put on him to keep him from using his powers is working well, though I can't say that I'm happy about it. His super-speed would be a great asset of he ever gets into combat."

Batman poked his head up from underneath the console. "I thought you said they probably wouldn't see combat." There was a sarcastic grimace to his face and it was obvious that this was not one subject he wanted to discuss.

Wally West stared out the window at the pristine green grass of the Gotham City VA Hospital, but his eyes would not allow him to appreciate the precision of the manicured lawn. He was lost in a world of fantasy as he remembered what was and what might have been.

A nurse, hardly older than Wally, walked up and whispered into his ear that he had a visitor. Wally simply nodded and moved his wheel chair out of the sunlight and into a corner. His uncle Barry had been visiting every day, trying to secure his transfer back home to Central City. Roy had stopped by as well, but he had been very uncomfortable being surrounded by so many service personnel.

A man stepped into the recreation room where Wally was at and he did not immediately recognize him. The man was tall and well built, his suit was of a very modern cut and his demeanor was that of a man used to power. Even out of costume, the Batman seemed to radiate a dark essence.

It was the meeting that Wally had been dreading since he got back to the states. "Hello, Mr. Wayne," Wally said, extending his hand.

Bruce Wayne took the offered hand. His grip was sure and firm, but his eyes betrayed the weakness he was feeling on the inside. "Wally. Thank you for agreeing to see me."

As Bruce sat down, Wally replied with candor. "Actually, I didn't know it was you, but I should have figured it. I assume it was no coincidence that I ended up in this particular hospital."

Bruce looked down at where the younger man's legs had been. "I have my reasons, but I want to assure you that whatever you need…anything…"

Wally almost laughed in his face. "I guess I should be thankful. I'm sorry, sir, I'm still getting used to everything."

Bruce nodded and then asked him if he wanted a Coke. Wally said yes and Bruce went to go them. When he returned and handed Wally his drink, he had a serious look. "I'd like to have the details of exactly what happened. I'm sure you understand."

Wally opened the bottle of cola and took a swig. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and cleared his throat. "We were halfway done with a patrol when the rain started. God, it was always raining whenever we went out."

"You think Bruce would approve?" Corporal Richard "Dumb-Dick" Grayson asked Private Wally "Red Man" West. He handed his M-16 rifle over.

Wally gave the weapon a once over, checking it for even the slightest speck of mud. He looked over at the other weapons of their squad and saw that they were more brown than machine black. "How do you keep this thing so clean?"

"Aw, hell," Jackson said, the black man plopping down next to Wally. "That mother fucker don't do a damn thing but clean his rifle. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't chase whores and don't jack off. What else does he have to do?"

"Didn't I see you whacking it the other night on patrol Grayson?" Thompkins asked. The squad leader pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Just as Richard was able to keep his weapon clean during the monsoon, so was Sergeant Thompkins was able to light a cigarette in a torrential downpour.

"No, sarge," Richard said, accepting the rifle back from Wally, "I think that was a picture of your wife."

The other squad members started laughing, Wally choking on the spoonful of lima beans from his field rations. Thompkins stared at his corporal. "You're lucky my wife is an ugly fat bitch, you know that Grayson, or else I'd get pissed."

Before Richard could reply, a thin young man in green fatigues came running up, covering his head with a satchel. The men immediately straightened up as Lt. Marks came to a halt in front of them under their makeshift lean-to. Marks was a West Point man and had an attitude that Richard had seen so many times at the many society functions he had attended back in Gotham City.

"Where's Anderson, sir?" Thompkins asked, gripping his M-16 a little tighter. The radioman was nowhere to be seen, not that it was uncommon for a man to get lost in the rain. The officer turned suddenly. He and the other man had moved out to a more clear area in order to radio back to the central command post.

Richard stood up and smacked Wally on the shoulder. Wally picked up the M-60 heavy machine gun. The weapon would have been more than too much for him to handle before basic training, where the gangly youth had put on an extra 30 pounds of muscle. "Shit, sir," Jackson said, moving over to the other side of the mud path that they had been sitting at. "Mother fucker! There must be tunnels around here!"

"There aren't even supposed to be enemy forces in this sector," Anderson said, a trace of fear in his voice.

"God damned idiot!" Thompkins said as he saw figures moving stealthily up ahead. He pushed the officer down and started firing.

All of the men opened up with their weapons, aiming for anything that moved and didn't curse like a sailor. Wally fired away with his machine gun, splitting small trees as he tried to "walk" his fire into the targets. On the other hand, both Jackson and Richard took their time, lining up their shots and squeezing off very short bursts.

The enemy began to return fire and bullets began to land everywhere around them. Richard put himself in the "zone" drowning out everything around him as he concentrated on taking down as many enemy soldiers as he could. His training under the Batman had prepared him for this more than what he wanted to admit and may be that was one of the reasons why his mentor had not wanted him to come.

In a sense, Richard thought as he shot another Viet Cong between the eyes, he was the Frankenstein monster of Bruce Wayne. He was the dark creation of the Batman. He pulled the trigger slowly, just as Bruce had shown him. While he hated guns, Bruce Wayne was an expert marksman. It was one of those "know your enemy" types of things.

Anderson dropped as a bullet ripped through his shirt and out the back, taking his left ventricle with it. Jackson cursed and stopped to ram another clip home. The action, taking less than six seconds, cost him his life as well as an armor piercing bullet tore through his helmet. Richard heard the shot and knew that there was a heavy weapon somewhere out there, maybe even the secret Soviet weapon that there had been rumors about.

"Dick?" Wally asked, pausing to allow his muzzle to cool in the rain. He had obviously heard the shot as well. "That's not something normal."

"No shit, Sherlock!" Thompkins said. "If you dumb fucks wouldn't mind killing the enemy, I'd like to fucking get out of here!"

Another crack and a large tree was felled behind them. Richard saw the fear suddenly fill Wally's eyes and he looked in the same direction, bringing the muzzle of his M-16 around with him. Through the rain, Richard could just make out what looked like a man in red and white armor, the initials CCCP on it, or at least he believed they were. He searched his memory for the significance.

"Soviet rocket forces," Richard said to himself. He then turned to his friend. "Good God, Wally! We're in the middle of a Russian weapons testing area!"

Wally didn't answer as he fired at the armored figure that was slowly approaching. Behind it were several Viet Cong soldiers, hunkered down and giving short bursts with their AK-47's. The armored Russian brought up its left arm and there was a puff of smoke, followed by a crack that reminded Richard of a thunderstorm of particular violence from his childhood.

He aimed again and fired, but even over the dull roar of the rain and other rifles firing, he could pick up the audible signal of ricocheted bullets. His rounds were simply rebounding off of the Soviet armor. "I thought that forces like this weren't allowed here!" Richard yelled as he checked his hand grenades. He only had two.

"Hey, dumb ass!" Thompkins screamed, taking out a Viet Cong soldier only yards away. "If you want to have a debate over the Geneva Convention, do it on your own time!" Richard didn't reply and instead lobbed a grenade at one of the approaching Soviets. He had forgotten to pull the pin and it was a damaging as throwing rocks.

"Dick!" Wally screamed as he went down, a high-powered round penetrating first one leg, then following through to the other. Wally, shoe first love was running, stared in disbelief as blood began to spurt everywhere. Richard knew an artery had been severed in at least one of them, but there was so much blood, there was no way to tell the extent of the damage.

He looked down at his hands and saw they were shaking as he held his rifle. Even after all of his training, of the life-and-death situations he had faced as Robin, the fear of dying was threatening to overwhelm him. It soon passed as he saw Thompkins throw down his empty M-16 and pull out his service pistol. The automatic launched instant death towards the enemy and Richard realized that one of them was going to die, at least.

"Sarge! Grab Wally and get out of here, I'll cover you!" Richard cried, ramming another clip, his last one, into the rifle.

"Fuck you, Grayson! I don't leave any of my men behind, you got that, Corporal?" Thompkins hopped down from his position just as a volley of AK-47 fire angrily ate the ground at where his feet had been. He reached down and grabbed Richard by the back of his uniform. "Get your fucking rich-boy ass out of here and take pussy-boy with you! That's an order!"

Richard made a decision instantly. He punched Thompkins and pushed him back, at the same time breaking away and turning to run towards the enemy. Without looking back, Richard jumped through the bushes and tackled a soldier. Thompkins looked up and saw that he had a chance to escape. Cursing, and at the same time saying a silent prayer for his foolhardy subordinate, he reached down and tried to haul Wally up on his feet. The wounded man protested, already going to shock and disoriented, he began yelling. "Barry! Oh, God, Barry! My legs!"

"Shut your hole, boy!" Thompkins said as he pulled Wally up on his shoulders. He turned, Wally's blood starting to get all over his uniform, when a Viet Cong soldier hopped out in front of them.

The soldier said something, and Thompkins thought it was probably either an order to surrender or a send-off to the Great Beyond. It didn't matter as he ended the entire conversation with the last two bullets from his weapon.

Gritting his teeth, he headed back towards what he hoped was friendly forces, not hearing the screams of Richard as he was besieged by the enemy forces.

"He's our friend and an ally!" Batman said, smashing a fist on the Justice League meeting table.

Superman stood up on the opposite side, putting his hands palm down and leaning towards his friend and teammate. "I know that, Batman, but that doesn't change my opinion or my decision." The Man of Steel knitted his brow. "I realize that this is hard…"

Batman pushed away from the table. "You have no idea!" he accused, pointing a finger at Superman. The gesture was meant to include all of the others members of the team present as well. Green Arrow shuffled nervously and Green Lantern whispered something into the Flash's ear. "He may be dying right now!"

"He may already be dead," Red Tornado stated, his voice devoid of emotion. The android was not intending to be cold, but his programming did not allow for sympathy. "Statistically, his chances of survival are very low."

"What the hell good is it to be part of an organization that represents justice when it can't even decided who deserves it?" Batman asked. Wonder Woman narrowed her eyes as the question, but Green Arrow nodded slowly.

"We do represent justice, Batman," Superman tried to explain. There was real pain in his voice, as he realized that every word he said was simply another hammer tap on the nails in Robin's coffin. "We cannot risk a nuclear war over one person regardless of who they are."

"That didn't stop the Ruskies from sending in their heroes," Green Arrow replied, finally standing up and moving towards the Batman's side. He had silently been supporting the Batman ever since the matter of sending the team in to Viet Nam to rescue Robin, and he now decided to show his true colors. "We all know that those were Rocket Red troops, the Soviet equivalent to the League. Wally sure enough described them that way."

The Flash spoke up. "Guys, really…Wally has been through a lot and I don't know if I would trust his memory."

Batman looked at the Flash and when he spoke, there was a deep chill to his voice. "Let me assure you, Allen, that you always remember who it is that tries to kill you."

"I can't even be part of this argument," Aquaman said, standing up. "I'm the sovereign ruler of Atlantis; I cannot be involved in any operation going into Viet Nam."

Superman immediately barked a reply. "We are not sending the League into Viet Nam. The League does not invade nations!"

"Maybe we should," Hawkman said, twirling a mace. Hawkgirl stood a few feet behind him and said nothing, "but Superman is right. The law states that no heroes go into Viet Nam, so we stay."

"Oh, sure…don't go unless you can profit from it," Green Arrow said, a look of disgust on his face. "A bunch of rice farmers aren't worth you time."

Hawkman snorted. "Maybe if they fought their own war instead of holding their hands out…"

Green Arrow moved like lighting across the room and got up in Hawkman's face. "You self-righteous, sanctimonious bastard! Did you ever stop to think that some people can't help the situations that they're in?"

Hawkman stopped twirling the mace. "You cry-baby liberal jerk! Cry me a river, Queen; if you're so worried, go put on a uniform and grab a rifle!"

Green Arrow was about to reply when Batman cut them all short. "Enough! I don't care about politics and I don't care about the Vietnamese people right now! The only thing I care about is getting my…" he stammered slightly, "son out of Viet Nam! I want him to be alive, but if he isn't, I want at least to have his body to mourn. You are my teammates and my friends. Or at least I thought you were!"

He took in a deep breath before continuing. "Many of you have abilities that simply baffle the mind. Superman, I can't think of anything you can't do. With your enhanced vision, you could at least look for him. Flash, with your speed, you could run in and out of the country in the blink of an eye. Green Lantern, you represent an entire intergalactic police force, yet you say you have no jurisdiction in this particular case?"

"Batman," Wonder Woman said, standing up and walking over to him. "There is a time when we have to set limits on what we can do to uphold the common good. We can't operate outside the law we've sworn to protect."

He looked at her fondly, reminding himself that despite he warrior's appearance and fighting ability, she was a natural pacifist. "If I have to be an outsider, than that's what I'll be. Consider this my resignation."

The room was quiet until Green Arrow spoke up. "Me, too."

Black Canary, quiet for most of the meeting and sitting in the shadows, stood up and took Green Arrow's offered hand. "I'm gone as well. I stand by my man."

When no other members offered to end their membership, the three heroes turned to head for the teleporters. Superman called after them. "Please reconsider this! If you go to Viet Nam, we'll be forced to come after you!"

They almost looked like brothers when they didn't have their masks on, Bruce Wayne thought as he poured several drinks from his bar. Across the room, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, dressed in a business suit and goatee, sat across from a man with stark white hair and a Matching beard. The man also sported an eye patch, which gave him a very mercenary look. That was suiting considering that he was that.

The other man was Colonel Slade Wilson, formerly of the United States army. When the Batman, Green Arrow and Black Canary had left the Justice League, they had formed their own team called the Outsiders. One of their first recruits was former black activist Jefferson Pierce, who was also the super-hero Black Lightning. Pierce, a former Green Beret who had served as an "advisor" in Viet Nam, knew Wilson from his army days. Wilson had volunteered for experiments that had, unknown to his superiors, given him enhanced abilities. Leaving the army, he had become a soldier-of-fortune known as Deathstroke.

Wilson had recently returned from Viet Nam, where he had performed a mission for Bruce Wayne. "I can't thank you enough for what you've done, Mr. Wilson," Bruce said, handing the mercenary his drink.

Wilson took the drink and thanked him. "It really wasn't that hard, actually. I have some contacts inside the Soviet Union that pointed me in the right direction." He waited until all were seated and comfortable before continuing. "I don't usually do this, Mr. Wayne, but considering the amount of money you've paid me, I suppose a little advice is part of the deal."

"Really, Mr. Wilson?" Bruce asked. His eyes seemed to burrow into Wilson, and the mercenary knew that there was something more to this man than his money. It was like he was hiding something, like a burning rage, and Wilson felt as if he were being interrogated. "Does it have something to do with where Richard has been for the past year?"

"Yes and no, sir. The Soviet training ground was something new, even to me. They would take mostly Special Forces prisoners there in order to hunt them. Your ward was unique…very unique." He let the statement hang in the air, to try and gauge a reaction. Only Oliver Queen seemed to react and all he did was cough. "The fact that he survived as long as he did indicates a real desire to live."

There was a hint of pride on Bruce's face. "My ward is a very special young man."

Wilson leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "He is also a very disturbed young man, Mr. Wayne. He has been hunted for months. He has killed repeatedly. He told me he tried to escape twice, only to be caught and tortured."

"Hey, he's a tough nut, though," Oliver offered to Wilson. The former soldier had already decided that he did not like the other man. Queen talked like a hippie, but seemed very free with Wayne's money. He couldn't imagine what it was they had in common.

"Mr. Queen, being tough has nothing to do with it. I kill for a living, but I've been trained to separate myself from my job. It was obvious from my conversations with Mr. Grayson that he has a great respect for life."

"That he does, Mr. Wilson," Bruce offered.

"Mr. Wayne, I'll be perfectly frank with you; your ward is not the same person he was when he left for Viet Nam."

Bruce stood up and immediately Wilson and Oliver did the same. Bruce extended his hand to Wilson, who took it. Almost on cue, Alfred, Bruce's loyal butler, appeared at the entrance to the room. "Thank you, Mr. Wilson. I'll take your words under consideration."

Wilson wanted to say more, but decided against it. It was obvious that Bruce Wayne was used to being in charge and nothing that he said was going to change his mind about anything. "Please give my best to your ward."

Bruce smiled. "Of course. Alfred will show you out."

After his butler and the mercenary were gone, Bruce took off his jacket and removed his tie. "Do you have an opinion?"

Oliver shook his head. "No; I'm just glad the kid is back. You think he'll want to get back into the tights soon?"

"It's a little early for that…"

Oliver shrugged. "Might be good therapy, get him back into a routine."

"I shouldn't have let him go," Bruce said suddenly. There was a quiver to his upper lip that only the marksman eye of Green Arrow could detect. "I should have been stronger."

Oliver laid a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "Ease up on yourself, man. This war is crazy; hell, the whole country is crazy."

Bruce seemed to take strength from Oliver's reassuring touch and stood up straight. "Maybe you're right. I'll ask him if he wants to go out on patrol sometime this week."

The quiet of the Batcave was almost unnerving to him, and the damp coolness felt alien against his skin. He was too used to the sounds of the jungle, of the heat oppressing him, of the scent of death in the air. The occasional drip from the unseen ceiling was almost laughable after the monsoons he had weathered.

Richard slowly walked around the cave, looking at a place that was familiar, yet unknown. This was the place of a different person, not the one he was now. Even strolling as he was seemed to be a new experience after having lived either in a cage or running for his life for the last few months.

He came to the glass case that held his Robin costume and he stared at the bright colors. They were so gay and carefree. He couldn't wear those, not now. Besides, the scars on his legs were too horrible to expose as far as he was concerned. His scars ran so deep…

Besides, he had lost at least forty pounds and there was no way he could wear the costume and hope to hold his own in a fight. He jerked suddenly at the thought of combat and he found himself sweating despite the cold. He shook his head and focused his mind on the costume. No, he decided, he needed a costume that offered more protection.

"I take it that you won't be putting that on," Batman said as he walked up slowly. Richard was horrified that he hadn't heard his approach. If he were still "in country", he would be dead now. Batman seemed to see the horrified look on his face. "I saw you grimacing at it," he offered.

"It makes me a target, easy to track. I'm surprised that I wasn't taken out before."

Batman said nothing for a moment, instead rubbing his chin as he contemplated. "Yes, well I never really considered that, I suppose."

"Needs to be darker, more padding. A holster, too."

"What?" Batman said, anger in his voice. "We don't use guns, Dick."

"Yeah, but our enemy does."

"They aren't the enemy, Dick, they're criminals. This isn't a war, it's crime fighting. You do remember that, don't you?"

Richard started to rub his forehead. "I'm sorry, Bruce…just having a hard time adjusting, is all. I'm going to go lay down, okay?"

Batman only nodded as Richard started to walk away.

"You okay?" Batgirl asked in a hushed voice. She was huddled behind the stopped form of Nightwing as he observed the drug traffickers below them. There were about a dozen men, half from the Joker's gang, the other half from the Mad Hatter's group. They were engaged in the heroine trade.

Nightwing did not reply, instead concentrating on the movements of the perimeters guards. When he was wearing the Robin costume, he would have simply barged in, fists and feet a flurry of activity. Now he spent his time concentrating on the organization of his enemy. He wanted to know their patterns.

Batgirl was insistent, however, and she tapped him on the shoulder. He knew that he should be patient with her, especially considering the fact that they were sleeping together, but she was really starting to annoy him.  He wanted quiet, perfect quiet so he could move to a better position.

"I'm fine," he finally said. Before she could reply, however, there was a change in the behavior of the men they were watching. Out of one of the cars, the familiar purple suit of the Joker came into view. The Clown Prince slapped one his guards and then squirted the man's face with acid from a trick flower in his lapel.

Batgirl gave a shudder that Nightwing seemed to feel through the roof beneath their feet. The man gave a cry as his face seemed to melt. Nightwing ignored him all together, instead keeping an eye on the Joker. That was the key to bringing down the entire operation. "Take out the leader and the troops don't know what to do," he mumbled. Batgirl simply put her face into his back. She was crying.

Batman swooped down just as the thug fell to the ground, his cape enveloping the wounded man. Nightwing shook his head. His partner had just thrown away any advantage they would normally have. He stood up, leaving his girlfriend nearly falling onto her face. "Thanks," she said with sarcasm.

Nightwing ignored her and flexed his muscles under his dark costume. He stepped to the roof edge and jumped, ignoring the height and the effects of gravity. He fell upon two of the Mad-Hatter's men, letting them break his fall. Like a jungle cat, he was immediately up and moving, leaping this way and that, taking any open opportunity to strike out. Hired thugs fell left and right, Nightwing going through them like a man possessed.

The Batman found himself engaged with one hireling who seemed to have some martial arts training, while Batgirl went to tend to the man the Joker had attacked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nightwing hop onto the top of the Mad Hatter's car. The villain was no in it; he wasn't even here, instead allowing his underlings to handle the deal.

It had only been a few weeks since he and Richard had spoken in the Batcave, when he had been forced to reassert his dominance in their relationship as well as instruct the younger man in the rules of engagement for Gotham City. In that time, he had seen Slade Wilson's prediction come to pass. The man in the dark blue costume of Nightwing was not the young man he remembered from two years before.

Since being rescued from Viet Nam, Richard had been moving at a rapid pace. Alfred had been feeding him so much that he was actually turning out to be larger than before he had left for the war. The sudden sexual relationship with Batgirl had been no surprise, especially given the younger woman's beauty and willingness. What was strange was Richard's unwillingness to go visit Wally West, who now operated under the code-name of Oracle as the Batman's intelligence collector.

Based in Central City, Wally had become very adept at gathering information from a variety of sources, information that the Outsiders used to combat the wrongs that the Justice League ignored. Richard seemed almost afraid to go see his best friend.

Nightwing jumped from the hood of the car onto the ground and headed into the darkness of the alleyway. The Joker was in there somewhere and his ears were like small radars, scanning every nook and cranny for the sound of his breathing. His mind blocked out all of the extra noise as he pursued his prey.

The Joker suddenly stepped out. "Well, well, look what the bat dragged in! Looks like the boy has become a man."

Nightwing dodged the squirt of acid he knew was coming. The Joker was too easy to guess. With a snarl, he knocked the man down.

"What the hell is going on?" Commissioner Gordon asked, lighting up a cigarette. They were standing on the balcony of his home in one of the better neighborhoods of Gotham City. "Your Outsiders have been doing some good work, Batman, and its helped to keep the trouble that's plaguing cities like Chicago and Los Angeles from occurring here. But what happened tonight…"

"I know; I'm sorry," the Batman offered. He was standing off in the corner, out of the light.

"The Joker got out of surgery a half-hour ago. Your partner nearly killed him. One of the doctors said he hadn't seen anything like that since Korea."

"Nightwing has…issues," the Batman offered. He knew it was no use trying to explain the entire truth. To do so would require that he give away secrets he would rather not. "It won't happen again."

"You're damn right it won't! This is Gotham City, not Saigon. We have laws here, laws that you barely skirt as it is. There is something wrong with that boy." Gordon threw the cigarette out into the night. "It happens again, and I'm running both of you in, even of I have to call in everyone from Superman to the National Guard."

Batman said nothing as the other man went inside his home and locked the balcony door.

Batman walked up to Nightwing and put a hand on his shoulder. Nightwing whirled, his forearm going up to choke the Caped Crusader. Batman blocked the move and grabbed Nightwing's arm. There was a mad look in the younger man's eyes. "What is it?" Batman demanded.

Nightwing dropped his arm and backed away. "It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," he said, finally dropping into a chair. "Every person I saw die, every person I killed, every life that ended before its time echoes in my skull. I was forced to take the skills you taught me to the next level.

"I went over there because of some misguided sense of patriotism, some warped need to belong to something other than Batman and Robin. I don't know, maybe I felt that I needed to do anything that made me different from everyone else."

"I don't know what to say; I can't know what to say. I managed to avoid military service…"

"I want to scream, but I can't find my voice. I want to be normal, but I can't be. I didn't go to summer camp…I went somewhere on purpose so that I can kill people." He reached up and pulled off his mask. "Oh sure, that wasn't on my mind at the time, it never is. It doesn't hit you until you pull the trigger that first time or you have to snap a man's neck. You cross a line and you can't go back. You sit there and you realize that this person had been born, had grew and played games as a child, had loved and hated, had dreams and goals. Then you come along and you end it.

"I saw things that would make the damned shudder. I have done things that in any…civilized society…I would be put away for the rest of my life. But then, I'm expected to come back and pretend it never happened. I'm supposed to make nice with Wally and try to forget that he can no longer run. I'm supposed to forget that I played God with an M-16, smiting my enemies with omnipotent vengeance."

"Richard, I think you need to talk to someone…someone besides me," the Batman offered, pulling back his cowl. "I'm not prepared to deal with this, and neither are you."

Nightwing put his head back and looked at the ceiling of the Batcave. The darkness above seemed so inviting and he just wanted to let himself fall into it. "You're right, neither one of us is prepared for this. I can't believe I was so naïve."

Dear Bruce,

Wally and Barbara say hello. California is great, and Green Lantern is keeping tabs on me, ready to whisk me back to Gotham City at a moments notice. My therapy is continuing, but it is still too early to say I'm going to be okay. I do think that it's safe to say that I doubt I will ever be able to put on a costume again.

My therapist at the VA says that I need to deal with all of the issues in my life, not just my experiences in Nam. What happened to me was unique, but not totally unexpected. I was really surprised to find out how many vets have gone through similar situations.

Bruce, I just wanted you to know that despite what you think, I had a very good childhood. If not for the skills you taught me, I would have died over there, no question about it. War is a terrible, terrible thing (I guess Roy was right all along!), but what is worse is how governments take their youth and throw them into the battlefields in order to further political causes. For every vet I talk to, I realize that there is one other that did not make it back.

Even though my days as a crime fighter are over, I hope that you continue your crusade to keep Gotham City safe. It is always noble to defend the weak, but it should be done with temperance. War eliminates that.

By the way (heh, heh), Barbara is pregnant and I suppose we'll get married, even though Roy told me that marriage is just something that the government cooked up to tax you! I guess you'll be a grandfather soon, and it makes me happy to know that after all of the killing, I can now bring some life into this world.

I'm finally starting to find my voice, Bruce; and I don't think I want to scream.

Best of luck to you and give my love to Alfred,

Richard