00cLosetFreak00 – Glad you liked it. As to Rita's remarks about women? It's a theory. Like Rita said, you have to be careful when looking at arguments based on evolutionary psychology, because they are impossible to test out. It's just one way of explaining things people don't have reasons for.
Gyhy – Sorry. It's just easier to handle the story in smaller bites.
JOHNXGambit – You're right. Rita's impulsive, spontaneous days are behind her. She always has a plan.
RandomDalmatian326 – I'm glad you liked it. And in Raven's defense, when you're hurting that bad, it's very hard to listen non-judgmentally. If anything Changeling should have waited. Starfire has spent enough time trying to explain herself to her friends, and is more than a little tired of being the one to try to understand and fit in. Losing Raven, Changeling, and Robin all at once was more that up with which she was willing to put. I think you'll be entertained by the interactions in Blüdhaven coming up. I have an idea for the Youngest Honorary Titans, but I'm having trouble fitting them in the current plot.
Egg1 – Glad to hear from you. It's going to take me a few chapters to clean up this mess. It's really amazing. I was able to tear everything up in under 100 words, but it's going to take thousands to fix it. I think there may be a metaphor there.
SomeRandomChick – Glad you're still reading.
NicoleThePenguin – Depending on my free time, I hope to update at least once a week for a while.
TW – Hey, no peeking at the advance notes.
XV165 – I can do that.
Very few reviews for Chapter 50. I'm not sure if that's because everybody liked it, or everybody hated it. I wasn't sure how everyone would react to Rita showing up the way that she did. Raven is a challenge to write for because she is so closed off. When Starfire and Garfield left, she really didn't have anyone to talk to. At least that she would be willing to talk to about things like that. I didn't want to just generate someone out of nowhere. I think it worked out pretty well. You won't see Rita manifest her powers very often. She hates being Elastigirl. In today's chapter we're going to look into Nightwing's advent into Blüdhaven, which needs to be pulled back from the edge of anarchy. There will also be an angst-filled visit to Los Angeles.
Farther down the road, Starfire's reception on Tamaran is not at all what she, or, I think you guys, are expecting. I can also promise at least one nuclear explosion, a giant war mech and a side of Raven we haven't seen before. Oh, and Changeling is going to sincerely pray, not once, but twice.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
"I do." - Lamont Cranston
Blüdhaven, New Jersey (Earth).
The rain was beginning to fall harder as Nightwing squatted atop the tenement apartment building on the lower east side of Blüdhaven. Just outside of the waterfront district, the grim little residential neighborhood had the highest mugging rate of any area in the city. The alleys were cluttered with trash and overflowing dumpsters. Slovenly dressed prostituted walked on the sidewalks, careful not to stop and get harassed for "loitering," their shoes crunching on the filthy pavement. Their heavy mascara ran as the rain came down and most had given up trying to keep cigarettes lit.
"It's like coming home from school on vacation, and finding that nothing has changed," thought Nightwing.
He had selected a narrow, poorly lit alley that opened onto a side street. The noisome smell barely made it to the top of the five-story walk-up building who roof he occupied. He glanced back and forth, watching each end of the narrow walkway as shadowy figures moved through it. There were a couple of men standing in the shadows of the north end of the walkway, watching the street and occasionally talking in low tones. His eyes narrowed. From the north end of the walkway came a shrill cry that was suddenly cut off. He extended his arm and there was a soft "phut" as his grapnel shot out and grabbed hold of the building ledge. The force-feedback mechanism in the handle pulsed in his hand, indicating that the grapnel was solidly set, and he launched himself from the roof. The cable twanged tight and he swung toward the two, no, three figures at the end of the alley. To larger people were holding a smaller one between them.
Closer. Yep. Two men, late teens to early twenties. Unshaven. Dark hoodies and ratty jeans. Between them was a woman, slightly older. They had a firm grip on her arms as she struggled between them. The one on the left was dragging at her purse, while the one on her right hissed, "C'mon, give it up" in her ear. Nightwing twisted his hips slightly, adjusting his trajectory. With a meaty thump, his heels impacted the kidneys of the larger man at just fewer than twenty miles an hour. The man grunted loudly and fell to the slimy pavement, moaning. Nightwing completed the arc of the swing, released the grapnel, performed a flawless somersault at the height of his arc, and then dropped to the ground in a crouch, one leg extended.
"Now boys, who said you guys could play in my sandbox?"
The smaller of the two thugs gaped at him for a moment, glanced to where his partner lay groaning on the ground, and said, "Mister, I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but I'm gonna cut you."
The little man flicked open a knife and advanced in a sloppy fighter's crouch. Nightwing rolled his eyes.
"Somebody's always gotta be a tough guy," he thought.
Nightwing launched himself at the mugger, fist extended toward his face.
"He's pretty quick," Nightwing thought as the man flicked his hand in front of his face to block Nightwing's fist with his blade. "Yes, quick, I have to give him that. But not very bright."
Nightwing had been feinting to the man's face. Instead of a punch, he rotated his hips and kicked the man in the side of the head, slamming him into the alley wall, where he slid down to slump in a puddle of spilled soda and old urine.
The woman had scrambled to her feet, clutching her purse and staring, wide-eyed. She flinched like a beaten animal. Nightwing stepped back from her, holding his hands waist high, palms up.
"It's okay," he said. "You're safe now."
She slid sideways out of the alley, never taking her eyes off of him.
"I don't suppose I can get you to hang around and press charges, can I?"
She turned her back and sprinted off down the street, never speaking.
Nightwing sighed and looked at the pile of groaning meat in the alley. He had a long way to go. And that was the way the whole night went. He did nothing but interrupt muggings. The victim would flee, and he let the muggers go. If the victims wouldn't press charges, there was no point in calling the police. That would wait until later. Right now, he just needed to start making an impact.
It was several weeks later that things began to go a little differently.
The deal was going down on a loading dock down a dark street. Bennie was there with a small brown paper sack full of money. He was there to pick up black rock. And one way or another, at least one of his problems was going to be solved. A dark figure approached from the shadows. The other man was wearing a hoodie, jeans, and showing a serious bulge in one pocket.
"Crap," thought Bennie, "I hope I'm not about to be ripped off."
"Money?" said a raspy voice.
Bennie passed the sack of cash to his connection, and the older man handed him a bag full of small crystals.
"Ain'tcha gonna count it?" asked Bennie.
"No," said the other man. "If I come up short, I'll just find you and kill you. The next idiot won't make the same mistake. So either way, it's all good."
Bennie swallowed. "It's all there."
Then Nightwing landed on him, feet first, snapping both sides of his collar bone. The man screamed and dropped to the ground.
Bennie, however, reacted differently.
"Get him," he cried, and the loading dock erupted with six men, armed with baseball bats, knives and chains.
The fight was ugly, brutal and short.
"Sorry," said Nightwing, as he dragged Bennie over the pile of groaning street-meat to stand him upright next to the door. "I lacked my usual grace and elegance because I kept getting distracted, catching your sorry ass and dragging it back to the fight."
"I don't know what you're talking about," the small time dealer answered.
"Bennie, Bennie, Bennie," said Nightwing as he got out his grapnel. "We both know you've got better social skills that that. You know exactly what I'm talking about."
The grapnel pulsed, and then lifted Nightwing and his squirming guest to the top of the six-story tenement.
"You set me up, Bennie," said Nightwing as he pulled the reluctant man onto the roof.
"No, it wasn't me, I swear."
"'Get him?' Bennie, somebody who sounded an awful lot like you set off that ambush."
"I didn't think . . ."
"You didn't think I could take six of those lousy, untrained, gutless dirt-bags? Bennie, tell me you didn't pay top dollar for that crap."
The Nightwing extended his arm and dangled the smaller man out over the six-story drop to the alley below.
"Sorry Bennie, I know it's a cliché, but I'm short on time tonight. That guy with the broken collar bone is just a delivery boy. Tell me who your crack contact is and where to find him."
"I don't know anything!"
"Bennie, I'm really hurt. I mean, we had a deal. And I don't offer deals to just any drug dealer that sets up a stand in my territory. I let you sell your weed, your acid, and your mushrooms because they aren't very addictive, you get to make a living, your customers get to take the edge off of living in this sewage heap, and Bennie-the-Snitch is my ears on the street, and brings me things I want to know. Instead, you tried to have me killed. It almost makes me question the value of our business relationship."
The ugly little man slipped a little lower as Nightwing's grip loosened.
"He'll kill me if I tell you."
"Bennie. Think. I'm dangling you over a six story drop, and my hand is getting numb. True: he may kill you later. But I'm right here and I'm pissed off at you right now.
Bennie fell a little further.
"Okay!" He shouted. "Ok! Ok! Ok! His name is Harold Ferguson, and he hangs out at the pool hall on 69th. I don't know where he lives. That's all, I swear."
"I believe you Bennie. Good-bye."
And Nightwing let go. Benny screamed as he fell four stories. When he reached 20 feet from the ground the grapnel Nightwing had attached to his ankle dug into the flesh around his leg as the brakes on the reel started to slow his fall. By the time he reached the dank alley floor, he was moving very slowly, and hit his head lightly, raising a small bump. The grapnel disengaged and vanished up into the darkness. Bennie scrambled to his feet, a dark wet stain spreading from the crotch of his pants. He glanced once up into the darkness and ran out of the alley like a scalded dog.
Nightwing smirked slightly as he watched the petty criminal race down the alley and turn into the street. He waited for a moment, and then spoke into the darkness.
"I know you're there."
"I always know when you're there. You trained me."
Behind him a tall, dark figure slipped silently from the shadows, its long cape flowing like part of the night. Dark eyes glittered from a pointed cowl.
"So, you're the one they've been calling Nightwing. I thought so. Why the change?"
"The old traffic-light suit wasn't inspiring sufficient terror in the criminal underclass. I decided that dressing like a circus acrobat, while nostalgic, wasn't getting the job done. Besides, it was time for a change, Batman."
"I like it. Dark. Creepy. Vaguely disturbing. It has all the right touches. Shame no one outside of Kandor knows what a "Nightwing" is."
"All the well-known creepy night-flyers were taken."
The corner of Batman's mouth twitched.
"Only six to one, and a sloppy mess. Are you getting soft?"
Nightwing frowned. "I told Bennie, and now I'm telling you, having to drag his sorry ass back to the fight over and over again threw my timing off."
"And you let a known drug-dealer go. That's not like you. What's the story?"
Nightwing sighed. "The police are so corrupt and the local mobs have the people so scared, no one will press charges, and when they do, a 'clerical error' gets the bad guys turned loose. And when he's not trying to kill me, Bennie doesn't hurt anybody. Plus, Benny-the-Snitch always has good information. So I put him on the bottom of the list." Nightwing still spoke lightly, but ever so slightly more forcefully. "What brings you to my town?"
The corner of Batman's mouth twitched again.
"This city was such a festering boil that the pus was starting to slop over onto Gotham. I thought I was going to have to take a sabbatical and come clean it up. Then, about four weeks ago, the mugging rate dropped like a rock. Even with no arrests, the number of muggings went down, and the number of un-solved assaults went up. Young, urban youths with long records for violence were getting beaten up, first in pairs, then in fours, and finally in sixes. And then there was a crimp in the drug traffic. A small one but . . . "
"I'm just getting started."
"I know that now. I thought I recognized your work, so I came to see."
Batman extended a hand. In it was a small, black, pointy USB drive.
"My research. State Police reports, journalist's files, crime patterns, networks of known associates. That sort of thing. No plan and no marching orders, though, just raw data."
Nightwing paused, and then smiled, accepting the drive.
"Now, about that fight . . . "
"You consider lending a hand?"
Batman stepped to one side. Behind him were two unconscious men, and a pair of shattered rifles.
"Ah," said Nightwing. "That could have been . . . inconvenient. Bennie must not fear me enough."
"You'll fix that."
"I will. So, now what?" Nightwing said, guardedly.
"I've got to head back to Gotham early in the morning, but I'm free tonight. We haven't spent any quality time together since you left for the West Coast. I thought we could do a traditional father/son activity. You know. Indulge in some nostalgia.
Nightwing turned away, staring into the night. He worked alone, these days, and he liked it. If there was no one to guard his back, there also wasn't anyone to betray him. If he had no help, at least he also didn't have to worry about leading someone wrong. On the other hand, it hadn't been all bad. In fact, there'd been a lot of good times. And he'd missed the old man. "Feel like shooting some pool?"
This time both corners of Batman's mouth turned up ever so slightly.
"I'd love a visit to an old school pool-hall."
The sound of compressed air hissed twice in the darkness as twin grapnels shot upwards and the two men swung off toward the waterfront in identical arcs.
Los Angeles (Earth): Four Weeks Ago
Garfield stood on the front porch, no, his front porch, holding the key in his hand. It was a new, shiny key, supplied to him by Vernon Questor, his father's factor and investment broker. He looked up at the large wooden door and flanking windows. He'd wanted to take a long, hard look at the house and yard before going inside, so he left the Mustang down at the foot of the driveway and walked up the long, curving driveway. It wasn't quite a mansion, and it wasn't quite on an estate. But it was on several acres of prime real-estate in the hills above Los Angeles. He looked up at the door and the stained glass accent window above it. Three iron pins through a red heart. He didn't remember much about living in this house, but the stained glass he'd remembered. He put the key in the well-oiled lock and turned it. With a clack, the door opened.
He stepped into the foyer. White walls, flagstone floor, antique settle by the door. Wide stairs leading up, hallway leading back . . . this house was huge.
"Who's there," a female voice came from the back.
A matronly white woman with freckles and in a housekeeper's smock stuck her head around the corner.
"Mr. Logan," she said, surprised. "I thought you were going to call. I'd have met you at the door."
"It's okay. I wanted to see the house. I haven't been back here for . . . a very long time."
"I know, sir," she replied. "I had that from Mrs. McTavish, before she retired. A very sad story, sir, if you'll pardon me."
"Sure," he said, and then continued uncertainly. "Questor said the house had a 'staff,' but it seems a little small for that."
"Oh, well, there's really just me," she said. "I'm Molly O'Banion. We've a gardening service, but they don't live in, of course. Mr. Hanson's been in charge of the grounds since I came, and he's got a crew that changes practically every week. Now, I dust, vacuum, and am the general dogsbody inside. Of course, when we open up the rest of the house, I'll have in dailies or weeklies to help."
"Don't call anybody yet. I'm probably not going to open up the entire house. I guess, just, a bedroom, the study, and the kitchen are all I'm going to need. And the den."
Her face fell. "I was sure hopin' a young man such as yourself would be more social. It gets powerful lonely up here all the time in the quiet."
"I guess we'll have to see. Can we get pizza delivery here?"
"Delivery?" said the woman with some asperity. "I may not be that good a cook, but I'm not that bad, either. I've already got dinner on. Irish Stew with cornbread.'
"Home cooked meals? Awright!"
The next day Garfield talked to his housekeeper about being a "mostly lacto-ovo vegetarian," and she promised to adjust the menu to accommodate him in the future. But before that, he'd had to go to his room to clean up for dinner.
"Just follow me, Mr. Logan. She'd led him up the stairs and to the master bedroom.
"This is my parent's bedroom," he'd said.
"It was. You're the master of the house now. That makes it yours."
The master bedroom was huge. The centerpiece was a four-poster rice bed with a large matching dresser on one wall, and a Chippendale vanity on the other. An archway in the back corner led to a solar with a daybed, while the other corner led to the spacious bathroom. Garfield swallowed and set down his overnight bag. He slowly walked over to the walk-in closet and opened the door. An interior light came on automatically.
The closet was big, and the doctor's Logan had made a reasonable effort to fill it. Garfield walked down his father's side of the closet. Suits, blazers, jackets, a tuxedo – anything a successful mature male adult might need in Los Angeles, but would not be useful in North Africa had been left here, carefully maintained by the housekeeper for twenty years. Shoes. Loafers, old-school high-top tennis shoes. Wingtips. Idly, looking down, Garfield kicked off his sneakers and slipped on a pair of the wingtips. They fit, or near enough.
"Big enough to fill my Dad's shoes. I never thought I'd hear myself say that."
Reluctantly, he turned to look at Marie's side of the closet. Like her husband Mark, Marie had left behind anything that wouldn't be useful on the North African expedition. Sun dresses, evening gowns (just a couple of those), clam diggers, A-line skirts and any number of tops and slacks.
"Mama's wardrobe," he thought, "suffered a lot more for being out-of-style that Papa's. I could almost wear most of this stuff."
Walking out of the closet, he stepped into the hall.
I should probably get it over with. He turned right and walked down the bare corridor to the adjacent room. Pushing the door open, he looked around. He blinked again, longer this time, and he swallowed harshly.
The room was painted blue. The lower walls were a darker blue, and the color faded to light blue, up to the white ceiling. All of the furniture in the room was painted a non-toxic white enamel. The bed was small. It was an early model of one of those cribs that can transform into a twin bed, growing with the child. It was in its second configuration: an undersized twin bed, suitable for a six year old. Garfield leaned against the doorframe and tried to swallow the iron-hard lump in his throat. Dr. Seuss books on the shelf. And Little Golden Books. He lifted the lid on the toy box. Much was missing. He'd taken his favorites to Africa.
Transformers. Mr. Potato Head. A plastic General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard.
"Yee-hah," he muttered, dropping the lid.
His eyes were burning and his stomach churned.
"This," he thought, "sucks. I should never have come back here."
Mrs. O'Banion found him perched on the rail of the widow's walk outside the master bedroom.
"Careful," she said, "you might fall."
He looked over at her and frowned. Then he turned into a horned owl and back again, "I'm not likely to fall," he said."
"Saints preserve us!" said the housekeeper.
"I thought you knew."
"There's knowin' and then there's seein' Mr. Logan."
"Is it going to be a problem?"
"No, no, of course not. But that's uncanny. I was coming to see what time you'd want your dinner tonight."
He shrugged. "Seven O'clock. I'll be back. I'm going to go take a look around the neighborhood. Tomorrow, please find a vintage consignment shop. Take my mother's clothes there and sell them. Give the money to the nearest no-kill animal shelter."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"It's not like I'll ever wear it. Also, please find me a decent tailor. I'm going to have Papa's suits fitted."
Changeling flickered into an osprey and launched himself from the rail. O'Banion crossed herself.
"That's goin' to take some getting used to."
The emerald osprey glided over the rooftops and trees of the upscale residential neighborhood. Eventually Changeling heard the sound of a little boy, crying. He glided to a stop on a fencepost and popped back into his human form.
"Hi," he said. "My name's Garfield. What's yours?"
The boy sniffed. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"That's probably pretty smart. But I want to help. What's wrong?"
"My cat's stuck in a tree." More sniffling.
"Okay," thought Changeling, "If this was any more of a cliché, I need to be wearing a white hat and spurs."
"I'll be okay. She knows how to climb trees, and also how to climb down. She'll come down when she's ready."
"I'm gonna be in big trouble. Mama's cat's not supposed to be outside. I left the door open."
Changeling looked up into the tree and sure enough, the cat looked to be a purebred seal point Himalayan, ill-suited by both upbringing and bloodline to do well out-of-doors, at least in this climate.
"Tell you what," he said, "If I can bring her down, will you promise to be more careful next time?"
The boy nodded. Changeling turned into a green seal point Himalayan and scampered up the tree. When he reached the other cat, he began purring loudly, and strutted up next to the jittery animal. She sniffed at his scent and heard his rumbling purr and began to relax. When she was completely at ease, he turned back into his human form and, still purring, began to stroke the cat. He then picked her up, turned into a monkey and scampered down the tree with the cat under one arm.
"Okay now, remember, she gets scared easily. Handle her gently, speak softly, and carry her inside."
He watched as the little boy walked up the driveway and went into the house, carefully closing the front door.
"I guess not all victories have to be cosmic to make you feel good."
Changeling took wing again, and glided around the neighborhood in ever-widening circles.