My ears were ringing, and the air was thick with dust, I woke up in a heap amongst piles of rubble. My vision returned in a sharp flash but it was unfocused. My eyes stung as they were pecked by the snow that had started to fall in from the hole that had been blown in the ceiling above us. I'd been lucky, it didn't feel like any shrapnel had hit me, and there definitely wasn't much debris on top of me because I could move. As far as injuries, I could only feel a broken rib.
I felt drunk, like everything that had just happened was some kind of hallucination – like a lousy Vertigo trip.
My hearing was coming back, I could hear voices now. They were calling for Batman and me. I could only assume they hadn't seen what had happened.
The debris on my leg, which appeared to be a metal girder of some kind, suddenly felt lighter "Nightwing!" It was Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, she lifted the beam off me and heaved it to one side. Her hand wrapped around mine and pulled me from where I was laying – her suit was covered in dust, and her lip was bleeding, but other than that she looked reasonably unscathed. I could only hope my new sidekick had faired the same.
Barbara slung my arm over her shoulder and lifted up my chin to look into my eyes "Nightwing, what happened?" I was a man of many words, but I didn't answer her straight away. There was no way to tell her, I couldn't, "Nightwing…" She lowered her voice to a whisper, "Dick, where's Bruce?""
We walked arm-over-shoulder, towards the edge of the pit we'd been fighting on top of – everything we'd just experienced still swarming its way back into my mind. I weakly pointed down into the flames and rubble that now filled what had before been a large sewage duct. "He's down there, Barb" I finally said, "He's gone."
** Earlier that year**
College was a drag, especially for someone in my unique position. I was studying for a degree in criminal psychology, something I thought I knew a lot about. I figured since I was no longer under Bruce Wayne's care that I might want to get myself a job one day – as being a vigilante didn't pay and even though I still had access to the trusty trust fund, I wasn't feeling so great about not standing so much on my own two feet.
Unfortunately, my second-year studies weren't going all that well. In the year and a half that had passed since my return from living in Titan Tower, things had been heating up in the criminal underworld of Gotham, and I had been out on patrol almost every night for three weeks, leaving very little time for my studies... and sleep. The sleep I'd been involuntarily catching up on in class, much to the professor's dismay.
"Mr Grayson!" Professor Crane called out. I woke up abruptly, I'd been dreaming about my patrol with Barbara the previous night, lucky I'm not a sleep talker.
"Yes Professor?" I responded with an awkward smile. The girl to my left, I didn't know her name, let out a little chuckle. The professor's spectacles were perched on the end of his long hooked nose, he glared right at me with his piercing black eyes.
"I was wondering if you had any insight on the question I just asked, Mr Grayson?"
"Erm, could you repeat the question?" I had no idea what he'd said, obviously.
"A little hard of hearing are we?" He growled. He pointed to the girl sitting to my left, "Miss Daggett, could you please enlighten our poor friend?"
The girl turned and looked at me, she was beautiful with long blonde hair tied up. She wore glasses, but I could see that she had crystal blue eyes – undoubtedly one of the popular girls, which made it all the more embarrassing when she slowly worded the professor's question out for me.
"The professor, which is that man over there at the front of class, if you'd forgotten," she started, her tone was one of someone who was deeply annoyed "Wanted to know what you thought about Walter Langer's profiling of high-ranking war criminals during World War II," I looked at her blankly, I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Miss Daggett, could you please share a few of your notes with our slumberous friend," Crane droned. Miss Daggett looked less than impressed, I could tell that it was going to be one hell of a long class.
The remainder of the class ran as smoothly as rollerblades on a dirt track, with Crane singling me out another three times before getting bored.
As I slumped out of the class with my bag weighing heavily on my right shoulder, I felt a hand clasp over it. I turned to see one of my best friends, Emily, who'd been sat at the far side of the classroom. She was short with dark hair tied up in a bobble, and wore 'ironic' hipster glasses, she always wore the same black hoodie and some kind of pop culture T-Shirt, today it was Star Wars, the ensemble was usually completed with some denim shorts, black tights and a pair of chequered canvas pumps. We'd been friends since my short stints in High School, probably because we were both outcasts in our own ways.
"Dude, that was brutal," She smirked up at me.
"I'm aware of that," I replied with a yawn.
"Out again last night?"
"Yeah, I uh, went to a bar," I said, thinking fast.
"What bar was that then?"
"One down by the docks, I went with Barb" I wasn't lying, we'd been down at a biker bar the previous night – just your run of the mill information interrogation with the barman. We were looking for members of the Brothers of Satan gang, who we'd traced from more than a few drug-related crime scenes.
"The docks? As in Bleake Island Docks? You sure you weren't looking to score some crack?" She laughed.
"Oh, you know me…" I said, sarcastically.
"You do know it's not good to spend so much time with your ex," She said, looking at me disapprovingly. I knew she was right but beating on criminals with your ex-girlfriend was a little different from going on a dinner date, "You've not hung out with Nate and me in a while you know, he's gonna start thinking you don't like him."
Nathan was another buddy from high school, he was a little older than Emily and I – he went straight into the police force after school. A choice I can't say I was a big fan of, I didn't like the idea of him being in so much danger. But it did have its perks concerning information, even if I had to trick him into telling me things. I tried to avoid going to Jim Gordon for info where possible, that way I wouldn't run into Bruce. Barb having moved out of her father's and gotten a job at a library meant her access to information was lessened too.
Emily and Nate were clueless about my secret identity; lazy student Dick Grayson wasn't exactly a prime suspect for masked vigilante in their eyes.
"I'll try and get together with you on Thursday?" I smiled.
"Dick…" She sighed.
"It is Thursday"
"Oh… Friday then?" I couldn't go that night, I had to follow up on a lead from our little interrogation the night before.
"Fine, Friday. But you'd better call me, I can't deal with your flakiness this weekend, dude."
"I solemnly swear that I will not flake," I said with one hand in the air and the other on a floating invisible bible.
"I've heard that one before," She said, rolling her eyes, "And you've definitely lied under oath before."
"I know, I know," I said, "I'm very sorry, again."
The next words to come out of my mouth were stopped in their tracks by a somewhat aggressive slam to my arm by a sandy-haired girl with a nose-piercing whose need to get through the crowd was apparently more important than common courtesy.
"Ouch," I winced, rubbing my arm exaggeratedly, "Who was that?"
"I'm not sure, I've seen her around, think she's a first year," Emily said, shrugging her shoulders.
The rooftops were my natural habitat; it was such a feeling of freedom jumping from roof to roof in the night air – I definitely wasn't going to fall asleep doing this. I'd learned to walk on a high wire, so it was second nature to me to be soaring through the air without a safety net.
I was following a biker with 'Brothers of Satan' emblazoned on the back of his denim vest, who's bike I'd put a GPS tracker on, the barman had given us word that the guy would be moving shipments of drugs for someone in the city but we didn't know who. I thought it was pretty odd that drugs were being moved around on motorcycles considering their lack of storage space, but I guessed it depended entirely on the drug, and if our suspicions were correct this was a money-maker even in dime bags.
It was a testament to my overall stamina that I managed to keep up with the biker – all the running did make me miss my Wingcycle, but I wasn't gonna go crawling back to Bruce and ask him for it.
I'd followed the guy for about a mile and a half when he finally stopped and got off his bike. He untied the small package from the back of his Harley Davidson and walked up a back alley to the service entrance of what appeared to be a local deli. There wasn't much of a vantage point for me to see what was going on.
My target pressed on a buzzer on the outside wall. After about a minute of watching the biker pacing back and forth I heard the service door open up – a guy stepped out and walked down the ramp toward the biker, he was wearing a grey suit, he looked very business-like; but I'd seen plenty of hired goons that wore suits, so that didn't really mean anything.
The 'Brother of Satan' passed the other man the package he'd brought across town. The recipient slit the tape on the parcel with a small penknife and peeked inside, he nodded. It was beginning to look like a run of the mill drug deal.
Still, I wasn't going to turn down an opportunity to remove some drug pushing scumbags from the street.
Nothing was happening, I was going in.
I jumped across the alley and, silently as I could, dropped on to the fire escape above the two men. Neither of them flinched so they mustn't have heard me. I lowered myself down on the grapple hook until I was hanging upside down just above them, I loved this part.
"Boo!" I said with a smile as I knocked the two men's heads together. Causing the suited thug to bust his nose before the pair stumbled backwards.
"Shit, it's the bat!" The biker shouted as he fumbled to draw his gun. A swift kick saw his pistol fly into a dumpster sat against the alley wall. As the kick connected I twisted my torso to get in a position to follow the kick with a punch to the suited stranger's face, spraying more blood from his already seeping nose. The two men dropped to the floor simultaneously – the suit was out cold.
The biker started to crawl away, loudly scrambling along the floor and murmuring something vaguely threatening, the moron.
"Slow down, you're making this very difficult for me," I joked.
I was about to go after him when I heard a click behind me, damn it, it had to be a gun – the click was followed by a hum which sort of resembled the sound of a large refrigerator.
"Hello, Batman" A familiar monotone voice droned, oh god, it was a refrigerator.
I turned around sharply "Wrong!" I responded to the man now standing before me.
Before saying another word, the man fired a sharp bolt of ice at me from the enormous gun attached with tubes to a pack on his back. – I dodged out of the way, just barely and called out: "Mr Freeze, long time no see!"
Doctor Victor Fries was once a brilliant scientist. His wife contracted a rare disease, and he was struggling to find a cure when he invented his freeze gun. His first act as Mr Freeze was to save his wife by putting her into a cryogenic state. Someone tampered with his experiments and caused an explosion; he ended up getting knocked into a vat of chemicals which altered his body, making it impossible for him to properly regulate his temperature – his wife, Nora, was killed in the blast.
The deluded doctor went on to wear a gargantuan suit of armour that kept his body temperature at zero, with a glass dome over his head and some bright red goggles. I assumed that there was some use for them, but I did wonder if he just picked them to make himself look scarier. The doctor's once-brilliant mind then turned to crime; he'd become a bit of a goon-for-hire in recent years, he seemed to be trying to accumulate cash for something.
"You're not Batman, how disappointing," He said, without a shred of emotion in his voice "No matter, I will settle for Robin."
"I'm not…" He fired straight at me before I could finish, I back-flipped on to the dumpster behind me, and he shot again – I responded with another flip which got me to safety behind the dumpster. I noticed the Biker I'd just knocked down hadn't managed to make it very far down the alley, maybe he could tell me why Freeze was there…
I un-holstered my Escrima Sticks and rolled across the alley to get myself behind some trash cans. Freeze fired again, much closer this time; I could feel the chill on my neck.
"Hey, Freeze… Do you wanna build a snowman?" I shouted tunefully, in an attempt to rile him.
He answered me with another bolt of ice, freezing the trash cans I was behind entirely. I had to move fast, or I was going to end up as a lovely Nightwing-shaped popsicle.
"I gotta say, it's an embarrassing step down for you – protecting some lowly drug pushers!" I taunted.
He didn't respond; he wasn't an easy person to taunt – very serious.
It was time for the trusty grapple hook built-in to my Escrima stick. I took aim at the top of the fire escape I had dropped down from and fired my line, Freeze shot at it – but missed it by an inch, which gave me time to zip up to the roof.
I dropped flat on to the roof for a second to get my bearings. It took a few seconds to figure out my next move. The Escrima Sticks had a built-in electronic pulse which acted like a taser, among other useful gadgets. With that in mind, I threw a pair of smoke pellets down at Freeze to impair his vision.
I waited for the smoke to build up and turned on the thermal vision in my domino mask, he wasn't the most precise target in terms of heat, but there was just about enough heat being expelled from the suit for me to know where to strike.
Leaping from the roof, I landed feet first on Freeze's glass helm, barely cracking it as I somersaulted backwards. Upon landing, I jabbed the Escrima Sticks into his back using the taser function to overload the power supply in his suit.
I'd gotten lucky – the electric pulse surged through his suit, blowing out several screws and throwing the good doctor straight into the alley wall. His fishbowl smashed on impact. He let out one final groan before passing out.
That was too easy, I thought to myself. Every previous encounter I'd had with Freeze had been much more complicated, he must have gotten rusty in his old age – or, I thought for a second with a smirk, maybe I was just that good.
Sadly, it appeared that the biker and his suited friend had escaped in the commotion – but my GPS tracker was still on the bike. At least one of them wouldn't be on the streets for much longer.
I cautiously turned Freeze over and disconnected his freezing gun from the pack on his back, cuffing the ice giant to a drain pipe with both wrists so he couldn't go anywhere while I carried out my investigation. Once I was sufficiently content that Freeze was no longer a threat, I sent out a beacon to the GCPD via my wrist communicator with all the details they needed.
As I suspected, the package which the suited goon had kindly dropped in the loading bay contained a few bundles of what looked like cocaine, although I still wasn't convinced. Mr Freeze seemed like quite an expensive bodyguard for a measly drug deal like this one… Maybe he just didn't care anymore, but perhaps something else was going on. I took a few sample bags of the drugs for analysis, just in case.
There was a key that had been left in an electric lock next to a large corrugated steel door – I pressed it, and the door slowly creaked open.
Beyond the door was a warehouse which was connected to the back of the Deli, it was utterly empty bar a few shelves – it must have been a very new drug operation. The building wasn't registered in anyone's name, so we didn't have a suspect, but whoever was running this gig must have already had some serious cash to play with if they could afford protection from Mr Freeze – either that or the good doctor had really lowered his hourly rates.
I waited on the roof for the police to arrive and take Freeze back to Arkham, which they did, much more swiftly than usual. Gordon was among them, but I couldn't stick around to talk to him – I had an investigation to finish.
I lived in a crappy apartment within walking distance of the University, it wasn't well decorated, it wasn't well furnished, but it was mine – plus, it came with a kickass loft. The loft was my own personal Batcave - granted, like the rest of the apartment, it wasn't much to look at. It was a juxtaposition of computers, security systems, and rustic wooden beams, an interior decorator's worst nightmare.
The equipment was all salvaged from Bruce's old stuff that Barbara brought for me when I left the mansion. She even set me up my own secret door behind a bookcase which I was strangely proud of, very cliché. Alfred populated the shelves with books and DVDs that he insisted I must take a look at, he gave me my movie education growing up – that's why the fingerprint scanner to open the loft was attached to his favourite movie, Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.
I got home that night at around 1am, entering through the roof, it was a pretty early time to be getting back considering the night's events. Placing the drug sample down on a side table, I removed myself from my Nightwing armour and pulled on a vest and some sweatpants.
Before I went on, I needed a coffee.
Creaking my way down the stairs from the loft, I pressed my thumb against the metal panel on the back of the secret bookshelf door which slid open to reveal the lounge of my distractingly messy apartment.
I flicked on the main light, which lit the lounge and attached kitchen. In an attempt to distract from the peeling wallpaper and make the place feel more homely, I'd covered the walls with framed pictures. It was nice to see familiar faces when I came back from a patrol even if some of them reminded me of things I'd rather not think of. The pictures of Jason especially brought out feelings of failure, and Bruce niggling feelings of resentment. Some of the Titans; Roy Harper, Wally West, Rachel Roth and a hooded Victor Stone smiled down at me. I had a picture of the whole crew, but I had to keep that one in the loft as Starfire and Beast Boy would likely grab my guests' attention even in civilian clothes.
My favourite of all the pictures though sat on the television stand. I picked it up and smiled at it. It was an old photo, taken from a newspaper. My mother and father, John and Mary Grayson, stood smiling in a circus tent wearing their 'Flying Graysons' uniforms whose colour scheme had been the inspiration for my original 'Robin' costume. I was positioned between them, only eight years old, a year before they died, with a grin on my face. The only flaw in the image was the disgruntled-looking cleaner in the background with netting slung in a bundle over his back, glaring into the camera resentfully.
Resting the image back by the TV I clicked on the kettle in the kitchen and filled a cup with coffee grounds while it boiled. The smell of the coffee was strangely pacifying, which was the exact opposite effect I was going for. I poured in the boiling water and took a sip a little too early, mildly burning my top lip.
I made my way back up to the loft, closing the door behind me. Blowing before taking another sip, I was hit by a surge of caffeine, which perked me up remarkably. I then grabbed the drug sample and pulled a chair up to a table full of technological contraptions. One of which was the chemical analysis machine that Barb had put together for me. It made an awful humming noise when I turned it on, it was one of a few pieces of kit that I really needed to replace. I poured a few grains of the white powder into the machine and typed 'full analysis' into the command screen. Naturally, it stalled, and I had to give it a hit to get it going again.
While the chemical analysis was going on, I took another sip of coffee and checked my tracker for the biker's position. Unfortunately, the signal was dead. It meant I'd have to put some more time in at the biker bar to find the guy.
The screen eventually lit up on the Chemical Analysis Machine with the word 'match' all across it, with cocaine you could often trace certain manufacturer's marks or environmental conditions. Only this wasn't cocaine, according to my rickety machine, it was Star City's favourite addictive substance - Vertigo.